HC Deb 17 January 1945 vol 407 cc264-82
  1. (1) Subject to the provisions of this Part of this Act, any person who is registered as a Parliamentary elector for any constituency—
    1. (a) in the Service register; or
    2. (b) in pursuance of an application under this Act made by a member of the Forces, seaman or other person on a form of declaration of residence, in the business premises register;
    shall, if he has made an application in that behalf in accordance with electoral registration regulations, be entitled to vote by post in the same way, subject to any prescribed modifications, as an absent voter at any General Election for which that register is in force, being an election to which this Part of this Act applies.
  2. (2) Every application to vote by post under this Section shall give an address (hereinafter referred to as a "voting address"), to which the applicant wishes a ballot paper to be sent, but no person shall be entitled to make such an application while be is outside the postal voting areas or to apply for a ballot paper to be sent outside those areas;
  3. Provided that no such application shall be invalidated by reason of any contravention of this Sub-section, but a returning officer shall not be obliged to issue a ballot paper in pursuance of such an application, if the voting address given is known to him to be outside the postal voting areas.
  4. (3) A person who has made an application to vote by post under this Section shall not be entitled to vote in person at any election for which the application is in force.
  5. (4) The making of such an application by any person shall not prevent or invalidate the appointment of a proxy to vote on his behalf and (subject as hereinafter provided) ballot papers may be issued to, and a vote may be cast by, both him and his proxy on his behalf.
  6. (5) Any person who has made such an application may, in accordance with electoral registration regulations, supersede it by a fresh application, giving a new voting address, or cancel it by notice to the registration officer concerned.
  7. (6) Unless superseded or cancelled as aforesaid any such application shall continue in force for the purposes of any General Election to which this Part of this Act applies so long as the person making the application is registered or entitled to be registered as a Parliamentary elector for the constituency by virtue of the same declaration of residence or, in the case of a person registered in the business premises register, so long as that register remains in force.
  8. (7) Any such application or notice cancelling such an application shall be disregarded for the purpose of any election unless received by the registration officer four clear days at least before the day fixed for nomination.
  9. 265
  10. (8) Sub-section (3) of Section nine of the Act of 1943 (which entitles members of the Forces to vote by post provided a ballot paper is not sent to them out of the United Kingdom) shall not apply in relation to a General Election to which this Part of this Act applies.—[Mr. H. Morrison.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. H. Morrison

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

This is a substantial and new body of Clauses which it is now desired to bring into the Bill. First, it is my duty to apologise to the Committee for the somewhat unusual and novel procedure, though it is done from time to time. I think the last occasion, which I had better not remember too clearly, was the Town and Country Planning Bill, but the reason for this series of substantial new Clauses is that the Government and the House were a little worried as to whether voting by proxy was the best system and wondered whether some improvement could not be made upon it. There is nothing so satisfactory as men or women voting for the candidate they prefer. It is far better that they should do it themselves than for it to be done by the proxies they appoint on their behalf. In the circumstances of 1943 we felt we were driven to the proxy arrangement, and that scheme was commended to, and accepted, by the House. But since then we have had to deal with legislation which has had more connection with a General Election, whereas a good deal of the purpose of the 1943 legislation was related to Parliamentary by-elections, which were different and presented different organising problems.

When we came to consider the General Election, the Government themselves felt that if we could get personal postal voting by Service men and women, and members of the Mercantile Marine and war workers abroad, over as big an area as possible it would be preferable to proxy voting. It is a question of by which means you will get the most representative vote. There is a certain element of gambling about postal voting. It is always possible that something might go wrong, although we hope it will not and will do our best to see that it will not. On the other hand, if proxy voting is more likely to be 100 per cent. complete the possibility of voting is nevertheless not so good when a person has to cast a vote on behalf of another person. So we thought we would examine the question and we set up a Conference which was admirably composed of Members of the principal parties in the House, party agents who are great experts on these matters, some returning officers, officials of the Home Office and the Scottish Office, representatives of the Service Departments and perhaps a few others. It was a Conference of all people likely to know about the problem and make a contribution to its solution. Then we had to decide who should be the Chairman. In matters of this kind one may be under suspicion as a politician, and the question was whether we should decide to have a Chairman who was not associated with any political party. Nevertheless, there was a Ministerial aspect about it, and we thought the Chairman had better be a Minister; so we tried to find one who was not associated or identified with any political party. Perhaps inevitably, or otherwise, the choice fell on my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer whose private political beliefs, if any, are still subject to the greatest speculation and doubt among various Members of the House of Commons.

I well remember coming across my right hon. Friend some years ago when a Civil Defence Bill was before the House. I was reminding him how I had been in touch with Civil Defence since I had been the Minister of Transport in the Labour Government of 1929–31, when I had suddenly found myself, with all my pacific traditions, a member of a Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence, which had to deal with Civil Defence matters. That rather frightened me. I said to my right hon. Friend, who was then Home Secretary, that he had been my tutor at a time when he was Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, and I said, further, that I would not have fully trusted him had I known that I should find him sitting later on the Treasury Bench as a Tory Minister. My right hon. Friend then got up, and with great and justifiable indignation, said that I had no right to describe him in that way, because he was sitting as a National Member, and had no party politics at all. I quote this to show why I think everybody will accept my right hon. Friend as being impartial and free from political bias, and I would like to thank him and all the members of his Conference for the work they did and the speed at which they did it. That Conference produced a White Paper, which was approved by the Cabinet and submitted to the House. Then the Home Office, with their well known efficiency, produced draft Clauses with no less speed and here we have the result. My only purpose now is to give a general description of the object of these draft Clauses which take up many lines of type on the Order Paper. They give effect to the scheme which the Chancellor's Conference produced, whereby there may be postal voting for members of the Forces, merchant seamen and war workers abroad. They embody the scheme as recommended by the Conference and embodied in the White Paper.

The recommendations submitted were unanimous, which was a great achievement because the Conference was composed of a varied body of people and, as I have said, we are grateful to the Chancellor and to them for their work. The broad outline of the scheme is summarised in paragraph 22 of their Report. It contemplates that the present arrangements will continue, under which members of the Forces, by sending a declaration to the appropriate registration officer, will secure registration for the constituency in which, but for their service abroad, they would have been living. It is anticipated that by the qualifying date for inclusion in the May Service register—that is to say 15th March—this procedure will have resulted in the registration of some 90 per cent. of the total number of persons in the Services who are eligible. I know that the House was anxious, quite rightly, on this point and stimulated us to see that Service men and women were registered. It was, of course, mainly a matter for the Service men and women themselves, but they had to be stimulated and pushed along as well. That was a task for the Service Ministers, but I was in it as the presiding angel.

Captain Cobb

Presiding what?

Mr. Morrison

Presiding angel, and quite rightly. I must say that the Service Ministers, officers of the Forces and all concerned are to be congratulated upon the relatively short period which was required to get these forms filled in by over 90 per cent. of Service men and women. The House did its part in that by making itself a nuisance, and pushing everybody along. It was good work, as I think the House will agree. This work is not to be wasted. It will still form the basis of the postal arrangements. In addition, one of the Clauses makes provision to enable a voter who is eligible to make a claim for registration under the business premises register. Under the present law, the Service voter may appoint a proxy to vote for him. It is proposed that the proxy appointments already made should stand and that Service voters should continue to have the opportunity of making such appointments. This is necessary because the scheme of postal voting by persons abroad will not be possible at by-elections, and because at a General Election a Service voter may not be within reach of the postal voting facilities or, for other reasons, may fail to receive a postal voting paper.

Whether the Service voter has appointed a proxy or not, however, he will be able, if he is in a postal voting area and wishes to vote by post, to apply to his appropriate registration officer for a postal ballot paper to be sent to him and, in making this application, he will give the address to which the ballot paper is to be sent. The postal voting areas will be determined by Regulations which are subject to an affirmative Resolution and therefore they cannot apply unless Parliament approves of them—Parliament will be master of the whole business—and in accordance with the recommendations of the Conference the Regulations will include, if the House agrees to the proposal, that the count should be postponed for 19 days after the close of the poll. A full list of the areas that will he covered is given in paragraph 16 of the Report of the Conference. Apart from some areas which cannot be covered by reason of their remoteness or of the small number of Service voters stationed in them, the system of postal voting will extend to all areas except Australia and New Zealand.

When the General Election comes it will be the duty of the returning officer here to send a ballot paper to those Service voters who have applied, and he will send with the ballot paper a copy of the election address of each candidate. As the election mail will have to be sent out by air it is necessary, generally speaking, to impose some limitation on the size and weight of election addresses and it is proposed to take power to do this by Regulation. It may be necessary for elec- tion addresses to be printed on specially thin paper—that is a matter of practicability and arrangement—and I gather that the Prime Minister is rather in favour of photographs of the candidates being put on the election address. He has always said, however, with the reasonableness characteristic of him, that it should not be made compulsory, and I agree with him. Personally, I propose to put mine on. [An HON. MEMBER: "Complete with wings?"] Certainly, but if I do that it will have to be in a cartoon on the back. I know that the hon. Member for Gateshead (Mr. Magnay) will not agree with this, having regard to the Sunday entertainment controversy. Under this procedure a Service voter will be in a position to vote both by post and by proxy. It is necessary, therefore, to make provision for the cancellation of his proxy vote in a case where he himself returns a postal vote in time for inclusion in the count. Detailed arrangements in this respect will be made by Regulation. It is intended that Service voters included in the business premises or university register should have a similar opportunity of voting by post and the necessary provision to this end is proposed. The postal voting arrangements will operate in the case of a general election initiated this year after next March but may be extended for a further period by Regulation.

The new Clause also makes provision for the appointment by a Service voter as a proxy at a university election of any person whom he could properly have appointed as a proxy at an election for another constituency and for relating the period of appointment of a proxy to the period for which an application to be entered in the absent voters' list is valid. The argument for the university vote is that it should bring the culture, education and knowledge of the universities to the service of Parliament. A proxy, it could be argued, should be qualified as a university voter. We think that is a bit unreasonable and that he should be able to appoint anyone who would be legally entitled to vote, whether for a university constituency or not. I hope that Members for universities will not mind this degree of non-cultural dilution of the university electorate. As regards local elections, it is not practicable to provide for Service voters to record their votes by post but we have introduced into one of these Clauses a provision for the Service voter to vote at local elections by a proxy appointed by the voter for the purpose of a Parliamentary election, and that is the only way we can do it. I think that covers the matters dealt with by these Clauses. I hope the Committee will agree that both the Conference and the Government have acted with speed and I believe we have acted in accordance with the policy which Parliament would have wished.

Mr. Turton

It is interesting to me to recollect that on 3rd November, 1943, I introduced a similar new Clause. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury replied and said that postal voting would be no improvement to the Parliamentary Elections Bill and that in his view it would be wise and proper to provide for members of the Forces overseas to vote, if at all, by means of proxies. Any other method would lead to confusion and chaos. I hope very much that, now that we have persuaded the Home Secretary, he is not going to lead us, as a guiding angel, to confusion and chaos. I think we have all got a bit wiser in the intervening 14 months. I had then an advantage which I do not possess to-day of knowing what soldiers overseas were thinking and I knew that they were very much against proxies and wanted to have a personal vote. I think that the history of these 14 months has shown that soldiers do not like proxies. The Department has done a great deal of good work in encouraging men in the Army, Navy and Air Force to register, even though they are doing it with great difficulty, and with regard to the Merchant Navy with very little success. I hope the Government will bear that last factor in mind.

I want to leave that question of what happened 14 months ago and let bygones be bygones. There is, however, an awkward difficulty that arises from it. If we had had postal voting 14 months ago we could have arranged that when a man made his Service declaration he also gave his address. That would have been necessary if 14 months ago we decided to have postal voting. Now we have the position that men have made their Service declarations and many have appointed proxies, but no returning officer knows the addresses of Service men and women. That is making the whole problem of instituting postal voting now much more complicated. The Conference got over that difficulty by suggesting that when a man made his application for a postal voting paper he enclosed in his envelope an adhesive label giving the address to which the postal ballot paper was to be sent. I would commend that recommendation of the Conference to the Committee. I would like to go a little further. If, later on, any new Service declarations are required to be made by members of the Forces, I hope the Home Secretary will see that the address of the Service man is placed on the declaration. I think that as the war progresses we all get more over-security minded, and whatever Government Departments may say, there is no objection to a man in a Service declaration giving his Service address. The Service addresses to which one now addresses one's letters are very non-committal. It is important that those addresses should be in the hands of the registration officer.

Under the present system a man makes his Service declaration and appoints his proxy, but he does not yet know whether his application has been received and what constituency he belongs to. The unfortunate result of this delay of 14 months was that we in the Conference could not suggest any way in which the Service man would know of his constituency until he made an application for a postal voting paper. It is a matter which occupied the attention of the Conference for a considerable time, and I hope the Home Secretary will give it his earnest consideration. It is a vital part of postal voting that the Service man should be linked up to his constituency at the earliest possible moment, and if we cannot do it by Act of Parliament, I suggest that we might aid the matter by appeals on the wireless and in the Press to the parents, wives and husbands of Service men and women to tell the Service men and women what their constituencies are. This matter will grow in complexity as the Divisions are sub-divided under the recent Act. When there is a sub-division of a constituency it will be impossible for the average Service man to know in which part of the sub-divided constituency he resides. Therefore, I ask the Government to pay some attention to that aspect of the matter.

The new Clauses are so drafted as to make them apply only to an election which takes place between 1st April, 1945, and 31st September, 1945. It is incon- ceivable to think that when we have got this great and involved machinery for postal voting we are going to scrap the whole thing on 1st January, 1946. It would be appropriate at this stage for the Government to give us some indication of their future intentions. I presume that they contemplate that postal voting for the Forces will go on for the whole period of the war against Germany and Japan and for a reasonable period thereafter. If not, we should be told. When we have peace-time conditions some of the procedure recommended in the report of the Conference may no longer be necessary because it is really a war-time provision, but I hope the Government will give some broad assurance for the future of postal voting.

4.15 p.m.

Colonel Greenwell (The Hartlepools)

Why, in future years, should Service voters be disfranchised while serving abroad? Surely postal voting should go on for ever, particularly in view of the fact that all reasonable people expect that the Armed Forces of the Crown will be substantially greater than in the past.

Mr. Turton

I entirely agree with the motives which prompted my hon. and gallant Friend in that interruption. These Clauses contain a plan for postal voting in war-time, and I believe that it will always have to continue unless we adopt the Dominions plan of voting in the field. It may well be that at a later time this country will adopt in peace-time a plan more similar to that of the Dominions. I believe, however, that the plan which the Home Secretary is putting forward is the best plan that this country could devise. It is superior to the Dominion plan of voting in the field. It gives men more knowledge of what they are voting about than is possessed by the average Service man of the United States, Canada, South Africa or New Zealand. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the Home Secretary, and also to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on whose Conference I had the honour to serve. It was only by his great skill as chairman that we got an agreed report so quickly and so well.

There is one point that may come up on a later Amendment which ought to be noticed here. Under this plan we will have a delay between the poll and the count. I hope that we shall do nothing to alter the plan as put forward in the Report of the Conference. If we are to give Service men the vote we want to see as many Service candidates as possible in the field, and it would be a great drawback if we added to the time of the election and so added to the election expenses of the candidates. May I thank the Home Secretary for having introduced these Clauses and say that I believe they will greatly improve the position of Service men in an election?

Mr. John Dugdale (West Bromwich)

I should like to add my congratulations to those that have been given to the Home Secretary. He may be said, in this matter, to have won his wings, and those of us who are in favour of this sort of action may be said to have won smaller wings or feathers. I hope that the troops will be adequately informed about this new scheme. The Minister has told us of the satisfactory results of the registration. I do not know what the figures are of applications for proxy votes, but I imagine that they are not quite as satisfactory. I hope that the applications for voting papers will be as high as the original registration, and that we shall get 90 per cent. applications for them. I would like to ask whether the troops will be fully assured that the ballot will be conducted with complete secrecy, and that there will be no question of any letters being opened or censored. I realise that that will be so, but I hope the fullest publicity will be given to it. I would say in conclusion that this illustrates the very great importance that we attach to the Service voter, and also the great importance that we attach to Democracy. It is a remarkable tribute to Democracy that we are contemplating an immense amount of work in sending ships, trains and aeroplanes all over the world in order to see that Thomas Atkins does vote—and I hope that he will vote when the time comes.

Colonel Greenwell

I have had to give a considerable amount of thought to a point which I wish to raise with the Home Secretary, and I have canvassed the opinions of some much more experienced Parliamentary friends. I trust that you will concur, Sir Albert, with the conclusions I have reached by not finding it necessary to rule my remarks out of Order. I want to speak about a class of person who is, I find, in no wise covered by the provisions of the Clause. I do not think these persons are covered by any other Act of Parliament. I hope that the Home Secretary will find it possible to put in a few appropriate words on the Report stage in order to enfranchise people who are bed-ridden through sickness, permanently, because at the present moment they are completely disfranchised.

The Temporary Chairman (Colonel Sir A. Lambert Ward)

The hon. and gallant Member is transgressing the Rules of Order. I must ask him to speak to the subject of the Clause.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Mr. Turton

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed new Clause, in line 13, leave out from "entitled," to "to," in line 14.

Sub-section (2) of the proposed new Clause says that an applicant for a ballot paper shall not be entitled to make such application while he is outside the postal-voting areas, and there is a second prohibition that he shall not apply for a ballot paper to be sent outside those areas. Clearly, the second prohibition is right. If you have postal-voting areas you must see to it that only applications for those areas are valid; but the first prohibition seems to me to be unjust and unwise. There will be many cases of men in a non-postal voting area who may be due for repatriation, or to come home on leave, or who may know that they are shortly to be posted to a postal-voting area. They may be in a unit which is just about to change stations, and to prohibit those men from making an application for a ballot paper seems quite wrong.

I agree that there is a proviso in which the Government say that no application shall be invalidated by reason of any contravention of that Sub-section, and that really makes my Amendment little more than a drafting proposal; but if Subsection (2) means so very little, the Minister would lose nothing by taking out the words which I am now asking him to omit. If he did take them out we would get rid of that objection that if a unit is about to change its station from a non-postal-voting area to a postal-voting area under the Bill as drafted, people would be prevented from applying for a ballot paper. The Committee do not want that to happen, and I think it would be far wiser to omit these words.

The Solicitor-General

The point which my hon. Friend wishes to make is one that will meet with sympathy from us all, but the question we have to consider is whether the course that he is suggesting is practical. His experience is much greater and more recent than mine, but it appears to me that the Amendment is based on the idea that the ordinary member of a combatant unit would know the future course that his unit is going to take. Although intelligent anticipation is often indulged in and expressed, I should have thought that it would be impossible in reality for the Service voter to know in advance whether he is going to be in a postal area at a certain time if he is outside the area now. The basis of the Clause is that areas should be prescribed and that the prescribing of the areas should be approved by this House and therefore control be kept by the House of Commons; and that those within the areas should be entitled to apply for a ballot paper. If they are not in the areas they are not entitled to apply or to receive the document; but if they do apply from outside and if they take a chance and do give an address, the officer may comply with it if he can, but it will not be held to be a breach of duty on his part if he does not.

I suggest to the Committee that this basis of taking the prescribed postal areas is the only reasonable basis for dealing with this matter. With all respect to the avowed, keenly felt and often expressed desire of my hon. Friend to help the Service voter on all possible points, I suggest to the Committee that it is unnecessary on this point, and impracticable, and that it would not be of real assistance, to follow the course which the hon. Member has suggested to us.

Mr. Turton

Do I gather from what has just been said that although it says in the proposed new Clause that a man will not be entitled to make application if he is outside the postal-voting area, he would in fact be able to make the application? If that is so, surely something is wrong with the words in the Clause. After all, the non-postal-voting areas are very few. They are the West Indies, Australia and New Zealand. A man knows that when he has done four years he is due, under the wise provision of the Government, to come home, and after three years and 11 months he puts in his application for a postal-voting paper. He cannot do so, if the proposed new Clause means what it says. If it is intended that the Clause should mean something quite different, I agree that my Amendment would be unnecessary.

Amendment negatived.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. H. Lawson

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed new Clause, in line 43, at end, add: (9) Any person eligible for registration as a parliamentary elector for any constituency in the Service register but who has not so registered shall have made available to him at the time of an election a ballot paper giving the names and parties of the candidates for the constituency for which the person is eligible for registration. Provision shall be made by electoral regulations to be approved by Parliament for the preparation and distribution of such ballot papers within the United Kingdom and at theatres of war overseas for the transmission of ballot papers to the appropriate returning officer in time for the counting of votes and for the sealing of each ballot paper in an envelope bearing particulars of the voter's identity so as to ensure that only those eligible to vote shall do so and that no one shall vote more than once. I would like to add my voice to those which approve of what the Government have done in instituting postal voting. I have taken my part in criticising the proxy vote and I am glad to approve what has taken place. I think this method shows two great improvements on the proxy method. First, as the Home Secretary said, it gives the man himself a direct vote, and also a chance of seeing the electoral address of the various candidates. Nevertheless, what is proposed still has deficiencies and still leaves gaps. One of the first disadvantages of the proposed Clause is that it means the Service man will have to ask for and fill in yet another form. Members, quite rightly, I think, will press the Service Ministers as to how many forms have been filled in, and various steps will be taken, and it may be the Service men will get rather tired of this constant pressure, rightly applied, to see that these forms have been filled in. I think the law of diminishing returns will apply, and it will be more difficult under this procedure to get these forms filled in, and at the end fewer forms will have been filled in.

This method still means that the Service man or woman is at a disadvantage compared with the civilian, who does not have to make any application for forms. My Amendment is not in any sense taking away anything which the Government have proposed. It is a provision to take care of those people who slipped through the net which has been outlined by the Home Secretary. The effect of the Amendment is to provide for those who for some reason or other have not registered to be provided at the time of the election with ballot papers, so that they can vote, even though they are not on the register. Their identity will be marked on the envelope in which the ballot paper is sealed, so that the returning officer can check whether they are persons entitled to vote in that particular constituency. Though the words may not make it absolutely clear, I would like this to apply to those who have registered but who, for some reason or other, do not fill in the forms asking for the postal vote.

It may be objected that what I am asking for is a difficult and impracticable thing. In actual fact that is not the case. During the last 12 months I have three times drawn attention in this House to what has been done by the Dominions for their Forces in the conduct of elections in the field. What I am asking is that those who have not got themselves registered, who have not applied for a postal vote, should be given a chance of voting in the field in the way that New Zealand arranged for Service voters in the field in 1943. I must again remind the Committee about the detail of that. Returning officers were sent out from New Zealand. They were provided with electoral lists and maps showing constituencies, and lists giving the names of the towns and constituencies. They started by trying to bring their lists up to date and giving Service men a vote if they were on the register. Those officers had been given a fairly free hand and instructions to allow people to vote, even though they were not on the register. They did it by the method I am asking that we should adopt—allowing the man to vote, sealing the vote in an envelope, putting his name, address and so on on the top of the envelope, and then sending it to the returning officer. To get this done as quickly as possible lists of candidates and divisions for which they were standing were prepared from broadcast messages.

I believe that system worked quite well. Even if this method gives a slightly larger proportion of bogus votes than one gets in an ordinary election it will provide a vote for a large number of people who would otherwise not get it. Australia has done the same thing in a General Election and a referendum. Canada is proposing to conduct a General Election by this method. One of the Provinces of Canada, Saskatchewan, did conduct a Provincial election in this way last year, and the United States conducted their election last year in the same way.

While I am not tying myself exactly to the method used by any one Dominion I feel we have a solid body of evidence, in what the Dominions have done, which makes it possible to give the vote to those Service men who for one reason or other, perhaps by mischance, arrive at the election day without being on the register or without having asked for a postal vote. If we do not examine this matter very carefully indeed and strain every nerve to give the men a vote, we shall be failing in our duty to those citizens who have been abroad while we have been at home. Maybe there are objections to the exact words I have put down. I am not concerned with them, I am concerned with principles. I should like the Home Secretary to say whether he will examine this matter between now and the General Election, so that if we pass this Bill in its present form we can have an assurance that provisions of this nature will be brought in to give a last chance to men who have fallen through the scheme as so far set up.

The Solicitor-General

Again I feel sympathy with what is at the back of the mind of my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton (Mr. H. Lawson), but when he advances a little further from that position I find great difficulties, as indeed he anticipated. I know he desires that everyone possible should vote and ought to vote, but I wish to examine this matter, because the last thing I should like him to think is that we are unreasonably rejecting it out of hand. It would be fair to put his proposal as being that any person eligible far registration in the Service register who has failed to take the necessary steps to have himself registered, should nevertheless receive a ballot paper at the time of the election. What it amounts to is that we shall ask certain people to register, not to take too much trouble, we hope, but to take a certain amount of trouble, to register, and at the same time we shall say, "Well, it does not matter if you do not register, we have got this beneficent sweeping up Clause which will bring you in." I do not think—one has to be realistic about human nature—that will help the registration system. It is of course unheard of for anyone who has not been included on the register to vote at ad election in this country. The examples which my hon. Friend gave are, of course, on a different scale.

What seems to me the practical difficulty is that it would be impossible, in the absence of a claim for registration from the Service voter himself, to determine the constituency for which he has eligibility, because the registration in the Service register is a declaration by the man himself, giving the address at which, but for the war, he would be living. If my hon. Friend proposes that these requirements should be done away with it will be extremely difficult, if not utterly impossible, for the returning officer to know to which persons, and to what addresses, ballot papers should be sent, and there is no source, as was pointed out by the Conference, from which the returning officer could get that information. I do not think that the proposal accords with this scheme as it has been designed, or that it would be practicably possible to carry it out. In these circumstances, it would not be right to hold out hopes of the examination of the scheme which my hon. Friend has suggested. But, of course, the idea at the back of his proposal, of giving everyone the chance of voting, will be in our minds continuously, and if there is any other suggestion, or any variant of this suggestion, which will achieve that, I do not think that my hon. Friend will have cause to complain of unreadiness on the part of my right hon. Friend or of anyone assisting him to consider such a scheme. I think that that is as far as I can go, and I hope that, with that assurance, my hon. Friend will not press his proposal.

Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)

May I put forward two points relating to what the Solicitor-General has just said? The second reason he gave for turning down my hon. Friend's suggestion was that it would not be practicable because the returning officer would not know whether a certain person had been put on the register, or, alternatively, he would not know where a person was. But suppose that the man himself makes an application, by telegram or in some other way, stating that he is not on the register, and asking if the returning officer would kindly send him the necessary papers. That, to my mind, would do away with that objection. I quite understand the reason given by the hon. and learned Gentleman for turning down this proposal on the ground of human nature. But suppose that a man in the Forces showed reasonable cause for not having registered—he might have been missing, a prisoner of war or in some situation where it would have been quite impossible for him to get his name on the register at the time when registration took place. In such a case, I think the argument about human nature also falls to the ground.

May I ask my hon. and learned Friend to consider both these points. In the first place, on the question of human nature if the man can show reasonable cause why he was not on the register will that be taken into account? That was what my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton (Mr. Lawson) had, as the Solicitor-General said, at the back of his mind: I should say that it was at the front of his mind, in fact, coming out of his face. The other point is that if application is made to the returning officer, the returning officer then will not be able to say that he does not know either that the man is not on the register or where he is.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. H. Lawson

The first objection made by the Solicitor-General is that this does not fit in with the scheme that the Home Secretary has brought forward, but I think that this is the way it should be done. The Government have brought forward a scheme for postal voting, and nothing that I could do could make them scrap that scheme—in fact, I do not think that we should scrap it. Therefore, we have the slightly illogical provision that we have two parallel schemes running together. But we should not take the view that, because a man has failed for some reason to fill in his form properly, he should be penalised. That is not what is done in civilian life; whether the person is interested or not, his name is put on the register. The second argument is that this will be difficult in practice: how is the returning officer to know that a man is a bona fide resident in the constituency? What the Dominions have done is this. A man has to sign a declaration that if it were not for the war he would have been living in a particular place. That can easily be done. I am sure that in most cases that would be a fair way. Suppose that a man were registered in a constituency in which he would not actually be living; no great harm would be done. I will not describe in detail how this procedure is carried out in the Dominions, because I have spoken about it before, and the Government are in a much better position to consult Dominion officials and find out the facts than backbench Members are. This is not a half-baked idea, either from the back of my mind or from the front of my mind. It has been put into operation by three great Dominions during this war, it has been proved in practice, and I commend it to the Committee.

Mr. John Dugdale

I am not concerned whether this idea comes from the back or the front of my hon. Friend's mind. I appreciate what the Solicitor-General has said about human nature; but in the Bible there is a parable about some men who went to work in a vineyard. Although the people who came in first might have expected some advantage, those who came in at the last hour were treated in the same way as they were. The same principle might be applied, I suggest, in this case. I would ask whether the nod which I saw the Solicitor-General give after the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) meant that he was prepared to consider favourably the suggestion that my hon. Friend had made.

The Solicitor-General

As my hon. Friend has asked that question, let me say that the points of my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) dealt with the showing of reasonable cause and irregular application, in a last-moment way, such as by telegram. I shall consider these points and have them examined, but I want to enter this caveat, because it is not my practice to get out of a difficult situation by appearing to agree when I do not. The registration officers, on any showing, are going to have an enormous amount of work, and exceptions which would be most reasonable in the ordinary way—my hon. Friend and I are familiar with the term "reasonable cause" in many spheres— have to be viewed in relation to the abnormal amount of work which the registration officers have to do. With that caveat, I shall always be prepared to consider the suggestions of my hon. Friend and also the general desires of my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton.

Amendment negatived.

Clause added to the Bill.

Mr. Turton

On a point of Order. Are we going to have the formal moving of the new Clauses without any reply from the Government? After the general debate on the new Clauses, should not an opportunity be allowed for reply to the points raised?

The Solicitor-General

I am quite willing to make the reply at any stage that is convenient.

The Temporary Chairman

There is nothing before the Committee at the moment.