HC Deb 25 October 1946 vol 428 cc158-63

11.12 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Oliver)

I beg to move, That the date of expiration of Section of the Parliamentary Electors (War-Time Registration) Act, 1944, be postponed to the thirty-first day of December, nineteen hundred and forty-seven. This Motion is to continue in force until 31st December, 1947, Section i of the Parliamentary Electors (War-Time Registration) Act, 1944, which will otherwise expire at the end of this year. The effect of the 1944 Act is to suspend any requirement as to a qualifying period of residence for inclusion in the civilian register of electors. The genesis of this matter is to be found in Section 5 (1) of the Parliamentary Electors (War-Time Registration) Act of 1943. Provision is there made for a person's inclusion in the electoral register in respect of an address for which he had been registered in the National Register for a period of two months terminating on a qualifying date. This qualification was subject to the condition that a removal from one address to another in the same constituency during the qualifying period, would not destroy the maturing qualification. A second condition was that a qualification once obtained, subsisted until a subsequent qualification was acquired.

It was found that the administrative and clerical operations necessary to ascertain the existence of an electoral qualification in accordance with the 1943 Act were very intricate, and experience soon showed that the staffs at the disposal of the electoral registration officers were not sufficient, either in quantity or quality, for the purpose of dealing with this work. As a result, the Act of 1944 provided that a person should be registered in the electoral register for the address at which he was registered in the National Register as residing on a qualifying date.

This Act of 1944 was due to expire at the end of 1945 unless it was renewed by a Resolution of both Houses of Parliament, but Section 2 of the Elections and Jurors Act, 1945, continued it in force until the end of this year. The practical difficulties that the registration officers would have in operating this complex procedure of the Act of 1943 are still extremely great, and the staffs of local authorities are so limited, and the work that they are doing is of such importance and, in many cases, of such urgency, that the Government would not feel justified at this stage in adding any unnecessary labours to their duties. Moreover, the present electoral registration arrangements are not of a permanent character because, as the House knows, there is in existence a Committee to consider this matter, on which all the principal parties are represented. This Committee was appointed to consider whether any changes should be made in the existing system of electoral registration to bring it to peacetime requirements. It will be reporting very soon and one of the matters which will fall to be considered in the light of its recommendations, will be whether as a long term measure any qualifying period should be restored. Therefore pending the report of the Committee the Government are satisfied that the right course is to make no change at present and to continue the arrangements which have operated in respect of registers prepared in 1945 and again this year.

In those circumstances I ask the House to approve the Motion because, as I think I have shown, the existing arrangements are purely temporary, and to revert to the 1943 arrangements, where it would be necessary to reestablish two months qualification with all the work that that would involve on local authorities staffs, would be imposing a burden on local authorities which present circumstances would not justify.

11.18 a.m.

Mr. Osbert Peake (Leeds, North)

The hon. Gentleman has explained very clearly to the House the reasons for this Motion. It is obviously necessary to prevent a reversion, on 31st December this year, to the complex procedure embodied in the Act of 1943 which, for various reasons which the hon. Gentleman has indicated, the registration authorities have found themselves unable to operate hitherto. I think it was on 12th October, 1945, that the Home Secretary announced the appointment of the Committee on Electoral Registration, whose terms of reference included a variety of subjects, but whose main task is to report upon the working of the present system and to recommend a system of registration which will prove permanently satisfactory. I could have wished that the Committee might by now have presented their report and that the hon. Gentleman and the Home Secretary might have been in a position to introduce permanent legislation, but obviously we cannot hurry the Committee over such an important task. The hon. Gentleman indicated that the report of the Committee might be expected shortly. If that is so, I hope the Government will waste no time in making up their minds with regard to permanent legislation because I regard it as of prime importance that we should have an accurate and a satisfactory register available in the event of a General Election next year.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Buchanan)

What—an election for Parliament?

Mr. Peake

Surely the hon. Gentleman will agree, and I think hon. Members on all sides of the House will agree, that it is of vital importance that Parliament should be in a position to dissolve itself and renew itself at any time? It would be a very unsatisfactory state of affairs in a democratic country if, for purely technical reasons, reasons of machinery, we were unable to have a General Election.

All registers based upon the national registration machinery, in my opinion, have proved unsatisfactory. Accuracy is the first essential of a Parliamentary register. Before the war, although many people were disfranchised through removing from their residences, and for other reasons, one never had a complaint that anybody entitled to be on the register had been left off the register. At the last Election there were many complaints, and many proved cases, of persons with a good entitlement to be on the register whose names had been omitted through some clerical or other error. That situation does democracy a great deal of harm, because the main function of democracy is exercised by the people by placing a cross upon a small slip of paper once in every four or five years. If a man or woman finds that, through administrative error, he is deprived of that privilege, he or she has a very serious grievance against our constitutional system. Therefore, I hope that the Committee now sitting will report in favour of a reversion to the system we had before the war, which, although it did not give us a register which was always completely up to date, did give us a register which was nearly 100 per cent. accurate. We cannot object to the Motion now before the House, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will hold out hope of early legislation and of a reversion to the satisfactory system we had in operation before the war.

11.22 a.m.

Mr. Beechman (St. Ives)

On behalf of myself and, I believe, on behalf of my hon. Friends, I can say that we do not intend to offer any opposition to this Motion. But I should like to underline what has already been said about the imperfections of the register at the last Election. There were complaints all over the country in large numbers about omissions from the register, and citizens felt very indignant about the matter. I am not making any criticism, because at that time our officials were extremely overworked and it was obviously most difficult to compile a register. But I hope the Government will take steps to see that there is an adequate staff to make the register complete.

I would also like to emphasise the point which has been made about the importance of legislation being introduced as soon as possible, so that the citizens of this country may know on what basis they are going to vote. It is true at the moment there does not appear to be an Election impending immediately, but we all know how quickly the weather may change in this country, and we all want to know what the basis will be. There are many problems to be considered. The Government must be well aware that many people, in all parties in this House, are feeling a little unsure as to whether we are taking the right steps in regard to our electoral arrangements. I am not going to elaborate this point but, for instance, we should have decided what the local authority boundaries are to be, before we decided what the Parliamentary boundaries are to be. I say no more about that, Mr. Speaker, because, quite rightly, you are keeping a vigilant eye on the boundaries of my observations. With these remarks I offer my support to the Government on this Motion.

11.26 a.m.

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

I think it is no exaggeration to say that hundreds of thousands of His Majesty's subjects were unable to vote at the last Election.

Among them was my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Churchill), who was not on the register which includes 10, Downing Street, or on any other register. I understand that, through one cause or another, he has never been able to vote in a Parliamentary Election. I hope that at the next Election, whether it comes next year, or at any later date, he will be able to vote. I do not oppose this Motion, especially as I am, with several other hon. Members, a member of the Committee which is sitting on this matter under the chairmanship of the hon. Member the Under-Secretary. We have been working very hard, and, as the hon. Gentleman said, we expect to report soon—he said very soon. It is quite certain that legislation will be required, and a new system of electoral registration is urgently required. May I ask the Under-Secretary whether he will arrange that there should be a promise, in the King's Speech, of the necessary legislation next Session?

11.27 a.m.

Mr. Charles Williams (Torquay)

I am afraid I do not view this matter with quite the same placid outlook as previous speakers. I am one of those who hold, rightly or wrongly, that of all the duties imposed on a Government, the duty of enabling electors to vote and of ensuring that all are registered, is the highest of all possible priorities. That is the primary thing a Government should do. I may be right or wrong, but I hold that old-fashioned, democratic outlook. We are told that this postponement has to be made for two reasons. In the first place, there is the lack of labour. That is quite obvious all through the country, but I should that thought that, at the present time, with the enormous data necessary for completing our register, and getting a better method, we could have used some of the clerical labour which is being used in some other schemes. A higher priority should have been given for this purpose. Although, unfortunately, we have to accept that excuse today, I hope it will not be used very much longer. The other point made by the Under Secretary was that we could not possibly hand very much more, if any, of this work on to the local authorities. I entirely agree on that, but I think it is fundamentally a bad thing that again we should have to postpone the expiration of a Section of this Act. There are many inevitable postponements at present, but of all the things that are bad, postponement of this kind, which must inevitably leave the register less complete, is worst.

May I say a word or two on the Committee which is sitting, and to which a certain amount of reference has been made? We are told that their report will be presented soon, or very soon. I am not taking that as anything except interesting information which we receive with hopefulness. But I hope that before agreeing to this Motion we may have some kind of pledge that when the Committee reports the Government will not merely give consideration to it but will give a real pledge that, early next year, when we come back after Christmas they will bring in definite legislation on the matter. Otherwise I do not see the good of setting up a Committee of this sort which must delay matters. When a report is made by a Committee on a matter of such high priority as elections, surely that report should be implemented by the House as soon as possible.

If that pledge can be given it will do something to relieve the anxiety of a good many of us who dislike this method of having to pass Motions of this kind. I would only add that there is a greater need, as I see it, for trying to return to a more perfect system of elections than seems to be in the minds of certain speakers. I would submit with great seriousness that I have never seen any House of Commons—and this does threaten an election—in which signs of senile decay were so apparent at so early a stage in its existence. Cabinet Ministers do not attend here, and all sorts of things of that sort are creeping in, and from that point of view there is much greater urgency attaching to this question than might be thought in a House of Commons which is not quite a year and a half old.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved: That the date of expiration of Section f of the Parliamentary Electors (War-Time Registration) Act, 1944, be postponed to the thirty first day of December, nineteen hundred and forty-seven.