HC Deb 08 July 1947 vol 439 cc2158-70

Resolved: That the Order made by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, extending Section I of the Sunday Entertainments Act, 1932, to the City of Ripon, a copy of which Order was presented on 4th July, be approved. That the Order made by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, extending Section I of the Sunday Entertainments Act, 1932, to the Borough of Huntingdon, a copy of which Order was, presented on 4th July be approved. That the Order made by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, extending Section 1 of the Sunday Entertainments Act, 1932 to the Borough of Wanstead and Woodford, a copy of which Order was presented on 4th July, be approved. That the Order made by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, extending Section 1 of the Sunday Entertainments Act, 1932, to the Urban District of Oakengates, a copy of which Order was presented on 4th July, be approved. That the Order made by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, extending Section I of the Sunday Entertainments Act, 1932, to the Urban District of Woking, a copy of which Order was presented on 4th July, be approved."—[Mr. Oliver.]

Motion made, and Question proposed: That the Order made by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, extending Section I of the Sunday Entertainments Act, 1932, to the City of Manchester, a copy of which Order was presented on 4th July, be approved."—[Mr. Oliver.]

10.4 p.m.

Mr. G. Lang (Stalybridge and Hyde)

I beg to object, Mr. Speaker, to the approval of this Order for Manchester on the grounds that the poll at Manchester was entirely inadequate, and I hope to show briefly and to persuade my right hon. Friend that it was in no sense a valid poll. As you, Sir, would quickly inform me if I were to do so, I cannot, and I do not desire on this occasion-to discuss the merits or demerits of the Sunday opening of cinemas. I am only concerned here with the question of whether this poll was properly taken, whether it was carried out in accordance with the Act and the statutory rules, whether it was, in fact, a proper expression of the local veto of the citizens of Manchester. I very much regret that it should be in that city that this unfortunate occurrence should take place.

I wish to draw the attention of the Home Secretary, formally, for I am sure he is well aware of it, to the section of the regulations which deals with the number of polling booths to be provided in relation to the number of electors. It says that in polling districts of not more than 500 electors only one polling station shall be provided, and goes on to point out that if there are more than that number the council may provide an additional number of stations. That means there must be one provided for each 500 electors. It cannot mean that there are less, and, therefore, must mean that there is one or more. In Manchester, with an electorate of 498,905 there were actually provided 61 ballot boxes, whereas in Liverpool, with something like the same electorate, there were 674 ballot boxes. These 61 ballot boxes, catering for all those electors, gave an average of one ballot box for just over 8,000 electors. The actual hours of polling were from two o'clock to eight o'clock—only six hours —in which people were able to vote, with only 61 ballot boxes for roughly half a million people. How that could be interpreted as a real attempt to ascertain the will of the citizens of Manchester, I cannot see.

But the story does not end there. Not only was there a totally inadequate number of ballot boxes, but the whole scheme broke down. I have no desire in any way to attack the learned Town Clerk of Manchester, who was the returning officer. I am quite sure he did what he thought was right and used his judgment in what he believed to be the best interest, but the plain fact is that the whole thing was in confusion. There was a stupid economy about the whole arrangements. The notice was bad. The Town Clerk himself, who has been most fair, says there were large posters about giving wrong instruction in regard to the polling stations. They were not issued by the Town Clerk, but by the cinema people. They did, as the Town Clerk says in letters I have from him, cause considerable confusion, and there were not enough advertisements issued on the part of the Town Clerk to counteract that and properly inform the people. So we had a stupidly small number of ballot boxes, and great confusion as to where people could go. In addition to that there was the greatest incompetence inside the polling stations. One has considerable sympathy with the Town Clerk who, having been criticised earlier because he had employed paid officials to do this job, now engaged all sorts of people, including unemployed people, and found—this is always the case—that the price of generosity is gross inefficiency.

So the arrangement inside the polling stations broke down, and the Town Clerk himself said he was obliged, late in the day, to send 75 experienced officials to do what they could. That, of course, was too late. The result was that people who actually queued up at six o'clock, failed to vote by eight o'clock, and thousands of people in Manchester, those who were in favour of Sunday cinemas as well as those against, were deprived of the opportunity of saying what they wanted. I have met no one from Manchester who does not agree that the whole business was a complete fiasco. I have had a large correspondence, and so, I am sure, has the Home Office. Unless the experience of my right hon. Friend is very different from mine, not a single person has written in defence of this vote. It is essential that when Acts of Parliament like this are passed, and the will of the people is to be taken, it should be done in the most favourable circumstances, so that whatever the result there shall be no sort of feeling that there has been a rigged or incompetent election, or that anybody has been prevented from doing what he wished to do. I say emphatically that this election in Manchester was a complete farce. Less than 5 per cent., or about 5 per cent. of the people voted. True, there was a majority in favour of Sunday cinemas. I concede to my right hon. Friend, if he desires it, the gift of saying that under favourable conditions the majority might be larger, but that is not the point at issue. The point is much more important than whether people should see Greta Garbo or anyone else on Sunday; it is that where an Act of Parliament provides for the expression of the will of the people, the will of the people shall be expressed. There was no real opportunity of doing that in this election.

If this poll is allowed to remain it must become a sort of by-word for these things. I hope it will not. I hope that my right hon. Friend will feel that he is justified in saying that this poll should be taken again so that Manchester people will be able to go to the benefits or what they may be of cinema entertainment on Sunday with a clear conscience, if they still desire to do so. I will not read any extracts from letters I have had because I expect my right hon. Friend ha? received them, and although he is extremely difficult to move, he is, as I have said in the House before, a very fair Minister, who listens to all representations, and who pays full attention to all that is put before him. I am sure that he has carefully considered this. But in these elections it looks to me as if the supporters of the cinema industry take the law very much into their own hands. They have far more freedom than we have. When we fight our constituencies we are fenced in by the Corrupt Practices Act. There are some things which we must not do, and there are things which we might do in ignorance which might cause us to be unseated. Such things nave happened. Be that as it may there is nothing here to prevent vast expenditure of money.

I ask my right hon. Friend if it is not possible for him to consider, with regard to the purity of this business, whether the same restrictions should be applied? If we are to be fenced in, so should the cinema industry be fenced in, and there should be no loophole for the rigging of an election or the doing of improper things. I appeal to my right hon. Friend, whose fairmindedness gives me great confidence, on the grounds that there were far too few polling booths—61 for a population of nearly half a million, which was utterly ridiculous, that they were inadequately staffed, as the Town Clerk frankly admitted, that the hours from two to 8 p.m were far too short. In many other places polling took place over 12 hours, and in one place over 13 hours. I know that the Act says that the polling booths must be open from six to eight p.m. Just before that Act was passed I lost my seat in this House; otherwise that Measure might not be on the Statute Book. I did more than anybody else to keep it off the Statute Book in 1929 and 1930. I would not like Members to know what we resorted to upstairs in order to do that. There was a very competent chairman to see that there was nothing improper, but every advantage was taken of what we were allowed to do.

I ask my right hon. Friend whether he does not feel that in all the circumstances, in view of the great dissatisfaction that has been caused—and as a neighbour of Manchester I am zealous for Manchester's good name—[Interruption]—these things would never have happened in Stalybridge— [Laughter.]Hon. Members may laugh but "so good" is Stalybridge that since I came to this House my right hon. Friend has had to take control of the police force. I hope that the Home Secretary will make it easier for Manchester to have a proper ballot with a fair result and be obliged to blush in front of nobody—not even the hon. Member for Stalybridge.

10.15 p.m

Mr. Harry Thorneycroft (Manchester, Clayton)

I hope to show that the Statutory regulations were properly observed when the poll took place. If there was any confusion at all, it was caused by the church militant. In the earlier part of this year the two contending parties, that is the Church Council of Manchester and the Cinema Proprietors' Association, approached the Town Clerk when the question that the temporary order should be made permanent was first advanced. They got together and they agreed to the continuation of the opening of cinemas provided that the Cinema Proprietors' Association would agree to certain suggestions made by the organised churches in Manchester. Amongst those agreed conditions were stipulations that children would not be admitted to cinemas on Sundays before four p.m.; that the present gentlemen's agreement observed during the war, that children should not be admitted to cinemas on Sundays unless accompanied by a parent or guardian, was to continue; and that no horror films were to be shown, the cinema proprietors agreeing to try to raise the general standard of the films shown on Sundays.

A permanent joint committee representative of the Association and of all the churches in Manchester was to be set up. The committee was to review from time to time the conduct of the cinemas and of the audiences on Sundays. But one or two of my hon. Friends who were not prepared to join this council got together and decided that in no circumstances were the citizens of Manchester to have the privilege of seeing pictures on Sundays. As a consequence they attended the town meeting, caused a frightful uproar, objected to the way in which the Lord Mayor put the question at the end of the meeting, and shouted that it was their determination to go to a poll. Before the war, it was the practice in Manchester to give a chance of a job at a fairly decent rate of pay to the unemployed section of the community. In those days, perhaps a better educated type of man was unemployed—the clerk, and so on. It was found that they could be trained easily and that they were competent to do the job. In the poll that took place in 1946 the clerks and presiding officers were recruited from the local government officers employed by the corporation. Some of our friends made quite a to-do about that. As a result, the city council decided to use the unemployed again.

It is true that the unemployed were recruited for this purpose on the occasion of the poll on 8th May. The ballot started at two o'clock in the afternoon and ended at eight. The parties whom I have already named agreed that that was a good and sufficient time in which to allow the poll to be carried out properly. In the afternoon our friends— these militant Christians—got busy again. They organised congestion at the polling booths. They got together in large parties at agreed times so that the staffs inside the booths would be embarrassed and handicapped in dealing with the voters. They also began to demonstrate how useful they could be in this direction by telephoning the local newspaper office and asking them to send photographers so that the queues outside the polling booths could be photographed and their pictures appear in the paper on the following day. I do not think there is any hon. Member for the City of Manchester who could be brought forward tonight to say that the poll was improperly conducted. We do agree, as the Town Clerk readily conceded, that it could have been done better, but the whole of the statutory regulations were properly observed. I ask that the House shall support the Home Secretary.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. Janner (Leicester, West)

I do not want to participate in the controversy between the two hon. Members who have just spoken, but there is one very interesting point which they have raised on which I may, perhaps, be enlightened. In Section 11 of Statutory Rule and Order 828, it is stated: The returning officer shall provide a suitable number of polling stations at each polling place. and paragraph (b) says: Where the number of electors in the borough or urban district, or (if the borough or urban district is divided into polling districts) in any polling district, is not more than 500, only one polling station shall, unless the council otherwise direct, be provided for the borough or urban district or polling district. Obviously, that cannot mean less than one, and, if the council decided to have more, it will mean more. Then it goes on to say: and so on for each additional 500 electors or for any less number of electors over and above the last 500. It seems to me that what was intended by that paragraph was one polling booth, at least, for every 500 electors. It cannot mean anything else, because, if it did, it would be less than one for the first 500, and, confusing as the Subsection is, it does seem to me that, in the ordinary interpretation of the Statute, mean that there is to be at least one polling booth for every 500 electors. That is what it seems to me to mean, and I am only asking for an explanation. I would like either my hon. Friend who has just spoken to answer that, or my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to say what it means.

10.24 p.m

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)

I think I ought, first, to explain to the House exactly the position in which the Secretary of State stands in regard to these Orders. It is a most peculiar requirement of the Sunday Entertainments Act, 1932, in paragraph (7) of the Schedule to which it is stated: A draft order submitted to the Secretary of State in accordance with the foregoing provisions of this Schedule shall be laid by him before Parliament. Therefore, I have no other duty, once I receive the necessary certificate from the returning officer, than to lay the Order before Parliament. I presume that, if I thought that the Order had been in some way improperly obtained, or that irregularities had occurred, it would be my duty to move it, and then invite the House to defeat me in trying to get the Order through. I have listened to the impressions of my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Lang) with regard to his murky past in this matter, and with regard to what he has done in the way of defeating the Corrupt Practices Act. I want to say that I think he has given to the House this evening an altogether prejudiced and unreliable account of what actually transpired in Manchester. My hon. Friend says that inaccurate posters were issued. But accurate posters were issued by the Town Clerk, and, in fact, I have here a statement by the Town Clerk in which he says: On the day on which the requisition for a poll was received, the newspapers and the Cinematograph Exhibitors' Association were given a list of the polling stations which would be used. Furthermore, the usual posters were exhibited throughout the city, correctly informing the public where they must vote. But, unfortunately, the public naturally observe what they read in the newspapers and what they see on the screens at the cinema houses more readily than they do posters on hoardings or on church notice boards. All of us know the anxieties that we have had in the past with regard to the issue of the poll card, in order to be quite sure that it shall be an absolutely accurate document, and the difficulties that we incur on occasion during an election when a school which is to be used as a polling place has entrances in two streets—where it happens to be on a corner site—and where we have always known it as a school in a certain road and have put the name of that road on our polling card, and then suddenly find that the returning officer has used the name of the other street. In the days when election petitions were more frequent than they are now, the fact that an inaccurate description of a polling station had been given was often made the basis of a petition.

It seems to me that, on this occasion, the Town Clerk issued accurate posters. It should be made quite clear that the Town Clerk is not the returning officer. The Lord Mayor of Manchester is the returning officer. Although I have no doubt that he acts through the Town Clerk, the responsibility rests on him. Accurate posters were issued, and if people had taken the trouble to consult them they would have known where to go. If they allowed themselves to be misled by unofficial documents, then I do not think that anybody can blame the Lord Mayor. He discharged his duty in issuing the accurate posters.

With regard to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Leicester (Mr. Janner) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge, I read that Subsection to mean that it is the duty of the council to consider what polling stations are necessary, and that, if they come to the conclusion, on their experience of taking polls, that it is a wasteful expenditure of the ratepayers' money to provide as many polling stations for elections of this description as they do for Parliamentary and municipal elections, they are entitled to vary the number either way. Manchester had some experience of polls in connection with the Borough Funds Act, and the rules applicable here have, in fact, been taken from those which have been used for polls under the Borough Funds Act as to whether private Bills shall, be promoted for presentation to Parliament. They have never—and I regret to hear of it in regard to Manchester, which is a city for which I have the greatest respect—treated these polls except in the most light-hearted vein. In 1932, about 13.2 per cent. of the electorate went to the polls, and there must have been something exciting, because in 1938, 5.3 per cent. went to the poll. So that, compared with the 1938 vote, the poll on this occasion was not unduly small.

Mr. Scollan (Renfrew, Western)

Does not my right hon. Friend think that 5.3 per cent. is uncommonly large?

Mr. Frederick Lee (Manchester, Hulme)

As the polling booths are normally in day schools for municipal and Parliamentary elections, would this have meant that the children would have had a day's holiday?

Mr. Ede

Well, that would have been popular with the school children, and no doubt with the teachers as well. But what happened in this case? The City of Manchester, in dealing with polls of this sort, has carried out the procedure. Accurate information was issued as required by the Statute, and it is to be regretted that, in a matter of this kind, so small a number of the electors should have taken the trouble to vote. But I am informed by impartial observers that the description given by my hon. Friend the Member for Clayton (Mr. H. Thorneycroft) of what happened on the day was accurate. An organised effort was made by certain people in the city— not, I understand, officially connected with any particular body but people who think that the days of Eatanswill should not be allowed entirely to disappear—who organised a demonstration. They thought, no doubt, that in these days of publicity, a pictorial record ought not to be lost to posterity, and there was an organised effort to make the poll as difficult to take as possible. Surely it is the experience of all of us who have fought elections, or been in any way connected with them, especially in populous boroughs, that there have been such incidents. It is not an infrequent thing to find that the poll closes with a number of people who have postponed going to the polling booth until so late an hour that they find they are excluded by the people who have gone just ahead of them. In my younger days in politics, "Vote early and vote often was the rule, the second being a rule very largely observed in Ireland. But in these days, most of us put on our polling cards, Please vote early." We do that because we desire to prevent those rushes at the end of the day.

I must point out to the House that the requirement under the regulations is that the poll must be open for the two hours from six to eight p.m. That was a regulation drawn up in 1932 by my predecessor, Sir John Gilmour, and it has remained in operation ever since. In this case, the Lord Mayor of Manchester decided to take the poll from two to eight p.m., which is three times the minimum required by the regulations. I cannot help thinking myself that in any populous cities and in other areas where many of the electors live a long way from their work it might be desirable to have an earlier polling hour so that people who wish to do so can record their votes before they go to work. But these hours of 2-8 are not unusual in this kind of poll.

My hon. Friend raised one other matter with which I think I ought to deal. I am myself gravely disturbed at the amount of money that is spent on the polls by both sides. It will be within the recollection of the House that a few years ago the Lord's Day Observance Society received a request and from that time onwards these polls have been contested by the opponents in many areas with a great deal more vigour than they were before. But undoubtedly the supporters of Sunday cinemas who are quite unrestricted, as my hon. Friend said, by any corrupt practices or illegal expenditure Acts, do spend very considerable sums of money on this kind of poll. In addition, as I understand it, there is no restriction on the provision of vehicles and in many ways these polls are taken in a way that would not be tolerated in connection with the ordinary municipal or Parliamentary elections where a return of expenditure has to be made. I hope that the practices on both sides will cease, otherwise I am sure that this House will expect that some steps shall be taken in order to prevent some of the publicist methods that are employed in certain of these polls.

I have been in communication with the City of Manchester. I have taken steps to inquire into all the complaints that were made to me. I have come to the conclusion' that having regard to the practice of the City of Manchester in polls of this kind, the poll was conducted in accordance with precedent and tradition and in the way that has been observed with regard to the promotion of private Bills. I think that is the appropriate standard by which to judge these polls, and my own recommendation to the House is that this Order should be confirmed. I am convinced, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge has said, that if we reject the Order and compel the City Corporation of Manchester to go through all the motions again the results, as far as the presentation to this House is concerned, will be exactly the same. We should be asked again to confirm an Order and all we should have done would have been to put the inhabitants of Manchester to the expense and inconvenience of holding another poll, but I do hope that some of the scenes which characterised the polling on this occasion will not become an ordinary feature of our public life in this country. I also hope that throughout the country both sides will observe greater discretion in the way they spend money and in the methods that are employed in some of these polls May I commend the House to confirm the Order.

Mr. Lang

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman this one question because he has been very interesting. Does he really think that 61 polling boxes for an electorate of half a million should be commended because it might go out after this Debate that this is a fair proportion.

Mr. Ede

That is a matter the responsibility for which is placed on the turning officer and on the city council. I am reluctant myself, in view of the history of polls of this kind in this city, to say that it was inadequate. I am quite sure that if the people who organised the processions between seven and eight had devoted their energies to getting the same number of people to the poll between two and seven, a great deal of the inconvenience would have been avoided.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved: That the Order made by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, extending Section I of the Sunday Entertainments Act, 1932, to the City of Manchester, a copy of which Order was presented on 4th July, be approved.