HC Deb 20 April 1948 vol 449 cc1656-65

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

Mr. Bing (Hornchurch)

I wish to ask one or two questions on this Clause, which provides that the returning officers in Northern Ireland shall be the under-sheriffs. They are not the returning officers for the Northern Ireland Parliament. They represent a rather significant change. It is a good thing that the returning officers for the Northern Ireland Parliament are not accepted by this House. Is this not an opportunity for the House to exercise some degree of control over what goes on in elections in Northern Ireland? We are here appointing under this Clause a special type of returning officer for Northern Ireland who is not the type of returning officer who returns for the elections for the Northern Ireland Parliament.

As we are departing in that sense from the provision made for the Northern Ireland Parliament, I suggest that we might possibly have somebody who is not an under-sheriff, but who is directly responsible to this House. The difficulty about the under-sheriff is that he is responsible to the sheriff, who is responsible to the Minister for Home Affairs for Northern Ireland. If the Northern Ireland HANSARD is to be trusted, the attitude of the Minister for Home Affairs for Northern Ireland towards elections to this House is not to care what happens one way or the other. I will quote the passage. I do not want to argue this point. I only wish to refer to an allegation and to read from the Northern Ireland HANSARD to show the attitude of the Minister for Home Affairs for Northern Ireland. It is alleged—I do not know whether it is true or not—that where there are not sufficient Unionist voters the Unionist agent gives a piece of paper to someone who is not on the register, and that person is then allowed by the returning officer to vote. Secondly, in order that everyone shall be quite clear as to who they are voting for, the figure of the Unionist candidate is exhibited over the polling booth.

This allegation was made by the Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party in the Northern Ireland Parliament. It dealt with a by-election to this House. He said: Again there were two persons who said they were ex-Service men, whose names appeared neither on the official civilian residents list of electors nor on the official Service register, yet they were permitted to vote on the authority of a typed slip provided by Unionist representatives in the polling station. It was also noted at the same time that between the door and the window of the polling booth there was prominently displayed a notice stating, 'Unionists, do not split. Vote Mullan.' We can discuss that on another Clause. I wish to call the Home Secretary's attention to the way in which the Minister for Home Affairs replied on that occasion. He did not deny it. Indeed, he answered, Boy, but they did it. That seems to me to be a somewhat unreasonable attitude on the part of a leading official.

Then there is the further question that the under-sheriffs are very often compelled to appoint presiding officers who can only look to the Minister for Home Affairs for support in enforcing proper law and order in the booths. If we had commissioners or someone of that description, appointed by this House, it would be possible to deal with the matter otherwise. That support is not given. It was alleged by a Unionist Member of the Northern Ireland House that ballot boxes had been opened, Labour votes taken out and ballot papers altered. That is the allegation of a Unionist Member who was an officer of police.

Mr. McKie

Who was he?

Mr. Bing

Mr. Nixon. He was so much enamoured of the Unionist cause that he combined the office of district inspector with that of being the master of an Orange lodge.

5.0 p.m.

Secondly, may I give the House one other example of the fact that the presiding officer and the under-sheriffs cannot get the support which they deserve? Let me give one example of the attitude of the Northern Ireland Minister for Home Affairs. A number of police went out to canvass in the constituency of the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. Harden) in the Armagh by-election, and they canvassed, as I suppose is proper, their rivals.

All I wish to emphasise is the attitude of the Minister of Home Affairs who is still excusing himself for having dismissed two of them. I will read his words: MR. WARNOCK: The hon. Member for South Armagh did say one thing to which I take exception. He said that the 'B' Specials can terrorise citizens by firing off their rifles. What happened was that three 'B' Specials took their service rifles and fired off some shots. One was wounded, and I have dismissed the other two. I have taken disciplinary action against the people concerned and have dismissed them from the 'B' Special Constabulary. Then he pleads with the House: I would not have done it if I did not think it was right. If I did what was right, what is wrong in that? It is a very serious matter. I will just quote a description, entirely uncorrected and undenied by the Minster for Home Affairs, of what in fact took place at one polling station—

The Chairman

I do not see what incidents at a polling station have to do with the appointment of under-sheriffs as returning officers. That would appear to be a different proposition altogether.

Mr. Bing

I am sorry. Perhaps I did not make myself clear. The point I am making is that the returning officers who are in charge of discipline are responsible to the under-sheriff, who is responsible to the Minister for Home Affairs. I do not criticise the under-sheriff. Had we an officer appointed by this House to supervise the elections in the place of under-sheriffs we should be able to effect discipline. That is the point with which I am dealing.

At one polling booth where it was known that impersonation took place on a really large scale, there were no police, and the presiding officer did not get any. Why? Because the inspector of police accompanied by six armed policemen was—and these are the words in HANSARD— Helping another presiding officer to make up his register. Let me read to the Committee the very terrible account of what happened at this election. There were two agents there: Immediately these two agents came through the door they were rushed upon by a mob of 200 people. The police were scattered among the mob. One of these boys was thrown on the ground and battered and kicked, and only that two men—whether through mercy or not we do not know—threw him over a wire fence six feet away he would certainly have been killed. The other boy was also kicked to the door of the car. His friends inside the car endeavoured to open it. He was pushed and kicked and battered into the car and the mob gathered in force and threw the car over on its side, broke all the windows, and when the unfortunate men were hanging out through the car one man threw a lighted match on the petrol flowing on the ground. That is how personation agents are treated if they dare to go to the area where impersonation takes place, and the Minister for Home Affairs is indifferent to this thing. All he said was, "This is a matter for the Imperial Parliament, let them deal with it." I suggest that this is the time to deal with it.

Mr. Harden (Armagh)

Although I have not addressed the House before, and I would ask hon. Members for their indulgence on this my first intervention, I could not let such remarks pass as have been made regarding my election, which took place only a short time ago. I would draw the attention of hon. Members to the remarks of my opponent when he seconded my vote of thanks to the returning officer. He said he was completely satisfied with the election and he had no fault to find with it. He went further. He said that, so far as he could see, it had been a perfectly clean and straight fight. After the closing of the polling booths there were one or two small incidents. This election was fought on a very vital question that made the people's blood rise to a pretty good height. There were incidents on both sides; the incidents were not confined to one side only. If the official opposition candidate says that the election was fair and that he is satisfied, I think that hon. Members of this House must accept that before they accept the remarks of hon. Members for English constituencies.

The reason why I state that so strongly is that on the day of the election, both my opponent and I spent the day touring all the polling booths, and neither he nor I found any fault at all with the way that the election was being run. I am quite convinced, and I think he was too, that each person had a right to go and vote as he thought fit, and as freely as he wished. I thank the House for the indulgence which they have shown me on this my first speech here.

Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)

I do not wish to enter into this controversy, but I would congratulate the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. Harden) on his initial entry into Debate. He spoke with such confidence that I am quite satisfied that the House will be pleased to hear him on future occasions. I am also glad to see a representative of the Scottish Office on the Front Bench. I have very grave doubts whether a sheriff is a competent person in Scotland to act as a returning officer. I would much rather see a condition attached to this Subsection that sheriffs should go through a refresher course on electoral law before they came on the job. I wish to illustrate the point by giving one or two experiences of my own from a somewhat long experience in electioneering.

I remember at a by-election which I fought a number of years ago, the sheriff laid it down that the agents of the candidates at the counting of the votes could stand only on one side of the table, although the table was a horseshoe arrangement. He stood calmly by when the figures were announced and permitted the enumerators to stand upon the table and cheer the victory of my opponent. I always understood that enumerators, for the time being anyway, were impartial. But that was only a minor incident. In a famous election in Glasgow where a right hon. Member of this House, who at the moment holds a very distinguished post in the Government, was narrowly defeated—I refer to the Kelvingrove election of 1935—the election agent who was a lawyer, approached me, knowing full well that I was well and utterly beaten by that time by my hon. Friend the Member for Partick (Sir A. Young). I was out and had no worries on my mind. The lawyer asked me what it cost to have a re-count. I said, "Who is leading?" He said, "We are." I said, "Let the other fellow worry about re-counting, don't you worry." He said, "I must make sure, I will ask the sheriff." What do hon. Members think the sheriff said? He said, "I do not know." There was a re-count, and both parties dipped into their pockets and paid the enumerators an extra, fee for counting the votes over again. There was an additional box counted at the second count, and one candidate had fewer votes when the additional box was counted than he had at the first enumeration. The point I wish to make is that the sheriff did not know what it cost for a re-count.

To come to a more recent date, at the nominations in my own constituency I took exception to the designation given to my opponent who was a very likeable chap and the son of a highly respected father with whom I had the closest personal relations. He was described as an officer and "R.N.V.R." was given as his employment. In my submission that was not the man's employment at all. The sheriff, in arguing the case with me said, "If I were to stand as a candidate here I should put in my designation that I was a landowner." I said, "Well, if you were, that would be perfectly true, it would be your occupation." He said, "But that would cost me votes." I was not fighting the candidate at all. I was fighting the R.N.V.R.

On polling day a woman came up to me with a little girl aged 11. She said, "How about this girl here? She is on the register." It so happened that the sheriff was standing with me at the time. I said, "This gentleman will advise you," and I walked away. A few minutes afterwards the woman came up to me and said, "It's all right, it's in the bag." The sheriff had ruled that the 11 year old girl was eligible to vote and the vote was accepted. But worse still, when the election addresses for the Forces were delivered at Dumbarton, the sheriff ruled that the only soldiers entitled to get an election address were the soldiers on service who were having a postal vote and of the 6,000 election addresses sent to the county buildings, 4,000 were returned. I submit that that is an absurd situation.

I do not wish to divide the House on this matter, but I think we should insist on a refresher couse in electoral law. My experience was the experience of several candidates in Scotland over a long period of years. If there is to be a mistake, all the sheriffs should make the same mistake on the same day. Then it would apply with equal force all over the country. At least there should be unanimity. There would be some justification if they were all making the same mistake. My experience was similar to that of other candidates in various parts of the country.

5.15 p.m.

I do not see where anything could be inserted in this Clause to improve the position, but I suggest that there should be an alternative to the sheriff. That suggestion will appeal to hon. Gentlemen opposite, because good healthy competition is something which promotes greater efficiency. If anything can be done, even after this Bill becomes an Act, to ensure that if this House passes electoral laws those called upon to administer them will understand them, I hope that it will be done. I will give one more illustration. Provision was made for those who had been prisoners of war to vote. Not one returned prisoner in the Vale of Leven or in the Helensburgh district got a vote. There was a special leaf in the register for that purpose, but the minions of the presiding officer knew nothing about it. Service men spent hours at the polling booths demanding what they knew was their right. The fact was that the register was there but nobody had noticed it.

Irritations of this kind should not take place. In this case I am sure that sheer inefficiency was responsible for the mistake. If nothing can be done in this Bill, I hope that the sheriffs will take to heart what has been said and will not feel offended if they are asked to refresh their minds on this important aspect of the law of the country.

Captain Marsden (Chertsey)

Up to a certain point, I endorse what has been said by the hon. Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinlay). I understood him to say that the sheriff or returning officer should have a clear idea of the duties involved. In many parts of the country different interpretations are put upon the situation. It would be well if all the interpretations were the same. I am not sure about a refresher course; I think that some never had any course at all. Some instruction or guidance might be given by the Home Secretary in an attempt to avoid certain incidents which took place at the last General Election. In the Chertsey Division the result was obvious at an early stage of the count. As time went on, there was no doubt who would be second. When the first count was over, the third candidate was in danger of losing his deposit. I will not say the name of the party to which he belonged. It was a question of five votes either way whether or not he would get back his £150.

There were three counts of all the votes because of that. Consequently, a great deal of time was wasted. Outside the hall, processions were waiting to cheer the conqueror, but gradually they faded away so that finally he did not get all the applause to which he was entitled. At about 5.30 in the afternoon everybody knew the result, but they did not know whether or not the third candidate had managed to save his deposit. I make that point because I think that the Home Secretary might make it clear at the next General Election that when the returning officer is satisfied of the result—that is to say, when he is satisfied who is the winner—he should be able to declare it without going through numerous recounts.

Mr. Mulvey (Fermanagh and Tyrone)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. Harden) on his maiden speech. I hope that we shall hear from him frequently in our Debates. I wish to endorse the statement of the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) about the elections in Northern Ireland. While there is no serious specified complaint, there is dissatisfaction about the election of Members to this House. It is felt in Northern Ireland that the same rules in regard to elections as apply in this country should apply there. I will not attempt to re-open the question of polling booths. I consider that we in Northern Ireland suffer a great injustice in the matter of elections. This House should remedy the position and thus restore the confidence of the people.

Mr. Ede

I would like to take this opportunity of congratulating the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. Harden) on surviving the test of having to make not only a maiden speech but an extempore speech, of the subject matter of which he could have had no notice. It was a distinctly creditable performance. I am sure that even the Government will always be willing to listen to him, particularly if he speaks with the brevity which he showed this afternoon.

I am not going to be drawn into an adjudication on what happened at the last Parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland. It appears to me that some of the points mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing), if they related to questions of fact, should have been submitted to an appropriate court. I cannot here adjudicate on statements made on only one side. If some of the allegations were correct, it seems to me they might almost have formed the basis for a petition against an election in which intimidation had been displayed towards sections of the voters. The under-sheriff, as in this country, is a salaried officer. He is responsible for the proper carrying out of an election.

In order that there shall be no doubt in future as to the duties of returning and other officers in the conduct of an election, we have set out in detail in the Third Schedule the proper way in which to do it. That has been done to meet some of the criticisms of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinlay) who drew attention to difficulties associated with the count. We have been assured that in Scottish elections in the past there has been some doubt as to the rights of agents and other people during the count. In paragraph 4 of the Third Schedule we have endeavoured to set out the appropriate steps that should be taken. I can well understand that at a Scottish election the first question that would be asked when there is a recount is, "Who is to pay for it?" I have taken part in an election in which there were five recounts. I was an agent at the time and I was certain that, although I was resisting the recounts, neither I nor my opponent would pay for them. Anything that was given at a Scottish election by way of solarium to those who had had a recount imposed upon them, must have been an act of grace on the part of the candidates. I am sure that in no court could anything have been recovered from either or both the candidates in that respect.

We have now set out quite clearly in the Third Schedule the rights of candidates and the duties of returning officers so that there shall be no difficulty of that kind in future. I suggest that the sheriff is the appropriate officer. We have endeavoured to set out clearly what are the rights of candidates, and the duties of sheriffs, returning officers and other officers associated with the elections. I hope that the Third Schedule will avoid the kind of difficulties which sometimes have occurred in the past.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.