HC Deb 20 April 1948 vol 449 cc1701-13
Mr. Gibson (Kennington)

I beg to move, in page 25, line 45, to leave out: or as non-residents. The proposal here to give the opportunity of a postal vote to non-residents is quite unjustifiable. There is a provision in the Clause for postal voting for various categories of people which seem to be quite reasonable, but merely because a person is in the non-resident category and, therefore, has very little interest in the constituency and in local government matters, except perhaps that he owns a small shop, seems quite an unjustifiable reason. I am advised that if a person owns a grave space in a constituency he would be entitled to go on the register. If a non-resident wishes to take part in the local government elections we are entitled, surely, to expect that he will show as much interest in the affairs of the local authority for which the election is being conducted as the people who are living in the area.

As I understand this proposal, somebody living miles away and not interested or caring about the circumstances or the issues of the election can, by merely posting his vote to the returning officer, take part in the election. It seems entirely wrong. This Amendment makes no difference to the quite proper provisions for a number of other people, such as those who are ill and ex-Service men. In a long experience of local government work in London I have never heard of anyone asking for this privilege—because it would be a privilege. If non-residents want to vote in a local election they should be prepared to come to the polling booth and cast their votes.

Mr. Ede

I do not think the hon. Member for Kennington (Mr. Gibson) could have been in the Committee when I dealt with this point before. I pointed out then that the ownership of a grave space gave no right to a vote. This is an occupying vote, and the candidates might experience great difficulty in ascertaining to what address they should send any literature for the occupier of a grave space. I doubt even if doing what we do in some local government matters, and nailing a copy of the address on the tombstone, could be regarded as effective service of it. If we give people a vote we must give them reasonable facilities for exercising it. These people are occupiers. They may be nonresident occupiers, but, at the same time, they are occupiers of premises within the local government area. Having given them a vote, it seems to me that they should have exactly the same facilities for exercising it as have other persons who are placed on the register. I regret, therefore, that I am unable to accept the Amendment.

7.45 P.m.

Mr. Gallacher

I wish to support the Amendment, because I have one down of the same character. Here we have something which comes right back to what the Secretary of State for Scotland referred to earlier. In the recent discussion, in trying to ridicule some argument put up by the hon. Member for Coatbridge (Mrs. Mann) and myself, he painted a picture of Glasgow people crowding the trains to come down to vote at Prestwick. They do not need to crowd the trains. All they have to do is to adopt the postal vote. It is no use the Home Secretary just walking away from this as if it meant nothing. We have the fact that literally hundreds of businessmen who have premises of one kind or another in Glasgow, are living outside. One can see trains, not crowded with Glasgow people going down to vote at Prestwick, but crowded with Glasgow business people going down to Helens-burgh, or some other suburban area where they live. They have no connection with Glasgow life. They have no interest in the progress of Glasgow. They are going to get a vote and they do not even have to go to Glasgow to register their vote. Obviously, this is wrong.

We can understand the desirability of postal voting for men in the Services or for those who have been stricken with illness. But these people are not resident in the community. They reside outside, and are given the vote simply because they have a business which is making money out of the community.

The rates are only an incidental feature. They are not in the community in order to pay rates, they are there to make money out of the community. They are not interested in the progress of the community. Not even the Secretary of State for Scotland would dare to get up and say that these people who live outside the borough where their businesses are are concerned with paying rates or the progress of the community.

They are concerned with making money out of the community and the rate is simply a tax on the profits which they are getting. They should not be considered at all for a vote, but if they are considered let them come and register their vote. Do not give them a special privilege of taking money out of the community and, on the strength of that and living in some suburban area entirely divorced from the city, include them with the man who is in the Services. I think that is utterly undesirable. I would ask the Home Secretary to think again and accept the Amendment to exclude nonresidents, such as these from participating in the privilege of the postal vote.

Mr. Woodburn

The hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) has argued his case under a misapprehension. The Bill says: … except in so far as this section makes exceptions for— It is only in so far as this Clause makes exceptions that the non-resident can vote by post. I did not raise the question of people rushing down to Prestwick. That was raised by one of my hon. Friends. I merely pointed out that that was rather an exaggerated picture. If the hon. Gentleman will read the whole Clause, he will find that he is not arguing against it, because it agrees with what he says. He mentioned people who had shops in towns and spoke about whether or not they had any interest in the place. I think he exaggerates when he says that people who earn their living in a place have no interest in it. That would be a most exaggerated picture of the shopkeepers of the country. Many of them would like to live near their shops but they may not be able to get a house there and may have to live as far away as Helensburgh. Everybody who performs a useful service to the community is a useful person and is entitled to consideration whatever his occupation may be.

Mrs. Corbet

I wish the Home Secretary would reconsider this matter. If the non-resident is to be qualified as a voter he should have proper facilities. I am worried whether it is right to give him those facilities automatically without subjecting him to the same tests as everybody else. I fear that we shall get a number of people like my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale) who told us that he is in occupation of a number of offices throughout the country. We shall get a number of people who will be able to send postal votes to many different places. I apprehend that we may not get the same domesticity in local government affairs that we have had in the past. We should consider this matter seriously in view of the importance we attach to local electors being genuinely interested in the domestic affairs of the local government area and not being influenced by the national situation or anything of that kind.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider whether it would be possible to make a reasonable provision for non-resident voters without allowing them to have something which is unwarranted. In the past there has been a decided demand for postal voting facilities for the sick and the blind. I am afraid that even the provisions of this Bill will not meet those demands in full. There must be application for a postal vote, and people do not know when they will be ill and may not apply for postal facilities. The category mentioned in this Clause will know that they will be absent and they will be non-resident voters. They will have an advantage over people who do not know whether they will be ill.

Mr. Hopkin Morris (Carmarthen)

There is a good deal to be said for this Amendment. The primary object of local government is that the people engaged in it should be directly interested and that they should not live far away from the district. The Secretary of State for Scotland was not very convincing. He talked about qualifications for non-resident voters being set out in the Clause. The qualification to which he referred concerns dual addresses. If the address to which the communication is to be sent is in the same area as the qualifying address, the person does not become a non-resident voter. The Secretary of State referred to the case of a man carrying on business but unable to find a house in the same area. His residential address is not in the same area as the qualifying address and he qualifies as a non-residential voter. Why should he qualify? Presumably he takes an active interest in his business. He goes to business every day. He has only taken a house outside the district because he cannot get one inside. If he has a sufficient interest to go there daily for business purposes, why should he not go there to vote?

Another case concerns the man who has a house outside the area and who has a business qualification within the area but never attends the business. If he has not a sufficient interest to take him there for business purposes, why should he be given a vote at all? He is a complete absentee. Those are two totally different cases. I do not see why special privilege should be given. This is not the same position as that which applies at a Parliamentary election. Different considerations arise there. The essential consideration in local government is that a person should have an interest in local affairs, but this brings in the person who does not show an active interest.

Mr. Gibson

I support the plea made by the hon. Member for North-West Camberwell (Mrs. Corbet) that the Home Secretary should consider this matter further. I agree that if we give people the vote we must make it possible for them to exercise that vote. There are in London a number of shops which are rented. Presumably the owners of those shops would be entitled to vote at local elections. Many of them live in Brighton. If they are not sufficiently interested while their shops are open to go to the booth on polling day to cast their vote, why should they have a postal vote? This provision gives them a privilege. If a man is a service voter or if he is blind, it is reasonable and proper that a postal vote should be given. In other cases it is unreasonable. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider the matter further.

Mr. Ede

I am always willing to consider matters further in the light of argument. My hon. Friend the Member for Kennington (Mr. Gibson) again talked about people who own shops. A man may own the whole of a borough and if he does not occupy some premises within it he does not get a vote. This has nothing to do with the ownership of a dozen shops. This is a question of occupation. I will examine this subject in the light of the Debate, but I am bound to say that if we give a person a vote—and we have done that by a previous Clause—we must see that he has reasonable facilities for exercising his right.

Mr. Gibson

In view of the assurance given by the right hon. Gentleman, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Younger

I beg to move, in page 26, line if, at the end, to insert: (iv) at an ordinary election, the fact that that person is returning officer, deputy returning officer or acting as returning officer at an ordinary election of councillors for some other electoral area; (v) at an ordinary election, the particular circumstances of that person's employment on the date of the poll by the returning officer at an ordinary election of councillors for some other electoral area for a purpose connected with the election in that area. This Amendment proposes to add one more to the category of persons entitled to apply to vote by post. It is in similar terms to previous Amendments to Clause 8, which were accepted by the Committee, in respect of Parliamentary elections. This merely applies the same provision to local government elections.

Amendment agreed to.

8.0 p.m.

Mr. Peake

I beg to move, in page 26, line 24, at the end, to insert: (3) A person not registered as a Service voter if unable or likely to be unable to go in person to the polling station by reason either—

  1. (a) of the general nature of his occupation, service or employment; or
  2. (b) of his service as a member of any of His Majesty's Reserve or Auxiliary Forces
may vote by proxy if he applies to be treated as an absent voter and is likely to be at sea or out of the United Kingdom on the date of the poll. This Amendment would give the same facilities for voting by proxy at local government elections as Clause 8 of this Bill gives for voting at Parliamentary elections. We cannot see any case for restricting the right of voting by proxy at a local government election, and we therefore propose that the right should be extended to persons who are unable or likely to be unable to go in person to the polling station by reason of the general nature of their occupation, service or employment, or by virtue of their service in His Majesty's Reserve or Auxiliary Forces.

Mr. Ede

I have examined this Amendment very carefully, because, quite frankly, I would very much like to meet the point raised by the right hon. Gentleman. The difficulty is a purely administrative one, and, if I can overcome it between now and the Report stage, I will endeavour to find a form of words that I can put into the Bill. The local government franchise, especially in the county areas, is a much more complicated thing than the Parliamentary franchise. A person may be entitled to vote, especially in view of the arrangements that have been made for non-resident voters, in respect of a non-county borough or an urban or rural district, but not in respect of the county council in regard to the same qualifications, because he has another qualification in another part of the county.

If I were to accept this Amendment, it would involve so complicated a system of marking the register in certain cases as to make the administrative difficulties of compiling the register quite considerable. It might also lead to people turning up thinking they had the right to exercise a proxy vote on behalf of someone when, in fact, they had not. If I can find a simple way of ensuring that the elector shall, at any rate in respect of his residence vote, have the right to vote by proxy, I will have it done, but I am bound to say that I shall not be able to carry it through and give the right to the man who has a non-resident vote like the person described by the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale) who seems to be something like Oliver Cromwell and never spends two nights running in the same bed. I do not think I could arrange to meet the case of that person, but I will endeavour to see if, for the comparatively simple case of the resident voter, I can meet the right hon. Gentleman's wishes.

Mr. Peake

In view of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: In page 26, line 38, leave out "An absent voter," and insert: At an election for which a person's application to be treated as an absent voter is allowed, he."—[Mr. Younger.]

Mr. Grimston

I beg to move, in page 26, line 47, to leave out from first "elections," to end of line 48.

The point raised here is that postal voting at local government elections is allowed in urban districts and boroughs and not allowed in rural districts. We find it rather difficult to understand this discrimination, because, having regard to geography, we had thought it more reasonable that postal voting should be allowed in the rural districts rather than in the boroughs, if there is to be any distinction at all. We put down this Amendment in order to give the right hon. Gentleman an opportunity of explaining why this differentiation in postal voting is in the Bill.

Mr. Ede

The Amendment would allow postal voting at both rural district and parish council elections in England and Wales, as well as at the local government elections for county boroughs and urban district councils. I think it would be very difficult to arrange for a very complicated system of elections to be carried out in connection with parish councils, because they are carried out over the whole of the county on the same day and they make a considerable strain on the resources of the competent people who conduct elections. On occasion, the persons concerned in a particular parish council election are not people of a very high calibre, and a complicated election there might lead to great difficulties in getting a satisfactory result.

With regard to rural district council elections, I am bound to say that what has happened during the progress of this Bill has been somewhat extraordinary. I have consulted the Rural District Councils' Association, and they have assured me that they do not desire this provision to be made, but I understand that other people, who shall be nameless, have also approached them and have said that they did not mind one way or the other. I think that it would be unwise to use postal voting for parish council elections. After all, in view of the amount of work that a parish council can do, although it is rather greater than was described by Lord Salisbury when dealing with the 1890 Act, when he said that they could buy an ordnance survey map for the parish and study it, I suggest that it is not desirable that these facilities should apply to parish council elections. I will get in touch again with the Rural District Councils' Association to ascertain if their objections to being brought within the scope of this Clause have been removed, and, if they have, I will put down an Amendment on the Report stage to bring in rural district council elections.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I am glad the right hon. Gentleman has not closed his mind on this point, but I hope that he will not confine his discussions merely to the Rural District Councils' Association. After all, it is not merely the councils who are concerned; it is the electors, or the potential electors. I do not think it would be right for this Committee, which represents those electors, merely to say that we will support the Home Secretary in introducing this additional facility if the Rural District Councils' Association concurs. We are entitled to go further and discuss the matter on its merits, whether the association likes it or not, because we are concerned with the rights of people who may desire to vote at these elections. There are a good many cases where there is little difference between an urban district and a rural district, and, in many cases, as a result of recent developments, it is a difference in name and in very little else. The case having been rightly admitted for urban districts, it seems to me that it is quite indefensible to exclude rural districts. Before we pass from this Amendment I hope the right hon. Gentleman will say that he will consider the matter on its merits and will not allow the Rural District Councils Association to introduce any sort of veto. We have had enough vetoes of one sort or another recently and do not want any more. I hope we may have that assurance from the Home Secretary.

Mr. Benn Levy (Eton and Slough)

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been very conciliatory over this Clause and I rise only because, as the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) mentions, he seemed to be making his assent dependent on the advice of the Rural District Councils' Association. I agree with the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames that there is a point of principle here which should be decided independently. As I understood it, the only objection to the inclusion of rural district councils was one of expediency, but surely that argument really applies only to parish councils. In fact, there is generally no more difficulty in applying postal voting to rural districts than there is in applying it to urban districts. If I may just correct my right hon. Friend on one small point, I believe it is true that when the Rural District Councils' Association in the first place agreed that postal voting was unnecessary, they did not realise at the time that the privilege was to be granted to urban districts. It is quite reasonable that their view could change if they felt they were to be excluded from what was accepted by the House of Commons as a proper principle.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks (Chichester)

May I make one plea to the Home Secretary? I appreciate that this is a matter to which he has had no occasion as yet to apply the full weight of his mind and, therefore, we cannot anticipate any final reply this evening, but I hope he will be able to see our point of view in this connection. Rural district councils are, to all intents and purposes, very similar to urban district councils, and to this extent there can surely be no objection to rural districts having the right of postal voting in the same way as urban districts. That applies to those councils which the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) mentioned.

Other rural district councils may be very rural indeed, so the argument is much stronger because in time of election I should have thought those in the very rural areas would be more greatly helped by postal voting to achieve representative results than would any urban district. For those reasons I hope that the Home Secretary will consider the matter further, and will not be put off by the one reason which I consider is the only one which can be advocated against giving postal voting in rural areas—administrative inconvenience. After all, voting was given for the benefit of the representatives of the people and not for the convenience or inconvenience of those who—unhappily for themselves, very often—have to administer the election. I hope, therefore, that the old excuse of administrative difficulty or administrative inconvenience will not be allowed to weigh in the Home Secretary's mind.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I can assure the Committee that it will not be the opinion of the Rural District Councils' Association which will be the final determining factor in my mind. In spite of what was said by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Joynson-Hicks), it is sometimes very difficult in the very rural districts to get a sufficient number of qualified persons to conduct the elections in the parishes which comprise the rural district. As a rule, one-third of the members of the rural district are elected every year, and it generally means that approximately one-third of the parishes in the rural district are subject to an election each year. Where the rural district consists possibly of a couple of dozen or even more parishes, that sometimes makes a severe drain on the staff of the clerk of the rural district council who is the returning officer and who has to provide presiding officers, poll clerks and other people.

If this facility is granted, I desire that the postal vote shall be effective. I have participated in two elections in which postal votes were used—the General Elections of 1918 and 1945—and I am bound to say that in that of 1918 there were considerable complaints that a large number of the votes which were recorded by post arrived after the result had been declared. I am sure that is something which no one wishes to happen.

May I say, in my own defence, that this matter was discussed at a meeting at which all the local authorities' associations were represented, and it was known at that time and at that meeting, therefore, who were likely to get the facilities of postal voting. At that time it was quite clear that both boroughs and urban districts would be included. I will consider the matter in regard to rural districts, and if I can work out a practicable scheme which will be administratively possible in practically every area of the country, I will endeavour to bring it in for the rural districts.

Mr. Grimston

The Home Secretary has been conciliatory on this point and I think we agree with him that it would be unreasonable to press this matter in relation to parish councils. He has also seized the point raised by the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) and the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Levy), that we are very jealous that our course of action should not be dictated to us by outside bodies. In view of what the Home Secretary has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Younger

I beg to move, in page 27, line 3, at the end, to add: (8) In this and the next following Section, references to employment by a returning officer shall be taken as including, in relation to elections in a borough in England or Wales other than a metropolitan borough, references to employment by the mayor or any person acting in place of the mayor by virtue of paragraph 10 of Part 1 of the local elections rules. In the early part of this Clause the right to vote by post at local government elections is given to certain officials employed in connection with the election by the returning officer. That does not cover the officials employed in that capacity in boroughs divided into wards; they are employed not by the returning officer, but by the mayor. This new Subsection, therefore, is required to cover that case In all essentials, their position is exactly the same as those people employed elsewhere by the returning officer.

Amendment agreed to.

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

Mr. Gallacher

I was very much struck by the speech of the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Grimston) when he said we were very jealous that our affairs should not be determined by outside bodies. I hope that this was also the view of the opposite side of the Committee when the Chancellor of the Exchequer told us that, at the request of the F.B.I., he was removing the advertisement tax from the Finance Act. The Home Secretary said that these facilities for postal voting for non-residents applied to occupiers. The hon. Member for Kennington (Mr. Gibson) and myself said that occupiers were people who occupied premises, for business reasons—maybe a shop, warehouse or something of that kind. But they have managers and assistants to run the places, and they live all their lives down at Brighton.

Another feature of this Clause is that the further away from the borough the occupier is, the better chance he has of getting a postal vote. A voter is not allowed a postal vote if he is resident in the area. I would ask the Home Secretary to look at these two points again. We have been dealing with occupiers of shops and businesses who live well outside the borough—people, as the hon. Member for Kennington said, who have their businesses in London and their homes in Brighton. According to Subsection (3), those who live near where they have their business, and have a better chance of knowing what is going on in the borough, are not allowed a postal vote, but only those who are divorced from the borough.

Mr. Grimston

As the Communist Party has referred to me, I rise merely to point out to the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) that there is a difference between being dictated to and accepting a request because one thinks it is reasonable.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.