HC Deb 21 April 1948 vol 449 cc1900-7
Mr. Grimston

I beg to move, in page 68, line 22, to leave out "autumn." and to insert "spring."

The provision in this Bill relating to constituencies will be effective for the first General Election after the passing of this Bill. According to Subsection (1) the new registers will not be in force until the autumn of 1949. In the intervening period, if a General Election should occur —and I make no prophecy about that—the General Election would be fought upon the new constituencies but without the advantages of Part I in drawing up the registration lists. That would be very inconvenient, and the transition period caused thereby ought to be made as short as possible. That is the object of this Amendment.

It ought to be possible to produce the new registers by the Spring, and in the event of a general election taking place during 1949 before the Autumn register is ready we should be in a better position. I hope I have made the point clear, and that the Home Secretary will say whether he can meet it. I think it is important to reduce this transition period to as short a period as possible in view of the disequilibrium which would take place if a general election had to be fought.

Mr. F. Harris

This is a very important Clause, and I hope that the Home Secretary will accept the Amendment. I would like, first, to refer to a Question which I put to the Home Secretary the other day. I asked him whether it was proposed that the May, 1949, election of borough councillors should be contested on a register of electors to be published next October by reference to the occupation of premises on 30th June, 1948. His reply was in the affirmative. I intended to ask a supplementary question, but as I knew this point would be raised tonight, I refrained from doing so. I would like to know whether the Home Secretary agrees that the position at the moment is very unsatisfactory and whether, as it has been considered wise to adjust the election date from November to May, it would not be as well to hold elections on an up-to-date Spring register published in March, 1949.

I raise this point because in an election a short while ago in the constituency which I represent, which had a certain amount of publicity, to my knowledge there were in the constituency some 5,000 or 6,000 people who, unfortunately, were not in a position to cast a vote. I consider that the vote in this country is very vital. Many of us have worked hard to obtain our votes, and it is imperative that everybody should be given the opportunity to cast a vote for the person whom he desires to support. It is to be regretted that apathy still exists, and that a large number of people do not take advantage of their votes; nevertheless, all who wish to vote should have an opportunity to do so.

Let us consider the borough elections next year. In accordance with the provisions of this Bill, we shall have to refer to a register which is produced on a very antiquated basis. I believe there is only one satisfactory method of producing a register today, and that is by means of a house-to-house canvass in the constituency.

The Chairman

I would remind the hon. Member that the only point raised by the Amendment is whether the first register prepared under this Bill should be an Autumn or a Spring register. Details of how it is made up, and so forth, are not relevant.

Mr. Harris

With the greatest respect, Major Milner, those details are very relevant to my case.

Mr. Hogg

Would not my hon. Friend be in Order if he argued that the method of preparing the present register is not so satisfactory as that proposed in the Bill, and that, therefore, it would be an advantage to produce the first register under the Bill in the Spring instead of the Autumn? I submit that that would be a relevant argument and, indeed, that was the sense in which I understood him.

Mr. Harris

That is the point I am trying to lead up to. If there is no change, the borough elections in May, 1949, will be fought on the old register. Acceptance of this Amendment would mean fighting the borough elections in May, 1949, on the new system, with a register brought up to date at 31st December, 1948, which to me is a vital consideration. Under the present system the borough elections will be fought II months later on a very antiquated system, which will mean that in North Croydon, which is only half the borough, we shall be in the unfortunate position that there will be another 5,000 to 6,000 people who will not have the opportunity of casting their votes. That is a consideration of paramount importance to those people.

I hope the Home Secretary will be prepared to concede that the date can be brought forward to 31st December. I am assured that the register can be produced on the new basis set down in this Bill, and can be published on 15th March, well in time for everybody to be ready for the elections in May, 1949. If there is an up-to-date register, compiled on a house-to-house canvass, we shall have an opportunity of achieving a true result, possibly for the first time in, say, Croydon for a very long time past. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad to note that hon. Members opposite agree with me, and I hope that the Home Secretary also will be prepared to concede this point. He may say in reply that the task imposed upon the administrative authorities would be considerable. I am assured that it is by no means impossible. If this Amendment is accepted we can fight the borough elections of May, 1949, on an up-to-date register compiled to 31st December, 1948.

Mr. Ede

I should like to be able to bring the provisions of the Bill into force in time for a Spring register to be published in 1949, but I am satisfied that it is physically impossible to do so in the time available. This Bill will not become law until well on in the present Session. We have not yet finished the Committee stage; there is still the Report stage and Third Reading; and there is the examination of the Measure in another place. After the Bill has been passed a vast series of regulations has to be drafted, brought into force, and made available for the scrutiny of the House of Commons and for the instruction of registration officers and others in the country. The registration officers will themselves have to instruct their staffs on the new method of compiling the election registers. If we are to get through all this procedure in order to get a Spring register next year at some point or other the work would have to be scamped.

I am sure that the Committee would not agree to the first regulations made under this Bill being rushed. During our proceedings there have been indications that, quite rightly, the Committee will desire to scrutinise very carefully the first set of regulations made under the Bill. The hon. Member for North Croydon (Mr. F. Harris) said he had been told that it would be possible to get the register published if we had a qualifying date as late as 31st December. I have been in touch with the printing trades about the dates fixed in the Bill, and I had to go back a little earlier than the date I wanted to choose in the Bill because I was assured by the printing trades that, if a register is to be published on 15th March, the canvass must be completed well before the date mentioned by the hon. Member. I wanted to have 1st December as the qualifying date in the Bill, but I was unable to get it.

8.15 p.m.

The canvass forms themselves will be compiled subject to the regulations. Millions of them will have to be prepared for distribution throughout the country. It is only these physical limitations on the possibility of expediting the register which have led me to the unfortunate conclusion that I cannot accept this Amendment. I ask the Committee to believe me when I say that I desired a Spring register in 1949, but the physical difficulties that I am up against—the requirements of this House, and the requirements of the administrative staffs in the offices of the registration officers—make it impossible for me to bring the spring register into effect for 1949. I want the first register compiled under this Bill to be as good and complete a register as possible. I am certain that if this Amendment were accepted there would be many places in the country where a Spring register would not be available on the appointed day, and there would be a considerable outcry if one part of the country conducted local authority elections on one register and other parts of the country conducted them on another register. I should like to accept the Amendment, and it is only the physical impossibility of carrying it out which makes me ask the Committee to reject it.

Mr. C. Williams

I, too, like the right hon. Gentleman, deeply regret that he has been, or is likely to be, obliged to reject this Amendment. I fully share with him the view that it is essential to do everything possible to make the new registration under this Bill as complete as we are able. Yet I am a little suspicious whether on this occasion he has not been slightly over-weighted in his mind by the natural difficulties which beset him. Obviously, the difficulties are great; but there is an enormous machine available to the Government for building up this kind of register. We are to have a new register which will be of vital importance to the electorate, and I am sorry that the difficulties of getting a new register have not been faced by the Home Secretary with the same vitality as the Government have faced other problems. It is curious that on this occasion the right hon. Gentleman has shown a vigorous capacity for research in discovering reasons for delay. I belong to a great progressive party, and for that reason I feel impelled to say that, although I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's difficulties, I am sorry he has not faced them with greater determination and a more progressive mind. There is a very earnest desire among the electorate to play a very full part in the management of their affairs. Any delay in the making of a new register will tend to have a bad effect upon them.

Whether my right hon. and hon. Friends accept the excuses or the reasons of the Home Secretary I do not know, but I would like, on this occasion, to go into the Division Lobby in support of an earlier register. I believe that this work could be done. Much has been done to speed up this business in the past, and there is an enormous surplus of people, who are more or less skilled in these matters, who could be turned on to the job from other Departments. We have swallowed a good deal from the Government today, and I would like to express an opinion in the Division Lobby on this question. I do not suppose that Members opposite would support me, but there is no reason why those of us who really believe in democracy—[Laughter.] I am sorry to hear so large a number of supporters of the Government hoot with laughter when the word "democracy" is mentioned. Some of us, however, respect it, and sincerely believe in it, and are ready to work for it. That expression of opinion from supporters of the Government strengthens my view that the Home Secretary is not adopting a democratic attitude in this matter. I regret that the right hon. Gentleman should have forced me to take a critical view of his speech on this matter.

Mr. F. Harris

I have already told the the Home Secretary about the unfortunate effect of the register in the recent by-election at North Croydon. I sincerely hoped that he would have been prepared to accept this Amendment. This is a very important matter; it is outside all political arguments or factions, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would agree that when an election is being held people should have the opportunity to cast their vote. The by-election in North Croydon was fought on a register which was produced in June, 1947. Nine months later, in half the borough, there were 5,000 to 6,000 people who were not in a position to cast their vote at all. Seven per cent. of the total number of electors went astray. We shall be faced with an even worse position in May, 1949, when, eleven months later—

The Chairman

I am sorry but the hon. Gentleman is now repeating the substance of the speech he made a short time ago. He is not entitled to do that; he is only in Order if he has any fresh arguments to advance to the Committee.

Mr. Harris

I am very young in this House, Major Milner, but I thought I was producing an entirely new argument. I was drawing a comparison between what happened in 1947 with what has happened this year and what will happen in 1949. I accept your Ruling without question, but I repeat, it is unfortunate that the Home Secretary will not allow people the vote to which they are entitled.

Mr. Grimston

I am glad that the Home Secretary expressed his sympathy with this Amendment. I can appreciate his practical difficulties, but he will also appreciate the difficulties in running an election in the transition period, because there will be new constituencies and the old register will have to be carved up. To some extent, the practical objections on which the right hon. Gentleman based his inability to accept the Amendment are hypothetical. For instance, we do not know the date on which the Bill will become law. It may be sooner or later than the right hon. Gentleman expects. Would it not be possible to insert this provision as the latest date on which the first new register could be brought into force? Between now and the Report stage could not the right hon. Gentleman consider whether he can put some words into the Bill to enable him to advance the date, if the practical difficulties to which he referred turn out to be not so bad as he now thinks they are? The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the printing difficulty. I should have thought that in view of the shortage of paper printers would have been able to execute their orders more quickly.

Mr. Ede

I will consider what the hon. Gentleman has suggested, but I do not like giving indications to the Committee about courses which I know, at the time I give them, I shall not be able to pursue. That is not a position which any Minister should adopt, and I consistently try, in my relationship with the Committee and the House, to say so definitely if I feel that I cannot do a thing. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I started out with the hope that the borough elections which will take place in May of next year should be fought on as up-to-date a register as possible. It is a disappointment to me that I have not been able to succeed. I will consider what has been suggested, but I hope the hon. Gentleman the Member for Westbury (Mr. Grimston) will not build on that the thought that I have spoken without acquainting myself of what are the real possibilities of the situation.

Mr. Grimston

I appreciate that, and I am sure we would far rather be told what the right hon. Gentleman feels about any point and not have our hopes raised unduly. At the same time he might think it worth considering that he should allow himself a little elbow room so that he can improve the situation if it is found possible. In view of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Younger

I beg to move, in page 70, line 13, to leave out "order," and to insert "statutory instrument."

This Amendment is to ensure that the Secretary of State, when he appoints the day for the commencement of the Bill, does so by statutory instrument rather than by order. That will be acceptable to hon. Members of the Committee.

Amendment agreed to.

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