HC Deb 15 June 1948 vol 452 cc341-5

Amendment made: In page 15, line 44, leave out from "that," to end of line 46, and insert: the election was so conducted as to be substantially in accordance with the law as to elections and that the act or omission did not affect its result."—[Mr. Younger.]

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

I beg to move, in page 15, line 46, at the end, to insert: Provided that where it is found, on scrutiny, that the number of ballot papers not bearing the official mark would be sufficient to entitle an otherwise unsuccessful candidate to be declared elected the election should be declared invalid. I hope this Amendment will commend itself to all quarters of the House. There is no suggestion of any favour being done by this Amendment to either the Conservative or the Socialist Party. I think every party on occasion has been faced at the end of an election with some very close results—majorities of five, four and even as low as one. Candidates declared unsuccessful have left the counting place with the knowledge that there was a batch of votes which, if they had been allowed, would have changed the result of the election, and would have meant that the candidate declared unsuccessful was actually successful. One batch of votes it may be, is spoiled simply because the polling clerk has failed, through accident at a rush time, or because of inexperience, or of neglect or carelessness, to stamp the polling card, with the result that, although it has been perfectly marked by the elector, it has been discounted in the original count. We feel that it contravenes all our claims that we seek to give full weight to the will of the majority, if, because of the error of an official, the result is changed.

Although one may say that the elector has an opportunity to draw the attention of the official to the fact that the card is not stamped, and although the fact that the official has failed to stamp the card may not have been noticed by the elector—

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Kirkwood (Dumbarton Burghs)

Some of them do not know.

Mr. Ross

I think that if we examine some of the other Clauses, we shall find that notices have to be put up in the polling stations in regard to this, but in the rush hour, or it may be from age or infirmity, electors may not have noticed it. From that point of view, I think it is unfair, because the discounting of that vote really means the discounting of several thousand votes.

Then there is the case of the absent voter and the Service voter. I know that this has happened because I experienced it at the General Election. These absent voters have no opportunity to draw to anyone's attention to the fact that the official mark is not on the card. It may be that if there was a re-scrutiny of the papers discounted because of the lack of the official mark, the result would be changed altogether. In our submission, we feel that it is only right in a case where there is a close contest, that there should be a re-scrutiny of voting papers discounted because of the lack of the official mark, and that if it is found that that would vitally change the result, the election should be declared invalid. We, therefore, suggest to the Home Secretary and to the Secretary of State for Scotland that it would be much more democratic if instead of allowing these anomalies and this unsatisfactory condition to continue, he considered the change which we have suggested.

Mr. McKinlay

I beg to second the Amendment.

I want to impress on the Secretary of State for Scotland the absolute necessity of some safeguard. There is one right hon. Member of this House at the moment who would have arrived at his destination in 1935, had it not been for the fact that so many papers were spoiled because they were unstamped. I do not want to be ungenerous, but I have had much electioneering experience of things which happen—not accidentally, because unstamped papers always seem to emerge from the same type of polling station in the same district. To my mind it is the most scientific way of voting for your own personal inclination if one is a polling clerk and using other people's votes for that purpose.

The worst thing of which one can accuse a polling clerk is stupidity in marking papers ahead in anticipation of a rush, forgetting when the last stamped paper was issued, and to continue doing so. I have watched them from the gallery of a polling booth doing that. My right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) will remember the 1935 contest in Kelvingrove, where the shadow hung over both candidates for a long time, and my submission is that if it had not been for the number of unstamped papers which emerged from Finniston Street School, no recount would have been necessary. I hope that the Secretary of State, from a wide experience of electioneering in Scotland, will not blow a stepmother's breath on this proposal, but will give it the consideration which it merits, because we are satisfied that it is fair to all sides, and that where an election result has been determined by papers which had been unstamped, any reasonable person would agree that such an election should be declared invalid.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Woodburn)

We have a great deal of sympathy with the difficulty outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinlay). As he says, I have had personal experience during the period he mentioned of what was certainly one of the most disgraceful elections I have ever come across in my life. It was very unfortunate for all the people involved that such an election should take place. Part of it was due to the fallibility of human beings, and there is no way in which we can safeguard elections against culpability or fallibility somewhere in the species from which presiding officers are drawn.

One of the difficulties in dealing with this matter is the reason for stamped papers. The reason is to ensure secrecy of the poll, and to prevent, if possible, any corruption or misuse of ballot papers. Therefore, in examining this matter, we have had to look into the question of whether we can do anything without opening the door to the misuse of ballot papers. If it is admitted that any kind of unstamped ballot paper can be counted, that does away with the whole prevention of corruption by making it possible on some occasion, for unstamped papers—not unstamped by mistake but left unstamped on purpose—to be inserted in the boxes, as was often suspected to be the case. Of course, the cure may be worse than the disease.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department and I have looked carefully into this matter, and we have examined the question of whether in such a case a petition would be possible. We have come up against the problem of the law relating to petitions, which is not yet embodied in statute law, and which would require a great deal of research and investigation to make sure that it was sound. There has not been sufficient time in the interval since this matter was considered to make a very intricate investigation. So far as we can see, the law at the moment provides for a completely unsatisfactory election to be challenged by petition, although we recognise that under the present system, a petition can be extremely expensive, and in some cases almost prohibitive.

Nevertheless, we shall investigate this. I cannot say that it will be done promptly, because of the complex nature of the necessary investigations; but if anything can be done which does not open the door to even worse complications, then the matter will be given sympathetic consideration, and we hope that eventually the law will be such as to satisfy the desires of my hon. Friends. The only certain way of avoiding unstamped papers is to have competent presiding officers. I know it is the ambition of every returning officer to have competent presiding officers, and I hope that with competent presiding officers, intelligent voters, and polling agents who are supervising what happens in the polling booths, a great deal of this can be minimised. I remember that the late George Hardy was defeated by unstamped ballot papers in Springburn. In future these offices will be filled by competent people, but I am sorry to have to ask the House to reject the Amendment at the moment.

Miss Herbison (Lanark, North)

The Secretary of State for Scotland has said that there could be ever so many mistakes, or that things might be worse than they are, if we were to ask that unstamped papers should be counted. Those sponsoring this Amendment make no such suggestion. All we ask is that if there are sufficient unstamped papers to make it possible that an unsuccessful candidate could have been successful, then that election should be declared invalid. The Secretary of State has given examples where this system has worked very unfairly against certain people in Scotland. I do not think his suggestion to have more competent officers will solve the problem. I do not want to cast aspersions, because I have no knowledge of these matters; but it is possible that these unstamped papers are left unstamped by very competent people, and for very obvious reasons. If this is to be considered in another place, then we who put down this Amendment feel very strongly that the Bill should not become an Act and go on to the Statute Book until we are absolutely certain that all elections are to be fair elections to every candidate.

Amendment negatived.