HC Deb 17 March 1948 vol 448 cc2235-45
Mr. Grimston (Westbury)

I beg to move, in page 2, line 30, at the beginning, to insert "In determining."

My hon. Friends and I have put down this Amendment to get an explanation of the meaning of certain words which have been put into this Clause. Perhaps it would be convenient to refer to this and the following Amendment—in line 32, leave out from "election," to "be," in line 36, and insert "regard shall in particular"—together. The effect of these Amendments is to take out the words: shall be determined in accordance with the general principles formerly applied in determining questions arising under the Representation of the People Act, 1918, as to a person's residence on a particular day of the qualifying period, and in particular regard shall. One would imagine, unless it were stated to the contrary, that this sort of question would be determined by case law. We, therefore, cannot understand what is the intention or the effect of putting in the words which I have just quoted and which these Amendments seek to take out. That is the whole point of these two Amendments, to get that explanation, and, perhaps, with these few words I have made it clear what explanation we want, and I shall be glad if the right hon. Gentleman could tell us the meaning of them.

The Attorney-General (Sir Hartley Shaweross)

As hon. Members know, the meaning of the term "residence" varies very greatly according to the context in which it is used. It is perhaps one of the most difficult words to define in the whole vocabulary of the English law. It means one thing for the purpose of Income Tax and another thing for the purpose of serving legal process. For instance, it means one thing when it is required as a qualification for appointment, and another thing when it is required for the purposes of a drink after midnight in a West End hotel. With regard to the franchise, it had a fairly well recognised connotation, although it had not been the subject of any very precise definition; but it was supposed to be something equivalent to "inhabitance," but if I were asked what is "inhabitance" I should have to reply in the words of a learned judge, who said that it is something approaching "residence." The point about the words which it is now sought to delete in this Amendment is that we want to make quite sure that in changing the law—we are here, as hon. Members know, substituting "residence" on one qualifying date for "residence" during a qualifying period—we were not intending to alter in any way the principle which should be applied by the Courts to ascertain whether "residence" was taking place. We thought that it might possibly be considered by the Courts that by a change in the Clause we intended that the old line of cases should not be looked at. We did not intend that. We want the old case law to be looked at under this Clause and Bill just as was done under the 1918 Act and in case there is any doubt about it—I think myself that we are erring on the side of caution—we thought it better to say so in this Clause.

Mr. Grimston

I am obliged to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for that explanation. It seems to me that it is a satisfying one, and in those circumstances I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Dodds-Parker (Banbury)

I beg to move, in page 2, line 47, to leave out "and will not be," and to insert "insofar as he is not."

This is rather a fine point, perhaps, but I think it does affect the constituencies of the Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary rather more than mine. The point of it is the vote of mariners who will be at sea during the course of an election. As the Bill stands, as we see it, there is no provision made for merchant mariners to vote by proxy under Clause 6 (3) or under Clause 8 (3). No mention is made of merchant mariners who in the course of their profession sign articles, for example, for two years at sea. That will preclude them from giving the required undertaking. As the Bill stands at present, they cannot give this undertaking because they will be out of the United Kingdom. I think that if the Home Secretary or the Under-Secretary study this point carefully, they will see that the Amendment will make it possible for these individuals to be deemed for the purpose of the foregoing Subsection (2) not to interrupt their residence in the United Kingdom. Therefore, I do not want to take up much time on this point but I would ask the Home Secretary to consider this change in the wording to enable merchant seamen to vote at the next General Election.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Ede

This Amendment appeared on the Order Paper only this morning and I think the hon. Gentleman realises that on the face of it it does not disclose exactly the point at which it was aimed. He was good enough to see my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and myself earlier in the day to explain that point to us. Between that time and this it has not been possible for me to get advice on the point he desires to raise and this is a matter of considerable importance. I am quite sure that every Member of the Committee desires that men of the Mercantile Marine should, where they have a fixed abode in this country to which they return from time to time, be assured that they can participate in the ordinary exercise of citizenship which the hon. Member hopes to provide. It has not been possible to examine this Amendment to see whether it covers only that point or whether it might let in a number of other people whom we might not wish to see included in this category. As the hon. Gentleman says, I have some constituency interest in the matter and I will undertake between now and the Report stage to have the point carefully examined and if it turns out that this, or some similar provision is necessary for dealing with men of the Mercantile Marine, I shall certainly undertake to see that proper provision is made when we get to the Report stage.

Captain Marsden (Chertsey)

May I ask the Home Secretary to concentrate on one point? He said he would consider men of the Mercantile Marine who have a fixed abode in this country. But what about the large number of men of the Mercantile Marine who have not a fixed abode when they are in this country but live in sailors' homes or lodgings? They are just as good citizens as anybody else. It may be a small point, but the Home Secretary perhaps overlooked it in his rather swiftly arrived-at promises. May I ask him to bear that in mind and also to include those men of the Mercantile Marine who are seamen registered in various ways as being British seamen but who have no fixed abode?

Mr. Ede

The difficulty about that is that registration must be attached to some place of residence in the country. It would be exceedingly difficult to provide for the registration of persons who have no fixed abode. I do not know whether he could be registered in one of the wards of Wapping or something like that. That, in the old days, was the parish to which persons at sea were supposed, for certain purposes, to be attached, and I am not desiring to do anything that would belittle the chances of men of the Mercantile Marine to exercise the franchise; but it is clear that, in a Measure which bases the franchise on the principle of residence, there must be some residence to which the individual voter can be attached.

Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)

What about the City of London?

Mr. Ede

I did suggest a place that was rather more associated with the Mercantile Marine than that suggested by the hon. Gentleman. I think the Committee will see the difficulty, that this Amendment was placed on the Order Paper this morning dealing with a highly technical point, but I can assure the Committee that I am viewing the matter with the utmost sympathy.

Mr. Dodds-Parker

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

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Younger)

I beg to move, in page 3, line 4, to leave out from "given," to the end of line 5, and to insert: in the expectation that throughout the period for which it is given the person giving it or his wife or her husband will. The paragraph affected by this Amendment is intended to preserve a person's right to be registered for his normal place of residence notwithstanding that he is away for the purpose of his occupation and that his residence is let furnished for the period of his absence. As the paragraph is now drafted, the case would not be covered where the letting was done by the wife and not by the person—that is, the husband—himself. The Amendment seeks to remove this anomaly.

Amendment agreed to.

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

Mr. Gallacher

On a point of Order. Are you, Mr. Beaumont, not going to call the Amendment in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mile End (Mr. Piratin)—in page 3, line 12. after "patient" to insert: under treatment for mental illness or mental defectiveness"?

The Deputy-Chairman (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)

It has not been selected and will therefore not be called. The hon. Member can speak on it on the Motion "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Mr. Gallacher

It is quite possible to find people in a mental hospital who have gone there in order to avoid mental trouble and who are quite normal in most respects. They are not mentally deficient, or suffering from any mental illness, and it seems to me to be undesirable that no account should be taken of these people. I want, Mr. Beaumont, to mention that at a recent by-election I went myself to visit a mental hospital, and there, among the other people were four persons—[HON. MEMBERS: "Patients?"]—yes, patients, if hon. Members say it—who were generally normal, and I got those four persons to vote for the Labour candidate in that by-election—[Interruption.] I had better not mention the locality, or there might be a purge of those four persons, but it is a fact that I have been on many visits to mental hospitals and have spoken to many of the people there; I have spoken to those who have been threatened with mental illness, and I have seen people who have gone voluntarily to such hospitals. They were not mentally sick in any way, but they were threatened with mental trouble and went to hospital to seek the opportunity of overcoming that threat. In a matter of this kind, care should be taken where there are such people. They are people who leave their homes for three or six months to take refuge in a nursing home or mental hospital, and they should not be treated as part of the general run of the patients there and excluded from any of the benefits of this Clause.

I appeal to the Home Secretary, having known so many cases in the places I have visited. During that by-election the four people I mentioned were not only intelligent, but thoroughly intelligent—ahead of any Tories on the other side. I ask the Home Secretary to consider this question very seriously.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

The Communist Party have so obvious a party interest in securing the full electoral representation of mental defectives that I do not propose to follow the hon. Gentleman——

Mr. Gallacher

I was not talking about Tories, I was talking about people in mental institutions who are in a sane condition which the hon. Member, I am sure, will not possibly understand.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I certainly would not understand the hon. Member's definition of sanity; I was only saying that I fully appreciate the interest of the Communist Party in securing that every mental defective has the opportunity of casting a vote, because if there is any field in which the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) will look for support that is it.

This Clause turns on the question of the residence point put on the previous Amendment by the hon. and gallant Member for Chertsey (Captain Marsden). There are certain very reputable citizens of this country who have, in the ordinary sense, no residence in this country. It is highly desirable that those people should have the opportunity to cast their vote. They should surely have the opportunity to be represented in this House. I recollect that during the war, under the Services' registration, provision was made for persons serving abroad and with no obvious home in this country to elect and use their right to go on to the register, indicating that they were residing in a particular place.

I appreciate that this matter has been rather sprung on the Home Secretary. He cannot possibly give an answer tonight, but I would support the plea of my lion. Friend that the position of people in this situation should not be overlooked and that people who are British citizens but who happen to have no permanent residence in this country should not for that reason be deprived of the franchise. I believe the right hon. Gentleman has some sympathy with this point of view and I can only support the plea of my hon. Friend that we may perhaps get in another stage of the Bill some provision incorporated to secure that these very worthy and respectable citizens should not be deprived of Parliamentary representation.

Mrs. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)

I should like to support the plea put forward by the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher), because under the Mental Treatment Act persons can offer to go into a mental institution without being certified at all and in many cases they remain in the institution for quite a long time. In fact it has been specifically arranged, in order to avoid certification of cases, that where a person is prepared to enter an institution as a voluntary mental patient, there shall be no certification at all if it is at all possible to avoid it. If a person volunteers to take treatment in an institution of this sort and remains there for a period of, say, five or six months and an election intervenes in the meantime, that person ought to be able to have that residence marked. There is no question about these persons not being able to decide for themselves which particular line they want to take in relation to a political party. It would be wrong for persons going into such a hospital voluntarily in order to avoid certification, to be debarred from exercising their right to vote.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

It is so seldom that I find myself in agreement with the hon. Lady, the Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool (Mrs. Braddock) on any subject, that it gives me great pleasure indeed to support nearly everything she and the hon. Gentleman, the Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) have said. Just outside my own Division there is a very well- known mental institution where there are many patients of the type to which the hon. Lady has just alluded. I am speaking here as a Scottish Member, and I hope that the learned Lord Advocate, who, after all, is largely responsible for the affairs of Scotland, will take note of this. The hon. Lady, the hon. Gentleman, and I, do not want to see these unfortunate people, who go into these institutions voluntarily and surrender their rights temporarily as citizens in order to avoid certification, and to have the best possible medical advice and treatment, to be penalised when a General Election comes.

I must enter one caveat with regard to what the hon. Lady said. She said that when a General Election or a by-election occurred a patient should have an opportunity of recording a vote. I hope she will agree with me that, of course, in this Bill we have not provided for mental patients voluntarily entering mental hospitals in order to avoid certification, and there would be a possible danger if the hon. Lady's suggestion were agreed to in toto. A patient, not quite normally fit at the time, being allowed to go to the polling station might run into considerable trouble and danger or do something stupid owing to the fact that he had not quite recovered from his previous illness. With these few words of warning, I am completely in accord with the main principle in the speeches of the hon. Lady and the hon. Member.

Mr. Ede

The point raised by the hon. Gentleman the Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) is, I think is covered by the Clause. Where the person is a certified mental patient, his place of residence is the institution to which he has gone. The effect of this Clause is that as such, he will not, as a certified patient, be registered as an elector in respect of his residence at the mental hospital. I did have a complaint after the last General Election from one hon. Member, in fact, an hon. and learned Member, who shall be nameless, complaining that a patient who had been on the electoral roll and subsequently certified before the date of the election, was not allowed to leave the mental institution in order to go and vote for this hon. and learned Gentleman—who was elected in spite of this abstention.

If the person is a voluntary patient—and that is the type of person for whom I understand the plea is made—he will be registered in respect of his home address. I cannot help thinking that that is appropriate. It does not appear right that merely because a mental hospital happens to be situated in a certain constituency the voluntary patients should become voters in that constituency from which I have no doubt they hope to get away at the earliest possible moment, consistent with the cure. I hope that explanation will satisfy those hon. Members who raised this point.

The hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), followed up the point made by the hon. and gallant Member for Chertsey (Captain Marsden) in an earlier discussion in regard to persons normally associated with the United Kingdom in which is their permanent place of residence but who are abroad and may be for some years, on pleasure or on Government business, and suggested that these people should be registered for a vote. Exactly the same difficulty arises with regard to those persons as arises in connection with seamen who have no fixed abode in this country. It is very difficult to say to which constituency they should be attached if one wanted to do it. Of course, some people go abroad intending to reside abroad for a temporary period, but then for some reason or another they may decide to become permanent residents abroad. It would be difficult to arrive at a definition which would enable such persons to be attached to a constituency when we have no idea whether they intend to return to this country. They might give a pledge in good faith that they did intend to return, and then find, when they got abroad, that they would rather reside there. If the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames at some later stage of the Bill has some ideas to put before us in regard to that matter, I can assure him we will consider them.

Mr. Emrys Roberts (Merioneth)

Is it not possible to treat persons on Government service abroad on the same footing as members of the Services, who make a declaration that during their service abroad they shall be deemed to reside at an address which is specified?

Mr. Pritt (Hammersmith, North)

I am not happy about the point dealt with by the Secretary of State in regard to patients in mental establishments. He says they will be registered to vote at their normal place of residence. I quite agree that that is the proper place, but quite a number of people, for one reason or another, may go into one of these establishments for a few months, and they cannot reside at home. They may be perfectly sane, having gone in for treatment. They may say, "I am told that I cannot be registered at this establishment or anywhere else because as a matter of fact I have no residence anywhere else." That is an easy thing to happen. I do not know whether this affects a large number of people but it will concern some, and I would ask the Home Secretary to give it a little more consideration.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and Kinross, Perth)

I should like to support what has been said by the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt). In certain areas of the country where people voluntarily enter one of these establishments they could be a long way from their usual place of residence and it might not be physically possible for them to vote at that place. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that this matter is sufficiently covered? I am not sure that it is, because these people may be so far from home for a limited period that they will be unable to vote.

Mr. Ede

I do not think that we could limit the concession asked for by the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Emrys Roberts) to the class of person that he names. People might be sent abroad by a private firm on a Government contract. They are not in Government employ. There are people who are sent out by private firms who are not on Government work.

Mr. Roberts

Why not extend it to them?

Mr. Ede

Precisely. That is the difficulty. Where is one to draw the line? The basis of the franchise must be residence, and reasonable likelihood of the person being at that place of residence, or within easy reach of it, during the period for which the register lasts. When I use the words "at home," with regard to a point made by the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt), clearly I do not mean the family home. Perhaps I should say the address at which the person but for his residence in the mental institution would have been residing. I think that sort of wording would convey more accurately what I mean. I am sure the hon. and learned Member will realise that I was not trying to speak in strictly legal language.

It seems to me that possibly the most likely address would be the address at which the person was residing when he volunteered to enter the hospital. I will undertake to have it examined, to see whether what I have said is actually covered by the Bill. In as much as these people will not be at the address in respect of which they are qualified, and may be some distance away, it would appear to me that by a later Clause in the Bill they are covered by the provision for postal voting. I am sure that for the majority of these people, if it is a long journey, grateful as many of them are on occasion for a trip from the institution, it would probably be better for them if they exercised the franchise by post. I will have that point also examined. I have no doubt that the candidates would probably prefer that, instead of going a long way to pick up one voter like this, such motor cars as they have at their disposal should be used rather nearer the polling stations.

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

To report Progress, and ask leave to sit again.—[Mr. Pearson.]

Committee report Progress; to sit again Tomorrow.