HC Deb 24 March 1948 vol 448 cc3279-86
Mr. Manningham-Buller

I beg to move in page 12, to leave out lines 16 to 18.

This Amendment raises a point of no little interest. Claw 9 (2) provides that the application to be treated as an absent voter shall be for a particular election only, except in certain cases. The first case is the general nature of the applicant's occupation, service or employment. As far as I can see, there is no objection to the application on that ground being for more than a particular election. The second category is the applicant's physical incapacity. If his physical incapacity is likely to be of an enduring nature, and only if it is likely to be of an enduring nature, it would appear right that an application might be made in respect of more than one election. The same argument can properly be applied to the third category, where the necessity of a journey by sea or air to go from the applicant's qualifying address to his polling station is established.

But what is the ground for saying that where a man has ceased to reside at his qualifying address, his application can be in respect of more than one election? If he has ceased to reside at his qualifying address and has taken up residence some where else, surely the time will come when he will get upon the register in the normal way in the place at which he is at that time living. Therefore, I can see no argument in favour of saying that in that category of cases, the application— [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I can hardly hear what I am saying because of the whispers of the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton). I do not know if you were able to hear what I said, Mr. Wells, but in case you did not——

Mr. Dalton

Speak up.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

I was trying to point out to the Committee, though I fear I had not got the right hon. Gentleman's attention, a very important question in regard to the fourth category under Section 9 (2). It seems to me very hard to justify giving a man the right to apply to be placed upon the absent voters' list for more than one election solely upon the ground that he has ceased to reside at his qualifying address in respect of one particular election. In spite of the slight murmurs that have come from below the Gangway opposite, I hope my remarks have been audible to the right hon. Gentleman, and that in spite of those murmurs what I have said is clear. Having put this argument so shortly at this hour of the morning, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will say, as he has said once to a Member on his own side, "This is a sound Amendment which I can accept, because it is based on logic. I admit it is wrong not to have it contained in the Bill."

6.45 a.m.

Mr. Ede

I am quite sure the hon. and learned Gentleman does not wish to deprive anyone of a vote by removing him or her from the effective register before getting on to another. It may well be in the course of the register more than one election will take place, and it would be wrong if a person were deprived of his vote in the second election, and a fresh application have to be made before he was placed on the electoral roll for the constituency to which he had moved. That might be the effect of adopting this Amendment. In the normal course of events when the canvass is taken of the address at which the absent voter formerly resided his name will not be given to the canvasser as being a resident, and in that way his name will disappear from the register. By that time and on that qualifying date he should be resident in another constituency, and he will have to obtain a vote.

The whole idea of this Bill is that one should endeavour to keep a person as an elector in some constituency or another, and that in normal circumstances he will not disappear from one register until he has qualified to appear on another. That qualification depends on residing at a certain place on a certain date. It is not dissimilar to a point raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman earlier in the Debate, when the same effect might have been caused by removing a person from having an effective vote before he acquired another vote in another constituency. The retention of the words in the Bill is justified, and I hope this Amendment will not be pressed.

Mr. J. S. C. Reid

The right hon. Gentleman has given convincing reasons why the name should stay beyond a single election, because there might be two elections within six months. I can see great difficulty in the alternative of an indefinite period under Subsection (3). You get on the new register as an absent voter for an indefinite period. Nobody checks up what has happened to you and you can go on voting by being an absent voter for an indefinite period long after you want to. I do not see what is to stop it. It does not require any deliberate malice. People do these things without thinking very much. I would like to be convinced by the right hon. Gentleman that there is need to keep names on for an indefinite period. I see the need to keep them on to the end of the current period where, as the right hon. Gentleman truly says, there is no need in the majority of cases to keep it there any longer. But why keep it on for a long period with all the trouble it seems to imply?

Mr. Butcher

I appreciate the point of view of the Home Secretary and I do not find myself in disagreement with him. The requisites for being treated as an absent voter are, first, application and, secondly, furnishing of address to which a ballot paper is to be sent under Clause 8 (4). I would have thought, in view of the comparatively brief period of qualification, it would not be necessary to have an applicant put on the register for an indeterminate period. I would have thought, if more than one election occurred during the period necessary to elapse to establish qualification elsewhere, it would not be a particular hardship to the applicants to cause them to register for each election as it occurred.

Mr. Ede

I hoped I had made the point clear. A person will get on the register because at the time of canvass he is residing at a certain address. There are, of course, provisions whereby, if he is temporarily absent, he will be enrolled. He cannot become an absent voter unless he has qualified in that way. Therefore, when the next time comes round and the canvass is made—there will be one every six months—if he no longer resides at what was a qualifying address on the current register, he will not be placed on the register for the next register. Therefore, he will disappear from the register and he will have no ground to claim to be included in that constituency as an absent voter.

I am most anxious to ensure that where people are on the register they shall have every facility for recording their votes. It seems to me that the number of cases in which in the course of that six months a man will want to register for more than one election will be very few. But let us suppose there is a by-election almost immediately before or after a General Election. It may very well be desirable that a person should be able to be registered as an absent voter during the whole of the period, though the actual absence from the constituency may be a little longer than the six months. He will be placed on the register as a result of a canvass that takes place some period before the register is actually published. In fact, during the period between the date of the canvass being taken and the register being published, he may be away for a whole six months. I do not think this is a very important point but I should have thought that it was rather better to give a person the facility for voting rather than to make it awkward for him to register his vote if in fact there should be two elections during the period of one register.

Mr. Astor

On a point of Order, Sir. Looking around this Chamber I see a number of Members, including the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) apparently asleep. Is it in Order.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

I want to say a further word about this Amendment. The right hon. Gentleman has very courteously given us an explanation. No one has suggested that the desire on the part of the Committee was to leave the absent voter without the right of exercising his vote. The effect of this Amendment will not be to prevent him, as I understand it, from applying for a vote as an absent voter at a particular election. Leaving these words out, would enable that man to apply in the normal way and there would be no greater handicap on his doing that than there was in the first place. But the danger is, we feel, that you might get with regard to the Service voters a register which is unduly loaded and here it seems to me, that more attention has been paid to putting people on the absent voters list than to the deletion of those who have in the true sense ceased to be absent voters. I think the point is worthy of more consideration by the right hon. Gentleman, and I hope he will look at it between now and the Report stage. I really think that there is no issue dividing the Committee—it is merely a matter of machinery, except that we see some dangers which might ensue. If my right hon. Friend will indicate that he will look at this matter again, I should be very ready at this hour to withdraw the Amendment by leave of the Committee.

Mr. Ede

I do not want to prevent my hon. and learned Friend from withdrawing his Amendment.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

I said "If."

Mr. Ede

I will consider this point. Nothing that I have heard has moved me from the line that I have taken up, but no doubt I can have a conversation with the hon. and learned Gentleman in the course of which we might be able to discover what prevents us from seeing eye to eye on this matter.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Mr. Grimston

There is a point in connection with this Clause which I think should be raised. As it stands, it will be possible for an absent man or woman who is often away from home, or more often than not away from home—for example, an opera singer or a ballet dancer—to apply to be an absent voter, but it is possible that that privilege will not be extended to the spouse if the spouse is in the habit of accompanying either the husband or the wife. There may be many cases in which the wife might accompany her husband for business reasons. She might act as his secretary. She might be part of the business. Equally, the husband of a ballet dancer or opera singer might wish to accompany his wife. Here is a point which might quite reasonably be looked into to see if the privilege cannot be extended. This was a point I was going to raise on the Amendments which were not selected by the Chair, and I raise it now in the hope that the right. hon. Gentleman will say that he will have a look at it.

7.0 a.m.

Mr. J. S. C. Reid

There is one other point upon which I should like to have information. It is highly desirable that there should be on record, and available to the public, as much information about this complicated question as possible. At first sight, this part of this Clause looks very simple, because Subsection (1) appears not to be connected with any troublesome regulations about time limits, or forms, or anything of that kind. It looks absolutely straightforward, stating that application to be considered an absent voter for Parliamentary elections shall be made to a registration officer—there is nothing about forms there—and stating also that the application shall be allowed by him if he is satisfied about the applicant. There is no question of a time limit, or restrictions of any kind. That would seem, to most people who have some acquaintance with statutes, not to connect up with regulations, because it is a common thing in the drafting of statutes that where a particular Section is to be governed by regulations there is a Subsection in it which refers to regulations; but that is not done here, and it will easily mislead the unwary unless care is taken to inform those concerned.

In Clause 62 one finds power to make regulations about this matter. It is a curious form of drafting. I do not know whence it came, and I do not think it is desirable, though it may have a respectable ancestry. I think the Home Secretary should consider whether he ought not to give notice within Clause 1 that this does attract regulations. It is clear in line 3o, page 57, that regulations will attach to the apparent simplicity of this Clause. It is only if one has a suspicious mind that one will discover this. I suggest that the Home Secretary should give a little more notice of that on the face of the Bill than there is at present.

I hope that he will also tell us approximately how long application has to be made before a person will be able to get on to the absent voters' roll. This is very important, of course, in the case of temporary owners, and matter- of that kind. It may be important in other cases, but that is the typical case where there is considerable difficulty in knowing just what to do. I think it would be helpful if the right hon. Gentleman would tell us what will be the position in future under these contemplated regulations; and about how long before an actual election a person will have to send in a form so as to get on to the roll for an indefinite time. It is not long. It cannot be. On the other hand, it cannot be very short, because it is necessary to get names and addresses, and there must be time for the ballot papers to be posted. If the right hon. Gentleman could put on record the existing situation, it might help some people who may find difficulty in discovering what it is.

Mr. Ede

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, regulation-making power is to be found in Clause 62. I am told that it is not unusual in a Bill of this kind for there to be a general regulation-making Clause of that kind. I do not think that many people who are concerned with being registered as absent voters take the trouble to consult Acts of Parliament. In the main, they will go either to the town clerk, the registration officer or to the agent of their own political party to ascertain the procedure to follow in order to register as an absent voter. The regulations are under consideration. We hope to make the qualifying period as short as is possible to enable the various stages between making the application and being placed on the list to be short and contracted. All have to be submitted to the House by positive procedure so that there will be an opportunity for hon. Members to consider them. I cannot at the moment say the exact periods that will be prescribed, but we shall endeavour to keep them as short as possible. I have no doubt that just before an election a considerable interest will be taken by persons who desire to qualify. We desire to make the procedure as simple, and the period as short, as possible.

The hon. Member for Westbury.(Mr. Grimston) asked about the question of the spouse of the ballet dancer and the lady who acts as her husband's secretary when he goes abroad on holiday. Clearly, they are not covered by this Clause as it stands. I undertake to examine the position to see how far it is possible to deal with the kind of persons to whom he alluded. If it is possible to do anything between now and Report stage, I will see that appropriate steps are taken.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.