HC Deb 29 November 1949 vol 470 cc1044-59

Considered in Committee.

[Major MILNER in the Chair]

Clauses 1, 2 and 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.


8.5 p.m.

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

I beg to move, in page 3, line 21, to leave out from the first "The," to "are," in line 23, and to insert: enactments mentioned in the first and second columns of the Schedule to this Act (Enactments Repealed). Perhaps I may explain this Amendment and the Amendment which follows, in line 23, to leave out "second," and to insert "third," and the proposed new Schedule, together. It has been necessary to introduce these Amendments at this stage owing to the fact that the consolidating Act of 1949 was not yet an Act when this Bill was introduced, but received the Royal Assent in the course of last week.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 3, line 23, leave out "second," and insert "third."—[Mr. Younger.]

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


Section one of the Representation of the People Act, 1949, shall be amended as follows: (1) In subsection (1) of section one for the words "subsection (2)," there shall be substituted the words "subsections (2) and (4). (2) At the end of subsection (3) of section one, there shall be inserted the following subsection: (4) (a) Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (1) of this section, persons who were of an age of twenty years and six months or upwards on the qualifying date and are otherwise qualified in accordance with the provisions of subsection (1) of this section, shall be entitled to vote as electors; Provided that a person shall not be entitled to vote as an elector in any constituency by virtue of this subsection unless registered there in the supplementary register of parliamentary electors to be used at that election. (b) Provision may be made by regulation for the issue of such supplementary register, provided that such regulations shall not provide for the issue of more than one supplementary register in each constituency in each year or for any supplementary register to be published within six months of the last date for publication of the register."—[Mr. Bing.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Bing (Hornchurch)

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This is a modest attempt to try to do something for the 600,000 people who may be disfranchised by this Measure. As the law stands, there are perhaps 600,000 young people who, under certain circumstances, would be able to vote, but would not be able to vote after we have passed this Measure if a Parliamentary election fell at the most disadvantageous time for them. I have tried to suggest to the Committee a possible means by which we can remedy this injustice without additional expense.

In moving the Second Reading of the Bill my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that in a great many cases the Bill would not inflict any hardship. That is quite true. In all other cases everyone will be on the register somewhere. It may well be that they have moved from their address and that they have difficulty in voting. It may well be that there is some advantage to the party which has the more money and which is, therefore, able to trace absent voters up and down the country. But the only people who will not be on the register at all are these young people.

This is not really a party matter. It might possibly be said that if the hon. Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling) had had a vote at 21 we might have secured his support for this side of the House. Those of us who studied his career know what was his political position at 21. But I am not putting this forward in any party spirit. What I am suggesting to the Under-Secretary is that, at any rate, he might accept this new Clause as a modest hint of what may possibly be done in another place.

What we are attempting to do by this Bill is to save in two ways—in the cost of the canvass and in the cost of printing. What I am suggesting, as I think my hon. Friend will agree, would involve no extra cost whatsoever so far as the canvass is concerned. It would involve only an infinitesimal extra amount in the cost of printing, but even supposing that there was an extra cost in the canvass in putting these additional names on the register, and supposing it were proportionate to the cost of compiling the whole register, then, according to my calculation, the extra cost would be somewhere in the neighbourhood of £15,000. Therefore, as a result of possibly enfranchising up to 600,000 young people, the total saving by this Measure instead of being, as we hope, £800,000, would be £785,000. If anything on these lines is possible then that loss of saving is worth while in order to give young people the vote.

There is no doubt at all that the possession of the vote gives people some incentive and some feeling that they have a stake in the country. As the law will stand when we have made the alterations proposed in the Bill, a person who is not 21 on 20th October in England or on 1st December in Scotland may not be entitled to vote until he is 22 years and three months of age. What I suggest to the Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary is this: when, on 20th November, a canvass is made, the local authority should have the power to collect not only the names of the people who are 21, but also the names of the people who are 20 years and six months of age or upwards. They should put those names into a separate compartment, as it were, and six months later should issue a special list bearing those names. When that list is issued, those people should be entitled to vote. If they leave it for six months obviously everyone on the list will be 21 years of age.

There would be very little extra cost and, I submit, very little administrative difficulty in doing that. It is already done in regard to the Service Vote because there the Service man can make a Service declaration even though he is not 21. There seems no logical reason why we should not allow someone who may be doing just as important a job in civil life to make the same sort of declaration. I know it may be said that it was never done before, that previously these young people have always lost the vote, but, I do not think it is a particularly good argument that we should disfranchise young people because they have ' always been disfranchised by other Governments previously. I hope it will be possible, when we make these alterations, that in some such simple way as that I have attempted to put forward in this new Clause we may at any rate attempt to see that the young people do not lose their votes in future elections.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Younger

I appreciate the purpose for which my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) has put forward this new Clause, and the class for which he seeks to make provision is certainly a numerous one. I was rather surprised to hear that it is as numerous as the figure he gave, but it certainly is a numerous class.

I think perhaps he has under-estimated the importance of the change which he is proposing in our procedure. At one time he said that these people who were under 21 on the qualifying date were the only people who will not be on the register, but I do not think that is correct. It has unfortunately always been the case that there have been a number of people whose qualifications on the date of the poll are quite all right but who are not on the register because they were not qualified on the qualifying date, which was some months earlier. Many of these, of course, are these people who have become 21 between the qualifying date and the date of the election, but there are also other categories. There are, for instance, the people who for one reason or another did not have a residential qualification at the time of the qualifying date, possibly because they were abroad.

It is only a very limited class of person who, even under the Act of 1948, will be able to vote despite the fact that they are abroad. All those people who may have come back and acquired a residential qualification between the qualifying date and the polling date would be in the same position as that of the class which my hon. Friend seeks to benefit. The same thing would happen for the pretty numerous class of people who become naturalised in the same period. I am afraid I have not the up-to-date figure in my head, but at one time it was estimated that over 1,000—in fact something like 1,500—a month were being naturalised, and they would be in the same position.

My right hon. Friend does not feel it would be appropriate in this Bill to introduce what is, in effect, a very considerable change in respect of this class. As I said on Second Reading of this Bill, it has the very limited purpose of trying to save some labour and money by reducing the number of registers in a year from two to one. If the change suggested by my hon. Friend were to be introduced at all it should, of course, foe done on a much more comprehensive basis, but I think there is no doubt that if one did, it would go some distance at least to defeating the object of this Bill, which is to simplify procedure and to reduce the costs involved in compiling more than one register. As my hon. Friend recognises in his new Clause, I think, there would be the need for a supplementary register. I am not quite sure how one would check that unless there was to be a supplementary canvass of some kind to check the declarations which had been put in some considerable time before—some six months before.

Mr. Bing

Perhaps I did not make it quite clear, but the people who became 21 would be in no worse position than the other people who were on the register. There is no supplementary checking to see, after six months, that people have not left their qualifying address. People who became 21 would merely be registered at the address at which they were living when 20 years six months of age and upwards, so they would be in exactly the same position as anybody else on the register.

Mr. Younger

I take my hon. Friend's point, but I am not quite sure that it could be accepted quite so simply. If we are to put on the supplementary register persons who in fact did not qualify at the time of the qualifying date, so as to say that they should be accepted as having the vote on some subsequent date, without having any supplementary check, that seems to me no unimportant suggestion and it is not quite so simple, automatic and harmless as my hon. Friend seems to suggest.

I do not know where my hon. Friend got the figure of £15,000 which, I think, he suggested. I know his great ingenuity in research and I have no doubt that he has collected a large number of figures, but I am afraid I cannot accept that the extra cost or the amount of additional labour which would be made necessary by this new Clause is as inconsiderable as the hon. Member suggests. I suggest that this is not a Clause which can properly be introduced in a Bill whose whole purpose is to simplify the procedure and to avoid involving the registration authorities in any work other than that required for the compilation of one register a year. This would be singling out one class of people, although I admit it is a numerically large class, which in the past has always found itself in the position of not having a vote on the polling date because qualification has come after the qualifying date.

Mr. Austin (Stretford)

It seems to me that my hon. Friend did not do justice to the arguments advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing). The Under-Secretary paid tribute to the talents and research powers of my hon. Friend, but he disputed certain figures he gave. My hon. Friend put the cost at £15,000, but what the Under-Secretary did not dispute, although he expressed his surprise, was the total figure advanced by my hon. Friend of those who will be disfranchised. I should like to know whether it is a fact that 600,000 people are to be disfranchised.

Mr. Younger

I cannot accept the figure, nor am I denying it. My hon. Friend has put it in a misleading way by saying that they are disfranchised. They are not disfranchised but are in the position they have always been in, and other classes have been in, namely, that they have not qualified on the qualifying date and are unable, therefore, to vote on the polling date.

Mr. Austin

The fact is that they are disfranchised, and I do not see why I should retreat from that phrase.

Mr. Bing

Perhaps I may be allowed to explain the figure. I reckon that there are 1,200,000 people in the 21's over a period of 15 months, which is the period from the qualifying date to the final date on which the register is valid, if it comes out once a year. If it comes out in only six months, we obviously have to cut the figure by half, which gives that number.

Mr. Austin

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that interesting informa- tion. With the greatest respect, I consider that it should not have been given to this Committee but to the Electoral Registration Committee. My hon. Friend ought to have made that contribution to that committee, because had they known that so many people were to be disfranchised their findings might have been entirely different. If they have not considered the total number who were to be affected, there has been some neglect of their duties. One cannot be final on this point, but surely it is a very important matter when such a large body of people are deprived of a vote.

One of the privileges every citizen has is a vote, unless he is a lunatic, a peer, a bankrupt or a convict, but owing to a serious omission, simply because these young people are unable to be put on the register, this large class is to be deprived of a vote. A case could be made for the inclusion of those who are over 18 on the electoral register. The young people face up to their responsibilities as citizens these days, both in the field of industry and in the Armed Forces.

I will not pursue that further because I should be out of Order if I did so, but I put it to the Under-Secretary that my hon. Friend has made up an excellent case for the Home Office or my hon. Friend to reconsider this matter, even at this late stage, and to face up to the administrative difficulties. If necessary, my hon. Friend, who is well known for his talents in research, may be able to provide the machinery to enable these young people to be put on the register.

Mr. John Paton (Norwich)

I should like to say a few words about the argument put forward by the Under-Secretary in rejecting this Clause. He seems to base his objections on three grounds; first, that the Clause is important, secondly, that it does not cover all the possible sections of the community who may be excluded, and, thirdly, that this Clause should not in any event be moved into a Bill of this kind. The argument that the Clause is important does not seem to me to be a logical argument. I should have thought the bearing of that argument, if it has any bearing at all, was in favour of the Clause.

The second argument, that we cannot cover every possible class of persons who may be excluded, by one sort of chance or another, from the electoral register and that therefore we should exclude this very large number of persons who could be included, seems to me to be very inconsistent and utterly lacking in logic. If it is an evil that people are excluded by circumstances from the register, the sooner we limit that evil the better. Surely, when we have a Clause of this kind which suggests that a numerous body of citizens can be brought in, it is a thoroughly sound thing to do.

The third point which the Under-Secretary made was that he did not think this Clause should be brought forward on a Bill of this kind. But, it is precisely out of this Bill that the situation envisaged by the Clause arises. It would be utterly inconsistent and illogical to advance this Clause and the arguments that sustain it, on any other Bill than the one we are now considering. The Under-Secretary has utterly failed, on consistency or any other grounds, to make out his case for the rejection of this Clause. I do not ask him to accept this Clause at this late stage, because I have no doubt that the Home Office could find all sorts of reasons why it should not be accepted, but at least the Under-Secretary and his right hon Friend should look at the matter again. Then, if necessary, they could take appropriate action at another stage of the progress of the Bill through Parliament. If my hon. Friend would give that assurance I have no doubt that he would satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) and get rid of the matter.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. McGovern (Glasgow, Shettleston)

I also would appeal for further consideration of this Clause by the Under-Secretary of State. He has not attempted to dispute in any way the logic of the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) in expressing the view that it would be possible to incorporate this Clause or a similar one in the Bill. The Under-Secretary dismissed the matter in a rather summary manner. It does not matter whether the number of young people affected by the proposal is 400,000, 500,000 or 600,000. The fact is that this is an important section of the electoral community of this country—a section of young people who are enthusiastic and anxious to have the vote, and anxious to live up to the responsibility of our system of democratic government. It is that type of young person who will be affected, and those young people should be encouraged along that road of public duty at the earliest possible moment.

I especially think so because there is an argument, as has been suggested, that the vote should be given at an earlier age. While I shall not go into that matter now, I would say that when the vote is given at the age of 21 we should be all the more sure that it is given to people as soon as they arrive at the age of 21. I know of cases of people who will be affected. I have a son who will be 21 on Thursday, and will have his first opportunity to vote for me if he has the mind to do so. He will be deprived of the vote in the coming May municipal elections in my area. We shall be postponing for a considerable time the first chance of a young person in such circumstances to vote. If we are the real, live democracy that we say we are, then we ought to ensure by every democratic means in our power that these people are given the vote.

As the hon. Member for Norwich (Mr. J. Paton) said, even if there are a few whom we shall leave unprovided for, we ought not to fail to bring within the scope of the Bill those whom we can, and it is no argument for the exclusion of these 600,000 young men and women who could appear on the register. I would say further, if we are to exclude 600,000 from the next Election, that the Government would not be justified in making any cut in the registrations or in the revision of the electoral register at all in this critical period in the history of democratic government.

I appeal to the Under-Secretary of State to see whether the Government can apply their minds to this problem, because I am satisfied that Members of the Committee do desire that young people shall be given the vote when they reach the age of 21. We have passed now from the old days of the property qualification and the residential vote, and we have come to the policy that every individual has the right to vote at the age of 21. Despite that, this Bill will deprive of the vote for 10 or 12 months people who are entitled to vote, and that cannot be justified. The Under-Secretary has given no valid reason why this new Clause should not be accepted, and I appeal to him to apply his powers of thinking and of persuasion to other Members of the Government to see whether there is not a way to solve this very simple problem.

Mr. Tolley (Kidderminster)

In rejecting the new Clause, the Under-Secretary said that it would defeat the object of the Bill, namely, simplification. Surely, that is not the object of the Bill. The object—unfortunately, because of the economic position of the country—is to save money. It was originally proposed that we should make a new register every six months to remove an anomaly that has always existed in our electoral system because of the early preparation of the register.

I ask my hon. Friend to give consideration to this most important matter. Let us assume that it is only 600,000 people who are to be affected by this Clause. As my hon. Friend the Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) said, we are at a stage in the history of our country when it is the young people who will be most affected by the future. Because I realise that, I want those young people to have every opportunity of being on the register. There can be no real reason for bluntly rejecting such a Clause. It may not be correctly worded, but I impress upon my hon. Friend that it contains a vital principle, and because a vital principle is at stake I ask him not to reject this Clause tonight, but to ask his right hon. Friend to reconsider it, recognising how many of our young people have a stake in their country and want to play their part in its future, and therefore have a right to say, whether at municipal or at national elections, who shall govern the nation.

Through this Bill, which has been introduced for a cause we all regret—and when the Bill originally came before us we recognised that to a large number of people it was a travesty of justice to have a yearly register—these young people are deprived of one of their birthrights. I very much regretted the introduction of the Bill when I knew what it would mean to these 600,000 people. I appeal to the Under-Secretary to ask his right hon. Friend to give further consideration to this matter, with a view to introducing at a later stage a Clause which contains at least the principle enunciated by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing), giving an opportunity of voting to these people who are at present deprived of the right of citizenship, and so righting a wrong which I think has been done because of the present economic position of our country.

Mr. Viant (Willesden, West)

I must express disappointment at the reply given by the Under-Secretary—a disappointment which I think will be shared by most hon. Members who heard it. I am sure that when the Under-Secretary reads the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich (Mr. J. Paton) he will appreciate that each count on which he rejected this Clause has been proved conclusively to be untenable. We have always endeavoured to safeguard the interests of the younger generation, and on that ground alone my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) is to be congratulated on this proposal. The figures that he produced have in no way been refuted. It may be that the Under-Secretary has not had time or the opportunity to analyse the validity of those figures.

I suggest that if he cannot accept this Clause this evening he should at least tell the Committee that he will ask his right hon. Friend to reconsider the merits of the case, so that it will receive favourable consideration at another stage. We have always been desirous, whatever party was in power, of bringing as many electors as possible on to the register. It is unfortunate that we have had to depart from the issuing of two registers a year. Circumstances have made that inevitable. Do not let us be harsh. Do let us try to find a way out in order that we may reduce or modify the ill effect of having to withdraw the second register. I commend this new Clause for further consideration in the hope that, if it is not accepted in toto, at least it will be accepted in principle, and that ways and means may be found of working it out. No technical objection has been raised. I submit that, in the absence of any technical objection, it should be accepted by the Government, and that they should be prepared to give it consideration at a later stage of the Bill.

Mr. Osbert Peake (Leeds, North)

I have been in some difficulty in following the precise meaning of the new Clause moved by the hon. Member for Horn- church (Mr. Bing). I think that I now understand what is its object. I hope that he will correct me if I am wrong. It is that at the time when the annual register, as operated in the future, is being compiled with reference to the qualifying date of 20th November, note shall be made of those of the age of 20 years and six months, and that the names of those persons shall not appear on the register published on the following 15th March but at a date after 15th March; that is to say, on 15th October their names shall appear in a supplementary list, and as from 15th October following the year of the qualifying date their names shall be added to the register. That, I believe, is what the hon. Member intends.

I am not at all sure that the words of his new Clause actually give effect to it. So far as that is the principle concerned, I think that everybody in all quarters of the House would wish to support it. It seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable principle. In effect, it means that the youngest voter at a Parliamentary election will be no younger in future than they are at present, that is to say, 21 years and approximately four months. It will not add any people under 21 or under the age of 21 years and four months to the electoral register, but it will catch up a certain number of people—what the number may be, I am not at all certain—who would lose the vote by reason of there being only one register annually instead of two. That is a principle to which, I think, we can all give wholehearted support.

It then becomes a question of the administrative difficulties which may be advanced by the Home Office and the additional expense which may be added as the result of this procedure being adopted. So far I have heard nothing from the Under-Secretary which convinces me that the administrative difficulties are insuperable or that the expenses would be prohibitive. Therefore, I would be inclined, although I do not think that the new Clause is at all happily drafted, to advise my hon. Friends on this side of the House to support the principle which it embodies. I know of the difficult position in which the hon. Gentleman finds himself. The Home Secretary is not here. In those circumstances, I recommend most strongly to him that he should give an undertaking that he will report this discussion and the feeling in the House sympathetically to his right hon. Friend with a view to the matter being considered afresh between now and the Report stage of the Bill.

8.45 p.m.

Mr. Awbery (Bristol, Central)

I suggest that the Minister should look at this matter again. Although I do not think the Clause will adequately meet the situation, I think we should make it as easy as possible, and not as difficult as we can, for young people to get the vote at 21. In the matter of military service we do not say to a young man "You are 18 on a certain date, and you will have to wait 12 months before you are called up." I think that a supplementary register should remain open all the time, and that when young people register at 21 they should make an application to the registration officer to be included in that register. On the first day of every quarter that supplementary register could be added to the permanent register. In that way no young person would be left off the register. If the new Clause is not added to the Bill, some young people will be left off, and we wish to see them all get on to the register as soon as possible.

Mr. Younger

I appreciate the unanimous views which have come from all sides of the Committee. As the right hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) has said, I am in some difficulty tonight in that I am not in a position to pledge my right hon. Friend in this matter. All I can undertake to do is to bring to his notice the strong views which have been expressed and the desire that we should, if possible, try to find a technical method of carrying into effect a principle with which most people would be bound to agree. That I am prepared to do. The Committee will appreciate that the time is very short for this Bill. I had hoped that we would be able to get through the further stages tonight, and I think that all I could undertake now would be to see that before the Bill goes to another place my right hon. Friend will go into this matter thoroughly in the hope of being able to do something.

Perhaps I did not make clear earlier the principal matter which has been worrying my right hon. Friend on this Clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich (Mr. J. Paton) was, I think, a little unkind in saying that I objected to the Clause because it was important; what I meant was that there is a rather important principle involved in allowing a departure from the general rule that those who can vote are those who were qualified to vote on the qualifying date. We would be making an exception to that, and it is a rather considerable matter to make a departure of that kind in favour of only one category of people, knowing that there are other categories which were not enfranchised at the time of the poll because they were not qualified at the qualifying date, although they have since come to fulfil the qualifying considerations.

If we are to make this important exception for one class, we should consider whether it should be an exception limited to one class and not applying to numerous others. My hon. Friend mentioned Service voters who make Service declarations before they are 21. They do not enjoy the right to vote if they were not 21 on the qualifying date. We should have to consider the repercussions consequent upon bringing them in, although it might be possible to do it as a matter of machinery. The point I am making is that I doubt whether this should be done for a single class when there are many people who suffer under the same disability. I appreciate that there is

Session and Chapter Short Title Extent of Repeal
11 12 Geo. 6. c. 65. The Representation of the People Act, 1948. In section one, subsection (3).
In section five, in subsection (1), the words from "which, except in Northern Ireland", to the end of the subsection, and subsections (2) and (3).
In section twenty-one, subsection (4).
In section twenty-three, subsection (3), and, in subsection (7), the words "(3) and".
12 & 13 Geo. 6. c. 68. The Representation of the People Act 1949. Section three.
In section seven, in subsection (1), the words "the spring and autumn of", and subsection (3).
The First Schedule.
—[Mr. Younger.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Younger:

I beg to move, "That the Schedule be read a Second time."

This Schedule replaces the Second Schedule which we have now moved out of the Bill.

unanimity in the House about this, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be pre pared to withdraw this new Clause on the understanding that I will draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to it and that it will be very fully considered with a view to trying to meet the wishes of the Committee when the Bill goes to another place.

Mr. Bing

I should like to withdraw the Clause in order to facilitate the pas sage of the Measure and to enable my hon. Friend to have the consultations which he has mentioned. Perhaps the House would permit me to add that I hope my hon. Friend will improve on the suggestions which I have made, because while there will be, according to my reckoning, some 600,000 people who may be over 21 and not have a vote, my new Clause will only enable some 350,000 to 400,000 of them to be put on the register. Therefore something better might be done as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Bristol (Mr. Awbery).

Motion and Clause, by leave, with drawn.>

First Schedule agreed to.


Motion made, and Question, "That this be the Second Schedule to the Bill," put, and negatived.

Schedule read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

Bill reported with Amendments; as amended, considered; read the Third time, and passed.