HC Deb 31 March 1950 vol 473 cc794-823

2.48 p.m.

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

I wish now to bring the House home from Hong Kong and to raise quite a different subject—the working in England and Wales of the electoral law at the General Election. I am sure that all concerned, including the Home Office and especially the Secretary of State, who I know took a great personal interest in this matter, and also the officers of local authorities and the Service Departments, worked very hard on this, and in many ways they were successful in spite of the many difficult problems with which they were confronted. I should like to pay tribute to them. However, the fact remains that the registration of electors was far from complete. A great many people who were qualified to vote failed, whatever the cause, to get on the register. The figures of the poll showed an exceptional keenness at this election to vote, and the disappointment of those who found that they were not on the register was correspondingly deep.

First of all, I want to deal with the registration of ordinary civilians. As the House is aware, the responsibility rests on the householder to fill up the form which is distributed from house to house. From these forms the electoral lists, which are a sort of a draft register, are prepared. It is the further duty of every citizen to make sure that his name is on the register, and it is only by an inspection of these electoral lists that the risk of disfranchisement can be avoided. The electoral registration officer is required to announce where these lists can be inspected, and this system is excellent in theory, but in practice at the recent election certain rather serious defects were manifested.

The lists were too complicated; there were not enough facilities for inspection; and there was not enough publicity about the whole matter. First, the electoral lists were too complicated. Every list was in three parts—A, which was the previous register; B, which were the names to be added; and C, which were the names to be deleted. A great many people did not understand that only by examining all three lists, or at any rate lists A and B, could they find out whether they were on the new register. There was indeed confusion, not only in the minds of the electors, but even among postmasters and others who were required to exhibit the lists. The Home Office realised that there was this confusion, and they actually sent out a circular suggesting that names on list C should be crossed out with pen and ink on list A. Some electoral registration officers did so, but others found that the work required was too great.

I suggest that there is a strong case for scrapping the system of three lists and for combining them into one list, which would be a complete draft of the new register. For the benefit of party organisations, new arrivals who are on list B should be specially marked with an asterisk or otherwise.

There would be several advantages in having a single list instead of three lists. The first would be that the citizen would have to consult only one list. The second would be that, after the claims and objections had been disposed of, it would take much less time to print the final register than it takes, under the present system, to weld lists A, B and C into one. Under that system there is at the same time the risk that lines or even whole sections may be accidentally dropped out. The third advantage of having a single list would be that because of the shorter time required for printing the final register, the time for claims and objections could be extended. One other detail about the electors' lists is that it was left to electoral registration officers' discretion whether to have an index of streets. It is absolutely essential that the register of a town, be it large or small, should have an index of streets.

The second point that I want to make about the electoral lists is that there were not enough facilities for inspecting them. The law requires that the lists shall be exhibited in a specified place. That place is usually the post office, but in some localities the post office is not at all convenient for that purpose. Very often the postmaster is busy and the post office is too crowded. In one important post office in London it took 10 minutes to get to the head of the queue at the counter, and then one was told that the electors' lists were kept in the safe. The postmaster had to be fetched, and that took a few more minutes. When he brought the list out of the safe he had not the slightest idea how to find his way about it. I suggest that in addition to post offices, town halls and council offices, electors' lists ought to be available in all libraries and citizens' advice bureaux, and possibly in other places as well.

My last point about the electors' lists is that there is not enough publicity about them. There was an admirably lucid advertisement by the Home Office, headed "Make Sure of Your Vote." The advertisement issued by electoral registration officers was far too legalistic. Let me quote one sentence from each of those advertisements to show what I mean. The Home Office advertisement gave this advice about electors' lists: Go and see, and if your name is not there ask for a claim form. Anybody could understand that. Now listen to this from an advertisement issued by electoral registration officers: A claim to be registered as a Parliamentary or local government elector, or both, or to be registered for a qualification other than that shown in the lists, may be made by any person either on his own behalf or on behalf of another person. I am quite sure that many of my constituents and many people in every constituency would find it a little difficult to understand all that. Why should not the form of the announcement issued by electoral registration officers, which is laid down in the registration regulations, be in language as simple as that of the Home Office advertisement?

Of course, the B.B.C. is far and away the best method of reminding electors of their responsibilities. What use was made of the B.B.C.? I obtained the facts from them. The facts are that all through the month of June when the forms were being distributed from house to house and when electors were filling them in—the qualifying date was 10th June, and this register was, of course, the one upon which the General Election was fought—there was not one single broadcast until the very last day, 30th June. That was quite inadequate. The broadcasts ought to have begun when the forms began to be sent out at the end of May, especially as it was 10 years since the register had been compiled in this way. During the time for claims and objections, which was in August, there were seven broadcasts. That was better, but some of them were rather late. These figures compare very unfavourably with recent B.B.C. broadcasts on the changes in the wavelengths, of which there were more than 100 separate announcements on the air. I hope that the Home Office will arrange for many more broadcasts next winter, when the compilation of the new register begins.

Now I come to the Service voter—and I express my appreciation of the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for War. On 22nd March, the Minister of Defence made the staggering admission that only one in three of those entitled to the Service vote were on the register at the General Election. The Minister said that there was some improvement in the register which was issued a few days ago, but even on that register fewer than half of those qualified are included. Therefore, if the General Election comes, as come it well may, within the next 12 months, that is to say, before 15th March next, large numbers of Service men who, I am quite sure, will want to vote, will find themselves unable to do so. Considering all the attention given by Parliament itself, and the instructions issued by the Service Departments, on this matter, those figures are extremely disappointing. They are all the more disappointing because the Committee on Electoral Registration which reported three years ago, in Cmd. 7,004, of 1946, expressed the confident opinion that effective machinery could be provided for the registration of all members of the Forces. Machinery which aims at registering 100 per cent. and only achieves 33 per cent. or 50 per cent. is quite clearly not effective.

What is wrong? I make three criticisms, and I think each one of them is constructive. First, the Committee pointed out that most National Service men complete their service before they are 21 and so the Committee directed its main attention to the long-service men, the voluntary entrants. They recommended that these men should be asked to register, and also to appoint proxies at the very moment of enlistment at the recruiting station, even if they were not yet 21 then. They went so far as to say that such an arrangement would be practically certain in application. Unfortunately, this recommendation of the Committee was not carried out. Men are asked to register not at the recruiting station when they join, but at their first unit, and clearly this does not work. I ask that the question of doing it at the moment of enlistment, as the Committee recommended, should be reconsidered.

My second criticism is of the elaborate notices sent to the Fighting Services to be exhibited on notice boards. I referred a day or two ago to an Admiralty Fleet Order, issued for display on the notice boards of ships and naval stations, which consists of 12 closely printed pages and something like 10,000 words. Is it conceivable that anybody, whether he be an officer or a rating, would ever try to read a 10,000-word notice on a notice board? One might just as well stick up on the board a copy of the Representation of the People Act, 1949. Of course, one effect of issuing such a notice is that commanding officers are tempted to believe that that is all that is necessary. I suggest that, if a notice is required at all, it should be as simple a notice as the Home Office advertisement which I praised just now.

My third point about the Service vote is that the responsibility for trying to persuade men to register is, rightly, put on the commanding officer. Indeed, commanding officers are absolutely deluged, saturated, with reams of instructions on how to do it. Among the instructions issued from the War Office is one requiring each unit commander to furnish annually—it was twice a year; now I suppose it is annually—a certificate that the procedure laid down has been carried out. A certificate in such terms is obviously of little or no value. It is on wrong lines. One might just as well ask a commanding officer to give a certificate that he had done his duty.

What is required, I suggest, is not a certificate in general terms like that, but a precise statement of the men over 21 who have registered and who have not registered. It would be a simple matter to arrive at these figures, because every soldier who is registered is required to carry in his pay book—his A.B.64—the card R.P.F.3 which he receives from the registration officer notifying him that he has in fact been registered. I believe that the other Services get the same card. I suggest that it should be an obligation on every unit commander to report these two totals—the number registered and the number not registered—and that we would then have healthy competition between units, which I am quite sure would secure a much higher proportion of registrations.

I have dealt with only two aspects of the electoral law, but I hope other hon. Members will refer to others, since there are a good many further points which require investigation. There is, for instance, the use of official poll cards, which is a new system. There is the method of officially marking the ballot paper, which I am sure is necessary but which could be improved. There is the fact that, at many rural police stations, there is no policeman there either for any part of the day or for the greater part of it, and, while I will not say that that situation produces corrupt practices, it certainly makes them easier. An effort ought to be made to call up special constables for polling day so that there might be a policeman in every polling station throughout the day. Then, there are the methods of counting the votes, and the queer fact that a man taking a compulsory holiday in one of His Majesty's prisons is entitled to vote by post while a man taking a voluntary holiday at the seaside is not. That seems to me to require investigation.

I suggest that there is a very good case for setting up a committee, on which this House ought to be represented, to investigate the working of every aspect of the electoral arrangements, including the major question of making the register more complete. I know perfectly well, and I am sure we shall be told by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, that there is, in fact, a conference now in being, but I think that less than a committee containing representatives of this House would not be adequate, and that is particularly true of the arrangements for the Service voter. I therefore ask that such a committee should be appointed without delay. The British people have shown that they value very highly the right to vote, and they will be satisfied with nothing less than the very best electoral machinery.

3.8 p.m.

Mr. Marlowe (Hove)

I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) in expressing the view that the electoral register upon which the last General Election was fought showed a large number of defects and proved far from satisfactory. I think this House ought to consider in what respects it is possible to remedy that situation and prevent it recurring. Although it is true that any election fought this year will be on a different register from that on which the last election was fought, so far as one is able to see, the same defects exist in ale March register as existed in the preceding one.

Each of us can only speak from our own experience in these matters, but, certainly, during the General Election, my central committee rooms were literally stormed by hundreds of people who were complaining that they were not on the electoral register. I suppose it may seem churlish for one who had a majority of nearly 22,000 to be complaining about the electoral register, but it is a matter upon which people feel very strongly when they have not got the right to vote to which they are entitled. In my constituency, this matter was not limited to my offices, because both my Socialist and Liberal opponents had the same experience and had a large body of complaints from people who claimed that they ought to have been on the register but were not. It is our job to ensure that that kind of situation does not arise again.

I agree with my hon. Friend that not enough publicity was given to the public to get themselves on the register or to see that they were on it. It must, of course, be said that the ultimate responsibility for seeing that one is included in the register is on the elector himself, but he must be given some assistance by those concerned in drawing it up. The publicity about this matter was rather poor. In May last year a number of forms were sent out, all, I think, before 31st May. Each person receiving a form was required to state upon it the names of the people who would be in the house on a date ahead. To begin with, that was a great mistake. One ought to be asked to give the names of the people who were in the house on a date just passed.

It was psychologically bad, because a large number of people were not sure who would be in their house on a certain date ahead and were inclined to put the form on one side saying that they would leave it until they knew who would be in the house on that date. Once a form is put on one side, it usually finds its way into the wastepaper basket, particularly today because of the large number of forms with which the public is inundated. There are so many forms that there was a general tendency to regard this one as just one more form and it was probably treated in the same way as many others are. Not enough attention was paid to bringing to the consciousness of the electorate their duty to ensure that the form was completed.

It should not be difficult to give enough publicity to a matter of this kind. Organisations like the Central Office of Information spend between £3 and £4 million a year of public money in order to give a lot of information which nobody requires. Would it not be a good idea to divert a little of that money and energy towards giving publicity to the requirements of the Representation of the People Act? The Ministry of Food spend a large sum of money daily putting in the newspapers "Food Facts" advertisements which are supposed to help the housewives. Why not have a few advertisements dealing with electoral facts? A fraction of the money spent by the Ministry of Food could be spent by the Home Office in giving that kind of information to the public.

Another aspect of the matter which ought to be investigated is the machinery after the form has been sent out. The form is sent to every known address. Frequently it is lost, thrown away or put into the wastepaper basket, and in many cases nothing more happens after that. Every form which is sent out and not returned should be followed up by some means. When the electoral registration officer compiles his first register he ought to have the responsibility of also going through a list of the names of people to whom forms have been sent so that in cases where the form has not been returned he may send another reminder or even—it would not be asking too much—make a personal canvass. That should not be very difficult when one recalls that in the old days the whole of the electoral register was the result of personal canvass. It is not too much to ask that merely the nil returns should be followed up by a personal canvass. They would represent probably 5 to 10 per cent. of the forms, and it should not be a grave undertaking.

There is another form of what I call "follow up" that might be adopted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham pointed out, a certain amount of rather ineffective publicity is used to draw the attention of the electorate to the need to inspect the register to see if their names are on it. It would not be too much to extend that field of publicity. It would not be too much, in a whole constituency, if a small card were sent to all who had received the original form notifying them that the register was on view and that they had a duty to inspect it and see that their name was included. I hope the hon. Gentleman will consider that a helpful and not expensive suggestion. No doubt a lot of people, including even those who have filled in and returned the form, assume that matters go forward all right after that. But it by no means works out that way. The attention of these people ought to be drawn personally to the necessity of inspecting the register.

I have asked a series of questions in the House about another matter, but the Home Secretary's answers have not been to my satisfaction so far. That matter is the state of the present register which, as I said earlier, shows every indication of being no better than the last one. I am sure we are all in agreement that we want the best register possible. Already, I have had a number of complaints from people who realise now that they are not on the current register. The reason why this information comes to light now is that a large number of people, who otherwise would not have concerned themselves, had this brought to their notice when the General Election came along. Now in March, when it is too late to make any changes, they have gone and looked; and they complain that they are not on the register. I have suggested to the Home Secretary that he should allow the list to be re-opened for a limited time, say a month or so, and that during that time strenuous publicity should be given to the fact that the register is open and that those who find their names have been left out should have their names included even at this late hour.

There is a very strong case for that in view of the decision to abolish the register which was due to be published in October. Now the register which came into force on 15th March will continue in force until the middle of March next year, and we all know there is every probability, and certainly a high degree of possibility, of an election taking place before then. We want to be sure that the register is effective in expectation of a coming election. I have put this matter to the Home Secretary in Questions on a number of occasions. I have not found his answers very convincing. He has said that he does not see there is a case for it. I hope he will reconsider it and that the hon. Gentleman who replies will deal with the matter.

I think the case is very strong. The recent General Election has made an enormous number of people aware of the right to have the register examined. I see no objection whatever to giving them an opportunity to have their names included now, provided they satisfy the registration officer that they have the right qualification. I am not suggesting that there should be some new qualification and that names not qualified for inclusion last year should now be included on some other register. All I propose is that an elector should be able to go to his town hall and if he satisfies the people in authority there that he has a right to have his name included in the register and that for some reason or other it has been omitted, he ought now even at this late hour to have his name included.

I hope the Minister will think it is a comparatively small request which can easily be met by the Home Office without any great effort on their part, but one which is of immense importance to the elector concerned. There is nothing more frustrating to an elector to find when an election comes along that he is in fact disfranchised, and that although he has every right to vote he is prevented from doing so. It is particularly frustrating to him when he finds that when the time comes for him to vote there is a Socialist Government in power and he has not got the right to get rid of them.

3.21 p.m.

Mr. Henry Usborne (Birmingham, Yardley)

I hope the House will forgive me if I raise a subject which is quite different from that which was before the House up to a moment ago—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—I think that as a Private Member, on an Adjournment Motion such as this, I may raise any subject that I wish.

Mr. Keeling

Would not the hon. Gentleman wait until the Minister has replied on the subject which I have raised?

Mr. Usborne

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. I must ask for your guidance. As you will recall, I did tell you in advance what subject I wished to discuss. Of course, it may be that it would be convenient to the House if the Minister replied to the previous subject first.

Mr. Speaker

I was not quite sure whether I had mistaken the hon. Members' intentions. When he got to his feet, I thought he wanted to speak on the subject which is now before the House. I cannot tell any Member not to talk, but I suggest that if the hon. Member wishes to raise another subject he might do so later.

3.22 p.m.

Mr. Daines (East Ham, North)

It seems to me that this subject which has been raised by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) is bound to be considered against the background of the very high percentage of votes cast at the last election. I think most of us would say that the most satisfactory part of the election was the high percentage of the poll and the fact that we were personally returned.

Mr. Marlowe

The hon. Gentleman will realise, of course, that that percentage is in relation to the number of names on the register. There is an enormous number of names which were not on the register.

Mr. Daines

I was going on to say, before I was interrupted, that we must not let that fact blind us to the actual working of the Act, and we should carefully scrutinise the details, as we have done this afternoon. I am personally obliged to the hon. Member for Twickenham for raising this subject and giving us that opportunity.

One of the points which the hon. Member raised related to constituents who vote from His Majesty's gaols. I am not unsympathetic to those people. Fortunately or unfortunately, I receive a regular correspondence from His Majesty's gaols. I think it is within the knowledge of the House that under a new regulation made by the Home Secretary a prisoner can write to his Member of Parliament, and some of my constituents who are in His Majesty's gaols have become extremely keen on penal reform. It is not unnatural that they should wish to judge from my replies whether I am a suitable person to give voice to their reasonable or unreasonable demands.

Personally, I am not at all upset about the small number of people who vote from His Majesty's gaols.

I am very dubious whether the enormous expense incurred in preparing and delivering the polling card has really been justified. When it was first mooted, most of us thought that it would relieve us of quite a big job in normal political organisation. In fact, I do not think it did that; I think it caused confusion. The law was extremely doubtful. In some constituencies replica polling cards were published and in others something approximating to replicas were sent out. I am rather doubtful whether this expenditure is worth while. It is certain that the amount of time, labour and expense incurred by returning officers is far greater than that incurred by tae candidates themselves under the old arrangements. It seemed to me that if we were to do the job through the returning officers, we should have permitted them to put the names of the candidates on the polling cards. There would then have been some real justification. I hope that the Home Secretary will take into consideration the views of the returning officers themselves on this matter, and I am quite certain that, after due allowance has been made for their inevitable hostility to having another job put upon them, in the main they will appreciate the point I make.

I have not been quite certain in my mind whether it would not be possible to put on the ballot papers the political description of the candidates. I know that there are a number of arguments for and against, but it is a fact that the number of people who wanted to vote for the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) certainly went wider than his own constituency. I will not try to persuade this House that the electorate of this country is politically ignorant; I do not think it is. I think we have as high a degree of political intelligence in this country as in any other country in the world—possibly higher; but, even now, the number of electors who have rather dim views about this question is striking.

I remember that during polling day one lady came to my main committee rooms to see whether her name was on the register. Fortunately it was, and naturally, my agent was a little concerned about how she was going to vote. After all, we want everybody to vote, but it is much better if they vote for you than if they vote for the other chap. He asked her how she intended to vote and she said, "That is all right, old chap; you need not worry; I am going to vote for Daines, because we have to get this so-and-so Tory Government out." Thus, there is still a fair measure of political ignorance. I will admit it will not be easy to work out, but I should like to know whether it is practicable to put the political description of the candidate upon the ballot paper.

I turn now to the question of the counting of votes, and here I think I shall command general support. It is a point which does not seem to make sense. When those of us who were waiting in the small hours of the morning, and then in the very long hours, put on the radio, we found that constituencies much larger than our own, much more difficult and much more diverse, were announcing results hours before our own results were given. I submit to the Home Secretary or to the Under-Secretary, who I understand will reply, that the whole procedure of the counting of votes needs drastic overhaul.

I do not suggest that everybody should attain the speed of Salford. It is always very encouraging to look at the Salford result to see the barometer of what is going to happen. But there is no justification for the fact that almost twice the amount of time, in some cases three times, was taken in some constituencies. I believe, if I recall it correctly, that on one occasion even the result of a recount was announced before the results of constituencies of similar size. We do not need drastic uniformity, but this is not a leisurely age and, if for no other reason than that of putting the candidate out of his misery, I submit that there is a case for drastic revision and overhaul.

3.30 p.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

I do not think it is unfair to say that the party opposite count among their major virtues the fact that they are opposed to bureaucracy and red tape, so I noticed with amusement that one of the ways out of the dilemma of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) and of the hon. and learned Member for Hove (Mr. Marlowe) was some more filling up of forms. The hon. and learned Member for Hove wanted a card sent—

Mr. Marlowe

I did not for one moment suggest anything of the kind. I said nothing about filling up more forms. I suggested that a reminder might be sent, but I did not ask anybody to fill it up.

Mr. Keeling

Nor did I.

Mr. Wigg

Taking the two hon. Gentlemen in the order in which they interrupted me, I would point out that the hon. and learned Member for Hove suggested sending out—

Mr. Marlowe

A reminder.

Mr. Wigg

—a reminder, but that reminder has 40 be addressed, and some record of it has to be kept. If that is not form filling, it is a cousin to it. Then the hon. Member for Twickenham suggested that a return should be rendered—presumably, as it were, to brigade headquarters and thence to divisional headquarters and thence to the War Office, to be kept for posterity's information. If he does not think that is form filling, he does not know what goes on in the Army. It is certainly akin to it, I can assure him.

I should like to deal with one or two points that the hon. Member for Twickenham made. He was most anxious that responsibility for the registration of the Service voter should rest with the man's commanding officer.

Mr. Keeling


Mr. Wigg

Not with the commanding officer?

Mr. Keeling

No, with the man.

Mr. Wigg

With the man, yes; but the responsibility for persuading the man should rest with the commanding officer. He went on to urge that this responsibility should be first exercised at the point where the man joins the Army—with the recruiting officer. But, the recruiting officer is not the man's commanding officer. The responsibility of-the commanding officer can be exercised only at the man's first unit.

Mr. Keeling

May I remind the hon. Gentleman that, as I pointed out in my speech, it was recommended by a com- mittee on which were Service representatives that this should be done at the recruiting station?

Mr. Wigg

I have no doubt the committee made that recommendation. What I am pointing out is the fact that it is impracticable. It would take away the responsibility of the commanding officer. A man's documents and the man meet only at the first unit. Of course, the reason why the commanding officer is asked to give his personal certificate to a matter of this kind is so that it has his personal attention. If the procedure were—as I understand the hon. Gentleman would like it to be—that a return should be submitted, presumably on the first of each month—

Mr. Keeling


Mr. Wigg

—showing the number registered and the number that remained unregistered, it would not get us much further than the adjutant, or the orderly room sergeant. For in a routine question it is extremely unlikely that the commanding officer gives the matter his personal attention. Certainly such a question would not get the same personal attention as it does when the commanding officer is required to give his personal certificate that the procedure which has been laid down has been carried out.

Of course, the real difficulty is this. The hon. Gentleman is obviously aware of it. We have to make up our minds whether the soldier shall be free to register or not. If we leave it to him, then clearly there is a limit to the amount of persuasion that can be exercised by the commanding officer. One has to face the fact that considerable numbers of young men are not specially interested in voting. When I was a young soldier we were qualified to vote, after the First World War, at the age of 18. I should have thought it would have taken a great deal of persuasion to get people to exercise the option to register, for a soldier thinks of his family and of his next weekend leave. Politics and a General Election seem rather a long way away from him. So I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has to accept the fact that, with all the good will in the world, and with the keenest desire of commanding officers to do what is required, we cannot expect that 100 per cent. will apply.

I want to turn now to the problem of what happens to those who register. I hope that the Under-Secretary will not accede to the request of the hon. Gentleman who spoke last, but that he will let the registration system assimilate the proposals introduced at the last election. On the question of motor cars, there is obviously a great diversity of practice in the two parties. We knew that we were limited to one motor car for every two and a half thousand electors, and we thought that they would take people from their homes to the polling stations.

In my constituency, we were limited to 28 and beyond that we did not go, and each of those motor cars had a registration number. My political opponents apparently did not see it that way. We noticed that as polling day went on, they seemed to have more than 28 cars in use, but for some extraordinary reason, which we never understood, these motor cars, or many of them, did not draw up at the polling stations. The electors were inconvenienced by being dumped in back streets about 200 yards away from the polling stations. I hope that the Under-Secretary, when he replies, will indicate that the Home Office have this problem in mind. Elderly people in the hours of darkness should not be left to walk 200 yards to a polling station, it is not fair and it is not in the interest of democracy, and I hope that the Home Office will give serious attention to this last 200 yards' walk.

Mr. Daines

Was that before they voted, or after they voted?

Mr. Wigg

We could not quite tell. The congestion of cars in the back streets was really quite chronic, so we could not see if they were coming or going. I think that they were being deposited on the way to the poll. I want to congratulate the party opposite on a first-class piece of organisation—

Mr. Marlowe

The hon. Gentleman is making a serious charge. Is he aware that if the facts that he has stated are true, his opponent has committed an electoral offence, and will he inform the House whether he has taken the appropriate proceedings in that respect?

Mr. Wigg

I have been most careful to make no charge of any kind. All I can say is that at certain polling stations, from my own observation, cars were stopping 200 or 300 yards away from the polling stations. I do not know why, it may have been that they were going to tea parties or something of that sort. All I can say is that it appeared to be very odd that on polling night there should be such a great deal of social activity going on. They may not have had anything to do with the election. I do not know, but it is a point which the Home Office should look at. I think it is wrong that people should have to walk the last 200 or 300 yards to the polling stations.

I want to congratulate the party opposite on their organising efficiency. The night before last I thought they put up a pretty good show. The same sort of spirit was abroad in dealing with the absent voters' lists. I think they put up a pretty good show there. They took our boots off. I ask the Home Office if they will be good enough to look into this matter. At the present moment, the registration officer has the responsibility of publishing the absent voters' list. I want to see not only the absent voters' list published, but the names of the persons who sign the voters' application forms.

It seems to me extraordinary the ease with which some cards were signed, and one is not at all sure whether the people who signed them had such a close and intimate knowledge of the person applying for the absent vote as they ought to have. I am sure the Under-Secretary is aware that, as I understand it, under Regulation 26 of the Representation of the People Regulations, 1949, a registration officer must publish the absent voters' list. What I want, in the interests of democracy, is to have the reason for the person being placed on the absent voters' list to be shown, so that there shall be available some procedure whereby objections can be made. I am not at all sure how far that can be done by amending the Regulations, but I hope that it will be done.

The other point I want to make is this. The register in one part of my constituency was extremely good, but the register in another part was not so good. I think that if the register had been in better form the elections would have been carried out much more smoothly—although I certainly have no complaints upon that score. However, I very much hope that the Home Office will take steps to see that one of the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Twickenham is carried out, and that is that there should be an index of streets so that one can see at a glance the streets which are covered by a particular section of the register.

I also hope that the Home Secretary will take steps to see that more polling stations are provided. This is the real answer to the motor car problem. Provision ought to be made so that anybody in reasonably good health can walk to the polling station without inconvenience. Stourbridge, a borough which came into the Dudley division for the first time in the last election, provided the extraordinary spectacle of people having to walk considerable distances and on their way to their polling station having to pass other polling stations. Now that is most annoying, and it need not happen if the organisation of the polling stations is examined. I know that the Home Secretary has powers to do something about this if the matter is not dealt with locally. I think that it can and should be dealt with locally, but I hope that the Home Office will use their good offices so that if, as I hope, a General Election comes very shortly the good people of Stourbridge will not have to walk these considerable distances.

3.43 p.m.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer (Worthing)

In the few minutes that I shall detain the House I do not intend to follow the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) in his, as I think, rather unfortunate innuendoes against his defeated opponent. I personally think that there is something which can be done about the postal voting form, although it appears on the face of it to some of us who are used to this sort of form to be in very simple language, and as if nothing could possibly go wrong with it. It transpired at the counting of the votes that there were a very large number of spoiled postal voting forms, for one small reason or another.

I therefore suggest that that instructions on the postal voting form should be printed in larger type, and with fewer words. I could myself have written out a similar instruction which meant precisely the same thing, but with the use of a tenth of the number of words. What really counts is that the form should be in large black type, particularly the more relevant portion of it. It might help if the envelope in which the voting paper goes were the same colour as the voting paper, and to make the form which has to go into a khaki envelope of the same colour as that envelope. It sounds almost childish, but as we all know that is the kind of thing that went wrong with postal voting.

There is one matter I should like to raise, which is quite different from anything said so far. It concerns the advocacy by a certain group that people should spoil their voting papers if a satisfactory answer was not received from their candidate. Some of us were sent a questionnaire with the threat at the bottom that if the reply was not satisfactory the voter should write a certain slogan across the ballot paper, thereby spoiling it. I am very grateful that no one in my constituency, whether they agreed with my reply or not, did so deliberately.

I suggest to the Under-Secretary that he might look into this question and see whether something should not be done to prevent this. I know it is not possible to suggest legislation during this Debate, but there is an underlying danger here. In this case it came from a body with no great membership or power, but it might conceivably come from a body with far greater power. Everyone will agree, I think, that it is a thoroughly undemocratic procedure which should be deprecated, and that if it should become more widespread there should be some sanction against it.

In regard to the stamping of the papers with the embossed stamp, my experience is that it is not so effective as the perforated stamp. I do not know the reason for the change-over, but there is no doubt that polling clerks, in their endeavour to speed up the proceedings, tried to stamp about 12 papers at the same time, with the result that the embossing did not get through to a certain number of the ballot papers. There is a danger here, and it did so happen that many papers were spoilt owing to the fact that there was no stamp on them. I suggest that the embossing machine is inefficient and that perforation is better.

On the question of the Services vote, the Under-Secretary of State for War will agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) said, that the instructions issued to commanding officers are far too complex and numerous. There always has been a certain amount of apathy towards politics in the Services. There was a time when the Regular soldier had the feeling at the back of his mind that because he was not allowed to take an active part in politics he must not take any interest in the matter. Commanding officers really want to have their knuckles rapped if there is any evidence that they have been lax in their units in carrying out the instructions. I know that the matter is largely left in the hands of the adjutant and that the commanding officer does not bother about it, but I think that he should. I am not sure that there should not be a return of the actual figures of those registered, which would bring them up to the mark.

3.48 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas)

This discussion has been very helpful to us all. I could not help noticing that the two Members who spoke first were restrained and objective and expressed dissatisfaction with the registers, although in one case there was a majority of 13,000 and in the other of 22,000. I propose to deal with a number of points that have been raised, and then to say how we propose to study the many other points that have been made. The fact is that so many of the smaller points would require legislation that it would be out of order for me to deal with them.

It is perfectly true that the present system of the "A," "B" and "C" lists is complicated, and that many people who go to inspect the register to see if their names are on it are confused. Before the General Election, my right hon. Friend consulted representatives of the registration officers and the chief agents of the three parties and they all agreed that nothing could be done at the moment, the chief reason being the very heavy burden it would put on the printers. Within the next few weeks we shall be discussing again with these gentlemen the points that have been raised today, as well as possible suggestions to do with the change in the "A," "B," and "C" lists.

We might come to the conclusion that we should have a completely revised register printed at the first stage rather than after the claims and objections period, and then print merely an amendment list of deletions and additions. Some of the advantages are that there would be only two documents to look at; the second document, the amended list, would be a small one; and, in the second list we could correct the typographical errors in the main register.

The publicity given to the lists once they have been made was another matter raised by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling), and the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Hove (Mr. Marlowe). Post Offices are the most universal and obvious places for these lists to be. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Twickenham had such an experience at the Post Office as to find the list in the safe. It is extremely hard for the Postmaster-General to lay down any instructions in this matter. Post Offices vary from great big, modern buildings to little village shops. What we can do and what my right hon. Friend has done, is to ask the Postmaster-General to see if the lists can be displayed better and are more readily available to the public. That does not exhaust the point by any means.

The hon. Member suggested the Citizens Advice Bureaux and such places, but it would be wrong for Whitehall to tell the local registration officer where he has to put the lists. After all, local people know these things best. We are considering sending out a circular stressing the fact that registration officers should draw on their local knowledge, and in some cases use the church porch, or the Citizens Advice Bureau—

Mr. Keeling

And libraries.

Mr. de Freitas

Yes, the libraries or whatever is a good place for publicity. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Form C in the regulations we made last year, and said how legalistic was the language. He will be encouraged to know that my bight hon. Friend has given instructions that it is to be simplified.

As to the street index, I well remember when I was a canvasser before I was old enough to be a candidate what difficulties I met without a street index. The fact is, of course, they are much more common today than they were at previous elections. It is difficult to say that they should be compulsory, because in certain cases in country areas it might be confusing if it were compulsory to have an index for streets. I do not want to labour that point. But it is one difficulty which we have to consider.

The hon. Member for Twickenham was good enough to give me notice that he was going to raise the matter of B.B.C. publicity. I am in some difficulty, because the information which I have is not the same as that which was given by the hon. Member. For the register on which the last election was fought, there was more publicity given at the compilation stage last Summer than there was at the stage of claims and objections, but the balance was still not sufficiently strong in the direction of publicity at the stage of compilation.

For the new register the publicity was as follows: at the stage of compilation last autumn there were mentions in three news bulletins, in one announcement period, as well as two talks on electoral registration and one talk by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. When the register was opened for challenge—claims and objections—last January, there were two announcements: one in "Woman's Hour," and one in "Can I Help You?" and another talk by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Nevertheless, we shall look into the matter, because this is the most valuable method of publicity—second to none.

On the point which was made about the Service voter I admit that the number of Service men who were entitled to vote and who registered was disappointing. The points that have been made will be noted and will be passed to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence, who is already having inquiries made in the Service Departments to see what can be done to improve the number of registrations. There has in fact been an improvement of about 20,000 between the register on which the General Election was fought and the current register. While I would not go as far as to say that the Service Departments are perfect in this matter, I submit that they have done a difficult job fairly well. They will seek to do it better, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) has pointed out, there is a considerable reluctance among young men to register.

Three particular points were made in this matter. The question which was raised by the hon. Member for Twickenham, and which was discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, whether volunteers should be asked to register at their recruiting office and not at their first unit, is noted, and some of the difficulties have been pointed out. Of course, the suggestion will be looked into. The second point about responsibility being put upon the commanding officer to complete a certificate and return it, will also be looked into.

On the third point, about the Admiralty's 10,000 word notice, I had advance information on this from the Question which was put the other day by the hon. Member. I looked at that notice myself, together with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty. My hon. Friend assured me that a very much simpler notice, a potted version, will be issued next time because the present notice is too long and too difficult to read and understand. In defence of the Admiralty I must say that it was not the only thing that was done. Forms were issued to every rating and every divisional officer explained them to his men. The fact is that in the Navy 70 per cent. registered. I have said nothing to indicate that the Minister of Defence is satisfied with what was done. He is certain to do all he can to improve matters, and he has already started inquiries.

The other points made by hon. Members—I will come to them now—will be referred to the conferences that I mentioned. The hon. Member who asked for a committee wished to include hon. Members of this House. In the conferences which we have, the Home Secretary is in the chair, and there sit with him agents of the three parties, representative registration officers from various types of local authority areas such as counties and boroughs, together with officers of Departments directly concerned with the matter, such as the Home Office, the Scottish Office and the War Office.

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment lapsed.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Royle.]

Mr. de Freitas

This conference is well constituted for advising the Home Secretary on points such as those which have been put. I refer to the points about special constables; more constables in country districts; methods of counting; the question of the date being too far ahead; whether they follow up the nil returns, and the big point about the question of reopening the register.

Mr. Marlowe

Did I understand the hon. Gentleman to say that that point is still open to consideration?

Mr. de Freitas

Yes. The hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Daines) made the point about polling cards. That, of course, will be considered. But on his point about the party label, I must say that I do not think he will get anywhere at all. It is, surely, the basis of our whole system that individuals and not parties are elected to this House. The practical side of putting on a party designation has great complications. It is possible in a country like the United States where, in the various States of the Union, the parties are established by law and a man cannot describe himself as a Democrat or a Republican unless he is one. How difficult it would be with us with all the shades of Liberals and Nationals and Conservatives. It would be difficult to arrive at a designation agreed and accepted by all concerned.

One of my hon. Friends also spoke about speeding up the count. It is difficult to lay down precise instructions, because conditions vary enormously. I need not dwell on that point. All hon. Members have taken part in elections and probably have seen elections in other constituencies. They have seen how the rooms in which counting is done vary. In some places, it is hard to get the right staff to help in these matters. In spite of that, I can see that the position is looked into. We cannot all beat Salford. Salford has an outstanding reputation and tradition and is determined to be first in the field.

Mr. Scholefield Allen (Crewe)

My count took nearly two and a half hours longer on this occasion than it did on the previous occasion, though there were very few extra votes. When I made representations to the returning officer he said that the Government did not allow them sufficient money to have the correct number of counters. If my hon. Friend could deal with that matter, I should be much obliged. There was much feeling in my constituency about the time the count took. Everybody outside thought that there was a recount and a further recount. In fact, it was just the count taking place. It lasted an intolerable time.

Mr. de Freitas

I should not like offhand to deal with a matter concerning a particular constituency, but, of course, I will look into it and write to my hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Daines

I made inquiries and found that the returning officer is allowed a certain sum. He can spend up to that sum, but if he goes over that sum then he has to meet the difference. Is that the position? It seems to me that it is the excessive caution of so many of our returning officers, rather than the question of the amount, which is to blame.

Mr. de Freitas

That, I understand, is the position, but I will not, off-hand and without considering the matter with the representatives of the registration officers, condemn any particular one. It would not be right to do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley raised a number of points, and made a plea, which I think was welcomed, that we should not make regulations that would cause an increase in form-filling. He stressed his own experience in this matter and referred to the fact that Service men themselves were often reluctant to register. My hon. Friend asked for a settling down period, because there have been so many changes. There might well be something in that, and that point also will be considered. The point about a list of the reasons why absent voters certificates were given and a list of the people who signed them is a very wide and important matter indeed, but, since we have only recently gone into this question of extending the matter of the absent voters' vote, I think it is right that we should examine that point as well.

The hon. and gallant Member for Worthing (Brigadier Prior-Palmer) wanted clearer instructions, and made the very sensible plea for the use of colour in making it easy for absent voters to complete these forms. That, too, will be considered. The hon. Member who began the Debate, in fact, pointed out that the Home Office is trying at every stage and every level to simplify the wording of these forms. As I said, my right hon. Friend has already given instructions for one form to be simplified, and he will take this matter into consideration too. As to the deliberate spoiling of votes, my experience, like that of the hon. and gallant Gentleman, is that I cannot recall a case in which a single one was deliberately spoiled in my constituency, but I will have that matter investigated.

The conference to which I have referred is composed of representatives of the Departments concerned, the registration officers and the agents of the three parties, under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and it is, I believe—and I say this with all respect to hon. Members—better qualified to deal with matters such as these than are committees which include hon. Members of this House. After all, at an election, is not a candidate more engaged in putting over himself and his policy, leaving the mechanics of the election to people like the agents and the registration and returning officers? I believe that it is the registration officers and the agents, whether in the constituencies or the central offices, who have the best experience of these matters.

Of course, having said that, I cannot end without saying that my right hon. Friend welcomes comments and suggestions from hon. Members, whether in Questions or in Debates like this, and also suggestions both from hon. Members and candidates in letters either to himself or to me. I think we have gained from that course in the past. I should say, in conclusion, that it must not be thought by people outside, or even by hon. Members of this House, that there is any evidence of general dissatisfaction with the electoral law and procedure today. What evidence we have is quite to the contrary.

Mr. R. V. Grimston (Westbury)

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, may I ask him one question? I suppose that this committee to which he referred will consider points which may or may not require legislation, and I assume that they are not precluded from considering any point which might require legislation.

Mr. de Freitas

I am sorry. I should have made that quite clear. Some of the points they consider do require legislation but not all, and in the latter case the Home Secretary makes changes in the regulations as they advise.

Mr. Keeling

I should like to ask one question about the committee. Will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that either the whole committee or a subcommittee of it will visit units in the Services and try to find out how it is that even now on the new register less than half the Service people have registered? Secondly, will he give an assurance that the report of this committee will be published?

Mr. de Freitas

As to the first point, I am afraid that I cannot give such an assurance. After all, the hon. Member will appreciate that it is very hard for me, in the absence of the three Service Minsters and the Minister of Defence, to give an assurance that the committee will go into their units. I can certainly give an assurance that the suggestion will be taken up with them. As to the point about publication; no, I will not give that assurance. I think all interests would be best served if the Home Secretary regarded it rather more as an informal committee than as a formal one publishing a report.

Mr. Daines

Can my hon. Friend assure the House that the whole of the subject will be treated as an emergency matter. A General Election may come at any time, and we ought to have an assurance that the matter will be treated in an immediate and urgent basis.

Mr. Wigg

In view of innuendoes which were made from the other side about my constituency, will my hon. Friend state that it is the case that there are two widely divergent views as to the interpretation of the use of motor cars for election purposes? Will he look at this problem so that before the next General Election the parties will know exactly where they stand? There were differing practices because of differing interpretations.

Mr. de Freitas

Answering the last question first, I think it is extremely likely—but I cannot assure my hon. Friend—that the subject of motor cars will be discussed. As to the first point put to me, I said "in a matter of weeks" or "within a month."

Mr. Wigg

I asked a question of fact. When the Clause was before the House, was not the general view held in all quarters of the House that a candidate's party was limited to the use of one motor car for so many electors, according to whether it was a borough or a county division? Then as the election wore on, the view was that the party was limited to the use of the cars which were registered, but on the other hand the view became held that in addition, other cars could be used provided that they were only conveying relatives. By polling day there were at least two different doctrines. Is that not so?

Mr. de Freitas

In view of the definite allegations about certain things stated to have happened in my hon. Friend's constituency, I think it would be quite wrong for me to go into this at all.

Mr. Channon (Southend, West)

Can the hon. Gentleman say a word about the sickness vote. There was considerable misunderstanding and even confusion in my constituency about the date when the list would close. Many people thought it would have been better to have the date nearer election time, particularly in winter when many people may be down with 'flu and unable to go to vote. The date was fixed at 10th February, 13 days before the General Election. In some quarters it was thought that the closing date was 3rd February, but afterwards that was found to be untrue. This affected people of all parties. Something should be done to move the date forward.

Mr. de Freitas

At present the returning officer has the discretion to fix what date he chooses. This seems to me unsatisfactory because it may expose him to charges of favouritism, and it is likely that we will fix a definite date, probably the last day for nominations.

Mr. Channon

A little nearer polling time?

Mr. de Freitas


Mr. Scholefield Allen

Can my hon. Friend say how long the committee will be, and whether the report will be in writing and available to hon. Members?

Mr. de Freitas

I have already answered that. I said that the report will not be published. The conference have already had a meeting since the General Election, and there will be another one within a matter of weeks.

Mr. Wigg

I think that my hon. Friend has been less than fair to me. Will he say whether there are not now two quite distinct views about the law relating to the use of motor cars and whether he is satisfied with the interpretation which the House accepted generally when the Bill was being debated is not now altered?