HC Deb 03 December 1953 vol 521 cc1384-92

Order for Second Reading read.

6.56 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir David Maxwell Fyfe)

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

This is a small and, as far as party politics are concerned, an agreed Measure to alter the date of publication of the register of electors from 15th March to 15th February. Those concerned with elections, and particularly with the county council elections in England, have wished for the register to be published earlier ever since the present arrangements were made in the Representation of the People Act, 1948.

At that time the dates for local government elections were altered so that all could take place in the spring. The choice of date was limited for obvious reasons, and eventually it was agreed that the English county council elections should be held early in April and other local government elections early in May. At that time, however, it was not possible to provide for the register to be published earlier than the middle of March. The reason was that the printers were in difficulty owing to their pre-Christmas work.

The printing situation has now changed, and the printers have agreed that they could now undertake to publish the register in February provided suitable adjustments were made in the other dates governing the preparation of it. We thought that this opportunity to make a change should be taken and we found that everyone concerned welcomed it.

The main advantage of the change is that it will allow a long interval between the publication of the register and the county council elections in England. This will be particularly important in 1955, when Easter comes on 10th April. Otherwise there would be a very short period between 15th March and the date of the election. Another advantage is that it will mean an easier time for the house-to-house canvassing; there has been complaint about canvassing in November. Also it will be better if the same qualifying date and the same period for objections obtains in Scotland as in England.

Everyone here, I think, appreciates that one has to work back from the date of the publication of the register to the qualifying date, and to leave periods for the various stages. All of this has been done carefully and with complete agreement. This will mean that the period for claims and objections will be what is desired, and I understand that there is a provisional agreement that it should be extended from 15 days to 19 days, beginning on 28th November and finishing on 16th December. These dates for claims and objections will be fixed by regulations which will be submitted to the House for approval as soon as may be convenient after the Bill becomes law.

I have not gone through all the details, but I have them and would be pleased to do so if necessary. These proposals have been discussed with the chief party agents and with representative registration officers. In England the County Councils Association and the London County Council have also been consulted, and the other local authority associations have been kept informed. Everyone welcomes the proposals, and I may say that no one wishes to make any further change.

Scotland and Northern Ireland have been most co-operative and have raised no difficulties about falling into line. Thus the Bill is in every sense an agreed Measure, and as it is most desirable to enable the printers, registration officers and others concerned to make the necessary adjustment in their arrangements for preparing the 1955 register as soon as possible, we hope that the House will be willing to give the Bill a speedy passage.

7.0 p.m.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

I welcome this Bill. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary has said, it is the result of prolonged discussions between those who are most intimately concerned with the preparation and publication of the register, and it is a good thing to know that the printers are satisfied that they can get the register out by the appropriate day. I am quite certain that had the printers been able to give that assurance in 1948, something very similar to this proposal would have been enacted for England and Wales, instead of the proposal that was actually embodied in the 1948 Act.

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, I have some misgivings about one matter. If the qualifying day is 20th November, the house-to-house canvass starts somewhere about 1st October, and where persons are found to be not at home on the first visit it is sometimes necessary to pay a second visit and sometimes even a further visit to ascertain who in that house is qualified to have his or her name inscribed on the register. If we go to 10th October, in the same way the house-to-house canvass will have to be started probably about 1st September, or quite possibly during the last week of August.

That might not have been so serious a problem a few years ago, but in these days when the principle of a seven or 14 days' regular holiday every year has been conceded to a very large number of the population—I believe with very considerable beneficial results—it is clear that, when we get back to the last week of August and the early part of September, we shall find a larger number of people who will be on holiday when the canvasser calls. I hope, therefore, that in any circular which he issues to registration officers, in the event of this Bill being enacted, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will make it quite plain that the desire of Parliament is that the alteration of the date shall not lead to any lessening of the number of legitimately-qualified people whose names appear on the register.

All of use here know, as a result of our experience at elections, that no matter how skilled our agent or our opponent's agent, or how careful the registration officer, on the last three or four days before the poll one finds in one's committee rooms a number of people who are duly qualified to be on the register but somehow or other have been missed. I believe that in recent years there has been an increasing efficiency in the canvass and in the register, and it would be a very unfortunate thing if this greater facility for the use of the register in county council elections should result in more people than at present being disfranchised through the kind of inadvertence that somehow or other occurs.

The difficulties that are likely to arise in practice will depend more upon the regulations than upon the terms of this Bill. What happens here is that we alter the date from 20th November to 10th October, and all the problems of the intervening period between that date and the date of the publication of the register will be dealt with in the regulations. I am told—and I had to go to some trouble to find out—that agreement on one point was rather assumed by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I am told that the date that was agreed by everybody as a date on which residence has to be proved was 15th October and that thereafter the registration officers and the printers agreed that they could go back to 10th October. But I have it in writing that the chief party agents were not so informed and that at least one of them had a bit of a shock when he saw the date was 10th October instead of 15th October.

This will mean that there will be five extra days between the date on which the person has to be resident and the date on which the register will be published. I hope that it will be possible to consider in conference before the regulations are published—and this is entirely a matter for the regulations—some of the sub-divisions of that period. Perhaps it may be possible to give another couple of days for some of the activities of the agents, without putting anybody in any difficulty over the matter.

I hope, therefore, that after he gets the Bill on the Statute Book, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will arrange for a conference at which this matter can be discussed a little further because I think it may be possible to arrive at a unanimous decision on one of these issues on which I think that on the last occasion a compromise was reached by which everybody was equally inconvenienced. Neither got exactly what he wanted, but as each person had lost a little it was felt that that was "fair doings" all round. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will agree that there shall be at least some further discussion before the publication of the regulations.

Apart from that, I think that I can advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to support this Bill; and I can share the right hon. and learned Gentleman's wish that it may have a speedy passage to the Statute Book, because it is desirable that the exact procedure for the future shall be known as speedily as possible.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I give an undertaking that there shall be consultation before the regulations are made.

7.9 p.m.

Mr. John Taylor (West Lothian)

When my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) started by giving praise to and welcoming this Bill, I thought that it would be necessary for me to proceed with some circumspection in venturing to ventilate some doubts about the Bill. But my right hon. Friend's later qualifications encourage me to state these doubts, which I think are cogent and ought to be stated.

I am not so sure about the wisdom of passing a Bill which, for the sake of the elections which we hold once every three years, renders older a register for the annual elections which we hold in this country. I believe that the existing timetable is all right. It has operated successfully for a number of years. The difficulties which have been mentioned are not difficulties or problems which have arisen in the minds of those who manage elections. There has been no protest by candidates or agents.

The difficulties have been purely technical difficulties mentioned by printers, so far as we are led to understand from the information given to us by the Home Secretary. I believe that the printers' objection was that the Christmas holiday period rendered their time rather short. I do not know that the vitally important business of running elections in a democracy should be at the mercy of the convenience of the printing profession, a very great and efficient profession as it is in this country. We do not consider the convenience of printers when it comes to printing other matters in our election procedure. When we want ballot papers printed, we say, "We must have these papers by midnight the night after tomorrow," and we get them.

These five days, which have been stolen without any apparent consultation and agreement, are really important in the limited time-table between the qualifying date and the date of publication of an annual register. I understood that 15th October was agreed, but in the Bill it is 10th October. On inquiring why this should be so, I was given to understand that it is because the assessors, the registration officers in Scotland, objected. Only a Scottish Member could say this in this House. I object to the whole of the procedure for elections being changed and the agreement being changed at the whim of assessors in Scotland. I say "whim" because, for a long time, I have wanted the opportunity to say this.

I am not satisfied that the registering of electors in Scotland is in the best hands when it is in the hands of assessors. I think it would be better in the hands of registration officers concentrating upon that job. Assessors are very worthy people. Those of us who have any connection with local government finance in Scotland know that they do that job with admirable efficiency. The majority of ratepayers, as I am sure the Joint Under-secretary of State for Scotland would agree, say that they do it with too much efficiency. But this is a sideline for them. I have often felt, having had some experience of the registration of electors both in England and Scotland, that there is room for improvement there. I cannot see what technical difficulties arise which induced them to alter the whole of the agreement for the sake of these five days, which have such an important effect at a crucial time of the year in the preparation of registers.

My objections to the Bill are these. I am rather conservative in this matter. I think the qualifying date might well have been left alone. I am disappointed in the Bill to that extent, and I am disappointed by what is not in the Bill. I should have thought that experience of the working of the 1949 Act—which made so many necessary and urgent changes in our electoral procedure—had shown that one or two things we have learned might with profit have been put into this Bill. I think it a pity they are not in it. I am disappointed at what is in the Bill and at what is not in the Bill—otherwise it is not a bad Measure.

We ought now to look again at one provision in the 1949 Act which has never been implemented, namely, the publication of a half-yearly register. On all sides of the House that was agreed to be a good thing and a thing that was overdue; but it was never implemented because of the necessity for us all to economise in all expenditure not vitally essential to the country's well-being. The time is coming when we ought to receive from the Minister some kind of declaration about when it might be possible to resume publication of a half-yearly register of electors. In these days of many removals, it is impossible to secure a reasonably accurate register of electors on which to contest elections properly if it is published annually. I express the hope that we may have some kind of announcement about reversion to what was the beginning of the practice of a half-yearly register.

I am sure that I speak with the unheard applause of every election agent in this country when I make a plea for more caution on the part of registration officers and a plea for a more emphatic statement, either in the Bill or in the regulations, about alphabetical registers. It was stated somewhere in a statute or in previous regulations that registers should be in street order where streets exist. It is also left to the discretion of registration officers whether they shall print the register in street or alphabetical order of the surnames of the people living in the polling district. That should be more clearly stated and more definite guidance or instructions should be given to registration officers. It might have been put in this Bill, but it might well be in the regulations arising out of the Bill, that where streets exist it is the wish of Parliament that the register should be in street order; and where streets exist in only part of a polling district, that should not be an all-clear for the registration officer to print the whole of the names in that polling district in alphabetical order.

There is need for legislation to remove an injustice regarding the postal vote.

I am sorry to see that that is not in the Bill. Under existing legislation facilities exist for according the postal vote to electors who have moved to another constituency. That facility operates for one register only, but does not operate for all electors who move from one constituency to another.

Mr. Speaker

I think the hon. Member is now straying from the scope of the Bill, which is really confined to the alteration of dates. These wider matters are perhaps outside its scope.

Mr. Taylor

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I have only once before been called to order by the Chair in this House, and both occasions were rather terrifying. I must confess that on this occasion it was not unexpected. Of course, I bow with the Ruling. Perhaps an opportunity may present itself for me to develop that matter on some other occasion.

Having, with some adroitness, managed to get several points in on a subject in which I engaged for many years and on behalf of a body of men and women who are engaged in this very important business—important to Members of Parliament and to the general public—of managing elections, and managing them in complete spirit of the law and the best principles of democracy, I am glad, after all that I have said, to welcome the Bill, although there might have been a little more experiment. I still have a doubt about extending the older register—an annual register at that—for the important annual elections. Nevertheless, I think it might be wise to make the experiment and, within the Regulations, which will be more important than this Bill, we may get some improvements of the kind I have been trying to advocate.

7.20 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington)

I should hesitate to say anything after the expert speech of my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. J. Taylor), but I have from time to time had some slight professional experience on inquiries set up by the Home Office in connection with the alteration of local government ward boundaries. On those occasions it has been borne in upon anyone present, both by the political agents and by the registration officers, that the present publication date, particularly in relation to county council elections, leaves very little time for the electorate to understand any changes that are made.

Last year, for example, I was concerned with an inquiry in a borough where there were no fewer than 18 boundary changes in 20 wards. The registration officer said that for years many of the electors had been accustomed to going to the same polling places, and that if the register were published only on 15th March, the county council elections being in April, there was very little time for electors to be made aware of any new arrangements. Therefore, from such experience as I have had, I am certain that the earlier date will be welcomed, certainly in connection with county council elections.

I do not know whether the Minister who is to reply can say anything about the publication of registers twice-yearly. This was one of the casualties of economy. Undoubtedly, the registers for the two recent by-elections were very old indeed, and the qualifying date would now be more than 12 months old, both in the election which is being decided today and that which took place a few days ago. In today's instance, however, I am sure that it will in no way affect the result. Nevertheless a number of electors will have been disfranchised, and both political parties have been put to considerable trouble.

It would be helpful to have an indication whether the Home Office think that within a reasonable time the register may be published twice-yearly, as was promised. Apart from that limited experience of mine, the Bill is very much to be welcomed. I have, however, heard whispers about the October date, and I hope that the Home Secretary will be able to give this aspect his attention.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe indicated assent.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Redmayne.]

Committee Tomorrow.