HC Deb 09 July 1953 vol 517 cc1570-8

7.35 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

I beg to move, That the Representation of the People Regulations, 1953, dated 24th April, 1953, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th April, be approved. Perhaps it would be for the convenience of the House if we also consider the Regulations relating to Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are in similar terms, except that in the case of Scotland the order of the paragraphs is rather different, and in the case of Northern Ireland local government elections are not dealt with because those are matters for the Government of Northern Ireland and not for this Government.

The Representation of the People Act, 1948, made certain provisions for absent voters at Parliamentary and local government elections. There are three classes of such voters, those who vote by post, those who vote by proxy and those whose proxies themselves vote by post; and a person wishing to use these provisions must make application to do so. In certain cases he may apply to be registered in relation to a particular election. He does that if he is a candidate or the wife of a candidate, or is likely otherwise to be engaged—

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

"He" cannot be the wife of a candidate.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

If he is a candidate or she is the wife of a candidate. He may apply to be registered for an indefinite period if, for example, he is a person suffering from some physical incapacity or by the nature of his occupation he is likely to be away. Once registered, a person can apply to cancel a previous application in order to vote in the ordinary way.

Under the first Regulations made, the Representation of the People Regulations, 1949, no definite date was fixed as the last day for applications. The Regulations gave discretion to electoral registration officers to disregard late applications if they were received, in the case of those registered for a particular election, on or after the last day for nominations, and in the case of those registered indefinitely, if they were received on or after the date of the writ.

Accordingly, under those Regulations, in the 1950 General Election the last date for applications varied from constituency to constituency according to the discretion of the electoral registration officer, and that led to a good deal of confusion and discontent. A second set of Regulations was made. They were introduced by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) in 1950, and they fixed the last date for making application as the last day for nominations. In others words, in the case of a General Election the last day for making application was nine days before polling day, and in the case of a bye-election it was seven to nine days before polling day. The date was chosen after consultation with the chief party agents and representative registration and returning officers. It was chosen because it was taken to be the latest date that was practicable, and I think it was generally agreed at the time that it was tentatively chosen and would be subject to review in the light of what might occur at a subsequent general election.

The 1951 General Election showed that the date chosen in 1950 was too late having regard particularly to the very great number of applications to vote by post. In England and Wales the number of applications increased by more than two-thirds as between 1950 and 1951. The House may be interested if I give very briefly some figures. In England in 1950 there were 410,000 valid applications to vote by post. In 1951 that number increased to 688,000. In Wales the increase was from 24,000 to 39,000, in Northern Ireland from 24,000 to 25,000, and in Scotland from 49,000 to 79,000

A large proportion of the applications came in the last two or three days in which they could be made. I will give figures for the city of Birmingham in the 1951 Election to show what I mean. The total number of valid applications was, in round figures, 9,500. Of those some 2,000 were received before the Election began. Three thousand five hundred had been received by 12th October, which was the last day but two on which applications could be made. No less than 4,000 applications came in the last two days.

It was clearly impossible, in those circumstances, to examine, check and complete the lists in time. It led to delay sometimes in getting the postal ballot papers issued, and, as a result a large number of voting papers were returned too late. In fact, the increase in late voting papers was no less than 136 per cent. It rose from 22,000 to 52,000. It was clear from that that the closing date for applications must be earlier.

Consultations took place with the chief agents and others concerned and all have agreed on the terms of these Regulations, under which the last date for applications will be a fortnight before polling day. The House will see that in paragraphs 1, 3 and 4 of the Regulations for England and Wales there is reference to the different classes I have mentioned, and the last day is the twelfth day before polling day. But under the Regulations Sundays are excluded so that two days must be added, which makes it a fortnight before the ballot. I venture to suggest to the House that that date is reasonable. It gives a little more time for the necessary preparations, and at the same time it leaves people up to the latest practical date in which to put in their applications. I do not think that it will mean there will be more applications out of date. It seems fairly clear that the reason for the last minute rush is that people leave it to the last minute in which to rush. The fact that we are giving them two days less will in fact move that last minute rush back by that time.

May I say a word about the supply of the lists of absent voters to candidates. Following a request to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields when he was Home Secretary, the registration officers have, in fact, supplied lists of absent voters to candidates on request. It has not been compulsory for them to do so, because it was thought that there would be difficulties of timing. It is fairly clear that with this additional time there will be no such difficulties, and henceforth under these Regulations one free copy of the lists of absent voters must be supplied to each candidate or his or her agent upon request. That must be as soon as practicable, and in any event before the date of the issue of the ballot papers. This is covered by Regulations 2 to 5 in the Regulations for England and Wales, and there are corresponding Regulations in the other two.

As far as local government elections are concerned there is no alteration of the previous arrangements. In England and Wales applications have hitherto had to be made at least 14 days before the date of the poll. To that has to be added two days for the exclusion of Sundays, which means 16 days in all, and that position will remain. In the case of local government elections, too, a free copy of the lists of absent voters will have to be supplied to the candidate or his or her agent on request.

May I say a final word about Regulation 6 for England and Wales, to which these are corresponding Regulations for Scotland and Northern Ireland. Regulation 61 of the 1950 Regulations relates to a notification by a central national registration officer to an electoral registration officer that a man has left the Services and has therefore ceased to be a Service voter. The office of central national registration officer was abolished last year by the ending of national registration. The Registrar-General has the necessary information, and the effect of Regulation 6 is to substitute the Registrar-General for the officer who has now been abolished.

7.48 p.m.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

I am sure the House is obliged to the Joint Under-Secretary of State to the Home Department for so clearly explaining these Regulations to us. He has indicated that the alterations that they make in the practice will be in vogue in the next fortnight if we approve these Regulations and they come into effect. I think that they represent an improvement. This was a novel procedure in our elections in peace-time, and it was necessary to get the appropriate experience that would enable us to frame the Regulations to secure that the maximum number of people should be able to benefit from them and, at the same time, that the registration officers and the candidates' election agents should be able to conduct an election with efficiency.

Undoubtedly on the first occasion, when it was left to the discretion of the returning officer, a very considerable amount of discontent was caused when in an adjoining constituency it was found that a very different practice was prevailing. We attempted to avoid that in the second set of Regulations, and I am inclined to agree with the hon. Gentleman that we probably considered the convenience of the voter—quite rightly—rather than that of the officials connected with the election, with the result that on occasions there were undoubtedly difficulties between the returning officer and the candidate's agent when the returning officer was flooded out in the last 48 hours by this spate of requests for inclusion on the list.

I am not as sanguine as the hon. Gentleman that there will be no reduction in the number of persons claiming because we now fix the day two days earlier. My experience is that on the day after the last day, one has an even bigger number of persons coming into the Committee room to inquire what can be done than on the day or two before the last day. Undoubtedly, as the election proceeds, people begin to find out that there is something on and that unless they are very careful they may be debarred from participating in the election.

I hope, therefore, that when statements are made, as they are, from the Home Office to the Press of the country as to the various dates that govern the election, care will be taken to see that it is prominently stated in the first notice that is issued that a certain date—I am now dealing with Parliamentary elections—and not 12 days before the election plus two extra days because two Sundays intervene, will be specified, and that in the subsequent statements that are made up to the day on which the facilities given to the voters under these Regulations expire, that date will be repeated.

I emphasise that the date should be named and not its relationship with polling day, because there might be this complication of the two Sundays. After all, some people are not prepared to regard Sundays as days that do not count; some people think they are only days that do count. I recollect when I was a teacher taking some boys out, after we had won a very exciting cricket match, to give them a little extra treat. As we were sitting down to tea, one boy, with his mouth well stuffed with bun, said," Mr. Ede, this seems to me like Sunday." The boy sitting next to him said, "It does not seem like Sunday—I am enjoying myself." It is difficult to get people sometimes to realise that Sunday does not count for these purposes. Therefore, if the date is stated there should be no mistake, and a person who takes the trouble to read the notice, or any note of it that appears in the Press, ought to know which is the day on which his right to apply for inclusion in the list will expire.

It is also a good thing that it should now be made compulsory on the registration officer to supply the candidate with the list. After all, an agent can be a "she" as well as a "he." My right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) has a most efficient agent who is a lady. Therefore, the difficulty with regard to getting in both the pronouns when one is not relying on the Interpretation Act, arises even there. As I say, it is a good thing that the registration officer should be placed under compulsion to supply the list. There, again, it is very annoying, particularly in a county constituency, if it is found that in one area a list is available and in another it is not. It leads to comparisons being drawn between public officers, which ought to be avoided if at all possible.

These Regulations represent the fruit of experience. I have no doubt that under them we shall gain further experience. It may be that in the course of a year or two the Home Secretary may find it advisable even to submit further Regulations dealing with this point. I think, however, that these Regulations embody the result of the experiences we have had during the two general elections when this form of voting has been available. I commend the Regulations to my right hon. and hon. Friends. I suggest that as far as England and Wales are concerned and, in so far as I am entitled now to speak for Northern Ireland, as far as Northern Ireland also is concerned, we should accept them. But heaven forbid that I should say anything about Scotland.

Mr. Thomas Steele (Dunbartonshire, West)

I only want to ask one question in connection with Regulations 3 and 6 concerning the free issue of one copy of the lists. I am sure that election agents and candidates will welcome this improvement in the Regulations. Many candidates and agents have in the past found difficulty in securing the list of names of people who were on the postal register.

The Regulations say that one copy of the list shall be supplied free. We ought not to be niggardly. One copy seems to me to be a rather small allocation, especially for county constituencies. Although the Regulations say in effect that one copy is to be issued free, am I to understand from what the Minister said that agents may secure other copies on payment?

7.59 p.m.

Mr. John Taylor (West Lothian)

This is one of those subjects in which every Member of the House is intensely interested. It is a matter of the mechanics of elections. It is one of the improvements in the organisation and mechanical operation and management of election campaigns in Parliamentary elections that have been made within recent years.

When, a few years ago, the extension to the postal vote was new, it was the endeavour of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) to extend its use as far as possible. Many of us who were interested in this procedure of arranging elections wondered if my right hon. Friend had gone too far in making sure that every new applicant for a postal vote had every facility. But like him we were determined that there should never be any charge levelled against the Government, or Parliament, or the registration or returning officers, that they were denying electors any part of their rights. It was putting a heavy strain on the registration officers to ask that within a few days they should prepare this list of postal voters, and I welcome the alteration, which I think inevitable and necessary.

We are inclined to look with suspicion upon any undue extension of time for the registration of postal votes. But the experience of registration officers has proved it to be necessary. I think that the proposed time is reasonable and gives registration officers a little extra period to prepare and check the lists.

I am glad of the opportunity to pay a tribute to a body of public servants who infrequently receive compliments for their work. Returning officers and town clerks or county clerks, sheriffs, and sheriffs substitute are frequently complimented. But these humble members of town clerks' departments and officials of assessors' departments in Scotland seldom have an opportunity of hearing such praise. I have had experience over a quarter of a century of dealing with them, both in England and Scotland, and I have never had reason to complain. I am sure that the new Regulations will be a good thing. We all welcome the change and the result will be a more adequate and accurate register of postal voters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele) has asked that the Home Office and the Secretary of State should consider the issue of more than one copy of the list. This should be easily accomplished. There will not be time to print the lists and they will have to be duplicated. I suggest that a number of lists be sent out as free issues of registers to candidates for their agents. That will enable the agents to distribute the postal lists to sub-agents and ward workers.

I am glad that this part of the Regulations has been included because it will bring into line the issue of the parts of the register to the agents of all political parties. This is a highly technical and perhaps to some people a dull matter. But it is an important part of our machine for the running of elections in this country. I believe that we have the most perfect method of conducting elections which exists in the world, and because what we are considering is a little extra perfection, I welcome it.

8.9 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel H. M. Hyde (Belfast, North)

I endorse what has been said by the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. J. Taylor). The work of registration officers in Northern Ireland has been heavy because of the unusually large size of the constituencies. In the county constituencies particularly there have been a great number of postal votes. The alteration which will give registration officers more time to prepare the lists will be most acceptable in Northern Ireland.

We welcome these Regulations, and I assume that as a matter of form my hon. Friend will assure the House that these Regulations have the approval of the Government of Northern Ireland.

8.10 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Henderson Stewart)

I am sure that we should all like to join in the tribute that has been paid to registration officers. As individuals and as Members of Parliament, we have noted their efficiency and have admired their good sense. It is a tribute we pay from the House as a whole at this time.

The right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) suggested, very wisely I thought, that any notice going out should specify a date quite clearly. We agree to that and will do what is necessary. I should like to be able to tell the right hon. Gentleman what the date of the next Election will be, but I cannot do that just yet.

The hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele) raised the question of whether there should be more than one copy of the absent voters list. That seems a very reasonable suggestion. The Secretary of State for Scotland and, I am sure, the Home Secretary will consider that suggestion very sympathetically. It may not be possible to do exactly what was suggested by the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. J. Taylor) in the case of local government elections because there might be great numbers of candidates, but we will give the matter very careful and very sympathetic consideration.

Resolved, That the Representation of the People Regulations, 1953, dated 24th April, 1953, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th April, be approved.

Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations, 1953, dated 24th April, 1953 [copy presented 30th April] approved.—[Sir H. Lucas-Tooth].

Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations, 1953, dated 8th May, 1953, [copy presented 12th May] approved.—[Mr. Henderson Stewart.]

  1. ADJOURNMENT 16 words
Forward to