HC Deb 04 May 1955 vol 540 cc1847-65

11.38 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Bing (Hornchurch)

I do not intend to follow at any great length—because I wish to turn to another subject—the remarks which have been made by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. All I would remind him, before he leaves the Chamber, is that he might have a chat with the Government Chief Whip. His Government are engaged in trying to get Supply. We are all hoping that they will get Supply this week, for we understand that if they are unable to pass the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill this week they will be in some difficulty.

We are all hoping to co-operate. In those circumstances, I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that he talks this over with his Chief Whip and that the getting of the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill tomorow would be facilitated if he were here tomorrow with the answers to the points which he has not been able to answer tonight owing to his feeling that he ought to deal with the Labour Party Election manifesto.

I know that a number of my hon. Friends have been disappointed at not having had their points answered, and I know that they will take the opportunity of speaking on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill tomorrow. Fortunately, it is exempted business and it will be possible for us, therefore, to pursue the matter. We all hope that it will be possible to carry out the programme as laid down, but if we are to be treated as we have been treated by the Parliamentary Secretary there may be some doubt about the outcome of that optimistic programme. I leave the hon. Gentleman to consult the Chief Whip.

Now I turn to the subject which I promised to raise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle). I think we are all agreed on both sides of the House that we want the General Election which some of us understand is coming to be a fair Election. There is not anything, I think, we want to see more than that. A very serious issue was raised by my hon. Friend. I am glad to see there are several Ministers here to deal with it.

I turn to the Minister of Health, and I hope I may have his attention. He made yesterday, in reply to my hon. Friend, this statement with which, I think, we all agree: It is desirable that everybody should be aware of their right to a postal vote and equally important that any information given should be made available to all political parties who ask for it. There is nothing wrong in responsible citizens, doctors or others, bringing to the notice of those concerned, whatever their politics, their rights as postal voters. We all agree with the right hon. Gentleman in that, and we on this side commend him particularly because he has sent out a circular to that effect. We can commend him because this is one of the few occasions, one of the very few occasions, on which he has followed the example of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan). We only hope that he will find other occasions in the short time that still remains to him to do so to pursue that good example.

However, it is necessary not only that patients should vote but that everyone should vote, and there is a matter to which I hope the Joint Under-Secretary of State will reply. I hope, too, that he will apologise for the Minister of Health if the Minister feels unable himself to join in the debate. It is suggested that while it may be proper for patients to vote it is quite improper for anyone to secure a vote who is engaged in national service of various kinds, particularly people who are living in hostels, in the hostels of the Ministry of Labour or the hostels of various other Ministries. These are people who either are homeless, and who have, surely, as much right to vote as anyone, and, perhaps, more need to exercise the vote, or people who, in the national interest, are living away from home.

What does the right hon. Gentleman say about them? Answering questions about hostels, he quotes part of an article from "The Labour Organiser" of three years ago dealing with hostels. It may be, of course, that the hospitals which the right hon. Gentleman administers have now been reduced to the state of hostels and he confused the two, or that he thought that if he pronounced the words quickly the House would think he was referring to the one when he was referring to the other. He spoke of an article written by a very distinguished man, by Mr. Fred Davenport, a very distinguished organiser in the Labour Party, a man who is, I think it is fair to say, the soul of honesty, a man who has a very high reputation for the way in which he conducts electoral affairs. He happened to write an article about the difficulties of people living in hostels getting votes. What did the right hon. Gentleman say about it? He said, referring to my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison): Much other evidence can be produced if the right hon. Gentleman would like it. The right hon. Gentleman will agree that these are disgraceful statements and will be glad, I am sure, to take this opportunity of explaining them to the House. The Joint Under-Secretary of State who is to reply to me should apologise for that remark by the Minister. It is a tradition of this House that we do not here attack people who are not Members, unless we are absolutely bound to do so by our Parliamentary duties. If it turns out that we do attack them, as the right hon. Gentleman unjustifiably attacked—

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

Mr. Gibson Jarvie.

Mr. Bing

I will give way if the hon. Gentleman wants to interrupt me.

Sir W. Darling

I was recalling the name of Mr. Gibson Jarvie.

Mr. Bing

I am glad to think that the hon. Gentleman will be able to get in touch with him to arrange his postal vote. Even on the Consolidated Fund Bill I do not want to be drawn into debating the merits or otherwise of the United Dominions Trust, a matter which we might explore at some length but which we might reserve, if the hon. Member wishes, for tomorrow's debate.

Sir W. Darling

The hon. and learned Member was remarking that in this House we do not attack individuals who cannot defend themselves. I reminded him of the attack which was made from his side of the House on a distinguished industrialist, Mr. Gibson Jarvie. It seemed out of touch with the opinion which the hon. and learned Member has just expressed to the House.

Mr. Bing

If it is possible that Mr. Gibson Jarvie was attacked unjustly—and I express no opinion about that—all that the hon. Member has to do is to come forward with this matter tomorrow. We have all tomorrow night and, possibly, Friday to debate the Consolidated Fund Bill, but that subject is really a little outside what I am dealing with at the moment. I am engaged in considering very important matters connected with the postal vote as to which, if we do not receive a satisfactory answer tonight, we can return tomorrow. That is why I hope that we shall have a satisfactory answer.

What is disgraceful in this article to which I have referred? This distinguished political agent tried to secure, quite irrespective of party, that people who were working in a hostel were entitled to their vote. Yet that is what the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health, who sits on the Front Bench not paying any attention and ostentatiously ignoring what is being said, is prepared to say about one who cannot defend himself. I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department and Welsh Affairs is prepared to come forward and either justify what the Minister of Health said or else withdraw it.

But we on this side of the House were complaining about something very different. It is that there seems to be evidence that Conservative Party Associations throughout the country are trying to get doctors to use their position under the National Health Service to provide information to one political party only. It is, of course, improper for a doctor to give such information. Indeed, the Minister of Health went so far as to say so, and of course it is equally improper to ask for it.

I confess that I have given notice to a number of hon. Members, but I failed to give notice to the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. W. Steward). When I refer to a certain letter, I am sure that it was issued without the hon. Member's knowledge. He is occupied no doubt with the affairs of the Kitchen Committee. But the agent of the hon. Member for Woolwich, West writes to a doctor as follows: Whilst feeling that we ought not to trouble you, we are anxious to ensure that ail our supporters"— Not everyone. The letter is labelled "Woolwich, West Conservative and Unionist Association." This is the letter which the Minister apparently has examined and, as I understand it, considers to be perfectly proper.

What does "all our supporters" mean? Does that mean all the supporters of Mr. Howard, the secretary-agent of the Woolwich, West Conservative and Unionist Association?

Mr. Speaker

I dislike interrupting the hon. and learned Member, but I cannot see what Ministerial responsibility there is for the action of any agent of any party. I do not think that any Minister is responsible for that.

Mr. Bing

It may well be so and, with great respect, if it is proper for me to say so, I entirely agree with your observations, Mr. Speaker. In exactly the same way when the Parliamentary Secretary was speaking he dealt with the Labour Party Manifesto, a matter for which nobody in this House has a direct responsibility. The importance of the matter is, of course, that the doctor to whom this letter was addressed was a servant of the Minister who sits in this House, a doctor who was paid out of public funds administered by the Minister, and who was attending patients because he received money from the State so to do. He is being approached by somebody who is putting him in an intolerable position and saying, "Because of our political association, please, you must give me the material and the facts which you have obtained through your service in the National Health Service."

Mr. Speaker

Even assuming it is wrong for the agent to write that letter to the doctor, I do not see how any Ministerial responsibility attaches for this wrong act, if it was one.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

When we did discuss this matter some hours ago something was read from Erskine May, and on that Mr. Deputy-Speaker did read out a passage which said that we were discussing the administrative responsibility of Ministers. In that administrative responsibility of Ministers it is the responsibility of the Minister to see that doctors fully employed by the National Health Service are not abused by anybody and not subject to any pressure to betray the trust that the National Health Service reposes in them. In those circumstances, I suggest that this is precisely a matter that falls within the administrative responsibility of the Minister of Health, and we are dealing with the Consolidation Fund (Appropriation) Bill which does deal with Ministry of Health expenditure, and, therefore, we are entitled to raise anything which does not involve legislation affecting the Ministry of Health.

Mr. Speaker

Certainly if there is Ministerial responsibility for the administration. The hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) and the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) appreciate that if that were the case I should not object for a moment, but there is no Ministerial responsibility or administrative responsibility for the action of election agents.

Mr. F. Blackburn (Stalybridge and Hyde)

Mr. Speaker, would you admit that there was Ministerial responsibility if the doctor supplies the information?

Mr. Speaker

That is quite a different matter, and again I must confess a certain uneasiness as to how far doctors are servants of the Minister. How far the Minister is responsible for the conduct of a doctor in other matters such as this. I do not know. I am waiting to be enlightened.

Mr. Bing

I will come back a little to that if you will allow me a moment to develop the point dealing with Ministerial responsibility. As you yourself know. Mr. Speaker, the Minister of Health answered a Question the other day on the subject, and he would not have done that and pronounced on the matter unless he had some responsibility for it.

I will leave this aspect of the matter merely by saying that there is, of course, a responsibility and a Cabinet responsibility. It is highly undesirable when persons are being paid by the State that the names of Cabinet Ministers, or at any rate, if not Cabinet Ministers, Ministers in the Government, are used to influence persons who receive emoluments from the State to act in the interests of one or other of the political parties. It is also desirable that we in this House should see that our electoral machine works fairly and properly, and there must be, with great respect, some responsibility on some Ministers for seeing that we have fair elections.

Mr. Speaker

On that the hon. and learned Gentleman will know as well as I do that there is an elaborate code of election law and that any transgression of it is a matter for the courts.

Mr. Bing

That is so, of course. That is one remedy, but, Mr. Speaker, you will recall that, for instance, in one case in which some of us were interested, where it was held that a Member of Parliament sat improperly, it was agreed that it was a matter which could have been dealt with by the courts but was, in fact, dealt with by this House. The courts can, of course, punish the offender after the offence has been committed. What we are concerned with on all sides of the House is seeing that before any offence is committed the position is made clear by the Government that doctors are not led, by incautious use of the names of Ministers, to commit offences, and that they are warned of what is the real position, I only regret that we have not the Attorney-General among the Ministers present.

I will leave North Woolwich and I will also not say anything further about the matter raised by the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn, East in regard to the matter of Hornsey. I will only say that we all accept the undertaking given by the Minister on behalf of the Assistant Postmaster-General that he knew nothing of the matter, that he was in no way responsible. I mentioned to the hon. Gentleman that I should be referring to the matter, in passing, tonight and he said he could not be here. We all agree that he was entirely blameless in this matter.

Sir W. Darling

What about the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. W. Steward)? Is he not in the same position?

Mr. Bing

He may well be. His name may have been used improperly, but it seems odd that the names of so many hon. Gentlemen almost exclusively on the opposite side of the House are being used in that way.

Sir W. Darling

It may be true.

Mr. Bing

It is. I now turn to the point, Mr. Speaker, which you were good enough to raise with me, the difficulty of Ministerial responsibility. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health himself set out in yesterday's proceedings the points upon which he accepted Ministerial responsibility. He laid down for the doctors employed in the National Health Service under his control the following code, saying this: On the specific question about extracting patients' names from doctors' lists, I would not expect information concerning doctors' National Health Service patients, which is normally regarded as confidential, to be disclosed for some entirely different purpose. I am sure that doctors— I ask the House to note that phrase— understand the position, and that no special communication is necessary."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd May, 1955; Vol. 540, c. 1516–9.] That is one point of view. If, in view of what I say, later on the House feels that all doctors understand the position, then we agree with the Minister that no special communication is necessary. But if it were possible for me to put before the House some evidence to show that one of the most eminent of doctors has very little idea of the position, then perhaps it might be desirable that the Minister should reconsider the desirability of making some general circular.

Then the Minister went on to deal with the position of the Assistant Postmaster-General. It is only fair to mention in passing that the view of the Minister is supported by that of the British Medical Association, a spokesman of which said: This comes under the ruling that a doctor does not give any information about a patient without the patient's consent. It would be a breach of etiquette. Under those circumstances the House is entitled to some explanation about a letter which was written by someone in the Luton Constituency. It may well be that this kind of letter was an unauthorised contribution. It is addressed to a nurse and, as her name was mentioned, the House will perhaps permit me to use it. It reads: Dear Nurse Ingram: Dr. Hill has asked me to undertake the responsibility of seeing that all old people, invalids and sick people who are entitled to a postal vote do in fact get one. It continues: Although most of the doctors are kindly approaching invalids, etc., on this matter, it is thought that there will be some old people whom doctors do not often see, but whom you may know. Perhaps you could send me a list of any old people you may know, irrespective of their political beliefs, who would not be able to vote in person at the polling station. I would be most grateful if you could send your list by return in the enclosed S.A.E. to my secretary, as we have to arrange to give the voters an application card and get their doctors' certificate, all before 12th May. All I ask the Minister is that doctors in Luton should be instructed to provide the list not to one political party but to all of them. It is no use the right hon. Gentleman saying that all doctors understand the position, when a doctor as eminent as the late secretary of the British Medical Association uses his name in this way. It may be that his name is being misused. It may be a breach of etiquette for a doctor but not for a nurse to give away the name of a patient. That may be the explanation. It may be that the Postmaster-General is ignorant of what goes on in his constituency.

Mr. Hale

I am worried about this matter. No one wants to suggest anything sinister about the actions of Ministers, who are to have a frightful time in the next three weeks, anyhow; but they are not only doing this uniformly but contemporaneously. It is impossible to reject the thesis that there has been some consultation about it.

Mr. Bing

That aspect of the matter will no doubt be considered widely outside this House. We should concentrate on the simple proposition that anyone is entitled to vote and to express his opinion by secret ballot. If their names have been supplied to the agent acting, or seeking to act, on behalf of the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General, that may be the explanation. There may be irresponsible agents of irresponsible Members. If the names were supplied, I hope the right hon. Member for Luton will come to the Box and say, "Every one of those names will be supplied to all other political parties contesting the Election in my constituency."

The Postmaster-General (Dr. Charles Hill)

The cards sent by these persons will be returned to the appropriate registration officer.

Mr. Bing

So the right hon. Gentleman says, but what happens if these persons are canvassed before they are given the cards? The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head. Was it authorised? Does he know about it? Was the letter sent at his request? If he shakes his head, and speaks on it, he must know something about it. How does he justify the statement: "I am sure that all doctors understand the position and that no communication is needed."? Here is a letter with the imprimatur of the right hon. Gentleman. Is he now telling us that he knew all about it and that he arranged for everyone to be given a card? If that is so, what objection has he to giving the list to other political parties? Why should he object?

Is it not possible that some agents, before they give the card, will say, "I understand that you are a supporter of the Conservative Party" and if the person says "No" he will tell them he hopes they will be cured soon, and away he goes. It has happened before. In those circumstances the right hon. Gentleman must see the difficulty of his position. Why cannot he say "We will give to the Liberal and the Labour agents—and the Communist agent, too, for that matter, if there is one—the names we have collected in a way which we now think is one which we should not perhaps have employed"?

On this side we cannot escape the feeling that in so many constituencies these forms and letters would not have been written had there not been some responsible doctor. If, in fact. Ministers—and there are cases of it—are writing letters talking about "getting in touch with our supporters," surely it is an unfortunate use of the National Health Service.

I hope that as a result of this debate we shall not have to pursue the matter tomorrow and that we shall have a full promise from the Minister that this rather undesirable state of affairs will be properly dealt with. With great respect, I should have thought that the proper way to deal with it is that the Government as a whole—represented by the Minister of Health so far as the sick, the aged and the infirm people are concerned—should take steps to see that all persons in hospitals are certain of getting their votes.

In my own constituency we thought that we could do this quite simply by cooperation with the other agents. If one is being canvassed in one's own home one can shut the door on some excuse or other, but if a person is lying in a hospital bed it is very unfair for people to thrust political propaganda at them. For myself, I am averse to canvassing for votes in hospitals. Nevertheless, the fact that someone is sick or is suffering from industrial accident, or is wounded in war, is no reason for depriving him of his vote.

We therefore proposed to the Conservative and Liberal agents in Hornchurch that, between them, the three agents should arrange that everyone in hospital, irrespective of who he was, should be registered for a postal vote and that no one should canvass him. What answer did we get from the Conservatives?"Oh, no, we do not want to do that." What does that suggest? That they have done it in some other way. One cannot escape the value of evidence which suggests that it is being done through the doctors and using the National Health Service. It is no use the right hon. Gentleman condemning it and saying that no doctor would do it when the most eminent doctor, sitting on his own Front Bench, not only did it but, from the nature of his interruption just now, knew all about it beforehand. We want something a good deal better than that.

It may happen that old people vary often do not get their votes. I know of a case in my constituency. Those concerned were all supporters of mine and complained about it afterwards to me. but I should have been just as annoyed had they been supporters of someone else. In my constituency I have a hospital called St. George's Hospital for infirm old people. I think about 200 of them—which is a matter of some importance in a constituency like Hornchurch where, one way or the other, the majority is about 1.000—filled in forms to get a postal vote.

For some reason or other—I am sure from pure inadvertence or mistake—the forms were not sent to the returning officer until after the final date for registration. That happened after the last Election. As I say, I am sure that was a mistake and was due to people not realising the importance of the matter. I therefore hope that the Minister will take some steps to see that hospitals and bodies for which he has responsibility do not make such mistakes again.

Of course, incapacitated people are not the only ones entitled to a postal vote. There are, for example, British Railways, which employ a great number of locomotive drivers and firemen. Are not they entitled to a vote? Is he not going to issue instructions that the British Transport Commission ought to make it clear which men will be on shifts that will take them away from their homes over polling day in time for them to be able to register for a postal vote? Where the State is the employer, it should set an example by making sure that in every one of these cases the voter who is going to be taken away on State duty from his home has an opportunity of registering his postal vote. It is very important in the case of railwaymen, and it is equally important for maintenance men employed in electricity works and by other nationalised bodies.

The most important place of all is the Armed Forces. In 1945 the Armed Forces did not deal very kindly with the party opposite, but I do not suppose that this would be a reason why anybody on the benches opposite would consciously deprive members of the Armed Forces of their votes. But this is a very serious complaint, and I hope the Under-Secretary will deal with it. Perhaps we shall have to have the Under-Secretary of State here tomorrow to deal with it.

It may be that this is merely a technical and local difficulty, but I have had reported to me two different distinct cases, the first at Catterick Camp where there are a great number of soldiers and where there are no F. Vote 33 forms available. The F. Vote 33 form is an Army form which enables a soldier who has previously been registered for a proxy, and who is back in this country, to vote by post. I understand that the position is that these forms have ceased to be available in some units at Catterick Camp, and that when inquiries were made, even as far afield as the returning officer at Darlington, no forms were available.

There would appear to be a general shortage throughout the Army. I will give another example at random. A soldier at the R.E.M.E. unit at Arborfield in Berkshire wrote to his family, to the returning officer at Bexley and to others in an effort to get one of these forms because he understood that there were none available in his unit and that they would not be available until after the Election. I do not say that any of this is done on purpose, but it shows a singular lack of appreciation of the importance of the vote, and one which I am sure we all deplore.

I do not know whether the Under-Secretary is in a position to give us any information about what is happening about the R.A.F. I understand that it is suspected in the R.A.F. that all the forms are distributed, everyone is asked to sign them and that they are then all sent to Uxbridge and nothing happens. This may or may not be so, but tomorrow, no doubt, we can have someone here who can assure us before we part with this Bill that this is not so, and that the anxiety of a number of airmen which has been expressed to me and to other hon. Members is entirely unjustified.

I want to conclude by making two pleas with which I hope the Minister and those responsible will be able to deal. My first plea relates to the canvassing of doctors and the use of names of influential Members and of Ministers, which leads doctors inadvertently to think that they are acting in accordance with the wishes of the Government. We should like an assurance that any name so obtained—and particularly in Luton, because we have the personal assurance of the Postmaster-General in his case—will be communicated to the agents of all parties who are fighting the Election in time for them to make certain that each of the individuals can have his postal vote registered before Thursday, the closing day. That seems to be a very simple request and I am sure that, whatever the action of the Government, it is a request which the right hon. Member for Luton will not refuse.

Secondly, we ask the Government to take steps to see that these forms are commonly available. In view of the difficulties which have arisen, I see no reason why a number of them should not be made available in post offices. The register is exhibited in post offices, and I see no reason why people should not be able to obtain the absent voter's form from the post office.

What is absolutely essential—and we must have an assurance from the Minister on this point—is that the Services have all the forms which are required, that the Service officers, both in the R.A.F. and in the Army, appreciate their duty and that these forms will be returned before the closing date which, as the Minister knows, is earlier than it used to be—that is, next Thursday.

I am sure that none of my hon. Friends wishes to impede the passage of this essential legislation, but of course if this legislation were passed merely for the purpose of fighting an Election and that Election were to be conducted unfairly, we should all have to reconsider how far we should carry out opposition and make certain that before we parted with the Bill tomorrow or on Friday or on Monday the proper steps had been taken to see that there was no unfairness about what is in some ways the decisive factor in this Election—the postal vote.

12.17 a.m

Sir Lionel Heald (Chertsey)

It is customary in the case of a maiden speech to deal very gently and politely with the person who makes it. I do not know whether that applies to a swan song. That would perhaps be a good reason—there might be another in that it is doubtful whether it would be in order—for my deciding not to refer in my swan song to the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) as "humbug."

I think it would be a good thing, in the first instance, if it were made quite clear that neither the House nor anyone in it—nor any Minister—has any right to issue any orders to doctors who are under contract under the National Health Act. There may be doctors who are employed in the salaried service of certain hospitals to whom—as my right hon. Friend made clear the other day—the Minister can give and has given instructions, but in other cases there is no question of his giving instructions at all. There may be questions of etiquette, which are matters for the doctors themselves. There is therefore no question of the House interfering with the doctors in what names they give, which is a matter for them.

As to any impropriety in this connection, I was surprised that the hon. and learned Gentleman should wax so indignant about it when I know, from my own researches into these matters, that a number of his hon Friends—I do not say he himself—have taken a view diametrically opposed to that which he took today.

I have had the advantage of some help in arriving at the views which are held on this matter, for I find that in "Labour Organiser" for October, 1951, Vol. 30, No. 355, page 186, there was an article entitled "Letter-Box Votes" by Joan E. Wicken, in which was said: … On the question of physical incapacity, anyone who has difficulty in getting to the polling station in bad weather or without an escort, is entitled to this service. In these cases, Party members should find the doctor's name and do the sitting in the waiting room. (Lots of people who qualify for a Postal Vote on medical grounds do not see the doctor from one week's end to the next, and it is dangerous to leave them a chance of losing the form meanwhile) … There is no suggestion there of looking after the interests of all parties.

That was in October, 1951. for the 1951 Election. Since then they have made progress, because in September, 1953, it gets a little stronger. In the "Labour Organiser" of September, 1953, Vol. 32, No. 377, page 166, there is an article, "Reaching the Postal Voter", by R. Wevell. That is certainly getting down to it. This is what was said: … One point about claims on behalf of sick people—I am suggesting that in some cases it may be helpful to offer to see the doctor about the signing of the R.P.F.7. This is added—and this is in order to produce the impartial result which the hon. and learned Member wants: We shall then know the job has been done. …

Mr. Bing

May I interrupt the swan song of the right hon. and learned Member? Quite irrespective of what he is saying, we all regret it should be his swan song, but I think he has mistaken the point. I would hate to think that on the last occasion on which he speaks the right hon. and learned Member should be mistaken. A friend can go and help someone who is incapable of visiting a doctor and get the form signed. I do not think there is anything wrong in that. If there is, perhaps the right hon. and learned Member will explain it.

Sir L. Heald

I certainly will. Any suggestion that this is being done for the general welfare of electors to whatever party they belong is a little difficult to explain when I remind the hon. and learned Member of what was said in October, 1951: In these cases, Party Members should find the Doctor's name and do the sitting in the waiting room. If that is not considering the welfare of one party rather than another, the editor of the "Labour Organiser" ought to get the sack, because presumably that is what he is there for.

Mr. Bing

Would the right hon. and learned Member allow me to interrupt him again?

Sir L. Heald

No, I am delaying the House as it is, but I think these things ought to be exposed. The other matter about which the hon. and learned Member was a little disingenuous, if that is not an improper word to use—I hope not—was that he suggested as regards these hostels that it is a purely altruistic effort to help all parties. As the paper in which this appears is the "Labour Organiser" and it was written by the agent of the Gloucester party, one would have thought that was a very likely thing. But when we read the article we find this, which the hon. and learned Member did not read: Our knowledge of the hostel assures us that almost all will be Labour votes. There again the hon. and learned Member seems either to have missed the point, or not entirely to have given us the whole picture.

I do not want to delay the House further, but I repeat that these efforts to give a misleading impression are really rather disingenuous. It is perfectly clear that if doctors are prepared to give information as to how postal voters may be reached, there is absolutely no reason why they should not do so. There is no reason to assume that the information will be used in a dishonest way, as the hon. and learned Member suggested. That, I think, emanates from his own mind. He is quite entitled, I suppose, to have such ideas, but he is not entitled to attribute them to other people.

We can perhaps leave the matter now, but I should like just to say this, because the hon. and learned Member has referred to the atmosphere in which we are considering this matter and the importance of having a successful General Election. I think he will find when he reads his paper tomorrow morning that speeches such as his are having an admirable effect and that the Gallup Poll has moved in the right direction.

12.25 a.m.

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

I should like to say a few words in reply to the points raised by the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing). The grounds on which an elector may apply to vote by post are set out in Section 12 of the Representation of the People Act, 1949. The application must be made to, and must be decided by, the registration officer for the constituency and he must grant it if he is satisfied that the applicant is entitled to it under the Section. There is provision for appeal to the county court against a refusal by the registration officer to grant the application. The Home Secretary, therefore, has no powers and no responsibility in this matter whatsoever.

Of course, all political parties, both nationally and locally, take a good deal of trouble to publicise the rights of those concerned that they should be able to vote by post. I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for raising this matter this evening so that the various methods that have been used by his party and ours should have been put on record and can be compared. I think that when the country reads this evening's debate, it will have very little doubt as to which party applies the fairer methods.

Apart from what the parties do, and for which, of course, my right hon. and gallant Friend has no responsibility whatever, the Home Office issues material to the B.B.C. and to the Press as a basis for the national publicity, which I agree with the hon. and learned Member is important.

The hon. and learned Member raised one or two particular cases. He referred to people like engine drivers, who are subject to permanent liability to be away from home when an election takes place. They are, of course, normally on the absent voters' list permanently and, therefore, they do not have to make application for any particular election. Their case is, thus, covered, but they will of course be amenable to all the publicity too; and certainly it would not be any part of my right hon. and gallant Friend's duties, nor of any Minister's duty, to take special steps to bring the matter to the attention of those individuals.

The hon. and learned Member referred to the Armed Forces and mentioned that the forms F Vote 33 were not available, he said, in certain units at Catterick Camp, and he went on to suggest that there was a general shortage. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for War, who is present with me tonight, assures me that there is no general shortage and that all appropriate steps have been taken to ensure that all units have sufficient numbers of forms available. I have no doubt that there are individual cases where for special reasons there is a shortage of forms; but it would have been better if the hon. and learned Member had drawn the attention of my hon. Friend to the particular cases, of which, presumably, he knows, where there is a shortage, rather than raise them for the first time this evening in this debate.

Mr. Bing

I am sure the hon. Gentleman does not want to do me a disservice. When the matter was referred to me I immediately telephoned the private office, giving him details of the unit concerned in that case.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

Of course I do not want to make an unfair point against the hon. and learned Gentleman, but the way to deal with exceptional cases of this kind is to draw the attention of whatever Minister may be concerned—the Under-Secretary of State for War in this instance—to the matter. I am quite certain that then the matter will be rectified straight away.

The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to matters which were raised in this House yesterday. I really cannot say anything more than what has already been said by the Minister of Health in this connection. He has dealt with the subject very fully—so fully, indeed, that it is perfectly plain that the hon. and learned Gentleman's hon. Friends are entirely satisfied, because not one single one of them is here to support him tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Committee this day.