HC Deb 27 March 1958 vol 585 cc687-94

An Order in Council made under the principal Act shall not come into force until the expiration of a period of six months beginning with the date of the making of the Order.—[Mr. Mitchison.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Mitchison

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

This Clause deals with a very short point, and I hope that the Government will accept it. I have no ground for supposing that they will, and some ground for supposing that they will never accept anything. But, none the less, let us hope. I see the hon. and learned Gentleman looking a little puzzled. The ground to which I refer is previous experience today. So far, they have accepted nothing.

At the end of the proceedings the operative instrument under the principal Act is an Order in Council and, as far as I am aware, it operates immediately. When we had the last review and the last heated discussion in the House about the Order in Council which emerged from that review, the final results came into operation much too soon to be convenient before a General Election. I cannot believe that that is to anybody's advantage. Not merely the electors, whose political connections and political activities may be abruptly transferred from somewhere they know to somewhere they do not know, but also the officials who have to deal with this matter from the electoral point of view, and, indeed, everybody concerned, must deplore a short interval between the Orders in Council and a General Election.

I see no practical means of avoiding the difficulty except by allowing an interval between the time when the Orders are made and the time when they come into operation. I am sure that the Government are well aware of this practical difficulty and I cannot believe that they want it to continue. They have not put an Amendment down to meet the point, but no doubt they have read the new Clause. In those circumstances, I earnestly hope that they will accept it.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Niall Macpherson)

The hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) has moved the Motion most persuasively. We all recognise the difficulties which arise from too short notice after an Order has been presented for the division of an area into constituencies. On the other hand, there is a contrary danger. It would be possible for too long to elapse before an Election took place, because if the Commission completes a review in the early life-time of a Parliament we shall have a considerable movement of population in the period before the next Election takes place. One has to strike a balance.

I suggest to the Committee that the mere fact that we are increasing the period between reviews will give the Boundary Commission considerably more latitude as to the time it chooses for submitting a report. The Commission itself should be able to select the time in such a way that the Orders can be made without leaving too much time to elapse before the next General Election, while within the ambit of the period within which a review can be made—between ten and fifteen years. That time should not be too long, on the one hand, and should not be too short, on the other hand.

Mr. Mitchison

Perhaps I moved the Motion too shortly. I do not think that the hon. Member understands its purport. The point is that these Orders do not come into operation until a General Election. The only point is to provide for the case when there is less than six months between the Order and the General Election.

Mr. Macpherson

I was coming to that point. The Order in Council giving effect to a Commission's recommendations on the division of any area into constituencies may come into force on such date as is specified in the Order. That provision is in Section 3 (6) of the 1949 Act. As the hon. and learned Member has said, that Order does not effect any change in constituencies until the next General Election, so that any by-election would be conducted under the old rules, as things are at present. If we made a definite rule that the new Order would not come into effect until six months, at least, after it was published, should an Election take place in the intervening period, it would have to take place on the old register.

I put it to the hon. and learned Member that if that were done it would surely create grave political prejudice. Can he imagine what would be said about the Government party at an Election held in those circumstances? It would be said that they were hurrying to the country before the new register came into force.

Mr. Mitchison

I can answer the hon. Gentleman's question about what would be said. Nothing worse would be likely to be said than was said about the Conservatives getting the Rochdale by-election on the old register, but is this the point? Surely, the point is that if we allow a shorter interval than six months in this type of case we will make the whole thing impossible and unworkable for everybody. I am not convinced by anything that I have heard so far.

Mr. Macpherson

I should have thought that the mere case of the Rochdale by-election which the hon. and learned Member has quoted proves the point that grave political prejudice would undoubtedly be created.

We might well have a snap Election in the period. The Government might he defeated and have to go to the country, or they might decide to have a General Election because they conceived that it was in the national interest to have one. But, surely, the effect of an Order of this kind would be almost to put a complete ban on General Elections taking place until six months had elapsed, no matter what the conditions were. I suggest that this ought to be left to circumstances and that we should not tie this matter down.

We recognise, of course, that serious difficulties are involved if it so happens that the time that elapses between the Order and the General Election is short. In the last case, four to five months elapsed. Perhaps that was not long enough. Perhaps the hon. and learned Member for Kettering is right and that it would be more convenient to have a longer period, but I suggest to the Committee that this is not a suitable provision to write into the Bill.

If we tie this arrangement down, all that will really happen will be that we shall virtually be putting a ban on the holding of a General Election, whatever the circumstances, until six months after the Order has been made. I do not think that that necessarily would be to the advantage of the country as a whole. Therefore, much as we should like to accept it, after the hon. and learned Member has tried so hard and moved so many Amendments with such grace, I fear that we cannot accept the new Clause.

8.45 p.m.

Mr. Ede

The most interesting part of the Joint Under-Secretary of State's speech was the recognition that the dating of the Rochdale by-election was a bit of sharp practice.

Mr. Macpherson

The right hon. Gentleman must allow me to say that I admitted no such thing, although I acknowledge the clamour that arose from the other side about it.

Mr. Ede

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do a thing that I find very difficult to do, and that is to read his own speech in HANSARD tomorrow.

I do not understand the hon. Gentleman's answer on this matter. Every time one of these Orders is made it involves the shifting of the electoral position of a number of electors. If it is a substantial Order it involves the reorganisation of the machinery inside the constituencies by all the political parties involved. Some people have to get into a quite new orientation with regard to their political friends in other parts of the new constituency, which takes some time, and they find themselves cut off from people with whom they were formerly associated. In 1950, in the general review that brought up to date constituencies that had existed since 1918, these changes were very considerable, and there had been a substantial movement of population which added to the difficulty.

I suggest that six months is not long enough for that process, even when only one Order dealing with, perhaps, two or three constituencies is involved. I cannot think that this problem is involved with the date for holding a General Election. I am thinking now about the conditions created when an interim Order is made, possibly owing to an adjustment of local Government boundaries, which I think has been the cause of all the interim Orders up to date. Any Government that contemplated having a General Election immediately after an interval of ten or fifteen years would be very blameworthy if they held it within six months of the Orders being made.

This is a sensible Amendment in view of our general knowledge of the difficulties that are created inside a constituency when an interim Order is made. There may be difficulties about the register. It will all depend on the time of the year whether the register that is in print is applicable to the new constituencies that have been created, not merely with regard to the constituency as a whole, but with regard to wards or parishes within the constituency.

This Clause ought to have serious consideration, because those of us who every now and then have to engage in an Election know the difficulties that are created if we have a register which was not designed for the constituency which is now the subject of an election contest.

The Attorney-General

I am sorry that I did not hear the introductory remarks of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) in introducing the new Clause and I apologise to him. I agree entirely with the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) concerning the difficulties that are likely to ensue to the electors of an area from a change of the electoral boundaries. I have had experience of it myself. At one time, as Member for a county constituency, I had the honour of representing part of the Borough of Northampton, which was formerly represented by my father. It was a highly inconvenient arrangement. The electors within the borough who objected to the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) could not understand why they did not have the opportunity to record their votes against him. I could not explain it to them either. I was much relieved when the boundaries were adjusted and the electors were accorded that facility. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not feel that we do not fully appreciate all these difficulties.

The interim Orders to which the right hon. Gentleman referred do not take effect until the next General Election. Therefore, one is in the position that the Clause would affect the situation only at a General Election. While I think that any Government should have great regard so far as it can to the situation, it depends in large degree upon the Boundary Commission, which ought also to have great regard to the situation so far as it can be foreseen. Both the Government and the Boundary Commission should have great regard to trying to avoid any such changes with a General Election imminent.

While I appreciate all that the right hon. Gentleman has said, the difficulty is that although six months' notice may be given, it may so happen that the General Election takes place immediately on the expiration of the six months or, possibly, before the six months has expired. One cannot tell how many Orders would fall to be made—it depends on the work of the Boundary Commission and may depend on the work done under the Local Government Bill—towards the end of the life of a particular Parliament. That being so, there might well be a situation, which would be highly unsatisfactory, whether it was open to party political criticism or not, of a General Election being fought with a large number of constituencies remaining unaltered when, according to the Report of the Boundary Commission, accepted, perhaps, by the Government and by this House, those constituencies should have been altered to secure a fair representation.

Having regard to the circumstances, we cannot accept the Amendment. We feel, however, that regard must be paid, by whatever Government there may be and by the three Commissions, to the points that the right hon. Gentleman has urged concerning the necessity of giving an adequate opportunity for adjustment by those affected by these changes.

Mr. Mitchison

That will not do. On the last occasion, the Orders went through in December, 1954, all at more or less the same time, and the General Election was on 26th May, 1955.

Mr. Ede

The day between the Derby and the Oaks.

Mr. Mitchison

It was the day between the Derby and the Oaks, my right hon. Friend tells me. That may be, but it was within less than six months. They were changes that made things extraordinarily difficult for people.

I am well aware that the Government, especially nowadays, never know when the next crisis is coming. There was Suez. There was the foreign exchange crisis and rescuing the £. I do not know what we may have to rescue next time. The Rent Act caused a bit of a crisis too. We never know what there will be by way of crises. We live in lively times and they get livelier and livelier from the crisis point of view the longer the Goverment stay in office.

All that is profoundly true, but at the end of the day what is the right thing to do? Is it really better to have a General Election on top of changes of this kind, or is it better to continue on the old register and do it that way? I believe the Government capable of any iniquity, but I really do not think they would so organise a General Election as to work it on the old register deliberately They know their own minds and their own virtues and vices better than I do. It occurred to them; it did not occur to me. They know, and perhaps they really are capable of so arranging matters that if this Clause is accepted the whole of a General Election can be done à la Rochdale on the outgoing register.

Perhaps they think they had better keep on the safe side and risk all the inconvenience of a very short interval between the Order in Council and the General Election; risk all the inconvenience to the electorate, to the officials, to everybody else concerned, in order at all costs to remove this insistent temptation to work the whole of the General Election on an out-of-date register. It is clear they have it in mind. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.