HC Deb 19 June 1961 vol 642 cc1107-14
Mr. Vosper

I beg to move, in page 44, line 42, after "1949" to insert: and any regulations made under section forty-two of that Act".

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Sir William Anstruther-Gray)

I think this Amendment is consequential and may be taken with the next six Amendments standing in the name of the Secretary of State for the Home Department.

Mr. J. Griffiths

I thank the Minister for this Amendment. I am sure that on reflection he realises that in the original draft he made a very great mistake and did a great injustice, for he left out any arrangements for postal voting in a referendum to which those of us from Wales attach great importance. These Amendments cover that point, which was made strongly in Committee, and we thank the Minister for acceding to our request.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page 44, line 47, leave out "21."

In page 45, line 3, leave out "or to postal voting."

In line 6, leave out "seven" and insert "eight."

In line 15, at end insert: 5.—(1) Regulations made under section forty-two of the Representation of the People Act, 1949, may, so far as they relate to voting by proxy or by post or to matters connected therewith, make special provision in connection with polls under section six of this Act; but subject to any such provision the regulations shall apply

  1. (a) with the omission of any passage relating to candidates or their agents or to other matters not relevant to such a poll; and
  2. (b) with the substitution for any reference to the last day for the delivery of nomination papers of a reference to the last day for delivery of requisition papers under section six of this Act; and
  3. 1108
  4. (c) as if any provision for subsection (4) of section fifty-three of the Representation of the People Act, 1949, to be read to a person making a declaration of secrecy were a provision for it to be read with the modifications provided for by section six of this Act;
and any form prescribed by any such regulations in connection with voting by proxy or by post shall be used with such modifications (if any) as may be approved by the Secretary of State as necessary to adapt it for the purposes of a poll under section six. (2) If the date for the poll is altered after any postal ballot papers have been issued, then
  1. (a) on any later issue the covering envelopes enclosed for the return of declarations of identity and ballot papers shall be readily distinguishable from those enclosed on the previous issue, (that is to say, the issue before the alteration of the date), and there shall be enclosed a notice calling attention to the change of date and stating that documents sent out on the previous issue are not to be used;
  2. (b) any covering envelopes of the previous issue sent to the returning officer shall on receipt be dealt with in the same way as covering envelopes of later issues, but, on the opening of the ballot boxes provided for covering envelopes, those of the previous issue shall be marked "rejected", shall be set aside unopened, and thereafter shall be dealt with in the same way as other rejected votes;
  3. (c) save as aforesaid, the previous issue shall be disregarded for all purposes.

In page 45, line 15, at end insert: 5.—(1) In a county the county returning officer, and in a county borough divided into wards the mayor, may make arrangements for the votes to be counted not by electoral areas, but for the county or county borough as a whole or by such divisions of it as he thinks most convenient, and where arrangements are so made, the counting for the county or county borough as a whole or for each division of it, as the case may be, shall be carried out as it would be if that were the electoral area for which an election were being held: Provided that where arrangements are so made in relation to a county borough the mayor shall act as returning officer in relation to the counting of the votes, but shall have the like powers in relation to the appointment of deputies as a county returning officer has. (2) Where the votes are counted otherwise than for the county or county borough as a whole, then on the completion of the counting or any recount for an electoral area or other division the person acting as returning officer for the purpose (if he is not the county returning officer or mayor) shall forthwith notify the county returning officer or mayor of the number of votes counted on either side, but no other step shall be taken (except proper steps for the security of the ballot papers and other documents) unless or until it is ascertained that there is not to be a recount or further recount. (3) Where it appears to the county returning officer or mayor, on the completion of the counting for the whole county or county borough, that the number of votes counted does not show a majority of more than one hundred for either side, he shall cause the votes to be re-counted and, if the decision on the poll according to the recount would differ from the decision according to the original count, to be again re-counted, and the recount or, if there is one, second recount shall be treated as determining the number of votes cast on either side. (4) The number of votes cast on either side shall in a county be notified by the county returning officer to the chairman of the county council.—[Mr. Vosper.]

Mr. Vosper

I beg to move, in page 45, line 16, at the beginning to insert: 5.—(1) At a poll in a county or county borough any local government elector for the county or county borough may claim to attend the counting of the votes as an observer, by giving to the county returning officer or mayor within seven days of the end of the period allowed for delivering requisition papers a written notice signed by the elector and stating his address, and subject to sub-paragraph (2) below he shall then have the same rights and obligations and be in all respects in the same position (as nearly as may be) in relation to the counting as a counting agent appointed by a candidate at an election of a councillor for the county or borough, except that his agreement shall not be required to any interruption of the counting. (2) There shall not be allowed to attend the counting of the votes at any place a greater number of observers under his paragraph than the number of clerks emloyed there in the counting, or any observer not duly notified of the time and place of counting; and the persons to be allowed to attend as observers in any case shall he designated by the county returning officer or mayor. (3) A local government elector may in like manner claim to attend the proceedings on the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers, as well as or instead of the counting of the votes, and the foregoing sub-paragraphs shall apply with the necessary modifications of the references to the counting or to a counting agent: Provided that the number to be allowed to attend on any occasion shall be restricted to such number as the county returning officer or mayor may decide to be reasonable in the circumstances. This is a new point in answer to representations made by the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. G. Roberts) that we should appoint scrutineers or observers at the count in these elections. No provision was made for this initially because scrutineers or observers are normally appointed by the candidates, none of whom exist for these arrangements. This provision will make arrangements for any elector to apply to attend the count. It will then be arranged for the clerk who is in charge of the count to appoint scrutineers—or I prefer to say observers—not to exceed in number the number of counting agents or clerks appointed by him. The Amendment will also make arrangements for scrutineers or observers to be present at the counting of the postal votes. Therefore, in that part of the Amendment I meet the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Caernarvon.

I have not given effect to the further point the hon. Member made that these observers should be appointed to represent both parties, as he put it, who will be concerned in these elections. I have not done that for reasons I advanced in Committee, namely, that we thought it impossible for any returning officer to be able to decide exactly who are the different parties concerned in these elections. This point was put to those representatives of the local authorities who kindly came to the Home Office to discuss these arrangements following the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths). They felt that to impose in the statute any obligation on them to appoint observers according to their point of view would be an invidious task. Nevertheless, although that is not implied in the Amendment, it is in the Amendment which the hon. Member for Caernarvon will no doubt be moving. This Amendment allows far the appointment of observers who, I am sure, will ensure that they represent all points of view.

Mr. G. Roberts

I did not intend to raise the point which is contained in the Amendment to the Amendment in discussion of this Amendment if, as I understand is the case, the Amendment to the Amendment is to be called.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Yes, it is the intention to call that Amendment.

Mr. Roberts

Shall I move it separately?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I had thought that the hon. Member would want to speak on that Amendment now. If he makes a speech now not on that Amendment he will have exhausted his right to speak on it.

Mr. J. Griffiths

Will you allow [...] hon. Friend to move that Amendment now, Mr. Deputy-Speaker?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I thought that would be the most convenient plan if it is convenient to the House.

Mr. G. Roberts

I beg to move as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, at the end to insert: and shall be selected in equal numbers from among

  1. (a) those who have signed the form of requisition of poll, and
  2. (b) those who are opposed to Sunday opening of licensed premises".
I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I was not sure that it was in order to move the Amendment to the Amendment at this stage.

We appreciate that in these matters relating to the actual conduct of the count, the Minister has listened to what we said in Committee. I think it is common ground on both sides of the House among those hon. Members who were members of the Standing Committee that when the Second Schedule was considered by the Committee it was found to be seriously defective. There was no provision for postal voting, which one would ordinarily expect in relation to any kind of poll in this country. Nor was there any provision to prevent a clash between the date of local polls and Parliamentary elections. Nor was there a provision for a recount, which could easily arise in any one of the polling units. Nor, as the Amendment makes clear, was there any provision for the admission of observers to the count, other than the officers directly concerned.

11.15 p.m.

We felt that these were very serious omissions, as the Government could draw upon a substantial corpus of experience, legislation and regulations in regard to Parliamentary and local government elections and also local polls held on this question in Scotland. We are extremely glad that these serious deficiencies have now been put right. However, I have moved our Amendment because what the Minister of State said does not completely meet our desires. It is usual and necessary in the conduct of a count that observers should be present from among the protagonists, to whom the returning officer may refer, if he wishes, for advice as to the validity of doubtful papers, for instance. It is not enough to provide, as the Government Amendment provides, the admission of observes as such. That goes part of the way. It is necessary that they should be drawn from both sides in the issue.

The right hon. Gentleman said, first, that it was not desired by the local authorities. I doubt that very much, because I have spoken to members and officers of local authorities in Wales. They feel that this should have been included from the start. He said, secondly, that he was certain that in the event returning officers would ensure that there would be observers drawn from both sides of the argument. That is not good enough, especially when it is quite feasible to indicate to the officers in charge of counts how to ensure that an equal number of observers shall be drawn from the two sides.

We have suggested that they be selected in equal numbers from among— (a) those who have signed the form of requisition of poll". That is perfectly simple. In each county or county borough, before a poll can be held no fewer than 500 local government electors must have signed a form of requisition. If the returning officer selects, according to the provisions of the Government Amendment, 2, 3 or 6 persons from among those and allows them to attend, that will take care of that section of the representation.

As to the other section, it may seem that no one party or organisation will oppose Sunday opening, which is the question to be put to the electorate. There is no difficulty there, because the Government Amendment provides that people who desire to attend a count as observers shall write to the returning officer within seven days after the notice is given. Consequently, each returning officer will, very early in the proceedings, be in possession of the applications from, among others, people who are opposed to Sunday opening. If, therefore, the Government were to indicate, either in the words of the Amendment—which I am advised is perfectly in order and quite practicable for the purpose—or by adding a subsection (4) saying that the returning officers shall have regard to the varying views of the people concerned in these polls when selecting observers, the position could be met. We do not think that is enough merely to say that the Minister is certain that these observers will be drawn from both sides of the argument. I repeat that we think it perfectly feasible for the Minister to add suitable words formally to indicate—along with the other things that he indicates in his Amendment—that such a procedure shall be followed by the returning officers concerned.

Mr. Vosper

I am afraid that I dealt in part only with the Amendment moved by the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. G. Roberts). I fully admit that the Bill as introduced probably was defective, and made no provision for scrutineers or observers. The reason was that, again, there were no candidates as at local elections. We have devised a new and original procedure in our present Amendment.

As the hon. Gentleman said, his Amendment is in order, but it is quite defective. I do not want to make too much of this point, but it would be quite effective if it could be operated in regard to the first poll, but in seven years' time when licensed premises are open in Caernarvon his paragraph (b) would have the reverse effect, because he would then need to provide for those in favour of Sunday opening. In other words, the Amendment would stand only for the first poll, and not for the one taking place seven years later.

As I said in my original intervention, this subject was discussed with some of those who have to organise these elections. I had hoped that one of these would be the Clerk of the Caernarvon County Council, but he could not accept the invitation. Those people felt that to have inserted in the statement a directive that they should give equal representation to the opposing points of view would be placing on them an unreasonable burden, although they would do their best to exercise their responsibility.

I do, however, like the hon. Gentleman's suggested words "shall have regard to the varying views." At first sight, that would not seem to be unreasonable, but I would like to consider the words, and I do not want to be committed to exact numbers or to the form of his present Amendment. I am quite certain that those responsible will have regard to the varying points of view. If they are given too close a directive they will be in danger of making many enemies, but if I can find some words of a more general nature to follow what the hon. Gentleman said, I will certainly do so.

Mr. J. Griffiths

We are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the spirit in which he has approached our Amendment. I do not think that there would be any practical difficulties at all in the returning officers' choosing a certain number from each side. The Home Office must not think that this issue will be fought on the lines of a Sunday cinema poll—on the sidelines, with not many people knowing about it and only about 4 per cent. voting. Of course, there will be sides taken, and both sides will he organised. There is no doubt that in my own county, and in Caernarvon, and in Swansea and Merthyr there will be organisation on both sides, and there will be no difficulty there. The only difference will be that one side will have a lot of money and the other will have only its convictions. But conviction can sometimes beat money in this country. It has done so before, and it will again.

The principle is that, so far as practicable, the observers should be drawn from those who are for and those who are against. That is desirable in order to ensure that there is fair play. The Minister has kindly offered to look at the words which my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarvon (Mr. G. Roberts) used. I am sure that he will do that. I have spoken to my hon. Friend about it. He and I would be disposed to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment on the understanding that the Minister will consider the suggestion which my hon. Friend made.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment to the proposed Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page 46, line 37, after "conviction", insert: to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or".

In line 37, at end insert: or to both such imprisonment and such fine".—[Mr. Vosper.]

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