HC Deb 23 June 1961 vol 642 cc1906-10
Mr. Speaker

Mr. Wells, to move the Amendment in page 5, line 35, at the end to insert: Provided nothing in this section shall apply to the marking of trees during the course of normal forestry work.

Mr. Wells

In view of the clear understanding of rural matters shown by my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, I will not move this Amendment.

Mr. Wigg

I beg to move, in page 5, line 35, at the end to insert: Provided that nothing in this section shall apply to the inscription or affixing of any picture letter sign or other mark in connection with any Parliamentary action. I will enter into the spirit shown by the Minister, because we are anxious to make rapid progress, and I will not dwell very long on the Amendment, although it is important. If necessary, however, we shall have to take it to a Division because it concerns fundamental issues.

There was a time when the squire and his relatives dominated the countryside. It is not so today. Nevertheless, there are parts of England where it is very difficult for the spirit of progress to make its voice heard. I think hon. Members will agree that all the power, wealth and social prestige in this country rests in the hands of the Conservative Party and that the challenge has always come from those who speak from this side of the House. Where progress has been made, it has been by the right of assembly and the right of public meetings, which has been considerably eroded by that barbarous modern invention, television.

At least at election times there should be a right of those who engage in the spirit of the hustings to chalk slogans on the highway—in the interests of both parties. The most vociferous sponsors of such bills these days are to be found on the opposite side of the House. At the last election my own modest hedge was twice set on fire by those who support the cause of the Conservative Party. I mention that in no mood of complaint.

Mr. Lipton

Perhaps it was done by wandering cattle.

Mr. Wigg

These were not wandering cattle. The hedge was set alight and my daughter had to comfort her mother, and they had to put buckets of water on the hedge to put the fire out. These are the kinds of thing which happen in the heat of an election. I do not want our elections to be too mambypamby, as long as they are carried on in good temper. If someone sticks a bill on a tree, at the crossroads, on a telegraph post, or chalks on the highway, good luck to him. If he is caught, either he rubs it out or takes the consequences of his actions.

While again appreciate that the views of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Aitken) are essentially common sense and right, I hope that he will agree to make an exception during the period of a Parliamentary election. The Amendment is in the interests of democracy as a whole. What it is concerned with is part of our political education. We want to encourage young people to come into political parties and to conduct themselves with good manners and vigour. The Amendment is directed to that end, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept it.

Mr. Aitken

Like the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), I am all for any facilities which can be given to make a contribution to the vigour, hilarity, and acerbity of electoral contests. The hard fact which often emerges from one's researches on a Bill of this kind is that the sort of defacement of the highway which the Amendment would permit could be, not only a great problem to local authorities, but a very serious road hazard. A Parliamentary election can produce as many original but sometimes objectionable and unsightly forms of Publicity as any other.

Another point which the hon. Gentleman should consider is, where is this to stop? If a case could be made out for the use of these modern plastic paints and adhesives and plastic posters, and the like, it would be possible for this to grow into a quite serious inconvenience and hazard on the roads. The first question which most people will ask is: if it is right for political parties contesting a national election, why is it not right for local authority elections, local announcements and advertisements?

The Amendment would not only expose local authorities to a great deal of inconvenience and difficulty but—and this is my main point which I hope will induce the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the Amendment—there is no doubt that experience of local authorities has shown time and time again that these marks on highways or on structures are a hazard to drivers, especially if they are of an arresting and perhaps ribald nature, the sort of thing that we all love to see in an election. However desirable it may be to put vim, vigour and vitality into elections, that is the main point that we must consider.

Mr. Hay

On behalf of the Government, may I say that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Aitken), I hope that the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) will not press his Amendment. We must remember that this Clause is not intended to be beastly or horrible to those who would like to advertise or to write slogans or affix posters about political and other matters. It is intended to avoid a road hazard. That is the important point. It is undoubtedly true that if certain slogans, signs or pictures scrawled on the highway or on things adjoining the highway are sufficiently exciting and interesting, people driving along the highway are bound to let their attention wander from the job of driving in order to look at what is exhibited. Thereby a road hazard is created.

The Amendment is intended to put in a proviso to the effect that the Clause shall not apply to anything put up in connection with a Parliamentary election. Nothing is said in the Amendment about a municipal or local government election. In any event, a Parliamentary election is specifically mentioned. Although I have not been able to obtain full information and advice about this, I think that there are certain restrictions under town and country planning legislation and under the control of advertisements regulations which would, irrespective of the proviso which the hon. Gentleman seeks to introduce, prevent this sort of thing from being done.

It is also, I believe, contrary to the electoral law to do what is called fly-posting—that is, to affix posters, slogans or pictures to property which does not belong to us unless we have the permission of the owner so to do. Where a tree or structure is within the confines of the highway—not on the carriageway, but within the ambit of the highway—and therefore belongs to the highway authority, obviously that permission could not be given for a Parliamentary or local government election.

The Amendment, well-intentioned though it may be, would not work very well because it would run against what is already in the existing law, and I hope that the hon. Member will realise that, since we are trying to get rid of road hazards, however good the case may be for an individual type of sign, we must try to draw the line somewhere. We are trying to draw it in this Clause.

Mr. Wigg

I wish to withdraw the Amendment in view of the plea of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Aitken) and of the Parliamentary Secretary concerning road hazards. I accept that. However, with regard to the other part of the Parliamentary Secretary's speech, I have done my homework as well as he. I looked at the Representation of the People Act and I sought advice about the town and country planning legislation. It is clear that during a Parliamentary election the normal procedures are loosened just a little. I did not specify other elections because there are so many of them, such as county council elections and urban district elections. By limiting the Amendment to Parliamentary elections, I thought that it would be acceptable. However, in my anxiety not to waste time, I accept what has been said and beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Wigg

I do not wish to move my Amendment in page 5, line 39.