§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 2.49 p.m.
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
We move from the field of rare birds to more gregarious and popular animals which are certainly highly topical in the House today—the voters of the country. As a result of the decision announced by the Prime Minister less than 24 hours ago, this Bill becomes very topical indeed for, unless the House, in one way or another, finds time to secure its passing into law, the effect will be to disfranchise in many parts of the country no less than 10 per cent. of the electorate of Britain.
§ Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Long Title of the Bill states that its purpose is to…Amend subsections (1,e) and (3,a) of section 12 of the Representation of the People Act 1949…".But Section 12 of the Act does not contain a subsection (1,e), or a subsection (3,a).
§ Mr. Speaker
If the House gives a Second Reading to the Bill we could, in due course, in Committee, subject to its being in the scope, propose an Amendment to the Long Title. I will not give a prima facie ruling about that, since that would be a matter for the Chairman and not one for me.
§ Mr. Speaker
We should have to take steps to see that it could be done if that were the wish of the House. I think that it is too early yet to find out about that, however.
§ Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. This question last arose on a Bill introduced by the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) to amend the law relating to admission to public meetings. A mistake was found in the Long Title of that Bill and we had to have special procedure later. 1475 I bow to your Ruling, but surely, at this stage, the whole thing is disorderly as the Bill stands. We should proceed only proceed with a correct Long Title.
§ Mr. Speaker
I have sent for the Bill and at the moment I propose that we should proceed while I consider it.
§ Mr. Rees-Davies
Among the factors which the House must consider, in an entirely non-partisan fashion, are what is to happen about the disfranchisement of a large proportion of the electorate and whether that should take place.
§ Mr. Rees-Davies
I will give way in due time when I have properly opened the debate.
Both my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Press as a whole have been considering when the election should take place and, as a result, many people—wrongly, as it turns out—came to the conclusion that it would be in June. Consequently, many of them have made arrangements to be on holiday during October.
§ Mr. Rees-Davies
Those of us who represent constituencies which cater for tourism know only too well that holidays are fixed in about March or April. If the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) does not know enough of the holiday trade to realise that this is so and that overseas holidays have also already been arranged by now, he should talk to someone who is in the trade and who knows what is happening. Large numbers of citizens arranged their holidays on the assumption that the election would be in June.
The Bill seeks to make a very small Amendment to existing legislation. It would, enable any voter to vote on polling day at a General Election if he could prove that he would be absent from his qualifying address on that date for any cause. Under existing law, he can do this only upon the grounds that he is a businessman, or is sick or infirm.
I have never understood why the businessman should be singled out to 1476 be entitled not to be present on polling day. In these days, people may be away on holiday or there are others, for instance, who must tend a sick relative. These people should have equal opportunity to cast their votes with the businessman in a General Election.
The method suggested in the Bill was drawn up in accordance with precedent. The matter would be dealt with by a certificate to be witnessed and signed by people in certain categories, such as justices of the peace, doctors, ministers of religion, bank managers and officers of Her Majesty's Forces. They would be required to certify that the applicant would, in their belief, be physically absent from his qualifying address on the date of the election. Naturally, there would be a penalty for abuse of the provision.
The timing of the last day for claims of this kind would be the same day as the last day for the receipt of applications for postal voting, so that the procedure now laid down for postal voting would be applicable to cases under the terms of this Bill. The principles of the Bill, therefore, are in strict accord with similar legislation.
We in this House are behoven to look after the interests of those who send us here. It is clear that there has been a great increase of travelling and, fortunately, due to the prosperity of the country, there are more and longer holidays. Indeed, it is not infrequent for people to split their holidays and take them in different parts of the year.
Furthermore, the Government, with the approval of all parties, have been encouraging the staggering of holidays. The tourist areas are extremely anxious to widen the holiday period and we have done much to secure that people will go on holiday in June and in October. By tradition, because we do not have a Measure of this kind on the Statute Book, we have the extraordinary situation in which the whole country realises that a General Election has to be in June or October, while the months of July, August, September, December and January and others are regarded as a completely closed chapter. It is this reactionary relic of the past which should be swept away in the jet age of today when we must try to be "with it" and give to the public what the 1477 overwhelming proportion of the public wants—the opportunity to vote without any lack of consideration for its own interests.
Secondly, the needs of the sick are met now by a postal vote and the definition of sick or infirm has been fairly widely construed. The same is true for business people, as it is for those who have gone to another constituency in a change of residence. While the Bill does not in any sense abrogate the principle of personal attendance at the polling station in the area where the voter normally lives, it meets the needs of those who attend to the sick and those who are absent on holiday. While the businessman going away on a business trip can make a postal vote, if his wife accompanies him, she is disfranchised. She has to decide whether to remain in this country and vote, or go with her husband on the business trip and lose her vote.
Attendance at conferences is another example. Attendance at a conference, perhaps a trade union conference, would not be a matter of business and all the trade unionists at such a conference at the time of a General Election would be entirely disfranchised. As hon. Members know, professional conferences are part of the whole political system, because it is there that policy is built in the different professions which Ministers are required to consult before bringing in legislation affecting the industries, professions or businesses concerned.
Why should a person who is looking after a sick or elderly relative be disenfranchised if away from home, while the sick person has a vote? There are other manifold examples, with which I will not now deal because of the shortness of time, of absence from normal addresses on polling day for some different kind of emergency.
The Bill enables those who would be absent from their qualifying address at the time of a General Election to apply in the normal period—which would be three weeks before the election—in the same way as applications are now made for postal votes, and following the same procedure. We now have annual fixed holidays, often fixed by the employer, and many in the industrial Midlands and the North may lose their votes if they 1478 are absent on holiday at the time of a General Election.
As the names of its sponsors indicate, the Bill has the support of all parties. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) will state the Liberal view and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) will no doubt speak for the Labour Party. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne represents a tourist constituency. I hope that hon. Members opposite, who may not have strength in that part of the country, will realise that it is not only for tourist constituencies that I am speaking and that my hon. Friends who are present come from every quarter of the country and wholeheartedly support the Bill.
There could not be stronger or better precedents for the Bill. Although not the strongest precedent, the example of Australia is clear and apposite. In 1922, voting in Australia, showing political apathy, had fallen to 59 per cent. of the electorate. Compulsory voting was introduced—which we do not require here—and by 1958 more than 95 per cent. of the electorate was voting.
If an Australian voter, on the day of the election, is outside his own State—our equivalent of a county—on holiday so as not to be within five miles of his polling booth, he is able to vote by postal vote. He is also able to vote if he is seriously ill or infirm, and absentee voters can vote at a polling booth outside the electorate but within the State. I appreciate that it may be contended that in Australia it is compulsory to vote, and that therefore it becomes the more important to enable those who are not at home to d o so.
The pattern in the United States is dealt with in the fifth edition of Mr. Penniman's book, American Parties and Elections, at page 512. Perhaps I might cite as an example the law of the State of North Carolina. It says that any voterwho finds that be will be absent from the County in which he is entitled to vote during the day of the holding of any General Election…may vote as an absentee voter.Many of the States of the United States enable that to be done, but not all. There are differing views in different States, but that principle is strictly in line with the proposals in the Bill, and I hope that we shall not stay for long far behind the 1479 democratic methods of the United States, and that we shall want to bring ourselves up to date.
In the United States the application must be made not more than 30, and not less than two, days before the general election. Any person may apply either in person or by letter, but in the latter case there must be an affidavit in support of the application. I suggest that from our point of view the system whereby there is a declaration accompanied by a certification by a responsible person would be the better one, and there is precedent for that.
I turn next to perhaps the most important of the matters, because it is clear that Her Majesty's Government have accepted the principle of the Bill with regard to territories overseas, and there seems no reason why it should not be equally applicable to Great Britain. I refer to the arrangements for voting in what was the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. This has nothing to do with the franchise. It was the procedure at the time of voting, on which that Territory received the guidance of Her Majesty's Government.
Nyasaland is not a particularly literate country, although Rhodesia may be. Nevertheless, in setting up the system there, the system in this country was adopted in its entirety, except that it included, almost in exact terms, the terms of the Bill. It provided that if a voter certified that there wasgood reason to believe that he will not be in the electoral district during polling hourshe could apply to the returning officer for a postal ballot paper, which had to be signed in the presence of a competent witness. The precise procedure is identical to that in the United Kingdom. That information is to be found in T. E. Smith's book, Elections in Developing Countries.
This is a matter of constitutional importance. We pride ourselves on trying to guide the newly developing countries in the setting up of democratic processes similar to ours, but the curious fact is that while arrangements were made in what was the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland for postal votes for those who would be absent from their addresses and the districts in which they live on polling day, we retained our present system.
1480 The reason is clear. It has hitherto been the practice to introduce electoral reform in a number of Bills at one and the same time—that is to say, to introduce a thoroughgoing reform over the whole range. The Home Office has been rather jealous in safeguarding that practice. In the past that was understandable, but we have now reached a state of emergency. This year we are faced with the knowledge that in all probability there will be an election in October. Had I been moving the Bill in the knowledge that there was to be an election in June, or the probability of it, I would have invited the House to take time to consider the matter, and to have provided that the Measure would not have any effect in respect of the imminent General Election.
But it now seems that because of the way in which events have turned out we must now face the prospect of many people being disfranchised unless we pass the Bill. I have sought to show the House, as briefly as I can, that there is clear precedent for the Bill within our own territories, and in the most recent advice that we have given to emerging territories. Nigeria and Uganda were not able to have postal voting, simply because of the very high rate of illiteracy. Nevertheless, this method existed in the Federation, Australia, and the most forward-looking States of the United States.
I now turn to the administrative question. The postal vote in the United Kingdom was at its highest in 1951, but even then it amounted to only 2.6 per cent. of the electorate—742,000 voters. In some European countries, where voting frequently takes place on Sundays, people are permitted to cast their votes even if they are away from their electoral districts on pleasure. In Germany, there were 1½ million postal votes in 1957. It is, therefore, clear that even if we had a postal voting figure which was double the present one—1½ million or 2 million instead of 742,000—the burden on the Administration would not present any difficulty. No difficulty arises in Germany or Australia, and there is no reason to suppose that it would arise here.
It cannot be argued that we are eroding the principle that perfectly fit and healthy people should go to the polling 1481 station, because we are seeking to include in the extra number only those whose arrangements have been made long in advance. We are not suggesting that people should be able to arrange to vote by post three or four days before the General Election, as is the case in North Carolina. The Bill lays down the same period as is now provided in respect of other persons who are allowed to vote by post.
Hon. Members have scoffed and laughed at what I have said, but I can give them proof positive that in parts of the country 10 per cent. of the electorate may be away when an election is held. In my own ward of Cliftonville, in Margate, nearly 20 per cent. are away in October. Over 600 were away at the time of the last General Election—and that is in one relatively small ward.
The same picture is becoming increasingly apparent in the Midlands. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden) indicated that had the election been in the second week of June many Birmingham people would have been away on holiday. Under the very advanced system of staggered holidays which is now in operation in industry in an endeavour to enable factories to maintain production throughout the year, they are required to adopt a system under which holidays extend over a period from the beginning of June to the middle of October. Normally, between 3 per cent. and 4 per cent. of the electorate is away in this period.
Hon. Member must know of many cases where people will be taking their holidays in the first fortnight of October. We do not at the moment know the precise date of the General Election. I rather hope that those who have made holiday arrangements may possibly be able to unscramble them, but it is asking a lot of electors at any time when they are going to take their wives on holiday, and perhaps young children—either younger than school age or older than school age—to alter those arrangements.
Furthermore, many people have made arrangements which depend upon the cheapness of the holiday. If I may illuminate hon. Members on that point, they ought to be aware that it is cheaper to take a holiday in October 1482 than at other times of the year. We in Thanet have a habit of entertaining many old age pensioners on cheap holidays during October, and they come down in large numbers. We are not going to change that position for the old people, but why should they be disfranchised?
Many of our older citizens feel very strongly, far more strongly than the youth of the country, about the importance of their vote. I hope, therefore, that the House will not take any partisan view of the matter. I am sure that the modern picture requires that we should pass the Bill. It is clear from the traditional past that the Government, no doubt, have wished and would wish to take the views of the House in this respect and to adopt a fairly neutral attitude.
I greatly hope that we shall be able to get in the time available a short, sharp debate of views from hon. Members to enable us to sound the views of the House. If, perchance, the Bill does not get a Second Reading today. I would greatly hope that what is said in this debate will be taken very careful note of by the Government, particularly the point which I am making, that if this matter were to be left, in the light of the fact that we have now fallen into an October election, it is undeniable that large numbers of people in the country would lose their votes and would not be able to do what they may properly regard as their duty and may be torn between their duty to the State and perhaps their duty to their family in taking them for a holiday, which by law they are now entitled to do.
It is for this reason that the picture today is so different from that which existed, for example, before the Holidays with Pay Act was passed in 1938. I believe that this matter would have commanded the attention of the House this year had it not been that my right hon. Friends and my hon. Friends, the Home Secretary and those of us who are sitting here today have been frequently concerned with other most important Measures which the Home Office has had on its plate over these last few years. It has carried out much legislation, but I hope that the House will find time to pass this very 1483 small Measure with the blessing of all concerned so that when we go to the polls everyone will have a fair opportunity to cast his vote.
§ Mr. Speaker
With reference to the point of order addressed to me by the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), the hon. and learned Gentleman must have been looking at the wrong Statute. I have the Statute, and have looked at it, and the point does not arise.
§ 3.19 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)
I wish to congratulate the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) on introducing this very valuable Measure and to express my support for it. I shall take his advice and be very brief so that other hon. Members may have an opportunity of saying something later.
I understand that in answer to a Question the other day the Home Secretary said that there were no Amendments to the Representation of the People Act, 1949, being considered at the moment. Therefore, I think that hon. Members have a duty to try to improve the Act in whatever way they can. This seems to me to be a very limited though very valuable Measure in so far as it does that.
One reads frequently in the Press and hears speakers deploring the fact that not enough interest is taken in elections. That being so, why make it more difficult for people to participate in elections by depriving them of their vote in the circumstances which the hon. Gentleman has described? There is not much tourist trade in my constituency, apart from the flow of Ministers coming to speak for my Tory opponent. However, we see the other side of the picture and my constituents appreciate the force of what the hon. Member said about the benefits to be gained by staggering holidays. I was not surprised to learn the number of people who are away on any one occasion.
I understand that the large tourist agencies have found that about 80 per cent. of holiday bookings are received before the end of January for holidays to be taken in that year. It is, therefore, difficult and expensive for electors to change their holiday arrangements once 1484 they have made them because it is the practice in most cases for deposits to be given, and, I understand, most of these are not returnable in the event of cancellation.
I like October as a month for holidays. One often gets better weather in that month than earlier in the year. I would like to see a greater proportion of holidaymaking going on in that month if that could be arranged, because it would be valuable for the tourist industry—and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) supports me in that.
I attempted to introduce a much more limited Measure than this some time ago. It would have had the effect of enfranchising women accompanying their husbands abroad. The hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet referred to this problem briefly and pointed out that his Bill would have that effect. It is unreasonable that if one happens to be an employee of the European Free Trade Association one's wife cannot have a vote, whereas if one is a Service man or is serving in an embassy abroad she can. How can one justify a discrimination of that sort? I will not refer to this matter in detail because I would be out of order. Suffice to say that the Bill which I introduced merely sought to enfranchise those women, and I am delighted to see that the hon. Member has managed to cater for this category of people in his Bill. I acknowledge his request for hon. Members to be brief so that the general view of the House may be obtained, and I hope that the Bill will be given a Second Reading.
§ 3.23 p.m.
§ Mr. C. Pannell
On a point of order. I rise in no unfriendliness towards the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty), but after Mr. Speaker had called the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) it was with surprise—although I do not criticise this—that I heard the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) called to speak, since he is a sponsor of the Bill. Since the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East is another supporter of the Bill, presumably we are now going to have three speeches in support of the Bill. Time is short for 1485 this debate and I would not want the Home Office to think that this Measure brooks no opposition. I am bound to put forward that point of view but, in order to do it, I must rise on a point of order. As I say, I would not like it thought that all the speeches hon. Members wish to make are in support of the Bill.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir William Anstruther-Gray)
I am obliged for the hon. Member's point of order. I was actuated by the two sides of the House and I looked to see if another hon. Member was rising on the Government side.
§ Mr. Doughty
I am sure that when you called me hon. Members had no idea whether I would speak for or against the Bill, Mr. Deputy-Speaker.
§ Mr. Doughty
Let me once again—so that t may put the House out of its agony—say that I rise to support the Bill. At election time—and I make no referenc to the forthcoming election because this Measure relates to the whole electoral law of the country—hon. Members tell people, "Whatever your political views I hope that you will vote because we want the next House of Commons to be representative of all the people and not 60 or 70 per cent. of them." In order to facilitate that, the Act was passed in 1949 to which my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet has referred. It enabled a large number of people to vote who hitherto had not had facilities for voting.
We all know about the Service voters, the vote for people who are sick, and matters of that kind. The postal vote was introduced for the first time, but people who are absent on holiday also have a good case. I take my hon. Friend up on the point that his Bill not only relates to people on holiday but to anybody who can show that on a particular day he or she will be absent from the qualifying residence. We shall have to consider in Committee whether the provision in the Bill should be as wide as that or whether it must be restricted to people who go away on a bona fide holiday, whether it be long or short.
I would point out to hon. Members who might be inclined to oppose the 1486 Bill that they would be denying to other people what they gave themselves and their spouses in 1949, because among the category of people entitled under the 1949 Act to postal votes are candidates at General Elections and their spouses. I do not criticise that. It is right that it should be so, because a candidate for one constituency has no time to go to another to record his vote. Why should we reserve for ourselves what we are not prepared to give to other people who are genuinely prevented from attending a particular polling station?
The Bill subject to any limitations placed on it in Committee, would make this provision and it would enable the electorate, whatever their political views, to be quite sure that people were not prevented from recording their votes by reason of sickness, service in the Armed Forces and the other matters set out in the Bill. This is a big loophole in the case of people who are away on holiday. People take their holidays at all times of the year. Therefore, whenever we have a General Election or a by-election we shall have a number of people who may have strong political views one way or another, or views for or against a particular candidate, disfranchised because they are unable to record their votes through absence from the qualifying address on that day. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading and that it will be fully considered in Committee so that this additional safeguard may be added to the 1949 Act.
§ 3.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)
I do not want the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) to think that in rising to oppose the Bill I am opposing it for any reasons to which he addressed himself in a most reasonable speech, but we might have had greater clarification if he had been prepared to give way earlier. He will not anticipate that at this time in the afternoon he will get a Second Reading for the Bill. I do not wane him to think that hon. Members are opposing the Bill merely because of the loading of constituencies, or because we happen to think that it is to the advantage of any particular party. There are other disadvantages in the electoral system as we see it.
1487 This sort of matter ought to have been dealt with by the Speaker's Conference or some other body long before this. The hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet and his hon. and right hon. Friends have been in office for twelve years. They have had the 1955 and 1959 elections, and if there was any deep-seated injustice inherent in the electoral system it could have been remedied before now. There is no doubt that in the present set-up of voting there is a considerable loaded vote in rural constituencies. The argument that I have heard put in the House is that people have greater distances to travel. That must be completely absurd in these days of motor cars, if not of helicopters. Any reconsideration of the electoral system would demand a complete recasting of constituencies so that they had something like a comparable quota. We on this side of the House have to poll more than hon. Members opposite—I forget by how much, but it is certainly 1½ per cent. more—
§ Mr. Pannell
The Labour Party has to poll about 2 per cent. more than hon. Members opposite in order to get parity because of their strength in the mining constituencies. Yet in what are considered to be the Conservative constituencies, the rural belt, they have a loaded advantage. Generally speaking, the constituencies which are represented in the strongholds of hon. Members opposite are smaller. There is no question of that. If we were recasting the electoral system of this country, the first thing we should have to do would be to recast the constituencies on a basis of greater equality and ensure that, normally speaking, there were not these deep social trends that move against equality. Even in 1951 when the party opposite came back, we on these benches polled a considerably higher vote than they did, although they got a greater number of seats.
§ Mr. Doughty
I am rising to a point of order. I am sure that we are in- 1488 terested in what the hon. Member is saying, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but is it in order, on a Bill which seeks solely to take the limited action which this Bill proposes, to go into the whole question of the electoral system of this country?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I think that on the Second Reading of a Bill it is possible to go outwith what is actually contained in the Bill.
§ Mr. Pannell
With respect to the hon. and learned Gentleman, he is one of those who merely look at a small part of the Bill. He must surely put this Bill in its setting against the general electoral considerations of this country. I am putting the case that there are greater abuses inherent in our electoral system than the one which this Bill seeks to redress. The hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet missed the point that I was trying to make. The hon. Member considers that this Bill affects 10 per cent. of the electors. Where does he get that figure from?
§ Mr. Rees-Davies
I said "10 per cent. of certain parts of the United Kingdom." I instanced one ward in my own constituency where the figure was about 20 per cent. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster), who is not now in his place but who may return later, and other hon. Friends of mine who represent seaside constituencies, will know that in certain wards in their constituencies the figure is very high indeed. I indicated the figure of 600 out of 3,000 in one ward, which is about 20 per cent. Over all the constituencies many people take their holidays in the month of October and the hon. Gentleman will realise that much of the working population leaves after that time. That is how one gets a figure of 10 per cent. in certain constituencies. Generally it is about 3 per cent. or 3½ per cent. over all the constituencies.
§ Mr. Pannell
In view of the hon. Gentleman's lengthy intervention, I hope he will be more gracious in future and give way to others who wish to intervene when he is speaking. I should like to know what is the size of the electorate in his constituency.
§ Mr. Pannell
Then if one is considering the whole basis of the electoral system of this country one must consider the disadvantages of those people against, shall we say, the disadvantages of other constituencies where we have to take account of the great mining vote. I am not speaking about the gerrymandering of the Northern Ireland constituencies which gives hon. Members opposite twelve votes here before we start. That is something which would have to be tackled, but I am not speaking about that now.
We have had an opportunity of considering this matter before. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was here when we considered the 1955 Boundary Commission review, when we literally went through the constituencies, day and night. Despite the bellyaching from the benches opposite, no hon. Member opposite went into the Lobby against one of the anomalies which were found. Going no further than Surrey, a small constituency like Wimbledon is riveted on 40,000 electors. No sane person has ever understood the Boundary Commission proposal about that. There are other places of the same kind. In the hon. Gentleman's constituency, on the other hand, he has 70,00 electors.
The first thing to do would be to get something like equality. The quota is now supposed to be 57,000 votes. Everyone knows that the Welsh constituencies and the Scottish constituencies have a considerable advantage in so far as their Members represent a smaller number of people.
There is another point on which I should hope to carry hon. Members with me. I refer to the polling which took place yesterday. My hon. Friend the Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) is not here, but I gather that he considers that there were about 12,000 cross-votes in the Lambeth constituency. The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Curran) is not looking particularly cheerful. How many cross-votes were there in Hillingdon? Do the Communists really have 4,000 votes in Hillingdon, or was there cross-voting in that constituency? It is a very curious state of affairs. One of the first things to do in these circumstances is to ensure that in Parliamentary and local government elections candidates proclaim their party on the ballot paper. It would stop all the cross-voting. In certain 1490 places yesterday, there was a denial of democracy and people did not really know for whom they were voting.
We have already brought into Parliamentary elections the idea of the polling card for which the returning officer is responsible. Why cannot the same thing be done for local government elections? Does anyone in the Home Office really consider that it is any less important that a person should be aware who are the candidates in local government elections?
§ Mr. Charles Curran (Uxbridge)
I have a lot of sympathy with the point which the hon. Gentleman is making, that people who go to vote do not always know who the candidates are. Nevertheless, there are practical difficulties in changing the law in this respect. Who is to decide who is the Labour candidate or who is the Tory candidate? Supposing there is a split in the neighbourhood and there is an independent Labour candidate who claims to be the genuine advocate of the true faith, what then? Is the returning officer to be given the job of adjudicating? It is this sort of difficulty which has so far prevented any possibility of requiring a candidate to put his party label on the ballot paper.
§ Mr. Pannell
We have had references here to the American experience. We have heard about North Carolina. I do not want to say anything about fancy franchises, but I should have said that the question whether one votes there or not depends very much on the colour of one's skin. Nevertheless, it is the fact that the American experience shows that there should be no difficulty.
The difficulty does not exist when the parties are dealing with the Home Office or dealing with the B.B.C. The official Labour Party is the Labour Party and the official Conservative Party is the Conservative Party. A man may call himself independent Labour, but he cannot call himself the Labour Party candidate. I am all in favour of proclaiming these things. One of the troubles besetting voting in my trade union is very often exemplified by the fact that people issue election addresses which, in effect, mark them as members of the Communist Party. I want people to come out into the open. I should have thought that these were deeper abuses 1491 than the one which the hon. Gentleman seeks to remedy by his Bill.
§ Sir Charles Taylor (Eastbourne)
Surely the hon. Member is not right. There is nothing to stop any candidate calling himself a Conservative or a Labour candidate, or anything else. There may be an official Labour candidate, but any candidate can call himself a Labour candidate if he desires.
§ Mr. Pannell
There is no difficulty about this. The law could even move in to protect the parties. A great deal of difficulty is being made about this. Some organisations insist that people should properly brand themselves. We have been discussing resale price maintenance. The hon. Gentleman is a great apostle of branded goods. Why is he not an apostle of branding political parties?
§ Sir C. Taylor
The hon. Member has got his facts wrong. I am not an apostle of branded goods or resale price maintenance.
§ Mr. Pannell
Do not let us be misled with regard to the postal vote. There are many abuses in the postal vote itself. I do not know about other local authorities, but Leeds is keen to keep itself up to date. In Leeds, the list has to be scrapped after every election. There was not the tendency to do that in 1950 and 1951. A woman who was a maternity case in 1950 was still a maternity case in 1951 in some constituencies, because the list had not been altered.
These are not matters for snap private Member's Bills. Many doctors, who were particularly smarting about the National Health Service Act round about 1950, showed a tendency to sign up all sorts of patients on the postal vote. There should be tighter rules for the medical profession about the way that its members sign up people.
§ Colonel Sir Harwood Harrison (Eye)
On reflection, the hon. Member might like to withdraw that slur on the whole of the medical profession.
§ Mr. Pannell
I have not slurred the medical profession. There are all sorts of doctors, including friends of mine, who are very circumspect about this. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that there were not some doctors in 1950 who did not sign up rather too easily on the postal vote, he cannot have had very much experience of politics. Since 1950 and 1951 the best returning officers have scrapped the postal vote immediately after the election and have had another list drawn up. But between 1950 and 1951 some very odd things happened. I am not sure that even the postal voter received as much consideration as he should have done. A great deal of discontent was caused.
In any case, the hon. Member is not bringing in a Bill today merely to deal with his constituents. Under the Measure one could get a proxy vote for almost any purpose. Where is the line to be drawn.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)
There is the case of people even going to Northern Ireland and spending their time fishing when they should be voting in the local elections, even though one may have been leader of the Tory Party for 12 years and Prime Minister for seven years, calling on all the electors to vote, and getting a postal vote.
§ Mr. Pannell
The House must not take me as being responsible for my hon. Friend's prejudice.
Inherent in the hon. Member's case was a light approach to the vote. The vote itself is a very serious matter. We should make no mistake about that. I have known people to put themselves to very great inconvenience to vote, and so they should. The vote is not something to be picked up and slung aside. It is not something that we should make so easy. I am not in favour in this country of compulsory voting. I am not in favour of the Australian system by which people are fined if they do not vote. I do not express a party view because the lazy, slack and silly people are just as likely to vote Conservative. I am in favour of the system that we have. Do not let us underrate the present system.
There are villages in my constituency which turn out a 90 per cent. poll. The 1493 South Coventry constituency in 1951, believe it or not, ran out of ballot papers for not ether reason than that the returning officer had computed only up to a 95 per cent. poll. These are the sort of things that happen.
The hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet seems to be a little mixed about the old-age pensioners going down to his constituency. If his first premise was right, there would be no boarding-house keepers there. They would all be away on holiday in foreign parts.
§ Mr. Rees-Davies
I said that they have to go away for their holidays, to which they are equally entitled, after they have served the public. Those who serve in the holiday industry must not take their holidays until after the general holidays are over, and I suggest that they are just as entitled to vote as those whom they have served.
§ Mr. Pannell
The hon. Gentleman had second thoughts and told us about the hoards of old-age pensioners who would descend on Margate. Presumably there will be someone in Margate to look after them who will vote for the hon. Member. The hon. Member cannot have it both ways. There is a considerable amount of special pleading going on in cases such as this.
I would have thought that from the time the Prime Minister made his announcement last night this Bill would have been impossible. When a General Election is announced, one cannot change the rules so near the end of the game. The right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have been in power now for 12 years. If this had been a deep-seated abuse it could have been dealt with before. If it is to be dealt with, the proper way to deal with it is probably after the next election.
Hon. Members opposite have double standards in other things. We have been concerned with the question of hon. Members' pay for years in this House, but the Government made the condition that if they considered Members' pay at all it would have to be after the next election. I do not see how we can amend the law piecemeal in this way merely to satisfy a small number of people in certain constituencies when so many abuses in the electoral laws are completely rampant. I think that we have to 1494 take the electoral system as it is at present with the inevitable result that it will bring.
§ 3.49 p.m.
§ Sir Lionel Heald (Chertsey)
I should like to occupy one or two of the few moments that remain in returning to the subject matter of the merits of the Bill. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) very much for having taken up this subject. It is one which should be regarded from an entirely non-partisan viewpoint. In these days, with holidays with pay and with statutory holidays, there is no question of any political differentiation.
There are a very large number of people who do not get the opportunity of voting when there is a General Election and who take it seriously. I am rather surprised that the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) has directed no attention to that side of the matter and to the very real feelings that people have at being deprived of the opportunity of exercising their right and their duty.
If, today, we can do more than focus attention on this problem and get assistance from public opinion outside in getting it attended to, that would be all to the good It is one of those matters which it is difficult to get people to do anything about. If today we can get interest in it, we shall begin to get somewhere.
At one General Election after another, I have been astonished to find people writing to me, not on political lines, but saying, "Cannot something be done? I found myself unable to exercise my vote." It is a good thing that on a private Members' occasion like this, irrespective of politics, hon. Members should be able to show the Government and the public the opinion of their constituents in these matters. This is a matter that people take seriously and I hope that attention will be paid to it.
§ 3.51 p.m.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)
I oppose the Bill for the general and cogent reason expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) that this is not the time to introduce a Bill of this kind, and secondly, that even if it were, this is not 1495 the method by which a Bill of constitutional importance should be introduced.
To turn from the general to the particular, the Bill would stretch the reasons for obtaining a postal vote to alarming lengths. Although the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) has concentrated upon people who are on holiday, that is not the wording of the Bill. The amending provisions of the Bill would enable people to vote by post for almost any reason, yet the hon. Member has concentrated on the argument about people being away on holiday.
Already, people can get a postal vote for a wide variety of reasons. It is not just a question of people who are businessmen, which is the phrase used by the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet, but of people who are away from their address for reasons of employment or occupation. In my constituency this would include a large number of lorry drivers.
Other reasons for postal vote are illness, incapacity, blindness, journey by air or by sea and removals. This latter question is different, possibly, in different parts of the country. In some areas, removals are not merely as frequent as in, for example, the constituency represented by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Curran). On a number of occasions, I tried to represent a similar constituency and when canvassing I was always surprised to find the enormous turnover of people on the surburban fringes of London. It is to some degree a ruthless area.
People can obtain a postal vote if they are in Her Majesty's Reserve or the Auxiliary Forces. Other categories are the returning officer and his staff, constables and a Parliamentary candidate and his or her wife or husband. It was announced in the Press, although the report may have been wrong, that the Leader of the Liberal Party managed yesterday to get a postal or proxy vote. It interested me, from my former days, to know on what ground the right hon. Gentleman obtained this for a local election. It proves, perhaps, that these categories can be stretched more than some of us thought.
§ Mr. Lubbock
As the hon. Member has referred to my right hon. Friend 1496 the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), I might point out to him that when the date of the elections was first announced it was probable that my right hon. Friend would have been in Orkney or Shetland on that day.
§ Mr. Rees
It is not a major issue and I should, perhaps, apologise for raising it, but when I tried to do exactly the same thing I did not get a postal vote for a local election. My only point is that there is a flexibility. Then, there is the Service voter's proxy. Those categories are specifically laid down as those who can get a postal vote.
The Bill does not seek to say that it applies to people who are away on holiday, although I have sympathy with that outlook. It states that anybody can get a postal vote. The general constitutional grounds argued by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West are the major reason why I oppose the Bill. Hon. Members in favour of the Bill have talked in terms of holidays, yet the Bill is drawn far too widely.
§ Mr. Doughty
I pointed out exactly what the hon. Member is pointing out, but I added that it is a matter which could be dealt with in Committee.
§ Mr. Rees
That may well be the case, but the Bill is drawn so widely that to deal with it in that way seems to me to be an inappropriate way of dealing with it.
To return to the immediate point of people being away on holiday, the hon. Member referred to 10 per cent. I can only accept his figure, but it seems to be an inordinate number, even for a holiday constituency. On the four or five occasions I have attempted to seek election to this House I have kept a rough and ready proportion in my mind of the number of people who were or would be away on holiday, and on the most recent occasion, the by-election by which I came to this House, I noticed that the number of people away from this country numbered a proportion of about 1 per cent.
It is not an overwhelming problem in most constituencies up and down the country, though I concede the point that people who have been working all summer, wish to get away on holiday.
§ Mr. Curran
Would the hon. Gentleman agree that the statistics given by the British Travel and Holidays Association show that about 4 million people go abroad for holidays every year now, and does he not think that this new fact is one which the electoral law should take into account?
§ Mr. Rees
I concede that more and more people have holidays and that more and more people go abroad. All I am arguing is that in most constituencies this is not the large problem which it is in the Isle of Thanet and in some other parts of the country. The postal vote in general, in most constituencies, is rarely about 2½per cent. and the holiday people who may wish to have a postal vote are a smaller number than is that of the other categories I have already listed.
Far more important than this is the question of the Y voters on the list. They are very concerned and they want to have the vote. In knocking up last night I was amazed at the number of young people who said to me, "I am on this list, but when shall I have the vote?" It seems to me that they are not even to get the vote by the time of the General Election. It is issues like this which I think we ought to be concerned with, not just this one issue.
It was, I think, in 1949 that this whole apparatus of enabling people to have a postal vote was first resurrected. At the time I was opposed to this. I felt very strongly that, in general, apart from the sick and aged, people should make the effort to get to the polling booth. In retrospect, I think that I was wrong. However, it has meant that there has grown up in this country a vast professional political apparatus to get people to sign the R.P.7 or R.P.10 to enable people to obtain the postal vote.
For a long time, in one constituency which I was attempting to represent, my postal vote officer was my wife. We had a voluntary apparatus in our house for doing it. Hardly anybody in the constituency could go out in a car without someone else chasing him or her to know whether he or she was moving or not. I will not say that it was rather like the Gestapo, because that has frightening connotations. At least, we had our ears to the ground.
1498 That was voluntary, but, without wishing to be partisan about this, I must point out that there are many political parties which have an apparatus of paid staff operating in rooms in the constituencies, operating particularly in marginal constituencies, and whose job is to explain and extend this complicated apparatus of postal votes. This can make a very great difference. Having a professional sort of organisation is one thing, and having a part-time staff working on it is another. It can make a difference.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Uxbridge Will bear me out, because the constituency which he represents has an excellent postal vote organisation, and it can make a very great difference between—
§ It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
§ Debate to be resumed upon Friday next.