HC Deb 12 March 1964 vol 691 cc784-6

9.30 p.m.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

I beg to move, in page 10, line 3, to leave out "a declaration" and to insert "declarations".

This is a purely technical Amendment. This point, which was raised in Committee, concerns election law. Some returning officers require another declaration from a policeman with regard to the return. If that is necessary, this Clause should have the word "declarations" rather than "declaration" in it. When the matter was raised in Committee the Under-Secretary said that it would be considered.

Mr. Speaker

I should have pointed out that I have proposed that we should discuss with this Amendment the Amendment in Schedule 1, page 31, line 12, at end insert: I solemnly promise and declare that I will not do anything forbidden by subsections (1), (2), (3) and (6) of section 53 of the Representation of the People Act 1949, which have been read over to me. They are obviously linked together. I do not think that the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) would feel obliged to add to his observations on that account.

Mr. Paget

No, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged.

Mr. Woodhouse

I am glad again to have the opportunity to speak on the question which the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) has raised by this Amendment. It is one which gives serious concern to the Police Federation. The Federation has complained that returning officers take different views on whether police officers attending polling stations and the counting of votes need or need not make the declaration of secrecy which is required by the Representation of the People Act. 1949, to be made by every officer or clerk authorised to attend at a polling station or the counting of votes.

The arguments of the Police Federation, with which I have much sympathy, are basically two. The first is that a doubt exists whether this declaration needs to be made or not. The second is that because the doubt exists much time is wasted by officers having to make the declaration every time they are on duty if the returning officer takes that view of the law. I naturally sympathise, particularly with the second point—that it takes up a great deal of their time—but I am bound to put the following considerations before the House. It is certainly arguable, because it is in fact argued, whether the declaration is required by law, but that is a matter for the courts to determine. It is not one on which the Home Office could legitimately pronounce.

If such a determination was made by the courts and if it did, in fact, show that amending legislation was necessary on this point, I think the House would agree that it would be more appropriate to carry out such an amendment within the scope of electoral law rather than in a Police Bill.

Mr. Hale

This seems a most astonishing argument. If I understand correctly, the hon. Gentleman is saying that while we are discussing this matter and an Amendment is before us which might remove doubt and the courts have not decided the point which he says is in dispute, it is the duty of this House to do nothing about it. Is he saying that we should wait for some unfortunate person to lose a case and a great deal of money and then bring in amending legislation although we are actually discussing the matter at this moment?

Mr. Woodhouse

I was going on to explain the future of this matter. I was making the point that at this stage if amending legislation is needed electoral law is the proper context for it rather than a Police Bill.

Mr. Paget

When are we to have a Bill dealing with electoral law? The hon. Gentleman quite rightly said that it is not for the Home Office to interpret the law or to change it. It is for Parliament to do so and Parliament now has an opportunity. When admittedly there is a doubt, why not take the opportunity of clearing it up instead of having the painful process of someone losing an action?

Mr. Woodhouse

What has not been established is whether there needs to be a change in the law, and this is what we are prepared to examine. I am coming to that in a moment. To do it in police law would surely be to put the matter out of perspective. It would mean singling out this one declaration of secrecy, which involves a page or two of reading out aloud, and attaching it to the brief, simple and general formula of attestation of a constable. It would surely blur the importance of the attestation of a constable in this way to give an undue prominence to one relatively infrequent aspect of a police constable's duty, as though one were to add to the oath which hon. Members take when they first come to the House a reference to some specific Standing Order.

But having said that it is essentially a matter for electoral law—because it touches on the general principles of the secrecy of he ballot—and that that is a more appropriate context than the attestation of a constable, I gladly add that this has been noted and is being considered along with a number of other proposals which have been put forward for the amendment of the electoral law. If it proves to be necessary it will be incorporated on the next occasion that electoral law comes up for amendment.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that in some parts of the country the declaration which is in Schedule 1 on page 31 is accepted in lieu of a separate declaration for electoral purposes? Does not that make it even more necessary to get it out of the way in a Bill such as this?

Mr. Woodhouse

What the hon. Member said is quite true, but that does not justify bringing it into the attestation formula.

Amendment negatived.