§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.5 a.m.
§ Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Although the Bill is in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Wembley, South (Sir R. Russell), Mr. Speaker, you and the House will be sorry to hear that he is unwell and unable to be in his place today. It therefore falls to me to move this Motion.
The Bill, as you will observe, Mr. Speaker, is a Bill to amend Section 12 of the Representation of the People Act, 1949. The House will be aware that in 1949 we passed the Representation of the People Act which dealt at considerable length with the rules, regulations and methods of conducting elections, both general elections and by-elections. For the first time it introduced a measure, to be found in Section 12 of that Act, enabling people who, far various reasons which I shall enumerate in a little more detail in a moment, are absent from their constituency on polling day to vote either by proxy or by post.
Up till then if a person was prevented by illness or other reason from voting personally at an election by going to the polling station and recording his vote upon a ballot paper, he was to all intents and purposes disfranchised. When I say "he", of course, the feminine gender is included. By that Act certain persons who were too ill to vote, who were away on employment or in one of the Services, could, by making proper application in time, record their vote either through a proxy or by post. But that did not 1106 include everybody who might, for any good reason, be away from the constituency and be unable to get to the polling station on polling day.
The purpose of this short Bill is to extend that Section of the Representation of the People Act so that those who are absent from the constituency on polling day and are genuinely unable to vote, can, by taking the necessary steps, vote either by proxy or by post. Up till now and, indeed, at the present moment if they do not fall within rather narrow limits defined in Section 12 of the Act they are unable to record their vote for a particular candidate at an election. This Bill seeks to alter that hardship which is placed upon a number of electors. It does not enable those who say "I prefer to vote by post instead of going to the trouble of walking to the polling station" to do so. They must have a genuine reason for being unable to be present at the polling station on election day.
Therefore, Clause 1(1,a) of this Bill amends Section 12 of the Representation of the People Act by inserting the following words in subsection (1), after paragraph (e):(f) those not falling within any of the above paragraphs but unable or unlikely to be able to go in person to the polling station by reason of their absence from the constituency throughout the hours of the poll";One may ask who exactly would benefit from an extension of this Act. One can answer genuinely, first of all, those who are away on holiday, be the holiday short or long, and also those who may be away genuinely visiting or looking after friends or relations. Many a person learning of illness in another person's home will go at once to help, and this cause can lead to the absence of quite a number of electors from the constituency on polling day.
Nowadays, a good deal more than in 1949, people take holidays at times of the year other than what one might call the popular holiday season. There are many who like to take their holidays in the winter. I dare say that, many a time, hon. Members will have seen a colleague in the House with a leg in plaster and walking around with the aid of two sticks after having had a skiing accident during a short period of rest from this place. This is probably the 1107 best evidence I can produce to show that many people like to take their holidays in the winter. An election, be it a General Election or a by-election, can come along almost at any time and people perfectly properly away for rest or recreation of that sort become automatically disenfranchised.
The Bill is in no sense a political Measure. I do not know, and no one can know, how such people would vote were they able to be present. I am quite sure that all parties in the House, in these days of universal suffrage, would not wish to disfranchise electors simply by reason of their absence on their normal occupations, on recreation or in helping friends elsewhere in the country.
It is interesting to recall what happened once in the House, towards the end of July, when a Motion for a Writ for the election of a Member was moved. The Motion was opposed by some hon. Members. They did not carry it to a Division, but there was a considerable debate upon the Motion. The chief objection was that the by-election would be taking place at the end of July and many of the people in the constituency would be thereby disfranchised if they were, as might well be expected, away on holiday at that time.
At the end of the debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, West (Mr. Iain Macleod), then Leader of the House, said:I would dearly like to see legislation enabling people to vote when they are away on holiday, and if I could be assured of the Opposition's support I would be ready to bring in a Bill to that end."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd July, 1963, Vol. 681, c. 1286.]He did not do so. It falls to me today to introduce the Measure which will enable the whole argument of that debate to be avoided at any time in the future should a similar situation arise.
One does not know when a general election may come. The Government had a very small majority in the last Parliament and, if they had been defeated, a general election could have come quite suddenly. Unfortunately, although, I think, hon. Members in this Parliament are a very healthy lot, accidents can happen to individuals at any time and elections or by-elections can 1108 take place with very little notice. If this should happen during the holiday season, a very large proportion of the electorate will find themselves disenfranchised. I hope that the House will accept the Bill and enable that injustice to be remedied
We are aware, of course, that the remedy proposed is open to abuse. People might say that they were likely to be away on holiday or absent for some other cause simply because they did not want to walk a few hundred yards, or, in country constituencies, travel several miles to the polling station in order to vote in person. For this reason, my hon. Friend the Member for Wembley, South has made his proposed extension of Section 12 subject to fairly strict conditions. The form suggested in the Schedule would not only have to be signed by the applicant for a postal or proxy vote but would have to be subject to attestation. Incidentally, the application must, of course, be put in after the Writ for the election has been issued and not later than 12 days before polling day.
It is provided that the attestation must be made before someone in the category of persons set out, who may conveniently be described as respectable people able to take the attestation and look after it. If at any time it should be found that someone who had applied to be treated as an absent voter under the terms of the Bill had made a statement which he knew to be false, he would be liable upon summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £100. I believe that that will be a sufficient deterrent to anyone inclined to make an application improperly.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will be grateful for any assistance which hon. Members can give in Committee to improve the Bill, but the main object is to enable people at present subject to injustice to exercise the vote which is their right. Hon. Members will often have heard people in their constituencies speak strongly about their being unable to vote because of absence from the constituency on polling day for one reason or another not covered by Section 12. It is only right that the result of an election should be determined not by a minority of electors but by everyone who is, or should be, entitled to vote.
1109 This is a short but important Measure. It will remove many genuine grievances felt by a large number of electors in every constituency. I commend it to the House.
§ 11.18 a.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
The House will regret exceedingly the reason for the absence of the hon. Member for Wembley, South (Sir R. Russell), who should have moved the Second Reading, and will wish him a speedy recovery to health. The arguments in favour of the Bill have not however, lost any force by the speed of the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) who has moved the Second Reading in his stead.
The reasons for the Bill given by the hon. and learned Gentleman appear very attractive at first sight. One might well be tempted to say, "Let us give an opportunity to anyone to avoid his being disfranchised". But, when we examine the matter a little more carefully, we see that this is a Measure which ought not to be passed. I oppose the Second Reading.
The Bill would make a vital change in our electoral law. It would mean, as the hon. and learned Gentleman recognised, that the way was open to a great deal of abuse. It is proposed to allow anyone to state that he is likely to be away on polling day and that, accordingly, he would like to have facilities to vote by post or by proxy. This is a very serious change. It is all very well to say that some people have suffered injustice, that we ought to think of those who are way on holiday, who are looking after elderly or sick people elsewhere, or who are away for other reasons. But this would be a very wide power indeed. In my view it is a power which ought not to be given.
The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to Section 12—which is the Section dealing with this matter—in the 1949 Act. It is important that we should look at that Section because, I respectfully suggest, it represents very widely the exceptions which can be made to the general rule. We recognise that an essential part of our electoral law—in the words words of Section 12—is thatAll persons voting as electors at a parliamentary election shall do so in person at the polling station allotted to them …1110 That is an essential part of our electoral law. It is only in exceptional circumstances that we depart from that rule, and we take that view not only because of the necessity of voting personally but because of the sacred principle of the the secrecy of the ballot.
The exceptions set out in that Section are very wide, and it is important to remember them. First, there arethose registered as service voters".Then there arethose unable or likely to be unable to go in person to the polling stationfor a number of reasons which are set out, and they, too, are very wide. The first isthe general nature of the occupation, service or employment of the person in question".The second isthat person's service as a member of any of His Majesty's reserve or auxiliary forces".The next isthe particular circumstances of that person's employment on the date of the poll either as a constable or, for a purpose connected with the election, by the returning officer".The next is the candidate, or the candidate's wife or husband, who no doubt must assist the candidate. The next is the returning officer at a General Election and at a General Electionthe particular circumstances of that person's employment on the date of the poll by the returning officer at some other constituency for a purpose connected with the election in that constituency".Next isthose unable or likely to be unable, by reason either of blindness or any other physical incapacity, to go in person to the polling station or, if able to go, to vote unaided".Next, there arethose unable or likely to be unable to go in person from their qualifying address to the polling station without making a journey by air or sea".Next, there arethose no longer residing at their qualifying address".One sees that these exceptions are very wide. I suggest that the position had been studied very carefully when that Act was passed in order to see the exceptions which could be made to the important principle that voting should be in person at the polling station and in secrecy.
1111 The Bill would make a vital change in the position set out in Section 12 of the 1949 Act. Under the Bill this exception would apply to thoseunable or unlikely to be able to go in person to the polling station by reason of their absence from the constituency throughout the hours of the poll".It is not only a question of being unable; it is a question of "unlikely to be able". What does "unlikely to be able" mean? Any person may say, with very good reason, "I am likely to be unable to go", or he may well say, "I do not want the trouble or difficulty of going to the poll on the day. I will say that I am likely to be unable to go."
Hon. Members may say that he is dishonest in his intentions, but who is to prove that he is dishonest in his intention? Clause 2 of the Bill sets out a penalty,Any person who, in an application to be treated as an absent voter … makes a statement which he knows to be false shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £100".How are we to prove it? The hon. and learned Gentleman knows well enough that it is almost impossible to prove that a person did not have the intention which he said that he had. That is what would have to be proved —that he did not have the intention of being absent. The penalty Clause is derisory; it could never be applied or could be applied only in the rarest possible circumstances. To suggest a penalty of this kind in this way is in my view absurd.
Another important point concerns the secrecy of the ballot. When a person goes into a polling booth he has heard all the arguments, or he has not heard them, he has studied the election manifestos, or he has not studied them, but at any rate when he goes into the polling booth he is alone there and can alone exercise his judgment and vote in accordance with what he wishes. But if a person is allowed to vote by post, let us think for a moment of the opportunities it might give to those who might desire to take advantage of the situation. Pressure might be put upon the person who is to vote. There might be arrangements to talk to a number of people and to instruct them in the actual exer- 1112 cise of their votes. We should be moving a long way from the secrecy which we have in the polling booth.
This is a very simple Bill put forward, I have no doubt, with the best of intentions. I have no doubt that if it were applied simply to one class of people, who were on holiday, it might be a very worthy thing, but it cannot be restricted in that way. It is far too wide. It is a fundamental departure from our electoral law. I hope that the House will reject the Motion for a Second Reading.
§ 11.27 a.m.
§ Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)
I should like to intervene briefly in support of the Bill, which should have been introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Wembley, South (Sir R. Russell). I should like to associate myself most sincerely with the regret expressed at the reasons for which he has not been able to move the Second Reading and at the same time to congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) on the skilful and able way in which he took over and introduced the Bill.
I do not intend to follow all the points raised by the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman), but it seemed to me that he dismissed the penalty Clause rather too easily and he made two further points which I found difficult to follow. I do not see why there should be any abuse. Why should pressure be exercised because a person intends to vote through the post instead of voting in the secrecy of the ballot? No doubt he will receive all the usual pressures which voters receive before elections, but I do not see any reason for any undue pressure being exercised in this case. The hon. Member also referred to abuse. It is perhaps as well to remember that ultimately the only abuse would be that somebody who wanted to vote was actually able to do so. He would be voting in one way instead of in another.
I think that the principle which underlies the Bill must be widely accepted and acceptable in a democratic society because it is the principle that voting should be facilitated wherever possible. It is one of the principal aims in a democracy to see that as many people as possible exercise their right to vote, and the Bill is 1113 aimed at achieving precisely that. It is an attempt to make it easier for people to vote, and for that reason alone should be widely welcomed and supported.
It will remove a number of unjust anomalies. Many hon. Members have encountered some of these in the course of their electoral experiences, as I have, and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East, has referred to some of them.
I will mention specific instances. Where a husband goes away on business and takes his wife with him, he can vote but she cannot. That is wrong and indefensible. If a Service man is on a temporary posting and his wife is with him, he can vote but she cannot. That also is wrong and indefensible. During the last election there were a number of instances in my constituency of persons who had to be away from home to look after sick relatives. It is wrong that they should be denied the right to vote.
These days, quite rightly, there is much talk about the desirability of staggering holidays. Because of this, people tend to take holidays at different times of the year. It is frequently the case in a firm that the younger and more junior members of the staff find themselves on holiday at rather less favoured times— less favoured for holidays but more favoured from the point of view of General Elections. It is wrong that all these should lose their right to vote.
It is the responsibility of the State to see that no citizen is penalised and denied his rights. The aim of the Bill is to see that fewer people are arbitrarily denied their right to vote, which is one of the most important rights one can have in a democratic society. I hope that the Bill will be approved.
§ 11.32 a.m.
§ Mr. W. H. Loveys (Chichester)
I join in regretting the reason for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Wembley, South (Sir R. Russell) and I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) on moving the Second Reading so well. I cannot understand the objections raised on the benches opposite. The hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) mentioned that anomalies would be possible under the Bill, but 1114 these could be sorted out in Committee. He said that people might claim that they would be away on polling day and be allowed a postal vote even though in fact they would be at home and capable of voting at the polling booth.
My hon. Friend the Member for West-bury (Mr. Walters) was right in drawing the attention of the House to the fact that, even if that happened, the point is that the person concerned is having the vote and that everyone in this country should be entitled to vote. The Bill is small and simple and may not be considered as important as other matters the House has been discussing this week. But it is not unimportant to the individuals concerned and it is right that this House should protect the rights of individuals.
That right is simply the right of being able to vote. Even in a constituency like mine, which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East has referred to as having a somewhat indecently large majority, otherwise referred to as a "safe" seat—a person is furious if he discovers on polling day that for some reason he is disfranchised. The time is over-ripe for this injustice to be removed.
I cannot understand the opposition to this Measure. We may hear more about it from the right hon. Lady the Minister of State. The opposition always comes from the Socialist side of the House. I have never been impressed by any of the reasons put forward for opposing this proposal. It is not a party political Measure. Perhaps there was an argument once in that more Socialists than Conservative voters could not take holidays but that is not the case now. This is simply a further step towards "one-man, one-vote".
The present list of those available to vote by post or proxy is very limited. It includes those away on business. But if a man takes his wife with him she cannot have a postal or proxy vote.
§ Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)
This point has been covered by one of the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference.
§ Mr. Loveys
But it has not yet been brought into law. I am reciting the position as it stands now.
1115 Another group able to vote by post or proxy are the sick, the blind and the infirm, and that is right. Those who have moved from one part of the country to another between elections can have the vote and Service men and women have the vote. If the Bill is passed we shall be able to include a large number of people who are now completely disfranchised.
Apart from the wife who accompanies her husband on a business trip, what about men and women attending conferences? This would probably give more favour to trade unionists than to anyone else because they probably attend more conferences than anyone else. Those on holiday would be able to vote. Why should people be deprived of the vote because they are on holiday? The British Holiday and Travel Association estimates that about 4 million people go abroad each year. In addition, a large number of people are engaged in the hotel industry. They are particularly affected because they have to take their holidays out of season during the period when elections usually take place.
§ Mr. Doughty
My hon. Friend has mentioned the period during which elections take place, but I remind him that we are not only dealing with General Elections. One cannot tell when an hon. Member will die or when a by-election will be caused by some other reason. Such a by-election can—and very likely will—happen in what is sometimes called the holiday season.
§ Mr. Loveys
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for making that point. I do not think I mentioned General Elections in particular. I mentioned elections. The Bill applies to General Elections and to by-elections, although not to local government elections.
In the South of England, farmers finish their harvest at the latest towards the end of September and like to try and get away for a holiday in October. Then there is the small category of those living in closed orders, in nunneries and monastries. Just because they choose that way of life is no reason for losing the vote.
If the Bill is defeated we shall also continue to deny the right to vote to others while granting it to ourselves. If 1116 a Parliamentary candidate is fighting a constituency in a part of the country away from the one in which he lives, he is able to obtain a postal vote. This is a simple matter of fairness and justice and would be a step towards a more complete democracy.
§ 11.40 a.m.
§ Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)
I intervene briefly in the debate because when the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) put forward a bill on this subject two Sessions ago, I was one of its sponsors. I agree entirely with those hon. Members who have said that in principle one wants to extend the vote to everybody who wishes to exercise it and that if anyone is absent from his constituency on polling day, for whatever reason, we should try to enable him to cast his vote none the less. But I have changed my mind on this since that Bill was presented, and I think that it is necessary for me to explain the reasons for doing so.
It would be out of order to refer to the evidence which has been presented to your Conference on this subject, Mr. Speaker, but I regret the Conference's decision not to publish the evidence which would have been very material to this debate. Without actually quoting what has been said to us by the registration officers and the Association of Municipal Corporations and others who would be concerned with the administration of this proposal if the House chose to approve it, I must say that the difficulties appear to be not only formidable, but insuperable.
Much as I would like to have accepted the proposal put so eloquently by the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty), I must ask him to take this matter into consideration, and in none of the speeches so far has the problem of administrative difficulties been mentioned. The House cannot afford just to approve in principle without considering what effect the Bill would have on registration officers and the machinery provided by local authorities at election times.
The sponsors of the Bill suggest that applications for a postal vote should be submitted after a writ has been issued, but not less than 12 days before polling day, which gives the local officers very 1117 little time to cope with applications for postal voting facilities. I must tell the House that it is only by the use of a considerable amount of overtime and by the hard work of local government officers in registration departments that the work is completed even under the present legislation. Without taking on large numbers, who would inevitably be unfamiliar with the work and likely to make mistakes, it would be impossible for the additional burden to be carried.
The hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East said that people must have a genuine reason for being absent on polling day, but the only reason which he mentioned was absence on holiday. That would obviously be the most important.
§ Mr. Doughty
I mentioned that as one of the reasons. I gave as another example people looking after sick friends or relations, and another hon. Member mentioned wives away with husbands on business.
§ Mr. Lubbock
It was one of the principal reasons and we probably all accept that absence on holiday is by far the most important.
But once it is accepted that people are entitled to postal voting if away on holiday, in practice it would be extremely difficult to refuse applications for any reason. Completing the form which appears in the Schedule, it would not be at all difficult for a person to submit an apparently valid reason for being away on polling day on the off-chance that his absence might be necessary. Registration officers would be swamped with a deluge of applications from people who might think that they were likely to be away. They would not have to know at the time of submitting applications that they would be away, because paragraph (f) which it proposed to insert into Section 12 of the Representation of the People Act, 1949, merely says that they have to be unable or unlikely to be able to go in person. One can see that many electors might feel that they had to put in applications just to be on the safe side and on the off-chance that they might be away.
There is some doubt about whether the examples mentioned by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Loveys) are not already covered by the 1949 Act. If a 1118 person is attending a trade union conference or, for that matter, the conference of a political party and is an official, under Section 12(1,b (i)) of the 1949 Act, he would be deemed to be absent from his constituency by a reason of his occupation, service or employment. The other example of the wife being away with her husband on business, which I agree to be extremely important, I tried to cover myself in Bills which I presented both in the last Session of Parliament and the one before that. But we now have a recommendation from the Speaker's Conference that absent voting facilities should be extended to those people. I am delighted that that is the case, because I have always thought that that was a logical and necessary extension of the existing facilities. But as the recommendation has been made by your Conference, Mr. Speaker, the hon. Gentleman need not have any anxiety that it will not be contained in the subsequent legislation.
Your Conference has been considering these matters at some length and in some detail and has received expert advice from various sources and has come to some conclusions which have been communicated to the Prime Minister and published. It would be wrong for us to take a decision on one item of the voting system without regard to all the other matters which have been under consideration. This would be piecemeal legislation.
I may be asked why, if that is my view, I brought forward Bills for the extension of absent voting facilities to wives away with husbands on business. That would be a fair question. At that time, in spite of private assurances from the Home Office, I did not see the prospect of early legislation on the subject and I felt that something could be done before the General Election to enable people to exercise their votes. But that situation does not face us today. I do not expect that we shall have another General Election for three or four years—I may be wrong about that, but I think that we have all had enough of General Elections for the time being—and in that case there is plenty of time for these matters to be dealt with by the House rationally and sensibly instead of in piecemeal legislation dealing with one issue at a time.
The postal and proxy voting facilities in this country are very much more 1119 generous to the elector than those of many other States in the Western world. Some of the remaining anomalies will be removed on the recommendation of the Speaker's Conference. The House would therefore be advised to wait until the Home Office comes forward with comprehensive legislation and not let this Bill go through now.
§ 11.49 a.m.
§ Mr. Albert Booth (Barrow-in-Furness)
The hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) mentioned the victims of ski-ing accidents abroad as some evidence of the kind of people who could legitimately he held to be likely to be out of constituencies at times other than normal holiday periods and therefore requiring postal votes in circumstances not provided for in present legislation.
§ Mr. Doughty
I used the example of hon. Members who had been victims of ski-ing accidents to show that people took winter holidays. I did not say that the victims of ski-ing accidents were disfranchised.
§ Mr. Booth
I accept the correction, but I think that the example can be made applicable on a rather wider basis. Surely hon. Members are not the only people who have ski-ing accidents abroad? In my own constituency one is not likely to see many such people. Before one would be likely to see many victims of ski-ing accidents abroad in Barrow-in-Furness, one would not only have to have a big increase in general incomes there—
§ Mr. Walters
Will the hon. Gentleman take the point, which I tried to emphasise, on the subject of staggering holidays, which tends to apply more to the junior members of firms, who are encouraged to go away at less favourable times of the year?
§ Mr. Booth
Yes, I will take this point into consideration. However, before one is likely to see many victims of skiing accidents abroad in my constituency, one would not only have to have a large general increase in incomes but also a big improvement in the holidays given by the major industry of the town.
I am not opposed to the point raised by the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters). I am in favour of there being 1120 a vast spreading of holidays. My major objections to the Bill do not stem from any narrow constituency bias. I do not think that this is a logical way of dealing with a very real problem. The Bill proposes to add a paragraph to the Representation of the People Act, 1949, stating:(f) those not falling within any of the above paragraphs but unable or unlikely to be able to go in person to the polling station by reason of their absence from the constituency throughout the hours of the poll".If this Bill became law, this paragraph would refer to all people covered by the preceding paragraph. It would refer to people unable to go to the poll by virtue of sickness, blindness and any of the reasons which at present entitle people to obtain postal votes.
The logical way in which to include a paragraph such as this within the Representation of the People Act, 1949, would be to delete all the existing paragraphs which give people entitlement to postal votes and to substitute this paragraph. The fact that it is not being done in that way points to one of the weaknesses of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) rightly pointed out that if one uses a paragraph like this in the Act it would lead to tremendous difficulties for those concerned with the machinery of postal voting.
Turning to the penal Clause, I react almost instinctively against such a Clause. Quite clearly the intention of anyone who would seek to abuse it would be that of safeguarding his right to vote, and I find it hard to accept that there can be any sympathy for the proposition that we should be able to fine a person up to £100 for attempting to do this. In any case, it would be almost impossible to probe into whether one was likely or unlikely, because this is a matter of opinion.
I am in favour of the extension of the Act, because I accept that there are injustices, but this is not the way to do it. It is an illogical method which would result in very great difficulties in the operation of the Act, while the penalty Clause would operate against the very laudable motive of a person trying to preserve his right to vote.
§ 12.55 p.m.
§ Sir John Langford-Holt (Shrewsbury)
There is quite a lot of force in the arguments of the hon. Member for 1121 Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) and the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) when they say that this is not the correct vehicle, and that we should wait until something is done in a more comprehensive manner. Having been in this House for nearly 21 years, I have heard Government after Government and Minister after Minister, on both sides, pray this in aid as an excuse and a reason for doing nothing. Far too often, unless the issue is forced, nothing is done. The hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) and the hon. Gentleman the Member for Orpington painted a picture of people who were longing to get postal votes and avoid going to the polls. This was the impression which I got and I hope that I am wrong because it has not been my experience over the years.
On many occasions I have known people entitled to postal votes, on medical grounds, but who would not take the vote because they had a very strong and rooted desire to go to the polls and vote in person. The postal voter gets very little advantage, and since an election is won and lost by the floating voter he loses the advantage of being a floating voter up to the last moment. The Representation of the People Act, as the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North said, provided that people shall vote and vote in person at the polling station, with exceptions. These exceptions are basically concerned with the general nature of the occupation of a person and the circumstances of employment.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Loveys) said, there are stronger and better reasons than employment. I had an example during the election. I know that we have heard this before but it happened to me. A person was torn in their loyalties because they had been asked, as a matter of urgency, to look after an old and ailing relative and they could either refuse to do that or lose their vote.
§ Mr. Lubbock
Under this Bill, if such a person had received an urgent request less than 12 days before the poll he still would be unable to obtain a postal vote.
§ Sir J. Langford-Holt
I am coming to that point in a moment. All that I am saying is that we must have good reasons for not doing these things. The hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North made a valuable point about the question of secrecy when he said that everyone given a postal vote would be liable to have their arms and minds jogged by someone next door. This is an argument for having no postal votes. If it is secrecy that we are concerned about, I see no difficulty in saying that a postal vote should be registered in a police station.
§ Mr. Weitzman
I was pointing out that there would be an increase in the number of people who would have the privilege of voting by post, and therefore a tremendous area over which this lack of secrecy might prevail.
§ Sir J. Langford-Holt
I agree. This could be covered without much difficulty by requiring such postal voters, not those who obtain a postal vote on medical grounds, to cast their vote in a police station or other suitable agency.
The real argument against this proposal is the administrative difficulties. We should place on record the enormous debt of gratitude which we owe to the returning officers who have a very arduous job to do. They get very little thanks for it, apart from a two-minutes' speech at the declaration of the poll when candidates are usually aware of anything but being thankful to the returning officer. This seems to be the one valid reason for opposition to the extension of the right to a postal vote.
The hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness said that in his constituency there were few people who went ski-ing in January and Ferburay and therefore that this was a reason for not having the postal vote. He destroyed the one argument against the Bill because if so few people are involved there would not be administrative difficulty.
§ Sir J. Langford-Holt
I realise that. But the hon. Gentleman made the argument; he cannot get away from that.
1123 Opposition to this type of proposal always comes from the wrong end of the telescope. The Executive must justify any limitation in the freedom of the individual and any action which they take which limits the freedom of the individual. In the same way, they must justify their opposition to a person's absolute right and freedom to vote. They must prove on solid administrtive grounds, which they have not yet done, that these things are impossible. Difficulties there will be. But the Executive must always start from the point of justifying their opposition to a person being able to exercise his absolute and vital right in a democratic system, namely, the right to vote.
§ 12.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Martin Maddan (Hove)
This is a Friday debate, and we know that the purpose of Private Members' Bills introduced on Fridays is often more to give an airing to a subject and perhaps to elicit the Government's attitude rather than to press them to their final conclusion. I apologise that I was not present to hear my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) introduce the Bill.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt) said, the purpose of all the arrangements surrounding the poll is to get the maximum possible poll. That is what it is all about. It has been said that a by-election might be held in a peak holiday period. This happened to me 11 months ago in Hove. The number of people who found themselves disfranchised because they had arranged their holidays and, for reasons which we can understand, were not able to change them was very substantial indeed. This cannot be held to be desirable.
The hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) said that having to travel by sea or air is regarded in certain circumstances as a reason for having a postal vote. Why should not this be regarded as a reason for having a postal vote if a person is on holiday and has to return home by sea or air?
§ Mr. Weitzman
If a person travels somewhere by sea or air he is definitely away. The criticism of this proposal is that it is so open to abuse. Anybody 1124 may say that he is likely to be absent when in fact he will not be absent.
§ Mr. Maddan
Many points could be made and amendments suggested in Committee. But what we are concerned with today is the principle of the Bill. It might be argued that if the postal vote were confined to those who travelled by sea or air—those who went furthest for their holidays, a fact which some people might equate with Tory supporters, though I do not know why—it would be disadvantageous to the party opposite. I would not put forward the proposition that there should be such a limit.
There are many classes covered by the Bill, but in the main it involves holiday-makers. We have to face the fact —and it is a very good thing—that today holiday-makers come widely spread in huge volume from every section of the community.
We must also face the fact that holidays are important to production. I can remember when trade unions pressed for holidays with pay not only because they were beneficial to the worker and his family but because it was a valid argument that efficiency would be increased if people could get away from work for a holiday. Therefore, we should not disfranchise those who go away for a holiday. If we support this Bill, we are departing only by a hair's breadth from the existing postal vote for those who are away on business. There is not very much in it. The present limitations which were drawn up just after the war are out of date.
We talk a lot about modernising Parliamentary procedure. We should not hesitate to modernise the electoral machinery. We have a reforming Home Office, and the right hon. Lady the Minister of State graces it. I hope that its reforms will not stop short at this extremely important point.
Reference has been made to registraion officers and their problems. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury that we can always find an administrative difficulty about anything that we do not want to do and that we can always find a way round administrative difficulties about anything that we do want to do. If any hon. Member wants some ideas as to how to get round this problem, I shall be most glad 1125 to discuss it in detail with him, but I will not bother the House with the matter today. We should be able to take that as read.
Registration officers have a lot of difficulties. Reference has been made to the fact that Mr. Speaker's Conference considered the question and made a recommendation about wives being away with husbands on business. A good rule is: no names, no pack drill. But I know certain areas in which registration officers have made a practice of this for some time, and I am glad that they have. We can be sure that registration officers have difficulty in interpreting the present limitations. They are probably open to more interpretations than one. Fortunately, some registration officers have the good sense to stretch the limitations in the direction in which certainly the whole weight of public opinion is moving and in which, I hope, the weight of official opinion is moving, too.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House, together with the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock), agree that the present restrictions pose very real problems. Difficulties have been found in the solutions put forward. But we should not regard them as a reason for objecting to the principle of the Bill, which is what we are considering. Bearing in mind that the purpose of our electoral machinery must be to enable the maximum number of people reasonably to vote, I very much hope that the right hon. Lady the Minister of State will indicate sympathy for the Bill. We know that through other machinery proposals for electoral reform are coming forward. This being so, it might well be that this proposal should be incorporated in them. That is a matter for decision.
If as a result of this debate the weight and strength of opinion in favour of the principle that people should be helped to cast their vote by every possible means is pressed and accepted, the purpose of the promoters of the Bill will have been well served and their efforts well worthwhile.
§ 12.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Richard Sharples (Sutton and Cheam)
Everyone who has spoken has, in one way or another, expressed regret 1126 that my hon. Friend the Member for Wembley, South (Sir R. Russell) was not able to be present to move the Second Reading of his Bill. All of us who know my hon. Friend admire the courage with which he has carried on his duties in the House under conditions of considerable difficulty and wish him well in his illness.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) was a powerful advocate in support of the Bill, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Wembley, South will read with great interest his remarks in moving the Bill. My hon. and learned Friend received support from hon. Friends of mine on this side of the House—my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Loveys), my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters), my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Maddan). It can be said generally of the debate that it has been conducted in a non-partisan spirit and that we have had useful and constructive suggestions together with thoughtful speeches from both sides of the House.
There is no doubt that we are agreed that the essence of voting is personal attendance at a polling station and the marking of a ballot paper in a secret booth. That has always been agreed by all political parties. There is no doubt whatever that the further one departs from that principle, there more possibility there is, however small it may be, of abuses of one kind or another creeping in to our electoral system. It can be said that we are proud of our electoral system although we may not always like the results which it produces.
It must, however, be accepted that certain people are unavoidably prevented from exercising their vote in person. As was pointed out by one of my hon. Friends and by the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman), provision is already made under the Representation of the People Act, 1949, for certain people in those categories who are unable to vote in person to be able to vote either by post or by proxy. To mention some of the principal categories of people who are so entitled, there are 1127 the sick and the blind, the Armed Forces, those who by reasons of their work or business are forced to be away from then-normal places of residence where they qualify for a vote and those who have changed their addresses and moved to another local government area.
The question which the Bill raises is whether we should extend the categories of people who are able to vote either by post or by proxy and, if so, how far we should go in extending these privileges to them. Let us be in no doubt about one thing. Every one of us in the course of a General Election has come across people who either write to us or whom we see and who say to us with deep feeling, "If only I had been able to exercise a postal vote or a proxy vote, I would have wished to exercise my democratic right." There are very strong feelings among people who, for reasons beyond their control, are unable to exercise their right to vote but who are not included in the categories covered by Section 12 of the 1949 Act.
A particular category of people whom one comes across are the wives of those who are away at business or at work. One frequently finds difficult cases of this nature. Also in this category of people who are not able to exercise a proxy or postal vote but who, nevertheless, can be said to come firmly into the category of those who are unavoidably prevented from voting are those who are looking after the sick or after aged relatives who cannot be left for any time while the people caring for them go to the poll. These are genuine cases in which, if one might apply the description of hardship in this category, hard cases exist.
It is much more difficult when one considers people who are away for what might be called voluntary reasons. It is very difficult because it is becoming increasingly hard to define those who are away for voluntary reasons. More and more people today have to take their holidays at times of the year when holidays would not normally be taken. It has been the policy of both the present Government and of the last Conservative Government to encourage the taking of staggered holidays and to try to get away from the holiday season concentrated into August and the first two weeks of Septem- 1128 ber. This undoubtedly has the effect of reducing the periods of the year when a General Election can take place. If one considers also other factors such as the timing of the Budget and the financial business which has to be transacted in the House of Commons, the periods of the year when it is possible to have a General Election are probably now reduced to only two or three.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East raised the important point of by-elections. Knowing all the factors, it is at least possible to decide to have a General Election when it will fit in with the business of the House and cause fewest people to miss voting by reason of being away, but by-elections come upon us at times which are not usually of our own choosing. In recent years there have been cases in which by-elections have had to be held in the knowledge that many people who would be entitled to vote would not be able to do so because they would have to take their holidays at that time, whether or not they wished to do so.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that if we were to extend the principle of allowing a postal or proxy vote to every person who was away on holiday, or felt that he was likely to be away on holiday, at the relevant time, it would mean a vast increase in the number of people so entitled to vote, and it would by virtually impossible to exclude anyone who wished to vote in this way.
The Bill seeks to overcome this difficulty, first, by imposing a penalty for those who knowingly make false statements in obtaining a postal or proxy vote of this kind, and, secondly, by including in the Schedule a fairly detailed form of application which will have to be signed before anyone would qualify to attest his signature, which would put him to a certain amount of inconvenience. Nonetheless, even with the Penalties contained in Clause 2 and the Schedule the number of people entitled to vote in this way would be considerably increased.
The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) and my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury also referred to the administrative difficulties which would arise from a provision of this kind. I have not had the benefit of seeing the evidence presented to your Conference on Electoral Reform, Mr. Speaker, but 1129 although powerful cases may have been made out in respect of the administrative difficulties that will arise if an alteration of this kind were made, if the House considered it right to make them means could be found of overcoming those difficulties, and I would not consider them to amount to an insuperable argument against making a fairly important and radical change in the electoral law.
§ Mr. Lubbock
Does the hon. Member think that the House is entitled to state its view that the evidence placed before Mr. Speaker's Conference should be published, so that hon. Members could have the benefit of this evidence before them in making their decision?
§ Mr. Sharples
Yes. I was going to refer to that. One of the difficulties with which we are faced is the fact that we have not been able to see the arguments advanced before Mr. Speaker's Conference, or have the benefit of the evidence placed before him. I strongly support the view expressed by the hon. Member for Orpington that the evidence should be published, together with the minutes of proceedings. We should then know what had taken place.
I am not so much concerned with the administrative problems which might arise; I am much more concerned with the question whether we should not consider very carefully the effect of an infinite extension of the right to vote by post upon the principle that voting in this country should, wherever possible, take place under the system which we know as the secret ballot.
Bills of this kind have been introduced in varying forms, more or less for the same purpose, on a number of occasions in recent years. Since the last one was introduced your Conference on Electoral Law, Mr. Speaker, has been established. I am sure that we would be wrong to seek to make this kind of radical change in the electoral law without first making every attempt to obtain all-party agreement. The right vehicle for obtaining such agreement is your Conference, Mr. Speaker, which I understand is shortly to be reconvened.
In a letter to the Prime Minister you have already made certain recommendations about the extension of absent vot- 1130 ing. Your Conference has recommended thatwives of any persons accompanying their husbands whenever their husbands are so qualifiedshould qualify to be treated as absent voters, and thatWives of Crown servants and members of the forces should be entitled to vote by proxy as from the time they leave the United Kingdom. Absent voting facilities should be extended to electors who no longer reside at their qualifying address but reside at an address in another constituency within the same borough.That letter contains no reference to any conclusion reached by the Conference on the wider question of proxy or postal voting for those who may be away on holiday, which persons would be covered by the Bill. I do not know the extent to which this subject was considered by your Conference, and there is no indication in your letter whether or not it was considered, although I have no doubt that some consideration must have been given to it.
It will be open to the Conference, when reconvened, to consider any subject of this kind which members of the Conference may wish to raise.
I am sure that the Conference, when reconvened, will take note of the views expressed by hon. Members of both sides in today's debate. I am not sure of the intentions of my hon. and learned Friend about the Bill, but certainly the debate has been extremely useful and I hope that further consideration of this important problem will be given by the Conference. This would probably be the best way of dealing with this difficult matter, on which strong feelings are held not only in the House but in the country generally.
§ 12.30 p.m.
§ The Minister of Stale, Home Department (Miss Alice Bacon)
I am sure that the whole House regrets that the hon. Member for Wembley, South (Sir R. Russell) has not been able to be here this morning to move the Second Reading of his Bill because of illness. It is rare for an hon. Member to be lucky enough to secure a place in the Ballot, and particularly lucky when he is in the position of being first in the list of subjects on a Friday. It must be a great disappointment to an hon. Member in such a fortunate position to find that illness prevents him 1131 from moving his own Bill. We are, therefore, grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) for stepping into the breach and moving the Second Reading so admirably and concisely, although, as I will show, I disagree with much of what he said.
This Measure is the fourth edition of a Bill which was introduced by the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) in 1963. To give a little of the history of Measures of this sort, the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet obtained a Second Reading but did not complete its Committee stage. The following Session we had a revised version of the Bill—at any rate, the long and short Titles were different—introduced by the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles). We had an interesting Second Reading debate on that Bill, but it failed to obtain a Second Reading. Then, last December, the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Frederic Harris) introduced a Bill which did not get as far as its Second Reading, although it was almost the identical twin of the one we are considering today.
I am sure that hon. Members will not wish me to say a great deal about the present provisions for absent voting at Parliamentary elections or about the development of these provisions since absent voting first became a feature of our electoral law in 1918. However, it is worth noting that before the Second World War, except for Service voters, the only persons eligible to vote as absent voters were persons likely to be unable to vote in person at a polling station by reason of the nature of their occupation, service or employment.
Looking back, it might seem strange that even as recently as the ' thirties persons who were, for example, sick, or who had removed from one end of the country to another, were not eligible to vote as absent voters. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt)— said that in these matters the Government had usually to be pushed by private Members' legislation. I remind him that it was in a Government Bill, under the Labour Government of 1945 to 1950 that provision was made for absent voting by other persons who are now entitled to vote by post or by proxy, as the case may be.
1132 Hon. Members have already given the list of those principal groups who are at present entitled to absent voting facilities. I will not repeat them, except to say that it will be seen from that list that provision is made for a fairly substantial number of persons to obtain absent voting facilities. I am sure that we all agree that these are the electors who are primarily entitled to be treated exceptionally, even by those who would seek to extend the list.
The categories of absent voters were greatly enlarged between 1945 and 1948 and my hon. and right hon. Friends certainly do not take the view that the present categories must remain fixed forever. In common with other provisions of electoral law, the arrangements for absent voting need re-examination from time to time. When the hon. and gallant Member's Bill was debated by the House last year, consultations were already taking place, through the usual channels, with a view to setting up a Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law, which would include members of all the political parties represented in the House. My hon. Friend who is now the Minister of State for Wales, the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas), suggested that this was a compelling reason for not giving a Second Reading to the hon. and gallant Member's Bill. And, as I have said, that Bill failed to secure a Second Reading.
As the House will know, last summer the late Mr. Speaker Hylton-Foster accepted an invitation from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to preside over a conference which was asked to examine and, if possible, submit agreed resolutions on a wide range of matters relating to parliamentary elections. The question of "absent voting generally" was among those referred to the Conference. Subsequently, you, Mr. Speaker, agreed to take over the Conference in order that its work could continue.
Mr. Speaker has sent three letters to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, dated 28th December, 1965, and 8th February and 7th March, 1966, setting out recommendations of the Conference. These letters have been published as Command Papers and can fairly be described as "interim reports" of the Conference. The work of the Conference was interrupted by the General Election, 1133 and some of the Members of the Conference as originally constituted are no longer hon. Members of the House.
Mr. Speaker recently agreed to reconstitute the Conference in this Parliament and we await the announcement of the names of those hon. Members who have accepted an invitation to serve on the Conference as reconstituted.
When the third of Mr. Speaker's letters was published, the last Parliament had just been dissolved and a Proclamation had been issued for a new Parliament. Hon. Members were, naturally, somewhat preoccupied at the time over the number of votes, postal and otherwise, they were likely to obtain in a few weeks' time, and may have overlooked the Command Paper while the General Election campaign was under way.
Those hon. Members who did study it or who have subsequently studied the report will find that it contains a number of recommendations about absent voting, two of which, at any rate, would apparently be met by this Bill. The first of these is that the Representation of the People Act, 1949, should be amended so as to include among those qualified to be treated as absent voters, by reason of the general nature of their occupation, service or employment, wives accompanying their husbands when their husbands are so qualified. These wives, being absent from their qualifying address on the day of election, would seem to be within the terms of the Bill we are discussing today.
Secondly, the Conference on Electoral Law has recommended that the wives of Crown servants and of members of the Forces should be entitled to vote by proxy as from the time they leave the United Kingdom. It is, I understand, an effect of the present arrangements for registration and absent voting that these wives are, in effect, disfranchised until their registration as Service voters takes effect. These wives would also obviously be within the terms of the Bill.
The third group to whom the Conference recommends that absent voting facilities should be extended are electors who no longer reside at their qualifying address but who reside at an address in another constituency within the same borough. These would not so obviously 1134 qualify under the terms of the Bill. They are absent from their qualifying address all right; indeed, they have removed for good from their qualifying address, but they would probably not, in the words of the Bill, beunable, or likely to be unable" to vote in person at a polling station. It might be very awkward for them to do so, but it would not be impossible.Although I am not in a position today to say what view the Government take on this recommendation of the Conference, speaking personally, I realise the difficulties. I represent a constituency in a divided borough of Leeds, and my great headache at the last three elections was to get the large number of people who had moved from three miles south of the city to eight miles north of it into another constituency altogether, but who still remained within the local government area, to come back to vote.
There has always been an anomaly between the county constituencies and those in divided boroughs. If a person moves from one local government area, maybe from one village to the next village, in a county constituency, it is possible for him to get a postal vote, but if someone moves from several miles south of a city, to several miles north of it—and in some of our big cities a person may move as much as 15 miles— because he is within the same local government area, it is impossible for him to get a postal vote.
The Conference on Electoral Law is, as I have said, in the middle of its deliberations, and they are to be resumed. The proceedings of the Conference are not published, and I think that of the hon. Members who have spoken in the debate today the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) is at a decided advantage because he knows what has been considered by the Speaker's Conference.
The proceedings of the Conference are not published, and it is not within the power of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to direct that they should be so. This is entirely a matter for the Conference itself to decide, but maybe what has been said today will have been heard by those who are responsible for this.
1135 It seems a reasonable inference from the fact that recommendations have been made for certain limited extensions of absent voting, that the Conference does not propose to recommend a wide extension of absent voting on the lines of the Bill. If that were not so, some of the limited recommendations which the Conference has made would seem to be unnecessary. On the other hand, this is no more than an inference as far as I am concerned, and the Conference may consider that it is open to it to make further recommendations about absent voting if it so wishes, but, not being a member of the Conference, I cannot know this one way or the other.
It is true that the Conference on Electoral Law has asked the Electoral Advisory Conference, which advises my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, to consider a suggestion that the law should provide for a right of objection to names included in the list of absent voters. It may be, therefore, that we can expect some further recommendations from the Conference on Electoral Law about absent voting.
What is clear, however, is that the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law, having been asked to consider the question of absent voting generally, has not so far made any recommendation for a change on the lines of the Bill. And even if it had, it might not necessarily be right to proceed piecemeal with one recommendation, since a Bill of this nature would have repercussions on the election machinery generally, and especially on the timetable of the election. I think that because the Speaker's Conference has not made any recommendation so far, this should be regarded as a decisive factor in the question whether the Bill should be given a Second Reading. The House may, however, consider that we should again look in some detail at the arguments for and against the Bill.
I am sure that we all know of hard cases where persons anxious to vote nevertheless find that they are unable to do so because the election falls, for instance, during a holiday, and they are away. Perhaps there were not so many problems of this kind during the last election because it was held in March when few people were on holiday.
1136 The Bill seeks to amend the 1949 Act so as considerably to widen the facilities for postal and proxy voting, extending this facility to electors who for any reason might be away from their constituencies during the time of the poll. This would include not only holiday makers. It could extend to anyone who planned to spend a day by the sea or in the country, or to go on a fishing trip or a coach outing. The possibility of abuse of this facility cannot be ignored, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) said, and it would be almost impossible to check the validity of any application.
§ Mr. Walters
The person concerned would have to go to one of the scheduled people in advance and say that he was going to be away on that day, and a form would have to be signed. This would make it much more difficult for somebody planning to go away for a day.
§ Miss Bacon
I do not think that that is so, because somebody would have to check this, and it would be well-nigh impossible to check on all the people who made such applications.
§ Mr. Maddan
There is a natural barrier to abuse, which is that people do not like filling in forms. This is a pretty good way of resisting abuse.
§ Miss Bacon
I do not think that one could really count that as a reason for giving the Bill a Second Reading.
It is reasonable to expect that if postal and proxy voting facilities were widely extended there would be a substantial increase in the number of applications received. At present the average percentage of absent voters for each constituency at a General Election is about 2½. If the Bill were passed, the figure could increase substantially. Such an increase would create both administrative and financial difficulties, and perhaps I might tell the House of some of the administrative difficulties which would arise.
Under the present timetable for a General Election, there are 12 days, excluding Sundays, between the last day for the receipt of applications to be treated as an absent voter, and polling day. Many electoral registration officers regard this period as barely adequate to cope 1137 with the provisions of the Act, particularly in county constituencies. If the number of applications doubled, as it might well do, and went as high as 5 per cent., or more, the problem of extra cost would arise in every constituency, and additional staff would be required.
A much wider application of postal and proxy voting would mean that the electoral registration officers would be faced with an impossible task within the present timetable provided for a General Election. The machinery might well break down unless the period of 12 days was extended. To cope with the task, the present provision of the last day for receipt of applications would probably require to be extended from 12 days to 18 days, and this would be one day before the issue of the Writ in a General Election.
There is, however, another point about this. To bring forward the last date for applications for absent voting facilities would be to the detriment of genuine applicants for whom the provision of postal voting was first introduced. We all know that people become ill five, six, nine or perhaps ten days before polling day. If we were to extend the time from 12 days to 18 days, it would mean that many people who became genuinely ill within those six days between the 12th and 18th days would not be able to register as absent voters.
In short, if postal voting facilities were considerably extended, and the election timetable were amended to make such provisions workable, the last day for making a claim would be 18 days before polling day instead of 12, and this would make the whole position very much more difficult for the genuinely ill person.
As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North said, there is no check especially on a forecast of what someone is likely to do in two or three weeks' time. This Bill would mean that it became optional whether an elector voted in person or as an absent voter. The hon. and learned Member, in moving the Second Reading, said that the Bill does not enable anyone who does not want to go to the poll to have a postal vote. That might not be the intention of the Bill, but I think it would be an inevitable 1138 result of its terms. The principle in this country has always been that an elector votes in person except when there are very strong grounds for exceptional treatment. If the Bill were passed the whole character of our elections would change. There is something to be said for the principle that wherever possible people should go to the polling station and register their vote. There is also the effect which this Bill might have on the maximum for election expenses. I shall not go into that point in detail today.
There are very great difficulties in regard to this Bill. Some people who have a natural desire to exercise their vote are prevented from doing so. No doubt the Conference on Electoral Law would have all these matters in mind, but no recommendation for a wide extension of absent voting has been made by the Conference. I do not think this way of piecemeal legislation is the way to go about electoral reform. I agree with what the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharpies) said about Mr. Speaker's Conference. Represented on it are hon. Members from all parts of the House. The best way to proceed with electoral reform is to await the various recommendations it will bring forward and then to bring those recommendations before the House of Commons.
I hope, therefore, that the hon. and learned Member who moved the Second Reading of the Bill, having listened to this very interesting debate, will withdraw the Bill. If he does not choose to do so, I shall have to ask the House not to give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 12.52 p.m.
§ Mr. Doughty
Mr. Deputy Speaker, with your permission and that of the House, I wish to make a brief speech at the conclusion of this debate. This is the first of the Private Members Bills introduced in this Parliament. Private Members Bills are extremely important matters. Sometimes they introduce changes in the law which perhaps a Government does not wish to make, or which a Government have not time to bring in. We have had a most interesting debate on electoral law. Having heard the right hon. Lady and heard that Mr. Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law is now sitting, I am certain that this debate, interesting and useful as it has been, will 1139 be brought to the attention of the Conference as a matter which certainly requires very full consideration. I am sure that whatever recommendations are made by the Conference will be dealt with fully in this House by the Government of the day. In view of the fact that we have had this debate and now concluded it, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Bill.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Eric Fletcher)
It is a technicality, but I do not think the hon. and learned Member technically can withdraw the Bill. He can ask leave to withdraw the Motion for the Second Reading of the Bill.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.