HC Deb 24 July 1968 vol 769 cc576-82
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. James Callaghan)

With permission, Sir, I should like to make a statement about the Government's conclusions on the review of the law relating to Parliamentary elections.

The Government have studied the recommendations made in the Final Report of Mr. Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law and the Government's conclusions are set out in a White Paper, Cmnd. 3717, which is available at the Vote Office now.

May I take this opportunity, Mr. Speaker, of expressing the appreciation of the House of the care which you, and the Members of this House who served on your Conference, gave to the review?

The Final Report of your Conference contains 71 conclusions, of which the Government accept 60. Of the remainder, four of the conclusions on which the Government differ relate to major issues. First, your Conference recommended by a majority that the minimum age for voting should be reduced to 20. On the other hand, the Government have already announced their acceptance of the recommendation of the Latey Committee that the age of majority should in future be 18, and the Government accordingly recommend in the White Paper that the minimum age for voting should also be reduced to 18 years.

Secondly, your Conference recommended by a majority that public opinion polls and betting odds should be prohibited for 72 hours before the poll. The Government are not convinced that this is practicable.

Thirdly, while your Conference recommended no change in polling hours at Parliamentary elections, the Government consider that the present hours of 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. should be extended so as to end at 10 p.m.

The fourth major recommendation from which the Government differ is that party labels should not be allowed on nomination and ballot papers. The Government's view is that these should be allowed if the necessary administrative machinery can be worked out; and I propose to consult the parties on this matter.

The White Paper also contains the recommendations of the Electoral Advisory Conference, which was convened at the same time as the Speaker's Conference to consider detailed questions on election procedure. The Government have examined these recommendations and the White Paper explains that we accept all but three of them.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has asked me to say that it is his intention to make arrangements for a debate on these matters when the House resumes after the Recess. The Government would then consider the views expressed during the debate with a view to the introduction of legislation next Session.

Mr. Maudling

We on this side of the House will wish to study these important proposals with care, and look forward to a debate on them in due course. May I ask the Home Secretary to explain a little more the reasons why the Government have departed from Mr. Speaker's Conference in the case of the minimum age for voting? The right hon. Gentleman said that the Conference recommended the age of 20 by majority, but it was a majority of 24 to 1, and it took into account the views of the Latey Commission, published about six months beforehand. It will be for the benefit of the House if the Home Secretary will give some indication of the reasons underlying the Government's decision.

Mr. Callaghan

This is surely a matter which will need to be developed during the debate. It is quite true that the Conference voted by 24 votes to 1, on the question that the age should be 20 years, but the Motion that the minimum age should be 18 years was rejected by only 22 votes to 3.

The basic conclusions springs from the fact that the Latey Commission examined the situation very carefully, and decided, and the Government accepted, and the House has been informed, that the age of majority should be 18. This was for a number of reasons: the growing maturity of young people—the fact that they are growing older earlier than we used to, and the fact that it would be a little inconsistent to have an age of majority at 18 for all purposes, including the right to enter into contracts, the right to purchase property, the right even to marry, but not the right to vote for elective representatives.

Several Hon. Members


Mr Speaker

Order. May I point out that the House cannot debate the issue now. We may, however, have elucidatory questions.

Mr. Maudling

Without wishing to enter into the question of the maturity of Ministers or of Opposition Members, may I ask whether it is not a fact that the conclusions of the Latey Report have been before Mr. Speaker's Conference for some time?

Mr. Callaghan

Yes, Sir. But even the Government are entitled to their view on the matter, and the Government have expressed their view. There will now be a debate, when the House will have to decide whether it thinks that the appropriate age is 18, 20, or 21. It is the Government's view that it should be 18.

Mr. Strauss

In view of the long and deep consideration given to this problem by Mr. Speaker's Conference, and bearing in mind all the aspects of the Latey Report, may we have an assurance from my right hon. Friend that when the matter comes to the House for debate there will be a free vote, and that all Ministers will be free to vote as they think right?

Mr. Callaghan

Naturally, I have thought about this problem, because it affects the House as a whole. It is not for me to give the answer—that is for the Leader of the House—but, clearly, we must have a debate on the issue first. I have no doubt that a number of views will be expressed in that debate, but I would express the view that it is basically a matter about which hon. Members themselves will have to make up their own minds.

Mr. Turton

Will the right hon. Gentleman make it quite clear what was the recommendation of the Latey Report? Did not that Report make it clear that we should not consider with the age of majority in private matters the age of voting and the age limit in public affairs? Does it follow from the Home Secretary's statement that he proposes to change the minimum age for jurors, the other subject on which the Latey Report distinguished its recommendations?

Mr. Callaghan

These are matters for debate but, as I recall the Latey Commission's view, the Commission did not say that we could not consider them together, but that it would be possible to consider them separately. They have been considered separately, and this is our conclusion.

Mr. C. Pannell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that all members of the Speaker's Conference consider the collective wisdom of that body as being rather better than that of the Cabinet—

Mr. Speaker

Order. In view of the nature of the argument which is developing, may I say that Mr. Speaker is completely impartial.

Mr. Pannell

With great respect, Mr. Speaker, you interrupted my prefatory remarks. I was about to add the words "on this issue".

In view of the fact that the Latey Commission was not given this matter in its terms of reference, but that the matter was specially reserved to Mr. Speaker's Conference, which devoted many sittings to it, a far greater amount of time than the Cabinet could give it, does my right hon. Friend understand that there is a flat duty resting on the Government, out of respect for Mr. Speaker's Conference and for other people, to allow a free vote on this issue?

Mr. Callaghan

I have already answered the question of the vote. Frankly, I have never known my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) to believe that anyone's opinion was better than his on any subject; and I am not at all surprised that he considers his views superior on this. He also happens to be—and I think that I am entitled to say this—a member of the Labour Party, which has gone on record on more than one occasion at its annual conferences as advocating that the age of voting should be 18 years.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the Home Secretary aware that we very much endorse the tribute that he has paid to you, Mr. Speaker, for the work you did in this Conference, which meant a very heavy additional burden to the other responsibilities you carry? Is he further aware that we welcome the flexible attitude which has been displayed by the Government on the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference? Bearing in mind that the single transferable vote was rejected by exactly the same majority as was the age of 18, will he allow this point to be determined by free vote of the House?

Mr. Callaghan

There will obviously have to be legislation, and I have no doubt that it will be possible to put down Amendments to any legislation which is brought forward, and that the House will reach a conclusion. I should not like any observations that I have made to be thought to detract from the work done by the hon. Gentleman, my right hon. Friends and others—I have already paid tribute to that—but there are 630 experts in the House on any electoral questions, and we are all entitled to have our own opinions.

Mr. Mendelson

Will the Home Secretary guard against accepting from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling) any detailed analysis of what happened in Mr. Speaker's Conference, as the right hon. Gentleman suffers from the grave fault of not having been present at those discussions? The bare bones have been published, but will my right hon. Friend accept that many other hon. Members had various views on the voting age— perhaps 19 or 19½ years? It was not by any means as clear-cut as all that. Will the Government stand firm on their decision?

Mr. Callaghan

I share the difficulty of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling) because I was not present either, but it seems to me that we have asked Mr. Speaker's Conference to discuss these matters and the House as a whole is grateful to our colleagues who have given time to the matter. It is now the responsibility of the Government to come forward with their conclusions and, later, for the House to debate them and to reach conclusions as a House.

Mrs. Ewing

Is the Home Secretary aware that the recommendation of the reduction of the voting age will be welcomed by the Scottish National Party? Is it not the case that when the voting age was 21 the average age at which votes were cast was 23, and that when the age is reduced to 18, as I hope it will be, the average age at which votes will be cast will be 20?

Mr. Callaghan

That is a matter that will have to be considered when the legislation is put before the House, but I would beg the hon. Lady not to draw too many lessons from the fickle jade Fortune. Fortune may smile on the hon. Member at the moment, but she also has reserve.

Mr. Coe

Will my right hon. Friend accept that many of us are delighted that the Government accept the principle of party labels on ballot papers? When the Government are framing their legislation will they take account of the idea of extending party labels to local elections, because it is here, perhaps, that there is more confusion than there is in Parliamentary elections?

Mr. Callaghan

I remember my hon. Friend's own initiative in the matter of party labels. I have been into the subject with some of my colleagues. There are administrative difficulties which I should like to discuss with the Opposition parties. If they thought and were all agreed that it was possible not only to accept the idea in principle, but to extend it from Parliamentary to local elections, there would certainly be no governmental difficulty in the matter. But I think that what we will find in the end is that it will hinge on administrative practicality.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Will the right hon. Gentleman give a clear assurance that the fact that the Government intend to introduce legislation relating to electoral law will not be used as a pretext for delaying prompt implementation of the recommendations of the Boundary Commission?

Mr. Callaghan

The right hon. Gentleman has a capacity for relating relevance to irrelevance. These issues are quite unrelated. When I receive the Reports of the Boundary Commission, as I shall in due course, I shall give them the same earnest consideration as I have given to Mr. Speaker's Conference.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We have a mass of business still to do. Mr. Crosland. Statement.