§ Mr. Keith Speed (Meriden)
I beg to move Amendment No. 47, in page 4, line 33, at beginning insert:(1) In section 12(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1949 there shall be added subsection (f) as follows:—(f) those who on polling day will be on holiday at an address at least 50 miles from their qualifying address;and in section 23(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1949 there shall be added subsection (e) as follows:—(e) those who on polling day will be on holiday at an address at least 50 miles from their qualifying address.This is an important Amendment which basically seeks, in the first part, to extend the right to vote by post at Parliamentary elections to people who will be on holiday and at least 50 miles from their qualifying address on polling day. The second part extends the same right to people who vote by post when on holiday and are at least 50 miles from their qualifying address in local elections at which they are allowed to vote, since postal votes are not allowed at certain local elections.
In discussing the Bill we have been considering an expansion and extension of the franchise. Yesterday, we discussed extending it to 3 million people by reducing the voting age to 18. There are later proposals to extend hours so that people who, because of their work or for other 535 reasons, may be unable to vote up to 10 p.m., will have an extra hour in which to vote.
Large numbers of people who at present go on holiday are not able, in practical terms, to cast a vote either at Parliamentary or local elections. This problem has exercised Parliament in previous years and various of my hon. Friends—notably my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies), my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles), my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Frederick Harris) and, most recently, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty)—have tried to introduce legislation to extend the postal vote at Parliamentary elections for people who will be on holiday. However, they attempted to go wider than this Amendment and their proposals did not contain the limitations which this one does.
I am not being unfair in paraphrasing the opposition which was forthcoming to previous Private Members' Bills from the Government as having been broadly in two categories: first, the administrative difficulties—because my hon. Friends sought to go much wider than this Amendment—and, secondly, the fact that if one is to have reforms of representation of the people from the voting point of view, they should be part of a comprehensive change rather than being piecemeal reforms.
That point was made with some strength in the debate in June, 1966 by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock), when opposing the Private Member's Bill introduced by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East. It was also the tenor of the objections voiced by the right hon. Lady the Member for Leeds, South-East (Miss Bacon) when, as a Home Office Minister, she was replying for the Government. It has been 20 years since the last reform. It may be another 20 years before the next reform takes place. The time has come when, if this matter is to be tackled properly, it must be tackled in this Bill, I hope in the manner I have outlined.
The arguments in favour of the Amendment are overwhelming. The holiday patterns and the periods of 536 holiday in this country have changed substantially since the war. Today, many sections of British industry and commerce give three or four weeks' annual holiday as the rule rather than the exception. This is often achieved by employees taking a fortnight's annual holiday at one time and then an additional week or two later on at the mutual convenience of the employer and employee. I am convinced that by 1989—which is probably when we shall next be discussing this matter—six weeks' holiday will be the rule rather than the exception throughout British industry, and I hope that it will because we are already falling behind the Continent in this matter.
With this trend in mind, we must consider the period when holidays are taken. A few years ago it was standard practice for the majority of workers to have a fortnight's annual leave, and they usually took it in the first or second half of August. At that time the whole country ground to a halt. We have now moved the August Bank Holiday to the end of August or the beginning of September and increasingly firms are trying to stagger the holiday period. The result is that the summer holidays band now ranges from June to October, and during this period people may be away on holiday. That band happens to coincide, particularly in October, with one of the most popular months for holding General Elections.
The trend goes further than that. Not only do people in industry take their holidays during this band, but certain sections of the community, because of their occupations, trades or professions, are obliged to take their holidays in October or November or in May or June as well as at other times of the year which clash with the popular dates for holding General Elections. Seaside landladies, workers in the tourist industry and hotel employees, in addition to farmers once the harvest is in, often go away on holiday in October and similar out-of-season months.
There are other smaller sections of the community who find it almost impossible to take a holiday between July and September. They are, therefore, obliged to holiday either earlier or later in the year. In addition, there is another section of the community, old people, who 537 take their holidays outside the main band. It is usually cheaper for them to holiday earlier or later in the year and their holidays often coincide with popular times for General Elections.
There are schemes under which old people take coach trips to seaside resorts at cheaper rates, and these schemes are operative particularly early and late in the year. This enables them to take a holiday at reduced rates in hotels at the start or end of the season, a holiday which they could not otherwise afford. This is organised by old people's clubs, and so or, and is a growing and most desirable practice. But it means that these people cannot vote when a General Election is held in October.
Also, a growing number of people are having winter sports holidays in Scotland or on the Continent, and this activity covers the months from December to March, and March is another popular month for General Elections. In addition, Parliamentary by-elections can occur at any time. Since the General Election of 1966 we have had by-elections in March, April, June, July, September, October and November. It is crystal clear that very many people find it impossible to vote because they are away on holiday during one of the months chosen for an election, and they are away largely because of circumstances of their occupation. I believe that in by-elections alone many thousands have been disfranchised.
There are problems if one extends this too far. Perhaps some of my hon. Friends who tried to introduce legislation some years ago made this mistake. If we give people on holiday postal votes without laying down any conditions we might as well cease to have people going to the polling station because all can say that they might be on holiday on a particular day and so everybody in the country could vote by post.
That is why we have specifically provided that these people must be on holiday 50 miles or more from their qualifying address. It is possible to argue about the 50 miles. The principle must be accepted that if people are within a certain distance of their polling station it is not unreasonable for them to cast their vote there. But I would point out that anyone in my constituency who 538 wishes to go to the seaside must travel more than 50 miles, and it is such cases that we ought to cover.
Sometimes the administrative difficulties involved are referred to. Most of the holiday makers about whom we are speaking are not those who go away on the spur of the moment. They plan their holidays some time in advance and make their bookings. They know that for a certain period they will be away. If an election occurs during that time, their holiday will genuinely have been settled beforehand and it will not be a spur of the moment decision.
Another argument concerns extra work for returning officers and their staff. I do not consider that the rights of the electorate should be subordinate to the administrative difficulties involved for civil servants, returning officers, Parliamentary parties or Members of Parliament. It seems to me that on occasions the Civil Service and the Establishment have the best of it and the people themselves have the worst of it.
I pay tribute to the way returning officers and the others involved do their work. We are already adding to the work of the staffs by agreeing to votes at 18. I believe that a large number of those who will have votes at 18 will wish to be postal voters because they will be away at university and so on. We are also to extend the voting hours by one hour. I shall be interested to hear what is said when we discuss that subject.
As I have said, we are already adding to the work of staffs in a large number of constituencies. Where one has an electorate of 100,000 or 120,000, the number of postal votes will, by definition, be greater, even without having postal votes for those who are on holiday, than in a constituency of 25,000 or 30,000. Perhaps the Governent will reply to the challenge that I put forward on Second Reading in this regard.
The additional work put on the staffs already depends upon the efficiency and enthusiasm of local electors and local party organisations. It is interesting to look at the number of postal votes published after elections. In the very safe seats there are usually only 200, 300 or 400 postal votes, while at the other end of the scale in the marginal seats there may be 3,000. No one argues that when 539 voters registering for postal votes for business reasons it is an added burden on the staffs. So I find the argument unacceptable.
The proposal means that in the first week when the postal votes are being registered there will be a lot of work for the staffs. This may entail obtaining additional staff to cope with it. I believe that in the marginal constituencies where traditionally there has been a high number of postal votes the extension of the franchise to persons of 18 may well require additional staff to cope with the work. Therefore, I do not regard the administrative difficulties as insoluble.
People who have to be on holiday because of the circumstances of their work should be given a reasonable chance to cast their votes at local elections, General Elections or by-elections. The onus will be on them to apply. This is not spoon-feeding; they have to take the initiative. It is wrong that the House should deny these people the exercise of that responsibility.
I believe that in some by-elections up to 5 per cent. of the electorate have been disfranchised in this way. I am convinced that at General Elections, particularly those held in October, the number of disfranchised runs into many hundreds of thousands. I find this situation completely unacceptable, and am not prepared to wait another 20 years before we can look at it again.
If the Amendment is not accepted for insertion in the Bill, when hon. Members try to raise the subject in future by means of Private Members' Bills they will be told, "It cannot be done piecemeal. You must wait for comprehensive legislation." Here we have comprehensive legislation.
I believe that the Amendment is realistic. It may cause difficulties, but it is workable. It will help people who wish to do so to exercise their voting rights when they will otherwise be prevented from doing so because of their occupation and having to be away on holiday at certain times. I commend the Amendment to the Minister, the Committee and my hon. Friends.
§ Mr. Cyril Bence (Dunbartonshire, East)
I remember—when having been in the House, like the hon. Member for 540 Meriden (Mr. Speed), for a few months—reading the Official Reports of the Administration between 1945 and 1951, looking at issues which had been raised, reading the speeches from the Government Front Bench in defence of the status quo and then the speeches from the Opposition Front Bench, putting down appropriate Ten Minute Rule Bills and typical Amendments and standing up and making the speeches that had been made by the previous Opposition and receiving answers from the then Government Front Bench in the same sort of language that I and my colleagues experienced when we sat on the other side of the House. But I have never previously heard anyone make both the speeches of the Opposition and the speeches of the Government as the hon. Member for Meriden has done.
The hon. Gentleman began by making a proposition that used to be made between 1945 and 1951 for having a vote while on holiday. Then he quoted a lot of the material which used to be put forward as to why this could not be done. It was material quoted by the previous Conservative Government as well. His last point was that anyone who could not afford a holiday at a distance of over 50 miles should not be allowed to vote by post, but that anyone who could afford a holiday over 50 miles could vote.
That is the point. Many people can afford to take holidays perhaps only 20 or 30 miles from home but, according to the hon. Gentleman, they are not to have a postal vote because they will not be far enough away.
§ Mr. Bence
Here is another difficulty. Thousands of electors are away from home on holiday within 50 miles of home 541 on polling day. The hon. Gentleman said that more and more people go on holiday. He said that coach loads of old people are taken on holiday and at various times of the year. He said that the holiday period had spread. Now he says that, if people are less than 50 miles away, there are plenty of cars available to their parties to fetch them back. Is he advocating the free use of cars in Parliamentary elections, with no expense limitation?
§ Colonel Sir Harwood Harrison (Eye)
Candidates cannot hire cars, but volunteer cars could do the job.
§ Mr. Bence
In any election there is a lirc itation of expenditure by the candidate and his agent. The point that the hon. and gallant Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) made is that, if sufficient people are prepared to use their own cars to fetch constituents 40 or 50 miles back from holiday, they can do it. But there is a limit of expenditure by candidates and agents in doing that.
§ Mr. Bence
A candidate cannot spend in excess of a certain sum. Volunteer cars may be used. I know that there are agents and candidates who can get that sort of volunteer assistance, but it would be a complete injustice between candidates and agents to have a system whereby people were collected from 40 or 50 miles away by car. I know areas of the country where the cars would not be forthcoming and people on holiday would not be collected. They would, therefore, be disfranchised if they were on holiday less than 50 miles away. That is a fair point.
§ Mr. Bence
No, because all that we should be doing would be fixing the anomaly at a different point. The anomaly would still be there.
542 A major administrative machine would have to be created for this purpose. Three weeks elapse between the dissolution of Parliament and polling day. In that time, the administrative staffs would have to find all the people on holiday. The hon. Gentleman himself pointed out that there are certain months in which the fewest number of people are on holiday, including October and March.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Bence
These are months when, according to the hon. Gentleman, the fewest number of people are on holiday. The hon. Gentleman said that, in October particularly, people like seaside hoteliers and others are on holiday. Therefore, during that period, fewer of the rest of the population are on holiday.
§ Mr. Speed
It is not what I said. People who go on holiday may even be having a busman's holiday. When seaside landladies and hoteliers return from holiday they are involved in renovation and redecoration of their establishments and they are working throughout the winter. But I do not only stress the point of view of such people. There are many others, in farming and in industry as a whole, who take their holidays in these months. The holiday band is widening from the traditional month of August.
§ Mr. Bence
There is a widening holiday band which goes beyond those particular months. That is the point I was making. If there is a widening band for holidays, we would he laying upon 543 administrative staffs a huge burden in having to be ready over an ever-widening band to deal with elections which might come forward. One cannot produce staff in 10 minutes.
§ Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)
Surely the point is that boarding-house and hotel proprietors from Blackpool, for example, do not go to Scarborough for holiday, but to Madeira or Spain. No one has yet said whether this postal service is to be extended to the four quarters of the globe. The proposal is impracticable.
§ Mr. Dempsey
The claim is that, if one is on holiday less than 50 miles away, cars should be sent to bring one back for the vote. We had an election during July not so long ago. Many thousands of Scottish people were on holiday on the West Coast of Scotland, only 35 miles from their constituencies. How many cars would have been necessary to bring them to the polls?
§ Mr. Bence
I am glad that my hon. Friend mentioned that when we are dealing with this sort of distance. People who live in Glasgow, for example, go to Rothesay or the Western Isles for their holidays, only 20 or 30 miles away. They have to take a train and then cross the water. There is a sea journey involved as well. How is it proposed that they should be brought back to vote? Is it suggested that a ferry should be chartered?
I am glad, too, that the hon. Gentleman has read the speeches made by his right hon. and hon Friends in the past when they have put forward similar propositions, and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends when in Opposition in the last Administration. This case has been shattered time and time again.
It would be impossible to recruit sufficient staff to deal with the situation, even if it were limited to voters on holiday in the British Isles. But suppose they decide to go to Madeira or Bermuda. In the South of France and the West Indies at 544 any time of the year there are hundreds of thousands of British citizens on holiday incognito. It would be impossible to find them. It would require thousands of civil servants to search for those people all of whom would be known by the name John Smith.
§ Sir D. Kaberry
The hon. Gentleman then raises the delightful question of who they will be with in the South of France or the West Indies. However, he has missed the essence of the Amendment, which is designed to make certain additions to Section 12(1) of the Representation of the People Act enabling people to claim a postal vote. If any of his friends is spending a holiday incognito in the South of France and does not wish to claim, he need not.
§ The Deputy Chairman (Mr. Harry Gourlay)
If the hon. Gentleman would address the Chair, I, too, would hear what is going on in the Committee.
§ Mr. Bence
I am sorry, Mr. Gourlay, but we are now in areas which are always subject to a considerable amount of humour.
In the event of a sudden General Election, it would be an impossible task to recruit the necessary forces in the three weeks between the dissolution of Parliament and polling day. In that connection, the hon. Gentleman's last point was about the most absurd that I have ever heard expressed in this House. He said that it would mean increased work for the Civil Service and local authorities, which, in turn, would mean slight increases in staff. He added, however, that this Measure and other tasks imposed on various Government Departments in recent years had resulted in the recruitment of more civil servants in any event, and it would not matter about adding a few more.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is never put in charge of a Department. I can see that he has never worked in a factory. It is probable that he has been a director—
§ Mr. Speed
Perhaps I might tell the hon. Gentleman that I was in industry for nine years. However, is he aware that, by the Bill, his Government are adding very substantially to the work of local authorities and civil servants? Will he vote against the extension of polling hours to 10 o'clock, and will he press, as I have, for redistribution so that, when my constituency has 160,000 voters, my electoral registration officer will not die from a heart attack?
§ Mr. Bence
I can answer that straight away. I am more interested in creating extra work for the administrative machine in seeing that ordinary working people car vote after they have finished work than in saying that Mr. Smith, incognito in Madeira, shall vote. I think that that is worth a little extra staff.
§ Mr. Bence
People who spend their holidays all over the world in that way generally choose the name Smith. Because of the publicity which surrounds the right hon. and learned Gentleman, they would never use the name Hogg.
I hope that my hon. Friend will not accept the Amendment. It will create even more anomalies, among them that of the line being drawn at 50 miles. It will add to the difficulties of agents, candidates and workers in elections if, when an election is declared, a person with his name on the electoral register can be anywhere in the world yet have to be notified by the registrar, and sent a polling card. Apart from anything else, such people have to be found. If someone in Bermuda or Patagonia is not notified, the law will not have been carried out.
This proposal has been made sereval times before by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The same sort of argument has been raised against it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw it.
§ [Sir Barnett Janner in the Chair]
§ Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)
The hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) has drawn a flaming red herring across the Committee's deliberations and grossly exaggerated the com- 546 plications arising from acceptance of the Amendment. I hope that I can bring the Committee back to the main point, which is to remedy what strikes ordinary people as a plain injustice. There are strong feelings about this among voters of all parties, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be aware.
If I may corroborate what my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed) said by a recent example from my own experience, at a by-election in the middle of September a year ago it was discovered that the number of people away on holiday and, for that reason, unable to vote totalled thousands rather than hundreds. No doubt they included Cambridge landladies anxious to fortify themselves before the arrival of undergraduates. The whole situation left a bad taste in the mouths of many of my constituents.
A number of hon. Members raised the general question of postal voting for people on holiday in the Second Reading debate. We were answered rather curtly by the Secretary of State for Scotland, who said:When people will take their holidays is unpredictable. It would be very difficult to regulate this, but it was estimated that it would mean a considerable increase in the number of people having postal votes. It would mean that an extension of time would need to be allowed to the electoral registration officer for issuing forms. At the moment, I think it is 12 days. It would need to be at least 18 days. This would affect the timing of the election. Because of that, and because of the confusion and difficulties which would arise, this has hitherto been ruled out. This is why we rule it out now."—[Official Report, 18th November, 1968; Vol. 773, c. 1028–9.]Having thought about this, I find his objections quite unconvincing, in view of the wording of the Amendment.
My hon. Friend referred to the earlier debate in June, 1966, when a Private Member's Bill was moved with the same purpose in mind, but drawn much wider than this Amendment. It was criticised then because of the extra administrative burdens this very wide proposal would create. The Government spokesman made virtually the same reply as that made by the Secretary of State for Scotland on Monday last week, quoting the figure of 12 days, as it now is, having to be lengthened to 18 days, as it would be. I 547 am sorry to weary the Committee with these figures of days, but it is relevant to the Amendment because we have tried to meet the objections previously raised.
I am sure that hon. Members on both sides will agree that, in the light of experience, Section 12 of the Representation of the People Act, 1949, is too narrow. We propose a modest alteration to cover the one case which sticks out more than others as needing to be put right, because there is even more of a gap in our arrangements today than 10 or 20 years ago.
On distance, we have tried to strike a reasonable figure. I will not be distracted by the lurid points about water and air which the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East raised a few minutes ago. I heard only this morning about a constituent of mine who was compelled, by his own enthusiasm and the present law, to go from Edinburgh to Cambridge to cast his vote in the by-election last year. I am grateful to him, but this should not be necessary, so we have suggested 50 miles as a reasonable figure.
Concerning the extra days which might be necessary before polling day when the lists for postal votes would have to be closed, if the Government were arguing in 1966, on the wide Amendment then proposed, that it would need 18 days, on the much narrower one that we are now proposing at most it would mean extending the 12-day period to 14 or perhaps 15 days. I am sure that this is not an administrative difficulty which ought to stand in our way if we believe the principle is right. My hon. Friends and I are open to discussion on the details of the Amendment, provided that the Government accept the principle. They may feel that 50 miles is wrong. In that case, let us discuss it. If they think that the proposal is open to abuse for any reason, let us consider what was suggested in 1966 for some arrangement for attestation in addition to the simple form which postal voters now have to fill in.
I appeal to whoever is to reply for the Government not to stick to the stock objections which have been raised on earlier occasions, but to recognise that we have made a real effort to meet them and to consider the Amendment sympathetically. I hope it will also be recognised 548 that we are not proposing this change in aid of one party or another, but in aid of a more healthy democracy in Britain, which should commend itself to the Government and to the Committee.
§ Mr. Dempsey
I just want to look—[Interruption.]—I have only made one intervention. I sat here until 11.30 last night and did not say one word, so hon. Gentlemen cannot complain about my being vociferous or bellicose.
I want to consider the difficulties in operating the system outlined in the Amendment. First, who will measure the distance? What staff will undertake the decision whether a person is 50 miles away or even 25 miles away? Consider the work involved. It is not so simple. One important factor which has been overlooked is that in this affluent society, many people, even in the West of Scotland, travel by charter flights for three-and four-week holidays to all parts of the world. My son is connected with continental airlines, and he arranges charter flights. I should like to know, from the announcement of a Parliamentary election, how we will manage to issue postal votes to people in places like San Francisco and other parts of the United States of America and have them returned in time. During the last General Election one of my agents happened to be in Australia. There was no hope of contacting him with a postal system and giving him the right to cast his vote.
I was a General Election agent for several years at Bothwell. I had a great deal to do with the organisation of elections. I know how difficult it is to organise the present postal vote without being involved in organising a postal vote to cover all corners of the world. The Amendment would have been simpler had it been tabled to instruct the Prime Minister not to call a Parliamentary election during the holiday months. That would have been much more effective and would save a lot of trouble and a great deal of cost.
We live a free and easy and comfortable life in Scotland—[Interruption.] We take the climate as it comes, whether political, economic or social, and we will take the General Election, when it comes, in the same way.
I was an election agent during the famous July 1945 General Election. To 549 talk about fixing a mileage perimeter and sending cars to return thousands of holiday makers within the 50 miles mentioned in the Amendment, for example, from the West Coast of Scotland to the constituencies, to vote is a physical impossibility.
§ Mr. Dempsey
So what. In many areas people have to go on horseback.
It could be argued that, for example, instead of having tours to the Argentine or to San Francisco, in future we might be touring in space for several weeks at a time. In that event there would be no hope of contacting people with a postal vote. It might seem idealistic to argue that people should have the right to vote—I accept that—but if an election is called and people are not in their places of residence that is a risk that they must run.
I appreciate the sentiments expressed and the sincerity of the Amendment, but it just is not practicable. Because it is not practicable it would be unwise to burden the United Kingdom's election organisation with such an impossible task. It would be easier to tell the Prime Minister not to call a General Election during holiday months.
§ Mr. W. R. van Straubenzee (Wokingham)
I wish to return to several points which have been made today. I start by saying that when I next go on holiday incognito and I want to be known as someone who will give a splendid chuckle to everybody else I shall call myself Cyril Bence. I take it that we can all start from two common assumptions—first, that we all want to make it possible for as many people as possible to record their votes as reasonably as may be, and, secondly, that we have moved into a totally new climate in respect of holidays.
A few years ago the holiday was the prerogative of a very few people. Today, mercifully, it is the prerogative of large numbers. We are told that leisure is 550 increasing. It we did not believe it, we had the Secretary of State for Education and Science telling us recently that it is on the increase. It therefore follows that a serious point is involved which is not met by witticisms about holidays, and so on.
The first serious point to consider is that at the relevant time a person may be holidaying abroad. I see the Under-Secretary nodding. He will know that: at present if a person has reasonable grounds for believing that he will be away from home on business he is entitled to a postal vote. Many of my constituents are airline pilots. Under the present law they are entitled to apply for and to receive a postal vote. But at any time between applying for that postal vote and their receiving it in some way, they may have gone abroad—perhaps to one of the places that have been referred to. I am sure that hon. Members would not say that that physical fact makes it unreasonable that they should receive a postal vote.
If the system can be operated quite reasonably in the case of persons on business there is no logical reason why it should not operate in the case of persons on holiday. If a person is away on business the electoral returning officer does not have to seek him out in Timbuctoo or Patagonia. Such a requirement would be totally unreasonable, and we would never impose it. But a person must record the address to which his postal vote application is to be sent.
Furthermore, there is a reasonable period of time—because a person receives his postal vote application appreciably ahead of polling day—within which he can operate. I have no doubt that some people abroad are too far away and are not able to use their postal vote. That objection, whatever other objections there may be, does not stand examination.
The case was most persuasively put by the hon. Member for Bebington (Mr. Brooks). Even if we concern ourselves with General Elections alone—when the dates are restricted to certain days of the year—we know that many people will be away on holiday at the time. I agree that it is possible to pick holes in the 50-mile limit. I speak without any consultation on the matter, but I am sure that if it was purely the question of the 551 50 miles which caused the Under-Secretary difficulty he would find my hon. Friends and myself amenable. Furthermore, if he feels that there is something technically wrong with the drafting, he knows that in the ordinary course of events the Amendment can be withdrawn on an undertaking by the Under-Secretary to bring in another one. In principle the case is a very strong one.
We have agreed that in future persons of 18 years of age and over shall have the vote. Many of those are students. An increasing number of students now travel abroad together, in organised groups. I must declare a personal interest here, because I have only just become a member of the travel board of the National Union of Students, which is one of the greatest and most efficient travel organisations in this country—or at least it has been until my joining it. I declare that personal interest because an hon. Member opposite got in a very good commercial plug.
Many of the voters whom we have added to the registers are likely to be travelling on holiday in organised groups at the time of an election. We want them to have the widest opportunities for voting. I hope that the Under-Secretary will appreciate the genuine concern on the part of the proposers of the Amendment to make the electoral process available to the largest number of people, and that they have accepted a certain limitation because they wanted to make the Amendment a practical one.
Since the holiday habit is widely spread in these days I very much doubt that this Amendment would stand to the advantage of one party or the other, although that would have been the case not many years ago. Therefore, there are grounds for its serious examination.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Brian Walden (Birmingham, All Saints)
I rise only to make one point. I would not have done so had I not felt that it was a point of substance which is seldom mentioned in such a discussion as this. We used to have a system of voting in which local authorities were responsible for getting voters' names on to the registers. Electors were sent forms to fill in and if a local authority had reason to believe that in a certain area or dis- 552 trict a substantial number of eligible voters had not returned their forms it had a duty to do something about it and to get those people on to the register.
The Americans have always had a very different system, of voting by claim, in which a would-be voter goes to the town hall and registers himself. He does not receive a vote unless he does that. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed) is right in saying that there is nothing peculiar, unusual or strange in the suggestion contained in the Amendment. It is in line with the provisions of Clause 6. I have long had grave doubts about the principle enshrined in that Clause, because I believe that we should not have an absurd system in which a local authority has to trace people all over the country.
That would happen if we had a system of vote by claim. If people wanted to vote they would register a claim to exercise their vote. From the point of view of the definition laid down by the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) there is nothing at all against it. The aim is to get as many people as possible to the polls. An individual citizen, as with the postal voting system, has every right to claim a vote. But we must not forget what we are doing when we tack on the American claim system to the British system, under which a local authority gets people on to the register, thus biasing the socio-economic content of the register as a whole. In the United States, those who are not registered to vote, in every major state, are overwhelmingly the poorer section.
§ Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)
Does the hon. Gentleman not see some flaw in the fact that one cannot exercise one's right to claim unless one is already on the register?
§ Mr. Walden
This is a valid point and I was coming to it. I was about to say that it would be unjust to suggest either that the hon. Member for Meriden is trying to institute a different claim system from that which we already have, or that he is not dealing only with those already on the general register, but the principle is the same. What will happen if this is not done is that everyone who goes on holiday outside the 50-mile limit will not get the vote. If it is done, there will be a right of claim and in any 553 thousand cases no one here has any doubt as to which way the bias will be. It is unfortunate that we, like most countries, haw a system whereby the better off tend to vote with the party opposite, and the reverse is true of the poorer section——
§ Mr. Walden
It would help my argument if that were so, but I am not making a party point.
I know that the system which the hon. Member for Meriden suggests is attractive, but we should not have such a system, even if it is convenient for individuals, even if it is a right which is already exercised in a series of categories. There should not be a system under which people must claim a vote. This has always been my objection to postal votes. Admittedly, it may be administratively difficult to do anything about it, but in principle it is wrong. It biases the socioeconomic content of the postal vote, as everyone who has fought an election knows.
I am glad to have been able to speak on the Amendment, not because I think that it is wrong or because I think that the hon. Member has not put it forward reasonably, or because it has no merits. I simply wanted to call attention to the principle of claim voting. I do not like it and I do not want it extended.
§ Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)
The hon. Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. Walden) needs some answers to his argument. which was logical enough but had fundamental weaknesses. But I also want to support the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed) who has said what many ordinary people think is right, despite what was said earlier, and particularly despite what the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) said. In fact, the principle of the Amendment, whatever the phrasing and whatever the distance involved, is a good principle. En other words, we are trying to ensure that there is minimum inconvenience and expense involved in voting. That is why we already put polling stations in out of the way places. That is why, although my constituency is the largest of all—probably 100 miles across 554 —polling stations are put there in out of the way places, so that people can vote without expense.
Our holidays are increasingly determined by the kind of jobs we do. I see no distinction in logic between saying, "You are a sailor and therefore are entitled to a postal vote," and saying, "You are a miner and, because of the way your mine operates, your holidays will be within a specific period, so you will go away, because you deserve your holiday as much as anyone, and will get a vote for the election or by-election which falls in that period." What is the distinction between giving a vote for certain occupations—long-distance lorry drivers, for example—because of the movements which their jobs demand, and giving it to people who have gone away because that is the only time that they can go?
§ Mr. Walden
But they would not be given a vote: they would have to claim that vote. That is the trouble.
§ Mr. Johnston
I will return to that point in a moment. The whole burden of the series of conservative speeches which we have heard from hon. Members opposite was that this was very difficult indeed. I was astounded that two successive Labour speakers should say that this would mean some increase in the Civil Service. That was an astounding argument from members of a party which spends most of its time doing just that.
Already, this is done in 34 states of the the U.S.A. and it is done in Australia and it can be done here: it is possible.
There were three basic arguments. The first was that the local authorities would be overburdened, that they might take up to 18 days because of this great avalanche of postal votes. This is a considerable exaggeration, and I have yet to hear any specific evidence of the number of votes involved in each kind of constituency and the amount of extra time which it would take to open the extra envelopes and count them. It is true that there is no capacity to check. This is probably a weakness of the argument. One cannot prove whether a man is going to Holland, Madeira or Blackpool——
§ Sir D. Kaberry
But would not the hon. Member agree that, to get a postal vote, 555 the elector would have to make a declaration on a form, and would be liable to some penalties if he made an incorrect statement?
§ Mr. Johnston
I accept the point, and was about to say that, if the elector said that he was going to stay, say, in No. 5, Hogg Mansions, Blackpool, the voting form would be sent there; if he were not there, that would be unfortunate. The basic principle is that one cannot prove that one is going, for instance, to Holland.
§ Mr. Speed
This is a point, but let us not overstress it, since, at present, a commercial traveller or someone who is away on holiday because of his business can claim a business vote. This is a very narrow dividing line. After all, we must trust people. Most are not dishonest and the postal vote will go to the place involved. Some hon. Members seem to have a very low opinion of the electorate, but I am inclined to trust them.
§ Mr. Johnston
I accept the hon. Member's argument. I do not think that the normal elector would go to the trouble of getting a postal vote for simple amusement. The number of people who go to the trouble of getting postal votes already, and who are entitled to them, are on the register, and this depends on the degree of political activity in any constituency. The party representatives go around looking for these people and there is little impetus from the people themselves. Although there is little capacity to claim, and although, if this were extended, it might potentially be wide, I do not think that, practically—and that is the argument, the practical argument, which hon. Members opposite have used—any number of people would do it just for the sake of it.
I would leave out of account the argument whether the distance should be 50, 45 or 43 miles; that is not important. I think that the Government Front Bench would either accept or reject the principle. The question of the arbitrary line which would be drawn is not something about which people would die in the last ditch.
The hon. Member for All Saints made the point about this being what he called 556 socio-geographic—a new and vogue word——
§ Mr. Johnston
The hon. Member has in mind Conservative voters in social and economic terms. He said, reasonably speaking, that when a vote is obtained only on claim, this has a certain bias towards people who are better off, more intelligent or something. I am not sure whether the hon. Member was indicating to the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) that within the socio-economic group to which he referred people are necessarily more intelligent. I would not have thought so.
§ Mr. Johnston
One admits that this is a weakness of any postal system. The question then becomes, which of two choices do we make? Do we try in some way to make it possible for people to vote who otherwise will not be able to vote or do we say that merely because of a hypothetical bias—this bias exists in voting itself; we all know what the Labour Party think about wet days. They say, "Oh, they will stay at home and watch television"? This applies to all participation in public activity generally.
I do not see that the hon. Member for All Saints has any justification in singling out one area and separating it from all the rest. That is not necessarily logical. In the end, however, to pursue his argument, if one were to accept it, one has to make a choice.
Should we try to provide for the increasing numbers of people—the hon. Member for Meriden was right, and so was the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee)—who have to go on holiday at particular times, not because of choice, but because of the pattern of their work and staggered holidays. It is not, therefore, simply a question of having a General Election in December. I would not like that to happen in Inverness. [Interruption.] There are indications that General Elections should be held outside the holiday period.
557 We have to make a choice. Do we try to provide for the increasing numbers of people who have to go on holiday at a particular time, or do we not? On balance, I very much think that we do, despite even the acceptance of the argument put by the hon. Member for All Saints.
§ Mr. Hamling
I have great sympathy with the Amendment. I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) is not present to hear these comments. I do not know whether in due course he will cast his vole by proxy.
This matter was discussed by Mr. Speaker's Conference when I was on it and Mr. Speaker's Conference came down against it. I do not use that as an argument why the House of Commons should also come down against it, because as a model of consistency I intend to take the line that if Mr. Speaker's Conference is against it, I am for it; and if Mr. Speaker's Conference is for it, I am against it. I will not repeat that for the benefit of the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone, who has now returned, beyond saying that I am not using Mr. Speaker's Conference as an argument in this case.
I have great sympathy with the Amendment because, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. Walden), I do not take the view that we should accept a situation that people are denied the opportunity to vote because they are sick, in hospital, at work or for many other reasons. I do not share that view. I think that others of my right hon. and hon. Friends have an inferiority complex about postal voting because their constituencies cannot get the postal vote out. My view is that in West Woolwich we can, and in my constituency at the last election, and certainly the election in 1964, we had a majority on the postal vote. That, however, is not relevant to the argument.
I certainly acquit my hon. Friend the Member for All Saints of any party bias in this matter. I know my hon. Friend a lot better than the Opposition do. If there is any hon. Member on this side who could be described as being objective in this matter, it is my hon. Friend. I have no doubt about this. The right hon. and learned Member for St. 558 Marylebone is far too suspicious of motives in this debate. [An Hon. Member: "He is a lawyer."] That is not a reason. Some lawyers are quite reasonable.
I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends not to take a subjective view of this matter. I have great sympathy with the Amendment because I take the view that, where we can, we should let people have the opportunity of voting if they can. Having looked at the Amendment and listened to some of the earlier speeches, I think that one of the troubles with the Amendment is that it is open to a great deal of abuse. If the Amendment means what it says when it specifies 50 miles, 49 miles or 48 miles will be out. In my view, somebody who is on holiday 40 miles away is as entitled to vote by post as anyone who is on holiday over 50 miles away.
Where I live in South-East London is not very far from Southend or Herne Bay. A great many people could be on holiday at Herne Bay who certainly would not be covered by the Amendment but who might find it extremely difficult to come back on polling day. It is not only people who go away on holiday who would be penalised in this way. I think also of day trippers. One should not look down one's nose at day trippers.
When planning their holidays, a great many people—I think particularly of railwaymen's families—use privilege tickets as the basis of their family holiday to travel about from place to place and use their home as their base. These people would be excluded by the Amendment. These are serious anomalies. One of the dangers is that by seeking to end what one can consider to be an anomaly, one can create many more anomalies. People might have a legitimate grievance and say, "Parliament is giving the right to vote in this way to one group of people and not to us. This is a grave injustice."
§ Sir D. Kaberry
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that there should not be a mileage limitation and that anybody who is on holiday should be able to claim this vote?
§ Mr. Hamling
I am merely pointing out how difficult it is to find a reasonable method of administering votes of this kind for holidaymakers.
§ Mr. Hamling
Even if there were no such limitation, one would have to certify the fact. "I am on holiday," one could say, but who would prove that he was not at the dog track on that day? Would a visit to a race meeting constitute a holiday?
§ Mr. Hamling
Returning officers are hot on this. I know the returning officer for my borough extremely well and I am aware of the basis on which he regularly throws out claims for postal votes. The hon. Gentleman knows the position, too, as does the returning officer for his constituency. Claims for this purpose made by business people are normally based on the fact that they are away on business regularly. No businessman would claim that he should have this right merely because he is away for one day out of 365. A fortnight's holiday once a year is no comparison.
There are insuperable administrative difficulties involved in achieving a reasonable and desirable reform of this kind, and, however admirable the Amendment might be, I believe that it would prove unworkable on administrative grounds.
§ Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North-West)
The hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) made a serious speech on this important subject, which is more than can be said of the remarks of most of his hon. Friends, who made a joke of the whole affair. The hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) invariably gets himself into a tangle and produces as many red herrings as he can. He certainly did that today, followed by a Punch and Judy performance between himself and some of his hon. Friends.
This is a serious subject and my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed), who is to be congratulated on the way in which he moved the Amendment, has probably had the most recent experience of handling postal votes in connection with the by-election which brought him here. As he pointed out, over the years many of my hon. Friends and I have tried hard to persuade the Govern- 560 ment to accept that if people are away on holiday they should be as entitled to a postal vote just like people who are away on business. My hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) pointed out the anomaly of allowing postal votes to people who are absent for business reasons but forbidding them to people who are on holiday.
I confess to not being happy about the reference to 50 miles in the Amendment, but I appreciate that my hon. Friend has tried to overcome the argument which has been adduced against this sort of proposal in the past and which the hon. Member for Woolwich, West highlighted. However, if 50 miles is not an acceptable distance, the Government could make another suggestion to achieve the same object and ensure that the facility of a postal vote is not easily abused.
The Minister is aware—indeed, I believe that he nodded assent when this point was made earlier—that a satisfactory answer could be found. After previous debates on this subject I have spoken to Ministers and they have told me privately that the problem could be solved if it were faced up to. It must be, for many thousands of citizens should not be prohibited from the votes to which they are entitled.
Contrary to the remarks of the hon. Member for Woolwich, West, I have found in previous elections in my part of the world that Labour Party organisers have thought that we in the Conservative Party are better able to organise postal voters. I appreciate their reasoning hut, whatever the facts may be, people should not be prevented from voting.
We hope for a serious response from the Minister on this occasion. The time must come when the law in this respect is changed, particularly in view of the trend for holidays to be spread over the year. This will happen increasingly in future, and the problem will therefore become greater. It will particularly apply when youngsters are able to vote from the age of 18. I, therefore, beg the Minister to treat the Amendment with seriousness and at last try to find an answer to this problem.
§ Mr. Costain
The Amendment, which was moved brilliantly by my hon. Friend 561 the Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed), has been received with an extraordinary amount of chit-chat from hon. Gentlemen opposite. One cannot gather from their remarks whether they oppose it or support in The hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) suggested that there would be convoys of charabancs travelling the length and breadth of the country carrying hordes of people wishing to cast postal votes. He then argued in the opposite direction, and in the end I was not sure precisely what he meant.
I represent the coastal resort of Folkestone and this Amendment has a strong bearing on my constituents. One need only analyse the percentage of votes cast at General Elections in the last 25 years to appreciate that when one takes place in the autumn, and particularly in October, as is frequently the case, the number of voters absent is greater in an area like mine. There is a limited period in the year when those employed in the local hotels, shops and so on are able to take their holidays. October is one of the most convenient months for my constituents to holiday; at the end of the holiday season yet before the Christmas season.
It is wrong that constituents like mine should be prevented from voting. The only argument adduced by hon. Gentlemen opposite against the Amendment appears to have been that it would be difficult to organise postal votes in this way. I thought that they were about to suggest that we should not have any more General Elections because they are difficult to organise. That would suit them very well. It was noteworthy that the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling), whose postal voting arrangements are obviously better organised in his constituency, did not oppose the Amendment with the same enthusiasm as some of his hon. Friends.
I suggest that the trouble in the past has been that hon. Members opposite have felt that the Conservative supporters were better able to deal with postal votes. The hon. Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. Walden) said that, but I think that he is doing his supporters a disservice, because we do not agree that they are all as unintelligent as all that——
§ Mr. Walden
I know the hon. Member well and I am quite sure that he would not like to misrepresent me. I am not talking about intelligence. It is the fact that the less well educated, manual section of the population always has far more difficulty with forms—filling them in, disposing of them and collecting them—and they are also more difficult to find at the appropriate times. It is simply that.
§ Mr. Costain
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's argument carries much weight: has he ever had a Littlewood's coupon?
This is a serious debate. We are discussing how, for the sake of democracy, we can give all our electors an opportunity to vote with the minimum of inconvenience. Those of us who represent coastal resorts do not think—and this has happened in my own experience—that our electors ought to feel it their duty to give up a holiday in order to vote, but that is what is happening.
Hon. Members opposite want to make a party issue of this, but I suggest that it is the Conservative supporters who are better able to alter the dates of their holidays with regard to the date of a General Election than their own supporters, who are probably going away because the trade is slack. It is an illusion for hon. Members opposite to say that this is a party matter, and that therefore they should not vote for the Amendment. They forget that the number of people taking holidays every year is increasing, and the longer this matter is left in its present stupid state the longer we will have people disfranchised, and the more difficult it will be to get an election which truly represents the feeling of the nation. That is what democracy is about, and what it should be about.
The question should not be: is it more difficult? I believe that if it is now impossible we should so organise things as to make it possible. If hon. Members are prepared to accept polls of 65 per cent. and 75 per cent. as indicating the feeling of the nation, then let things go on as they are, but my belief is that unless we get 90 per cent. of the people voting we do not get a true, democratic picture.
In Australia voting is compulsory, and if it were compulsory here there would be 563 an even better argument. The hon. Member for All Saints said that people have to claim a vote. If people have to claim the vote because they have gone away, they have gone away for a purpose, so it is necessary in the nature of things that they have to go through some process, and to do that is not too difficult.
This is a matter of real principle to those representing seaside resorts and other holiday areas. It is essential in the name of democracy that we should allow the people to vote, and I am delighted to find the Liberal Party here is fully in agreement with this Amendment. It is only those who do not want the real truth to come to the nation that are against it.
§ Mr. Onslow
I want to echo the expressions of my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain). He is glad, as I am, that this has now become a serious debate, because the earlier knockabout attitude adopted by some hon. Members opposite was quite deplorable.
To put things in perhaps the most dramatic way, an elector away from his constituency on holiday at the time of an election is at present obliged to return home if he wishes to vote. I believe this journey to be wholly unnecessary. How many of those who make that journey expose themselves to the risk of death or serious injury as a result? That is a factor we have to take into account. We know that many road casualties are wholly unnecessary, and this should be made a wholly unnecessary journey.
I hope that the Minister will not tell us that it would be impossible to do as the Amendment suggests. He may tell us that it is difficult to operate such a scheme—I do not know that he knows necessarily how difficult—but I hope that he will not exaggerate the difficulties, as some of his hon. Friends undoubtedly have. The average number of extra postal votes in an average constituency is very unlikely to run into four figures, and that would represent, I suggest, an increase of about 30 per cent. to 40 per cent. on the number of postal votes already dealt with. I doubt whether that would mean a very large increase in the number of man hours involved. This is not really a burdensome thing and, in any case, we 564 know that most of the work is done by the parties and not by the returning officer's staff.
When all the prepared positions of the Home Office have been stormed and all its arguments exposed as invalid, there are only two ultimate grounds on which such an Amendment as this can be opposed. The first is a feeling of guilt; a feeling that there is something wrong in going away on holiday at election time; that if there is an election one ought not to go on holiday, and that if one does one ought to pay a penalty for one's presumption or affluence. What a wholly ludicrous nineteenth century notion that is. I hope that the Minister will not seek refuge in it. In my constituency I have many airline pilots. Is it to be said that these men, who have an opportunity by reason of their profession of a very favourable concessionary rate to take their families overseas on holiday, should forgo that opportunity because they would then be unable to vote? This can be a very considerable penalty in some cases, and it is an aspect that ought not to be Lightly dismissed.
The other ground is sheer fear. It is distrust of the electorate in some degree. It is a political fear that if we advantage people who are going on holiday they may not vote for us. There may be something to be said for the view that people who go to Madeira for their holiday have more sense than to vote for this Government and some of its present financial wizards. Never mind, this Chancellor of the Exchequer will in due course, disappear and the time may even come when some of the people going to Madeira will be perfectly prepared to vote for the Labour Party. Meanwhile fear is not a respectable argument for opposing the Amendment.
Nor is there much in the argument of the hon. Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. Walden), who says that because this proposal would give a number of people a right to claim and because some with the right would not use it, none should have it. That is a very sterile and unprogressive argument, as he probably will understand, because we might as well say that because some people on the register do not vote—and one main reason there is that they are dead—none of the people on the register should have 565 the vote. That is the result if we extend the same principle to its logical extremity.
§ [Mr. Sydney Irving in the Chair]
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Walden
That is not my point at all. In this country even today, and certainly in other countries, those who for one reason or another do not have a vote because they are not on the register come overwhelmingly from one social class. If elections are to be an attempt to find the wishes of the majority, one must take account of how the system is already biased and not bias it further in that direction.
§ Mr. Onslow
We might have to have the blackboard of the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) before us if we were to go into detail. That would be out of order.
I turn to the final element of fear in this equation. It is the fear that if the postal vote system were extended there would be more opportunity for people to make fraudulent use of it. This may be technically so. But, I am not averse to the argument that anyone ought to be entitled to vote by post. I do not see any reason to object to that, because I do not believe that people would sell their votes, or that there would be traffic in the franchise or large scale bribery or impersonation. I am prepared to proceed on the assumption that the electorate is mainly honest. As things stand at the moment there may be electors who make declarations which are not necessarily wholly honest, but it really is unnecessary to put any electors in this position. There can be no objection in principle to passing this Amendment.
§ Dame Joan Vickers
It is said that in my constituency we have more experience of postal voting than in other constituencies. The socio-economic theory of the hon. Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. Walden) falls down altogether there, because the people in my constituency probably earn a quarter of tie amount in wages that his constituents do. My constituents are made up mostly of weekly wage-earners.
§ Mr. Walden
The hon. Lady is reading into what I said that this argument 566 is about Labour and Tory. I was simply talking about having a given social group excluded, or largely excluded, from those who get on to the register. This may not apply to a particular party, but the fact remains that those against whom the system is biased come from the poorer income groups.
§ Dame Joan Vickers
The hon. Member defeats his own argument. Voters in my constituency are largely from the poorer income groups and the average wages are £11 per week. We have at least 60,000 voting and they are able to fill in forms as well as anyone else can. The hon. Member is underestimating the average intelligence of those in the lower income groups.
§ Mr. Simon Mahon
Has the hon. Lady had the interesting job of canvassing in a major slum clearance area? It is deplorable to find the overwhelming number of people in such an area who for some reason or other cannot get on the register. This is out of all proportion in a major industrial town.
§ Dame Joan Vickers
I have stood for election in Poplar. I should not have thought that, particularly in 1945, any place had worse slums than Poplar, but I managed to find plenty of people in the electorate.
I cannot see why in this computer age we cannot arrange things more easily. How is it that overseas Americans can do this? I should like to know who is against this proposal. I believe the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) voted yesterday against the recommendation of Mr. Speaker's Conference. Perhaps he will do the same today as he is a man of independent mind. I understand that the A.M.C. is objecting to the proposal, but why should we take its objections so seriously? In 1945, when there were many Service votes, we did not have the results declared on the same night but waited three weeks for those votes. There is no need to count all the votes on the election day; they could be counted the day after.
In the West Country there are problems for hoteliers and boarding-house keepers who have to take their holidays after the season. There are also problems of farmers who cannot go away until the harvest is over. They cannot fix their dates for 567 holidays some time ahead. In a Service town, if we have these people on the register, directly nominations are closed one can send out election addresses to those who are overseas. There is no reason why that should not be done for all people who will be away on election day. I cannot see difficulty over that. If it can be done for those who are in Singapore, Gibraltar, Bahrain and so on and their votes are collected three weeks after the election day, it could be done for other people.
Canvassers have to go to search out people who are blind or disabled and help them to fill in forms, and they have to get a doctor to sign a certificate. Those with whom the Amendment is concerned are not asking that to be done because they are able-bodied and all they need do is to say that they will be away from home. I do not believe my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed) is absolutely wedded to the 50 miles limit. These people would be able to go to the office of the local organisation of the Socialist or Conservative Parties. They would not have to go through the registration officer. A great deal of heavy weather is being made over this proposal. I suggest that the Minister should think again and see if we cannot find a way of giving these people their just rights.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
Perhaps it would be for the convenience of the Committee if at this stage I were to give the Government's view on this Amendment. I should have expected that on a subject on which there are 629 other experts we might have had a broader discussion.
I found the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, All Saints, (Mr. Walden) one of great interest. I believe that all the research that has been done shows that there is this socioeconomic base to the application for the variety of different types of postal and proxy voting. I did not think my hon. Friend was making any judgment on the intelligence of anyone. Everyone has given his personal experience on this matter, so I am about to do so. What I have found over the years is that, in regard to the postal vote which is done rather differently from normal voting by being registered, the work done by the registration officer is not so much a 568 question of intelligence and of knowing how to fill in a form but of knowledge of the facilities available.
Anyone who has been a postal vote officer will know of the knowledge needed about illness, incapacity, blindness, a journey by air or sea, or being a member of Her Majesty's Forces or the Auxiliary Forces. My hon. Friend the Member for All Saints raised an interesting point about the way in which the vote is expressed in this country and pointed out that getting people on to the postal vote register comprises a voluntary effort. People working on the system will, for example, go round to the surgeries. When I stood for election in a marginal constituency my garage was full of postal votes for registration. There were 2,500, one of the largest postal votes in the country, and this was because of the effort of one person who spent his whole time in getting those postal votes.
The percentage figures in the recent presidential elections in America showed that 68 per cent. of the population voted whereas in this country over 70 per cent. voted and in many marginal constituencies 85 per cent. voted. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) and others quite rightly said that we are trying to get as many people to the poll as possible. In Australia voting is compulsory, and in Iron Curtain countries voting is done in a different way. We in this country are remarkably successful in getting such large numbers of people to the poll.
§ Mr. Peter Mahon
Although we are remarkably successful in this country, will not my hon. Friend concede that there is a natural antipathy against the postal vote and that people who have voted in the normal way all their lives are very reluctant to use the postal vote when they become ill or infirm, and that they need strong persuasion to make them do so?
§ Mr. Rees
We are all expressing our own personal experiences of various elections. Certainly I have detected something like that among the older generation—I am not now referring to those of any one political persuasion. There is a sense among older people that they prefer to go to the poll and put a cross on a bit of paper. This is the generation which lived through the extension of the franchise and perhaps it therefore feels more 569 strongly about having the vote than do those people who have been born to expect it and who accept it.
§ Mr. Onslow
Surely there is a much simpler explanation, which is that in a way the admission of physical inability to reach the polling station is an unpleasant admission for an old person to have to make.
§ Mr. Rees
That is perfectly true. I was not using that in any sense as the most important argument. I was simply agreeing with my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, South (Mr. Peter Mahon) that older people prefer to go to the poll under their own steam.
The purpose of the Amendment is to provide absent voting facilities at Parliamentary and local government elections for people on holiday. I was interested in the views of the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe and I asked one of my hon. Friends to take the opportunity to look at the percentage poll in the hon. Gentleman's constituency over the years, because I take his point that October is a bad month when so many people are away and in which the percentage poll should therefore be the lowest.
§ Mr. Costain
If the hon. Gentleman is about to draw an analogy from the last election, let me say that that is not a viable argument. There were other reasons for the size of the poll on that occasion.
§ Mr. Rees
There may have been other reasons. I have gone back further than tha:. In March, 1966, the poll was 70.6 per cent.; in October, 1964, 71 per cent.; in October, 1959, there was the highest percentage poll in recent years, 76 per cent.; and in May, 1955, it was 73 per cent. I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument about things shutting down in a seaside constituency in October, but those figures show that there are many factors as well as postal voting for people going on holiday to take into account.
§ Mr. Costain
The hon. Gentleman is paying me a very subtle compliment; 1959 was the first year I stood.
§ Mr. Rees
The whole point of this part of my speech is simply to point out that there are many factors which account for the size of a poll, not merely giving prospective holidaymakers the right to have a postal vote.
The restriction in the Amendment that the voter must be on holiday at least 50 miles from his home is obviously designed to keep the privilege within bounds. It makes little difference to the general consideration of the matter, although I understand the argument of many of my hon. Friends that it would raise many technical difficulties. I would be the last to argue that if one had a Clause defined in certain ways, one could not get over these difficulties in some way. It might be extremely difficult to decide whether it should be 50, or 49, or 48 miles, or whatever it should be, but the burden of my argument does not rest on that difficulty. We had some interesting talk about Madeira and the travelling incognito and I am glad that it was not related to Clause 2, when it would have given rise to a most interesting discussion.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) said, absent voting facilities for electors absent from their homes on polling day were considered by Mr. Speaker's Conference. I may do no more than say that no recommendation came from the conference to alter the present law, for as my hon. Friend said there would be a certain inconsistency if I said more than that about it. The present law limits the granting of absent voting facilities in Parliamentary and local government elections to the people who are listed in the Representation of the People Act, 1949, and all hon. Members will know the two different sections for local and national elections.
In Clauses 5 and 6 minor extensions to these categories are made in accordance with Mr. Speaker's Conference. We have now included wives accompanying husbands away on business, a subject on which we touched when we dealt with the 571 problem of merchant seamen, although we were then concerned with a Clause which dealt with registration. Also included are persons who have moved from one constituency to another in the same borough, which is also a marginal extension of those entitled to obtain a postal vote.
To make a further extension to those on holiday would virtually mean extending absent voting facilities to all persons who were unlikely for any reason to be able to attend the polling station. There would be little equity in giving absent voting facilities to people on holiday but not to people temporarily away from home for other equally good reasons. I agree that it would be possible to have another Amendment to cover them, too, but once one opens the gates in this way, why should not somebody else have the opportunity to have a postal vote? Much as I appreciate the problem, there is no doubt that being on holiday is not as good a reason for having a postal vote as those which I have already listed, such as employment or occupation. For instance, a lorry driver may be away from home on polling day and a lorry driver drives a lorry not for a fortnight, but for 50 weeks a year.
While I appreciate the difficulty involved in certain areas, general elections and local government elections are usually—and I accept that I can make this no more than a marginal argument—held in periods outside major holiday times.
§ Mr. Frederic Harris
Should it not be the task of Parliament to do its utmost to enable every person to be in a position to vote?
§ Mr. Rees
I agree. But what I am arguing is that it the Amendment were conceded, the extension would go on and on and postal voting would become far more typical. My hon. Friend the Member for All Saints mentioned the philosophical considerations. The hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnson) said that Australia had such a system, but Australia also has compulsory voting and the two go together. I agree that other things are involved, but if there is compulsory voting, obviously arrangements must be made for well nigh every- 572 body who is away from home to have a postal vote.
An extension of facilities for absent voting to people on holiday would virtually open the door for absent voting by anyone at all. All that the person concerned would need to say is that he was likely to be away from home on the day of the poll, and the registration officer would have no option but to accept the application. I shall return to this technical point later. The registration officer would not have the time to check the statement just before an election. Even if he had, how could he question a statement about the likelihood of a person's whereabouts at a future date? All of us in this Committee have dealt with postal voting and know that the variety of R.P.A. forms involved require a signature. What are we to have—the signature of the landlady that somebody has booked? There are problems which would arise by providing absent voting facilities in circumstances other than illness and occupations, to cover those on holiday.
§ Mr. Onslow
Does not the hon. Gentleman concede that there is nothing particularly terrible about everybody having the right to a postal vote, and an argument to which he has not yet responded is that, if they did, it might lead to a great deal of simplification and probably a great deal less bureaucracy and form-filling?
§ Mr. Rees
The essence of my argument so far, without touching on the technical point, is that there should be a limit on the amount of absent voting which takes place. Once it is conceded that a large number would be involved if there were any extension, the practical difficulties of a wide extension of postal voting turn mainly on the timetable for elections.
I am advised that at present just over 2 per cent. of the total vote is cast by post. The last day for considering applications for absent voting facilities is 12 days before polling day. This is laid down in the Representation of the People Regulations. It could well be that this period would not be sufficient to enable registration officers and returning officers to cope with the increased volume of absent voting which might be expected as a result of any wide extension of 573 absent voting facilities. It is understood that these officers throughout the country have expressed the view that, in the past, the period of 12 days has been found to gave just sufficient time to handle the number of postal votes.
The work involved consists primarily in checking applications against the register, deciding whether they may be allowed and informing the electors; ascertaining that the proxies nominated are willing to act; marking the ordinary registers to show who may not vote in person; preparing the special lists—we all know what they consist of—of postal voters, proxy voters and postal proxy voters. Lists of postal voters and postal proxy voters are required by returning officers before they can despatch postal ballot papers and by the party agents so that they may send election matter to absent voters.
The general view of representative registration and returning officers—I believe that it should be taken into account—is that, if as a result of an extension of absent voting the number of postal votes were to increase from the existing figure of about 2 per cent. to, say, 5 per cent.—I believe that this is a conservative estimate of the increase that might be involved——
§ Sir D. Kaberry
Surely all these claims are made on forms which are subject either to the Perjury Act or to some other sanction? There would be some penalty if people made wrong claims.
§ Mr. Rees
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The point I am making here is that, whether they are perjured or otherwise, an increase in the figure to 5 per cent. as a result of including those on holiday would put a great burden on returning officers in doing the work which they have to do.
I am also advised that there would be a real risk of breakdown in the election machinery, unless the period between the last day for the receipt of applications and polling day were to be extended to at least 18 days instead of 12 days. I do not say that this comes down from Mount Sinai. I simply say that this is what I have been advised by those who have been doing this for a long time.
§ Mr. Rees
I am not worried about the returning officers dying. I am simply saying that if it were done in general there would be a need to extend the period over 18 days. This would necessitate an extension of the timetable for parliamentary elections, and polling day might need to be as much as 23 days after the issue of the writ, instead of 17 days as at present.
§ Mr. Russell Johnston
The hon. Gentleman is using a whole lot of hypothetical phrases, such as, "it might be", "it is possible that", and "the general view is this". Are there any surveys or any practical evidence of any kind to indicate what proportionate increase might take place if this happened?
§ Mr. Rees
All the evidence that I gave, in so far as it is hypothetical—it must be so—has come, as I understand it, from discussing the matter with returning officers in different parts of the country. Specific practical problems would undoubtedly arise. I am not denying that they could be overcome locally by taking on more people at election times, and so on. However, there is a practical problem. I say no more than that.
§ Mr. Lane
As I recollect it, the hon. Gentleman is using almost exactly the same phraseology and quoting the same number of days as was used in a similar debate in 1966 on a Bill designed to open the door very much wider than the Amendment would. Those former arguments cannot possibly apply to the far more modest proposal contained in the Amendment.
§ Mr. Rees
The disagreement between the hon. Gentleman and myself must be on the word "modest" in relation to the number of people on holiday who would 575 be able to register as absent voters. There are practical problems involved in allowing holidaymakers to have postal votes. The major argument involved is a question of principle. The various documents issued under the 1949 Act and the Regulations made under that Act, just as Regulations will have to be made under this Bill when enacted, contain references to employment or occupation, illness, incapacity or blindness, journey by air or sea, removals, down to a parliamentary candidate and wife/husband, to indicate people allowed a postal or a proxy vote. There is an extension, which I mentioned earlier, to cover a move inside a borough. This was not a large extension. It has gone on over the years since 1945.
The question that the Committee must answer is: is the amount of postal voting in our electoral system to go any further than it is now, where we look after the man who works away, where we look after the man or woman who is ill, or incapacitated, or blind, and where we look after cases of removal? This is what it is so far. The Amendment would allow an extension for those on holiday. The advice I give to the Committee is that the Amendment should be rejected.
§ 7.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Hogg
I thought it right to reserve whatever thoughts I had until I had heard the Minister. I do not pretend that I did not start with a bias in favour of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed). I should not be human if I did not start with a bias in favour of my hon. Friend. However, I thought it fair to wait until I had heard the Government's case.
Having heard it, I am bound to say that my bias in favour of my hon. Friend becomes a conviction that he is right. Nothing was more startling, if I may be forgiven for saying so, than the stark contradiction between the arguments which were advanced against the Amendment from below the Gangway and those against the Amendment to which we have just listened. The only common feature was that these inconsistent arguments were against the Amendment.
I was accused by the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) of being unduly suspicious. I have no need to be suspicious of motives in this case because 576 they were starkly declared below the Gangway. I accept that hon. Members mean what they say. The hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) made no bones about it He wants to keep off the register the man who can afford a holiday in Madeira. He wants to keep his own supporters on it. This is stark political discrimination. The hon. Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. Walden), who purported to put forward an intellectual argument, was the most biased of them all, because he declared a bias in favour of class discrimination. Both are contrary to the Declaration of Human Rights to which this country is a signatory. That does not worry them. As long as they can keep off the register those who are relatively well off, that is a good thing. That is what the hon. Member for All Saints said, in so many terms.
§ Mr. Walden
No man of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's intellectual brilliance can possibly misunderstand what I was saying.
§ Mr. Walden
What I am saying, and what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is unable to deny, is that the overwhelming majority of people in this and other Western countries who are not on the register and not eligible to cast their votes come from the lowest economic class.
§ Mr. Hogg
That is not what the hon. Member said, and even if it had been, it would have been totally irrelevant because, as has been pointed out, this Amendment has nothing whatever to do with being on the register. If the hon. Member had troubled to study the principal Act for a moment, he would have seen that a person cannot get a postal vote in this country unless he is on the register. This Amendment has nothing to do with a claim to be registered. It has to do only with the way in which a person exercises a right which he already has.
Hon. Members opposite who are trying to defeat this Amendment by one inconsistent argument after another are inventing reasons—and I deliberately use the phrase "inventing reasons"—for stopping people from exercising a right which they already have, knowing that in this case these people will not be able to 577 exercise that right at all unless the Amendment is accepted. That is the object—and that is what they are about.
The hon. Member for All Saints was perfectly frank. He said that he thinks that it will have the effect that persons belonging to particular social groups will be unable to exercise their votes. That is what he wants. It is class discrimination, and it is contrary to the Declaration of Human Rights.
Of course, there is no particular reason why I should contrast the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East with the Under-Secretary of State, but the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East said that there would be so many of these postal votes that it would break down the machinery, whereas the Under-Secretary was at pains to suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone arid Hythe (Mr. Costain) that so few people in his constituency were involved that we need not bother about them.
Some hon. Members were against the Amendment because, they said, the holidaymakers would be so close to the 50 miles limit that they could go back to the polling stations. Others thought that they would be so far away that they would be unable to exercise their votes at all—unaware of the fact, which they could have seen had they bothered to study the principal Act, that those who have to make a sea or air journey already are on the postal list or can be on it.
The truth is that, whatever arguments are advanced for the Amendment, those hon. Members will find something against those arguments, because they have the extraordinary belief that those take advantage of this Amendment will be more likely to vote against them than to vote for them. Yet I am accused of suspecting people's motives! This is the most bizarre and extraordinary exhibition of cloth-cap Socialism that. I have heard in the House. After the great victory of the last election, we were told that cloth-cap Socialism was a thing of the past. We were told that the Labour Party was a great national party, not confined to any socio-economic groups. We were told that the cloth-cap Socialists were out for ever. It is as if one were walking down Whitehall and suddenly met an ichthyosaurus. Indeed, 578 it will soon be like meeting an ichthyosaurus, because hon. Members opposite will never get into power again. After the next election, they will be as obsolete as ichthyosauri.
§ Mr. Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairn) rose——
I have been waiting for some time to speak. The Under-Secretary of State said that he was merely intervening in the debate. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) has dealt most effectively with the motives which the Government and their supporters seem to have for objecting to the Amendment. I wish to deal with one or two other objections which the Under-Secretary produced from a technical point of view to the Amendment, which was very well argued by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed). I hope that I may have the Minister's attention, because I shall not take very long.
The Minister's main argument was that if the Amendment were accepted it would open the door to allow anyone to have a postal vote who wanted not to go to the ballot box. In that argument he disregarded the reference in the Amendment to a 50-miles limit. There is no question of lazy voters deciding that they want to have postal votes because they want to stay at home although they are only 300 yards from the polling station. The provision of a limit of 50 miles in the Amendment makes it clear that it is only for people who are some distance away from their homes and on holiday.
Another objection which the Under-Secretary of State deployed to the Amendment was that it would produce enormous administrative complications. That may be a difficulty, but it is not an objection. We are in a technological age—a white-hot technological age, according to the Prime Minister—and to say that we should have to extend the 12-days period to 18 days, in the age of the computer, seems to me to be nonsense. Surely we can improve the procedures of checking the lists which the Under-Secretary described. On Second Reading the Home Secretary said that he was considering the introduction of voting machines. Much more important than that, surely, is to introduce mechanical devices to 579 assist in checking these postal votes, thus overcoming the difficulties which the Under-Secretary of State described and which are purely procedural difficulties of dealing with pieces of paper, lists and numbers. I cannot accept that that administrative difficulty can be regarded as a major objection to the change which we propose.
Next, the Minister suggested that there would be an increase in the possibility of abuse. I do not believe that that is an objection. It is something on which the electoral staff should be able to check. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), who said that the number of unscrupulous persons who might try to use this system to vote more than once would be a very small proportion of the electorate.
I end by making a plea for those constituencies which contain industries such as the tourist industry in which the staff—for the benefit of the hon. Member for All Saints (Mr. Walden) I am speaking of hotel staffs of all kinds and not just of managers—as well as workers in other industries have to take their holidays in October. Elections often happen in October. Two of the last three elections have been in October. As a result, these people are automatically disfranchised. Their holiday period is directly associated with the kind of work which they do, and they cannot change it.
I therefore support the proposal that we should extend in this way the right which people on the register already have to exercise the vote, because if people on holiday, over 50 miles away from their residence, were allowed to be postal voters in the way suggested that would contribute to solving the problem. I believe that most of those who are 50 miles away from their place of residence at the time of a General Election would thus be covered—and these are people who at present do not have a chance to use their votes—in addition to those already covered by the postal voting regulations.
§ There are too many electors in this country who lose their opportunity of voting when a General Election takes place. They are on the register, but they are unable to vote because, for reasons over which they have no control, they are absent from their place of residence and where they are registered. I am sure that that is wrong. It must be the responsibility of both sides of the House to reduce the number of such persons who have the right to vote but who, through no fault of their own, are unable to vote when Elections take place. This Amendment would make a great contribution to enabling them to vote.
§ Sir H. Harrison rose&—
§ Sir Douglas Glover (Ormskirk) rose&—
§ Sir H. Harrison
I will make it longer if that attitude is adopted. It is a very important question.
The Minister argued that if the postal vote reached 5 per cent. then, according to reports made to him by returning officers, the system would be unworkable. In the constituency of Eye we have had a postal vote of over 5 per cent. on occasions. Has the Minister had any representations from the returning officer for the Eye Division—the Clerk or Deputy Clerk of East Suffolk County Council—or from the returning officers for Buckingham or Eastleigh, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed) referred, specifically stating that on those occasions the system was unworkable?
§ Question put, That the Amendment be made:—
§ The Committee divided: Ayes 132, Noes 190.583
|Division No. 12.]||AYES||[7.14 p.m.|
|Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead)||Boardman, Tom (Leicester, S. W.)||Buchanan-Smith, Alick (Angus, N&M)|
|Baker, W. H. K. (Banff)||Body, Richard||Bullus, Sir Eric|
|Bell, Ronald||Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hn. John||Campbell, B. (Oldham, W.)|
|Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torquay)||Boyle, Rt. Hn. Sir Edward||Campbell, Gordon (Moray & Nairn)|
|Bennett, Dr. Reginald (Cos. & Fhm)||Braine, Bernard||Chichester-Clark, R.|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Brew John||Clegg, Walter|
|Birch, Rt. Hn. Nigel||Bromley-Davenport, Lt.-Col. Sir Walter||Cordle, John|
|Black, Sir Cyril||Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)||Costain, A. P.|
|Craddock, Sir Beresford (Speithorne)||Hutchison, Michael Clark||Pike, Miss Mervyn|
|Crouch, David||Iremonger, T. L.||Pounder, Rafton|
|Currie, G. B. H.||Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye)||Powell, Rt. Hn. J. Enoch|
|Dalkeith, Earl of||Jenkin, Patrick (Woodford)||Pym, Francis|
|Dance, James||Johnston, Russell (Inverness)||Ridsdale, Julian|
|Davidson, James (Aberdeenshire, W.)||Kaberry, Sir Donald||Royle, Anthony|
|Dean, Paul||Knight, Mrs. Jill||Russell, Sir Ronald|
|Deedes, Rt. Hn. W. F. (Ashford)||Lane, David||Scott, Nicholas|
|Dodds-Parker, Douglas||Longden, Gilbert||Scott-Hopkins, James|
|Drayson, G. B.||Loveys, W. H.||Sharples Richard|
|Eden, Sir John||Lubbock, Eric||Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)|
|Elliot, Capt. Walter (Carshalton)||McNair-Wilson, Patrick||Silvester, Frederick|
|Elliott, R. W. (N'c'le-upon-Tyne, N.)||Mackenzie, Alasdair (Ross&Crom'ty)||Sinclair, Sir George|
|Errington, Sir Eric||McMaster, Stanley||Smith, John (London & W'minster)|
|Eyre, Reginald||Maddan, Martin||Speed, Keith|
|Farr, John||Maginnis, John E.||Stainton Keith|
|Galbraith, Hn. T. G.||Marten, Neil||Steel, David (Roxburgh)|
|Glover, Sir Douglas||Maude, Angus||Stodart, Anthony|
|Goodhart, Philip||Mawby, Ray||Summers, Sir Spencer|
|Gower, Raymond||Mills, Peter (Torrington)||Tapsell, Peter|
|Grant-Ferns, R.||Mills, Stratton (Belfast, N.)||Taylor, Sir Charles (Eastbourne)|
|Grimond, Rt. Hn.||Miscampbell, Norman||Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret|
|Gurden, Harold||Monro, Hector||van Straubenzee, W. R.|
|Vaughan-Morgan, Rt. Hn. Sir John|
|Harris, Frederic (Croydon, N.W.)||Montgomery, Fergus||Vickers, Dame Joan|
|Harrison, Col. Sir Harwood (Eye)||More, Jasper||Waddington, David|
|Harvey, Sir Arthur Vere||Morrison, Charles (Devizes)||Weatherill, Bernard|
|Hawkins, Paul||Munro-Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh||Webster, David|
|Heald, Rt. Hn. Sir Lionel||Murton, Oscar||Whitelaw, Rt. Hn. William|
|Hiley, Joseph||Nabarro, Sir Gerald||Williams, Donald (Dudley)|
|Hill, J. E. B.||Neave, Airey||Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)|
|Hirst, Geoffrey||Noble, Rt. Hn. Michael||Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick|
|Hogg, Rt. Hn. Quintin||Onslow, Cranley||Wright, Esmond|
|Holland, Philip||Osborn, John (Hallam)||Wylie, N. R.|
|Hooson, Emlyn||Osborne, Sir Cyril (Louth)|
|Hornby, Richard||Page, Graham (Crosby)||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Howell, David (Guildford)||Pearson Sir Frank (Clitheroe)||Mr. Anthony Grant and|
|Hunt, John||Percival, Ian||Mr. Timothy Kitson.|
|Albu, Austen||Delargy, Hugh||Houghton, Rt. Hn. Douglas|
|Allaun, Frank (Salford, E.)||Dempsey, James||Howarth, Harry (Wellingborough)|
|Alldritt, Walter||Dewar, Donald||Howarth, Robert (Dolton, E.)|
|Allen, Scholefield||Dobson, Ray||Howell, Denis (Small Heath)|
|Armstrong, Ernest||Doig, Peter||Howie, W.|
|Atkins, Rinald (Preston, N.)||Dunnett, Jack||Huckfield, Leslie|
|Atkinson, Norman (Tottenham)||Dunwoody, Mrs. Gwyneth (Exeter)||Hughes, Emrys (Ayrshire, S.)|
|Ashton, J. W.||Eadie, Alex||Hughes, Roy (Newport)|
|Bacon, Rt. Hn. Alice||Edwards, William (Merioneth)||Hunter, Adam|
|Bagier, Gordon A. T.||Ellis, John||Hynd, John|
|Barnett, Joel||English, Michael||Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S.)|
|Baxter, William||Ennals, David||Johnson, James (K'stin-on-Hull, W.)|
|Beaney, Alan||Evans, Fred (Caerphilly)||Jones, Dan (Burnley)|
|Benn, Rt. Hn. Anthony Wedgwood||Evans, Gwynfor (C'marthen)||Jones, Rt.Hn. Sir Elwyn (W. Ham, S.)|
|Bennett, James (G'gow, Bridgeton)||Ewing, Mrs. Winifred||Jones, J. Idwal (Wrexham)|
|Binns, John||Fernyhough, E.||Kenyon, Clifford|
|Blackburn, F.||Finch, Harold||Kerr, Russell (Feltham)|
|Blenkinsop, Arthur||Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)||Lawson, George|
|Boardman, H. (Leigh)||Foley, Maurice||Leadbitter, Ted|
|Booth, Albert||Foot, Michael (Ebbw Vale)||Lee, Rt. Hn. Frederick (Newton)|
|Braddock, Mrs. E. M.||Ford, Ben||Lewis, Arthur (W. Ham, N.)|
|Bradley, Tom||Fowler, Gerry||Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)|
|Broughton, Dr. A. D. D.||Freeson, Reginald||Lomas, Kenneth|
|Brown, Bob (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne, W.)||Galpern, Sir Myer||Loughlin, Charles|
|Brown, Rt. Hn. George (Belper)||Gardner, Tony||McCann, John|
|Brown, Hugh D. (G'gow, Provan)||Garrett, W. E.||Mackenzie, Gregor (Ruthergien)|
|Buchan, Norman||Gray, Dr. Hugh (Yarmouth)||Mackie, John|
|Buchanan, Richard (G'gow, Sp'burn)||Gregory, Arnold||Mackintosh, John P.|
|Butler, Herbert (Hackney, C.)||Griffiths, David (Rother Valley)||Maclennan, Robert|
|Callaghan, Rt. Hn. James||Griffiths, Eddie (Brightside)||McMillan, Tom (Glasgow, C.)|
|Carmichael, Neil||Griffiths, Rt. Hn. James (Llanelly)||McNamara, J. Kevin|
|Chapman, Donald||Hamilton, James (Bothwell)||MacPherson, Malcolm|
|Coe, Denis||Hamilton, William (Fife, W.)||Mahon, Peter (Preston, S.)|
|Coleman, Donald||Hamling, William||Mahon, Simon (Bootle)|
|Concannon, J. D.||Hannan, William||Mallalieu, E. L. (Brigg)|
|Conlan, Bernard||Harrison, Walter (Wakefield)||Mallalieu, J.P.W. (Huddersfield, E.)|
|Craddock, George (Bradford, S.)||Hart, Rt. Hn. Judith||Mapp, Charles|
|Cronin, John||Haseldine, Norman||Marks, Kenneth|
|Cullen, Mr. Alice||Heffer, Eric S.||Marquand, David|
|Davies, G. Elfed (Rhondda, E.)||Henig, Stanley||Mason, Rt. Roy|
|Davies, Dr, Ernest (Stretford)||Herbison, Rt. Hn. Margaret||Mendelson, John|
|Davies, Ifor (Gower)||Hooley, Frank||Mikardo, Ian|
|Davies, S. O. (Merthyr)||Homer, John||Miller, Dr. M. S.|
|Milne, Edward (Blyth)||Peart, Rt. Hn. Fred||Snow, Julian|
|Moonman, Eric||Pentland, Norman||Spriggs, Leslie|
|Morgan, Elystan (Cardiganshire)||Perry, Ernest G. (Battersea, S.)||Steele, Thomas (Dunbartonshire, W.)|
|Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)||Perry, George H. (Nottingham S.)||Thornton, Ernest|
|Neal, Harold||Price, Thomas (Westhoughton)||Tinn, James|
|Newens, Stan||Probert, Arthur||Urwin, T. W.|
|Noel-Baker, Rt.Hn. Philip (Derby, S.)||Randall, Harry||Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne Valley)|
|Norwood, Christopher||Rankin, John||Walden, Brian (All Saints)|
|Oakes, Gordon||Rees, Merlyn||Walker, Harold (Doncaster)|
|O'Malley, Brian||Rhodes, Geoffrey||Watkins, David (Consett)|
|Oram, Albert E.||Richard, Ivor||Watkins, Tudor (Brecon & Radnor)|
|Orbach, Maurice||Robertson, John (Paisley)||Wellbeloved, James|
|Orme, Stanley||Rose, Paul||Wilkins, W. A.|
|Oswald, Thomas||Ross, Rt. Hn. William||Williams, Alan Lee (Hornchurch)|
|Padley, Walter||Shaw, Arnold (Ilford, S.)||Williams, W. T. (Warrington)|
|Page, Derek (King's Lynn)||Sheldon, Rt. Hn. E.||Woodburn, Rt. Hn. A.|
|Palmer, Arthur||Short, Rt.Hn. Edward (N'c'tle-u-Tyne)||Woof, Robert|
|Pannell, Rt. He. Charles||Short, Mrs. Renee (W'hampton, N.E.)|
|Park, Trevor||Silkin, Rt. Hn. John (Deptford)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Parker, John (Dagenham)||Silverman, Julius||Mr. Joseph Harper and|
|Parkyn, Brian (Bedford)||Small, William||Mr. Eric G. Vaeley.|
|Pearson, Arthur (Pontypridd)|
§ Mr. Lubbock
I beg to move Amendment No. 7, in page 5, line 14, at end insert:(4) In section 23(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1949 there shall be added the following paragraph:—(e) those unable or likely to be unable to go in person from their qualifying address to the polling station by reason of their obligation to comply with the rules of the Jewish religion.The Amendment deals with a very much smaller group of people than the last one. I hope it will not create burdens for registration officers if it is accepted. It applies only to the small group of orthodox Jews whose religious observances prevent them from attending the poll in person on a Saturday.
We are seeking to add a subsection to Section 23(1) of the Representation of the People Act, 1949, so that these persons would be allowed to vote by post in local elections. This is a real problem in certain communities, as has been found by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley), who had experience of it in a local election in his constituency. Others have since drawn attention to it, and as a result of their correspondence with us we wrote to the then Minister of State for the Home Office, the right hon. Lady who is now one of the Ministers of State at the Department of Education and Science. I understand that the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner) has also made approaches to the Home Office on the question, and he has attached his name to the Amendment.
When we first raised the matter with the right hon. Lady, which was in June, 1966, she told us that arrangements 584 already existed for Jews to be able to vote in local government elections on a Saturday and that these were apparently working all right. But we had to point out that they did not work satisfactorily in cases where rabbis had instructed their congregations that it would be a breach of their faith to vote in the manner laid down in the local government election rules. This point was raised on 23rd June, 1966, when my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle asked a Question that was answered by the right hon. Lady.
I understand that subsequently the right hon. Lady looked into the matter and found that the problem was as we described it. But there was the additional difficulty that no provision is made for postal votes in rural district council elections. If I had had time—there was a rather short period between the Second Reading and the Committee stage—I should have tabled an Amendment to provide for postal voting in rural district council elections. Our Amendment will deal with only half the problem. It will enable orthodox Jews to cast their votes by post in urban district council elections, where postal votes are allowed, but not in rural district council elections, where Section 23(7) of the Representation of the People Act makes no provision.
In passing, it strikes me as odd that postal voting is allowed in urban district elections but not in rural district elections. After all, if people find it difficult to get to the poll in an urban district, the arguments must apply much more so in rural districts, where the distances that have to be travelled to get to the polling station are obviously greater. It would be interesting to know why we inserted that provision in the Representation of 585 the People Act, and whether we may take steps to rectify the situation before the Report stage of this Bill. But that is a matter that occurred to me after I had tabled my Amendment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle has had some correspondence with a rabbi in his constituency whose congregation was affected. The rabbi said he thought that an Amendment such as we had tabled would secure a vote for those affected by the rules. I understand that certain rabbis have made representations to the Home Office on similar lines. I hope that the Government will be able to accept the Amendment. It is a very small ex tension of the franchise to a group of people who have been disadvantaged. We know that the problem exists in local elections, and if we do not take the present opportunity to clear it up, another will not occur for some time.
I think that, in all fairness, if a person is prevented from going to the poll by reason of his religious observances provision such as we propose should be made. I extend that remark to others who may be similarly disadvantaged, such as the Sabbatarians. If the Under-Secretary of State requests me to withdraw the Amendment and bring forward a wider one on Report, I shall be only too happy to do so, so that all the religious minorities affected may be included. Probably I have said enough to ex plain the intention of the Amendment.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
I support the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock). The Amendment is necessary, and will be easy to operate, and I do not think it could be or would be abused.
I declare an interest because I have a large Jewish fraternity in my constituency. I am not sure that the proposal will make any political difference to me. These very strict orthodox Jews are mainly of the older generation, and in my constituency the older generation will probably vote against me. But that does not matter. That does not matter because, if for religious reasons—and I do not subscribe to their faith—they find that they are not allowed to vote on a Saturday, I cannot see why, two or three days before the poll, they should not be allowed to send in a postal vote. This would absolve them from anxiety about upsetting their conscience.
586 7.30 p.m.
As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, there is a very strong check, because the rabbi could, if necessary, be called in aid. An electoral officer who had any doubts could consult the rabbi to confirm whether or not the postal voter concerned was one of his people. That would be good enough. I cannot see that this proposal would be abused as some other claims for postal votes might be.
However, it is not only the Jews who are involved. There are other groups such as the Strict Sabbatarians and the Seventh Day Adventists. They, too, should be allowed to exercise this right. It may be argued that not many people can be involved in this issue, but if there are not many then it is all the more necessary that they should have this right.
If the Home Office has already told my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that this cannot be done, I hope that he will tell the Department that it must have another look at the Amendment. I hope that the matter will be discussed with the reputable organisations which would be able to help in overcoming any difficulties which the Home Office might foresee. They would work with the Department in order to overcome any possibility of abuse.
§ Sir D. Glover
The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) has done a useful job with the Amendment. I cannot see that any hon. Member will oppose it in principle, but I am not certain that the Government could accent it as it stands. However, the hon. Gentleman has said that he would be happy to withdraw the Amendment if the Home Office gave a favourable answer.
I do not think that this proposal, in our changed society, could apply only to people of the Jewish religion. The hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) mentioned the Sabbatarians and the Seventh Day Adventists. We have other strict religious sects in the country—Mohammedans and Hindus, for example—who may have certain days on which, if they are strictly orthodox, they are not allowed to carry on secular activities.
I am sure that it is the consensus of the Committee that the Home Office should look at this problem and consider 587 how it can avoid any people being disfranchised because of their religious beliefs. It would be unjust if only the Jewish people were allowed to have this right and the rest not. I hope that the Government will look at this before Report stage to see whether they could bring forward an Amendment to cover what the whole Committee is in favour of doing. Mechanically, this scheme would be workable.
§ Mr. Maurice Orbach (Stockport, South)
I do not think that there should be any great division on the issue. It does not affect a large number of people. It is part of our task in this Committee to protect the rights and responsibilities of minorities. We are considering orthodox Jews in the first place, but, as has been pointed out, other religious groups may be affected. We are, in fact, considering about 250,000 Jews and I should think that the others concerned probably total 150,000.
I myself am of the Jewish faith but that does not affect me in my constituency. There are six Jewish families in the area and the heads of two of them are councillors in the Labour interest. I am sure that it would not be very difficult for me to persuade the others to vote for me at a borough election, provided that they could vote in accordance with their religious scruples.
The difficulty for an hon. Member who represents a provincial constituency is that the smaller the minority the more orthodox it tends to be within the community. I hope that my hon. Friend will give serious consideration to this matter. It is true that we should not like this extended only to members of the Jewish faith, since this would look like discrimination on behalf of a particular religion. I want the right extended to all those whose religious scruples would prevent them from voting in the normal way on a polling day. I hope that my hon. Friend will give us some encouragement by saying that, on Report, the Government will bring forward a suitable Amendment.
§ Sir D. Kaberry
The Under-Secretary of State and I represent different parts of Leeds, which has the largest proportion of Jewish inhabitants of any town in the country. Of course, the Amendment 588 would not affect us because we are not likely to have our county borough elections on a Saturday and, in the wisdom of the national Government, we are not likely to have a General Election held on a Saturday. But circumstances could occur when polling would interfere with religious festivals, and those whose religious susceptibilities could be touched upon by voting should have some form of exception.
I hope that the Amendment will be withdrawn and that the Government will introduce an appropriate Amendment later. I have in mind, for example, the Moslems. There are a lot of them in Leeds. If we had a local government election on a Friday, it might affect quite a number of them. There are a large number of believers in other religions and this right should apply to everyone and not just to one sect. I support the principle of the Amendment.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
It might be useful if I speak now. It is the aim of the Government to be as helpful as possible on this. Special provision is already made for Jewish voters at both Parliamentary and local government elections. If a poll is taken on a Saturday, the election officer has the obligation, if a voter declares that he is a Jew, and cannot, on religious grounds, vote in the manner prescribed, to mark the voting paper in the manner asked by that person in the presence of his polling agents.
This has been done since the Ballot Act, 1872. Lord Rothschild played a considerable part in the formulation of that Act and I believe that the appropriate Section was moved by the then Member for the City of London, and it was accepted by the Liberal Government of the day. The Board of Deputies of British Jews pointed out to the Home Office last year that these special provisions did not meet the position of strict Jews. The physical action of marking a ballot paper is regarded as work which, apparently, contravenes the Fourth Commandment, and it is not permitted to ask any person, whether a Jew or non-Jew, to do "for one what one is forbidden to do for oneself". As the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Sir D. Kaberry) has pointed out, there is no difficulty at Parliamentary elections, because polling day is on a Thursday. In the case of borough 589 council elections, my right hon. Friend the Horne Secretary, decides the date, and again it is the practice to fix a Thursday for polling. One of the considerations in choosing this day is the position of strict Jews. Accordingly, it is understood that there has been little problem for members of the Jewish community living in urban areas. However, more recently, they have tended to move to areas outside the towns and, in view of what I have to suggest, it is important that the Committee should be in possession of the facts in connection with local government elections outside de boroughs.
In 1967, the latest year for ordinary county council elections, and the triennial year in which most district councils who hold their ordinary elections triennially last held them, of the county councils, including the Greater London Council, 24 held their elections on Thursday, 19 on Saturday, 12 on Tuesday and four on other days. Of the urban district council elections, 211 were held on Saturday, 114 on Tuesday, 99 on Monday, 69 on Thursday, and 36 on other days. Of rural district council elections, 146 were held on Tuesday, 111 on Saturday, 87 on Monday, 62 on Thursday and 46 on of her days. Taking all these types of elections together, 341 were held on Saturday, 272 on Tuesday, 118 on Monday, and 155 on Thursday. This Amendment is concerned with the 341 which were held on Saturday.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
My hon. Friend must appreciate that, in the case of the Jewish religion, and the position is probably the same with others, it is not only Saturdays which are important. There are other holy days in the week. Any day may be affected. I hope that he will not stick only to Saturdays.
§ Mr. Rees
I am not sticking only to Saturdays, but it is a major part of my argument. Saturday is the most important day for local government elections.
When the Board of Deputies of British Jews approached the Home Office, it was agreed that we should send it a list of those areas holding elections on a Saturday. That was done in April, 1967. The Board undertook to examine it, and indicate which town had a Jewish population which might be affected. The Home Office agreed that it would then consider 590 approaching the county councils concerned so that they could be reminded of one of the factors to be taken into account when deciding their election dates.
I understand also that the Conference on Local Government Elections Law for England and Wales considered a proposal that all local government elections should be held on a weekday other than a Saturday. There was also before it a proposal from another source that all local government elections should be held on Saturday. The conference came to the conclusion that, at this stage, there should be no alteration in the discretion given to county councils to fix election dates locally within the prescribed weeks. The Government accepted that conclusion.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews has not yet supplied the information as to which of the areas holding elections on Saturdays contain Jewish communities. As a result, there has been no question of the Home Office taking the next step and writing to the counties concerned. It is possible to argue from that that perhaps the problem is not very pressing. That is not to say that it is not important. Incidentally, I understand that there is no problem in Scotland.
§ Mr. Dempsey
When my hon. Friend says that there is no problem in Scotland, has he had discussions with the Jewish interests there about their holy days?
§ Mr. Buchan
The point is that Saturday elections never occur in Scotland. The problem of the number of Jews affected by religious festivals occurring on weekdays is on a much more minor scale than the position in England. I have had no direct representations about that.
§ Mr. Rees
I wish to be helpful. If there is only one person who feels aggrieved, obviously one should do something about it. Whether postal voting is the appropriate way of dealing with it all along the line is another matter.
I do not suggest that I know the answer. It is not a matter, however, in which the Home Office wishes to be unhelpful.
§ Sir D. Glover
The hon. Gentleman has been very helpful and, obviously, is well-briefed about the Jewish community.
591 But other problems have been raised in this short debate. I am not asking him to deal with them now, but, so far in his remarks, he has not mentioned them. If the Home Office is to consider the Amendment, I hope that it will be considered on an overall basis, otherwise even greater injustice may be produced.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Rees
I was about to come on to that point and deal with the technical problems raised by the Amendment. It is open to objection on a number of grounds. It is not wide enough to cover everyone who may object to marking a ballot paper on the Jewish Sabbath. There are other religious bodies such as Seventh Day Adventists who regularly observe the Jewish Sabbath as it applies to members of the Jewish religion.
It would call in question the position of many other persons for whom voting in person may be difficult or impractical on religious grounds. The position of members of enclosed religious orders is not crystal clear and, in any promise which I make, I can see many pitfalls in trying to be fair to all concerned.
The Amendment refers to those who are unable or likely to be unable to go in person from their qualifying address to the polling station. It is probable that the obligations of Jews do not prevent them from going to polling stations, though I cannot be dogmatic about that even as an hon. Member having many members of the Jewish faith among his constituents. The difficulty is that they are prevented from doing "work" on the Sabbath. That prevents them voting on that day.
The difference between rural and urban district councils crops up in another part of the Bill.
I would like to be helpful, but there are large numbers of problems involved. If one accepts the principle on a narrow front, people of other religious faiths are upset. I assure the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) that it is our wish to be helpful. It may be that, if he accepts my word on that, he will withdraw his Amendment.
§ Mr. Sharples
We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the sympathetic view which he has expressed about the Amendment. We are also grateful to the hon. 592 Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) for moving it and raising this most important point.
What has emerged during the course of this short debate is that there is a real problem which goes wider than the terms of the Amendment which the Committee has been asked to consider. The difficulty is that we seldom have Bills of this kind. It is clear that the Bill will make some fairly rapid progress. I realise all the difficulties, but I hope that there might be an opportunity for an Amendment to be incorporated even during the passage of the Bill through another place. I realise it will not be possible during the passage of the Bill through the House. However, I hope that it might be possible for an Amendment to be introduced on these lines, taking in the wider considerations, during the Bill's passage through the other place.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
I may be new here, but I think we ought to get one matter right. Let us stick to Under-Secretary of State for the moment.
§ Sir D. Glover
The hon. Gentleman has been so sympathetic that in our minds we have promoted him. I would issue one word of warning to him. He must be very careful that he does not get caught by his own Race Relations Bill in bringing forward his proposals to the House.
§ Mr. Lubbock
I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for his full and helpful reply. The difficulties concerning county council and urban and rural district councils will give us a starting point for further consultations with the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the other interests involved which have been mentioned. It was purely shortage of time in drafting which prevented me from mentioning all the other religious minorities who might be affected. It would have been too much to try to ascertain what those religious minorities might be in the week we have had since Second Reading. That is why my Amendment was framed so narrowly. I accept the criticism which has been made.
I would comment on one point in the hon. Gentleman's speech. If he could 593 persuade local authorities in areas where there were substantial minorities of Orthodox Jews not to hold their elections on a Saturday this might create difficulties for others. I have some experience. My constituency used to be an urban district, but now it is part of the London Borough of Bromley. When it was incorporated in the area of Greater London we found that the poll at local elections dropped substantially. I ascribe this to the fact that people find it easier to go to the poll when they are not at work during the daytime than when it has to be fitted in at the beginning or the end of the day when they may be away from home for as much as ten hours. If the hon. Gentleman was considering a general move away from Saturday for urban and rural district council elections a Id the county councils which are affected, this would require stringent consideration before any decision was made. It is taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. After all, we have all agreed that the number of individuals who might be affected by tie Amendment is very small.
With the assurance that the hon. Gentleman will be prepared to listen to any representations that may be made to him between now and Report stage by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.