HC Deb 27 November 1968 vol 774 cc593-620
Mr. Sharples

I beg to move Amendment No. 8, in page 6, line 3, at end insert: (3) Such corrections shall be published in a supplementary list as soon as may be after the publication of notice of election and before the last day for delivery of nomination papers.

The Chairman

With this Amendment it will be convenient to discuss Amendment No. 42, in Schedule 3, page 41, line 27, at end insert: 38. In Schedule 4, in paragraph 3, there shall be inserted after the word 'register', the words 'and supplementary list', New Clause 5—"Registration of electors: further provisions" and the new Schedule—"Application to be entered on Register".

Mr. Sharples

Clause 7(2) provides for the registration officer to carry out alterations to the published list where it does not carry out his intentions. The real purpose is to cover up printers errors and factual errors in the published list. The purpose of the Amendment is to make certain that, after those errors have been corrected, they shall be published. I hope that the Under-Secretary will accept this Amendment and Amendment No. 42 which goes with it. It is important that provision should be made for alterations to the register to be published in a supplementary list and a clear obligation should be laid upon the returning officer to see that this list is published.

Mr. Lubbock

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharples) for putting down this Amendment. It follows up a point that I made on Second Reading when I pointed out that it would be for the general convenience of political parties and others who need access to the registers if lists of corrections could be published after the registration officer has made his decision.

The Secretary of State for Scotland, in his winding up speech, gave me the reply that .. lists of corrections in these cases will be made available to the public and others who are interested."—[Official Report, 18th November, 1968; Vol. 773, c. 1024.] I do not know whether this matter is better dealt with under the election rules or whether it should be incorporated in the Bill. I am glad of the opportunity to get this on record. I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell us whether in previous instances of matters like this it has been the custom to incorporate them in the Bill—did we provide for this in the 1949 Act—or whether it would be more usual to provide for them in the election rules, which would mean an alteration in the Statutory Instruments that were published after the 1949 Act. Providing we can get it on record that that is the Government's intention, it will be satisfactory.

Mr. Frank Hooky (Sheffield, Heeley)

I beg to move new Clause 5——

The Chairman

Order. The hon. Member's new Clause has not been put down for a Division. Therefore he is unable to move it. It has merely been selected for debate with Amendment No. 8.

Mr. Hooley

I am obliged, Mr. Irving.

The purpose of putting this new Clause on the Order Paper was to draw the attention of the Committee to a problem which I do not think has been sufficiently considered, namely, that immediately the register is published it is inaccurate. The Home Office has estimated that it has been inaccurate to the extent of 4 per cent. Now 4 per cent. may not sound very much, but in terms of the electorate it is a figure of between 1 million and 1½ million electors. Between 16th December of one year and 16th February of the next year but one, a period of 14 months, a person whose name is not so published has no right to vote and is as firmly disfranchised as if he had committed some crime or technical offence which disqualified him as a voter. It is intolerable that there should be no remedy in the hands of the voter who, because of some oversight, administrative mistake or fault in our system of registration, does not happen to have his name included on the list.

It may be that the technique suggested in the new Clause of a statutory declaration before a magistrate designed to get his name so registered is not the best technique for the purpose. Administrative difficulties may be involved in operating this proposal, but I put it seriously to my hon. Friends that it is quite intolerable that a person should be deprived of his vote for 14 months with no appeal and no redress, when no technique exists for this unfortunate state of affairs to be put right.

8.0 p.m.

I want to emphasise the extent of this difficulty. We have been discussing a Clause designed to help a minority. I was wholly in sympathy with the general tenor of the debate. We are now concerned with another minority which is far more seriously penalised. A member of this minority has no way to exercise his lawful franchise once his name has been omitted from the register. Even if this means of remedying the situation is not acceptable to my hon. Friends I hope that they will come forward with a suggestion—short of the two-registers-a-year proposal, which I gather cannot be implemented—for remedying an intolerable state of affairs.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

The purpose of the first Amendment is to include a provision governing the time at which corrections made to the register of electors by the registration officer in exercise of the power given in subsection (2) should be published. The purpose of the second Amendment is to provide power for regullations to be made laying down a timetable for the preparation of supplementary lists showing the corrections. I shall deal with those two Amendments before turning to the new Clause referring to new methods of registration.

I advise the Committee that both Amendments are unnecessary. The intention is that provisions for publishing the corrections will be included in amending Representation of the People Regulations following the enactment of the Bill. The powers given by paragraphs 9 and 10 of Schedule 4 of the Representation of the People Act, 1949 are already sufficient for this purpose. It is envisaged that the Amendments to the Regulations will include provision for, first, notification of persons affected by the corrections, secondly, display of corrections in the same way as the register itself is displayed, as laid down in the 1950 Regulations and the Scottish Regulations, and, thirdly, copies of the corrections to be supplied in the same way as the register itself. Most hon. Members are aware of the way in which this is done. It is provided for in Regulation 17 of the 1950 Regulations.

The second Amendment, relating to a time table for the preparation of a supplementary list of corrections is, in any event, not appropriate. While for the purposes of preparing the main register the Regulations properly provide a time table for the publication of electors' lists, for the submission of claims and objections, and for dealing with those claims, such a time table cannot be laid down, in the nature of things, for the supplementary list, which will be merely a list correcting the main register to bring it into line with the registration officer's earlier intentions.

Since the purpose of such a supplementary list is to take account of corrections found to be necessary up to the date of notice of an election, no date can be laid down in regulations for its publication before the date on which notice of an election is given. It would, however, be reasonable for the supplementary list to be available before nomination day, as the first Amendment suggests. This can be considered when amending regulations are being prepared under the powers given by the Representation of the People Act, 1949, in paragraphs 9 and 10 of Schedule 4. I hope that the hon. Member will accept my advice on those two Amendments.

I am not sure of my ground in referring to the proposed new Clause 5, and Schedule, but I presume that I am in order in discussing points which arise from them, even though they have not been moved. It is intended to provide a means of keeping the electoral register always up to date by the preparation and issue of supplementary lists of electors. I know that my hon. Friend will not mind my saying—it is proper that my hon. Friend should raise this matter—that my noble friend Lord Stonham wrote to him recently in a certain amount of detail. He quite properly pointed out that one solution is to have two annual registers, and with two registers a year the fact that each register costs £3 million would raise a certain problem.

Nevertheless, he revealed that he saw the point of the up-to-dateness of the register. In order to have registration in that way he suggests that an elector would have to make a declaration before a magistrate in the form set out in the proposed Schedule. Apparently this could be done at any time. A person moving into a new constituency could presumably get himself registered as an elector.

This is a technical point. I do not deny that other problems may be involved, bat I must point out that there are no means by which the name of such an elector moving in and wanting to be paced on the new register could he removed from the register covering his previous address. The main objections to my hon. Friend's proposals are that supplementary registration by this means completely ignores the arrangements for objections and the consideration of objections to the registration of names following inclusion in the elector list. In other words, special registration would not be subject to the same test as registration by the usual means.

This is one of the major reasons why, if my hon. Friend were to move the new Clause, I should have to resist it. This is one of the major weaknesses in the idea that my hon. Friend put forward. Although I do not stand on this point, in view of discussions of that have taken place during the last 48 hours, I must point out that Mr. Speaker's Conference considered the question of a supplementary register each year and rejected it. There are difficulties involved in making a register up to date. A register becomes progressively out of date, and many problems arise in certain urban areas owing to clearance and similar matters.

All I can offer my hon. Friend is the claim that we register a remarkably high proportion of those who should be registered. In some constituencies difficulties arise because of the social background of the people, who move rather quickly. In other constituencies people very slowly from one address to another, or out of the area. It is not simply a question of socio-economic class. In one London constituency which has a very high standard of living the mobility of the population is extraordinarily high.

Given these problems of registration and the means for correction, we do an excellent job, with an average figure of 96 per cent. most registration officers get nearer 100 per cent. but the average is brought down because of the problems that arise in other areas

I hope that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharples) will accept what I have said about the technicalities of the matter, and my assurance that the points will be met.

Mr. Sharples

The Committee is grateful once again to the hon. Gentleman for his assurances and I am grateful to him for saying that the point will be covered in the election regulations. This is quite satisfactory to us and I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Lubbock

I beg to move Amendment No. 9, in page 6, line 8, at end add: (4) Section 4(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1949 shall be amended by adding the words— Provided that where a person has more than one residence, he shall be entitled to register only in respect of the address which he expects to occupy for the longest period in the year for which the register concerned is in force; and in determining this question, regard shall be had to the circumstances of that person's occupation service or employment: nothing in this proviso shall affect a person having a service qualification. We have had some discussion about socio-economic groups in earlier debates tonight, and we turn now to the top socio-economic group, of people who are fortunate enough to possess two residences. These people can treat one or other of these residences as their qualifying address at their own whim, and this has consequences to which I should like to draw attention. For instance, if one is resident in South Kensington but owns holidy cottage in Cornwall, one can decide to exercise one's Parliamentary vote in the latter part of the country and not where one normally lives, in South Kensington. This obviously has the effect that an elector who lives in an area which may be strongly Tory and does not need his vote will choose to exercise his privilege of registration in the other constituency.

I do not know whether that is thought to be desirable or not. Certainly, one needs to draw attention to it so that we can question it and take whatever action is thought necessary, on this opportunity, which is the only one we will have probably for the next 15 years. It is a problem which may not have been very evident the last time that we discussed a Representation of the People Bill, because then even the very richest members of the community did not normally own two houses. But with the rising standard of living, the problem will increase, and we must decide where we stand.

Is it thought to be fully democratic that a person who possesses two residences should decide where to exercise his vote, or should we—as our Amendment suggests—require him to be so registered only in the constituency where he normally lives for the greater part of the time? I would have thought that, in equity, he should be so restricted, and this is what the Amendment seeks to do.

We are saying that, if he has more than one residence, he must choose the one at which he normally lives for the greater time, and we amplify that by saying that, in considering which residence he chooses, we should have regard to his occupation, service or employment, words which occur elsewhere in the 1949 Act. Thus, we say that, if a person lives and normally works in London, he must register there and not in the area where he has his holiday cottage, somewhere on the South Coast.

This may be thought a trivial matter, but when one remembers that some of the constituencies in rural areas have comparatively small numbers of electors—in many cases, especially in some parts of Wales and Scotland, fewer than 30,000—one realises that this could mean that those at the top end of the socio-economic scale are exercising an influence on the result of a General Election out of all proportion to anything which we would think equitable.

I hope that at any rate some hon. Members opposite will agree with me that this is an evil which should be corrected. I do not expect much help from the Conservative Party, because they, of course, are the ones who stand to gain from the existing situation. But if one approaches this problem objectively, as we are trying to do—[An Hon. Member: "Do not be cynical."] Yes, I am cynical, but I know how Tories behave. I have a few of them even in my own constituency.

We shall probably hear from the Tories tonight some arguments against this very sensible Amendment on grounds which have nothing to do with electoral advantage. They will say that they are not considering that, but only the merits of the issue. However, we will know what is in their minds, that their friends should go into these holiday constituencies and, by packing the register, exercise an influence out of all proportion to their numbers. So I hope that at least hon. Members opposite will give me some support in this, and that even the Under-Secretary will approve the Amendment.

[Sir Harry Legge-Bourke in the Chair]

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)

I think that this Amendment is absolutely ridiculous. I represent a constituency which is a holiday area and which has an electorate not, as the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) suggested, of 30,000 but nearer 80,000. It is also an area where a number of people have weekend cottages; they are, therefore, entitled to a residential qualification which will enable them to be enfranchised. If, as the hon. Member suggested, this enfranchisement had to be determined on the basis of whether or not they are likely to support a particular political party, this would run entirely counter to the whole concept of enfranchisement.

The basis of enfranchisement in this country—one of its most important planks at any rate—is the residential qualification, and a person who has this qualification on 10th October of a given year is entitled, provided some other considerations are also observed, to exercise his vote in that constituency.

The Amendment suggests that those people, because they move from one residence to another, will have to indicate at some time where they shall be allowed to vote. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, if it were a question of my relying on those who live in weekend cottages in my constituency, I should net be here now——

Mr. Lubbock

They will not indicate: it will be indicated to them, on the strength of which of their several residences they occupy for the greater part of the year.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

This indication, of course, is wholly illogical, because it will depend on their mode of life, and whether in one year they spent more time at their weekend cottages or whether they decided to make it their permanent home.

The position is quite simple. The residential qualification is the basis of our while franchise. The Amendment cuts right across this. If people are fortunate enough, for business reasons or because they are members of Parliament—although the Amendment, I believe, would exempt them—or for other reasons, to have more than one residence, it is entirely up to them, I believe, to decide how they shall exercise that freedom to vote which is part of the whole concept of enfranchisement.

For people to be dictated to as to how they shall vote—this is what it boils down to—and to be deprived of this basic freedom is quite contrary to our basic concept of enfranchisement. I sincerely hope that the Committee will reject the Amendment.

The Temporary Chairman (Sir Harry Legge-Bourke)

Mr. Pardoe.

Mr. S.O. Davies (Merthyr Tydvil) rose——

The Temporary Chairman

Order. I think the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) had resumed his seat. I have called Mr. Pardoe.

Mr. Davies

On a point of order. I happened to be on my feet before the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) had extricated himself from his seat. Now I will sit down.

The Temporary Chairman

I understand the hon. Member's difficulty, but the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) had already caught my eye.

Mr. John Pardoe (Cornwall, North)

This Amendment, which I regard as of immense importance—the Under-Secretary, who is a frequent visitor to Padstow in my constituency will know why I do—affects very few constituencies, but it affects mine considerably. I calculate that there are about 600 of these "non-voters", the great majority of whom vote against me, or did last time. Since the majority in my constituency has been below 1,000 twice since the war, I am naturally sensitive to this. Thus, it is not inappropriate that my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock), who exports voters from his constituency—I import them into mine—should have moved the Amendment.

The trouble is also that most of the people who are going to live or stay for a few weeks or a weekend every year in these cottages will be Tory voters. Mostly, they will go to Conservative constituencies, because most seaside constituencies are Conservative. It is, therefore, a limited operation which I am undertaking but, nevertheless, in my interests, an essential one.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

Does the hon. Member realise that one of the most lovely seaside constituencies in the whole of the British Isles is the Gower constituency, which until recently returned the Father of the House of Commons?

Mr. Pardoe

I am not sure that that is relevant. I would be prepared to argue all night whether the beaches there are better than ours. You and I, Sir Harry, spent a long time in Committee discussing Cornish beaches.

We welcome people to Cornwall and I do not mind them coming to live there provided that they do so permanently and vote there. It might be thought that people coming from areas which have not had the benefit of Liberal influence for many years would tend to vote other than Liberal in Cornwall, but that does not happen. The Cornish air exercises a civilising influence on them and they tend to change. In my experience, those who settle there permanently are changed by the general political climate of the place.

My complaint is against those people who come for, perhaps, a weekend or a few weekends in the years, perhaps three weeks in a August and by their voting habits they can change the whole political emphasis in a constituency. By my calculations, there are 600 voters in my constituency who do not live there. They live in South Kensington. For all I know, they may even live in Marylebone, but they escape—and I am glad for them to escape; it is necessary to escape from Marylebone very often—to Cornwall for the odd weekend and their summer holiday, the point being that these people often tend to live in constituencies where their own party's vote is completely secure. Even if they escape from South Kensington, the Conservatives there will still win. Their vote in Cornwall, however, is much more important to their party and, therefore, to their own prejudices. They therefore come down for a holiday for a few weeks or for a weekend in Cornwall and thereby they can influence the result in a marginal constituency. It is not only in Cornwall that this applies. The same can be said of many other constituencies.

Why do I say that they should not be allowed to vote in Cornwall? First, they may not share the interests of the place. Their interests are very often different from the interests of the people living there. They may well wish to preserve Cornwall as a nice, cosy little museum which they can visit for the odd weekend and they do not want nasty, smelly industry there, which would spoil their weekend retreats, whereas local people want industry to come. These people who come may want to keep wages low so that they can have plenty of cheap seasonal domestic service, whereas I and the majority of people in my constituency want to create conditions of full employment.

Secondly, these people should not be allowed to vote in holiday retreat constituencies because they cannot be affected by the local political climate. I am prepared to convert those whom I can contact, but I cannot get at these people. I cannot offer them a service. I can rarely see them because they are hidden away in the depths of Marylebone or South Kensington. That is another reason why I oppose the principle of their being able to choose where they will vote.

The hon. Member for the New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) made great play with the fact that people should be allowed to exercise their residential qualification, and I accept that, but "residence" has never been defined in the principal Statutes. Various constructions have been put upon it from time to time.

We in Cornwall have a rather old-fashioned method of drawing up the electoral register whereby we still preserve our electoral courts. Once every year, my agent rushes though the constituency from town to town trying to drive these so-called Conservatives off the register by claiming. A year ago, he had to claim that they were absent from their residence for more than nine weeks.

Suddenly, the court is liable to change its decision and its interpretation of the law and it says that the nine weeks' stipulation does not mean nine continuous weeks; it means any nine weeks. Therefore, if they are absent from their cottage for nine weeks in the whole year—two weeks here, three weeks there, and so on—there is the problem of whether they have let their cottage for nine weeks. I had always taken it, and until recently it was interpreted, that if they had let the property for nine weeks, it did not matter to whom it was let if the nine weeks was made up in parcels of two or three weeks. Now, however, it has been decided that the nine weeks must be to the same tenant. These interpretations change in different parts of the country. Even in Cornwall they change from one year to the next. I want to have the term "residence" defined.

I accept the point made by the hon. Member for the New Forest that one should have a residential qualification, but if he studies the statutes—and I have searched the Library from top to bottom—he will see that no one has been prepared to define "residence".

Mr. McNair-Wilson

In my constituency, and, I think, the greater number of constituencies, residential qualification is given on the basis of completion of a form which is issued by the electoral registration officer. That form relates to occupation in residence on 10th October in a given year for inclusion in the register which is published on 16th February the following year. I understood that that arrangement was common to the whole of the British Isles.

Mr. Pardoe

No, it is much more complicated. One does not have to be in residence on a particular date to qualify to get on an electoral register. One can be absent. I am frequently absent from my address in Cornwall on that day because the House is often sitting. If one looks at Schofield on "Parliamentary Elections" one sees that regard is to be paid to the purpose and other circumstances of a person's presence at or absence from the address in question.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I agree that actual physical presence on the day is not required on Form A, but when the form is signed by the occupier of the premises he has to list all those who are resident in the dwelling. It is conceivable that an individual could be away from the residence but, at the same time, enjoy a vote because when the form was completed he was, according to the person signing the form, resident at the establishment on 10th October.

Mr. Pardoe

Two points arise. First, that is incorrect. Although consideration should be given to whether a man has left his wife or his chattels in the residence concerned, many of the houses in my constituency are closed on 10th October or whatever happens to be the qualifying date; and although the dwelling is still a furnished residence, there is no one in residence. It is quite legal to complete the form and get away with it. We can prove that people were not there, but this makes no difference within the terms of the law.

All I am asking is that we should use this occasion to clear up this impor- tant point, because temporary absence on account of any duty arising from a person's employment is not to be deemed an interruption if, for instance, he intends to return and resume residence within six months. As I have explained, conditions are not the same throughout the country and the matter is extremely complicated, for there is also the question of the person concerned intending to resume actual residence within nine weeks of giving it up and not being prevented from resuming residence as a result of any tenancy which he may have entered into. When I set out to examine the matter I discovered just how complicated it was.

I hope that the wording of Household Registration Form A will be changed because it seems that a large number of people—I have talked to a lot of them; I also have a large file of correspondence—should have their position regularised. Many of those concerned have resented our trying to persuade them not to register in this way, and I feel that some of them do not realise what is at stake. They say, for example, "We want to exercise our vote in Cornwall", and they are perfectly entitled legally so to do. However, if it was stated on the form that they must state the residence at which they are normally resident for more than half of the year, a large part of this problem would be solved.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

From my recollection of the form, is it not a fact that it asks the householder to list those British subjects over 21 whom he anticipates will normally be resident at the address on 10th October? The fact that one of the people listed may be at a different address or abroad is not material. Only those whom the householder expects to be in residence are listed.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Pardoe

That is certainly what is stated on the form, but as I have explained there is a way in conscience, if not perhaps in law, around it. Indeed, it is difficult for the law to catch up with this. One is allowed to say that people are in residence even if they are temporarily absent because, for example, of employment.

Many of these people are really business voters. They use this property for letting purposes and some of them may not even be living there at all. They may use the property for only two or three weekends a year and perhaps a couple of weeks' holiday. For the rest of the time they reide elsewhere. They are deriving income from it, just as if they owned a shop.

It seems wrong that these people should be able to pick and choose where they will have their residential qualification. By being able to choose in this way they can spread their votes much more proportionately than would otherwise be possible. No hon. Member will have missed the fact that I am arguing a special, if limited, point. However, if we are concerned to make elections fair, the Amendment should be adopted. While the Government may not like its wording, I trust that the Minister will carefully look into the matter and perhaps make a similar proposal which would be acceptable to the Government.

Mr. Geoffrey Rhodes (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East)

The Liberal Amendment says, in effect, that if a person is ordinarily and regularly resident at a particular address, that is where he should be registered as a voter and not at any other address where he may happen to live for a smaller part of the year. On the basis of what I have heard, a reasonable case has been made. However, I direct the attention of the Committee to the implications of this in relation to a group of people which is far larger in number than the cases quoted so far. I refer to the population of students living away from home. Their number is likely to increase considerably when we give the vote to 18-year-olds.

Mr. Lubbock

If a student is living in digs or at college, then that address would not constitute a residence.

Mr. Rhodes

Four or five days before 10th October each year a flood of students comes into my constituency—they are mainly research students—and are put on the electoral register. They have no previous affinity with the area. Indeed, they have a much stronger affinity with the areas in which they normally reside. They stay on the register for the period during which that register is in force, but usually by May, June or July they have disappeared from my consti- tuency. If an election takes place in the intervening period they are, of course, entitled to vote in my constituency.

I cannot see how this is right. I am not making a political point, because a number of them are my supporters. I have close contact with them and I live opposite a hall of residence. I think that students should be registered to vote where they are ordinarily at home, and not in college, where they would normally move in for just a short period, or even in digs, where they are in residence for a relatively small part of the year—no more than six months of the year, at the very outside—and for a very short period of their lives.

I pose this as a problem—I do not dogmatise. Although I sympathise with the Amendment, its implications must be fully thought out. I believe that there has been a successful challenge in court of students who registered, I believe, in Oxford, and it seems to me to be a matter that needs clarification.

If my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary expresses some sympathy with the Amendment, I should like him to tell us his reactions to the whole problem of the masses of people coming on the register now, many of whom will undoubtedly have two residences—one where they will be in college or digs in a town in which they do not normally live, and one in their home town where their parents or relatives normally reside.

Mr. Lane

I should like to follow up the point made by the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Rhodes) because it is relevant to the general problem which the Amendment raises, although it is a special aspect of it. Clarification of the two points I want to put is all the more important because the voting age is to be lowered to 18 years.

The first side of the coin is rather different from what I think the hon. Member had in mind. Students, we assume, are registered at their normal homes away from the place where they are at university. One of the present grounds for claiming a postal vote is that people are to be away from their normal residence because of the general nature of their occupation, service or employment. Can the Under-Secretary absolutely confirm that this will assure a postal vote to all students away from home at university at the time of a General Election or a by-election?

The other side of the same coin was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) yesterday in columns 369 and 370 of the Official Report, but no comment was then made on it. I refer to the danger in several constituencies containing universities that the register will be flooded by a number of students who have no particular roots or contacts with the constituency. I have no fear at all in my own case, because I should certainly hope to win by an even greater majority next time if these temporary residents had the vote, but it would be quite wrong, and confusing to the situation in those constituencies, if that were to be the position.

I understand that an important element in the qualification for residence, mentioned by earlier speakers, is that a person should not abandon the right to take up residence at any time in the course of the year. Plainly in most cases students do not have this right of continuous residence where they reside at university, whether it be in college, hostel or lodgings, and I believe that there are several court decisions confirming this. So I assume that the position is that a large majority of the students at universities cannot properly be included in the register for the university constituencies. However, as this is a matter which from now on will be of much greater importance in terms of numbers, I hope we can have absolute confirmation by the Under-Secretary that there is no danger at all of the residence qualification system being abused in this way.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I deal first with the Amendment as moved by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock). I noticed that his hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) who I am sure is aware that I know Pad-stow, rode a favourite hobby-horse when supporting the Amendment. He was speaking refreshingly in his own interests, but I found it odd that the Liberals, who over the years I have heard arguing on these matters, did not appear to know where the buck stops.

Mr. Lubbock

This is in fact another indication of the need for a change to some other type of electoral area which we shall be discussing later.

Mr. Rees

If it is of the type for which the hon. Member sometimes argues, it would concern a group of people.

I have a certain sympathy with the objective the hon. Member has in mind, but not all who have holiday cottages in Padstow vote in the way in which the hon. Member appeared to think. Whether they vote the way in which we would like them to do is a rather different question. This proposal is quite impracticable. There are 630 Parliamentary constituencies and a separate register is prepared for each of them with no co-ordination or possibility for consultation beyond that incidentally afforded by the fact that some registration officers act in that respect for one or two neighbouring constituencies. There are 201 registration officers for 547 constituencies. Computer facilities are sometimes shared in the preparation of more than one electoral register.

The hon. Member sought a legal definition to avoid the requirement that an elector should register once only but that is unenforceable.

Mr. Pardoe

Surely the logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument is that the requirement that no one shall vote more than once in an election is unenforceable?

Mr. Rees

I am arguing that a check on whether people are in fact registered in two constituencies in unenforceable. If it were imposed, the fact that an individual had contravened the requirement would come to light only by chance. The present law tacitly recognises the present situation in the proviso in Section 1(1) of the Representation of the People Act, 1949, which provides that a person shall not vote as an elector in more than one constituency. There is far more chance however, by the nature of the knowledge of people in an area. Where it is possible to enforce registration in respect of one address this is already done, for example, in the case of Service voters where a person can declare only one address. In the case of civilians it could hardly be made an offence for a householder to include a person's name on Form A when he was already included by another householder on Form A.

There are difficulties here. There is the problem that the name "John Smith" might appear 20,000 times. The problem of checking that kind of thing is extraordinarily difficult. I apologise again to the Committee for putting an argument based on technical difficulties. I wondered at one pitch whether there was anything in the definition at present and I looked at the definition in the Representation of the People Act, 1949, which lays down in certain subsections conditions about absence and lettings. Although it may give the hon. Member precious little satisfaction, I sympathise with his problem but it is extraordinarily difficult for the State to lay down that a person must decide on one residence or the other as the place in which he should be registered. I see the difficulties, but, for technical reasons, I can only advise the Committee to resist the Amendment.

Mr. Donald Chapman (Birmingham, Northfield)

What about the point made from the Liberal bench that Form A should at least offer some guidance on this matter and that people should be encouraged to register where they normally are resident? Cannot we look at this again before Report stage?

8.45 p.m.

Mr. Rees

Certainly. My right hon. Friend will consider that in relation to the administration side. Perhaps something will come out of this. I will also look more carefully than I hastily had the chance to do at the legal meaning in the 1949 Act.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) gave me notice that he intended to raise his question about students, a question which was followed up by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Rhodes). I am advised that the qualifying date for registration is 10th October, during term. Are students entitled to be registered as resident at university or college whilst at home? This problem will have come the way of the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg), with his experience of Oxford, although that was some time ago now. It was in Oxford that the courts had to decide the question which arose in relation to students living at Ruskin. It is not surprising that it was at Ruskin, because in the days of votes over 21 this was far more likely to arise with older students.

I understand that the courts have taken a view both ways. Registration officers generally, and the various books of reference, hold that students in halls of residence should not be registered there but at home. Form A asks householders to include all persons resident at their address, including those temporarily absent. Specific examples are given of persons temporarily absent as students and people in hospital. That is as firm as I can be. This is the intention, but there is the question of legal interpretation. Problems must arise for a small majority of students who do not come into this general aspect of having a home or a residence in the sense in which I have defined it.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

Is my hon. Friend aware that there are very few wardens of halls of residence and relatively few registrars of universities who understand the guidance which has just been given? Could not something be done, particularly in view of the lowering of the voting age, to make what is the understanding in this matter clearer to these people?

Mr. Rees

I will certainly consider with the returning officers of the area concerned what rights my right hon. Friend has in this respect.

If students are in lodgings, landladies might include their student lodgers as residents. Whether this would be acceptable is a question of fact in each case, because here it is someone who has moved out of a hall of residence and become a lodger. This has very respectable antecedents in the field of electoral law. Form A asks the householder to include all persons resident at the householder's address, and it gives the example of students.

We would be on weaker ground here with regard to students in lodgings, even though since the war, particularly in many of the provincial universities, there is a smaller proportion of students living in hall. I believe that in the older universities there has been a movement out into lodgings of sorts since the war.

The question already arises with students over 21 but appears to give rise to few difficulties. If the voting age comes down to 18, the overwhelming tendency is likely to result in students being registered in their areas. Students would be entitled to postal votes in their home areas.

I have dealt, perhaps not satisfactorily, with the point about which the hon. Member for Cornwall, North feels so strongly, but I will certainly look at the administration side. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East and the hon. Member for Cambridge are satisfied. What I have said is the most I can do to satisfy anybody on this point.

Mr. Hogg

This has been an interesting debate and we have probably not heard the last of it. I am against the Amendment in its present form for broadly the same reasons the Under-Secretary gave, although he did not quite dispose of the problem. I must apologise to the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) for coming into the Chamber just after he had concluded his speech. It was not entirely my fault, and I was sorry to miss what he said.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) was evidently inspired by the praiseworthy motive of getting more Conservative voters to vote in St. Marylebone. This is the most extraordinary piece of altruism I have heard in the debate, and I can only applaud it, but I do not think that his simpliste view of the problem stands scrutiny.

One and by far the most prominent of the difficulties in the way has been suggested by hon. Members representing university towns—my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) and the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Rhodes). I too, have represented a university seat, as the Under-Secretary said, and in my present constituency I have some very large student hostels and a very large technical college with which my family has been connected for a long time. There is a very difficult problem, but now that we have enlarged the voting age, it is a problem the solution of which we cannot leave entirely to chance. The Government should give some advice either in the Bill, or on the form.

The arguments about students tend in almost the opposite direction from that of the argument of the hon. Member for Cornwall, North. We must now remember the great public schools. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman gave notice to the hon. Lady the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) about the sinister effects upon her chances of election in a highly marginal seat which his proposal would certainly have when votes at 18 are the rule and the entire sixth form at Eton votes against her—with one or two notable exceptions, no doubt the sons of Conservative Members of Parliament.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that the noble Lord, Lord Snow is sending his son to Eton?

Mr. Hogg

Of course all Socialist Ministers send their sons to public schools and all sons of Conservative Members of Parliament have strong Socialist tendencies. Over a long period of time, they thus compare with each other, and no doubt each son marries a daughter of the opposite class.

I therefore look at the words of the Amendment, which is not a bad thing to do when one is discussing it, and I emphasise the extraordinary difficulty. It involves entitlement to register. That is the first thing to realise about it. Entitlement to register is based on the first few Sections of the principal Act, but the basic Section is that which provides that those entitled to vote as electors should be those resident there on the qualifying date.

One of the difficulties which the supporters of the Amendment have failed to realise is that the form is filled up by an informant who happens to be a householder while the person entitled to vote is not necessarily the same person, or even a member of his family. Let me illustrate that with a simple example from my own experience. For a long time, I was resident on the borders between the constituency of Hastings and the constituency of Eastbourne. According to boundary distributions, I was sometimes in one and sometimes in the other constituency. I employed a gardener and he was always put on my form, because he was ordinarily resident there. But he had a flat at Eastbourne where he was the informant himself. If the Amendment had been passed, I do not know how I could have filled up my Form A without knowing how he would fill up his Form A—that is, without incurring some kind of offence under the Perjury Act or whatever it is which sanctifies these forms. The Amendment includes the phrase shall be entitled to register". but it is not the voter who is entitled to register. The voter is entitled to vote but the registration is done partly by the returning officer who receives the forms and partly by the informant who fills them in.

Let us proceed to the criterion which entitles the man to register. The first criterion is only in respect of the address which he expects to occupy —that is, the voter. How can the informant know what the voter expects? How can I be sure whether my gardener is about to give notice? I could ask him, of course, but he would not tell me unless he intended to give notice at that moment. I could not tell what he expects. What happens if he is genuinely wrong and if secretly I had decided to give him the sack? He may have expected to occupy my cottage for nine months in the year, but in fact he may have been going to occupy it for two weeks. I do not see how we can make this sense, far less enforce it.

Next, the criterion is to be the longest period of the year, according to the Amendment, but is that the right criterion? The man may have his wife and children in a house in one area, but his occupation may take him miles away for most of the year. To move away from the examples of married men, the public school boy of 18, who was resident in his public school for nine months of the year, and who will now have a vote, would have to register as at Eton and Slough or Harrow-on-the-Hill or Winchester, for example. The university student, on the other hand, who is about six months of the year at home and six months at the university, would be in a pretty quandary, as would the warden of his hall of residence, for the warden of his hall of residence would not know whether he was expected to live at home for the rest of the year.

If we proceed along these lines, we cannot use the criterion of the expectation of the person entitled to vote and we cannot make the criterion the longest period of year, because that does not put the weight where the proposers of the Amendment want to put it.

Next we come to the mysterious phrase, in determining this question regard shall be had to the circumstances of that person's occupation, service or employment". Let us have regard to it, certainly, but how can that necessarily affect where he expects to live for the longest period of the year and why should that be the only factor mentioned specifically to which we should have regard?

Mr. Lubbock

I do not blame the right hon. and learned Gentleman for this, but had he heard my speech he would have understood that the Amendment refers to the man who normally works, for example, in London, and whose occupation, service or employment is in London, but who possesses a holiday cottage on the south coast. We can easily determine, by asking him where his occupation, service or employment is carried on, that he should normally register in South Kensington.

Mr. Hogg

I greatly deplore the fact that I did not hear the hon. Member's speech, but that is precisely what was said by the hon. Member for Cornwall, North. But are they not considering the wrong criterion and generalising from too narrow a series of examples? I can quite understand, in the case which he mentioned, that many people would say that that was the right answer, but a man who is at his genuine home for only a short time in the year and whose normal employment takes him away for a long time—which is, after all, not so rare a situation that it can be ignored from the point of view of this kind of legislation—would come to exactly the opposite conclusion.

I quite understand the hon. Member for Cornwall, North resenting the fact that a number of occupiers of holiday cottages voted against him at the General Election rather than vote for me. I can understand them preferring to vote against him than to vote for me. It is a perfectly intelligible choice, although I may regret it from many points of view. At the same time, he is just as badly off with retired people, who represent the same kind of interest. His great objection was that these country cottagers had a different view from his of the interests of his constituency, and, so he said, from that of the majority of his constituents. Suppose they have. He will be carried home by the triumphant majority.

The hon. Gentleman presented an argument about the interest in keeping a place as a sort of cosy, country enclave instead of having the constant employment that he may rightly want for his constituency. The difficulty is that the same kind of argument would apply to the retired people there. I fancy that all the holiday resorts, if the hon. Gentleman's is no exception, include a large number of retired people who, for reasons which may be adequate or totally perverse, genuinely pursue that kind of conservationist approach which is anathema to those who pursue the expansionist approach. This is part of what seaside politics are about. I do not say that one should be influenced, on what is basically an unintelligible Amendment, by the hon. Gentleman's choice of the expansionist approach to his constituency rather than the conservationist approach. I can see that he minds, but I cannot see that he minds it rationally.

Therefore, I think that the hon. Member for Orpington has raised a genuine difficulty. The difficulty has become more acute with the lowering of the voting age, upon which the Committee decided last night, because for various reasons young people tend to concentrate between the ages of 18 and 21 in places at which most of us would think they would not ordinarily be resident. The Under-Secretary of State must return to this question if we reject the Amendment.

The warden of one big residents' hostel in my present constituency told me only the other day that he had put everybody in the hostel into my register. I am sure that he was wrong, but he has done it, and they are there. Many of them made representations to him against it, because they were resident wholly outside this country and did not wish to play any part in British politics, for reasons which I thought were both honourable and intelligible. The wardens of hostels, the landladies of lodgings for students, the headmasters of public schools, and, for that matter, the returning officers of the hon. Gentleman's constituency must be given a little more guidance about the problem of residence, which has almost metaphysical connotations, as the Attorney-General would tell the Committee if he favoured it with his legal advice. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows full well how "residence" occupies hundreds of pages of the Law Reports, like "domicile" and other metaphysical things like "cause". The Government must do a little better than has been done in the past, though that is said without any reproach to them.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) for expanding on the problems. I told the Committee that my right hon. Friend would look at the matter in the light of the advice given by a variety of people on Form A. We shall look at it in the light of what has just been said and perhaps also in the light of the Regulations which the House will have to pass eventually.

Valuable contributions have been made to the debate from both sides of the Committee, and the debate has illuminated a dark corner of the Bill for me. I shall most certainly give the assurances to both sides of the Committee.

Amendment negatived.

Question proposed. That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Chapman

In subsection (1) the Clause continues the requirement of the 1949 Act that, in effect, there shall be one register per annum. It is this point that I wish to query.

In the previous debate a number of points were made about the accuracy of the British register. I accept that entirely. We have a register which is very accurate. There is an amendment of the law in subsection (1) which will make it more accurate than ever. This is a point that I put to Mr. Speaker's Conference, and I was glad to see that it was accepted by the conference and am glad to see that it has now been accepted by the Government.

Subsection (1) states that it shall now be a duty of the registration officer: to take reasonable steps to obtain information required". In other words, there will be a greater onus now on the registration officer to go for accuracy and use all possible means of obtaining a thoroughly up-to-date and accurate register.

Having said that, I am concerned about the possibility of continuing indefinitely with only one register per annum, as the Clause implies. Mr. Speaker's Conference, as the published report indicates, rejected the idea of two registers per annum on Mr. Speaker's casting vote. Mr. Speaker gave his vote against two registers per annum on the ground, as explained in the Report, that he thought any change of the law should have a majority of those voting in favour of it. So the conference was equally divided on this, and there is, clearly, a strong case for moving away from one register per year.

This is because of the continual process of inaccuracy creeping in as the year goes by under the Clause as drafted. The Social Survey undertook an inquiry into this in 1966–67 and found the position roughly as follows. On the qualifying date the register is about 96 per cent. accurate. By the time it is published in February it is 93 per cent. accurate. By the time one gets to August it is 89 per cent. accurate. By the time one gets to the following February it is only 85 per cent. accurate. In other words, we may start very nicely with only 4 per cent. inaccuracy, but by the time the year has gone through we have 15 per cent. inacuracy because of people moving house.

Therefore, I plead with the UnderSecretary—I raised this point in an intervention on Second Reading—for an assurance that as soon as possible the provision will be altered, that as soon as possible we shall move to two registers per annum, and also that we shall try to afford the £3 million involved, which is really the point at issue.

But there is a further point. Mr. Speaker's Conference looked at the possibility of keeping registers up to date by computer. We had a report about it, but I was not entirely convinced. The science of computers is advancing so rapidly that what we might not be able to do now by computer we shall certainly be able to do in five years' time. If we can at the same time get printing speeds tuned up to take account of computer speeds, we may be able to produce more than two registers a year without undue effort.

I seek an assurance that the Home Office is very well aware of the disadvantage of having one register per year, which the Clause perpetuates, and of the growing inaccuracy of the register as the year wears on, and that as soon as possible amending legislation will be brought in to increase the number of registers per annum. Whether it is by computers or manual methods is immaterial at this point.

I did not put down an Amendment on this point because I was advised that it would have necessitated also putting down new qualifying dates for two registers a year and all sorts of other complications. I leave the matter at asking for an assurance that my hon. Friend accepts the principle. One political party put very strong evidence before Mr. Speaker's Conference pressing hard for two registers, and I believe that the other political party was also in sympathy. All that held us up was the cost of £3 million. I should like my hon. Friend's assurance that this situation will not last forever.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Changes have been made as a result of the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference. Despite that, the Clause will not deal with the issue of having two registers a year. My hon. Friend got to the nub of the matter. The blunt answer lies in the cost of £3 million. But I can give him an assurance on behalf of my right hon. Friend that, as soon as possible a change will be made. But it certainly will not be yet. However, there is no doubt, in the mind of my right hon. Friend, that the best way of ensuring an accurate register would be to have two registers per year. My hon. Friend has explained, by percentages, how the register gets out of date quickly and those hon. Members representing large urban areas where there are declining populations know what a problem this can be. It is incredible how inaccurate a register can get in a short time. I assure the Committee that we shall readily play our part in improving the situation.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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