HC Deb 27 November 1968 vol 774 cc514-34

3.50 p.m.

Mr. Richard Sharples (Sutton and Cheam)

I beg to move Amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 31, after 'Council', insert: 'Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes., the Red Cross and other services ancillary to or sponsored by Govermnent departments'. Subsection (3) says that: Persons who are employed by the British Council in posts outside the United Kingdom and their wives… shall be included among persons having a service qualification in the same way as members of the forces and their wives.

The purpose of the Amendment is to extend the privilege given by the sub-section to people who are employed in very much the same way as members of the British Council, and who may be employed by Government Departments. I appreciate that there are difficulties in extending almost indefinitely the kind of people who may be entitled to have the same voting privileges as members of the Services. I also appreciate that it was a recommendation of Mr. Speaker's Conference that this privilege should be extended to members of the overseas staff of the British Council and their spouses.

What I do not know is why Mr. Speaker's Conference decided that the privilege should be extended only to members of the British Council and riot to those people employed by the Government in very similar capacities. If one accepts that the privilege should be extended to members of the British Council, it is very difficult to leave out members of the N.A.A.F.I. staff. Their position is much more akin to that of the Service voter than is the position of the British Council.

We also mention members of the Red Cross in the Amendment. When the Services are overseas, members of the Red Cross are frequently attached to them in ancillary capacities. If the privilege is extended to members of the British Council, it should equally be extended to members of the British Red Cross serving in this capacity.

We also include a rather more general phrase: …and other Services ancillary to or sponsored by Government departments. This covers the people who may be attached in one way or another to the Services, or may have attachment to Government Departments in the same way as the British Council.

I think that I need say no more in explanation. The Amendment speaks for itself.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

As I was until recently at the Ministry of Defence, I should go a long way with the Amendment—that is, if I were dealing with it purely on sympathy. But I shall advance good reasons why we cannot accept the Amendment.

The first is a question of principle to which the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharples) referred, namely, that the main purpose of the Clause as a whole is to give special arrangements to Crown servants, members of the forces and their wives who are overseas, so that they can be registered as electors while they are abroad and when they have no residence in the United Kingdom. The problem is to know where one draws the line in going outside that very specific delimitation.

On the question of the N.A.A.F.I., I found in my travels with the Services, both recently and in what is now the far distant past, that there are also, certainly on R.A.F. stations, the Catholic Women's League, the Church of Scotland Canteen, the Salvation Army, the Malcolm Club, the W.R.V.S.. S.S.A.F.A., and the C.V.W.W. There is an inherent difficulty in deciding where, if we extended the list of people given the special arrangement for registration, we should draw the line.

There is also a practical problem. I do not suggest that it necessarily applies to N.A.A.F.I., but it might to some of the other organisations. It was as a result of Mr. Speaker's Conference that it was decided to bring in the British Council. It was an essential part of the special arrangements for Crown servants and Service men and women that the appropriate Government Department accepted the responsibility for making arrangements to give an effective opportunity to persons having a service qualification to exercise from time to time, as occasion might require, the right of making and cancelling service declarations and of appointing proxies.

I concede that by its nature, if my argument were on that precise point, N.A.A.F.I. is an organisation which could probably do this. But N.A.A.F.I. cannot be singled out. All of us know that on Army bases and R.A.F. stations other excellent people are providing a variety of social services for the Armed Forces. Much as my right hon. Friend realises the good work done by this variety of organisations, he cannot accept the Amendment, because of the matter of principle on where one draws the line, and the practical problems. The Services accept a great deal of responsibility for making sure that Servicemen know of their rights as Service voters. I ask the Committee to resist the Amendment.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

I have never heard a weaker argument from the Government Front Bench. The first thing we must ask is whether the individuals concerned are doing a job of national service in supplementing the work of the Armed Forces. No hon. Member will disagree, particularly those who have seen the wonderful work they are doing, that they are doing good service. Why should we disfranchise them because a Government Department finds it too difficult to give them the vote, and says that the privilege in question cannot be extended any further?

Surely the Home Office can think of a formula whereby those people would be certified by the local commanding officer as being essential? There would be no loophole. We have lived in an era of peace for many years, and the longer we are in such an era the more need there is for such services overseas.

The Minister has put forward a deplorable case. In fact, there is no argument to be put. I hope that my hon. Friend will divide the Committee on the question. I cannot see any hon. Member voting against it.

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Quintin Hogg (St. Marylebone)

I hope that the Government will go a little further than they have done. I appreciate that the Under-Secretary has given a sympathetic reply; that is to say, I do not understand that he is in any way hostile to the spirit or principle of the Amendment. I am extremely suspicious of arguments against accepting an Amendment which is good in spirit and in principle simply on the basis that we do not know where to draw the line. I understand this argument where any substantial Government expense is involved. I am told that Treasury officials have the word "repercussions" graven on their hearts and utter shrill screams in their dreams when the word occurs to them. But we are not here dealing with such a case because, as far as I know, the expense involved would be virtually nil.

I do not see why the N.A.A.F.I. should not have the privileges of the Services, or why the Red Cross should not have the privileges of the Services, especially as the line has been enlarged to include the British Council. I should have thought that the Government could have retained control, perhaps by a redraft of the Amendment, of such organisations as the Malcolm Clubs and the Catholic Women's League by retaining the power to approve the particular organisations concerned.

I am very reluctant to divide the Committee within 10 minutes of its restarting, but I shall certainly advise my hon. Friends to do so unless something more is forthcoming from the Government.

Sir Donald Kaberry (Leeds, North-West)

I believe that the discussion as to whether members of the British Council must go abroad when posted, whether members of the N.A.A.F.I. must go abroad when posted, and whether members of other organisations must do so is a very doubtful edgeline decision. I should have thought that in response to the appeal made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg), the Clause could be looked at again. It will not swing a General Election, it will not decide a by-election, but it will, at any rate, give a few people the satisfaction of feeling that they have the right to be put on the register so that they may vote if they so desire at an appropriate time.

I hope that the Government will look at the Clause again.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I assure the Committee that, because of my special interest in the matter, I have looked extremely carefully at the Amendment—probably more carefully because of this sympathy—than I have at other Amendments. It is not a question whether people do a good job. No one denies that excellent work is being done by the N.A.A.F.I. and other bodies which I have mentioned. I advance a technical argument—the question of an organisation on behalf of the Government dealing with this question of registration of non-Service personnel. I have before me a photostat copy of a D.C.I. which deals with Parliamentary and local government elections—we may return later to the question of how absentee votes will be dealt with—which illustrates that in the case of service personnel this matter can be handled by the Service authorities. Similar arrangements can be made with regard to the British Council.

There are many people in this country who are civilians and who go abroad and move off the registration roll and there is a real problem in deciding where to draw the line in the case of civilians. It is not a question of expense. A fundamental issue is involved as to the degree to which we allow those not domiciled in this country to have the right to vote.

There is the additional point that with the Service member it is not just a question of going abroad for a short period. Members of the Services move about in the country, for instance, from R.A.F. station to R.A.F. station, from ship to ship or from one Naval base or port to another.

Much as I would, by sympathy and attachment, like to make some arrangements for the N.A.A.F.I. and the Red Cross and others, I must, on behalf of my right hon. Friend, resist this Amendment.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

I always understood that the difficulty was rather different, that where we had these people serving abroad in what I might term quasi-Service organisations like the N.A.A.F.I., the difficulty was one of registration, not of principle. I remember the discussion we had at Mr. Speaker's Conference, when we were told—if I can paraphrase the evidence we received without causing a breach of privilege—that there was no one person who could be made responsible for dealing with N.A.A.F.I. personnel or the W.R.V.S. or other personnel who might benefit from this Clause.

I did not understand that there was this question of principle; that it was not the wish to grant the franchise to someone serving abroad for a limited period if that person was not a member of the Armed Forces. If that is the Government's motive in refusing the Amendment, I would be very much inclined to the view of the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) that it is not a valid argument for refusing those people the vote. I cannot see any distinction between a member of Her Majesty's Armed Forces serving, say, for two years abroad, and someone in the N.A.A.F.I. serving for a similar period. I think that both types of people would be equally interested in the results of a General Election which might take place while they were abroad.

I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will think again about this matter. If he were to tell me that it was physically impossible, as we were informed by the Home Office at Mr. Speaker's Conference, I would, of course, have to accept it, but if it is merely a question of making a distinction between those serving in the Red Cross and members of the Armed Forces as to the interest they may take in the results of a Parliamentary election, I cannot accept it as valid.

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I support my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg). I cannot see any difference in this respect between someone serving in the N.A.A.F.I. and someone serving in the Armed Forces. As the Committee may know, I come from a Service town, and in such places one finds that most of the men have their votes in the constituencies in which their relations are living, and not necessarily where their wives are living at the time. That should apply to N.A.A.F.I. personnel. Why should not a dockyard worker, who has the possibility of being stationed in Malta or Singapore, or else. where, be able to exercise his vote in the same way as does his opposite number in the Armed Forces? It seems contradictory.

I can understand the difficulty about the Red Cross and other voluntary organisations, because these people are not posted but go abroad voluntarily and must have a base in this country. But the people I think of do not have a base. If a dockyard worker goes overseas, and he relinquishes his residence in this country, if it is a council house he must get out of it, and if it is a private house he generally lets it. He therefore has no residential qualifications for voting. As these N.A.A.F.I. personnel serve the forces overseas, it is legitimate to argue that they should be also granted the vote.

Mr. Donald Williams (Dudley)

I support my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg). The difficulty seems to be about the domicile and position of a taxpayer serving abroad. I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that when it comes to the taxation of firms the Treasury is very quickly able to isolate the problem, and give those firms relative domicile for taxation purposes.

It seems extraordinary that since it is possible to do that so easily when taxation is concerned it cannot be done equally easily for the enfranchisement of these people. There is an obligation in terms of taxation—surely they should be entitled to vote.

Mr. Rees rose

Mr. Hogg

I hoped that I was right in thinking that the Under-Secretary was rising to give me a little more comfort from the Government Front Bench. If, by rising now, I am stopping that comfort, I will readily give way to the hon. Gentleman, but if I would thereby be receiving another dusty answer, which seems to be the case from the manner of the hon. Gentleman, I have no alternative but to ask my hon. Friends to divide on this Amendment. I recognise the hon. Gentleman's good will, but, obviously, he is in the hands of bureaucrats. If only to teach the bureaucrats a lesson, we have to act.

Apart from the P.P.S., who is in an embarrassing position, there are only three supporters of the Government in the Chamber at the moment. I was assured last night that the Government Whips mean nothing to them and that they vote accord ng to their consciences. The other 300, or whatever the number is, cannot vote according to their consciences, because they will not have heard the debate.

So there are four consciences on the benches opposite to which I appeal. Let them vote according to the way in which the debate has gone. I shall ask my hon. and right hon. Friends to vote with me for the Amendment and I am very grateful for the support of the Liberal Party.

Question put, That the Amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 139, Noes 187.

Division No. 11.] AYES [4.10 p.m.
Baker, W. H. K. (Banff) Gurden, Harold Orr-Ewing, Sir Ian
Beamish, Col. Sir Tufton Harris, Frederic (Croydon, N.W.) Osborn, John (Hallam)
Bell, Ronald Harrison, Brian (Maidors) Osborne, Sir Cyril (Louth)
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torquay) Harrison, Col. Sir Harwood (Eye) Pearson, Sir Frank (Clitheroe)
Bennett, Dr. Reginald (Gos. & Fhm) Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Percival, Ian
Biffen, John Harvey, Sir Arthur Vere Pink, R. Bonner
Biggs-Davison, John Harvie Anderson, Miss Pounder, Rafton
Birch, Rt. Hn. Nigel Hawkins, Paul Prior, J. M. L.
Black, Sir Cyril Heald, Rt. Hn. Sir Lionel Pym, Francis
Boardman, Tom (Leicester, S.W.) Heath, Rt. Hn. Edward Renton, Fit. Hn. Sir David
Bossom, Sir Clive Hill, J. E. B. Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Boyd-Carponter, Rt. Hn. John Hogg, Rt. Hn. Quintin Ridsdale, Julian
Boyle, Rt. Hn. Sir Edward Holland, Philip Russell, Sir Ronald
Bromley-Davenport, Lt.Col. Sir Walter Hooson, Emlyn Scott, Nicholas
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Hornby, Richard Scott-Hopkins, James
Bruce-Gardyne, J. Howell, David (Guildford) Sharples, Richard
Buchanan-Smith,Alick(Angus,N&M) Hunt, John Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)
Bullus, Sir Eric Hutchison, Michael Clark Silvester, Frederick
Campbell, B. (Oldham, W.) Iremonger, T. L. Sinclair, Sir George
Campbell, Gordon (Moray & Nairn) Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Speed, Keith
Channon, H. P. G. Jenkin, Patrick (Woodford) Stainton, Keith
Chichester-Clark, R. Johnston, Russell (Inverness) Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Clegg, Walter Kaberry, Sir Donald Stodart, Anthony
Cordle, John Lane, David Stoddart-Scott, Col. Sir M.
Costaln, A. P. Lloyd, Ian (P'tsm'th, Langstone) Summers, Sir Spencer
Craddock, Sir Beresford (Spelthorne) Lloyd, Rt. Hn. Selwyn (Wirral) Tapsell, Peter
Currie, G. B. H. Longden, Gilbert Tilney, John
Dalkeith, Earl of Loveys, W. H. van Straubenzec, W. R.
Dance, James Lubbock, Eric Vaughan-Morgan, Rt. Hn. Sir John
Davidson, James(Aberdeenshire,W.) McNair-Wilson, Patrick Vickers, Dame Joan
Dean Paul Mackenzie, Alasdair(Ross&Cromly) Waddington, David
Dodds-Parker, Douglas McMaster, Stanley Wainwright, Richard (Colne Valley)
Doughty, Charles Maginnis, John E. Walters, Dennis
Drayson, G. B. Marten, Neil Ward, Dame Irene
Eden, Sir Jchn Maude, Angus Webster, David
Elliot, Capt. Walter (Carsisalton) Mawby, Ray Whitelaw, Rt. Hn.
Elliott,R.W. (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne, N.) Maxwell-Hyslop, P. J. William Williams, Donald (Dudley)
Errington, Sir Eric Mills, Peter (Torrington) Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Ewing, Mrs. Winifred Mills, Stratton (Belfast, N.) Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick
Eyre, Reginald Monro, Hector Wood, Rt. Hn. Richard
Fisher, Nigel More, Jasper Worsley, Marcus
Galbraith, His. T. G. Morrison, Charles (Devizes) Wright, Esmond
Gilmour, Ian (Norfolk, C.) Munro-Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh Wylie, N. R.
Glover, Sir Douglas Murton, Oscar
Goodhart, Philip Nabarro, Sir Gerald TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Gower, Raymond Neave, Airey Mr. Bernard Weatherill and
Grant, Anthony Noble, Rt. Hn. Michael Mr. Humphrey Atkins.
Griffiths, Elden (Bury St. Edmunds) Onslow, Crarney
Albu, Austen Bence, Cyril Brown, Hugh D. (G'gow, Provan)
Andritt, Walter Bennett, James (G'gow, Bridgeton) Brown, Bob(N'c'tle-upon-Tyne, W.)
Allen, Scholefield Binns, John Buchan, Norman
Anderson, Donald Bishop, E. S. Butler, Herbert (Hackney, C.)
Archer, Peter Blackburn, F. Callaghan, Rt. Hn. James
Armstrong, Er nest Boardman, H. (Leigh) Carter-Jones, Lewis
Atkinson, Norman (Tottenham) Booth, Albert Chapman, Donald
Bacon, Rt. Hn. Alice Braddock, Mrs. E. M. Coe, Denis
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Bradley, Tom Coleman, Donald
Barnett, Joel Bray, Dr. Jeremy Concannon, J. D.
Baxter, Wlllian Brooks, Edwin Conlan, Bernard
Beanin, Alan Brown, Rt. Hn. George (Helper) Craddock, George (Bradford, S.)
Darling, Rt. Hn. George Hughes, Roy (Newport) Page, Derek (King's Lynn)
Davies, G. Elfed (Rhondda, E.) Hunter, Adam Palmer, Arthur
Davies, Ifor (Gower) Hynd, John Pannell, Rt. Hn. Charles
Delargy, Hugh Jackson, Cohn (B'h'se & Spenb'gh) Parker, John (Dagenham)
Dempsey, James Jackson, Peter M. (High Peak) Pavitt, Laurence
Diamond, Rt. Hn. John Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S.) Pearson, Arthur (Pontypridd)
Dickens, James Johnson, James (K'ston-on-Hull, W.) Pearl, Rt. Hn. Fred
Dobson, Ray Jones, Dan (Burnley) Pentland, Norman
Doig, Peter Jones, J. Idwal (Wrexham) Perry, Ernest G. (Battersea, S.)
Dunn, James A. Judd, Frank Perry, George H. (Nottingham, S.)
Dunwcody, Mrs. Gwyne'h (Exeter) Kelley, Richard Probert, Arthur
Eadie, Alex Kenyon, Clifford Randall, Harry
Edwards, William (Merioneth) Kerr, Russell (Feltham) Rankin, John
Ellis, John Lawson, George Rees, Merlyn
English Michael Leadhitter, Ted Rhodes, Geoffrey
Ensor, David Lee, Rt. Hn. Frederick (Newton) Richard, Ivor
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Lester, Miss Joan Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Evans, Cwynfor (C'marthen) Lewis, Arthur (W. Ham, N.) Robertson, John (Paisley)
Fernyhough, E. Lomas, Kenneth Rogers, George (Kensington, N.)
Finch, Harold Loughlin, Charles Ross, Rt. Iln. William
Fitch, Alan (Wigan) Macdonald, A. H. Shaw, Arnold (Ilford, S.)
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) McGuire, Michael Sheldon, Robert
Ford, Ben Mackenzie, Gregor (Rutherglen) Shinwell, Rt. Hn. E.
Forrester, John Mackie, John Short, Rt.Hn. Edwartl(N'c'tle-u-Tyne)
Fowler, Gerry Mackintosh, John P. Short, Mrs. Reneé(W'hampton, N.E.)
Freeson, Reginald Maclennan, Robert Silverman, Julius
Gardner, Tony MacMillan, Malcolm (Western Isles) Small, William
Garrett, W. E. McMillan, Tom (Glasgow, C.) Snow, Julian
Ginsburg, David McNamara, J. Kevin Spriggs, Leslie
Gray, Dr. Hugh (Yarmouth) Mahon, Peter (Preston, S.) Strauss, Rt. Mi. G. R.
Greenwood, Rt. Hn. Anthony Mahon, Simon (Bootie) Thornton, Ernest
Gregory, Arnold Mallalieu, E. L. (Brigg) Tinn, James
Grey, Charles (Durham) Mallalieu,J.P. W. (Huddersfield, E.) Urwin, T. W.
Griffiths, David (Rother Valley) Manuel, Archie Wainwright, Edwin (Deame Valley)
Griffiths, Eddie (Brightside) Marks, Kenneth Walden, Brian (All Saints)
Griffiths, Rt. kin. James (Llaneily) Marquand, David Wallace, George
Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Mason, Rt. Hn. Roy Watkins, David (Consett)
Hamilton, William (Fife, W.) Mendelson, John Watkins, Tudor (Brecon & Radnor)
Hamling, Wiliam Mikardo, Ian Weitzman, David
Hannan, William Milian, Bruce Wellbeloved, James
Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Miller, Dr. M. S. Wilkins, W. A.
Haseldine, Norman Morgan, Elystan (Cardiganshire) Willey, Rt. Hn. Frederick
Hattersley, Roy Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Williams, Alan Lee (Hornchurch)
Hefter, Eric S. Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Willis, Rt. Ho. George
Herbison. Rt. Hit. Margaret Medley, Rt. Hn. Frederick Winnick, David
Hooley, Frank Neal, Harold Woodburn, Rt. Hn. A.
Horner, John Newens, Stan Woof, Robert
Houghton, Rt. Hn. Douglas Oakes, Gordon
Howarth, Robert (Bolton, E.) O'Malley, Brian TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Huckfield, Leslie Orbach, Maurice Mr. John McCann and
Hughes, Emrys (Ayrshire, S.) Orme, Stanley Mr. Joseph Harper.
Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.) Padley, Walter
Mr. Sharples

I beg to move Amendment No. 4, in page 2, line 37, leave out from 'shall' to end of Clause and add: 'likewise be qualified if he is residing outside the United Kingdom to be with his wife.'

The Deputy Chairman (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

I suggest that the Committee discusses with this Amendment, Amendment No. 63, in the name of the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers), in page 3, line 7, at end insert: 'and the wife of a merchant seaman shall be entitled to be treated in like manner in circumstances corresponding to those in which the merchant seaman is so treated'.

Mr. Sharples

I am in a little difficulty, because Amendment No. 4 is purely drafting. Amendment No. 63 covers a much more substantive point.

Subsection (4) is difficult to understand and also ungrammatical. It says: Where a married woman has a service qualification, her husband shall have one in circumstances corresponding to those in which a wife does. The subsection is badly drafted and is meaningless. Our proposed wording is an improvement.

I do not propose to develop the argument in support of Amendment No. 62. I will leave that to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers), who has much more experience of these matters than I do and who will be able to develop the point much better.

Dame Joan Vickers

I base the wording of Amendment No. 63 on Clause 2(4). If the husband of a married woman with a Service qualification is to have such a qualification, the same should apply to the wives of merchant seamen. In these enlightened days of merchant shipping—I have had the opportunity of going over many ships—there is special accommodation for wives. It is desirable that wives should travel with their husbands. When they go overseas for lengthy periods, they must give up their residential qualification in Britain. Therefore, the wives of merchant seamen should have an equal right to that granted to spouses in Clause 2(4).

I cannot see how the Amendment can be rejected, because it obviously ties up with the Government's intention in subsection (4).

Mr. John Tilney (Liverpool, Wavertree)

I strongly support the argument advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers). Many wives sail with their husbands in ships leaving Liverpool. I hope that in future more ships will sail carrying the wives of merchant seamen. Wives who accompany their husbands often have to shut up their homes for one voyage. The wives need not always be on board.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Test)

I read of an agreement arrived at recently between the National Union of Seamen and certain employers to extend the practice of wives sailing with their husbands regularly. I am not sure whether this practice calls for action under the Clause or for the wives of merchant seamen being given the same proxy voting facilities as their husbands have. The Government should consider this aspect further because more wives will travel with their husbands on long voyages. The agreement to which I have referred relates to absences of 60 days a year.

Mr. Costain

I added my name to Amendment No. 63 because I think that it is a very proper one. I have a good deal of experience of tankers. Increasingly, tankers' crews are accepting that it is right that wives should travel with the men. Ships are getting bigger. The larger ships provide facilities for wives and families to travel with the merchant seamen.

The principle enshrined in the Amendment is accepted in relation to British Council employees. Merchant seamen are accepted as right and proper people to be put in this category. It is only fair that the wives of merchant seamen should be accorded exactly the same privilege as that which applies to British Council employees.

I hope that we shall not be told that this would be too difficult to organise. We know who the wives and families are. We know that the seaman has a vote. The Government should accept the Amendment.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

I am not opposed to the principle of the Amendment. However, I ask the Minister to consider whether it would be possible for this to be abused. I understand that there is a new system of legal tax dodging by which a Briton wanting to dodge tax theoretically does not have a residential qualification in Britain; he stays abroad theoretically for more than six months and hence is not liable to our tax laws.

I am told on good authority that there is a lady who is also a wife, but not of a merchant seaman; they have a very big yacht. She is never here, theoretically. She goes abroad with her husband. She spends all the time on the yacht. She does not pay tax, nor does her husband.

Sir D. Kaberry

Is she a British subject?

Mr. Lewis


Sir D. Kaberry

Would the husband be a merchant seaman?

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Lewis

I am concerned in case such a concession as is proposed here should be abused by someone saying," I, too, am sailing the high seas on my yacht and I am, therefore, doing some merchant trading."

Mr. Lubbock

If the hon. Member looks at Clause 3(1,b) he will see that to be a merchant seaman one has to be employed on board ship. If he is referring to the owner of the ship, I would point out that the owner is not a merchant seaman within the meaning of the definition.

Mr. Lewis

I agree. I have said that I am in favour of the principle suggested here, but I was asking the Minister to ensure that there was no danger of tax evaders using this concession on the basis that they are not domiciled here. It seems to me that the Amendment safeguards the position, but I ask my hon. Friend to watch it because it seems to be the growing practice for very rich people to have yachts on which they live, theoretically not being domiciled in this country, and paying no taxes anywhere.

I know that a merchant seaman would not do that, but I should not like to see others trying to cash in on the concession. I know a very big merchant seaman who, I am told, gets £450,000 a week—or so the Press states. He is one of the biggest shipowners in the country, and he pays no Income Tax anywhere. Theoretically, he lives nowhere. He has an Argentinian passport and a house in Greece, he lives on his yacht and he is in the merchant shipping business.

Mr. Peter Mahon (Preston, South)

is my hon. Friend talking about shipowners or about merchant seamen?

Mr. Lewis

My hon. Friend is quite right to make that intervention, but some of these people have very clever lawyers and accountants, particularly when it becomes a question of registering for tax-dodging purposes.

Sir D. Kaberry

Could the hon. Member state at which hostel or club his friend, who is getting £450,000 a week, stays?

Mr. Lewis

It might well be a club or hostel which he owns.

Mr. Lubbock

It seems to me that the point of substance raised by the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) has been overlooked by Mr. Speaker's Conference. I have not re-read all the evidence which we received, but this is a point of such importance that I am sure that it would have come to my mind when I saw the Amendment on the Notice Paper. If I am allowed to say so, I am certain that if this had been drawn to the attention of Mr. Speaker's Conference they would have said that it was illogical for us to extend the vote to wives accompanying husbands away from their homes where their husbands are qualified because of their occupation, service or employment and not to extend the vote to the wives of merchant seamen.

I ask the Minister whether these ladies will be qualified within the terms of Clause 5. If so, we need not worry about the matter; they are accompanying their husbands away from home and, because their husbands are qualified, through occupation, service or employment, the wives will similarly be qualified. If he cannot give that assurance, then the hon. Lady's Amendment should be incorporated in the Bill.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharples) commented on the drafting of the Clause. I agree that the wording of subsection (4) is extremely clumsy, although it does not appear to be ungrammatical. May I pursue a point which I made on Second Reading—probably unwisely, because Mr. Speaker told me then that it was a Committee point—as this seems to be the most suitable opportunity for me to raise it. The comment applies not only to Clause 2, but to some other parts of the Bill.

Where we are, in effect, amending the provisions of the 1949 Act—in this case Section 10—it might have been much simpler if we had reprinted those Sections as amended by the Bill rather than legislate by adding bits here and there so that we are obliged to look at the two Acts simultaneously. I cannot deal with that point on this Amendment, but, as I mentioned it on Second Reading. I am sure that the Minister is seized of it. Will he therefore consider whether this Clause should be taken away entirely and a new Clause brought back on Report which incorporates Section 10 of the Representation of the People Act, 1949 and the Amendment in subsection (4)? That would be a much tidier method of approaching the problem and would remove the drafting difficulty mentioned by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Norman Buchan)

The discussion has ranged widely. I never cease to wonder at the ingenuity of my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis). With respect to him. I do not think that the point which he raised about taxation has much to do with the problem under discussion, but it was highly illuminating.

I challenge the claim made by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharples) that the subsection is ungrammatical. I can see the problem which faces him in seeking to clarify it, but the clarification takes place in paragraph 4 of Schedule 3, which uses the words: and any man who is the husband of such a person and is residing outside the United Kingdom to be with his wife". There are two difficulties about the Amendment. In the first place, there is a difficulty in the attempt to make the situation analogous with that of wives of Service voters. Such a wife has a Service qualification not only when she is residing abroad with her husband, but from the moment that she leaves the United Kingdom to be with her husband. Adding a tighter qualification here to clear up the grammar, therefore, would wipe out the additional provision which gives her a qualification from the moment she leaves the United Kingdom to be with her husband.

The hon. Member criticises the grammar. I do not particularly like the wording, nor do I like the wording in a great deal of legislation, but as long as the wording is accurate, effective and meaningful, and as long as it serves its purpose, as it does here, I see no reason to change it. It seems to me quite clear and, because of Schedule 3, we should not change it.

We must look at what Clause 3 does. It is involved with the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference as they affect merchant seamen. The problem of the merchant seaman is that he is abroad for a long period and that when he is not abroad he is often living not at his permanent home address but in a club or hostel. Therefore it was felt that such a club or hostel would be acceptable as a place of residence for him. Merchant seamen are at sea for such periods that by any normal standards they can hardly be regarded as residents of the United Kingdom for registration purposes.

I am not sure that that is true of wives. The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) suggested that this problem had never been properly looked at. I have done so. It does not seem to me that the situation which he envisages can arise. We are discussing the matter in terms of registration and not in terms of voting. It should be taken care of under Clause 5, dealing with the right to vote. A wife can register in the normal way, at her home address. Even with the present enlightened policies of most shipping companies, I hardly think that a permanent odyssey will take place with husband and wife abroad. If we went further we should be taking it further in concept than the extension for Service men, whose wives are not entitled to make a Service declaration until they are about to proceed overseas with their husbands.

The other problem remains. I understand that the reason for the Amendment, although I think that it is basically mistaken, is to ensure the right to vote by postal voting, for instance, or by proxy, but that is taken care of under Clause 5. The Amendment would be inappropriate in any case, because it asks that the wife should be resident at the place at which she would have been resident but for the nature of her occupation, and, with all respect, I can hardly think that being a wife would be acceptable as an occupation.

Although a merchant seaman might be resident in a hostel or club, I would hope that, in general, this would not be true of the wives of merchant seamen. I hope that, with that explanation and assurance, the hon. Lady will see fit to withdraw her Amendment.

Mr. Sharples

The Committee will be disappointed with that reply. The wording of my Amendment may well not be perfect, but I should like the hon. Gentleman to consider the matter between now and Report. The Committee is in some difficulty over the Amendment suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers). Every hon. Member who has taken part in the debate has spoken in favour of that Amendment, but, because of the way in which the Amendments have been selected, it is not possible for the Committee to reach a decision on the matter this afternoon.

It is difficult to know how to advise my hon. Friend, but I suggest that she puts down an Amendment in similar terms on Report. That will give the Home Office time to consider this very important matter, which does not seem to have received proper consideration.

Mr. James Dempsey (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

If the hon. Lady withdraws her Amendment, what assurance have we that a similar Amendment will be considered on Report? My hon. Friend's reply was rather negative. Whether a lady is resident in a hostel or on board ship, if her husband is in the merchant navy, she is entitled to the consideration which is given to the wives of Service men.

Mr. Sharples

The hon. Gentleman has pointed out the difficulty in which the Committee finds itself. My Amendment is purely drafting, but the substantive Amendment, that of my hon. Friend, was selected only for discussion and not for a Division. Had it been possible to have a Division on it, I would certainly have advised my hon. Friend to divide the Committee in the absence of an assurance from the Government. As it is, I think that her only remedy is to try to put down a similar Amendment on Report, and I understand that that would be possible.

Dame Joan Vickers

We ought to have an assurance that the matter will be considered between now and Report. I understand that this matter is tied up with Clause 5(1,b). If the hon. Gentleman will agree to look at this matter and give us some assurance, I shall be happy to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. Buchan

I am in some difficulty because I am not clear what it is I am being asked to make a statement about. I explained that we were really concerned with the problem of voting, and I gave the assurance that that was covered by Clause 5. I thought that I had made the position about registration clear when I said that any of the ladies involved would be regarded as normally resident at home, unlike merchant seamen.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

There is one difficulty about registration. If a wife accompanies her husband on a long voyage, they may let their house furnished while they are away. If the period of their absence coincides with the date for registration, the people then resident in the house will not be registered anywhere on the qualifying date if the merchant seaman and his wife are regarded as being resident in the house. Will my hon. Friend consider that?

4.45 p.m.

Sir D. Kaberry

I hope that the Under-Secretary will make it abundantly clear that this is a question of registration and not of claiming the right to vote as an absentee voter, as it were, by postal vote.

Mr. Buchan

I thought that I had made it clear from the beginning when I tried to make a distinction between registration and the right to vote by proxy or a postal vote.

The issue now being raised is general and could apply in many situations. I think that hon. Members are concerned to ensure that we reduce the possibility to a minimum. I will consider that. However, I must ask the Committee to reject the Amendment, because, although I understand the anxiety, I do not believe that it is warranted. But I will consider the matter. I hope that that will not be taken as a commitment, because there may be nothing to be committed about.

Mr. Dempsey

Is my hon. Friend saying that he will consider the principle of ensuring that the wives of merchant seamen who are travelling with their husbands in some other parts of the world will have the right to vote?

Mr. Buchan

I do not believe that I can be much clearer than I have been. I have said several times that voting is dealt with in Clause 5 and that the issue of voting is different from that of registration. Hon. Members have now raised what is a general difficulty of those people who are absent from their residences at the time of registration. This is a general problem rather than a merchant seaman problem. I have said that I will look at it. I am not giving a commitment, but saying that I will consider something which is of general application. I am trying to be fair to the Committee, and I hope that I have been.

Mr. Sharples

The hon. Gentleman has said that he will consider the point which has been raised by my hon. Friend. This has been a useful discussion. The hon. Gentleman asked us originally to reject the proposal, but, of course, the Committee is not in a position either to accept or reject it, because the Amendment has not been selected for a Division.

Mr. Buchan

I suggested that the Amendment should be withdrawn, which might solve the problem.

Mr. Sharples

As the substantive Amendment has not been moved but merely discussed with my Amendment, it is not possible to withdraw it. However, it has been a useful discussion and several matters have been raised which hon. Members will wish to consider on Report. It is not possible to carry the matter further now and I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw Amendment No. 4.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Mr. Sharples

I urge the Government to reconsider the whole drafting of the Clause. I appreciate the difficulty involved in drafting a Clause of this kind, but considering that many people other than lawyers will have to read this provision to know their rights, it should be drafted in more understandable language.

I am particularly concerned with subsection (1) which says: A service declaration shall be made with a view to registration in the register of electors for a particular year, and with reference to the qualifying date to which that register looks, and shall not have effect to enable the declarant to be registered in any other register. That is extraordinary language which is almost impossible to understand. I still do not know what a register looks at. My hon. Friend's and I tabled an Amendment to cover this point, but, unfortunately, it was not selected. I also hope that consideration will be given to my earlier remarks about subsection (4).

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I appreciate his remarks about the need for people, and particularly lawyers, to understand this provision. Discussions have taken place with the Service Departments, which assume a certain responsibility for legislation of this kind. I also note his remarks about the Opposition Amendment which was not selected.

We have here a change in regard to the Service vote in that we are making arrangements whereby a form can be filled in in advance of the compilation of a register. That is the reason for the present wording of this provision. Information about a Service vote can be left, to be given to the registration officer after 15th October. The wording of the Clause has been chosen carefully to cover this point. I am always prepared to re-examine the drafting of any legislation, but I am strongly advised that the present wording is necessary in view of the change in the Service vote that is involved.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 3 to 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Back to
Forward to