§ 3.32 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. James Callaghan)
I beg to move,That this House takes note of the Conclusions on Review of the Law Relating to Parliamentary Elections contained in Command Paper No. 3717.My first responsibility is to thank you, Mr. Speaker, and the members of all parties, for the Reports that you made during the three years when you were considering the question of Parliamentary elections and the arrangements that should be made. You produced six Reports in the course of that time.
You also obtained, as we would perhaps expect, a remarkable degree of agreement among the parties concerned. That is a tribute to your skill as well as to the non-partisan way in which many of these questions were approached. I should like to thank you, Sir, and the members of all parties who took part in that work, which was largely unheralded and certainly unpublicised. I should also express thanks to the Electoral Advisory Conference, a body set up by me—as distinct from your own conference—which considered a number of more detailed machinery points and had itself simultaneously been considering this matter and has produced a Report.
It is over 20 years since we had a major review of our Parliamentary and electoral arrangements, and I think that the House will conclude that it was right that we should have this further review after that lapse of time.
I agree with the leader writer in one of the national newspapers this morning who commented on the absence of discussion so far and believed that there should be further discussion about these matters. It is for this reason that the House has been invited by the Government, in Government time, to consider this matter in order to stimulate debate and so that the Government should hear the views of the House before they proceed to legislation, as they propose to do in due course during next Session.
But the reason and need for discussion is quite clear. What we are talking about this afternoon is of the highest importance to a healthy society and to 33 the sustenance of the democratic system. The right to vote is a major act of participation of the citizen in electing his Member of Parliament and choosing his Government. I include both because I regard both as being the responsibility of the individual when he is taking part in the act of voting.
But even if there is, as there has been, a large measure of agreement among the parties about what arrangements should be made for our elections, I still do not think that it automatically prejudges the end of the debate, though I certainly do not go to the other extreme as so many, I think, frustrated politicians do—that is to say, those who cannot be politicians and, therefore, write about it—and assume that the parties are no more than an excrescence of necessary evil in our democratic system.
I agree very strongly with the view expressed by Mr. Henry Fairlie, in what I thought was a very perceptive chapter in his book "Life in Politics". It is a very good book and, in my view, a very accurate defence of the party system and of our present system. He says, and I agree with him, that the growth of the modern two-party system has given vigorous life to the constitution and it is of major importance in guaranteeing liberty and order in our government. Indeed, I would go further. I think that the party system, especially today, is frequently a bulwark and a protection for the individual in society. It is a protection for him, and it is a protection for the individual Member of Parliament.
I have seen, as many of my colleagues have seen, the insidious efforts—indeed, sometimes the brazen attempts—by pressure groups to endeavour to secure that their point of view prevails and to deflect the public interest for their own purposes. I believe that the existence of the party, capable of taking a national view of the matters is of very great importance. I have seen a number of occasions when the pressure of interests has been deflected, although it seemed to be making an advance, because of the very existence of the corporate view of a party.
Therefore, my view is that for this and very many other reasons none of us who are party politicians should be ashamed to say so or to be defensive about the party system. I believe that the parties are guardians of the constitu- 34 tion and that they have every right to play a major part—but not the sole part—in deciding what our electoral arrangements should be.
The Government wish to legislate on the recommendations of your conference, Mr. Speaker, next Session. There is one important issue. If the House decided that it wished to legislate on the age of voting, and if we came to the conclusion that there should be a different age for voting—which would require an early decision if it was to be effective at any forthcoming election because of the need to collect information, to get forms printed and to register the new voters—I should be asking the House, with the Leader of the House, to proceed at a fairly early stage—that is, fairly early next Session—so that we should not be depriving people of the right to vote once the House had taken the decision in principle that they should have that right.
I should also mention, in passing, that there has been a review of local government electoral law. I am taking the opinion of the parties on some questions which are still outstanding. I am in touch with them now and I am not ready, naturally, to put forward conclusions on those points this afternoon. This review of local government electoral law is nearly concluded, and, subject to receiving views of other parties on one or two questions still outstanding, I think that it would be convenient if, during the course of any legislation that the Government put forward in relation to Parliamentary elections, we include in the Bill a Clause dealing with local government election reform, too. I therefore give notice to the House that this would be my way of proceeding, if the House agreed.
§ Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)
This seems to be a convenient point to ask my right hon. Friend straight out whether, if he is envisaging a reduction of the voting age to 18, he also envisages that also to be the age for local government franchise?
§ Mr. Callaghan
Yes, I would think so, but I should like to come back to that point later on.
Before I come to the specific topic of the White Paper, there is one matter 35 I should mention. There is a good deal of interest in all parts of the House about the review of constituency boundaries. Indeed, a number of people are ready to assume that it is my firm intention to gerrymander the results as soon as possible—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—as effectively as possible. I thought that that would he the reaction of the Opposition. It has been the reaction of Oppositions traditionally since time immemorial. But I recognise that this is a serious matter, also, and I think that I should explain the position in passing this afternoon, although it is not the subject of our debate.
Section 2 of the Redistribution of Seats Act provides that as soon as may be after a Parliamentary boundary commission has submitted a report, I—or the Secretary of State for Scotland on receiving a report from the Scottish Commission—shall present this report to Parliament together with draft Orders in Council… for giving effect, whether with or without modifications, to the recommendations contained in the report.If modifications are proposed, and I am entitled to propose such modifications, I must, at the same time, present a statement of the reasons for them. Under Section 3 of the 1949 Act, the draft Orders in Council require the approval of both Houses before they can be made.
There are four Parliamentary Boundary Commissions—one for England, one for Scotland, one for Wales and one for Northern Ireland. They are required to make their reports by the autumn of 1969, but it is open to them to report upon their actual review earlier than the autumn of 1969 if they wish to do so. So far, they have given no public indication when they intend to submit their reports.
The other point to which I draw attention is that the rules for the redistribution of seats set out in the Act require the Parliamentary boundary commissions to have regard, so far as is practicable, to local government boundaries, and that is a matter I shall take into account, too.
So, having set out the position so far, I would say on the implementation of 36 the recommendations that the Government see no reason at present to take a decision about the work of the commissions in advance of receiving their reports. I think that it would be expecting rather too much to assume anything else. I shall wait to receive the reports, give appropriate consideration to them, and then bring the Government's recommendations to this House in the light of the conclusions I reach at that time.
§ Mr. Anthony Barber (Altrincham and Sale)
Can the Home Secretary tell us whether, on the assumption that the commissions do not report until the autumn of 1969, he thinks that their recommendations will be likely to be implemented by the autumn of 1970?
§ Mr. Callaghan
That will depend upon when I receive the reports of the Local Authority Boundaries Commissions. If they defer their recommendations in this way, clearly the reports of the Royal Commissions on Local Government in England and Scotland, which are expected at the end of 1968, would be a factor that I would need to take into account. I gather that the right hon. Gentleman is not surprised to hear that.
Having made that position clear, as I am sure the House expected me to, perhaps I should turn now to the Conclusions on Review of the Law Relating to Parliamentary Elections.
§ Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Royal Commission on Local Government in England and Wales is not considering boundaries in Greater London. Is it possible that an interim redistribution of seats Measure might be introduced to cope with Greater London alone?
§ Mr. Callaghan
That is a very interesting thought which I shall certainly take into account, but I think it an additional reason why I should not reach the conclusions I am required to reach under the Statute until I have seen what the reports contain. I shall then put the conclusions before the House in due course.
Your conference, Mr. Speaker, and the Electoral Advisory Conference, reached many conclusions on the subject of electoral law. These were, with respect, of varying importance—some were much more important than others, and everyone will have his own views on which 37 are the important conclusions. The Government have indicated their views in the White Paper, so I do not propose, the House will be relieved to hear, to go over the whole of the conclusions in opening this debate today. I should like to concentrate on what seem to me to be the more important conclusions considered by your conference, Mr. Speaker.
In saying that, I am conscious that there are 629 other experts in the House, and I shall, therefore, need to go very warily in anything I have to say. But before I do so—and it is not a subject on which we are short of expert advice—I thought that it would be as well to make at least a comment on one matter that your conference considered and rejected, and which the Government agree with you in rejecting. I refer to the single transferable vote system. This can no doubt be examined in detail later on, if you agree, Mr. Speaker, but this system was rejected by your conference by 19 votes to one.
As I understand, this system provides that constituencies return not one Member but several Members, and the elector is invited to arrange the candidates in the order of his choice by putting the figure 1, 2, 3, or whatever it may be, against their names. To ensure election, a candidate need not obtain majority of the votes polled: what he has to do is to get that proportion of votes which, for a certainty, secure the election of a candidate. Candidates in a three-Member constituency would need to get more than 25 per cent. of the votes. This number is called a quota. At the first count, first votes only are reckoned and the surplus votes of candidates who have received more than their quota are then transferred to the name marked "2", and the process continues until all the seats are filled.
There are a number of refinements of that system, but that is basically the start of it. As I understand, the proportional representation of parties that would ensue under this system could not be obtained in a constituency with less than three Members, and the view has been expressed that the best representation is obtained on the basis of an average constituency of from three to seven Members.
That, to me, is the beginning of the major objection. If I take the mean be- 38 tween those figures and refer to a constituency with five Members it would mean in the first place that in the United Kingdom we would be reduced to about 100 constituencies. That would be the basis of election in this country and I believe very strongly that to have no more than 100 constituencies would mean that the link between the Member and his constituency would be lost. All of us who have experience of this link attach very great value to it. It is difficult enough now in all conscience to get to know 50,000 or 60,000 electors and it would be obviously impossible to get to know 300,000 electors, or even more if that quota were used.
I have always felt, if I may say so in passing, that the Boundary Commission has attached too much importance to arithmetic and not enough to the historical and community links that bind a Member to his own constituency. I have always regretted the fact, and I am not in any way going behind this, that the House has acquiesced in this exact arithmetical relationship that is supposed to exist, even though it means tearing apart communities in which the Member has had a very substantial relationship over a long period of time. I regard this as one of the great objections to the alternative single transferable vote system.
But, of course, there is another major purpose of an election which the advocates of the single transferable vote will not recognise, although the British electorate recognises it. It is, as I mentioned earlier—and I put it in deliberately—one of the major purposes of an election not only to choose the Member, but to elect a Government. Under the system we now have, a member of the public chooses his Government best by choosing between those candidates whose parties will form a Government. I regret this on behalf of the Liberal Party, but it is the way in which the system works.
It is this system of Parliamentary government which should not be undermined, and we would weaken the role of the Government—we can argue about whether it is going too far or not far enough—and weaken the opportunity for effective central government if this system were to be adopted. As I read history, that is also the view of the electors. They have expressed it time after time during General Elections when third parties have 39 not prospered when they have been on an optional basis.
I have tried to be as objective about it as I could because I understand that I am touching on a sore spot, but that is one of the inexorable facts of life that third parties come up against when a General Election arises. I do not know for what reason your conference rejected the concept of the single transferable vote, Mr. Speaker, but it is for that reason that I do so, and the Government have decided that we should stick to the system we now have.
I now come to the main recommendation of your conference, which was that the minimum age for voting should be 20. Your conference considered the recommendation that the age should be 18 and rejected it by 22 votes to three. It then passed, by a majority of 24 votes to one, a proposal that the voting age should be 20. This is clearly something to which the House should give great consideration. If your colleagues, drawn from all parties, reached a conclusion of this sort, it should not be lightly overturned. Nevertheless, the Government have considered it and have reached a different conclusion, and I should now like to put our reasons before the House.
Your conference, Mr. Speaker, was, of course, aware of the majority recommendation of the Latey Committee on the age of majority, which was that the legal age of majority should be reduced to 18. In his consideration, Sir John Latey and his colleagues, among whom were some of our colleagues from the House, specifically excluded consideration of the age of voting and so I cannot, and nor can opponents, draw any comfort from that fact. But some of the Latey Committee's conclusions are apposite to determining the age of voting. I thought that the Committee's Report was very well written and extremely interesting. It quoted a number of conclusions which led the Committee to the decision that the age of majority should be 18, and I will enumerate some of them.
The Committee said, first, that the historical causes for the age of 21 being regarded as the age of majority were not relevant to contemporary society, and I think that that is true. In part of its Report the Committee pointed out that 40 in Roman times the age of majority was 25, while later, in the 9th and 10th centuries, throughout the whole of Europe the age of majority was as low as 15. It then became 20, although it was normally recognised as 21 for the reason that in the profession of arms those who were knights demanded an ability and strength which were not reached until the age of 21.
However, I point out to the House that the common people, who needed to engage only in rustic pursuits, reached the age of majority at 15. As they did not have to trundle suits of armour about, they reached the age of majority earlier. However, later, such is the way in which our traditions develop, the age of 21 filtered down to the working class of this country and was recognise d as being the proper age of majority. I do not think that any of that is particularly relevant to the needs of contemporary society.
I say to the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg), who is agreeing with me only to disagree in a different context, I think, that there is nothing magic about any particular age so far as I can find out, whether 21 or anything else. But the other conclusions which are relevant include that most young people—this is the Committee's view after examining the problem—mature earlier than young people used to mature in the past and, by 18, are ready for the responsibilities and rights of the citizen and would greatly profit by them. Those are important considerations. The Latey Committee was considering private and personal matters, such as the age for marriage, consent to marriage, wardship and the rest, but one thing is quite clear—that no one can justify the age of 21 by reference to any particular consideration.
Your conference, Mr. Speaker, considered that the recommendations of the Latey Committee left you with a free hand. Clearly they did, and I have no doubt that you rehearsed all these arguments. Perhaps when you decided to reduce the age of voting to 20, a small reduction in itself, you were leaving open the door to further reductions some time in the future. I do not know, but perhaps some of our colleagues who served on that conference will tell me. But I cannot think that there is any time better than now to judge whether a reduction 41 should be made and, if so, what that reduction should be.
In my view, young people are keen and competent to express their views on matters of government and there are many matters of government which have a real effect and consequence upon them, and I see no reason why at the age of majority they should continue to have to wait before having a say in the basic rights of government. There can be little argument that for many of them the obligations of adult status arrive at 18 and little argument but that young people are now better informed than ever before—if they are not, we have failed in trying to prepare them to follow us.
The Government have considered this matter. My own party, the Labour Party, some time ago reached the conclusion that the age should be 18, and I will not say that that did not influence me in my consideration, because it considered the matter with great care and put its evidence to your conference. Since the recommendation of your conference was made, the Government have accepted the recommendation of the Latey Committee that the age for majority should be reduced to 18.
We think that it would be illogical to accept the view that for all purposes other than voting adult status should begin at age 18. There should be consistency between the age of majority and the age of voting, and the political rights of young people should take account of their changing social position. Therefore, I hope and the Government will recommend to the House that we should not be afraid of taking this bold step and reducing the voting age to 18 now.
I recognise that this is both a major constitutional issue and also a matter of personal opinion and I have given my opinion this afternoon. The Government will listen to the views expressed today, but, as I have already indicated, we are convinced that now is the time to inject a new vigour into politics by making a greater reduction in the age of voting than that recommended by Mr. Speaker's Conference. I ought to say that if your conference's recommendation were adopted, Mr. Speaker, 1½ million new voters would be added; the Government's proposal would add 3 million new voters.
42 It is my conviction that these young people will add new vigour and perhaps a new idealism and be less prejudiced than those of us who are older, and perhaps more open-minded towards the problems we have to consider. When every politician must use the words "participation" and "alienation" in any speech on these subjects, I shall use them once and propose not to use them any more. But at this moment there is no doubt that to reduce the voting age to 18 would create a larger sense of participation. I do not worship at the shrine of youth for its own sake, but there is much to hope for from young people and if our generation has been over cautious in its approach to many of our problems perhaps a dash of imagination, a dash of boldness and a dash of idealism will help us to overcome them.
§ Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)
The right hon. Gentleman said that the Government have accepted, for all other practical purposes, that the age of 18 should be the age of majority. Does that mean that they have accepted it for the purposes of separate assessment for Income and other taxes?
§ Mr. Callaghan
I have simply no idea. I will look into this and get a reply for the hon. and learned Gentleman before the wind-up speech. I would suggest that the House awaits the legislation proposed on this subject, when the Latey Commission's recommendations are translated into the form of a Bill.
§ Mr. Quintin Hogg (St. Marylebone)
May I take this opportunity of a "natural break" in the Secretary of State's speech to ask him, whether, in relation to what he has just been saying, when the legislation turns up, the Government Whips will be on, or will there be a free vote?
§ Mr. Callaghan
First of all, they would like to hear the debate this afternoon. I thought that was what debates were about; maybe I am wrong.
My own opinion is that this is a matter on which all hon. Members are expert, upon which all must have a judgment, and might want to reach their own conclusions. The Government have not yet considered the question of putting a Whip on, and we ought to hear how the discussion proceeds. Certainly, the Government will put before the House, with the 43 Whips on or off, this proposal that the age should be 18, and hon. Members will be able to make up their minds.
§ Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)
If the Government are to reduce the age of responsibility will they also be introducing legislation to provide that those who commit crimes at that age should no longer be sent to places like borstals, especially—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. We cannot debate the whole issue of responsibility at 18. We must confine it to its application in electoral law reform.
§ Mr. Callaghan
If the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) would consult the White Paper, Children in Trouble, he might find the answer to some of his questions.
Arising out of what I have said, the whole House will agree that in the light of the problems most of us will have had in our constituencies it is right that the Government accept the recommendation of your conference, Mr. Speaker, that all persons reaching voting age should be able to vote as from the day they reach voting age. This has been the continuing annoyance to many young people and it is right that we should alter it.
A word now about opinion polls. Your recommendation, Sir, about opinion polls and betting odds is, as far as I can make out, very controversial. Your conference was divided on the matter and, therefore, the Government must put their views forward. The effect of your recommendation, since Parliamentary elections are usually held on a Thursday, would be to ban publication after 9 p.m. on the previous Monday.
The argument for this restriction seems to be that the publication of the results of an opinion poll and of betting odds might cause an uncertain elector to vote for the party leading the poll, on the ground, I suppose, of jumping on the band-wagon, and that the results of an opinion poll published on the eve of the poll can be misleading since they might relate to a poll which had been conducted the previous week.
It is also suggested—and I share this view very strongly, although it is a personal one and I could not allow it to 44 influence me—that the publication of betting odds does tend to bring an election into disrepute. I believe very strongly, from what I see at the Home Office, that there is far too much gambling in this country anyway. The conduct of an election is an important matter and I regret to see this kind of issue brought to the same level as the settlement of the Derby Sweepstake or The Oaks, or whatever.
I do not know whether there is any evidence that electors are influenced in the way I have described—indeed it would be possible to argue that the result of an opinion poll might be to rally the party which is not leading the poll, and to lead its supporters to say, "We cannot bear the other chaps at any price. We had better go out and vote after all." I do not know how one settles this question, and I do not think that there is any prospect of reaching a certain judgment on it. In any case, a restriction on the publication of these polls implies that people cannot be trusted with the vote, and many people outside Parliament would question the right of Parliament to determine what it is proper for electors to read in helping them to make up their minds as to how they should vote.
Merely restricting the publication of betting odds would not prohibit betting. The ban would not, as far as I can see, produce the "quiet period" that Mr. Speaker's Conference wanted. Newspapers would be able to publish other political material, they could comment on the results of a public opinion poll published earlier if they wished. It would not be beyond the bounds of imagination for a newspaper to get round any restrictions, for example, by publishing the results of a poll on the popularity of the party leaders.
That would be something outside the subject we are discussing. Some people might feel that it would be advantageous to have such a poll and I do not think, at present, that I would want to restrict publications of that sort. The difficult practical questions that would arise would be how does one sever the publication of the results of a poll, which would be prohibited, from the publication of general statements or comments on the subject of public opinion? Would we prohibit reporting by United Kingdom newspapers and broadcasting agencies, 45 or would we cast the net wider so as to prevent all possible forms of evasion? It would be a difficult and elaborate enterprise and I do not believe that it would succeed. It seems that when the arguments are not conclusive, and the practical difficulties are so daunting, the right course is to leave matters as they stand, and that is what I propose.
§ Mr. J. J. Mendelson (Penistone)
My right hon. Friend said that he does not know what the reasoning was at Mr. Speaker's Conference. Does not this point in the direction of changing our archaic system of not allowing arguments and speeches in committee to be published? The case for this conclusion is much more complex, and by necessity my right hon. Friend has been forced to leave out some of the reasoning behind it. Would he give his support to changing procedure?
§ Mr. Callaghan
I do not think that that arises from what I am saying this afternoon. We are debating this subject, and I have no doubt but that the views advanced in Mr. Speaker's Conference will find an outlet on the Floor of the Chamber. I do not imagine that there will be any unrehearsed arguments at the end of the day. I prefer not to go further with the question raised.
The recommendation that you have made about election expenses is that the present legal maximum of £450 plus 2d. per elector in a county constituency and 1½d. in a borough constituency should be increased. The Government agree that there is a case for increasing the permitted maximum, and we are prepared to accept your recommendation of an increase of £300 on the basic figure. This means that in a county constituency the legal maximum, taking 60,000 electors, under your recommendations, Mr. Speaker, would be £1,250 and in a borough constituency, £1,125.
On this point, I would like to take up another question, that of expenditure on general political propaganda. You made a negative recommendation, that this expenditure should not become subject to the provisions relating to election expenses in Section 63 of the 1949 Act. It is a matter about which there has been a good deal of controversy, follow- 46 ing the decision in the case of Rex v. Tronoh Mines, in 1952.
It is one that should cause us a great deal of concern. The effect of that decision was that Section 63 does not prohibit expenditure, the real purpose or effect of which is general political propaganda, even though such propaganda does assist a particular candidate. The cause for concern arises from the fact that while the expenses of an individual candidate are strictly controlled, large sums of money can be spent on general political propaganda, without control. Having considered this, you decided, I assume, that the prohibition of expenditure of this sort would be an infringement of freedom that should be protected. I can well understand that the consequences of such a prohibition might be alarming, for example, in relation to national party organisations.
The Government are ready to accept your recommendation, Sir, to make no change in the position, but I think that this position must be carefully watched, because it could be used as a device for distorting the process of democracy by large and improper expenditures. Although the Government are ready to accept your conference's view, Sir, for the time being, nevertheless it is a situation which all parties should keep under review, and those tempted to embark on this expenditure should take this factor into consideration.
On broadcasting, the Government accept the recommendation that Section 80 of the 1949 Act should be extended so as to apply to television stations outside the United Kingdom. I am told that this is probably the effect of the law already since a television programme coming from outside the United Kingdom presumably has to be accompanied by sound broadcasting, and sound broadcasting is already prohibited.
There is another point on which the Government have modified your conference's recommendations, Sir, and they put their own view before the House. It is in relation to programmes in which all candidates must agree to take part before the programme can go on. If one declines, the programme cannot go on. There are a number of occasions when a candidate may not wish to take 47 part in such a programme, but, nevertheless, has no objection to the programme going on. He may be a Minister, or he may be at the other end of his rural constituency and it is very inconvenient for him to turn up at the broadcasting studio for two minutes with his opponents. He may much prefer to spend his time campaigning. The Government's view is that he should be permitted to contract out, and if he expresses his agreement there is no reason why the broadcast should not go on irrespective of the fact that he is not present.
Your conference, Sir, recommended no change on polling hours, which are at present 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. The Government have considered this matter. A number of people believe that it would be preferable to extend the hours to 10 p.m. so that people should be given a longer time to cast their votes, especially as most votes are cast in the evening, or certainly in the late afternoon. Therefore, this is the Government's view.
Some returning officers have expressed the view to the Home Office that such an extension will create administrative difficulties for them in manning polling stations and that it may be necessary in more constituencies for the count to take place next day. I recognise this. But the Government do not think that these considerations should prevail over the principle of affording the longest reasonable time for people to exercise their rights at Parliamentary elections, which are held infrequently. Therefore, we propose that the hours of poll should be from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
§ Mr. Lubbock
Since the right hon. Gentleman said that he would deal with local elections at the same time, would he provide in the Bill that the same hours of opening for the poll apply to local elections as to Parliamentary elections?
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. We are discussing the law relating to Parliamentary elections. I hope that we shall not widen the debate.
§ Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)
Would the right hon. Gentleman explain why the Home Office sought the views of 48 returning officers on the basis that it was considering a change to 9.30? Having had evidence on that specific point, why did it decide on 10 o'clock?
§ Mr. Callaghan
Because the Home Office does not take the decisions. I take the decisions. My officials are free to consult returning officers on any basis they like, on any hours they choose, but in the end, as the hon. Gentleman will learn if he ever becomes a Minister, it is not a Minister's officials who take the decisions in these matters.
I turn, finally, to the prohibition in the present law on the inclusion of party labels on ballot papers. Your conference, Sir, made no recommendation to change the law concerning Parliamentary elections. There is a problem in multi-member electoral areas in local government elections, but there was recently a Parliamentary election at which the name of a candidate's party was indicated on the ballot paper by subterfuge—and I hope that that word will not be resisted.
This is not an easy problem, and the Government have given quite a lot of thought to it. We believe that, although there are practical difficulties in any scheme, it is worth while the parties considering whether we can devise machinery for ensuring that party labels can be included on the ballot paper. The main difficulty is devising effective machinery. I believe that, whatever may have been the position a century ago, there is now a very strong case on constitutional grounds against denying the voter information about the party to which a candidate belongs. Our parliamentary institutions are now firmly based on the party system, and the voter is well within his rights if he prefers to vote for the party rather than for the man. Indeed, some people would go further and argue that he prefers to vote for the leader rather than for the party.
I had the mortifying experience of going into a school in my constituency last week—admittedly, the children were only six years old and I use that as an excuse—where the teacher said, "You know who that is?", and a hand shot up and someone said, "Mr. Wilson". I am glad to say that the others in the class corrected him, and they were only six years of age, but this is an indication that even at that delicate age it is the name 49 of the leader which is impressed on people's memories as much as anything else. This is a factor which we must take into account.
The party has assumed, and, in my view, not unjustifiably, a much larger part in the individual elector's choice than it used to do. I do not quarrel with that, although it is the quality of the candidates, their character, ability and beliefs, which, I hope, will determine what an elector votes for.
As the party is, in my view, an essential part of our democratic system, and since a General Election is concerned with the means of choosing not just an individual Member of Parliament but also a Government, the tradition by which candidates must be considered without regard to party affiliation is an anachronism, and the Government's view is that party affiliation should be made known in national elections. We have it in mind that provision should be made for the central registration of political descriptions and for controlling their use. The object of registration would be to prevent the adoption of identical descriptions or of descriptions so nearly resembling descriptions already registered as to be likely to deceive or mislead electors.
The object of control would be to prevent the unauthorised use of registered descriptions, and the use of unregistered descriptions should not be permitted unless they simply indicate their total independence. In this way, returning officers would net be called upon, as they should not be called upon, in my view, to take decisions about whether a political description should or should not be allowed. As the Leaders of the other two parties know, I am consulting them about whether effective machinery can be devised. I have not heard whether they accept the principle, but it is the Government's view that the principle is right if the machinery can be worked out.
In my statement earlier, I said that the Government would be considering the opinions expressed during today's debate with a view to introducing legislation next Session. This is our intention. Our aim would be to complete the consideration of the Bill and of the affirmative Representation of the People Regulations in time to include any new age group upon which the House may decide in the 50 register of electors to be published in February, 1970.
I came across a quotation the other day with which I profoundly agree in connection with our Parliamentary and electoral arrangements:It is something to have sat in the House of Commons though it had been but for one Session".It is my view—and I approach this subject in this way—that it is the highest and most legitimate source of pride to have the letters "M.P." written after one's name. I am told that politics are held in low esteem. I have no means of judging whether that is so, although I have seen many phases during my adult life. But many of us are proud—indeed, I believe that every one of us is proud—to have served our days in this way. We are proud of the profession of politics, and we believe that it is our task to make participation in politics and the art of politics and of government as representative and as complete as it is possible to do.
§ Mr. Speaker
I should like to observe to the House, as I shall not be in the Chair at the moment when the general debate begins, that many right hon. and hon. Members wish to take part in the debate and that if we are to get a cross-section of the views not only of members of the conference but of other Members of the House, it will help if speeches are reasonably brief.
§ 4.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Quintin Hogg (St. Marylebone)
I am sure that the House will not complain that the Home Secretary has taken a considerable time in his exposition of the conclusions which the Government have reached. This is a subject which contains many separate issues, all of which have to be separately expounded with different reasons attached. I realise that the Home Secretary was bound to give a reasoned exposé of all the main points both in Mr. Speaker's Conference decision and in the Government's conclusions upon it. I hope possibly to take a little less time myself. It is not in any way a reflection on the Home Secretary if I seek to curtail my remarks a little more.
The right hon. Gentleman began by thanking yourself, Mr. Speaker, and the members of your conference for their work. We on this side of the House 51 would like to be associated with those words. It is, of course, a somewhat depressing experience, after the exhilarating atmosphere of antiphonal malediction and standing ovation in which both parties have been indulging in the bracing air of the North-West during the past few weeks, to revert to the rather sadder, domestic chores of internal economy, important as these may be. We are, however, grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the members of your conference for the work they have put in.
I do not altogether agree with the criticisms, which have been voiced in the Press, that the results of Mr. Speaker's Conference are somewhat meagre. It would be startling and disturbing if they were radical in their conclusions. They could be radical in their conclusions only if our system of Parliamentary democracy was not working properly within its present terms of reference. I want to say a word about its present terms of reference at the end of my speech, but the fact is that it is working much better than it is usually given credit for. The fact that the conclusions of Mr. Speaker's Conference are relatively minor is reassuring rather than a source of anxiety.
The Home Secretary referred to a leading article which raised the question of the alternative vote in this context. This is a subject which has been canvassed at least during the whole of my depressingly long public life and I very much doubt whether there is much new to be said for it. For that reason, I did not altogether share the view that there was a great deal to be gained by an enormous exposé of the arguments on both sides had it been open to Mr. Speaker's Conference to give it.
With respect to both yourself, Mr. Speaker, and hon. Members of the House who composed the conference, I do not think that a body of people less qualified to examine the question anew could be found than those of us whose minds are almost certainly irreparably made up on this subject one way or the other. However, I broadly agree with the Home Secretary's conclusions. I am deeply attached to the single-Member constituency idea, which would have to be abandoned.
I am not sure how far I accept the logic of the other argument adduced by 52 the Home Secretary, but I will add an equally contentious one of my own. I always approach mathematical questions with the knowledge that my judgment in the matter is more than usually fallible. It has always seemed to me, however, that the alternative vote involves the startling proposition that those who vote for the least popular of a series of candidates should have most influence in the result of the election.
To me at least, that is not self-evident. It seems to me that the second preferences of those who vote for the most popular candidates might easily expect to have some influence on the result but, apparently, they are not to be counted in any way. However, I accept the view put forward by the Home Secretary on that, and I do not propose to say more about it than that.
We also were glad that the Government share what is, I think, the general view on this side of the House that Mr. Speaker's Conference conclusion on the publication of polls and even of betting odds was a mistake. In our view at least, the burden of proof rests very heavily on those who wish to restrict publication of a fact. I certainly take the view, which, I think, the Home Secretary took, too, that in different circumstances the effect of publication might just as well be to have a backlash effect as to have a bandwagon effect. In either event, whichever effect it has, the desire to climb on the bandwagon or to counteract the majority is at least as reputable a motive for voting as many others which are contained within the breasts of the voters. I cannot see, therefore, that any great advantage can be gained by restricting the publication of polls or betting odds.
I must say that the polls have introduced a new factor into our public life. It is not a matter of coincidence that since 1945, when the polls have been working, sitting Governments have been beaten only twice, and both times by less than 10. This means that combined with the prerogative of Dissolution, sitting Governments have almost the power of self-perpetuation. It is not like it used to be when I can first remember elections, when Mr. Baldwin made his famous miscalculation in 1923. This is a matter, although, possibly, outside the range of our present debate, which ought to engage those of us who are interested 53 in the framework of our constitution. It is certainly not within the terms of reference of the present Speaker's Conference.
I now come to the question of the voting age, to which the Home Secretary rightly devoted a few paragraphs. He was rather coy about whether this would be a free vote or a party vote. I will make the offer to him that if he has a free vote on his side, we are quite willing to have a free vote on our side. I cannot see why it should not be a free vote.
§ Mr. Hogg
I missed that gem of wisdom from below the Gangway.
I can only, therefore, express my personal view about a matter on which it is singularly difficult to be candid. It is singularly difficult to be candid, because if the Government's conclusion is put into effect there will be, one assumes, 3 million new voters at the next General Election, and, of course, no politician who values the success of his party, or, perhaps, his own success at the polls, would willingly suggest that the 3 million new voters contain an important proportion of those who perhaps ought not to vote. It therefore weights the argument very much in favour of those who do not wish to question the Government's conclusion.
I am too old and too wicked to curry favour with any particular section of the electorate. Although my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, West (Mr. Iain Macleod) has personally accepted a contrary view, I must express a certain amount of scepticism about the Home Secretary's argument. To begin with, I think that it is a matter upon which Mr. Speaker's Conference was composed of more knowledgeable people than even the Latey Committee, for whose members I wish to express nothing but the profoundest respect and admiration, and Mr. Speaker's Conference did reject the Government's conclusion which was before it by what was virtually an overwhelming majority. I think that that ought to have weighed rather heavily with the Government.
Of course, I accept what the Home Secretary said to begin with, that any voting age and any age of responsibility in other directions can only be an arbitrary one. There cannot be an age in 54 respect of which one says that up to 31st December in one year a man or a woman is unfit for certain responsibilities but on the 1st January he or she immediately becomes fit for full responsibilities. This is clearly nonsense and, therefore, any age must be arbitrary whatever age one chooses. My own feeling, as I said on another occasion but in the same general context, is that this is the kind of thing where traditional customs with regard to what must in the nature of things be arbitrary are probably right. If we have got to be arbitrary there is an advantage in tradition, and the burden of proof really rests upon those who wish to depart from it.
If the view of Mr. Speaker's Conference had been accepted, reducing the age to 20, in actual practice, since elections seldom occur immediately one reaches one's 21st birthday or any particular birthday, very few people would have had the chance to vote—in Parliamentary elections, certainly—before they were 21. This would have meant virtually a continuance of the traditional age without the factor which has given rise in one way or another to a sense of legitimate grievance.
There is one matter on which I would accept from the right hon. Gentleman what I believe was his underlying reasoning. In the end one cannot divorce the right to vote from the age of majority in other connections. I think that this must be right. This, of course, does cast doubt upon the wisdom of the Government in separating the question between the terms of reference of two separate committees. I thought it was wrong at the time, though I have no doubt whatever that it commanded the general respect of the House, but I think that it was a mistake to have two separate committees discussing the merits of what were clearly two very closely related subjects.
I do not want to get out of order by discussing the merits of the Latey Committee in connection with Parliamentary voting. The very last thing I want to do is suggest that young people are not more intelligent than they have ever been before. I think that they are more intelligent and better educated than they have ever been before, but, of course, when we are dealing with the question of responsibility—and, in the case of the Latey Committee's terms of reference, that involves legal liability, sometimes of a 55 very unpleasant kind, for instance, for damages for breach of contract—one has to consider not merely intelligence and information but also experience.
There is, I would have thought, both in relation to the Latey Committee's terms of reference and to criminal and civil responsibility at law—capacity to make a will, capacity to marry without parents' consent and the voting age—something to be said for the view that there should be a period of approximately three years in which one is free from liability for damages for breach of contract, and in which entitlement to exercise full rights of suffrage in elections should be withheld, while a certain amount of practical experience and maturity is being acquired by the subject. It is a question on which Members on this side are not united. Indeed, I hope it is a question on which hon. Members opposite are not united either, because it would be a strange and unpleasant situation if upon a matter so divorced from party principle the members of any large party took a unanimous view. However, I have expressed my own opinion, which is not universally shared on this side of the House, and I do not wish to labour the matter.
I now come to the question of the polling hours, on which the Government, again, overruled the Speaker's Conference. Again, I must express the personal view that in deciding a matter of this kind, in which there are arguments on both sides, which the right hon. Gentleman very clearly put forward, Mr. Speaker's Conference should have prevailed. I recognise, of course, that most votes are cast towards the end of the day. Some, of course, are cast in the early part of the day, but most, I think, are cast towards the end of the day. But I should have thought that 14 hours would probably be enough to enable the voter to exercise his legitimate rights, unless he were an absent voter, in which case hours would be irrelevant.
I myself feel that elections, although they happen only occasionally, even if one includes local elections, which I do not think one can wholly disregard in considering the question of polling hours, do impose a great strain on the officials concerned, on the parties and on the candidates. Most of us are glad—I speak 56 for myself, but I should imagine I am not alone in this—when the counting is over and the result is declared one way or the other. Most of us like to get it over that night. I am doubtful, like the right hon. Gentleman, whether very many decisions will be reached that night if the polling hours are increased to 10 o'clock, and on balance I should have thought that Mr. Speaker's Conference was right in saying that the balance of advantage lay the other way.
I was glad, on the whole, that Mr. Speaker's Conference accepted what most of us had thought, namely, that broadcasting should in general be free of the limitations imposed upon it by an Act passed at a time when neither broadcasting nor television techniques were so advanced as they are now. But I would, if I may, like to add a reflection of my own about the broadcasting of election programmes involving rival candidates. I have been responsible, when I was a party chairman, for the anxious decisions which have to be taken about this, and I also saw the rival candidates in the 1960 American Presidential Election. I have seen a number of these programmes and I would like to put this view before the House, and indirectly, therefore, before those who make those programmes.
If one is to appoint anybody to a responsible position, whether the headmaster of a school or the head of an important business, one usually has the decency to interview the candidates separately. To do anything else is to subject the integrity and the self-respect of the candidates for the position to an almost intolerable strain. To view those two candidates at the American Presidential Election, sitting opposite each other at desks, to take them in the same programme, just showing off in front of the electorate like two rival fighting cocks, does not really add to or enhance one's respect for the office which they seek, or one's respect for either of the two candidates when one has seen them.
I would have thought that it would have been wise to provide that the formula for broadcasting election programmes where rival candidates are involved should provide for no more than giving each of them the chance to put their view quietly, separately and in dignity, without the humiliation of having to show off before the others. I hope 57 that notice may be taken of my feeling, which, I believe, is fairly generally shared.
I am glad to see that the Government have accepted the recommendation of Mr. Speaker's Conference that the amount for election expenses should be increased. I was once in trouble here for saying that the American limits provided an awful warning to this country. If the permitted maxima are set too low, respectable people may be encouraged to make false returns. Although the integrity of our elections has been vastly improved since the maxima were imposed, maxima which are too low encourage evasion and disrespect for the law, and I am glad that Mr. Speaker's Conference and the Government have accepted this.
I did not altogether agree with the right hon. Gentleman's anxieties about large expanses for general propaganda. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman's anxieties on this score are a left-over from cloth-cap Socialism, and that the electorate is mature enough to disregard over-lavish propaganda. Very often a party, a Government or a pressure group which has an unpopular and possibly wrong point to advocate, is entitled, I feel, in a sense, to be more lavish in expenditure than these who have the general run of public opinion behind them. It seems to me to be a corollary of the freedom of expression that they should have this right, and I do not think that any example can be given, in this country at any rate, with its mature electorate, of a lavish expenditure by one pressure group or another, or one party or another, having an illegitimate effect on the minds of the voters. My view is that, if voters were confronted with an improper use of funds in this way, they would be filled with repulsion rather than enthusiasm for the cause which those funds represented.
The right Hon. Gentleman quite rightly raised the question of party labels. I am sympathetic to the view, more perhaps in local than in Parliamentary elections, that some form of differentiation other than name should be permitted. My only doubts are on practical grounds. I would be slow to give either the Liberal Party or the Conservative Party, or perhaps even the Labour Party, so to speak a copyright in their names. During most of my adult life there have been two 58 or three groups claiming to represent the Liberal Party, and, although it is now generally recognised that the right hon. Gentleman below the Gangway has the apostolic succession through Lady Violet Bonham Carter, this is something which I think is best left to the electorate.
My right hon. Friend who has been sitting beside me in the debate is, of course, the Leader of the Conservative Party, but I understand that there are those who consider that the Shadow Cabinet does not represent true Conservatism. This is a matter which is open to opinion. I should not like to leave it to a returning officer or a registration official to decide which of my right hon. Friends was the inheritor of the true faith; I should like to decide it for myself. There was in my constituency an anti-Hogg candidate; this was his only programme. How he would have fared if there had been a registration of labels, I do not rightly know.
§ Mr. Callaghan
He could either have registered beforehand as "anti-Hogg" and had that put on the ballot paper, or, if he had not registered himself, during the course of the poll, could have described himself as independent.
§ Mr. Hogg
I do not think that he was independent; he could not have existed without me!
I also think that the Government, and perhaps Mr. Speaker's Conference, are unduly unkind to absent voters. I will not enlarge on this, but there is a particular grievance which I hope the right hon. Gentleman will note and bear in mind. It has been drawn to my attention that the spouses of persons travelling abroad on business cannot register as absent voters. I would think that they ought to be able to do so. When I was in the Conservative Government Ministers, when they represented the country abroad, were not allowed to take their wives, except at their own expense out of their taxed income. The present Government, in my view rightly, have relaxed that rule, in the interests of family life and of the care and maintenance of Ministers in a healthy and happy condition whilst they are abroad, and perhaps in the interests, who knows, of marital fidelity. At any rate, I would think that spouses should be allowed to register as absent voters, and I hope 59 that the right hon. Gentleman will take the same view.
§ Mr. Lubbock
It is one of the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference which the Government must have accepted, since they say that, where they are not otherwise mentioned, the recommendations of the conference are accepted in toto.
§ Mr. Hogg
I am very much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for putting me right about that; I had not noticed it.
I come now to the question of redistribution, about which the right hon. Gentleman was understandably coy. I regret that he was unable to give a pledge on this matter. After all, as The Times pointed out today, in a leading article, it is a legal obligation on the Government, "as soon as may be", to give effect, either with or without modification, to the reports of the Boundary Commissions when they come. I should have welcomed from the right hon. Gentleman an unequivocal pledge that that legal obligation would be honoured both in letter and in spirit. Since the decision in the case of Blackburn v. the Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police it is by no means certain that a mandamus would not lie against the right hon. Gentleman if he failed to observe his legal obligation, and I am bound to reflect rather sadly that during this Parliament we have had from his predecessor, though not from him, some painful experiences both in relation to the London boroughs and to the Northampton warding.
I would welcome from the right hon. Gentleman, or from the Under-Secretary, or the Secretary of State for Scotland, when he comes to reply, an unequivocal assurance that the legal obligation on the Government to legislate these changes as soon as may be will be strictly adhered to. As The Times pointed out this morning, if the words in the Act have meaning, the Government can escape the consequences of redistribution at the next election only by fresh legislation or by calling an election next year. If I may be allowed to express a preference, let them call an election next year, or even now. If they do not, they will be wide open to the charge of rigging the electoral rules for their own benefit, and I am sure that they would wish to avoid that.
60 I conclude with this reflection. The changes which we are discussing are only peripheral to our voting system. In one passage of his speech, the right hon. Gentleman made an eloquent defence of the party system and of the working of Parliament. I share that view, and I am sure that I represent the entire party of which I am a member in that respect. It was a Conservative Leader in the last century who said, "If you want Parliamentary government, you must have party government."
I believe that to be true. However, I would make one qualification. Our constitutional arrangements are not like those of a created constitution. We have no formal apparatus for constitutional reform. My belief is that there is a case for examining the framework within which we live. Questions of regional government and of the autonomy or partial autonomy of Scotland and Wales demand careful consideration. There should be discussion between the parties about these issues. They are more important than that of the voting age. Our voting system works well. We produce Governments which, by and large, represent the best opinion of the electorate after free discussion. What we have not succeeded in doing in recent years is enabling the participation of the people in local and regional matters to the degree that we would like.
I have been a Member of one House or the other continuously for 30 years, and I feel that the machine of Parliament is now strained by being made to bear burdens of work for which it was never designed. I do not put all that down to the double dose of original sin with which this Administration is encumbered, but it is partly due to the fact that the business of government has become much more sophisticated and complex.
We alone amongst civilised countries have no intermediate authority between Whitehall, the Cabinet and Parliament in Westminster on the one hand and the county borough or county in the locality on the other. Some serious discussion of these issues should be initiated by whatever Government are in power.
§ 4.53 p.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)
The concluding part of the speech of the 61 right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) was exceedingly interesting, and I would like to follow it. However, I will refrain, because I want to discuss one aspect alone of my right hon. Friend's proposals.
I was a member of Mr. Speaker's Conference from its earliest days. That means that I sat on it for three years, in which lime I do not think that I missed a single meeting. As a result, I would have liked to make some comments on the very many proposals which my right hon. Friend has discussed. For the sake of brevity, I will not. I will confine myself to the only point on which I disagree fundamentally with my right hon. Friend, and that is his rejection of the proposal by Mr. Speaker's Conference that the voting age should be reduced not to 18, but to 20.
My right hon. Friend made a number of points, and I propose to deal with them as shortly as I can, because I know that many hon. Members want to take part in the debate. One of his points was that reducing the voting age to 18 was the policy of the Labour Party. I think that he has slipped up there, because that is not true. If it had been the policy of the Labour Party, the question would not have been referred to Mr. Speaker's Conference by the Government for its consideration. The Government would have said, "It is our policy to reduce the voting age to 18", and they would have proceeded to do so.
As it was, the question of the reduction of the voting age was referred specifically to Mr. Speaker's Conference for consideration. It is true that the Labour Party stated in its manifesto before the 1966 General Election that the Government were advising Mr. Speaker's Conference to reduce the voting age to 18, but it was never specific party policy.
Mr. Speaker's Conference, having considered the recommendation of the Government and given it due weight, and having considered the Report of the Latey Committee, came to the almost unanimous decision that the voting age should not be reduced to 18. It is regrettable but perhaps inevitable that the Government's decision to reverse that recommendation was arrived at without any attempt to discover the reasons that the members of Mr. Speaker's Conference had in mind when they came to their decision.
62 I can assure the House that Mr. Speaker's Conference considered the matter very carefully. Its members made prolonged inquiries amongst their friends and constituents to consider what the proper voting age should be. I cannot reveal what took place at the conference, but I know that many of my colleagues who finally supported a reduction of the voting age to 20 were convinced originally that the age should be 18. As a result of the disclosures which took place from their inquiries, the facts which they discovered and the views expressed by authoritative people, they changed their minds and came to the conclusion that 20 was the right age.
In view of the prolonged and careful consideration of this matter by one of our most important Select Committees, and of the strong views held by many of its members after consideration of all the facts, I hope that my right hon. Friend will see to it that the desire which he expressed on an earlier occasion, that there should be a free vote on the matter when the time comes, will be endorsed by the Government.
An important argument advanced in favour of reducing the voting age to 18 is that the Latey Committee recommended that the age of majority for a number of purposes, such as holding property, making contracts, and so on, should be reduced to 18 and, therefore, that it would be illogical and wrong to have a higher voting age. However, that was not the view of the Latey Committee. The Committee was not asked to consider the voting age but, strangely enough, it did. In paragraph 25 of its Report, it said clearly that it does not follow from lowering the age of majority for a number of personal and private matters that the age of majority should be reduced for wider purposes.
The Committee said:'"It is a very different thing to cope adequately with- one's own personal and private affairs and to measure up to public and civic responsibilities.It went on:We do not accept that the civic and the private field either would or should necessarily go together ".In other words, it does not follow at all from the recommendations of the Report that the voting age should be reduced to 18.
63 There is nothing in that argument and, if there were any doubt about it, the House must be aware that a member of the Latey Committee was also a member of Mr. Speaker's Conference. I refer to my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). He signed the Committee's majority Report. When we came to consider the voting age in Mr. Speaker's Conference, he voted for reducing it not to 18, but to 20, and he was perfectly logical in doing so.
The only further point that I would add to the argument that we have about consistency in this matter is that for years there has been no consistency in Scotland where the age of majority varies widely for a number of different purposes and does not necessarily coincide with the voting age. Therefore, the result of the Latey Committee's findings, which we considered very carefully, was to leave the matter wide open.
Realising that the age of majority was to be reduced for a number of other purposes, the question that arose for us to decide, taking this and all other considerations into account, was: What is the right age at which people should have the responsibility of voting in our society?
Many answers can be given. There is one with which I agree in an important book called "Parliaments", issued by the International Parliamentary Union:It should be the age at which they (young people) are fully aware of their civic duties and capable of expressing a reasonable opinion on political matters.I would put it in another more positive way: that it is the age at which young people have acquired sufficient experience and knowledge of public affairs—here I agree with the views put forward by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for St. Marylebone—to enable them to exercise a mature judgment on the record, policies and philosophies of the contending parties.
Can anybody seriously say that young people have acquired or are able to acquire such experience and knowledge on their 18th birthday when they are still adolescents? I believe that if this question were asked of the public as a whole—and I have asked it of very many 64 people—the answer must be no. That arises from experience of our own children and their friends who have passed the age of 18 and our contacts with schools, technical colleges, universities and youth clubs. Everywhere I find the answer is that the age of 18 is too young; that on their 18th birthday it cannot be expected that adolescent boys and girls have acquired sufficient knowledge and experience to come to a reasonable and proper judgment on national matters or on matters of political principle.
From the inquiries that we made, we found that that view was endorsed by most of those in the best position to know—teachers in senior schools and universities, directors of youth hostels, and many others. That view was also endorsed to me by many psychologists I questioned on the subject.
If that is so—and I submit it as a proposition which this House must consider—the next question arises: Do these young people of the age of 18 to 20 want the responsibility of voting at elections? If the answer is yes, even though one may feel they are not mature enough to have that responsibility, it may be unwise to deny it them.
We made a large number of inquiries along those lines, and I want to tell the House about an inquiry I made which is significant and typical of many others. Most right hon. and hon. Members of this House know a body called the Hansard Society, a most admirable body whose purpose is to make the workings of Parliament better known in this country and throughout the world. One of its exercises, which it has carried out regularly over the last few years, is to get together sixth formers from London and the Home Counties at a big study meeting at Westminster Hall. It has had 2,600 young people there for three years running. It did not do it last year. On each occasion these 2,600 people have been asked the simple question: Do you think the voting age should be reduced to 18? On every occasion, much to the surprise of those who organised the meetings, the answer has been—and this is the word they use —"overwhelmingly" no. When asked—this is, of course, a question of personal approach—"Why do you take that view?", the general answer has been. "We do not think that at 18 we ought to have this responsibility put upon us".
§ Mr. Ednyfed Hudson Davies (Conway)
Would my right hon. Friend agree that the very fact that they were doubtful about their ability and responsibility to vote indicates that they were taking a tar more responsible view than most adults who would feel that, whatever the circumstances, the right to vote should be given?
§ Mr. Strauss
One must remember that these young people were interested in political affairs. They were intelligent boys and girls and they showed their responsibility by saying, "We do not think that we ought to have the responsibility of the vote at this age."
There is an important body operating in the Midlands called the 18 to 21 Club. I know nothing about it except that it is a non-political body. It circularised 3,000 of its members and asked: "Do you think that the voting age should be reduced to 18?" The answer was 2 to 1 against. Therefore, the information which we were able to gather—I was not the only one who got such information; it was the view of most other Members of the Select Committee who made as wide inquiries as they could—indicates that the intelligent young people are not only not demanding reduction of the voting age to 18, but are opposing it.
§ Mr. Callaghan
My right hon. Friend is speaking as though voting is compulsory in this country. It is not. There is nothing to prevent anyone, who does not choose to exercise his vote, from refraining to do so. The significant point is that a third of those questioned on the last question hardly wished to use or to exercise their vote, but they should be entitled to do so.
§ Mr. Strauss
My right hon. Friend is right when he says that voting is not compulsory. I am certain that a large number, if the age for voting is reduced, will not vote. Nevertheless, when an election comes along every pressure is put on the electorate. Young people as much as others will be told that it is their duty to vote. We all say it to our electorate.
I put no further argument except that the vociferous views of some junior political groups, such as the Young Liberals and Young Communists, represent a tiny minority of the young people, 66 and to advance the argument that most young people of the age of 18 to 21 want this, is palpably untrue.
§ Mr. Lubbock
Is the right hon Gentleman aware that at the last London Borough Elections only about 20 per cent, of those eligible to vote turned out in Islington? Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that because only one in five of the electorate chose to exercise their right to vote, the rest should be deprived of it?
§ Mr. Strauss
I am certain that if one asked young people of 16 whether they wanted to vote, many would say yes. I do not think that that would be a good reason for saying they should be given the vote.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary advanced the view, which is often put forward, that if we gave the vote to 18-year-olds it would inject a certain idealism into our public affairs which would be beneficial. I very much doubt the truth of that. Lacking experience, young people are easily stirred by plausible causes, particularly if they have a patriotic or a heroic ring, which may be worthy or unworthy, noble or ignoble.
Recently we have found that young people have been stirred by two causes, one of which in particular most of us consider to be highly damaging to our society. I know I will have disagreement from one hon. Member on this matter, but I maintain—and I think it is the view of both sides of the House—that one of the greatest political threats facing us today is the growth of nationalism Strong words were spoken about it at our party conference, and at the Conservative one, too. The President of the Board of Trade said that he considered this to be a desperate matter for the Labour Party, I do not agree. It is a desperate matter for all parties. In fact it is a national matter, because if the movement succeeded it would gravely damage the economic and social unity of the United Kingdom, yet we learn from Gallup polls that there is overwhelming support for the nationalist movement from young people of 18 to 21. It is the only political issue which excites them. The polls show that support for the nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales swamps the 67 support which they are prepared to give to the other three parties combined.
It is clear that young people consider the nationalist movement to be a fine and desirable thing, but most of us in this House consider it highly dangerous. It will be strengthened immensely if young people of 18 are given the right to vote. If they are given that right my right hon. Friend will inject into our political affairs a negative and disruptive element which may well decide the verdict at the next General Election. I mention that merely as an example of the sort of thing which excites youth. It may be idealistic on their part, but it may be exceedingly damaging socially and politically.
Perhaps I might quote one example which will have the support of hon. Members on this side of the House, and, I hope, on the other, too. All of us, and especially libertarians, agree that one of the greatest dangers is what is called "Powellism". I shall not quote the strong remarks of the Chairman of the Labour Party conference at Blackpool about its dangers. We find something quite alarming in the Gallup polls, which show that it is the young people, more than any others who are supporting this movement.
§ Mr. Strauss
Only a tiny minority of the dockers are supporting it.
A Gallup poll which was reported in the Sunday Times on 21st July showed some startling results. People of all parties and ages were asked whom they would like to see as Leader of the Opposition if the present Leader were to disappear. At the top of the list was the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell). The support for him was broken down into age groups, and it was found that by far the biggest age group to support him was the 16 to 20 one. If anybody thinks that by allowing people of 18 to 20 to vote we will necessarily bring some idealism into our political affairs, he is wrong.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge the possibility that even if 68 the age of voting is reduced to 18 the Conservative Party may not alter its method of electing its leader in response to this pressure?
§ Mr. Strauss
I accept that possibility. I have quoted those two examples, not to suggest that young people do not have ideals, but to suggest that people of this age, whilst still adolescents, are easy prey to reactionary forces which appeal to their credulity, and that it is very difficult to counter them.
At the Labour Party conference, when talking about this dangerous movement in Scotland and Wales, my right hon. Friend said that it must not affect our decision to lower the age to 18; that our job is a much better one, namely, to convert these young people to our cause. One of my right hon. Friend's pleasantest characteristics is his firm optimism, but in this case his optimism goes beyond credibility. If any hon. Member from Scotland or Wales really considers that during the next two years young people of Scotland and Wales will be converted away from their nationalist views—
§ Mr. James Griffiths (Llanelly)
I think that we can convert the young people of Wales to our policy. If my right hon. Friend is so afraid of young people, why did he and his colleagues on the Committee recommend the lowering of the age for voting to 20? At what age does youth cease to be dangerous?
§ Mr. Strauss
I had not intended to deal with the arguments for reducing the age to 20, because I can do that on other occasions, but I am prepared to discuss the issue. I think that 20 is reasonable, and that 18 is too young. It is an arbitrary matter which we all have to decide.
That young people all over the world are easily carried away by causes which may be good or may be bad is well known. It happens in other countries. It happened in Germany with the Hitler Youth, and in Italy Mussolini had the enthusiastic support of the young people. That is why, in the Communist countries, such enormous emphasis is put on organising, training, and developing the Young Communist Movement. The House should remember that, outside the Communist countries, the voting age, except in three countries, is 21. The 69 exceptions where young people of 18 vote are the United Arab Republic, Ceylon, and Israel. In addition, strangely enough, in two of the States in America, Georgia and Kemucky, people below the age of 18 are entitled to vote. In all countries which have a Parliamentary democracy, with the exception of four—Austria, Iran, Japan and Switzerland—the voting age is 21. There the voting age is 20. That was one reason why we thought 20 was a reasonable age for our own political democracy.
In practically no political democracy is the voting age 18, and I think for obvious reasons. It is appreciated throughout the world, and certainly in all the democratic countries, that young people should have time to acquire a degree of maturity based on knowledge and experience before they have the responsibility of casting their votes, and that the minimum age at which they can acquire that knowledge and experience is 20 or 21. I believe that that view would be shared by the public if a poll were taken. It is a view which as I have shown is held strongly by most of the intelligent young people in this country.
That was the view which was accepted after the most careful inquiries and prolonged discussions at Mr. Speaker's Conference. All sorts of views were considered, and opinions shifted as we went along. I hope that when it comes to deciding the matter here—which I trust will be on a free vote—that will also be the view of this House.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
On a point of order. My right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) revealed how one member of the Latey Committee voted. I have no objection to his doing that. The more revelations there are the better, but some of us have a strong objection to the practice of Mr. Speaker's Conference concealing the voting, except the mere figures, of concealing the reasons for decisions, and so on. As this situation has arisen, I think that the voting of all Members on this issued should be revealed.
I further suggest that if only some members of a Committee of this peculiar character—and I think that my right hon. Friend made a slip in calling this a Select Committee, which it is not in 70 the normal sense of the word—are called to speak we shall get some of the opinions, but if others are not called—[Interruption.] I submit that this is extremely important. We are debating Mr. Speaker's Conference. Our only source of information about the reasons for decisions or the way in which Mr. Speaker's Conference acted is through those Members who are called by the Chair and who were members of Mr. Speaker's Conference. I submit that all other members of the conference should be called, if only in order for us to obtain the full information about it. It would have been better if the whole report had been published.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Eric Fletcher)
The hon. Member has raised at least two points of order. In answer to his first, I have no power to direct that the facts given at a Speaker's Conference should be revealed to the House.
On the second point of order, it is open to any hon. Member who is called in the debate to indicate what views he expressed at Mr. Speaker's Conference.
§ 5.21 p.m.
§ Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)
Both the Home Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) paid tribute to the work that Mr. Speaker did during Mr. Speaker's Conference. As one who served on that conference, I want to tell the House that it was his patience and efficiency that steered the conference through to its conclusions. The House should appreciate what it means for a busy Speaker to spend three years attending thirty-six meetings. It is a tremendous additional burden on Mr. Speaker's shoulders, and I do not want this occasion to pass without that fact being appreciated and without the House realising how well Mr. Speaker executed his task.
I want to deal with three points in respect of which the Government recommend a rejection of the conference recommendations. From the way in which the Home Secretary addressed himself to the subject it seems to me that he did not appreciate what we were thinking of in making our recommendations.
My first point concerns the publication of public opinion polls and betting odds. I feel that both Front Benches have been 71 bowing to the storm of protest that arose from the Press and the betting fraternity. We felt it undesirable, when the electors were being asked to go to the polling booth, for what, in effect, was a substitute poll to be in existence which might influence them in their choice.
I disagree with the Home Secretary on one point: it is the weakest candidate in any constituency who suffers through the publication of a public opinion poll, because it is away from him that there will be a tendency to switch. We felt that through the publication of these polls there was liable to be the kind of influence from which Parliament always tries to protect the candidate in an election.
As for betting odds, it is not the estimate of voting support that forms betting odds; it is the amount of money staked on the various candidates. We felt that the publication of such odds just before an election could represent not only an undue influence but possibly a corrupting influence on the electorate.
It was for those reasons that we recommended a 72-hours quiet period. It would not have been from 9 p.m. on Monday, as the Home Secretary suggested, but from 10 p.m. on Monday. That should be compared with the quiet period in respect of party political broadcasts, which at present start at midnight on Tuesday. Because of that quiet period party leaders cannot make any comment on the publication of betting odds or public opinion polls. It is denied them under the present law. We therefore recommended that there should be not a 48-hours ban but a 72 hours' ban on public opinion polls and betting odds, to enable the party leaders to comment upon the latest public opinion polls before their own ban came into force.
This recommendation stands or falls on the retention of the present quiet period of party political broadcasts. If we were to do away with that quiet period, this recommendation would be less necessary, but if we continue with it, it is desirable to prevent the publication of betting odds and public opinion polls for 72 hours, in spite of the storm of protests from journalists and those interested in betting.
It does not seem to me that the representatives of the Front Benches appreciate what we were getting at on the 72 question of party labels. The administrative difficulties at which the Home Secretary hinted, and which we examined fully, are much greater than he envisaged. Apart from that, it is very important that our electorate should vote for individuals of their choice, and not a party. Such an alteration might be interpreted as encouraging the party "stooge" against the individual. It is therefore a very undesirable step for Parliament to take, even if it is administratively practical.
It will be extremely difficult, especially when two members of one party are opposing each other. Will one be allowed to use the party label but not the other? If so, we are giving great power to the party caucus. If both are allowed to use the label, what will it mean? I ask Parliament to take note of this point. To my mind such a step seems to be taking the procedure of the Whips Office from the Lobby of the House of Commons to the polling booths, and to me this is undesirable.
The last recommendation with which I want to deal concerns the voting age, and was touched on by the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss). The House should realise that this was not an easy decision for us to make. We had abundant evidence on the subject—far more than on any other subject. We all spent some time thinking it over, and at times changing our views. As the right hon. Gentleman said, with few exceptions democratic countries have retained the age of 21 for voting. I felt that since Austria, Iran, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland had chosen the age of 20 there was a good democratic precedent for such a change, and bearing in mind the Latey Report on early maturity I thought that the age of 20 was a reasonable one to adopt at the time.
§ Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)
The right hon. Gentleman is following the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) in referring to Switzerland. It might be useful to point out to him that although Switzerland has an age limit of 20 for voting there are no votes for women in that country.
§ Mr. Turton
Switzerland has reduced the voting age. I agree that there is a difficulty in respect of women. I take the hon. Member's point.
73 So few countries have moved from 21 except for all the Soviet bloc countries, where the elections are conducted on totalitarian and not democratic lines. We felt that it would be a bad precedent to follow the Soviet countries rather than the democratic countries.
My reason for thinking that 20 was the right age is that one wants to choose the age when electors are responsible and have a maturity of judgment, and when the majority in any age group are free from influence from teachers in schools. That should be our approach.
The Government, of course, have rejected our recommendations for the most peculiar reason, which the Home Secretary did not recollect today. They said that, having regard to their acceptance of the recommendations of the Latey Committee, the Government rejected Mr. Speaker's Conference recommendations, but the Latey Report said that, for purposes of private business, it was wrong that the minority of people in the younger age groups who wished to enter matrimony, to own a house or to conduct business operations should suffer the hardships of the present law, but it never said that all that age group should have greater responsibilities whether they wished them or no. That is the difference.
I should have thought, as Latey said in Paragraph 25, that it is a good thing to have one age for what is called "private responsibility" and another for civic responsibility. The Home Secretary said that it was illogical to have one age for all other purposes except voting. I would ask the Secretary of State for Scotland, when he replies, to be specific about the Government's intentions. Will we really have a major alteration of the civic law to bring the age down to 18? First of all, are we to reject the Morris Report on the minimum age for juries? Is it intended to reduce the age of jurors from 21 to 18? That is a very grave decision.
Second, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) asked, what will be the position of the young offenders' courts which are now to deal with people from 17 to 21? Will that range now be narrowed to from 17 to 18?
§ Mr. Callaghan
On a point of order. I apologise, but the right hon. Gentleman was in the House when Mr. Speaker 74 said that he regarded these questions as out of order. When my right hon. Friend replies, perhaps Mr. Speaker will be back in the Chair. Are we to be in the position that my right hon. Friend will not be allowed to reply because it is Mr. Speaker's view that these questions are not germane to this debate?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I heard Mr. Speaker's Ruling, and he indicated the limits of this debate. The right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) has now put certain questions and it may not be in order for the Secretary of State to answer them.
§ Mr. Turton
With great respect, what Mr. Speaker said in his Ruling was that he understood that discussion of the age for local elections and in local government was not in order, but surely our debates should not be so cribbed and confined that we cannot ask the Home Secretary to justify his own statement that it would be illogical to accept those recommendations for other purposes but not for voting—
§ Mr. Callaghan
I am ready, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be ready, to answer questions, but I want to be sure what the position is. It was clear from Mr. Speaker's Ruling that he thought that discussions of the consequences of Latey and the relation to juries and the age of criminal responsibility did not arise on this debate. If you rule, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that my right hon. Friend may answer these questions, there will be no difficulty about answering them.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
As I understood Mr. Speaker's Ruling, it was that this debate was confined to Parliamentary elections and did not relate to local government elections. My own view is that it is in order for the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton to ask in argument whether, in considering whether the age for voting at Parliamentary elections is to be reduced, it is the Government's view that the age for jury service should be reduced or not. I think that that is a fair point to make in debate. Whether the Secretary of State chooses to answer will be a matter for him when he replies.
§ Mr. Turton
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
75 The third point is the question of youth clubs, which was one reason which influenced me in choosing 20 as the age of majority. The maximum age for members of youth clubs is 20 at present. Will that also be reduced to 18? If so, it will damage a great deal of the work of the Albemarle Committee.
The fourth point relates to the recently passed Sexual Offences Act under the Wolfenden Report. Will the Home Secretary decide to reduce the age of 21 under the Sexual Offences Act to 18? We should be told these matters. If he says that it is illogical to have 21 for voting alone, we have to know what will be the age of civic majority. I must carefully keep away from the subject of local government, which is out of order, but it is of course a relevant matter. I hope that, when the House debates this next time, it will be in order for us to discuss the implications of this decision by the Government on local elections.
I believe that this decision of the Government is unwise. In addition to the arguments which I have used, I believe that it will encourage a certain amount of electoral gimmickry. This is the danger. Any decision on age is, of course, arbitrary, but if one brings in the seniors in schools, why not the juniors? If the age is reduced from 21 to 18, what is the argument? Why not bring it down to 16? In view of the Home Secretary's intervention, I am certain that he will find a number of enthusiastic young politicians of 16 who would want to vote. The Home Secretary has said that, if the minority want to vote, they should be able to. Why not 16? Why not 14? It is a great mistake when the young are undergoing education to introduce politics into the schools. That is the major reason for this. We want to choose an electorate outside the school and educational atmosphere. That is why I believe that 20 is a reasonable age.
This is the second Speaker's Conference on which I have served. It was the invariable precedent that no changes of electoral law took place unless approved by such a Conference. I have been unfortunate, because there have been breaches of precedent in both cases. I served on Mr. Speaker's Conference in 1944, when we recommended the retention of the University vote. Mr. Herbert 76 Morrison then abolished it, against our advice, creating a precedent. This is something very different. This time a Government set up a Speaker's Conference that worked for about three years, and reached recommendations by an overwhelming majority. Now the Government say, "We are rejecting 10 of its recommendations".
The country and the House are required to think over the matter to see how we can resolve these differences. I remember that the last time we discussed this in the House Sir Winston Churchill said:It has become a well-established custom that matters affecting the interests of rival parties should not be settled by the imposition of the will of one side over the other, but by agreement reached either between the leaders of the main parties or by conferences under the impartial guidance of Mr. Speaker."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th February, 1948; Vol. 447, c. 859–60.]Clearly, that custom has been departed from now. The impartial machinery of Mr. Speaker's Conference has been so devalued that I wonder whether it should not be abandoned in the future. It does a great harm to democracy when Members of Parliament from all parties serve on such a conference for three years, hear the evidence and come to conclusions—not for party reasons, but because they believe them to be in the interests of democracy—and then most of their decisions are thrust aside.
I warn the Home Secretary that by this attitude to the recommendations I believe he is endangering democracy in this country.
§ 5.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)
I re-echo what the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) said about Mr. Speaker. I was a member of Mr. Speaker's Conference only from 1966, when I ceased to be a Minister, to the end. It represented a considerable chore, reading through all the material. I think that the right hon. Gentleman served for the whole period.
When they said that we did very little, or did only peripheral things, the people and the Press failed to realise that we examined everything. We examined hundreds of practices, and it is a tribute to the oldest system of democracy in the world that we found so little wrong with 77 it. We have tried to bring it into tune with the new media such as television.
Somebody asked me to declare an interest. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the question of polls, for the reasons he stated, so I will not waste any further time. I also agree on the subjects of labels in a Parliamentary sense. I have modified my views, largely as a result of the advocacy of the hon. Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Mr. Coe) and the utter confusion of the Greater London Council election. I think that the case has been made out. That just shows that I am flexible.
But I must now address the Treasurer of the Labour Party. When I said that I preferred the collective wisdom of Mr. Speaker's Conference to the Cabinet, I knew from practical experience that the Cabinet could never have given the matter the attention that the conference gave it. In the Cabinet one spends six or eight hours a week considering other Departments, and nobody in the Cabinet could have given the same degree of attention to the matter, or done as much reading, as the members of Mr. Speaker's Conference on these particular subjects.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, for whom I have a great affection, no doubt brought all his considerable intellect to the subject, but he rather gave himself away on 24th July when he said in answer to me that I had a tendency to think that nobody's opinion was better than my own. I plead guilty to that. He added:He also happens to be—and I think that I am entitled to say this—a member of the Labour Party, which has gone on record on more than one occasion at its annual conferences as advocating that the age of voting voting should be 18 years."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th July, 1968; Vol. 769, c. 580.]But this proposal does not spring from that. My right hon. Friend was quoting the wrong source. The Labour Party said in its last election manifesto:The Labour Party has proposed to the Speaker's Conference the introduction of votes at 18, to add a necessary political dimension to the increasingly important economic and social position of young people.This, then, was the brainchild of a Sub-Committee of the National Executive, and the National Executive adopted it. I understand that. It is bad enough to have to stand by annual conference decisions, without having to be called to 78 account for what the National Executive does.
The Leader of our party said the other week in answer to one of the greatest adverse votes I have ever seen at conference that it was taken as a warning and not an instruction. I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear those wise words in mind before putting any three-line Whips on this legislation.
One of our great leaders, Hugh Gaitskell, once said:We are all honourable men. We cannot change our opinions overnight.I cannot change overnight, and I speak as one who has never been associated with aberrations on three-line Whips. This is a matter of deeply-held, private, conscientious conviction, arrived at after mature thought and rather more consideration than was given to it by individual members of the Cabinet—I exclude my right hon. Friend.
We come to the reasons for voting at 18. There is a cliché that says, "Old enough to fight at 18, ought to be old enough to vote at 18." That is one of those aphorisms that spring from sheer muddleheadedness. As I pointed out on another occasion, it cannot be applied to women, who account for half the votes. I hope that we shall not have this sort of yardstick for giving civic responsibility at the age of 18.
Our last vote on this issue was on the Sexual Offences Act, when we fixed the age of consent at 21. If it had been 18, the Act would not have got through the House, because we understand that there is a certain degree of maturity where one can exercise responsibility in one thing and not in others. It may very well be right, as Latey says, that a man or woman should not be debarred by a parent or guardian from the free discharge of responsibility in marriage, but the same yardsticks do not apply to illicit intercourse.
It might be said that one of the prime functions of women is to have children, but we will not fix the voting age at the age of consent for women. Yet in a mothering sense many of them are probably more mature at 16 than many young men might be at 21.
It has been said that the question was excluded from the Latey Report, but Latey was concerned with private conduct 79 —marriage, the right to contract, and so on. There is no comparison between the private right to marry and the public right to vote.
Any age is arbitrary. If 18, why not 17? The age of procreation starts many years before the age of mental maturity. One cannot draw the line. Economic prosperity and full employment have brought down the marriage age. I do not think that it is a question of maturity. I do not think that young people are more mature or more intelligent today than when I was young in about 1918, when I joined the Labour Party at the age of 16. I just think that their experiences have been different. Many of them have enjoyed a degree of education in the provision of which the Labour Party can claim to have played an honourable part. But that has not added maturity.
The Chancellor once said in a Fabian essay that too often the son of working-class parents in the Labour movement two generations later returns as a middle-class intellectual. In that connection, one might consider the great figures of the trade union movement—Aneurin Be van, David Kirkwood, Arthur Henderson and J. R. Clynes. One of the great things about them is that they left school at 12, 13 or 14, but by the time they were 21 they were not only what is now called "the educational A stream" but men of great maturity, a maturity that people cannot get in the universities now.
It is a different type of person that we are living with now. He is not abler. He may be better educated, but it is a great mistake to think that a high degree of literacy goes with intelligence. I have been to see elections in Nigeria and other places, and I have spoken to most intelligent people who can neither read nor write, but they will cast a more intelligent vote because they move in a familiar society and know what it is all about.
That was the strength of Mr. Speaker's Conference. I voted for the age of 20. At one point I was stuck on 21, but it was pointed out to me that it was usually 22 or 23 before anybody voted because of the time lag. It was also pointed out that the age of 20 would largely cut out the young Y voters register. As to the question about responsibility, we have heard what the Hansard Society has said. 80 The student population is largely a population that is brought in as a passing phase. They are largely people who have yet to prove themselves. They are enjoying a contribution from wealth created by others and have yet to create their own, but they are the potential of the future. In the main, they are people, too, under the influence greatly of teachers.
Let it not be forgotten that when one considers the reduction in the age to 18 one is considering Members of Parliament at 18 and mayors of boroughs at 18. If we follow this logically, it means jury service at 18. One is entitled to ask whether young people can exercise those functions at such an age, but, broadly speaking, my experience of those near to me is that they become more mature after the age of 21.
§ Mr. Pannell
He was 24. I do not want to get into an historical argument. However, I do not believe that he was quite as intelligent as was made out at the time.
I have been asked by the Association of Municipal Corporations to raise a matter to which I hope that the Home Secretary will direct his attention. The view is taken that if the proposal to reduce the minimum age for voting to 18 is accepted, an alteration should be made in the qualifying date for registration of the elector. The present date, 10th October, is within the term time of university departments, colleges of education, and so on, and if undergraduates and other students are to become registrable in university towns and other places where colleges are situated, the age structure of the local electorate will be artificially and abnormally distorted.
Examples of this are given. It is pointed out that there are about 2,000 undergraduate voters in Aberystwyth which has a local electorate of less than 7,000. There are about 10,000 student voters in Oxford which has a local electorate of 60,462. Cambridge, in 1965, had a local electorate of 60,443, and the effect there, too, would be considerable. The view is, presumably, that such people should be dealt with by postal voting.
I do not think that a case has been made for an extension of the hours of 81 polling. I have checked this in Leeds and find that, generally speaking, the polling is largely finished between 8.15 and 8.30 p.m., but we have till 9 o'clock. If the consequence of this was that we had the count the next day I should be very glad of it. In all the elections in which I have taken part I have been puzzled by the fact that the count is taken at the end of the day, when I have seen candidates of both parties behave badly. This is usually because they are overtired, excited or depressed.
The count and all that follows it is not the best part of the British electoral system. Leeds used to have the civilised idea of having the count the next day. That was until the late Hugh Gaitskell was the potential Prime Minister and it was necessary to get the result on the night of polling day. If the count takes place the: following day one goes home for a bath and goes to sleep, and then one wakes up next morning knowing what is likely to be the worst and can brace oneself to be a credit to one's party, whatever happens. I believe that that is a good thing. I do not believe that courts on the same night as polling are any good.
I have expressed some particular views, but I want to express a wider view. I wonder whether this legislation ought to be brought in at all until we get the complete redistribution of boundaries. By the next General Election some of the constituencies will be up to or over 100,000. We are bringing 3 million new electors on the register. My right hon. Friend spoke about "cosy" electorates of 40,000 to 50,000. That may be a good idea, but we are speaking now of constituencies that have got out of gear because of the urban drift. Some of the constituencies are becoming overblown and overweight.
I do not want to say anything to upset Scottish and Welsh seats—they are part of the entrenched provisions and are not to be reduced—but surely, when he brings in his legislation, the Home Secretary ought to make an attempt to redress the balance between rural and industrial seats. The argument that, somehow, the vote of the countryman is worth more than that of the townsman should go. We only have to compare our position in respect of distances with that of the United States. With present means of 82 travel—the aeroplane, the helicopter, the car, and all the rest—there is no valid reason why there should not be a real redistribution based on population.
I believe that the Government will lay themselves open to several charges they do not deserve if they appear to fix this age of 18—which I do not think will in any case be very much to their advantage—and divorce it from all the wider considerations, because we are speaking about one man, one vote, one value, which means constituencies of approximately the same size. We do not have that position at present. I know that my right hon. Friend is a flexible, pliant and good-natured Home Secretary, so I hope that he will listen to the words of wisdom spoken this afternoon and not be too strong an upholder of his own point of view or betray that obstinacy which has sometimes characterised his Department under lesser men.
§ 6.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)
With at least one of the points made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) I wholeheartedly agree; it is quite impossible, in the nature of things, for the Cabinet to give as thorough consideration to the question of votes at 18, or to any of the other matters that were before Mr. Speaker's Conference, as we ourselves did.
As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, we spent about three years on that job. Here I would echo the tributes that have been paid to Mr. Speaker for the enormous amount of extra work he did to ensure that the proceedings of his conference came to a successful conclusion. I do not think that it is sufficiently realised what an additional burden was put on him.
The right hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that the conference had an opportunity to go into these matters very thoroughly and to listen to evidence from all sources before coming to conclusions. This raises the very important point that the House—as, indeed, is the Cabinet itself—is being deprived of the benefit of seeing those arguments, because it would be a breach of privilege for the right hon. Gentleman or myself to draw to the attention of the Home Secretary points of view put to us on votes at 18 or on any of the other important matters then under consideration.
83 It seems to me that we have rested on the precedents established by the three previous Speakers' Conferences in 1916–17, in 1929 and in 1944 in deciding that our proceedings should be withheld from publication. I understand that in every one of those cases, as in the 1965–68 conference, a transcript was made but was then consigned to dusty archives, there to remain hidden for eternity. In this latest conference we were not able to look at what had happened before and how our predecessors had come to particular conclusions. Had that not been so, we might have saved a good deal of time and perhaps not have needed to spend three years over our work.
I hate secrecy, and in this case I think that it has been highly undesirable and damaging to the best interests of the House. Above all, when there are under consideration matters such as voting and the rights of every citizen which are of such fundamental interest to everyone in Parliamentary democracy, it is highly objectionable.
§ Mr. Callaghan
I would not dissent from what the hon. Gentleman says about that, and there may be a case for us all to look at it again. I do not want to detract by one iota from the work done by Mr. Speaker's Conference, but I hope that the point will not be made that, because so much time was spent, those taking part in the conference must know much more than the Cabinet, whose members could not afford so much time.
In fairness to myself and to my colleagues, I must say that a group of us spent six months on the Report from the time of getting it, and had a great many meetings going through a great many operations, as I have no doubt Mr. Speaker's Conference did, before reaching conclusions. Although the whole Cabinet did not spend that time, I assure the hon. Gentleman that a number of my colleagues and myself spent a great deal of time on and gave great consideration to the conclusions that were reached.
§ Mr. Lubbock
I know that the right hon. Gentleman is very conscientious, but the point is that he need not have laid himself open to this argument had it not been for the decision which, one presumes, although one is not allowed to say, the conference must have come to to withhold the transcript from publication.
84 I hope that if today it is the strongly expressed view of the House that our best interests would be served by hon. Members knowing the background and not just being presented with bald recommendations, Mr. Speaker might see fit to consult those who served on his conference to establish whether, in all the circumstances, they would consider reversing the decision they then took. They might feel that to shroud the proceedings in a cloak of secrecy is contrary to the whole spirit of the times, when it is seen that the proceedings of Select Committees are increasingly being opened up to public scrutiny to the great advantage, as I think, of the House and of the public as a whole.
In addition, this element of secrecy imposes a very serious handicap on every hon. Member who is trying to form a decision on these matters. Perhaps this does not apply so much to the Home Secretary, because I am certain that he has looked at the subject extremely thoroughly and no doubt has had the best advice of his Department, but not all hon. Members have that advantage. Why should they not have the benefit of seeing the arguments put in the Conference?
§ Mr. Maclennan
Will not the hon. Member acknowledge that there is a difference between proceedings of Mr. Speaker's Conference and those of Select Committees, in so far as the bulk of the Reports of Select Committees is concerned with evidence which those Committees took and not with the argumentation that leads them to their conclusions; and that in the case of Mr. Speaker's Conference it would be very difficult to present in any published form the kind of evidence we received?
§ Mr. Lubbock
I can only disagree most strongly with the hon. Member. I believe that if the report of our proceedings were published it would be of immense benefit to anyone reading it to see what the arguments were. As the right hon. Member for Leeds, West, has said, we went into this question of votes at 18, in particular, extremely thoroughly, but we did so also in regard to other matters. I just ask why our colleagues in this House should be denied the benefit of seeing what those arguments were. I hope that if the opinion is sufficiently strongly expressed in this debate that 85 these proceedings should be laid open to public view, Mr. Speaker will consult those concerned and seek to obtain a reversal of that decision.
As to the arguments the Government considered in deciding to go against some of the decisions of Mr. Speaker's Conference, one would like a little more than has been given by the Home Secretary this afternoon and what is contained in the While Paper. I agree with some of the points made by the Minister in opening the debate, but it would not be at all a bad thing if the arguments were presented in slightly more detail.
I welcome, for instance, the decision to allow party labels on ballot papers if that is humanly possible and if we can think of a method by which these labels can be secured to the parties entitled to use them. As is known, we in my party have suffered from this very much in the past when certain hon. Members on this side have fraudulently passed themselves off as so-called "National Liberals". I understand that this is at an end today, and not before time, but what it to stop a member of the Conservative Party, or any other person who is malevolently minded, passing himself as a Liberal or, indeed, as a member of the Labour Party—
§ Mr. Lubbock
Although the danger might not be very serious in the immediate future, the House should recognise it, and take steps to prevent it in the future.
I think that Mr. Speaker's Conference was entirely wrong on the question of opinion polls and betting odds, and since it has been ruled that it is possible to say how one voted, I am glad to reveal that I was in a minority on this issue. I have been the subject of opinion polls in several elections, and I should like to mention the figures to the House to show how little they affected the result.
At the 1964 election the National Opinion Poll predicted that the Tories would get 46.3 per cent. of the votes in my constituency and that I would get only 36 per cent., so that the Tories would win by more than 10 per cent. That prediction was utterly false, of course, and was only marginally less inaccurate than the Evening Standard poll for the 1966 86 election which said that the Tories would obtain 52.5 per cent. of the vote and that I would get only 28.3 per cent., which would mean a Tory majority of about 12,000 over the Liberals if there were an 80 per cent. turn-out. In fact, there was a turn-out of more than 80 per cent., but it was not a Tory majority of 12,000, but a Liberal majority of 1,600.
That proves that we need not have any anxiety about the effect of the publication of public opinion polls on people's intentions. The same is true of betting. I am not sure that I liked the Home Secretary's moralising attitude. If people want to bet, that is their affair and if they want to bet on elections, although the right hon. Gentleman may disapprove, there is no justification for preventing them. I would not stop people from betting on the election of the next Archbishop of Canterbury, although that might be in slightly bad taste. The right hon. Gentleman went a little too far in moralising on this subject.
§ Mr. Lubbock
But the views of Ministers tend to be expressed in legislation. It was a little unnecessary of the right hon. Gentleman to make those remarks.
I am glad to have been able to inform the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) that the subject of absent wives was dealt with in Mr. Speaker's Conference and that by implication the Government have accepted that recommendation, as they have those recommendations which are not specifically mentioned in the White Paper. I am particularly pleased about this, because it was in 1963 that I introduced a Bill to give the right to vote to absent wives and it was consistently vetoed by the Conservative Party Friday after Friday, even though I went round begging Members to accept it on the basis that it was entirely uncontroversial and that no one could defend a situation in which a wife accompanying her husband and away from home on polling day when he had to be away from home because of his service or occupation should be denied the ability to vote herself.
If the Conservatives, when in office, had wanted to clear this minor defect in our procedure, they could have done so 87 five years ago, when I gave them the opportunity.
It is only natural that the argument this afternoon should be concentrated on the age of voting. We all appreciate that, with 3 million young people between the ages of 18 and 21 coming to the electoral roll and not necessarily sharing the opinions of their elders, there may be some shift in the political balance, and we cannot ignore that fact. Many who disapprove of the Government's decision to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 are, at any rate subconsciously, affected by the knowledge that they may be disadvantaged by it. Conversely, it may seem to others that they will do rather well out of the votes of these 18 to 21-year-olds and they may be in favour of the Government's decision.
The remarks of the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) are significant. He obviously hates nationalism and was opposed to the extension of the voting age to 18 mainly on those grounds. He thought that in Scotland and Wales many of the young people would support the nationalist cause. He may be correct, but if young people choose to vote nationalist or Liberal, or even Conservative—heaven forbid—that should be their right, and that is what the right hon. Member is preventing them from doing, if that is what they think correct.
I hope that I have considered this problem with as much objectivity as possible, although I would not be honest if I did not admit that in my experience most young people between those ages are radical in outlook and that it is quite possible that my own party would derive some benefit from the addition of these young people to the electoral register. But I have tried to put that consideration out of my mind—[Laughter.]—having admitted it to the House, which is more than some hon. Members have done, elderly hon. Members opposite who have spoken against the proposal to lower the voting age and who think, probably subconsciously, as I say, that they may be adversely affected by that decision.
There is no public support whatever for the age of 20. There was much less support for that proposition in Mr. Speaker's Conference than for lowering the voting age to 18. It would have been a most unhappy compromise which no 88 one in the House could have defended if the Government had accepted it. I absolutely agree that the Latey Report has some bearing on this subject and it is not a sensible proposition for the right hon. Member for Vauxhall and the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) to suggest that we should consider all sorts of different ages for different purposes.
Nearly all the responsibilities and duties of young people, except voting, were considered by the Latey Committee, which did not recommend having the age of 18 for this, 19 for that and 20 for the other. It recommended that the age of 18 should be introduced for all purposes under its consideration. The Latey Committee did not make any recommendation about voting, because it was specifically enjoined not to do so and it carefully refrained from expressing any opinion on that subject, although hon. Members who are opposed to the decision seemed to think that in some way the Latey Report supports their conclusions.
I dare say that in the circles in which the right hon. Member for Vauxhall moves young people do not want to vote. If I may say so without causing any offence, he always strikes me as a bit of a Tory, and I am not surprised to find that his young friends think that voting should not be extended in this way. However, in the constituency which I represent the young people to whom I speak are in favour of this reduction, and so are many of the correspondents who write to me every week on this subject.
It is important for the right hon. Gentleman to remember that even if a half, or only one-third, of the young people between those ages want to exercise their right, they are in as great a proportion as their elders. Only 18 per cent. of the people of the Borough of Islington bothered to cast their vote in the last London Borough elections. We all know that if there is a 30 per cent. turnout at local elections, we regard it as jolly good. But no one suggests that because the other 70 per cent. have not exercised their right, they should be deprived of it and crossed off the register at the next election; yet that is the logic of the right hon. Gentleman's argument.
I shall not argue about maturity, because we could discuss that for hours and hours and it is entirely a matter of 89 opinion. I would certainly say that young people are now more politically conscious than they have ever been, certainly more than in the days when I was at University. It happens that my wife attends a university and meets many young people during the course of her studies. She tells me that the age group 18 to 21 is extremely politically conscious in the college which she attends, and I have no reason to suppose that that institution is in any way unique.
Finally, on this subject I should like to quote from what is a very good general summary of the situation which was published in New Society, in January 1966. In his conclusions, Mr. John Barr, the author of the article, says:On balance, the evidence available points to all things eventually converging at 18. And in at least the matters of marriage and contracts, property and voting, 18 as the age of majority would seem to conform sensibly to conditions in modern Britain and would approach more closely physiological and psychological realities than does 21.That sums up very well the case which has been accepted by the Government, and for which the arguments are not only those considered by Mr. Speaker's Conference, but those put forward by a wide circle of sociologists, educationists and politicians outside of this House. I wonder sometimes whether the unrest and dissatisfaction which manifests itself among young people today is not due, at least partly, to the fact that we have denied them the exercise of responsibility in a democratic society. By extending the voting age to 18 we shall do a lot to bring them back into the mainstream of our political life.
That is a criticism of our voting system, and another is that not only among young people, but among the electorate as a whole, it does not fulfil the intentions of the electorate. I do not agree with the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone that it would have been startling and somewhat disturbing if the conference had been radical in its conclusions, or that the fact that the conclusions were relatively minor show that there was little to be said against the present system.
I thought that this showed that minds were irrepiarably made up, as he said a few sentences later. In his remarks about the electoral system he showed that like the late Mr. Lloyd-George he did not 90 understand how the single transferable vote works, and could not be bothered to find out. He even referred to it as the alternative vote, in spite of the fact that the Home Secretary had used the correct term several times.
What was discussed at Mr. Speaker's Conference was not the alternative vote. As far as one can tell from the recommendations, that matter was never before it. As the Home Secretary correctly said, it devoted some time to the question of the single transferable vote. I will not go through the system again, because he described it very accurately, but I would like to mention four principles which ought to be fulfilled by any electoral system and which are fulfilled by the S.T.V. but are not met in the present "first past the post" set-up.
First, a system should enable every citizen to participate, and as the Home Secretary has said, this is the fashionable word, in the process of Government by making an effective and positive choice between persons and attitudes. Secondly, it should not only give the vote to every adult elector, and in this context I mean over the age of 18, it should also ensure that every vote has roughly the same influence on the result. We have heard a lot about "one man, one vote" but not enough about "one vote, one value."
Thirdly, the system must give fair representation, in accordance with the number of votes cast, as between different points of view. That not only applies to the political parties, but to the nuances of opinion within one political party. Finally, such a system should not be capable of giving arbitrary results because of the operation of extraneous factors, like the delineation of constituency boundaries.
The Home Secretary said that he could not see any merits in S.T.V. because it did not result in strong government, and did not allow for the association between a Member and his constituency which is such a valuable feature of our present system. As to his point about strong government, he must know that many times this century, and twice since the last war, our present electoral system has not resulted in a working majority, or has resulted in no majority at all.
One does not have to go back very far. In 1964, the Government had a majority of three and it was touch and 91 go for 18 months between General Elections as to whether they would be able to remain in office. When one looks at the Canadian situation, which has the "first past the post" set-up, there have been many occasions when Governments have not been elected to office by an overall majority, but have depended upon the votes of some other party to retain power.
Conversely, if one looks at a place where the single transferable vote has operated such as Tasmania, where there are only two parties, as compared with three in the rest of Australia, there has never been any difficulty in a party forming a Government. I would beg the Home Secretary to reconsider what he said on this, because it is not a fact that the S.T.V. necessarily leads to a multiplicity of parties and a weak Government.
§ Mr. Callaghan
The hon. Gentleman is turning my argument on its head. My argument is that I think that the two party system is more likely to do it than the other system. I do not say that the other system will not do it, but I think it less likely to do so. One thing to which I would take exception is that there would be a changing kaleidoscope of politicians forming alliances to make a Government, which is not the kind of choice which the elector necessarily wants to make and which he can make when he is voting on a two-party system.
§ Mr. Lubbock
The right hon. Gentleman is quite incorrect. What he is thinking of is the list system which operates in many continental countries, where these alliances do take place. I agree that in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, Belgium, for instance, because of the arrangement there is connivance between the various political parties and in order to obtain a working majority it is necessary for some compromises to be made.
§ Mr. English
Would the hon. Gentleman agree that while the list system was not the system used generally in France, nevertheless it had a multiplicity of parties, with the results that my right hon. Friend mentioned?
§ Mr. Lubbock
The French have what people think of in this country as a pro- 92 portional representation system. It is no such thing. This is really a red herring. They had what was called a second ballot and I believe that they still use it on some occasions. One always gets this when one is discussing electoral reform. People produce instances like France and Scandinavia, where the system is not the one we are advocating, and the Home Secretary has fallen into this trap.
If one wants to discuss the present working of the S.T.V. there are, unfortunately, only two places in the world to which one can refer. One is Tasmania, where the system has worked extremely well for something like 50 years, and with two parties. The other place is the Republic of Ireland, where at the moment they are considering whether the system should be changed. It is an important point that the Irish Government, being very democratic, is putting this to the whole of the electorate, and I trust that they will be sensible enough to reject the proposals that have been made, in the interest of the majority party, that they should operate some kind of system similar to ours.
The choice which an elector makes under our present system is very often as ineffective as it is effective. Take the 1966 General Election, when 46 per cent. of the voters supported losing candidates. At all elections since the war the number has varied between 45 per cent. and 48 per cent. In other words, nearly half of the 27,500,000 voters who go to the polls at any General Election might as well stay at home in front of their television sets for all the difference they make to the results.
In many constituencies where one party or another has a substantial majority, as for example in the mining seats of South Wales, or in the shires, there is no point in a Conservative or Labour supporter respectively going to the polls, because never in his life will he influence the results. If one were a Tory living in Ebbw Vale, there really would not be any point in going to the polling booths, and if one were a Labour voter in South Kensington or Orpington it would be just as pointless.
In my constituency the Labour Party has lost its deposit three times in a row, 1962, 1964 and 1966. I feel sorry for 93 Labour Party supporters in my constituency. It must be absolutely heartbreaking to slog round the streets, and to go to the polls knowing that at the end of the day the party will lose its deposit as regularly as clockwork. This is a most undesirable feature of our electoral system, when 10 per cent. to 12 per cent. of the voters know that whatever they do, however hard they work, there is no purpose whatever in their working under our democratic system. In whole regions there are important minorities permanently under-represented. In Sussex, there is, for the first time in history, Labour Party representation. Yet they get a fairly substantial number of votes. People going to the polls in Sussex in support of Labour candidates know that it is a hopeless cause.
We have this negative vote in our present system. According to an opinion poll conducted to establish the strength of the negative vote, 14.6 per cent. of the population admit to voting for somebody, not because they like him, but to keep someone else out. It is not unlikely that, if 14.6 per cent. of the people admit to voting negatively to keep somebody else out, the actual percentage is very much higher, because most people would not think it a creditable thing to do and would probably deny it to the interviewer.
Even if the voter is on the winning side, he has no opportunity of expressing a preference as between the different points of view in his own party. For example, there is a variety of views in the Conservative Party about Rhodesia, and these views are all represented in the House. But in one constituency the hon. Member may be right, centre or left. Let us take Maidstone, Sevenoaks and Ton-bridge, three neighbouring constituencies in Kent, all represented by Tory Members. One voted in favour of oil sanctions on that famous occasion, one voted against and the third abstained.
If these three constituencies were grouped in a multi-member constituency under the S.T.V. system, the Conservative voter in Maidstone, Sevenoaks and Ton-bridge, or whatever it might be called, would have an opportunity to say which of the three Conservative attitudes to oil sanctions he supported and, therefore, he would be exercising a preference in an effective manner which, as I have said, is 94 one of the most important features of any system.
Obviously, there is not time for me to go through all the arguments. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear".] I have put only those which seemed to me the most important arguments in favour of a fundamental and radical recasting of our electoral system, which the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone said he opposed. I am under no illusions. If the voting at Mr. Speaker's Conference was 19 against and one in favour of such a change, I do not have very much chance of getting it through the House. But it illustrates how much hon. Members are conditioned by their political heritage to think of the two-party system, as the Home Secretary does, as an eternal verity which cannot be changed by this House or by the people.
It is a most unhappy situation, but true, that we are not ready to think of these new ideas, but I hope that the day will come when the strength of these arguments will impress itself on hon. Members.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I would remind the House that many hon. Members wish to speak. I have appealed for reasonably brief speeches.
§ 6.34 p.m.
§ Mr. J. J. Mendelson (Penistone)
One of the reasons why I tried earlier in an intervention to urge upon my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary a change in the system concerning the publication of the debates in Mr. Speaker's Conference was illustrated by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock.) At the beginning and end of his speech he launched the canard that everybody at Mr. Speaker's Conference had made up his mind in advance and that the members of the conference were arguing purely about the problem which the hon. Member has been urging on the House on party political grounds.
I say without hesitation that that is wholly untrue, but I am in no position to prove it because I have not the text of the debates to refer to. It is all the more important to nail this untruth, because it is repeated this morning in a leading article in a leading national newspaper, which says that Mr. Speaker's 95 Conference curtly dismissed this proposal. That is wholly untrue. The man who wrote that leading article is in no position to know whether it was done curtly or in any other way. It is wholly outside his knowledge and he should have known better. I do not know what members of Mr. Speaker's Conference he spoke to, or what drove him to his conclusion. I believe that, on the contrary, there was full debate on the issues and principles involved.
This important conference, under your chairmanship, Mr. Speaker, meets only once in 25 or 30 years. Therefore, its decisions and the arguments behind its decisions should be known to the electorate because they will guide the framework and the system of our political life for a generation. Some means of publication should be found so that a proper impression of what the debates were like should be conveyed to the people most directly concerned, and that is the members of the electorate.
§ Mr. Onslow
The hon. Gentleman stresses the length of time over which Mr. Speaker's Conference considered this issue. Would he add that we heard witnesses on this matter and examined them at length, and they explained to us the advantages of the system as they saw it? We had the opportunity to consider it in great detail.
§ Mr. Mendelson
I accept that, and it would be important to convey it to the electorate. But it is not right to do what the hon. Member for Orpington has just attempted to do, namely, to give a wholly misleading account of the trend of discussion at the conference.
The point which the hon. Member for Orpington urged must not be dressed by him with the clothes of novelty, as though he were bringing it forward for the first time. After all, these matters have been discussed for many years, and there is a majority opinion, not only in Mr. Speaker's Conference, but among people who are not Members either of the Commons or of the other place, who are teaching this subject—for instance, those involved in sociological inquiries into different political systems and different systems of government.
Over the years, many of us have come to the conclusion, in contrast to the hon. 96 Member for Orpington, that he is advocating a system which would produce a multiplicity of political groups, and, while it would be a highly accurate expression, in some cases, of what people think on certain issues, it would lead to a weakening of democratic government—that is our conviction—because these many groups would have to go into coalitions to form a working government. We are against coalitions because we believe that after a coalition has broken up everybody wants to be the father of the successful policies which the Coalition Government carried through and nobody wants to be the parent of the failures. In the old saying, "Success has many parents", failure is always an orphan. It would interfere with the ability of the electorate to judge a Government and call a Government to account.
These general principles have nothing whatever to do with party advantage, and it should not go out from this House that Mr. Speaker's Conference did not do its job properly in considering the principles of government, as it was charged to do.
I turn to the Government's proposal to reduce the voting age. I think that I am the first Member from this side of the House who has had the pleasure of commending the Government and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for having taken this decision and for having advanced this proposal. I am glad to find myself in this role. It is the right decision, and I wish to advance one or two reasons why I believe it to be right.
I do not wish to spend too much time on what some right hon. Members on this side of the House and on the benches opposite have said. I do not think that we should make too much of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) adduced in the latter part of his speech, because he was obviously casting about for additional arguments to back up his main case, which was that young people are not mature enough and cannot be trusted and should not have the vote. That is really all that he said. This is the case to which we should address ourselves.
The Latey Report is of the greatest possible relevance in this context. The way in which the members of Mr. Speaker's Conference approached the 97 Latey Report was a most amusing experience. For a very long time everybody eagerly awaited the appearance of the Latey Report, and I conclude from that, without giving away any secrets, that if a report is eagerly awaited for a long time those people must think, during that period when they are eagerly awaiting it, that the report, once it is published, will be relevant to the consideration of the subject with which they are dealing.
That seems logical enough and I think that everybody must agree with that. Occasionally, when the attempt was made to discuss this matter of the voting age, the answer was always, "No, we must wait for the Latey Report". I hope that you will not reprimand me, Mr. Speaker, for being irreverent if I report that I said to one or two of my colleagues on Mr. Speaker's Conference that I had renamed Mr. Speaker's Conference into "the Latey Report conference", because it reminded me of a pre-war play by Clifford Odets, called "Waiting for Lefty"; it seems to me that Mr. Speaker's Conference was very eagerly awaiting what Latey would say.
That situation very radically changed after the Latey Committee had reported, and within a very short time; after time had passed to read the Latey Committee Report, it seemed that a large majority who had been in favour of waiting for Latey suddenly said that the Latey Report was wholly irrelevant to the consideration of the voting age.
§ Mr. Onslow
I would hesitate to suggest that the hon. Member is putting on our proceedings a gloss which is entirely personal, but I would say to him that this does not correspond with my opinion. We waited impatiently for Latey because we were anxious to get on with the subject, and that is all.
§ Mr. Mendelson
I am quite happy to accept that version because the hon. Member said they waited impatiently, which is, in other words, what I have been saying.
However, the important point about the Latey Report, the point which has not been clearly stated by anybody yet who has spoken from the back benches on either side, is that the terms of reference of the Latey Committee excluded consideration of the problems of the voting age, and this is a cardinal fact this House 98 must be familiar with. It was not that the Latey Committee got together and said, "We are not going to allow any decision on considering the voting age." It was that it was not part of the terms of reference of the Committee and, therefore, the Committee could not consider it.
If the Government are to make a change in the law which bestows new legal responsibilities upon citizens at the age of 18 that must obviously be of the greatest possible relevance to our conclusions about the voting age. Nobody has argued that because one has been done the other must be done. What has been argued, reasonably, and what I am arguing now, is that the decisions of the Latey Committee, accepted by the Government and considered by the House must be of very great relevance to our conclusions about the voting age, and, stated in that form, I think it reasonable to invite the House to accept that if this change in the age of responsibility were to become part of our law it would be absurd to defend a position where we do not extend this change to the political responsibilities of a member of the electorate.
It was because he saw this logical difficulty that my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall, who is a very experienced Member, a former Minister and a senior Minister at that, piled up all those absurdities at the end of his speech about Scottish Nationalists, and so on. They are wholly irrelevant to this debate, for we are not charged to make constitutional law in consideration of any particular part of the electorate in any particular part of the country. That is not our task. Those assessments—all those red herrings—are irrelevant to this debate. We do not make constitutional changes to promote the disadvantage or the advantage of any one part of the country or of any political group in existence or of any which do not yet exist—for there may be new ones in the next 25 years. All this is irrelevant. We have to judge on what seems to be the logical conclusion about the participation and political responsibility of our younger citizens, and having once made up our minds on that we must act accordingly.
I therefore come to the chief arguments which are being urged against reducing the voting age and which, I think, are 99 worthy of more serious consideration. One is that it has been alleged that the young people do not want the vote themselves. This I declare to be wholly untrue. I think that on this I shall carry my right hon. and hon. Friends with me who were on Mr. Speaker's Conference even though they disagree with me in my main conclusion.
The limited evidence which the Latey Committee itself received—it did not make any large scale inquiry on this, and I do not blame it for that—shows the result, as my hon. Friend who was a member of the Committee will agree, that the majority were in favour of having the vote; or there were inconclusive opinions, but there was a balance in favour of reducing the voting age to 18.
Surely it is quite unfair and quite unrealistic to assert, in the face of this limited evidence, which does exist, that young people in general have expressed the opinion that they do not want it. Moreover, it is quite unrealistic in terms of any one particular question put to any one particular group. This is not the way in which we conduct the business of Government. We are weighing balances in general, and we then come to conclusions and put them to the House to assess responsibly what the best course of legislation may be.
There is one serious objection I want to deal with and that concerns the position of people who are still under the influence of teachers. What is the real position? The real position is that under our present system many people reach the age of 23 or 24 before they can vote for the first time. Under the change which will occur there will still be many people who will vote for the first time at the age of 21 or 22. This is a point which has not been made but which ought to be made if we are to consider this matter realistically, that, on the normal mathematical mean, only a section of those newly enfranchised will vote at the age of 18. The figure of 3 million has been mentioned, but of those 3 million not all will be 18; there will be different ages ranging from 18 to 22 represented in that bracket of the electorate.
So that while one can say that university teachers are at the moment supervising a number of members of the elec- 100 torate, are we to say that teachers will be political corrupters who will push their point of view and break their contracts and the conditions of honourable service and turn suddenly into political propagandists quite different from what they are at the present time? That is one reason given for not reducing the voting age. It is an absurd argument and not really worth anything.
I conclude, therefore, on this point, that the Government are doing the right thing, but we ought also to remember what the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) said when he expressed qualified opposition to the change. Having said that his right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, West (Mr. Iain Macleod) seemed to welcome it, he himself expressed qualified opposition to it. He was saying that we must consider the general position of Parliament and the general state of politics.
The best and most profound reason why I welcome the approach of the Government in the matter is that one of our essential tasks is to bring young people into active politics and into the active political life of the country. Nothing could be more important. It is being urged that the merit of Senator McCarthy, in the United States, is that he has brought back hundreds of thousands of young people because he has made them feel that they have a stake in the campaign.
In this country, there are dangerous propagandists going round arguing that Parliament does not matter, that politics do not matter and that the democratic process does not matter. This is the kind of cynicism that ought to be rejected and fought. But one does not fight it by fine speeches; one fights it by persuading young people that they have a part in this political life and ought to take an active part in it.
This is the most powerful reason why the House should urge the Home Secretary and the Government to make the change. This is particularly important when assaults are made on Parliament as a whole. I would mention, in passing, that one of the most powerful arguments for our Parliamentary institutions has recently been seen in Czechoslovakia. Before the wholly unjustified invasion by the Soviet Army, one of the three main 101 aims of the reformers was to create a real Parliament, which the Czechoslovaks had not had. Those who belittle our Parliamentary institutions, from whatever quarter, would soon realise what they had lost once they had lost them. It is of the greatest political importance to ensure that our young people have an understanding of and participate in our political life.
I mention another subject which is not popular, has not received much support in the debate and has been widely criticised in the Press, and that is the recommendation that 72 hours before the day of polling no betting odds and no results of public opinion polls ought to be published. I am a supporter of that proposal. It would be politically rather cowardly if I sat down without speaking in favour of the recommendation of the majority of Mr. Speaker's Conference when I fully agree with my colleagues in support of the proposal.
The Home Secretary did not do justice to the proposal when he referred to it today. He was not in a position to do full justice to it because, as he said, he did not know the trend of the argument that had gone on in the conference. But there were much wider considerations. I want to put forward one wider consideration that supports the proposal. Even if because of practical difficulties the Government do not find themselves able to produce a change in the law in line with it at the present time, I would stress that one of the purposes of bringing the recommendation forward was to make it part of our public debate.
One of the things about which I am concerned is not only publication of the results of public opinion polls but the control of the mechanism of public opinion polls. There are many private organisations based on private capital in many countries which are in charge, through financial interlocking arrangements, of public opinion surveys. There are many public opinion surveys the results of which are not published. There are others whose results are deliberately kept back and then released at a certain moment when a trade group that wishes to seek influence believes that it is in its interests and the interests of its backers for them to be published.
102 First of all, this sort of thing puts at an unfair advantage members of the electorate who dispose of large financial means. The average shop steward or miner cannot control his own public opinion survey. It has to be a financially powerful group that is in a position to do that.
Secondly, it is possible, in spite of what the hon. Member for Orpington said, to influence elections by certain manipulations. For instance, certain secret polls are taken, and then the results are released at a moment judged opportune by those concerned with the poll. This may be done in order to discourage members of the electorate from expressing the clear point of view they had intended to express. The result of this exercise may be to try to prove that the chances of a certain candidate are hopeless and then drive many of the electorate to the conclusion "Our true opinion will not be expressed because our man has not got a chance anyway. Let us go over to somebody else."
Although this is not the time to deal with the matter, I invite the hon. Member for Orpington to be very modest when we come to examine this in relation to his own political life. He did not say anything about that when he made his speech.
§ Mr. Lubbock
Surely the hon. Gentleman does not accuse me of publishing the result of that poll, which showed me as losing by 12,000 votes, in order to secure my election. I pointed out that the publication of that poll shortly before the 1966 by-election apparently had very little effect on the result.
§ Mr. Mendelson
The hon. Gentleman says "apparently". All I am saying is that on another occasion when there is more time we will examine what actually happened more carefully.
There is evidence, into which I cannot go now, that if the system develops—again I say that we are going to legislate on these recommendations for a period of 25 to 30 years—there is grave danger in a political democracy that certain sections should be able, because of the financial power of which they dispose, to get together and organise such polls, keep them secret and then release the results at a moment of their own choosing so as to influence the electorate 103 in a way that other members of the electorate could not.
These are some of the reasons why we reached this recommendation, and I hope that it will be seriously considered even though it cannot be enacted at the present time.
§ 6.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Cranky Onslow (Woking)
Mr. Speaker, I add my voice to those who have expressed the pleasure that we all felt as members of your conference and in serving with that conference, even though I was a comparative latecomer to its proceedings.
Having heard the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson), I am more tempted than when the debate began to feel that it would be to the advantage of the House if our proceedings in the conference could be published, because that would remove a good deal of the subjective interpretation which has characterised individual hon. Members reporting about the proceedings—of which I may be guilty if I am not careful.
I was not present when the vote was taken on the matter of public opinion polls, and so I must now say that I am grateful to the hon. Member for Penistone for rehearsing the details of the dreadful capitalist conspiracy which apparently lies at the root of his opposition to the publication of such polls. I am glad that he has told the House why this particular and somewhat eccentric recommendation came forward, but I still think that on that day the conference was nodding.
The Home Secretary has injected a note of paternalism into the debate which ill accords with our consideration of matters of this kind. He said he wanted to hear our views, as though he had gone into the servants' hall and asked whether everybody was happy with the food but had not the slightest intention of doing anything to improve it. He has shown little willingness to be persuaded if the House disagrees with him. What is more distressing is that he has shown a somewhat cynical reluctance to pledge himself to carry out the spirit of the law of the land when it comes to Parliamentary redistribution. He had an opportunity today to assure us that this matter would receive his full, conscientious and early consideration. All that he was able 104 to assure us was that he would not consider it before he had to. There is a wide difference between those two positions.
I invite the Home Secretary to clear up an obscurity on a point of detail which emerges from the White Paper and the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference. It concerns the position of Service voters. I am not sure what the effect is of the apparent acceptance of the recommendation of the conference to alter radically the arrangements for the registration of Service voters.
I must declare an interest in this since there is a large number of military establishments in my constituency, including the depots of the Brigade of Guards, the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and the Royal Army Medical Corps. Should we anticipate a substantial increase in the electorate resulting from such a situation? Supposing the Irish Guards happened to be at home on the qualifying day for an election, since many of them would presumably have no other address in the United Kingdom at which they could be registered as electors, would they all be able to register on the electoral roll for the parish of Pirbright? I would have no objection if this were so; I would merely like to be told precisely what the situation is.
We are, I suppose, having this debate today so that the Government can say that they have consulted the House. I asked the Home Secretary, in his speech, why he had apparently not thought it right to make a direct attempt to obtain evidence bearing one way or another upon the change introduced by the Government extending the polling hours from nine to 10. I reminded him, as I am sure he will remember, that his Department sought some evidence from those concerned, in particular from the returning officers, as to the effects of an extension until 9.30
The right hon. Gentleman probably knows that the reaction of returning officers to the proposed extension of half an hour was hostile. I accept that he is not bound to accept conclusions nor, necessarily, to be influenced by evidence submitted to his Department, and I suppose that he is under no obligation to consult anybody before he makes up his mind; but apparently there is thought to be some value in consultation and some 105 point in asking questions before making decisions.
I therefore ask him again whether he has given full weight to the effects of the extension to 10 o'clock, and whether, since he announced that decision, he has not received much stronger representations from the returning officers on the effect it s likely to have on their unfortunate staffs.
§ Mr. Callaghan
I never think that the hon. Gentleman is a very fair debater, but I will give him his answer straight away. Yes, I did consult them; there is a heavy weight of representations against 10 o'clock, and I reported both those facts to the House when I made my speech.
§ Mr. Onslow
I apologise to the Home Secretary if I misheard him. Fair debater or not, I will quote a letter which I have received from his noble colleague, Lord Stonham, to whom I wrote. I asked him what evidence the Government have sought on this subject, and the answer I received was:My colleagues required no evidence from outside to convince them of the value and importance of allowing the maximum opportunity for people to vote.Why, then, bother to ask? Why go through the farce of consultation if no evidence from outside is required? The impression which the Home Secretary gave to the House was that he had required no evidence, he had made up his mind. It is true that it was his right to do so, but I must still put it to the Home Secretary that it does not do much to create a climate of confidence if consultation is a mere pretence.
I think that the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) is right in saying that the effect of the extension will be to defer all counting until the following day, which may or may not be a good thing.
I do not want to repeat what has been said on the main matter of votes at 18. I must, however, say that the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) made an excellent speech. The Home Secretary called this proposal a bold step. I think that the right hon. Member's speech was a bold speech. Of course, there will be dissent. The hon. Member for Penistone implied that in some way the 106 conference was hoping that Latey would give us an excuse to come to the decision to which it came. To this we are bound to reply that the conference was not wholly shielded from influences brought to bear upon it to come to a decision favourable to the Government Front Bench.
Even when the Latey Report was published, and this will be within the recollection of the hon. Member for Penistone, we were advised not to proceed forthwith with our consideration in the conference, because there was a suggestion that it would be advantageous to wait until we knew the Government's view on Latey. I deprecate that that should have been so.
Moreover, at no stage have we had substantial evidence adduced in favour of the proposed change. We have had little evidence of a substantial desire for the reduction of the voting age to 18. If we are told that there are people of 18 who want to vote, by the same token I could produce daughters of 7 and 8 who would be delighted to have the vote, and I would be delighted that they should have the vote. But the mere wish to have the vote has nothing to do with what we are discussing here. We are talking about the appropriateness for the body politic as a whole that a particular section of our population should be enfranchised.
There has been much hearsay evidence on this. The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock), for instance, recalls that when he was at university the majority of students were not politically active. He and I were probably at university at the same time, and we may even have been at the same university. In those days we were perfectly content to get used to the feeling of wearing civilian clothes again and to rediscovering the taste of British beer, and we were not very anxious to take part in political activities. I dare say, had I been a boy of 18, I might have been carried away with enthusiasm for "undergrad" politics and I might even have aspired to a seat on the Front Bench. However, I was not particularly interested and most undergraduates at that time were not. The hon. Member for Orpington cannot make a case from that.
We are told that it is irrelevant to cite the political leanings of people between 107 the ages of 18 and 21; yet the hon. Member for Penistone reminded us of Czechoslovakia and he said that what had happened there was a great testimony to the value of democracy and the need for democracy.
§ Mr. Mendelson
On domestic points, I do not mind being misquoted, but this is a matter of more importance. What I said was that one of the main demands of the reformers in Czechoslovakia during the first six months of this year was to change a National Assembly, which was a sham, into a real Parliament, and I said that the critics of Parliament in this country should consider this point, among others, and not talk about abolishing Parliament.
§ Mr. Onslow
I was trying to compress the hon. Gentleman's argument, and I apologise to him. I have recently read a book by a Czech entitled, "The Communist Subversion of Czechoslovakia", which deals with the events of 1948, which is when the tragedy began. It contains these words:… the Communist Party was substantially benefited when the voting age was reduced from twenty-one to eighteen. Youth as a rule has tendencies towards radicalism and young people had enjoyed the particular attention of the party.We should consider carefully, in making a change of this kind, what its permanent effect on our society is likely to be. There can be no disenfranchisement; the vote, once it is ceded, cannot be taken away. If this is a mistake, it is a mistake which can never be undone. Therefore, there is an overwhelming burden of proof on the advocates of change to show us that this is not a mistake.
I regret to say that I believe there is one serious omission in this White Paper. This concerns the linked questions of the candidate's deposit in an election and of the expenses incurred by political parties. The recommendation of your conference, Mr. Speaker, was that there should be no substantial change on either point. I am one of those who feel that the time is coming when we shall have to make sure that our political parties do not suffer from financial anaemia.
Politics is becoming a more expensive business all the time. When I say that, I am not just talking about the impact 108 of S.E.T., but about the whole range of costs involved in employing professional organisers and maintaining an adequate party machine. The problem has been faced by the Germans, the French and the Swedes. They have all evolved different approaches. The Swedish solution is net a particularly good one, in my opinion, and I am not sure that either the French or the German solution is perfect.
But the time is coming when we in this country must consider whether the survival of democracy does not demand a degree of public contribution to the expenses of the parties which make up a democracy. This might be on the basis that a candidate securing a certain proportion of the votes when standing for election should be entitled to reclaim from the Exchequer some of his financial outflow on the printing of literature and other kinds of expenditure. We also face a situation where the deposit is no longer a meaningful deterrent to irresponsible candidates, if it ever was.
We ought now to aim at a situation where a responsible candidate receiving an established degree of public support should be entitled to some public contribution towards his expenses. I mention that in the hope that if the Home Secretary has by now forgotten his impatience with me, he will consider drawing the title of the legislation which he has to introduce in a way which will enable me to put down an Amendment on this important point.
§ 7.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Denis Coe (Middleton and Prestwich)
Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I welcome the debate as an opportunity not only to examine the specific proposals of electoral reform put before us but to re-examine the basis of our democratic system.
The degree of confidence in any system of government is dependent in large measure on the methods which a country uses to elect its Parliamentary and municipal representatives. Our electoral process is continually evolving, and it is worth recalling that, at each stage in that process of evolution, there have been those who have said time and again that certain issues of reform which have been put forward will have dire effects on our electoral system. I wonder whether that is not so today. When we come to look 109 at this debate in years to come and consider the matter of votes at 18, I wonder whether the effects on our democratic system v/ill have been anything like as great as has been suggested.
But, of course, every proposal for electoral reform must be subject to severe scrutiny before it is incorporated in our franchise Acts, and I believe that there are four criteria which we should apply to the proposals before us today. First, do the proposals effectively and properly involve participation by the electorate? Second, do they enable the electorate to have freedom of choice? Third, do they assist the electorate in making that free choice? Fourth, do they contribute to an electoral system which can be defended as being fair to all those who wish to take part in it?
I believe that the proposals before us broadly meet those four criteria and I therefore welcome them and congratulate the Government on responding so quickly to the work of Mr. Speaker's Conference.
I want now to comment briefly on one or two of the proposals before concentrating my remarks on one specific issue in which I have been very much involved since coming to the House.
First, I welcome the extension of hours to 10 o'clock. I appreciate and understand the feelings of returning officers who see it as being difficult administratively. I recognise the work that they do. However, in my view, we must be sure that the system is fair to all who partake in it. Many people on shift work, working overtime or having to work outside their home town find it difficult to vote before nine o'clock. Even if only a few benefit by this proposal, it is democratically right to incorporate it.
I am delighted, too, that people will be able to vote from the day on which they are of voting age. This has been a source of great frustration and can hardly be described as fair to young people who find themselves of voting age, yet prevented from voting.
Unlike one or two of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I welcome votes at 18. I appreciate that there are many arguments for and against it. Before I came to this House, I spent many years teaching people of this age. It is my considered view that young people today are more mature than they were when I was 110 their age. I believe that we have reached a stage where we can say quite properly that they are fit and able to have the vote at 18. Indeed, as the Government have accepted the Latey Committee's recommendations on other matters, it is logically impossible for them not to accept a proposal for votes at 18. I believe that getting youngsters to participate in our system of government will be of benefit both to them and to the country as a whole.
Referring to a point which my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) made, it does not worry me that we shall be leading the way on this issue amongst the Western democracies. We have done it in the past, and I shall be pleased if we can do it again.
I turn now to the proposal on which I have introduced two Private Member's Bills. I refer to that of enabling party labels to appear on ballot papers. If we are to lead the way amongst the Western democracies on votes at 18, we can hardly be said to do it on this proposal as the majority of Western democracies already incorporate it in their electoral laws.
I venture to suggest that this issue will be seen to be more important than the controversy over votes at 18. If the proposal is implemented, we shall recognise for the first time in our constitution the existence of political parties. Considering the long period over which parties have been operating in our political system, such a recognition is hardly premature. To me, the fact that we are acknowledging the existence of political parties is reason enough for this change.
We may not like all the manifestations of the party system, and it behoves every politician and party to do nothing to affect the proper working of our political system. But the political parties are here to stay. Our whole system of government would fall down if they disappeared. Therefore, it is only sensible that we should recognise the fact.
I believe that some of the public distrust and cynicism about the political system which we operate today stems from the fact that politicians themselves tend to shy away from party politics and suggest, if only by implication, that there is something not quite nice about the subject. However, we have to stand up and say quite clearly that our party 111 system has come to stay and that we believe in it. As my right hon. Friend said earlier when opening the debate, politicians should be preaching this much more than they do and I was glad to hear him say so.
There are also many practical reasons why this reform should be incorporated in our franchise Acts. In mentioning them, I must admit that they are more relevant in some cases to local government elections than to central government. I hope I shall not cause displeasure by getting out of order discussing things like multi-member vote, because this refers to local government and I must confine my remarks to central government elections.
Amongst the practical reasons one could advance is, first, the size of electorates. The right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) earlier said that people must vote for a man. I do not dispute this, but we must accept that with an electorate of 60,000 the opportunity to know the man specifically as someone for whom one wishes to vote will be possible for only a small number of people. Therefore, regrettably or not—I do not believe regrettably—most people are voting for the party and one must accept this as a fact.
Secondly, there is some evidence from research that, concerning the alphabetical order of candidates on a party ballot paper, there is a tendency to vote for the top name on the list rather than further down. Again, this would be obviated if one had the party labels alongside the name.
Similar or the same names on a ballot paper can cause great confusion, as we have seen in recent elections. I would point out, speaking of Parliamentary elections where the problem is not so great, that, for example, in Anglesey in 1955 there were three Hughes and one Jones and in 1964 there were three Jones and one Hughes. In both cases I am glad to say that my right hon. Friend the Labour candidate was elected. However, I cannot help thinking that there were a number of electors who put their cross against the wrong Jones or the wrong Hughes. Therefore, it is right and proper that party labels should appear alongside the names.
112 I am naturally delighted that the Government have accepted this proposal in principle. But, as they say in their White Paper introducing this matter, it isProviding any necessary machinery can be worked out.I have tried over the last two years to find a means whereby this could happen. I will quickly look at some of the objections and perhaps suggest one or two answers. The objections raised to the problems go like this. First, how does one avoid the misuse of labels?
Secondly, what would be the position of the returning officer? Obviously he cannot be asked to adjudicate, because he is supposed to be independent.
Thirdly, what happens in the case of party splits? Who has the right to use the label?
Fourthly, what about the position of independents?
Fifthly, what effects would there be on election expenses, if any?
Lastly, if electors want to vote surely they should find out the names of the candidates and not expect the political parties or the electoral system to provide them.
It seems to me that those are the main objections usually raised against this proposal. My suggested answers are as follows. First, obviously one would have to change Schedules 2 and 3 of the Representation of the People Act to enable party labels to appear after the names.
Secondly, I suggest that the way in which this problem can be solved is to have a system of national registration of parties. I have in the past suggested that this could be done by the Registrar of Friendly Societies. This would seem appropriate in the case of political parties. I have also suggested this ought to be for parties with a paid-up membership of 1,000 or more, but this could be discussed. Once registered, that party, and that party only, would be allowed to use that particular label.
There would also have to be a timetable for this type of registration. I have suggested that when the Bill is passed the parties which are represented in the House of Commons at that time should have one month in which to register, if they so desire, their particular party labels. Thereafter, it would be open for 113 any other party to do so as well so long as it is able to satisfy the other conditions. This would be revised once a year in December. The register of labels would be published by the returning officer at each election. The central register would require information about who would be able to authorise use of the party label. In this way one would answer, first, the misuse of labels; secondly, the problem of the returning officer; and, thirdly, the question of party splits, because this would be a national registration which would ensure that there would be no difficulty at a local level.
I am anxious, as I have been all through my association with the problem, not to stop anyone standing for election. Therefore, concerning independents, my view is that those who are not registered would still be allowed to stand for Parliament but would not put anything on the ballot paper. In other words, registration would mean that they could use a label. If they were not registered, the name of the candidate would appear on the ballot paper, but the space for a label would remain blank. This would perhaps answer the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) who asked about his anti-Hogg candidate. If he were one anti-Hogg candidate by himself he would have no label on the ballot paper under the system I am suggesting. If he found 1,000 other anti-Hoggites to join him and he had registered as an anti-Hogg party he would be able to put that on the ballot paper.
Concerning election expenses, I do not believe that there will be any difficulty. Disputes, as now, would go to the election court.
Concerning helping people to know the names of candidates, the important issue is to persuade as many people as possible to participate in the electoral process. For me, the important issue is when the elector goes into the polling booth and puts his X against the candidate of his choice; and anything that I or this Parliament can do to improve the possibility of that is worth doing.
Finally, as I said earlier, we would be one of the last to make this change. Party allegiances on ballot papers are common practice in France, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Austria, Ireland. Denmark, the Netherlands, and West Ger 114 many. Registration of political parties is done by a variety of methods. In Sweden it is done by the Ministry of the Interior; in Norway by the Ministry of Municipal and Labour Affairs; in Ireland by the Clerk to the Dail; and in the Netherlands by the Electoral Council. In other words, there is nothing new about this. But it would be a great advance and would be worth doing.
I began by referring to four criteria in examining the way in which we should look at each of our proposals; participation, free choice, assistance in making that free choice, and an electoral system which can be demonstrated as fair. I believe that party labels on ballot papers and the other issues in the White Paper will meet these criteria, and I wish the Government luck in speedily bringing forward a Bill which can be translated into legislation and thus help our electoral system.
§ 7.29 p.m.
§ Mrs. Winifred Ewing (Hamilton)
All right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken have begun by paying tribute to Mr. Speaker. I should like to follow in this way and to say that the representatives of my party who gave evidence to Mr. Speaker's Conference were treated with the utmost fairness and courtesy throughout the proceedings. But I should like to pay tribute in a more unique form. I hope that when electoral democracy in Scotland inevitably produces a Scottish Parliament this House might spare Mr. Speaker, and, subject to his good will, let us borrow him for the first six months of our existence.
This is a debate on fundamentals. Democracy starts here and everything about democracy starts within the pages of this Report. Unless all these matters are on a fair basis to all, this House of Commons is built on sand. I ask that in future the confidentiality of proceedings of Mr. Speaker's Conference be removed. I could have benefited by having time to study all the arguments advanced, and the minutes of evidence, before coming to the debate, apart, of course, from my general interest in doing so. This seems to me to be an appropriate point to make during a debate of this kind. I think that we should consider whether the present confidentiality should be removed. As I understand, at the moment there is no means by which we 115 can be given an opportunity of reading the minutes even after the lapse of time.
The major issue in the debate is the question of voting at 18. On my first day in the House I spoke about the Latey Report, and, albeit out of order, I supported the proposal for votes at 18. I am happy now, within the rules of order, once again to support that proposal.
I put two questions to the House: first, why we should give votes at 18, and secondly, why should we not? I think that we should give people the right to vote at 18, because that is right in itself. The question of maturity must be a subjective matter, and there are as many views about it as there are Members in the House today.
It is my view, firmly held, and based on having been a lecturer with this age group, and also on more recent experience of speaking to many young people—this is one of the side benefits of being a Member—that certainly in Scotland there is a great desire among young people to have the right to vote.
I believe that young people today are more mature than their counterparts in earlier generations. There is not much doubt about this, but the question has been asked whether they have the necessary experience. I submit that these young people are more experienced today. They have grown up at a time when the television screen brings them into visual contact with the news of the world, something which was not experienced even by my generation. The world has become much smaller. Young people are now much more conversant with what is going on in the world, and with the great probblems of humanity. This situation would also argue that they are therefore more experienced than young people used to be.
We must remember, too, that people are getting married nowadays at a much earlier age than was the practice hitherto. Statistically, in England young people under 21 account for one marriage in four. Unfortunately, I do not have the statistics for Scotland. This factor, too, suggests that more and more of these young people have the necessary experience to vote.
It seems to me that there is an element of unreality about the approach to this problem. If young people were to read 116 a report of this debate, I wonder how many of them would be impressed with the reality of it. The fact is—and this was the point made by the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson)—that we are talking, not about a reduction of the voting age from 21 to 18 but from 23 to 20, as these are the average ages when votes are cast.
I wonder what we are getting upset about. The average age of voting will be 20, not 18. On the first day somebody is 17 he can get a provisional licence for driving. On the first day that he is 18 he is entitled to drink in a "pub". On the first day on which he is entitled to vote he does not necessarily do so, as there may not be an election for some time.
In the world today there are great forces of undemocracy. There are people who would like to break up peaceful demonstrations, who do not work through constitutional means. There is a lot of violence in the world, and a fear in the minds of many parents that young people in Britain might catch this bug. I am happy to report that there has been no violence at the Scottish universities. Can this be because there is in each a highly articulate forum for debate? In some universities there are great political debates, modelled exactly on the proceedings in this Chamber. Is it perhaps participation which has prevented violence from breaking out at these active and interested universities? Is not there a lesson to be learned from that? Is not participation essential in our affairs? Is this perhaps due to the fact that a certain dignity attaches to young people in Scotland who have been able to get married at the age with which we are concerned? I submit that if there is conscription at 18, that, too, is relevant. I submit that we should consider the attitude of young people and ask whether there is not some illogic in allowing them to accept the grave responsibility of marriage, or armed service while, at the same time, saying that they cannot make up their minds on this issue of voting.
The only reason adduced against giving these young people the right to vote—and this must be a subjective matter—is that they are not mature enough. I concede that it is arbitrary to fix an age for anything, but I do not have much sympathy 117 with the argument put forward. Why not the right to vote at 17, or even 16? I agree that 18 is arbitrary, but it seems to be, in relation to the physical majority about which we have been talking, a reasonable age leaving a reasonable interval in which to acquire the necessary experience.
The other argument advanced against giving voting rights at 18 is based on political expediency. I hope that I am not being unfair to the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) when I say that I was amazed to hear him suggest that we should base our consideration of this fundamental reform of the law on whether too many young people would vote for my party if they were given the right to vote at 18. I should be delighted if they did, but that is not why I am arguing for that right. I would argue for it even if I were convinced that they would vote for some other party.
I have given two examples of why there is no unrest among students in Scotland, and I therefore feel entitled to answer the point made about political expediency. I know of nowhere else in Europe where 20,000 people can have a peaceful demonstration, invade a town for a day and be congratulated for two years running by the chief constable concerned on the fact that there was no incident of any kind. It is this kind of constitutional practice which we ought to encourage. It shows a respect for the institution of Parliamentary government. My party advocates that all members of all parties should make every effort to improve the democratic institution of Parliament.
If more young people voted for my party, they would be voting for a democratic party amongst other democratic parties. If we ignore the feelings of young people we run the risk of failing to recognise their desire to participate in world affairs. If these young people were given the right to vote, we would improve the choice of candidates. There would be a chance of some younger members coming into this Chamber and enriching our debates. Their decision on who comes here, and perhaps more important, on who stays here, could help to wake us up to some of the realities of the world outside. Perhaps it is impertinent for me to say this, having been here for only one Session, but I think that there is a danger of this place becoming something of an ivory 118 tower if we do not accept the fact that the attitudes of young people have changed.
Reference has been made to party labels. It is illogical that we go to great lengths to connect an individual's name with a party label, and then object to having the label freely stated when the elector comes to make his choice at the ballot box, which is the final round of the battle. At a recent by-election at Caerphilly there were two candidates named Williams, and there was some confusion. I suggest to the Home Secretary that it would be fair to allow a candidate to mention the name by which he is known. I know that this is sometimes done in most unusual circumstances. It was done at Caerphilly, but I suggest that many people are not known by their birth names, yet they are compelled to put them on the ballot paper.
I am against the extension of polling hours, because this would result in delays in counting the votes and announcing the results.
I do not agree that there should be a ban on opinion polls. They do not operate in my favour because they are often based on a United Kingdom sample, and we get about 1 per cent. of the votes. Not many people in England would vote for the Scottish Nationalist Party, but on a proper Scottish sample it might be found that we would receive 33⅓ per cent. more of the votes.
I point to the danger that there might be some difficulty of definition: when is a poll not a poll? As a lawyer, I can foresee all manner of articles in newspapers and other media which could cause great difficulty to anybody who is asked to decide what is fair and what is to be banned. If someone intends to restrict freedom he must be certain that it is necessary. It is a natural human pleasure to speculate about the result of a political election. It seems to me to stimulate interest, which is a good thing.
I do not favour the multiple membership of constituencies, but a system of preference or priority voting, until one candidate receives a majority of the votes. I ask myself what is the chief evil that we are seeking to prevent. In Scotland, in 13 General Elections since 1918 only once has the party which won a majority of 119 Scottish seats also received a majority of Scottish votes. That seems to me to be the evil which we should seek to cure. The evil referred to by the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg), in an interesting speech, in which he said that this system causes the illogical result that the candidate at the bottom of the poll wields the greatest influence, is a lesser evil than that which I have mentioned.
My last point concerns the recommendation made in paragraph 36 of the Report, concerning broadcasting. It suggests a review of the broadcasting arrangements made at election times in respect of the minor parties. As I understand, the White Paper did not disagree, because, on page 4, under the heading "Other Recommendations" it says:On all other points save the following the Government accept in principle the recommendations of the Speaker's.Conference.I submit, therefore, that the White Paper accepts the recommendation about broadcasting.
The situation of political parties can change between elections. This is what has happened to the party that I represent. If I had arrived here some years ago I should have been representing a much smaller party. We can judge by local election results and by-election results. There has been a dramatic change in our support. It was due to the act of the Prime Minister that the Scottish National Party obtained its first party political broadcast. I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for that. In 1966, we had five minutes on television and five minutes on radio. We had the same in 1967 and again in 1968, except that there were some mishaps. The first concerned the party political broadcast last week, when the G.P.O. forgot to switch on the sound on Borders and Grampian Television. They had vision without sound. I know that many people turn down the sound when a political broadcast is on, but it is nice for the public to have a choice in the matter.
The other mishap concerned the reporting of the Scottish National Party Conference, when we had sound but no vision during the speeches of myself and Arthur Donaldson, S.N.P. Chairman.
§ Mrs. Ewing
Anything is possible.
We are satisfied that these mishaps were accidental. However, I hope that hon. Members will agree that when a party is rationed and has such a little time as we had, if something goes wrong it can rob one of one's whole platform. We have not had our statutory allocation altered since 1966. We have made representations to the B.B.C. and I.T.V., and to the Prime Minister, and have received helpful answers saying that the matter will be kept under review. The most recent reply I had from the Prime Minister was about a month ago, when he indicated that the question would depend largely on the outcome of this debate. I am therefore pleased to have the opportunity to make these points.
We have heard that the party system is necessary. Praise has been expressed for the two-party system, but our endeavours should be turned in the direction of bringing about what the electorate vote for and want rather than trying to perpetuate a two-party system which they may not want. Decisions about broadcasting are made at meetings where there are no Scottish representatives of the B.B.C. or I.T.A., and it is perhaps understandable that our requests for representation at these meetings have been turned down.
If any section of the public loses confidence in the essential fairness of mass media for political purposes the whole of democracy in Britain is affected, as is the validity of trying to put forward fair proposals.
I do not intend my remarks in any sense to be taken as personal innuendoes, but it is a fact that both the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. are controlled by persons who were politicians—one from each of the two main parties—and we want, therefore, to be doubly sure that the system is fair. I seriously suggest that it would ill become the House of Commons to allow the travesty to remain that the test in respect of political broadcasting should be the number of seats contested.
At one time it was 50, which would have meant that Plaid Cymru would have had to fight 14 seats in England as well 121 as the 36 Welsh seats and that we would have had to fight 75 per cent. of Scottish seats, whereas in England 50 seats would be only 8 or 9 per cent. of the total English seats. I know that this test was changed, and that the test is now on the number of votes cast and we are happy about that. This gets much nearer democracy. But if that is to be the test, should not there be some arrangement between the elections in favour of emergent political parties which clearly capture a large slice of votes, as my party did? At the last election we captured one-third of the votes. I make that plea to the Secretary of State for Scotland.
Lastly, if ever there were a subject for a free vote that would see to me to be the one.
§ 7.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
By a quirk of fate the chance falls to me to follow the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing) when speaking on a subject similar to that on which I spoke when I followed her maiden speech. Now, as then, I am in agreement with some of her sentiments. As she admitted, the question of judgment as to the maturity of the young is essentially a subjective one and as she did not go far beyond giving us her opinion on this she will forgive me if I do not follow her.
I had the good fortune to serve on both the Latey Committee and on Mr. Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law. I have heard all the arguments on one aspect of the White Paper which we are considering, namely, the age at which a person should be entitled to cast a vote. When the Government produced their White Paper it seemed to me that they proposed the age of 18 as the minimum age for voting for the worst possible reason, namely, that they accepted the recommendations of the Latey Committee as to the age of majority and, consequently, that it was necessary, in logic, to reach a similar conclusion about the age of voting.
This point has been answered fairly by a number of speakers. The principal concern of the Latey Committee was with those areas of private law which were drawn to its special attention—those areas concerned with contracts, the holding and disposing of property, the right 122 to marry freely without consent of a parent, and the whole question of wardship. During the course of our consideration of this question, we received evidence on a number of other questions, of a kind which enabled us to form fairly clear conclusions and to make recommendations accordingly.
What the Committee did not do, and what it was enjoined not to do, was to consider the question that we have before us today. It is true that the Committee received some evidence volunteered by members of the public who clearly saw a connection between the problem which the Committee had to consider and the question of the age of voting. As my vote on this question has been disclosed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), I am at liberty to explain how I reached my conclusions.
The Latey Committee did not cast a great deal of light on this question directly, and deliberately refrained from expressing an opinion about it. This does not mean that I do not consider that its conclusions were not relevant to this debate. They have a most important relevance, in that the Committee drew some important general conclusions about the maturity of the young on the basis of evidence devoted to private law.
But, although I believe that there is a clear logical distinction—unlike the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg)—between the exercise of private rights and public responsibilities, none the less I believe that the Committee's conclusions on maturity are significant and should have been considered by Mr. Speaker's Conference and the Government and that the Government were right to pay attention to them.
Perhaps the most cogent expression of the Latey Committee's views on this was in paragraph 71, in which we stated:… and we feel extremely strongly that to keep responsibility from those who are ready and able to take it on is much more likely to make them irresponsible than to help them.When I approached the question which Mr. Speaker's Conference had to consider, I may have done so in too negative a frame of mind. I was directly concerned on the Latey Committee with rectifying what I saw to be an anomalous situation under which individual young people suffered a serious disability in 123 consequence of the state of the law. Undoubtedly, amending the law along the lines recommended will go far to improve that situation.
Clearly, the position over voting is somewhat different. To be denied the right to vote cannot be equated with the denial of the right freely to choose one's spouse. That sort of difference is very important. Those who have opted for the "neatness" argument, that if one should have reached the age of majority for some purposes one should have reached it for all purposes, are missing an important difference.
§ Mr. W. R. van Straubenzee (Wokingham)
Surely that is not quite the distinction. The present restriction is not on choosing a spouse—there is no legal difficulty about that—but on choosing the date on which one may get married to the spouse whom one has chosen.
§ Mr. Maclennan
I am aware that, under English law, one has to obtain the consent of the parent or the court to the choice of the spouse, but the necessity to obtain that consent works a personal hardship in some cases, which is not comparable to being deprived of a vote. This is not to say—this is where my views have developed during my further consideration of this problem—that the absence of the right to vote cannot work harm.
Although the Latey Committee did not lead to the logical conclusion that it was correct to give young people of 18 the right to vote, there is overwhelming evidence that the law may work a certain social wrong.
The hon. Member for Hamilton wanted to give the impression that her party and her movement is essentially an ordered democratic one, but there are certain instances, of which she will be aware, which suggest that certain young people in Scotland are frustrated in their expression of opinion. To cite only one instance, she will recall that recently at the Winter Gardens, in Blackpool, about 200 young people from Scotland charged through the hall, doing £2,000 worth of damage, shouting "Scotland, Scotland!" at the top of their voices. I cannot believe that this is the kind of expression of political opinion which she would support any more than I do—
§ Mrs. Ewing
On a point of information. Has the hon. Gentleman any evidence that these young people had anything to do with my party? He might agree that the example which I gave of 20,000 people at the demonstration annually might be more telling than an episode for which he has no evidence whatsoever.
§ Mr. Maclennan
It is a matter on which the public can form their own judgment. Certainly, it was a nasty little incident which made me feel at the least—although perhaps not the hon. Lady—that there were more appropriate ways of expressing a political opinion.
We are all very much aware in this country, as in other European countries and in the United States, of the growing wish of the young to participate in the great decisions of political life. I do not go along with the view that there is overwhelming evidence on one side or the other as to whether the young wish the vote. My own impression, based both on the National Opinion Polls survey carried out for the Latey Committee, and upon the evidence of letters which we received and my own meetings with youth clubs and those in direct contact with the young—schoolteachers, probation officers, the Youth Advisory Service, psychiatrists, and so on—is that there is not much strong feeling about this matter. Those who go so far as to suggest that there is misrepresent the position.
The hon. Member for Hamilton is wide of the mark in saying that there is an overwhelming desire in Scotland for those under 21 to have the vote. My evidence from Scottish sources suggests just the reverse. The growth of her party, which is so far removed from a practical consideration of political questions, may in itself be expression of political frustration. What is clear, factually and statistically, is that when this question was put to a random sample of the public by National Opinion Polls, the opinion of the young themselves was two to one against changing the voting age to 18 and for retaining it at 21.
As I said, we received some letters on the Committee on this subject. There the evidence was the other way round—two to one in favour of reducing it. But I cannot place great weight on that, 125 because it was not evidence that was solicited directly, and it was in total a small part of the whole volume of evidence.
§ Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)
Is my hon. Friend aware that Lord Gardiner, the Lord Chancellor, was Chairman of a Committee that inquired into this and produced very strong evidence in favour of votes at 18?
§ Mr. Maclennan
My hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) will not find that my conclusions differ very greatly from Lord Gardiner's. All that I am saying is that I do not believe that we face an electoral situation comparable to that which the country faced over votes for women. We do not see young people under 21 tying themselves to the railings of Buckingham Palace, or throwing themselves under the hooves of horses, to bring home their point. It may be a sign of the greater political maturity of the young that they feel that i hey can achieve this by more reasoned argument.
The arguments in favour of the Government's conclusion fall into five different categories. There is no doubt that the young today are better educated and informed than they were when male suffrage and universal suffrage at 21 were conceded by the Governments of those days. In a sense, they also enjoy a stronger position within the economy. They have greater economic power and are more heavily taxed. Perhaps the question of taxation is more important than that of military service, because practically all young people over the age of 18, and some of those under 18, are subject to taxation. The opinion of the young is important, and although there is not an overwhelming call for votes at 18 I think that there is a clear wish to influence decisions by whatever means.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was right to touch on the contribution the young can make to political life. While they may not enjoy the maturity of experience and judgment of older people, I have no doubt that the idealism of youth is a valuable ingredient of political life. It is a major factor that we should consider. It is always dangerous to argue subjectively on these matters, but I recall my extreme frustration at 126 being denied the vote in 1959. Being under 21 when the Conservative Party led us into the monstrous operation at Suez, I could not participate in condemnation of that through the polls. Many young people felt similarly deprived then.
Negatively, I am not impressed by the practice of other countries which has been cited as relevant. It appears that the majority of democracies have followed us in having the voting age at 21, but that there are about nine democracies that give the vote at 18 today. It should not alarm any Member unduly if we are first in the field among the great countries on this matter. We in Great Britain have always been more responsive to democratic pressures and to giving them an outlet.
The impact of education is obviously crucial. The right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) suggested that because people were staying in education longer than they used to there was a danger of their being subject to the influence of teachers. This stands the argument about education on its head. It is quite likely that education will continue to be extended and to occupy a longer and longer part of young people's lives. I sincerely hope so. But it would be wrong to disfranchise the young because they are better educated.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall produced what I believe to be the least attractive argument of all on the subject, namely, "What would be the immediate political consequences of giving votes at 18?". He expressed the fear that there would be a stampede of nationalists into the House. Apart from my view that he has quite misjudged the political temper in Scotland, it would not unduly perturb me if many young people felt that this was the right way to express their political views. If we are a democracy—and I hesitate to sound holier than my right hon. Friend in this matter—we must accept the possibility that a section of the public will vote according to what it conceives to be in its interest. We must acknowledge that those who are mature have the right to do so in that way, however much we may disapprove of it.
It is rather interesting that the young are not demanding the vote at 18. I wish, here, to refer to the speech of the 127 right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone, and particularly his concluding remarks, which were of great significance and importance. I agree with him that the reason young people are not demanding the vote stems from the view that politics today is essentially so complicated and removed from the ordinary man's experience that he feels that he cannot control the course of events by the exercise of a vote once in five years. We have a job to do in making our democracy more responsive to the individual sense of frustration in this connection.
I hope that my right hon. Friends will take up the right hon. and learned Gentleman's suggestion. Apart from the question of complication of issues and the genuine difficulty of understanding the processes of government and the factors which weigh in the process of decision-making, I believe that one reason for the sense of frustration is that the unit of central Government has become so large that it is, in a sense, removed from the people. I hope that my right hon. Friends will also listen to the views of their right hon. Friends who have pointed to this, both inside and outside the House. We must put our democracy more in touch with the people. That is a continuing task we must constantly revise our ideas and keep them in contact with changing needs.
I believe that by their proposal on the voting age the Government have made an important contribution in that direction, and, therefore, I shall have great pleasure in supporting it.
§ 8.10 p.m.
§ Mr. W. R. van Straubenzee (Wokingham)
I am sure that we are greatly helped by the fact that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) was a member of the Latey Committee. I would say of that Report that it was not only extraordinarily informative but one of the wittiest Reports ever placed before us. I am sure that other hon. Members got exquisite pleasure from the little gems of humour hidden delightfully in what otherwise looks like the cold prose of a semi-official Report. While I rather doubt whether the hon. Gentleman would claim the authorship of those splendid "cracks", if one looks at at least one of his col- 128 leagues and, indeed, to the humour of the Chairman of that Committee, one can probably see where they came from. I am sure that the hon. Member ought to have his full corporate share of the delight that was given to other people.
But what comes so clearly out of his speech is that in this important discussion we are labouring under two very great difficulties. The first is that, artificially, we are having to divide up the subject and merely concentrate on the age of majority as it relates to voting—although, Mr. Speaker, you have been kind enough to allow us to take a glancing look at certain of the consequences of lowering the age of majority. I hope that when we discuss the matter in legislative terms the Government Front Bench will so frame the legislation that we can look into the whole field.
The second difficulty is that most of us have no idea of what our distinguished colleagues said and did or of the evidence presented to them on the various matters which are the subject of the Report. I join others who have been pressing that in future—if it is not possible on this occasion—as with other Select Committees of the House, the evidence upon which our colleagues have worked and on which they have concentrated so much time shall be available to the rest of us and that we shall not just be presented—I make no complaints of any kind of the distinguished members of the Conference—with the bald statement that a certain matter has been discussed and turned down or accepted without any evidence adduced in support.
I press, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) did, for something very much clearer in terms of the recommendations of the Boundaries Commission. I know, somewhat bitterly, what it means to represent a constituency which is bulging at the seams. I represent 100,000 constituents. My area is absolutely typical of the new areas which are growing rapidly young in age, bringing problems in their train, and rightly looking to their Members of Parliament for the answers. Whatever the party politics of the matter are or whoever the Member of Parliament is, I do not agree that any one man or woman can adequately and properly represent in the House that sort of number, which is growing at the rate of about 5,000 a year.
129 It is a great disappointment that a clear, unequivocal pledge has not been given that when, under the provisions of the law, the report is delivered to the Home Secretary it will be acted on with speed. Instead of that, although the Minister so ingenuously and charmingly sought to disarm the implied criticism, he wrapped it up in so many cocoons of qualifications as to leave even such a kindly person as myself in doubt about his intentions. I hope that we shall have something very much firmer. That would be very practical indeed for those like myself who represent such enormous numbers.
Secondly, I am sorry that we have had no proposals about another extension of postal voting in respect of those who are on holiday. A few years ago the holiday was—I appreciate that it is a short time ago in terms of our history—the prerogative of a comparatively small number of people. That, equally mercifully, is no longer true. By and large, there are only certain periods of the year in which we can have Parliamentary General Elections. Because the occupation of many people keeps them working right through the summer months, the opportunities that they have for a recreational holiday arise in the month of October, which for various reasons, which many hon. Members appreciate better than I do, is the time to which one is limited for a General Election.
I should have thought that it was a reasonable extension which would have fitted exactly into one of the four principles set out in a very interesting speech by the hon. Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Mr. Coe) that the maximum number of people should be encouraged to participate in our elections. I should have thought that it could be done nowadays without any party political rancour whatever. The essence of these things surely is that nowadays we try to do them by agreement.
Thirdly, I would seek, if I thought it could be properly enforced, to ban the public opinion poll for a statutory period before election day. I appreciate that it is a matter for debate and discussion. I think that my right hon. and learned Friend put his finger on the point unerringly when he said that the burden of proof lay overwhelmingly on those who wanted to restrict the reporting of 130 a statement of fact or of alleged fact. It is a very strong burden of proof. I have been, as others have, on the receiving end during a General Election both of favourable opinion polls and of unfavourable opinion polls, and I can honestly say that I am applying to this point, to the best of my ability, a judgment of principle. But I believe, I am afraid, that there are a very large number of people who like to be on the winning side. This is rather the same principle as that one can never find anyone in Germany today who was ever a Nazi, or, if I am not too unkind to hon. Gentlemen opposite, practically never nowadays can one find anyone who voted Labour at the last two General Elections. As I say, there are people who like to be on the winning side. I believe that there is a built-in advantage for the party which appears to be doing well. Since if a General Election were held at this moment it would no doubt clearly be to the advantage of the Conservative Party that these polls should be announced, I hope it may be considered that I am taking an objective view of it.
Next, I confess that I see the proposal for the party label on ballot papers—I am sorry that at the moment the hon. Member for Middleton and Prestwich is not in his place; he has been here throughout the debate—with very great regret. I am not in the least unaware that the party machines have now taken an increasing grip of these matters. Indeed, one of the depressing things about being an ordinary back-bench Member of the House seeking to do as adequate a job for one's constituents as one can is that when one looks at the statistics of General Elections one sees that virtually all of us go up and down in electoral terms precisely the same. We may say, without naming names or being unfriendly, that all of us on both sides of the House have colleagues who do not put in perhaps as much hard work as other hon. Members do and one would rather have expected that this might have been reflected in electoral terms, but it is not. I see the presence of a party label on the ballot paper as one more nail in the coffin of the concept that we come here to represent our constituents, all of them, regardless of their party affiliation and as individuals. As one who has once voted against my party 131 on a three-line Whip, and will do so again if necessary—as will any hon. Member on both sides of the House if necessary, I trust—I say that this is a concept to which I attach the greatest importance.
All of us are conscious of the interest that foreign people show in the fact that we on both sides of the House will conscientiously do everything we can to represent the individual case of a person who is an active member of a party opposed to us. We have all had examples of this: it is one of the great heritages of this country. I see the party label, not as a fundamental matter—I am not trying to elevate it to great heights—but as one more nail in the concept of our being individual representatives one more addition to the power of the party machinery.
I know the party machinery is necessary. The hon. Member for Middleton and Prestwich has most ably expressed a view different from mine, but I believe that one of the dangers to democracy today that has to be watched extremely closely is the growth of the party machine as it is related to this House. It is certainly widely believed outside that it is very much more powerful than most of us know it to be. I am convinced that this, in turn, is one of the reasons for the apathy and cynicism outside.
The voting age is the most controversial of the matters before us. It has been the most debated, and the ground has been gone over so much that there is no reason for anyone speaking at this late stage to add very much. I find it very difficult to see how we can have different ages of majority for different civic purposes. If I may answer a question raised earlier in a very distinguished speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), I cannot see how, if a man is to become a full man legally in future at the age of 18, we can solemnly protect him in terms of the homosexual laws until he is 21. There seems to be a total contradiction in terms. I do not see how we can withhold from him the duty of service on a jury. I accept in full that the result of lowering the age to whatever age we do lower it should include his right to cast his vote.
That is why the question, as I see it, is inextricably linked with the whole decision one takes as to the age at which the 132 law will recognise a person to be an adult. As the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland has said, the evidence adduced by Latey for at least a lowering of the age below 21 is overwhelming. I believe it to be true that, taken by and large, the young man and woman of today are more mature, and have the great advantage of better education than their fathers and mothers had. I am not altogether sure that those young persons necessarily take a keener interest in these matters. When I was at school I was a fully converted fully paid-up member of the Labour Party. I was converted by the right hon. Gentleman the present Minister of Technology. The only difference was that I matured a little earlier than he, but otherwise the process went through very happily indeed.
If, therefore, we implement a lower age of majority—which is why I made the plea to discuss the matter in the round in a way that we cannot do—I believe that the Government's decision is right that whatever age is chosen that also should be the age to which is attached the right to vote. With respect to the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), I do not fear these consequences. I must say that I was made deeply unhappy by what he said. It seemed to me that barriers were being raised against those horrid young people who were to hold these ghastly views—ghastly largely because he disagreed with them. This is a very profundly disturbing argument to me. I do not agree, of course, with the nationalist position, but it would be a very unhappy argument to put forward that the result of the change would be to the advantage of those who hold such views.
I am not concerned politically. I do not want to disturb the even tenor of the debate, but it is quite true to say that overwhelmingly the largest political organisation of young people today is, as it has been for many years past, in the Conservative Party. I speak as one who 17 years ago—no less, I am ashamed to say—was its national chairman. Much of my background and training has come from there. Overwhelmingly, the largest party statistically in the universities is the Federation of Conservative Students. Politically, therefore, I do not have in my view anything to fear. I am equally quite certain from the organisations I have been able to ask, such as the 133 National Association of Students, with which I have a close connection, that these young people are most anxiously awaiting the chance to vote.
I predict that this will be the principal change that we shall see. It is a change that so far has not been mentioned. It is simply that there will always henceforward he an inbuilt propensity for change. At any one election there will with a younger electorate be a greater feeling towards change. It will not necessarily be anti-Conservative or anti-Socialist or pro-Liberal or pro-Nationalist but, by definition, the young people taking part will be liable to move for change.
Let me give an illustration. Hon. Members opposite are very keen on saying that when we were in office we had what are splendidly termed "thirteen wasted years"—wonderful terminology. But if we had a General Election today, and if the 13 so-called "wasted" years were being thrown at the electorate, an 18-year-old voter would have been 13 when the 13 "wasted" years ended. The result for us politicians will be, and this is not a bad thing either, that we shall be less and less able to look at the past and will have more and more to concentrate on what we intend to do in our separate ways in the future. This may be no bad thing for the political art.
I applaud, if I may say so in his absence, the closing sentences of the speech of the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson). Those of us who were here heard a very interesting speech indeed. I believe that it is true that the lesson of recent unrests, for example, is that a very large number of young people, who are highly articulate and responsible, do respond when given authority and given a chance to participate. That will, in political terms, have a salutary effect, in precisely the same way as it will, incidentally, in legal terms, for them to discover that they can successfully be sued for their debts, that they can take up building society mortgages and make the repayments at a much younger age than was previously thought, and that, in addition and along with their other civic responsibilities, they have the solemn duly of taking part in the choice of the individuals to represent them in this House. I therefore do not fear this change as some others do. If it is even- 134 tually presented to us in legislative form, I will vote in favour of it.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Ednyfed Hudson Davies (Conway)
In deference to Mr. Speaker's plea for brevity, I shall confine myself to one topic and one only, and that again is the question, much discussed today, of the age of voting, but I shall not cover old ground.
A number of references have been made to the connection, or lack of connection, between the findings of the Latey Committee and this subject of the age of voting. In the White Paper this sentence appears:After giving full weight to the recommendation of the Speaker's Conference that the minimum age for voting should be twenty years, the Government have decided, having regard to their acceptance of the recommendation of the Latey Committee as to the age of majority, to recommend that the minimum age for voting should be reduced to eighteen years.The Government clearly see an indirect connection between the two, and it is this that I should like briefly to develop.
The Latey Committee did not look at the age of voting, although today we have heard hon. Members refer to it as ground for or against the voting at 18 argument. But, clearly, the two questions are very different, although connected, because the questions being asked by the Latey Committee were questions for which there were fairly clear criteria to obtain answers. It is possible to ask at what age people should be able to marry without parental consent, or at what age they can make contracts which are binding.
One can ask questions of that kind and get some sort of answers which make perfectly good sense. It is possible to say that the large majority of those who are 18 will behave in a certain way, that there are some who do not and some who are very foolish. But one can ask meaningfully whether the marriages of those getting married at 18 tend to end in divore more than do later marriages. It is possible to ask whether people in that age group manage property properly, or enter into contracts unwisely.
However, one point has been missed completely, and it is that the question of the age of voting is in a logically different category. One cannot ask what 135 is a right vote, what is a reasonable decision to make in voting. On the other issues one can look at performance and say that a group is acting wisely or unwisely on its performance. But what happens in the polling booth? In the polling booth one votes for one of a number of names, or one tears up the paper, or one writes an obscenity on it, and some adults do all of those things. It cannot be asked whether an 18-year-old is making the right kind of electoral choice, because an election is about electoral choice. It is a curious and interesting situation that this kind of question is very different.
§ Mr. Davies
People of 18 may view their demise as so far away that one would not view them as responsible people when making wills.
We have no criteria to judge whether they should vote of the kind we have in connection with the other questions. We cannot assess their responsibility or anything else by their performance, because performance in the electoral booth is what an election is about.
What do we turn to? We can ask questions like whether they are responsible, whether they are knowledgeable, whether they are educated, and all those things have come up this afternoon. But what if we were to apply those criteria to many electors of 40, 50 or 60 years of age? In our kind of democracy it is very dangerous to introduce criteria of this kind, and if we do not apply them to adults, why should we apply them to people of 18? One might feel that at times when the Opposition were in power the vast majority of the electorate had acted irresponsibly and unwisely in its voting choice, but one would feel very differently if one had another point of view. This is almost an argument by omission. The arguments of the Latey Committee are immensely sound on the other issues in connection with which there are criteria which are intelligible
If the age of 18 is chosen in connection with those other civic responsibilities, 136 merely in the interests of consistency why not make the age of voting also 18? I am certain that to go further in any of these questions—degree of education, responsibility, or anything else like that—is to get into very deep water. A young man or woman of 18 will often take civic responsibilities much more seriously than will the same person when he or she has become settled, fat and forty.
This is an argument one can reverse. It was brought up first of all by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss). He cited two instances, of assessments made of young people, on one occasion in the ratio of 2 to 1 for and the other 2 to 1 against, stating that they did not wish to have the right to vote at 18. This is of immense credit to them, that they should consider the question of their fitness. This is as good an argument as one could bring forward for their fitness, that they should take it as an issue for decision, whereas the average adult, competent to vote or not, would have no doubt about his right to do so. I would suggest that in the interests of convenience and consistency we should have the same age for voting as we have for the other matters covered in the Latey Report.
The frustrations of young people, which so often give rise to demonstrations, are very largely occasioned by the fact that they are not participating. This is the situation in our universities. They want some degree of communication and participation. It is very proper that at the age of 18 they should have that. I was greatly distressed by the arguments of my right hon. Friend who wanted to look at this question in terms of how the extra three million who would be brought in, if the voting age were reduced to 18, would react and vote.
He used the arguments in connection with Powellism and nationalism, saying that it was in these directions that the 18 to 20 year olds would go. It would be a very sad day for any political party if it had to keep up the voting age because it was afraid that it could not appeal to the young people. I am glad that so many people this afternoon have dissociated themselves from that point of view. Unless the Labour Party in Wales can face the electorate there and the young people when 137 confronted with the charges and policies of the Nationalist Party, it is as well that we should not fight the next election there. We must not cover ourselves by maintaining the voting age at 21.
There is one sentence from "The Winter's Tale" quoted in the Latey Report:… I would that there were no age between ten and three and twenty or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting …".It is evident this afternoon that many hon. Members still subscribe to that view. This is a very wrong view of young people. We ask them to behave as adults, and if we do this with any expectation of their listening to us, we should also give them the right to behave responsibly as adults and to carry the responsibilities of being adult.
§ 8.38 p.m.
§ Miss Harvie Anderson (Renfrew, East)
I had the honour to be a member of Mr. Speaker's Conference, although only for the last 12 months of its meetings. I would like to join in the tributes to Mr. Speaker for his patience and penetrating efforts, and for his statesmanlike manner in presiding over the conference. There is very little time in which to discuss, as one would wish to, the arguments and content of many of those meetings.
I join with those hon. Members, indeed I have been substantially converted to this view today, who say that it is now right to consider whether the full deliberations of such a conference should not be published in future. It is quite unrealistic to suppose that a debate of this duration represents in any way adequately the long deliberations, over years, which have gone into the questions before us. There is the recommendation concerning the small matter of telephones which the Government have turned down. This could be a very serious consideration in the more remote parts of the country, and yet a recommendation involving a trifling expenditure of public money is turned down without any reference being made to it in this debate.
Included in this range of subjects is the question of polling hours, on which I do not propose to touch. However, the 138 matter of party labels must concern a very wide section of the public, and certainly all hon. Members would want the opportunity to express and describe to the public the problems which this poses. My dislike of the party label being attached to the candidate on the ballot paper is that it is yet one further step towards eliminating the person and exaggerating the party. I sincerely believe that the majority of electors, whatever their political persuasion, wish the right of absolutely free choice in their vote and that the label destroys an element in this choice which we have no justification for so destroying.
I have the same feeling about the opinion poll recommendation for the same reasons. There is no doubt that there are those who put undue emphasis on the reading of an opinion poll and on the effect that it may have, perhaps not on themselves, but on their neighbours. This again destroys that element of freedom of choice which is highly desirable in our democracy.
I wish to stress something about which too little has been said. In a Speaker's Conference, which does not take place every year or even every 10 years, there is an atmosphere of calm and statesmanlike approach which is sometimes absent even in a quiet and thoughtful debate such as this. Therefore, in that atmosphere, one is more aware that party pressures are left outside the room. I wish later to come to my point about a free vote in this connection, because there is no doubt that, however important it may be constitutionally for the Government, through the Cabinet, to take decisions, it is very important indeed that we should take a step which affects the constitution absolutely unbiased by present expedient party considerations.
That brings me to what is undoubtedly one of the most controversial and main points, namely, the voting age. One of the considerations left out of account by too many speakers today is that if we take any step in this direction, it will be a step, as I know my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) hopes to say, which we cannot retrace. In taking any such step, we must see overwhelming evidence of the necessity for change.
It is, therefore, important to ask ourselves why we seek to take this step. 139 Perhaps some speakers have omitted to recognise in considering whether we should give the voting right to 3 million young people that rather more than half of them are women. When we talk about the responsibilities of marrying and buying a house, we should remember that.
At a time when there is undoubted cause for careful consideration of our student population, we should also remember that not all of the 3 million are students. As the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) said, we should not over-burden ourselves with what the student population feel or say or bring to our notice.
I could not help feeling—and I am sorry that I did not have an opportunity of saying earlier—that there are student frivolities of election, in which some Members of the House participate from time to time, which do not necessarily display the attitudes of mind and action appropriate to the election of Members of Parliament to govern the country.
We should, therefore, remember that there has hitherto been an appropriate student outlet in political interest, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) pointed out, provides the opportunity for a change of sides at an early date without having been too closely identified with a Parliamentary election or a political party at that level.
Much has been made of the Latey Report. I could not subscribe to the point of view which suggests that there should be consistency in the matters with which the Report is concerned and those which we are discussing today. As I see it, there is a clear distinction between an individual's personal responsibility and his responsibility towards his fellow countrymen. I regard it as appropriate—as it has been for centuries in Scotland—for the individual to have strong rights, as an individual, at an early age.
Undoubtedly, this traces back in history, which I would not presume to go into in the presence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg), who is a distinguished lawyer, to Roman times as the basis of the Scottish law. It is, therefore, not accurate to argue that the recommendations of the Latey Committee 140 and those which we are considering today must be consistent in the matter of age.
My main point in trying to condense a few thoughts on a matter, which has had many hours of work and deliberation, is to make a plea that there should be a free vote when any legislation concerning this matter comes before the House of Commons. We all know that the Home Secretary has a cheerful and disarming disposition which he exercises over the House and over the country from time to time, but I saw a sign of testiness in his response earlier today. The suggestion crept in that the right hon. Gentleman was less able to look at this matter with the degree of impartiality which great matters of constitutional change demand.
For that reason, I emphasise particularly to the Home Secretary that there is a strong case for a free vote. One reason that appeals to me as much as any is, what is there to fear from a free vote? The reason for putting the Whips on is to meet the convenience of Government business on declared policies. On an issue of this kind, however, the Government would be putting on the Whips, should they decide to do so, only because they are afraid to put the issue to a free vote. This suggests most strongly to me that they know in their hearts that the majority of hon. Members would not support the Home Secretary and his colleagues in the propositions which the right hon. Gentleman put forward today.
Moreover, the use of party Whips rather that a free vote implies to people outside the House that there is some party political advantage to be gained from the legislation in hand. It would be very unfortunate for democracy, not only in this country, but elsewhere throughout the world, if such a thought were allowed to arise in a matter so important to the constitution of the greatest democracy in the world.
§ 8.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Terence Boston (Faversham)
I hope I shall not be revealing any secrets of Mr. Speaker's Conference if I join the hon. Member for Renfrew, East (Miss Harvie Anderson), along with other Members of the conference, in paying tribute to Mr. Speaker's patience. I use 141 the word "patience" advisedly. I leave out the hon. Lady from what I am about to say now and reserve this for the male members of Mr. Speaker's Conference, but it would certainly be true, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so far as we males were concerned, that Mr. Speaker obviously had to have a very considerable amount of patience in that conference in dealing with those of us who have taken part in this debate today.
There are two points in which I want to follow the hon. Lady. One is a very brief reference to publishing the records of Mr. Speaker's Conference. I think, in retrospect, that it would probably have been valuable to the House to have had this information, but I am bound to say at this stage that a very serious difficulty arises in attempting to publish, and to change the decision which was made about publishing, the records, for this reason, that for the first few months of the conference it was presided over by Mr. Speaker's predecessor, the late Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, and I do not feel we can leave that out of account when we are considering this matter.
However, the main point, and the only one I want to dwell upon tonight, in which I should like to follow the hon. Lady, is the voting age, because this undoubtedly is the most important of the proposals to emerge from the Government's White Paper. I did not very often find myself in disagreement with what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary had to say today, but I did find myself differing from the Government's proposals on this one point of the question of the voting age—for reasons I will mention in a moment or two.
But first, the point about the Latey Committee. We have heard references throughout this debate to the kind of bearing which the Latey Committee, on the one hand, has or should have had on Mr. Speaker's Conference; and vice versa. This is one of the considerations which weighed with me. I feel that if the Latey Committee had recommended no change at all, in other words, if it had wanted to keep 21 as the age of majority, then Mr. Speaker's Conference would have had no alternative but to keep the voting age at 21, for this one simple reason that it would be quite absurd to have people at the age of 18 142 voting on laws which would not apply to them until they were 21; but all that the Latey Committee has done, in recommending a reduction in the age of majority for these various purposes, is to leave the door open to Mr. Speaker's Conference in subsequent deliberations for the possibility—no more than that—of reducing the age. I want to re-emphasise what has been said, particularly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) in his reference to paragraph 25 in the Latey Committee's Report, when the Committee emphasised that its recommendations had no necessary consequences at all for the voting age. I feel, too, that the onus is most certainly on those who put forward the lower age to make out the case for reducing that age.
There is one specific aspect of the whole argument about the voting age on which I want to concentrate, one aspect of the case which is put forward by those who want it to be reduced to 18—the argument that if a man is old enough to fight he is old enough to vote. It has had only two very brief passing references to it, one by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell). It is the one argument which one hears most frequently outside, and I therefore feel that it would be quite wrong for this House to have this debate without addressing itself to this argument and disposing of it once and for all. It is a slogan which we hear most frequently from people outside and one which has probably the greatest emotional overtones.
What are the reasons for the argument that if one is old enough to fight one is old enough to vote? Basically, presumably people feel that there is something special about fighting for one's country, as indeed there clearly is, and that anyone involved in fighting ought to have a say in decisions about service in the Forces. Another underlying reason is that if the Legislature or the Government decide matters impinging upon a person's life, then that person ought to have a say electorally in that decision. I believe that that is a wholly fallacious argument. I am glad that it has not been raised today by the advocates of reducing the voting age but, for the reasons I have given, I feel that it must be disposed of in this debate.
143 The implications of the argument have not been carried to their logical conclusions. Compulsory service in the Armed Forces is a fairly remote possibility, and that a person serving in the Armed Forces would be called upon to lay down his life is a further fairly remote possibility; so it could therefore be argued that here is one remote possibility upon another remote possibility. Do we wish to decide the shape and principles of our electoral system on this basis?
In time of war, or at other times of compulsory service for that matter, limits are set on the age of people serving in the Forces, and I will mention a further point in that connection in a moment. If the electoral system were based upon this consideration, certain qualifications would be introduced for entry on to the register which applied to some people and not to others. The basis of universal suffrage in this country is and has been uniformity of qualifications for entry upon the register and not special qualifications designed to meet specific cases.
A further extension of the argument is that in wartime or at other times of compulsory service there are different rules as to service in the Armed Forces for men on the one hand and for women on the other, which was mentioned in passing by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West. Different ages are imposed, with both lower and upper limits, and in some circumstances women are not called upon to perform compulsory service in the Forces. This again is an important consideration if we are to be consistent about qualifications for universal adult suffrage. Surely we do not wish to tamper with the principle of universal qualifications for universal suffrage.
Another revealing aspect of this argument is shown by comparing the age for compulsory service in the Armed Forces with other ages at which the State imposes certain duties and obligations. Mention has been made during the course of the debate of the criminal law. If, for instance, we were to take the age of criminal responsibility, it might be argued quite forcefully that a person should have a say in framing laws which impose rules about the age at which a person becomes criminally responsible. This brings in considerations of such remote 144 possibilities as ages of 10, 12, 14, and so on.
To take another example of obligations imposed by the State, it is arguable that decisions about education have a much more far-reaching and universal effect upon the whole pattern of a person's future life than even the possibility of service in the Armed Forces might have and all that that means potentially. Selection at the age of 11 or earlier or even later at 13 or 16 often determines the whole pattern of a person's future life and career. This is perhaps far more likely to be final than service in the Forces.
Therefore, are we to argue that on these grounds there may be a case for voting at an age possibly even lower than 18? One can think of many other duties and obligations placed upon a person by the Legislature at particular ages. Some might feel that the road traffic laws or considerations about dangerous employment could be much more final potentially than service in the Forces. This is carrying the argument to the extreme, and I do not think that anyone would carry it that far. Nevertheless, it is carrying it to its logical conclusions. All that I am saying is that the Forces argument of itself is not a valid one.
I come back to the ultimate argument. Are we to shape our whole electoral and therefore our legislative system upon the highly pessimistic hypothesis that at some future time people might be called upon to lay down their lives for their country? To do so would be, in effect, to apply qualifications or reasons for voting and extending the franchise which do not apply universally to the whole of the electorate, male and female.
First of all, I think that there is no magic in the age of 18 on these grounds. In addition, remembering the main recommendations of the Latey Committee, there is no magic left in the age of 21, either. If there is some feeling for the lowering of the voting age at all, I would go along, as I did in Mr. Speaker's Conference, with those who would have a limited reduction to 20, at least as an initial try-out. There is some validity in the argument that, if it is reduced all at once to the age of 18, one is faced with an irrevocable decision. I think that 20 is a fair and reasonable suggestion.
145 I can understand the Home Secretary's view that reducing the voting age to 18 would inject new blood. However, any reduction of the voting age would do that, and some of the desired injection would be achieved with a more limited reduction to 20.
§ 9.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Baker (Acton)
I dare say that in the annals of Parliament this debate will be remembered for the riposte by my right hon and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) to the Home Secretary. But there would have been a greater chance of it being a little more remembered if those who were not members of Mr. Speaker's Conference had had made available to them some of the evidence given to that conference. I am the fourth ordinary back-bench hon. Member to speak today, and I thought that the object of the debate was to find what back-bench opinion was. Mr. Deputy Speaker, the four of us are very grateful to you all for coming along.
Frankly, we are debating a series of conclusions and assertions without evidence. We cannot controvert a conclusion or defeat an argument without having the evidence. In future, when Mr. Speaker's Conference meets again, I hope that the evidence before it will be made available to all hon. Members.
As a result, I have had to do some devilling myself, and I have devilled on one point which struck me as completely absurd. It is the extension of voting hours from 9 to 10 o'clock at night. When the Home Secretary came to this point in his speech he did not put forward any arguments for adding an hour. He asserted that it would be a good thing, likeKing John was not a good man",to have an extra hour for voting. I wrote to the Ambassadors and High Commissioners of all the Western democracies to find out their hours of voting and percentage polls.
The only argument for another hour of voting could be that we will get more people to vote. Of course, we will put many people to a great deal of inconvenience and spend more public money. Polling clerks, returning officers and policemen will have to work an extra hour. The Home Secretary admitted that some counts would have to be put 146 off until the next day, which would mean more policemen guarding more ballot boxes in more town halls.
What is the argument? It must be that more people will vote. None of us would like the horrors of polling day to be extended. Meredith, in "Beauchamp's Career", described polling dayas a badly managed Christmas pantomime without Columbine—old tricks and no gracesWe are always very pleased to see it over.
Is there any evidence to support the view that if we extend voting hours more people will vote? In the United Kingdom for example, in the last three General Elections, when there have been 14 hours of voting, we have had an average percentage turn-out of 77.2 per cent. Canada, with 10 hours of voting, managed the same turn-out. France—hardly the model of democracy—in 10 hours turned out 76 per cent. of the electorate.
When one looks at the other countries in the world, the only factor which compels a higher turn-out is compulsory voting. Belgium in six hours, 93 per cent. Australia in 12 hours, 97 per cent. Holland, where they have the rather nice compromise where it is compulsory to go to the polling station but not to vote, in 11 hours gets 95 per cent. So there is no evidence to support that if we had the extra hour more people would vote.
Looking at America, the evidence is more convincing. New York State has 15 hours of polling, which is what the Home Secretary would like in this country. In New York State, on the eastern seaboard, with its famous personalities, being politically conscious and geographically concentrated, one would expect a good turn-out, but the average turn-out is 65 per cent.—12 per cent. lower than here. Wyoming in 10 hours managed a turn-out of 75 per cent. There is no evidence to suggest that if we keep the polling stations open longer more people will vote. I hope that in the winding-up speech there will be definite evidence or arguments about why it should be done.
I am a supporter of the reduced voting age, but I appreciate that my reaction is essentially subjective and emotional. The logical arguments of those who want to retain the present voting age are, on the whole, stronger, but, to use one of George Orwell's phrases, this is "gut reaction".
147 There is little evidence—I am here giving ammunition to the diehards—to suggest that people who have the vote at 18 exercise it well. People had the vote at 18 in the 1919 election in this country—the flapper election. It produced one of the worst Governments of the century; it produced one of the oldest Governments of the century, though not as old as the present Government.
When we look at other parts of the world where people have votes at 18, the States of Georgia and Kentucky, for example, could any right hon. or hon. Member say that these States are representative of youthful enthusiasm, the ideals of youth and political interest? Of course not. In 1960, the turn-out in Georgia was 31 per cent. and in 1964 it was only 45 per cent. I am honest enough to admit that my reason for wanting the voting age reduced is emotional, and I think at heart that it has to be emotional.
I come, finally, to the question of boundary changes, because the Home Secretary brought this issue into the debate. It is a difficult subject on which to speak, because my interest, like that of every Member, is affected. As a result of the boundary changes the political complexion of my constituency improves from my point of view, so any advocacy of boundary changes tends to smack of self-interest. None the less I think it an absurdity that we should have very small constituencies, for example, Edinburgh, Central, and very large ones, for example, Billericay and Wokingham, represented on the same basis. In my case, there is the added absurdity that I have three wards in the constituencies of two other Members.
This makes it extremely difficult and complicated for the ordinary voter, and I believe that in winding up the debate the Secretary of State for Scotland should state that something will be done about this, particularly in the Greater London area, where the local boundaries are already revised before the next election. One cannot with honesty speak, on the one hand, of electoral reform, and, on the other, indulge in gerrymandering.
§ 9.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Richard Sharples (Sutton and Cheam)
Like every other hon. Member 148 who has taken part in this debate, I should like to pay my tribute to Mr. Speaker for the part that he played as Chairman of the Electoral Conference. As one of the small number of Members who were not members of the conference, perhaps I might also pay a tribute to the work of the conference itself. I think that this is an excellent Report.
There is a lot of force in the arguments put forward by hon. Members on both sides that we who were not members of the conference are at a considerable disadvantage in not having available to us the proceedings of the conference, and, above all, the evidence upon which it reached its conclusions. The Home Secretary said that similar evidence—and one presumes that the proceedings of the conference were not available to him—was available to him, and that upon this he reached his conclusions. It is a great pity that he did not give the House some idea of the kind of evidence which was presented to him. I say this with great respect to the right hon. Gentleman. His speech did not contain a great deal of argument about the reasons why he reached his conclusions. I shall return in detail to the various conclusions, but this state of affairs leaves the House in a certain amount of difficulty.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee), I was extremely disappointed at the failure of the Home Secretary to give a clear undertaking that he would implement the recommendations of the Boundary Commission as soon as may be, an undertaking which has always been given by previous occupants of that office. I think that the right hon. Gentleman's speech made the situation very much worse. He indicated that he intended to await the Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government and to take the recommendations of that Commission into account. I cannot see how it is possible to take into account what will almost certainly be a major reconstruction of local government unless one is going to refer back the whole question of the boundaries to the Commission again. I believe that if this is the case there will be delay, not merely until after the next General Election, but for four or five years after that, to enable all this work to be done. I hope that we shall have a much clearer explanation 149 from the Secretary of State for Scotland when he winds up the debate.
On the question of public opinion polls and betting, I share the right hon. Gentleman's misgivings, especially on the effect of betting on the outcome of General Elections. In spite of the powerful arguments put forward by right hon. Gentlemen such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), and by the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson)—and I recognise the force of their arguments—given the practical difficulties that exist, in my opinion it is right that the Government should riot accept this recommendation of Mr. Speaker's Conference.
On the question of electoral expenses, I believe that the revised bill of election expenses for candidates is about right. My hon. Friends and I accent it. I was very concerned, however, at the reference by the right hon. Gentleman to expenditure not covered by the rules relating to election expenses. I was very surprised at his remarks. I hope that I am wrong, and that the Secretary of State for Scotland will confirm that I am wrong, but it seemed to me that the Home Secretary was isuing some kind of threat—the kind that we have already heard in other contexts.
The law is quite clear on this point. It is open to anybody, in any organisation or party, irrespective of his political beliefs, to act in accordance with the law on this matter, and not to be out off by any veiled threats or implications issued by the Home Secretary. We must be sensible about this, and people will be sensible about it. This kind of half-threat is not the right way of going about it.
I now turn to the major issues referred to by the Home Secretary. The first concerns the extension of the hours of polling—as I understand it, for General Elections only—until 10 o'clock p.m. On this matter Mr. Speaker's Conference recommended that there should be no change. I waited to hear the right hon. Gentleman give some reasons why he had decided not to accept the recommendation. The House was entitled to some explanation, but it had none.
I do not think that any hon. Member would wish to oppose a proposal which made it easier for people to vote, but I have received no evidence that people 150 are deterred from voting by not being able to do so between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. We must remember that there are 14 hours available for voting during General Elections and that the polling stations are open one hour earlier than they are for local elections. We are not discussing local government reform, but bearing in mind the low polls at local government elections there might well be a case for a revision of these hours. This matter has been considered by the Home Office Advisory Committee. Since there is no strong case for an extension of voting hours it is necessary for us to consider the effect of the strain upon those people who are responsible for the conduct of the elections.
Also, if we put forward the hour of closing to 10 p.m., practically no constituency would be able to start counting before midnight, so the majority of people who take part in the count—in my constituency, this includes a large number of bank workers and sixth formers from the schools—will be up most of the night. We should be told how many constituencies are likely to be forced by this decision to put off the declaration of the result until the following day. It must be against the national interest, no matter what the result of the General Election, to postpone the announcement of the result one hour longer than absolutely necessary. By the time people go to work on the morning of the day after the General Election, under our present arrangement, they usually have a pretty clear idea of the way that the election has gone, and this is right for the country.
The Home Secretary said that this would not happen very often, only once every four or five years, but it would be impossible to confine this extension of hours at the end of the day to General Elections. People voting in local elections will assume for a year or two after a General Election that the local polling stations will also be open until 10 o'clock. This proposal will mean widening the extension of hours to include all forms of local elections as well—
§ Mr. Lubbock
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many people voting in local elections go to the polls at the moment at 7 o'clock for this very reason, only to find that they are not open until eight?
§ Mr. Sharples
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reinforcing my point 151 and I hope that the Secretary of State for Scotland will give a much clearer explanation of the reasons for the Government adopting this proposal.
On party labels, I appreciate that it would be convenient for many people to see the part which a particular candidate represents. There is a general wish for this among the public, but it is probably much more important, since the possibilities for confusion are much greater, in local than in General Elections. Therefore, if the House accepts any proposal of this kind, it must also apply to all forms of elections. The right hon. Gentleman might make that clear. On this matter also no change was recommended by Mr. Speaker's Conference, and I naturally do not know why. However, I should have thought that the practical difficulties of implementing a scheme of this kind must have been overriding in their minds.
Any scheme for the formal registration of parties, which I think is the only way in which this could be done, has many difficulties and dangers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton spoke of some of them. One danger which I see as Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party, responsible for candidates' matters, is the enormous extension of power that would be given to the party machines. There is no doubt about that. It would give legal sanction to what is at present an understanding inside the political parties and I believe, as a Member of the House, that we should watch this very carefully.
If a system of registration were instituted by the Government, what would be the position of splinter parties adopting, in the main, the name of the political party from which they come? If there is registration of parties, would it be possible for the Labour Party, for example, to object to a party calling itself the Independent Labour Party? I believe that it certainly could.
What would be the position of somebody wanting to stand on a narrow issue arising at fairly short notice? My right hon. and learned Friend referred to the person in his constituency who stood simply on the ground of being an anti-Hogg candidate. His position would be 152 perfectly all right, because if he should have arrived in the House his battle would have been won, and there would not have been a great deal else to do.
Let us take a more serious example. Suppose all three major political parties put in their election manifestoes that one of the things they sought to do was to achieve membership of the Common Market. If there were registration of parties, would it be possible for a person to register as an anti-Common Market candidate? There was one in a South Dorset by-election. The Home Secretary nods his head. But let us consider the timing. Between the publication of the election manifestoes and polling day would it be possible to go through the process of registering the name of a political party and giving time for all the objections that might be allowed?
§ Mr. Coe
I believe that in the case the hon. Gentleman suggests, the answer would be that the candidate would campaign on an anti-Common Market ticket, but would not register, because it seems to me that there should be certain criteria for registration, which would be an annual thing. Therefore, the candidate would not have anything on his ballot paper.
§ Mr. Sharples
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. This illustrates the difficulty. The hon. Gentleman pointed out the difficulties there would be in registration in such a case, but the Home Secretary says that the candidate would be able to register. We have no concrete scheme before us, but I just point out the difficulties.
§ Mr. Callaghan
It is true that there is no concrete scheme before the House, but the hon. Gentleman is Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party and should know that I have sent to the leaders of the two parties a very detailed scheme which tries to answer some of the very pertinent questions he raises. I hope that there will be discussion between us in which we can work out and see whether this is administratively practical. The questions the hon. Gentleman raises are real, but I should not like the House to think that this is a just a jeu de'esprit which has been put up. A very detailed scheme is before the leaders of the two parties which I trust will later be published, when we have had our discussions.
§ Mr. Sharples
I appreciate that, but the matter has been referred to, and I think it is, therefore, right that one should point out some of the difficulties which there will be in any system of registration.
The final major point is the question of voting at 18. I had considerable sympathy for the speech of the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss). It is a matter which has been considered at considerable length by Mr. Speaker's Conference. It is clear, however, that the Government's decision had already been taken. We had been told that it was taken. It was taken by the National Executive of the Labour Party. If one is to take a decision, then refer it to the Speaker's Conference, allow endless debate to go on, allow all the evidence to be adduced, and then, without giving any reason to the House, come straight back and simply say that it is a decision of the Government, I believe that it is an insult to Mr. Speaker's Conference and to hon. Members who have taken the trouble to serve on that conference.
I do not believe that it is a party matter. I find myself not wholly in agreement with what my right hon. and learned friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) said about this. I suffer, as does every other hon. Member, from the fact that we have not seen all the evidence and do not know the reasons that the Government considered in coming to this conclusion.
Above all, if ever there was a matter for a free vote of the House of Commons, this is it. I can give a firm undertaking that we on this side will have a free vote. There are differences cutting right across party lines on both sides. I hope that the Secretary of State for Scotland will give an equally firm undertaking on behalf of his party that there will be a free vote on his side.
§ Mr. Sharples
The Home Secretary says "Certainly not". That is a disgraceful remark on a constitutional matter of this kind.
§ Mr. Callaghan
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well—I realise that he is getting to the party points part of his speech—that the Secretary of State for 154 Scotland cannot give such an undertaking It is a matter which has to be considered, and the Leader of the House would in due course have to announce the decision. It has not yet been considered.
§ Mr. Sharples
This is not a new matter. The right hon. Gentleman knows that perfectly well. The point was raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House when he made his original announcement in July, and I certainly think that the Government owe it to the House of Commons to have arrived at a firm decision on this most important constitutional point before the debate was arranged.
This has been a wide-ranging debate, and I believe it is right that the Government should have given time for the House of Commons to consider these matters before introducing legislation. The usefulness of the debate will, however, depend upon the extent to which the Government are prepared to pay attention to what has been said on both sides and, above all, upon the willingness of the Government to abide by a free decision of the House of Commons on this vital constitutional issue.
§ 9.33 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. William Ross)
It is about 20 years since the honourable House of Commons addressed itself to the essentially important matter of how we elect our Members of Parliament and, therefore, how we choose a Government. It is, therefore, right that we should pay particular attention to all that has been said in this debate and not be entirely fixed in our opinions before we have heard the House of Commons.
This may be partially the answer to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharples), who seems to think that we should have made up our minds even before we heard his speech. His was a valuable contribution and I do not underestimate it, and the same is true of every other hon. Member who has spoken.
The debate has reflected the concern felt by hon. Members on both sides—
§ Mr. Ross
I will come later to every point that the hon. Gentleman made.
The debate reflects the concern felt by hon. Members on both sides of the House that our electoral machinery should not only be kept in good repair, but improved wherever possible. We have now had in this century four Speakers' Conferences on Electoral Reform. There are a number of hon. Members who have certainly attended the third of these and, indeed, one right hon. Gentleman has the unique privilege of having attended two conferences. If we consider the results achieved by those earlier conferences and by this particular conference, we have every reason, Mr. Speaker, to congratulate you on your leadership on this occasion. The lesson that success most likely attends those conferences which are carried through in a spirit of co-operation between the parties is fairly evident here.
More than one hon. or right hon. Member has raised the question of the form of the Speaker's Conference, and of reporting it. There has been no departure on this occasion from the usual form. There was no indication that we should so depart. It may well be that we should have taken note of this, but some people have gone further. It was, I think, the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) who suggested that because the Government had departed from some of the recommendations we really ought to dispense altogether with the whole conception of Speaker's Conferences.
The implication there is that the House should accept without question—indeed, without debate—the findings of Mr. Speaker's Conference. I think that this would be quite wrong: it would be to make the House of Commons, as well as the Government, a rubber stamp for Mr. Speaker's Conference. I am quite sure, Mr. Speaker, that on consideration no one would want this to be the position.
This has been a very quiet debate. There was very little heated controversy 156 until the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam managed to get himself into a bit of a lather over something that really was not related to the terms of the debate at all; but that is beside the point. I want to try to cover as many points as possible, and perhaps the best way to do that is first to try to deal with some of the smaller or less important points.
The question of how we should deal with the wives of persons who are travelling away from their constituencies is covered by the recommendation to treat them as absent voters.
The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) asked what would be the effect of the proposed recommendations on the law relating to Service voters, where there would be a departure from continuous registration. I do not think that in practice there is necessarily any change at all in the law in that respect. It may well be that a Serviceman would find it difficult to declare to such an address each year, and this will have to be borne in mind in the drafting of legislation.
The right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton asked about jury service and wanted to know whether the Government intended to lower the minimum age for jury service. As he probably knows, the Departmental Committee on Jury Service, under the chairmanship of Lord Morris, recommended that in England and Wales the basis of eligibility for jury service should be altered to that of "citizenship as evidenced by inclusion in the register as a Parliamentary elector". In considering the Committee's recommendations, the Government will naturally take into account the implications of any change which we make in the voting age.
The hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing) asked about party political broadcasts. I want to confirm that it is intended that there should be a review before the end of this year of the party allotments for 1969. I believe that arrangements are already in hand for that to be done. I hope that she has taken account of the time on the radio and on television and will not have overlooked that such increased support at the polls as she may have had has already been recognised in the various discussion programmes which are run by both the independent—
§ Mrs. Ewing
For many years the discussion type of programme often allowed the other parties to attack the absentee party. It is true that since being elected for Hamilton I have been invited to defend ray own situation, but that is not related to the basic question of the actual allotment of proper party political broadcasts.
§ Mr. Ross
No, but it is an indication that both the B.B.C. and the Independent Television Authority are not quite so suspect as the hon. Lady may have suggested when she asked us to bear in mind that there were two ex-political figures at the heads of these organisations.
There need be no mystery about the Boundary Commissions. My right hon. Friend and I are well aware of our statutory obligations in respect of the reports that the Boundary Commissions make to us. They have not made them to us yet. As my right hon. Friend said, until the relevant reports have been received and we have carried out our statutory obligation to consider them before they are laid, it would be wrong to enter into any commitments now as to what we should propose to the House about them. I am mentioning this because, although it is outwith our present considerations, it is necessary to do so. There is no very great mystery.
I come now to the major aspects of voting and, first, to the method of voting. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made absolutely clear the Government's attitude, which was similar to the attitude of Mr. Speaker's Conference, towards S.T.V.—in Scotland we regard S.T.V. as having a different meaning from "single transferable vote". I had a feeling that the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone was talking about something entirely different, the old form of alternative vote.
§ Mr. Ross
I must tell the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) that, quite apart from all the complexity, and so on, there would still be the position where there would be a very much larger constituency with multi-membership, which would be a considerable break with tradition and which would not lead to more effective representation. That is one of the main points and it certainly appeals to me as being decisive.
§ Mr. Lubbock
I was going to deal with that as well, but when I saw that I had been on my feet for half an hour I thought that I might incur the displeasure of Mr. Speaker if I entered into that subject.
§ Mr. Ross
I am rather envious of the hon. Gentleman that he got half an hour. I will not get that. I hope that hon. Gentlemen will bear this in mind when they seek to interrupt me. I am not asking for any more time, but each time that I am interrupted it detracts from the time that I have.
Some rather surprising arguments were put forward about the hours of voting. I expected the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Kenneth Baker) to propose reducing the hours after the arguments he adduced. Comparisons are odious, and it is wrong to talk about the number of people who are able to vote in Wyoming, France or Italy without taking into consideration all the other factors. In some of the areas he spoke of voting takes place on Sunday, and it may be, on a public holiday as well.
The simple fact is that we want to get as many people to the poll as possible. Of course, we have to balance the position about the difficulties of people such as returning officers and polling clerks who may well be the same people called upon to count the votes at night. We have to take into account that there has been a very considerable extension of travelling to work, but not such travelling as would enable a person to use a postal vote. Overtime is a factor here. There is no doubt that the 159 extension of hours leads to a greater number of people having an opportunity of voting.
I am told that the great majority of people vote in the later hours. We have known cases where there has been queueing up to vote. There is this pressure upon the people working at the poll. This is when mistakes are made. I can remember complaints about the failure to frank a ballot paper, which wipes it out. This can happen because of pressure of work. If one can extend the time there is less likelihood of that happening.
It was on the balance of the arguments that my right hon. Friend made the announcement that we favoured an extension of the hours. I got the impression that the hon. Gentleman has a distaste, as a candidate, for election day. I can assure him, as a candidate, that I have always found election day a hit of a rest, because all the work has been done up to that time by the candidate, and it is up to the party workers then.
§ Mr. Ross
It should be appreciated that we have gone into the matter fairly fully and have not brushed aside the objections and difficulties of those involved.
As to opinion polls and betting, I must confess that I was opposed to this. I do not like betting, and if we can discourage it in electioneering, so much the better. But it goes on just the same. The right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg), was right when he spoke of the danger of corruption and large sums of money being placed. Some people not only like to win, but they like to make sure that they win, and this is one of the dangers that can arise. Upon examination there are practical difficulties.
As soon as we say in a Statute, or even in an Order under a Statute, that something shall not he done, people will find some other way of doing it. This applies 160 to the polls and to betting. One cannot stop betting. All that one can stop is the publication of the odds. It was the practical realisation of the difficulties and the likelihood that this would be got round which determined the Government's attitude.
Everyone seems to be entirely agreed that the change in election expenses should be made concerning the individual candidate. However, there has been a division of opinion—and the hon. Gentleman became rather heated about it and started to read all sorts of mysterious machinations of the Government—about general expenditure. We must watch this and tie it up with the question of the party label. Whether we like it or not, there has been a depersonalising of elections. The hon. Lady the Member for Renfrew, East (Miss Harvie Anderson) mentioned this—and it is true. The main parties have been as much responsible for this as anyone else. We have seen the large hoardings saying, "Vote Labour", or "Vote Conservative".
The point about a person appearing in a party political broadcast is that he cannot refer to his own constituency. One refers to the party. It is therefore the party which is thrown at the electorate all the time. There are here dangers of abuse, particularly if we go in for the party label. I thought that the views of hon. Members were fairly evenly balanced, with perhaps a majority in favour of a swing to the party label. That being so, there are dangers in respect of general expenditure of swamping particular constituencies, as may well happen. The Home Secretary and I would be failing in our duty if we did not say that, while we recommend no change at present, we would watch the situation. That is the least that we can do.
The hon. Gentleman wondered what would happen if there was a party in Scotland called the Independent Labour Party. I was appalled that someone speaking from the Opposition Front Bench and proclaiming himself to be Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party did not know that there was an Independent Labour Party even before there was a Labour Party.
§ Mr. Ross
It is not the whole point. The point is that the Independent Labour Party has been fighting elections under the name of the I.L.P. for long enough and the people of Scotland have never had any difficulty in differentiating the Labour Party from the Independent Labour Party. The hon. Gentleman raised a hare on that point.
The point which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made is relevant. We have suggested a scheme and have asked the main parties for their comments on it. Before it were put into law, there would need to be a full and detailed committee discussion.
I come to the point about the age of voting. I have been struck by the vehemence with which the opinions of some of my colleagues have been expressed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) is very much against this proposal and seemed to think that the Labour Party was quite wrong in putting it to Mr. Speaker's Conference. In doing this, we focused the discussion, and it was quite right that we should do so.
People have relied on the Latey Committee and on what it has said—that we should not have departed from the age of 21 and rested on what the Committee has done. It would have been quite illogical of us not to note what the Committee has done and what the Committee said in page after page about the maturity of our 18-year-olds.
I do not think that the Latey Committee was prepared to take the distinction drawn by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall. Indeed, in paragraph 25, when it drew attention to the possible consequence of civic changes, the Latey Committee said thaton the subject of voting we have carefully refused to express a view. But it does not seem to us that changes in the civic field are at all likely to follow changes in the private field even if we wished that they should.The Committee went on to talk about the taxpayer and the fact that the President of the United States must be over the age of 35, and it said this:To keep back generation after generation of mature young people for fear that one day we might have a nineteen-year-old councillor or an eighteen-year-old juryman seems to us unrealistic.
§ Mr. Ross
I did not start it. [Interruption.] I said that opponents were resting too much on the Latey Committee. The whole point centres around the facts about our young people today. They are taking more and more interest in serious politics and we should not deplore it. When people say that young people do not want the vote, this may be an indication that young people have written off Parliamentary democracy. That is one of the dangers.
We must accept the earlier maturity of our young people. We must accept that they are anxious to participate. We should try giving them responsibility and when we give them responsibility by participating in elections, that will have an effect on them.
I, too, speak to young people. I spoke to 600 young youth leaders and potential youth leaders at Butlin's camp in Ayr about a month ago and I heard more serious discussion there of serious matters than I have heard many a time in the House of Commons. [Interruption.] Since the hon. Member for Woking has interrupted me, may I say that he made the worst speech of the day. It was unfair to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The hon. Member implied that there was pressure by the Government on the Speaker's Conference, which was quite wrong. Altogether, it was unworthy of the hon. Member.
We should put a little more faith and trust in our young people. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) was right. When young people go on the register at the age of 18, they do not stay at that age. Although we say that people get the vote at the age of 21, the fact that there is an interval of four or five years between elections means that people are 22 and 23 before they cast their first vote. Very 163 few of the new 3 million who will come on to the register will be 18 when they cast their first vote, although it is always on the age of 18 that the opponents of change fasten their arguments. I am satisfied that our young people are capable of exercising this responsibility and exercising it well.
We have taken due note of the expression of the feelings of the House. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) was one, and the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone was another, who asked about our intentions in relation to a free vote. I said at the start that we valued the debate because it enabled us to hear how the House felt. We take due note of the way in which they have expressed their opinions on that point.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of the Conclusions on Review of the Law Relating to Parliamentary Elections contained in Command Paper No. 3717.