HC Deb 02 July 1969 vol 786 cc573-602

10.25 p.m.

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

I beg to move,

That the Representation of the People Regulations 1969, dated 2nd June 1969, a copy of which was laid before this House on 12th June, be approved.

Mr. Speaker

It has occurred to me that we might take at the same time the corresponding regulations for Northern Ireland and Scotland, unless there is any objection from any part of the House. If not, so be it.

Mr. Rees

There must be no question of my trespassing north of the Border. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will be happy to deal with any Scottish points which may be raised.

The purpose of the three sets of Regulations is identical. They are all in similar terms, allowing for differences to take account of the legal systems in the various parts of the United Kingdom. The Regulations are made under powers conferred upon my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland by the Representation of the People Act, 1949. Their purpose, like that of the earlier Regulations which they replace, is to spell out in more detail than is desirable in a Statute the detailed procedure to be followed in various electoral matters, in particular the preparation and publication of the electoral register, absent voting, issue and receipt of postal ballot papers and registration of Service voters. In no point do they, or can they, go beyond the provisions of the Representation of the People Act.

Earlier this Session we had some fairly strenuous debates on the Representation of the People Bill. Now that it has become law, I am sure that we leave controversy behind and treat the Regulations for what they are, a useful piece of necessary but in itself uncontroversial machinery.

The new Regulations are needed because the passing of the 1969 Act has rendered obsolete the earlier Regulations which were made in 1950 following the Representation of the People Act, 1949, and which have been several times amended since. Regulations are needed now because the authority of Parliament is required for the revised forms prescribed in Schedule 1. Some of these relate to the preparation of the electoral register, and in many areas that process begins a few weeks from now. Accordingly, the Regulations now before the House revoke and replace the previous Regulations to which I have referred and which are, to a large extent, reproduced word for word.

Most of the new and amended provisions of the Regulations have been made in consequence of the 1969 Act. A few changes have also been made to give effect to recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference and of the Home Secretary's Electoral Advisory Conference, which, although well within the scope of the Act, did not need to be spelt out in it.

The main changes are listed in the appended Explanatory Notes. Hon. Members will, no doubt, notice the close similarity, if not identity, of wording in all cases. It may be convenient if what I add by way of further explanation is directed to the first set of Regulations applying to England and Wales.

I should, perhaps, explain that whereas the England and Wales Regulations and the Scottish Regulations contain provisions, for example, on registration and absent voting applying to local government as well as Parliamentary elections, the Northern Ireland Regulations apply only to Parliamentary elections to the Parliament at Westminster. Elections to the Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont and to local authorities in the province are the direct responsibility of the Northern Ireland Government and not of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The difference, incidentally, accounts for the difference in numbering of the Northern Ireland Regulations. My right hon. Friend announced that a White Paper had been issued today in Northern Ireland on why the changes are to be made in the franchise there.

As far as England and Wales are concerned, as with the Act of 1969, various parts of the Regulations come into force at different times. No part of them has effect till 14 days after approval by both Houses of Parliament. The greater part of them does not come into effect till 16th February next year when the electoral register for 1970 comes into force, but, as I have explained, the Regulations are needed now so that preparation of the 1970 register can go ahead.

Perhaps the most generally interesting provisions are the Regulations relating to voting age. I refer to Regulation 8 and Form A, the householders' canvass form prescribed in Schedule 1. The House will recall that under the new Act the voting age on and after 16th February becomes 18 and that electors will be able to vote on and from the date they attain that age. Accordingly, Regulation 8(2) provides for annotating the register with the date of the 18th birthday in respect of those entered in it who will become 18 during the life of the register, and Form A, in Part 2, is designed to elicit the information necessary if this is to be done.

In Committee on the Representation of the People Bill there was considerable discussion of registration, particularly of students. The right hon. and learned Gentleman informed he wanted to raise a point on this, as also did my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Luard). I see that the N.U.S.—I think it is—is to launch a campaign—a very proper activity, provided the students are registered in the right place. That, given the long history of the law of residence, is not always an easy question to determine.

What the students want is to get their people to register. I undertook in Committee that the giving of guidance on this matter would be considered in relation to administration. This has been done. Form A already gave some guidance to the householder whose duty it is to fill it up. It advised him to include in the form those who normally live at your address but are temporarily away— for instance, as students. This should cover the large number of students whose residence—I use the word in its technical sense—is their family or home address. That, we felt, went as far as was possible in a document which goes to every household and which must be kept simple. Form A, prescribed in Schedule 1 to the Regulations, is accordingly unchanged in this particular.

But the administrative guidance which the Home Office proposes to issue shortly to electoral registration officers has, in the matter of residence, been largely rewritten to take account of the problems presented by the lowering of the voting age and the consequent bringing on to the register of many thousands of students who have not appeared in it before. This should enable sensible decisions to be taken in individual cases. As throughout the field of residence, the question is one of fact to be determined by the electoral registration officer, subject to appeal to the county court.

With students, as with everyone else, the facts vary. Many, perhaps most, are in the situation I have just mentioned—their residence is at their family or home address. Others, who have no such address, or who live in a house or flat in the university town, may as a matter of fact reside in that town, particularly if they are married or are following postgraduate studies. It would be wrong if I were to try to deal in detail with the great variety of cases which are possible, but I would like to make it clear that "residence" at a university is not necessarily the same as "residence" for electoral registration purposes, and that merely being a student is not of itself an automatic title to voting in the place where one pursues one's studies.

An important change is to be found in Regulation 28. In Committee, I said that this would be covered in the Regulations, and this has been done. The Regulation sets out in detail how the electoral registration officer is to go about correcting a register after it has been published, under the increased power conferred on him by Section 7(2) of the Act of 1969. This will still be a limited power, in that it will extend only to putting right clerical or printers' errors which have occurred in the final stages of preparing the register for publication.

It will be as necessary as ever that the public, if they want to be sure of being on the register, should inspect the electors lists—which may, under Regulation 10(5), take the form of a single draft register, if my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary consents—while they are on public display between 28th November and 16th December in each year. If a name is not in the lists and no claim for inclusion is made then, the registration officer will have no power to add the name by way of correction under the procedure in Regulation 28.

Regulation 29 makes the detailed provision necessary for giving effect to the extensions of absent voting facilities made by Section 6 of the 1969 Act to, for example, the wife of an elector who has such facilities on "business" grounds, and to people prevented by religious observance from going in person to a polling station on ballot day.

I dealt with this last category at some length on the Report stage of the Bill. I pointed to the need for supporting evidence, and said that the Regulations would require it. Regulation 29(2)(a) accordingly provides that an application to be treated as an absent voter on the ground of religious observance will be allowed only if accompanied by a certificate signed by a minister of the applicant's religious denomination. The form of certificate is prescribed in Form S of Schedule 1.

Part V of the Regulations deals with the registration of service voters. That category will now include members of the British Council and their wives or husbands, as the case may be.

Most of these, as of the other, changes mentioned in the Explanatory Note to the Regulations result from the Act of 1969. As I said earlier, however, there are one or two changes which do not flow directly from that Act. These are the provisions for a draft register instead of electors lists in Regulation 10(5); for replacement of a spoilt postal ballot paper in Regulation 51; and for an increase in the maximum penalties, particularly that for failing to give information, or for giving false information, for registration in Regulation 75.

The first of these was suggested by the Electoral Advisory Conference. The other two give effect to recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference. I should perhaps also say that the England and Wales regulations as a whole were discussed in draft with the Electoral Advisory Conference, and that the other two sets of regulations have also been the subject of consultation.

It would be wrong at this time of night to weary the House with a complete catalogue. My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office, is available to deal with Scottish points. I am available to deal with other points. But, as I have said, the regulations as such ought not to be treated as matters of controversy, limited as they are to machinery rather than to policy. On that footing, I commend the regulations to the House, and hope that the House will see its way to signifying the approval which we seek.

10.38 p.m.

Mr. W. R. van Straubenzee (Wokingham)

I am sure that in general terms—and I stress "in general terms"—the House will welcome these regulations. I have only one point to raise, which was touched upon by the Under-Secretary of State, and I hope he will be able to assist me. I refer to his remarks about Schedule 1, on page 30 of the English regulations, "Return by occupier as to residents", that is to say, those people in the house on the qualifying date.

I refer specifically to the point that the hon. Gentleman made about the students. We are obviously moving into a totally new situation and it is a matter over which the House will want to take a great deal of care. We on this side are looking forward with keen anticipation to the participation of 18-year-olds and above, and of students in particularly, in the next General Election. We welcome that very warmly indeed.

The hon. Gentleman touched on the campaign which is being efficiently organised by the National Union of Students which, quite rightly, is seeking to ensure the greatest number of their members should register as voters. Neither he nor I would disagree about that. It would be unfortunate if there were to be a clash between the student body and the electoral authorities of any size which would turn upon the electoral registration form. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the circular issued by the National Union of Students says: Where entitled to do so, the N.U.S. aims to ensure that students register to vote in their college constituencies rather than in the constituencies of their parents' home. If I have understood the hon. Gentleman correctly the administrative memoranda will make it as clear as such a document can, that the right place for the student to be registered is not in his college or university constituency, but in his home constituency.

That is a very valuable point extracted from the debate. There are a number of reasons why that is wise. The first is that in any one year a General Election or by-election at which such a student will vote, could, and might easily be, at a time of year when the university or college was not in session in the constituency. For example, the last General Election, which, as the House will recall to its sorrow, was held on 31st March, 1966, was at a time which, if it had been held in the academic year 1968–69, would have meant that only one university would still have been up. The exception is the University of Stirling, which operates a two-term year, but I am not competent to comment on Scottish matters.

In seven by-elections out of 29 held since the last General Election the dates have been either 27th or 28th March. Only six universities or university colleges had not gone down by those dates in the 1968–69 session. The effect of the campaign being operated by the N.U.S. might well lead to a substantial number of its members not being able to exercise the vote on which they are so keen. There is a second reason. If I have understood the matter correctly, if a student is registered at his home address he would be entitled to cast a postal vote, if he were likely to be away from home—if he were either a student or undergraduate.

If, on the other hand, he were registered at the university or college, and at the time of a General Election or by-election he was away on holiday the Regulations would not permit him to cast a postal vote. This is an additional reason why it is directly in the interests of the students that they should be registered at their home address and not at the address of their university or college.

I quite see the problems of drafting, but does the hon. Gentleman really feel that it is sufficient that the only reference to this matter in the regulations is contained in the notes to the form going to the householder? The only reference is that You should include— (a) Those who normally live at your address but are temporarily away such as a student.

Would it not be for the general convenience of the average person—and the object of the House must be that the average person understands the regulations—if there was a negative provision that he should not include a person who is with him temporarily as a student? I make that suggestion because I do not want to see the student body, in its enthusiasm, surge forward to register at its college or university address, then a number of test cases to come before the county courts, and ill-feeling result because those cases have been turned down and the students in question have lost their chance of operating their votes at their home addresses because the qualifying date has passed.

I hope that the Minister will feel that that is a suggestion made in a constructive spirit.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Rhodes (Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

I shall be brief. I urge my hon. Friend to consider publicising that part of the Regulations which particularly affects students.

Recently, out of curiosity and interest because I had raised the matter in Committee, I asked a number of wardens of halls of residence, to whom I was speaking on a completely different topic, what their interpretation of the current Regulations was. They gave a wide and wonderful variety of answers. They are not normally given any instruction in this matter. They are simply given the same form that is dropped through the letterbox of the ordinary householder and they have to use their judgment in the light of the instructions on it.

With the introduction of several hundred thousand new electors who are students, leaving aside other 18-year-olds, many of whom will be in halls of residence, if there is any major confusion, this constitutes a very serious matter.

The hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) put his finger on an existing confusion which, in the eyes of the National Union of Students, if not quickly eradicated, could widely spread throughout the student community. I was attracted by the suggestion that the hon. Gentleman raised about some kind of negative instruction saying that there should not be included in the register students who are in residence merely during term time.

I do not know how it would be done technically, but perhaps through the Home Office and the local electoral registration offices instructions could be given to university authorities. By that I mean the registrars of universities and also the wardens of halls of residence who would normally handle this matter where students are collectively housed in any large building.

I feel very strongly, as a matter of principle, that a student, in terms of political logic, should be registered at his normal place of residence. We know that there are exceptional difficulties about research students. But a student's normal place of residence will be his home; not where he is studying at a college or university. I think that both sides of the House have agreed that this is not widely understood. That is why I plead for publicity.

My last point is even more important. I ask that consideration be given to publicity through all channels of communication to the country as a whole that 18 year olds should be included, even on the next Parliamentary registrar. Many people in my constituency are not aware that this will be the law of the land when the next electoral register is prepared. Indeed, when I discussed this matter with some men in a local working men's club in New castle-upon-Tyne they had not the slightest clue that the Act had been passed. They did not even know that it had been discussed in this House. The comment may be made, "Surely, people read newspapers". Some do and some do not—and they do not always read the small print. I thing that this again is a matter on which the Home Office should approach electoral registration officers to ensure that there is widespread publicity in the locality about this provision. I am sure that the political parties will do that as well, but through the medium of television and by other means it should be made known that it is now the right of every citizen over a certain age to take advantage of this innovation in our democratic system.

It would be disastrous if there were a whole host of trial cases and conflicts between student bodies on the one hand and wardens of halls of residence on the other, and even between political parties which may feel that there is a political advantage one way or the other if students happen to be in their constituencies. In my constituency—and I am referring to them not as individuals but as a body—students seem to go on and off the electoral register year by year on no consistent principle except the interpretation of the Regulations by the person who happens to be the warden of the halls of residence during that year.

There was confusion under the old Regulations. The new Regulations are clearer, and I hope that they will be given adequate publicity.

10.51 p.m.

Sir Donald Kaberry (Leeds, North-West)

I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) and those of the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Rhodes), but I was a little surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman say that people are not aware that young people of 18 now are qualified to go on the electoral roll. I am sure that between now and the qualifying date the fact that they are so entitled will be given sufficient publicity by the national Press, through the medium of television, and by all the political parties of every hue and colour. It may be that when these young people cast their votes some of us may not find ourselves here, and it may be that those constituents who are at present ignorant of the fact that they are entitled to vote at 18 may decide to change their Members at the next election but that is a matter between the hon. Gentleman and his constituents.

I agree with what has been said about making it abundantly clear what "residence" really means. In some constituencies where there are large student populations they are not wholly centred, alas, on halls of residence. Some towns and universities still have to rely largely on lodgings, and one can see all kinds of things happening at registration time in October when forms of this kind are let loose on a number of householders who will have to interpret the forms as best they can.

I think that the instructions on the back of the form could be amplified. Paragraph 1 tells the occupier the people who should be included on the form and that he should include those who normally live at the address but who are temporarily away. That is reasonably clear, but it would be better if there were an entry under paragraph 2 which said, "Do not enter members of the Forces and the other four categories set out there, and also students who are temporarily away in residence at their university or school, or wherever it may be", If that were made clear there could be no complaints afterwards.

I direct the Minister's attention to one other small matter in connection with Form R, on page 54, which is headed: Application to vote by post owing to change of residence. We argued this point in Committee, and I think that it was also discussed in the House. I am a little unhappy about the wording of Note 3 which deals with the claim to vote owing to a change of residence within the same borough or within the same county borough. I read Note 3 with some alarm, because it says: This application cannot be allowed if the address at which you now reside is in the same borough and constituency as the address for which you are registered… I would like to see words "borough and" deleted.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member served with me on the Conference and he knows that he cannot amend the Regulations tonight. He can denounce them, but he cannot amend them.

Sir D. Kaberry

I was not trying to amend them, Mr. Speaker. I was trying to draw the Under-Secretary's attention to the fact that I am a little annoyed about this wording. I would like it to be made clearer. We must bear in mind the fact that it is possible for a person to walk from a constituency in the North to a constituency in the South and still be in the same county borough and yet be eight or nine miles from his normal polling district. Why should not he be entitled at some stage to vote by post. If he goes over the county borough, even if it involves a distance of only 100 yards, he is outside the borough and he can vote.

10.57 p.m.

Mr. Evan Luard (Oxford)

I also want to draw attention to the question of the registration of students. I will not conceal the fact that I have a direct personal interest in this matter, as have one or two other hon. Members. I represent a constituency in which I have a fairly small majority of about 2,000. We have about 10,000 constituents, and it is clear that the question whether or not they are registered and the way in which they will vote can determine my fate. I believe that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) is in a similar position.

Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)

A better one.

Mr. Luard

These Regulations make no difference to the present situation. It has always been the case that graduates should normally be registered in their home constituencies, however long they may spend in their university towns, while post-graduate students are normally registered in their university towns. The situation is very different today, because we shall have all students over the age of 18 voting and therefore a much larger number will be on one register or another.

It is logical and reasonable that the undergraduate student should be registered in his home town rather than his university town. I am not sure whether I take the point made by the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee). It seems to me that the election can just as easily take place at a time when the student is deprived of his vote because is studying in his university town, if he is registered in his home town, as vice versa. I am not sure that it is correct that he would not normally be able to get a postal vote under those circumstances.

Mr. van Straubenzee

Is it not at least clear that up to now the House has refused a postal vote to anybody if he is on holiday? In the case that the hon. Member poses, the student would clearly be on holiday.

Mr. Luard

I am not quite sure that the Regulations have always been interpreted in that way. It is true that until now my constituents over 21 have registered in their university towns, despite the fact that the normal Regulations provide for the reverse. My point is that the student's main interest is in his home constituency. This is the city, town or region about which he knows most, and to which he will probably return, at least for a period, after his time as a student is finished. It therefore seems reasonable that he should cast his vote there.

Secondly, it would doubtless be possible for an organisation such as the National Union of Students to organise a campaign, as it now intends to do, to induce students to register in certain constituencies. In my constituency and in Cambridge, where there are narrow majorities, this could swing the balance one way or the other. For these reasons, it is important not merely that there should be a general presumption that a student should register in his home town rather than his university town, but that this should be clear in Regulations that he and each householder and whoever else is making registrations is bound to follow.

The third reason why it seems logical and reasonable that students should register in their home towns rather than their university towns is the point of view of the constituencies and the university towns concerned. We are past the age of the old, standing feud between town and gown, but it remains the case, even today, that most of my constituents in Oxford would like to feel that they are determining their own affairs and undertaking the election of their own Member without the participation of those who they do not regard as normally residents of the city and who would be entitled to determine the representation of the city in elections if they were allowed to register. In my case, where this could determine the result, it is a reasonable feeling, and it would cause resentment if a sudden flood of students on to the register were to determine the result of the election.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am following this with great interest, but the hon. Member should link what he has to say with these Regulations. They do not prevent an Oxford University student registering at Oxford or in his native town.

Mr. Luard

It would be far more reasonable and logical for a student to register in his native town than in his university town. The residents of a university town should not have their affairs determined by the presence of student voters. It is important that the Regulations should be framed unmistakably and should not be frustrated by a campaign like that on which the National Union of Students are intending to embark.

The notes say: You should include (a) Those who normally live at your address but are temporarily away, e.g. on holiday, as a student or in hospital… The word "normally" embraces much, and if the landlord or college, or anyone entitled to register voters, felt strongly, possibly for a political reason, that he should register a student at a university town on the electoral register, it would be open to him to do so under this wording. For this reason, I agree with hon. Members who said that there should be a contrary instruction saying, "Do not enter somebody who is not resident and is a student."

Mr. John Lee (Reading)

That cannot be the case until there has been a test case.

Mr. Speaker

It will help the Chair and the reporters if the hon. Member will address the Chair.

Mr. Lee

Surely the situation is more difficult than the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) pointed out? The matter is of such importance that there is bound to be an appeal and we may have to await the decision of the House of Lords before we know the position.

Mr. Luard

There is nothing new about the situation. What has altered is the age of those concerned. There have been test cases in the last year or two. Until now, the situation as described in this debate has been upheld. The position should be made clear, but because it can be of such importance in deciding an election—

Mr. Stanley Henig (Lancaster)

I follow what the hon. Member says when he suggests a contrary instruction, but surely there might be a difference between the normal student who spends six months at his university town and six months at what he describes as his parental home and the many university students who, once they enter a university, never spend more than the odd weekend at their parental home? It would be unjust to say they must vote there, even though they only spend two or three days a year there.

Mr. Luard

There will no doubt be exceptions. I presume that this is why the wording is as it is, and why the Under-Secretary used an equally vague statement of the rule. He said that residence in a city as a student would not normally entitle someone to be registered. But the student could quote this to say that although it was not a normal case, he wanted it applied in this case.

The law should say that the student should be registered in his home town and it was up to him to prove that he was resident in the university town for almost the whole year and establish himself as an exception to the rule. He should not be able to decide for him-self to spend an extra two or three weeks in the university town, thereby spending the majority of the year there and getting himself registered there.

The present Regulations, as laid down in the notes to Schedule 1, are so vague and flexible that the students can determine for themselves or a body like the N.U.S. could influence the matter. Could not these notes be made more clear—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hesitate to interrupt, but we cannot amend these Regulations tonight.

Mr. Luard

I am not moving an Amendment, Mr. Speaker. I am asking my hon. Friend to look again at the Regulations to see whether some better form of words cannot be found for the future—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has not understood what I said. To find some better form of words would be to amend the Regulations. We cannot amend them tonight.

Mr. Luard

I said that this would be for the future, Mr. Speaker. At present, the Regulations give rise to doubt and ambiguity and enable certain circumventions of the law. They are not satisfactory, and I hope that in future they will be looked at again and amended so that all those concerned with the registration of voters will be in no doubt about their obligation. I hope that the Home Office will do everything it can to publicise the correct interpretation of the Regulations, so that landlords, students and the N.U.S. will be in no doubt that students are under a legal obligation to be registered in their home towns.

11.8 p.m.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

In view of the doubts expressed from both sides and the Under-Secretary's vagueness—although, no doubt, he intended to be categorical—perhaps the regulations should be withdrawn to take these real points into account, and then relaid. From the careful way in which the Under-Secretary chose his words, it is clear that he had doubts, and the argument between his Friends confirms that the position is not as categorical as it should be if this is to work in the best interests of the nation.

Votes at 18 are now the law of the land, and there are great student bodies in almost every large centre. The technical colleges and the boarding schools are involved. If this is left vague and the 18-year-olds at Repton can get themselves on to the electoral register in that area, the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. George Brown) might lose his seat. The 18-year-olds at Arundel—a much better school—might also have a part to play. I do not want to take that unfair advantage. Like Sir Francis Chichester, I like to live dangerously.

Doubts have been proved that what the Minister, the Government and Parliament intend may not be given effect. The National Union of Students, or at least the militant members of it, will use this issue to get the sort of publicity upon which so many of us and them thrive. There is a real risk arising from the vague words which the Minister had to use and the wording of the Regulations that militant members will seize upon them to make the issues which have been referred to by the Member for Oxford (Mr. Luard).

I am not thinking in terms of pushing this issue to a vote in order to make my point, but, bearing in mind the problems which could flow from this if the words are not made categorical—leaflets could be sent round putting in the negative instruction, as has been suggested, which might help—unless the Government are absolutely satisfied that the Regulations will have the effect Parliament intended, I believe that even now they ought to be withdrawn and resubmitted in words that would bring them in order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly in order. He can argue that this set of Regulations ought to be withdrawn. He cannot amend them tonight.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

That is why I am using those words, Mr. Speaker. because I heard how tough you were on the hon. Member for Oxford, and quite rightly so. But in order to avoid back benchers having to be chastised by you, Mr. Speaker, may I say that the Regulations should be withdrawn and re-issued with these minor amendments. This would settle the doubts of hon. Members opposite and meet points made by my hon. Friends.

11.13 p.m.

Mr. Stanley Henig (Lancaster)

You have generously allowed a wide-ranging debate on this, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Speaker never generously allows wide debates. The debate can only be on the Regulations.

Mr. Henig

I hope it will be in order to refer straight away to the N.U.S. It is unfortunate that the N.U.S. should be elevated into the position of No. 1 ogre or No. 1 bogyman. The feeling has been expressed that we must be careful lest the N.U.S. exploits this order to register lots of people at any one place because heaven knows what would happen in any one city.

Mr. van Straubenzee


Mr. Henig

If the hon. Member will allow me, I am trying to continue this argument. This is not the way we should conduct our debate on this issue. We have to decide where it is right and proper for students to cast a vote and not whether we fear the N.U.S. will get too many students to vote in any one place

I want to challenge the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Luard) and the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) and others. Students fall into a number of different categories, and that is why, although I am concerned at the vagueness of the Regulations, it seems that the Minister is right to persist with them. For the situation will, therefore, be unchanged and the matter in that sense would have to go to the courts to be interpreted.

The situation is not wholly satisfactory, but at the moment it seems the best we can get. Students living in a university town will be living in halls of residence or lodgings or possibly in flats. A flat holder is probably a ratepayer. It would be hard to argue that someone paying rates in a community was not living in it even if he was away for part of the year. Other people would fall into that category who are not students

The second kind of differentiation might be between undergraduates and graduates. There is the idea that someone pursuing an undergraduate course is only doing so for part of the year. This is an idea which, as a former university teacher, I would not encourage, but it seems widespread. On the other hand. the graduate student may, in effect, be devoting his working life to his work at the university so that the odd weekend or week away would be really a holiday. He would be making his life in the university town.

Mr. Luard

There is already a distinction between the graduate and the undergraduate. The graduate is normally registered in the university town for the reason my hon. Friend has given—that he spends most of the year there. The average undergraduate spends less than half a year there in the case of Oxford and other universities.

Mr. Henig

That is the position, but I challenge the idea that there is necessarily a black and white distinction between the two. Rather are there shades of grey.

Mr. Speaker

Order. As an old university man, I am fascinated by these academic arguments, but they must be linked to the Regulations.

Mr. Henig

I think that they are, Mr. Speaker, because there is grave concern among hon. Members about exactly what is implied in the Regulations and whether all students are going to register in order to vote. The argument I am putting is that the suggestion that undergraduates should automatically be registered to vote at their home town rather than at the university town—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot see anything in the Regulations which prevents an undergraduate registering either at his university town or at the town where he is living.

Mr. Henig

There has already been a great deal of discussion about the precision or otherwise of the Regulations and the suggestion that perhaps the Regulations ought to be rejected because it is not clear on this point. It seems to me that this question of clarification has led already in the debate to the question as to where it is right and proper that students should cast their votes.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am listening with patience. Whether it is right for an undergraduate to vote is a question not bound by the Regulations.

Mr. Henig

I am certain that that is a judgment that is going to be widely respected inside and outside the House, Mr. Speaker, but it would seem to me that in effect you are saying that there can be no further discussion of this problem of where it is right for students to vote.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We have Regulations which have a lot of things in them. We can discuss all the things in the Regulations, but the franchise is not among them.

Mr. Henig

Am I to understand that it is not in order to have any further discussion on the point of whether students should vote and that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be ruled out of order if he attempts to discuss it? If that is so, I will willingly sit down. Does this ruling apply to others, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker

The last thing Mr. Speaker wants to do is to ask any hon. Member to sit down. We have a number of Regulations here. One of them, which I understand the hon. Gentleman is discussing, is Schedule I—Form A of which is Return by occupier as to residents. The hon. Gentleman can talk about that.

Mr. Henig

That is what I am trying to talk about, Mr. Speaker. If one refers to Note I (a) there is the question of Those who normally live at your address… and whether or not someone who is a student in a particular place does normally live at the address in the area in which he is a student or whether he normally lives in the area where his parents live and where he lived before he became a student.

There is an area of doubt as to what Note I 9(a) means. I am suggesting that the doubt does not mean that the Regulations should be withdrawn and replaced by another set of Regulations, then it should mean, and be taken to comprise, that those students who do not normally live for much of the year at the parental home—those who at the age of 18 are at university and whose home has been the parental home but have left that home and have become resident in the university town, perhaps in a flat as ratepayers—are therefore living in the university town as their normal home. Prima facie it is there that they should vote. On the one hand, perhaps we really need greater precision as to the length of time. Would it be possible to withdraw the Regulations and present another set of Regulations prescribing something about the length of time during which a person must be at the address at which he is to be registered? Elsewhere in the Regulations it is said that in the normal way people are registered on one particular day—that day on which they are resident at the address. This note says that somebody who is away but who is normally there can be registered. Certain universities have started their term by 10th October in any year and certain universities have not, but I do not think that this is the sole relevant point. Here there is a genuine problem.

It may well be that my hon. Friend will have to withdraw the Regulations or that we shall have to turn them down because of lack of precision. It would be wrong to hold that, because it has been generally accepted in the past that students who have left home altogether, who spend only the odd weekend or week at home, who are living in university towns, who are paying rates to those university towns, who are perhaps making an important contribution to the life of those towns, should nonetheless vote from their parental homes, they should continue to do so.

It is important that my hon. Friend should address himself to this point, or he should say, "We do not know what the new position is. We are happy to leave it to the courts to interpret that wording". If he is not happy to do this, he must say precisely what he takes this wording to mean. If he has no precise interpretation himself, I suggest that he withdraws the Regulations and presents new ones. I urge him to differentiate between students who are temporarily away at university and those who have moved from home to live in the university town. The latter category live in the university town and that is where they should be registered.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I take it that the hon. Gentleman has been addressing himself to a note to Schedule 1, which I quote for the benefit of the House: You should include— (a) Those who normally live at your address but are temporarily away, for example on holiday, as a student or in hospital (including informal patients in ps}chiatric hospitals)".

11.22 p.m.

Dr. M. P. Winstanley (Cheadle)

I welcome these Regulations in general. I welcome in particular those of the Regulations which give effect to matters which I and my colleagues on this bench have raised previously.

I regret the enthusiasm which has been evinced by the hon. Members for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) and for Lancaster (Mr. Henig) to dispel all possible doubt about where people do or do not live. I agree with the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) that it would be helpful if the Government were to issue advice in the form of explanatory leaflets. Where a person lives for this purpose is a matter of doubt. Naturally, the Regulations recognise this.

The possibility of people being able to choose where they live for electoral purposes raises fascinating speculations. These are, rightly, not contained in the Regulations. Any attempt to spell out in detail that a person lives in a certain place because he was born there, or because he has lived there for so many days, or because he has slept there, would be thwarted. Any person who wishes can remove himself to an area and say, "I live here. This is my permanent address" before the register is compiled—this is perfectly legal—and leave immediately afterwards. Any attempt to thwart that kind of behaviour, however well intentioned it might be, would be doomed to failure.

I welcome the Regulations as they are. I support the plea for more publicity, but any suggestion that the Regulations should be removed, and that we should have something more precise in an attempt to define something which by its very nature is not precise, I would deplore.

11.25 p.m.

Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)

It is a great pleasure to me to agree, at least on this issue, almost 100 per cent. with the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Luard). I very much welcome what the Under-Secretary of State has said to clarify the rather bare wording of Form A and the note which you have just read out, Mr. Speaker. I strongly urge that the memorandum of guidance which the Under-Secretary has mentioned should be as clear as possible and should be as widely publicised as possible.

I support the general sense of what has been said by most hon. Members. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Lancaster (Mr. Henig) has left the Chamber, because I believe that he was completely distorting the discussion by implying that the N.U.S. had been described as a sort of bogyman. I commend the N.U.S. campaign to remind students of their rights. I supported the lowering of the voting age to 18. We know that several million young voters will be entitled to vote for the first time, and it is vital that they should feel involved and should take the opportunity to cast their votes.

But I believe that the N.U.S. is somewhat unwise—and this is where we return to the note and to Form A—in advising students to try to register in their university constituencies. I will explain why in a moment. I am arguing against my personal interest here, but I do not feel the same nervousness as I sensed the hon. Member for Oxford feels. I have no fear of a swarm of students registering at Cambridge and adding about 10,000 to the existing electorate of 60,000; if that did happen, I believe that I would gain the support of a large number of them and that my majority at the next election would be even higher than I hope it will be even without this additional student electorate.

I hope that the memorandum of guidance we have been promised will make it absolutely clear, as I sense is the feeling of the House, that the majority of students—and I say "majority" because, as the hon. Member for Lancaster said, there are some students whose interests are mainly in their university towns rather than a home residence, but one would regard this as an exception to the general rule—should not register, and vote in their university towns but should do so in their home towns.

I would support that recommendation for three reasons. First, I suggest that legal precedents so far are in its favour. I know that it is difficult to disentangle what the various learned judges have said, but as I read most of the legal opinion in the cases that have been decided hitherto, the interruptable residence of a sudent in a university town should not count as residence for electoral registration purposes.

Secondly, as has been mentioned by a number of speakers, and particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking-ham (Mr. van Straubenzee) it is in the student's own interests to register in his home constituency and not in the university constituency. Some doubts have been expressed about the postal vote. Suppose there is a student with his home in Leeds who, and I speak without disrespect to northern universities, is attending Cambridge. If he is registered at Leeds, he can, during term time, as I understand it, get a postal vote to vote in Leeds. If he is on vocation he votes, naturally, in Leeds. But if he is registered at Cambridge and not at Leeds, he will during term time be able to vote at Cambridge, but, in the vacation, he will not be able to vote at all because he is not eligible for a postal vote. On these grounds, if I have interpreted the position aright, it is clearly in the students' own interests to be registered in their home constituencies.

Mr. Peter M. Jackson (The High Peak)

Before the hon. Gentleman proceeds with that argument, would he not concede that the student should have the right to determine where he wishes to vote? If I understood the gist of the hon. Gentleman's argument, he thinks it proper to deprive the student of that right in that he urges that the student should vote in his home town. It is obvious that the majority of elections generally fall during the university term, and thus the student is required to use his postal vote—

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is suspiciously more like a speech than an intervention. We are discussing some Regulations. What advantage the student takes or does not take of the Regulations is a matter for the student.

Mr. Lane

I am not trying to deprive any students of anything, but am merely suggesting points of guidance that they should be given in this difficult situation. I do not think that the hon. Member was here when my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham was speaking, but my hon. Friend quoted a considerable number of cases where elections have fallen in the vacation, including the last General Election.

If I may mention briefly my last reason, I echo what was said by the hon. Member for Oxford. I do not want to make too much of this point, but there is, I think, a risk of a feeling developing in university constituencies that if too many students are registered and able to vote, there may be a disproportionate influence on the result by a body of electors who are known to be transient and to have no enduring stake in that community. This will not do good to town-and-gown relations. It could do harm. Nor do I think that it will do good—I do not want to exaggerate the point, but it should be remembered—to the general quality of our democracy if we allow to develop what many people would regard as a distortion in the make-up of the electorates in several constituencies.

I am not discouraging students in any way—quite the contrary. I stress also that this is no party matter, as tonight's debate has shown. It has shown above all the need to clarify the position, not only to students and university authorities, but to the public generally. Apparently, that has not been possible in the Regulations. I welcome very much what the Under-Secretary said and I hope that the memorandum of guidance will, as far as practicable, set all doubts at rest.

Mr. Speaker

May I remind the House that we are discussing some Regulations and that the debate has so far concentrated on Schedule 1, some Notes and Note 1 (a). The question is whether these Regulations be adopted.

11.32 p.m.

Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)

The British people have complete political freedom—only for a few seconds in every few years; that is, when they enter the polling stations and put their crosses against the names of candidates of their choice. When they have done that, they have surrendered their destiny to whichever political party has most candidates elected at a General Election There are, of course, by-elections, to which the regulations also apply, but if there is a substantial majority at a General Election they feature less largely in the destiny of the people.

Some of us are surprised that the electors, in spite of the advice given to them, do not take more trouble sometimes to discover where their country's interests and their own interests lie. Be that as it may, the regulations deal with the actual mechanism of parliamentary democracy and they are, therefore, of great importance to us and to all the people. If the people are to use efficiently their rare opportunities of enjoying complete political freedom, it is important that the established machinery should accurately reflect their choice in every individual case.

The regulations are based partly upon precedent; partly on the Representation of the People Act, 1969, which was to some extent, earlier this Session, the subject of controversy, which we do not wish to raise again now; and partly on the recommendations of the conference over which you, Mr. Speaker, and your predecessor presided for no less than three years and of which I was a member throughout, as were my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Sir D. Kaberry) and other hon. Members.

The fact that the regulations are based upon those three foundations should, broadly, commend them to the House, as the Under-Secretary of State has already suggested should be the case, but the regulations also have an advantage, which he did not mention, of having been scrutinised by the Home Secretary's Electoral Advisory Conference on which all political parties, including the Liberal Party even, are represented. In passing, may I say how characteristic I thought it was of a member of the Liberal Party when the hon. Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley) said that he did not wish to have doubt dispelled.

With those foundations, it is hardly surprising that the discussion tonight has not consisted of a general attack on the regulations. I think it fair and true to say that there is only one point on which they have been found to be at fault, and that point affects students. Even with regard to that point we have to take these wide-ranging regulations as we find them, not as we might like them to be: we must take them or leave them. I think that the Under-Secretary of State, who will, no doubt, be given the leave of the House to speak again to reply to the debate, should deal very seriously with the points which have been raised by hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House, including the hon. Members for both Oxford (Mr. Luard) and Cambridge (Mr. Lane). Their views must undoubtedly be respected, about the difficulties which have arisen in regard to students.

The crux of the matter seems to me to lie not in the body of the regulations, but in the notes to Schedule 1 on page 32. I must confess that if I were a householder with a student normally living in the house—and I was in that position up to a few months ago—I might find it difficult to interpret paragraph I (a). But that is not the whole of the matter, because in paragraph 1 (c), if I found myself as a landlady with lodgings in a university town I would find that I had a duty to register lodgers. This is, no doubt, a point to which the hon. Gentleman will wish to address himself and advise the House, and perhaps, through advising the House. to give some guidance outside to the electoral registration officers, landladies and others who will have a duty to interpret the notes appended to the Schedule to these Regulations.

This, I think is a difficult matter, and one on which it is not easy to be dogmatic, but in considering the advice which he is going to give to the House I hope the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind the following factors. The first one is one which has not been mentioned in the debate, so far as I have heard, namely, that these regulations apply not only to parliamentary elections but to local government elections as well. I wonder whether the National Union of Students and those who are advancing their cause really consider that the students, who—I use an alternative phrase to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge—are "birds of passage" in university towns and cities where they are temporarily in residence, really wish to take part in local government, or to influence local government, and whether, being birds of passage, they ought to influence local government to that extent by being registered in large numbers and voting in local elections in university towns. This is a matter for consideration.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman not aware that a number of students may spend as long as six years in a particular university. This is probably longer than the period of time that 7, 8, 9 or 10 per cent. of ordinary residents spend in a city.

Sir D. Renton

The hon. Gentleman has made a valid point, but he has made a point that is not characteristic of the situation in which most university students find themselves. I spent four years in the University of Oxford.

I refer to what was said by the hon. Member for Oxford—alas, we do not have university Members today. When we did they made a valuable contribution. I suppose that the N.U.S. might hope that we might get university representation by the back door or in reverse. As the hon. Member for Oxford pointed out, in that city the university students are in residence for less than half of the year. In Cambridge they have "the long vac term" and are there for more than half the year. But whether they are there for less or more than half a year, they are birds of passage, except those relatively rare examples of people who, having done their normal undergraduate courses, perhaps then go on to do postgraduate courses. They may be there as long as six years and they may become well-identified with the place. There is no reason why those people should not be registered at least as lodgers: meanwhile, they may have married and become residents.

Mr. Henig


Sir D. Renton

I do not want to give way. The time is running out and I must leave an opportunity for the Under-Secretary of State to wind up the debate.

I ask the Minister to bear in mind these sorts of consideration. It is a somewhat confused picture. There are, of course, solutions to it. One was proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee): that there should be a greater use of the postal vote for students. Some of the solutions involve an amendment to the regulations, and, therefore, they do not help us tonight. Other solutions involve no amendment to the regulations, but merely direct to the attention of those concerned the opportunity which the law provides in these regulations. I hope the hon. Gentleman will be able to assist the House by clarifying the matter in the light of our interesting discussion on students.

11.43 p.m.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I should like briefly to reply to the debate. I am tempted to take up the point about democracy, but I shall not.

What the National Union of Students is doing is good sense. Students play an important part, and the new Chairman of the N.U.S. is a former President of the Union at Leeds. As a former member of the N.U.S., I know that the students will play an important part. We must see to it that when they register for the vote, they register in the right place. Copies of the memorandum on guidance to electorial registration officers will be placed in the Library.

For students who are resident it is not possible to draft a provision to prohibit a student from being registered in his university town. Note 1, on Form A, gives numerous definitions as to the meaning of constructive resident. If it is suggested that a student actually in residence at a university should not be registered as an elector, that would go beyond any existing judicial decision. It would not be possible to deal with it in the way that is suggested.

If a student has a choice of residence it would not be possible, under the regulations, to limit his choice. A student is, in principle, no different from other people who have a family home and live elsewhere as well. It is beyond the scope of the regulations to lay down the law of residence, whether of students or others. This may be an interesting exercise for a Private Member's Bill, but it is not a matter for these regulations. The law of residence is the law of residence and no bit of paper going out will say what that law should be.

This leads to the point of the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls). It is no good withdrawing the regulations. It would need an amendment of the Representation of the People Act or a Bill on the law of residence to deal with his point.

The hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) was, in general, right about postal votes. There is one caveat I would enter to his explanation. A student registered at home but at university on the day of the poll can obtain a postal vote on the grounds of his occupation. A student registered at university and away on the day of the poll because he is on vacation cannot vote by post on that ground. A student registered at university, and who has left the university on the day of the poll, can vote by post on the grounds that he has changed his residence. The question is one of fact, to be determined by the electoral registration officer, subject to appeal to the county court. Nothing that we do can affect that.

I see the point about publicity, made by several hon. Members. I will look at it. There is a difficulty in that the local registration officer is not an employee of the Home Department, but is employed by the local authority and we must take account of what the local political parties, on whatever side, do. They carry out publicity and use local newspapers.

Given all the discussions I am astonished that few people know that the 18-plus will be able to vote next year. It only goes to show. We in this place sometimes think that the world is hanging on to our every word. I will look at the question of how we inform universities and hostels about the general situation. The best thing is to do it through the university authorities, because it is in the hostels or halls of residence that this arises. That was the major point discussed, and I hope that I have set people's minds at rest. There is no point in taking these regulations back, because it would not affect the law of residence.

There is the point made by the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) about lodgers. I can see that point and I do not know what to suggest. I will consider what can be done. It could lead to people getting hold of the wrong end of the stick. It did not occur to me.

With regard to the point raised by the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Sir D. Kaberry), I concede that I had to look at this matter once or twice. There has been a change. Whereas people cannot get a postal vote inside one constituency, they can get such a vote as a result of the earlier Act, inside the borough. As he knows, from the bottom end of South Leeds to the top of the constituency of the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West is longer than just moving a few yards out of my constituency into Batley and Morley. I see his point, but not everyone understands legal jargon.

I hope that because of this explanation. however unsatisfactory—but absolutely right on the law of residence—hon. Members will not seek to impede these regulations. I will most carefully read the points raised and see what we can do to implement them, particularly the point about publicity. I hope that the House will accept the regulations.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Representation of the People Regulations 1969, dated 2nd June 1969, a copy of which was laid before this House on 12th June, he approved.

Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 1969, dated 2nd June 1969 [copy laid before the House. 12th June], approved.—[Mr. Merlyn Rees.]

Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 1969, dated 3rd June 1969 [copy laid before the House, 12th June]. approved.—[Mr. Buchan.]