§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Liverpool, Waver-tree (Mr. Tilney) to open the next debate, may I remind the House that we are on the Adjournment and that we can debate matters which can be solved administratively. We cannot debate matters which can be solved only by legislation. The hon. Member for Wavertree has been advised about the narrow rope along which he must walk. Other hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate had better come to the Chair or Table, and we will advise them.
§ 11.45 a.m.
§ Mr. John Tilney (Liverpool Wavertree)
I count myself lucky so soon after the General Election to be able to call attention to the methods whereby some voters have been deprived of the power of voting. I accept that I cannot change the law, as some of my colleagues who signed Early Day Motion No. 1 would have liked to do. The Motion reads:
[That, so that no one is needlessly deprived of their right to vote and in order to meet the convenience of electors, this House urges Her Majesty's Government as soon as possible to take action so that a postal vote may be claimed by people away from their home on holiday.]
In this debate I cannot even debate whether they should be able to vote by proxy, which I would much prefer. All parties have been affected. The poll in Newcastle-under-Lyne was 65 per cent. as against 78 per cent. in the last two elections, while at Stoke the average poll was down to 50 per cent. over the three constituencies compared with figures in 1966 of 68 per cent., 72 per cent., and 71 per cent.
We have had the first June election since 1841 in highly agreeable weather, 1040 the most beautiful June that many of us can remember for decades. There was an election in May 1955. However, even since 1955 there have been considerable social changes. The basic legislation is the Representation of the People Act, 1949, which has been amended several times especially by the Representation of the People Act, 1969. Side by side with them, are various statutory instruments particularly No. 904 of 1969. There have also been a number of letters from the Home Office to electoral registration officers who are the same as returning officers.
The 1949 Act remains the main Act. Conditions were very different 21 years ago. People did not have holidays as they do today. I well remember at the outbreak of war that one of the Scammell drivers in my battery said that he had never been out of Cheshire and Lancashire in his life. Now people go all over Britain, to Europe and even beyond in very large numbers. We are told by the Government that we must stagger our holidays and even this House, comparatively recently, has changed August Bank Holiday. People have to book their hotel accommodation and their passages months ahead and they cannot be expected to change their arrangements for a sudden General Election. An odd thing is that under the law, once one has a postal vote for business purposes, one can go away purely on holiday and still have a postal vote.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. In an adjournment debate, the hon. Gentleman must not propose the solving of this problem by legislation. He can merely argue that Prime Ministers should hold elections at times when the hon. Gentleman thinks they should be held.
§ Mr. Tilney
I hope to show, by mentioning the advice given by the Home Office to electoral registration officers, that certain changes have been made by the Administration and not by the law. But to do that I must explain the circumstances in which that advice has been given.
I do not believe that anyone would like us to follow the Australian example and introduce forced voting or fines if people did not vote. It would mean that, instead of nine days being the limit, excluding Sundays and dies non, 1041 between the close of nomination and election days, there would have to be a much longer period, thus prolonging the General Election campaign, which nobody would like. It is obvious that a postal vote cannot be issued until nominations have closed.
I pay tribute to the electoral registration officers and their staff who, by and large, usually get the postal votes out on time. It is a very complicated process. The ballot paper must be printed, checked and put into a special envelope. With that special envelope is a declaration form and another envelope together with instructions about how the ballot paper should be signed and the declaration form completed. It must be sent to the right address and then handed to the Post Office so that parliamentary government, which is different from democracy, should not only be made to work but should be seen to work properly. There is not much time for preparation. There are only four days, including Sundays, between the last day of application to vote by post and nomination day.
I should like to refer to Home Office Circular RPA141, particularly paragraph 22, which reads:Regulation 29(b)(2) makes a change in respect of applications for absent voting certificates on the ground of physical incapacity. It requires the registration officer to be satisfied as to an application on this ground if the application is signed by a registered medical practitioner or by a Christian Science practitioner. But it enables"—and "enables" is underlined—a registration officer to be satisfied if the certificate is signed by some other person, or is not signed at all. Form RPF7 will continue to be printed with a form of certificate providing for signature by a registered medical practitioner; if the certificate is signed by some other person, it can be amended accordingly.Electoral registration officers seem to have reacted in different ways to that circular. Some appear never to have seen it and therefore have issued postal votes only when the certificate has been signed by a medical officer. Others have accepted certificates signed by welfare officers, matrons and district nurses. Yet others, in the spirit of the Circular, have accepted postal votes with no one's signature in support. This is unsatisfactory, although I prefer the most lenient interpretation of the regulations.
1042 I turn to the question of the disfranchisement of many Service voters who did not reappoint their proxies which now must be done every year. I understand that the reason for this is that in the past many Service men and women appointed proxies and then forgot that they had done so and their proxies remained in force for years after they had left the Services, but their attention is drawn to this only in Part I Orders. Some service men and women never see Part I Orders or may be in transit from one unit to another. Can something be done to improve the method whereby the Services bring to the notice of Service men and women their right to apply for the appointment of a proxy to vote for them?
During the last election, in some constituencies there were not enough forms, particularly RPF7, dealing with incapacitated people and those who require a business vote, RPF8, which is for those who have moved outside their erstwhile constituency, and RPF10A, enabling people such as seafarers, Servicemen or businessmen going overseas, to apply for a proxy vote. I am told that in some constituencies the supply was very limited. In Liverpool, it was rationed. There were enough in Wavertree but only after several visits to the municipal buildings. I accept that these forms can be photo-stated, but then one does not get the official paid envelopes.
I turn to the question of the delays in the posting of postal votes to recipients. I understand the difficulties of many electoral registration officers, who were faced with a possible N.A.L.G.O. strike, and who also had staff shortages. They must also cope with delays in the Post Office. We all know of the time which even first class mail takes to arrive at its destination. The result is that in the recent election a number of postal votes arrived on polling day which, unless the person could arrange for delivery of the postal vote by hand, was obviously too late.
I now wish to refer to the great mistakes which have been made in the electoral register. In Liverpol, Form A is sent out some time before 10th October, which is when everyone should be registered. The form is sent back by most, but not all, people and therefore follow-up checks are made by able and 1043 conscientious checkers. However, when they do so, they find that many inhabitants are out on business and many homes are occupied only at night whereas the checkers operate only by day. Therefore, they must rely on neighbours and frequently the result is wrong. The cost of this exercise, inclusive of enumerators, in Liverpool was as much as £11,000 in 1969–70.
When that is done the draft of the new register is produced for checking. It is displayed between 28th November and 16th December. It is in three parts—list A, the current one; list B, those to be added; and list C, those to be deleted. If the relevant page of list A were to be issued with form A, I suggest that there would be no need to have so many checkers. People would be made more aware of the reason for, and the result of, form filling and many mistakes could be avoided.
In Wavertree there was a child of four and another child of seven on the register. People who had been on the register for 20 years found themselves off. There were many who had the same name as their parents, possibly with one Christian name added, but only one had been recorded.
I am told that in the past even one Member of the House found that he had been omitted from the register. Many people found that their late spouses who may have been dead for two or three years were still on the register, thus causing unnecessary sorrow to them and giving others scope for malpractice.
I well remember that when I first stood for the Liverpool City Council after the war in St. Peter's ward in the Exchange Division I was recommended to have an impersonating agent. He found that there was some person who had taken to heart the illegal maxim, "Vote early and often". When one was apprehended doing this it was obvious that he had been watching with care the death notices in the Press. No wonder everyone is told that they should check the register.
Apparently, they should check it between 28th November and 16th December. The draft is shown in municipal offices, at post offices and in libraries. I am told that in Gravesend it is displayed in the welfare centre and 1044 at the public baths also. It is not easy for those who live in scattered constituencies to check, even if they see the small advertisements which usually appear, to remind them that they should check whether their name is on the register. In all constituencies there must be people who at that time are either away or ill. If all people checked I suspect that few stamps would be sold or postal packages despatched or even books lent so many people are expected to go and check.
I therefore suggest that, to save money and reduce the number of checkers, it might well be worth while sending the relevant page of the current register with form A and with advice such as "Please advise at once in the enclosed envelope if this register is incorrect as a record of the occupants of this dwelling who will be of voting or near voting age on 10th October" or in the exact phraseology set out on form A. If subsequent complaints came in, it would then be largely or in major measure the fault of the voters concerned. They are much more likely to take action if they see that their name has been wrongly entered or omitted. They would also readily notice the absence of other names that should be included.
The people are much more mobile than they were in 1949. Is it not right that all British people should have a say in the choosing of the Government of their country?
§ 12.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney) on choosing a subject for his Adjournment debate which is of such importance to our democratic practice. I should like to follow him in the last points he made about mistakes on the register. All hon. Members, having fought the recent General Election, will have found people right up to Election day who suffered and had a sense of grievance about this matter.
I will not follow the hon. Gentleman in the generality of his remarks. I will deal with three categories of people who had the right, at the last General Election, to be on the register but who found themselves not on it for one reason or 1045 another. I want to put to the Minister three kinds of case and ask him whether he will accept some suggestions I shall make for action with regard to those cases.
Two of the kinds of cases are specially related to the circumstances in my constituency. The third is more general, although it had a relation to voting in my constituency, as it did, I think, to that of many other hon. Members.
The first category of voters I wish to deal with is that of student voters and the recent controversy there has been over their residence qualification. In my constituency there are many students halls of residence, including one extremely large one. In my constituency, students in these halls of residence play an active and lively part in community life, including the work of the churches, and therefore they have a relationship to the life of the division and while they are in the division they can genuinely feel themselves part of it.
The law relating to student voting—it does not specifically refer to students—is Section 4 of the Representation of the People Act, 1949, which was not amended by the 1969 Act. Section 4 is extremely ambiguous. The Home Office issued guidance to electoral registration officers about how to interpret this Section. This guidance, too, was so ambiguous that it led to a great many anomalies in different parts of the country and, indeed, to anomalies within parliamentary constituencies.
As a result of this guidance and the interpretation of it by electoral registration officers, some applications by students for votes in the city or town in which their university was situated were allowed, but others were disallowed. The phrase "constructive residence" was employed to interpret it, but that phrase in itself was very ambiguous.
In my division, for example, some students who lived in flats or houses were allowed votes. Others who lived in halls of residence were not, though others who lived in halls of residence were. This applied, not only in Manchester, but in very many other places.
It is very well known that students often do not have the choice of where they live. They are allocated to a hall of 1046 residence, or, if they are not, they have to go into a house or a flat. Therefore, a random situation of this kind decided whether a student was permitted a vote by the electoral registration officer.
In any case, although in some cases a student living in a hall of residence was allowed a vote, in other places a student living in a hall of residence was not allowed a vote. Further, some students, having been denied a vote because they lived in a university hall of residence, appealed to the county court and were turned down by the county court, wheras others, having been allowed a vote, did not have to appeal to the county court.
Therefore, there were remarkably anomalous situations in which some students were allowed a vote by an electoral registration officer and others in precisely the same circumstances were denied a vote by a county court judge. These anomalies applied within my own constituency. Matters were considerably clarified on—
§ Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the student vote, because many of us are particularly concerned in this. Does he intend to come on to the question of the Court of Appeal judgment, because too, hope that we can have some clarification from the Minister of State as to what exactly the present situaton is, if he is able to give it?
§ Mr. Kaufman
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that. In fact, I was this very moment coming on to the question of the Court of Appeal judgment, which I know applies to his constituency.
On 12th May the Master of the Rolls gave a judgment in the Appeal Court. The Times Law Report stated it thus:Students in colleges or halls of residence at universities are entitled to be placed on the electoral roll in any constituency as persons resident there on the qualifying date, October 10 in every year, because there is a sufficient degree of permanence attaching to their living at the university to satisfy the tests laid down by the Representation of the People Acts. 1949 to 1969.As the hon. Gentleman knows, this applies to an appellant from his own constituency.
That being so, I would ask the Minister of State whether that judgment given by the Master of the Rolls could be sent out 1047 by the Home Office to electoral registration officers as guidance, so that instead of having many local variations we could have one national criterion for the student vote.
The second category of voters whom I wish to mention are the immigrant voters. There are in my constituency a substantial number of these, though there are fewer than in many other constituencies, and, according to information I have received, some hundreds of voters in the Ardwick constituency failed to appear on the register. Many others, of course, did appear on the register. It is agreed, I think, on all sides that immigrants who are here are citizens of this country and it is the best thing for community relations that they should accept their duties and responsibilities as citizens of this country, and these include the use of the vote. I think there is little doubt that many of them are unaware of their duty to register because it is not clearly enough explained to people who are not acquainted with the finer use of the English language.
Yesterday I put a Question to the Home Secretary and the Minister of State was good enough to give me a written Answer to it, in which I asked,if he will enumerate the methods of publicity he plans to employ in October of this year to ensure that all householders are fully aware of the need to register all eligible residents in their households for the 1971 Electoral Register.The Minister of State answered fairly, saying that his right hon. Friend is considering the detailed arrangements, but said:There will be publicity in the national and local Press and on radio and television."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd July, 1970; Vol. 804, c. 183.]I would suggest in regard to immigrant voters that it would be a great help if the Home Office were to approach the British Broadcasting Corporation and ask that in the period approaching 10th October special facilities should be given in the Sunday morning television programmes for immigrants, so that they may be made fully aware of their duties and rights and responsibilities and get their names on the Electoral Register.
The Home Office is also by chance responsible for community relations and it might be helpful if it used the machinery of community relations which is at 1048 the Deparment's disposal to try to make it known to the leaders of immigrant communities that they should advise the members of those communities on how to fill in the forms and to get their names on the register.
The third category of voters I wish to mention are the 18 to 21 year olds. Everybody knows that in the last Election there were many thousands—perhaps, some people think, many hundreds of thousands—of those who were denied the right to vote because of errors in filling out the electoral registration forms. I know that many of my own constituents were involved, and I am sure everybody in this Chamber has examples of his own he could provide. It could be said that one of the reasons for this was that this was the very first time that people between the ages of 17 and 21 had their names on the register and that, therefore, their parents might have been inexperienced in filling up the form relating to them.
I would, therefore, because I think that the situation, though perhaps in a less aggravated form, is likely to arise again, make a third suggestion to the Minister of State, as to what might be done as regards the electoral registration form. Since I understand that the form in its content can be varied only by Statutory Instrument, and I doubt whether it is now possible for that variation to take place before the new forms are distributed, it might not be possible to implement major changes in the form this year.
I hope that that may be looked at very carefully for next year, because it is an extremely complicated form. I myself have found it very difficult to understand in places. I would suggest that it be gone through with great care to see whether it can be simplified and whether some of the matter in it can be omitted, because it complicates without having any very great relevance. I suggest that the matters under the heading Jury Service and the postal vote might be looked at carefully, and the columns in Part II of the form are extremely complicated and difficult to understand. I suggest they should be looked at again to see whether they can be made simpler for those people filling them in.
1049 Without the variation by Statutory Instrument there is one alteration which can be made this year provided the forms are not already printed, and that is right at the beginning of the form, where it says how to complete the form. If that particular point were put at the end of the first paragraph and laid out in a different way, and if the age qualification could be put in bold type, and if, perhaps, a box could be put round it, so that it has prominence and importance, that might be of assistance to people having to fill out the form and it might help people to get the names of more of the younger members of their families on the register.
Secondly I would suggest, in regard to publicity, that there are two kinds of publicity which might be used in order to get more names of those qualified on to the register. I have been assured by the Minister of State that the national and local Press will be employed in the publicity. I suggest that he gets the people in his Press department to look at readership surveys so that those publications, however unorthodox they may be, which teenage readers mostly read should be used for this publicity—in the case of teenagers of both sexes, perhaps gramophone and record magazines; for girls it might well be the younger women's magazines; for young men, magazines about motor racing: magazines of that kind. I make this as a suggestion. I think it might be worth looking into.
Thirdly I suggest that there should be television publicity employed, and that it should be intensive and vivid, and perhaps might include on all three channels public service advertising spots of the kind which are at present employed for road safety. This would particularly apply to the 18 to 21 year olds. If I may say so with the regard to the 18 to 21 year old voters, this information should be given in advance of the actual electoral registration period. It might be more helpful than what was done last year when the stable door was already closed but after it was closed it was realised that so many people had not registered and an attempt was made to remedy matters, not very efficiently, I think, as it turned out. That being so, I ask the Minister to be good enough seriously to consider the suggestions I have put forward.
§ Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Wavertree (Mr. Tilney) has chosen this subject today, and I congratulate him on the ingenuity with which he managed to cover so many points within the rules of order. The events of yesterday are causing us all to think hard and anxiously about the working of our free democracy. It is quite right that by coincidence we should spend a short time this morning looking at a narrow but important aspect of that working, the whole problem of enfranchisement.
I found that a particularly agreeable feature about the General Election, apart from the result, was the high degree of interest shown by most electors. Many of my constituents said they were watching every single party political broadcast on television. They must have been gluttons for punishment. One advantage of being a candidate is that one misses those broadcasts.
Also many of us found that our public meetings were better attended than at some recent parliamentary elections. At grass roots our democracy is a good deal healthier than cynics have been thinking. Surely, therefore, it is all the more unfortunate that many of the electors are still, for one reason or another, disfranchised. This is no reflection on the work of the electoral registration officers. I add my tribute to that of my hon. Friend to the work that they and their staffs do in difficult and high-pressure conditions.
I endorse what my hon. Friend said about service voters and what the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) said about immigrant voters. If it is possible for my hon. Friend the Minister of State to say something to clarify the situation regarding the registration of student voters this would be helpful, but I do not want to press him unduly.
The illustration which I want to give of the general problem of disfranchisement, drawing from my constituency experience in the last three years, is one on which I know I cannot dwell in any detail in an adjournment debate and I will simply mention in passing. The last two parliamentary elections which I have fought were a by-election in September three years ago and the General Election last month, both at holiday times. On 1051 each occasion we estimated that between 500 and 1,000 potential electors out of a total of about 65,000 were on holiday too far away to return to vote. If that is typical, it means that in the recent General Election as many as half-a-million electors altogether may have been unable to vote because they were away on holiday. I do not know whether the Minister of State has any estimate of this figure from the Home Office. My own is simply an approximation. If he has such a figure we should be interested to hear it.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman may not remember what I said to his hon. Friend. There are two ways of solving this problem; one is by legislation, and we cannot talk about that in an adjournment debate; the other is to persuade the Prime Minister to hold the election at the time the hon. Member wants him to and that he may talk about.
§ Mr. Lane
I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Speaker. I will not stray any further.
To sum up, we are all apt to say to dissatisfied fellow-citizens that if they do not like what their Government or their council do, their remedy is in the ballot box at regular intervals. It is our duty to reduce to the absolute minimum the number of people who are prevented from using the ballot box when the time comes. The cardinal fact is that the average citizen thinks that there is still a great deal wrong with the present situation.
In parenthesis, in my university constituency there is some feeling that if in future students are to be entitled, if they wish to vote in their university constituencies, it is all the more unfair that there is this difficulty about holiday voting for permanent residents.
It is up to the House and the Government to overcome the difficulties and to rind a solution. I urge the Government to make a fresh investigation of all these problems, and I hope that we shall have a sympathetic response from the Minister of State.
§ 12.23 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Home Department (Mr. Richard Sharples)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney) for 1052 raising this matter today. He was kind enough to let me have advance warning of the points which he intended to raise, as did the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman), and I am most grateful to them both. It has been a constructive and helpful debate, and I shall try to answer in the same vein.
As I am sure my hon. Friend appreciates, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is responsible for the general oversight of electoral law, but the responsibility for the compilation of the register, to which he particularly referred, and for the conduct of elections is laid by law upon individual electoral registration officers and acting returning officers, who are answerable for the performance of their duties not to the Home Secretary but to the courts. I pay tribute to the work of the electoral registration officers. Those of us who are returned to the House always say something about the work of those who have taken part in the election in an official capacity at the meeting after the count. We owe an enormous debt to them for the work which they do.
My hon. Friend raised a number of points about the register itself, as did the hon. Member for Ardwick. Both pointed out that certain mistakes occur in the register. We should keep a sense of proportion about this. There are in the United Kingdom over 39 million electors on the register, and that is what we should remember when considering individual cases of people who have been left off. The registration officer has a general duty to prepare the register in conformity with the law, and to take reasonable steps to obtain information he requires for the purpose. Parliament must be careful not to lay upon him an absolute duty to ensure the accuracy of the register, and indeed it would be impossible for him to comply with such a duty.
To obtain the information he requires, he needs the co-operation of householders, to whom he sends the canvass form, Form A, to which my hon. Friend has referred. The householder has the duty of providing accurate information, and he is told on Form A that the information for which it asks is required by law. The great majority of householders complete the form properly, but some people do not bother to return it, and 1053 some fail to fill it in properly. One often hears about a four-year-old child whose name appears on the register, but when this happens one knows that it is almost certainly the fault of the householder who has misread the form. The registration officer cannot be expected to visit every house and check on the details of the information which the householder provides. He has quite enough to do chasing up forms which have not been returned and following up cases where there is obvious doubt.
As I said, mistakes do happen, and it would be surprising, when there are about 250 registration officers in 630 constituencies who are trying to get nearly 40 million names on the register, if there were not occasional mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes relate to individuals, sometimes to a whole new block of flats and, occasionally, to part of a street. Sometimes electors who are new to a district are left off. Occasionally, as I think happened in the case referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Wavertree, electors who have been on the register for many years are left off. Many of these individual mistakes are picked up at the claims and objections stage.
I want to emphasise the importance of this stage. Between 28th November and 16th December each year the electors' lists are published and are on display in public libraries, post offices and so on. List A is the old register, list B is those who seem entitled to be added to it and list C is those who seem no longer entitled to be on it. A great deal of publicity is directed to the fact that these lists are on display and that people should check them to make sure that their name is on the right list. Last year, there was wide publicity in the national and local Press and on radio and television. The hon. Member for Ardwick mentioned publicity being directed to certain groups, such as the immigrant community and the younger voter. I shall certainly consider carefully the helpful suggestions that the hon. Member has made in both directions.
He has a particular point in respect of the immigrant voter and the way in which publicity might be given in those B.B.C. programmes that are directed particularly at the immigrant voter. I shall also consider carefully the suggestion 1054 that he made about bringing these matters to the attention of the younger voter through media that are usually read or seen by the younger voter.
Having said that, and talked about publicity, I submit that there is no excuse for anyone to say that he did not know how or when or where to check the lists. My hon. Friend the Member for Wavertree suggested that in order to get a more accurate register a copy of a page of the draft register should be sent to every householder, for him to check. As I said in answer to a Question on 9th July, this would be disproportionately expensive, and even so would not guarantee a completely accurate register.
§ Mr. Tilney
I was suggesting sending a copy of a page of the current register and not the draft register. That is different from my suggestion in a previous Question.
§ Mr. Sharples
My hon. Friend suggests that the current register should be sent at the same time as it is exhibited for people to check their names. That would be the draft register.
§ Mr. Tilney
No. If my hon. Friend had listened with care he would have heard me suggest that a page of the current register should go out with Form A. That would be helpful.
§ Mr. Sharples
I should point out that the cost of compiling the register is already over £3 million a year. To adopt the kind of suggestion that my hon. Friend has in mind would probably add at least £1 million a year to that cost. I shall consider his suggestion of sending out a copy of a page from the register itself, but at that time, as I understand it, alterations to the register cannot be made; it is to the draft register that alterations can be made, and if the register itself were sent it would not be possible then to make the necessary alterations.
Householders have a duty to provide accurate information on Form A, and the form to be used this year has been simplified in a number of small ways. It is the duty of people to check this in the first fortnight in December.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ardwick referred to the simplification of the form itself. The 1971 version is now 1055 in preparation. It has certain alterations, in the same direction as those that he suggested. The age—and this applies particularly to the younger voter—is now spelt out in bold type. When he sees it the hon. Member will probably agree that it is a considerable improvement on the form sent out last year. I shall consider, for the 1972 form, the other suggestions made by the hon. Member, but it is not possible at this stage to alter the layout of the form for the 1971 register.
My hon. Friend referred to the question of the distribution of application forms for postal votes, and the shortage of those forms. I was asked a Question about this in the House a fortnight ago, when I said that about 364,000 RPF 7 forms and 273,000 RPF 8 forms were issued by the Stationery Office during the weeks preceding the General Election. These forms were issued in response to orders placed by individual registration officers to supplement their existing stocks.
I am assured by the Stationery Office that there was no general shortage of these forms and that all orders were met in good time. I have not had a single complaint that any individual voter failed to secure a form. What did happen—and this is probably what my hon. Friend was referring to—was that in several places the party agents asked registration officers for large supplies of the forms, which could not be met in full at one time. This may have entailed one or two visits to the town hall to secure all the supplies needed, but I have not heard of anyone having been to put to more inconvenience than that. If my hon. Friend has further information on the subject I shall be glad to have it.
It was suggested that there is some doubt about the latest time for receiving applications for a postal vote. The law is quite clear on the subject. It says that an application shall be disregarded if it is received after the twelfth day before polling day. This meant that at the last Election applications had to be received by Thursday, 4th June. If it is true that anyone had his application rejected because it was received after, say, noon on that day, or after three o'clock, I agree that he would have cause for complaint. As it is, I have heard of two registration officers who each received well over 2,000 application forms on the very last 1056 day, and in each case they were all handed in by the same party agent.
I cannot believe that the applications were all signed on the last day, and to hand them all in at the last moment adds quite unnecessarily to the registration officer's difficulties. Not only does it mean his staff working through the night to get the absent voters' list out in time; it also makes it almost impossible for him to satisfy himself, as he is required to do, that all the applications are in order. I would issue an appeal to all party agents to consider the difficulties of registration officers in this regard and to try to let them have these forms back, or encourage people to send them back, as soon as possible, so that they can be processed during the preparatory stages of the General Election.
Another question referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Wavertree was that of postal votes for people applying for them on grounds of physical incapacity. A frequent complaint about such applications is that some registration officers require them to be signed by a doctor, while others do not. This is a difficult matter. We could lay down the law far too carefully and provide no discretion to the registration officer. Because of difficulties that had arisen, the 1969 regulations provided that if the application was signed by a doctor the registration officer must allow it. The emphasis was on the "must", because it was intended to give the registration officer reasonable discretion to allow the application without a doctor's signature if he were satisfied that it was in order. Guidance was given to registration officers to this effect.
Now there are complaints that registration officers are using this discretion differently in different areas. I think it right that the registration officer should have this discretion, but I shall consider what has been said on the point and see whether it is necessary to tighten up the law.
Both my hon. Friend the Member for Wavertree and my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) referred to the question of Service voters and their registration. Commanding officers in all three Services were instructed that it was their responsibility to ensure that the statutory obligation placed on the Ministry of Defence, to 1057 ensure that any person appearing to be qualified to make a service declaration was given the opportunity to register, was discharged in respect of the men in their command, and the wives of those men if the unit was overseas. The instructions did not specify in detail how this was to be done; it was left to commanding officers to decide in the light of local conditions.
I note what has been said about this in the course of the debate. I would say only that the Ministry of Defence has received very few complaints from Service men, which on investigation have been proved to be justified, that they were not told about the new arrangements and therefore were denied an opportunity to register to vote. I have no reason to believe, therefore, that the arrangements for last year's registration for the current electoral register on which the General Election has just been fought were in general unsatisfactory.
Nevertheless, in the instructions which have been issued about this year's registration, special emphasis has been laid on the need to ensure that personnel on leave or absent on duty during the period of registration are not overlooked and are given the opportunity to register. This, coupled with the fact that more time will be available this year than last, because the Representation of the People Act, 1969, was not passed until May of last year and was followed by the printing strike which delayed the delivery and distribution of new registration forms, should lead to better results this year in terms of numbers of Service men registered. I will keep a careful eye on this matter myself.
There is one other point which was raised by the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick, and it concerned the registration of students. The effect of the Court of Appeal judgment now means that most full-time students will be eligible to register in their university towns as well as at home. Of course, they appreciate that they have only one vote. Revised guidance on this matter is being issued to registration officers and, if it would be helpful to hon. Members, I will arrange for a copy of this revised guidance to be placed in the Library of the House. The new Form A was already in print before the last General 1058 Election and by the time of the court judgment, but we do not expect that any difficulty will arise in this connection.
The other main matter to which reference has been made is difficult to discuss. Those hon. Members who have tried have verged very closely upon the rules of order. It concerns the number of people who were unable to vote in this last General Election for one reason or another. Because I am not able to refer to the other question which arises on that, I would say only that probably a June election disfranchised quite a number of people. This will have to be taken into account when elections are called in future. Every one of us found in our constituencies large numbers of people who were unable to vote because they had arranged to be away on the date of the election.
I cannot refer to the question of changes in the law to meet this problem. I will say only that they raise considerable difficulties, not all of which are apparent on the surface. But they are matters which we are examining closely.
Perhaps I might say again how grateful I am to my hon. Friend for raising these matters and enabling me to explain some of the points raised in the debate.