HC Deb 26 February 1973 vol 851 cc1228-41

11.25 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Mark Carlisle)

I beg to move That the Representation of the People Regulations 1973 dated 9th February 1973, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th February, be approved. I cannot pretend that the regulations are earth-shattering. They are probably not very controversial. They are merely interim regulations making changes in the 1969 regulations. Those regulations will have to be replaced before 1st April 1974 to take account of the changes in the arrangements for registration that have been made by the Local Government Act 1972. These amending regulations are therefore merely designed to meet immediate needs, particularly in relation to the county and district elections this year and the canvass for next autumn. The regulations make one change in regard to jury service and deal with two other relatively minor matters.

Regulation 3 provides for all Members of Parliament to be supplied with a copy of the register for their constituency free of charge on request. This new provision owes its origin to a suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg), for which I am grateful. Under the present regulations the registration officer has a duty to supply copies of the register for use by prospective candidates at a parliamentary election. In practice they are supplied to local party agents, and sometimes the Member receives one and sometimes he does not. It seems proper that he should be entitled to a free copy in his own right for his use in representing his constituency. Any of us will be able to write to the registration officer for our borough or county and ask for a free copy of the register for our constituency.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

The hon. and learned Gentleman said "Any of us". Why does not the regulation apply to Scottish Members? Is there to be a separate regulation?

Mr. Carlisle

Perhaps I may deal with that a little later. I apologise if I am mistaken in saying "Any of us". I understood that the regulation applies to all Members.

Regulations 5 and 7 are technical amendments, required to permit the arrangements for postal voting to apply to elections for the new counties and districts established under the Local Government Act 1972.

Regulations 4 and 6 deal with jurors. They will enable the new basis of jury service to come into operation when next year's electoral register is published. They follow directly from the Criminal Justice Act 1972, the effect of which is that every man and woman will be qualified to serve as a juror if he or she is on the electoral register and is not less than 18 or more than 65 years of age. The intention is that every elector within those age limits may receive a jury summons, and that at that stage the Crown Court will have to be satisfied that he or she is in all respects qualified for jury service.

Under Section 26 of the Criminal Justice Act 1972, the registration officer will be required to supply the Crown Court with copies of the register showing those who are under 18 and those who are over 65, who are not eligible for jury service.

For those under 18 that is no change. The date of their birthday is already marked on the published register under the existing arrangements. For those over 65 new arrangements have to be made. Section 26(1) provides for the Representation of the People Regulations to enable information to be obtained for that purpose. The effect of Regulation 4 is to provide for that and the new form prescribed under Regulation 6.

The alteration is that the new Form A now has an additional column for jury service. A tick has to be entered if the elector will be over 65 when the register comes into force. If this is done, the registration officer will then inform the Crown Court by marking the copy of the register which he sends them that the elector appears to be over 65. I should make it clear that those markings will appear only on the copies of the register sent to the Crown Court and will not appear on any other published register.

In considering the new arrangements, we have been anxious to spare elderly people the worry that a jury summons might cause them if it arrived or from the trouble of having to complete a special jury service questionnaire. To meet that it has been necessary to ask them to indicate in Form A whether they are over 65. On the grounds of safety and privacy we did not think it right that that information should be shown on any published register.

I appreciate that there might be some households where there will be difficulty about completing the jury service column accurately without the householder trespassing on what may be felt to be the privacy of some elderly person living in that household. In that case the householder will have to use his discretion, knowing that if he does not enter a tick in the column the person who is aged over 65 will be liable to be put to the trouble and have the concern of receiving a jury summons. It is an offence to give false information in completing that form. Therefore, no one should be tempted to avoid jury service by wrongly alleging or stating that he is over the age for such service.

The new Form A will be printed to be in time for the canvass which starts next August or September. We shall be arranging suitable publicity at that time. That is the effect of the regulations. They are hardly of a major nature. They are merely interim measures to cover the arrangements for the first elections.

11.34 p.m.

Mr. Michael Cocks (Bristol, South)

I am sure that the Minister of State does himself less than justice by belittling the nature of the business which he has brought before the House. His self-deprecation does not sit well on him. There are several points worthy of debate and the Government might have arranged this business at a more convenient hour so that more hon. Members might have taken part.

We are dealing with regulations which have an important bearing on voting both in parliamentary and in local elections. On page 2 of the regulations we have Form A which is to be returned by the occupier. A very great opportunity has been missed to strengthen a point which was made at some length by both sides in the Committee on the Local Government Bill about the allocation of polling numbers to tell people that they are entitled to vote. Here we have five paragraphs with information for the person compiling the form. Paragraph 2 says that a person whose name does not appear in the register cannot vote. Surely, with a little imagination, we could add one or two sentences to the effect that from the register official poll cards would be issued but that whilst it was helpful to know one's polling number it was not essential in order to vote.

In committee on the Local Government Bill the point was made strongly that a number of people are deterred from voting if they do not at the time of the election know their polling number. This is a good opportunity to include a little clarification without any additional administrative work. I am disappointed by this passage.

There is some ambiguity in Note 4, dealing with electors lists. It says: These lists can be checked at council offices, etc., from 28th November. Claims in respect of names not included in the lists must be received by 16th December. In 1972, 16th December fell on a Saturday, and it was brought to my attention that the electoral registration officer for Gloucestershire county refused to accept claims which were posted to him with a post-mark dated before 16th December but not delivered until the following Monday because his office was closed on the Saturday. It was a disgraceful decision. I made inquiries of the Town Clerk of Bristol and he told me that as 16th December fell on a Saturday he had opened his office until noon that day, and that if anything was found in the letterbox when the office re-opened on Monday, 18th December, it was deemed to be within order and to fall within the 16th December deadline.

When we get these discrepancies in interpretation between one registration officer and another, it means that we must have clarification. The hon. and learned Gentleman should think seriously about giving fairly strong guidance to registration officers about what to do in cases like that. I think it is important that registration officers should realise that they are public servants and that these things should not be interpreted capriciously.

Note 4 deals with postal voting and I think that a further opportunity has been lost. It mentions "absence on business". This is so vague as to be almost misleading. Most people reading it will not realise the large number of categories of people entitled to vote by post because their work takes them away sporadically, perhaps for one or two days. It would be helpful to people in understanding their rights if some examples were given—for instance, lorry drivers, who can be away driving long distances. This provision could also be expanded without additional administrative trouble or burden. To many people "absence on business" conjures up a very narrow category of those entitled to vote by post. They do not realise just how many categories of people qualify.

The Minister mentioned Regulations 5 and 7 deal with the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers applying to elections of councillors for principal areas. Will he say whether this will cover the cases of those who move within a district? I have spoken at length in the House on a number of occasions about the way in which Bristol has been humiliated under local government reorganisation, being stripped of its once-proud city and county status and reduced to the status of a jazzed-up parish council.

It is still a large place, in spite of what the Government have done to it. If a person goes from, say, Southmead or Avonmouth on the north side over to Hartcliffe in my constituency on the southern slopes of Dundry Hill, he will have a great distance to travel if he wishes to return to vote. Does this facility include postal voting within a district of that size? If not, it is high time that the Government thought about this. If the Minister tells me that I am wrong about this I will be more than pleased. If I am right, I ask him to consider someone who has to travel across Bristol to make a return journey from work to vote. He will have to go through the rush hour traffic. Is this encouraging people to exercise their democratic right?

11.43 p.m.

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks) said. But I want to raise two other, different points. The hon. Member spoke of people being absent on business. I cannot understand why people cannot have the vote when they are on holiday. People take holidays all the year round now. Such people are not in a special category. Over 7 million people are taking holidays at different times of the year and it seems absurd that they should be disenfranchised because they are on holiday. It does not happen in other Commonwealth countries. People from such countries on holiday in Great Britain can vote in their own country.

Paragraph 2 deals with, among other things, the registration of members of Her Majesty's Forces. It says that their names: will be included in the register if they have made the necessary service declaration; to do this they should apply to their Service or Department or to the British Council. On the last occasion only 40 per cent. of such persons got on the register. How can they get on it if they are in Hong Kong, British Honduras or Singapore? If their commanding officer is particularly interested he might remind them about it. Yet it is different for merchant seamen. I do not see why members of the Forces should be any different from them.

It is unfair that citizens of the Irish Republic and merchant seamen can vote yet members of the Forces are disenfranchised unless special action is taken by them. These men and women perform great service to our country in many areas, including Ulster. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will take special note of this and see that this unfortunate situation is cleared up.

11.44 p.m.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

These regulations do not cover a great deal and we can discuss them in a wider context only by reference to other matters. One is happy to know that, as a Member of Parliament, one now gets one free election register. I have not had one up to now.

On the point about jurors, I concede that there may be some difficulty about asking someone who lives in a house with the occupier whether he is over 65. Many people do not particularly wish to discuss whether they are pensioners, and one wants to respect their privacy.

This brings me to a wider point. I hope that the guidance to returning officers will ensure that they make every attempt to see that, where a house is in multiple occupation, the return of electors notice goes to every household in the house and is not simply completed by the person in control of the house. Time and time again, when one goes canvassing before and during election campaigns, one hears the disappointed cries of people who have been left off the register.

Some of us suspect the reasons. First, the landlord does not want it known, perhaps, from whom he is receiving rent, on which he pays no income tax, until eventually the authorities catch up with him. Second, there is now fairly stringent legislation relating to multiple occupation. In many cases, the landlord does not want the local authority to know that his house is in multiple occupation and therefore tries to retain control of the information given about occupation.

Third, I know from local authority experience that some councils and, I believe, even building societies, occasionally check up to see whether the mortgagor is subletting the property, which can sometimes be ascertained by seeing whether different names for the same address appear on the election register. Those are the reasons why a person in control of a house may not wish to return full information.

Mr. Michael Cocks

Perhaps my hon. Friend would consider a fourth reason, of which I can give him more details at another time. It is not unknown, in my experience, for the person who receives the form to exclude people on the ground that they may not vote his way in an election.

Mr. Fraser

That would of course be an utterly objectionable reason for leaving a person's name off the election register. The returning officers, who are town clerks and will know their districts thoroughly, will know those areas which are in multiple occupation, even if multiple occupation legislation has not been applied to them.

I hope that, for reasons of privacy, as well as to ensure that we get the maximum number of names on the election register, every attempt will be made to see that separate returns are made for all families in a house which may appear to be in single occupation but which the local authority officers know from experience is likely to be in multiple occupation.

I realised only recently that we are not debating poll cards tonight, but my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks) said that many electors think that they cannot exercise their right to vote unless they have a poll card. Attention is not drawn to this fact in the schedule to the regulations. All I would ask is that urgent consideration be given to urging local authorities to issue poll cards in the forthcoming elections. They will, after all, be elections for novel councils, with new areas, new constituencies and new powers. People in county boroughs will for the first time be voting for district councils and county councils. If there were any time when it was important to send out poll cards, it is the forthcoming elections.

It has in effect been left to the discretion of the returning officers whether poll cards go out. Some returning officers will say—as they have done already in London, I believe—"We choose not to send out poll cards." The Greater London Council area is surely one in which the boundaries are well defined, where there are no immediate problems of reorganisation, and where there is no reason why poll cards should not be sent out. I hope that the most urgent consideration will be given to urging local authorities, if it is a possibility, to send out poll cards for these elections.

On my hon. Friend's final point, about dates, once again, I hope that note will be taken of his remarks. After all, it does not say "noon" on a certain date for late notification of people who have been left off the register. In other regulations relating to representation of the people the word "noon" does appear. It was by mistake left out of the Local Elections (Principal Areas) Rules 1973. I hope that guidance will be given about this. The limit of notice should be up to midnight of the day in question.

11.50 p.m.

Mr. Caerwyn E. Roderick (Brecon and Radnor)

It is not for me to delay the House unnecessarily but I would like to put a query on paragraph 5 of the notes to the amending regulations, and that is about jury service. It says: Electors who are over 65 are ineligible on age grounds for jury service. I understand that the professionals involved in the courts are not regarded as ineligible at 65. By "professionals" I mean the people paid for their duties—judges, solicitors, barristers, and so on. It seems rather odd to a layman like myself that one should be ineligible for jury service when he becomes 65, that one should at that age be regarded as not suitable to serve on a jury, when the experts, so to speak, can go on indefinitely.

People are inconvenienced to a large extent throughout their working lives by being called to serve on juries. When they retire, when they become 65, they might almost make a hobby of serving on juries. Who are we to decide what hobbies people should engage in? Some people might enjoy jury service. I see no reason to impose such a limit. I query why that age limit remains an obstacle. I do not know, but is it by default? I should like to hear the Minister's comments on the point.

11.52 p.m.

Mr. Carlisle

By leave of the House, I will deal with the last point first, if I may. I say at once that the "professionals" do not go on indefinitely any longer. They may be interminable, but that is another matter. They used to be able to go on indefinitely, but there is now a retiring age for High Court judges, circuit judges, and for magistrates.

The answer to the question by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Roderick) is that these regulations are merely to carry into effect the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1972 in which the maximum age is laid down. The age of 65 was taken because the Morris Committee recommended that for jury service the age should be between 21 and 65 and the House decided that it should be between 18 and 65, presumably because it was felt that people much over that age, and sitting on a jury, might not be so much in tune with those whom they would be trying and who might be younger. Whatever the reasons may have been it is not for me to give them in this debate. All I can say is that the regulations specify 65 because the Act specifies 65, and the Act specifies 65 because the Morris Committee recommended that age and the House accepted it.

Mr. Michael Cocks

I was wondering whether the Minister, on the basis of that argument, was considering reducing the retiring age of magistrates from 70 to 65.

Mr. Carlisle

If I were to answer that I would be way outside the scope of the regulations. Perhaps that matter can be raised on another occasion.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) was quite right, and I apologise for having said "any of us". I should have said "for hon. Members in England and Wales". It does not apply to Scotland because Scotland has separate Representation of the People Regulations. There would have to be separate amendments to enable a free copy of the register to be provided to Scottish Members of Parliament. I will certainly draw this to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. The regulations are concerned with four matters. None of the other three applies to Scotland, and probably that is why Scotland has not been considered.

Mr. David Steel

I suspect that is what has happened. It is hardly worth making separate regulations for Scotland on the one point that might be covered by my suggested redrafting. Unless the Secretary of State for Scotland comes forward with a tiny amendment, Scottish Members of Parliament will be unable to have copies of the register.

Mr. Carlisle

I will examine whether there is any way in which without further amendment hon. Members may receive a copy. Each constituency is entitled to four free copies of the register. Presumably there will have to be amendments to the regulations applying to Scotland after the implementation of the local Government (Scotland) Bill. I will look into this and if necessary write to the hon. Gentleman.

I sympathise with what my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) said. It is true that the number of Service men on the register and entitled to vote has dropped fairly substantially since the change in the regulations. As she will know, this is one of the matters on the agenda for the Speaker's Conference. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in his letter to the Speaker invited the conference to give immediate consideration to it. Both sides of the House accept that it is wrong that a large proportion of our citizens should be disfranchised because they happen to be in the Services.

I take the point made by the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) about multiple occupation. I am advised that when the registration officer is aware of multiple occupation he normally sends each occupier a separate Form A. As the hon. Gentleman accepted, there are times when the registration officer cannot know that there is multiple occupation.

The hon. Member for Norwood and the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks) spoke about poll cards. The Government have stated that they intend to prescribe poll cards for elections after next year. The Government cannot prescribe poll cards for the first elections for the new county and district councils because in certain areas it is not possible to have the poll cards available in time. At the request of all the political parties and local authorities we agreed that local authorities should have discretion to decide whether to have poll cards, provided that they are advised by the returning officer that he is physically able to provide them. We must leave it to the local authorities to make their own decision. The impression I have from the Home Office is that all the pressure is to have poll cards, and we shall certainly take account of what has been said tonight. We have left it to the local authorities to decide, and it would be inappropriate for me to make a strong statement either way.

Mr. Michael Cocks

The hon. and learned Gentleman says that this has been left to local authorities. Is it not true that it has been left to the person acting as the returning officer specifically and that one man, a paid servant of a local authority, is in a position completely to go against the expressed wish of the majority of the elected members? Is not that undesirable?

Mr. Carlisle

That is not quite fair. It is true to the extent that the council cannot vote to have poll cards unless it is advised by the returning officer that he can physically provide them. He has to inform the council that he would be able to provide them. Having made that information available, it is then for the council to decide whether it wishes to have them. Therefore, it is not quite right to say that one man can decide. If the returning officer, always acting impartially and with the best of motives, advises the council that he is unable to provide poll cards for the election, there is nothing that the local authority can do about it. If he is able to provide them, it is for the local authority to decide whether it wishes to have them.

Concerning the comment about not needing a poll card to vote, I am advised that the fact that a poll card is not needed to vote should be on the poll card; but it does not follow that there is any need to put that information on Form A.

Mr. John Fraser

Surely it is more important when there are not to be any poll cards. May I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to reconsider the position in Greater London. The GLC has to resolve whether to send out poll cards, but, as I understand the regulations, it cannot resolve to do so unless every returning officer for every London borough says that he is able to comply with its request to send them out. Therefore, if one returning officer in London decides that polling cards cannot be sent out, that denies poll cards to the whole of the GLC area.

Mr. Carlisle

The hon. Gentleman is right on his interpretation of the regulations. I think that in London that must be so. I will look at the position and see whether it is likely to cause trouble. Outside London the returning officer must say whether he can comply, and it is for the county or district to decide on that basis whether to have polling cards. I think that the hon. Gentleman is right about London. I will look at that point.

Mr. Michael Cocks

I am sorry to trouble the Minister again, but this is an important point. In Avon County we have three different returning officers for Gloucestershire, Somerset and Bristol. We in Bristol are convinced that we could have poll cards, but there has been a nice, cosy agreement between the three people concerned and Gloucestershire and Somerset say "No", so the enormous area of Bristol is being deprived of poll cards for the county elections.

Mr. Carlisle

I will come to that in a moment. I had a feeling that we had designated one returning officer for each new area.

I turn to the point about moving within a district and the postal vote. The regulations in no way change people's entitlement to postal votes. Whether there should be a greater entitlement to postal votes is a matter for the Act, not the regulations. The fact that a person moves within a local authority does not entitle him to a postal vote at local elections. A person may be entitled to a postal vote only at parliamentary elections.

I was asked about absence on business and why we did not give examples of what this meant. There is a limit on the amount of information which can he given on Form A without causing confusion.

All these points can be considered when the Electoral Advisory Conference next considers Form A, which it will do in advance of the main altered regulations rather than the interim regulations.

Dame Joan Vickers

What about the holiday maker? Will that aspect of the matter be dealt with?

Mr. Carlisle

That, again, is a matter of substantive law and is not for the regulations. We cannot, by regulation, allow for postal votes. They are not allowed by law. Entitlement to vote while on holiday is a matter for the Speaker's Conference, and I cannot say further than that now.

On the question of the date for claims, I can tell the House only that the law is clear. Claims are required to be received by 16th December.

The answer to the hon. Member for Bristol, South is that the returning officer would have to satisfy all the councils concerned that he could not issue poll cards. There were reasons why we could not prescribe poll cards for the 1973 elections for new councils, and as we could not prescribe them we feel that the matter is best left for local decision without further intervention by the Home Office.

I think that the debate has gone rather wider than the regulations, as every matter that has been raised has not been one dealt with by the regulations but, rather, one that is not. But I am not suggesting that hon. Members were not right to raise those things that have been left undone as well as those things that have been done. What the regulations do is to provide a free copy of the register for every Member of Parliament in England and Wales, to provide technical alterations for postal votes for elections this year, and, finally, to provide the necessary alterations to Form A for the new qualification for jury service based on the Criminal Justice Act 1972.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Representation of the People Regulations 1973, dated 9th February 1973, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th February, be approved.