HC Deb 12 March 1973 vol 852 cc1055-77

10.18 p.m.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of the Local Elections (Principal Areas) Rules 1973 (S.I., 1973, No. 79), dated 16th January 1973, a copy of which was laid before this House on 31st January. The statutory instrument sets out the rules for the principal areas—the new counties and district areas. The main body of the rules are welcome, representing an improvement on the rules operated previously. They have been generally agreed to the satisfaction of all the major political parties.

I shall confine myself to the fourth and fifth schedules, which make changes in the main body of the rules for this year's local government elections but for no other. I start with the trivia. On page 33 in a column setting out times for handing in nomination papers and so on, there are omissions. The word "noon" should appear in certain of the times. As the rules stand, a candidate could be standing at the town hall at a minute to midnight hoping to send in his nomination paper.

At the bottom of page 34 there is a printing error. Instead of "elector" the word "elect" appears. It reminds me of when I canvassed some Jehovah's Witnesses. When I asked for whom they would vote, they replied, "The Almighty" I am sure that the word "elect" in the rules is not intended to refer to the Almighty but is a printing error and should be corrected.

The coming local government elections are contests of major importance. Political commentators have treated them as a mini-general election and I suppose that on past performance that is the right kind of treatment. It is a pity that the local government elections are treated as a kind of vivisection at local level for the benefit of national political purposes. It is vital that the local elections should be seen as being important in their own right. The magnitude of spending by the new authorities is enormous. The spending by the Greater London Council in one year is greater than that of many nation States. If we take any of the new metropolitan counties, they are larger in population terms than many a nation State. Indeed, some have larger populations than some European States.

A great deal of importance has been attached to the recent election in the Republic of Ireland. The population of the GLC alone is almost twice that of the Republic. The GLC would probably tear more miles out of London to make motorways than many other nation States would choose to do with an entire country. The new authorities concern themselves with education, a subject on which there are deep and often sincere controversies and on which sometimes local views held by a political party may differ from the views held by the same party at national level.

The coming elections will also involve housing, perhaps one of the major issues and a subject which we shall be debating later this week. It is important to remember that the public sector of housing is solely the concern of local government. All that central Government can do is to exhort and, in the case of the Housing Finance Act, to extort. The local authorities are important because they exercise a major control over the quality of our environment, over social services, over law and order, and I hope that eventually many other responsibilities will devolve upon them, including, for instance, health services, family planning and ultimately the public ownership of land for development and redevelopment. Local government is important in its own right. That is the first thing to be said about these coming elections.

The second thing is that they are novel. For instance in the Greater London elections which take place with the other county elections on 12th April, the electors in the GLC area for the first time ever will be choosing one councillor per parliamentary constituency, something which has not happened before. At one time we had three councillors per constituency. Then we went to a system of between two and four councillors to a borough. Now we have this novel situation.

They will be novel elections in the sense that for many of the old county borough electors will, for the first time in memory, be voting twice, once in April and again later in the spring. This is something to which electors in county boroughs are not used. They will be novel too because people will be voting for entirely new authorities, and I will not say much about that.

It behoves us to do everything in our power to ensure two things. First we must ensure that the electors understand what they are voting about. I am not talking about political issues but about the functions and powers and importance of local government.

Mr. Michael Cocks (Bristol, South)

Would my hon. Friend like to dwell upon the fact that several months ago the Government were asked what they intended to do about informing the electorate of the new arrangements? Would he like to comment on the fact that nothing has so far been done?

Mr. Fraser

I am coming to that. First of all we have to make sure that the electors understand the new machinery and powers. Secondly we ought to regard it as an important duty to do everything we can to ensure that people participate in the elections. I greatly regret that poll cards are not obligatory. If ever there were a case for making it mandatory to send out such cards it is typified by these elections. Schedules 4 and 5 to these Rules have a kind of built-in inertia. First a local authority must resolve to send out poll cards. Secondly, the local authority, before passing any resolution to send out poll cards, must be satisfied that the returning officer is able to comply with the resolution.

When this subject was raised briefly in a debate on Representation of the People Rules last week, we were told that the Government could not prescribe poll cards for the first elections for new county and district councils because in certain areas it was not possible to have the cards available in time. I do not know to which areas the Minister was referring, but there are a lot of other areas where it would be possible, if there were no inertia, to send poll cards out.

If there were a General Election on 12th April and returning officers did not have as much notice of it as they have had of the forthcoming local elections, they would still have to send out poll cards, and would do so. I cannot see the justification, except in one or two areas where it is very difficult, for a general exemption from the mandatory duty to send out poll cards.

I quote again the example of London, where the constituencies are well known and where there has been no recent redrawing of boundaries. Yet one single returning officer in the whole GLC area could prevent the sending out of poll cards—that is, assuming the GLC had the will to pass the appropriate resolution. I ask the Minister to reconsider the rule that the sending out of poll cards should not be mandatory. Some people regard the poll card as a prerequisite to voting. Others regard it as important because it tells them where their polling station is. Many people will be going to new polling stations for the new local authorities. The Government should either take the rules back to rewrite them to ensure that it is obligatory to send out poll cards unless it is absolutely impossible to do so.

I turn now to the question of publicity. The Government have not been backward in their use of information services. I make no complaint about that. But value added tax, which is infinitely simpler in its concept to understand than the new local government structure, has involved Customs and Excise officers stumping the country, addressing meetings, and television and Press advertising. Again, going into Europe involved massive handouts of Government literature. The Housing Finance Act and the family income supplement have been presented on television in campaigns of soapflake proportions.

Likewise, I am urging the use of television, radio and newspapers to advertise on the same scale, explaining to people what these elections are about and what the powers of their respective authorities are. Obviously, such advertising would be without political slant, but it should be fully explained just how important these local elections are. In some places, people will have to vote at different times for two authorities, and they should know what the functions and importance of those respective authorities are.

Whether the issues be dustbins or national parks, housing or education, or family planning or town and country planning, it is better that the electors should understand what they are about and be encouraged to take part in them. It is possible to do this by encouraging as far as possible the sending out of the poll cards, by the Government undertaking, in consultation with the political parties, a programme of advertising and information services to show what the elections are about, and by encouraging the local authorities to do likewise. Local government is far too important a matter to be left to the minority of the electors.

10.29 p.m.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

Nobody could object to the theories which the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) put forward or, if one aims at perfection in these matters, to some of his suggestions about informing the public and giving guidance. However, the implication of what he said was that suddenly we have a new local government set-up which for the first time is important and that what we had before did not matter. Now, apparently, because it is new, we must react as though people had not been aware for a long time, since the 1880s, that local government was important.

But people do not want Government pamphlets to tell them that local government is vital and that they should elect the best men to their local authorities. It is not a question that suddenly local authorities have started to spend a lot of money. They have been the great spenders of public money for a long time and, by and large, they have not done badly with it because they understand local needs better than we in this House do. I resent the suggestion in the friendly speech of the hon. Member for Norwood that the Government must now tell local authorities how to run their show.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (The Hartlepools)

There are present four members who served on the Standing Committee which considered the Bill which reorganised local government. I do not see any Conservative member of it. Secondly—

Sir H. Nicholls

I did not give way so that the hon. Gentleman could make a speech—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

Order. We cannot have two hon. Members on their feet at the same time. It is reasonable to expect that any hon. Gentleman who wishes to make a contribution should be able to do so. But a contribution is different from a question.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

I have made the only point which I wished to make. It is all very well for hon. Members opposite to suggest that we must dot the i's and cross the t's and that the Government must put their oar in to the extent they suggest, but I am very jealous of local government remaining local. I have been a local councillor in a small urban district council for 15 to 20 years, and it runs its show very well. It knows the local needs. I am a little suspicious, despite the delightful words of the hon. Member for Norwood, of the suggestion that the Government should tell it what to do.

I have nothing against what has been said about poll cards. I agree that anything which makes polling easier is not bad. The rules do not stop local authorities issuing poll cards. I am sure that at the right time, if they feel that they are necessary in order to achieve proper representation on their local councils, they will do that. In the light of experience, it may be a good thing to extend the practice.

Mr. John Fraser

Has the hon. Gentleman read the rules?

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Has the hon. Member read the rules? Why should he suggest that he is the only one who is interested enough in these matters to comment on them? That is not in keeping with his normal behaviour. Of course one knows what one proposes to talk about. I am suspicious of the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends because their belief in the centralisation of many other matters brings them to the point at which they are prepared to centralise and undermine local government in its truest and fullest sense.

I warn the House against doing anything which might stop local authorities being truly local. If the hon. Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas), who represents a constituency next to mine, can bring evidence to show that his constituency needs central Government nannying, his experience is different from mine in Peterborough.

I warn the House against this Parliament thinking that it alone knows how an election should be organised. Local authorities have organised elections for many years. It is not a bad thing for any Government to leave a certain leeway to local decision when laying plans for the future.

10.35 p.m.

Sir Geoffrey de Freitas (Kettering)

I am amazed at the speech that I have just heard by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls). My hon. Friends and I who are here this evening have all served on local authorities. How many Members of the Conservative Party who come into this House have taken the trouble to try to get themselves elected to local authorities? The hon. Member for Peterborough has. But when local authority matters are discussed we notice how few hon. Gentlemen have served on such authorities. The hon. Gentleman lectured us about our unwillingness to leave power to local authorities. We are discussing the giving of power to local authorities and, in Schedules 4 and 5, exempting them from the obligation to send out poll cards. It is important to consider this matter on its merits.

Mr. Nicholas Scott (Paddington, South)

As one who served for six years on a London local authority, the right hon. Gentleman must forgive me if I regard the interventions of the Labour Party in local matters with suspicion.

Sir G. de Freitas


Mr. Scott

Because of the London Government Act. The Labour Party thought that it would lose control of the London boroughs, so it postponed the elections for a year, and a number of hon. Gentlemen opposite voted for that extraordinary gerrymandering manoeuvre. The fact that when that year was up they lost by a greater margin is beside the point.

Sir G. de Freitas

I do not know what that has to do with the subject that we are discussing.

Mr. Scott

I am suspicious of the Labour Party's motives.

Sir G. de Freitas

I came to protest about the way that the Government are pandering to this Home Office nonsense.

Some years ago I was the junior Minister at the Home Office. In those days there were only two Ministers at the Home Office and my boss the Home Secretary was also Leader of the House, so a good deal of work was imposed on me, the junior Minister. I had to deal with electoral matters, amongst others. In the Home Office people were always saying, "But this is imposing too much on the returning officer." I have got to know many returning officers. They are robust people and able to undertake—

Mr. Michael Cocks

They are crafty.

Sir G. de Freitas

Returning officers are not so much crafty as highly intelligent people who are willing to undertake duties imposed on them for electoral purposes for the benefit of the whole community.

I am worried that Schedule 4 does not make it essential for the returning officer to issue these poll cards. It looks as though the Home Office has again surrendered the easy way and said that it is too much to compel returning officers to do this. It is most important that we should know why returning officers are exempted from this obligation. It is important that at the beginning of this new local authority system we should have a wide understanding of the areas and the greatest encouragement to a large number of voters. If it is recognised as important in future, why not for the first time?

10.39 p.m.

Mr. Michael Cocks (Bristol, South)

I have great respect for the Minister of State, and I am sure that his contribution to the debate will be of the highest standard compared with the contribution by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls). I must point out that his great panegyric about local government control is blown sky high in the Housing Finance Act which sets down the formula for council housing which is one of the major responsibilities of local authorities.

I will pass over the comments by the hon. Member for Paddington, South (Mr. Scott). I have always had great respect for the Minister. He is thorough and faces his responsibilities very well indeed. On 14th December, in reply to a Question by me, asking when he intended to lay the local election rules before Parliament, he said: As early in January as practicable."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th December 1972; Vol. 848, c. 186.] I congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman, because he kept me on tenterhooks throughout the month and on 31st January the rules were laid. Such delicate timing is to be admired, but since they came into operation on 1st March that left a bare 28 days for them to be considered, and that is cutting things far too fine.

I intervened during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) on the question of propaganda for these local government elections. This is a major upheaval for a number of people in Bristol. For the first time for a number of years people will be asked to vote for more than one candidate. This will be a major departure from normal practice. If the Minister is in any doubt about that, I suggest that he visits an overspill estate to which people have gone from Bristol to see things for himself. People are faced with a ballot paper which is more like a football coupon than an election document. He will realise that there should be a major propaganda effort by the Government to inform people of the content and structure of the new local government.

On page 13 of the rules one sees repeated again the elaborate arrangements for the declaration of secrecy. I think that it is a truism that one Government Department does not take very much notice of what another does, because in Committee I pointed out that although there were elaborate arrangements for the secrecy of ballots—with which I fully concur—when it comes to the chairman of the planning committee making telephone calls about highly confidential matters which could result in financial gain to certain parties if the details were known, he makes those calls on a shared party line. It is nonsense to provide for secrecy in one respect and to ignore it in another.

I am at something of a loss to understand the questions set out on page 15 to be put to voters. There is here a scrupulous procedure for the questions which may be put to them. The presiding officer is given strict instructions as to what he may ask if required by a candidate or his election or polling agent.

Perhaps one may contrast that scrupulous attention to detail with what one finds on page 30. The first comment on the back of the card is: You need not take this card with you to the polling station, but it will save time if you take it and show it to the clerk there. I am amazed that that should be printed on the official poll card, because in Committee the point was made at some length that we must try to break down the idea in the minds of the general public that it is essential for them to have their poll card or number with them when they go to vote.

I repeat that I am amazed to see the statement: You need not take this card with you to the polling station, but it will save time if you take it and show it to the clerk there. There is there an in-built suggestion that clerks at polling stations will be asking people for their poll numbers and cards. If the Minister has tried to put right the situation which we described in Committee, I can only tell him that he has made it a great deal worse. We shall get badgering on an official basis by the clerks on whether electors have their ballot papers, whereas until now it has all been unofficial. I deplore this sort of thing being placed on the card. Different wording could have been used, and once again the Government have missed the point.

Page 31 contains the biggest contradiction of the lot. At the top it says: The voter should see that the ballot paper before it is handed to him, is stamped with the official mark. Yes earlier in the rules we are told that the official mark is to be kept secret. In fact, so secret is the official mark to be kept that a different one is to be used each year and the same one is not to be repeated within the space of five years. How on earth is an elector to know that the ballot paper has been stamped with the official mark? I shall be interested to hear the Government's reply on this point because this seems to be an absolute nonsense. The fact that the ballot paper is put into a hand-stamp and the machine is depressed is one thing, but how is the voter to know that the mark thus made is an official mark?

Sir Harmar Nicholls

In fairness, the system is not as stupid as the hon. Gentleman suggests. It is true that nobody can tell whether the imprint is official, but the hon. Gentleman must have had the experience, as I have at times—and I discovered that the last election, including both local and parliamentary elections, was my eighteenth election—of ballot papers being spoiled because they had not been stamped. It is all right provided that the voter makes sure that there is an imprint, because one would not expect crooks to be in charge of polling booths.

Mr. Cocks

I am grateful for that helpful intervention, but if it is a practicable proposition for the elector to see that there is a mark on the ballot paper, why do they not say so here? Why do the rules specify the "official mark"? For all the elector knows, it might be a subliminal advertisement for soap flakes. It seems an extremely sloppy way of going about the matter. This is the sort of thing that has gone on year after year, and no notice seems to have been taken of what hon. Members have said about the situation.

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

Since the hon. Gentleman obviously regards this as an important point, could he from his great experience say whether this provision has given rise to any great problems over the last 50 years or so?

Mr. Cocks

I answer the hon. and learned Gentleman by saying that there is an hon. Member in this House who was once disqualified from standing in a local election in Bristol, although he had a majority of votes cast, because on a recount it was found that eight or 12 votes did not have the official mark. Therefore, his opponent won—so it is important.

Mr. Carlisle

Does the hon. Gentleman mean that it had a mark but not the official mark?

Mr. Cocks

There was not a mark on the paper. This sort of hair-splitting does not endear itself to the general public. I hope the Minister of State will not try to wriggle out of this. He is a nice chap, and I hope that he is not going in for hair-splitting on this issue.

I come to Schedule 4, and I believe that it is disgraceful that in an entirely new structure poll cards will not be mandatory on local authorities. The hon. and learned Gentleman rather blew the gaff because I asked him before Christmas about whether he was confident that returning officers would be able to issue poll cards for any General Election that might take place during 1973, and the answer was "Yes".

Circumstances can be imagined when a General Election will produce a close result, with possibly a majority of two or three. We can all imagine circumstances which might result in two or three General Elections within a few months. I am confident that should that unusual happening take place, poll cards would be issued on each occasion to every elector.

That blows apart all the platitudes which we have had from returning officers about being unable to issue cards to all electors. There is no doubt that, given the will, returning officers could send a poll card to every local elector for the new local authority elections. This is the biggest indictment of all. If the Government were serious in wanting full participation in local democracy, they would have taken the opportunity to extend the new structure to every elector.

I find the instrument unsatisfactory. I hope that the Minister of State, even at this late stage, will give an indication that the Government mean to get down to business and to tell the people what is involved in the new local elections and how they might participate so that everybody can exercise their full democratic rights.

10.52 p.m.

Mr. R. B. Cant (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

Perhaps it is convenient for hon. Members to declare their pedigree. I have been a member of Stoke City Council continuously for 21 years. I think that I am one of the very few hon. Members who are standing for a county council election on 12th April.

I am in an embarrassing position because I find myself part in agreement and part in disagreement with my hon. Friends. There is a certain virtue in allowing local authorities to decide whether they want to issue poll cards. I know that it may seem a mighty convenience for the electors to have poll cards, but there are many other considerations. Hon. Members might be surprised that some Labour-controlled authorities have decided to have poll cards for county council elections but have not declared that they are not having them for the more intimate local elections.

The motivation of local authorities will be different, but any authority—and I suppose that implies the political control of local authorities—should be in a position to decide, for various reasons which it may keep secret, not to have poll cards. The matter should be left to the authorities.

My politically conscious hon. Friends will appreciate fairly fully that while some Labour-controlled councils have decided not to have polling cards, their decisions have not been based on the highest of motives. Nevertheless, it is a local political choice which we must accept. On the other hand, I agree forcibly with my hon. Friends that when we talk about the need for a good deal more publicity we must think in terms of the county elections which take place on 12th April. We must remember that the Government—perhaps because there are more whiz-kids on the Government benches than the Opposition's benches—appreciate the virtue of enormous expenditure on these elections.

Anyone who has been attending local meetings or selection conferences of his political party will have been made fully aware that people do not fully understand the changes that are taking place. The changes may be fairly clear-cut in some areas. In Stoke-on-Trent, which had a county borough from the beginning of the century, people are still bemused about what is happening, despite the attempts of political parties to educate them. People do not understand what a county election means, why there is only one candidate per ward, or what is implied in the transfer of a whole range of services from an authority that has nurtured them for decades to a rather remote county council.

Many people who have voted at local elections only once in their political lives will now be faced with voting for a second time for a district which is not coterminous with the area with which they have been associated as a municipal borough or urban district. In other words, they may be involved in an entirely new county situation and also in a new geographical unit constituting a district.

Local democracy would not be necessarily destroyed by this process if the Government were to spend some money through the national mass media on a campaign to explain the new organisation of local government. Local newspapers may not be amenable to the exercise of the processes of political education. Although the one in Stoke-on-Trent is Conservative in its bias, I think it does a fair job in this respect, provided that it can preserve a balance. The local radio is much more useful and flexible, but all areas do not have local radio.

10.58 p.m.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (The Hartlepools)

I did not intend to intervene, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for reasons you will understand—[Interruption.]—I am still thinking in terms of local government. However, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will understand why I say that I was not particularly anxious to take part in this debate.

The hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) has surely not understood the intention of my right hon. and hon. Friends, whose contribution has shown, I hope to the hon. Gentleman's surprise and pleasure, that we are concerned, not with controversy, but with how best to take this final step into the new system of local goverment and make it a success. That is the objective. Those of us who served on the Committee on the Local Government Bill over many weeks were similarly constrained when controversy arose because we understood that the function of Parliament primarily is to address our minds to what is right. That is why we enjoyed the proceedings considerably. We were doing a useful job.

Having said that, it is clear—indeed, the Home Office must be satisfied that it it is clear—that there has been too much haste in seeking to implement the proposals in the Act. The regulations were placed before the House on 31st January. Those of us who have considerable local government experience—I include the hon. Member for Peterborough—understand that local government officials are bound to be hard pressed at present in dealing with these rules. We should bear in mind that much of what is in the rules is well known practice in local government administration. Nevertheless, one of the greater pressures at present is the process of finding out, even for those involved in local government, such as councillors, aldermen and senior officials. We in the recommendation and decision-making areas are considerably frustrated in trying to find some clarity in the functions with which they are expected to deal at district and county levels.

The frustration and the amount of discussion taking place, the impingement upon them of statutory instruments or, to put it bluntly, expecting them to apply the Act, have brought enormous problems. Parliament would have been wiser to have allowed local authorities some breathing space, and next year might have been more successful.

In addition to what my hon. Friends have said—I am sure that the thought is also on the Government benches—the principle of polls cards has been accepted. The exception is in the first election. If the principle is good enough for subsequent elections, I should have thought it vital in this election, purely because there is a need to overcome the frustrations and pressures in the decision-making areas in order to convey to the people who will be making the final judgment on polling day the importance of their identification, the place where they are to vote and the material information required in order to exercise their right to have a ballot paper in a particular place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Cant) has mentioned the problems arising in different geographical areas. The Government should think again about exercising Rule 24.

There is one point which I ask the Minister to reconsider in the Department. Rule 21 states: The returning officer shall provide a sufficient number of polling stations and, subject to the following provisions of this rule, shall allot the electors to the polling stations in such manner as he thinks most convenient. I address myself to the phrase a sufficient number of polling stations. Without an explanatory note in the rules, there is possibly a need for the Department to consider how best, in circular form, to advise returning officers or in practice a registrar or, in some cases, the town clerk or chief clerk of the authority, what is meant by a sufficient number of polling stations. There are such great disparities that it must be one of the several elements which are the cause of the low polls in some parts of the country. Guidelines on what is meant by "sufficient polling stations" are necessary.

There is need also for publicity. The House may, I think, have missed the point here. Spectacular news of events of remarkable significance constantly impinges itself on the public mind nowadays, taking attention away from matters of more immediate importance. For instance, the news of the past week has given rise to a good deal of public concern and comment. It is necessary that the mind of the public be brought back from time to time to the matters which immediately affect them, and this year's local government elections are a case in point. The Government have exercised their power and provided finance to give publicity in various directions which they have thought desirable, sometimes in their own interest, and on this occasion they ought to spend some money in the interest of the people themselves.

11.6 p.m.

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

We all appreciate the desire of the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. Leadbitter) not to speak in this debate, and I am sure that we all feel sympathy for him in that he did not manage to achieve his desire. However, having listened to him, I am glad that he did not.

As the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) said, these are the new rules which will govern the future conduct of local elections, Schedule 2 deals with the rules for elections after those for this year, and, subject to Schedules 4 and 5, deals with those for this year. As the hon. Gentleman said, they have all been agreed with the local authority associations and with the political parties.

Only two matters of major substance were raised in the debate: first, the significant and important change with regard to the issue of poll cards; and second, the matter of publicity, raised by the right hon. Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas), the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Cant) and my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls). However, before coming to those major matters, I shall deal with the three peripheral matters, if I may so call them.

The hon. Member for Norwood was right to point out that there are two errors in the rules. I think that he will accept that one of them is merely a printing error, the word "elect" for "electors". The other is of more substance, I concede, that is, failing to make clear in Schedule 4, governing the first elections, that various things have to be done by noon on a particular day. Leaving out those words, as the hon. Gentleman said, means that those who desire to stand for the first election have 12 hours longer in which to put in their nomination forms. I think that the returning officer will have 12 hours longer to declare the names of those who have put in their nominations, and each candidate, having entered the fray, will have 12 hours in which to withdraw. As the hon. Gentleman said, they could put in their nomination well after noon on the day in question. We considered this matter. Guidance was given that the error had occurred, but we felt that it did not justify amending the rules once they had been laid before Parliament.

The other peripheral point was the hair-splitting point raised by the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks) who shares one distinction with myself. He and I are the only two people taking part in this debate who have never sat on a local authority. I say that since the hon. Gentleman implied that everybody else on the other side of the House had taken part in local authority work.

It is, if I may say so with respect, a hair-splitting point. I suppose if we had not made any reference to an official mark on the ballot paper he would have said how ridiculous it was to be so sloppy. Such detailed points are discussed and agreed by members of the Conference on Local Electoral Law which has representatives from the main political parties as well as the local authority associations and returning officers. The reference to an official mark on a poll card has never to my knowledge caused any inconvenience in the past.

Mr. Gordon Oakes (Widnes)

On the point concerning returning officers and the extra 12 hours, can the hon. and learned Gentleman say whether this means that a returning officer or his staff on these various days must stay in the office until midnight in case something happens up to that time?

Mr. Carlisle

I think that must be so. There is a right to enter a nomination up till midnight rather than till noon. This applies only to the first election for the district and county elections. The omission of the words "noon on that day" is an error and it entitles a person to put in his nomination up till midnight. I am sure that those who wish to stand for election will have sympathy and consideration for the returning officer and will not delay putting in their nominations at the 59th minute of the 11th hour.

May I return to the two issues which are of importance. One is the question of publicity, and the other is poll cards. I will deal with publicity first. It does not arise directly out of these rules, but it is important. I confirm that the Government share to the full the concern of hon. Members that there should be adequate publicity of these elections both for the new counties and for the new districts, and, indeed, they share to the full the concern expressed as to the importance of these elections. It is proposed that publicity shall be provided for the elections and, indeed, the intention is that for three weeks before each election for the counties, the non-metropolitan districts and the metropolitan districts there will be a concerted campaign of publicity which has been agreed by the Home Office in conjunction with the Department of the Environment, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and also local government information offices. This will include Press advertisements and advertising on the mass media by means of television films and radio.

I am advised that that publicity will not only draw attention to the dates of the various elections but will also explain the functions of the various councils. I share to the full the views expressed by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, and a sum of money will be spent by central government for that purpose.

Mr. Michael Cocks

Would the Minister please tell the House whether a public relations firm has been engaged for this publicity? If so, what experience has the firm had of local government and what is the fee paid to the firm?

Mr. Carlisle

The answer to the first question is "no", and therefore the second and third questions do not arise. It is being done by the local government information services and by the Departments. A sum of money exceeding £100,000 will be spent on this publicity.

I come now to the most important point of all concerning the poll cards. I was slightly taken back by the force and strength of feeling on the Labour benches on this subject about the need for the cards to be mandatory. I reflected, particularly when the right hon. Member for Kettering was speaking about the importance of poll cards and reminding us of his days in the Home Office, that until these rules which are now before us not only were poll cards not required and not discretionary but they could not be used by any local authority unless it passed a private Act for the purpose. Only two counties—Cheshire and Cornwall—ever went to the extent of passing a private Act.

So we are making a major move forward in providing for poll cards at local elections. The effect of the rules is to provide under Schedule 2, after and not including the first elections this year, that they shall be mandatory. I have been asked specifically why, if we agree, as the Government and the Home Office do, that poll cards are a useful and valid means of drawing publicity to local elections, we have not made them mandatory on local authorities in the first year. The answer is simple. It is not from a lack of desire by the Home Office to see them used. It is merely a question of the practical difficulties involved.

We have to face the fact that as of this moment we have not yet completed the warding of the non-metropolitan districts. I am told that at this date, faced with elections for the metropolitan districts on 10th May this year, none of the non-metropolitan districts has been named and that problems of this kind exist, caused by the shortage of the time scale.

The hon. Member for The Hartlepools will no doubt accept that if these councils are to be in existence and active from 1974 it is important that the elections should take place as early as possible to get all the committees set up. We were under considerable pressure and I personally agreed to put back the date of the non-metropolitan districts to 7th June from the earlier May date. That was what was desired, but putting the date back to 7th June, we advised, was cutting it very fine if the district councils were to have the opportunity of appointing their chief officers and things of that nature if the councils were to come into effect in April 1974.

Mr. Leadbitter

The Minister is seeking to be helpful but he is underlining the acute problem of the ward divisions which have not yet been settled in the metropolitan counties. That is sad enough in itself, but arising from it is the reason for not having the poll cards. How much more difficult will it be for the electors to be informed about where they should vote by people who have only lay experience in these matters, especially when, as the Minister said, the districts are not yet formed. It would have been better to have had the professionalism and expertise of the people who are paid as officers to prepare the poll cards for the first elections.

Mr. Carlisle

I hope that the hon. Member will not feel that there has been any dragging of feet in the Home Office over the warding. It requires a substantial effort to get the councils out in the time and we hope to have the warding of the non-metropolitan districts announced within the next four weeks. But there is an awful lot to do. I know that the hon. Member is taking this in a sensible and rational way and that he will accept that there is much to do. With the Bill receiving the Royal Assent only in October it was frankly impossible to carry the warding through at an earlier stage. If polling cards had been made mandatory on this occasion we would have been placing a requirement en local government which in some areas could not have been carried out and which in other areas could not have been carried out adequately. The polling cards could not have received the detailed thought so necessary for them.

Mr. Leadbitter rose

Mr. Carlisle

I cannot give way again The hon. Member has the Adjournment debate and I know that he is anxious to get to it. The effect, therefore, is that after the first elections, poll cards will be mandatory. For the first elections they are discretionary, and the decisions whether to issue them will be that of the council employing the returning officer. Before it can make that decision the returning officer has to satisfy it that he will be able to carry out the provisions. We hope very much that they will be widely used, but we did not think it was right, within the time-scale we had, to make a requirement that we were not satisfied it would be physically possible to carry out in all parts of the country.

The question of poll cards for parliamentary elections was raised. I am told that the answer is that parliamentary election poll cards are always printed well in advance, and the details on them are the same as they were at the previous election. Here we are setting un new districts and counties, and we should have to print new poll cards.

It is correct to say that, whereas the decision whether to have polling cards in the Greater London area is that of the GLC, that is dependent upon each local borough returning officer's being satisfied that he can carry out the requirements. I am told that the GLC does not intend to go ahead with the issue of polling cards. Therefore, the other issue does not arise.

Mr. Oakes

There are no warding problems in London. Why give that discretion to the GLC?

Mr. Carlisle

That is what I said. The issue does not arise if the GLC chooses by its democratic vote not to have them. It has not had them in the past. It is a matter for the GLC. It is not depriving the electors of something they have had. This year the matter is discretionary, and in future years it will be mandatory. I understand that in its discretion it has decided that it is not likely to have them. Therefore the question of the returning officer of the individual boroughs is not relevant.

Mr. Michael Cocks

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman deal with the point I raised about the statement that the voter need not take the card with him to the polling station but that it will save time? That puts power into the hands of officious clerks.

Mr. Carlisle

I have dealt with one hair-splitting point and will deal with this, which is not perhaps a hair-splitting point. As far as I know the words on the back of the poll cards are similar to those on the back of the poll cards at parliamentary elections, and they are accurate. The elector need not take them with him. Part of the trouble is that there are those who believe that they cannot vote unless they have a poll card. The words make it clear that they can vote without having it and need not take it, but they point out the practical effect. From our own experience we must all accept that having a poll card may save time in the polling station. I can see nothing wrong in having those words written on the back.

The indications are that in a high proportion of areas arrangements are being made to issue poll cards. In some areas it may be that the returning officer has not been satisfied that it would be practical for him to issue poll cards and has therefore informed the council accordingly. But the council has a duty to consult the joint committee for their advice whether poll cards should be issued. The Home Office attitude, and the power given in the rules, at the request of all the political parties, is to give a discretion in the hope that it will be used and that wherever practical poll cards will be used for the first and most important elections for the new councils this year.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

This last point is something which the Department might consider in future. If the words on the polling card were It is advisable to take the polling card but it is absolutely essential … that would encourage people rather than discourage them and make the job of the polling clerk easier.

Mr. Carlisle

I take the point. While I believe that the words are identical to those which have always been used, if my hon. Friend feels that an alternative form of words would be more beneficial and useful this is perhaps a matter we can look at in any future review of the electoral rules. That would be a matter for the Local Government Conference on Electoral Law which goes into these details, in conjunction with the political parties.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of the Local Elections (Principal Areas) Rules 1973 (S.I., 1973, No. 79), dated 16th January 1973, a copy of which was laid before this House on 31st January.

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