HC Deb 16 January 1974 vol 867 cc834-44

6.58 a.m.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)

When I address school audiences, as I have done this week, I always say that one of the glories of our parliamentary system is that it is possible for a back-bench Member to raise subjects ranging from the case of an individual, as has been done by the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Tom King), to matters of the widest constitutional implications. Parliamentary procedure makes it possible for back-bench Members to do so. Today is a good example in that at two minutes to seven o'clock it is possible for a back-bench Member to raise with you, Mr. Speaker, a matter of grave constitutional importance. It is a matter which is of considerable topical interest.

I wish to look at the introduction of the new electoral register which is to take place just one month from this parliamentary day, on 16th February. I ask why, if a General Election is to be held in February, it should not be held on this new electoral register, rather than in the expiring days of a dying parliamentary register. If there is to be a General Election next month—and I would be happy for it to take place—for it to be held on the expiring register rather than the new electoral register would be nothing less than an outrage against parliamentary democracy.

The new register will come into force on 16th February, having been published the previous day. When published it will no doubt be found to be in many respects inaccurate. There always are complaints when a new one is published and the statement on 14th January by the Home Office, to which I shall refer later, says that the register is likely to contain the names of about 96 per cent. of those entitled to vote. Even so there will be inadequacy, and that must be recognised. I do not think that many will complain of so small an error in so large a document.

Even so, that register will be very new. It will be only four months old and will deal with people as they lived in their residences on 10th October last year. It will have been revised and brought right up to and including December last year, so it will be a new and extremely valid document.

It would be an ideal register for an election in which the Government desires the maximum possible appeal to secure a valid and emphatic mandate for the controversial policies dividing this country. Yet it is likely that today the Government will announce the election—if not today, perhaps tomorrow—and it would take place in the dying days of the old register.

We should remind ourselves that the old register is not a year old but 16 months old because it was compiled in October 1972. That would be more than 16 months before the date on which the election was likely to be fought.

If it were on 7th February it would be almost exactly 16 months to the day later. Since that date in 1972 many have died and many have moved. In the Home Office statement, the Government social survey admitted that about 10 per cent. of the electorate had moved between the canvass and the expiry of the register. Since the Home Office assumes that there are 40 million names on the new register, it means that about 4 million people will have moved house.

Regardless of the glib phrases which will no doubt be regurgitated by the Under-Secretary, many will be deprived of the vote if the election is held in the last days of the old register. The Home Office this week has behaved rather more like a branch of the Conservative Central Office than a Government Department. It issued a statement implying that all but a handful of those 4 million would get the postal vote. It certainly implied that all but a handful could get the postal vote. At best that argument is disingenuous. At worst, that argument is untruthful.

It is certainly true that it is open to many of those who have moved to claim the postal vote, but how many will do so? How many will be able to complete the complicated procedure within the very few days? If the General Election were to be held on 7th February, applications for postal votes would have to be in by Thursday of next week, 24th January, and if the election were to be on 14th February the applications would have to be in by 31st January. Either way, the period during which postal votes could be applied for and ratified would be a very few days indeed.

It may be that the Government will say that large numbers of people apply for the postal vote and receive it. The Minister of State may incline himself to quote the number of people who cast postal votes at the last General Election—731,116. That is a very small number compared with the 4 million who are being deprived of their vote because they have moved house, but in any case those who move house are only a small proportion of those who are eligible for the postal vote and only a small proportion of those who receive the postal vote.

Most of the people who receive and exercise the postal vote are what might be called regulars—the sick ; people living in old people's homes, for whom the postal vote is applied for by those in charge of the old people's homes ; blind people ; people working regularly away from home. One would find, if one investigated the hundreds of thousands of those who obtain postal votes, that many are on the postal vote register permanently, as, indeed, for example, I was for a considerable time, first as a journalist and then in another occupation.

What is clear is that those who receive the postal vote do not include many of those who move, because for them it is a once-for-all exercise. People do not move every year. People do not often move more than once within the lifetime of a full-length Parliament. Therefore, there is no impetus upon them to apply a long time before an election for the postal vote. It is a hurried operation, even if they get round to doing it.

Removals, as the Home Office admitted in its statement, are a key element in the number of people who will be deprived of their vote if the election is held at the very end of the old register, and there is no doubt that there are many removals. I can take my own constituency as an example. In preparation for this debate I glanced through my constituency files—not my full constituency files by any manner of means—and I found many dozens of people who had moved home between October 1972 and today. If one glances through the list one finds that many have moved considerable distances—some small distances, but some quite large ones—for example, to Stockport, or Partington or Sale. Those people, it is true, will qualify for the postal vote—they will qualify if they apply, if they are alerted by an announcement by the Government, if they are winkled out by the political parties. But they will not be canvassed in the constituencies in which they will vote. For example, if a constituent of mine who has moved to Sale is canvassed, it will be in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's constituency. The Chancellor will lose his vote if the election is held on the old register. So canvassers of the political parties will not easily find these electors.

But many of these electors will not qualify for a postal vote even under the enlarged qualification brought in under legislation passed in the last Parliament. Because of this, although someone who has moved to another local authority area or to another parliamentary constituency can obtain a postal vote, someone who has moved to another part of the same constituency cannot. Yet if someone has moved within a constituency or local authority area, it can still mean a long distance for him to travel, even in a small urban division.

There is an example in my constituency of a man who has moved from Autumn Street at one end of my constituency to a block of flats in Piatt Court, right at the other end of the constituency, which is a considerable distance. We shall get that man to the poll because we know about him, but how many more shall we or any other party not know about who are in the same position? The parties, however active, are unlikely to winkle out all such people.

As for the people going to vote, if the election is held in February, it is likely that the weather will be poor. If the election date is a day such as yesterday, with an incredibly cold, wet and blustery night, how many voters who have to go a considerable distance will venture out of their homes on their own without transport?

If the Government hold an election, as it appears they may, in the dying days of the register, they will be doing so deliberately to deprive millions of people of their vote, in the hope of obtaining political advantage. This is an extraordinary Government. They came to power on a personal promise by the Prime Minister of honest and open government, yet they will very likely seek to retain power by means of a furtive election smuggled through in a way calculated to ensure the minimum possible poll.

I advise the Prime Minister, through the Minister of State, that, even so, the Government will lose the election. When the Prime Minister appears on television to concede, let him not complain, if the poll has been low, that he has been defeated in an apathetic election. He personally, by using his personal constitutional prerogative to decide the election date, will have produced that low poll. He will have done so by spurning the electors as he spurns Parliament. Yet he could have contributed to our democracy, and can still do so, by timing the election to take place on 28th February—an election which could be held on a brand new register.

It may be said that that is too soon, that the register will have been in force for only two weeks. I dispute that entirely. It certainly was not so in the Lincoln by-election last year which was held on 1st March—the equivalent Thursday to 28th February this year. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) explained the situation in a debate on the issue of the Berwick-upon-Tweed writ. He said: I was assured that past records showed that if I were to move the writ before the new register came into being, I would disfranchise a vast proportion of those who might otherwise have the right to vote. In the event, I moved the writ at the earliest opportunity on the new register so that within a matter of days from the time when the new register came into being, the writ was issued. As a consequence I was assured by the experts that around 14 per cent. of those who voted at the Lincoln by-election were able to do so because I moved the writ when I did.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th July 1973 ; Vol. 860, c. 738.] If that large number of people who would have been disfranchised in one constituency were enfranchised, why cannot that be done in 635 constituencies? The problems are not insuperable. The problems in one constituency are the same as the problems in 635 constituencies polling simultaneously.

If the Government proceed to hold the election in the last days of the register they will flout the clear guidance from Mr. Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law. A letter signed by you, Mr. Speaker, on behalf of that conference, dated 26th November 1973 and published last month, reads as follows: It is inexpedient for by-elections to be held in August, or at the time of local elections in April/May, or in the period from mid-December to mid-February before (under present arrangements) a new register is issued. If your Conference on Electoral Law, Mr. Speaker, sent a letter to the Prime Minister advising that it is inexpedient for by-elections to be held in the dying days of an old register, how much more inexpedient is it for a General Election to be held in the dying days of an old register? If the Government persist in this course it will be noted that they are defying the clear guidance of your Conference on Electoral Law. I hope that it will be noted that they will also be deliberately and for partisan ends—which will be frustrated—flouting the rights of electors. But I warn the Government that if they do this the voters will have their revenge.

7.18 a.m.

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

The hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) said that one of the interesting things about Consolidated Fund debates and one of the great strengths of our parliamentary system is that the House moves from debating a matter which concerns an individual constituent to debating a matter of prime constitutional importance. Having listened to him, I think what he was saying was that one can move from debating the interests of an individual constituent to making a rather poor party political speech.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that the matter he raises is of major constitutional importance. With great respect to him, that is absolute humbug, and he knows it. Let us see what is this issue which the hon. Gentleman raises as one of constitutional importance.

He says that he is concerned that it is possible for an election to be called at the end of the life of a register rather than at the beginning of a new register. He suggests that if an election should come on either 7th February or 14th February some constitutional outrage would be committed which would be a disgrace. May I point out the position with regard to the electoral register?

The register is based on a canvass done on 10th October of the previous year. It is accepted that the canvass when carried out will not be 100 per cent. effective. I think the hon. Gentleman quoted from a Home Office figure which estimates that it is, to a degree, about 96 per cent. effective at that time. That register can then be reviewed for inaccuracies in December. It comes into force on 16th February and remains in force during that year.

It is true that during the course of the year there are a number of people who have moved from one constituency to another. As he said, the provisions for voting allow those who move to qualify for a postal vote. Therefore, although he did not use the phrase, to talk, as certain people outside have done, of those who have moved as being disfranchised in any forthcoming election—which was the phrase used by the General Secretary of the Labour Party—is a complete nonsense. They are not disfranchised at all.

The only people who become disfranchised during the course of the year—at the end of the year—as against being on the new register, are those who have moved into the country between 10th October 1972 and October 1973, to take the present time, or those who were abroad at the time when the register was made in October 1972, have returned to this country in the meantime and are here in October 1973. I refer to such people as businessmen or those working for international organisations. The best estimate I can give is that 24,000 Commonwealth immigrants entered the country between October 1972 and October 1973 and are not therefore on the 1973 register. At the most a total of 40,000 people who have been abroad for over a year have returned to this country during that period and therefore are not on the 1973 register.

If we are talking about those who are actually disfranchised—now living in this country but unable to take part in an election which might take place, on the hon. Gentleman's hypothesis, before 16th February and who would be able to vote after that date—we are talking of a figure of 64,000 out of a total electorate of 40 million. That is well under 1 per cent. of the total electorate, and that is the accurate figure of those who would not be entitled to have a vote although living in this country and being here in October of last year but who would be entitled to have a vote after 16th February.

The remainder of the figure to which the lion. Gentleman referred represents those who have moved their homes during the course of the year. The hon. Gentleman will accept that they are entitled to postal votes——

Mr. Kaufman

Not necessarily.

Mr. Carlisle

—unless they have moved to addresses in the same constituencies. They may not know of their right to postal votes. But I suggest that were there to be an election in the immediate future we should find that there had probably been greater publicity given to the election coming at a time when people who had moved since October 1972 were entitled to postal votes than had ever been given during the run-up to any other General Election.

Again, the General Secretary of the Labour Party has said that if we had an election on the present register we should be disfranchising young voters. That, too, is based on a misunderstanding. The electoral form which has to be completed allows for the registration of all those who become——

Mr. Kaufman

I know all that.

Mr. Carlisle

The hon. Gentleman may know it, but, according to the General Secretary of his party, all those who had become voters since 1970 would be disfranchised if there were an election before 15th February. It has been suggested that if we had an election on the present register, those under 18 or those who had become 18 since the register was formed would not be entitled to vote. That is not so. The electoral forms which are completed in October may include the names and dates of birth of all those who will become 18 during the currency of the register. Therefore all those who have become 18 during the past year and who are on the electoral roll are entitled to vote on the date on which they reach their eighteenth birthday. That is different from the system before, where a person did not go on the roll until after his twenty-first birthday.

Mr. Kaufman

May I first point out to the hon. and learned Gentleman that the General Secretary of the Labour Party has withdrawn the statement of which he complains?

In any event, I began my speech by saying that one of the glories of parliamentary democracy was that a Member could raise a subject like this and get a reply from the Government. The Minister has been churning out his departmental brief. So far he has not answered one of my points.

Mr. Carlisle

I do not think that I have even looked at my departmental brief. If the hon. Gentleman had been watching, he would have noticed. But I am glad that the General Secretary of the Labour Party has withdrawn his statement.

I understand that the purpose of the hon. Gentleman's speech was to suggest that an election held at the latter end of the period of currency of an electoral list meant that many people would lose their votes. However, the number who would be disfranchised is 64,000. But when the hon. Gentleman talks in terms of the figures that he mentioned, it is important to remember that those people are entitled to postal votes. They should know that they have that entitlement.

It is the most arrant cant and cheek for the hon. Gentleman, of all people, to suggest that in some way it would be a constitutional outrage to hold an election within the next fortnight. Although he was not a Member of this House, I presume that the hon. Gentleman had something to do with the conduct of his party before he became a Member.

It was the Labour Party, when in Government, which, through the then Home Secretary, prior to the last election deliberately chose not to implement the recommendations of the Boundary Comsion Report because it believed that to do so would work to its electoral disadvantage.

I will remind the hon. Gentleman of what happened on that occasion. The Home Secretary brought in a Bill, the purpose of which was to implement that part of the report relating to London, which it was suggested was in the interests of the then Government, but not to implement it for the rest of the country.

The hon. Gentleman will recall that the Government were unable to proceed with that Bill because they were challenged in the courts on the validity of what they were doing. As a result, we had the situation of the then Government going through what can only be described as the parliamentary farce of laying the orders to implement the Boundary Commission Report and then advising the House to vote against them. Therefore, the last election was fought on constituencies and boundaries that had last been reviewed in 1954. If ever there were any form of constitutional outrage, it was the conduct of the Labour Government at that stage.

The hon. Gentleman, representing a Manchester seat, must know that in that area alone it meant that there were seats at the last election with a much smaller electorate than in other parts of the country. The effect of those boundary changes meant that one seat in Manchester held by the Labour Party completely disappeared.

It is quite absurd for the hon. Gentleman or the Labour Party as a whole to try to build up the suggestion that, should the Prime Minister at any stage choose a date prior to the coming into force of the new register, he is somehow committing a constitutional outrage.

The hon. Gentleman said that he would welcome an early election and asked why it could not be held immediately after 16th February. The Prime Minister has complete freedom to choose the date on which to hold an election. Indeed, even the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), in calling for an early election, felt that the earliest date after the coming into effect of the new register would be 7th April.

Mr. Kaufman

My right hon. Friend said 4th April.

Mr. Carlisle

With respect, the right hon. Gentleman suggested 7th April.

Mr. Kaufman

He said 4th April.

Mr. Carlisle

All right, 4th April, if the hon. Gentleman says so. However, he must realise that to have a General Election immediately after the publication of the electoral list is always disliked. It causes inconvenience to all political parties because it means canvassing on a register totally different from that on which the vote will take place. Therefore, all those people at the moment on the register brought in during October 1972 who have moved since then, are entitled to a postal vote should there be an election prior to the coming into force of the new register.

Mr. Kaufman

That is not so.

Mr. Carlisle

They are entitled, if they have moved outside their constituencies, to a postal vote, and they should know about that.

Coming from the hon. Gentleman of all people, it is absolute humbug and cant to talk about this as a matter of grave constitutional importance. The hon. Gentleman referred to the holding of an election on the basis of the present register as an outrage to parliamentary democracy, yet he was a member of the Labour Party which disfranchised, if that is the right word, far more people by holding an election in the summer, when many more people were away on holiday than will be unable to vote on this occasion. It is probable that 500,000 people lost their votes for that reason. At the last election the Labour Party attempted by parliamentary means to rig the register in their favour but, quite rightly, it failed in its endeavours.