HC Deb 22 March 1974 vol 870 cc1530-5

1.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Dr. Shirley Summerskill)

I beg to move, That the Representation of the People Regulations 1974, a copy of which was laid before this House on 8th February, in the last Session of the last Parliament, be approved. It will not have escaped notice that these regulations were made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carshalton (Mr. Carr) on the day before the General Election was announced. This in itself is an indication of the fact that there is nothing in the regulations which is controversial in a party political sense. Indeed, they are the outcome of very thorough consultations which my Department has had with the political parties during the past year.

The regulations now before the House are substantial: they deal with matters of the greatest importance in connection with elections—particularly the registration of electors and the arrangements for absent voting. But they contain relatively little which is new. In essence, they are the same as the 1969 and 1973 regulations which they replace. Such changes as are made are nearly all consequential on local government reorganisation and on the provisions of the Local Government Act 1972. The changes of title and wording involved were so numerous, however, that it was thought best to make new regulations rather than seek to amend the existing ones. Certainly this decision will be welcomed by all those—local government officers and political parties alike—who have to use the regulations from day to day.

The most important new provisions in the regulations are those in Regulation 5. These stem from the provision in the Local Government Act 1972 that each district and London borough council shall appoint one of its officers to be electoral registration officer. This in turn means that where a constituency cuts across district boundaries one registration officer has to be designated to be acting returning officer for the constituency. The effect of Regulation 5 is to ensure that in such a constituency there is some consistency in how the register is prepared and in how absent voting applications are dealt with.

Regulation 22(3) contains a new provision which allows every serving member of a local authority to receive a free copy of the register for the area he or she represents. This follows on the provision made last year for Members of Parliament to receive such a free copy.

I turn now to Regulation 29(2)(b)(ii), which deals with applications for a postal vote on grounds of physical incapacity. There is no substantial change in the regulation itself. This is because, when the draft regulations were being prepared, any substantial change was not thought right in advance of consideration which was due to be given by the Speaker's Conference to the question of absent voting. What has been changed is Form Q in the schedule. This is changed in two respects. First, the certificate is now to be signed only by a registered medical practitioner. This is in deference to the General Medical Council's very proper view that only a medically qualified person should sign what is essentially a medical certificate. Second, there is now added a declaration, which may be signed by anyone else; and Note 2 to the form makes it clear that the application will be accepted if the certificate is signed by a doctor or if the declaration is signed by a Christian Science practitioner, and it may be accepted if the declaration is signed by someone else. This is the existing law, more explicitly stated. I am sorry if it still sounds rather complicated, but I am satisfied that the present form is an improvement on its predecessor. If we can simplify and clarify it later, we shall do so.

All the other changes in the regulations are minor ones, of either a consequential or a technical nature. The new regulations, if approved here and in another place, will come into operation on 1st April next, when the new local authorities in England and Wales take over. Perhaps I should add that new Welsh or bilingual versions of the amended forms are being prepared, and regulations will be laid for their approval by Parliament.

1.19 p.m.

Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)

I warmly congratulate the hon. Lady, my successor, on her appointment. I am sure that she will find, as I did, great satisfaction in her work and magnificent support from her officials.

From the Opposition benches we shall be vigilant, whenever necessary, to press Home Office Ministers hard in the direction in which we believe the national interest points, but we shall not oppose just for the sake of opposition.

Today we give a fair wind to these regulations, which were fathered by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) when Minister of State. As the hon. Lady said—and as is true of so much of the work of the Home Office—these regulations raise no violent party political controversy, and we are grateful for the clear explanation that she has given of certain points in them.

There are two matters to which I wish to make brief reference. The first concerns the compilation of the register, which I think is covered by Regulations 12, 13 and 14.

At the General Election I found in my constituency—I think that a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House found much the same in their constituencies—that many electors—certainly more than in any recent General Election that people recall—were, for one reason or another, left off the register when they thought that they should have been included. I suggest that we look urgently and carefully at any ways that may be open to us in the next few months for improving the machinery, even within these regulations.

In passing, I welcome the intentions of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) in his Private Member's Bill. Although he is concerned mainly to extend postal voting rights, I understand that he also intends to try to do something towards improving the completeness of the register. If that can go further than is possible within existing regulations, I am sure that it will be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The only suggestion that I can make now—I hope that the hon. Lady and her advisers will consider it carefully—is to increase somewhat the period during which the draft register is available for public inspection.

The situation is that 28th November in any year is the latest date for publication of the draft register and 16th December is the latest date for receiving claims and objections. For many reasons, we cannot push back later than 16th December the deadline for receiving claims and objections if the new amended register is to be ready to come into force in mid-February. However, I should have thought that it would be possible, particularly with modern aids, for draft lists to be published rather earlier than 28th November and for them to be given still greater publicity than hitherto.

Regulation 12(2) provides that: The electors lists shall be published on or before the twenty-eighth day of November". Therefore, we have scope to bring that forward. I hope that the Minister will tell us that in any guidance to electoral registration officers she will urge them to aim at publishing these lists at least a week before 28th November, if possible. This was a matter of considerable concern to some of my constituents who had been left off the register. Coupled with extra publicity, this seems a commonsense way by which we can put the matter right without changing the regulations.

The second matter that I want to mention is somewhat wider, but I hope in order, because it is of general interest. I refer to Mr. Speaker's Conference, which is concerned with changes in the basic law, of which these regulations are simply the working expression. In the last Parliament Mr. Speaker's Conference made considerable progress. It made recommendations on a number of matters—for example, Service voters, the problem of multiple registration, the minimum age for election and the timing of by-elections. Certain other matters on its original agenda, when it was set up in 1972, were still to be considered when the last Parliament was dissolved.

I should like to ask the hon. Lady two questions to which I hope she can give answers or indications today. If not, perhaps there will be another occasion soon on which she can make the Government's intentions clear.

First, when and with what time scale do the Government expect to have any further consultations which would be helpful and to publish their reactions to the recommendations already made by Mr. Speaker's Conference?

Secondly, when may we expect Mr. Speaker's Conference to be reappointed in this Parliament, so that it may complete the unfinished business left over from the last?

We regard some of the matters that were on the original agenda of Mr. Speaker's Conference as both urgent and important. I hope that today the hon. Lady will assure the House that the Government will treat them with suitable speed.

1.25 p.m.

Dr. Summerskill

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations and good wishes and offer him my congratulations on his being appointed as a shadow at the Home Office even if he can no longer be the substance.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of the two matters that he has raised. I think that I can give him some of the information for which he has asked and meet some of the points that he has made.

The electors' lists, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, must be published on or before 28th November, and claims and objections must be received by 16th December. Although that gives nearly three weeks for checking the lists, I agree that some people have been left off in the past. There are two solutions. One, which is extremely important, is to make people aware that they can and should check the lists. However long they are given to check the lists if they are ignorant of the fact that they can do so or of the way to do it, it will make no difference.

We shall have to review the publicity that is given to this whole procedure—Press advertising, slogans on postmarks of envelopes, and so on. At the moment, that alone costs £17,000. However, if it is found that the publicity can be improved, it certainly should be.

Assuming that people have the knowledge that they can check the lists, there is the administrative question whether the electoral registration officers are able to publish before 28th November. As has been pointed out, they cannot be required to publish before 28th November, but there is nothing to stop them doing so. We shall ask registration officers, if possible, to publish before 28th November. I am hopeful that the large majority will do so. Therefore, I can meet the hon. Gentleman's point by assuring him that within the existing regulations we shall ask electoral registration officers to publish before that date. Some find it difficult, particularly those who publish draft registers rather than electoral lists, because they find it hard to meet the printing deadline of 28th November. The 16th December deadline cannot be put back, because that would make other registration officers short of time for considering claims and getting the registers printed.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the reconstitution of Mr. Speaker's Conference involves the Prime Minister and the Leaders of the other two major parties. The reconstitution is now being considered by the Prime Minister and the Leaders of the other two parties and it will be put to Mr. Speaker.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Government's reaction to the work already carried out by Mr. Speaker's Conference. There is approximately one more year's work to be done. The previous Government made no commitment to major electoral legislation before the Conference completed its task. A similar course was adopted by the last Labour Government. The conference produced five interim reports between 1965 and 1967 and legislation was introduced only after its final report in 1968.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the recommendations made by Mr. Speaker's Conference involve major amendments to the parent statute, the Representation of the People Act 1949. Following the precedent adopted by previous Governments, the present Government will state their intentions as regards the decisions of the Speaker's Conference at an appropriate time.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Representation of the People Regulations 1974, a copy of which was laid before this House on 8th February, in the last Session of the last Parliament, be approved.