HC Deb 02 May 1975 vol 891 cc942-77

Order for Second Reading read.

2.13 p.m.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)

I beg to move, That the Bill be read a Second time.

I am grateful for this opportunity to introduce the Bill. There were moments when I was somewhat apprehensive about whether that opportunity would ever occur, but it has now come, and I find myself somewhat ill prepared.

The Bill which I have the honour to present to the House for Second Reading is closely similar, as observant hon. Members will have noticed, to the one which my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) introduced last year in a memorably witty speech. I hope that I shall be one of the last Members to have to introduce a Private Member's Bill to secure an extension of the franchise so as to provide truly universal suffrage. That is my hope, but I cannot flatter myself that I am likely to be the last. That being so, I did not think it right to impose any charge on public funds by requiring the drafting and printing of an altogether new Bill, and thus it comes about that this Bill bears a striking resemblance to the one which my hon. Friend the Member for Woking presented last year.

Hon. Members may feel that this subject has been well ventilated of late. It was well ventilated during the debates on the Referendum Bill in amendments put forward by various hon. Members—and none more ably than those tabled by the hon. Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar). I understand also that next week my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt) is to bring in a Bill to much the same effect.

As I say, I had hoped to be one of the last Members to brine in a Private Member's Bill on this subject. Pressure is mounting to make what we know as universal suffrage truly universal, and at the same time impatience is growing against the arguments of administrative difficulty which are the arguments usually advanced to resist any change.

What I put before the House today is a modest measure. Had I been starting from scratch, I might have gone much further and suggested really radical reform of the whole of our electoral system so as to produce radical changes in political structure in an effort to get away from what one might call ping-pong politics and move towards the kind of coalition politics which has enabled our continental neighbours to catch up with us in so many respects since the war.

However, that kind of radical reform—perhaps the most important and urgent task facing us today—is clearly not a subject for a Private Member's Bill, although I believe that it will come about only if private Members in all parts of the House combine to bring it about. I do not believe that it is any good leaving that subject to the party machines, because they have a vested interest in maintaining the present two-party system based on the present system of voting. But whatever system we have, whether the present adversary system of politics or coalition politics, it cannot be truly democratic unless everyone who is entitled to vote is readily able to do so. That is certainly not true today.

The Bill deals with three classes of would-be voters: those who are on holiday on polling day, Service Voters, and those who find themselves not on the register at the time when the election campaign begins. I propose to leave the question of holiday makers, dealt with in Clause 1, until last because it is the most controversial, and I am reasonably certain of carrying the House with me in what I have to say about Clauses 2 and 3.

Clause 2 deals with the Service vote. I am sure that I need make no great meal of this. The clause is designed to rectify what turned out to be the unfortunate consequences of the system introduced in 1969, with the best possible intentions, as a result of the recommendation of the Speaker's Conference for annual registration on Service voters. I was hoped that annual registration would increase the rather low proportion of Service men on the register at any given time, the hope being that the percentage would rise from just about 50 per cent., as it was then, to a substantially higher figure. In fact, as we now know, the result was the exact opposite. There was a drastic reduction in the number, and today the proportion is as low as 25 per cent. which, I am sure hon. Members will agree is shockingly low.

In 1973 the Speaker's Conference recommended return to the previous system of once-for-all registration, with the possibility each year of joining the register. Clause 1 is intended to give effect to that recommendation so that when a Service man joins up he is put on the register and stays there until he leaves the Service. The reason why I am not making much of this obviously incontestable proposal is that the Government, in the form of the Minister of State for Defence, gave a firm pledge in the debate on the Referendum Bill that the Government intend at an early opportunity to bring before the House of Commons appropriate legislation to give effect to this recommendation of the Speaker's Conference."—[Official Report, 22nd April 1975: Vol. 890, c. 1252.] The right hon. Gentleman went on to accept an amendment moved by the hon. Member for Belper to give Servicemen and their families votes in the forthcoming referendum.

Clearly the Government regarded that as an exceptional case, but it was implicit in their acceptance of that amendment and in the Minister of State's statement that the Government intended to take early action on this matter. I have no doubt that the Under-Secretary of Slate for the Home Department will today repeat that assurance. She may even be able to give us an indication of exactly when "an early opportunity" will be. It is now two years since the recommendation was made, and we should be getting on with it.

Clause 3 deals with a problem which is all too common to hon. Members who campaign actively at grass roots level. It concerns people—very often this affects all the people who live in a small street, perhaps a cul-de-sac, or in a row of houses in a fairly remote area—who are left off the register. Very often this affects tenants in multi-occupation houses who are left off for other reasons. The classes I am most concerned with are those who find themselves left off the register as a result of an administrative mistake on the part of those who compile the register. I take this opportunity of paying tribute to the conscientious way in which those officials go about their job.

There will always be mistakes, and they produce an altogether disproportionate sense of grievance which is frequently magnified by reports in the local Press. It is because of this that the House carries a special obligation to do anything it can conveniently, or even inconveniently, do to set these matters right. When a clause identical to this was put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking last year, the Under-Secretary showed a great deal of sympathy and spoke about a working party which, she said, was looking at methods of enabling more continuous corrections to be made to the register to ensure that it was kept reasonably up to date.

I confess that my researches, which necessarily have not been as thorough as I should have liked, have failed to unearth very much information about the progress of the working party. I shall be deeply grateful to the Under-Secretary if she will tell us something about how it is getting along. Certainly the Library, which very seldom misses a trick, was unable to provide me with information about it.

I hate to criticise the Under-Secretary, but on re-reading the reports of the previous debates I thought she was a little complacent in implying that people had only themselves to blame if they were left off the register, or that at least they had a remedy in their own hands. Obviously, it is up to every elector to make sure that he is on the register. In spite of all experience to the contrary, however, people continue to believe that, by and large, officials will do their job and that it is not up to the individual citizen at every turn to ensure that they have done so. Quite apart from that, the question of voting in a General Election is not in the forefront of the minds of ordinary self-respecting citizens 365 days a year for every year of their lives. People have other things to think about, and it is only human nature that not until a General Election is in the air do most people think to make sure that they are on the register, by which time it is too late.

Therefore, I make no apology for trying to enable people to take action to get themselves on the register even after the date of a General Election has been announced. The Bill would provide that for two or three days after such an announcement there would be an opportunity for people to be put on the register if they were left off by accident.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Is the hon. Member assuming that there is no means of doing that at the moment?

Sir A. Meyer

There is the complicated procedure of mandamus, but that is beyond the resources or understanding of the average elector. I admit that there is a legal procedure to enable this to be done, but it is not unrealistic to say that for practical purposes the difficulties, if not insuperable, are very daunting for the average citizen.

I am therefore content to put forward a proposal which will enable people, for quite a considerable time, after the possibility of a General Election becomes a reality, to get themselves put on the register without the necessity of cumbrous legal proceedings. After all, not many General Elections are sprung on us at 17 days' notice. They are usually in the air for some time. The clause would help people whose interest in politics was suddenly re-aroused by the calling of the election and who could go round to the post office to inspect the register.

I have left until last my comments on Clause 1 concerning votes for holiday makers. I suppose that this is a controversial matter, although I am not sure why it should be. The idea has taken root that a Labour Government will oppose the extension of votes for people who are away from home on holiday because more Tory than Labour voters would be likely to lose their votes through being away from home. In a moment or two I shall suggest that that is not true, but it would be particularly important for a Labour Government to scotch the myth. Since the conduct of the then Home Secretary in 1969 in refusing to implement the recommendations of the Boundary Commission, Labour has been shown to be vulnerable to the charge of monkeying around with the franchise for purposes of party advantage.

For that reason, if for no other, the Labour Government should show rather more concern for holiday makers being able to vote than my party has shown. I fully concede that Conservative Governments have shown remarkably little keenness to do anything about the problem, but they were not quite so vulnerable. If a Labour Government cannot be shamed into remedying this injustice, perhaps they can be lured into it by the prospects of improving their electoral chances thereby. It is now clear that those who can afford to go away from home on holiday, thereby risking losing their votes, are likely to be drawn increasingly from the ranks of Labour voters and less from the ranks of the Conservatives.

During the past few years, and especially last year, there has been a truly massive shift in purchasing power and spendable resources not from the rich to the poor but from the unorganised to the organised, especially to those workers whose industrial strength has enabled them to exploit the social contract to their advantage. It is evident from the statistics of the travel agents that the people who are cancelling their holidays for this summer are overwhelmingly those who traditionally voted Tory; namely, small shopkeepers, the professional people in a small way, the retired people living on their savings, and even middle management people. Those people will not be able to afford to go on holiday because they are squeezed between static or shrinking incomes and the ever-increasing cost of living, the burden of rates, the water rate, the telephone rental and other inescapable fixed charges which leave no room at all for making economies.

The people who have managed to improve their real income during the past year are overwhelmingly members of powerful unions who are the hard core of the Labour Party's electoral support. If too many of these people are away on world cruises or Caribbean holidays at the time of the next General Election the prospects of the Labour Party will be seriously impaired.

I suggest that the Labour Party will rue its inability to shed its old prejudices once they have ceased to pay dividends. I have read and listened carefully to the reasons given by Ministers for objecting to votes for holiday makers. There has been much talk of administrative difficulties, but I do not believe in these insuperable administrative difficulties. We were told at one stage that it would be administratively impossible to switch the counting of the referendum vote from Earls Court to the counties, but the House voted for this to happen and it will happen. The administrative difficulties in that respect have melted away.

Ministers talk of 30 per cent. or more of voters applying for postal or proxy votes if it is made too easy for them to do so. I believe that it should be made easy for them to do so, but I do not believe the 30 per cent. figure. Most people will continue to vote in person even if they can vote by post or by proxy, because they find it easy and convenient to do so, and, moreover, they enjoy doing so. I find totally unrealistic the talk about the danger of corrupt practices arising from the admitted fact that a postal vote is a witnessable vote. If we are talking about individual voters, who on earth will feel it worth his while to run the risk of bribing a single voter among the 60,000 or so in each constituency? I am speaking as someone who has won his seat by 11 votes, but I could not possibly have known in advance that there was any possibility of there being so narrow a margin and I do not believe that anybody could have done so, with the possible exception of my recent colleague, Sir Harmar Nicholls, who has now gone to another place, who, of course, made it a regular practice to win by single-figure majorities. I do not believe that it would ever be worth while bribing a single elector.

If we are talking about the possibility of bribing large groups of electors we are entering into the realm of conspiracy and I should have thought that the law dealt satisfactorily with that.

I believe that it is no longer defensible to deprive a person of his vote because he is absent from home on holiday. What might be called the puritan arguments have been totally and convincingly demolished. It is no longer tenable that there is something faintly irresponsible about going away on holiday. I believe that a Labour Government will discover that they will not lose by extending the franchise to cover holiday makers and that it will give them an opportunity to efface any lingering impression that they have an interest in continuing to restrict the franchise.

2.35 p.m.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich, East)

I rise to oppose the Bill. In view of what the hon. Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer) said about party machines, I should reveal that I am a product of the party machine. Indeed, for many years I was part of a party machine. About 20 years ago I first became a full-time political organiser, an election agent. In the course of 20 years as a professional agent I ran a great many election campaigns ranging from parish council elections to parliamentary elections. I acted as agent for hundreds of candidates, and some of them even got themselves elected, or at least I helped them to get themselves elected. I recall, in particular, two of those candidates who became Members of Parliament: first, my predecessor, Christopher Mayhew, and, secondly, my late colleague, Bill Hamling, for both of whom I acted as agent in two General Elections.

I claim some knowledge of electoral organisations and the working of electoral law. I oppose strongly the proposition in Clause 1 of the Bill about the extension of both postal and proxy voting to cover the needs of holiday makers. As the hon. Member for Flint, West indicated, this is very much a hardy annual. A case can be made in principle that the denial of absent voting to holiday makers is an apparent denial of justice. Such a case was made well by the hon. Member. I do not oppose the Bill because, as the hon. Member was suggesting, I have made any examination of the relative political merits or the relative benefits to individual parties of an extension of absent voting in this sphere, although I am bound to say, with reference to his remarks about the powerful organised trade unions and the holiday habits of their members, that when I look at the active Labour supporters in my constituency I cannot recall many who go regularly on world cruises or have it as part of their normal holiday pattern to go to the Caribbean.

My objections to the impact of this proposition are not on political grounds. They are basically on the grounds of practicability. Clause 1 suggests that holiday makers seeking to take advantage of the widening of the absent voting provision would have to satisfy the electoral registration officer that they had made arrangements to be absent on holiday on the date of polling before publication of the notice of the election. I wonder how they are going to do that, how they will make that fact known to the electoral registration officer and how they will satisfy him beyond doubt that that is the situation. Will they be required to produce hotel bookings to prove that they had arranged a holiday? Will they have to produce invoices from tour operators or other proof?

If they had made that sort of holiday arrangement I suppose that sort of proof might be available, but what happens to the family that decide to have a holiday with Grandad in Pembroke, Grandma in Bootle, or Aunty Doris in Battersea, and have no proof that that is their holiday arrangement? They will clearly be absent on holiday in that sort of situation. What about people who undertake a touring holiday and simply have no formal arrangement for proving that holiday? What about the people who had not decided to be away on holiday but suddenly decided that polling day was the day to take a trip in a coach?

All this indicates that to define "a holiday" is extremely difficult. I should have thought that the average electoral registration officer would be placed in an extremely difficult position in requiring proof that an individual voter would be on holiday at the time of an election. The sort of certification required for absent voting in the case of infirmity would be impossible of extension to holidaymakers. Even where absent voting is allowed to people whose jobs, service or occupation may prevent them from voting in person, an element of proof is always available or can be made available. However, if the extension to holiday makers were allowed, no form of certification of that type would be possible for production to the electoral registration officer.

One therefore must come to the conclusion that the holidaymaker would have to appear in person before the electoral registration officer in order to satisfy him about his holiday bona fides. There would be no possibility of doing that in the time scale which would have to be met for the registration of absent voters.

If one says that all that is too elaborate and that no element of proof of that sort is required, that is an even more dangerous approach. Some of us have been concerned in recent general and local elections about the relaxation of certificates for absent voters on grounds of infirmity or illness. At one time electoral registration officers were extremely strict about requiring applications to be supported by a doctor's certificate. That has gradually lapsed and now in many areas the application can be signed by another elector or a political agent. Some of us feel that that relaxation is a matter of concern.

We should consider the possible results of widening the absent voting regulations to cover holiday makers. The electoral registration officers take the view that any such widening could double, or almost double, the number of people on the absent voters lists and that the impact on the administration of an increase of that sort would be considerable. Drawing on experience of recent General Elections, I know that agents and others involved have been concerned about delays in obtaining the absent voters lists from the electoral registration officers who have been under extreme pressure because of the extra demand for postal votes and the need to get the list out in time for the political parties to use it.

It is a democratic entitlement of any candidate and his agent to have the absent voters list in good time to ensure that all electors on it can be circulated with the candidate's material so that the electors are aware of his case before casting their votes. Any extension which made the list much longer would make the delays in practical campaigning intolerable.

There is, however, an even more severe objection concerning the question of time. The electoral registration officers have taken the view that if there were a substantial extension of absent voting they would need a great deal more time to register the applications, produce the absent voters lists, prepare the ballot papers for distribution and other administrative tasks. They have said that it would take about 10 days in addition to the time currently available to them.

Since under the present arrangements applications must be received 12 days, excluding Sunday, before polling day—that is the final time for the receipt of applications to vote by post or proxy—any extension beyond that would cause substantial problems. If one added 10 extra days to the existing 12, adding on Sundays, we should have a closing date over three weeks before polling day.

Since in the last two General Elections we have moved towards a situation in which the election campaign is substantially shortened, electors would possibly have one day or at most two days in which to submit applications to vote by post before the list had to be closed. In a parliamentary by-election in a borough constituency, the closing date for the receipt of postal vote applications would be the day before the writ was issued and, therefore, the day before anybody knew that there was to be a by-election.

The other important factor about extending the closing date for the receipt of postal vote applications is that it may effectively disfranchise people who fall sick, perhaps in the final period of an election campaign. Under the present arrangements such a person can claim a postal vote. If the closing date were brought forward, he might be prevented from so claiming and might, as a result, be effectively disfranchised.

The hon. Member for Flint, West referred to the fear which some people have expressed that a substantial widening of postal voting or absent voting would present problems of security and secrecy. Because of the difficulty of proving that anybody would be on holiday on any set date, if we were to accept that sort of approach we should virtually be saying that any elector who wished to do so could claim a postal or proxy vote. The hon. Gentleman played down the risks involved in any substantial increase in the number of postal voters on the register. There is the problem of the secrecy of the ballot and the fact that ballot papers are available, under the postal voting arrangements, for about a week before polling day.

Those of us who have been involved in political campaigning know the temptations in respect of postal votes. For example, it is a temptation to go out and seek to organise the postal voters and to assist them in completing their declarations of identity. It has been known for political organisations to collect the postal votes to ensure that they reach their destination. Leaving aside the question of corruption, there is a grave risk in widening the system and the opportunities for political organisations to take part in influencing voting in that way. There have been one or two cases in the courts in recent years on the question of postal voting. In other cases there have been suspicions about the way in which the postal vote was conducted.

I should like to say a few words about Clause 3. In my experience as an agent I have, like the hon. Member for Flint, West, expressed the view that there should be machinery by which we could simply correct mistakes made in the compilation of the register. I do not know whether the way in which the Bill is drafted would meet that problem. I accept that if an obvious mistake were made by an electoral registration officer—perhaps omitting from the register a complete street or an entire block of flats—the sort of procedure proposed might meet the need. But the requirement that the fault should be admitted by the registration officer might result in complications in other directions.

Over the years I have had a number of complaints from electors claiming that they have been missed off the register due to the fault of the electoral registration officer. On investigation I have often discovered that the electoral registration officer claims that a registration form was delivered at a certain address but the elector claims that he never received it. In such a situation it would be difficult to decide whether the fault lay with the registration officer.

There have been cases in which electoral registration officers have claimed that landlords of multi-occupied houses have had forms delivered to them or have been canvassed by the canvassers employed by the electoral registration officer but the landlords, possibly for good reasons of their own, claim that they did not receive the call or the documentation and for that reason did not include their tenants on the electoral register. Although I applaud the intentions of Clause 3, I have doubts about its practical application to elections.

The main aim of the Bill, as the hon. Member for Flint, West indicated, is to extend postal voting to holiday makers. As the hon. Gentleman rightly and fairly admitted, such an extension has been rejected by Parliament on several occasions. It has been rejected by Ministers of both parties on several occasions. It has been considered in some detail by the Home Office Electoral Advisory Committee, which has determined that it is impracticable.

This horse has been running for a long time. It has been running for so long that it is now getting extremely knock-kneed. It clearly is not a winner, and we should put it out of its misery by rejecting its Second Reading.

2.51 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)

I am most grateful to have been called after the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Cartwright). I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not take up his remarks in detail. Unlike me, I understand that he was an agent. He will, therefore, consider this whole matter from a different angle. Curiously enough, my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer) has the distinction of having had a father who came after my grandfather as the Member of Parliament for Yarmouth. I believe that that was in 1922 or thereabouts.

Sir A. Meyer

It was 1924.

Mr. Fell

Therefore, it is with much felicity towards him that I have a word or two to say about the Bill.

I am not frightfully impressed by the view that because this or that is difficult it cannot be done. Of course, I realise that since computers came in it has been far more difficult to deal with one's bank than it ever was before. I realise that everything has become slower since we are supposed to have been speeded up. The fact is that we have become slower and less effective than we ever were before the introduction of computers.

I will not take the answer that it is not possible for people who are on holiday to have a vote. I realise that there are enormous implications. We are talking about not only people who are on holiday in Hong Kong or even in Europe but those who are on holiday, bless their hearts, in Yarmouth, or in that lesser seaside town—

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Eastbourne is not a lesser seaside town.

Mr. Fell

With respect, I was not going to call Eastbourne a lesser seaside town. I was going to refer to Blackpool in those terms. However, I will include Eastbourne for good measure. Comparatively speaking, it is an unknown seaside town although it is a beautiful town with a very nice antique shop. I do not include Eastbourne in the holusbolus of the enormous holiday trade that goes on in this country, of which Great Yarmouth is a case in point.

Sir A. Meyer

What about Rhyll?

Mr. Fell

At some stage I believe I heard of Rhyll. The point I am making is that Yarmouth has hundreds of thousands of holiday makers during the holiday season. Of course, some extraordinary affair is to take place on some date during next month. I believe that it will take place on 5th June. It is a matter of interest to the people of the nation but it is taking place at a time when many people will be on holiday. It will be difficult for those people to get a vote unless they are able to return home to cast their vote in their own locality.

With my whole heart and common sense—I am prepared to admit that I may have little common sense but I assume I have some—I am in favour of what my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West is trying to do. Surely in this modern age there must be a way of finding a method, despite what the hon. Member for Woolwich, East has said about the difficulties, of allowing people a vote who are not at their homes on a particular day. If there is not, we have all failed and our endeavours have been absolute nonsense from beginning to end. At least people could be given a few days' notice so that their votes could be accepted in an election.

I know that anyone in the House who has had some experience of the difficulties of democracy will be able to say how impossible it is to devise such a method. I know that the Minister—bless her heart, I have the greatest affection for her—will not be able to say without a blush that nothing can be done.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western, Isles)

That is what the hon. Lady is here for.

Mr. Fell

The hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Stewart), a Scottish Member of the greatest calibre, says "That is what she is here for". The hon. Gentleman can have no faith in democracy if he believes that the Labour Party, of all parties, is not anxious to defend democracy. If we read the speeches of Labour Party spokesmen over the past three or four years—perhaps they have been slightly exaggerated during that time owing to their euphoria—or over the past 25 years, we will find that no party in the House has such a love of democracy as the Labour Party. Realising that Labour Members are the lovers of democracy, it is hardly possible to believe that the sort of thing that happened the night before last as regards Scotland could have ever happened within the Labour Party. It seems that it is the party beyond all others that believes that the only possibility for the future of the British nation is in democracy. It is not possible to believe that the Minister could say anything contrary to the intentions of the Bill.

However, I sense—I hope and pray that I sense wrongly, for, as I have said, I am an admirer of the hon. Lady—that the Minister will act to the contrary. It is difficult to believe that she can do otherwise than accept this small, humble but vitally important Bill. What will she do? Why are we here in the House of Commons?

Mr. Cartwright

I often wonder.

Mr. George Cunningham

Hear, hear.

Mr. Fell

The hon. Member for Woolwich, East, himself a former agent, wonders why we are here. He may well wonder why, because he is a former agent of a party which has done its best to destroy our democracy.

Mr. Cartwright

I meant that I often wonder why we are here when we have to listen to speeches like that of the hon. Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell).

Mr. Fell

I am happy to be abused by the hon. Gentleman. He has been a Member of this House for many years, whereas I have been here only since 1951. He knows perfectly well that since his party took a basic hand in running the country and came to power for the third or perhaps the fourth time in October last year—and the more dreadful the disaster for the country if it was the fourth time—democracy has not exactly improved its image or become more loved by the British people.

I ask the House to consider what happened last night. I am not so stupid as to suggest that the results of the voting last night in the Black Country and the surrounding areas show that the British people have had enough of the Labour Party. I believe that it is true to say that even your Bill is subject to difficulty—

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Fell

Not your Bill, Sir. I apologise sincerely for having transgressed the rules of order.

Even my hon. Friend's Bill will not dampen or surpass last night's news that the Tory Party won a few seats. Of course, it is true that under my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) the Tory Party is doing better than it was.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

It could not do worse.

Mr. Fell

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will get to his feet and repeat that. I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for having attempted to give way to a most important and senior Minister in Her Majesty's Government only to discover that his throat is out of order. I ought to have been able to guess that it would not have been in order had there been any possibility of his trying to contradict me. The hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) is a man of great percipience. He has backed the Labour Party for a long period—I was about to say "for generations", but that would be unkind. I wonder where he stands now. How does he think that the British people would vote today about any matter?

I am sure that no one in the serried ranks of Her Majesty's Opposition will suggest that a General Election is an unimportant matter for the British people. Who cares about referenda? There is no importance in referenda. My hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West was too percipient and wise to include referenda in his Bill. He introduced his Bill long before the question of the forthcoming referendum cropped up—

Sir A. Meyer

Do not talk it out.

Mr. Fell

My hon. Friend has just asked me not to talk out his Bill. However, in the new language of Parliament, I make the time to be only 15.4—

Mr. Donald Stewart

No. It is 15.04.

Mr. Fell

I accept the correction from the Leader of the Scottish National Party, for whom I have the greatest respect and affection. It is 15.04—

Mr. Cartwright

It is 15.05 now.

Mr. Fell

The hon. Gentleman is quick to correct. I will be kind and give him this point. He was correct. Well done. The only correct thing that he said in the House of Commons this afternoon was that—half a minute ago—it was 15.05. I consider that to be a great correctness for an ex-agent of the Labour Party, now a Member of Parliament for a most distinguished area of London.

I shall not continue for much longer. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) wishes to speak on this matter because he has quickly become seized, as I have, of the importance of what is going on in the House at this late stage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West was somewhat surprised that his Bill should have got as far as having a Second Reading.

I have the greatest admiration and affection for my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne. It will be in my style anyway, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) will know, to be particularly kind to all my hon. Friends. Therefore, at the first moment that my gushing arrests itself, I shall sit down and give him an opportunity to speak if there be no one on the Government side who wishes to speak. One notices that there is no enormous succession of hon. Members trooping into the House to uphold the feelings of the vast majority of the British people that they should have a vote when there is either a General Election or a referendum, whether they be on holiday, or business, or whatever else takes them away from their homes.

The Labour Party is supposed to be the past master in democracy. Hon. Members opposite believe that "democracy" should come in every other word in their speeches. They regard it as some magical term. I admit straight away that few members of the Labour Party who in these dreadful months have supported the Communist onslaught in Vietnam believe in democracy so strongly that at the same time they believe in Communism.

I promise you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have no intention of bringing this matter into the subject covered by the Bill except where it is relevant. But it is surely relevant, in a Bill which tries to bring greater democracy to the people of Britain, to know that those who shout democracy from the house tops the loudest are those who believe least in the things that they shout about. It is a very sad thing, being a Member of Parliament in this honourable and great House for this honourable and great country, to see the people who have shouted the loudest about democracy being the thing about which they most cared showing in their actions that they care least of all for the future of democracy in Britain.

Mr. George Cunningham

Do not shout so loudly.

Mr. Fell

The hon. Gentleman, who has a voice like a sparrow, dare not even stand on his pins to say so. With respect, even if I shouted quietly he would not understand. He is telling me not to shout so loudly. Why? Because he is accustomed to the cooing of doves which coo for peace but mean war, because he is one of the Labour Members in this House who talk of democracy and mean war.

Mr. George Cunningham

Mean what?

Mr. Fell

War. The hon. Member believes not in democracy but in anarchy. That is the disease of which the British people must beware.

3.11 p.m.

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


Mr. Gow


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

Mr. Gow.

Mr. Gow

I rise to support the Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I apologise to the hon. Member, but I should have called the Minister to speak because she rose first.

Dr. Summerskill

I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer) on the skill he has shown in commending the Bill to the House. I recognise that the proposals contained in the Bill have considerable support in some parts of the House and from many people outside. All hon. Members have personal experience of the problems which the hon. Gentleman has outlined, as we have heard during this and other debates in the House.

It was in May last year that a similar Bill, presented by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), was debated in this House. Since that time we have had a further General Election, and we are now about to hold a referendum on our continued membership of the European Economic Community. The close sequence of General Election and referendum has inevitably concentrated attention on various aspects of our electoral system. In the debates on the Referendum Bill in particular we discussed a number of topics that are being debated here today. This applies especially to the question of postal votes for holiday makers and to the special arrangements that are appropriate for Service men. As far as the present Bill is concerned, I think it may be for the convenience of the House if I first say something about Service men's registration, which is the subject of Clause 2, and then speak about the subjects referred to in Clauses 1 and 3.

As the House will know, the substance of Clause 2 to return to the once-for-all system of Service men's registration is in accordance with a recommendation of the Speaker's Conference in 1973. The Government are in sympathy with this recommendation but consider it more appropriate that such a matter should be dealt with in Government legislation. As the House will also know, my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence announced on 22nd April that the Government hope to introduce legislation at an early opportunity for a return to the earlier system of once-for-all registration. That legislation could also make appropriate provision for Service men's wives and for other people in the category of Service voters, such as Crown servants and the staff of the British Council. The Bill that we are considering today has implications for these categories of voters, but it is not clear whether the Bill's intention is that they should be covered by the proposals.

Sir A. Meyer

The hon. Lady referred to once-for-all registration. May I assume that there will be provision for annual additions to the register?

Dr. Summerskill

Yes. I shall be coming to that.

The current level of registration for Service men is about 25 per cent., which everyone will agree is far too low. This compares with a figure of about 60 per cent., when the once-for-all registration system was in operation before 1969. At that time the figure was thought to be a low one and it was hoped that a change in the system of registration to an annual one would result in an improvement. In fact the reverse was the case, though there are various explanations for this. I think we must accept as a fact of life that the level of registration for Service men is unlikely under the present system to reach the high levels achieved for the civilian population. The mobility and stress of Service life are bound to have some effect.

For that reason the Speaker's Conference recommendation in 1973 contained some additional proposals to support the once-for-all registration. One of the most important of these was that, after initial registration, each Service man should have an opportunity annually to change any particulars of his registration and, in addition, that an obligation should be placed on commanding officers to distribute forms individually to each Service man, to provide assistance as required in completing the forms and to collect and dispatch the completed forms.

It should be the duty of the Service authorities to give greater publicity and encouragement to Service men to notify when necessary any changes in the details of their registration or to appoint proxies when posted overseas. At the same time it was proposed that these requirements should not involve the creation of a new military offence. All these points will be taken into account when the Government are drafting their legislation on this matter. We shall also take note of the valuable points that are being made by speakers in the debate today.

Mr. Gow

The hon. Lady will know that there was an Adjournment debate on this point a week ago. Are the Government proposing to introduce the legislation to which her hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force referred and to which she herself has referred today? Will it be mentioned in the Gracious Speech in October?

Dr. Summerskill

I cannot give a positive undertaking as to exactly when this will be introduced, but I can say that it will be "at an early opportunity"—which to me is quite a promising phrase. I can think of less promising phrases in the introduction of legislation.

I turn now to Clause 1 of the Bill. This would provide absent voting facilities for people who were away on holiday on the day of an election. One sympathises with people who are going away on holiday and who find that they cannot exercise their right to vote without returning home on polling day. But there are very sever problems both in principle and in practice in the extension of absent voting facilities to a large number of the electorate—a number which we are told is increasing as more people go away on holiday—for a particular election only.

Mr. Donald Stewart

I apologise for missing the opening speeches in this debate. On practical grounds, since the mechanics for postal voting already exist, it seems to many of us that there would be no great difficulty in extending them. Second, I am told that anyone who simply declares that he is away on business gets a postal vote as of right.

Dr. Summerskill

I agree that postal voting exists, but if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall try to show how it does not follow, just for that reason, that one should extend the facility to people away on holiday.

At the General Election in October 1974, about 1 million electors voted by post. It has been suggested that at some periods up to 4 million people may be away on holiday and that one-third of them may be abroad. I shall not follow the hon. Member for Flint, West in an analysis of the conclusions about the possible political views of people who go away on holiday. This is not only practically impossible to do but should be irrelevant to what we are discussing.

The House will recognise, I am sure, that to preserve the secrecy of the ballot in postal voting it is necessary to incorporate a number of safeguards. This makes it a complicated process involving three envelopes, a declaration of identity, a. ballot paper and a special procedure to ensure secrecy on receipt of the marked ballot paper and declaration.

As I mentioned in the debate on the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Woking on 10th May 1974, the Electoral Advisory Conference in 1971 considered the practical implications of postal votes for people on holiday. For those who are not aware of it, that conference consists of returning officers, registration officers and agents of political parties. They came to the conclusion that the election timetable would have to be extended by 12 days, which would mean that the statutory period between Dissolution and polling day would have to be 29 working days instead of the present 17. The use of computers and other technological aids—the hon. Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell), who has left the Chamber, would be interested to know this—would be unlikely to accelerate this process, particularly if it were necessary to examine documents of various shapes and sizes that had been produced to prove that applicants would be away on holiday at the relevant time.

The Electoral Advisory Conference also drew attention to the increased risks of abuse from postal voting. This is really the most serious objection—at any rate, the objection about which people feel most strongly when we discuss this subject.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

Does not the hon. Lady agree, however, that the people who are best placed to judge whether they want to vote are not Electoral Advisory Conference, party agents or whatever may be our equivalent of Tammany Hall, but the actual electors whose right it is? If the hon. Lady relies on the argument that it is difficult for the bureaucrats or the argument that if 4 million people are away that makes it difficult, the first carries no weight and the second we are here to overcome. The bureaucrats work for us, and not the other way around.

Dr. Summerskill

Yes, but on the other hand, if we are advised of difficulties by those who have to work the system, it is only right that we should take those into consideration when discussing it. I am simply informing the House of the difficulties that we have been advised would occur.

In connection with abuse, I remind the House of recent newspaper reports alleging abuses in connection with the Convention elections held yesterday in Northern Ireland. These indicate some of the abuses which could arise, even if, as we all sincerely hope, they prove to be unfounded in the cases mentioned.

Mr. Onslow

Previous experience in Northern Ireland since postal voting was instituted widely there was that it minimised intimidation and so on. The reports which I have seen, and which I, like the hon. Lady, applaud, do not give any indication that intimidation or abuse extended to those who exercise the franchise by post, as they now may.

Dr. Summerskill

I have seen some reports of possible postal vote abuses, which I hope will be proved not to have occurred.

The scope for abuse or even corruption would certainly exist at a General Election with 4 million sets of postal voting papers sent to various addresses, including hotels, boarding houses and camping sites, and abroad. There would be considerable problems, even assuming that every application was genuine. As the Electoral Advisory Conference pointed out, however, in practice it would not be possible to check effectively the applications of people who said that they would be on holiday.

Sir A. Meyer

It is expressly provided in the Bill that these postal votes will not be sent from abroad. For those going abroad it will be a question of proxy voting.

Dr. Summerskill

Yes, I appreciate that this does not include voting from abroad.

A postal vote would in practice have to be allowed to almost anyone who said that he would be away on holiday. This would mean that voting by post would become, as some hon. Members have suggested, an alternative to voting in person. Obviously some people would continue to vote in person, but even so the postal vote might rise from the present 2 per cent. or 3 per cent. to 30 per cent. Some hon. Members would perhaps consider that anyone should have a postal vote and not merely those specified in the Bill. Even the Bill has certain restrictions on who should have a postal vote. I suppose that the next stage could be that one took one's choice of either going to the ballot box or voting by post.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Cartwright) made some important points in a most effective speech. I do not think that we should seek to minimise, as the hon. Member for Yarmouth minimised, the fact that my hon. Friend was an election agent. We are very fortunate to have the benefit of his practical experience. He gave examples of the dangers, problems and difficulties which would be involved in any extension of the postal vote. They are matters on which I do not think that the hon. Member who introduced the Bill laid sufficient stress.

Clause 1 also proposes that people on holiday overseas should be able to vote by proxy. This is, however, open to the general objection to proxy voting that it infringes the secrecy of the ballot and is open to abuse. In addition there is the necessity to find a suitable person who is able and willing to vote on one's behalf. This might be particularly difficult in those towns which have a common holiday period in the North—the Wakes weeks and so on—where everybody goes on holiday at exactly the same time.

I have attempted to explain these problems in some detail because the Government consider that they are substantial. In our view, the proper form for consideration of the issues involved is Mr. Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law. The question of absent voting was one of the important matters that the Speaker's Conference of 1973–74 was unable to consider. Its study will no doubt be taken up by a reconvened conference. As the House knows, the convening of a Speaker's Conference is a matter for the leaders of the main parties in consultation with Mr. Speaker. I cannot forecast the outcome of those consultations, but I would think it probable that there would be general support for reconvening the conference as soon as this can conveniently be arranged when the referendum on our membership of the EEC is over.

I turn to Clause 3. My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East, drawing on his practical experience, listed the problems of drawing up an accurate register. Sometimes the voter claims that there was no form to fill in, yet on the other hand the registration officer claims that the voter had a form to fill in. Hon. Members with constituents whose names have been left off the electoral register will sympathise with the clause. We have all had such cases in our constituencies. We know that the only recourse at present is by means of an action for mandamus in the divisional court. I agree that on the whole people would be deterred from taking legal proceedings.

I think we would wish to acknowledge the difficult task that electoral registration officers have and the efficiency with which they perform this task. Of course, this would be easier and the register even more accurate at its publication each February if householders could be persuaded to return the completed canvass forms promptly and to check the electors list. Some £18,000 is spent annually on national publicity. This includes the use of newspapers in the Welsh and other languages, quite apart from the local publicity arranged by registration officers. In spite of this, relatively few of the electorate take any action until they find they are refused a vote at an election itself.

To the extent that an error by the registration officer or his staff should not exclude an elector, there must be agreement with the principle behind Clause 3. But we must consider how one is to satisfy the registration officer that the fault was his or that of his agents. What sort of evidence should the registration officer expect of earlier or past residence at an address on the qualifying date in question? Should late-corners to the register be exempt from the public right of scrutiny and challenge that the electors lists provide for those citizens whose names have been included in the normal way?

It may be said that these are points of drafting which could be put right in Committee. But the real problem is one that goes far deeper than the situation envisaged by the present Bill. It was to examine this question that a working party was set up on the recommendation of the Speaker's Conference in October 1973. This working party consists of electoral registration officers from all over the country, the three main parties at national agent level, the Local Authority Management Services and Computer Committee, officials and statisticians of the Home Office and other Departments, and various other bodies.

The remit of the working party was to study the means of keeping the register more up to date, including the likely results of the more general use of computers. In passing, I understand that the working party has examined various technological aids with a view to seeing what applications they might have either in the short-term or in the long-term. It seems that the use of the computer to produce the 100 or so copies of a register needed for electoral purposes is not an economically viable proposition, even though in England and Wales about one third of districts produce their master registers with the aid of computers. The working party has the benefit of advice from representatives of the political parties and is considering the various practical and constitutional constraints imposed on electoral registration procedures.

Mr. Onslow

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way again. The body which she is describing is not what one would call a consumer-oriented body from the electoral point of view. Would she consider that the real question is on what basis a man should be able to establish his right to a vote, and that if he takes the responsibility of stating on oath that he is qualified and that the conditions are as he has stated them, that is a much more democratic process than the heavy-weather-making process that she is describing?

Sir A. Meyer

Before the hon. Lady replies to that intervention, will she say when the working party last met and when it is due to meet next? There does not seem to be much information about it.

Dr. Summerskill

In reply to the first point about consumer orientation, the working party was set up on the recommendation of the Speaker's Conference. It was the Speaker's Conference which recommended on 25th October 1973 that the Home Office should arrange for this working party to be set up with the remit to which I have referred.

On the question about the meetings, it last met on 28th April this year, which is not very long ago.

I understand that the present requirement of a qualifying date for residence, the claims and objections procedure, the supply of copies to right hon. and hon. Members, candidates at elections and to polling stations, and the public availability of the register have been or are being examined. In addition, various means by which the register can be updated so that the maximum number of electors can vote for candidates standing for election in the area in which they currently reside are being considered, taking account also of the need to ensure that such people cannot vote in their former area of residence. It may be of interest to note that in a district with 350,000 electors there can be 110,000 changes in the register in one year. This works out at about 500 each working day.

I recognise that it can be argued that when defects appear in our electoral law the law should be amended straight away. It is, however, essential that these amendments should not introduce more complications or more anomalies than the existing law already contains, and that the rights of public scrutiny are maintained. I very much hope that the working party's report, which is expected later this year, will suggest ways of improving the accuracy of the register without bringing unwanted side effects in its train. At the same time, I urge people to check the register. Many do not know that they can, or, if they do know, they do not bother to do so.

I am sure that the House will appreciate the importance of proceeding carefully in electoral matters, since the electoral law is obviously a vital part of our framework of democracy. It is essential, moreover, that any new legislation on this important subject should be preceded by the customary process of consultation. We have one of the best electoral systems in the world. Change in it may be slow, but I am sure that this is preferable to change being too fast.

As I said earlier, the Government propose to bring forward as soon as practicable their own legislation to improve the arrangements for Service men's registration. As regards absent voting facilities for holiday makers, in our view, as I have explained, it would be appropriate for the matter to be considered by a reconvened Speaker's Conference as part of a wider examination of absent voting generally. The question of supplementary registers, I strongly suggest, should be considered again in the light of the recommendations of the working party on the electoral register to which I have referred.

For these reasons, the Government are not able to support the Bill today.

3.35 p.m.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

I support the Bill, so ably introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer). I shall deal with it in the order adopted by the hon. Lady the Under-Secretary of State, taking Clause 2 first and then Clauses 1 and 3.

On three occasions in the past fortnight the House has heard assurances from the Government about the need to improve the facilities for Service voters—first, during the Committee stage of the Referendum Bill, from the Minister of State for Defence; next, a week ago today, from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force; and today from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department—and all three Ministers, speaking with the authority of the Government, have told us that it is the Government's intention to introduce legislation at an early opportunity, as I think the hon. Lady put it, to put right what we all recognise to be something gravely wrong; namely, that only 100,000 out of 400,000 entitled to be on the Service register are, in fact, on that register.

In my view, Clause 2 of the Bill would meet precisely the purpose of the legislation which three Ministers within the past fortnight have already promised. Since the Government themselves have accepted the purpose of that clause, it is a matter of great regret that the hon. Lady is not able to accept that part of the Bill, quite apart from the rest of it, to which I shall come.

The hon. Lady spoke of various difficulties. I remind the House that the Minister of State for Defence has written to a number of hon. Members, including myself. His letter bears yesterday's date, and in it he says: As I think we all recognised during the Committee stage of the Referendum Bill, the special arrangements for Service voting are inevitably complex. I have therefore had prepared the attached checklist describing the entitlement to vote in the referendum of various categories of personnel, and I am sending copies to other Members who have shown particular interest. The fact that since the Committee stage of the Referendum Bill—that is, in less than 10 days—the Minister of State has been able to devise those arrangements for Service voters leads me to believe that the difficulties to which the hon. Lady referred have been somewhat exaggerated. Again, therefore, I commend the purpose of Clause 2 of my hon. Friend's Bill.

I turn now to Clause 1, which deals with arrangements for voting by those on holiday. I believe that perhaps the most fundamental right in any democracy is the right to vote. I also believe that it is unjustified and unjustifiable that those who happen to be away on holiday through no fault of their own but because the Prime Minister of the day happens to advise the Queen to dissolve Parliament, or through the accident, which I hope will very soon be forthcoming, of a Government defeat on the Floor of the House, should be deprived of this most fundamental and crucial right.

If I understood the Under-Secretary correctly, she said that at the two General Elections last year 1 million people voted by post. That figure surprised me, and if I misunderstood her perhaps she will correct me.

Dr. Summerskill

The figure I gave was for the October 1974 election only

Mr. Gow

Can the Under-Secretary say what the figure was for the February election?

Dr. Summerskill

Not without notice.

Mr. Gow

I am grateful to the UnderSecretary—

Mr. George Cunningham

I can tell the hon. Member that the Home Office at one time gave me the information that in the February General Election 2 per cent. of the total number who voted did so by post. He can do the arithmetic for himself.

Mr. Gow

I am grateful to the hon. Member. It is reasonable to assume that the figure for the October election would not have been materially different from that for the February election. It is, therefore, likely that on each occasion approximately 1 million people voted by post. The Under-Secretary said as pert of her argument against the extension of postal votes for those on holiday that in a sense this would amount to postal votes on demand. Is it not the case, however—again I invite the Under-Secretary to disagree with me if I am wrong—that the business postal vote is, as the law now stands, on demand to the same extent as postal votes for those on holiday would be? If one is prepared to be dishonest one can already obtain a business postal vote, and if that is the case I do not see that the Under-Secretary's argument stands up.

Nor do I find anything offensive to the democratic principle in voting by post. My prediction would be that before the end of the century we shall have introduced an optional vote which can he made either in person or by post. The House will remember that my party proposed that there should be a built-in right for trade unionists not to vote in person at the election of the officers of their unions.

Mr. George Cunningham

Does the hon. Member realise the difference that when one votes in person at what I might call informal elections, such as some trade union and association elections, that is not a secret vote, and it is not expected to be a secret vote in some cases? The postal vote is of necessity not a secret vote, and in wanting to offer that to everyone he is going back to the situation which existed before the Ballot Act

Mr. Gow

I see no evidence for saying that the postal vote is not secret. It may or may not be.

Mr. George Cunningham


Mr. Gow

I wonder in how many cases of the million people who voted by post last October, the hon. Gentleman or the hon. Lady suggest that there was intimidation or improprietory.

Sir A. Meyer

This is a rather semantic argument. There is a widespread belief that even the ordinary vote can be attributed, because a number is stamped on the form. I know that it is not true, but it is widely believed. Therefore, in a sense it makes the ordinary voter a potential target for corruption, in that he can easily be convinced that his vote is traced, and to that extent convinced that it could be bought or sold.

Mr. Gow

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that valuable intervention.

The hon. Lady concluded by saying that she expected that the next Speakers' Conference would consider the substance of the proposals in Clause 1. I believe that it would not be right to postpone the matter until the next Speaker's Conference, which is likely to recommend precisely what my hon. Friend suggests in the clause. We should take the plunge now.

I believe that the Under-Secretary has accepted in principle the purpose of Clause 3. Where there is an administrative error as a result of which that most fundamental and crucial right in a democracy, the right to vote, is denied, she seemed to concede in principle that there should be an opportunity for rectification. She rightly said that the remedy of mandamus is not one which more than the strange legal fraternity can comprehend.

The clause is long overdue. We have all had people come to us shortly before polling day and say with great disappointment "We filled up our form in October, yet we are not on the register." They often wish to vote not for our own party but for another. Other people's forms may have been destroyed before they got into the hands of the addressee, or have not been despatched. Where they were filled up an administrative error may have been made in the returning officer's office. The hon. Lady and I have known of forms from whole streets being mislaid, perhaps being put into a wastepaper basket instead of going on to the electoral registration officer's desk or that of his deputy.

Clause 3 would remedy that situation. It is not good enough for the Government to say "Give us time. The matter should be investigated by the Speaker's Conference or the working party." It is time the House took action to right a wrong. I believe that the Bill would have overwhelming support in the country, and I very much hope that the House will give it a Second Reading.

3.49 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I believe that this is the third time I have spoken in the House on the subject of postal voting. Whenever I have done so, I have had great difficulty in persuading other hon. Members to perceive the danger in postal voting that I perceive. I think particularly of the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). By showing him the relevant passages in "Parker's Conduct of Parliamentary Elections" after the last discussion, I was able to persuade him that on one point of fact I was right and he was wrong. I am always moved to wonderment at the number of occasions when non-lawyers like myself can draw to the attention of lawyers like the hon. Gentleman aspects of the law with which they have managed to evade acquaintance in the course of their legal training.

I am completely in favour in principle of giving the vote to everyone who qualifies on the residence test if means of doing so can be found without overwhelming administrative difficulty and without the possibility of abuse. Contempt has been poured by two former bureaucrats on the benches opposite on the difficulties seen by the bureaucrats in giving the vote to holiday makers. As another former bureaucrat I share their contempt and the supposed, and in some measure real, administrative difficulties of giving the vote to holiday makers. I am not persuaded that the right to vote is too important to be lost only because we must have a longer period of notice of an election or at the cost of greater difficulty for returning officers. It is abuse, and abuse only, which persuades me that this would be a great mistake.

I accept that the abuse which would apply to giving the postal vote to an extended category of people already can exist in respect of those who enjoy it at the moment. But numbers are of the essence, because one bribes people only if one can bribe enough of them for it to stand a chance of having an effect. When one talks about bribery in British elections, one is met with a look of incredulity as if one had walked out of the eighteenth century. But it is a good thing to apply our mind to the question of what it is that stops us having the buying of votes—that is the corruption that I am talking about—in elections.

There are two things. First, one would have to buy a lot of votes. Therefore, the universal franchise was a very big factor in killing corruption in elections. But that does not apply to many ward elections at local level, which is where we find corruption in our political life.

The second reason lies in the secrecy of the voting. There has been confusion, and there always is confusion, when one talks about the secrecy of the vote. It can mean two things. It can mean the right to keep one's vote secret—and no one says that the postal vote does not completely preserve that right. But the more important way in which we have secrecy in British voting is that the secrecy is obligatory. If a person wants to show someone else how he voted, he cannot do it—it is illegal—and the physical arrangements legally prescribed are such as to make it well nigh impossible at the polling station.

On the last occasion when we debated this matter, I drew attention to a passage of Parker at page 187 on the conduct of the poll which stated: A voter who deliberately marks his ballot paper openly instead of secretly violates a certain rule and any

provision that is mandatory upon himself; and if this be done in view of the presiding officer"— that is, in the sight of the presiding officer—

or of his poll clerk, it is submitted that the latter should refuse to admit the ballot paper into the ballot box. The whole point of the ballot Act was not to give a right to secrecy but to make it impossible for a person to prove to the man trying to buy his vote that he had not done his part of the bargain.

Mr. Gow

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that that is the law as it stands? If so, does he know of any case in which the paragraph which he has just quoted was put into operation?

Mr. Cunningham

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the physical arrangements in the polling station are such that it would be very awkward to endeavour to show one's ballot paper to anyone who wanted to see it. Anyone who wanted to sell his vote would apply for the postal vote. The principle of secrecy which I have just stated, and which is essential to prohibit and make impossible the buying of votes, is totally violated by the postal vote.

A person who is given a postal vote can sit in his home or wherever he likes with his ballot paper in front of him and, if he wishes, mark it in the presence of a witness. He can then say "I have voted for you "or" I have voted for your man". In that way a person can do what no one is supposed to be able to do after the ballot Act. It is in that sense that I call the postal vote a witnessable vote. This has nothing to do with the form which the postal voter has to have witnessed. It is a witnessable vote in the sense that the person who is entitled to cast the vote can vote, if he so wishes, in the presence of a witness and prove how he has voted.

We started giving the facility of the postal vote, dangerous though it is, to people who were too ill or too disabled to get to the poll. The numbers were so small that they made no difference. They were such that no one tried to swing even a ward election by means of buying the votes of a few disabled people who were unable to get to the poll. We then extended the facility to business voters. It has now been extended by legislative and administrative means to people who are too ill to get to the poll.

We do not now require a registration officer to obtain medical certification that a person who has applied for the vote is too ill to go to the poll. The registration officers are entitled at their discretion to insist upon that evidence but they can choose to be satisfied by other evidence or by none at all. In fact, some adopt that approach—for example, my own registration officer. In my constituency it is possible for Mr. A to ask for a "sick vote" with Mr. B signing to say that he is sick. Mr. B can then apply for the vote with Mr. A signing that he is sick. That constitutes a vote on application.

Long before this matter was discussed in the House last May, I had correspondence with the Home Office on the subject. I asked that Home Office staff should be more ferocious about the lax discretion employed by returning officers. If one returning officer is being rather soft, another returning officer will feel that he should not be considerably more severe. That applies especially if the Government, in their non-wisdom, are taking half-page advertisements—this applies to both the last Conservative Government and the present Government—in the newspapers to tell people that they can have a vote if they are sick or away on business.

It has been suggested that probably million people voted in each election last year by post. We were given the figure of 1 million for October. Probably the number of votes cast in the February election would be about 30 million. I believe that 2 per cent. of 30 million works out at something rather less than 750,000. If both those figures are correct, this means that even between February, the beginning of the massive advertising campaign, and October there was approximately a 50 per cent. increase in the number of people voting by post. That is a matter that we should not contemplate with equanimity.

There is, however, an alternative. We can give the vote to people who are away on holiday by requiring them to vote in person at special polling stations in the places where they happen to be—in the town hall at Blackpool, Eastbourne or wherever it may be. They will vote then according to the normal rules of secrecy, and accordingly all the abuses to which I have drawn attention will not apply. We can—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday next.