HC Deb 07 May 1975 vol 891 cc1577-80

Lords Amendment: No. 1, in page 3, leave out lines 16 to 26 and insert—

"(3) A separate count shall be conducted of the votes cast at the referendum in each of the areas specified in subsection (4A) below, but the votes cast (in accordance with any provisions made in pursuance of section 1(5) of this Act) outside the United Kingdom shall be counted with those cast in Greater London. (4) The Secretary of State shall appoint a person (in this Act referred to as the Chief Counting Officer) who shall, for each of the areas specified in subsection (4A) below, appoint a person (in this Act referred to as a counting officer) to conduct the counting of votes cast in that area in accordance with any directions given to him by the Chief Counting Officer; and the councils of districts and London boroughs shall place the services of their officers at the disposal of the counting officers. (4A) The areas referred to in subsections (3) and (4) of this section are—"

10.31 p.m.

The Minister of State, Privy Council Office (Mr. Gerry Fowler)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment:

I think that I can be very brief. On Report on 21st April my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said: I undertake to ensure that an amendment is tabled in another place which will provide for the counting to be done in counties, so that there is a county count and a county declaration of results."—[Official Report, 24th April 1975; Vol. 890, c. 1817.] That is precisely the purport of the amendment that was carried in another place, which I recommend to the House. Some of the later Lords amendments are consequential upon this amendment and provide, for example, that a counting officer shall now be designated the Chief Counting Officer.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)

I do not wish to speak against the amendment. I simply wish to seek clarification on one or two small points. Will the Minister explain why the reference in the amendment is to "districts" and "officers of districts" when the purport of the amendment is to have the votes on a county basis? I can see no reference to the councils of the counties, the officers and servants of the counties or the county councils being eligible to participate in the count.

In Amendment No. 1 in subsection (4), in the sixth line, there is reference to the councils of districts and London boroughs …". That does not seem to tally with the references, in the Bill and in the other amendments, to counties. Have the Government taken note of the fact that there are 59 parliamentary constituencies in England and Wales that are in more than one county? What, if any, special thought has the Minister given to the way in which the returning officers of parliamentary constituencies will decide how the count in various parts of the constituencies is to be split up? I refer the Minister to the Official Report of 16th April, column 121, where the 59 constituencies are listed. My constituency figures in that list. The Minister will see, for instance, that the Goole constituency is now in four administrative counties. Who will decide, if it is necessary to decide, which officers of which local authorities will do the work? Is this why only district officers have been mentioned and not county officers?

Finally, I welcome the fact that the amendment refers to the votes cast (in accordance with any provisions made in pursuance of section 1(5) of this Act) outside the United Kingdom shall be counted with those cast in Greater London. This is a minor milestone which at another time we may find a useful precedent. I am grateful to the Government for enshrining this piece of history in our legislation for the first time.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

With the leave of the House, may I say that I welcome the hon. Gentleman's congratulations. However, his other points are based on a misunderstanding of the situation. Clause 2(1)(a) provides that the people who will discharge the functions of returning officers in the referendum are those who discharge those functions at elections of councillors of districts or of the Greater London Council. .". Therefore, although I take the point that there are parliamentary constituencies which spill over district and county boundaries, we have provided in the Bill, in its original form, that it shall be the returning officers in the districts who will conduct these proceedings. There is no problem in that respect.

The purpose of the amendments is to ensure that officers in the counties and districts will assist the counting staff. We take it for granted that the servants of the returning officers for the county—that is to say, the men who will be the counting officers in the counties—will assist in the referendum.

Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)

I do not wish to detain the House for long, but I wish to express our thanks to the Government for having met the point put to them by the Opposition. I think it has proved to be a sensible point. I must remind the Government of how much they are indebted to the Opposition for the exceedingly reasonable, restrained and sensible way in which they received a Bill which was based on a rather unwelcome dodge and device adopted by the Prime Minister in a moment of difficulty for himself. We regret that he was forced to take this action. We regret even more that we were forced to help him, but we believe that it was in the national interest.

Mr. Roderick MacFarquhar (Belper)

I wish to thank the Minister for fulfilling his undertaking on an earlier occasion by introducing these amendments in another place. Has my hon. Friend had an opportunity to consider the suggestion that to obviate problems in any change from national to local counts, there should be two or three recounts immediately prior to the announcement of the figures?

Mr. Gerry Fowler

Again with the leave of the House, the answer is that the matter has been considered, but we believe that it is up to the chief counting officer to give advice on the question whether in any county a recount should be conducted immediately after the first count.

Question put and agreed to.

Remaining Lords Amendments agreed to [one with Special Entry].

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