HC Deb 06 February 1976 vol 904 cc1649-79

Order for Second Reading read.

2.11 p.m.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

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

I should like to start, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by expressing my pleasure at being called by you so soon after you have assumed your present elevated office and to say that I hope not to detain either you or the House at any great length. I hope that this measure will commend itself to the House. The arguments in favour of it are probably familiar to hon. Members on both sides.

I should like to remind the House briefly why legislation of this kind has become necessary. Seven years ago, the Speaker's Conference, in an effort to improve the registration of Service voters, recommended a fundamental change in the system which had prevailed—namely, that in future Service voters should have to re-register annually instead of remaining on the register for as long as they were Service voters.

All the good intentions of that change were, as the Under-Secretary of State knows, sadly disappointing in the event. Since that time, there has been a progressive decline in the number of Service voters registered as such until, according to the most recent figures available to me, out of 400,000 people entitled to register in that category fewer than one in four are so registered. I submit that it is important to restore the opportunity to vote in parliamentary and other elections at the earliest moment to the 300,000 people who are at present unable to do so because they have not been able to take advantage of the system in its new form.

Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

For how long have the 300,000 been denied the opportunity to vote?

Mr. Onslow

The decline has been progressive. I do not think we need worry particularly about how long this situation has continued. Unless there is some unlooked-for change in the use of the present registration system, those 300,000 people will be deprived of the oppor- tunity to vote for perhaps two years from now.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence was sufficiently persuaded of the importance of this matter to refer to it in the debate on the Referendum Bill on 22nd April last year. He said: the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law in 1973 recommended a return to the previous system of Forces' registration. That was widely welcomed by those of us who were there on that occasion. The Minister continued: the Government intend at an early opportunity to bring before the House of Commons appropirate legislation to give effect to this recommendation of the Speaker's Conference."—[Official Report, 22nd April 1975; Vol. 890, c. 1252.] In the light of that undertaking it had been the expectation of the House that the Government would be announcing in the Queen's Speech for this Session their intention to bring in legislation of that kind. There was no mention of such legislation. It appeared that the Government did not believe that there was time in their legislative programme for this measure. Therefore, when I was fortunate to draw a place in the Ballot for Private Member's Bills, this seemed an appropriate subject to take up.

Since making that decision I have been in close contact with the hon. Lady's ministerial colleagues and, as a result of those discussions, the Home Secretary, in a letter to me earlier this week, said that the Government took the view that they should not stand in the way of your Bill's receiving a Second Reading on 6th February if that is the wish of the House. I welcome that undertaking and express my gratitude appropriately to the right hon. Gentleman and to other right hon. and hon. Members opposite whose support I succeeded in enlisting.

I recognise that obligations fall upon me if that undertaking is to be fulfilled. For instance, I recognise that as drafted the Bill may be less than perfect. I concede, and have conceded before, that the draftsmenship is somewhat rough and ready. I was so unwilling to associate other hon. Members with the Bill last time I produced it that I put only my name on the back. I freely and frankly admitted then, as I do now, that I may not be the best parliamentary draftsman in the business. By the same token, I accept that it is important that a Bill of this nature, by whomsoever it may be introduced, should be worded in a way which comes up to the standards required by constitutional issues. Therefore, where there are, as the Home Department pointed out, "technical and complex" matters, I am content to accept its judgment and to be guided by it on whatever is thought to be the appropriate constitutional phraseology.

I understand that there is great pressure on parliamentary draftsmen with other legislation going through this House. I shall not dwell upon that because, apart from anything else, I should be out of order if I sought to do so. However, I hope that I may be able to offer some assistance to the ministerial Bench.

In its wisdom, Parliament has made provision for a sum of money to be made available to private Members who are lucky in the Ballot to enable them to enlist expert draftsmen in the drafting of their Bills. I should be willing, if necessary, to apply that to enlisting the services of any Parliamentary draftsman, or woman, who commends himself or herself to the Department as competent to get right the wording of this Bill, which I hope will get its Second Reading today and ultimately pass successfully through its remaining stages.

I hope that that will help to allay any anxieties which the hon. Lady and her colleagues may have. I shall be glad to discuss the matter further with her if, as I hope, I am successful in persuading the House to give the Bill a Second Reading today.

One of the functions which we in Parliament must always accept is the duty to ensure that any citizen who is entitled to the vote is able to exercise it. From time to time, severe difficulties are to be encountered in achieving this entitlement absolutely. But where we can identify a substantial category of people who are particularly deserving of our help, it is an absolute duty upon every Member, upon whichever Bench and upon whichever side of the House he or she may sit, to make sure that the legislation gets through as soon as possible.

If I am successful today—and that will depend upon the co-operation and support that I receive, and I shall be appropriately grateful for it if it is forthcoming—we shall be able collectively to take credit for the fact that Service voters now disfranchised, or not enfranchised, by not being registered will have the opportunity to exercise their vote, if they wish to do so, at least 12 months earlier because of legislation passed in this Session than they would if we were obliged to leave the matter over to another Session.

I hope that, with the full co-operation of hon. Members on both sides of the House, we shall be able to see the Bill on the statute book in time for it to apply to the next register of parliamentary electors, to be compiled in the autumn of this year. It is in that spirit and in the hope that it will commend itself to the House on that ground that I ask that the Bill be given a Second Reading.

2.21 p.m.

Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I do not think that the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) has presented the arguments for his Bill. It is not a Bill that we have to take lightly. My remarks are not likely to be as brief as those of the hon. Gentleman in introducing his Bill.

The hon. Gentleman has introduced the Bill basically without argument. He has not brought forth, to my satisfaction at least, the reasons why there should be a separate system of registration for Service men from that for civilians. I presume—and I shall be considering the background to this later—that included in the reference to Service men are Service men's wives and dependants who must travel with them. I do not think the hon. Gentleman has taken the trouble to argue the principle. He ought to have done, because this is an amendment to our constitution.

Mr. Onslow

I am somewhat doubtful whether this is to be regarded as an amendment to our constitution. The hon. Gentleman must make his speech in his own way, but as I was able to rely upon recommendations of the Speaker's Conference and on an undertaking by a Minister of a Government whom the hon. Gentleman supports I did not feel it necessary to rehearse the entire argument that has been gone over fairly thoroughly and, indeed, accepted on both sides of the House for some time.

Mr. Golding

The arguments may have been rehearsed for a considerable time, but not until this morning was I familiar with them. It may be that that applies not only to me but to other Members of the House who have taken a particular interest in the subject.

It is surprising to hear a Conservative Member say that the recommendations of a Speaker's Conference, together with a letter from the Government, are sufficient argument for a Bill. I am one of the most loyal supporters of the Government—if not the most loyal—and yet it is not for me to say that I shall support the Bill today because the Government have sent me a letter asking me to do so. I should expect the Government to state clearly and in detail why there should be a separate system of registration for Service voters.

It is not open to me to ask the Minister about the hon. Gentleman's Bill. Were this a Government Bill, I should be in the position of being able to ask the Minister concerned why it had been introduced. If I were to ask the Minister now on the Front Bench why this Bill has been introduced she would refer me to the hon. Member for Woking who has brought in this measure, and if I were to examine the hon. Gentleman's speech I would find four reasons for it.

The first is that the present situation is unsatisfactory because fewer Service men vote than ought to vote. The second is that there is an agreement with the Government that the situation should be improved. The third is that the Government did not specifically include a similar measure in the Queen's Speech. However, the concluding words of a Gracious Speech are always that other measures will be brought before the House, so it cannot be said that a measure such as this was excluded. There is no suggestion that I know of that the Government have stated categorically and publicly that a Bill such as this would not be introduced in this Session.

Mr. Onslow

The hon. Gentleman has raised the matter, and I should have taken more pains to spell it all out. I have been told that there is no intention to introduce legislation along these lines this year. Indeed, I should have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would give me credit for realising that if a Government Bill was in the pipeline it would be better for me to choose another subject to take advantage of my luck in the Ballot.

Mr. Golding

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is possible that by the end of my speech he will have made the speech, by way of interventions, that he ought to have made when introducing the Bill. I accept what he has said, that had he not introduced the Bill we should have had to wait for at least a year.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

The hon. Gentleman is keeping me in an agony of suspense. Does he, or does he not, intend to support the Bill?

Mr. Golding

I think that to some extent that will depend upon the quality of the interventions and whether we ever get a chance to support the Bill. If interventions continue, it is unlikely that we shall have time properly to consider the Bill this afternoon. In my own time I shall reveal the way in which I shall vote if there is any possibility of a vote this afternoon. I do not expect there to be one and I hope that Conservative Members are not thinking of forcing this to a Division, because if they do almost certainly the Bill will be lost because of the lack of a quorum.

I return to the basic principle, to which the hon. Member for Woking did not address himself. There are in my constituency, as there are in others, many people who are disfranchised because they do not get on the register of voters. This is probably true of housing estates that are accidentally missed. It is also true of lodgers. I mentioned my constituency, but this is particularly true of London constituencies in which there are many rooms to let. Lodgers come and go, and people sometimes get left off the register. A number of students in my constituency were inadvertently left off the register recently because they had decided to live off campus. The requirement of annual registration disfranchises many people every year. The hon. Member must argue why that practice should continue while a single act of registration by a Service voter will keep his name on the register. He cannot just wave that away as he has been trying to do.

Mr. Onslow

There is a fundamental difference here. I am sure that the hon. Member's deep knowledge of electoral law has only temporarily deserted him. Anyone with a fixed abode gets an invitation through his letter box every year on a fixed day to put his name on the register. The Service man is not in that happy position. The quality called turbulence in military life—at sea, in the Air Force or in the Army—prevents such orderly procedures as apply in civilian life. It has been accepted for a long time that a special category of registration should be available to Service men, and they have availed themselves of it on the basis that once was enough. Now that once a year is the requirement, civilian turbulence has taken its inevitable further toll and the number of registrations has declined. I should have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would accept that the figures speak for themselves.

Mr. Golding

I become more bewildered as the hon. Member's argument unfolds. It is not true that every elector gets a form through his letter box in September of each year. Many students at the University of Keele in my constituency do not. The registration is undertaken on a common form by the University. That is not so important for the students, although important mistakes have been made, but in some London lodging houses, where the landlord gets the form, it is often not completed correctly on behalf of all who live there.

Many civilians do lose their votes. The hon. Gentleman must have a safe seat or a loyal band of election helpers, otherwise, he would have had much more canvassing experience and more knowledge of how civilian registration fails than he has shown today.

I confess that I know little about this problem but I believe that the principle is important. The hon. Gentleman has not argued the case—which is not to say that there is not a case to be argued. He owed us a review of the case, but in the absence of his arguments, I will be forced to state the case myself.

We are told that the basis of the Bill is the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law. It is not enough to say that, because that Conference decided something, it should be done, even though the Government may have told the hon. Member that they went along with it, The registration of members of the Forces and their wives was the subject of considerable discussion and a division in the Conference. The rules of order forbid me to name names in that vote, but by seven votes to 11, the Conference rejected a proposal that a Service man's name should be removed from the register if, in any year, a completed form in respect of his registration was not received by the registration officer. That was a close vote, which suggests considerable controversy.

That is not the sort of background against which an hon. Member can tell the House in five or six minutes that because something is agreed by the Government it should be quickly put through.

The Speaker's Conference, according to the Speaker's letter of 20th June 1973, admittedly said: The Conference concluded that too few servicemen were registering and they considered at length whether the present system of annual registration should continue, with additional provisions to overcome the inertia in the Forces against registration, or whether to recommend a different system. The resolution to recommend the change was agreed to by a majority: Ayes 11, Noes 8. Again, there was disagreement on whether the change should be made.

I should like to know why the Government have changed their minds. By a majority the Conference agreed that the present arrangements for annual registration of members of the Forces should cease. I shall deal with the arguments for that when I look in more detail at the report.

The Speaker's Conference recommended that: Each serviceman should in future be registered, and new recruits should be registered on enlistment. Thereafter each serviceman should be required annually to declare that he wishes to make no change in his registration, or to change the details of his registration, or to have his name omitted from the register for the ensuing year. That point must be emphasised. Later, when I have examined the evidence that was placed before the Speaker's Conference, I shall refer to the details of the Bill because the hon. Member for Woking cannot hide, as he has attempted to hide in his perfunctory speech this afternoon, behind the defence that he is not the best draftsman in the world. If the Bill is intended to implement the recommendation of the Speaker's Conference, he is, far from being the best draftsman in the world, the worst draftsman in the world. However, I do not believe that to be the case. The hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve something in his Bill which the Speaker's Conference did not recommend. I shall return to the wording of the Bill later.

Be it noted that the Speaker's letter of 20th June 1973 specifically says: Thereafter"— that is, after registration in the first place— each serviceman should be required annually to declare that he wishes to make no change in his registration, or to change the details of his registration, or to have his name omitted from the register for the ensuing year. I shall return to that point because, although I have only just discovered it, it is a substantial one.

Mr. Lawrence

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) has been speaking for 20 minutes and is threatening to return to a large number of other points which he has just discovered. Is it in order for him to filibuster on an afternoon such as this in order to stop the House reaching the next business, which is extremely important and which may not have Government support?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

I have been with the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) in a number of committee rooms at various times and when he is out of order I shall take the opportunity of advising him so.

Mr. Golding

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I know you as one of the sternest and hardest taskmasters in the House. Were I to see but a flicker on your face I should be on to my next point in a flash. I ask the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) to abide his soul in patience because I, too, have a Bill in the queue this afternoon. I know what he is suffering. I have a responsibility to examine this Bill in detail. Had the hon. Member for Woking not displayed the cursory and perfunctory attitude that he displayed, I should not have been given the job of introducing his Bill for him.

Mr. Onslow

The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme has accused me of being perfunctory and cursory. He can say anything he likes about my speech, and I shall not get very excited. I assure him that I did not give him the job of doing this. I am beginning to wonder who did. If he wants to make my speech, he is doing so without my authority.

Mr. Golding

No one gave me the job. It is a burden that I have taken on myself. Having heard the hon. Gentleman's speech I thought it was no way for a measure of this signal importance, which involves such an important principle, to be introduced.

This House, as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is a legislature to examine legislation very carefully. That is our function and it is a function that I shall perform whether it be Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. The fact that many hon. Members are absent this afternoon will not deter me from examining these arguments. I do not want to be stopped from pursuing the main argument of the Bill by the constant interjections of Conservative Members.

I make no apology for frequently referring to the Speaker's letter of 20th June 1973. One of the arguments of the hon. Member for Woking for the Bill was that the Bill was based on the recommendation of the Speaker's Conference, together with a letter from the Government approving it. The Speaker's letter of 20th June 1973 makes quite clear the conclusion drawn by the Speaker's Conference. We are entitled to know it. Those who read our proceedings on Monday, having been in their constituencies today, are entitled to know the arguments on which we arrived at our conclusions. The letter says: An obligation should be placed on Commanding Officers to distribute forms individually to each serviceman, 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 servicemen to notify when necesaary any changes in the details of their registration, or to appoint proxies when posted overseas. That letter puts an obligation on commanding officers to distribute forms individually to each Service man, to provide assistance as required in completing the forms and to collect and despatch the completed forms. I give notice to my hon. Friend the Minister that I want to know how that recommendation ties in with the Bill, to which I shall refer later.

By a significant gesture my hon. Friend the Minister signifies that, again, I should address my questions to the hon. Member for Woking, who has presented the Bill. Again, that is an illustration of the paucity of information which we have been given on which to make a judgment. I do not think that my hon. Friend can shrug away the responsibility so easily.

I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Government Deputy Chief Whip here this afternoon.

If my hon. Friend the Minister has sent the hon. Member for Woking a letter saying that she supports the Bill, she has a responsibility to tell me why she has given that support. What is her understanding of the Bill? How does it fit in with the recommendation of the Speaker's Conference of 20th June 1973? I shall not accept a shrugging off of responsibility by the Minister if she has to admit that such a letter was sent.

The Speaker's letter to the Prime Minister goes on to say, The details of a serviceman's registration should be entered on his records which would accompany him to his unit; and the records should be amended when he changes his registration. Service men should be able to claim entry in the register for the ensuing year until 16th December each year. The appropriate forms should be simplified. No military offence should be created as a result of these recommendations. The wives of Service men should be registered as service voters. Here I pause. I shall look at the argument later, but I want to know specifically from the Minister—not from the hon. Member for Woking—whether her support for the Bill implies that the Government will support this measure applying to Service men's wives as well as to Service men, and, if so, is this to apply whether or not the Service men's wives are with their husbands? Perhaps the Minister will make a note of that question, because she may well forget it if she does not do so.

The Speaker's letter concluded with the proposal that a Service man's name should be removed from the register if an any year a completed form in respect of his registration was not received by the Registration Officer. Having listened to the Speaker's letter, the House will realise that the issue is not as simple or straightforward as the hon. Gentleman tried to imply in his introductory remarks. If one looks at the Bill before looking further at the evidence, one finds that it is in many ways quite different from the recommendation. It is a Bill which makes provision for the registration for electoral purposes of members of the armed forces. Clause 1 starts with the words Any person who is a member of the forces". I see that my hon. Friend the Minister is about to return from getting advice on these probing questions that I have put. I am pleased that she has been forced to seek advice during my speech but had to seek no advice during that of the hon. Gentleman. As the Minister seems inadvisedly, without looking too deeply at it, to have given an absolute commitment on the Bill, I want to ask her what precisely is meant by the words "any person" which I have just read. Are we to say that if someone aged 15, 16 or 17 is a member of the Services, he is to be registered for electoral purposes? That is what the Bill says. It says Any person who is a member of the forces". Is that what the Government are supporting?

I ask about age. I could ask about nationality. If it were possible under other legislation for a citizen of the United States, for example, to be enrolled into our Armed Services, is it seriously being suggested that that person shall be invited to register? That is what this legislation states.

I admit that the Speaker's letter was equally vague, but it is one matter to formulate Speaker's recommendations and another matter to formulate legislation. One must be very much more precise and clear in intention. I ask the Minister to tell me what the Government's attitude towards this is. I know that I could ask the hon. Gentleman, but he seems not quite to understand his own Bill.

The Bill says that persons "shall be invited". How does that tie up with the Speaker's recommendation? Would it be sufficient under the Bill for a sergeant to go around a camp shouting in every room or place there "Do not forget, lads, register. Lads, if you want to, register. Lads, if you want to, please send in your registration"? Would that be sufficient? I would say that it could very easily be said that that had been an invitation.

If the Bill becomes law, as I think it will, the one absolute necessity is that together with the Bill there must be laid down a very rigorous and uniform procedure. We do not want Tory commanding officers to choose those to whom they send gold-edged cards saying "Do not forget to register", and those to whom, instead—

Mr. Onslow

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not pursue that point. I know how anxious he is to make one of his characteristic speeches, but I think that it would be a mistake if he were to try to import into this matter a question of political division within the Forces. There is no political division in this matter on the Floor of the House, and I do not think that he is gaining sympathy by the line that he appears to be about to pursue.

Mr. Golding

It remains to be proved whether there is unanimity on the Floor of the House. The hon. Gentleman can claim that he as an individual has the support of the Labour Administration. In the last test of parliamentary opinion on this issue, the parties were divided. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point that perhaps I was insensitive in associating commanding officers with Conservatives. I withdraw my former statement.

It is important to have uniform procedure and that there be no vagueness such as "shall be invited" when the Bill is enacted, as I am sure it will be. It would have been better if there had been a schedule to the Bill laying down a procedure.

Clause 1(1) then says: to make a service declaration which shall be transmitted to the registration officer by the service authorities". The Bill is vague and indeterminate. It prescribes no time limits. Time limits are of the essence in electoral registration. There should be an obligation on Service authorities to receive declarations and to return them within a specified period. The hon. Gentleman may say that this casts a slur upon commanding officers or those in charge of the administration of the Army. I guess that the political apathy of those in command of the Army, except in so far as it relates to matters of defence and Service pay, equals that of the other ranks.

Mr. Onslow

I suppose the hon. Gentleman's tactic of advancing propositions which are self-evident nonsense will succeed in prolonging his speech. I do not think he will draw me more than this once more. I remind him that when the Services had the opportunity of voting in the referendum, whichever way they may have exercised their vote, they took advantage of it in very significant numbers, and it is likely that the Service vote in the referendum was greater on average than that in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and, possibly, that in mine.

Mr. Golding

I do not know what the referendum vote was in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Mr. Onslow

It was 77 per cent.

Mr. Golding

The vote in my constituency is always very high, and in the referendum it approximated to that of the hon. Gentleman's vote. I welcome the degree of interest the Services expressed in the European issue. At the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law the strongest argument in favour of the Bill was the inertia—that is the word rather than "apathy"—in the Armed Forces. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman intervened, because it has enabled me to make a correction to my speech which I would not otherwise have been able to make. I should have said that there was inertia, and not apathy, about matters political, amongst those who are responsible for the administration of the Army. It will still be important for there to be a schedule to the Bill setting out time limits. We should have such a schedule at the earliest opportunity. Any person who is entitled to make a Services declaration should also be entitled to have his name entered in the appropriate register for the ensuing year.

There are strong arguments for supporting the general principle of the Bill, if we cannot support the Bill itself. These were fully explained in the memorandum, put by the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office to the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law on 4th April 1973. We must also take account of the memorandum on the subject of Service registration submitted by my right hon. Friend who is now the Lord President of the Council. My right hon. Friend said: Prior to the 1969 Representation of the People Act, Service personnel filled in a form claiming registration as soon as they enlisted—whatever their age. These forms were forwarded to the appropriate registration officer who included them on the register at the address given. The problem was that the registration officer was powerless to remove them until he received notification from the Ministry of Defence that this person was no longer a member of HM Forces. The system broke down in many instances, particularly where the Serviceman got married or his family moved to another area. The registers contained the names of a large number of Service voters who no longer had any connection with that address, many of whom had already left the Service. Registration Officers even had to continue to record streets which had been demolished because one or two Servicemen were registered at that address. Some efforts were made on Home Office advice to check these cases and to remove the names from the streets and list them at the end of each register. (They could not be removed entirely.) In some areas where a substantial number of Service personnel were registered, several hundred names were found to have no connection with the address given. He went on: The 1969 Act provided for annual registration of Service voters and they had two options, either to register at the address where they would have been living but for their service (i.e. where their family lived). or at the last address they had in the United Kingdom. In the second case their names were listed at the end of each register. It is true that the number of Service voters registered in 1970 fell by about one-third, but much of this was due to the registration officer being able to remove the names of those no longer qualified. There was a further fall in 1971, but the 1972 figures showed an increase of about 15 per cent. due to special publicity. Having outlined the background, the Lord President arrived at his conclusions: It would be wrong to return to the old out-dated method of once only registration. All civilian electors have to make application each year. However the system of Service registration should be reviewed. The form should be looked at again to see if it can be simplified, as should the present provision that a Serviceman must sign his application before 10th October. The registration officer is already empowered to register all Service personnel if their form is received before 16th December (the last day for claims) but it must be dated on or before 10th October. While the registration must relate to the qualifying date, there seems no reason why a form received before the last day for claims whenever it is dated should not be accepted. There is also a need to examine the method by which these forms are made available in Service units and publicity given to serving personnel concerning registration. Far too often they are left in some office and the Serviceman has to actually ask for a form. I have not had time to study the subject with the care it deserves. No hon. Member, with the exception of the Minister and the hon. Member for Woking, seems to have taken any trouble with the Bill. On a cursory reading, it seems to me that the Bill is out of line with the Speaker's Conference recommendation and with the memorandum submitted by the Lord President in 1973. The hon. Gentleman should have revealed that fact and not have told us, as he did today, that his Bill was based on the Speaker's Conference recommendations. If I had not spoken, perhaps the world would have believed him. The wording of the Bill shows clearly that that is not so. There is no reason why the Bill should be passed into law.

I do not want to weary the hon. Member for Burton with detailed arguments on the question of electoral law for Service men. I have been remiss in not presenting in full the arguments of the conference on electoral reform but I would recommend my hon. Friends to study that document.

I hope that my hon. Friend the pairing Whip has not come to glower at me, as he usually does, for having overstayed my welcome.

I recommend that hon. Members study the evidence from the Ministry of Defence. I will precis its argument but I am sorry that I have to skip over one argument, which reads: Service men are frequently required to move at short notice from and to the United Kingdom and to serve under operational conditions, either actual or on exercises, throughout the world. This turbulence leads to situations in which the requirement for the completion of a form annually is not realistic. That is my argument, and the hon. Gentleman should have presented it to the House. My right hon. Friend may now have changed his mind on the matter after reading the evidence of the Ministry of Defence.

I am sympathetic with every Service man who has to serve in Northern Ireland in these troubled times. The Ministry of Defence said clearly in 1973 that Troops undertake four-monthly tours on a rotational basis between BAOR and Northern Ireland. These frequent moves and the conditions under which the Service man operates in Northern Ireland make it difficult to ensure that each man receives a form. That is a good argument which should have been presented by my right hon. Friend. The Ministry of Defence refers to defence attaches overseas, and perhaps we do not think often enough of them. On this, the Ministry says that the staff of the Defence Attaché in Amman in the summer of 1970 were too busy keeping their heads down to think about the completion of electoral forms. That is an excellent argument which my right hon. Friend could have employed. Who wants our Service personnel under fire overseas to be engaged in the annual completion of registration forms, rather than defending themselves and protecting British interests?

Reference is also made to personnel serving afloat. There are the nuclear submarines, for example, which undertake patrols lasting two months, during which no post is received. Many Members would envy those in jobs in which no post is received for two months, but this obviously makes for practical difficulties in the implementation of an annual registration.

The Ministry of Defence memorandum also referred to personnel serving with sales and training teams. I am very sorry to note that the Minister has fled, and I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will bear with me if I continue to speak until she returns. I am sure that the Minister would be interested to hear the point made by the Ministry of Defence—that it is inappropriate for personnel serving with sales and training teams. As rightly pointed out in the Report, these personnel serve in foreign countries, often for short periods, and are subject to frequent movement. The Ministry of Defence also refers—I am not sure that I agree with this—

Mr. Lawrence

The hon. Gentleman has now been speaking for about an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is there anything that the Chair can do to stop this disgraceful filibuster, which is designed to stop the next business being reached?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

As soon as I hear the hon. Gentleman getting out of order, I shall advise him.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) really wishes to hear a filibuster, he should invite my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) to try. He is not even trying today.

Mr. Golding

I bitterly regret the attack made on me by the hon. Member for Burton—a Member with whom I have actually sat in the stocks on a Saturday afternoon. I have suffered with him in the past, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Why should he not suffer with me this afternoon? I am sure that when the hon. Gentleman reads my speech he will agree that it is the speech that should have been made in introducing the Bill.

The Ministry of Defence memorandum dealt with the complexity of forms and instructions, pointing out that The forms for the registration of Service voters are necessarily more complex than those for civilians because of the additional information the Service voter has to provide, e.g., the address at which he wishes to register and his proxy requirements. This is a slur on our Armed Forces. I should not have thought that they would be at all flummoxed by form-filling. I should have thought that, with the high standard of training in the Armed Forces today, they would be more rather than less competent to deal with that situation.

Here perhaps I ought to admit to an error earlier. I agree that I should have spoken of inertia rather than of apathy in the Forces. But according to the Ministry of Defence, as the average Service man spends a large part of his time outside the United Kingdom, is out of touch with events, and can vote only by proxy, this sometimes leads to apathy among Service men. This is exacerbated by the difficulties mentioned in—

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)

With regard to the very interesting point made by my hon. Friend, does not he agree that perhaps there is a case for better communications internally of a political nature so that we do not have these people ignorant about political issues through no fault of their own?

Mr. Golding

My hon. Friend is trying to lead me astray. I have been desperately sticking to the issue before us, which is that of the Service voter.

I see Whips crowding in on me from all sides—Whips who, despite previous friendship, always press me not to put the point of view of my electors because of their desperate concern to see a piece of legislation put on the statute book. I shall not be intimidated by my hon. Friend the Deputy Chief Whip, sitting there in the Chief Whip's seat, trying very hard to bring my contribution to a halt. Nor shall I give way to the glowers of the pairing Whip, sitting at the end of the Front Bench. But I have to bring my observations to an end because I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has many questions to answer. I do not think that it will take her long to answer the contribution of the hon. Member for Woking, but I have put some very important questions to her which I hope that she will answer today.

Earlier in the debate, the hon. Member for Burton asked me precisely where I stood on this Bill. I have an open mind. I am waiting to hear the Minister's reply—

Mr. G. B. Drayson (Skipton)

So are we all.

Mr. Golding

The hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Drayson) says, from a sedentary position, "So are we all". That obviously is the truth. But I think that it is very important that every Service man records his vote. It is important that every Service man should vote in every election and that every Service man should see that he is registered. But so, too, should every civilian.

I hope to hear from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary why the Government believe that there should be this differentiation and what their attitude is towards the wording of the Bill. I am sorry not to be able to go into all the arguments in detail. I hope to take them up later in Committee, if I am fortunate enough to be picked to serve upon it.

3.28 p.m.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

On the speech of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding), I make only the comment that I noted that he felt that there should be a time limit incorporated into the Bill—a discipline that he is reluctant to exercise by himself. I also noticed with interest his implication that measures passed by only small majorities apparently have less validity. He was referring to the Speaker's Conference. My hon. Friends and I may have occasion to remind the hon. Gentleman of his remarks in other circumstances in the near future.

I do not propose to pursue the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. The House will have made its own judgment of their quality and whether they are more appropriate to a Second Reading debate or Committee stage—to say nothing of the hon. Gentleman's motive in making them.

I intervene only briefly, first, to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) both on his choice of Bill and on the manner in which he presented it and, secondly, to express pleasure at the indication that the Under-Secretary may be willing to look favourably upon it.

Mr. Russell Kerr

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hesitate to make the point, but is it fair to the rest of us who have listened attentively to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) that the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) should now be reading his speech? We sympathise with him if he happens to be nervous about it, but, as a matter of courtesy to the rest of us, the hon. Gentleman might indulge in a little "ad libbing", at any rate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is not unusual for speeches to be read from the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Sims

I assure the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) that I am not reading my speech but simply reading from notes. In any event, I do not see the relevance of that to the debate.

We are rightly proud of the mechanics of our electoral system even though there may be occasional differences about the method. However, it cannot be satisfactory if 300,000 people are unable to vote. If it came to light that, for example, a whole town had been inadvertently left off the electoral register and its population disfranchised, there would quite rightly be an uproar. The principle is surely exactly the same in this case, despite the fact that the individuals about whom we are talking are widely dispersed.

This is a measure which we owe to those who serve us in the Armed Forces and which they are entitled to expect us to pass. It is one to which the Government have a commitment and which was recommended in principle by the Speaker's Conference in 1973.

On all those grounds I commend the Bill to my hon. Friends and I trust that it will have the full support of the House.

3.32 p.m.

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

As the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) explained when introducing his Bill, the House has had the opportunity to debate the important subject of Service voters' registration on several occasions in the past two years. However, I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding), who spoke at some length, that I have some sympathy with his view that the House deserved a rather longer explanation of the Bill from the hon. Member for Woking than was given, if not for hon. Members who are present now, at least for hon. Members who read Hansard and for the Press and public. They will certainly want to know on what grounds the House made its decision on this stage of the Bill this afternoon. They may not all be as fully aware of the quite complicated history of this issue as are the hon. Member for Woking and me. I welcome the searching and inquiring intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and I congratulate him on the way he has obviously applied himself to this complicated issue.

In 1974 the hon. Member for Woking introduced his Representation of the People (No. 2) Bill, which covered a wide spread of electoral matters but included substantially the same provision on Service voters' registration as that contained in the Bill we are debating today. Last year the hon. Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer) introduced his Representation of the People Bill, which was in substance the same as the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Woking in 1974. The matter was also debated last year in the context of the referendum discussions. There was, too, a debate on the Adjournment in April last year when the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) raised the subject of the registration and voting arrangements for members of the Armed Forces and their spouses.

The subject of today's debate has indeed received fairly regular attention over the years, but I shall put it in its historical perspective.

There has been a separate system of registration of Service voters since 1918 when special provisions were first made. These were aimed primarily at those on active service who were not regular Service men. After that war the continuing need for such provisions was recognised. One principle which governed registration practice until the Representation of the People Act 1969 was that, once registered, a Service man did not himself have to re-register, but was included in subsequent lists until he ceased to be eligible or cancelled his registration. This is clearly very relevant to our debate today.

From 1918 responsibility for notifying Service men each year of their electoral rights rested with commanding officers of units or ships. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme has returned to the Chamber. If he reads Hansard, he will see the compliment that I paid him. I also draw his attention to my last remarks about units or ships, as he specifically referred in an astute observation to personnel afloat.

Declarations of new voters were made annually, attested at units, and passed, together with lists of current Service voters, to record offices for checking and forwarding to electoral registration officers. Acknowledgments were returned along the same chain. Voting was by post in the United Kingdom and by proxy overseas. During this period it was open to members of the Armed Forces in the United Kingdom to opt out of the system and to claim registration on a civilian basis at their current address. In practice, the system failed to produce the desired results because of difficulties experienced in maintaining adequate data in record offices, but the procedure was kept in use until 1944.

Meanwhile, the Vivian Committee on Electoral Machinery had been considering the matter and in its White Paper in December 1942 recommended the setting up of controlling machinery in the form of a central index for the Armed Forces similar to that available in the National Registration Central Index in respect of civilians. These new arrangements were introduced in 1944 following the Parliament (Elections and Meeting) Act 1943. All members of the Services sent fresh declarations to local electoral registration officers who entered the declarants on the Service Register. Details were then forwarded to the Central National Register Office.

In 1946, the Oliver Committee on Electoral Registration recommended the transfer of responsibility for the maintenance of records of Service voters from the Central National Register Office to the record offices of the three Services and the creation there of additional records. Maintenance of the records at CNRO was, however, not expensive in staff, and the Registrar-General suggested that, if substantial increases in staff in record offices were to be required, it might be better to continue the existing arrangements. This suggestion was considered by the Service Departments and the Home Office, and the then Home Secretary accepted their conclusion that the functions in question could be more economically and effectively discharged by the SNRO than by Service record offices. Accordingly, no change was made in the existing responsibility of the CNRO.

Following principles laid down in the Representation of the People Acts 1948 and 1949, the scheme was again revised in 1949 and was for the first time extended to cover wives of members of the Forces residing overseas with their husbands. In February 1968, the Speaker's Conference made the following recommendations in its final report: The present arrangements for continuous registration of members of the Forces and their wives should cease. The Service authorities should in future be required to obtain information for the purpose of registration from any member of the Forces who appears to be qualified to be registered whenever similar information is required to be given by a civilian householder; and it should be the duty of the commanding officer of each unit to see that this is carried out in time for entries to be made in each ordinary register. The obligation on the Service authorities to obtain such information at such times should extend to wives of Service men in the United Kingdom who are residing in premises maintained by the Service authorities or by the Ministry of Public Building and Works as well as to wives who are residing outside the United Kingdom to be with their husbands. Elsewhere in its report the Conference also recommended an element of compulsion in the provision of information which had previously been purely voluntary.

The reasons for these recommendations were apparently that the Conference considered that Service men should have similar rights and duties to civilians, that the percentage of Service voters registered was too low, and that under continuous registration the register was swollen by personnel who had long left the Services but had not been taken off the register. The Conference may also have considered that there were weaknesses in the system because of the divided responsibility for removing names from the register and because of the time gap in many cases between enlistment and the opportunity to sign a Service declaration.

In the event, legislation in the form of the Representation of the People Act 1969 did not implement these recommendations fully. It did not place a direct responsibility on commanding officers to obtain information for registration purposes. Nor did the Act give effect to the Speaker's Conference recommendation that commanding officers should be made responsible for obtaining information for registration purposes from Service wives residing in Service quarters in the United Kingdom. Under the current procedure, commanding officers are responsible for ensuring that a form is handed personally to each eligible member of the Armed Forces each year. Completed forms are then forwarded direct by the declarant or his unit to the appropriate electoral registration officer after attestation by a commissioned officer. Names are entered on the register for one year only. There is no compulsion on an individual to complete or submit the declaration.

This situation was the one considered by the following Speaker's Conference, that of 1973. This found that in recent years the percentage of eligible voters to be registered had fallen to between 20 per cent. and 30 per cent. and recommended a return to what we usually describe as "the earlier system for once-for-all registration". It may, however, be helpful if I once again quote the 1973 Conference's recommendations on this matter. They are: The present arrangement for annual registration of members of the Forces should cease. Each Service man should in future be registered, and new recruits should be registered on enlistment. Thereafter each Service man should be required annually to declare that he wishes to make no change in his registration, or to change the details of his registration, or to have his name omitted from the register for the ensuing year. 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.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

My hon. Friend mentioned that the Service man could either change his registration—presumably because of a change of constituency address—or be left off the register altogether. The ordinary civilian is under a legal obligation to fill in a registration form. There is no question of a civilian opting out of registering for election purposes.

Dr. Summerskill

I was in the process of simply informing the House of the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference. I was not saying what is in the hon. Member's Bill or what the Government's view is.

To continue with my quotation from the 1973 Speaker's Conference's recommendations: 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. The details of a Service man's registration should be entered on his records which would accompany him to his unit; and the records should be amended when he changes his registration. Service men should be able to claim entry in the register for the ensuing year until 16th December each year. The appropriate forms should be simplified. No military offence should be created as result of these recommendations. The wives of Service men should be registered as Service voters. I am sure that the House will agree that even this brief historical survey of the subject indicates that Service voters' registration has been the subject of considerable study over the years. Some may say that there has been too much study and too much tinkering with the machinery which could be got to work all right if only it were left alone. That is a tenable view, certainly, although, as I have shown, the House has refused to leave this matter alone over the years, but it is not a view, I assume, that would be held by the supporters of the present Bill.

The other view is that this is a difficult matter that it is not as straight forward as hon. Members might think and that it is important that whatever system is devised should be right both in principle and in detail. This is a point which was well brought out by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, who was concerned that, even if we were agreed on the principle, we should apply ourselves rather more to the detail.

It is for this reason that the Government, while expressing general support for the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference of 1973, have previously said that they considered this to be a proper matter for Government legislation. This was not because the Government can make an exclusive claim to wisdom in this area, but because as many hon. Members will know, electoral law tends to be of a complex and technical nature. The complexity derives in the main from the attempt to match the variety of the human situation. The technicality derives from the attempt to achieve some precision in defining one of the most important rights of citizenship. Because it is such an important right, as I am sure all hon. Members appreciate, it has always been felt that a Government Bill would give the legislation a chance of greater discussion.

I said a moment ago that the Government had "previously" said that it considered these questions to be suitable for Government legislation. However, I am very conscious that, in the debate on the Bill introduced last year by the hon. Member for Flint, West, I said that the Government hoped to introduce legislation "at an early opportunity". I had hoped, as I know many hon. Members on both sides of the House had hoped, that room might have been found for a Bill on Service voters' registration in the Government's legislative programme for the present Session, but this has not been possible.

In view of this, the Government consider that it would be wrong to stand in the way of the present Bill. Certain points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme would certainly be matters to be settled in Committee. I think that the hon. Member for Woking is willing to concede that. The Committee would consider Government amendments to the Bill and possibly amendments by the hon. Gentleman.

Many of the other issues raised today by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme were administrative matters suitable for regulations which will in time be laid before the House. I assure him and the House that the Government are broadly in support of the Speaker's Conference's recommendations.

In view of that the Government consider that it would be wrong to stand in the way of the Bill. If the House decides to give the Bill a Second Reading today, the Government will have to consider what assistance can be made available to help its passage.

3.45 p.m.

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)

I do not wish to detain the House long, but I should like to make a passing reference to something I mentioned in an interjection earlier. It is, if I may use the word, the "complementariness" of effective communications and the registration of the Service voter.

I am the first to concede that I have not gone into the Bill in great detail. I have learnt a great deal from listening patiently to my hon. Friend the Minister and to the brisk ad sharp remarks and comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding), who has certainly shown a mastery of the subject that took me by surprise. His speech reflected a good deal of mature reading and consideration. I do not doubt that at an early date his splendid effort will be drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and that an early opportunity will be presented to him to make full use of his talents as revealed here this afternoon.

Mr. Rooker

Perhaps the first example of the use of the talents of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) is that he could be made a member of the Standing Committee to consider the Bill?

Mr. Kerr

That is a tempting suggestion and, were it in my power, I should not hesitate to make that appointment. A gentleman who is capable of a century innings in the style of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme is certainly someone for whom I have the greatest respect. I doubt that I shall speak for half the time that he took—even if you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were to allow me to do so.

I want to return to the "complement" of the activity of the registration of Service voters, because the Minister was a little thin in her references to that side of things as opposed to the full and detailed manner in which she was able to describe the Government's thinking about the registration of Service voters. Certain points must be watched and the hon. and learned Member for Southport (Mr. Percival) underlined several.

None the less, we ignore at our peril the subject of proper communications. In saying that I hark back to my experience as a member of RAF Bomber Command Pathfinder Group. We had the great good fortune, at least in the sense that I am describing, to have a former hon. Member of this House—the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed—Air Vice-Marshal Bennett as the head of No. 8 Group, which was the Pathfinder Group. He, God bless him, inaugurated a series of what were called Sunday night discussion groups. They were not in any sense academic.

Those six months, or thereabouts, were immediately before the 1945 General Election when, incidentally, I obtained my first baptism of fire by speaking as a raw recruit for my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo). I spoke to one of the biggest audiences that I have ever been honoured to address. I addressed 4,000 or 5,000 people in Reading Market Square in the 1945 General Election campaign. I made a "blinder". I was far too nervous. However, I was sufficiently relieved to be still on my feet after 10 minutes of gabbled comment on the scene as I saw it.

I should like to return to the idea to which my former Service colleague, Air Vice-Marshal Bennett, gave birth—the discussion group. In this group there were no holds barred. We were a tremendously diverse collection of Service men. The only feature that united us was belonging to No. 8 Pathfinder Force, Bomber Command. The variety of subjects was tremendous, as indeed was the day-to-day practical democracy of the group.

I can well remember the first time I went to a meeting of this group. To some extent I was nervous because of Bennett himself, who used to turn up regularly. However, I found myself engaged in a real "knock-down, drag 'em out" struggle with the principal speaker in the—

Mr. Carol Mather (Esher)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is there no way in which you are able to facilitate the business of the House? We have a squalid manoeuvre going on at present to exclude my Bill, which is an important and urgent Bill which will save lives.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I was about to ask the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) when this discussion group came to discuss this Bill.

Mr. Kerr

That is a very good point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was trying to illustrate my basic theme—namely, that it is a good and wondrous thing that we have efficient and, I hope—speaking for the Minister—well ordered registration procedures which prevent the possibility of some crusty old Tory colonel—to give an example—getting the game sewn up from a particular point of view. It is equally important that we attend to the complementary aspect of the matter, adequate communications, so that we are not sending lads "over the top", politically speaking, when they are not informed about the basic issues which, in their citizen role, they are being asked to judge.

I should regard it as a great neglect of our public duty as Members of Parliament if we were to allow the Bill to go forward without ensuring that that side of things was as well attended to and thought about as the registration side. However, I digress for a moment, tempted no doubt by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I return to the question of registration. I want to finish my observation on how the discussion group used to proceed.

At my first meeting, full of trepidation I found myself in a situation in which, somewhat inadvertently, I had locked horns with a gentleman who was, I believe, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of your former persuasion before you became Mr. Deputy Speaker. This person was a don at Cambridge, which was not very far away from where we were stationed.

The subject for discussion—this will awaken the memories of all hon. Members who are older than about 40—was Munich in 1938—or whenever that happened.

This gentleman had the advantage of being fresh from his books down the road 10 or 12 miles away in Cambridge. He was able to attempt to dazzle me with science, or at least very detailed quotations and references from various documents with which he had been toying. I knew that my theme was right. At least, at the age of 22 I kidded myself that it was—and I still think so. However, there was this attempt to dazzle me with academic researches. I was just holding my own and doing not too badly, still convinced of my own rectitude—

Mr. Onslow rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put, but Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER with-held his assent and declined at that time to put that Question.

Mr. Kerr

It is not the first time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that there has been an attempt by the hon. Member for Woking to interrupt the flow of my oratory. He is an old combatant friend of mine from the aviation Benches. Therefore, out of deference to him and to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I sit down.

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Debate to be resumed—what day?

Mr. Onslow

Monstrous. On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the whole House will agree that the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) had actually sat down before the clock struck four o'clock.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Hon. Members may not be aware that there are certain devices which indicate to the Chair precisely the hour of four o'clock and that hour had been passed.

Mr. Onslow

Further to my point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not intend to talk the Bill out. He went by the clock above your head. He and other hon. Members have no other assistance. For the sake of a split second I am sure that it will be agreeable to the House that the Question shall be put.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am bound by the devices at my command. Debate to be resumed—what day?

Mr. Onslow

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Are you telling us that there is absolutely no way in which you can exercise discretion in this matter? There was an inadvertent split second mistake in timing by the hon. Gentleman, who I am sure will confirm that it was not his intention to talk the Bill out and to deprive the House of the chance of reaching a conclusion.

Mr. Russell Kerr

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is impossible for the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) to know what was in the mind of the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr). We passed the hour of four o'clock. In those circumstances, I ask the hon. Member in charge of the Bill to name what day.

Mr. Onslow

Friday next.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday next.