HC Deb 03 July 1978 vol 953 cc186-93

(1) The Secretary of State may, where he is satisfied that there exists in any constituency a substantial number of persons eligible for registration as electors but not so registered, order that an appropriate number of persons shall be deemed to be entered in the register of electors for the purposes of section 64(2)(a) of the Representation of the People Act 1949; and the overall limit on candidates' election expenses shall be increased accordingly.

(2) An Order under subsection (1) above shall not be made unless a draft of the Order has been laid before, and, approved by resolution of, each House of Parliament.'—[Mr. Viggers.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

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

The purpose of the clause is to recognise the large number of persons unregistered for voting and to allow expenses in respect of them. The clause is of narrow application. I can say that because the figures of population as against the numbers registered for voting are available. The whole population above the age of 18 in June 1976 amounted to 35,627,500, whereas the number of electors on the 1977 electoral register is 35,653,771. I recognise that we are not comparing like with like: there is a discrepancy between the two figures of only 0.1 per cent, or 1 in 1,000.

When I say that the clause is of narrow application I do not mean that it is unimportant. Where there is a discrepancy between the total number of adults in a constituency and the total number of persons registered for voting, it can be a large discrepancy.

The first is Kensington and Chelsea, which comprises two constituencies. The population over the age of 18 in 1976 amounted to 138,965, whereas the electorate on the 1977 electoral register amounted to 117,746—a discrepancy of 21,219, this meaning that about 15 per cent. of the adults in those two constituencies were not registered for voting purposes.

There are many reasons why those living in that area of Kensington and Chelsea may not be registered. This is an area where many people live in flats. Many young adults will be registered in their original constituency, where their parents live. Also, there are people of foreign origin who may not wish to be registered here, and, of course, there are some residents who have two houses and may be registered elsewhere.

A similar pattern, though perhaps for different reasons, arises in the London borough of Camden, where the three constituencies of Hampstead, Holborn and St. Pancras, South and St. Pancras, North produce the following figures: the population above the age of 18 in June 1976 amounted to 156,629, and the electoral register for 1977 showed 143,037, which means that the number of unregistered adults amounted almost to 10 per cent.

However, I believe that the most serious cases of unregistered voters arise in service areas—the towns where a large number of residents are in the armed forces —residents who also have their families. I shall not go into the detailed reasons for this more than I need. I am conscious of the rules of order. The subject was the basis of an Adjournment debate on 2nd February of this year, and the facts are well known to Ministers at the Home Office, but to make sense of my argument I must give the bare bones of the background.

The Representation of the People (Armed Forces) Act 1976, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), had the admirable purpose of making electoral registration easier for service men and their wives. It allowed service men and their wives to register once as service voters and then to remain as service voters throughout the period of the husband's service career, with the commensurate privileges of proxy and postal voting.

So far, so good, but the Act went further and provided that service men and their wives not only can but must register as service voters, failing which they lose their right to be registered at all. Many wives were incensed by this, and the issue became a cause célèbre in service areas. Many wives remonstrated and said that they were being treated as part and parcel of their husbands—as a kind of bag and baggage—and maintained that they were persons, not service persons. They objected violently and therefore did not register as service personnel. Indeed, the issue was so serious that I called for an emergency debate in the House on the problems of non-registration of wives of service men.

Now that the registers have been completed in service areas we can see the effect of the Bill for the first time. The only constituency that I can speak of with real knowledge is my own. In my constituency of Gosport there are about 49,000 people on the electoral register, and it is now estimated that about 10,000 adults have not registered although they are eligible to do so. It is believed that most of these are wives of service men who object to registering as service voters. This means that one in six of the adults in my constituency is not on the register. The Minister knows my views on this, and to repeat them further would be out of order.

But there is an effect on the maximum amount of expenses that can be employed in these constituencies where there is a shortfall in the number of registered adults To take a constituency of 60,000 in a borough, it would mean that there is the basic £1,750, plus 1½ on the 60,000, making a total of £2,650, whereas with 50,000 people in a borough the total would be £2,500, which means that there is a shortfall of £150 in the amount of expenses that are allowed. It means, in fact that instead of campaigning as if one were campaigning for 60,000 people one is campaigning as if one were doing it for 50,000 people.

One may say that that is not a particularly large shortfall, that it is only 5 per cent., and what is £150 anyway, but as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) well knows—and I do too,—it is necessary to use the whole of one's expenses if one is mounting a serious campaign.

Mr. Rooker

It is necessary to use the whole of one's expenses to get votes. If people are not on the register they cannot vote. I do not see the purpose of the new clause.

Mr. Viggers

The hon. Gentleman will see the purpose very shortly. Some of the expenses in an election are fixed. For example, there are the cost of hire of halls, telephone expenses and the cost of an election address when it is sent to registered voters. But many of the expenses are not fixed. Many vary. The cost of printing leaflets for general distribution, lapel stickers, car stickers and window posters is the largest single item in any campaign, and most printing is done not on the basis of the number of people who are registered as electors but on the number of people in the constituency.

When leaflets are printed for distribution, they are normally not dropped carefully through the doors of people who are registered on the electoral register but are dropped through every door. Similarly, when a street distribution is made of leaflets or car stickers, it is made to all people in the street rather than on the basis of a cross-examination of the people as to whether they are on the electoral register.

Mr. John Evans

The hon. Gentleman is mystifying me. Surely, one knows the number of electors that one has only from the electoral register. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that there is a mythical gross total including people who are not on the register. Where does he obtain these figures? The only relevant numbers on which any candidate can base his campaign expenses are the numbers of those who are actually on the register.

Mr. Viggers

I tried very hard, I hope successfully, to stay within the rules of order. For that reason I may perhaps have skated over some of the finer points, which would explain the argument to the hon. Gentleman.

The First Deputy Chairman (Sir Myer Galpern)

I appreciate the difficulties. I have three cemeteries in my constituency.

Mr. Viggers

I am grateful to you, Sir Myer, for that intervention, which was most helpful, as always. The residents of your three cemeteries, I suggest, do not drive cars that might require car stickers, do not parade around the streets, with the possibility of being given literature, and do not live in houses, and therefore are not the recipients of printed literature.

The fact is that it is known and can be established that there are 60,000 people over the age of 18 living in my constituency, and only 50,000 of them are on the electoral register. I ask the hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Evans) to take that as read. I can assure him that it is true. I trust that he and his hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr appreciates the point I am making is in no sense a party political point. It is a genuine point, and I maintain that it is worthy of consideration.

Mr. Edward Lyons

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on what appears to me to be a remarkably altruistic attempt to ingratiate himself with all those who cannot vote for him, but is it not the case that the amount of money expended on leafleting through doors—that is, excluding the free post—must be very small, even to the percentage of people the hon. Gentleman is talking about, so we are talking about only very tiny sums?

Mr. Viggers

I accept that we are talking about comparatively small amounts, but they are significant, and equity demands that there should be some recognition of not just the number of people on the electoral register but the number of people who are within the constituency.

I do not believe that the average candidate when campaigning asks each person to whom he speaks, each person to whom he distributes literature, whether he or she is on the electoral register. He gives people material whether or not they are on the register.

It is wrong that candidates in constituencies such as those I have named should be allowed the amount of money for nine people when they must aim at 10, or that in the extreme case which I have quoted, and of which I have special knowledge, they are speaking to six people and have only the maximum expenditure appropriate for five.

The clause is of narrow application, but that does not diminish the importance of the principle that it maintains. All I ask is that the Secretary of State be empowered, if he thinks it appropriate, to take cognisance of the shortcomings in the registration in the electoral roll by deeming an appropriate number of persons to be entered in the register. This would have the effect of increasing the maximum expenditure, but would have no effect on the electoral register itself. I hope that the clause will be regarded as fine tuning, the purpose of which is to ensure equity in a small number of cases.

Mr. Rooker

When I read this new clause I thought that the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) was trying to do something about people who had been missed off the register. I thought that he was trying to get them put back. I have a case in my constituency in which the electoral officer is obtaining a writ of mandamus to place on the register a total of 70 people—soon I hope, because time is important.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

For all the hon. Member knows he may have another year.

Mr. Rooker

That is so, but the principle which the hon. Member brings to the Committee tonight is extremely dangerous. If extended, if the hon. Member wins his case, next year or some other time, a candidate could come along and say "I'm getting expenses for these people. What about votes from them? Why cannot we have a situation whereby they turn up at the polling station and say 'I'm not actually registered but I live in this constituency and all the candidates have spent money on my behalf. Therefore I feel that I ought to vote.'?"

I do not know much about the point raised by the hon. Member concerning the service voter. It is a narrow point, but the clause goes much wider. To talk about Kensington and Chelsea when people could be registered in another part of the country leaves our election law open to much greater abuse than the sort of abuse I drew to the attention of hon. Member earlier. I hope that my right hon. Friend will throw this out.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

The remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), both now and earlier, sum up my view about this new clause. There is a problem of under-registration in different parts of the country. This concerns a high proportion of those in the 16½ to 18 age group and the immigrant population. Further, some electoral registration officers are more successful than others in obtaining maximum registration.

The current method of registering service wives was brought about as a result of the introduction of a Private Member's Bill, introduced by a Tory Member. Now the Tories are complaining that it does not work. It may be that such a Bill is not the appropriate way to proceed with these matters, although I concede that in this instance Mr. Speaker's Conference had considered the matter. While there may be problems with under-registration and with service wives, the difficulty seems to involve more than this. This should have been thought of when the Private Member's Bill was introduced. Many service wives do not want to be treated as appendages of the services and prefer to make their own arrangements. There is nothing that can be done about that before 16th February of next year, until which time the current register will be used.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that I should make an estimate of the amount of under-registration in an area. It is being suggested, in other spheres, that I should say when a march should be banned and I reply that it must be done by someone with an objective knowledge of public order because I would be making a subjective judgment. Even if I were to do what the hon. Gentleman suggests the people concerned would not be able to vote anyway. This is a misconceived idea. It is not the way to tackle the issue. I believe that, on the wider subject, we ought to leave things for a while. There is a register, and if there is a General Election before 16th February of next year it is that register on which the election will be fought. I do not propose to do anything about it. I recommend to the Committee that the new clause should not be approved.

Question put and negatived.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.