§ Order for Second Reading read.3.11 pm
§ Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is a short Bill the content of which has been presented to the House on a number of occasions in the past, usually as part of a more complex measure. We have seen with pleasure that some parts of the previously more complex Bills have recently passed into law, and I trust that it will be possible for this other part of the reform of the procedure for representing the people at parliamentary elections to receive similarly favourable consideration.
Basically, the Bill provides that those who have booked a holiday before a general election is announced will not lose their vote because they are out of the constituency on polling day. I am certain that hon. Members on both sides must frequently have been faced with almost disbelief from electors who have said "I want to vote but I am going away 857 on holiday. Why cannot I have a postal vote?" I have tried to explain—I am sure that others have done the same—that postal votes are available only for those who are disabled or incapacitated or whose employment is likely to take them out of the constituency.
§ Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn and Hatfield)
In addition to the element of total surprise, is there not also something verging on indignation, or even despair, since these many people who wish to exercise their democratic right are conscious of the importance of exercising it, and they therefore feel that they are being directly denied that right? Time and again, when approached on the subject, they have said that something ought to be done. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is high time that a proper understanding of that concern was brought home to the House and acted upon?
§ Mr. Griffiths
Yes, I agree, and I am grateful for that information. Almost by definition, those who protest about their inability to cast their vote belong to that substantial majority of the population who take extremely seriously their right of franchise at a general election, and we in this House ought to be the very guardians of the right of the individual elector to cast his vote.
I have limited the scope of the Bill to general elections since the dates of council and local government elections in general are known in advance, and it seems to me that it is at the time of a general election, which may be called at almost any point in the year, that people are most concerned to exercise their vote. Therefore, I am specifically relating this measure to voting at a general election.
There is, of course, a long-standing convention that Governments do not call a general election in the height of summer. I am sure that that is broadly accepted as sound and reasonable. However, that convention arose from the pattern of the past, when going on holiday meant the last week in July and the first week in August, or certainly some time within the school holidays. However, what has happened, especially since the Representation of the People Act 1949 was passed, is that there has been a major social change, related to the relatively low cost of travel and transport these days, which allows people 858 to take holidays away from home at times which they would perhaps have previously regarded as outside the holiday season.
Elderly people and the disabled often choose to take their holidays in the spring or the autumn to take advantage, first, of lower prices of holiday accommodation away from the high season period and, secondly, to avoid the crush. People who are disabled, and those with wheelchairs, are much more able to enjoy their holidays in peace and comfort at a time when the holiday industry is more able to cope with them. Certainly in Portsmouth, North, which I represent, the holiday centre of South sea is pleased to welcome, every year, large numbers of people who are elderly and disabled. We have always made a special point of inviting them to come at a time when the hotels are relatively quiet and when the facilities of the resort are not overstretched, so that they may be given the best holiday possible.
The fact of social change means that people now go on holiday out of the old high season period. It becomes even more likely that, as time goes by, more people will be taking their holidays at a time that could be chosen by a Government to dissolve Parliament and call for a general election.
§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)
Could the hon. Gentleman clear up one point which he mentioned a minute or two ago and which he is mentioning again now? He is talking as though his Bill would relate only to a general election. That is what he said a few minutes ago. Does he really mean a general election, or a parliamentary election, including of course by-elections? I think that he means the latter, does he not?
§ Mr. Griffiths
I bow to the hon. Gentleman's more careful use of phrase. The Bill uses the term "parliamentary election". I am sorry. I realise that I have been using the phrase "general election". I wish that the intervention had perhaps come earlier and prevented me from continuing to make that mistake. I am speaking of parliamentary elections as opposed to elections for any form of local government. That would include by-elections.
I was making the point that elderly and disabled people often choose to take 859 their holidays out of the holiday season. Very often they are members of organised groups which plan their holidays many weeks, or even months, in advance. The dates of the holidays are therefore not easily controlled by individuals. They cannot change their holidays quickly at the last moment. Therefore, the measure was brought forward bearing in mind elderly or disabled people who may book group holidays.
I wish to make it quite clear that the Bill is not intended for the advantage of any specific social or economic group. I believe that its benefits will spread right across the spectrum of the electorate, because it is not concerned just with the elderly who go on holiday early or late in the season. Many people try to do that if they can and if they do not have the responsibilities of school-age children. The thinking behind the Bill is to deal with a very wide problem rather than a narrow one.
However, it has been my experience over many years that it is elderly and disabled people who value the right to vote most of all. Certainly that is true in my constituency, and it must be true of many others. It is the elderly and those who have to struggle against disabilities who are the most enthusiastic of all to cast their votes. How often have we all encountered people who refuse help with transport even though everyone feels that they should be helped because he or she feels that it is a duty and privilege to vote?
It is with that in mind that it is important to look at ways to ensure that such people are not effectively disfrancised if a parliamentary election is called at a time which may be far removed from the traditional holiday season.
There is a second aspect of this, which is the concentration of people who go on such holidays from fairly small areas. I am not referring here to the traditional wakes weeks which depopulate certain areas at holiday times. Normally, they occur at a time which would be regarded as a close season for parliamentary elections. However, it is common nowadays for sizeable groups of people to join together in order to obtain all the advantages of group bookings. It is not unusual for 100 or 120 people to make a block booking at a holiday camp or large hotel complex. 860 They may be drawn from one area in a constituency and, if they join other groups from the same town or city—perhaps other old people's clubs or pensioners'groups—it can have a disproportionate effect on the expression of the will of the people in a parliamentary election. It is not simply that a small number of people are out of the constituency. The important aspect is that they are perhaps concentrated strongly in one physical part of the city and made up of one specific group of voters.
Last May, it was my sorrow to discover that a group of people associated with a church decided to take a week's holiday early in May. The effect on the election is not known to me, but there is no doubt that the people who were away at the time felt that their viewpoint had not been expressed in the way that they would have liked. My Bill would provide for those people an opportunity to cast their votes.
I have made inquiries of other hon. Members, and representations have been made to me by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Although there is a broad measure of support for the principle of allowing people away on holiday to vote, I understand that certain general criticisms have been voiced and one specific one about the drafting of the Bill. I shall try to deal with them, conscious of the fact that this is a relatively short debate.
The first is that an increase in the number of persons permitted to vote by post or by proxy might lead to an increase in the number of votes cast after undue influence had been brought to bear, to say nothing of votes cast by persons using ballot papers improperly. There is always the possibility of the misuse of postal voting facilities. However, as far as I am aware it is not a widespread abuse. The use of postal votes by the disabled and by those who are taken away from their homes by their employment has not led to any widespread abuse of which I am aware.
If the danger of undue influence is stressed, I suggest that it is less easy to influence someone who is going on holiday, and who therefore, by definition, is fit and well, than to influence someone who might be very ill and not wish to be bothered with making a decision about voting. Therefore, I do not believe that 861 this extension will lead to an increase in impropriety.
More broadly, I was surprised by the strong feeling among some hon. Members that there is an objection in principle to an extension of postal voting, that it is desirable in our democracy that people should take part physically by casting their votes and that it is debilitating to let them vote by post. One hon. Member said that we in this House must physically walk through the Lobbies to cast our votes.
That is true, and the vast majority of people would always wish to cast their votes at the polling stations in the traditional way. Nevertheless, this group of people would otherwise be prevented from voting. They are not saying "I am too idle to cast my vote at the polling station." They genuinely cannot get there on the appropriate day.
Therefore, the Bill will not encourage a lax attitude to the exercise of the franchise. Nor will it reduce the high regard in which most electors hold their duty to cast votes at parliamentary elections.
§ Mr. Murphy
Would not my hon. Friend agree that the overriding principle in a democracy is that of one man, one vote, and that anything that we can do to ensure that people have the opportunity to vote we must do? That should be the overriding principle, not the principle of being able physically to cast a vote.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I am grateful for both interventions, because they reinforce my point that our objective must be to ensure that everyone who wants to vote can do so and that people are encouraged to vote so that the proportion who do is as high as possible.
One weakness of which the Bill is accused is the very simplicity for which I commended it. I was tempted to try to define "a holiday'. It is no secret that at one stage I considered providing for a holiday only of a particular length and at a particular distance from the constitu- 862 ency. The complications became so obvious that it appeared that the best approach was to rely on the common sense of the elector seeking to vote by post or proxy and on the wisdom of the electoral registration officer, who already has discretion about the employment of an elector who may be away from the constituency at the time of an election. He exercises his discretion on a commonsense basis. I therefore did not attempt to carry out that definition, and I am glad that on the whole it appears that that was a wise decision. However, I felt that I ought to make that point in view of the fact that earlier we were told that definitions were essential if a Bill was to have any chance of success.
All that we are asking is that the individual should be able to satisfy the electoral registration officer that he booked a holiday before the date on which the election was announced. Once the election has been announced, it is up to the person to decide whether he will choose, to be away on election day. He will have to show that he has booked his holiday previously. If he can show that, and that he is likely to be out of the constituency on polling day, he should have the right to vote other than in person.
§ Mr. George Cunningham
What it someone has a country cottage and always goes there for a holiday? Then he does not need to book the holiday at all.
§ Mr. Griffiths
The important thing is that the location of the holiday should be outside the constituency and that it has been planned in advance. It may be that the word "booked" may not apply in that case. I personally would accept that a person does not necessarily need to make a booking with some third party in the sense of having paid a deposit and registered on some kind of application form. It would be necessary to show that a person had planned a holiday which could not readily be changed, not merely that on a whim he decided to go down to his cottage on election day. It would have to be shown that it was a planned holiday—something that was arranged in advance.
§ Mr. David Mellor (Putney)
Is it really necessary to do that? Surely the case of a man who need not go on holiday but chooses to do so is no different from 863 the situation which is presently covered by legislation in relation to a business man who does not have to make a particular business trip. He could make such a trip but would be entitled to a postal vote as of right. Why should it be any different for someone who chooses to go on holiday?
§ Mr. Griffiths
I thank my hon. Friend. The Bill uses the words "likely to be unable". Therefore, it does not insist that a person must be away on holiday at that stage, just as a person who has a postal vote because of his employment does not have to be away on business at that time. I think that the same considerations would apply, but I take the point that this is a question of distinction which the electoral registration officer would have to take into account.
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)
My hon. Friend has admirably drafted the Bill. The words contained in it are that a person "had made arrangements", not booked. If one made the arrangement to go to one's cottage in Cornwall on holiday, that would be sufficient as the Bill stands. I am not at all sure that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) was not teasing a little bit.
§ Mr. Griffiths
That is quite possible at this time on a Friday afternoon. The point is that the Bill does not suggest that a person must have some kind of contract before the right to vote in this way can be offered.
I have concentrated very much on the aspect of postal voting because I think that that is likely to be the most common way in which this problem will be overcome. A group of people or a family would know that they would be away at a particular time, they would know where they were going, they would know where they would be at the time a ballot paper was sent out, they could furnish the electoral registration officer with an address to which the ballot paper could be sent and they could return it in the normal way.
However, the problem with holidays is that with the wide availability of motor vehicles and the popularity of cruising it is not always possible for the individual, who may know where he will be on 864 polling day, to give an address to the electoral registration officer to which the ballot paper could be sent at such a time as to permit its return at the appropriate time before polling day.
For that reason, there is the inclusion in the Bill of the opportunity for the individual to specify, if he so wishes, the right to vote by proxy. I believe that on the whole this is not so widely used in other cases, but it might well prove to be an essential alternative in the case of holiday voting, especially if the holiday is of a touring nature and not one that provides for a fixed address throughout the whole period. The important point is that we are offering an opportunity to people to cast their votes.
This morning I had the opportunity to speak about the Bill on a radio programme. What happened after the programme impressed me. Presenters of programmes are usually a fairly hard-bitten group who have heard all the political arguments. Usually, they are not greatly impressed with what politicians have to say. However, after the programme the presenter turned to the producer and said "Well, you can't argue with that, can you?" I am sure that in this House there are always those who could argue with anything. Nevertheless, I believe that the Bill commands a broad degree of support within the country from those who recognise that they might be disadvantaged next time round, even if they were not disadvantaged last time. It could be their turn next time.
There are marginal constituencies where a handful of votes—fewer than those of the 100 or 120 people who may go on holiday in three or four coaches from a sizeable club—could decide the representation of that constituency.
§ Mr. Geraint Howells (Cardigan)
I missed the radio programme this morning. I take it that it was a good one. Did the hon. Gentleman mention that he would be in favour of changing the electoral system so that we could have proportional representation?
§ Mr. Griffiths
I take that important point. On another occasion I might well take the opportunity to express views on that matter, not only in the studio but in the House. This morning I did not 865 take that opportunity because of a lack of time.
The presenter said "You can't argue with that." I believe that she was probably expressing the view of a great many outside the House as well as inside the House. This is a modest but useful measure of electoral reform. It helps people to feel part of the democratic system to which we are all committed and of which we are all a part.
I commend the Bill to the House this afternoon and request that it be given a Second Reading.
§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)
As there are several Members who wish to speak before 4 o'clock, I hope that I can make my points, albeit in a very staccato fashion. In raising points in my intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths), I was not teasing him. I was, if anything, saying "It ain't just as simple as it sounds". Many things fall into that category, and this is most certainly one of them.
The hon. Gentleman has made it clear that his proposal is that postal voting should be permitted in parliamentary elections, whether a general election or a by-election. First, I do not think that it would ever be defensible that one should have postal voting for parliamentary elections but not for local elections. Secondly, I do not think that it would be defensible to have postal voting on demand for parliamentary and local elections and not for the European Parliament elections. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman intends that it should apply to the elections for the European Parliament, but I put it to the House that it is not defensible to have it for some kinds of elections and not for others.
That consideration and the kinds of more detailed considerations which were made in interventions are ones which perhaps bear out the wisdom of the House in normally referring an issue of this kind to Mr. Speaker's Conference. This happens with matters to do with the conduct of elections, such as the entitlement to vote by post. By tradition, they are referred to Mr. Speaker's Conference. This is a matter which has, of course, 866 been before Mr. Speaker's Conference in the past, not only with no recommendation that the extension proposed in this Bill should be made but with the recommendation that it should not be made. We have a positive recommendation from Mr. Speaker's Conference in the past that is contrary to the proposal contained in the Bill.
I would be the last person to say that this House should not ever go against the recommendation of a Speaker's Conference, but where a Speaker's Conference has come out with a recommendation and we wish to argue that there are new considerations which ought to lead to its being rethought, the least we must do to start with is to have that matter reconsidered by a further Speaker's Conference, which is something one would expect to happen, I suppose, in the next year or two.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North found himself getting into a swamp. He had obviously dragged himself back from that swamp in preparing his Bill, when he was trying to define what would be a holiday. The truth of the matter is that there is no way whatever of defining what is a holiday. If we permit a person to have the postal vote when he has made arrangements to go away on holiday, then in all normal circumstances in a very short time we shall find that the postal vote is available on demand. That is, therefore, the question that one wants to pose. Do we wish to see a significant extension of the right to vote by post or by proxy?
In principle, surely it must be right, as has already been said, that the main consideration should be that everyone who who is in general terms entitled to vote by reason of normal residence, nationality and age, should be able to vote. But I added the consideration of the secret ballot, and that is not irrelevant.
I turn now to the last point that I want to make.
§ Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of a situation such as I have come across, where a person going on holiday has said that he was going on business, which was accepted without question by the electoral officer?
§ Mr. Cunningham
Yes, I have. I do not know whether all Members have the same experience, but there was a change made in recent years in the rules relating to getting the right to vote by post for people who were too disabled or ill to get to the poll. The result of that change is that in some rural areas—not in all—a person can very easily get the right to vote by post by claiming that he is too ill or disabled to be able to go to the poll. Medical certification is not now needed in order to get that facility. It is necessary only to provide evidence that is acceptable to the registration officer. Some registration officers will accept certification from the candidates and their agents, while others require something much closer to the traditional medical certification.
But let me develop my point on the secret ballot for a minute or two. There is a view held that the importance of the Ballot Act 1872 was that it permitted a person to keep his vote secret if he wanted to do so. No. The importance of the 1872 Act was that it forced a person to keep his vote secret whether he wanted to or not.
If I want to buy votes, I shall not pay for them if I cannot have it proved to me that the persons concerned have delivered their part of the bargain. What the Ballot Act said was not that the person could keep his vote secret if he wanted to but that he would never be able to prove how he voted, because he had to mark his ballot paper in the booth. He is not permitted to show it to the returning officer or to anyone else.
If a candidate happens to be in the polling station at that time, as he is entitled to be, and goes to the polling booth with the voter in order to witness, as it were, how the voter is voting, the presiding officer will stop that, and he has to stop it under the rules as they are now. The postal vote breaches that practice. The postal vote is a witnessable vote, and a proxy vote, by definition, is the same. That is an important point.
As long as the proportion of the postal votes in an election is reasonably small in relation to the total, the breach of principle in the secrecy of the ballot is not important, and in all normal circumstances no one will go about buying the 868 postal votes, which is theoretically possible.
§ Mr. Peter Griffiths
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, even under the present system, the number of postal votes passed may well be greater than the majority of the successful candidate?
§ Mr. Cunningham
Yes, I do, and it is significant that, while in modern times corruption in electoral practice has been virtually unknown in this country, where it has been known it has nearly always related to the postal vote.
The point that I am making is that, yes, there could be the odd case where postal votes could make all the difference between candidate A or candidate B winning the election, but the risk of that is greatly extended if the number of people who can claim the absent vote is massively increased. Therefore, whenever we are considering a possible extension of the postal vote, we should take that factor into account.
It so happens that I think that I know the right answer to this, which is to permit absent voting that is not postal voting. There are difficulties about it, and every presiding and returning officer in the country would not thank us for doing it. However, it would be possible to have an arrangement whereby the ballot paper was posted to the person, as is done for a postal vote, but instead of marking it and returning it by post he was required to take it to the place where he was on holiday or on business, take it into a polling station and put it in a special ballot box. All those votes would then have to be reported back to the respective constituency returning officers—and there is the difficulty about the arrangement. However, it would not present the danger to the secrecy of the vote and to the opening up of the possibility of corruption which is certainly presented by a massive increase in the postal vote as it stands.
Because of that fundamental point and the lesser points that I mentioned initially, it seems to us that, while in principle the extension of the vote to people on holiday is desirable, it is a matter that should be considered by Mr. Speaker's Conference once again, and we hope that there will be an early opportunity for that.
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)
I want to be extremely brief, but as I am in the unique position of having moved the first similar Bill about 10 years ago and was also the first hon. Member to move an Indecent Displays Bill, both of which were throttled because of general elections, I should like to say a few words.
Mr. Speaker's Conference on this matter was a long time ago. Furthermore, the question of holiday voting was strangled upstairs at the time on party lines. At that time the Labour Party thought that it was a dangerous Bill and that it would lose by it, which was hardly surprising. I then represented the Isle of Thanet—I now represent Thanet, West—and had some 1,800 people in my constituency, all of whom were Tories, who were away during October on holiday, as they always are. The whole picture has, however, changed, and there are not the same party lines on the matter.
I speak now in my role as the newly elected chairman of the Conservative committee on tourism, and tourism today means two or three holidays a year. Because of that, the old people in the Labour-held seats of the North, for example, are away at the most unusual times—May, September, October, December, all sorts of times. Therefore, thank goodness, the partisan spirit between our two parties no longer exists.
I am convinced that a Speaker's Conference would take a different view now from the one taken many years ago. I hope that the matter will be given urgent consideration. The Bill will not reach Committee stage quickly but, when it does, I am sure that its reception will be very different from the one that my Bill received. I had to fight Opposition Members in Committee on every kind of technicality.
Therefore, I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading. The Minister must be brief today and little else on the subject can be heard today. However, it can all be heard later in Committee. I am convinced that the Bill, as it stands, is well drafted. It means that if people have made arrangements to go on holiday they must report that fact. I take the point that anybody could give that excuse, but people have to go away on 870 holiday. If they stay in their constituency and do not vote because they have a proxy vote or a vote by post, they will be found out. That will not cause too much harm because, to a large degree, we have reached the stage of those provisions.
In my constituency all the hoteliers go away on holiday—or rather, on business. I make sure that they all go away on business. They have only to make one booking when they are away to be away on business. Nobody on the Isle of Thanet does not know that when he goes away during an election he must do some business in order to cast his vote. In my constituency, there are more old people on supplementary benefit than in any other place in England. Of course, because they are unable to get to the polls, they are entitled to certificates registering their disablement. One way or the other, we get around the problem. It is time that the matter was put on a fair and square basis, including holidays, and I believe that the Bill should be given a Second Reading.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Leon Brittan)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) on putting forward the Bill.
At the outset, I should like to refer to Mr. Speaker's Conference, to which hon. Members have already referred. It is true that the matter has been considered by a Speaker's Conference, and it is equally true that another Speaker's Conference might take a different view. However, we should not allow too rigid a convention to be built up and say that matters must be referred to a Speaker's Conference. It is a mistake to think that there has been no significant legislation on electoral matters except after reference to a Speaker's Conference. It is important to put that fact on record to make clear that we cannot regard a Speaker's Conference as being a necessary certificate before proceeding in these matters.
I personally welcome the opportunity afforded by the Bill in order to return to the subject of absent voting facilities for holidaymakers. Conservative Members may be aware that I touched on the subject at the Conservative Party conference this year. At that time, I said that the Government were sympathetic 871 to extending absent voting facilities to holidaymakers. As a matter of principle it has always seemed to me to be wrong that many thousands of people, when certain elections are held in holiday months, should be effectively deprived of the opportunity to vote. To allow that to continue means, in effect, to regard going on holiday as somethting so immoral or unworthy that it should be inflicted with a major deprivation of a crucial civic right. I do not take that attitude towards going on holiday—quite the reverse.
Nor do I believe that long-standing arrangements can and should be expensively dropped or changed in order to allow somebody to cast a vote in person. I agree entirely that that is unfair and unrealistic. There are anomalies in the absent voting laws which should be set right so that the basic democratic right of the franchise is not artificially withdrawn from a random group of the population—those who go on holiday at a particular time.
I do not accept the objection in principle referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North that in some sense there is a virtue, for its own sake, in being physically present at the ballot box. I cannot see any merit in that and I do not believe that it should be a requirement for the exercise of the franchise.
The point about secrecy raised by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) is much more serious, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is possible to devise absent voting arrangements that protect secrecy. That is one of the matters that we shall have to consider.
I assure the House that the Government approach the Bill in a positive spirit, and I do not dissent from much of the analysis of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North. However, it is my duty to draw attention to some of the practical problems, all of which we are carefully examining, associated with any substantial extension of postal voting facilities along the lines proposed in the Bill. We must proceed on the basis that if we go down this road it is likely to be a substantial extension of absent voting facilities.
872 We believe that the objections and practical difficulties can, and ought to, be overcome. This is not one of those occasions when I point out practical difficulties as a way of torpedoing a proposal or approach. We are looking carefully into these matters and I hope that it will be possible, when our studies are concluded, for us to put forward proposals to deal with the difficulties and allow those in the situation described by my hon. Friend to exercise the right of franchise to which they are entitled.
However, in order to do that effectively, it will be necessary to have a rather more far-ranging approach than that proposed in the Bill and that would, perhaps, be more appropriate for Government legislation. Although I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the thought behind the Bill and fully support the principle, I do not think that the Bill is entirely adequate to meet the objective that my hon. Friend and I share and which, I suspect, is shared by the vast majority of people in this country.
I hope that in making clear that our studies have been embarked on with a positive end in view, I shall not be misunderstood if I illustrate some of the problems by outlining some of the difficulties presented by the scheme proposed in the Bill.
Clause 1 is the substantive clause. It would enable voters at parliamentary elections who were on holiday on the date of the poll, and could satisfy the electoral registration officer accordingly, to vote by post if their holiday address were in the United Kingdom, or by proxy if their holiday address were abroad. I believe that my hon. Friend simply has it in mind that the new category of voters entitled to absent voting facilities could be grafted on to the existing group of absent voters which, under the 1949 legislation, as amended, consists mainly of those whose occupation takes them away in the course of their general duties on polling day or who will necessarily be unable to attend the poll because of sickness.
At the moment, it is possible for such people, and the other categories of absent voters, to apply either for an absent vote for a particular election or, if their inability to attend in person is more permanent, for an absent vote for an indefinite period.
873 As I have said, those categories have remained more or less fixed since 1948, and it is interesting to note that the number of electors making use of absent voting facilities has remained constant during this period at about 2 per cent. or 3 per cent of the electorate. It may be, of course, that many other electors who are qualified do not apply, or fail to do so in time, despite official encouragement in newspaper advertising and so on. In some constituencies the party organisations are better geared to tracing all potential postal votes, and consequently the percentage of people using the facility varies from constituency to constituency. Overall, the numbers eligible for postal votes under the present criteria can be predicted accurately in advance, and the necessary administrative arrangements, well rehearsed at previous elections, can be sent in motion.
Hon. Members will also be aware of the extreme fastidiousness, if I may so describe—
§ It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
§ Debate to be resumed tomorrow.