HC Deb 29 March 1979 vol 965 cc664-75

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do 110W adjourn.—[Mr. Joseph Dean.]

5.22 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

I shall, with permission. Mr. Speaker, make a statement about the Government's proposal for a short Bill about the holding of the parliamentary general election on Thursday 3 May, the day fixed by the Local Government Act 1972 for elections to district and parish or community councils in England, outside London and Wales.

The Government are giving notice today of the introduction of a Bill which will be published and available tomorrow. The Bill will make provision to defer the parish or community council elections for three weeks, to Thursday 24 May, and will permit the additional costs attributable to the postponement to be met by the Exchequer. The Bill will also make a number of changes to assist the conduct of the parliamentary and the district council elections on the same day.

The same polling stations will be used for both elections. They will be stations normally used for parliamentary elections.

Ballot papers for both elections will be placed in the same boxes in the same polling booth. Extra boxes will be available for particular areas if they are required. The hours of polling for local government elections will be extended so that they will be the same as for parliamentary elections—from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. New notes of guidance to voters will be prepared, to make the procedures absolutely clear to them.

The ballot papers for each election will be easily distinguishable and the Bill, if enacted, will enable me to give directions about the means for achieving this. I shall inform the House on Monday of how I propose this should be achieved. In any case, the parliamentary ballot paper will retain its traditional colour, shape and form with the addition of the words "Parliamentary Election" and "You may vote for no more than one candidate" at the top of each ballot paper. In Wales, the same statement will appear also in Welsh.

At the close of the poll, all ballot papers will be sent to the parliamentary returning officer. He will separate the ballots as between the two elections. He will then count the parliamentary ballot papers and send the district council papers to the appropriate returning officer. The same officer will deal with postal voting applications for both elections. The Bill will not otherwise alter the postal voting position in either election.

These provisions should ensure that there will be no obstacle in the way of combined elections being conducted in an orderly and efficient manner on 3 May, and I shall be seeking the approval of the House of Commons on Monday for a Bill on these lines.

Mr. William Whitelaw (Penrith and The Border)

Does the Home Secretary appreciate that obviously there will be anxieties about the risks of confusion in this arrangement? Will he, therefore, explain whether it would have been possible to postpone the district council elections, as he has the parish council elections, to a later date? Will be also explain the implications of such a postponement?

Mr. Rees

The right hon. Member asked about postponing the district council elections. Today is the day on which the local elections get under way. A great deal of money has been spent by the political parties on the local elections. The Government's view is that it would be wrong to postpone the local government elections, for that reason.

Mr. Tom Ellis (Wrexham)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that this is a thoroughly practical solution which is in the best interests of the electors? Is he aware that many hon. Members believe that it would be disastrous to have a local election a few days after a general election? Is he aware that, subject to the detailed provisions in the Bill, many of us believe that this is a good idea and suspect that Opposition Members have a vested political interest in holding the local elections on a different day because they believe that the turnout would be low? I am sure that this proposition will be acceptable in the country. If all the information is distributed, there should be no difficulties.

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We shall have to wait for Monday to see whether there are any objections on the Floor of the House. The Government's view is that this is the best way to deal with the situation.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)

I appreciate that the Bill does not specifically apply to Greater London, where there are no local elections this year, but what happens to by-elections which could fall on 3 May in Greater London? In general, will the Home Secretary give guidance to returning officers to the effect that they should not use the two lots of counting and separating as an excuse to postpone the counting of the parliamentary vote on the night?

Mr. Rees

I shall certainly do that. A by-election on the same day would not be new. There have been cases when there has been a local election on the same day. There cannot have been many, but I do not think that there is a problem.

The hon. Member asked about the count. I have thoughts about distinguishing the district council elections. The votes will be taken to the parliamentary count, where they will be separated and verified. That means that there will be a delay. But that is the only delay to the parliamentary elections.

In urban areas the count for the district elections will probably be in the same place or nearby. In some of the rural areas the votes will have to be transported a longer distance. It is up to the local areas to decide whether to count the district council votes that night or to postpone the count to the following day.

Mr. Joan Evans (Aberdare)

Is my right Hon. Friend aware that there will be general agreement on this satisfactory proposal? Does he agree that it is far better than having one election in one week and bringing the people out to vote in another election the following week? Will be explain to the Opposition that, if we had not been defeated last night, we could have waited a little longer? Will be consider an Opposition amendment to have the general election on 7 June?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. If the election had been on 7 June we would have put a similar Bill before the House. It is my job—like a boy scout—to be prepared. I had thought that there could be an election on 7 June. That is why last night I moved with a certain amount of alacrity on the matter, which is the way of the Home Office.

Mr. Philip Holland (Carlton)

Is the Home Secretary aware that in rural constituencies, for example, in my own constituency and, I suspect, in many others, there are not only borough council elections on that Thursday but also parish council elections? [Interruption.]

Mr. Rees

I understand why the hon. Gentleman was not present for my statement, because of the nature of the announcement. The parish council elections are to be postponed for three weeks. We do not know how many elections will be held—I am told that there are about 8,000. In many parish councils and community councils there are many unopposed returns. We shall pay for that centrally, which shows the mood of largesse which has hit us in the Home Office—on top of our speed.

Mr. Michael Ward (Peterborough)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are frequently great pressures on urban polling stations in general elections? Is he giving advice to returning officers to provide for more staff and ballot boxes, to which he has already referred, so that the congestion caused by the delay of filling in two papers is allowed for?

Mr. Rees

That will be done. A great deal of discussion has taken place already, and that is proper, because it is right that the office should talk with the AROs. We shall have surplus boxes available if they are needed.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

Is the Home Secretary aware that there are precedents in the matter, established by Mr. Ramsay MacDonald on 9 October 1924? On that day, he came into the House—I have a copy of Hansard for that day—to announce the Dissolution of Parliament and the date of the nomination and polling days before any other announcement was made. He was at some pains to ensure that there would be no inconvenience caused on the election day by confusing the general election with the municipal elections. He said: The Government were very anxious to reduce the inconvenience of the Election to a minimum. By a careful study of the position, we have found that it will be possible to have the Election over before the municipal elections take place."—[Official Report, 9 October 1924; Vol. 177, c. 731.] He announced the Dissolution of Parliament and the date of the election on that day. Therefore, there are precedents in the matter to avoid confusion.

Mr. Rees

There may well be precedents. In the election of 1931 I cycled around in opposition to Mr. Ramsey MacDonald. I thought he was wrong then and I think that he was wrong now.

Mr. Max Madden (Sowerby)

I hope that the Home Secretary will accept that the vast majority of voters in 1979 will find the arrangements that he has announced to be of the greatest convenience. Will the Home Secretary say what steps are being taken to distinguish between the two ballot papers? Secondly, can he say what difference there will be in the provisions for postal votes? Lastly, in view of the fact that the parish council elections have been deferred, will be take the opportunity to introduce postal voting provisions for parish councils? That would be much appreciated by electors in rural areas.

Mr. Rees

I cannot say at the moment that we can take such steps to deal with parish council elections. The postal votes for the district council elections will be on the same date as the Westminster election, which will be an extension. I shall try to indicate to the House on Monday the sort of ideas that I have in mind. The district council election ballot papers will need to be different. There will need to be firm colouring at the edges. I shall try to get an example printed over the weekend so that right hon. and hon. Members who wish to see what we have in mind can make their judgments upon it.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

Is it the Home Secretary's intention that counts should take place in the same premises? Does he visualise that there will be enough checkers for the counts?

Mr. Rees

I do not think that there will be a problem. The count for the general election will take place in the normal fashion after separation and verification. The Westminster elections will take precedence and then it is up to the local AROs to decide whether they will go on with the count for the district council elections after that or delay them until the following day. There are some local areas that like to be first in counting. Those that are in England and Wales will be at a disadvantage compared with London and Scotland, which will be first on the television.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

The Home Secretary will remember the question of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) which was just not reached this afternoon. That question asked about disadvantage arising from the practice whereby people can register simultaneously on two different registers. In the curious circumstances on 3 May, presumably it will be possible for a person who is registered on two different registers to vote in one area for the Westminster election and in a different area for the other election if it suits his political leaning. Will the Home Secretary say whether that will be permissible?

Mr. Rees

Many hon. Members are registered in two places. What matters is that a person can only vote in one parliamentary election. I have to make the choice whether to vote in London or in my own constituency. The House will know the choice when I make it.

Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)

The House is grateful to the Home Secretary for making the statement at short notice. It was noticeable that he was willing to accede to that when he was being defended by the Leader of the House, who, perhaps, was not willing for the statement to be made today. Will the Home Secretary try to see whether, in order to speed the count, the separation and the verification, returning officers may recruit bank clerks who are used to dealing with counting? Secondly, will be try to ensure that the police are recruited to bring the ballot boxes to central areas as quickly as possible, in order that there should not be any delay?

Mr. Rees

Local returning officers can use such assistance as they wish. In many areas, sixth formers are used and I do not think that there is a problem in the matter. The hon. Gentleman can take it as read that the county forces, in this instance, will do what they often do to make sure that boxes are taken to the count in safety.

Mr. Gerry Fowler (The Wrekin)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there may be special problems in rural constituencies or partly rural constituencies where it is normal to conduct the count in a parliamentary election the following day? Is it true that the law provides that the count in a district council election must begin at 9 a.m. after the day of poll? Further, is it true that the separation of ballot papers counts as the beginning of the count in the district council elections so that there is no need to make special provision for that in the Bill?

Mr. Rees

I am not sure. Off the top of my head, I do not believe that the premise on which my hon. Friend has made his remark is correct. However, I shall check the matter carefully before the Bill is debated on Monday.

Mr. David Price (Eastleigh)

Is the Home Secretary aware of the problem which arises from the fact that different returning officers are responsible for the parliamentary elections and the local elections? Part of my constituency is under a different returning officer for parliamentary and district elections. Who is in charge and who is responsible? Sharing ballot boxes and the same counting facilities can apply only when the district and parliamentary elections are co-determined.

Mr. Rees

I do not believe that there is a problem. A copy of the schedule to the Bill has been handed to me—it will be published tomorrow—and the hon. Gentleman will see that only polling stations used for the parliamentary elections will be used. The responsibilities will fall to the returning officer for the parliamentary election. Then it will be a case of handing over the ballot papers of a different colour to the district council returning officer. If there is a problem, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will let me know. I shall see that it is looked at before Monday.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it shows a sad distrust of the electorate to assume that it would not come out for a local election after the parliamentary election? Does he also agree that one of the reasons for low polls in local elections is that people tend to vote on national issues in such elections? Does he not think that this proposal will encourage people to vote on national issues in local elections?

Did my right hon. Friend consider this major constitutional change carefully, or has it been decided upon suddenly for some other reason? Is it desirable that one of the major issues in a campaign in Nottingham should be sub-postmaster Jack Green's leadership of the Conservative Party in the city?

Mr. Rees

A 3 May election was always a possibility, but it was my job to think about the arrangements in relation to the possibility of an election on 7 June. I do not regard the proposal as a great radical step. My hon. Friend's remarks that there are low polls in local elections because the electors vote on national issues may or may not be true, but we could not have made the arrangements for the week before. The date proposed is the earliest possible and it would have been bad to have local elections in the week before the Westminster elections. That is what moved me most on behalf of the Government.

Mr. Ian Grist (Cardiff, North)

What will happen where the parliamentary and local authority boundaries are not coterminous? Which returning officer will be responsible and what advice will be given to electors in those areas? How will the costs be assigned? If a poster saying "Vote Conservative" or "Vote Labour" appears in one ward of a constituency, to which candidate will the cost be assigned?

Mr. Rees

There are many places where boundaries are not coterminous. That will not be put right until the largest parliamentary redistribution for 40 or 50 years takes place—perhaps before the general election after next. The returning officer for the parliamentary election will be in charge.

I do not know whether it is the right thing to say, but consultations have taken place with the party offices on the question of costs and I do not think that there is any problem. If a parliamentary candidate shares a platform with a council candidate and they have booked a hall and had posters printed, the normal arrangement will be that the costs should be shared. How they are shared will be a matter for local discussion.

Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone)

Will my right hon. Friend consider the problems that could occur in my area where we have an all-out election for the local authority and, at the same time, a boundary change? There will, therefore, be some mix-up in the locality.

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend is talking about the new Barnsley area. We are aware of that problem and discussions are taking place. I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has picked the one place where re-warding may have raised a problem. However, I do not believe that it is insurmountable.

Mr. Cranky Onslow (Woking)

Whose agents will be responsible for supervising the opening of the boxes and the separating of the votes? Will it be only the agents of parliamentary candidates, or will council candidates' agents be involved? In practical terms, what effect is the double election likely to have on the start of a new Parliament? How much longer shall we have to wait up for the news of a Tory victory?

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman was asking about party workers, and that is a matter which will have to be decided locally. Workers will have to fill out the appropriate forms and the appropriate persons for supervising the opening of the boxes will be those registered for the parliamentary elections, since the parliamentary returning officer will be in charge. However, I shall check that point precisely before Monday.

There is bound to be a delay. Who can tell how long it will be? The coloured ballot papers will have to be separated from the rest before the count takes place. I have heard that in some cases there may be a delay of an hour or half an hour, but it is anyone's guess.

Mr. Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

Some candidates may be standing at both elections in the same area. What guidance does the right hon. Gentleman propose to give to the media in relation to the balance, which is usually achieved, in pre-election broadcasting and so on? If a parliamentary candidate who is also standing for the council appears on local radio or in the other media, can other council candidates complain?

Mr. Rees

I had not considered that point, principally because it is not my responsibility.

Mr. Giles Shaw

It occurs in Leeds.

Mr. Rees

It does not happen in my constituency. It is not a matter for the Bill, but there may be a problem if a man or woman stands as a parliamentary candidate and as a council candidate. It will not arise under the Bill, but I shall see that it is drawn to the notice of the broadcasting authorites.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Can my right hon. Friend tell me something about the free post for general elections? Will the Bill amend the existing position to allow local authoritiy election deliveries to be included in the free post system, or are the two to be kept separate?

Mr. Rees

Mr. Speaker's Conferences over the years have decided that the free post system should be available only for parliamentary elections. I am leaving it at that. I believe that it is right to do it that way. It means that local council candidates will have to deliver their election material as before. One of the considerations that weighed with me was that, if we provided a free post for local council elections, it would prompt those who had no intention or desire to be elected to a local authority to take advantage of the free post. I do not believe that that was something which I ought to have arranged in the Bill. That was one of the reasons. There will not be a free post for the local authority elections.

Mr. Roger Moat (Faversham)

Does the Home Secretary agree that there is nothing sacrosanct about having a general election on a Thursday? Has it occurred to him that all the doubts and confusion and the need for legislation could have been avoided if he went for, say, Tuesday 1 May, which would still be possible within the time scale? [HON. MEMBERS: "That is a public Holiday."] If some of the problems seem insuperable when the right hon. Getleman introduces legislation, will be consider that possibility?

Mr. Rees

There should be no confusion and doubt. If there is, it is self-induced. May I say, speaking on behalf of the Government, that I believe that it would be a mistake to have the elections within two or three days, or even a week, of each other. It is as simple as that.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that he will have sufficient staff to cope both at the counting stations and the polling booths?

Mr. Rees

If I may be pedantic for a moment, I should point out that they would not be my staff. It is a matter of talking with the returning officers. The short answer is that I do not believe that there will be a problem in that respect.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

Has the Home Secretary any thoughts about informing the electorate of the mechanics of the Government's proposal? Do the Government intend to take advertising space in newspapers, and so on? Would it not be worth while to consider having all the counts on the following day, given the considerable delays that are likely to occur?

Mr. Rees

As the representative of an urban area, I do not want to have to wait until the following day for the result. Such a course would be a mistake. In the Bill—perhaps in the schedule, though we shall have to see—there is a matter of advice, which I presume relates to what happens outside the polling booths. I take the hon. Gentleman's point and will consider it to see whether more general advice should be given. It may be that the press will aid us, but that is another matter.

Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

Will the right hon. Gentleman look into the cases where a council ward is in one parliamentary constituency but the council itself is in another parliamentary constituence and both the district and parliamentary voting slips will go to the same count? Could not a separate ballot box be provided in such cases? It would be far simpler and would save a lot of time.

Mr. Rees

There are 45,000 ballot boxes for the whole country that would need extra polling booths and separate rooms. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) was here earlier, but we have taken that into account. It is a matter of the verification and separation that night. There are many constituencies. My Parliamentary Private Secretary represents four counties and goodness knows how many district councils. I am sure that we can manage.

Mr. William Clark (Croydon, South)

I take the point about there being no free post for local elections, but legally would there be anything wrong in putting the local councillors' election addresses in the free post for the general election?

Mr. Rees

It would be against the law. If anyone were silly enough to do that, it would be a, matter for the courts.

Mr. Joseph Dean (Leeds, West)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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