HC Deb 16 December 1982 vol 34 cc577-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Goodlad.]

10.27 pm
Dr. Edmund Marshall (Goole)

On 7 May this year, 30 of my constituents who reside in the Kellingley area of the parish of Beal, which lies in the Selby district of North Yorkshire, signed a petition to the Home Secretary which was worded as follows: We, the undersigned electors in the Goole parliamentary constituency, hereby make representation to the Secretary of State for the Home Department, in accordance with section 11(4) of the Representation of the People Act 1949, to the effect that the present polling arrangements for the parish of Beal, within the Selby district and the Goole constituency, do not meet the reasonable requirements of electors resident in that parish, and we request the Secretary of State to direct Selby district council to create two separate polling districts within the parish of Beal, with boundaries as shown on the attached plan. On that plan was clearly marked a dividing line passing across the half-mile belt of open countryside which separates the village of Beal itself from the area in the parish of Beal but around the Kellingley colliery, where there has been considerable residential development during the past 15 years as the colliery has expanded.

On the 1983 draft electoral register 235 names are included for the Kellingley area compared with 269 for Beal village, making a total of 504 for the parish of Beal as a whole. It is therefore true to say that the electorate of the parish of Beal is really separated into two distinct residential communities of comparable size, and the petitioners' request is quite simply that those two communities should each be allocated a polling district and a polling station of its own.

At present there is one polling station, at Beal village hall, for the whole parish. While that is undoubtedly a convenient polling station for the 269 electors who live in Beal village, it is certainly not convenient for the 235 who live at Kellingley. It is on the side of the village of Beal away from the direction of Kellingley. Many of the electors who live in Kellingley would have to go about a mile to the present polling station in Beal. Although there is a half-mile belt of countryside separating Beal village from Kellingley, distances between particular residences in Kellingley and the polling station in Beal village can be considerably more—I would estimate about a mile at most.

The Kellingley community lies round the colliery which has developed alongside the A645. The village of Beal is quite separate from that main road. The only public transport between Beal and Kellingley on weekdays is an hourly bus service, which is so timed that passengers have only three minutes between the scheduled arrival of the Kellingley bus in the middle of Beal village and the departure of the bus back. To expect people to get off the bus, go to the polling station, vote and to catch the bus again within three minuted is to expect the impossible.

Therefore, the voter from Kellingley who does not have his own transport has to wait, after voting, for an hour for the bus back. I have explained the distance between Beal and Kellingley and it is certainly far too far for elderly or infirm residents to walk. Even fit people would find walking along such open roads very unpleasant in bad weather. Furthermore, Kellingley residents in general have hardly any other reason to visit Beal village, where there is now no school and no church of any denomination.

Indeed, ecclesiastically, Kellingley is part of the Church of England parish of Kellington, in the diocese of Wakefield, while Beal village is part of the Church of England parish of Birkin, in the diocese of York. Kellingley and Beal village are in two separate dioceses. It is my general impression that the residents of Kellingley do most of their local shopping in the town of Knottingley, which is in the opposite direction to Beal.

All told, the only general links between Kellingley and Beal village are that they are parts of the same civil parish and at present have the same polling station at Beal village hall. I cannot accept that the number of electors in Kellingley—235—is too few for them to have a polling district of their own. Many other rural polling areas, including nine elsewhere in my constituency, have electorates of fewer than 235. I remember how, in the Louth constituency, where I was first a parliamentary candidate many years ago, there was a polling district at a place called Muckton that had fewer than 30 electors.

In my present constituency, there are only 52 electors listed on the 1983 draft register for the polling district of Eastoft in the borough of Boothferry, and only 70 on the 1982 draft register for the polling district of Birkin, which lies adjacent to Beal in the Selby district. If it is argued that some rural polling districts have small electorates simply because they are whole parishes by themselves, and that there is some requirement, therefore, to have a polling station in each parish, I would point out that the single parish of Snaith and Cowick in my constituency, in the borough of Boothferry, has three polling districts in the parish, one of which, East Cowick, has just 210 names on the 1983 draft electoral register. That polling station at East Cowick is nearer to the polling station at neighbouring West Cowick than Kellingley is to Beal village hall. I do not wish to give the impression that I believe that East Cowick residents should have to vote at West Cowick, but I simply cite that as an example of separate polling districts within the same parish, where the case for such separate polling districts is not as strong as at Kellingley and Beal.

In general, I state it as an overriding principle that the strength of our democracy depends in part on the provision, by local authorities and by the Home Secretary, of separate polling stations wherever there are separate communities. We need to provide polling stations for the convenience of the electorate in even the most rural and remote areas. We must make it as easy as possible for electors to be able to exercise their franchise. The value of democracy is far more than the cost of providing such facilities.

The petition from my constituents at Kellingley was transmitted on 9 May to the Minister of State. I am pleased to see him here tonight. His first step was to consult the local authority—Selby district council—about the petition. I do not quarrel with the way in which the local authority was consulted in the matter—after all, elections are almost always organised by local authority officers—but I stress that the submission of the petition to the Home Secretary was intended to enable him to decide on this matter independently of the local authority.

It would make a mockery of the statutory provision for petitions such as this one if a Conservative Home Secretary were simply to rubber-stamp the decision of a local authority. It would be even more of a mockery if a Conservative Home Secretary rubber-stamped the decision of a local authority in which the largest political group was the Conservatives. All the same, I hope that the Home Secretary on 26 October declined the petition in this case.

I shall now consider what may have been the Home Secretary's reasons for that decision. First, there is the question of what building might be used as a polling station for a separate polling district at Kellingley. There is no school, no community centre or church hall which might be used for that purpose. Indeed, the only possible non-residential building in the area that could be used as a polling station is the new medical centre constructed in the past three years by the National Coal Board near the main gate of Kellingley colliery.

Only one room would be needed for a polling station in the centre, which is quite separate from the colliery. It would be unusual for a polling station to be located in private industrial premises, but it would not be unique. I recall one polling station in the Louth constituency which was in a farm office at Barnoldby-le-Beck.

I appreciate that the National Coal Board might be wary about allowing the medical centre to be used as a polling station, especially because what little traffic the polling station might generate would have to pass through the main colliery gates. However, I feel sure that a suitable working arrangement could be agreed if the board were properly approached by officials from the local authority and the Home Office. This is a case of "Where there is a will, there is a way."

If it does not prove possible for the medical centre at Kellingley to be used as a polling station, an alternative would be to use a room in a private house. That has been done elsewhere. Another possibility, which is successfully practised elsewhere, is to use a mobile polling station—a caravan. I understand that caravans are used elsewhere in the Selby district. Plenty of open space is available in the vicinity of the Oval and Shaftesbury Avenue at Kellingley for such a caravan to be parked.

From all these considerations, I cannot believe that the reason for the Home Secretary's refusal of the petition is that it is impossible to find a polling station at Kellingley. If it is agreed that there should be a polling station there, I am sure that it will be possible to find accommodation for it.

I understand that Selby district council is reluctant to provide separate polling facilities at Kellingley because it might set a precedent that it would then have to follow elsewhere in the Selby district as new communities grow in connection with the development of the Selby coalfield. After all, the growth of Kellingley is due to the development of the colliery there.

As the majority of residents associated with coal mining are generally supporters of the Labour Party, the prospect of an influx of Labour voters into the Selby district may alarm the Conservatives who have held sway in the district, many people would say, for far too long. If such alarm exists, however, it should not be translated into a deliberate policy of making it more difficult for electors in developing communities to exercise their democratic voting rights.

In the normal course of events, the growth of population in the Selby district as a result of colliery development should lead automatically to an increase in the number of polling stations and Kellingley should be regarded as the first of many in the district. I cannot believe that a Conservative Home Secretary, in the exercise of his discretion under section 11(4) of the 1949 Act, would wish to appear to be making it more difficult for voters associated with the coal mining industry to cast their votes by refusing them a convenient local polling station.

Therefore, I ask the Home Secretary, through the Minister of State, to look again at the situation at Kellingley. As I have said, I believe that there is a strong case for providing an extra polling station for this clearly defined, separate community. The consequences of refusing the petition would be bad for the health of our democratic system in that part of the country and for the standing of the Home Secretary in the way in which he deals with petitions of this nature.

10.42 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

Few hon. Members have a closer acquaintance with the intricacies of our electoral law than the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall). It is an illustration of the value of our democratic arrangements in this country that he can raise in the House today a matter relating to a relatively small geographical area in his constituency but of considerable importance in the parish of Beal, which includes the hamlet, if that is the correct word, of Kellingley for which he requests the provision of a polling station.

I listened with care to what the hon. Gentleman said, with his usual clarity. It may be helpful if I begin by summarising the provisions of the law which govern the designation of polling districts, the siting of polling places and the procedures by which these arrangements can be challenged by local electors.

First, of all, I must make it clear that what I have to say applies only to the polling arrangements for parliamentary elections and that the Government have no power at all to intervene in the arrangements for local authority elections. For parliamentary polling arrangements, as the hon. Gentleman reminded us, section 11 of the Representation of the People Act 1949 provides that it is the duty of each district council in England and Wales to divide the parliamentary constituency into polling districts. The district council is also responsible for appointing a polling place for each polling district. In this case, the polling place is located in the parish of Beal and in the village of Beal.

The 1949 Act recognises that polling arrangements will have to vary from area to area according to local circumstances. Factors such as transport facilities, to which the hon. Gentleman very relevantly referred, the distribution of population and the availability of buildings for use as polling stations will differ from one constituency to another, and what is suitable and practicable in a town may not be suitable or practicable in the depths of the countryside. For these reasons, the law does net attempt to regulate the size of polling districts or the siting of polling places. The local authorities are free to make such polling arrangements as they think suitable provided that they exercise their powers, to use the words of the 1949 Act, with a view to giving all electors in the constituency such reasonable facilities for voting as are practicable in the circumstances". They are words that I think Parliament was wise to use, having regard to the almost infinite variety of geographical factors and circumstances that apply throughout the 640 constituencies into which the country is divided.

There are further rules. In a county constituency, each parish or community must, unless there are special circumstances, be a separate polling district or districts; the polling place must generally be within the polling district.

The Act also provides that, where local electors are dissatisfied with the parliamentary polling arrangements made by the local authority, 30 or more of them may make representations to the Home Secretary that the arrangements do not meet their reasonable requirements. After considering the representations, the Secretary of State has the power, if he thinks fit, to direct the local authority to make any alterations he thinks necessary in the circumstances.

Such a case has arisen in the hon. Gentleman's constituency where, as he has said, a group of electors in the polling district of Beal are dissatisfied with the polling arrangements made by Selby district council.

The parish of Beal is also a rural polling district with 489 electors. The hon. Gentleman has made the point that those electors are more or less equally divided between Beal and the separate hamlet of Kellingley, which is in a separate diocese. There are two main centres of population: Beal village in the north and Kellingley, about half a mile away to the south. The polling place is in Beal village.

In May this year 30 electors from the Kellingley area of the polling district exercised their rights under the 1949 Act and made representations to the Home Secretary that their reasonable requirements were not being met by the existing polling arrangements. They requested my right hon. Friend to direct Selby district council to create a separate polling district for the Kellingley area on the grounds that it is inconvenient for them to travel to Beal village to vote. I have listened with interest to what the hon. Gentleman said about the bus service. I agree that a three-minute turn-round is not reasonable to enable people to vote. It would require an hour before the return of the bus.

In support of his constituents' petition, the hon. Gentleman has pointed out that over the past 15 years Kellingley has grown into a distinct community in its own right connected with the colliery. It has an electorate of 233 compared with 256 elsewhere in the polling district and it is separated from Beal by half a mile of open countryside and is served only by an infrequent bus service.

Following normal practice, we wrote to Selby district council asking for its observations on the petition. The council replied to the effect that in March 1980 it had considered a request from a local councillor that a separate polling district be created for Kellingley but had had to reject the request because there was no building in Kellingley suitable for use as a polling station. The hon. Gentleman has suggested on his constituents' behalf that the National Coal Board premises in Kellingley could be used as a polling station. He knows that that has not met with its consent. He has suggested also the medical centre, although it is within the colliery gates. The district council took up this suggestion, but the board refused to allow its premises to be used.

In the absence of a suitable building the only alternative would be to set up a temporary polling station in Kellingley during elections. I disgress to say that sometimes a room in a private house is used as a polling station. In my rural constituency there is more than one such polling station. This is a satisfactory arrangement but it requires the consent of the householder. If the hon. Gentleman could find someone able to provide that sort of accommodation on these rare occasions, the right course would be for him to approach the Selby district council and invite it to reconsider its decision.

The council considered the possibility, but it decided for a number of reasons that a temporary polling station would not be suitable. There are already five polling districts within the local authority area where temporary polling stations are used because there are no other facilities available. The council has bought specially adapted caravans for use in three of these districts. In the other two districts the number of electors involved is small and ordinary touring caravans are used that belong to council officials.

If a separate polling district were created for Kellingley, an additional caravan would have to be acquired. Apart from the expense involved, the council is unwilling for practical reasons to use further temporary stations if that can be avoided. The council has only one vehicle capable of carrying caravans and this same vehicle is required for the delivery of polling booths throughout Selby district. The delivery and siting of the five existing temporary polling stations already puts pressure on transport and labour in the days before an election, especially since caravans need to be protected against vandalism if they are left on site for too long.

A further problem is that entering a caravan is often difficult for the elderly and completely impossible for anyone in a wheelchair. We know that people rightly take much more interest in these matters than used to be the case. Many disabled electors quite naturally prefer to cast their vote in person rather than by post or proxy. My Department has made it clear to local authorities that the long-term objective should be for every polling station to be capable of easy access by the old and disabled. Temporary polling stations should not be used unless there really is no alternative.

For all these reasons Selby district council takes the view that it is unwise to encourage the use of temporary polling stations in areas where the existing facilities may be considered adequate, especially since the demand for such polling stations is likely to increase with the closure of village schools. The problem of distance is common to many, perhaps most, rural areas and there are other parts of Selby district where voters have to travel further than the electors of Kellingley to reach a polling station.

The district council accordingly advised us that in its view the polling arrangements for the electors of Kellingley were the best practicable in the circumstances.

When the council's comments had been received, my right hon. Friend gave the petition his careful consideration. The petitioners' case rests on the inconvenience that electors from Kellingley experience in travelling to Beal to vote. I do not underestimate the inconvenience and I understand the way in which the hon. Gentleman rightly put his case. As he has said, the present polling arrangements are not ideal, but local authorities are not required to provide ideal facilities for voting, only such reasonable facilities as are practicable in the circumstances. There is no evidence, for example, of an unusually low turnout at parliamentary elections or that the present arrangements are not meeting the electors' "requirements". The problem of distance is common to many rural areas and, generally speaking, people living in the country accept the need to travel to visit shops, post offices and doctors' surgeries, for example. I should be surprised if in Kellingley it were not possible for someone who really wanted to vote to find a lift if he or she were unable to use the bus or to make his or her own way to Beal. The half-mile between Kellingley and Beal village cannot, therefore, be considered excessive in a rural constituency. However, it is not ideal for us to say this. This is really a matter for the Selby local authority, which knows so much more about local conditions than my right hon. Friend can. If a separate polling district were created for Kellingley, a temporary polling station would have to be used. That would involve the district council in additional expense and would have the further practical disadvantages to which I referred.

In the circumstances, my right hon. Friend concluded that it would not be right for him to direct Selby district council to create a separate polling station and he accordingly rejected the petition.

I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's arguments. I shall consider them with more time when I have had an opportunity to read them in the Official Report. Selby district council might consider the matter differently if the hon. Gentleman could find a private house where the householder was willing to provide the necessary accommodation. That is not impracticable, and I have experience of it in my constituency.

I hope that I have been able to set out the reasons why my right hon. Friend, having considered the petition, in the exercise of his appellate jurisdiction from the decision of Selby district council, felt unable to accede to the wishes of the petitioners. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who raised the matter with his usual clarity and knowledge, will feel that my right hon. Friend had reasonable grounds for not meeting the wishes of his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Eleven o'clock.