HC Deb 10 December 1984 vol 69 cc755-839

Order for Second Reading read.

4.27 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Leon Brittan)

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

The main purpose of the Bill is to implement the proposals for changes in electoral law set out in the White Paper on the Representation of the People Acts, published last January. The White Paper took the form of a reply to the report by the Home Affairs Select Committee, the great majority of whose recommendations we accept. The House had an opportunity to debate the White Paper in June. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary and I then announced some modifications of the original proposals. In addition, the Bill includes a substantial number of lesser changes in electoral law. Wherever possible these changes have been the subject of consultations with the political parties and local authority associations.

The Bill has three main themes. The first is an extension of democracy. The Bill establishes the principle that British citizens may have the right to vote even if they are not resident here on the qualifying date. We are one of the few democracies which make no provision at all for our citizens to vote while resident abroad.

Secondly, the Bill seeks to ensure that, so far as circumstances permit, every person who is given the right to vote is able to exercise it in person at the polling station, or, if he cannot reasonably be expected to do so, by post or by proxy. Every hon. Member knows the frustration of the elector who is at present disfranchised because he is away on holiday on polling day. I have long thought it a scandal that the penalty for going on holiday should be to lose one's basic democratic right.

Thirdly, our aim has been to modernise our electoral machinery. Many of the features of our electoral system were introduced in the 19th century and have scarcely been changed since then. The Bill deals with a variety of detailed defects and problems which have come to light over the years and which there has not been opportunity to resolve before.

The Bill applies to parliamentary elections throughout the United Kingdom and to local government elections in England, Wales and Scotland. It does not affect local government or Assembly elections in Northern Ireland; these elections are governed by separate legislation. Nor, in general, does it affect elections to the European Parliament. There is an exception in clause 3 of the Bill, to which I shall turn in a moment. The European Assembly Elections Act 1978 gives me power to apply the provisions of the Bill to European Parliament elections through regulations. We propose to exercise this power in due course so as, for example, to give holidaymakers the right to a postal or proxy vote at a European Parliament election.

Clauses 1 to 3 extend the franchise at parliamentary and European Parliament elections to British citizens resident abroad. I believe that this change will be warmly welcomed. Many British citizens working overseas are making a major contribution to this country. It is quite wrong that they should be disfranchised for doing so.

That said, problems immediately arise in how to limit the extension proposed. Attempts to separate British citizens into groups according to their occupation, tax status or country of residence pose considerable problems. Moreover, we wish to preserve the crucial link between electors and individual constituencies. Consequently, while we are proposing to extend voting rights by proxy or post to British citizens abroad, wherever they are, we propose a seven-year cut-off point after the elector leaves the 'United Kingdom. That is bound to be an arbitrary period. I know that some of my hon. Friends would like to see it longer or to remove it entirely. The Government believe, however, that this first—though not necessarily last—major step represents a sensible compromise, and I commend it to the House. It would enfranchise over half a million new electors.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Does that not facilitate the right to vote to those whose clear long-term intention is to leave the United Kingdom? Why should they retain the right to vote when they are leaving indefinitely?

Mr. Brittan

As I have explained, I do not think that the basis of deciding which of our citizens living overseas should be allowed to vote would be workable if it were determined on long-term intentions. That would be an idle and useless distinction to seek to make. For that reason, we have proceeded in the way that I have described.

Clause 1 allows a British citizen to qualify as an overseas elector if he fulfils various conditions.

First, he must have been resident in the United Kingdom. I think there will be general agreement that it would be wrong to give someone the vote who has never lived in this country.

Secondly, the person must have been registered as an elector. The reason for this is to provide a simple test of whether the person really was resident here at the material time. But, as we suggested in the White Paper, a person who was too young to be registered while resident here may still qualify.

Thirdly, the right to vote lasts for a period of seven years after the elector leaves the United Kingdom—or, to put it more precisely, for the duration of seven electoral registers after the register in which the elector is last included on the basis of his residence here.

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

The Home Secretary has said that the inclusion of a name on an electoral register is proof of residence. Will he reconsider that? The inclusion of a name merely indicates that an individual was resident at an address on one day and completed a form to that effect. Surely he cannot accept that as proof of residence?

Mr. Brittan

I do not think that that is quite right. One can never be sure that the law has not been broken. The test for registration is residence. I do not think that we are saying that the law might not be broken. The assumption has to be that the register has that effect.

Clause 2 deals with the practical arrangements. It allows a person who qualifies as an overseas elector to make a declaration, modelled on the service declaration made by Crown servants and members of the armed forces. The declaration has to be attested in a manner to be prescribed in regulations. As we said in the White Paper, this job would be undertaken by consular staff in the overseas elector's country of residence. If—and only if — the consular staff are satisfied that the person making the declaration is a British citizen who is resident outside the United Kingdom, they will attest the declaration. When the registration officer receives a declaration which has been properly attested at the consulate, he will check that the declarant's number was in the appropriate electoral register and, if so, enter the name in the draft register or electors' lists. Once registered as an overseas elector, the person has the right to vote either in person at the polling station or, under clause 6, by post or by proxy.

Clause 3 extends the new arrangements to European Parliament elections. Both the Select Committee's report and the White Paper were mainly concerned with parliamentary elections—elections to this House. So far as European Parliament elections are concerned, the Council of Ministers is discussing proposals for a Community-wide franchise, and we and the other member states have formally resolved to renew our efforts to reach agreement in time for the 1989 elections. But it is not yet clear what form the agreement will take. It would clearly be indefensible to extend the franchise at parliamentary elections while leaving the European arrangements as they stand. That is why clause 3 gives overseas electors the right to vote at European as well as parliamentary elections. However, further primary legislation on European elections only will probably be needed if agreement is reached in the Council.

Clauses 5 to 10 deal with our proposals on absent voting. We propose to simplify and rationalise existing provisions. We propose also to deal with an injustice which provokes a storm of protest at each election—the denial of the right to vote to holidaymakers. With holidays more and more spread throughout the year, and more people taking them, it is high time for the position to be changed. We therefore propose an extension of absent voting to all those who cannot get to the poll in person, and we also propose some strengthening of the safeguards to prevent abuse. We envisage that this could enfranchise some 600,000 more electors.

Since the House debated the White Paper in June, we have received a wide range of comments on our proposal that applications for absent votes in respect of a particular election should be countersigned by someone registered as an elector, though not a member of the applicant's immediate family. Some have suggested that this safeguard is not adequate. Others have suggested that it should be removed altogether. It remains the Government's view that the principle whereby the normal way of casting a vote is to cast it in person is a sound and necessary one. But we shall certainly consider seriously comments made by hon. Members in the course of the passage of the Bill. I stress that provisions on countersignature would be in regulations made after the Bill receives Royal Assent.

As at present, two basic categories of absent voter are proposed; those who may apply for an absent vote for an indefinite period; and those who may apply only in respect of a particular election. The indefinite period category is dealt with in clause 6. It includes most of those who are in it under the present arrangements, including those who may apply because of the general nature of their occupation, service or employment. To this category are added those who qualify as overseas electors under the Bill. Clause 7 deals with the right to apply in respect of a particular election and clauses 8 and 9 deal with proxies. As at present, the Bill entitles them to vote by post in some circumstances.

The main change is brought about by clause 7(1), which extends the right to apply for an absent vote at a particular parliamentary or local election in Great Britain to all those who, whatever the grounds, cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at the polling station. I shall say something about Northern Ireland in a minute. This provision is intended to benefit not only holidaymakers, but other voters who find themselves disfranchised under the present arrangements. As at present, there is a requirement that the applicant must satisfy the registration officer that he is entitled to an absent vote, and the registration officer has a discretion to reject the application if he is not so satisfied. The Bill also confers a power for further requirements to be spelt out in regulations.

These clauses make a number of further changes in the present provisions. First, the Bill gives all absent voters the right to chose between postal and proxy voting. The present position is that absent voters must in general vote by post; certain categories, including those who might be expected to be outside the United Kingdom during the election period, have a right to vote by proxy. Most voters prefer postal to proxy voting, but there are circumstances in which someone might want to appoint a proxy even if he or she is in the United Kingdom at election time The Bill gives the voter a choice.

Secondly, we have not sought to re-enact—except for Northern Ireland—the provision which at present stops a postal ballot paper from being sent outside the United Kingdom. Obviously, there are many parts of the world where proxy voting is the only realistic option. That would be the case, for example, in most countries outside Europe. But for many places in western Europe and on the east coast of America, the election timetable already allows the week or 10 days needed for the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers, provided there is not undue delay in sending them out.

We live in an adult world and it seems right that the voter should again be given the choice. Of course, there can never be a guarantee that a postal ballot paper will get back in time, whether posted from somewhere in this country or abroad. It must be up to the elector to make his own decision in the light of his own knowledge of the postal services. To allow a little more time, paragraph 73 of schedule 3 extends the parliamentary election timetable by one day. This means that at a general election the dissolution of Parliament will in general be the Tuesday rather than the Wednesday just over three weeks before the poll. Paragraph 78 of the same schedule confers a power to prescribe in regulations a last day for the issue of postal ballot papers.

The third major change is that the Bill allows absent voters to vote by post or proxy at all local government elections in Great Britain, including parish and community council elections in England and Wales. This deals with a point raised during the debate on the White Paper by both the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), and the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). I think that there is a widespread feeling that absent voting should be allowed at parish and community council elections, and I hope that this provision will be generally welcomed.

As it stands, the Bill does not make any major changes in the right to apply for an absent vote at a particular parliamentary election in Northern Ireland. The view we took in preparing the White Paper was that particular difficulties in Northern Ireland, including the systematic abuse of postal voting on a large scale, made it unrealistic to think in terms of making postal votes available to any new categories of elector there.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I understood him to say that no existing right of absent voting in Northern Ireland was withdrawn. One interpretation of the Bill is that it withdraws the right to an absent vote on a change of residence.

Mr. Brittan

No doubt we shall have the opportunity to examine that specific point as the deliberations continue. I should correct the right hon. Gentleman. I said that the Bill does not make any major changes in the right to apply for an absent vote at a particular parliamentary election in Northern Ireland.

There are already various differences in the law of parliamentary elections as it applies in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Most importantly, the franchise at parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland is considerably more restrictive than it is in Great Britain. In Great Britain, an elector needs to be resident in a constituency on the qualifying date, but in Northern Ireland an elector must also have been resident in the Province for the whole of the preceding three months. Not all people who qualify as parliamentary electors in Great Britain—in particular, those who move into a constituency shortly before the qualifying date — would therefore qualify in Northern Ireland.

It gives the Government no pleasure to increase the scope and number of those differences, but it is right to point them out. I do not think it would be right to hold up a reform simply on the basis that it cannot at present be applied throughout the United Kingdom if that reform, for example, in relation to holiday voters, is otherwise justifiable and necessary.

Clause 12 increases the deposit to be made by candidates at a parliamentary election to £1,000 and reduces the threshold for its forfeiture to one twentieth of the total number of votes cast in the constituency.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State—the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor)—and I listened with great care to the various arguments put forward on this issue in the debate last June. Many hon. Members have raised points on it since.

Not many would argue that anyone should be able to stand at a parliamentary election without risk of penalty, even if they clearly have no prospect of support within a constituency. The cost of running elections has increased over the years, and parliamentary candidates have important and valuable rights which are properly conferred on them. They are entitled, on average, to £8,000 of free postage. They gain the opportunity of publicising their views and interests, and some candidates have abused that right for clearly commercial purposes. They have the right to exercise a veto on radio and television programmes relating to the election in which candidates take part. The activities of freak candidates have not just provided innocent entertainment; on occasions, they have been seriously disruptive.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that this will be one of the most contentious parts of the Bill? Is he further aware that it would appear to cut across established convention because substantial changes of that kind were made by all-party consensus? Does he appreciate the fact that, having set this precedent, in future other parties might make similar changes?

Mr. Brittan

This aspect may not necessarily be the most significant in terms of the changes that it makes compared with those measures giving the vote to substantial numbers of people who do not at present have it. None the less, I readily accept that this has been one of the most controversial and debated sections of the Bill. I do not believe that it is right in today's circumstances to suggest that, after a careful process of consultation, there must be unanimity before we can take any steps forward. To do so would provide an opportunity for anyone to impose a veto on all change. I believe that, on reflection, the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) would not think that that was justified.

Mr. Campbell-Savours rose

Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)


Mr. Brittan

I must make further progress. I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) in a few moments.

The Government have no wish to be killjoys. If people want to stand at Speaker's corner or hold peaceful meetings to put across their views, that is their right. But the purpose of parliamentary elections is to give people a chance not just to air their views—however interesting or worthy — but to choose Members of Parliament. Serious candidates are people who not only have serious views, but have some serious prospect of representing the electors. That is why, in spite of all that has been said in its favour, we are not attracted by the option of increasing the number of signatures required as a substitute for the deposit.

The signatures option has serious drawbacks. It creates even more work for agents and returning officers, whose work is also being increased by other provisions in this Bill. Several hundred signatures would be necessary if they were to be even a possible substitute for the deposit as a test of potential support. The greater the number of signatures, the greater the amount of checking required and the greater the opportunity for forgery and other malpractice.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that a serious candidate is a person who not only puts forward serious views but has a serious prospect of being elected. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman therefore confirm that the hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mrs. McCurley) was not a serious candidate when, on behalf of the Conservative party, she stood as a candidate in the Glasgow, Central by-election?

Mr. Brittan

That is not a worthy interjection. The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I am talking not about any restriction on people standing for Parliament, but about the level of the penalty that should be forfeited, which has been agreed and accepted by Parliament for a long time. That is the aspect about which I am talking—no more than that.

Sir Philip Goodhart

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that a number of small parties, such as the Communist party, the Ecology party and the National Front, are unlikely to get one twentieth but may get one fortieth of the vote in some constituencies? Will my right hon. and learned Friend look sympathetically at the suggestion that half the deposit should be returned when a candidate obtains one fortieth of the vote?

Mr. Brittan

We shall have to deal with that matter when we come to consider the Bill in detail because, necessarily, any numerical provision has in a sense to be arbitrary. The Select Committee unanimously took the view that the deposit should be forfeit if less than 7.5 per cent. of the votes were secured, compared with 12.5 per cent. at the moment. In the Bill, the Government have put forward a figure of 5 per cent., which involves a considerable liberalisation of the present arrangements.

Mr. Campbell-Savours rose

Mr. Brittan

I must make progress, and the hon. Gentleman has already intervened once.

Even hundreds of signatures would be an imperfect test. Many signatories—all experience with petitions suggests this—would sign out of general interest or often even just in order to get rid of those who ask them for their support. Moreover, it would still be possible for extreme candidates, who would obtain minimal support at the polls, to find enough highly committed supporters, supplemented by a number of simply curious people, to reach the number of signatures required.

The test for standing at elections has always been a financial one, for reasons which still hold good today and which have nothing to do with squeezing out legitimate minor parties. A number of hon. Members, I know, would agree that we need a deposit and that we need it at a sensible level, but feel that £1,000 is too much. The Government have listened carefully to their views. We accept that there is no figure that is clearly and absolutely right and that can be defended against all other figures, but the sum of £1,000 was that recommended unanimously by the Select Committee. It already represents a significant reduction from one which would fully reflect the decline in the value of money since the sum of £150 was established in 1918. That figure would be over £2,000. I do not find it surprising, therefore, that the Select Committee should have come to a unanimous view in favour of £1,000.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)


Mr. Brittan

The reason why the increase seems so large is that successive Governments have failed to take action for such a long time—perhaps, in truth, for too long.

Mr. Wilson

Does the Home Secretary realise that it comes as no surprise to those on the Opposition Benches that the Home Affairs Select Committee came to a unanimous conclusion? The reason is that it did not have any representatives from smaller parties which might have had a vested interest in the matter.

Mr. Brittan

Evidence was taken from people who were not represented on the Select Committee, but I take the hon. Gentleman's point. I welcome the opportunity to make it clear-if it were unclear—to anyone—that there is no question of his party having supported the Select Committee's recommendation at any stage. I am not suggesting that it did.

The figure should be studied as part of a package with the threshold. As such, I believe that it is a fair proposition, because, as I have said, we are proposing a reduction of the present 12.5 per cent. threshold not to the 7.5 per cent. recommended by the Select Committee but to a mere 5 per cent.

Some have argued that the smaller political parties could not raise £1,000, even if they subsequently obtained the votes needed to avoid losing the deposit. I do not find that argument convincing. The interest payable to a bank on a sum borrowed for two weeks between the close of nominations and the day after the result is declared would be £6. We are also proposing—I think that this is a help —that returning officers should have a statutory duty to return deposits to those who have saved them the day after the result is declared.

Having said that, I fully acknowledge, as I did during the debate in June, that there will be different opinions on this matter which will need to be considered further. I certainly do not claim that £1,000 is a magic figure—only that, all things considered, it seems the the right one; but we shall listen with care to what is said as the Bill proceeds through the House.

Our proposal for the very substantial reduction in the threshold from 12.5 per cent. to 5 per cent. has often been overlooked by some critics. The 5 per cent. threshold, which in most seats is still 2,000 to 3,000 votes, means that smaller parties will in future have a much more realistic target to aim for. I do not think anyone can argue that it is unreasonable to expect a candidate for election to aspire to poll 'one vote in 20 in order to justify the considerable benefits that accrue from candidature.

I shall deal more briefly with the remaining clauses.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Will the Home Secretary go back to the—clause that he seemed conveniently to be missing when he was running through the clauses -clause 11? It creates offences in respect of overseas electors' declarations and absent voting applications. It provides a maximum fine for offences at level five—currently £2,000—on the standard scale. How does the Secretary of State intend to enforce the penalty of a fine on a person who is resident abroad and whose intention is to stay abroad?

Mr. Brittan

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, but we are talking about people who retain a connection with this country. If there is a conviction by a court, a penalty could arise. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise that point during our deliberations, I am sure that we shall have the opportunity to consider it.

Clause 13 raises various minor expenses limits to the levels which already apply to European Parliament elections.

Clauses 14 to 16 introduce a general system for the combination of elections which are held on the same day. The problem here is that if two elections coincide—as happened with the European Parliament general election and the parliamentary by-election in Portsmouth. South last June—different polling stations, ballot boxes, and so on, ought strictly speaking to be used. The Bill allows the returning officer to combine the two elections and to use the same facilities for both. We have also taken the opportunity to give permanent statutory effect to the special provisions introduced in 1979 to combine parliamentary general elections with ordinary local government elections.

Clause 17 postpones ordinary local government elections in 1986 from the first to the second Thursday in May, to avoid the last day of the Passover.

Clause 19 repeals the provisions of the Meeting of Parliament Act 1797 which require the old Parliament to reconvene in the unhappy event of a demise of the Crown after the Dissolution of Parliament at a general election. Under the Bill, polling day is postponed for two weeks if the demise occurs before it; otherwise the new Parliament meets in the usual way.

Clause 22 and schedule 2 rationalise and, where appropriate, increase the penalties available for offences under the Representation of the People Act 1983.

Clause 23 and schedule 3 make a large number of relatively minor amendments to existing law. I shall not detain the House with all of these, but just point out the ones that I think will be of the greatest interest. Paragraph 2 of the schedule allows the name of an elector who has wrongly been omitted from the register to be added nearer the time of an election. Paragraph 34 gives candidates at parliamentary elections the right to have their election communications sent post-free without having to address the envelopes. Paragraph 73 provides for the polls at a parliamentary election to close at 9 pm rather than at 10 pm. That was recommended by the Select Committee. The extra hour was added in 1969, but it is not used a great deal. According to one of the Select Committee's witnesses, it is used by fewer than 5 per cent. of the voters, most of whom would no doubt vote earlier in the day; if they could not, the Bill would allow them to vote by post or proxy. That was the Select Committee's unanimous recommendation.

Mr. Kaufman

What is the relevance of that?

Mr. Brittan

We shall come back to these matters, so the right hon. Gentleman might perhaps contain himself. The relevance is that, whatever other parties may have to say, there were Labour party representatives on the Select Committee, and that was what they voted for. The right hon. Gentleman is entitled to change his mind. We shall consider these matters as the Bill proceeds, but I should now like to bring my remarks to a close.

Mr. Kaufman

On a different but related matter, the Government said in the White Paper that they planned to arrange for polling stations to open at 7 am in local government elections. As the Bill does not include such a provision, do I take it that it will be covered by rules to be issued after the Bill becomes law, and, if so, when

Mr. Brittan

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This will be done in new local government election rules, which I shall make after the Bill receives Royal Assent. I hope that that will be to the satisfaction of the House.

Paragraph 82 allows the returning officer to begin counting the votes before all the ballot boxes have been received. That could produce a significantly earlier result in many constituencies. Finally, paragraph 87 gives me the power to make regulations giving the political parties the right to obtain electoral registration data in computer compatible form.

The proposals in the Bill, represent an important extension of democracy. They extend the right to vote at parliamentary and European Parliament elections to British citizens overseas and to holidaymakers. We are also—at last—dealing with the question of the deposit, and a wide range of desirable, if sometimes unexciting, changes are being made to improve our electoral arrangements. Against the background of the Select Committee's valuable recommendations, we have taken a critical look at the whole of election law, amending provisions which in many cases have not been reviewed for a century or more. This Bill strengthens our democracy. As such, I commend it to the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

I should inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the reasoned amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. To avoid narrowing the debate, the Chair will call the amendment to be moved formally at the end of the debate.

5.2 pm

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

That this is a constitutional measure can be in no doubt and we have a motion on the Order Paper calling for it to be handled as such. We are pleased that, however belatedly, the Govenment have changed their mind and agreed to move a similar motion of their own. I hope that before the end of the debate the very much sotto voce response of the Leader of the House to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) will be reinforced with absolute clarity to the effect that the Governmet have absolutely no intention of moving a timetable motion on the consideration of the Bill. For that to be done on a measure of this kind would be an outrage.

One of the reasons why we question the Government's plans and motives in that regard is that right up to this Second Reading debate the Government have not handled this measure in a manner appropriate to a constitutional measure. As a result, it contains proposals that will have a profound and dangerous effect on the electoral process. That is the reason for our motion and that is why, if that motion is not carried, we shall vote against Second Reading.

There is no more important or precious legislation than that affecting the franchise. From the result of the exercise of that franchise all other parliamentary measures flow. I do not suggest that to proceed with a Bill of this nature the Government must in all circumstances obtain the agreement of every other party in the House. That would be to impose a veto on legislation which no Government could be expected to acccept. The Government must, however, be especially careful to seek to obtain as wide a measure of agreement as possible, but in this instance they have not exercised such care. The Home Secretary referred to consultations with Opposition parties since the White Paper appeared. In fact, Her Majesty's Opposition were consulted on one matter affecting a small aspect of the Bill and on no other matter since the debate on the White Paper six months ago.

The Government ought to exercise such care, because Ministers themselves acknowledged the need for it in the debate on the White Paper from which the Bill stems. On several items they undertook to reconsider their proposals in the light of the debate. In winding up that debate, the Under-Secretary of State specifically and categorically stated: We are not saying that we have reached the end of the line; these are our proposals, and we shall expect to force them through Parliament."— [Official Report, 27 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 1083.] The Government have gone ruthlessly ahead with the proposals that they promised to reconsider and they are now, to use the words of the Under-Secretary of State, forcing through the House a package of which many of the most important ingredients are to some extent opposed by significant elements in the House and one deeply controversial change which is opposed by almost all the Opposition parties as well as by Members of the Government's own party. Even when a proposal has wide support, as in the case of absentee voting for holidaymakers, which the Labour party certainly supports, the Government are proceeding in a manner that shows minimal regard for the electors of one part of the Kingdom.

In legislating on the franchise, Parliament must have regard to three fundamental criteria. First, does the Bill protect the right of any citizen to be a candidate in an election? Secondly, does it protect the secrecy and incorruptibility of the ballot while making it as simple and convenient as possible for electors to use the ballot? Thirdly, does it treat with scrupulous equality and impartiality all those eligible to use the ballot? Judged on those standards, the Bill fails miserably and ominously.

The Bill provides absentee votes for holidaymakers and there is no doubt that that provision satisfies a justified demand from voters which most of us have repeatedly encountered in election campaigns. At the same time, however, it does nothing to rebut the allegation that providing such a right means introducing postal or proxy voting on demand. The Government have solved the problem by ignoring it — except for residents of Northern Ireland.

In the debate on the White Paper, the Home Secretary gave an undertaking about absentee votes for electors in Northern Ireland. He said: I have given an undertaking to reconsider the proposals for Northern Ireland to see whether we can find a way of meeting the concerns that have been put to us. That undertaking remains." —[Official Report, 27 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 1024.] Those concerns have simply not been met. Nor, so far as I can see, has much genuine effort been made to meet them. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) has shown me the dossier of what passed for consultation between the Home Secretary and himself, beginning with an insulting approach from a junior Minister at the Northern Ireland Office—a characteristic example of the Government's celebrated insensitivity.

A new right is being introduced for electors in Great Britain but it is not available on equal terms to electors in Northern Ireland. Speaking of absentee votes, the Home Secretary has said today that we are living in an adult world. Apparently, that does not apply to Northern Ireland. The phrase "second-class citizens" is often fairly loosely used. The basic exercise of citizenship is the franchise. That right is now to be denied to voters in Northern Ireland on the terms available in the rest of the United Kingdom. They literally become second-class citizens.

Such prejudicial treatment of electors in one part of the United Kingdom is unacceptable to Her Majesty's Opposition. It is grotesque that a Northern Ireland elector on holiday for two weeks in Spain during an election campaign will be denied a vote, while lying next to him or her on the beach there may be a Northern Ireland citizen who has left Northern Ireland permanently and who will be able to cast a vote. Indeed, if one part of the Bill demonstrates more clearly than any other the fatuity of legislating without forethought to fulfil a dogmatic aspiration, it is the provision in clause 1 that those who have left this country, perhaps for good, should be given the right to vote for more than eight years after they have left Britain. That is what the alleged seven-year provision for expatriate voting entails.

The whole notion of expatriate voting was conceived in muddle. During the debate on the White Paper, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), with his customary acuity, asked the Home Secretary when the seven-year qualifying period would start. The Home Secretary replied: the seven years would start from Royal Assent"— [Official Report, Wednesday 27 June; Vol. 62, c. 1021.] It now turns out that the Home Secretary misled the House, either deliberately, or through sheer ignorance. With the present Home Secretary one can never be sure which it is—although one can always be sure that it will be one or the other.

No part of the Bill comes into operation on Royal Assent. It will be triggered by commencement orders. That fact, which is apparent to anyone who reads the Bill, was made clear to me in a parliamentary answer last Friday in which the Under-Secretary of State was forced to repudiate the Home Secretary—no doubt to his secret relish.

Again, there is the question whether the electoral registers of previous years will be available so that applications for expatriate votes can be properly checked. The Home Secretary admitted to my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr that there is no legal obligation to keep out-of-date electoral registers. Furthermore, the Bill imposes no such obligation. I have made inquiries today of a number of returning officers and have found that the practice differs from area to area. Some officers keep registers for many years. One officer in Epsom believes that he has the registers for the past five or six years. However, the Bill imposes no obligation. Especially after the massive redistribution of parliamentary boundaries last year, there must be doubt whether old registers will be available in some parts of the country where completely new constituencies have been formed.

Those, however, are only the first of numerous absurdities consequent upon the decision to introduce expatriate voting. Under the Government's dotty proposals, not only former electors get the vote but former non-electors too. Children who left Britain at the age of 11 and have had no contact with this country since then will have the right to vote and to help to decide this country's future, which they may never return to share.

Indeed, the provisions for expatriate votes for children reach an apotheosis of idiocy of clause 3(5)(b), which relates to elections to the European Assembly. The Bill does not refer to the European Parliament. There is no statutory basis for the European Parliament, and the Bill refers to that body as the European Assembly. The provision in subsection 5(b) caters to the potential whims of precisely four lads — if I may be forgiven for describing so crudely the scions of noble families. The Government are meticulously providing for the contingency that under-age peers at present resident in Britain may leave the country and yet still want to vote in European Assembly elections. They have a subsection all to themselves. There are only four of them—Baron Fermoy, aged 17, Baron Wrottesley, aged 16, the Earl of Hardwicke, aged 13, and Viscount Dillon, aged 13.

zIt is touching to know that the potential absentee voting rights of those noble striplings are to be protected by their own personal legislative subsection. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of Northern Ireland electors who are deprived of holiday ballots may take the view that the Government are taking too far the doctrine of kind hearts and coronets.

However, teenage peers are not the only beneficiaries of the Government's largesse. Fugitives from justice will benefit too. We have read with fascination of the unsuccessful efforts of the police to get their hands on five British citizens wanted in connection with robberies worth £32 million, who are now sunning themselves in Spain on what has become known as the Costa del Crime. All those gentlemen will be able to claim an absentee vote, and will accordingly be able to exercise their influence on the provisions of the next police and criminal evidence Bill. Among them is Mr. Clifford Saxe, who modestly disclaims the description "Mr. Big". Speaking a few days ago from one of his two villas on the La Capellania estate at Benalmadena, he said: Life goes on as normal here. The normality of life for Mr. Saxe—whether he is Mr. Big or only Mr. Average Size—will soon be enhanced by the right to vote.

So, together with the teenage peers benefit clause, we have the escaped fugitives benefit clause. Who says that the Government do not reward enterprise-especially free enterprise—Those provisions make altogether ridiculous the nonsense of the penalties laid down in the Bill for expatriate voters who make false declarations. Clause 11(1) solemnly states: A person who makes an overseas elector's declaration or a declaration purporting to be an overseas elector's declaration—

  1. (a) when he knows that he is subject to a legal incapacity to vote at parliamentary elections (age apart), or
  2. (b) when he knows that it contains a statement which is false,
is guilty of an offence. Subsection (4) states: A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale. How on earth are the authorities to get their hands on such people in order to fine them up to level 5 on the standard scale or any other level on the standard scale or on any other scale?

The Home Secretary shows no signs of taking action against the traders who yesterday blatantly broke the Shops Act in London. That demonstrates the truth of the statement that there is one law for the miner and another for the merchant. How will the Home Secretary punish those who violate the legislation from the safety of Spain or South America? This is one of the silliest innovations brought in by any Government, yet it is also one of the most obnoxious. The Home Affairs Select Committee was unanimous in rejecting it. It rightly warned that it might have the effect of altering the whole character of British elections. The proposal breaches three fundamental tenets of electoral law. First, it breaches the universality of the franchise. For citizens who live in the United Kingdom, registration for the franchise is obligatory and failure to register is an offence. For expatriates, registration is optional. Secondly, it breaches the doctrine of no representation without taxation. Thirdly, it breaches the residential qualification, which forms the very basis of the franchise in Britain. However, these optional votes by expatriates might decide what Government we have.

In the 1964 general election, 84 such votes — the Home Secretary said that there might be 500,000 —located in three constituencies could have deprived the properly elected Government of their majority. It is quite unacceptable that the votes of tax exiles should decide the taxes of people working in Britain. It is quite unacceptable that the votes of people who are sunning themselves in tropical climes should decide the heating allowances of pensioners shivering in Britain in the cold of winter. That is not the only proposal in the Bill that could unfairly change the result of a general election.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

Did I hear the right hon. Gentleman refer to the doctrine of no representation without taxation? I am not sure where he gets that notion from. Would he argue that nobody should be able to take part in local government elections unless they were ratepayers?

Mr. Kaufman

Not at all. They all pay taxes. Under this Government, if people buy a newspaper or a book they will soon be paying value added tax, unless Back Benchers force the Government to change their mind once again.

The proposal that I have described is not the only one which could unfairly change the result of a general election. The same is true of paragraph 73 of schedule 3, which provides that polling in general elections should end at 9 pm instead of at 10 pm, as at present. The Government, who are so lacking in compassion for the sick, pensioners and the unemployed, are distressed at the plight of polling staff. The White Paper on which the Bill is based says that the final hour of polling adds to an already long day for returning officers and their staff. My heart bleeds. In a Parliament of normal length there are more than 43,000 hours. Are the Government really saying that one hour out of 43,000 is too much to spare for the supreme exercise of democracy—the choice of a Government in a general election?

Mr. Brittan

As the right hon. Gentleman is so exercised by this proposal, could he explain whether there is any problem for anyone in not being able to vote between 9 pm and 10 pm and why they cannot get a postal vote? Moreover, in view of the extreme terms in which he puts is case, why did the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs), who sits with him on the Opposition Front Bench, vote in favour of that change in the Select Committee?

Mr. Kaufman

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) has a perfect right to state his view in a Select Committee. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to impose some form of guilt on my hon. Friend for stating his mind in a Select Committee, I regard that as offensive. I am saying on behalf of the Opposition that we oppose this provision.

Mr. Brittan


Mr. Kaufman

I shall give way when I have finished my answer. The right hon. and learned Gentleman might be able to arrange his day on polling day to his own convenience, as candidates do, but people who go to work in my constituency—when they have jobs to go to—do not know precisely when they will go home. There are traffic jams, people get caught in buses and they are expected to work late — long after the possibility of applying for and receiving a postal vote. As I shall demonstrate, that final hour is extremely important for many people.

Mr. Brittan

The right hon. Gentleman completely misunderstands me. I was not criticising the hon. Member for Battersea—he was perfectly entitled to register his view. If the hon. Member for Battersea took that view, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that it is unlikely that he put his name to a proposal which is as monstrous a restriction of the franchise as the right hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Kaufman

I fear that, in this case, my hon. Friend and I disagree on that point.

Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)

The right hon. Gentleman has not consulted his Back Benchers.

Mr. Kaufman

Well, we have here a Home Secretary who told the House something false in June and who had to be repudiated by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department in December. We have here a Cabinet Minister who has been repudiated by his junior Minister, yet he tries to open a division between me and my hon. Friend.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the junior Minister did not agree with his right hon. and learned Friend about the need for intimate body searches when the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 was going through the House, according to something that I read during the weekend?

Mr. Kaufman

We all know that there is a terrible split in the Home Office. We shall have to live with that. The only problem is that the right hon. and learned Gentleman seeks to open a rift between me and my hon. Friend when there is a chasm between him and the Under-Secretary of State.

Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)

Get on with it.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Knowsley, North)

He talks, that one.

Mr. Kaufman

I knew that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) had learned to crawl but I did not know that he had learned to speak.

Are the Government really saying that one hour out of 43,000 is too much to spare for voting in a general election? Evidence given to the Select Committee showed that, in the 1979 general election, 4 per cent. of the votes were cast between 9 pm and 10 pm. That might not sound much until it is remembered that one hour represents 6.7 per cent. of the 15-hour polling day. Therefore, 4 per cent. of the votes being cast in 6.7 per cent. of the time available is perfectly creditable. That 4 per cent. might not sound much until it is remembered that 4 per cent. of the votes cast in 1979 totals 1,250,000. A great many people find that final hour useful. The 4 per cent. might not sound much until it is remembered that, in the 1979 election, 70 hon. Members were elected to the House by majorities of less than 4 per cent. Removal of that final hour could affect the results in enough constituencies to change the national result. Perhaps that is what the Government want. I must tell the Home Secretary that we find this provision utterly unacceptable. I advise him that the Bill cannot expect an easy passage through the House if he insists on retaining it.

If the Bill makes it more difficult for electors to vote, it makes it more difficult for citizens to seek votes as candidates, through the increase in the deposit to £1,000. The Government's attitude on this matter utterly violates the assurance given to the House last year by Lord Whitelaw when he was Home Secretary. On 31 March 1983 he said: Many people think that the deposit is unsatisfactory at its present level but the changes should, as they have in the past, be made on the basis of all-party agreement in the House. I think that that is important." —[Official Report, 31 March 1983; Vol. 40, c. 458.] I believe that if Lord Whitelaw had stayed, that is what he would have done. In the debate on the White Paper, it appeared that the Government intended to adhere to the principle laid down last year by Lord Whitelaw.

The Under-Secretary of State assured the House: That is why I say in all sincerity that we shall consider, in the light of what has been said today, the proposals that we have brought forward for the level of the deposit. I give that assurance to those hon. Gentlemen who have spoken".—[Official Report, 27 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 1089.] In that debate, out of 13 Back Benchers who took part, eight opposed the £1,000 deposit proposal. Only two supported it. Of the Conservative Back Benchers who took part in this debate, two supported the £1,000 deposit and two opposed it. Yet ignoring the parliamentary opinions to which they had promised to listen, the Government insist upon driving through this increase in the cost of candidature.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

My right hon. Friend earlier told us about the characters residing on the Costa del Crime. Assuming that they would have the right to vote, as my right hon. Friend said they would, and assuming also that they have £1,000, am I right in thinking that they would also be able to stand as parliamentary candidates in any election under the Bill?

Mr. Kaufman

One assumes that they would be able to do so, if they were on the electoral register. A candidate does not have to present himself in a constituency in order to contest it. Very happily, my Fascist opponent at the last general election did not turn up at the election, although my Conservative opponent voiced many of the opinions which he would have voiced had he been present. It is true that a Government cannot accept a veto by Opposition parties, even on constitutional matters, yet on an issue upon which the Government are opposed by almost every Opposition party, as well as by some of their own Back Benchers, it is quite intolerable that they should insist on proceeding in this way. Let me make it clear—

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kaufman

No. I shall proceed for the moment.

The Labour party does not oppose this proposal out of self-interest. Indeed, self-interest would impel us to support it. On the basis of the proposed 5 per cent. threshold, the Labour party would have lost only six deposits at the last general election. But democracy does not consist of making it comfortable and convenient for Labour or Conservative candidates to stand and making it impossible for others with less support or organisation to offer themselves as candidates.

The Government say that they wish to discourage frivolous candidates. This afternoon we had a somewhat idiosyncratic interpretation and definition of "frivolous" from the Home Secretary, yet many of the candidates who are nominated, even though they may get very few votes indeed, are putting forward far from frivolous views. In this week's Southgate by-election there is a candidate who is advocating shifting freight from road to rail. Is that a frivolous point of view? Another candidate is campaigning for the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Cyprus. Is that a frivolous point of view? It may be that neither of these candidates will poll many votes. Indeed, I hope they do not poll many votes and that every sensible person in Southgate will vote for the excellent Labour candidate, Peter Hemming — [Interruption.] We may have forgotten the Conservative party's candidate before the end of the week. Nevertheless, it would be completely wrong to price minority or even eccentric candidates out of contesting elections, for it is the price which will decide.

A rich eccentric will be able to stand and will be able to afford to use all the appurtenances of candidature, including free postal delivery. A candidate without ample means will be prevented from standing by a provision that is literally a tax on democracy. These limitations on the right to vote at elections and the right to contest elections are baneful manifestations of this Government's repressive approach to the right to dissent in a society which grows less and less democratic day by day. As the symbolic year of 1984 draws to a close, what we have in Britain is a Government who mouth the clichés of democracy while suppressing the free exercise of democracy.

Mr. Andrew MacKay

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kaufman

No, I said not now. I did not say that I would not give way later—[Interruption.] All right.

Mr. Andrew MacKay

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. As he is aware, I have a great deal of sympathy for the remarks he is making about the deposit, but before he concludes his remarks I should like him to explain to us why, if the Bill is so constitutionally important that the Committee stage should take place on the Floor of the House, there are so few of his hon. Friends sitting behind him. There are only 10 by my count at the moment.

Mr. Kaufman

I knew that I was wrong to give way. The electorate have already had one go at throwing out the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that they will take another as soon as they can.

Two weeks ago the Prime Minister made a speech at the Carlton club. Her lecture demonstrated an intellectual impoverishment and a pinched, petty spitefulness which were not only entirely appropriate to the venue, but demonstrated conclusively that the Prime Minister wrote the lecture herself. In that lecture the Prime Minister made this statement: If there is a national debate and a constitutional vote about some matter, and if a recalcitrant minority says, 'The vote be damned, we are going to do our level best to stop the majority having its way', then it's no good saying 'We must seek consensus, we must negotiate'. Such a group will never consent, whatever the majority thinks, until it gets what it wants. Only the Prime Minister's almost sublime insensitivity can have blinded her to the realisation that here, above all, she was talking about herself. For who is it, if not the Prime Minister, who shrilly proclaims, "The vote be damned, we are going to do our level best to stop the majority having its way"? Who is it, if not the Prime Minister, who will never consent, whatever the majority thinks, until she gets what she wants?

It is the Prime Minister who bans trade unionism at GCHQ in violation of the wishes of the majority of the people. It is the Prime Minister who continues to force confrontation in the coalfields, in violation of the wishes of the majority. It is the Prime Minister who insists on trampling underfoot the elected majorities in our local authorities who seek honourably to carry out the policies on which they were elected. It is the Prime Minister who this very week is steamrollering through this House legislation to abolish seven elected majorities in the metropolitan counties and the GLC because they insist on doing what their electors want rather than what the Prime Minister wants. It was the Prime Minister who, on the issue of student grants, even tried to thrust aside the wishes of the majority of her own parliamentary party.

It is the Prime Minister who, unchastened by this experience, intends, according to today's Daily Telegraph, at Thursday's meeting of the 1922 Committee to warn her Back Benchers not to use their own minds again. It is reported that she will tell them that they must revert to behaving like Lobby fodder instead of freely elected Members of Parliament. In this procession of repression she is now—

Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is not the right hon. Gentleman straying very far indeed from the subject matter that we are discussing?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. This is a Second Reading debate.

Mr. Kaufman

As I was saying, in this procession of repression, the Prime Minister has now, with her faithful lapdog the Home Secretary, turned her attention to the electoral system itself. Now she asks Parliament to make it more difficult for more than 1 million voters to vote. Now she asks Parliament to make it almost impossible for candidates with minority views even to seek votes. The Prime Minister, who once gloried in the title "The Iron Lady", has now become the lady with the iron heel. It is in the assertion of the rights of a free democracy that we shall be voting against this Bill tonight.

5.39 pm
Mr. Derek Spencer (Leicester, South)

In a sense, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in calling me as the first Back Bencher in this Second Reading debate the natural order of things has been reversed, because the last has been made the first. I am the tail-end Charlie of this Parliament. My majority is seven votes. On 9 and 10 June 1983, I had good cause to see the workings of our electoral system at first hand and over many hours, beginning at about midnight and going on to 6.20 am.

The first time the votes were counted, I had lost by two votes. They were recounted a number of times. The perforations were examined on about 52,000 votes on one occasion. The result was declared at 6.20 am. I was firmly of the opinion then that our electoral system was firmly rooted in the horse and buggy age. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on giving the old nag a smack on the backside and propelling it into the second half of the 20th century.

I want to draw the attention of the House to the way in which some parts of the Bill are likely to operate if it becomes law. I always go past one house in my constituency with a wistful smile, because during the election campaign the owner told me that he would not be able to vote for me on polling day, although he would be in this country, because he had an important business engagement and would not be able to get back to Leicester until after 10 pm. Much has been said about the desirability of having absent votes for holidaymakers, and that point has been taken on board, but little has been said about the disfranchisement of those who are kept out of the constituency for other reasons. I am pleased that the principle that has been enshrined in the Bill will go much further than giving votes to absent holidaymakers and will enfranchise those who, through no fault of their own, have to leave the constituency during voting hours on polling day.

I listened to the extravaganza of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), which soon left behind any pretence at keeping in touch with reality and ascended heights of fantasy which, even by the standards that he sets himself, must almost be a record. Voting hours can profitably be reduced by one hour at night. My electors were as anxious to vote as anybody else. No doubt some of them did set out at breakfast time. Although I have heard stories about many misfortunes that befell electors on the way to the polling station—one broke his leg and had to go to hospital to have a plaster applied before being taken to the polling station in a wheelchair—I have not yet heard it suggested that anybody who set off at breakfast time was still struggling to get there at 9 pm. The suggestion that we cannot profitably cut down the hours by one at night totally lacks any merit whatever.

The officia1 mark on the ballot paper does not usually concern most people. However, during the count in my constituency at the election, my opponent asked for each ballot paper to be scrutinised in order that it might be seen that each had an official mark. That mark is put on by a machine before the ballot paper is handed by the polling clerk to the elector. When that scrutiny was carried out and about 50,000 pieces of paper were held up to the light at about 4.30 am, it was found that some 27 votes cast for me and 17 of those cast for my opponent did not have the official mark upon them. Under rule 43 of the polling rules, which every candidate in Leicester must keep in his hip pocket when he goes to the count, they were properly disqualified. If they had been added to the count, I should have more than doubled my majority.

Therefore, I read with interest paragraph 86 of schedule 3, in which it is proposed that the form of directions for the guidance of the voters in voting is to be simplified. If one compares what is there written with what appears in the existing rules, one sees that the former rigmarole has been replaced by something which is much simpler and much more intelligible, and which the vast majority of electors, when they see it in the polling booth, will be able to read.

The directions say that the elector should make sure that the ballot paper is stamped with the official mark. It also places upon the presiding officer the duty of checking the official mark and its presence on the ballot paper before the ballot paper is put into the box. Therefore, provided that that is carried out, at the next general election in Leicester, South, we can look forward to fewer ballot papers being disqualified because they lack the official mark.

While that worthwhile reform is being implemented, it might be useful to do something about the machines which make the perforation marks in the ballot paper. Some of them are antique contraptions. On polling day, riot in Leicester, South but in Leicester, East, some of those machines were taken out of commission because they were not putting the perforation mark into the ballot papers correctly. No such decision on the machines was taken in Leicester, South, although, with the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that they were just as defective as the machines in Leicester, East.

It is completely unsatisfactory that the enfranchisement of members of the public should depend on whether the polling clerk is so tired that he or she does not lean hard enough on the machine to put the perforation mark m the paper. Will my right hon. and learned Friend try .co ensure that some more visible mark is put into the ballot paper rather than those fine perforations, which look rather like a teabag on occasions, so that they can been seen both by the elector and by the presiding officer? In that way, we shall not have a repetition in Leicester, South, or elsewhere, at the next general election of the sort of experience that we had at the last election.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that in the 1974 election in Carmarthen the successful candidate had a majority of three. Some 70 ballot papers were disqualified because they did not have a mark on them and they came predominantly from one or two booths. The overwhelming majority of those ballot papers were in favour of the unsuccessful candidate. The question that was raised was whether there is room for fraud in the system in small communities where people recognise which way people vote.

Mr. Spencer

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying.

I suggested to the Home Office that, rather than have a machine, some sort of franking mark should be put down the side of the ballot paper. To give full faith and credit to the principle that ballot papers should be seen to be genuine and inviolate, it is necessary to have some contraption that puts on a mark. The machines are kept in operation for a number of years. As hon. Members may know, the official mark put on for postal votes is different from that for voters voting in person. I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to consider my point about machines and to ensure that they, like some of his other proposals, are brought up-to-date.

Much has been said about the proposal to increase the deposit to £1,000. If self-interest were the only criteria, like the right hon. Member for Gorton, my view might be to the contrary. Three fringe parties stood in Leicester, South during the last election, each of which polled less than 1 per cent. The Ecology party polled 495 votes, the Workers' Party for a Workers' State polled 161 and something that was pleased to call itself the British National party polled just over 100.

Mr. Kaufman

Two hundred and eighty.

Mr. Spencer

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. As he would no doubt be quick to point out, those figures are many, many times my majority. Merely because two of those parties could be classed as parties of the Left is no reason why they should be kept in the political ring so that persons casting their votes for them are not tempted to cast them for my opponent. All I ask is that the political system should be fair.

It is right in principle that there should be a penalty for a failure to obtain a significant share of the vote. The only argument up for grabs is the meaning of a significant share of the vote. No one is suggesting that persons or parties should be disqualified from standing. We are merely asking for answers to the questions: what are the criteria for deciding the point at which a penalty should be exacted and what level should be set for votes not being achieved? I do not regard the argument as being about an article of faith. I take my right hon. and learned Friend's point that if we grossed up the amount to take account of the fall in the value of money over the years, we would be discussing a much larger sum. I take on board his remark about the amount of money spent in providing facilities for those who put themselves forward as candidates during a general election. However, it is all about electing someone to Parliament — it is not about a circus. If certain individuals want to take advantage of the facilities that are provided at public expense, there is nothing wrong in exacting a penalty for a failure to obtain a significant share of the vote.

It must be noted that that significant share of the vote has been considerably reduced. Naturally, I have thought long and hard about the proposals that fix the deposit at £1,000. It may be a little on the high side, but if we view it together with the other proposals, overall they are beneficial improvements which I—even if it should cost me my seat at the next general election—feel it to be my duty to support.

5.55 pm
Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

I believe that very much larger principles are involved in the Bill than those stated by the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer). It would be a disservice to the House if we reduced the matter of dispute between us—and there are great disputes about the Bill—to the level stated by the hon. and learned Gentleman. I have no doubt that he was concerned about the matters that he raised, but he distracted the House from the major questions that we should be debating.

There was a sharp and comprehensive contrast between the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and that of the Home Secretary. The sooner that my right hon. Friend is transferred to the Home Secretary's office the better for the freedoms and liberties of this country. That must be the view of anyone judging the two speeches — not only because of the sheer merit in my right hon. Friend's speech, which is customary and normal, but because of the degradation of the Home Secretary's speech, which is also customary and normal.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman did a grave disservice to the House in not attempting to justify the way in which he has brought the measure, which involves many major questions, before us. Indeed, objections are being made to all parts of the Bill, as can be seen from the Order Paper. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has a great obligation to attempt to justify what he is doing.

We must all remember that representation of the people Bills are of great importance to the House. Indeed, over the centuries they have been more important than almost any other Bill. The way in which people are elected to the House is of paramount importance, not only to the House but to the survival of democracy. After elections in the 18th century, the House of Commons would spend many hours, days and even years trying to clear up the mess of the last election or trying to stash advantages for themselves for a later election. We escaped from that over a period, but the Government now seem to be returning to some of the old traditions. Almost every week, and certainly every Session, we are presented with a Bill that helps the electoral position of the Conservative party and injures that of the Labour and other opposition parties. Not a single Session passes during which we do not have to discuss these matters. During the last Session the Government introduced a Bill that injured the finances of the Labour party. It was one of the obvious purposes of the Bill. I am not suggesting that every major proposition in this Bill is designed to assist the Conservative party and injure the other parties, but that might be the result. One of my main grievances is the procedure that the Government have followed.

The major question is how the Government have approached this important measure. Representation of the people Bills should always be regarded as of paramount importance. This Government, even before they proposed to take part of the Bill in Committee, said in their White Paper that they would bring forward a major representation of the people Bill. Even the Government admit that it is a major Bill. It was outrageous that the Government should even contemplate the idea of a major representation of the people Bill being presented to the House without all the details being examined on the Floor of the House.

I shall elaborate on the way in which the Government have gone about presenting a major representation of the people Bill to the House of Commons. The details add up to very important questions. There is the question of giving the vote to expatriates or people living in other parts of the world. It is an important principle. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton ridiculed that idea, and it will be interesting to see how the Government reply. What would have happened if that had been applied in years gone by? I am not sure whether the Home Secretary was here when one of the major matters that the House was discussing was what was to happen to the country then known as Rhodesia. If the Bill had been in operation, many people in Rhodesia would have exercised their right to decide what would happen in this country. A famous rhyme went as follows: True patriots we; for be it understood, We left our country for our country's good. Quite a lot of so-called patriots of that nature left their country, and under the Bill they would have taken their votes with them. Therefore, that part of the Bill opens up new principles, which should be examined with great care. If they are to be introduced at all, they should be introduced with some agreement with the Opposition parties, but in the case of the expatriate vote, that has not been done or even attempted.

I entirely agree with what was said today and on previous occasions by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton about the £1,000 deposit. It is a powerful case against the way in which the Government have been proceeding on the matter, which is wrong. I know that figures can be quoted and comparisons can be made with 1918. We have been able to accommodate these matters since then. It is wrong that a figure of £1,000 should now be imposed, particularly when it is imposed through a Government decision and not by agreement between all the parties concerned on how we should proceed.

There is also a proposal for cutting off the hour of voting at 9 o'clock instead of 10 o'clock. The ridicule poured on the present system by the Home Secretary does not bear any relation to the facts—

Mr. Brittan

But that is what the Select Committee proposed.

Mr. Foot

I shall come to the Select Committee in a moment. All these matters lead to the Select Committee and the right hon. and learned Gentleman, like others, might have been misled by it.

I remember the 1945 election, when voting finished at 8 o'clock. At that time, we still had a comfortable majority, but even so, at 8 o'clock there were people standing in queues outside the polling stations. Many were unable to get in, and many votes up and down the country were lost. That was remedied by agreement between the parties — by discussion. We altered the time to 10 o'clock. I should have thought that the figure of 1.5 million people voting between 9 o'clock and 10 o'clock by itself was a conclusive reason why the time of 10 o'clock should be retained. Therefore, I hope that that proposal will be altered in Committee.

There is also the issue of principle of how people in Northern Ireland are to vote on a different basis from that which will apply to people in other parts of the country. That is intolerable. There must be a uniform system throughout the United Kingdom. I do not mean to say that the people in Northern Ireland treasure the vote more than we do, but they treasure it very much, as something that protects them against violence and all the thuggery of the IRA. Their whole future depends upon the ballot box. Great honour is paid to the ballot box in Northern Ireland, perhaps even more than anywhere else, although all our lives depend upon upholding the authority of the ballot box. For the right hon. and learned Gentleman, on his own whim and without discussion with the parties affected, to say that there will be a different principle in Northern Ireland from the one that operates in other parts of the country, is insulting. It will not work. I hope that that proposal will be destroyed in Committee. At the end of tonight's debate, the Government should accept that.

With regard to the holiday provisions, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton rightly said, it is just and proper that there should be workable arrangements in that respect. However, the other measures amount to a major change in the way in which representation in the House is carried through. It is outrageous that the Government seek to introduce a measure of this character—what they themselves call a major representation of the people Bill —without the normal processes of consultation.

The Home Secretary referred to the Select Committee. However, Select Committees are not a substitute for the normal procedure. Many of us had discussions about the establishment of the Select Committees and said that one of the dangers was that some unwise Ministers who did not pay proper attention to the genuine and well-established traditions of the House would say, "We can take account of what a Select Committee says on the matter." That is the trouble with Select Committees. Governments can pick and choose. This Government pick and choose. They do not agree with every Select Committee. If they think that a Select Committee such as the Select Committee on Home Affairs agrees with them, they say that it has made the recommendation. But they did not accept all the recommendations of even the Select Committee on Home Affairs. They pick and choose. They say that they will take half a dozen of the Committee's proposals and perhaps they will be able to get them through the House.

I dare say that the old-fashioned habit of discussing representation of the people Bills in Cabinet is still preserved, but perhaps that is carrying things a bit far. When the right hon. and learned Gentleman had to persuade the Cabinet—if he had to—I dare say that he said, "We have the Select Committee on our side." Why did not the right hon. and learned Gentleman look at the normal traditions? They are even in his own White Paper. He could have read the paragraph before the one that mentions the major representation of the people Bill, which says that on all such previous occasions when there have been major changes there was a Speaker's Conference. That was not so in the old days. In the 18th century, parties would try to wrest their own advantage from their majority in the House, which might be a temporary majority. It took years to establish incorruptible processes of election in the House. It was one of the major fights for democracy. However, we are returning to those old corrupt days, when Ministers used their majority for their own purposes. Why did not the Minister stop to ask himself, "Why should there be this tradition of having a Speaker's Conference on the matter?" The reason is that he did not discharge his responsibilities properly.

Mr. Brittan

If the right hon. Gentleman hastens to import motives to people, which I would not do in this case, I should tell him that the position is clear. He must be aware that the way of handling these matters by a Speaker's Conference has been subject to an enormous amount of criticism, most cogently by Mr. Speaker Selwyn Lloyd, who, after he was involved in such an operation, came to a firm view as to its unsuitability as a means of handling these matters today.

Mr. Foot

That is a new principle that has been enunciated. Mr. Speaker Selwyn Lloyd may have said that in an off-beat comment, but is it Government policy that we have no more Speaker's Conferences? If that is the Government's view, they should have said so in a proper declaration. We should have been told when they introduced the Bill that the reason why the Government would not have a Speaker's Conference was that they mistrusted Speaker's Conferences. That should have been stated clearly if it was the Government's view. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will have his opportunity to say that he believes that Speaker's Conferences are not the proper way to deal with these matters and that that was the Government's decision although, carelessly, they have not announced it until this moment.

Mr. Brittan

The right hon. Gentleman is mistaken. I have said publicly that I do not believe that a Speaker's Conference is the most appropriate way. As the right hon. Gentleman is so enthusiastic about Speaker's Conferences, will he explain why, when he was Leader of the House in 1969, the extra hour's polling time was introduced, contrary to the recommendation of the Speaker's Conference and against the wishes of the Conservative Opposition at the time?

Mr. Foot

The Secretary of State had better take a little more time to check his facts. So far from it being the case that the Labour Government believed it wrong to have a Speaker's Conference to deal with such matters, and so far from us having adopted what the right hon. and learned Gentleman now calls the "Selwyn Lloyd" principle—that one pushes Speaker's Conferences to one side because they are not fit to deal with such matters—the Labour Government insisted on a Speaker's Conference to deal with the most critical representation of the people Bill that we have had to deal with, which related to Northern Ireland. We said that it must go to a Speaker's Conference because we believed that it would then command much more support in the House and throughout the country, as events proved.

The Opposition have never accepted the doctrine that Speaker's Conferences are not fit to deal with such matters. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, in a document presented to the House, explained how Speaker's Conferences were used to do so previously. Even if some believe that a Speaker's Conference would not be the best way to do it, what has happened on this occasion proves the case. Instead of introducing a measure that could have commanded universal support because it had been examined properly, the Government have made the grave mistake of saying that they will not have a Speaker's Conference, but that they will take instead portions of a Select Committee's recommendations. That is why not only the right hon. and learned Gentleman but the House of Commons is in such a mess.

Mr. Brittan

The right hon. Gentleman talks about a mess. Does he believe that the 1969 Government were wrong to reject the recommendation of the Speaker's Conference, which had decided against extending polling hours? The 1969 Government insisted on that change, against the wishes of the Conservative Opposition. If the right hon. Gentleman is so keen on Speaker's Conferences, he has some explaining to do now.

Mr. Foot

I did not notice that the right hon. and learned Gentleman apologised to me at the beginning of his remarks. I was not Leader of the House in 1969. I was performing the functions, which I am now performing, of contributing to debates from the Back Benches. I should be happy, for the right hon. and learned Gentleman's benefit, to look up everything I said then, and treat him to a full survey of it on a proper occasion.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is the Minister and should be responsible for such matters. He made the wholly unjustified charge that I was opposed to dealing with such matters by a Speaker's Conference, but I have already given him a clear example that in the Parliament when I was responsible for those matters I said that the House could deal with them properly only by having a Speaker's Conference and letting everyone from different sides give evidence. Such a procedure now would have provided a real chance of getting the Bill through the House of Commons.

The Secretary of State has failed in his duty to the House. He has produced a squalid little measure that may have advantages for the Conservative party, but which has not been thought out properly. He may discover that, as with the trade union legislation introduced by the Government—which is designed to injure the finances of the Labour party—some of the measures in the Bill, which are designed to assist the electoral processes of the Conservative party, will not succeed. The debate on the Representation of the People Bill, which includes major changes, should have been introduced in an entirely different way. If the House of Commons becomes bogged down in constitutional procedures, the responsibility will rest with the right hon. and learned Gentleman and with the Cabinet who were foolish enough to listen to his advice.

6.14 pm
Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

Contrary to what we have heard in the debate from Opposition Members, most people will welcome the Bill. Its proposals show that the Government are sensitive to public opinion, and I am glad that they have been introduced. In a democracy it is desirable that electoral arrangements should have consensus support from the parties generally, and I am sorry that the Opposition parties have not seen fit wholeheartedly to welcome the proposals. The amendments on the Order Paper show that they are very much out of touch with public opinion.

I was a member of the Joint Committee that considered the consolidation of the several Acts relating to electoral law which became the Representation of the People Act 1983. We were responsible for consolidating the law, not for making new law. Our biggest problem was deciding how the requirement for urgent messages to be conveyed to the returning officer by telegram should be dealt with following the abolition of Post Office telegrams. However, it was apparent during our consideration of that consolidation that the existing electoral law was badly out of date and that changes were necessary. I am glad that the Government delayed for no longer than was necessary following the publication of the report from the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the Government's answer in the form of a White Paper.

Although I welcome the Bill generally, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State will forgive me if I devote some of my time to concentrating on ways in which the Bill can be improved in Committee.

It is right that those who, by their decision or that of others, live and work overseas for a time should not be deprived of their votes. It is unfortunate that the Opposition attach disreputable motives to those United Kingdom citizens who spend time abroad, when many of them do so in the service of the country.

As my right hon. and learned Friend said, some believe that the right to vote in such circumstances should not be qualified by a time limit. It is argued that, as United Kingdom citizens, such people still have close contact with this country even after many years. But those who argue that have forgotten that votes are given not for Governments but for candidates. Due to the processes of electoral registration, the limit of seven years could sometimes be extended to more than eight years from the time when the individual went overseas. We must ask ourselves whether, after such a long period, it would be likely that someone would still have a close connection with his previous constituency and whether he or she would be likely to return to that place. For that reason, I believe that there should be a time limit, and the limit specified in the Bill of seven years is by no means unreasonable.

If an election takes place during the summer—my right hon. and learned Friend said that the period during which people take holidays has spread—many people are likely to be prevented by their holiday arrangements from voting. Justice demands that they should not be deprived of their vote through no fault of theirs. The greatest difficulty lies in the definition of those circumstances in which a postal vote should be allowed, and this is obviously a problem with which the Home Office has had to grapple. I am concerned about the wide latitude written into the Bill, which seems almost to provide for a postal vote on demand. The numbers seeking to take advantage of the new provision may be considerable, and the extension of the postal vote provision can be, if we are not careful, an invitation to abuse. It should be noted that the absent vote has been extended to local government and to parish council elections, where the majority of people tend not to use their vote. It is not difficult to imagine that this will encourage abuse when combined with the widening of the absent voting provision.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not be so critical of the extension of the postal vote to parish councils, where the polls are generally much higher than they are for district and county council elections, and where the total exclusion of postal voting has been unreasonable.

Mr. Waller

The hon. Gentleman may have misunderstood me. I am by no means opposing the extension of the postal voting provisions to parish council elections, but the turnout varies considerably, and in many parish council elections the vote is extremely small. I know of parish council elections where it has been well under 20 per cent.

Penalties are available, and the Bill provides for those penalties to be increased where such abuse is detected, but detection and enforcement, although they may exist, may in reality become almost imposible. The requirement that anyone applying for a postal vote should have to obtain the counter-signature of another elector provides effectively no protection at all. I hope that, at the very least, the Bill will be amended so that the declaration needs to be made in front of a Justice of the Peace. This should be considered in Committee.

It has already been argued in the debate that the candidate's deposit should be replaced by an increase in the number of signatures required on a candidate's nomination paper. The figure of 500 signatures has been suggested, but it is interesting to note that the Ecology party, which has been in touch with hon. Members has suggested that the figure of 100 might be more suitable. This may reflect the difficulty with which that party might be faced in obtaining 500 signatures.

However, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has said, in many instances people are prepared to sign nomination papers without giving any commitment to candidates. Therefore, the need to obtain 100, or even 500, signatures will not provide any great obstacle. A financial deposit has been traditional an this country, and there are good reasons for continuing with it, although the exact figure is open to question, and again this is an appropriate issue to be considered in Committee.

Schedule 1, part III, concerns municipal elections in the City of London, and I am surprised that it has not been mentioned already in the debate. I shall refer briefly to certain aspects of the procedures there. I strongly believe in the importance of tradition and I support the City's right to retain its ancient traditions. However, tradition ceases to be a virtue and becomes a threat when it becomes incompatible with democracy. One of the great strengths of Parliament arises out of the fact that it has combined a respect for tradition with a willingness to change its procedures when it has been obvious that that has been demanded. Unfortunately, this has not always been such an obvious feature of the City of London.

The danger of electoral abuse is greater in the City because the wards have remained unaltered since medieval times. For example, there is one ward with only just over 30 electors, while another has over 2,500. To be an elector in the City, one needs to be neither a resident nor someone who works there, because partners may vote in those wards where their firm has its offices. Despite the Bill's intentions, a partner may vote more than once in a local government election in the City because each ward is a separate electoral area. Just as one of the partners in a large stockbroking or accountancy firm can vote more than once, so he can appoint a proxy to vote in each of those wards where his firm has an office, regardless of whether or not he works in the City.

Although I understand that the Home Office undertook to look at the question of applications for personal votes by power of attorney, no provision relating to the power of attorney has been included in the Bill. At present, there is the unsatisfactory position that all the partners of a professional firm in the City of London can appoint one of their members as attorney to apply for postal votes on behalf of each of them.

There are several reasons why this matter is important at this time. The abolition of the Greater London council will mean that the City will be a unitary authority and the only local government authority that those living in the City can look to for the provision of services. Many changes are taking place in the City at the moment, involving the takeover of firms, which I feel are tantamount to the opening of a Pandora's box for future elections. I wonder how many people are aware that elections to the Court of Common Council in the City can, in the case of some wards, be controlled by a very small number .of individual firms.

Years ago, changes in the City's electoral practices would have been easier to implement than they are today. Today they will be easier to implement than they will become in the future, and I hope that, during the passage of the Bill, some essential reforms will be introduced.

It is right that electors should not be deprived of a vote because they are living abroad or are on holiday. It is obvious to me and, I think, to most people in the country that a deposit of £150 is completely out of date and more suited to the last century than to this. I look forward to the early passage of this legislation, and to its improving our form of democracy.

6.27 pm
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

I agree with a number of the anxieties that have been expressed by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) about the Bill in its present form. I think it a thousand pities that the Government, whatever may be our view as to the absolute validity of a Speaker's Conference, did not have the benefit of such a conference before the Bill was introduced. There is no substitute for it in the form of a Select Committee. A Select Committee is not capable of delivering to the House or the Government the agreement of the several parties represented here. That is so for one reason that is worth stressing: individual hon. Members do not sit on Select Committees as delegates or representatives of their respective parties, and it will be an ill day when we hold them, in the deliberations of a Select Committee, to be committing their respective parties.

The Bill, in its major provisions, undermines some of the most fundamental characteristics and principles of parliamentary representation, and notably three. The first is the significance of place or locality. The second is the importance of uniformity throughout the country. The third is the importance of simultaneity of voting. I shall take those points briefly and then consider how they relate to the Bill.

The House is a geographical representation of the kingdom. We come here sent from our respective places. We do not have a mass poll of the citizenry to elect a Government or a Prime Minister: instead the electorate of the several places send one person to Parliament, to use his discretion on their behalf. That is one of the profound characteristics of the House of Commons. It is at variance with the principles on which other deliberative assemblies are founded; but it is certainly something that goes to the roots of our parliamentary democracy. Indeed, it is the reason why the House of Commons has its name. It is the House of the "communities" Indeed at times in the middle ages it was called the communitas communitatum—the place where all the communities, through their representatives, gathered together.

As for the principle of simultaneity, that does not perhaps have so long a history. Indeed, in the days before the ballot Act it was not uncommon for elections to last not merely for several days but for several weeks. Yet I do not think it can be controverted that since the prevalence of the ballot, and certainly since universal franchise has prevailed, simultaneity is one of the essential characteristics of our elections and is the principle that gives validity to the composition of the House of Commons as determined at a general election.

It requires only a moment's thought to see the importance of the simultaneous vote by the whole electorate in person—in principle—and upon the same day. Events happen, things are said, promises are made and broken during the course of an election campaign, that influence and sway large bodies of the electorate. If a substantial proportion of that electorate can be shown to have voted before such and such an event occurred, doubt is inevitably cast on the outcome of an election in which not all electors have been voting in the same circumstances, in the same position and upon the same proposition. Therefore, simultaneity is an essential validating character and quality of the principle of election, whereby on one polling day the whole nation goes to the polls—in principle—in person.

I accept that to some extent we have modified that principle in the provisions hitherto made for absent voting. We have made provision for absent voting, notably in two important areas. The first is where a person, by removing from one place to another, is unable to exercise his vote in the only place where, by reason of our emphasis upon locality, he can do so. That is a very important aspect of the absent vote hitherto. The second involves what I might almost call the compassionate consideration—that those persons physically disabled from going to the poll should nevertheless not thereby be prevented from voting.

Although those modifications to the principle have been made, the principle remains important, and we should be exceedingly jealous and careful of any extension of that proportion of the electorate that votes at a different time, in different circumstances and faces different facts, indeed what one might almost call a different world, from the rest of the electorate.

The third principle has already been mentioned, and it is that of uniformity. All Members of Parliament, who are equals one with another, should be elected by an electorate constituted and qualified in the same way, and having the same rights, the same opportunities to cast their votes. Indeed, the unity of the realm, which is expressed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, ultimately depends on the unity of the electorate.

All those fundamental characteristics of a valid electoral system are undermined by the Bill.

The principle of locality as well as of simultaneity is undermined by the provision for overseas voting, whereby a person who had a connection seven or eight years ago with a locality is held to be on an equal footing with those who still reside there, who hear the candidate's speeches, who know the circumstances of the area and who have, during the past seven or eight years, lived through the experiences of that locality. That is a serious breach in the integrity of our electoral process, and we should seriously qualify it or reconsider it before we allow the Bill to reach the statute book.

Even more serious, certainly quantitatively, is the principle of absent voting by choice which is now introduced for the first time. One has only to read the staggering wording of clause 7(1) (a) to understand that that is no exaggeration. It states that the registration officer shall grant an application for an absent vote if he is satisfied that the applicant's circumstances on the date of the poll will be or are likely to be such that he cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at the polling station allotted". I do not know whether to call that arbitrary or ad lib. From the elector's point of view, there is virtually no limit to the grounds upon which he can argue that it would be inconvenient to the degree of impossibility for him to turn up at that place on that day. We have already had the example of a business man who was unable to return to his home before the poll closed at 10 pm. Does a business man say to the registration officer 10 or 20 days, or even more than that, before the date of the poll, "Look, I'm a business man and I occasionally make trips to London. For all I know, I might have to make a business trip on the day" — [Interruption.]Does the Under-Secretary of State wish to intervene?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

I am sorry that I appeared surprised. I would happily have left my rebuttal of what the right hon. Gentleman has said—so far as I am capable of rebutting it—until later. But he might recall that it has been possible since the 1940s for those who think that they might be away on business to obtain a postal vote.

Mr. Powell

I do not quite think so. That is the case where the nature of a calling or occupation is such that the contingency has to be reckoned with; but we are dealing here with something different. After all, even the limited opportunities still to be left for the electors in Northern Ireland will allow them to consider the character of the occupation of the peron concerned. But there is an immense range of other circumstances in which anyone can legitimately claim that he might well find it inconvenient or impossible to get to the polling station on a given day. There is always an invalid aunt in Halifax—as all who have been candidates will know, our key workers tend to have invalid aunts in Halifax who take it into their heads to die during the last stages of an election campaign. That is surely a ground upon which the applicant's "circumstances are such that he will be, or may be likely to be," unable to go to the poll. His aunt is a close relative and ill, and he argues that, in case of bad luck, he had better have a right to vote—an absent vote "just in case". So on the one hand there is an open invitation and a menu card for absent voting, on the other there is an extraordinary responsibility placed on a registration officer when the definition is so wide.

The Home Secretary may say, "Don't you worry about that, because I am going to put a much closer definition into the regulations." I hope that he will not say that, because it would not do. It would not do for the House of Commons to pass something such as clause 7(1)(a) on the understanding that after the Bill is passed the words will be narrowed and defined in some unforeseeable way, perhaps by regulations subject to affirmative or—who knows?—negative resolution.

Therefore, we are confronted with an inadmissible and indefinite extension of the potentialities of absent voting. In many a constituency that scope is sufficient to cast grave doubt on the validity of a particular outcome that might be crucial to the composition of the House and so to the nature of the Government.

I come to uniformity. The Home Secretary says that there are respects in which the electoral law in Northern Ireland is not identical with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. So there are and when a Bill that has just gone to the other place receives the Royal Assent, a further extension will have been given to that variation, over the — parliamentarily speaking—dead bodies of my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself. The Home Secretary quoted part of the Representation of the People Act—section 1(2) — which creates in Northern Ireland a residence qualification different from the residence qualification in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Incidentally, it is a United Kingdom Act passed by this House: let there be no question of it being a relic of the Stormont Administration in Northern Ireland; it is something that the House thought it right and appropriate to enact and apparently thinks it right and appropriate still to keep on the statute book, though that perhaps should now be debated again in view of the great importance that I am at this moment stressing of uniformity of qualification and of electoral process in all parts of the United Kingdom.

Two things are happening in the Bill. First, a new opportunity to vote is being created in the rest of the kingdom but that opportunity to vote is being withheld from my constituents and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends. That is one thing that is happening. But something more atrocious, which I cannot believe that the House will suffer, is also happening. A right to vote which is already possessed is being withdrawn silently by means of omission from a list in clause 7(2). Without any paraphernalia or publicity, the right for a person removing from one place to another to cast his vote during the validity of that register in the place where he is registered is being silently withdrawn in Northern Ireland.

I cannot believe that there can be any justification for that in the circumstances of Northern Ireland, or on any other grounds. Indeed, I have reason to suppose that this is a conclusion which the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary has come to with considerable hesitation. I rely much on expressions that have fallen from him at various stages, both in correspondence and on the Floor of the House.

We are told that in Northern Ireland there is abuse of the electoral process, that there are many electoral offences committed there, and that we must not open a wider field for the commission of those offences. Well, we are talking about absent voting either by post or by proxy. Now, I have not heard it seriously stated that widespread serious abuse can occur in voting by proxy. In effect, therefore, it comes down to voting by post.

I concede that postal voting for the disabled or for the sick is open to abuse—not only in Northern Ireland. Not only in Northern Ireland are certificates given lightly, collected and filled up batchwise to confer votes upon people who might, on a strict interpretation, not be entitled to vote by post by reason of physical disability.

Still, I concede that it is possible for evilly minded and militarily organised people, as in some areas of Northern Ireland those persons are, to abuse the availability of ballots in the homes of those who have been certified to be physically disabled.

I do not deny that. However, in what circumstances could the most fantastic organisation—evil no doubt, determined no doubt—abuse ballot papers sent to the new addresses to which persons removing have gone either in a distant part of the same constituency — that is possible under our Ulster election rules—or in another constituency 50 miles, 100 miles, 200 miles away? It is unthinkable that the facility which is being taken away from Northern Ireland is one which could seriously be the subject of abuse. That simply cannot be argued.

As for the absent voter, if an address has to be specified—the address will be specified in the list of postal voters that has to be published by the registration officer —the degree of organisation necessary to commandeer the ballot papers from the various addresses to which they have been posted in the crucial period so as to ensure that intimidation is brought to bear in filling them up is beyond all imagination.

So, what the right hon. and learned Gentleman finds himself doing — I have chosen my phrase carefully because I cannot bring myself to believe that he would regard what I have described as just or justifiable—is refusing to confer a new right and withdrawing an existing right, both of which, whatever might be said of other voting rights, cannot imaginably be the subject of widespread abuse.

As in all matters, the ultimate guarantee, the ultimate safety net, for the people in the Province where I represent a constituency lies with this House. This House is the ultimate safeguard of all minorities, of whatever kind they may be, in whatever part of the country they may be. It is to this House, before the Bill passes, that we confidently look to see that an injustice is not imposed upon a part of the United Kingdom which has all too much reason, real or imagined, to consider itself the victim of injustice. It is to this House that we appeal.

6.46 pm
Mr. Matthew Parris (Derbyshire, West)

It is always challenging to follow the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell). I was interested in his remarks about the need for uniformity throughout the kingdom. I remember a debate some years ago about the extension of the laws governing homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in Northern Ireland, and the right hon. Gentleman spoke fervently in favour of differences in practice across the United Kingdom. I think that he used the phrase "rich diversity" and said that the differences should be cherished.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. Not only did I vote, first, in Scotland and then in England for the repeal of those laws, but I never concealed in Northern Ireland that that was my view.

Mr. Parris

I must have misunderstood the tenor of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks in that debate, which I attended throughout.

It is encouraging to be told by the right hon. Gentleman that my constituents voted for me rather than for the Conservative party. I should like to believe that. It might be true for some. At least I shall encourage my constituents to believe that there might be some difference between voting for me and voting for the, Conservative party if I vote against Second Reading tonight.

I was determined to do that before I heard the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). To say that he overstated the case would be an understatement. The right hon. Gentleman so overstated the case that I was all but convinced to change my mind.

It is not fair to suggest, as the right hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) suggested, that the increase in the deposit to £1,000 is part of the Conservative party's plan to improve its own voting figures. I disagree with the increase and I shall say why later. I do not think that there is any sectarian party purpose in it. The Labour party would probably stand to gain most from the disappearance of the small fringe parties. I do not think that the Conservative party would gain anything. It is more likely that we would lose something, because sometimes fringe parties enable our candidates to squeeze through.

When the parliamentary deposit was set at £150, it was a large sum. It was an enormous sum. It was intended to prevent people who were not of substantial means and could not be confident of achieving a substantial vote from standing for Parliament. That was not right then, and the fact that a custom is old does not necessarily make it a custom that we should want to follow.

The deposit was set in an age when money talked in politics even more than it does now. Money talked in the running of a politial party, in the securing of a candidature and sometimes in securing a seat in Parliament. That was an age when poor men did not stand nearly so often for Parliament. It was much more difficult for them to do so and there was no prevailing belief that they should. Society took a robust view of the political advantages that money could buy. It is no accident that no attempt has been made over the intervening years to maintain the deposit at that high level. It is not due to inattention that we have allowed the financial penalty for electoral defeat to diminish. The diminution has come with increased sensitivity about links between wealth and political power. I am sorry that in some senses the Bill goes back on that increased sensitivity.

The passage of time has eroded the financial value of the penalty and my right hon. and learned Friend is right to remind us of that. However, I think that it is a good thing that the value of the penalty has been reduced. The Bill undoes and reverses that and at one stroke restores all the inequity which was inherent in the theory on which the penalty was based. As I have said, not everything that is old is right. That there should be a heavy financial penalty for failing to secure many votes is offensive in principle. Whether "many" is defined as 20 per cent., one eighth or one twentieth of the votes cast does not alter the principle, which remains offensive. To reduce the requirement from one eighth to one twentieth lessens the extent of the damage, and it would be wrong not to acknowledge that. I am grateful for the reduction, but it does not alter the bad principle and much damage will be done by its application.

Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)

My hon. Friend, like many others, has in mind the way in which the deposit will have an effect on candidates of legitimate fringe parties and on those who wish to put across minority points of view. Is he aware that one of my Nottingham colleagues experienced something quite different? He found that there was a deliberate plan to deceive by candidates standing as the "official" something, the "local" something or the "genuine" something. That is a growing practice. The "official" candidate seeks to take the title of the Conservative, Labour or Liberal candidate by putting an adjective in front of the party's title. He is seeking to deceive and to split the vote. That cannot be right. I believe that an increased deposit will help to stop that practice.

Mr. Parris

If there is a good chance of securing the defeat of a Conservative candidate by such means, those who engage in the practice will be capable in many instances of raising the £1,000 to enable them to do so. There have been attempts to deceive and, on the whole, they have not been successful. Indeed, they have been remarkably unsuccessful. Against remedying that practice must be balanced the damage that my hon. Friend rightly concedes will be done to many genuine fringe and smaller parties.

With respect to my right hon. and learned Friend, I do not think that it was right for him to go through his speech, which was not short, without mentioning the general principles or the practical consequences of this measure for many of the smaller fringe parties. Damage will be done especially to those individuals and parties to whom and to which our constitution is arguably rather unkind. There are stirrings in the electoral undergrowth. There are movements among those who form the political equivalent of the small business enterprise to which my party is rightly wedded. I have in mind political ideas and parties that have only recently started. Imagine the fuss if the Government proposed penalties in the form of forfeiture of bonds to be imposed upon new and small businesses which failed to secure a given number of customers within a prescribed time. If Tesco, for example, were to call for such an imposition on every small corner shop which entered the market, would we be on Tesco's side? In political terms we are, perhaps, the equivalent of Tesco.

It is inherently likely that a political movement will start from a base of less than one eighth or one twentieth of electoral support. By punishing a political party for risking that test, the Bill may prevent many movements from even starting. Would the Labour party have started and risen to supplant the Liberal party without the resources of organised labour on which to draw? The Labour party had to run the risk of lost deposits. Was its dependence on organised labour a healthy one? Should we encourage dependence of that sort?

Mr. Mellor

When the £150 deposit was introduced in 1918, it was the equivalent of about nine months income for someone on the national average wage. If it was intended to stifle the Labour party, it was not very successful.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. Many hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate and some, inevitably, will be disappointed. It would be helpful if those seeking to catch my eye, including the Minister, reserved their interventions and incorporated them in their speeches.

Mr. Parris

The Labour party succeeded despite that level of deposit. It succeeded because it had the resources of organised labour on which to draw. Small minority parties are not in that position. I do not see how a small party can possibly field a credible number of candidates if it must risk a penalty of £1,000 in each constituency. We all know that it is necessary to fly the flag, even in constituencies where there is not a chance of succeeding. That is accepted in a great political party such as the Conservative party. It is even more important for small political parties to fly the flag than it is for large ones. One of the criticisms that is most likely to be levelled against small parties is that they are not even fielding enough candidates to form a Government if they should succeed in every constituency in which they have placed one of their candidates.

Contesting seats when there is not a ghost of a chance of winning them is one of the ways in which a small party shows that it is serious. The Bill will stop small parties from doing just that. If the Bill is enacted, small parties will be able to say with some justice that they are not fielding a credible spread of candidates because we passed a law that prevented them from doing so. That argument and that sense of grievance, which I believe will sustain the argument, will prove a moral weapon in the hands of minority parties that my right hon. and learned Friend will be unwise to ignore. He is giving fringe movements a better case for extra-parliamentary action than they have ever been able to make for themselves.

I do not know whether my right hon. and hon. Friends see this as I do, but I have always felt it a cause for satisfaction that in this country the Communist party. the National Front or the Socialist Workers party can and do field candidates. A cause for even greater satisfaction is that they regularly and visibly fail to attract much support. No longer will we be able to say that. Their spokesmen will be able to say that their parties are not rich enough to test the electorate's support or to get their message across. I fail to see that this will be adding strength or authority to our constitution.

I have not spoken to any representative of the National Front, because I cannot find that organisation listed in the telephone directory. I do not know how much the Bill, if enacted, will cost it. However, I know that we shall never again be able to challenge it to explain the derisory number of votes that it attracts at elections. It will have a good answer once the Bill is enacted.

The Ecology party, which wrote to a number of us, fielded 109 candidates at the 1983 general election. It hopes to field 300 at the next general election. It will lose a fortune. I ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether we need to do this to small parties. I cannot speak for organisations such as the Ecology party, but I imagine that they hope to move from being single-issue organisations, which attract a small but respectable following because of public feeling on those single issues, to becoming broader parties with fuller manifestos. It is not uncommon or wrong to enter politics on the back of one central issue and to mature and evolve from that. The first stage is inevitably a minority one. My right hon. and learned Friend will, perhaps unwittingly, kill such movements at birth.

It is neither wrong nor unhelpful to field candidates on one issue as an end in itself, as a way of testing and demonstrating public feeling on that issue, and not so much as a launching pad. It is a way of showing the mainstream parties that they should take an issue more seriously, and they do so in the hope that they will. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has failed to persuade any of the major parties unequivocally to follow its line so it would not be surprising if it decided to contest a few seats.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

The Labour party unequivocally follows its line.

Mr. Parris

My hon. Friend suggests that the Labour party unequivocally follows its line. I believe that it equivocally follows CND's line.

CND candidates might attract 5 or 10 per cent. support, and that would be a success for them. However, they might attract less than 5 per cent. support, and that would be a failure for them. This measure would prevent them from testing the water in that way, and that would be a pity.

I wish to say a word on behalf of Bill Boakes and Screaming Lord Sutch. This aspect has been hugely exaggereated by some of the killjoys among us. Joke candidates—we should be honest; some of them are joke candidates—rarely stand at general elections and, when they do, they regularly fail to affect the result. They often stand in by-elections and receive much publicity. Doubtless, they irritate some people; but I can assure my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary that they give some of us a certain amount of pleasure and light relief. They are not nearly so costly to the taxpayer as is sometimes imagined. In fact, they rarely make use of the free postal facilities. Those candidates who make use of the free postal facilities are rarely those who are most costly to the taxpayer. Any candidate who can get his party together to the extent of printing between 30,000 and 50,000 leaflets and putting them in envelopes has already demonstrated his seriousness in a way that I should have thought was satisfactory to my right hon. and learned Friend.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary mentioned abuses. I question how widespread those abuses are. I agree that the candidate should be serious, but I question whether a £1,000 deposit is the right way of testing a candidate's seriousness. Bill Boakes and Screaming Lord Sutch do us little harm on the whole and may sometimes do us some good. By-elections can be very dull, and voting for one of the joke candidates is perhaps a courteous and elegant alternative to spoiling the ballot paper or abstaining. Those institutions—such gentlemen have become institutions — provide a safety valve. Voting and standing against the mainstream parties are useful facilities, especially where the success or validity of a democratic institution is popularly questioned. The fact that so few British people vote or stand against the mainstream parties is a helpful sign, giving us cause for self-confidence and providing us with a way of testing the acceptability of our democratic institutions. We should not lightly abandon that. Joke candidates rarely succeed in picking up more than derisory, facetious or protest votes, and that provides us with some comfort. Why take away the opportunity to test the water occasionally?

I support the first-past-the-post system. On balance, I believe that it is the best system, but we must admit that the first-past-the-post system bears harshly on minority parties. Already, under our system, a small party takes root and achieves electoral breakthrough against all the odds. Why stack the odds even further against small parties and add to the sense of injustice they undoubtedly already feel? We discount the votes achieved by losing candidates. Why fine them as well? The smaller the party, the larger the sum of deposits it stands to forfeit in a general election.

By this measure, my right hon. and learned Friend adds significantly to the arguments already circulating in favour of state funding for political parties. That—it is another debate—would be a bad move. Unwittingly, my right hon. and learned Friend adds to their grievances and brings forward the day when changes to the electoral system or the means of funding parties will be more powerfully canvassed. The fact that tiny parties and eccentric individuals are able to stand for election under our system is a safety valve. It is a seed-bed for new movements and ideologies, and sometimes a source of light relief. There is no great abuse to be remedied. The fact that such candidates regularly fail is a signal and ground for comfort, not for disquiet, among the rest of us. Why change all that? Why make any change at all? Sometimes, I think we seem to have lost our sense of fair play, political self-confidence and, occasionally, humour.

7.4 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) is right about many aspects — for example, the arguments for reforming the electoral system will be more powerfully canvassed. I point out to him that it is not that the electoral system discriminates against minorities but that it chooses arbitrarily between minorities. The electoral system takes that minority which is the Conservative party, enjoying only minority support, and gives to it the power of the majority — just as it took previous minority Labour parties and made them into majority Governments. That is the crucial failing of the electoral system.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, West was right in what he said about deposits. He demonstrated that the Home Secretary not only had failed to bring about the degree of all-party agreement which his predecessor clearly envisaged but had failed to secure agreement within his party on the desirability of proceeding with this step. There was a vivid demonstration of that failure not only in this debate but in the earlier debates on the White Paper. The Home Secretary would have to admit that there is genuine misgiving among Conservative Back Benchers and a number of other hon. Members who are seriously putting the arguments against this large increase in the deposit.

The Bill has many good features and some bad features, of which the deposit and the exclusion of multiple registration are two. In some ways, the Bill involves the curtailment of the freedom of individuals to stand for Parliament. Today's Order Paper, with its reasoned amendments from several parties, clearly demonstrates the lack of consensus between the parties which is desirable if we are to get a major Representation of the People Bill through Parliament. When the Government canvassed the prospect of sending the Bill upstairs to Committee, I was appalled to think that, for the first time in our history, we were to consider such a Bill upstairs. I am glad that the Government backed down from that proposition in their announcement this afternoon. I hope that that is a sign that the Government will embark again on the road which Lord Whitelaw set out for them—to achieve the maximum possible all-party agreement when considering representation of the people measures.

I shall consider some of the specific issues in the Bill, going roughly in order through the Bill. I agree broadly with the Government and not the Labour party on the issue of overseas voting. I disagree with the Labour Party's reasoned amendment on this issue. The Labour party seems to suggest in the way it advances its arguments that there is something faintly disreputable about working abroad while a British citizen and still seeking to take some part in this country's affairs. Dealing with an earlier piece of legislation, Lord Glenamara, when he was Leader of the House, used the phrase "the lotus eaters" to describe those who lived abroad, yet sought to have some part in our country's affairs.

The people who live abroad may include the inhabitants of the "Costa del Crime" and those who stay abroad for tax reasons. Why should guilt by association be brought into this matter?

The category of those who live abroad includes people who work overseas for commercial, voluntary, charitable and international organisations. In many cases, they are serving the best interests of this country or the country to which they have gone. They may work for the United Nations, the Council of Europe or the EEC. They may work in trade or for world development organisations. They may be missionaries or church workers in overseas countries who have a genuine interest in this country and intend to return to it when their work is done.

Mr. Corbett

Are not those people in the category of workers overseas on relatively short-term contracts entitled to proxy votes?

Mr. Beith

They are, on this condition: if they can afford to maintain a residence in this country, they can have a vote. What a paradox that makes of the Labour party's argument. The Labour party is saying that those people who, while working abroad—either because their contract is short or because they have a great deal of money—can afford to keep a residence in Britain shall have a vote, but those who cannot afford to maintain a residence in Britain but still intend to return to Britain shall not have a vote. The case of a missionary or church worker is a classic example. Such a person finds himself in a different economic position from that of an employee of a Government organisation or a diplomat who has a right to vote under existing legislation. That missionary or church worker has every intention of returning to this country in due course. His work overseas is not particularly remunerative—he does not want it to be so; there is a great deal of self-sacrifice in his choice—but he retains an interest in this country's affairs. Indeed, the affairs of this country may have a considerable bearing on the work he does in the country to which he has gone.

One cannot travel abroad at the moment to developing countries without being made aware of the interests of British citizens overseas. We had a debate on overseas aid a couple of weeks ago on a Liberal motion. Threats to the British Council and the BBC overseas service, the British citizenship laws and how they will affect the children of people working abroad and many other issues came up in the House. I therefore believe that it is reasonable that people working overseas but who intend to return should be able to vote. It is difficult to arrive at a satisfactory definition, but I do not believe that the Government have done a bad job on this issue.

The Liberal party would like to see EEC citizens given the right to vote in whichever EEC country they reside in. We see it as part of the nature and character of the EEC. The proposals contained in the Bill are a way of ensuring that they retain some civil and political rights while working elsewhere in the EEC and those rights should be given to people who work in the rest of the world.

I broadly agree with the Government's proposals for absent voters. It is wrong that people should be unable to exercise their franchise because they are on holiday. The timing of a general election is often not known in advance. It is no fault of people who find themselves on holiday when the election is called. There is an anomaly and unfairness in the present position, which we shall remove if we extend postal votes to holiday voters. At present, if a person works in one of the occupations where he can claim that the general character of his work is such that he may not be able to be present on polling day he can claim a postal vote and ensure that he is regularly on the list for a postal vote.

The effect of that, in my experience, is that many business men, farmers or people in that type of work can register postal votes and have a postal vote even if they are on holiday. They claim that they have to travel to other parts of the country, go to markets or see customers, but an ordinary working man who is paid a wage at the end of the week after working in a factory may go to the same place on holiday as the business man—if he can afford it—but find that he has no basis upon which to claim a postal vote. Those in generally better-paid occupations have that right. I again believe it right that the Government should move in that direction.

The definition may not yet be strict enough. We must consider the definition at a later stage to see whether we can make it tighter and clearer to avoid having postal votes on demand in all circumstances. In principle, I believe that the Government are right.

Mr. Richard Wainwright (Colne Valley)

Without derogating from my hon. Friend's argument in favour of postal voting, may I ask him whether he agrees that it is more difficult to ensure the secrecy of a postal vote than a vote in the polling booth? Does he agree that the instructions to postal voters should go further than at present to make it clear to people that they need not reveal their vote?

Mr. Beith

That is so. My hon. Friend gives sound advice. Elderly voters may feel that they have to fill in the ballot paper in the presence or sight of the person who brings it to them. The Government should be made aware that such difficulties arise. There is a case for tightening the definition and improving instructions to postal voters. I know that my hon. Friend agrees that the anomaly of the holidaymaker being denied his vote should be dealt with despite the difficulties.

I also welcome the fact that the Government have accepted the pleas that many of us have made in the House for a long time to extend postal voting to parish council elections. Those of us who have seen the extraordinary phenomenon of an invalid being carried into a polling station to vote in a parish council election protesting that he has already voted by post in a district council election for the same candidate will realise how absurd the present law is. We are determined that we will not lose a single vote, so we force Liberals to carry elderly ladies into polling stations to ensure that they can cast their votes in parish council elections even though the returning officer has rightly deemed that they should not be required to do so for the district council elections in the same place on the same day. Thank goodness we can end that anomaly.

The National Association of Local Councils, of which I am the vice-president, welcomes the response and help that the Government have given on that matter. The association believes that other matters relating to parish councils should be considered. It welcomes some clauses, but it wholly opposes clause 15, which provides for the postponement of parish and community council elections, but no other local authority elections, if the ordinary day for the parish elections coincides with the general election or a European Assembly election. Why should parish council elections alone be postponed when they land on that day when the Government are making express and more permanent provisions for local and parliamentary elections to take place on the same day in other parts of the Bill? We must consider that again, because it is an unreasonable limitation.

I have mentioned a number of matters where I believe the Government have done the right thing, and I come now to where they have made a deliberate omission—the issue of multiple registration. People have the right to be registered in a number of places and thereby to choose where they will cast their votes on polling day. At present, one can be registered in respect of a number of residences. It is one of the points where the essential qualification is money. Money talks at several points in the Bill, and this is one of them.

A person with two, three or four homes can be registered in all of them and can choose on election day where to vote. That has an impact in coastal constituencies, Wales, Cornwall and other parts of the country which are sought after for holiday homes. Many people will choose to transfer their vote according to what they see as the political position and they are people from whom the Conservative party solicits support. It sends election literature to a holiday home which says, "Do not use your vote in London; use it where you have your holiday home."

There is a further anomaly. Were there to be by-elections on the same day in all the places in which a person was lucky enough to own a second, third or fourth residence, he could vote in every one. People could cast five votes for elections to the same Parliament on the same day. Conservative Members are shaking their heads, but that is the law.

A person, however, cannot vote twice in the same general election. Even that presents difficulties, because the policing of dual voting is difficult. There are a large number of multiple registrations which makes it that much more difficult. If the parties want to police the dual voting in a general election, they have to take the numbers of persons voting in several places, know in which other places a person is qualified to vote and is registered and during polling day check between constituencies whether that person has cast his votes in both constituencies. That is difficult to do. It is only the political parties that are likely to go to the trouble of doing that. Returning officers concentrate on whether any offence has been committed within their jurisdiction and constituency.

The policing of the existing legal restriction against voting twice in a general election is made more difficult by the proliferation of multiple registration. All the parties are aware of that. The Conservative party, the Labour party and my party all gave evidence to the Select Committee and said that multiple registration for parliamentary elections should be abolished.

The Select Committee members were unanimously in favour of making a change. The Committee specifically recommended in its report that multiple registration for parliamentary elections should be ended and that it should be a criminal offence knowingly to seek registration in more than one constituency for parliamentary elections.

What pressure, what reconsideration and what backstairs influence have led to the recommendation not being implemented? It is a glaring omission from the Bill. If some of the comments I have heard made sotto voce from the Conservative Benches are anything to go by, it may be that, unlike Conservative Central Office, there are still some influences in the Conservative party who believe that multiple registration is worth hanging on to because it confers an advantage on those people who have several homes and who are more likely to be Conservatives than to belong to other parties because of the financial position which is required to enable a person to own a second home. I feel that consideration has entered into this decision.

I am not in the least convinced — I had days of argument and pages of correspondence with the Minister on this—by the standard obstacles that have been trotted out by the Home Office. If the Government had had the political will to carry out the Select Committee's recommendation, which was supported by all the parties that went before it, it would have been done. It has not been done, and for the wrong reasons.

The subject of deposits has been a major feature of the debate. What is the purpose of the proposal to increase the deposit to £1,000? It cannot be a standing instruction on the part of the Home Office Ministers that all licence fees and charges should be regularly updated, given what has happened to dog licences over the years. There must be a wider purpose. We are told that eccentric or fringe candidates and parties should be discouraged. That reminds me of the comments of Bernard Levin in The Times in February this year: Next, it is contended that the proliferation of eccentric candidates tends to bring the election process into disrepute, a charge which, when I first read it, had the unprecedented effect of rendering me incapable of speech for nearly half an hour; beside the Hattersleys and Healeys, the Proctors and Dickenses, Screaming Lord Sutch was a model of dignity and political uprightness, and a … sight funnier into the bargain. In quoting that passage, I have omitted an unparliamentary adjective. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, West also seemed to suggest that the Government had lost their sense of proportion and their sense of humour if they regarded some fringe candidates as so much more reprehensible than some of those who come within the mantle of respectable politics.

The Home Secretary referred to people who were "not serious" about their candidature. That is most worrying. If the definition of seriousness is based on the possession of £1,000, in addition to whatever funds are required to mount a serious campaign, the Government are saying, yet again, that money talks and that their definitions are based on how much money people have. That is no definition of political seriousness. A deposit of £1,000 could not possibly distinguish between those who are serious and those who are not. It merely distinguishes between those who can produce £1,000 and those who cannot. That is the beginning and end of the effect of an increase in the deposit. In any case, why should we seek to deter individuals or groups from putting their ideas to the voters?

Two reasons have been seriously advanced. One is that the postal facilities cost money, but the record shows that fringe candidates have not used that facility. A very large number of fringe candidates stood in the Chesterfield by-election. I am tempted to say that one of them was elected, but he had the benefit of being the Labour party candidate at the time. Virtually all the candidates outside the three main parties, including all the commercial ones, made no use of the postal facilities and that has been the tendency in all elections with large numbers of fringe candidates.

The other argument has been the ability of a candidate to prevent others from appearing on television. If that is a problem, it can be addressed in other ways by reference to rules governing the appearance of candidates on television. If it is widely felt that the ability of one candidate to prevent others from appearing is improper, that power can be removed without removing the individual's chance to stand as a candidate.

I believe that it is wrong to allow any group to say that it has been denied, on financial grounds, the right to put its views to the voters. I am pleased that the Communist party, the National Front, the Socialist Workers party and other groups can submit their views to the voters and thus reveal that they do not enjoy widespread support and that they are on the fringe of the British political system and the views of the British electorate. I want that to continue. I do not want them to be able to say that they have been denied the opportunity to put their views to the electorate. That is why I object to the increase in the deposit, which will affect all those groups and others such as the Ecology party, Mebyon Kernow, Plaid Cymru and so on.

The impact on my party is minimal. In the last general election we lost only half a dozen deposits. The Labour party lost 119, so it is bound to be concerned about any increase in the deposit. The problem for a party such as mine is rather different. It is a matter not of losing deposits but simply of putting up such a large sum for the course of the election campaign at a time when one needs the resources to mount the campaign. Across the country, that means a total of £650,000 locked up in the returning officers' coffers for the duration of the campaign. It is as though the sequestrators have been sent in to take the funds of the Government's principal opponents — that is, Liberal candidates—for the duration of the campaign.

The Home Secretary said rather grandly earlier in the debate that anyone wishing to stand in an election could easily borrow £1,000. Clearly he has no trouble with his bank manager. He looks like a man who has no trouble with his bank manager and he stands for a party which looks as though it has no trouble with its bank managers. I represent a party which occasionally has such trouble. That is understandable, as my party does not enjoy the heavy financial backing provided for the Conservative party by companies and individuals and for the Labour party by the trade union levy. That is a serious limitation which would affect the party at precisely the time when its resources were most stretched. If there are two elections in one year, as there were in 1951 and 1974, one enters the second campaign while still paying off the costs of the first. We do not intend to let that stand in our way, but it is an additional limitation and it is hard to avoid concluding that the Government wish to place such limitations on their political opponents.

I believe that the collection of signatures is a perfectly viable alternative. When these matters were discussed in 1969 that suggestion was made by the very person who has just been elected chairman of the 1922 Committee. I hope that he will stick to that line in the debate on this measure. We are not talking about a "bus stop petition" when one gets people in the town centre to sign their names, or indeed any names that come into their heads. The electoral roll number would have to be written beside the signature and that information would be checked. A certain amount of organisation is required to assemble 100 or 500 signatures of registered voters in a constituency who assent to the nomination of the candidate. Indeed, the procedure could be strengthened. It could provide that the signatory must support the nomination of the candidate. That is a significant test of organisation, whereas a deposit is merely a test of financial resources.

Mr. Gwilym Jones (Cardiff, North)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is no procedure to check that the signatories are the people they are supposed to be? The checking procedure merely establishes that the signatures correspond to names appearing on the electoral roll, which is not necessarily the same thing.

Mr. Beith

The same applies to the limited number of assentors currently required. Nevertheless, those names are published in the public notice setting out the names of the candidates and their supporters. If that practice were known to be followed, anyone whose name had been used without consent in support of a candidate could challenge it, so there is a means of checking. I believe that the signatures alternative is perfectly viable and I do not see why the Government should reject it.

If the Government reject the signatures alternative, they must draw back from their £1,000 proposal and look for a figure commanding wider support among the parties. It is clear that there is opposition to the £1,000 proposal not only from every Opposition party but from many Conservative Members. The Government will have to move on this aspect if they wish the Bill to have a relatively smooth passage.

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) referred to the Carlton club lecture in which the Prime Minister spoke of a minority defying the result of the vote and persisting in their own wishes. She was, of course, describing herself. That is exactly her position. She is a representative of the minority defying the wishes of the majority of the electorate who voted against her. When I heard the right hon. Member for Gorton put that point so vividly and effectively, I thought that he had seen the light and that conversion had come at last, but he did not allow me to intervene to clarify the position. He left an ambiguity which led me to suppose that, like some of his hon. Friends, he had begun to accept the absurdity of the system which allows the Prime Minister to pretend that she represents the majority when it is clear from the election results that she does nothing of the kind. She represents a minority that, if put to the test of any poll, would be shown to be getting smaller by the hour. The reason why the right hon. Lady is able to make that claim is the ultimate absurdity—the absurdity about which the Government have done nothing in this so-called Representation of the People Bill. I return to the words of Bernard Levin in The Times: Such is the proposed Representation of the People Bill, of which it can be safely said that the matter of improving the people's representation never so much as entered the heads of the Conservative and Labour politicians who took part in the discussions that led to the Government's White Paper". There is substance in those words. It never entered the Government's head to ensure that the votes cast under all the procedures in the Bill should bear some relation to the end result of the election.

The utmost care is taken to ensure that the votes are cast in the correct manner. The votes are cast in secrecy. We have today discussed how to ensure secrecy in postal voting as well as in the polling station. The returning officer seals up the ballot box and applies sealing wax to it. Carefully guarded, it is taken away in a police car. However, from the moment the box is opened, sense and accuracy are thrown to the wind. One might just as well treat the ballot box as if it were one of those boxes of raffle tickets which are placed in front of hon. Members at constituency functions and out of which we have to draw one or two winning tickets. That would be as fair as what happened at the last general election—which was that we ensured that it took 32,800 votes to elect a Conservative candidate, 40,000 votes to elect a Labour candidate and 339,000 votes to elect a member of the alliance. We should bear in mind that each of my hon. Friends represents 339,000 people.

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

I represent 20,621 Liberals, and I believe that I represent them very well indeed. Will the hon. Gentleman please take those people from his numbers?

Mr. Beith

I shall leave that to the judgment of the said Liberals when they vote at the next general election. I should be very surprised if they were to transfer their allegiance to the hon. Gentleman. All hon. Members seek to give the most effective representation to all their constituents, regardless of party. The fact remains that the end result of the general election wholly distorts the wishes and intentions of the voters and, because the Government have failed to change the system, they have failed to ensure that people will be any better represented as a result of the passing of the Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

We are all anxious that all shades of opinion should be represented in this important debate, including the views of the minority parties. The debate has now lasted for three hours, and only eight hon. Members have had an opportunity to address the House. I make a plea for brevity.

7.33 pm
Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

I shall not follow directly in the footsteps of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) with regard to our system of voting in national elections. My hon. Friends know where I stand on that issue and I shall not add to the burdens of my hon. Friend the Minister by dwelling on it.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) is not in his place. He resorted to a position of principle in arguing against the Bill. I never thought to hear the right hon. Gentleman advocate modification of principle as a principle to follow, but that was the basis of his attack. It is nonsense to say that the significance of place, the principles of simultaneity or of the uniformity of the make-up of the electorate in each of our constituencies are points of principle that should inhibit the Government from pressing on with the Bill. Military men, diplomats, people working away from home, people with second homes, students, the very old and the infirm all drive a coach and horses through the argument of principle on which the right hon. Gentleman relied. This evening at least, my hon. Friend should not be deterred in any way by the right hon. Gentleman's arguments.

I welcome the Bill. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have waited for it for a long time. I am delighted that the Government have now brought it forward. It is a sign of the continuing concern and commitment of the Conservative party and Government to the proper operation of our constitutional system of parliamentary democracy.

I do not share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) for the happy-time candidate or the very small party. A general election is a method of electing representatives. It is not a soap box on which anybody—however well founded his point of view or support may be—may make his noises. If a group has made sufficient headway between elections in gaining support for its cause, it will not flinch from the £1,000 deposit. That sum is affordable by any party with a reasonable base, particularly against the new threshold of 5 per cent. advocated in the Bill.

In German elections, the 5 per cent. rule has become well established. Under the German additional member system, a party gets no additional members unless it achieves over 5 per cent. of the electorate. That is a much more important threshold.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

That is a different matter.

Mr. Rathbone

Very different — and much more important than the 5 per cent. threshold for losing one's deposit. However, I believe that the comparison is worth making.

There is one point on which I hope my hon. Friend will be able to put my mind at rest. I believe that my right hon. and learned Friend and the Home Office should consider whether there is a basis for reducing the increase—if that is thought necessary by the House—and building in, in addition to a lower increase, some form of signature support. As the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said, a bus queue of signatures is not envisaged. I am thinking of registered names — probably registered names of those who support the candidate — being applied to the canditature in anticipation of a general election long before that election is called. I have in mind a year-by-year list of supporters.

There is an alternative that might be considered. In Holland and Belgium, I believe, there is a national register of all parties. A fee is paid for registration, and thereafter all candidates for registered parties can stand without further cost. Perhaps we, too, could have a national register. There could be a substantial registration fee and nominal fees in the constituencies, or an insubstantial registration fee and larger fees in the constituencies. Either way, we would have some validation of all the parties with national support. That suggestion might be worth considering, if the Government have not already considered it.

Like other hon. Members, I welcome unequivocally the extension of the franchise through the granting of votes to those who take their holidays at election time and the inclusion of British citizens registered overseas. With regard to the former group, many people feel that the advance in the Bill is long delayed. Somewhat unusually, the last election was timed to take place in a holiday period. That being so, I am sure that no hon. Member failed to bump into people who were frustrated because they were going on holiday between the time when one called and shook their hand and the time of the election.

However, I question the value of the seven-year limitation. The Government seem to be adopting a somewhat picky attitude to a valuable step forward. We could look across the Channel and take a lead from our French friends, who take a positive stance on democratic involvement. Hon Members might have studied what appertains in France. There are six ways in which a French man or woman who lives abroad can register back in France. Some are by reference to where they lived originally and some give them a completely open choice of any commune of more than 30,000 inhabitants. I believe that that encourages the French abroad to participate in what is going on in their country and to vote accordingly.

It is also worth looking across the Atlantic and noting that the United States guarantees the constitutional right to vote of those who live outside the United States, subject only to two conditions: first, proper registration within that person's state of residence; and, secondly, that the person has a valid United States passport, national identity card or other national registration card. That is a timeless and basic threshold. I doubt the relevance of the time limit. As soon as some people leave these shores, they lose interest in what happens here, so seven years is too long. Other people, however, can spend almost a lifetime abroad and still be as interested in what happens here as when they left. Their interest might be for better or for worse. As has been said, an increasing number of governmental actions in different countries touch on the citizens of those countries, wherever they live. That is especially true in the European context.

As to the postal vote, to which that matter is indubitably tied, the validation of the vote as suggested in the Bill is either too liberal or not worth it. If the signature must be validated in applying for a postal vote, should it not have the same seriousness of validation as, for example, an application for a passport which, though important, is nothing like as important as the means by which we use the democratic vote. If that is not thought necessary, we should do away with it altogether. I am not especially worried in regard to what has been said about that being an open door to the miscasting of votes.

The delay in the application of the Bill to voting in Europe is, I hope, indicative of the Government's intent to adopt for the United Kingdom a system of voting for the European elections which is the same as that which will be used in other countries. I am glad about the Government's recommitment to a search for such a system. With that expectation in mind, I warmly welcome the Bill and wish it well.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's brevity.

7.42 pm
Mr. Sean Hughes (Knowsley, South)

I shall confine my remarks to the increasing of the deposit as, despite the Home Secretary's appearing to suggest that the Bill does not raise any serious difficulties, this is a serious issue. One of the aspects of modern politics that I find most disturbing is the growth of authoritarianism and the suggestion that there is no alternative theory of politics. That is dangerous and nonsense because clearly there are alternatives, irrespective of whether we like them. I therefore cannot agree that people should be prevented from testing support for their alternatives, however bizarre or eccentric they might be.

The Government must accept that people are entitled to express what the Government might regard as a minority view which is opposed to theirs. I hope that all of us, whatever our party affiliations, concede that point. That means that people who want to poke fun at us, those who want to say, "A plague on all your houses" and those who think, like De Gaulle, that politics is too serious a matter to be left to politicians should be allowed to say what they think and to test support for it. The Home Secretary and the Minister said in the White Paper debate that elections are serious affairs. Of course they are. But I believe that an electoral system is weakened when it appears to be afraid of what major parties deem fringe, frivolous or joke candidates.

The one argument that I must consider is that advanced by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who fear the peddling of obnoxious doctrines such as those propagated by the National Front. A civilised society has a right to protect its members from the offence and anguish caused by such groups, but surely the way to do that is rigorously to apply and, if necessary, strengthen such legislation as that relating to race relations.

As we developed into a democracy, there was an understanding that we should avoid giving electoral advantage to those with wealth. That is the classic reason for introducing a maximum in election expenses in constituencies, even if national parties can get round it. A large election deposit clearly breaches that principle, even though it was introduced to regulate what are termed freak candidates. However, I have never understood where the oracle that defines that classification is.

If I understood him correctly, the Home Secretary said that nobody argues that there should be no deposit if a candidate clearly has no support in a constituency. How can such support be demonstrated before polling day? It certainly cannot be demonstrated by possession of £1,000. I realise that the official administrative costs of elections have been transferred from the candidate to the State, that one free postal delivery to each elector and the free use of school meetings have been provided, but everyone knows that the use of public meetings and even the free postal delivery is as nothing compared with the use of television —and which of the many fringe candidates at the last general election were able to use television? The criteria on which the electoral rules have been formulated have broken down.

In the White Paper debate, the Under-Secretary of State emphasised at column 1087 that parliamentary candidates have the right to send an election communication post-free at a possible cost to the public of £8,000. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) referred to that. Of course candidates have such a right, but it is no more than theoretical for many. It is like my constituents right to send their sons to Eton or dine nightly at the Ritz. Most minority candidates cannot exercise that right for the simple reason that they have not the money to do so.

The Minister also argued in the White Paper debate: The reasoning that led to the introduction of the deposit in 1918 is as valid now as it was then."—[Official Report,27 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 1087.] That deposit was £150. However, the Home Secretary told us that the 1918 deposit would be more than £2,300 today. If the Minister believes what he says, why has he not proposed a deposit of £2,300? If he argues that that figure is too high, why has he stopped at £1,000? Does he not realise that all but the very rich will be deterred by the sum of £1,000? Does he accept what I said in the White Paper debate, that the £150 was snatched out of thin air in 1918? The premise was wrong in 1918 and it is wrong today.

The Home Secretary has said that the figure chosen is bound to be arbitrary and a matter of judgment. He promised that he and the Minister would listen carefully to views expressed in the White Paper debate and that they would reflect on those views before preparing the Bill. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) referred to that promise of consultation. In the White Paper debate, the majority of right hon. and hon. Members, including Conservatives, Scottish Nationalists, Liberals, Labour and Plaid Cymru, opposed the increase in the deposit. No doubt the Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary listened carefully, reflected upon it and then proceeded to do what they intended to do in the first place. Yet again today the Home Secretary has assured us that he will listen to what we have to say, but he should realise that we have no reason to have confidence in his words.

The Under-Secretary of State, in his speech on the White Paper, made the astonishing comment that my contribution was a class-biased analysis. Nothing could be further from the truth. He missed the point that I referred to the original debates in 1918, hoping to demonstrate that the premise upon which the deposit was introduced was faulty. There have long been Members of this House who have spoken out against the introduction of financial barriers for those who might stand for election to this House.

If my references to the 1918 debate failed to move the Under-Secretary, perhaps he will listen to an extract from the 1858 debate on the removal of the land qualification for Members of Parliament. The parallel is quite astonishing. Mr. Walpole argued that one of the reasons for that qualification was that it would prevent speculative candidates coming forward and putting their opponents to unnecessary expense". He continued by saying that he believed that on the whole much good would be gained by leaving elections perfectly free to those who might be willing to offer their services, and by allowing constituencies to choose such candidates as they might think best able to represent them in Parliament". Yet in the debate last summer the Home Secretary poured scorn, as he did again today, upon what he considered to be fringe candidates. Referring to recent by-elections, he declared that most of them had no serious interest in, or the remotest chance of, being elected to Parliament, which, after all, is what an election is about.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) adhered to that point of view. I ask the Government to consider the position of my hon. Friend who represents the northern part of my borough, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk), who at the last election got 64.5 per cent. of the vote, the Conservative candidate getting 20.17 and the alliance candidate getting 14.8. Did the Conservative or alliance candidates have a serious interest in or the remotest chance of winning in Knowsley, North? I wonder how many right hon. and hon. Members first fought seats before coming to this House in which they had no realistic chance of winning. Was that exercise frivolous, a freak or a joke? Or is it only frivolous , a freak or a joke when they do not belong to the major parties?

Undoubtedly there are those who do not feel that political parties are putting forward what they believe to be the overriding issue. While taking part in a political system they might have no realistic ambition to serve in Parliament. Their aim is to change the climate of political debate, to raise an issue that they feel is neglected or to test the strength of public feeling for what they believe to be a priority. I may not like attempts to make elections one-issue affairs, but I cannot share the anti-libertarian point of view which proclaims that they have no right to do it.

I am reminded, as I bring my remarks to a close, of the public meeting addressed in the last century by John Morley. He asked his audience to vote for him the following day, only to hear somebody shout, "I'd sooner vote for the devil". Morley replied, "Quite, but if your friend declines to stand, will you consider voting for me?" It would not be for the want of £1,000 that the devil declined to stand. The problem is that there are a great number of decent people who cannot be classed as devils but who should have the right to stand. Perhaps the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary should borrow the slogan of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport: keep it low, or you might live to regret it.

I believe this House is diminished if people are prevented from seeking election to it on the ground that they cannot get together £1,000 for the deposit. I believe that society has the right to order its electoral affairs, but a civilised society can surely find a basis on which this can be done other than the vulgar test of ability to pay. During the Third Reading debate in 1858 to which I referred, Sir George Lewis felt that the real safeguard lay in the choice of the electors". I believe that that argument has stood the test of 126 years.

7.54 pm
Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Looking round the Chamber, I can see only one other person who was with me on the Select Committee that looked at this matter. The hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) shakes his head. We looked at this matter over more than one session and went into it in very great detail. There was a great deal of unanimity across the political floor about the report that was finally submitted to the Home Office.

I wish warmly to welcome clause 1. The view expressed from the Labour Front Bench was rather snide, and it distressed me. The view was that if people choose to live abroad they must lose their vote, but people do not always choose to live abroad. Many of them have no choice. They go to work abroad and may be employed abroad for many years. Teachers are employed abroad on exchange contracts. Other people go to live abroad for health reasons. We must not forget that if pensioners go to live abroad for health reasons they already stand to lose the uprating of their pension.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) rightly says, so many people who live abroad —one comes across many of them when one travels—passionately care about what is going on in this country. It is not true to say that they have no further interest in this country. Many of them will return to live in this country after having worked abroad throughout their working lives. They have every right to want to be involved in the election of a Government which will choose by what laws they will live. I, too, like my hon. Friend, am not very happy about the seven-year rule. If the French Government can arrange for their citizens working abroad to have a vote, why cannot we? It is very strange that if an EC official is working abroad for this country he will not be able to vote in this country and will be unable to vote in EC elections, either, as a British citizen. He will not have a vote in the country he lives in and he will not have a vote as a British subject. That seems to me to be wrong.

Turning to clause 12, we considered for a very long time whether the deposit should be increased from £150. I felt sympathy tonight for the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) who was on the Committee and who then considered that it was right and proper that the deposit should be uprated. During the 19th century—

Mr. Corbett

Would the hon. Lady allow me to speak for a moment on behalf of my hon. Friend?

Mrs. Knight

No. The hon. Member was not on the Committee.

Mr. Corbett


Mrs. Knight

Mr. Deputy Speaker, in deference to your remarks, I am trying to make a short speech. The hon. Gentleman was not on the Committee. This is a matter not of argument but of history.

During the 19th century, all administrative costs were shared between the candidates. The deposit was introduced in 1918. I do not believe that very much was said then about depriving people of the right to stand at an election. It was acknowledged that a deposit was fair. I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) that it was not a question only of selecting people who had money. That did not come into it. The point was that it was a safeguard against candidates who added to the cost and complexity of an election, with no serious prospects of gaining sufficient votes to win.

If it was possible for people then to raise £150 to show their seriousness and if we were to ask for an equivalent amount today, we should be asking for well over £2,000. The Committee felt that this was quite wrong and that a fair and reasonable judgment of the amount would be £1,000. This would put up the deposit because, as everybody knows, £150 in 1918 was a very different matter from even £1,000 today. What makes any hon. Member think that we are less capable of raising the money to back what we believe in than our forefathers were in 1918?

There has been a steady increase in the number of persons standing for election. Many hon. Members have fought, as I have, six candidates at a time. I am proud to say that I gave them all a jolly good beating. Hon. Members may well say that they should all come, and that it is curtailing democracy not to allow them to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West will read this debate and I am sure that he must acknowledge that many small parties have a small basis of interest. All hon. Members, whether Labour, Liberal or Conservative, have to represent all their constituents and all of their interests. An hon. Member may have 40 members of, say, the Ecology party in his constituency. Let 40 letters arrive on any hon. Member's desk and he will take a great deal of notice of what is said.

During the debates in Committee I remember vividly hearing about a small builder who wanted the advertisement that standing for Parliament would give him. He would get £8,000 worth of publicity for £150. That is a good bargain. That man took advantage of the free post that he was allowed and that free post asked people, not to vote for him, because he had no intention of standing for Parliament, but to vote that he was the best builder in the business and certainly the best in the district. People were asked to come and hear about him at his meeting in the town hall. That is another thing that candidates are allowed. They can have free use of a publicly funded hall when they fight an election. Anyone who seeks to use the electoral machinery to advance his business or pursuits has got it made. It is an extraordinarily good bargain for £150. I am not so worried about the right to veto broadcast transmissions, but there is no question but that that builder boosted his work by using the methods available.

The Government are being a little over-generous in fixing the percentage of vote at one twentieth before a deposit is lost. Labour Members may not disagree. We heard some rather strange suggestions in the Select Committee. Sir Robin Day came along with a marvellous system of a sliding scale. He said that a candidate who polled less than 1 per cent. of the votes cast should forfeit his entire deposit, somebody with between 1 and 2 per cent. should forfeit a little less, and so on. We put that point to the officials and they were horrified at the number of recounts that there would have to be if money were involved with such tiny percentages. We did not think that that was a good scheme to adopt. I tremble to think of the number of recounts that would be necessary if that system were adopted.

Some people have put forward the idea of a greatly increased number of signatures—between 100 and 500 — on nomination forms instead of increasing the deposits. At the moment we need only 10 names and addresses of people on the electoral register. One should consider how easy it is to get signatures by standing outside a supermarket. Anyone will sign almost anything that is put under his nose, particularly to get rid of the person who is asking for the signature. Each of those 100 or 500 names would have to be checked by the electoral returning officer. If only one was wrong, the nomination would be invalid. If there were no increase in the deposit, more and more people would stand at each election. We could have eight, nine or 10 candidates in a constituency. In one constituency 5,000 names might have to be checked, and that would take a long time.

I am worried about some of the inaccuracies of electoral registers, particularly in the inner cities. Some places have multi-registration and there are piles of voting cards inside every hall. It is easy for personation to take place. In one ward alone some 800 names on the list had no right to be there. There was no check whatever on deaths. It is amazing that the electoral returning officer said that it was not possible to find out who had died. Surely everyone who has canvassed in an election must know how distressing it is to knock on someone's door to find out that a polling card has just been received for a husband who died six months earlier.

Sometimes a death can have occurred three or four years earlier, yet the name is still on the electoral list. That is wrong. It should be possible for arrangements to be made to remove the names of those who have died from the list, particularly since the registrar of births and deaths usually works from the same place as the electoral returning officer. It was not even the deaths column in the papers that I thought the electoral returning officer should look at, but the in memoriam column, because some people on the register had been dead for so many years, but still had the vote.

I thought, as no doubt other hon. Members do, that it was filling up form A in October that gave one the vote. Not a bit of it. We discovered that the electoral returning officer would send someone to see Mrs. Jones of 15 High Street if she did not return her form. The officer would say that she had been there for years and must have forgotten to fill in the form. If Mrs. Jones had gone to Tesco or was dead nobody would know. The electoral returning officer would put her on the list, just in case. There should be some way in which the registering of names which should not be on the register is stopped. In particular, deaths should be checked. The Committee was worried that there seemed to be more concern about leaving people off the list who might have had a right to vote than about putting people on who had no right at all. There should be a clearer use of form A so that only those entitled to vote should be able to do so. I hope that the Government will consider that point.

8.7 pm

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

I agree that there should have been a Speaker's Conference. The Scottish National party was not called to give evidence before the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the consultation that has taken place since publication of the White Paper had been derisory. Opportunities to deal with some of the matters which now distinguish the contesting of elections have been lost. The hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. Hughes) touched upon that.

Under the Representation of the People Acts restrictions are laid down, first, on deposits, which is touched on by the Bill, and, secondly, on candidates' expenses. As practical politicians, we all know that there has been a switch in campaigning techniques and that what matters is the amount of money disbursed on behalf of candidates collectively at central or national offices in support of an advertising or election campaign and access to the television and other media. The Bill does not attempt to deal with such vital areas.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) referred to the problem of multi-registration. She may remember, although she may care to forget, that at the time of the Scotland Act 1978 and the proposals for the 40 per cent. on the referendum, many of us brought up that very point.

Fair television coverage is probably more important to the smaller parties than to the larger parties which, naturally, have a substantial share. Those who represent parties that operate outside England — and I say that specifically — are not permitted access to the United Kingdom media during election campaigns. Yet the news and documentary programmes are transmitted in Scotland and Wales as though the reports on the election were entirely English. We obtain a share of the television and radio programmes in our home countries, but we are not given additional coverage to compensate for the lack of United Kingdom coverage. The Home Office should have included a provision to adjust the arrangements to provide a fair expression of opinion. I am highly critical of the Home Office for not doing so.

Like the Liberals, in a better year than 1983 we would not expect to be affected by substantial deposit losses. However, I accept that we suffered considerably in 1983. I had warned the Liberals about counting how many deposits they were likely to save, although we did exactly that in 1974 and had to eat our words at a later stage. A matter of principle is involved. The democratic process should be open to all.

The problem with fringe candidates has arisen largely from by-elections, especially those which have been the subject of considerable media coverage. Some candidates stand purely for notoriety.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said that the real problem for all opposition parties was the accumulation of funds that must be locked in during a campaign. The Scottish National party would have to find £72,000 — money that could be better deployed during a campaign. Candidates have to put up a substantial amount of money. If someone is serious about fighting an election, that is only a small proportion of the liquid funds required for the production of leaflets, posters, and so on.

The Home Office may not think it a serious matter. Compared with other parties, the Conservative party is exceptionally well funded. It obtains money from various sources as well as its own members. It receives substantial donations from industry—something that is not available to parties such the SNP. It has been rumoured —although it is probably a huge exaggeration — that Conservative central office spent about £15 million, which is about £20,000 per candidate. There is a general limitation of £4,000 to £5,000 per candidate, dependent upon whether a candidate is a borough or county candidate and taking into account the size of the electorate in the area. Financing elections is a serious matter. Most other countries provide funds. That is now happening in the European elections. Either the House must set a restriction on the amount of money available for central expenditure or it must provide cash for the political parties to extend the democratic process. Other countries have had to make that choice, but it is avoided in the Bill.

The Bill provides for forms to be published in different languages. Specific provision is made for the Welsh language. My right hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) has drawn my attention to the fact that there is no provision for Gaelic. Those who speak Gaelic should have ballot papers in their language. If provision is made for the Welsh language, it is fair to make similar provision for the Gaelic language. We hope to table an amendment to that effect in Committee. I am raising the matter now to give the Minister time to consider it.

I find the whole process extremely disappointing. There has been insufficient consultation, the Government have been unilateral about the measure and there has been no willingness to consider the impact of the legislation on others. I suspect that the intention to extend the franchise has been calculated to ensure that the Conservative party does better from it than other political parties. Indeed, it is better organised to do that. It is reprehensible that the Government should seek to extend the franchise to those who do not pay the rates of taxation usually paid by most of us.

I hope that the House and the Government learn from the debate and that when we return to review the law relating to elections we will do so by means of a Speaker's Conference in which all political viewpoints can be represented on an equitable basis.

8.16 pm
Mr. Gwilym Jones (Cardiff, North)

I give a general welcome to the Bill. Some parts of it are important and welcome, especially that relating to votes for holidaymakers. That is a long overdue reform that will eliminate the previous glaring injustice. As I am conscious of the need for brevity, I shall not dwell on that point.

The most contentious part of the Bill is the proposal to raise the deposit to £1,000. I am sure that we all begin from the premise that important principles of democracy are involved—being able to stand as a candidate and being able to vote for one's choice of candidate. It is vital that there is a proper framework of rules in the interests of all involved in the democratic process. At the same time, it is necessary to be aware of possible detractions to the electoral process, to the campaigns of serious candidates and to the involvement of those electors choosing between serious candidates, by the interventions of those who may not necessarily be serious candidates.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) kindly allowed me to intervene in his speech when he referred to the increased number of signatures and the checking procedures. In theory, there is much to be said for the alternative of a greater number of signatures on a nomination paper. However, I can envisage some practical difficulties. There is the difficulty of obtaining a large number of signatures—100, 300, 500 or whatever the figure. That might be a physical impossibility, especially for candidates who have only single figure support. How on earth could such candidates achieve that number of signatures, which would involve serious intent by those signing? That problem might be more insuperable than finding a given sum of money. Returning officers have to scrutinise nomination forms, and one signature might not be exactly the same as that on the electoral roll and this would invalidate the whole form. I expect considerable trouble from that.

Following a local election in Caerleon, adjoining my constituency, there was a prosecution of a student who had organised a bogus candidate and a bogus campaign, including bogus signatures on the nomination paper. That came to light only because neither the candidate nor his supporters turned up at the count. Indeed, they had not been seen during the campaign. That does not fit the criterion which, in other circumstances, was fairly described by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, of seeing the names published on the notice poll. Those names were published, but not challenged, and the problem came to light only during the count.

Much has been made of the responsibilities that devolve upon candidates. At this stage I do not think that it is necessary again to talk about free postage, the free use of public buildings and all the other facilities that were so well covered by previous speakers. However, I should like to touch on a small aspect of the matter—advertising, even commercial advertising, which has gone on and could still go on with the deposit at its present level of £150. It is a small investment to secure £8,000 of postage advantage for advertising purposes. I have seen candidatures for advertising purposes at local elections in Cardiff and we have all seen it happen in parliamentary elections. It could happen with people who want to set themselves up as candidates, whether it is the builder mentioned earlier who does not want to use another form of advertising, or other categories of person who are not allowed to use forms of advertising.

There is a considerable area of potential abuse that we cannot ignore in regard to persons who have no genuine political motivation offering themselves as candidates, who would be horrified if they were actually elected That is to say, they would be horrified if they had an idea of how to do or wanted to see done properly the job of an elected representative. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has proposed a compromise figure that is not prohibitively expensive. On balance, it is the right figure, and we should accept it.

A part of the Bill that has not been touched on much today is clauses 14 to 16, which deal with what elections may or may not be held on the same day. I thought that I might quote several local examples to develop the arguments but, in the interests of being brief, I merely say that considerable consideration must be given in Committee to these clauses and to exactly what elections may or may not be held on the same day because of the confusion that there might be for at least part of the electorate.

Is democracy served by having a general election on the same day as any other election? I include even the elections for the European Assembly, although they are on a fixed date. If we move the date of local elections, they would all be treated in the same way. Would it matter if the elections for the European Assembly were on a different date from that used by the Europeans? It is doubtful whether there is a great community of interests affecting British voters voting for the European Assembly, nor is there any great enthusiasm for the elections. However, I give full credit to the media for this. Every news bulletin before the election in June 1984 had a lead story predicting that we would stay top of the apathy polls, and thus the media helped to achieve the actual turnout figures. Possibly it would be appropriate to go back to the previous system of direct nomination.

The polling day arrangements referred to in clauses 14 to 16 require careful consideration in Committee but, in general, I look forward to the completion of proceedings on the Bill and its becoming law.

8.24 pm
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members are pleased that the Committee stage of the Bill will be taken on the Floor of the House so that we can develop the arguments about the clauses. Thus, we shall not waste time talking about detail on Second Reading.

As the Committee stage will be taken on the Floor of the House, there will be an opportunity for all parties to be represented, so minority parties will be able to give their points of view on the clauses. I should like to stress that, because hon. Members can see that the Benches alongside me are void of members of the alliance. Worse still, the debate has been going on for just two minutes short of four hours, and not one Member representing the Social Democratic party has spoken. When they are in the Chamber, we shall have to remind members of that new party of new-found principles on elections to be here for the Committee stage.

I should like to thank the Government for getting rid of the anomaly whereby people on holiday cannot vote at elections. Many people in my constituency and in the Labour party will welcome a change that widens the franchise. There was also a silly anomaly about postal voting in parish elections. It was difficult to explain the situation to people when one visited them in their homes to discuss the election.

There is also a clause relating to people living, as opposed to working, abroad being able to vote in a general election, although they have been abroad for six years. I have grave doubts about the intentions of the clause. I am sure that many hon. Members will want to debate it further in Committee. The Home Secretary said that people who go abroad might want to retain the link between themselves and their constituencies. However, a sizeable majority of those who live abroad might like to retain the link between dodging taxes and political parties that allow them to dodge taxes. I understand that people who are working abroad on things such as foreign aid projects, or even for the British Council, in different parts of the world might benefit by the clause, but many who do not want to pay rates or income tax in this country will also benefit. Some people do not live in this country and are not affected by Government fiscal policies.

I should like to refer to the raising of the deposit from £150 to £1,000. When I was a candidate I had to borrow £150 because my political party did not have it, due to boundary changes, and I did not have it because I was a working miner. There is a great danger that the raising of the deposit to £1,000 will benefit only those who are better off than others. That is not my only objection to the raising of the deposit. Many people who are deemed to be joke, freak or crank candidates will be prevented from standing for Parliament. At a general election, that is not a major problem anyway. It is not true that the raising of the deposit will get rid of such people.

At the general election, a candidate in Finchley, which is the Prime Minister's constituency, stood for law and order. He got 37 votes, which was 0.1 per cent. of the total vote. Someone standing against the Prime Minister on the question of law and order has every right to do so and to be taken seriously. At the 1979 general election, when the right hon. Lady was Leader of the Opposition, and at the 1983 general election, when she was Prime Minister, she promised that there would be a reduction in crime, but now we see that crime on our streets is increasing daily. Thus, people have every right at elections to stand on such issues.

The increase to £1,000 would also prejudice those who wish to stand in by-elections. In the recent by-election in Stafford a Mr. C. Teasdale stood as the candidate "soon to be unemployed". He recorded only 210 votes, but I suspect that many more than 210 people have been made unemployed in Stafford since the by-election. A candidate who wished to stand under the banner "soon to be unemployed" should be allowed to do so. In the Chesterfield by-election, a Mr. D. Cahill stood as the candidate for reclassifying some newspapers as comics. That was a worthy platform. Had I not been a member of the Labour party, I should have been sorely tempted to stand on such a platform. At the same by-election a Mr. J. Davey stood for no dental charge increases. If one considers the increase in NHS prescription charges and dental charges since 1979, that person could not be described as a crank.

We should give such people the right to stand for election. Democracy is not just a matter of voting—it is about the right to stand up and be heard. It is about the right to stand for election if one believes strongly in an issue. The increase from £150 to £1,000 will deny democratic rights to many people. If Bill Boakes and Screaming Lord Sutch wish to stand for Parliament, they have every right to do so. Having sat in the House for the past 18 months looking at Conservative Members, I can only say that it is a great pity that some of those other candidates did not win.

8.31 pm
Mr. William Powell (Corby)

On 9 June last year the votes of 77.5 per cent. of the registered electors in the parliamentary constituency of Corby were counted. In some constituencies the turnover was higher, but Corby was in the top bracket of turnouts during that election. However, although relatively high, the turnout was not high. We must ask ourselves why the turnout in a British election is lower than that in elections in most other countries.

There are three artificial barriers to voting in this country, which the Bill should try to correct. There has been wide agreement during the debate that the Bill will provide a major improvement in the law by allowing those on holiday to vote. There is no doubt that in almost every constituency the turnout would increase by at least 2 or 3 per cent. if those people were allowed to vote.

The second barrier is the fact that the register is endemically inaccurate. I regret the fact that too little provision is made in the Bill to improve the position. The criticisms made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) and other hon. Members are extremely important. It is wrong in principle that we cannot correct the register during its lifetime.

The third major reason for our low turnouts is related to the remarks of the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell). He referred to the desirability of simultaneity—the fact that votes should be cast on the same day between the same hours, not over a prolonged period. The way to meet his objections is to enable the register to be updated constantly. We live in a country where the population is so mobile that within a short time of the creation of the register in September it becomes inaccurate. By June last year, when the register was nine months old, thousands of people had moved to other constituencies. Many of them had moved considerable distances, and it became extremely inconvenient for them to cast their votes in the constituencies where they were registered.

There are two ways of dealing with that. One is to allow more voting by post, and in so far as the Bill allows that to happen, I do not criticise it. However, a better way, which I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to examine even more closely than he has already studied the problem, would be to institute a rolling register that could be brought up to date constantly. If that were introduced, people would not have the inconvenience of having to travel hundreds of miles because they have failed to register in time for a postal vote. If a rolling register could be organised—I see no reason in principle why it should not, and would be sceptical of those who produce technical objections to it—it would solve the problems mentioned by the right hon. Member for South Down.

I ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and my hon. Friend the Minister to consider carefully all that has been said about the deposit by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I shall not support any suggestion that it be raised to £1,000. I regret the fact that an artificial hare has been introduced into the debate by way of the suggestion about collecting signatures, as though those who object to a £1,000 deposit were under any obligation to produce an alternative means. The mischief caused by superfluous candidates is too minor for the action that is prognosticated in the Bill, and I shall be unable to support it in due course.

I hope that my hon. Friend will consider more closely what the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said about multiple registrations. It must be wrong in principle to allow people to register in more than one place. If my hon. Friend says, as I am sure he will, that they pay rates in both places, my short answer would be to let a person pay rates in only one place. Although such objections may be superficially attractive, they do not undermine the fundamental principle, which is that the ballot should be cast once only. The best way to ensure that is to allow people to register in only one place.

I welcome the fact that the franchise will be extended to those who reside abroad. I hope that in due course my right hon. and learned Friend will reconsider the seven-year restriction, which is entirely artificial. We need a declaration that the franchise is open to all British subjects, wherever they are—

Mr. Campbell-Savours


Mr. Powell

Yes. I look forward to debating the Bill more fully in Committee. It is a good Bill, but it could have gone much further, and I hope that we can amend it and make it better.

8.39 pm
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

What we have heard in the past four and half hours or so is evidence enough that this subject should have been considered by a Speaker's Conference and not dealt with by a Select Committee. This is the first experiment of a Select Committee dealing with such a serious and fundamental subject for Parliament and I am afraid that it is not a success. My party tried to give oral evidence to that Committee, but was unable to do so, and I am glad that even at this late stage I am able to put our case. I hope that the Government will seriously consider the various representations that have been made from their own side as well as from Opposition Benches expressing misgivings about various aspects of the Bill.

Even at this stage, will not the Government consider whether they really wish to go ahead with the Bill when instead we should be having a major look, through a Speaker's Conference, at the whole problem of our electoral procedure? Since the war, there have been massive changes in technology, which should be taken into account by a Speaker's Conference. Other changes have brought in the mass media as they are now. There are the activities of the opinion polls, which can have a great effect. All these changes should be seriously considered, and that is a job for a Speaker's Conference, and not for a Select Committee.

Much attention has been focused on the £1,000 deposit. I have an interest to declare in this, because my party loses far too many deposits. Although the threshold at which the deposits will be kept is to come down to 5 per cent. of the vote—I am glad that the Government did not accept the Select Committee's recommendation of 7.5 per cent.—the £1,000 deposit will be a barrier to my Plaid Cymru fighting all the seats in Wales. There should not be a financial barrier such as this. It is a sort of means test and means tests should not have a part to play in our process of democracy.

Conservative Members have said that candidates add to the cost of election, but so will overseas registration. I cannot see the justification for the £1,000 deposit. The other argument that was put was that since £150 was accepted in 1918, it should be more by now, but that presupposes that £150 was right in 1918. After all, 1918 was a very different time to that in which we live now. We should not be taking the principle accepted then as necessarily being applicable now.

Some hon. Members have referred to the possibility of having a list of supporters, rather than assenters for nomination. If we moved to having, say, 100 people who were willing to designate themselves as supporters, that could be considered as the use of their vote in the election. That would sort things out niftily. It would make sure that those who were assenting really, were willing for that candidate to stand. It would also make sure that those who were standing had to look for people who positively wanted them to stand.

However, why should not people stand in an election, even if it is on only one issue? If they feel that strongly about an issue, they have the right to put their point of view to the electorate. If, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) said, there have been instances when Joe Knight, plumber, has advertised his business in electoral literature, there must be other ways to control such practices. Already, the Post Office is most careful about what it is willing to send through the free post.

In any case, the fringe candidates are not the candidates who make massive use of the free post. Often, they do not have the money to print the leaflets or the hands to put the leaflets into envelopes and write the envelopes. It will be difficult for Plaid Cymru with the £1,000 deposit, but other smaller parties, such as the Ecology party, will be even harder hit. The Ecology party has a valid point of view to put forward. At the moment, it may be a minority party but its appeal may grow.

When my party first fought an election in my constituency, we had only 600 votes. That was a deposit well lost but we now have over 52 per cent. of the voles. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Thomas), we lost our deposit in 1966, and won the seat in 1974. Parties can grow from small bases and we should not be in the business of taking a steamroller to crack small nuts in case they grow up into big oak trees that may threaten the Government. I hope that the Minister will think about this. These may be small nuts, but none the less they have a role to play in our elections.

I appeal to the Government to reconsider the £1,000 deposit. It may be that, when they consider what has been said tonight, they will feel that it is appropriate not to press on with the increase to £1,000. I hope that they will decide, even if they do not keep the deposit at £150, to raise it to a somewhat lower level than £1,000 as this will allow more candidates to stand.

In another debate, I have already described the iniquities that can arise from the abuse of the postal vote system. I welcome postal votes being available to those who, through no fault of their own, are away when an election is called, particularly as we have no set dates for elections and people cannot be expected to read the tea leaves. Nevertheless, there are shortcomings and possible abuses. I see nothing in the Bill that tries to solve those shortcomings.

One of the shortcomings which has already been spoken about is second homes. I support the comments made by the hon. Members for Corby (Mr. Powell) and for Edgbaston. We need much more accurate registers, because that is the basis of the election. One of the inaccuracies that we should get rid of is the second home vote, which in some constituencies, such as Anglesey, has caused considerable contention. Some have suggested that it may even have affected the result. I do not think that it has done so but it is still a possibility, and we should be doing away with it now. If there is to be a postal vote, it could be used to enable the elector to vote in the constituency in which he is registered.

I share the grave misgivings about extending the vote to overseas residents, that have been expressed by many hon. Members. However, if we are to extend the vote to such people, the right to vote should not last for seven years but for a shorter time. As this is representation without taxation, should not such overseas residents pay a fee, as we are concerned about the cost of elections? They could pay a substantial fee of £1,000 as a contribution to the costs, as many of them could afford to pay such sums.

The amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and myself refers to election expenses. Since the war, there has been a massive change in the impact of centralised propaganda, through radio and television, as opposed to constituency propaganda. We limit the amount of expenditure in a constituency to £4,000 or £5,000, but we allow what is the equivalent of £20,000 a constituency on central expenditure, as the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) said earlier. Surely this is making a mockery of the system of controlled expenditure. We should be looking at this problem, but we are not.

I move on to Welsh forms. The provisions in clause 21 will take out section 199 of the principal Act. Will the Minister assure me that all the provisions of the Welsh Language Act 1967 which will apply to this Act will reinstate all these provisions?

There are other points that I hope will be made in Commitee. There is the question of opinion polls during elections and of the results being announced in a way that influences the outcome. There is also the question of how spoilt papers are dealt with. The Government's response to the Select Committee on that, on page 24, is quite inadequate. I am sure that there are ways of overcoming that problem. There are also issues concerning the rights of parties to check voters as they go in to the polling station. The usage of such rights varies considerably from area to area, and there should be some guidelines for that. There is also the problem of access to booths for disabled people who want to vote themselves, but who cannot get up or down stairs.

We should examine many such issues, but they are rightly matters for Committee. The main principles under consideration concern the right of people to stand for election. The House should ensure tonight that we do not in any way fetter it.

8.49 pm
Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

I welcome the Bill, because it will give many more people the right to vote. Indeed, that is one of the most encouraging aspects of the Bill, as the right to vote is one of our last democratic rights.

I welcome the extension of the franchise, particularly to those living abroad. It is right, however, that they should not have the vote after seven years. Indeed, I had hoped that the period might be shorter than seven years. But seven years should be the maximum.

However, it is unfair that those working abroad are at present unable to vote, particularly if they have a home in Britain. If they pay their rates, why on earth should they not have the right to vote?

Incidentally, the Eurocrats should have had the vote before—they will now obviously have it—as they are working abroad.

I am unhappy that Irish citizens should still have the vote here when we are still waiting to have the vote in Ireland. However, I know that we shall obtain it. There must be some sort of fair system between the countries.

It will now be easier for absentee voters to vote, but of course people should not be able to vote on demand. I very much agree with the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) that there should be no automatic right. The person involved must justify the need for his vote, and it will obviously involve his employment. I am particularly concerned about the meaning of "indefinite period". I think that there should be an annual renewal. Obviously service men should not have to apply each year and should get the vote as of right. But for others there should be this annual review.

The basic criterion is that anyone eligible for a postal vote must, under clause 7(3)(a), prove that he cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at the polling station allotted…to him". Therefore, it is of great concern to me that the special list kept by the electoral registration officer should be up to date and properly checked. The address must be checked, and I believe that after a certain time that person's right to vote should be automatically extinguished.

In June 1983, a few weeks after I was elected to the House, I tabled an early-day motion calling for the right to vote to be extended to all holidaymakers. In conjunction with the Leicester Mercury, a major campaign was launched. We must not now lose that franchise. That is why the Bill is welcome. Up to 2 million people will benefit from extending the vote to holidaymakers, and that could affect many seats. In June 1981, there were 1,337,000 United Kingdom holidaymakers and they may now be entitled to the vote. If the election had been held in October 1981, the figure would have been 513,000 United Kingdom holidaymakers. Therefore, those people will now need to apply well in time, giving the address to which the ballot paper is to be sent.

Indeed, I was reassured to discover that those going abroad will have to pay for the expense of sending their completed ballot papers back to the United Kingdom. As we all know, the application must be furnished 11 days before the poll. As my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) said, under the Bill it would seem rather easy to obtain that vote. I am concerned about that, and I should like to see counter-signatures introduced as quickly as possible, so that there cannot be any electoral abuse. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will make it clear that the fine for abusing the system is £2,000, and I hope that the word will be spread, so that people realise that they cannot take advantage of the system.

Some people have spoken about multiple registration, and the risk of taking advantage of that system. When I was at university in London, I had two votes. I had a vote in the constituency of St. Marylebone and a vote in Dorking, where my parents lived. I was on the electoral rolls for both constituencies becaused I lived in the student hall of residence in one constituency and at my parents' home in the other. It is not particularly easy to vote twice—not that I would wish or try to. Nevertheless, it is a sad fact that at present there is no such thing as a secret ballot. If the electoral registration officer so wishes, he can look at the form and see a number that relates directly to my name on the electoral roll. Although I want to see genuine ballot papers, it is unfortunate that the ballot is not truly secret. But perhaps we can develop that futher in Committee.

Many people are offered proxy votes. As before, the proxy vote will be available, but those using it cannot be told how to vote. They know only that they may vote on behalf of the person away.

I am glad to say that in Leicester, East the machines marking the ballot papers were found to be faulty and were taken away in time. However, in Leicester, South the machines were not taken away and many votes had to be declared invalid.

Several hon. Members have mentioned polling hours, including, in particular, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). I was not convinced by his argument that the booths should stay open for that extra hour. I should be interested to know how many people vote before 8 am. I imagine that many vote then, but the elderly, in particular, do not enjoy going out to vote between 9 pm and 10 pm on a dark October night.

It is a matter of great regret that the Bill does not deal with personation. In Leicester, East I have evidence that personation occurred. I am afraid that there was a motto among some of the ethnic community, "Vote early, vote often." That worries me. However, personation can be avoided by ensuring that polling stations are properly policed. In Leicester, I hope that the police will be on duty throughout the day at each polling station and will not just move around on a rota. Thus, I regret that there is no provision about personation.

At the general election, in Leicester, East the turnout in some areas was as high as 80 per cent., and it was more than 65 per cent. in the city council elections in May 1983. I believe, therefore, that we need identification cards and other similar provisions to ensure that the right people vote and can prove who they are. I very much hope that polling cards will be properly checked and not collected, as they are in certain multi-occupied flats, and then used as some form of identification.

I also regret that the franchise is not extended to business voters. I believe that in 1959, or later, those who paid substantial rates had the right to vote, and I should like to see that right extended again today.

I accept that we do not want frivolous candidates, but some candidates are good independents with a true message. We should increase the number of assenters supporting such candidates so that they can prove their worth. The figure could be as high as 250 to 500. If so many people were assenters, a true message would come through. This is not a survival or self-interest plea on my behalf. The Indian Workers Association candidate in Leicester, East, Mr. Ratilal Ganatra, obtained 970 votes and my majority was 933. He received more than 500 votes. His 500 assenters would have supported him; otherwise they would not have signed the form. I cannot accept that people sign anything just because it is put in front of them.

I warn the House that even if the deposit were £1,000, it would not deter certain public relations companies from putting forward a candidate. I shall not name anyone, but we might remember the Warrington by-election and a drink called vodka. Such a candidate could still stand.

I recommend that the electoral deposit be about £250 and that no more than 500 assenters be required. We should do away with the other criteria. If we establish a fairer franchise, more people will take part, we shall have a fairer system and the democratic process will be respected.

9 pm

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) made an exceptionally serious point when he laid down three criteria. The first was the right of any citizen over voting age to stand for election. It is offensive for this House, individually or collectively, to say that in certain circumstances we shall so arrange matters that some citizens of these islands will be prevented from standing for election to Parliament. The whole idea of parliamentary elections is that that judgment belongs to the electors individually and to the electorate collectively. Without that freedom our parliamentary democracy is diminished. If we restrict the right to stand as the Bill proposes, we risk more people saying, "In that event I shall not bother to vote."

One of the gravest criticisms of the United States of America is that, although 90 million people voted in the recent presidential election, about 83 million people did not because they were not registered. About half of the citizens of the United States who were otherwise eligible to vote could not be bothered, for all sorts of reasons, to have their names put on the electoral register.

I take exception to being lectured by the Association of Chief Police Officers of England and Wales and Northern Ireland about who can and who cannot be candidates. Recently the association poked its nose into political affairs. In written evidence on 18 February 1980 to the Home Affairs Committee on the law relating to public order which sat in the 1979–80 Session the association had the effrontery to say: The Association has no doubt that there is need to consider a more realistic level of deposit for Parliamentary Elections which would have the effect of considerably reducing the field of candidates, many of whom would appear to be contesting seats unjustifiably. That has nothing to do with any police officer in this land either before a Select Committee or anywhere else. The police officers can demonstrate their feelings when they go into the polling station and use their vote. We do not need to hear from them about what we should do.

The deposit of £1,000 is far too high. Whatever the Government say, it is a test of whether a person can raise the cash. Some people will find it easier than others to get their fists around £1,000. That is no way to decide who can stand for Parliament and who cannot.

A better proposition, to which reference has already been made, is to beef up the number of assenters required. The report of the Home Affairs Committee, in paragraph 75, got it wrong and to some extent misled the Government. It said: An elector might quite casually agree to give his signature in these circumstances not because he intended to vote for the candidate but merely in the belief that he ought to be allowed to stand. That is no proper judgment for that Select Committee to make. How dare anybody even suggest that electors are so casual and careless that they will sign anything merely to get people off the doorstep. Electors are not that casual about parliamentary elections.

There is no argument about holidaymakers having votes, but there is a difference between those who have demonstrated that they have gone abroad to live and those who have shown that they have gone abroad to work. Nationals of many other countries who go abroad on holiday receive their ballot papers and are able properly to place them in ballot boxes in embassies or high commissions in various countries. Why cannot we use that system? Most British holidaymakers go to Spain, which is not a million miles away. Individuals who are sufficiently concerned to seek a vote when on holiday would be prepared to avail themselves of the opportunity to vote at embassies or high commissions. I hope that the Government will take that on board.

9.5 pm

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) said, the Bill is fundamental. It snaps at the very heels of our democracy. It challenges the essential freedom of the individual. Even the Home Secretary dismissed the possibility that Members might be capable of free thinking. Such is his respect, or lack of it, for the freedoms which we hold precious. He described the differences between my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), as fundamental. My hon. Friend and right hon. Friend merely demonstrated the free-thinking abilities of hon. Members, especially those who have the honour to serve on Select Committees.

I express my support for the arrangements which are being made for holidaymakers. However, I must express opposition to the principle that those who reside abroad should have the right to vote for seven years. It seems that many of those who are leaving our shores in present conditions are doing so with the intention of staying away. They sometimes talk about leaving a sinking ship as if they are trying to avoid facing the problems that confront us all in our modern society in modern Britain. If they feel that they can opt out, surely we have the right to remove from them the right to vote. I hope that there will be some new thinking on this matter when the Bill is considered in Committee.

The arrangements that are proposed for deposits are an attack on our democracy. Individuals who represent minority parties and minority lobbies will lose the right to stand as candidates. The Bill will prevent many Ecology party candidates from standing throughout the United Kingdom. There may not be much sympathy on the Government Benches for the Ecology party, but that party, which represents the Green movement in British politics, is a growing one. Although it may put a candidate against a Labour candidate, the very presence of Ecology Green candidates in constituencies throughout the United Kingdom has an influence on thinking generally on the libertarian left of British politics.

The Ecology party candidates influence the way in which we develop political strategies at party conferences. The greater the vote that the Ecology party attracts and the greater the vote that Green candidates attract, the more likely it is that they will have an effect on the politics of institutional parties. That is all being put at risk.

The Green movement in Germany,—admittedly, it used a form of proportional representation—was able to attract to itself a substantial part of the vote. In doing so it had a direct influence on the development of social democratic environment policies in Germany. That is a healthy development. I might not go as far as supporting proportional representation, but we should ensure that wherever possible minority parties have the opportunity to stand, if only to influence our deliberations.

I believe that the 500 signatures principle is acceptable. If the Home Secretary is confused about the bureaucratic problems that might arise in town halls because of the need to check names, why not charge £20 or £30 for the privilege of having one's nomination form checked? There is a great deal of difference between £30 lost and £1,000 lent which one cannot afford to borrow. Charging for checking would be a far more acceptable principle.

The Bill proposes that the time of closing polls should be moved from 10 pm to 9 pm. The Home Secretary said that that was a necessary move, although he dismissed the value of the 1,300,000 people who might be affected by that decision. The right hon. and learned Gentleman does not recognise the fact that many people in the industrial north and other industrial areas vote before they go on shift at 10 pm. They will have to rearrange their day to enable them to vote earlier. That may well disturb their sleeping patterns. An unnecessary pressure is being exerted on them.

9.10 pm
Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Knowsley, North)

I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: this House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which extends the right to vote to people who have chosen to live abroad and have no more than a tenuous connection with a United Kingdom constituency, while limiting the opportunity to vote of people permanently resident in the United Kingdom. As every hon. Member who has participated in this debate has said, this is an important and constitutional Bill. Its centrality to our democratic process has been clearly evidenced by the wide range of issues raised in the debate and by many of the speeches which had a philosophical bent and clearly addressed themselves to important matters of principle. It is therefore essential, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said, that the Bill and its provisions should have the widest agreement.

The Government would like it to be thought that that is the case, and they have attempted to present themselves in the guise of guarantor of civil liberties, the protector of the electoral system and the advocate of democratic rights and representative government. According to the Home Secretary's speech, the Government want to be seen to be impartial, disinterested and, in effect, honest brokers. That is not the case, and the Home Secretary seemed to be aware that he was flying under false colours. That is probably the explanation for his shallow and shabby speech in support of Second Reading. The right hon. and learned Gentleman smiles rather cynically and benignly, but to give no more than a simple recitation of the explanation of the clauses of this important Bill was a shabby performance. Such a performance has probably never been given in this House by any other Home Secretary of any party.

The Government are not impartial, disinterested and honest brokers. The Tory Government have failed adequately to consult all the other parties represented in the House. Important matters in this Bill should have the widest possible measure of agreement and should be the product of all-party consensus. Instead, at the behest of the Tory party the provisions are foisted on the House, the political parties and the country. That will mean, as I am sure the Home Secretary has already realised, a long, difficult and hotly contested discussion in Committee. The fact that that stage will be taken on the Floor of the House will make for even longer, more contentious and more difficult proceedings. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State will give the guarantee sought by all Opposition parties that such a constitutional measure will not be guillotined.

It is not surprising that the Tory party should have taken this attitute, because we are talking about an antidemocratic Government. That has been clearly demonstrated by the Government's policies and actions during the last 18 months, and the previous five years. We cannot accept the Government's protestations of sincerity and impartiality when they have been responsible for the greatest assault on democratic principles and practices and the greatest erosion of our civil liberties for decades. That is certainly true of the Government's attacks on local authorities and trade unions and the increasing powers they have given to the police.

The Government's anti-democratic institutions and sentiments are clearly illustrated by their proposal to increase the deposit at parliamentary elections sevenfold to £1,000. Why is it necessary? Why do it? We had the arguments adduced in June and today by the Home Secretary. First, he said that many candidates do not belong to any of the major political parties. So what? It is not yet a crime not to belong to a political party. Political parties do not have—although some of us may wish to believe that they do—a monopoly of political wisdom and they should not have the monopoly of access to the political system.

The Home Secretary then announced that many of the so-called fringe candidates are not, in any event, serious. That is for the electorate to judge, not for the Home Secretary. It is not for him to determine the seriousness or otherwise of individual candidates. Many of those candidates who are clearly fringe candidates and who do not gain many votes are, nevertheless, extremely serious in their motivation, their objectives and the message that they are putting before the electorate. Moreover, many of the most serious, dedicated and determined parliamentary candidates representing the so-called fringe parties are accidentally poor. That is true of those who in previous years stood in favour of votes for women, and as independents for the abolition of capital punishment, and of those who stood in recent general elections for the Welsh and Scottish Nationalist parties and the Ecology party.

The Welsh Nationalist party lost 24 deposits at the last general election, which cost it £4,800. Under the Government's proposals, it would have still lost all 24 deposits even with the lower 5 per cent. threshold but that would have cost it £24,000. The Ecology party fared even worse. All its 63 candidates lost their deposits. It cost the party £9,450 at the last general election. Not one of those candidates attained the 5 per cent. threshold that will be necessary to retain the £1,000 deposit. If these proposals were in effect, they would cost it £63,000.

The proposals will be a major inhibiting factor for independents and small parties. There is no evidence that the frivolous candidates are poor and the serious candidates are rich. Many of the richest candidates are the most frivolous and the most offensive. They will not be deterred by the proposal of a £1,000 deposit.

The Home Secretary then came forward with the argument that, in any event, the fringe candidates have no chance of being elected. That may well be the case, but how does he know? Is that, in itself, a good reason for deterring them from standing? That is what he said today and in June.

It is no good reason to deter candidates from standing, because, irrespective of their other merits, they have no chance of being elected. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton and other hon. Members have said, if that were to be the criterion it would apply to many Tory candidates in many constituencies, not least mine and those of Liverpool, Riverside, Bootle, Islwyn and Glasgow, Central.

The Home Secretary then resorted to a patronising and offensive argument that fringe candidates confuse and distract the electorate. That is patronising and offensive not just to the fringe candidates but to the electorate whom the Home Secretary underestimates. Conservative Members tend to cite Chesterfield with its record 17 fringe candidates as an example of where such a proliferation of candidates distracts and confuses the electorate. All those 17 candidates lost their deposits. None of them sufficiently distracted or confused the electorate to stop my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) being elected as everyone expected that he would be.

Conservative Members resort to the argument that some candidates stand only for commercial reasons. I accept that there is some substance in that argument. There is abuse. Some candidates wish to stand for the free publicity that arises from being a parliamentary candidate, and for the commercial benefits that might accrue to their businesses and enterprises as a result.

If that is so, a higher deposit would be no bar. Such people would be prepared to pay £1,000 for that commercial advantage. If that is such an abuse, there are other ways to deal with it rather than imposing a deposit which will inhibit and prohibit serious, worthwhile, committed and dedicated candidates.

Many candidates and their parties are deeply offensive and some of my hon. Friends may be sympathetic to the notion of an increased deposit for that reason. There are candidates with policies that none of us could support or abide, but it is for the electorate to humiliate and dismiss them and to show that such candidates, be they from the Communist party or the National Front, have no semblance of support in this country. It is extremely important that people representing such offensive views nevertheless have access to our democratic political system, that it is not blocked off for them and that they do not feel that there is no outlet even for racist and minority views in our political system.

In any event, money should never be the key to access to our political system. The Conservatives constantly attempt to make money the key to everything. They are already doing it for access to education and they are trying to do it for access to the health system, but money must not become the key to access to our democratic system.

The same disregard for democratic principles is evident in the Government's treatment of Northern Ireland electors. The Bill provides that residents of Northern Ireland cannot have an absent vote sent to an address abroad or for a specific parliamentary election under the same terms and conditions as citizens in other parts of the United Kingdom. More important, it provides that in future residents of Northern Ireland cannot have a postal vote if they move from one constituency to another. Those provisions are wrong in principle. We cannot and should not make distinctions between British citizens within the United Kingdom. As the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) said, as Members of Parliament we are all equal and we should be elected by the same means, under the same rules and with the same opportunities for citizens to vote for or against us.

If there is a problem of abuse, it must be dealt with, but to restrict democratic rights because there is abuse is to concede victory to those seeking to undermine the democratic process because, in effect, it allows them to set the terms of our electoral system and to determine the laws by which our elections are conducted. That cannot be tolerated and it is inexcusable for the Government to suggest that it can. It is an anomaly and a gross injustice in the Bill that we shall attempt to put right. Members of the citizenry in Northern Ireland are already second-class citizens in many respects, certainly in many aspects of the criminal justice system. We cannot accept that they should also be second-class citizens in terms of their democratic rights and their ability to cast votes in parliamentary elections within the domain of the United Kingdom.

The right hon. Member for South Down made an appeal to the House on behalf of his constituents. That appeal has certainly been heard by Labour Members and we shall respond to it. I hope that Conservative Back Benchers will also regard it as their right and duty when considering the Bill in the House and in Committee to give every citizen in the United Kingdom the same rights, duties and opportunities as the Bill provides for those in Great Britain.

It would seem that the Government are extending our democracy at least through the proposals to enable expatriate or overseas electors to vote in parliamentary or European Assembly elections. However, that is not so. First, the Government, as one would expect, have had regard to their narrow party advantage in enfranchising about 600,000 Britons living abroad. No doubt that is why the Government have gone beyond the Select Committee's recommendation to restrict the extension of the franchise to British citizens living and working within the EEC.

Secondly, it is no advantage to our party system to allow to participate in it those who have no commitment to it and no future in it. We accept that there are many people working temporarily abroad who intend to return and who still feel an emotional, political, social and physical commitment to this country and have a future here. However, the vast majority of those who are enfranchised by the Bill and who will take advantage of the opportunity to cast a vote are emigrants, tax exiles and indeed, criminals.

There is no reason why those who have emigrated from this country, those who have washed their hands of it and want nothing more to do with its social, political or economic institutions, should be given the right to participate in our elections. There is no good reason why those who are evading their dues and responsibilities in terms of the taxes that they are expected and obliged to pay should have any right to participate in our democratic parliamentary processes. There is certainly no reason at all why we should go out of our way to extend the opportunity and the right to vote to those who are living on what my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton, described as the Costa del Crime and who are sought for criminal offences committed here.

Moreover, it cannot be to the advantage of our representative parliamentary democracy, which is based upon single-Member constituencies, simply that more people should be able to vote before the campaign has ended. It cannot be to the advantage of our representative parliamentary democracy that more people will vote who have little or no contact with Britain, its politics or its political parties. It cannot be to our advantage that there should be more people entitled to vote who have no knowledge of the candidate and no wish—still less opportunity—to see, hear and argue with those candidates.

Certainly, it would be of no advantage to our democracy to allow tax exiles or criminals to determine the outcome of elections in particular constituencies or indeed—as has been said, it could have happened in 1964—the outcome of a general election. There is no justification for enabling people with no future in this country and no commitment to it to influence either specific results or the outcome of general elections.

Some semblance of an improvement in our democratic principles and practice would seem to be effectd by means of the proposals in the Bill which make changes in relation to the absent vote, and in particular, to those who are on holiday. All parties accept that it is manifestly unjust that people who through no fault of their own are on holiday when an election is held should not be able to vote. As candidates, we have all met people who had booked their holidays well in advance of the election or who had no choice in the matter of when they took their holiday. Thousands of people are involved, especially now that the taboo on holding elections in the late spring or early summer seems to have been broken. We all know constituents who have expressed shock, who are bitter and rightly angry, especially when it is not their fault and cannot be avoided because we, unlike other countries, do not have fixed dates for elections.

The anomaly and injustice is now being put right. That is to be welcomed but it is only a small move. It is the only real extension of substance of our democracy in the Bill. Its relative triviality must be set against the background of the Government's attack on civil liberties and democratic principles in other respects. When we are asked to debate the matter, approve the Government's proposals and welcome the Bill, we must not forget, nor should we allow our constituents to forget, that this is the same Government who have interfered in local democracy by imposing rate capping on elected local authorities. We must insist that this is the same Government who are attempting to eliminate democratically elected Labour-controlled councils and, in London, to substitute an elected Labour council with Tory placemen. We must set this trivial gain against the Government's attack on an individual's right to belong to trade unions at GCHQ. [Interruption] Hon. Members who are now dissenting were not present to hear the Home Secretary present himself as the great saviour of democratic principles and civil liberties. If he intends to pretend to the House and the country that he is extending our democracy and safeguarding our liberties, it is right to draw attention to the fact that he is also a Member of the Government who have trampled on more democratic rights and taken away more civil liberties than any other party or any other Government in the past decade or more.

It behoves us to draw attention to the Government's offensive against trade unions and internal trade union democracy. It behoves us to draw attention to the fact that the Government are trying to weaken the link between the Labour party and its trade union sponsors and supporters. We must set the small democratic gains in the Bill by the side of the erosion of civil liberties and of individual privacy to be found in some parts of the Data Protection Act 1984 and, more importantly, as a result of the increase in police powers to stop, search, arrest and detain law-abiding citizens under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

We must place these small democratic gains in the Bill by the side of the new powers that are given, by omission, to the police in the current coal mining dispute, during which the Government have stood by calmly and silently while a national police force with paramilitary powers has, de facto, been created. These are powerful reasons for not being prepared to take the Tories on trust. They are powerful reasons for suspecting their pretence to be the protectors of democracy. They are powerful reasons for our cynicism at their impartiality when wanting to change electoral law. They are powerful and overwhelming reasons why my right hon. and hon. Friends should vote against the Bill reciving a Second Reading.

9.33 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

After several minutes of generalised all-purpose rant from the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk), I hope that I shall be forgiven for returning to the subject of the Bill. In June, in the debate on the White Paper, I said that democracy depends on getting right the broad principles and the mechanics. This Bill is about getting those mechanics right, and I believe it is a major step towards achieving that aim. On that basis, I commend it to the House.

The Bill contains three very important proposals which many will believe are long overdue. First, it contains the proposal to extend the vote to Britons living overseas. What is surprising about that is that it has taken so long to come about, not that we are bringing it forward now.

The second proposal is to extend postal votes. Surely none of us wants to go through another election with large numbers of our constituents disfranchised as a result of holiday arrangments into which they entered in good faith without knowing, and having no reason to know, that there would be a general election.

The third proposal is, I recognise, the most controversial feature of the Bill: to restore the credibility of the deposit by fixing it at a more suitable and sensible level.

We should not ignore other changes which are brought about by the Bill. While not so central as the three that I have mentioned, nevertheless they are important. I would mention the extension of absent voting to parish and community council elections. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand) in his place, as I remember that this has been a favourite topic of his for some time. I hope that he and other hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome it.

There are changes in expenses limits and changes which make combinations of elections on the same day easier. There are changes to simplify the election timetable, to deal with the difficult issue of the demise of the Crown during an election period, to update the penalties for election offences, to make it easier to add names to the election register after a notice of election has been published and to allow an unaddressed and free delivery service to be provided rather than each envelope having to be addressed before it can be part of the free post. There are also changes of importance to political parties which have computers to allow for the provision of magnetic tapes and floppy discs containing electoral register information, instead of just the hard copies as at present. These important and useful reforms are contained in the Bill.

I want now to say something about consultation, as this has been a controversial issue in some quarters. I am not sure that many of the points that have been made are entirely fair. Perhaps I could briefly trace the history of this measure. The Select Committee on Home Affairs decided in July 1982 that it would consider the Representation of the People Acts. The Select Committee gave this matter careful consideration, as is entirely typical of that estimable Committee, and it reported in April 1983. It did a thorough job and came out with 22 firm recommendations, 18 of them unanimous—a figure not to be forgotten when one considers what is to follow. Among the dignitaries on the Select Committee was the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs), now an Opposition Front Bench spokesman but then a Back Bencher, who was free to think rather different thoughts from some of those that have been voiced today by the Labour Front Bench.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

That is wrong.

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman says that I am wrong. If he wants me to deal with the matter now, I am willing to do so. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that he was absent when some of the votes were taken, I hardly think that it is a particularly good defence. If he has a better point than that, I shall of course give way to him.

The Select Committee in the other place which considered the matter reported on uniform procedures for the European Parliament in a report published in January 1983 and recommended that votes should be given to British citizens resident in the European Community for a period of 10 years. Its consideration is also relevant to matters contained in the Bill.

In October 1983, the Government announced their intention to bring forward proposals in this Session of Parliament and embarked upon a period of consultation during which my right hon. and learned Friend sent letters to each of the leaders of the parties represented in this House asking them if they would kindly submit answers to questions on matters under consideration for inclusion in the Bill and making it clear that, as well as obtaining written responses, my right hon. and learned Friend was only too willing to arrange meetings at which these matters could be more extensively discussed. Every invitation extended for a meeting that was accepted resulted in a meeting being held and the matters being thoroughly discussed.

As a result of those discussions, a White Paper was produced in January 1984 which set out the Government's thinking. Seven consultation papers were produced: two in January 1984, dealing with the extension of the franchise and absent voting; three in February 1984, dealing with the electoral registration timetable and the free delivery of candidates' election communications in the election campaign; one in August 1984, dealing with penalties; and one this month, dealing with the availability of the register of electors. All of those were widely distributed to obtain opinions.

As well as Ministers being available for consultations with the parties, Home Office officials were available to continue discussions with officials of all of the parties represented in the House, as well as others who wished to see them. We had the debate in June and we now have the Bill.

Having regard to the careful procedure that I have outlined, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), with the greatest respect to him, had a difficult furrow to plough when he said that we had not handled the Bill in a manner befitting a constitutional measure. What more, by way of consultation, would it be reasonable to expect any Government to have embarked on than the careful list that I have suggested?

It has become a feature of one or two Opposition spokesmen—on the basis that other people may not know the facts—to say that there has not been consultation and that the Government have sought to ride roughshod over the Opposition, when really the Opposition have shown precious little interest in putting their views forward.

Mr. Wilson


Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman obviously has a crystal ball, because I was about to couple his name with that point. The hon. Gentleman has complained in rounded terms. The Scottish National party responded in one letter to the invitations sent by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. After that, it attended none of the meetings at which consultation papers were discussed. We have heard nothing more from the SDP, nor have any papers been forwarded from the Scottish Office suggesting that anything was raised with it that should have come to us.

Mr. Wilson

Is the Minister not aware that we wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland? Our main complaint was in relation to the agenda for the changes. Indeed, if the hon. Gentleman had listened to my speech, he would know that I pointed out the need to reform electoral law on the overall expenditure of political parties and the electronic media, radio and television. He has not attempted to deal with those important facts.

Mr. Mellor

That is an attempt to get round the point. The hon. Gentleman is agreeing entirely with the point that I made. His party made one response at the end of last year. Since then there has been nothing, and now we are blamed for no consultation. It does not make sense.

I, and I believe many hon. Members—not just Conservative Members—believe that overseas voting is one of the major innovations of the Bill, and long overdue. The right hon. Member for Gorton made an attack that was at least witty, although that of the hon. Member for Knowsley, North was not. That attack was a travesty of the position of hundreds of thousands of British citizens who, as part of their service to the companies which employ them and to the nation, spend part of their working lives overseas. They are as much British as we are. It is no good the hon. Member for Knowsley, North engaging in animated conversation with the right hon. Member for Gorton. As he has made a charge, he should listen to my reply. Among those hundreds of thousands of people, I dare say, are some of his constituents. There are no class barriers to working overseas these days, as anyone who has travelled on a plane to the middle east will know only too well.

The right hon. Member for Gorton talked about underage peers, escaped fugitives and tax evaders. That might have delighted some of the groundlings on the Labour Back Benches, but those who usually admire the quality of his argument felt that he fell sadly below the level of the bench. It is an extremely difficult proposition to try to oppose what is manifestly a sensible proposition.

The hon. Member for Battersea was absent in embarrassment from the debate on the White Paper. I am not sure that it is an improvement for him to be embarrassed in person now as a result of what he said on the Select Committee which his colleagues on the Front Bench, on which he now sits, have scattered to the four winds. It is a dereliction of an argument that we should have an argument that people who live overseas are tax dodgers and so should not vote. Apart from anything else, it is inaccurate; but that is no surprise. Since when has paying tax been a qualification for voting in British elections? Are we suggesting that those in receipt of supplementary benefit and pensions should be disfranchised? I hardly think so.

Had the right hon. Gentleman's point about back registers been true, it would have been a point of substance. However, back registers are kept. We have managed to contact many electoral registration officers, who say that they have back registers for the relevant period. If they do not, back registers from 1948 have been kept on behalf of the Home Office by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. Therefore, there is a complete record upon which voters overseas could make claims about residency in a certain constituency to gain a vote for seven years.

The right hon. Gentleman strongly criticised our decision to move the close of poll at a general election from 10 pm to 9 pm. Again, it is one of those matters that the hon. Member for Battersea was content with during the Select Committee consideration—

Mr. Dubs

I was not there.

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman keeps saying that. He does not show himself in his best light by saying that. He should take his duty as a member of the Select Committee with great seriousness. Knowing him, I am sure that he did. Why does he not admit that he held a different view two years ago? That would do him a great deal more credit than trying to pretend that he was not there. If he had been, there would have been a Division on every proposal to which his hon. Friends now take exception.

We gained the unanimity for which we were all looking, yet we are now told that party advantage is involved. None of the Labour representatives on the Select Committee saw the matter in that way. Rather than the asseverations of the right hon. Member for Gorton, they preferred the rather more dispassionate and objective evidence of Dr. David Butler—the great panjandrum on these matters—who said that on his analyses of the 4 per cent. of the public who vote between 9 pm and 10 pm, there was no party advantage either way.

In so far as any one is incommoded by the decision to move from 10 pm to 9 pm for the close of poll, the aim of our arrangements on postal votes is to ensure that people can obtain a postal vote if, for some reason, they cannot attend the poll between 7 am and 9 pm. Whatever else troubles the House about the proposals, I hope that the removal of an hour from the polling day will be viewed as relatively insubstantial.

The debate was made more memorable by the involvement of two of the most distinguished parliamentarians of our time—the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) and the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot). I am sure that I speak for all who participated in saying how glad we were that they spoke in the debate.

The right hon. Member for South Down took issue with the provision about postal votes in a wider basis. I am glad to say that not many other participants took that view. As I said at the outset, it must be accepted that we can no longer maintain the present distinctions between people who are away on employment and those who may be away on holiday or because of urgent family business. Most people recognise that even though that may constitute an open invitation—a menu card for postal voting—once a decision has been taken to extend and widen the availability of absent voting facilities, it is difficult—without piling anomaly upon anomaly—to create another category of availability of postal votes. It is far better to say that we have reached a point where there are a large number of good reasons why someone should want to vote by post and to acknowledge and accept that by making one qualification, which is what we do in the Bill.

I am, of course, grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for putting with such clarity the issue that faces us and recognising that not everyone reaches the same conclusion. However, the alternative of continuing with our restrictive view of postal votes is no alternative—and certainly not a route that I would want to take.

Anyway, we must bear in mind that the present arrangements on postal votes are based more on people's willingness to accept the rules than on anything that the framework of law imposes. If someone is prepared to tell a lie about where he is, there are no penal sanctions, and he can get a postal vote if the electoral registration officer believes him.

Of course, we understand the real difficulties that are faced in Northern Ireland. It gives us no pleasure at all to seek restrictions in voting procedure changes in Northern Ireland that do not apply in Great Britain, but the alternative that faces us is either to add to the difficulties of electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland or to refuse to bring forward changes in the rest of Great Britain that we feel are long overdue in a context where the electoral process, whatever people may say about malpractice, is nothing like the same as that which prevails on the other side of the Irish sea.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Are the Government then willing to go case by case through the possibilities of malpractice which might be raised by the arrangements proposed to be made in the rest of Great Britain and, if they do not appear to be substantial in Northern Ireland, not to stand in the way of the extension of those facilities to Northern Ireland?

Mr. Mellor

Absolutely. I was going to say that I took the right hon. Gentleman's point about the removal of the right for a postal vote in Northern Ireland. There appears to have been a misunderstanding. The fact is that that right was removed with no fuss in January this year in relation to the European elections. Our intention to do the same in this legislation was expressed in the consultative document issued in January this year. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that in Committee we shall want to look again at those matters with great care. I accept the sincerity of his view. I say again to Northern Ireland Members present that it gives us no pleasure to make these restrictions. We do so in good faith. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be available to deal with some of those matters in Committee.

I was a little troubled that the official Opposition appeared to be jumping too willingly on the bandwagon. I thought that they would have had discussions with their opposite numbers in the Social Democratic and Labour party of Northern Ireland—

Mr. Dubs


Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman, who is not having a good evening, says, "Never." I do not know why he says that, because surely that is a reputable group. It wrote a letter to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, in response to the consultation exercise, saying: We have expressed the view to the Secretary of State that the electoral process is under direct threat in Northern Ireland because of the extent of electoral abuse which is being organised by extremists. In our view, that situation requires immediate and radical action to protect the citizen's right to vote. Your letter contains no proposals related to this problem, and shows little appreciation of its urgency. Since then the Government have introduced the proposals to deal with the difficult issue of personation in Northern Ireland. The restrictions proposed in the Bill will be fully considered in Committee.

I should like to refer to the speech by the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent. I can understand that he wanted to shore up the flimsy structure of the Opposition's case against the measure. His eloquence was considerable, and it is a privilege to participate in the debate with him. However, no amount of eloquence could disguise his somewhat mean-spirited approach to the Government's proposals and particularly towards my right hon. and learned Friend who, I suspect, he will find to be a more formidable figure than emerged with any clarity from his speech.

The right hon. Gentleman made three points. First, he suggested that it was part of the promotion of the narrow sectional interests of the Conservative party that the Bill was being introduced. I say once again —it bears repeating—that it is extremely difficult to equate that with the fact that the Bill contains the acceptance of 15 out of 22 recommendations of an all-party Select Committee of the House. Two of the seven that were not accepted are still under consideration because they relate to the public order law review that is going on.

The right hon. Gentleman lent his name and reputation to the suggestion that there has been no consultation. I do not suppose that he did so in the clear knowledge of the consultation exercise that I outlined, but I should be interested to know what consultation he believes could have gone beyond that. His answer might well be the Speaker's Conference, and he challenged us in round terms about why the Government had thrown it over. We accept that several important changes in electoral law this century have been preceded by a conference of all the parties, meeting under the chairmanship of Mr. Speaker, but it is widely accepted that the Speaker's Conference has not been a satisfactory method of taking electoral law out of the political arena.

The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but perhaps I could quote two people to him. The first is Dr. David Butler, who said: It is hard to see the virtues of a Speaker's Conference…They have not been good bodies, producing reports that command intellectual respect. Your distinguished predecessor, Mr. Speaker, Lord Selwyn Lloyd, said after his experience—which he plainly did not enjoy—of chairing the 1972 to 1974 conference: We were too large a body…it was difficult to assemble the necessary evidence…I was glad that no attempt was made to set up another Conference while I was Speaker.

Mr. Foot

Some of us have always believed that Select Committees should not have the final word of advice to the House of Commons on such matters. When the Government submitted evidence to the Select Committee, did they say, "We wish to make it clear that this is a substitute for the Speaker's Conference?"

Mr. Mellor

It was not necessary to do so. Before the right hon. Gentleman waxes too lyrical about a Speaker's Conference, he should be brought face to face with some of the facts that did not appear in his eloquent and passionate attack on the Government. He quoted to us the Labour Government's adherence to a Speaker's Conference, but I remind him of what happened in 1969 when there was a Speaker's Conference on a representation of the people Bill introduced by the Labour Government. The Conference recommended that the age for voting should be reduced from 21 to 20. What did the Labour Government—those respecters of Speaker's Conferences—do? They pushed through, in the teeth of opposition in the House, a voting age of 18.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

It should be 16 years.

Mr. Mellor

I am glad to discover that the representative of teenagers is as eloquent as ever. I was not referring to the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent. Although the Speaker's Conference suggested that there should not be another hour of polling, the Labour Government imposed that extra hour. That is hardly good evidence of the Labour Government's adherence to the principles of a Speaker's Conference. Is it not rather hypocritical and canting to suggest that the Government should have had one in this case?

Mr. Foot

Is it not true that, much more recently than that, a major issue of changing the franchise was referred to a Speaker's Conference by the Labour Government? Is it the Government's policy not to have a Speaker's Conference on this matter, and when was that policy decided?

Mr. Mellor

I have just said that we are sceptical of it because of the way in which the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues played ducks and drakes with it. I should have thought that that was a straightforward matter.

As my right hon. and learned Friend said, there is no magic about the figure of —1,000 for the deposit. It is not as iniquitous as has been suggested. It emerged from the Select Committee, and the Labour party—in the person of its deputy leader—gave evidence to the Select Committee, proposing a figure of £600 with the threshold to remain unchanged. Our figure of £1,000 and a threshold reduced to 5 per cent. is not as outlandish as it has been made to appear during attacks in this debate. We are in no sense firmly wedded to a figure that would be unacceptable to the House, but we shall not be driven from it by people who said one thing a year ago and who are saying something completely different today. We shall consider carefully the many things that will be said in Committee.

This Bill, in place by the next election, could enfranchise as many as 3 million people. We estimate that, even on a cautious assessment of take-up rates, at least 1 million more people will vote next time who, without the measure, could not do so. This is a principled and important Bill which promotes the health of our democratic system. I commend it to the House.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 191, Noes 293.

Division No. 43] [10 pm
Abse, Leo Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)
Anderson, Donald Brown, R. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne N)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)
Ashton, Joe Buchan, Norman
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Caborn, Richard
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Campbell-Savours, Dale
Barnett, Guy Canavan, Dennis
Barron, Kevin Carter-Jones, Lewis
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Beggs, Roy Clarke, Thomas
Bell, Stuart Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Benn, Tony Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.)
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Coleman, Donald
Bermingham, Gerald Conlan, Bernard
Bidwell, Sydney Cook, Frank (Stockton North)
Blair, Anthony Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Corbyn, Jeremy
Boyes, Roland Cowans, Harry
Bray, Dr Jeremy Cox, Thomas (Tooting)
Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E) Craigen, J. M.
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Crowther, Stan
Cunningham, Dr John Michie, William
Dalyell, Tam Mikardo, Ian
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli) Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) Miller, DrM. S. (E Kilbride)
Deakins, Eric Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Dewar, Donald Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Dixon, Donald Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Dobson, Frank Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Dormand, Jack Nellist, David
Dubs, Alfred Nicholson, J.
Duffy, A. E. P. Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. O'Neill, Martin
Eadie, Alex Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Eastham, Ken Park, George
Evans, John (St. Helens N) Parry, Robert
Fatchett, Derek Patchett, Terry
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Pavitt, Laurie
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn) Pendry, Tom
Fisher, Mark Pike, Peter
Flannery, Martin Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Prescott, John
Forrester, John Radice, Giles
Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim) Randall, Stuart
Foster, Derek Redmond, M.
Fraser, J. (Norwood) Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)
George, Bruce Richardson, Ms Jo
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Godman, Dr Norman Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Golding, John Robertson, George
Gould, Bryan Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Gourlay, Harry Rogers, Allan
Hamilton, James (M'well N) Rooker, J. W.
Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife) Ross, Ernest (Dundee W)
Hardy, Peter Ross, Wm. (Londonderry)
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Rowlands, Ted
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Ryman, John
Healey, Rt Hon Denis Sedgemore, Brian
Heffer, Eric S. Sheerman, Barry
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall) Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Home Robertson, John Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath) Short, Mrs R. (W'hampt'n NE)
Hoyle, Douglas Silkin, Rt Hon J.
Hughes, Dr. Mark (Durham) Skinner, Dennis
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'bury)
Hughes, Roy (Newport East) Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)
Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S) Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S)
Janner, Hon Greville Snape, Peter
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) Soley, Clive
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Spearing, Nigel
Kilroy-Silk, Robert Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
Lamond, James Stott, Roger
Leadbitter, Ted Strang, Gavin
Leighton, Ronald Straw, Jack
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Taylor, Rt Hon John David
Lewis, Terence (Worsley) Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Litherland, Robert Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Lofthouse, Geoffrey Thorne, Stan (Preston)
Loyden, Edward Tinn, James
McCartney, Hugh Torney, Tom
McCusker, Harold Walker, Cecil (Belfast N)
McDonald, Dr Oonagh Wareing, Robert
McGuire, Michael Weetch, Ken
McKay, Allen (Penistone) Welsh, Michael
McKelvey, William White, James
McNamara, Kevin Wigley, Dafydd
McTaggart, Robert Williams, Rt Hon A.
McWilliam, John Wilson, Gordon
Madden, Max Winnick, David
Maginnis, Ken Young, David (Bolton SE)
Marek, Dr John
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Tellers for the Ayes:
Mason, Rt Hon Roy Mr. Robin Corbett and
Maxton, John Mr. Ray Powell.
Meacher, Michael
Adley, Robert Alton, David
Alexander, Richard Ancram, Michael
Arnold, Tom Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey
Ashby, David Fletcher, Alexander
Aspinwall, Jack Fookes, Miss Janet
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Forman, Nigel
Atkins, Robert ('South Ribble) Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y) Forth, Eric
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Fox, Marcus
Baldry, Tony Franks, Cecil
Batiste, Spencer Freeman, Roger
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Fry, Peter
Beith, A. J. Gale, Roger
Bellingham, Henry Galley, Roy
Bendall, Vivian Gardiner, George (Reigate)
Bennett, Sir Frederic (T'bay) Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)
Benyon, William Glyn, Dr Alan
Best, Keith Goodhart, Sir Philip
Bevan, David Gilroy Gorst, John
Biffen, Rt Hon John Gow, Ian
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Gower, Sir Raymond
Blackburn, John Grant, Sir Anthony
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Greenway, Harry
Body, Richard Gregory, Conal
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Griffiths, E. (B'y St Edm'ds)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Grist, Ian
Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n) Ground, Patrick
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Grylls, Michael
Boyson, Dr Rhodes Gummer, John Selwyn
Braine, Sir Bernard Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Brinton, Tim Hancock, Mr. Michael
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Hanley, Jeremy
Brooke, Hon Peter Hannam, John
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Hargreaves, Kenneth
Browne, John Harris, David
Bruinvels, Peter Harvey, Robert
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A. Haselhurst, Alan
Buck, Sir Antony Hawksley, Warren
Budgen, Nick Hayes, J.
Bulmer, Esmond Hayhoe, Barney
Butcher, John Hayward, Robert
Butler, Hon Adam Heathcoat-Amory, David
Butterfill, John Heddle, John
Carlisle, John (N Luton) Henderson, Barry
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S) Hickmet, Richard
Carttiss, Michael Hicks, Robert
Cartwright, John Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Cash, William Hill, James
Chalker, Mrs Lynda Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Holt, Richard
Chapman, Sydney Hooson, Tom
Chope, Christopher Hordern, Peter
Churchill, W. S. Howard, Michael
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford)
Cockeram, Eric Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk)
Coombs, Simon Howells, Geraint
Cope, John Hubbard-Miles, Peter
Cormack, Patrick Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Couchman, James Hunter, Andrew
Cranborne, Viscount Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick
Critchley, Julian Jessel, Toby
Crouch, David Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Currie, Mrs Edwina Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Dickens, Geoffrey Jones, Robert (W Herts)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith
Dover, Den Kennedy, Charles
Dunn, Robert Kershaw, Sir Anthony
Durant, Tony Key, Robert
Dykes, Hugh King, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke) King, Rt Hon Tom
Evennett, David Kirkwood, Archy
Eyre, Sir Reginald Knight, Gregory (Derby N)
Fairbairn, Nicholas Knight, Mrs Jill (Edgbaston)
Fallon, Michael Knox, David
Farr, Sir John Lamont, Norman
Favell, Anthony Latham, Michael
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Lawler, Geoffrey
Lawrence, Ivan Soames, Hon Nicholas
Lee, John (Pendle) Speed, Keith
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Speller, Tony
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Spence, John
Lester, Jim Spencer, Derek
Lloyd, Ian (Havant) Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)
Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham) Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire) Squire, Robin
MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute) Stanley, John
Maclean, David John Steel, Rt Hon David
McQuarrie, Albert Steen, Anthony
Major, John Stern, Michael
Mather, Carol Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Maude, Hon Francis Stevens, Martin (Fulham)
Meadowcroft, Michael Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Mellor, David Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Miller, Hal (B'grove) Stewart, an (N Hertf'dshire)
Montgomery, Fergus Stradling Thomas, J.
Moore, John Sumberg, David
Morris, M. (N'hampton, S) Taylor, John (Solihull)
Mudd, David Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Murphy, Christopher Terlezki, Stefan
Nelson, Anthony Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Neubert, Michael Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Nicholls, Patrick Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Norris, Steven Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Onslow, Cranley Thornton, Malcolm
Ottaway, Richard Thurnham, Peter
Owen, Rt Hon Dr David Townend, John (Bridlington)
Page, Sir John (Harrow W) Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil Tracey, Richard
Patten, John (Oxford) Trippier, David
Pawsey, James Twinn, Dr lan
Penhaligon, David van Straubenzee, Sir W.
Percival, Rt Hon Sir lan Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Pollock, Alexander Viggers, Peter
Porter, Barry Waddington, David
Powell, William (Corby) Wainwright, R.
Powley, John Waldegrave, Hon William
Prior, Rt Hon James Walden, George
Proctor, K. Harvey Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Raison, Rt Hon Timothy Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)
Rathbone, Tim Wallace, James
Rhodes James, Robert Waller, Gary
Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Ward, John
Roberts, Wyn (Conwy) Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Robinson, Mark (N'port W) Warren, Kenneth
Roe, Mrs Marion Watson, John
Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight) Watts, John
Rossi, Sir Hugh Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
Rowe, Andrew Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Rumbold, Mrs Angela Wheeler, John
Ryder, Richard Whitfield, John
Sackville, Hon Thomas Whitney, Raymond
Sainsbury, Hon Timothy Wiggin, Jerry
Sayeed, Jonathan Wilkinson, John
Shaw, Giles (Pudsey) Winterton, Mrs Ann
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Winterton, Nicholas
Shelton, William (Streatham) Wolfson, Mark
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Wood, Timothy
Shersby, Michael Wrigglesworth, Ian
Silvester, Fred Young, Sir George (Acton)
Sims, Roger
Skeet, T. H. H. Tellers for the Noes:
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick) Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones and
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Mr. lan Lang.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 41 (Amendment on Second or Third Reading):—

The House divided: Ayes 280, Noes 204.

Division No. 44] [10.13 pm
Adley, Robert Ashby, David
Alexander, Richard Aspinwall, Jack
Ancram, Michael Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H.
Arnold, Tom Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y) Fox, Marcus
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Franks, Cecil
Baldry, Tony Freeman, Roger
Batiste, Spencer Fry, Peter
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Gale, Roger
Bellingham, Henry Galley, Roy
Bendall, Vivian Gardiner, George (Reigate)
Bennett, Sir Frederic (T'bay) Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)
Benyon, William Glyn, Dr Alan
Best, Keith Goodhart, Sir Philip
Bevan, David Gilroy Gorst, John
Biffen, Rt Hon John Gow, Ian
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Gower, Sir Raymond
Blackburn, John Grant, Sir Anthony
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Greenway, Harry
Body, Richard Griffiths, E. (B'y St Edm'ds)
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Grist, Ian
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Ground, Patrick
Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n) Grylls, Michael
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Gummer, John Selwyn
Boyson, Dr Rhodes Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Braine, Sir Bernard Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Hancock, Mr. Michael
Brinton, Tim Hanley, Jeremy
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Hannam, John
Brooke, Hon Peter Hargreaves, Kenneth
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Harris, David
Browne, John Harvey, Robert
Bruinvels, Peter Haselhurst, Alan
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A. Hawksley, Warren
Buck, Sir Antony Hayes, J.
Budgen, Nick Hayhoe, Barney
Bulmer, Esmond Hayward, Robert
Butcher, John Heathcoat-Amory, David
Butler, Hon Adam Heddle, John
Butterfill, John Henderson, Barry
Carlisle, John (N Luton) Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Hickmet, Richard
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S) Hicks, Robert
Carttiss, Michael Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Cartwright, John Hill, James
Cash, William Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)
Chalker, Mrs Lynda Holt, Richard
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Hooson, Tom
Chapman, Sydney Hordern, Peter
Chope, Christopher Howard, Michael
Churchill, W. S. Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk)
Cockeram, Eric Hubbard-Miles, Peter
Coombs, Simon Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Cope, John Hunter, Andrew
Cormack, Patrick Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick
Couchman, James Jessel, Toby
Cranborne, Viscount Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Critchley, Julian Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Crouch, David Jones, Robert (W Herts)
Currie, Mrs Edwina Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith
Dickens, Geoffrey Kennedy, Charles
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Kershaw, Sir Anthony
Dover, Den Key, Robert
Dunn, Robert King, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Durant, Tony King, Rt Hon Tom
Dykes, Hugh Knight, Gregory (Derby N)
Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke) Knight, Mrs Jill (Edgbaston)
Evennett, David Knox, David
Eyre, Sir Reginald Lamont, Norman
Fairbairn, Nicholas Latham, Michael
Fallon, Michael Lawler, Geoffrey
Farr, Sir John Lawrence, Ivan
Favell, Anthony Lee, John (Pendle)
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Fletcher, Alexander Lester, Jim
Fookes, Miss Janet Lloyd, Ian (Havant)
Forman, Nigel Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) McCurley, Mrs Anna
Forth, Eric MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute) Spencer, Derek
Maclean, David John Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)
McQuarrie, Albert Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Major, John Squire, Robin
Mather, Carol Stanley, John
Maude, Hon Francis Steen, Anthony
Mellor, David Stern, Michael
Miller, Hal (B'grove) Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Montgomery, Fergus Stevens, Martin (Fulham)
Moore, John Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Morris, M. (N'hampton, S) Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Mudd, David Stewart, Ian (N Hertf'dshire)
Murphy, Christopher Stradling Thomas, J.
Nelson, Anthony Sumberg, David
Neubert, Michael Taylor, John (Solihull)
Nicholls, Patrick Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Norris, Steven Terlezki, Stefan
Onslow, Cranley Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Ottaway, Richard Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Owen, Rt Hon Dr David Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Page, Sir John (Harrow W) Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil Thornton, Malcolm
Patten, John (Oxford) Thurnham, Peter
Pawsey, James Townend, John (Bridlington)
Percival, Rt Hon Sir lan Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Pollock, Alexander Tracey, Richard
Porter, Barry Trippier, David
Powley, John Twinn, Dr lan
Prior, Rt Hon James van Straubenzee, Sir W.
Proctor, K. Harvey Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Raison, Rt Hon Timothy Viggers, Peter
Rathbone, Tim Waddington, David
Rhodes James, Robert Walden, George
Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Roberts, Wyn (Conwy) Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)
Robinson, Mark (N'port W) Waller, Gary
Roe, Mrs Marion Ward, John
Rossi, Sir Hugh Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Rowe, Andrew Warren, Kenneth
Rumbold, Mrs Angela Watson, John
Ryder, Richard Watts, John
Sackville, Hon Thomas Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
Sainsbury, Hon Timothy Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Sayeed, Jonathan Wheeler, John
Shaw, Giles (Pudsey) Whitfield, John
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Whitney, Raymond
Shelton, William (Streatham) Wiggin, Jerry
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Wilkinson, John
Shersby, Michael Winterton, Mrs Ann
Silvester, Fred Winterton, Nicholas
Sims, Roger Wolfson, Mark
Skeet, T. H. H. Wood, Timothy
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick) Wrigglesworth, Ian
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Young, Sir George (Acton)
Soames, Hon Nicholas
Speed, Keith Tellers for the Ayes:
Speller, Tony Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones and
Spence, John Mr. lan Lang.
Abse, Leo Boyes, Roland
Alton, David Bray, Dr Jeremy
Anderson, Donald Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)
Ashton, Joe Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Brown, R. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne N)
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Buchan, Norman
Barnett, Guy Caborn, Richard
Barren, Kevin Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Campbell-Savours, Dale
Beggs, Roy Canavan, Dennis
Beith, A. J. Carter-Jones, Lewis
Bell, Stuart Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Benn, Tony Clarke, Thomas
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Bermingham, Gerald Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.)
Bidwell, Sydney Cohen, Harry
Blair, Anthony Coleman, Donald
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Conlan, Bernard
Cook, Frank (Stockton North) Maginnis, Ken
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston) Marek, Dr John
Corbett, Robin Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Corbyn, Jeremy Mason, Rt Hon Roy
Cowans, Harry Maxton, John
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Meacher, Michael
Craigen, J. M. Meadowcroft, Michael
Crowther, Stan Michie, William
Cunningham, Dr John Mikardo, Ian
Dalyell, Tam Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli) Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Deakins, Eric Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Dewar, Donald Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Dixon, Donald Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Dobson, Frank Nellist, David
Dormand, Jack Nicholson, J.
Dubs, Alfred Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Duffy, A. E. P. O'Neill, Martin
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Eadie, Alex Park, George
Eastham, Ken Parris, Matthew
Evans, John (St. Helens N) Parry, Robert
Ewing, Harry Patchett, Terry
Fatchett, Derek Pavitt, Laurie
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Pendry, Tom
Fields, T. (L 'pool Broad Gn) Penhaligon, David
Fisher, Mark Pike, Peter
Flannery, Martin Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Prescott, John
Forrester, John Radice, Giles
Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim) Randall, Stuart
Foster, Derek Redmond, M.
Fraser, J. (Norwood) Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)
George, Bruce Richardson, Ms Jo
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Godman, Dr Norman Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Golding, John Robertson, George
Gould, Bryan Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Gourlay, Harry Rogers, Allan
Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife) Rooker, J. W.
Hardy, Peter Ross, Ernest (Dundee W)
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Ross, Wm. (Londonderry)
Healey, Rt Hon Denis Rowlands, Ted
Heffer, Eric S. Ryman, John
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Sedgemore, Brian
Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall) Sheerman, Barry
Home Robertson, John Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath) Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Howells, Geraint Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Hoyle, Douglas Short, Mrs R.(W'hampt'n NE)
Hughes, Dr. Mark (Durham) Silkin, Rt Hon J.
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Skinner, Dennis
Hughes, Roy (Newport East) Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)
Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S) Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)
Janner, Hon Greville Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S)
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) Snape, Peter
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Soley, Clive
Kilroy-Silk, Robert Spearing, Nigel
Kirkwood, Archy Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
Lamond, James Stott, Roger
Lead bitter, Ted Strang, Gavin
Leighton, Ronald Straw, Jack
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Taylor, Rt Hon John David
Lewis, Terence (Worsley) Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Litherland, Robert Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Lofthouse, Geoffrey Thorne, Stan (Preston)
Loyden, Edward Tinn, James
McCartney, Hugh Torney, Tom
McCusker, Harold Wainwright, R.
McDonald, Dr Oonagh Walker, Cecil (Belfast N)
McGuire, Michael Wallace, James
McKay, Allen (Penistone) Wareing, Robert
McKelvey, William Weetch, Ken
McNamara, Kevin Welsh, Michael
McTaggart, Robert White, James
McWilliam, John Wigley, Dafydd
Madden, Max Williams, Rt Hon A.
Wilson, Gordon Tellers for the Noes:
Winnick, David Mr. James Hamilton and
Young, David (Bolton SE) Mr. Ray Powell.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House. —[Mr. Michael Cocks.]

Committee tomorrow.