§ Mr. Speaker
I must tell the House that many right hon. and hon. Members wish to take part in the debate and that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Leon Brittan)
I beg to move,That this House takes note of the Government's reply (Cmnd. 9140) to the First Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 1982–83, House of Commons Paper No. 32, on the Representation of the People Acts.This debate is the direct result of the work of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and I am sure that the House will wish to join me in thanking the Select Committee for its report, which was published in April 1983. The Committee's inquiry into the Representation of the People Acts is the most comprehensive review of electoral law yet undertaken by a Select Committee of either House. The range of issues covered, the number of witnesses examined and the volume of written evidence considered are a tribute to the thoroughness with which the Select Committee approached its task.
The proceedings of the Committee and the written and oral evidence it took have been published in full. It is clear to anyone who reads the two volumes of its report that the Committee did not approach its work in any narrow party political spirit. A substantial number of the 22 recommendations were unanimous, and when The Government's reply is put forward in the same spirit. Before reaching our conclusions on the Select Committee's report, we carefully sought the views of the other parties represented in the House. Since publication, officials have had further and more detailed discussions with the political parties and the local authority associations. We shall, of course, listen carefully to the points made by hon. Members in today's debate.
The Select Committee recommended that legislation giving effect to its recommendations should be introduced as early as possible in the present Parliament to allow changes to be implemented fully at the next general election. The Government have taken the Select Committee at its word. Our hope and expectation is that, subject to the availability of Parliamentary time, legislation will be introduced as early as possible in the next Session of Parliament. The aim will then be to lay the necessary subordinate legislation and make other administrative arangements for the changes to come into operation at any election held on or after 16 February 1987—the date when the 1987–88 register of electors comes into force.
Because of the scope of the Select Committee's report, I propose to limit my remarks to the four main issues—the accuracy of the electoral register, the extension of the franchise to British citizens resident abroad, changes in absent voting arrangements, and an increase in the deposit required of a candidate at a parliamentary election, with a reduction in the threshold for forfeiture. At the same time, I hope to give some account of the responses that we have received to our invitation for comments on our reply to the Committee and of the issues on which we have thought it right to modify our original proposals. Right hon. and hon. Members who wish to raise other issues 1018 covered in the White Paper may be assured that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, seek to give a full reply at the conclusion of the debate.
The accuracy of the electoral register is the issue which has attracted least public comment but which is arguably the most serious of all, because someone not on the register cannot vote. I am sure that every hon. Member has experienced the frustration of discovering that some of his or her constituents have been unable to vote on polling day because, for some reason, their names were not included in the register when they should have been. Our first priority, therefore, must be to ensure that the register is as accurate as possible.
A survey of electoral registration in 1981 suggested that in England and Wales as many as 6.7 per cent. of those eligible to be registered as electors were left off the register, and that up to 7 per cent. of those included were not actually qualified to vote in respect of the address for which their names were shown. That means that hundreds of thousands of people who are eligible to vote cannot do so. The White Paper makes it clear that the Government regard that as unacceptable.
The Select Committee made a number of recommendations, which we are pursuing with vigour. We are encouraging electoral registration officers to examine their procedures critically, to set up their own performance measurements, and to experiment with different approaches to improve the cost-effectiveness of their procedures and secure tangible improvements to the accuracy of their registers.
Home Office officials held a series of seminars with registration officers from the London boroughs and metropolitan districts to discuss and exchange ideas on all aspects of the registration process, with particular attention to the problems faced in inner city areas where the level of under-registration is highest. That is the background to the new code of practice which, after consultation and as recommended by the Select Committee, we plan to send to electoral registration officers before the end of the summer. A copy will be placed in the Library of the House. Further seminars will be held to follow up the code of practice and refine and improve it in the light of experience.
To run in parallel with this is a radical re-examination of form A—the annual return which each householder must complete with the names of those who are resident at his or her address and otherwise qualified to vote. The Select Committee recommended that this familiar form should be redesignedso as to present a more attractive and less forbidding aspectto the householder. A new version of the form will be tried out in selected areas this autumn to see whether it helps to increase the response rate and produce a more accurate return. We want to see a completely redesigned version of the form, which incorporates any further changes which seem desirable in the light of the evaluation, available for use in the annual canvass of autumn 1986.
Finally, when this programme of action is complete, the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys will undertake surveys in selected areas to help us assess its effectiveness.
§ the Committee divided it did not always do so on party lines.
§ Sir Edward Gardner (Fylde)
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the seriousness of the inaccuracy of the register can be measured by the fact that, at the end 1019 of the register's currency, up to 5,500,000 voters may be affected? Some of them are not entitled to be on the register, others are disfranchised because they are not on the register, and others should be on the register but are not.
§ Mr. Brittan
I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. No matter how it is measured, the facts show, as my information shows, that the inaccuracies are serious. For that reason, the Government are determined to follow the advice of the Select Committee and do everything they can to deal with the inaccuracies.
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)
The particularly disturbing figure that my right hon. and learned Friend announced is that of the 7 per cent. who are apparently entitled to vote when they should not be. Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider, when he contemplates the structure of the new form, which I welcome, whether it is sufficient for the householder to sign it on behalf of those resident at the particular address, or whether the form should require the signatures of all those at that address who are eligible to vote?
§ Mr. Brittan
I shall certainly consider my hon. Friend's point. The percentage inaccuracy relates to the entitlement to be registered at the particular address. I know from experience in Notting Hill Gate that in some cases people who were entitled to be on the register were registered, but at the wrong address.
I now turn from the practical problems of electoral registration to one of the major changes that the Government propose: the extension of the franchise to our citizens resident abroad. We propose that, for the first time, British citizens who are not resident at an address in this country on the qualifying date, but who have been registered as electors within the previous seven years, should be eligible to vote at parliamentary and European Parliament elections. Our proposals are in one sense more generous and in another more restrictive than those of the Select Committee. They are more generous, because the Select Committee recommended that the right to vote should be limited to British citizens who are resident within the territory of the European Community, and more restrictive, because the Select Committee recommended that the right should be extended to all British citizens who have previously lived here, no matter how long they have been away.
The United Kingdom is one of the few democracies which at present makes no arrangements for most of its citizens to vote when they are abroad. At European Parliament elections, all the member states, except the Republic of Ireland, have more generous arrangements than ours. At national elections, all American, French and Italian citizens have the right to vote, whether they live at home or abroad. Belgian, Danish and German citizens may vote while abroad, if they retain a permanent residence in their home country. In this country, on the other hand, the right to vote while resident abroad is limited to members of the armed forces and the public service and their wives or husbands. I find it difficult to accept that anyone who goes abroad should, in so doing, automatically lose his right to vote in elections here. People working abroad on three or four-year contracts, for example, may be as closely involved with affairs in the United Kingdom as those who stay at home. The major 1020 questions for our consideration are what form the provision should take and how the franchise should be extended.
As the Government say in the White Paper, the British system of parliamentary democracy is based on the representation of constituencies. The electors who return a Member to this House are in general those who are resident in the constituency on the qualifying date and who, therefore, have first-hand knowledge of the constituency's affairs. Indeed, it is only in an election for a particular constituency that the franchise can be exercised at all. That is one of the reasons for not extending the franchise without qualification to all British citizens resident abroad. As Labour Members of the Select Committee put it,if the franchise were to be afforded to all British citizens abroad, irrespective of whether they had previously been resident in the United Kingdom and therefore maintained some link. however tenuous, with a particular constituency, a number of voters would be left 'floating free' with nothing to determine where in the United Kingdom they might seek registration.The Government accept that argument.
On the other hand, the Government saw no reason to limit the right to vote at parliamentary elections to British citizens resident within the European Community, as the Select Committee proposed. It is difficult to see why one should be able to vote in a British election if one lives in Greece, but not if one lives in Switzerland. What has perhaps been more difficult to decide is the length of time for which residents abroad should continue to enjoy the franchise here. Only one of the parties represented in the House took the view that the right to vote should be extended to all British citizen irrespective of place of residence and the time they had been away. All the other parties favoured a time limit of seven years or less during which the right could be exercised.
We accept that seven years will be an arbitrary time limit. No time limit could be anything else, but it will ensure that British citizens have the right to vote in at least one, and in many circumstances two, parliamentary and European Parliament general elections.
Some of the comments that we have received since publication have argued that the so-called seven-year rule should be waived in particular circumstances, or dropped altogether, or that some criterion should be found other than the length of time that a person has spent outside the United Kingdom.
We seriously considered a number of alternative qualifications before settling on the one put forward in the White Paper. None of these alternatives was without difficulty. For example, we considered the possiblity that the right to vote should be dependent on the payment of United Kingdom rates and taxes, but a system of this kind would have been impossibly complex and cumbersome to adminster as well as, in our view, doubtful in principle.
A case has also been put for exempting public servants, and, in particular, officials working in the institutions of the European Community, from the application of the seven-year rule. The Government readily acknowledge the importance of the work of British officials in the Community institutions, which embodies the commitment of this country to membership of the Community. At the same time, it must be emphasised that British officials are not in the Community in order to promote national interests. Indeed, to do so is forbidden by their conditions of service. In the Government's view, it would be invidious to give Community officials a more privileged 1021 position in relation to parliamentary elections than British citizens working in the Community in the private sector, or British citizens working in other international organisations to which also we are fully committed, such as NATO, the United Nations, Commonwealth institutions and the World Bank. To do so would be to imply that we value the contribution of the one group more than that of the other. Having decided on the seven-year rule, we must apply it strictly and without descrimination. We have, therefore, decided not to depart from the White Paper in this important respect.
§ Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
Will the Home Secretary explain the position about the seven years? I understand that at the moment there is no legal requirement on registration officers to keep previous years' electoral registers. Some do; others do not. It is not clear when the seven years would start. Would it be from Royal Assent, going back for seven years or for seven years from Royal Assent? It may be necessary to peruse the reference libraries of city councils and town halls up and down the country to obtain the previous seven years' registers.
§ Mr. Brittan
The answer to the second point is that the seven years would start from Royal Assent. On the first point, although as far as we are aware there is no legal obligation, the registers exist.
These proposals will add a potential 600,000 voters to the electorate at a parliamentary or European Parliament general election.
I referred earlier to the frustration of those who discover that they are not on the electoral register. That is equalled only by the frustration felt by those who cannot vote because they are on holiday on polling day.
§ Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)
What will be the position of potential voters who reach the age of majority while they are resident abroad and have therefore never been registered in the United Kingdom? Surely they should be entitled to vote, but apparently they are not to be.
§ Mr. Brittan
That is not so. Inevitably, all the details will appear in the legislation, and we shall take account of the points made. We have thought of that one, and the intention is that they should be treated on the basis of their last address.
After every general election there is a storm of protest from those who have been denied a basic civil right. I see no reason why somebody going on holiday should suffer the very severe penalty of losing his vote. With holidays increasingly spread throughout the year, and more people taking them, the present position has become quite intolerable. The Government's proposals will bring about a long-sought-after and much-needed reform in this area. Our aims are twofold: first, an extension of absent voting to all those who cannot get to the poll in person; and, secondly, an increase in the safeguards available to prevent abuse.
Postal and proxy voting have been a familiar feature of British elections for many years, yet there has never been a fundamental review of the system itself. Indeed, the categories of absent voter have grown haphazardly over the years, causing confusion to the returning officer, the 1022 election agent and, most of all, to the elector himself. When absent voting is already so widely and freely available, it is simply impossible to justify refusing to permit a person a postal or proxy vote if he has arranged to be on holiday on polling day, but, as the White Paper says, an extension of absent voting arrangements only to holidaymakers would raise acute problems of legal definition. I suspect that is why it has not been done before.
Furthermore, absence on holiday does not exhaust the circumstances in which an elector cannot vote in person but may not apply for an absent vote under existing law. If Parliament gives a person the right to vote, Parliament must surely also provide him or her with the means, so far as is humanly practicable, of excercising it.
The White Paper therefore proposes that the right to apply for an absent vote should be extended to all those who, in the words of the statute, areunable or likely to be unable to go in person to the polling station.This could mean up to 600,000 more absent voters in a parliamentary election. It is not—and is not intended to be—absent voting on demand. The applicant will be required to state the reason why he or she cannot vote in person, and if the registration officer is not satisfied with the explanation the application will be refused. The Bill will make it clear that it is an offence to submit an application which is false in a material particular, and a statement to this effect will appear on the application form. In addition, we have proposed that, for the first time, a person who applies for an absent vote in respect of a particular election—for example, because he is away on holiday—should be required to have the application countersigned by another elector who will certify that the particulars given are true. In the light of consultations, we are considering the possibility of restricting the power to countersign, for example, to the applicant's employer or a responsible member of the community, such as a justice of the peace or a minister of religion.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
Given that this is a change for which many people have pressed, what is the Government's attitude towards the change which many of us feel should go in parallel—that there should be a restriction on multiple registrations, which can lead to tremendous abuse? Given that someone can choose to vote by absent-voting techniques, there is no longer any need for a second registration.
§ Mr. Brittan
The Government are not in favour of making that change, for the reasons set out in the White Paper.
Postal votes may at present be sent only to addresses within the United Kingdom. An elector who is abroad during the election period must vote by proxy. Proxy voting is unpopular. Not all absent voters can find someone to whom they are prepared to entrust a vote, and there can never be proof that a proxy's instructions have been acted upon. Equally, there may be electors, particularly those on holiday in this country or abroad, who would prefer to vote by proxy rather than to entrust their ballot papers to the postal service. The White Paper therefore proposes that all absent voters should be given the choice of voting by post or by proxy. To increase the chances of delivery to and return from an address outside 1023 the United Kingdom, the White Paper also proposes that, for the first time, a date should be fixed by which the postal ballot papers would have to be issued.
Those who have commented on the White Paper have expressed some reservations about this proposal. Let there be no misunderstanding. The Government are not offering, and are in no position to offer, a guarantee that an absent voter who applies for a postal ballot paper to be sent outside the United Kingdom will be able to return it by close of poll. In some cases there will clearly be time enough for this to happen. We see no reason why the elector should not be allowed to make a judgment in the knowledge of the circumstances involved. We do not propose to modify the original proposal. The last day for the issue of postal ballot papers will be prescribed in regulations as the Monday a week and a half before the poll where polling day is a Thursday. The elector will be able to make his own decision whether to appoint a proxy or trust the post. In an adult democracy it seems entirely reasonable to offer the option.
The new arrangements will create considerable extra work for the returning officer or acting returning officer at a parliamentary election and for the electoral registration officer at a local election. I think this is the right moment to say that I am sure the House will wish to join me in a tribute to those officials and their staff, to whom we all owe so great a debt for the smooth and efficient running of elections.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
In considering absent voting, did the Home Secretary look at the experience in Canada of allowing absent voters to register an advance vote to avoid the possibility of corruption which could flow from the vast extension of postal voting which is involved in this proposal?
§ Mr. Brittan
We did look at that, but the nature of the short duration of our own election campaign and the arrangements that would have to be made to give effect to that led us to the conclusion that it was a more cumbersome and less satisfactory approach to the problem.
§ Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)
My right hon. and learned Friend identified the closing date for postal vote applications but did not say why he had chosen that specific time scale, which is, I think, 10 days. However, given that there are likely to be changes in the near future, people will be unaware of their increased entitlement. Will the Home Office consider shortening the time between polling day and the closing date for applications?
§ Mr. Brittan
I was referring to the statutory date for the sending out of the ballot papers.
I was inviting the House to agree to the compliments that I was paying to those involved in running an election and was about to say that, at a parliamentary general election in particular, the returning officer is working under considerable pressure of time, receiving nominations, adjudicating objections, considering absent voting applications, and so on. Any changes that we propose to make in our electoral arrangements must take the practical consequences fully into account.
The White Paper suggested that in order to give returning officers more time to consider absent voting applications, the parliamentary election timetable should be extended by one day. None of those consulted has 1024 raised any objection to this proposal. The Bill will therefore fix polling day at a parliamentary general election on the seventeenth day after Dissolution, not counting Saturdays, Sundays and other dies non. Dissolution will then usually be the Tuesday three weeks and two days before polling day. The latest time for receipt of absent voting applications will be noon the following Monday.
Coupled with the changes in the timetable introduced by the Representation of the People Act 1981, which made Saturdays dies non and in real terms added two days to the timetable overall, this will give returning officers a total of three and a half more working days to consider absent voting applications than they had until the 1983 general election.
I must say a word about Northern Ireland. The view we took in formulating our proposals, and which is reflected in the White Paper, is that the nature and extent of malpractice at elections in Northern Ireland unfortunately rules out the introduction of new arrangements of this kind in the Province. I recognise, however, that a number of hon. Members feel that the law and procedure for parliamentary elections should be the same throughout the United Kingdom. As the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) will be aware, 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, although I am not in a position to announce our conclusions this afternoon.
§ Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)
Will the Home Secretary confirm his statement that applicants who apply for a postal vote on the ground that they are going on holiday will have a postal vote for one election only? Presumably those applicants who, by virtue of old age or prolonged illness, cannot vote in person will have a postal vote in perpetuity or until they die. Will there be two types of postal vote—a first tier and a second tier—and how will the returning officer be able to adjudicate on these applications?
§ Mr. Brittan
Frankly, the answer is yes, and yes. It will be done by virtue of the fact that each applicant will have to state on the form the reason why he is seeking the absent voting facility.
The Select Committee unanimously recommended that the parliamentary election deposit should be increased to £1,000. It also recommended that the threshold of votes required before the deposit is refunded should be reduced from 12.5 per cent. to 7.5 per cent. The White Paper accepted the £1,000 recommendation, but, in order to ease matters for minority parties, favoured a threshold of 5 per cent. rather than the 7.5 per cent. recommended by the Select Committee or the 12.5 per cent. that exists at present.
I remind the House that the deposit was introduced in 1918, at the same time as state funding of parliamentary elections. Its purpose was to discourage — but not prevent—a candidate from standing if he or she had no chance of success. Over the years the cost of the deposit in real terms has fallen, and the value of the benefits conferred by standing has increased. At its present level the deposit clearly serves no purpose whatever. In effect, the provisions introduced in 1918 have virtually been 1025 repealed by default to the point where today, to have the value it had in 1918, the deposit would have to be more than £2,300.
The results are easy to see. At the 1966 general election there were 94 candidates who did not belong to any of the major political parties. At the 1983 general election there were 474. At the Bermondsey by-election in 1983 there was a total of 16 candidates, and at the Chesterfield by-election earlier this year there were 17. Most of those candidates have no serious interest in, or the remotest chance of, being elected to Parliament, which, after all, is what an election is about. Yet they acquire considerable cheap publicity. They confuse and distract electors from the important issues, and in some cases deliberately try to make a mockery of the election or to obtain commercial gain out of it—[Interruption.] If Labour Members seek to scoff at that, they need only to ask their right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) of his experience and the comments that he made.
The right to free postage alone is worth £8,000 in average sized constituencies. Raising the deposit to a sensible level will ensure that standing for Parliament becomes a matter which must be thought about seriously, not just a prank entered upon after a whip-round.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the case for an increase in the deposit has been put forward over a number of years from many different points in the political spectrum. The Select Committee's recommendation that the level of the deposit should be increased to £1,000 was, as I have said, unanimous. Our consultations with the political parties suggested that the deposit is still the means of regulating candidatures which commands the most support in the House.
The conclusion we drew was that Parliament wished to reform the deposit system and that the right increase would be to the £1,000 recommended by the Select Committee. But the precise figure chosen is bound to some extent to be arbitrary and a matter of judgment.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I will be listening carefully to the views expressed today and will reflect upon them before preparing the final form of legislation. I hope, therefore, that there will be no need to take up dogmatic positions on a precise figure, but I also hope that the debate will take place in the full appreciation that even an increase to £1,000 would put the level of the deposit at less than half the level at which it stood in real terms when it was originally introduced.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
The Home Secretary talked about the free post as if it were something that could easily be acquired by a candidate, but omitted to mention that a candidate must address envelopes to every elector in the constituency in order to take advantage of the free post. He must therefore have some support to carry that out. How can the right hon. and learned Gentleman regard that as something that can be purchased merely by the payment of the deposit?
§ Mr. Brittan
The answer is that we are proposing to do away with the requirement to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The hon. Gentleman will find that that is in the White Paper.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
Does the Home Secretary recognise that many of us believe that a deposit 1026 is required, but there are different points of view? The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about not being dogmatic. Had I been on the Select Committee, as I was in the last Parliament, I should not have voted for the substantial increase, to £1,000, that it recommends, although I concede that the worth of the original £150 is now over £2,000. Might it not be better to think in terms of £500 or £600 and of retaining a threshold, if not of 12.5 per cent., as it is now, of about 10 per cent.?
§ Mr. Brittan
The hon. Gentleman has put forward a particular point of view, and others who catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will no doubt put their views. I have nothing further to say at this stage than that we concluded that the right increase was the recommendation of the Select Committee, although it favoured the lower threshold. We listened carefully to other views, such as the one expressed by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick.)
Some hon. Members, I know, are opposed to a financial test, such as the deposit, as a matter of principle, although it has been part of our arrangements for so long. However, neither the Government, nor in its turn, the Select Committee, which considered alternatives, were persuaded of the merits of the alternative that has been most frequently canvassed—an increase in the number of signatures on the candidate's nomination paper. One hundred signatures, as the Liberal party proposed in its evidence to the Select Committee, would not provide a meaningful test of the candidate's support in the constituency. The least serious candidates regularly find no difficulty in polling 100 votes or more in an average sized constituency. Experience shows that they could easily drum up the signatures of 100 electors who purportedly assent to or support their candidature. To provide a real test of the candidate's support, the number of signatures would have to be increased to 1,000 or more. As we say in the White Paper, checking this would put an altogether excessive burden on the acting returning officer as well as distracting candidates and party workers from the real business of the election. Any hon. Member, whatever his party, who has doubts about that should have a word with his agent. I think that he will find that that is amply confirmed.
Increasing the deposit to £1,000 has also been represented as an attack on the smaller or poorer parties but that is not a fair criticism. We are not proposing that a candidate should pay £1,000 for the privilege of standing for election. To do so, I agree, would be indefensible, although it is worth pointing out that successful and unsuccessful candidates habitually spend several times that amount in constituency election expenses alone. The proposal is that the candidate should deposit a sum of money with the returning officer approximately one fortnight before polling day and that it should be returned to him as soon as practicable thereafter, unless he forfeits it. I simply do not believe that political parties that can reasonably expect to poll 5 per cent. of the vote would have any difficulty in persuading a bank manager to lend them money. For what it is worth, the interest payment over the period would be approximately £6. Furthermore, the Bill will include a provision requiring the deposit to be returned no later than the day after the result is declared.
s Finally, I again remind the House of the significance of our proposals for a reduction of the threshold. At present a candidate forfeits his deposit if he polls less than 1027 one eighth of the total votes cast. The Select Committee believed, and we agree, that that is too severe. Many candidates who have a serious contribution to make to the election debate cannot clear a threshold set at that level. The Select Committee proposed a reduction from 12.5 per cent. to 7.5 per cent.—a very substantial reduction. We have gone even further to protect the interests of minority candidates. Under our proposals, a candidate will forfeit his or her deposit only if he or she polls less than 5 per cent.—one twentieth of the total votes cast. Labour Members seem to think that that is too low.
Looking across all that was covered by the Select Committee, it is difficult to doubt the public desire for change, for the right for British people overseas to vote, for the right for people on holiday to vote, and for a change in the deposit arrangements reflecting the passage of time since 1918. We cannot allow the law to remain frozen because full agreement between all the parties on all the issues eludes us. It always will. The Select Committee has made its proposals in the light of the evidence before it, and we have made ours in the light of the considerable consultations that I have described. It is now for the House to express its views.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)
I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and add instead thereof:regrets that the Government's reply to the First Report of the Home Affairs Committee, Session 1982–83, proposes to extend 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.In a democracy, the most precious possession of any citizen is the vote. Democracy depends on the free, uninhibited use of the vote in a secret ballot. The history of our country has more than once been changed by the collective result of individual people exercising the power of their vote in the solitude and privacy of a polling booth. The right to vote must be accompanied by the right to seek votes—the right of any person, however humble or eccentric, to offer himself or herself to the electorate as candidate.
Any proposed legislation affecting electoral law must be judged on two criteria. First, does it 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 the elector to use that ballot?
The White Paper contains several proposals to which no one can validly object, particularly on technical matters relating to the electoral register. I agree with the Home Secretary that it is essential to ensure the maximum possible accuracy of the register. The White Paper accepts one highly important recommendation made by the Select Committee, which we fully endorse—that citizens of the Republic of Ireland should retain the right to vote in United Kingdom elections. We welcome the determination that has been shown by the Government of the Republic of Ireland to ensure that reciprocal voting rights in elections to the Dail should be available for United Kingdom citizens resident in the Republic.
Although there are several items in the White Paper that are uncontroversial between the parties, we in the Labour party have tabled the amendment because we feel that the Government's proposals fall short of the criteria that I have 1028 cited. Although the Government, in paragraph 4, fairly say that none of the parties has a right to a veto over changes in electoral law, I hope that the Government will equally accept that it would be an error on their part to impose on unwilling participants in the democratic process controversial changes in electoral law that could be far-reaching in their effect and might even affect the outcome of elections. The absence of unanimity in the House and the country applies to the Government's proposal that the parliamentary deposit should be increased to £1,000.
In paragraph 5.7 of their response, the Government claim that they are proposing the increase to £1,000 in accordance with the unanimity on this point in the Select Committee's report. However, the Select Committee report was unanimous on numerous other recommendations that the Government have seen fit to ignore or reject.
The Government's attitude to the Select Committee seems to be similar to the approach that they adopted to the report of the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure when they were drafting the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill. Where the Government agreed with the Royal Commission, they cited its recommendations in support of their decisions. Where they disagreed, they said that it was their right to disagree—heads they won, tails the Royal Commission lost—and it is the same with the Select Committee. Let not the Government pretend, therefore, that the Select Committee report is to them a species of holy writ.
In announcing the Government's decision to increase the deposit to almost seven times its present size, the White Paper states its reasons with what I regard as a repulsive crudeness. It says that many of the candidates who do not belong to any of the major political partiespoll only a few score votes; they have no apparent intention of winning the election but may seek only to discredit or impede the campaigns of those who do.That could have applied to the Conservative candidate in the Gorton constituency at the general election.
The White Paper continues:In the Government's view the proliferation of merely frivolous or disruptive candidates makes a mockery of the electoral process.Who is to say if this or that candidate is frivolous or disruptive? The Home Secretary referred to the Chesterfield by-election. In that by-election, there was a candidate who based his campaign on opposition to nuclear war. The electorate gave him only seven votes, but is anybody to say that his candidature was a frivolous one, devoted as it was to the most transcendental issue of our time? Indeed, the Chesterfield by-election is a notable example of the invulnerability of the electorate to alleged frivolity or disruption. There were 17 candidates in that by-election—more than at any other parliamentary by-election in the history of our country—yet the electorate was not distracted. It showed itself perfectly able to distinguish between candidates, to pick out those to whom it wished to give substantial support, and to come to a clear decision. In doing so, it voted very heavily—a 76 per cent. poll. How can it be said that that campaign, with a record number of candidates, was disrupted by being contested by so many?
Let us examine the matter in another way. In the Glasgow, Central by-election in 1980, the Conservative candidate obtained only 707 votes. She was the candidate of the Government. Does the Home Secretary believe that the Government's own nominee was a frivolous and disruptive candidate? That candidate is now the hon. 1029 Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mrs. McCurley). When did the hon. Lady stop being frivolous and disruptive? At what mile post along the road from Glasgow, Central to Inverclyde did it happen—was it at three miles, was it at five miles? Indeed, did the hon. Lady ever stop being frivolous and disruptive? She is the same person now as she was then. Have an extra 12,962 votes effected a fundamental change in her personality and politics?
What about another candidate — the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher)? Nine years ago, when she stood in the first ballot for the Tory leadership, many regarded her candidature as not something to be taken seriously, but simply a means of having a go at the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) before the serious opponents to him raised their heads above the parapet in the second ballot. But the right hon. Lady was elected and, in due course, became Prime Minister. Many people will agree that she is certainly disruptive, but frivolous, decidedly not.
In giving evidence to the Select Committee, the national agent of the Labour party, Mr. David Hughes, referring to the Labour party, said:we do not feel that the fixing of the deposit should be at such a level as materially to deter people from standing for Parliament.The Labour party is firmly against the Government's proposal that the deposit should be raised to £1,000, even with the accompanying change which would reduce the qualifying percentage for retention of the deposit to 5 per cent. We hold this view with magnificent altruism for, under the Government's proposals in the White Paper, the Labour Party would have lost only six deposits in the 1983 general election. Nevertheless, we oppose this proposal as a financial deterrent to the fundamental democratic right to be a candidate in a parliamentary election. For myself, I do not believe that the system of deposit any longer fulfils any useful purpose.
An acceptable change might be the one that the Home Secretary has dismissed — to increase the number of nomination papers required. The Home Secretary said that a given number of signatures might not necessarily reveal a volume of support in a constituency. Does £1,000 reveal a volume of support in a constituency? All it reveals is the possession of, or access to, £1,000. A requirement of the kind that I have mentioned could be a better safeguard against any potential frivolity than a deposit even of £1,000. If there are frivolous candidates, this change will not eliminate them. It will mean simply that only rich frivolous candidates will go on being able to stand—but perhaps that is what is meant by Tory democracy.
Another example of Tory democracy is undoubtedly the proposal that British residents abroad should have the right to vote in our parliamentary elections for a period of seven years after their exile, which may well be permanent, voluntary and financially rewarding. This proposal the Select Committee opposed. It said that it could have "far-reaching consequences", and ruled it out on practical grounds. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Parry Barr (Mr. Rooker), in his intervention in the Home Secretary's speech, gave just one example of the practical problems that might arise if the proposal were enacted. The Select Committee said that this proposalmight have the effect of altering the whole character of British elections.1030 The Select Committee was unanimous in rejecting it. Yet the Government are to give an unascertainable number of people a privilege that goes right against the principle stated in paragraph 2.4 of the White Paper, thatthe basis of the British parliamentary system is the representation of constituencies.These people to whom the Home Secretary proposes that the vote shall be given will not be living in the constituency where they will be able to claim the right to vote. They may never have voted in that constituency. While they lived there—they may have lived there for a short time only—they will have been a self-selected electorate. The vote will be exercisable not by a defined and finite group, as happens now, but by people who decide that they feel like having the vote, and who do not live too far away to be able to post back their votes in time.
Their use of the right will be a farce. They will not be able to meet their candidate, to question the candidate or be canvassed by someone calling on behalf of the candidate. They may not receive any election literature, and they may therefore know nothing of the candidate except his or her name and party. Furthermore, they will have an anomalous status as constituents, and hon. Members may have an anomolous status as their Members of Parliament. If a constituent of mine wishes me to visit him or her at his or her home to discuss a problem, I am able to do so. But what if I have a constituent who has moved abroad? Will I have the right to travel and meet that person? If they are constituents, they have the right to a service from their Members of Parliament. Will there be a free post to enable us to communicate with them?
§ Mr. Kaufman
And telephone calls, as my hon. Friend reminds me. They will have an anomalous status as constituents.
The Select Committee stated the case against this fancy franchise compellingly when, in paragraph 44, it said:such an increase in the overseas vote would to some extent alter the traditional relationship between candidates at general or local elections and the voters whose support they are seeking to enlist. Hitherto, in the great majority of cases, the candidate has been able both to speak directly to the elector either on the doorstep or in a public place and personally to ensure that his election literature is delivered to every household. Problems of communication could arise both between candidates and overseas voters at election time and, indeed, between Members and their constituents thereafter.Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) pointed that out.It would be difficult to arrange with any certainty for election literature to be delivered to addresses abroad, or to take steps to see that voters in foreign countries were kept in touch with national or local issues or made aware of the character and qualifications of the various candidates.The Select Committee rightly described some of those who will be given this franchise as people who haveforfeited their claim to participate in this country's affairs".
§ Mr. Beith
Surely the very difficulties that the right hon. Gentleman describes about addressing such electors, getting literature to them, and representing them as a Member of Parliament, already exist in respect of those electors who are resident abroad but who can afford to maintain a residence in a constituency in this country. Why should they have the advantage of being able to vote here while those whose overseas income is not so great do not?
§ Mr. Kaufman
It is no solution to seek to correct one anomaly by creating an even greater one.
Those absentee voters could have a decisive influence on this country's affairs. In a close election, they could even decide its outcome. In the 1964 general election, 84 such voters, located in three constituencies, could have deprived the properly elected Government of their majority. Unless this Government change their mind, they could make it possible for tax exiles to decide the taxes that are paid by people living and working in this country. Property speculators living abroad could decide what pension should be paid to people who have worked all their lives in this country.
Moreover, the allocation of the right to this vote will be invidious. Although citizens of the Irish Republic and Commonwealth citizens living here rightly have the vote, if they leave this country, even temporarily, they will lose it, while British citizens who have left this country permanently will retain it for seven years and, moreover, painlessly. Once they have made the initial application, all responsibility for their remaining on the list will devolve on the electoral registration officer. He will be required to write to the absentee elector to ensure that he still wishes to vote, and the elector will be able to retain his vote without any need of further consular certification. A simple declaration will do. As we shall shortly see, the tax exile will retain the franchise with greater ease than is involved in a postal vote for the tax-paying lorry driver, fisherman or commercial traveller resident in this country.
The proposal is quite unacceptable and the Government would be well advised to withdraw it. It is not only unfair but dangerous, since it removes large numbers of voting papers from any possible control by the returning officer.
§ Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)
The right hon. Gentleman has objected quite strongly to British people who work abroad having a vote. Presumably all those objections also apply to service voters. Do I take it that he wishes to withdraw the service vote?
§ Mr. Kaufman
Of course I do not for one moment say that. It is fatuous of the hon. Gentleman to suggest it. Apart from anything else, service voters retain an address in this country. If the hon. Gentleman did not know that, he obviously did not even profit from losing the seat to which he was originally elected.
The danger of large numbers of voting papers being removed from the control of the returning officer also applies to the Government's proposal for allowing postal votes to those on holiday. There is no doubt that what the Government propose could amount to postal voting on demand.
§ Mr. Kaufman
We support votes for holidaymakers. However, the Government will have to provide genuine safeguards if they are to dispel the misgivings voiced very powerfully by the memorandum to the Select Committee which was submitted by the Conservative and Unionist Central Office. Its arguments are valid. It said:although it is clearly unjust that electors should be unable to vote at particular elections because of absence on holiday"—I certainly concur with that sentiment—it is impracticable to extend absent voting to those persons without opening the way to providing postal or proxy voting facilities on request to all electors who so desire. The 1032 consequences of this move might be very far-reaching indeed and such a move might have serious implications bearing in mind that the election procedures in this country have been built round legislation designed to allow persons to vote in polling stations in conditions of complete secrecy and free of any undue influence at the time of voting.Those powerful arguments were voiced by the Conservative and Unionist Central Office. In our view, they do not invalidate the desirability of providing postal votes for holidaymakers, but it is very important that the dangers to which those comments draw attention should be taken into account and, where possible, dealt with.
While holiday votes will be very easy postal votes to obtain, others will not be assisted in their wish to vote by post.
§ Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Are you aware that striking miners are on the Terrace of the Houses of Parliament and are selling a newspaper that I believe is called Militant Tendency? Is that in order?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
That is a matter that will be looked into by the appropriate authorities.
§ Mr. Kaufman
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should hurry down to the Terrace, as he might learn something that would broaden his point of view.
Why will the Government not extend the postal vote to those taking part in parish elections, and why are they making it more difficult for itinerent workers to vote? The proposal to require a new application for each election from those absent from home because of their occupation will discriminate invidiously against those whose work takes them away from their homes.
A memorandum from the Transport and General Workers Union illustrates the difficulties that will ensue from the Government's proposals—proposals again, let it be noted, not stemming from any recommendation of the Select Committee. I shall quote in detail from the memorandum, because it makes the argument very strongly:Within the TGWU we have approximately 25,000 members in the fishing industry, 172,000 HGV drivers and 300,000 construction workers as well as many thousands working different types of shifts in the manufacturing industry, the health service and local authorities … the present arrangements for postal votes by reason of occupation are far more satisfactory than those proposed in the White Paper. A member who has once secured a postal vote does not have the added burden of having to apply again for each election and, indeed, can make an application between elections, if necessary … the specific sections of memberships we have mentioned are not necessarily away from home on a regulated, predictable basis. A lorry driver for a road haulage company, for example, may have little or no advance warning of journeys which will incur an overnight stay away from home. Often a driver leaves on a journey anticipating a return to the depot on the same day, but unexpected loading or delivery problems delay the return or prevent it altogether. The driver may have had several months of relatively short-haul driving and then, unexpectedly, be sent on a long-haul drive on polling day. For these reasons we have always tried to encourage our HGV members to apply for postal votes if they genuinely believe they may be prevented from voting in person.Secondly, to give another example, a fisherman or construction employee working for a contract may be away from home during those crucial few days when an application must be made and return home too late to be eligible even though they know they will also be away on polling day. Again, these are the type of members we have always encouraged to have a 'permanent' postal vote.We must face facts and understand that the need to apply for a postal vote is not in the forefront of anyone's mind when they 1033 are required to work away from home. It is only when deprived of a vote that an elector realises they could have made use of this facility. By requiring a specific reason why a voter will be unable to vote in person in a particular election, rather than citing and describing the nature of employment, we believe many of our members will be in difficulties. For example, whereas 'long-distance lorry driver' may have been sufficient information until now, a Returning Officer may require to know the exact nature of the journey to be undertaken together with certification that the information is correct … it is generally impossible for many of our members to give this information accurately. Under these circumstances it will also be impossible for anyone, even the employer, to countersign it. Bearing in mind that the proposal is that these applications must be processed afresh for every single election, we believe that many of our members will be seriously deterred from bothering to apply.What the TGWU says applies to hundreds of thousands, if not more, who are not its members. It is intolerable that through this proposed change a fisherman battling on the high seas may be deprived of his vote while a tax exile sunning himself in Monte Carlo will have a vote bestowed upon him.
If the Government are really worried about any potential abuse under the present system, they have a much simpler remedy. At present, electoral registration officers are given power to review their indefinite postal vote records at their discretion. If they were required to do so, say every three years, abuse, if it exists, would be kept to the minimum.
Under the Government's proposals, on the other hand, grotesque anomalies will arise. This year, for example, a lorry driver or commercial traveller living in the Portsmouth, South constituency would already have had to apply three separate times for a postal vote—once for the local elections, once for the European Assembly elections, and once for the parliamentary by-election. Such a requirement would be a deterrent to voting by itinerant workers. But perhaps that is what the Government want.
The Government's proposals are also unnecessarily restrictive on those applying for postal votes on grounds of physical incapacity. The Government plan to remove the present discretion on counter-signature by someone other than a registered medical practitioner, and propose to add only the power to countersign by a registered nurse. They ought at least to include the warden or matron of an aged people's home or home for the handicapped. They ought also to see if there is a way of providing postal or proxy votes for those who fall ill or are otherwise incapacitated just before polling day. If in the days before an election a woman is rushed to hospital to have a premature baby, or if someone is operated on for emergency appendicitis, such electors ought not to be deprived of their vote.
It is essential that the rules be strictly upheld to avoid abuse, but the aim of the rules should be to facilitate voting rather than to impede it. It must be said that paragraph 3.22 of the White Paper is unacceptably invidious in excluding Northern Ireland from the new absent voting arrangements. The Home Secretary must change his mind on that matter. Such an arrangement would turn electors in the Province into literally second-class citizens. It defies any standards of fairness that a current resident of Belfast on holiday in Majorca should not be able to vote, while next to him or her on the beach a former resident of Belfast who has gone permanently to live in Majorca will be able to vote. Such anomalies are simply not tolerable.
1034 Nor is it easy to understand why the Government should have decided that in future polling in parliamentary elections should end at 9 pm instead of 10 pm as at present. The White Paper says that the final hour is little used. But evidence given to the Select Committee showed that in the 1979 election 4 per cent. of the votes were cast between 9 pm and 10 pm. that may not sound very many, but in fact it means that 1,250,000 people voted during those 60 minutes.
The Home Secretary rightly showed concern this afternoon at the danger of hundreds of thousands not on the electoral register losing their chance to vote. All the more important, therefore, to ensure that hundreds of thousands on the register have the maximum possible chance to vote. When we are all agreed that not enough people vote in parliamentary elections, why on earth are the Government proposing a change that will reduce the poll still further? The White Paper laments that the final houradds to an already long day for returning officers and their staff.But, Mr. Speaker, we are speaking about one long day every four or five years. Are 60 minutes too much to bestow on the supreme manifestation of British democracy—the election of a Member of Parliament?
Labour Members hope that the Government will think again about the matters that I have mentioned and about other issues that will be raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. This debate is about the fundamental issue of representative democracy in Britain. The parliamentary majority is temporarily in the hands of the Government, but the franchise belongs to us all. No Government should trifle with the exercise and practice of our democracy, or meddle with it without sound reasons. As notice to the Government to take due care of every citizen's most precious right, I call on hon. Members to vote for our amendment tonight.
§ 6.5 pm
§ Mr. John Hunt (Ravensbourne)
I am one of those who believe that our new Select Committee system has immeasurably strengthened the power and influence of the individual Back Bencher in the House and has also significantly increased the accountability of Ministers to Parliament. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the work of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, of which I have been privileged to be a member since its formation in the previous Parliament.
The Select Committee's report on the Representation of the People Acts, which we are debating today, has boldly tackled a number of key issues which have been fudged and shelved for far too long. This afternoon I want to confine my remarks to two of the Committee's most important recommendations—those relating to absent voting and to the deposit. Let me say at once that I warmly endorse and support the Government's response to the Committee's recommendations on both those issues. The Government's reply to the Select Committee's report makes it clear that when an election is called in May or June—which seems increasingly to be the pattern nowadays—well over 1 million people could be away on holiday on polling day.
Anyone who has canvassed for any political party in the past two general elections must have been struck by the shock and anger that are caused when people going on holiday realise that no arrangements can be made for them 1035 to register their vote. They feel deprived and cheated, and I firmly believe that it is up to Parliament to respond to such feelings of bitterness and resentment when they are expressed in that way by substantial numbers of our fellow citizens. Therefore, I am delighted that, thanks to the timely prodding of the Select Committee, the Government are now prepared to legislate to safeguard the voting rights of those on holiday.
It was also encouraging to hear the tentative support which the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) gave to the proposal, subject, as he said, to certain safeguards. I felt that his commitment did not carry the most enthusiastic appreciation of his Back Benchers. I hope that he will find it possible to carry his party with him on this issue. The right hon. Gentleman quoted some evidence given to the Select Committee by the Conservative party. Equally, one must remind him that in the Select Committee it was his Labour colleagues who were saying that, despite what they called their good will to the idea, they still found it difficult to overcome the technical objections to the change. I have a feeling that that view still holds sway among some sections of the Labour party. In fact, on examination their technical objections are quite thin and trivial.
In their amendment to the Select Committee's report, the Labour Members maintained that such a large extension of the vote to holidaymakers would mean giving absent voting on demand. Their amendment went on to say:It would transform elections if a substantial proportion of the vote was cast outside the polling stations in circumstances which were not under the control of the Electoral Registration Officer.They concluded:The threat of large scale corruption would be very real.That was the view expressed by the Labour Members of the Select Committee in the last Parliament.
We were not, of course, given any indication of how such large-scale corruption could arise, and in my view it was really a bogus point. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Perhaps in the course of the debate those who can give such evidence will provide it. We shall listen carefully to their contributions.
As I said, we were encouraged to hear the right hon. Gentleman give his commitment to support the proposal for votes for holidaymakers, although significantly the Labour party's amendment to the motion today does not specifically refer to the matter.
Returning to the objections that were raised by the Labour Members of the Select Committee, it is worth making the point that in any case the holiday vote will not be a substantial proportion of the total vote. The Government's estimate, as we have heard, is that the extension of the vote to holidaymakers could result in an increase of up to 600,000 absent voters at a general election. That, together with the 600,000 or so who already vote by post, still represents only 3 per cent. of the total electorate. It is surely better for that 3 per cent. to be given the vote rather than deprived of it.
The Government have already outlined the safeguards which will apply, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary in his speech today showed that those safeguards may be further strengthened when the legislation is presented to the House. To assert, as some hon. Members do, that the change will lead to large-scale 1036 corruption seems to me to be a slander upon our fellow citizens, and I am still awaiting the evidence for such statements.
With regard to the deposit, the present level of £150 is, I think, universally regarded as outdated and absurd. The mere fact that it has remained unchanged for 66 years, a record rivalled only by the dog licence, which still stands at the equivalent of 7s 6d—a level fixed as long ago as 1878—is an indication of how irrelevant it has become at the present level.
I remind the House that the Select Committee itself unanimously recommended £1,000. Therefore, it is rather surprising to hear that the Labour party is now so implacably opposed to that figure. The only point of contention within the Select Committee was on the level of threshold—whether it should go from the present 12.5 per cent. to either 7 per cent. or 5 per cent. The Home Secretary has accepted the minority view of the Select Committee that it should be reduced to 5 per cent. I am delighted about that, because I was part of that minority view. It is encouraging to feel that our view has been taken into account.
It is the lowering of the threshold which provides the genuine safeguard for any minority parties, as is made clear in the Government's response. It means that, with 50,000 people voting, it requires a vote of only 2,500 to save one's deposit. Yet I see that the alliance amendment to the motion before us today talks of placingan unacceptable and unjustified financial obstacle in the way of legitimate independent and minority candidates".I think that that is an exaggeration, and I am sure that we must set against it the fact, which has been brought out in the Government's reply and in our debate so far today, that the free postage facility which is available to all nominated candidates is now worth £8,000 in an average-sized constituency.
The leader in The Times today writes of thebizarre and impudent party labelswhich have appeared on ballot papers in recent elections. The article goes on to say:An election is too important an affair to be made ridiculous by the antics of some recent clown candidates and commercial opportunists.I wholly endorse that comment.
Reference has already been made in the debate to the Chesterfield by-election earlier this year, where the bemused voters were offered everything from Death off the Roads to Yoga and from Official Acne to the Monster Raving Loony party. I believe that, irrespective of the number of votes they received, such candidates bring the whole election process into disrepute, and should therefore be positively discouraged. Yet under the present system each one of those clown candidates is entitled to the free distribution of his election literature to every voter. As The Times has pointed out, they often have a commercial interest.
§ Mr. William Powell (Corby)
Does my hon. Friend believe that anyone standing for election with a 1037 commercial interest in mind would be deterred by a deposit of £1,000, when £8,000 of free postage is available?
§ Mr. Hunt
I am talking now about the present system. Under the present system the candidates pay £150 and can have the free postage available to them.
Let us take the example of a local health food shop proprietor, who could stand under the label of the Back to Nature candidate. He would be able to distribute his election literature purveying his own merchandise, and that could be used for commercial purposes in the course of an election. Even if the deposit were £1,000, I still maintain that that would be of some benefit and advantage to him. It is an abuse which should be stopped by this House.
I should like to put one further point to the House which I hope will receive more universal approval. Under the present system, the valid nomination of 50 candidates entitles the party concerned to claim the right of free television time to promote its policies. There is some evidence that racist groups such as the National Front and the British National party nominate candidates, not in order to mount a serious campaign in their constituencies, but simply to claim their quota of national television time, which, at 50 times E150—£7,500—is cheap at the price.
For all the reasons that I have given, I believe that the proposed increase of the deposit to £1,000 is both desirable and overdue. Therefore, I welcome the Government's response to this and the other recommendations from the Select Committee. I welcome, too, the commitment, which the Home Secretary has reaffirmed today, to bring these changes fully into effect well before the next general election. Most of us in the House, I think, would say, "The sooner the better."
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)
I shall restrict myself even more closely than the hon. Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) and will deal with only one of the four major subjects that featured in the Home Secretary's speech—the extension of absent voting. In cutting the Gordian knot of the problem of the holiday vote, the Government have taken a great swipe in offering absent votingto all those who for whatever reason are unable or likely to be unable to vote in person on polling day.Those are the words of the Government's reply to the report from the Home Affairs Committee.
A considerable principle is at issue in the wide extension which that measure implies of the opportunity to vote in absence either by post or by proxy. Since before the Ballot Act the vote has essentially been an act performed by the citizen in person. Although we have recognised categories of electors who merited an exemption, certain principles attach to voting which are seriously eroded by the spread of absent voting. Two of those principles are simultaneity and privacy.
We go to great lengths in our legislation to secure the utmost privacy for those who vote in person in the polling booth. We do not, because we cannot, secure such privacy for those who vote by proxy and for those who vote by post. The postal ballot paper goes into a house through the letterbox. What happens to it on the other side of the door, 1038 and who sees it before it is put back into the envelope, are things beyond the control or knowledge of anyone. So we should be cautious of breaching, more than we feel fully justified, the principle of personal privacy in the casting of the elector's vote.
The principle of simultaneity has not I believe been mentioned so far; but it is important, and in recent decades we have been disposed to place more and more weight on it. As an election proceeds, events occur, things are said, the outside world may even change, in a way that modifies the intentions of substantial numbers of voters. It is therefore contrary to the objectivity of an electoral result that votes should be cast at different points of time extending back to a week or more before polling day.
Simultaneity is necessarily destroyed by the absent vote. Obviously it is destroyed when the absent vote is exercised by proxy, where the instruction may be given a week or two—in some cases, a year or two—before the election arises. But simultaneity is still destroyed in the case of an absent vote exercised by post, since several days—which we know from recent experience can be crucial days—have still to elapse between the moment the ballot paper is marked and the moment the poll closes.
In effect, despite the safeguards which the Government have so far proposed, the formulaunable or likely to be unable to vote in person on polling dayis tantamount to an absent vote at option. Paragraph 3.13 of the White Paper states that by way of safeguard the application should be authenticated, possibly by a limited range of person, who would certifythat to the best of his or her knowledge and belief … the circumstances described in the application are true".Now, I believe that most of us have suffered during our elections from the phenomenon of the "aunt in Halifax". It seems to apply more often to Halifax than to anywhere else, but I make it clear that I have no particular animosity against Halifax. Well, invariably, the aunt in Halifax is extremely frail and in feeble health. The effect of an election upon her is that she is liable to die within 48 hours of polling day, resulting frequently in the disappearance from the field not only of a number of electors upon whose support one was relying, but, even more important, of a number of one's most cherished workers who place the obligation of attendance at a funeral above the obligation of securing, so far as in them lies, the election of their own candidate.
Let us consider an "aunt in Halifax" case. The applicant correctly states that he has an aunt, or close relative, who is seriously ill and may die at any time. That fact is incontestable, and it is incontestable that he is, thereforelikely to be unable to vote in person on polling day".He may alternatively assert—I come here to the case of the holiday—that he has made plans to pay his usual annual visit to Blackpool and that he had most unfortunately, for certain family reasons which are in no doubt, settled upon the very week in which polling day falls. Who is to fault the statement which that applicant puts forward? And who, if he has put that reason forward—let us suppose—in good faith, will have any remedy if he changes his plans and decides that Blackpool a week later is just as good as Blackpool a week earlier?
There are unlimited grounds for applications to be made because someone isunable or likely to be unable to vote in personand I emphasise that no amount of certification can erode that liberty. So the House should be extremely chary of 1039 making so large an inroad as this would represent into the essential nature of the poll—its simultaneity and its privacy. The fact that we have found good reasons for doing so in the many cases set out in the existing law does not provide a reason—it might be argued that it provides a counter-reason—for making so major and uncontrollable an extension.
The Government were clearly aware of the potentialities of abuse involved in the absent vote. The hon. Member for Ravensbourne seemed puzzled about the possibilities of abuse. It may occur to him that it could happen that in a particular area a considerable number of persons find reasons for voting by post and have got those reasons accepted. In that case, the list of postal voters in the election will show the households into which on a given day the postman will deliver postal ballot papers.
I should have thought the possibility of persuasion and duress in those circumstances needed no elaboration. In fact, hon. Members will confirm that the efficient agent and the efficient organisation have a habit of not leaving it entirely to the elector in receipt of a postal ballot paper to leave it behind the tobacco tin on the mantlepiece until after polling day, but make a point of calling to collect the completed ballot papers—[Interruption.]—perhaps we should draw a veil over what goes on before they have been completed—and ensuring that they arrive at the correct haven in time. I do not think it can be disputed that by their very nature arrangements for absent voting open the way to malpractices of various kinds due to the destruction of privacy implicit in them.
§ Mr. Wigley
As there is a need to have a witness of identity, people living alone and especially the elderly will be glad to have a witness. If that witness is a party political activist, pressure may be brought to bear at the time of filling in the form.
§ Mr. Powell
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. The argument is so strong that one has only to reflect on the circumstances of postal votes for examples of potential opportunities for malpractice to accumulate.
However, I do not need to make that case to the Home Secretary, who proposed on that very ground that this franchise should not be accorded to the electors of one particular part of the United Kingdom—Northern Ireland. I was very glad to hear him say today that he had a much more open mind about this following representations made to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux); and we also warmly welcome the statement of principle made from the Opposition Front Bench by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman).
I should have thought it would be intolerable to the House if a franchise made available to electors in other parts of the United Kingdom were withdrawn or denied to electors in one particular part of the United Kingdom. To propose that the franchise be withdrawn on the ground of potential abuse implies a confusion of reasoning. If the House legislates to provide an opportunity to exercise the franchise, it must surely also have the duty to make whatever provisions are necessary to safeguard that right against abuse. The two matters—the conferment of the right and the safeguarding of it—are entirely separate.
My hon. Friends and I believe that the integrity of the vote should be safeguarded by all possible means. We are glad to note that in the case of the absent vote for the infirm 1040 it is proposed to tighten the certification requirements in the same way as they were tightened for Northern Ireland alone before the general election of 1983.
At that time, in a Standing Committee of this House, I objected to that safeguard being imposed on only one part of the United Kingdom, as though the possibility of malpractice existed only there, however prevalent it might be there. That minor grievance will, however, be removed if the very satisfactory proposal for certification by defined classes of medical practitioner is introduced; nor do I believe that that will cause difficulties, because in old people's homes or anywhere else there is always a medical practitioner or medical attendant whose certification it is not difficult to obtain.
So the Government cannot seriously contend that the remedy is not safeguard but denial, and we trust that when the legislation sees the light of day next Session it will not withdraw a right exclusively from the people of Northern Ireland. We would, though reluctantly, go a little further and say that we are happy to enter into consultation with the Home Secretary about any special safeguards that might nevertheless be thought necessary in Northern Ireland if there is to be this wider extension of absent voting.
I conclude with an observation which flows from the Home Secretary's own comments on the principle of uniformity of electoral law throughout the United Kingdom as represented in this House. I was glad to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman assert that principle in relation to the right to an absent vote and the safeguarding of that vote. He will recall, however, that there is disuniformity in relation to the European elections, where the law of the franchise in Northern Ireland is different from the law of the franchise in the rest of the United Kingdom, though the whole United Kingdom is going to the polls to elect representatives to the European Assembly. The Conservative Opposition of 1978 found that so intolerable that a future Home Secretary—perhaps two future Home Secretaries—as well as the present Prime Minister voted against the proposal; but since coming to office they have failed to make good that vote.
However, there is still opportunity for repentance, and I hope that, having stated the principle of uniformity of electoral law throughout the United Kingdom, the Government will give effect to it not just in parliamentary elections, but in other elections too. No doubt that can be covered in the Representation of the People Bill which we are to expect in the coming Session.
§ Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) in welcoming the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary waited for the Select Committee report be fore bringing forward his proposals. The fact that the proposals are in the form of a response to the Select Committee shows the value of the Select Committee system. My only regret is that, because the White Paper is in the form of a reply, it fails to consider one or two issues not included in recommendations by the Select Committee.
There is, for example, the question whether a candidate and his agent are entitled to have the electoral register in the form that they wish. At present, they have the right to a register, but they might wish to have it in computer compatible form. I know that that question has been 1041 exercising many people's minds. I do not know whether it would be appropriate for inclusion in legislation, but I hope that the Home Office is considering it and that, if necessary, a proposal will come forward when legislation is introduced.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has previously been rather discouraging about the proposal that candidates should have a register in computer compatible form, if they so wished, on the rather spurious ground that the computer record would include data not necessarily appearing in the printed form. That seems strange as in no other form is it so easy to delete data to which the general public or candidates should not have access. I appreciate, however, that that issue is not central to the proposal before us or, indeed, to the legislation that will eventually come before the House.
In general, I agree with the proposals in the White Paper, especially with regard to the level of deposit and the reduction in the threshold. I wish to refer, however, to those points about which I have reservations.
Like the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), I have reservations about absent voting. Let me deal, first, with the citizen who is absent abroad. The European Communities Committee in the other place suggested that the right to vote from a qualifying address in the United Kingdom should lapse after 10 years rather than seven years. The White Paper accepted that the person's links with the United Kingdom are likely to have weakened significantly if he has lived abroad for as long as 10 years. Therefore, the Government have proposed a period of seven years. If those links are likely to have weakened so much after 10 years, as the Government say—and I entirely agree with them—I suggest that those links will have weakened substantially after eight years and four months. That could be the period during which a person remains eligible to vote, if, say, he goes abroad soon after the qualifying date. The period of seven years will not commence until seven years after the register has expired; that is, the register that comes into force four months after the qualifying date, and after which the citizen had gone abroad.
The question that was not considered in the White Paper is whether a person's links with a particular constituency are likely to have weakened significantly after seven or eight years, or even longer. The White Paper refers to links with the United Kingdom. When people vote, they do so for a candidate to represent a particular constituency. I guess that only a minority of those who stay abroad for so long would retain links with a particular constituency. Of those who returned later, many would probably return to a different constituency. After a period of eight years and four months, I suggest that the links with a particular constituency may be quite tenuous.
I would argue that perhaps five years is a fairer and more acceptable limit. It would work out in practice at an average entitlement of over six years. It would still ensure that all those in that position would be able to vote in at least one general election and one European Parliament election following their departure, if they so wished.
I accept, as my right hon. and learned Friend has said, that it is a matter of balance. On the other hand, there is a matter of principle that causes me more concern—the proposed arrangement for absent voting.
1042 I shall not repeat the arguments that have been put forward by the right hon. Member for Down, South. I agree substantially with what he said. I believe that the Select Committee under-estimated the risk of abuse when, in its report, it said that abusewould be outweighed by the desirability of giving the vote to those who, due to circumstances beyond their control, are unable to exercise it in person.In the White Paper, the Government accept that the number of postal and proxy votes would rise significantly. Thus, it follows that in many more constituencies than at present the outcome of an election could depend on the casting of absent votes.
Most of those who have called for postal voting for holidaymakers have not appreciated the difficulties that arise when defining a holidaymaker. The Select Committee drew attention to that problem.
It is significant that the Select Committee was not willing to go as far as the Home Office in giving absent votes, in practice more or less on demand, for a single election. I appreciate that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary said that in theory a postal or proxy vote would not be given on demand, but I believe that that is largely the case in practice. The Select Committee was not willing to go as far as that, but it did not really face the problem of the definition of an absent voter, although it was mentioned. Nor did the Select Committee suggest a way to overcome the problem.
It seems extraordinary that it should be necessary to have the counter-signature of a general practitioner in order to obtain a postal vote on grounds of physical disability, whereas, to get a postal vote for any other reason, such as the wish to look after someone who is physically incapacitated, a counter-signature can be given by anyone who is registered as an elector. I appreciate that we are dealing with a single election in that case, whereas in the case of physical incapacity we may be talking about an extended period, but I do not believe that that is an important distinction. It is strange that we should tighten up the provision in relation to physical incapacity but relax the rules for other reasons.
The proposal that another elector should have to countersign is no safeguard at all. The possibility of abuse is greatly exacerbated by the proposal to give the right to vote by proxy to all absent voters. We know of the cases where the matron of an old people's home has completed and sent off perhaps as many as 30 or 40 proxy votes, without taking into consideration the preference of the supposed voters.
§ Mr. Waller
I believe that that sort of abuse happens, and I would not want to suggest that such a person would act in the interests of one political party or another. But such cases are likely to be multiplied many times over if the White Paper's proposals are implemented, although not necessarily in respect of persons who are physically incapacitated.
I find it difficult to see what there is to stop canvassers signing up large numbers of people who suggest on the doorstep that they do not intend to vote or go to the polling station in person. If an election takes place during a town's wakes week, it is possible that organisers in factories could go to considerable lengths to sign several hundred postal or proxy voters. It is not entirely far-fetched to suggest that political activists could arrive at a polling station to cast 1043 several dozen votes on behalf of other people. I welcome what my right hon. and learned Friend said about increasing safeguards, and I strenuously urge him to do so.
If applications for postal or proxy votes have to be countersigned in every case by a responsible person, such as a justice of the peace, the position would be very much better than that proposed in the White Paper.
As regards Northern Ireland, I agree that we have great difficulty there. If the safeguards were reinforced in the way that I have suggested, it might be possible to extend the proposals in the White Paper, as amended to Northern Ireland.
I believe that the two pillars of democracy are, first, the independence of the Boundary Commission and the maintenance of the right to a free and secret vote. Many have tried to throw doubt upon the independence of the Boundary Commission. There was a case in the recent European Parliament elections. The successful Labour candidate for Leeds explained that his majority was not as high as it should have been, becauseMrs. Thatcher had changed the boundaries to create a safe Tory seat.If he really believes that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been going about changing the boundaries, he really must be a fool.
The changes made by the Boundary Commission have not been regarded as exactly helpful to the Government. I am inclined to think that that Euro-candidate did not really believe what he was saying, but that he was seeking to undermine public confidence in the Boundary Commission. It seems equally essential that we should not undermine confidence in the free, private and secret vote. I share the concern of the right hon. Member for Down, South that it should be seen as private.
§ Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in a democracy the primary concern is to ensure that the maximum number of persons can vote? Surely that is the basis of any democracy. I support part of the White Paper, but it does not go far enough in ensuring that people who have the right to vote—for example, those who move frequently or who move during registration for the electoral roll—are protected. How does the hon. Gentleman equate his democracy with the restriction on some people's right to vote?
§ Mr. Waller
It is important that those who have the right to vote should be able to do so. That is a concern of the White Paper, which I share. However, it is equally important that, when the election is over, doubts should not be cast on the result because it is suggested that individuals might have impersonated others, cast their votes on behalf of others, or voted because others did not consider that it was sufficiently important to go down to the polling station. In some countries, people are required to vote. I believe that people who do not wish to vote should be able to maintain that right just as strongly as if they wished to vote. Advantage might be taken of the fact that some people do not wish to vote by those who cast a vote in their place. Unless we build into legislation sufficient safeguards along the lines that I have suggested and that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has referred to, doubts could be raised. Provided those safeguards come about, I believe there are some 1044 useful improvements in the White Paper, which will ensure that our democracy stands as firm in the future as it has in the past.
§ Mr. Sean Hughes (Knowsley, South)
I shall address myself to the proposal in the White Paper to raise the deposit from £150 to £1,000.
It always intrigues me how such figures are arrived at. In the debate on the original proposal to introduce the deposit, on 15 August 1917, Sir George Cave said:I do not know how they got at that figure, but probably it was a compromise between a larger and smaller sum.In the same debate, Donald Macmaster said:The extreme proposal was £250, but the real difference was between £100 and £200, and it was compromised at £150."—[Official Report, 15 August 1917, Vol. 97, c. 1254].Times have not changed very much. The White Paper addresses itself to the figure in paragraphs 5.5 and 5.6. It rejects the outside figure of £2,000, and believes that it should be between £600 and £1,200. Therefore, in the proud tradition of their predecessors 66 years ago, the Government opted for a compromise of £1,000, although a true compromise would have been £900.
If there has to be a deposit at all, I opt for the lowest evil of £600. As we have been reminded today, the original decision in 1918 was based on the premise that the deposit was necessary because the state provided funding. The White Paper estimates that the funding is now worth £8,000 a candidate in an average English or Welsh constituency of 66,000 electors. That presupposes that every candidate can afford to buy envelopes and put something in them. Many, if not most, of the fringe candidates cannot afford to do so. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said that that happened at the Chesterfield by-election. I can think of a few major parties at constituency level that can barely afford it.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) referred to paragraph 5.2. It states:Many of these candidates poll only a few score votes; they have no apparent intention of winning the election but may seek only to discredit or impede the campaigns of those who do.That is a fair bit of arrogance to stomach. I cannot believe that the opponents of my right hon. Friend, the former leader of my party, the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), who secured a majority of 23,705 and polled 70.9 per cent. of the votes cast, honestly thought that they were going to win. Surely all hon. Members want, to impede the election of those who oppose them at the hustings. We should look at ways of increasing the number of sponsors for each candidate. Paragraph 5.4 of the White Paper dismisses that on the grounds that it would greatly increase the work of the acting returning officer. I have the greatest respect for my acting returning officer, the chief executive of Knowsley, Mr. Richard Penn. I cannot believe that he subscribes to the opinion that the electoral system should be devised to accommodate his convenience.
The opposite case, made consistently by the Home Secretary and others, is based on the fact that the true value of the deposit since 1918 has collapsed. The Government are obsessed by inflation, as nearly 4 million unemployed will testify. They are now applying their obsession to the electoral system. However, the argument about the deposit fails to address itself to whether the premise, based on a decision to introduce deposits in 1918, was correct. I recognise the defence for the introduction of the deposit, with regard to state funding, but if one reads through the 1045 debate of 1917 one experiences the thinking of those in power, who were reluctantly accepting that modern times and universal suffrage had arrived and trying to find ways and means of controlling it.
Surely electoral freedom must mean freedom for those who wish to poke fun at it. I accept that society has the right to preserve some sort of order in its electoral system. I accept that our electoral system must guard against having hundreds of thousands of candidates standing in every constituency, but we must ensure that we do not encourage other unwelcome developments in our attempts to maintain that order.
§ Mr. Winnick
I have listened with much interest to what my hon. Friend has been saying. Does he agree that the argument is not about frivolous candidates as such? I am sure that neither he nor I are kept awake at night because of that. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said, there is little evidence, if any, that the democratic and parliamentary system is discredited as a result. He rightly quoted the example of Chesterfield.
Is there not another case that my hon. Friend might wish to consider? The Select Committee considered it in paragraph 70. Fascists, the National Front and so on have every right to stand, which no one wishes to deny. If there were no deposit, would it not make life easier for someone whose only objective was to promote racial hatred? There is nothing frivolous about that.
§ Mr. Hughes
I shall deal with that point shortly.
Even in the debate on the original Bill, in August 1917, the point that I have just made was recognised. A Mr. Athelston Rendall stated:You often have men who come forward of very fine character representing the best elements in the division and the country, and the work they do is educational. I do not think we want to interefere with that sort of person. I agree that if you give that man and those who support him opportunities you necessarily give the undesirable person an opportunity; but I think it far better to be willing to suffer the evil in order to get the good."—[Official Report, 15 August 1917; Vol. 97, c. 1258.]I commend that sentiment to the Government. I do not like the idea that people will be prevented from standing for election because they do not have the money to do so. Whatever formula the Home Secretary may produce to pretend otherwise, that is what will happen. A civilised society should be capable of ordering its affairs in some other way. Money is already a barrier to too many things, whether we think of privilege in education or in the Health Service or of access to much organised pleasure. I now fear that money is to be the determining factor in our electoral system.
Apart from the principle—which I believe to be paramount—fringe candidates, except people such as those to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) referred, can serve a useful purpose. I am sure that we all dislike attempts to fight elections on a single issue. Elections should be concerned with the general economic, political and social questions of the day. However, the essence of a democracy is surely that—even though the Prime Minister might disagree—political leaders are not omniscient. The basis of political freedom is that electors should be free to decide for themselves what they believe to be the main issues. If the 1046 electors are ready to be convinced that every issue is subservient to the question whether the earth is flat, whether this House should be inhabited by lunatics, or whether the licensing laws should be abolished, what right have we to prevent them from expressing that point of view? Their right to do so would be particularly precious on occasions when the major parties all agree—although those occasions are so rare that I cannot think of an example.
In the past hundred years, fringe candidates have often pioneered an idea which later found acceptance. In 1906, T. Smith stood in Wigan as the candidate of the Lancashire and Cheshire Women's Textile and Other Workers Representation Committee, advocating the vote for women. T. Smith gained 28 per cent. of the vote, taking second place to the Conservative candidate. In the election of October 1910, H. L. Jacobs stood for St. Pancras, East as the candidate for the London Society for Women's Suffrage. Unfortunately, that candidate fared much worse, receiving only 22 votes. Various candidates for small trade unions and Socialist organisations were the forerunners of the Independent Labour party, the Labour Representation Committee and my own party. At that time, they were fringe candidates.
I do not wish to indulge in 19th-century history. More recent examples include Mrs. Van Der Elst who stood in Southwark, Central in 1940 as a candidate for the abolition of capital punishment. She gained 1,382 votes, or 16.8 per cent. of the vote. Thankfully, 25 years later, capital punishment was abolished. In 1967, R. G. Allen stood at Walthamstow, West in support of the introduction of commercial radio. He would not have had my support.
§ Mr. Hughes
We lost the seat by more than 63 votes, which was the number which that candidate gained—0.4 per cent. of the vote. Unfortunately, however, his campaign has landed us with commercial radio today.
In 1973, in the Lincoln by-election, someone demanded a referendum on Common Market entry. Again, unfortunately, we lost the seat, which was held by the sitting Member who had turned his colour. But two years later we landed ourselves with a referendum.
Paragraph 7 of the introduction to the White Paper asserts:Changes in electoral law are not … the exclusive preserve of the political parties and others professionally concerned with the organisation or conduct of elections.That is the one sentence of the White Paper which I wholeheartedly endorse. This debate ought to transcend party divisions, not because party political divisions are not crucial—they are, and I believe that it is correct that parties should present clear alternative programmes to the electorate—but because we must make provision for those who disagree. Of course I would prefer those who peddle obnoxious doctrines, such as members of the National Front, not to stand, but the way to combat them is to enforce and strengthen the law and so prevent such obscenities from being peddled.
Some people think that we are all pompous or irrelevant. Should they not have the right to test that point of view? Why should not those who believe in world government, stopping the deportation of black people, noise abatement, rail not motorways, traditional English food, women for life on earth, workers' charter with pensioner political power—people representing all those 1047 points of view stood at the most recent general election—be able to test the strength of their support? I would prefer people to campaign for, and support, the Labour party, but if we live in a democracy they must have the right to test the extent of their support.
§ Mr. Bermingham
The right to vote, and the right to stand for election, are inextricably intertwined. One cannot deny one without denying the other, and by introducing a massive deposit we shall deny the right to stand.
§ Mr. Hughes
I agree with my hon. Friend.
In the debate on 15 August 1917, Mr. Aneurin Williams made the essential point when he said:I venture to say that the proportion of votes necessary to be a test of whether a candidate is a freak candidate or is not is one thing and the amount deposited is quite a separate and distinct thing, and that they ought not to be confused. It seems to me that if a man can get one voter he is justified in testing the opinion of the constituency, and that no one has the right to call him a freak."—[Official Report, 15 August 1917; Vol. 97, c. 1255.]This debate should transcend party political divisions, because it concerns the system within which our political parties conduct their affairs. I had hoped that the Government would not use the occasion to test their own strength in the Lobbies, even if the proposal is stamped with the Government's image. The proposal is wrong. It is based on a false premise. It deserves to be defeated.
§ 7.7 pm
§ Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)
I agree with the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. Hughes) that this debate should not be conducted on party political lines. It give me pleasure to agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has just said about the deposit. I thought his remarks contained a great deal of common sense. I am sure that both Front Benches will have taken note of his speech.
However, I welcome other parts of the White Paper, especially those about holiday voters. The most recent general election occurred in June, when many people were on holiday. As the election was called fairly suddenly, many electors of all political persuasions were not able to vote and felt extremely aggrieved. Quite rightly, they did not intend to cancel holidays which had been fixed for many months, and in some cases paid for. We all welcome the clearing up of that anomaly.
I have always thought it disgraceful that those who bat for Britain abroad, earning orders and money for our country, should be deprived of their vote while so doing. I whole-heartedly welcome the decision to allow people who live and, in most cases, work abroad and earn Britain money to be able to vote within a seven-year period. Seven years might be too short, but I shall leave that matter for another debate.
I have deep reservations about the Government's conclusions in the White Paper in regard to the deposit. I do not believe that it should be Parliament's role to discourage people from standing for election, no matter how frivolous or eccentric they might be. By increasing the deposit to £1,000, even though we are reducing the barrier to 5 per cent., we are putting undue pressure on smaller parties. I do not in any way wish to represent the Liberal, Social Democratic or nationalist parties in the House and I have no desire to see them elected, but their 1048 case is overwhelming. Their funds will be tied up for three weeks or more and the interest payable will be considerable.
§ Mr. MacKay
Well, £6 multiplied by 650 is a considerable sum for a small party and I believe that it would put undue pressure on them. By increasing the deposit, we are playing into the hands of minority parties because the British people have a terrific sense of fair play. I am sure that minor parties will successfully appeal to that sense of fair play.
A more serious risk is that many very small parties will be exterminated by the deposit. [HON. MEMBERS: "Exterminated?"] I always bow to the judgment of my hon. Friends, so perhaps I should say "eliminated". Many respectable parties will not be able to put up candidates. Extreme parties that are repugnant to the majority of us, such as the National Front and the Socialist Workers party, will not be able to put up candidates. Some hon. Members might say, "So much the better. Good riddance to them—they are no part of the British political scene." However, by allowing candidates for such parties to stand and express their often obnoxious views, we provide an important outlet. We also prove to them and observers of the political scene how little support the National Front, the Socialist Workers and other extremist parties have. When did such parties last save a deposit? When did they last get a respectable vote? It was a long time ago, and every election at which we humiliate them proves that this is a civilised and modern country that does not approve of extremist politics. That would change if we increased the deposit.
§ Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)
I am most refreshed by what my hon. Friend has just said. Does he agree that the popular press and, I am afraid, some of the more irresponsible elements among the Opposition might dub imposition of the rather draconian £1,000 deposit an a ntidemocractic move by the Government?
§ Mr. MacKay
It is unfortunate for any Government or party to be seen to restrict parties or candidates who stand for Parliament. Some people might construe that as undemocratic.
Before the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) thinks that I whole-heartedly support his belief that 100 or 1,000 signatories should be found before a candidate can stand for election, I must observe that, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary said, it is easy to forge signatures and to persuade people to sign even though they do not know what they are doing. The Liberal party's proposal would be administratively difficult and party activists believe that it is much more important to be out campaigning. What the hon. Gentleman suggests would take their eye off the ball.
I am persuaded by my right hon. and learned Friend's argument that the £150 deposit is an anachronism. It cannot be raised to the more than £2,000 which would take account of the rise in inflation. I fall out with the hon. Member for Knowsley, South, who compromised at £600. I am inclined to think that no deposit would be much more satisfactory.
Some hon. Members say that the free postal service could be terrifically abused. As has been said, the minor parties are normally so badly organised that they fail to use 1049 that service. I acknowledge that a candidate might use the service for commercial purposes, but am I not right to say that the head postmaster in each area is required by law to read election material that is distributed? If a leaflet was purely or even primarily commercial, he would rightly refuse to allow it to go through the free post. Is it not therefore bogus to talk of the free service being abused?
When hon. Members feel that joke candidates demean Parliament, they are taking themselves a little too seriously. I have a sneaking suspicion that the majority of electors do not object to freak or unusual candidates. Rather, they are quite amused by them. It is obvious that intelligent electors in, for example, the case of the Chesterfield by-election are not confused when they arrive at the polling station to be confronted by a wide array of candidates. In that by-election, none of the frivolous candidates got more than a handful of votes. They all lost their deposits and the outcome of the election was not affected. I doubt whether anyone who intended to vote for one of the main parties voted for a frivolous candidate by mistake.
§ Mr. Mellor
I should like to take my hon. Friend up on his point about none of the frivolous candidates getting a respectable vote. I do not know whether he has spoken to our hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Knowles). At his election someone calling himself the "real Conservative" candidate polled 1,400 votes in a critical marginal seat on the basis of that description. Does my hon. Friend really not think that that is an interference in the parliamentary system?
§ Mr. MacKay
My hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but if someone tries to impersonate another candidate—such was the case in Finchley with regard to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—it is possible to go to the courts and ensure that the second person's name or description is altered or withdrawn. I do not agree that people or groups of people who want to stand as independents within a party should be prevented from doing so as long as they are fairly described as independent Conservative, Labour or Liberal.
I am sure that now that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East has been elected and it has been seen what a first-class Member he is, an independent Conservative candidate will not stand there again, but if he does he will not obtain a four-figure vote. Knowing my hon. Friend, I am sure that he is capable of looking after himself.
At the same time as trying to catch the frivolous candidates, we will catch many other genuine candidates in our net. I believe that we will do a great deal of damage to our democracy and our free society. This wide-ranging debate has been an opportunity for hon. Members to express their views on the White Paper. I know that when the Government bring forward legislation—as they surely must in the next Session, when it will be broadly welcomed by most of us—they will take into account all the implications of raising the deposit. I hope that they will reconsider their earlier conclusions. It will be in the interests of the country and the House if they have a second look at this matter.
§ Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)
I apologise to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary for missing part of his speech. It was due to a meeting which I could not postpone and at which I had to be present.
The Scottish national party submitted evidence to the Secretary of State for Scotland on the Representation of the People Acts. The Home Affairs Committee, being basically an English organisation, did not seek the views of every interested political party. The evidence which we put forward went some way beyond the findings of the Select Committee. I shall deal with the most important points, as we see them and our reaction to the Government's reply.
First, on the subject of the deposit, my party considers that the democratic processes should be open to all, regardless of ability to pay. We favour the abolition of the deposit and its replacement with a system whereby any candidate at a parliamentary election would have to produce a nomination list of 100 or 200 names of pledged supporters. We believe that that would show the degree of support that was available to any candidate.
We say that if the deposit is to be increased, it must be accompanied by a lowering of the threshold percentage of the vote required to recoup the increased amount. In the case of an increase to £1,000 per candidate, we suggested a reduction to 5 per cent. Having accepted the proposal to increase the deposit to £1,000, it is only right and just that the Government have accepted the need to lower the threshold to the figure that I mentioned.
The new higher deposit will hit all parties which do not, unlike the Tory party, have large amounts of cash at their disposal. That is extremely unfair. I am sorry that the Government have accepted that idea, because less-well-off parties will now find that vast amounts of money are tied up when they are most needed for campaigning.
That brings me to the important aspect of centrally funded electioneering by the parties. In that respect, the remit of the Home Affairs Committee was not wide enough. The Committee could not address itself to the radical changes which have taken place in general election campaigns over the past decade. Constituency expenditure is far less important nowadays than central expenditure on advertising campaigns and propaganda. My party considers it anomalous that there are restrictions on the amount of money that a candidate can spend legally, yet there is no accountability over the expenditure incurred by political parties' headquarters during the general election period.
Constituency limitations are based on good sense and fairness, because they prevent a wealthy candidate from using that wealth to his advantage. That principle now needs to be extended. In recent years, campaign emphasis has switched from individual efforts to central organisations, which use sophisticated advertising techniques backed by substantial expenditure. It is deployed nationally, but it is of course of undoubted benefit to individual candidates.
During the last general election campaign the Conservative party was widely reported as having spent £15 million centrally. That worked out at £20,000 per candidate. None of the other parties could possibly hope to match that level of expenditure. It is high time that new rules were evolved to limit such expenditure and make it accountable. We are disappointed that the Home Affairs 1051 Committee was unable to make suggestions on that matter. We believe that the rules governing central expenditure and fair access to television coverage are so inadequate and unfair and the time has come for an overall review of current electoral law.
My party welcomes the Committee's recommendation that electoral registration forms should be available in appropriate areas in languages other than English, and that house-to-house canvassing should be carried out by people who can speak to householders in their own language in those areas.
I am pleased that the Government are to draw those recommendations to the attention of electoral registration officers. In the case of Scotland, I trust that this recommendation will be aimed primarily at providing a facility for those who wish to use the Gaelic language. I remind the House that there are well over 80,000 speakers of the language in Scotland. In areas where Gaelic speakers are concentrated, we believe that returning officers should publish notices of poll and other statutory notices in Gaelic or a Gaelic-English bilingual format. I have taken this matter up with the Scottish Office, but have met with no sympathy.
We are glad that the Government have accepted the principle of allowing those on holiday at the time of an election to exercise their democratic right. That is an aspect of the law which has needed reform for some considerable time. I heard the arguments which the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) deployed against that, and there is some substance in his argument, but I weigh that against the possibility that a person might be disfranchised. The fact that the vote be registered is more important than the points that the right hon. Gentleman made.
All in all, the report is a useful contribution to the debate, but I am afraid that its recommendations fall far short of what is necessary and that the electoral laws will remain as out of date as the rotten boroughs before the Reform Act 1832.
§ Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)
I rise to speak not as someone who has great experience of our electoral system through countless years of service to the House, but as one who, in the past 12 months, has had considerable experience of some of its deficiencies and failures.
I was elected in the first by-election of the new Parliament, on 29 July 1983—the day that the House rose for the summer recess. I could not take the oath until the House resumed on 24 October. In the meantime, one of the fringe candidates in the by-election had served a writ on my agent, myself, my predecessor, the returning officer and the Daily Telegraph alleging all kinds of weird, wonderful, corrupt and illegal practices.
One of the allegations upon which he wished to nullify the election result was that not enough chairs were provided for his supporters at the count. From that the House will gain an impression of the sense of some of his averments. My case reached the High Court in Christmas week. Since it was privileged—and it was a vexatious case—it was happily dispensed with in a morning sitting. However, it was not until the end of January 1984 that Mr. Speaker was able to announce that I was the legally elected Member for my constituency.
1052 I do not relate that catalogue of woe to elicit the sympathy of the House or Opposition Members, or to claim the prize for the Member who had the slowest or most inauspicious start to representing his constituency. I do so to show what nuisance, trouble, aggravation and expense can be caused under the present Representation of the People Acts because we have failed to provide sufficiently strict criteria. I say "criteria" because one test, which is what most right hon. and hon. Members have talked about today, is not good enough. We need a variety of tests and checks to ensure that mainly genuine and dedicated candidates appear on the ballot paper.
I was disappointed that the Home Affairs Committee did not recommend an increase in the number of signatures required on the nomination paper. I agree that some candidates may find it easy to collect 100 or 300 signatures. I believe that the number of signatures on a nomination form should be increased to 150. That would probably have eliminated the three fringe candidates in my election, who achieved 176 votes between them. It would have eliminated 10 candidates in the Chesterfield by-election, who achieved 230 votes, or 0.3 per cent. of the popular vote. Although I have opted for the figure of 150 signatures as the minimum necessary on the nomination paper, the fringe candidate who served the writ on me achieved exactly 150 votes.
Nevertheless, I believe that a signature is much more difficult to collect than a vote. [Interruption.] I genuinely believe that to be the case. It takes greater effort, time and political persuasion to collect as many signatures as votes. The question whether to increase the number of signatures revolves around this fundamental point: does a large number of signatures demonstrate a minimum level of support? That has nothing to do with the rather trivial argument, given in the Government's reply, that an increase in the number of signatures increases the risk of a nomination paper being held invalid on purely technical grounds. It gives the returning officer more work, but that is a different argument.
The invalidity argument is spurious. I shall happily treat any Minister in the Home Office to his favourite tipple in the Smoking Room if he will tell the House that he is brave enough to submit only one nomination paper with only 10 names appended to it for his candidature. I have never known an election agent who submitted fewer than two or three nomination papers, which had surplus names added to them in case a signature was declared invalid. If we were required to submit 150 signatures, we could easily permit 170 or more names on the nomination paper so that the contingency would be large enough to cover the risk of invalidity. The one other element of the stricter criteria required is an increase in the deposit. I agree with the Home Affairs Committee and the Government that a real restitution to its true level of £2,000 would be an unacceptable increase. However, such matters are relative. If our deposit were £1,000 now, no one would complain that a 100 per cent. increase was unreasonable. The fact that it is currently £150 makes the increase seem more than it is because a £1,000 deposit involves a 600 per cent. increase on the present deposit. It is a great shame that we have neglected to increase the deposit since 1918, but we should not shirk our duty now. Many hon. Members regard £1,000 as a psychological barrier, and would feel happier if the deposit were set at anything up to £999 to avoid the excessive £1,000 figure.
§ Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)
Many people, including myself, believe that the deposit should be abolished completely, not increased.
§ Mr. Maclean
The hon. Gentleman would have heard similar points made and the answers to them if he had been present earlier. I respect his belief, but I believe that he is wrong, for the reasons that I am giving.
It is a great shame that we did not increase the deposit from £150 to £1,000. The £1,000 figure appears high only because of the relative increase from the present appallingly low level of £150. Some hon. Members argue that an increase in the deposit discriminates against smaller parties, and that it is unfair to ask any party, especially a small party, to lay out £650,000 before a campaign starts. Suggestions are being made about delayed deposits, bankers' drafts and cheques, but I shall not delve into that now. It may be unfair to maintain the forfeiture level at 12.5 per cent., but, since it should be lowered, I do not think that the increased deposit is unfair.
The House and the Representation of the People Acts should not be concerned with political parties. We must work from the assumption that candidates find their own deposits and stand as individuals. If a backer, such as a political party, wishes to provide the deposit for its candidates, it does so of its own free will. Therefore, it does not have the right to complain to the House that its campaign strategy was affected because it was short of funds. Some hon. Members may say that that used to be the case and that it is now a legal fiction to imagine that it still happens in the majority of cases. Many legal fictions, such as the fiction that a child under a certain age cannot commit a crime, are founded on good, sound, moral and ethical arguments.
§ Mr. Kilroy-Silk
The hon. Gentleman's remarks were based on the assumption that an increase in the deposit to £1,000 would deter frivilous candidates. Now he says that the reduction in the forfeiture threshold to 5 per cent. would not hurt serious candidates. The Ecology party fielded 63 candidates at the general election. The hon. Gentleman would presumably contend that they were serious candidates, who addressed themselves to an extremely important issue. Each candidate lost his deposit, which cost the Ecology party £9,450. Not one candidate received 5 per cent. of the vote. Under the Government's proposals, that would cost the Ecology party £63,000. Would the hon. Gentleman support that?
§ Mr. Maclean
The hon. Gentleman has not listened to the fundamental principle of my argument. The House and the Representation of the People Acts should not be concerned with political parties. If a candidate believes that he will gain the support of the electorate, nothing that I have said will deter him from doing so. We should lay down some checks and stricter criteria so that a candidate has to provide his own deposit and collect 150 signatures as a mark of his support. If he reaches the lower threshold of 5 per cent., he will regain his deposit; if not, he will lose it. We cannot have a system that protects everyone from his own folly if he fails to attract sufficient political support.
It cannot be regarded as too onerous a burden to ask a candidate to produce what amounts to less than one fifth of the annual average industrial wage. It cannot be argued that a serious candidate, who sincerely wishes to represent a constituency, will be prevented from doing so if the 1054 deposit is increased to £1,000. A higher deposit, coupled with a larger nomination form, would prevent the nonsense that we saw at Chesterfield, where the electorate were faced with 17 candidates on the ballot paper.
Finally, the 12.5 per cent. forfeiture is undoubtedly too high, because there is a danger that serious candidates with popular support could lose their deposits. In an average constituency of 66,000 electors, where 50,000 people voted, a candidate who achieved 6,249 votes would lose his deposit. That cannot be right. Therefore, we must lower the forfeiture level to 7.5 or 5 per cent. As I was critical of the Government White Paper earlier, I shall make amends by backing their suggestion of a 5 per cent. forfeiture level.
I have not analysed the general election results, but I accept that 97 per cent. of all independent candidates over the past 30 years have polled less than 5 per cent. I have analysed the figures for by-elections since the 1983 general election, and not one candidate outside the major parties gained more than 2.6 per cent. of the popular vote. Indeed, the average vote of the 32 fringe candidates who participated in those by-elections is 0.35 per cent. I do not think that people who obtain one third of 1 per cent. of the vote can claim that they have anything like a sizeable following in their constituencies and that the major parties are undemocratically trying to squeeze them out.
At the other end of the scale, four candidates from the major parties fell foul of the 12.5 per cent. rule and lost their deposits, even when they had an average of 2,160 votes each, and one candidate even had 11 per cent. of the popular vote. To those who argue that the raising of the deposit to i1,000 discriminates against the smaller parties, my answer is that that is simply not borne out. If we made the forteiture level 5 per cent., the smaller parties would retain their deposits. If they failed to achieve 5 per cent. of the popular vote, they could not argue that they deserved to keep their deposits in any event.
§ Mr. William Powell
The essence of my hon. Friend's argument seemed to be that candidates, not parties, stood for election, yet he now seems to be arguing that the deposits should be related to parties, not to candidates.
§ Mr. Maclean
I was trying to address my argument to those who say that this discriminates against the smaller parties, and I was trying to show that it does not. If I were to be true to my argument, I would say that I care nothing for parties. If this proposal discriminates against parties, so be it, but I maintain that it does not. Nor does it discriminate against individuals.
I do not think that this proposal discriminates against the smaller fringe candidates, but the House does not have a high moral duty to provide an easy platform for someone who cannot command the support of one third of 1 per cent. of the electorate. As the Home Affairs Committee points out, election candidates acquire considerable rights and privileges which are capable of being abused.
One of the fringe candidates in my election used his right of veto to ban all the other candidates from being interviewed on television or radio. It could be that my constituents were exceptionally grateful to him for keeping more electioneering off the television screen, especially as they were sated after the general election. But the destructive and vindictive use of that veto prevented viewers from seeing the seven other candidates and forming an opinion of them.
1055 The right of veto is important, but it belongs to the television viewers and radio listeners who can switch over or switch off if they do not want to see or hear the political candidates. I have no wish to prevent such splendid characters as Lord Sutch from participating in any election. I found him to be a charming and pleasant gentleman, principally because he makes a point of not being bitter or vindictive in any by-election or general election which he fights.
I hope that we can continue to give a platform to genuine British eccentrics, fund seekers or those who want to capture the protest vote, as well as to those candidates from political parties which may have long and complex policies and principles. However, we ought not to give a platform to those who are seeking a cheap way of advertising their merchandise, who wish to abuse our political system or who merely have a chip on their shoulders. If we insisted on more signatures on the nomination form, a higher deposit and a lower forfeiture level, we would satisfy these aims, as well as providing a sensible, sound and equitable system.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
Elitism is not dead. The hon. Member for Penrith and the Border (Mr. Maclean) demonstrated that, lurking in some parts of the Tory party—as the basis for the proposal of the £1,000 deposit—is the belief that if people's cheque books are not big enough they are not fit to test the electoral support that there may be for them. I am tempted to leave the hon. Gentleman to his hon. Friends, because several of them will probably take to pieces what he said.
When the hon. Gentleman said that Screaming Lord Sutch was not bitter or vindictive about electoral defeat, he prompted me to think that he himself was either bitter or vindictive about his electoral victory. It became clear from his closing remarks that he was upset because he had been vetoed from a television programme.
There are perfectly good ways of dealing with the television veto if it is felt that that is a problem, but not by preventing people from standing at elections. I was tempted to think that had the 500 Liberals who were on holiday at the time of the hon. Gentleman's by-election had the privilege of absent votes, he would not be here now.
However, I leave the hon. Gentleman to his hon. Friends and turn to the range of issues in the debate, some of them technical and not particularly controversial, but others which are much more controversial and which give rise to partisan considerations.
The hon. Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) talked of unanimity in the Select Committee. That was not difficult to achieve, because the Select Committee consisted of members of the Conservative party and the Labour party, who often arrive at unanimity. There would have been no unanimity had there been representatives of the Liberal party, the SDP or any of the other minority parties which have taken part in today's proceedings. That is not a general criticism of the Select Committee, but we must get away from the idea that a wide swathe of opinion is unanimous on these points.
§ Mr. Mellor
I have been waiting a long while to hear the hon. Gentleman, and I wanted to make sure that he would leave time to tell us whether the alliance had resolved the differences that are apparent in the views that 1056 it has put to us. In his letter to us of 25 November 1983, the leader of the SDP called for a large deposit and for the 12.5 per cent. to be left as it is, whereas the hon. Gentleman's own letter called for something completely different.
§ Mr. Beith
I shall deal with that in my closing remarks, but I wish to start with the more technical points. However, if the hon. Gentleman is expecting unanimity, the last place he should look is behind him, where he will find radically different views on whether the deposit should exist or should be high or low.
No one has yet mentioned the electoral registration timetable. We do not welcome the suggestion that the electoral register might be published as late as 20 March, which is extremely close to the campaign period for the local elections. The difficulties that have led to that date being suggested must be overcome if the timetable after the register is published is not to be completely unreasonable for those taking part in elections.
The question of the free post was dealt with ambiguously in the White Paper. The Government have helpfully said that they will discuss the options. but the way in which the recommendations were worded, particularly the summary of recommendations, did not suggest that they were still seriously considering the use of an unaddressed service such as is provided by the Post Office. It is at least arguable that that might be cheaper than the use of the addressed system. To judge from the nods from the Under-Secretary, I presume that he intends that possibility to be part of the consultations.
This has a tangential relationship to the whole issue of deposits, because the Home Secretary argued in reply to me that if the post is made easier to use by being unaddressed, more use of it may be made. So far, so-called fringe candidates have not profited at public expense by using the free post. In general they have not made use of it at all. Even if they were to use an unaddressed post, they would have to find the deposit as well as the cost of the literature which they wanted to send out. If there are reasons to guard against people fighting elections for commercial considerations, there are other ways of dealing with it, and I shall come to them in a moment.
The right to vote for citizens resident overseas features in the Labour party's amendment. In practice we have long had citizens resident overseas voting in elections in this country by virtue of a residence which they maintain here. It does not seem reasonable that those who are unable to afford to maintain a residence here while working overseas should be denied that right to take part in elections.
There is an undercurrent of suggestion in the Labour party's amendment—when it talks about tax exiles and people working in lucrative jobs overseas—that there is something fundamentally unpatriotic about working abroad and still seeking to exercise some role in the affairs of the country of which a person is proud to be a citizen. That is an incorrect suggestion. Many of those working overseas do so in international institutions such as the European Community, the Council of Europe, the World Bank, UNESCO and the various United Nation agencies, and many are working there specifically because they have been seconded from British institutions. Others are working for commercial organisations abroad, serving British interests, while others are serving as missionaries 1057 or as voluntary workers to help the societies to which they go. It is reasonable to make provision for them to exercise the right to vote here.
In the European elections, we watched citizens of many other countries going to town halls in this country to cast their votes. Many of them came from Socialist countries in other parts of Europe which thought it essential to provide their citizens with the right to vote, and those citizens exercised that right. Therefore, we cannot support the Labour party's amendment, because it seeks to deny a right which the Government are correct to want to extend.
I have some agreement with the Government over postal votes, because I think that it is right to widen the scope of them, particularly to those who are on holiday. We have all been through the experience of fighting general elections and European elections during holiday periods. The present system is biased against working people. There are many people on holiday who qualify for postal votes because the nature of their work makes it easy to apply. There are a wide variety of occupations in which it is possible to argue that in some way, during a period of absence, one may be discharging the functions of one's occupation, whether one is inspecting cattle in a distant market or in some other way carrying out one's occupation while actually on holiday. However, an ordinary working person in a wage-earning job in a factory who goes off on a coach tour in this country or abroad—often it is in this country—is denied any means of voting because it is clear that he is on holiday. Such people should not be denied the right to vote, and therefore the extension should be made.
There are arguments for making the reasonably wide provision that the Government have made, but we shall have to look at it again in a little more detail when we come to consider the Bill to see whether the proposed safeguards and definition are the right ones. In the broad principle I support the Government in what they are trying to do, but I am worried, as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) was, about the business of reregistering postal votes for those who have an occupational reason for a postal vote. That is an unreasonable demand. I have ample knowledge of the problems of long-distance wagon drivers, fishermen and others who, because of the nature of their work, never know whether they will be available to vote. It would be a disability for them if they were to have to renew their right to a postal vote on a regular basis. They should not have to do that.
It is a continuing absurdity to deny postal voting for parish, town and other local councils. I have seen the absurdity of that in practice. We are now talking about substantial communities. Local government reorganisation left many substantial towns and large communities with the town or parish council as an important unit of local government. Town and district council elections take place on the same day. I have watched a car arrive with the frail and handicapped residents of some old people's home being literally carried into the polling station by an enthusiastic candidate. They say to the candidate, "But, Mr. Smith, I have already voted for you by post," to which the candidate replies, "Oh no dear, that was in the district council election. You have to come in person to vote for me in the parish council election." These unfortunate people come to the same polling station for which they 1058 have been permitted to be absent for the district council elections, in order to vote in person in the parish council elections. That is absurd, and the Government should put it right. There is all-party support for this, and there is support from outside the House, especially from local councils and their national associations.
§ Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)
I have considerable knowledge of parish councils, having served on one for about 17 years, and I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said. Does he agree that, in addition to the excellent reasons that he has given, there is another reason why postal votes should be extended to parish councils? Many parishes are small communities, and in those areas literally a handful of votes will often decide the issue. Is it not particularly unfortunate that in such instances people are deprived of the right to vote?
§ Mr. Beith
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I hope that his comments will be taken to heart by the Minister, because this issue, among the many that had to be considered, has been left aside in the course of the discussions.
The recommendation about multiple registration, which is an important problem, has been rejected by the Government. The last Speaker's Conference, in 1973–74, recommended that the practice of being able to register a vote in several constituencies for parliamentary elections should be prohibited. In their evidence to the Select Committee, the Liberal, Labour and Conservative parties all said that the practice should be ended. The Select Committee was quite clear about this in its report. It discussed the possible objections and obstacles and said that as the Home Office was raising some of these obstacles, it would take some time to consider them. However, the Select Committee still came to the conclusion that the practice of being registered in several constituencies was indefensible.
This takes place against a background of the shift in case law over the years. There was a time when it was easier to challenge the registration of a holiday home; for example, because the concept of a principal residence was understood and accepted by returning officers and the courts. Over the years that has changed, and the idea that there is a principal residence does not now form part of the working law. It is possible for someone to establish a residential qualification in two, three, four or five places.
Often, in any given constituency, this problem involves a large number of holiday homes—houses which people keep to take holidays in themselves, or primarily to let to other people to take holidays in, and which they occasionally make use of themselves. These give rise to many social problems and arguments. However, what incenses the local communities concerned is that many people will, in the course of the election campaign, suddenly decide that they will cast their vote in their seaside home instead of in their other residence.
Other things arise from this as well. For example, if a by-election takes place, the people concerned have the right to vote in that by-election and in any other by-election in a constituency in which they have a registered home during the course of that Parliament, and even in more than one by-election taking place on the same day. By this, we admit into our system the right to vote several times for the same Parliament.
By this dual registration, we also increase the risk that people may vote twice. Unlike other problems, this does 1059 not arise on a large scale, but it is a problem, and it is difficult to prevent it and to enforce the law. The problem will be made worse by making postal votes easier to get. Government sources have argued to me that people are unlikely to abuse the rights which they have acquired through multiple registration because they cannot be in two places at once and their holiday home is a long way from their residence. However, if they can apply easily for a postal vote, it is that much easier for them to cast their vote at will in whatever place they choose.
There are a number of different ways to resolve the problem, and all are open to easy legislative steps. We can make it an offence knowingly to apply to be registered in more than one place, and we can make it clear to the person filling up the form that, just as he has to establish that anyone over 18 on the form is a British or Commonwealth citizen, so he has to satisfy himself that someone is not seeking registration in some other place. We can make it clear that there is a basis for a challenge. We can go further, and reintroduce the concept of a principal residence. If that is the only way that the Government are prepared to do it, I should agree with that. However, it is not the best way. I am content to leave the choice to the elector as long as he has a choice for a year that he will register in a particular place, not a choice, that on election day, he will go and vote in Cornwall, Northumberland or Lancashire rather than in London, Birmingham or Manchester.
For the Government to duck out of adopting that recommendation suggests some partisanship in their consideration of this measure. It must have been put to them from some quarter—presumably not from Central Office, because it is in favour of the changes that I am advocating—that the proposed change might harm the Conservative party because it could no longer use holiday votes in this way. I find that explanation more convincing than the Home Office directory of obstacles. The Home Office keeps a cupboard of obstacles. The Minister will know from his experiences of trying to get changes made there that out of this cupboard are brought obstacles to any proposal that could ever be conceived, however meritorious. He should throw the obstacles back in the cupboard and tell the people who are paid to remove obstacles that they must get on and do it, and make the change that I advocate.
What legitimate purpose is intended to be served by a massive increase in the parliamentary election deposit? The Select Committee refers to the possibility of abuse of the privileges of being a candidate by fringe candidates and to the desirability of deterring frivolous, disruptive, racialist or other anti-social candidates. Those are the kind of arguments advanced. The arguments of abuse it quickly dismisses by saying:the Home Office told us that there was little evidence of serious abuse of electoral privileges by candidates who do not come from the main political parties".I do not know whether that is a hint that those who come from major political parties abuse privileges, but that we will leave aside.
Why should people not have the right to put potentially unpopular views to the electorate? That is what elections are about. I go so far as to depart from the views of some hon. Members who have intervened in the debate and say that even some of the views that I find most repugnant I am delighted to see put to the test before the electorate and decisively rejected, as they have been repeatedly. When 1060 the National Front has sought to advance its views be fore the electorate, those views have been decisively rejected, and will continue to be decisively rejected. While I am prepared to support measures to prevent them from making racialist utterances and such like, I welcome the test before the electorate of unpopular views, regardless of whether it is theirs or others with which I disagree. There is something insufferably pompous about saying that fringe candidates in some way disrupt elections, still less confuse the electorate, which has shown itself capable of distinguishing between whom it wants and whom it does not want.
Even if it were desirable to limit in some way the right of various fringe categories of people to stand, that would not be achieved by the proposal to raise the deposit to £1,000. It will not stop the commercial candidate. If a candidate is motivated by commercial considerations and he thinks that it is worth 1,000 to fight an election, he will put down £1,000 to do it, and there is no deterrent to the commercial candidate. However, serious problems are presented by increasing the deposit on that scale. This will hit a number of small parties like the Ecology party, Mebyon Kernon in Cornwall and Plaid Cymru. I refer to what the Ecology party says about this:The recommendation, by the Home Affairs Select Committee … that the deposit for Parliamentary Elections should be raised from the present £150 to £1,000 poses a serious and direct threat to democracy. It represents a step back to the day when politics was the prerogative of the rich—there is no guarantee that ideas and opinions backed by money are necessarily better than those without vested financial interests behind them.The Government have pointed out several times that they have lowered the threshold, which I think is right. It will be a great help to the Labour party which lost 119 deposits in the last general election. The lowering of the threshold would assist the Labour party materially, as has been pointed out. However, it would not help some of the smaller parties that I have described. It tends to smack of an arrangement which may suit parties in the House, including my party, because the mere lowering of the threshold would have saved even the handful of deposits that the Alliance parties lost in the last general election. However, it can be seriously harmful to parties which are not represented in the House, and which have every right to stand.
The effect of this on major parties and parties intending to stand nationally across the country is a different one. It is the effect produced by having to put down over £500,000 to fight the election. Before one has spent any of the money, or borrowed any money from this friendly bank manager who will lend the £500,000, one has to spend in the election campaign. The Conservative party knows better than most that election campaigns are expensive. It spends vast amounts of money not only in the constituencies but centrally. It must be well aware that parties which are not so well endowed as it is have to look hard for finance at the time of fighting an election campaign. One may well be going to the bank manager not only for deposit money, but for some part of the total costs of the campaign as well. It is almost as if parties like the alliance parties, having engaged in some nefarious campaign of secondary picketing, are now being told that their entire assets will be sequestrated for the period of the election campaign as a penalty for what they have done. Out of fairly limited resources, it is proposed that a large amount be set aside for this period. If the Government are 1061 tempted to resist this argument and say that friendly bank managers and banker's drafts will solve it all, I remind them what they say in the White Paper with regard to a deposit of £2,000:It would mean that each of the political parties for which candidates stood in all or most of the 633 constituencies … would have to set aside over £1 million at the start of the campaign. Even if the parties could assume that most of this amount would be recovered after the election, it might cause severe cash flow problems when funds are needed for the campaign itself. Furthermore, an increase to £2,000 would put a major barrier in the way of independent candidates and those from the smaller political parties.Thus, the Government accept all the arguments. They say that they apply to £2,000, but not to £1,000. That must be because the Government live in a different financial league from lesser mortals like the rest of us.
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Gentleman puts the charge as if he speaks on behalf of a united alliance. However, I have before me the form returned to us by the leader of the Social Democratic party, agreeing to a significant increase of over 300 per cent. in the deposit, and asking that the threshold remain at 12.5 per cent. Has the hon. Gentleman resolved these differences with his alliance partners before he makes these charges against the Government?
§ Mr. Beith
The Social Democratic party put forward a case for a deposit of £500. I do not agree that it needs to be that, but now that it has been halved from £2,000 to £1,000 under the Government's proposals, we are making some progress. I have put forward the view that there are better options to the deposit. The Government will already have discovered in the course of the debate that, whatever else there is, there is no widespread support in the parties for a deposit of £1,000.
§ Mr. Maclennan
The Minister's intervention appears to be designed to perpetuate the impression that the Government are constantly engaged in, with the cosy acquiescence and assistance of the Labour Front Bench, that the Alliance is one party and not two, and that on all matters we are identical in our view, which the Minister and I know is not the case. It might suit the convenience of these old parties to treat us as if we were one, but it is simply not the case.
§ Mr. Beith
No, I shall not give way until I have finished this point. The Minister is looking for friends in the Chamber, and he has found there are not many behind him. He is looking for friends for a £1,000 deposit. He will not find any friends for a £1,000 deposit except the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and possibly the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) who was so concerned about the Fascist movement.
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Gentleman must address his mind to the point. I was grateful to his hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland for advising us that the alliance is not really an alliance at all. We obviously shall not forget that fact.
1062 To come to the point, the basic charge that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has levelled against the Government is that the big Conservative party, well-financed, is putting forward a proposal that suits its narrow interest, forgetting that a Select Committee, consisting of members of the principal Opposition party, unanimously agreed to this and forgetting that a small party, whose members are its allies, the Social Democratic party, put forward proposals that were more draconian than the Government's proposals. The Social Democratic party asked for the threshold to remain at 12.5 per cent. rather than at 5 per cent. Surely there is an inconsistency in the charge that the hon. Gentleman makes. He can hardly claim that it is the big parties playing up when his own allies agree with us far more than they agree with him.
§ Mr. Beith
My allies agree that the Government's proposed deposit of £1,000 is far too high. The amount of disagreement on this is at least on the same scale. If anything, it is less than the amount of disagreement already revealed on the Conservative Back Benches on which the Minister finds that he is short of support for his proposal to make this £1,000 increase.
I suggest to the Minister that the ability to raise a deposit on this scale is no test of the amount of support that exists in a constituency for a candidate. If the Minister thinks that is important, there are other tests for which to look. I do not rate this as being as important as he does. I am not as interested in deterring people from standing in elections as he is. If the Minister is determined to do this, in that spirit, I suggest that he looks at signatures as an alternative. It is interesting that the objection to signatures were largely disposed of by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) who spoke in some detail on the point. I did not agree with him about deposits, but he disposed of many of the objections to having a larger number of signatures. They are not serious objections, and, rather like those on multiple registration, are produced from a partisan point of view. The Minister could perfectly well leave things alone. The Home Office has been content to leave the dog licence alone for 100 years. Indeed, it has been even slower over that than it is alleged to have been on this issue. That licensing issue has been in the Home Office's hands for a very long time.
The Minister implied that there might be some disagreement between parties on this issue. Incidentally, the Labour party has changed its position. This is not a partisan point, because I welcome the fact that Labour Members saw the light between the time of their original submission of evidence and the accretion to office of the right hon. Member for Gorton. But where in all this does the pledge of Lord Whitelaw stand? When Home Secretary, he made it quite clear that, as far as he was concerned, deposits were a matter on which there needed to be wide agreement among the parties.
Lord Whitelaw did so in language characteristic of him. He said:Many people think that the deposit is unsatisfactory at its present level but that 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 can hear Lord Whitelaw's ringing tones now. He made it quite clear that there should be no great moves until there was agreement between the parties. That agreement has 1063 not been secured. I think that that is why the Home Secretary, in opening the debate, implied that he was prepared to look at the issue again.
I hope that the Home Secretary was serious about that, and that what the Minister has heard during this debate will lead him to move away from the proposal for a £1,000 deposit. If he attempts to proceed with legislation that is seen widely—not only by hon. Members but by many outside commentators—as a highly partisan proposal, which is particularly damaging to smaller parties and individuals who are not represented in the House, he will be in for a very tough time on the legislation, and will be making a very unwise move.
Of course, as far as possible we proceed with the organisation and arrangement of electoral law in accordance with the strictest traditions of British fairness and scrupulousness, yet we do nothing to ensure that there is ultimately any relationship between the votes cast and the seats won. In his concluding remarks, the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) alluded to that, and argued that during the last European elections the difference between what took place in Northern Ireland and Great Britain could not reasonably be sustained. Two different electoral systems were in operation for the same election to the same body. I agreed with him, although of course we would draw different conclusions. I think that he wants the system that Great Britain used and I want the system that the British Goverment used in Northern Ireland. However, it is preposterous that we should preserve the myth that great scrupulousness and fairness surround a system when it is fundamentally unfair, particularly to voters. I wonder why we do it.
The other day, I read a few words written by Lord Wilson of Rievaulx in a foreword to a book by a former Labour Member of Parliament who advocated electoral reform. He said:If I cannot have a Labour Government, I would prefer, almost choking as I write it"—I am touched to think that the noble Lord could write words that almost choked him—a Conservative or other Government".I think that the noble Lord put his finger on it, because those who want to retain the system as it is have as their fundamental belief that it somehow produces Governments, and that as long as a Government are produced by it, it does not really matter which.
There is a much simpler, less expensive and briefer method of achieving precisely the same result. It does not require these debates or this apparatus. All that is needed is to toss a coin and so make a random choice as to the Government who are to be in office. That is about as close to accuracy as our electoral system is. That is why it is so indefensible. The parties that dominate this House can carry on doing things in the way that they choose for a little while longer, and they can carve up the time in the House and election arrangements, and preserve the electoral system that suits them, but they will not be able to keep it up for ever because that system will change, and we shall change it.
§ Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)
I should like to raise two points, one of which has been dealt with by several hon. Members, and one of which has not been touched on by any hon. Member or by the White Paper. First, I should like to clarify the question of postal votes, to which the 1064 right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and others have referred.
Unlike the right hon. Member for Down, South, I believe that the system should be somewhat more flexible than it is at present. The right hon. Gentleman made a very coherent argument, but I cannot agree with him on that point. Far too many members of the public realise too late that they are entitled to claim a postal vote and so find themselves debarred. The Government propose to extend the entitlement to postal votes, but the time limit for applications, followed by the time limit for distribution, is too far away from polling day. People should be entitled to make their applications nearer to polling day and so be able to cast their votes. Not all people are aware that they have until the tenth day before polling day to apply for a postal vote, and it is only the reminder—the imminence of a general election—that makes them realise that they are likely to be away on the day. How often have we all, as candidates on the doorstep, been told, "I have only just realised that that is the day that I shall be away."? Such people should not be debarred from their natural right to cast a vote.
My second point relates to the legislation covering constituency reviews, as originally set out in the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1958, which has been encompassed by the Representation of the People Act 1979. It says:a Boundary Commission's report, … shall be submitted not less than ten or more than fifteen years from the date of the submission of the Commission's last report under that subsection".I have looked up the speech that the then Secretary of State for the Home Department and Lord Privy Seal, Mr. R. A. Butler, made when introducing that legislation. He said that the minimum interval of 10 years should be short enough to prevent major discrepancies from remaining too long uncorrected.
I am sure that that was the then Secretary of State's expectation when the legislation was introduced in 1958, but unfortunately, because of a curious series of events that Mr. Butler doubtless never expected, major discrepancies will occur between the latest boundary review and the next one. As hon. Members will be aware, the date used for the review of electorates was 1976. The actual review was not submitted until 1983. Therefore, when it was submitted to the House, the electorates involved were already seven years out of date.
Given that the report was submitted in 1983 and that a general election also took place in 1983, and presuming that we shall have a full Parliament following each of the next general elections—there is a maximum of five years for each Parliament, although Governments tend to go for four and a half years—the next general election to be fought on new boundaries will probably take place in 1997. In other words, there will have been a period of 21 years between the original electorates being used for the Boundary Commission's report which was submitted in 1983, and a new series of boundaries being used.
When Mr. Butler introduced that legislation in 1958, it was clearly never intended that 21 years should elapse between the start of one review and the implementation of the next. That is contrary to all the principles that both he and the then Opposition spokesman, Mr. Gilbert Mitchison, referred to at the time. I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to look carefully at the time scale involved 1065 as originally set out in the 1958 Act and confirmed in later legislation. Mr. Butler said that he wanted to avoid major discrepancies. Given current population trends, by 1997 two constituencies in England—Milton Keynes and Hampshire, East—will have electorates of more than 120,000. Another 23 constituencies will have electorates of 100,000, given current population trends. There will also be a large number of constituencies whose electorates will be well below 50,000 and a number which will be well below 40,000.
Between 1976 and 1983, the dates of the initial review and the implementation of the Boundaries Commission report, three parliamentary constituencies had electorates which dropped by over 10,000. If those three constituencies continue to decline at that rate, their electorates will be well below 40,000 and probably at least two of them will be below 30,000. In other words, at that stage we will be talking about a discrepancy of 90,000 between the electorates of the two largest constituencies and those of the two smallest constituencies in England.
§ Mr. Bermingham
I accept all that the hon. Gentleman has said so far about reviews. Will he accept two things in regard to the last review? First, will he accept that there was a problem over a certain district council in London which fought the local government Boundary Commission and that delayed the matter for two to three years? Will he also accept that modem computer techniques developed by Professor Johnson of Sheffield University, of which I think the hon. Gentleman is well aware, make it possible to calculate and redistribute the whole of Great Britain within about six months? Therefore, if we take the earlier 10-year date, the problem of the 1990s may not arise.
§ Mr. Hayward
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. It is precisely because of technicalities which were not foreseen when the Bill was introduced in 1958 that I am arguing that the period should be shorter. There are other technicalities which could further delay redistribution.
Many countries review their constituency boundaries in less than a year. Therefore, I must agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, I made the point about the chance of having a review submitted in 1983, followed immediately by a general election. Presumably there are two full parliaments which will last approximately nine to nine and a half years, there will be a third general election which will push the next general election to 1997 and therefore there will be that delay of 21 years unless the regulations are specifically changed.
Given the points that I have made about the disparity that will arise before 1997 in relation to the electorates—I referred to English constituencies, although equivalent discrepancies will arise in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with the construction of new towns such as Cwmbran and Cumbernauld—the period originally intended should be shortened so that we do not confront those massive discrepancies that were never intended by Mr. Butler when he introduced the original legislation.
§ Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)
First, I add my voice to those who have expressed concern about the suggestion that the fee should be increased. My hon. Friend the 1066 Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) put the case well in an intervention about the Ecology party a short while ago. I want to add my voice to what he said. We should be concerned if we are to start restricting democracy to those who can pay for it.
However, that is not the purpose of my intervention today. I want to speak on a different and specific matter. It concerns an election court that sat in Hammersmith and dealt with an alleged corruption two years ago. I make it clear straight away that my purpose today is not to rake over the ashes of the rights and wrongs of that, but simply to point out, as I did at the time, that it had considerable national implications, and they have not yet been satisfied. I fear I shall have to go over the details of the case for the Minister, and, should he need papers at a later stage, I shall be happy to send them to him.
The incident took place in Hammersmith during the 1982 local elections. The seat concerned was marginal, closely fought by Labour and Conservative candidates. It ended with two of the three council seats going to the Labour candidates and one to the Conservative candidate. The Conservative—the one against whom the allegations were made—had a majority of 74.
On 1 May 1982, about a week before the election, a letter was sent out by the Conservative candidate—it was written on town hall paper because he was already a councillor from the previous period—with the crest and the councillor's name on it. Next to it was superimposed a photograph of a football game. That letter starts, "Dear Parent". It then refers to the match between Queen's Park Rangers and Bolton on 1 May 1982. It went on:I am pleased, through the generosity of the Directors of the Club, to invite your Son, or Daughter, to the League match which is to take place at the Rangers Stadium this Saturday, 1st May, THIS LETTER IS A TICKET OF ADMISSION, and should be shown if required when attending the match.Pupils from many Hammersmith schools have been invited and it is anticipated that more than 1,000 young people will attend. Teachers and Parents will also be present and will act as stewards. If, however, you wish to accompany your child, you may do so, and this letter will also ADMIT YOU WITHOUT PAYMENT.The letter goes on to describe how to attend the match.
At the bottom of that letter is a photograph of that councillor holding a football above his head. As I said, he won the election by 74 votes. As a result, the control of the council was decided. Hammersmith is a hung council. Had he lost that seat, Labour would have been the predominant party. Therefore, it can be seen that that was one of those classic situations that made a difference to political control.
The Hammersmith, North constituency Labour party took detailed legal advice. I put it on record now that I received a lot of advice from Sam Silkin, whom many will respect as having once been a distinguished Member of the House with considerable legal knowledge. We also took advice from other suitably qualified people. We were advised that there was a strong case, but that we could not be sure of winning it. That was understood. The case of Josephine Ann Wicks and William C. Smith then took place on 6 May 1982.
Let me quote briefly from the judgment in that case. It says:In my judgment the Respondent must have had in his mind"—the respondent is the Conservative candidate in this case—the realisation that his actions in regard to the 1st May match would increase or tend to increase his popularity, and that that 1067 might assist him in relation to voting. But he had previously done the same thing without any complaint or criticism until after the election".That was a reference to a case in which the respondent had offered entertainment of this type when an election was not taking place.
The judgment continues:On the vital point whether the increasing of popularity was the governing principle here in the Respondent's mind or whether whilst that was or may have been in his mind the governing principle"—I emphasise those words—was a mere act of kindness, I find without hesitation that the governing principle was an act of kindness, unwise in the circumstances but certainly not corrupt. In my judgment the Respondent is not guilty of any offence under section 100, corruptly treating.I am not seeking to reopen the case in detail, but it clearly has severe repercussions elsewhere. The local Labour party considered an appeal, and it was advised that it might win, but that the expenses of losing would be considerable. Already the expenses of the court case have reached, I believe I am right in saying, five figures.
I am asking that the law should be brought into line with at least the position of Members of Parliament. Before I do that, may I pick up some of the points that are relevant from the findings. First, as I understand it, the relevant findings of fact arethe respondent must have had in his mind the realisation that his actions in regard to the 1st May match would increase or tend to increase his popularity, and that that might assist him in relation to voting.The second finding of fact was:the governing principle was an act of kindness, unwise in the circumstances but certainly not corrupt.In those circumstances, the judge, having correctly stated the vital question, which was one of intention, appears to have decided the matter not on intention but on the governing principle being the predominant motive. Bearing in mind that his predominant motive was to do an act of kindness, but also that he knew that that act of kindness would tend to increase his popularity and might bring him votes, perhaps the question that should have been asked in the case was whether it was established that he intended that the act of kindness should tend to increase his popularity and bring him votes.
The problems of dealing with a situation such as this are difficult. One could say that it is simply a matter of appealing and hoping to win the appeal, but it is not as easy as that. The cost involved is severe, and there is no way in which the local Labour party could have afforded the cost if it had fought the case and lost the appeal. It would have been an impossible burden for a local constituency party to bear.
One of two things needs to be done. First, the law could be brought into line with or made similar to that which applies to Members of this House. For example, if an election had been called and during the ast few years I had occasionally treated or entertained people, and then sought to do so using House of Commons notepaper during the election period, I think that I would have been in serious trouble with the electoral court and with this House—and rightly so. I do not think that anyone here would dispute that. If that is the case, surely a similar principle should be applied to local authorities.
1068 There seems to be a double standard, and I suspect that it is because councillors continue to occupy their positions, although hon. Members of this place cease to occupy their positions, when an election is declared.
The other way of dealing with the matter would be to use a form of wording such as that which I sought to put into a Bill two years ago. I proposed a form of wording which would have added a paragraph (c) to clause 114(2) of the Representation of the People Bill. The provision was along the lines that any practice of treating before an election shall not be continued after an election has been declared and before that result has been announced if that treating applies to people who are in a position to vote for the candidate.
I recognise the drafting difficulties. There is the problem that a person may, for example, have been making regular payments to a charity. If we restrict the provision to payments to people who can actually vote for the candidate, and if we restrict it to the election period, that seems to be a valid way of dealing with the problem. Therefore, there are two possibilities. The first is an addition to the law of the type that I have just described. The second is for the Government to endeavour to introduce legislation, or whatever is necessary, to bring the provisions for councillors into line with those applying to Members of Parliament.
Judges who sit in electoral courts should be advised—it may be a matter for the Lord Chancellor, but the Home Office should have a view on it—not to participate in electoral court cases if they are closely related to a person who has recently been a candidate. I say that because one of the sad aspects of the case NA as that, soon after the judgment had been announced, a number of people became aware that the judge was the father of the Conservative candidate who had stood against me in 1979, and that the lady who had lost in the council election had, in fact been my agent. I make it abundantly clear that I am not suggesting that the judge was swayed by that factor. Indeed, I also recognise that a rather more distant relative of the judge was Sir Stafford Cripps, who was a very distiguished member of the Labour party. Nevertheless, it seems extremely unwise for a judge to decide a case such as this when he has had such a close relative involved in a recent election in the area. No matter what I say to people, many will believe that the judge's decision was swayed by that contact. That may be an unfair and unreasonable view, but most of us recognise that the law has to be seen to be as perfect as possible.
Therefore, I am asking that advice be given to judges not to accept cases of this type if someone directly related to them, as opposed to a more distant relative, has stood as a candidate in an election in the area. It is an extremely important matter. I have already said that I raised it in a Bill two years ago. I attempted to put it to the Select Committee, but, for reasons that I am unclear about—perhaps because it was regarded as a matter for appeal—the Committee chose not to look into it. I respect that decision. Nevertheless, I feel that the judgment has very real national implications that should be examined. Therefore, I invite the Minister to respond to me at some stage in that respect.
§ Mr. William Powell (Corby)
I hope that the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) will forgive me if I do not follow him down the interesting road on which he has just taken us. As one who is fascinated by this area of the law of elections, I should be only too happy to discuss the matter with him elsewhere on other occasions, but for the purpose of the debate I want to concentrate on some of the things that have been said.
I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) said about the redistribution of boundaries. I know that the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) largely agreed with what my hon. Friend said, and I am certain that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary knows me well enough to know that I shall pursue him on the matter until such time as we have a contemporary statute which reflects the reality of how these things should be done today, rather than that which was possible several decades ago.
In a curious way the debate, as it has become enlarged, has, as it should, crossed the party boundaries. The right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and the Border (Mr. Maclean) analysed the deficiences and showed how out of date our current election law is. I very much agree with what they said. No matter how beguiling the comments of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) in his interesting contribution, I found his view of the principles which should govern elections somewhat nostaligic. Although personal privacy and simultaneity have an important role in the conduct of elections, they are by no means the only two principles which should govern such matters, and I do not regard them as the main ones which should govern the conduct of elections. I feel that our election law should instead be based upon two central principles.
First, we should encourage the maximum number of qualified people to be registered to vote. Not many hon. Members have taken up the comment of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary that the accuracy of the rolls is the most important point of all. I shall return to that in due course, because it seems to me that our law is now so out of date that we do not encourage the maximum possible number of qualified people to be registered to vote.
Secondly, having got the maximum number of qualified people on the register, we should do everything we can to encourage them to vote, rather than discouraging them. My central criticism of the law as it stands is that several substantial barriers are placed in the way of our electors when they seek to exercise their franchise. Those barriers have no place in modern society and can easily be eliminated. I am most impressed by the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) have been prepared to grasp the issue and to bring our law up to date. For that, they deserve the heartfelt thanks of every hon. Member.
Of course, some of the judgments that those hon. Members have sought to argue before the House have not stood up. Much attention has been concentrated on the deposit. Having listened to the argument and having made two interventions, I must say that the arguments in favour of a £1,000 deposit are as persuasive as the arguments in favour of no deposit. Both points are entirely arbitrary. A 1070 consideration of principle means that we should place as few restrictions as we can on the right to stand as a candidate. We should place few restrictions also on the right to vote as an elector. The arguments in favour of no deposit are compelling.
I do not want my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State to think that just because few hon. Members have attended the debate all the argument on his side lies with the absentees. Those who are most interested in and, perhaps, most knowledgeable about this matter attended the debate. I hope that my hon. Friend will in no sense think that the quality of their contributions is diminished by the fact that not many hon. Members are present.
It is clear that candidacies have been abused. We have heard of the danger of commercial candidacies. It may be that a few people stand for election simply to have a good time and make a mockery of the system. There are two elementary ways of dealing with that problem. One way exists already—the post master has the right to decide not to accept material which he does not regard as legitimate election material. I believe that the returning officer should have a similar right to disqualify people who put themselves forward as candidates of parties which manifestly are not parties. If the person disqualified by the returning officer does not approve the decision, he would, of course, have the right to go to the courts. That discretion should lie with the returning officer.
Although he was helpful in a number of ways, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) made one of the most reactionary speeches that I have heard in my life. It seemed that he was exactly the sort of person who was trying to impose barriers on voting rather than eliminate them. I disagreed with virtually every word that he had to say about people who are temporarily living abroad. I believe that the Government are right to seek to extend the franchise to them. The right hon. Gentleman referred also to those who have holiday votes.
Many hundreds of thousands of people are away from this country for short periods on contract whether in the European Community, the Gulf or the middle east and are fortuitiously absent for the period of a general election and during the preparations of the register. They are denied the right to vote, even though they will return to this country well before the end of the Parliament elected following that general election. Those people should have the right to determine the Government. They may have substantial ties with this country in the form of families still living here, and it is proper for us to extend the right to vote to them.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary said, the accuracy of the register is the most important point. Our registers are shockingly inaccurate when they are drawn up. We should be ashamed of that. We should do everything we can through the legislation that must follow from this debate, which I hope will be introduced in the next Session, to draw up sensible rules to ensure that the register is as accurate as possible.
I seek to lay down the principle that the electoral registration officer should have a legal duty at all times to keep an accurate register. If it transpires that there is an inaccurate factor on the register, his duty should be immediately to correct the register, ensuring that the 1071 person is then entitled to vote. One of the farces of the current law is that certain categories of people can get the register altered, and still be denied the right to vote.
In due course, we shall have the opportunity of discussing postal votes. I shall draw on one aspect of my experience. In 1979, I was resident in a constituency which had more than 93,000 voters. I was active on behalf of my party in the election campaign, although I was not a candidate. We were proud, of the fact that we had managed to secure about 2,000 postal votes. A close analysis showed that 10,000 people were entitled at law to vote by post if they claimed their postal vote which meant that about 8,000 people had not claimed their postal vote. By far and away the largest category of that 8,000 comprised people who had moved house—not long distance lorry drivers, fishermen and some of the other important categories. Those people had moved house not from one village to another or from one part of town to another but had moved from Cambridgeshire to Cornwall, Cumbria or wherever.
Most of those people, who were not especially politically active and did not think about the importance of securing their postal vote in good time, discovered that to vote at all they would have to drive 50 or 100 miles. That was far too great a distance to contemplate. The biggest single reason why voting turnouts in Britain are lower than in other countries is not that our people do not want to vote but that we place hurdles in front of them. We stop them from voting, and that must change. This statute must ensure that that does not happen in future.
I should like to see the creation of a roll-on register, so that people moving from one constituency to another are entitled to notify the electoral registration officer of their move. That officer would have the responsibility of eliminating the name of the person from the register in his former constituency and inserting it on the new register, thereby enabling the person to vote where he lives rather than where he lived 18 months ago. That step would go a long way towards encouraging the higher turnout of people.
Obviously, at the end of the evening when many matters have been canvassed, I should like to say a great deal more. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State on their initiatives. I want them to understand also that some of the arguments advanced by the Opposition are not ridiculous. I support the idea that a person can be registered in only one place. It is wrong to encourage people to be registered in different constituencies.
The points made by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) were valid, although his speech went off the boil after the interruption by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in one of the most effective torpedoes that I have heard during my short time as a Member. My hon. Friend will have our good wishes and our help. If he is prepared to seek wide support for what he wants to do, this new legislation will command the support of not only the House but the country and will survive.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
The hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) made a thoughtful speech, much of which commanded support across party lines. I wish to pick up just a couple of points.
1072 On the accuracy of electoral registers, I remember the historic by-election of 1972 in Merthyr Tydfil, where was then living, when one person found that he was registered seven times on the same register. He only voted once, of course, but inaccuracies of that kind occur all the time. Later that year I stood for election to the local authority in the same area and had about 1,000 votes to win in a four-cornered fight. When the electoral register, which consisted of about 8,000 names, was next published, I discovered that it had fallen by about 800, most of whom turned out to be recognised supporters of my party.
In other words, the system is open to abuse. The compilation of the register should be dealt with in a far more professional way and there should be a statutory responsibility to keep the register accurate and up to date. Names and addresses should not be picked up and confirmed on an ad hoc basis. There should be a systematic, professional way of going about the task.
The subject of electoral deposits is close to my heart and I should perhaps declare an interest because my party, regrettably, loses far too many of them and the thought of the deposit rising to £1,000 fills us with awe. There should not be a financial barrier to people wishing to express their views or to change society through the ballot box and the constitutional mechanism. Any disincentive which drives people away from the constitutional process is greatly to be regretted. Reference has been made to the Ecology party. There are also various parties on the far Left. It is far better that those people should express their feelings through the ballot box and the constitutional process than by other methods.
There have been disparaging references to "clown candidates" but a large deposit means that rich clowns can stand and poor clowns cannot. Anyone with a contribution to make should have the right to do so. We regret very much the proposed increase to 1,000 and I hope that there will be an assurance that it will not rise any further. Even that figure may prevent our fighting all the seats in Wales in the next election. That will be the effect of the proposed changes on the democratic process. Nevertheless, I welcome the Government's move to reduce the required proportion to 5 per cent., which is far more acceptable.
Reference has also been made to second homes, which is a hot issue—one might almost say a burning issue—in my part of Wales. There are 15,000 holiday homes in the county of Gwynedd, which is almost 20 per cent. of the houses in the county, so a real problem arises. I realise that some people with holiday homes claimed the right to register in that area in the past because if they were in their holiday homes at the time of an election they would otherwise be disfranchised. Paragraph 67 of the Select Committee report, however, states:if our recommendation for the extension of absent voting at least to those on holiday in the UK were to be implemented, those who own holiday cottages could be accommodated by this means and the need to be registered in two separate places would no longer arise.The Government have made no coherent and valid argument against that. They say that there would be difficulties in administering it, but there are even greater difficulties in trying to check whether people are voting twice. A comprehensive register on the basis of one registration per elector would be far easier to operate than trying to discover abuses of the present system.
If there are to be postal votes virtually on demand—for holidays and associated purposes, there will be a real 1073 temptation for people who are registered twice to vote twice. I hope that registration officers will be strongly advised not to include occupants of second homes unless there is considerable permanence of occupation—perhaps a residential qualification of 40 weeks per year with occupation for at least part of each week. It would be greatly preferable, however, to do away with dual registration altogether. If the Minister insists on keeping the right to register in two places, at the very least anyone registering in two places should have to declare on the registration form the fact that he is also registered at another address so that there is some possibility of following up such cases and ensuring that the right is not being abused. That is the minimum that we should ask for if the proposed change goes through.
On overseas voting, I understand why people away from Britain want a say in elections, although if they are away for seven years or so, one may question whether they should have full rights when they are not part of the community here. People who have been living away from Wales for several years, feel the same way. They cannot vote for my party if they are living in London, but no provision has been made for them. [Interruption.] If the Minister is suggesting that all they need is a second home in Wales, that argument is not acceptable.
§ Mr. Mellor
I was saying that there was a Welsh nationalist candidate in my constituency, so if the people concerned lived in Putney they would be all right.
§ Mr. Wigley
I am sure that that candidate was not officially endorsed by my party and I certainly doubt whether the Minister voted for him.
Problems clearly arise from the extension of postal voting. Here I very much agree with the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). In a county election in my area more than 20 per cent. of one ward was on a postal vote. One knows what can happen in such circumstances. Party workers know when the voting papers are posted. They can keep an eye on the postman delivering them and send carloads of supporters to follow him around. Then, as soon as the paper has been dropped into the poor old widow's letterbox, one of the supporters can knock on the door and say, "I see that your postal vote has come, Mrs. Jones. Postal votes are very complicated and you will need a witness. Perhaps I can help you." In that way, pressure can be put on people using postal votes.
That is reality. I know that it happens and the Government should be very much aware of it when considering greatly increasing the number of postal votes. I do not oppose giving the right to vote to people on holiday because they should not be disfranchised, but the safeguards against abuse must be developed. I also have reason to believe that in the recent European election more than 10 per cent. of the postal votes returned in my constituency were not counted, as they were in error because the system is so complicated. If all those putting the declaration and the ballot paper in the same envelope were also cut out, an enormous proportion of postal votes would be invalid. Therefore, I have doubts about the proposed extension of postal voting unless other changes go hand in hand with it to minimise abuse.
We also need tighter regulations to ensure that polling stations are accessible. Disabled people often have considerable difficulty. Although they have the right to a 1074 postal vote, many of them like to go and vote personally. If the polling station is on the third floor or down a flight of steps, unnecessary barriers are placed in the way of disabled people.
The point that was made earlier about electoral registers being available to candidates in a computer-readable form on the same free basis is something to which the Government should address their minds. It will be needed in the future.
I understand the point about keeping open polling stations from 7 o'clock in the morning until 9 o'clock at night. It is important that all the electorate understand how much time is available to them for voting. That is a practical consideration.
In conclusion, I support the comments of the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart). Until and unless we have proper control of the abuse of financial resources that are available for the mass media for the centralised projection of election campaigns, to keep that control on a constituency basis is no more than a farce. At the moment it is possible to have a major influence on the outcome of major elections in spite of the lack of centralised control. The Government and Select Committees should consider how we can get proper control if we are to have meaningful democracy.
§ Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)
The hour is late, so I shall be brief. The essence of the question is whether or not a person living in a democratic society has a right to vote. If he has a right to vote, he has a right to stand up to be voted for. The two concepts are so inextricably linked in a democracy that anything that seeks to interfere with that right to stand or to vote ought to be opposed in any country that calls itself a democracy.
Examining the proposals in the White Paper, I ask the Minister to accept that I was one of those who first came to the argument in regard to the foreign residents, with which I shall deal in a moment, believing that we should look again at our tradition of a deposit. But I have listened to the arguments here tonight and I hope that the Minister will take up many of the points made by the smaller parties.
I object to anyone being called a clown candidate. That description is a disgrace. I do not mind what arguments he puts up: the electorate will tell him whether they think he is a clown candidate. If one stands for the "Must have roast beef on Sunday" party and gets no votes, one will know exactly what the electorate think.
One has a right in a democracy to stand for election. There is no need to obtain mystical permission from some party body. One has a right to stand as an individual. If we begin to attack that right to stand, then we begin to attack our own democracy. Similarly, on the right to vote, I ask the Minister to consider the question of the register. The hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) was quite right. Much needs to be done, so that it can be updated, perhaps weekly or monthly. Once it is updated, one can vote again. In our technological society, there is no reason why that should not happen.
The Americans began their independence at Boston with the lovely cry, "No taxation without representation." When examining the question of overseas residents, perhaps we should turn that quotation the other way around. If taxation is paid, there is a right to representation and to vote. I take on board the point about the person who 1075 will be abroad for a short while. I began by holding a different view, but I have listened to the arguments and I now believe that if a person will be away for a year or two, he should retain his voting status in this country, provided that he is ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom for taxation purposes. That is the key to the whole matter, and I ask the Minister to give some thought to that point.
If a person is paying tax in the United Kingdom, he should have a right to vote in the United Kingdom. The minute one starts to develop the argument down that philosophical line, it is right that one should vote if one is on holiday. A Conservative Member said earlier that he had not heard unequivocally from the Labour Benches that we believe that a holidaymaker should have a right to vote. Well, I say it unequivocally. If one pays tax here, and is ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom, one has a right to vote. We as a House have a duty to enshrine in statute law measures which assist the electorate to vote. It is not for us to tell them why or what to do. It is for us to make sure that they can exercise their democratic rights because they, in exercising their democratic rights say who has a right to speak in the House. The day when we seek to make that difficult is the day when we start to attack democracy.
I hope that the Government will take on board when the Bill returns to the Floor of the House many of the points made, but will start from the premise that the citizen who is ordinarily resident here and pays taxes here has the right to vote here and that every step should be taken to assist him.
§ 9.3 pm
§ Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Knowsley, North)
This has been an important debate on a major subject. I think that most hon. Members who have listened to and participated in it will agree that we have dealt with the matter seriously. The issues that were raised are the ones that one would expect, as well as many others such as electoral abuse mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), as well as the minutiae of the Representation of the People Acts.
The Opposition want to improve our democracy and ensure that the maximum number of those who are eligible to vote are enabled to vote and that those who wish to be candidates have as few obstacles put in their way as possible. Those principles have guided our attitude to both the report of the Select Committee and the Government's White Paper, and will infuse our response to the legislation when it is put before us.
I shall deal in chronological order with the right to vote. We agree with both the recommendation of the Select Committee and the proposal in the White Paper that there shall be no disturbing of the right held by Irish and Commonwealth citizens. We accept that the right to vote of Irish citizens resident in this country is an anomaly, but it is long established and no one else has sought to disturb it. The Irish are part of our community, have long been so, and they make a positive and constructive contribution to our political and social life. They expect to vote; they have been used to having the vote, and no evidence was adduced to the Select Committee or anywhere else why it should be taken away. The unanimous recommendation of the all-party Select Committee, the acceptance of the Government's recommendation and the fact that in this wide-ranging 'and important debate not a single hon. Member from any party on either side of the House has sought to suggest that there should be any disruption of the 1076 entitlement of Irish citizens resident in the United Kingdom to vote in British elections will, I hope, put that matter to rest once and for all.
Unfortunately, I cannot give the same warmth or welcome to the Government's proposal that British citizens resident abroad should be enabled to vote in the constituency where they last had residence. As the Government suggest, that means that about 600,000 voters will be added to the poll from the 3 million British citizens currently estimated to be resident abroad. As a proposal, that goes well beyond the Select Committee's recommendation.
I make it very clear that our opposition to that is not unpatriotic, as the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) attempted to suggest in one of his vitriolic moments, but is based upon deep and sensible reasons. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) suggested that a case could be made out for giving the vote to British citizens temporarily resident abroad—those who are working for Britain on a short term, temporary basis, who expect to come back and who have permanent residence here. One must acknowledge that one can make a case for that, but it would create anomalies that might lead to a dangerous situation.
However, we cannot accept, nor has a case for it been put forward tonight, that the vote should be extended to those who have left this country once and for all. There is no reason why we should allow those who have emigrated, who in a sense have renounced their British citizenship—some go to distasteful regimes such as South Africa—to exercise the right to vote in this country for a period of up to about eight and a half years. A powerful and overwhelming case can be made against extending the franchise to those who have sought tax havens abroad, who are abroad deliberately and specifically to avoid paying United Kingdom tax or rates.
Support for that contention has come from Conservative Members. The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) did not subscribe entirely to the notion that votes should not be extended to British citizens resident abroad, but at least suggested that those people should be shown to have some connection with the United Kingdom. He argued that seven years might be too long and that the period should be no more than five years. He touched on a very important point. That point has been alluded to by hon. Members on both sides of the House. If one is to give the right to vote to British citizens who have been abroad for, say, eight years, those people will in the main have lost contact with the community in which they resided and where they voted. They cannot be said to be knowledgeable about the candidates, the election or the issues in the constituency. Indeed, they may not even be knowledgeable about national issues. They will be totally out of touch.
The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) properly said that such people, if given the vote, might be voting before very important and serious events at a national or constituency level had taken place Such a provision would make a mockery of the Burkean notion that electors in a constituency should be able to appraise the integrity, character, ability and policies of the candidates before them and to make a decision accordingly. For those and other reasons, we oppose, and will continue firmly to oppose any proposal to extend the franchise to British citizens living abroad who no longer have any stake in this country or any commitment to it.
1077 If we are to extend the franchise, we must answer certain questions of a mundane but important nature. Are candidates to be given the free post so that they can circulate election material to voters registered in their constituencies who happen to be abroad? Are Members of Parliament, once elected, and having constituents who live in far-flung outposts of the world, to be given free postal facilities to communicate with them, and free telephone facilities—
§ Mr. Kilroy-Silk
Perhaps we should indeed be able to visit them as well. If the links between a Member of Parliament and his constituents are important—and they are—the Government will have to address themselves to such issues, which they have so far neglected.
Once we have decided who is eligible to vote, we must ensure that people are properly registered and that the register of electors is accurate. It is crucial to ensure that the maximum number of those entitled to vote have the opportunity actually to cast their vote. That is not the case if they are not on the register. The hon. Members for Corby (Mr. Powell) and for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), and my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South all reminded us that at the moment the register is inaccurate.
In his evidence to the Select Committee, David Butler said that there were serious and substantial shortcomings of both inclusion and omission in the electoral register.
The report of the Select Committee points out that the level of inaccuracy has become unacceptably high. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was estimated that 3 or 4 per cent. of the names on the register were inaccurate—in other words, names were redundant or had been omitted. According to reports issued by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, the register can now be inaccurate at any one time not by the 6 to 7 per cent. suggested by the Home Secretary—and even that percentage would mean hundreds of thousands of people—but by between 6 and 16 per cent. Indeed, in inner city areas such as inner London it is not unusual for the electoral register in a borough to be inaccurate by 14 per cent. at the time when it is drawn up. Clearly, that is totally indefensible and unaceptable. That percentage represents about two million or four million people who are precluded from voting.
The situation is especially disturbing and distressing when one considers the type of people who are excluded. A report from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys demonstrates, and the evidence given by Dr. Butler and Professor Keith-Lucas also suggests, that the excluded people tend to be members of the ethnic minorities, young attainers—those aged 16 to 17—and people living in multi-occupied accommodation such as bedsits and lodging houses. Such people, especially young blacks and members of the ethnic minorities, are often alienated from our society and political system. Everything possible should be done to ensure that they participate fully in the democratic process and that they are given every encouragement and ability to be registered and to vote. In that context, we welcome the recommendations of the Select Committee to extend a process of education and publicity to ensure that people know their rights and when the electoral register is compiled.
1078 We support the recommendation and what the Government have done so far to ensure that there is a code of good practice so that we can insist that the basic practices of the most effective and successful electoral registration officers are adopted in areas where they are not as effective in increasing the accuracy of the register. We were pleased to hear the Home Secretary announce that a code of good practice will be available early in the summer and that a copy of the draft will be put in the Library. However, what will he do about the other Select Committee recommendations, none of which were mentioned in his speech and yet which are important in terms of ethnic minorities?
The Select Committee said that there should be greater efforts to ensure that Form A is circulated in the language of those to whom it is directed. We know that electoral officers are able to issue Form A in languages other than English, but are they doing that? If not, what steps is the Home Office taking to draw attention to that power and what steps is it taking to encourage the issuing of such circulars? We did not hear much about that from the Home Secretary. Perhaps the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State will tell us a little more when he winds up.
What are the Government doing to redesign Form A so that it can be more easily understood and is more easy to fill in? They could do that in advance of legislation. That would enable people who are less literate or educated more easily to comply with the requests of the electoral registration officer.
We should consider more carefully the argument advanced in favour of a rolling register. The hon. Member for Corby argued for that. Such a system exists in the United States and yet it was dismissed almost out of hand by the Select Committee, which was tardy in its examination of evidence on this subject. It was also dismissed out of hand by the Government. There are good reasons why we should institute now a system by which the electoral register is updated regularly. With the advent of modern technology and access to computers, there is no reason why we cannot have an accurate electoral register.
Many hon. Members present know that many of our colleagues have computers in their offices. I understand that some put the electoral register of their constituency on a computer and update it regularly. Their computers are capable of that. If Members of Parliament can do that, I fail to see why those who run our electoral affairs and who are responsible for devising and drawing up the electoral register cannot also do so.
We are dealing with a fundamental and important subject. It is probably most important to ensure that people who are eligible and entitled to vote are registered. Their numbers are far greater than those involved in holiday votes or in overseas votes and yet the Government's response is tardy. They say that such provision would be expensive or bureaucratically inefficient. However, the Government are spending much more time and money on enfranchising other, much smaller, groups.
§ Mr. William Powell
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that American experience shows that where rolling registers are used there is a dramatic increase in turnout in those states where they have been applied, especially in Minnesota and Maine.
§ Mr. Kilroy-Silk
The hon. Gentleman is correct. I understand and appreciate the differences between our 1079 electoral system, the United States electoral system and the electoral system of the states within the United States. However, even given those differences and the fact that we use the register only once a year, there is no reason on grounds of cost and technical aptitude why we should not have a more accurate register than we have. That is especially important because those who are omitted, often through no fault of their own, tend to be the poor, the inarticulate, the deprived, the disadvantaged and those who will become alienated if they are not already alienated from society, from the political system. No hon. Member would wish that to happen.
When we have established the eligibility of those entitled to vote and the accuracy of the register, it is important to consider the manner in which we enable people to cast their votes. We welcome the extension of the hours of voting to the earlier hour of 7 am. For the same reason we oppose the reduction in polling time from 10 pm to 9 pm. We welcome the provision of as much facility and ability for the maximum number of people to cast their votes and some of the changes to the regulations covering absent votes.
We endorse the Government's proposal to maintain an absent vote, which is in effect a permanent list, for service men and women, and for those who are registered blind or physically disabled. However, we dissent from the suggestion that there should be more severe restrictions, and that, for example, the electoral registration officer's area of discretion on countersignatures should be limited. We shall deal with those matters when the legislation comes before us.
Despite the strictures to the contrary of the hon. Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt), we welcome and endorse the extension of the right of an absent vote to holidaymakers. We do not dissent from the words of either the White Paper or the Select Committee report to the effect that there is no reason in principle why those individuals who are going on holiday when a vote is likely to be cast should be refused the vote. The only difference is as to how we make that a reality in practice. We therefore welcome the extension of the category to those individuals who are unable or unlikely to vote in person on polling day so that they can apply for an absent vote. That applies especially to holidaymakers.
About 1 million people may be on holiday at any one time in May and June. Many of those individuals bitterly resent the suggestion that they cannot cast their votes. In my constituency pensioners in one of my labour groups worked hard and assiduously during the election campaign, but they were going on an organised holiday the day before the general election and felt bitter at not being able to participate in that election and in my victory. It is not the fault of the holidaymakers that they are going on holiday at a particular time. Many cannot choose the time of their holiday. Nor is it their fault that we do not have fixed elections, which would enable them to avoid their holidays clashing with polling day.
We welcome the Home Secretary's suggestion to reconsider his statement that the extension of the vote to those on holiday should not apply to Northern Ireland. As the right hon. Member for Down, South said, all constituents should have the same rights. It would not be right that an hon. Member were elected on a different basis from other hon. Members. We are all part of the United Kingdom and all our constituents should have the same rights, opportunities and abilities. If there are difficulties 1080 in Northern Ireland about preventing abuse and providing security to enable people to cast their votes without interference, that matter must be dealt with separately. The right to cast a vote freely should apply to all individuals throughout the United Kingdom.
However we cannot give the same welcome to the Government's suggestion to restrict the absent vote to those who are on business. At the moment many workers, whether they be lorry drivers, fishermen, shift workers, construction workers or National Health Service staff, who are likely to be at work when an election is called are enabled to be on a permanent list of those entitled to cast a vote by post. The Government propose to restrict that right. In future every person in that category who currently has a right to a postal vote, more or less permanently, will have to apply separately for each election.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) pointed out, that would mean that, for example this year people in Portsmouth in that category would have had to have applied on three separate occasions for three elections.
The Transport and General Workers Union, which represents many of the people in that category, sent a memorandum to some hon. Members which claimed that it was difficult enough to identify such people and actually to encourage them to vote in the first place, and that what was needed least of all were further obstacles in the way of them actually casting their vote. Many of those people would forget to apply and many might in any event be away when they were required to apply. Many of them would assume that because they have had the vote more or less permanently for the past five or 10 years that there was no need to make a separate or additional application.
There has been no evidence of abuse, none was given to the Select Committee, and I suspect that none was available to the Government. The only argument that the Government advance is that the present provisions are too generous. That is a fatuous and futile argument for restricting an individual's right to vote in a democracy. It is not a good reason to restrict their democratic rights., and we hope that the Government will see the force of the argument. If they do not, we shall have to oppose them when the legislation comes before the House.
Virtually every hon. Member who has participated in the debate has referred to those people seeking to become candidates and to the amount of the deposit. We believe that as few obstacles as possible should be placed in the way of those who wish to be candidates. We cannot therefore endorse the Government's proposal to increase the deposit to £1,000 and to reduce the threshold before forfeiture takes place to 5 per cent. We should prefer that there be a lower deposit. My view is that there should be no deposit. That view seems to be overwhelmingly endorsed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It has been the view of those hon. Members speaking for the Welsh and Scottish National parties, of my hon. Friends and the hon. Members for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) and for Corby. They all showed cross-party support for a deposit lower than the one that the Government suggest, or no deposit at all.
What arguments have the Government advanced for increasing the deposit? The Home Secretary seemed to suggest that anyone who is not a member of a political party and was not a party candidate, was, by definition, frivolous or destructive. He almost made it sound like a crime not to be a member of a political party. The major 1081 argument advanced is that we must deter frivolous candidates. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have pointed out that not all frivolous candidates are poor. Some of the so-called candidates are extremely rich. They will not be deterred by the increase.
§ Mr. Kilroy-Silk
Some of the richest candidates are the most frivolous and offensive. In any event, who is to judge which are frivolous candidates and which are not?
§ Mr. Kilroy-Silk
Many of the candidates, who, as every one of us would agree are serious, are often relatively poor. That applies to the Welsh Nationalist party and to the Ecology party. The hon. Member for Caernarfon will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that the Welsh Nationalist party lost 24 deposits at the last election which cost £4,800. Under the new proposal, that would cost £24,000, because none of those candidates got the 5 per cent. that will be required.
Equally, 63 members of the Ecology party lost their deposits at a cost of £9,450. None of them got the 5 per cent. that is required under the new proposal, and that would cost £63,000. Whatever our political point of view, none of us would argue that they are frivolous or not serious candidates. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. Hughes) said, many independent candidates who gathered few votes nevertheless raised important and substantial issues and made an important contribution to our elections and or democracy.
The other argument is that candidates may exploit the electoral system for commercial reasons. Some certainly do, but £1,000 will not deter those who will get some commercial benefit from standing as candidates. Some people argue that this should be deplored because they can send commercial material through the post, but as we know that is already covered by the existing law and by the power that is given to returning officers.
There is no real argument at all for increasing the deposit to £1,000. As hon. Members on both sides have said, it is better for the electorate to be left the choice of determining who are frivolous and who are not. It is better for the electorate to be able to demonstrate clearly that the Communist party and the National Front have no significant or substantial support in a constituency or, indeed, the nation. That is for the electorate to decide, not for Parliament. It is not for us to legislate on that.
§ Mr. Kilroy-Silk
All these measures must be set in the context of the Government's overall attitude to democaratic rights and individual liberties. In this delicate matter it is difficult to accept that the Government have not been looking after their own party interests. We cannot accept their protestations of sincerity and impartiality. Quite properly, we must put their proposals in the context of their attack on democratic rights and civil liberties in other areas.
We must set their proposals on this issue beside their proposals in the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill and their restrictions on civil liberties in the Data Protection Bill. We must set them in the context of the taking away of the right to vote in the metropolitan counties. They must 1082 be set in the context of the withdrawal of trade union rights at GCHQ. They must also be set in the context of the Government's proposal to attack trade union political funds, and their attempt to interfere in trade union democratic processes.
In that context it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that, as always, the Government are looking at their own interests. that suspicion is strengthened by the fact that the increase in the deposit will favour them and no one else, and that the increase in the vote to those on holiday or overseas and the restriction in the vote to those at work will favour the Tories and no one else. Their refusal to improve the accuracy of the register to ensure that the poor and inarticulate can vote favours them and no one else. For those and other reasons, I ask my hon. Friends to join me in voting against the White Paper.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)
There is an irony in the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) using my time for his attack on the Government's alleged abuse of liberty. It is my liberty that has been adversely affected by the hon. Gentleman, but I know, now that he has sat down, that he will not feel resentful at that charge because he will know that, as ever, his tongue has run away with him.
I begin by paying tribute to the Select Committee and its report. I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) who said that no Select committee had done more to vindicate the Government's decision to set up new-style Committees five years ago. I warmly endorse that. I felt that when I was a Back Bencher, and I feel it now. The Committee has issued a series of reports on matters of considerable importance in home affairs. It has carried out its work in great detail and managed to do so in a non-partisan spirit, which makes its reports enormously valuable.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne that these issues have been shelved for too long. I think that we would all agree with that. The truth is that, although it is most important for democracy that the electoral machinery be kept up to date, on only four previous occasions this century have Bills such as that which we propose to introduce next Session been brought before the House. The last debate on any of the matters that we have discussed today was as long ago as 1969.
Against that background, I should have thought that we would all agree that there must be changes. The only issue that concerns us is what those changes should be. I make it clear, as I have done from the moment when I first announced the Government's tentative views on these matters last October, that we do not approach these changes in any narrow or partisan spirit. We have looked at the Select Committee report and taken as our starting point the fact that it had significant cross-party agreement for its proposals.
In October, we set out our preliminary views, and before we published the White Paper we consulted all the parties represented in the House of Commons on detailed matters, and we were available for personal discussions if they were required. The White Paper is the Government's formal response to the Select Committee's report. In it we set out our views in detail and we back them up with 1083 consultative documents on many of the more technical issues. I believe that we have fully vindicated the nonpartisan approach that we have adopted from the start.
In today's debate there have been differences of view on many crucial aspects. That is inevitable when one is considering the difficult subjects that we have been discussing, and the range of decisions that we have announced in the White Paper. Inevitably, some people will not accept some of those. However, I take comfort from the fact that, as far as I am aware, although right hon. and hon. Members from almost all the parties represented in the House have spoken today and we have had a wide range of opinion, as is only right, no one has said that we should not go ahead with legislation, and no one has found it impossible to accept most of what we propose. That is enormously heartening.
It is important that this debate is framed by the motion, to take note of the Government's response. We can issue no milder form of invitation to the House. 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. That is why I regret that the Opposition feel that it is necessary to have a Division on this. It is wrong to say that we have been provocative. It would have been impossible to bring this matter before the House with a milder motion. At least in deference to the genuine attempt that the Select Committee made to wrestle with the problem, and our genuine attempt to take on board the many points that have been raised, we could have done without a Division.
Nevertheless, we shall try to proceed on the basis that we have already set out. I say particularly to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that while there can be no question of anyone having a right of veto over these proposals, we shall take carefully into account everything that has been said in the debate. We shall trawl through Hansard and look at it in detail. That is only proper, considering the care and skill that many hon. Members have put into their speeches. But no one can have a right of veto. That has never been our way. By that I mean the way of Governments considering these matters.
The last time we considered these issues, in relation to 18-year-old voters, there was no question of the then Opposition's objections being a bar to such proposals. Of course, it is not always possible to arrive at conclusions that everyone can accept when people who are notionally in alliance with each other begin from different standpoints, as in the case of the SDP and the Liberals on the crucial issue of the deposit, or shift their ground during the course of discussions, as is true of the Labour party.
The letter that we received from the Leader of the Opposition at the end of last year appeared to be against holiday postal votes but in favour of some increase, albeit modest, in the deposit, and made no mention of signatures. Yet today we are told that the Opposition are in favour of holiday postal votes but against the deposit, and seem to think that signatures should be brought in. To try to meet all those points when the ground seems to shift from week to week is no easy task. We shall do the best we can, but there can be no question of the Government being teased by those who have shifted their ground into a merry dance that smacks less of fairness and non-partisanship and more of feebleness and vacillation. That is not the way that we intend to approach the concluding stages of such important matters.
1084 There is no question of our having thrown over large parts of the Select Committee's report. The truth is that we have almost totally accepted the principal recommendations. We have, indeed, followed the Select Committee in a number of the areas of detail that it raised, particularly on the crucial point of the accuracy of the register. We attach some importance to that, and I am glad to be able to tell the hon. Member for Knowsley, North—as there is not too much that we are fated to be in agreement on tonight—that we take very seriously the problem of increasing ethnic registration, and we certainly believe that form A should be translated and issued in ethnic minority languages.
We intend to issue a code of practice later in the summer, which we have been discussing extensively with electoral registration officers. It will dilate in great detail on the problems of the ethnic minorities, and we shall sponsor a series of meetings between electoral registration officers and representatives of the ethnic minorities. We accept, as any responsible Government are bound to do, that the reports of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys revealed something very disquieting about the accuracy of the register, and that cannot be permitted to continue.
It is true that we could not accept the recommendation on multiple voting, which is the only other good example of where we were unable to accept one of the Select Committee's major recommendations. We could not accept it any more than the previous Government felt able to accept the recommendation of the Speaker's Conference on the same point. One cannot separate the strands of registering someone for local and national elections on the same register. Whatever hon. Members may say about national elections, there can be no good reason why someone should not be able to vote in two districts in local elections if he pays rates in each. Given the sense of responsibility of some local authorities, we should strongly resist anything that would reduce the number of ratepayers who vote in local elections.
§ Mr. Mellor
I am sorry, but I cannot give way, although I know that the hon. Gentleman gave way to me. He was not timed, but he spoke for longer than I have done so far, due to the exceptional generosity of the hon. Member for Knowsley, North. I have written to the hon. Gentleman several times on the subject of multiple registration and he knows that my door is always open to him. I shall have a cup of some soothing beverage waiting for him if he should care to trot round so that we can have another go at it.
I do not hear any member of the Select Committee objecting to the fact that instead of British residence in the EEC for an unlimited period, we have substituted the whole world plus a seven-year term.
With regard to the deposit, I hardly think that the Select Committee would blame us for being more generous by saying that 7.5 per cent. should fall to 5 per cent. That major change was merited. [Interruption.] None of the Select Committee's Labour Members who managed to survive the general election are in the Chamber, and that includes a Labour home affairs spokesman, the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs). I do not know whether he has been locked up for the day in case he does not agree with some of the recent changes.
§ Mr. Mellor
That is a good idea and it might be worth taking up later.
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) appeared to be suggesting at one point that the Select Committee had come out against overseas voters. In fact, it did not. It was troubled that some three million people all over the world, might have been enfranchised however long they had lived abroad. Our proposal, which narrows it down to seven years, will extend the franchise by 600,000. I believe that to be eminently right, and long overdue.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me two specific points on which I am glad to be able to give the reassurance that he seeks. On parish council elections, we share the view that it would be desirable for postal voting to be available. The National Association of Local Councils is looking at the resource implications of this. It is hoped that it will come out with a report that we can accept, but it must depend on the nature of the report.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of the availability of absent voting on a longer-term basis for those who claim an absent vote by reason of their occupation, service or employment. We have repented of the proposal that is included in the White Paper, I am glad to tell him, as a result of his extreme eloquence and that of other hon. Members on the matter.
The hon. Member for Knowsley, North, referring to our position on this matter, said that it was fatuous and futile as a restriction. The hon. Gentleman's attitude to British citizens overseas, in the context of what I think he intended as an eloquent plea that as many people as possible should vote, in my view, was also fatuous and futile. I hope that, in the same spirit that we have approached this one matter, he might change his mind in that respect.
I deal next with the three principal areas for change, and I begin with holiday votes. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) spoke with his customary eloquence and skill, and subjected the proposal to a rigorous analysis. I have to accept that a great deal of what he said was true. As he indicated, this will be a major widening of the availability of postal votes. While there is a hurdle that has to be crossed—there will have to be a counter-signature and there will be criminal sanctions for making a statement known to be wrong—the fact is that many people who today would not be eligible for postal votes will get them. However, we found ourselves in the dilemma that it is impossible, with the already complex list of those who may qualify for a postal vote, to add a major group like holiday-makers—a major and rather nebulous group—without examining root and branch whether we should sweep away the many restrictions and categories that exist and say that there should be one test. The test that we have elected for is that of the individual being unable, or likely to be unable, to go to the polls on the day.
As the right hon. Member for Down, South said, that leads to an extension of postal voting. One can think of cases in which that might be considered undesirable, and practices could emerge that might undermine the ability of people to vote in as fair a way as if they went to the polling station. We surely have to accept that a greater injustice will be done if we deny millions of our fellow citizens the right to vote because, through no fualt of their own, they 1086 chose to go on holiday, having made that decision long before they thought that it would enter a Prime Minister's head to call a general election. As the old cliché has it, this is an idea whose time has come, and its time came at the last election. I should not care to go to the electorate again without having changed this, and I feel confident that many hon. Members share this view.
On the question of overseas voting—and I have to say this again—I find it profoundly depressing that the official Opposition should be opposed to this proposal. I think that it is most unfortunate and something of an attack on people who, to further the interests of this country, go and work abroad. I can think of no more unreal a charge that can be laid than that this matter can be discussed in terms of lotus eaters, tax evaders and fugitives from justice. After all, as a result of the efforts of successive Governments, we export a larger amount of our gross national product than any other country. That requires people to go overseas. To quote my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. Mackay), it requires people to go out to bat for Britain overseas. It is an insult to suggest that, somehow because there might be a small number of so-called lotus eaters, those people should not have the right to vote. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) that the right hon. Member for Gorton was deeply reactionary in what he said about that.
There is already a substantial measure of agreement on these matters, and I hope that the Opposition will change their view. It does not do them a great deal of credit to be making such points. To the extent that we need to meet the problem of the tax evader, the lotus eater and all the figures of Socialist mythology, we have done so by applying the seven-year rule, and I hope that is helpful.
§ Mr. Bermingham
Does the Minister agree that there is a distinction to be drawn between those who are permanently resident abroad and those who are only temporaraily resident abroad? Will he take that point on board when he comes to consider the matter further before legislation is brought before the House.
§ Mr. Mellor
The White Paper makes that distinction by saying seven years. It is difficult to say de novo from the outset whether somebody is going abroad permanently. That would require the kind of vetting arrangements that I should have thought Labour Members, wearing their civil liberties hats, would find profoundly disturbing. One may look for consistency, but one does not always find it.
Our proposal on the deposit is in no sense an attempt to confine elections to representatives of established parties. We have to face the irresistible fact that standing for an election confers privileges and creates expenses for the community that demand some hurdle to be crossed. That has been the view ever since the changes in procedures were introduced in the House in 1918.
I am not sure whether some of those hon. Members who spoke in a rather cavalier way about what it means to be a parliamentary candidate have taken on board the extent of the statutory privileges that are granted to someone who stands for Parliament. They have the right to send an election communication, post free, at a possible cost to the public of £8,000. They have a right to the free use of public rooms and school rooms for election meetings. I agree with every word that the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) said from a sedentary 1087 position. His hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North, concerned about taking up my time, was not concerned to give him any of it.
Candidates have the right to attend nomination proceedings, inspect and object to the validity of another candidate's papers, which opens the way to frivolity. They have a right of veto over radio and television broadcasts. It comes ill from those who say that we should have the maximum discussion of those issues to permit some tuppenny-ha'penny joke candidate to object to everyone else appearing on the television. Candidates have a right to attend the issue of postal ballot papers, a right of access to polling stations, which is not to be taken trivially given the importance of what goes on there, and a right to attend the count and to appoint counting agents. That can be a licence to disrupt, as we know from some of the extreme candidates that we have to deal with.
Therefore, I regard any proposal, even to leave the deposit as it is, as unacceptable. The deposit teeters on the edge of descending to the level of farce currently reserved only to the dog licence, which I should not like to see the deposit reach. When I hear hon. Members saying that they want no restrictions at all on the right to stand—many did say that and not all on the Opposition Benches, I am sorry to say—I regard that as unacceptable.
The hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. Hughes) made an interesting speech. The reasoning that led to the introduction to the deposit in 1918 is as valid now as it was then. What was decided in 1918 did not fully emerge from the hon. Gentleman's rather class biased analysis of the proceedings in Parliament.
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Gentleman says "Me?" with an innocence that I find touching. Yes, I do mean him.
Until 1918 there was a requirement that not only did a candidate have to pay his own expenses, but he had to pay the returning officer's expenses as well. It was thought, rightly, that that was oppressive. As a result of the decision to rescind that, it was thought that there had to be a quid pro quo in the form of a deposit. Interestingly, that proposal emerged from a Government presided over by a Liberal Prime Minister. When Liberals have nothing else very much to say, they often say with some pride that it was a Liberal Prime Minister who invented pensions. They do not say that it was a Liberal Prime Minister who invented the deposit. The Asquithian Liberal, who spoke for the rump which I believe the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed now considers that he represents, said that it was a splendid innovation. How things change when our bottoms move from one side of the Chamber to the other.
The public have an interest in seeing that people, before they take on the privileges of being a candidate, also accept some of the obligations. They should be seen to be genuine candidates.
Some of the nonsenses are best summed up in the apology in the Oxford Mail which it may well have felt that the present law compelled it to make. It shows the sort of nonsense into which we get ourselves. On 12 January 1984, with a straight face, the Oxford Mail reports:In an editorial on 19 December we described Mr. Peter Doubleday, a candidate at the last election, as a representative of the Raving Loony party. In fact, he stood for Cerberus the Aardvark.That kind of undergraduate humour may well have caused amusement for some people, but we have to ask ourselves 1088 whether it is in the public interest to make it easy for that kind of situation to be perpetuated. If such a person is prepared to find £1,000, so be it. None of us has an interest in shutting someone up, provided that he is prepared to pay a fee commensurate with the privileges obtained and the costs created by reason of standing as a parliamentary candidate. But I do not think that our democracy is shown to be effective if it appears that, for a mere whim, and without any serious considerations, people can simply put in their nomination papers—
§ Mr. Mellor
I have not the time to give way.—[HON.MEMBERS: "Money talks."] It is all very well to say that money talks. I do not suppose that the hon. Gentlemen who say that money talks have ever put up a penny of their own money towards a deposit, any more than I have. It is our supporters in the constituencies, who show that they want us to be their Members of Parliament, who collect the money and put it up.
The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) was shocked—the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) would have reacted in the same way had he been present—at the proposal of the Opposition Front Bench that there should be no restrictions of a financial kind on standing for Parliament. The hon. Member for Walsall, North was shocked and surprised that the Opposition Front Bench should sanction making life easier for groups such as the National Front. It also surprises us.
I do not understand the logic of the suggestion that signatures are in any sense a substitute for the kind of commitment for which we have traditionally looked. We all know the ease with which people will sign things that are put in front of them. There is no commitment, on the part of anybody who signs a nomination paper, to vote for the candidate, and all kinds of problems and difficulties would ensue from such a practice.
A general election is a serious business. It is a matter of electing a Parliament and giving the country a Government. If we allow the system to be at best confused and at worst undermined by the kind of the people that The Times, in its editorial today, so rightly called "recent clown candidates", we do so at the peril of undermining one of the fundamental planks of our liberty—free, fairly fought and serious elections.
Perhaps I may put to the Opposition Front Bench, where the atmosphere seems to be somewhat light-headed, one thought that is worthy of a moment's consideration. When the citizens of barely two dozen nations around the globe enjoy the full rights to vote, we are perhaps taking a little too much for granted. Further, while many hundreds of millions of people would like to share the rights that we have, it is not the sign of a mature democracy if we allow elections to be submerged in a tidal wave of clown candidates; rather, it is a sign of decadence and complacency.
I appreciate that there is concern about the effect of the Government's proposals on some minority parties in 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. I should have thought that what we said about the 5 per cent. level would give encouragement to 1089 those parties who seriously enter into elections. After all, to get one vote in 20 is a lot easier than to get one vote in eight. I am glad that the leader of the Welsh nationalists agrees with that. Democracy depends on getting right not only the broad principles but the mechanics. The White Paper is a major step in that direction.
§ Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 32 (Questions on amendments):—
§ The House divided: Ayes 170, Noes 273.1092
|Division No. 385]||[10 pm|
|Adams, Allen (Paisley N)||Golding, John|
|Anderson, Donald||Gould, Bryan|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Gourlay, Harry|
|Ashton, Joe||Hamilton, James (M'well N)|
|Atkinson, N. (Tottenham)||Harman, Ms Harriet|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Harrison, Rt Hon Walter|
|Barnett, Guy||Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith|
|Barron, Kevin||Heffer, Eric S.|
|Beckett, Mrs Margaret||Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)|
|Beggs, Roy||Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall)|
|Bell, Stuart||Home Robertson, John|
|Benn, Tony||Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)|
|Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh)||Hoyle, Douglas|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)|
|Blair, Anthony||Hughes, Roy (Newport East)|
|Boyes, Roland||Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Janner, Hon Greville|
|Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)||John, Brynmor|
|Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)||Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)|
|Brown, R. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne N)||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)||Kilroy-Silk, Robert|
|Caborn, Richard||Lambie, David|
|Callaghan, Rt Hon J.||Lamond, James|
|Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)||Leadbitter, Ted|
|Campbell, Ian||Leighton, Ronald|
|Carter-Jones, Lewis||Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Lewis, Terence (Worsley)|
|Clarke, Thomas||Litherland, Robert|
|Clay, Robert||Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Lofthouse, Geoffrey|
|Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.)||Loyden, Edward|
|Cohen, Harry||McCartney, Hugh|
|Concannon, Rt Hon J. D.||McCusker, Harold|
|Conlan, Bernard||McDonald, Dr Oonagh|
|Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)||McKay, Allen (Penistone)|
|Corbett, Robin||McKelvey, William|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Mackenzie, Rt Hon Gregor|
|Craigen, J. M.||McNamara, Kevin|
|Crowther, Stan||McTaggart, Robert|
|Dalyell, Tam||McWilliam, John|
|Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly)||Madden, Max|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l)||Maginnis, Ken|
|Deakins, Eric||Marek, Dr John|
|Dewar, Donald||Marshall, David (Shettleston)|
|Dixon, Donald||Martin, Michael|
|Dobson, Frank||Mason, Rt Hon Roy|
|Dormand, Jack||Maxton, John|
|Douglas, Dick||Maynard, Miss Joan|
|Duffy, A. E. P.||Meacher, Michael|
|Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.||Michie, William|
|Eastham, Ken||Mikardo, Ian|
|Evans, John (St. Helens N)||Millan, Rt Hon Bruce|
|Ewing, Harry||Molyneaux, Rt Hon James|
|Fatchett, Derek||Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)|
|Field, Frank (Birkenhead)||Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)|
|Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)||Nellist, David|
|Fisher, Mark||O'Brien, William|
|Flannery, Martin||O'Neill, Martin|
|Forrester, John||Park, George|
|Foster, Derek||Patchett, Terry|
|Fraser, J. (Norwood)||Pavitt, Laurie|
|Godman, Dr Norman||Pendry, Tom|
|Pike, Peter||Soley, Clive|
|Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)||Spearing, Nigel|
|Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)||Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)|
|Prescott, John||Stott, Roger|
|Radice, Giles||Strang, Gavin|
|Redmond, M.||Straw, Jack|
|Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)||Taylor, Rt Hon John David|
|Richardson, Ms Jo||Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)|
|Roberts, Allan (Bootle)||Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)|
|Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)||Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)|
|Robertson, George||Thorne, Stan (Preston)|
|Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)||Tinn, James|
|Rooker, J. W.||Torney, Tom|
|Ross, Ernest (Dundee W)||Wardell, Gareth (Gower)|
|Rowlands, Ted||Weetch, Ken|
|Ryman, John||Welsh, Michael|
|Sheerman, Barry||White, James|
|Sheldon, Rt Hon R.||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Shore, Rt Hon Peter||Williams, Rt Hon A.|
|Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)||Winnick, David|
|Silkin, Rt Hon J.||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)||Tellers for the Ayes|
|Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)||Mr. Frank Haynes and Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe|
|Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S)|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Fraser, Peter (Angus East)|
|Alton, David||Freeman, Roger|
|Amery, Rt Hon Julian||Gale, Roger|
|Ancram, Michael||Galley, Roy|
|Ashby, David||Gardiner, George (Reigate)|
|Ashdown, Paddy||Goodhart, Sir Philip|
|Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)||Goodlad, Alastair|
|Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y)||Gorst, John|
|Baldry, Anthony||Gow, Ian|
|Banks, Robert (Harrogate)||Gower, Sir Raymond|
|Batiste, Spencer||Greenway, Harry|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Gregory, Conal|
|Beith, A. J.||Griffiths, E. (B'y St Edm'ds)|
|Bellingham, Henry||Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Grist, Ian|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||Ground, Patrick|
|Bright, Graham||Gummer, John Selwyn|
|Brittan, Rt Hon Leon||Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)|
|Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)||Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)|
|Bruce, Malcolm||Hampson, Dr Keith|
|Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A.||Hancock, Mr. Michael|
|Budgen, Nick||Hanley, Jeremy|
|Burt, Alistair||Hannam, John|
|Butcher, John||Hargreaves, Kenneth|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Harris, David|
|Cartwright, John||Harvey, Robert|
|Chalker, Mrs Lynda||Haselhurst, Alan|
|Chapman, Sydney||Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael|
|Chope, Christopher||Hawkins, C. (High Peak)|
|Churchill, W. S.||Hawksley, Warren|
|Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)||Hayward, Robert|
|Clegg, Sir Walter||Heathcoat-Amory, David|
|Cockeram, Eric||Heddle, John|
|Conway, Derek||Henderson, Barry|
|Cope, John||Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael|
|Couchman, James||Hickmet, Richard|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Hicks, Robert|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.||Hind, Kenneth|
|Dykes, Hugh||Hirst, Michael|
|Eggar, Tim||Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)|
|Emery, Sir Peter||Holt, Richard|
|Fairbairn, Nicholas||Hooson, Tom|
|Farr, Sir John||Hordern, Peter|
|Favell, Anthony||Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)|
|Fenner, Mrs Peggy||Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)|
|Fookes, Miss Janet||Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford)|
|Forman, Nigel||Hubbard-Miles, Peter|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Hughes, Simon (Southwark)|
|Forth, Eric||Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Norman||Hunter, Andrew|
|Fox, Marcus||Irving, Charles|
|Franks, Cecil||Jackson, Robert|
|Johnson-Smith, Sir Geoffrey||Merchant, Piers|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Meyer, Sir Anthony|
|Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine||Mills, Iain (Meriden)|
|Kennedy, Charles||Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)|
|Key, Robert||Miscampbell, Norman|
|King, Rt Hon Tom||Mitchell, David (NW Hants)|
|Kirkwood, Archy||Moate, Roger|
|Knight, Gregory (Derby N)||Monro, Sir Hector|
|Knowles, Michael||Montgomery, Fergus|
|Knox, David||Moore, John|
|Lamont, Norman||Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)|
|Lang, Ian||Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)|
|Latham, Michael||Moynihan, Hon C.|
|Lawler, Geoffrey||Murphy, Christopher|
|Lawrence, Ivan||Neale, Gerrard|
|Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel||Needham, Richard|
|Lee, John (Pendle)||Nelson, Anthony|
|Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)||Neubert, Michael|
|Lester, Jim||Normanton, Tom|
|Lightbown, David||Norris, Steven|
|Lilley, Peter||Onslow, Cranley|
|Lloyd, Ian (Havant)||Oppenheim, Philip|
|Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)||Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.|
|Lord, Michael||Ottaway, Richard|
|Lyell, Nicholas||Page, Richard (Herts SW)|
|McCrindle, Robert||Parris, Matthew|
|McCurley, Mrs Anna||Patten, John (Oxford)|
|Macfarlane, Neil||Pawsey, James|
|MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)||Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth|
|MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)||Penhaligon, David|
|Maclean, David John||Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian|
|Maclennan, Robert||Pollock, Alexander|
|McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)||Porter, Barry|
|McQuarrie, Albert||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Madel, David||Powley, John|
|Major, John||Price, Sir David|
|Malins, Humfrey||Proctor, K. Harvey|
|Malone, Gerald||Raffan, Keith|
|Maples, John||Rathbone, Tim|
|Marland, Paul||Renton, Tim|
|Marlow, Antony||Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon|
|Marshall, Michael (Arundel)||Ridsdale, Sir Julian|
|Mates, Michael||Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey|
|Mather, Carol||Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)|
|Maude, Hon Francis||Robinson, Mark (N'port W)|
|Mawhinney, Dr Brian||Roe, Mrs Marion|
|Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin||Rossi, Sir Hugh|
|Mayhew, Sir Patrick||Rost, Peter|
|Mellor, David||Rowe, Andrew|
|Rumbold, Mrs Angela||Thompson, Donald (Caldor V)|
|Ryder, Richard||Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)|
|Sackville, Hon Thomas||Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)|
|Sainsbury, Hon Timothy||Thornton, Malcolm|
|St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.||Thurnham, Peter|
|Sayeed, Jonathan||Tracey, Richard|
|Scott, Nicholas||Trippier, David|
|Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Shelton, William (Streatham)||Waddington, David|
|Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)||Wainwright, R.|
|Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)||Walden, George|
|Shersby, Michael||Walker, Bill (T'side N)|
|Silvester, Fred||Wallace, James|
|Skeet, T. H. H.||Waller, Gary|
|Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)||Walters, Dennis|
|Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)||Wardle, C. (Bexhill)|
|Soames, Hon Nicholas||Warren, Kenneth|
|Speed, Keith||Watson, John|
|Speller, Tony||Watts, John|
|Spencer, Derek||Wells, Bowen (Hertford)|
|Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)||Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)|
|Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)||Wheeler, John|
|Stanbrook, Ivor||Whitfield, John|
|Stanley, John||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Steen, Anthony||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Stevens, Martin (Fulham)||Wolfson, Mark|
|Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)||Wood, Timothy|
|Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)||Woodcock, Michael|
|Stokes, John||Wrigglesworth, Ian|
|Stradling Thomas, J.||Yeo, Tim|
|Tapsell, Peter||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Taylor, John (Solihull)||Mr. David Hunt and Mr. Douglas Hogg.|
|Thomas, Rt Hon Peter|
§ Question accordingly negatived.
§ MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question to be agreed to.
That this House takes note of the Government's reply (Cmnd. 9140) to the First Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 1982–83, House of Commons Paper No. 32, on the Representation of the People Acts.