HC Deb 13 February 1985 vol 73 cc384-414 6.45 pm
Mr. J. Enoch Powell

I beg to move amendment No. 37, in page 10, line 6, leave out 'in Great Britain'.

The First Deputy Chairman

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 38, in page 10, leave out lines 8 to 20.

No. 41, in page 10, line 17, leave out subsection (2).

No. 42, in page 10, line 26, leave out 'subsection (2)' and insert 'The foregoing subsection'.

No. 43, in page 10, line 26, leave out subsection (3).

No. 44, in page 10, line 44, after 'constituency', insert— '(v) at a general election, his residence on the date of the poll elsewhere than in the polling district allotted to him, (vi) the general nature of his occupation, service or employment or that of his spouse'. No. 47, in clause 9, page 14, line 4, leave out 'in the case of an election in Great Britain'.

No. 48, in clause 9, page 14, line 5, leave out from 'that' to end of line 9 and insert 'the applicant is a person to whom section 7(3) of this Act applies'. No. 49, in clause 9, page 14, line 10, leave out 'in the case of an election in Northern Ireland'.

Mr. Powell

The debate which I initiate by moving amendment No. 37 is in a very real sense an extension of the debate upon the last group of amendments, except that it is upon a much wider base and relates to a much more substantial subject. This is the clause which makes that large extension to the opportunity for exercising the franchise to which the Under-Secretary of State referred earlier. It does so not by a formal increase in the categories under which absent voting may be claimed and allowed but by a completely new approach to the expression of the basis of the right to claim an absent vote.

It was with great astonishment that we in Northern Ireland learned that it was intended to exclude that part of the United Kingdom from the extension of the opportunity to exercise the franchise which is implicit in the redrafting of the electoral law embraced in clause 7. I was glad to realise from the exchanges which took place a few moments ago between the two Front Benches that that discrimination is to be removed. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I are content to believe that the reason for the discrimination in the first place was not because of any malice or evil intent towards the people of the Province but because of the, in our opinion, unfounded belief that the new grounds for exercising an absent vote would provide a special opportunity for electoral abuse. That was never a sound assumption.

The new basis will include people who will exercise the franchise inside the United Kingdom—whether or not outside the United Kingdom is still a matter to be decided. However, inside the United Kingdom, people will exercise the franchise by specifying an address to which the ballot paper is to be sent or alternatively by appointing a proxy to vote on their behalf. In neither of those circumstances is it practicable to organise large-scale electoral abuse. Only two proxies may be held by one and the same elector. Therefore, to organise massive abuse by means of the proxy system is almost unthinkable. Indeed, so far as I know, it has never been urged that the proxy system in Northern Ireland is seriously open to abuse.

That leaves abuse of voting by means of a ballot paper sent to an address in the United Kingdom. In the nature of things, those who will be on holiday or otherwise absent and unable to vote at their local polling station will specify a wide range of addresses at which they would like to receive their ballot papers. In some cases that will be their own residence where they will still be residing at the time when the postal ballot papers are issued. But in many other cases they will be addresses throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom. The operation of making contact with those addresses and somehow collecting those ballot papers when they are delivered, or alternatively bringing intimidation to bear upon the recipients of those ballot papers, is beyond all reasonable conception.

We know that the Northern Ireland Office has an almost hysterical anxiety about the Sinn Fein vote, an anxiety which we believe does not correspond with anything in the long-term electoral experience in Northern Ireland. But however malevolent Sinn Fein may be, there is a distinct limit to its organisational capabilities, and almost magical powers of organisation would be necessary in order for this new form of exercising the franchise to be seriously abused by those of evil intent.

Indeed, if any form of absent voting is arguably vulnerable to abuse, it is the absent vote for the person who is disabled physically from going to the poll. Only in that case is it possible, first, to bring pressure to bear for certification where certification is not fully justified, and, secondly, to secure a number of postal votes in the same general area and thus bring the ballot papers within the conceivable scope of misuse.

So the one major form of absent voting which was still left to Northern Ireland happens ironically to be the only one where it is virtually practicable to conceive that large-scale abuse could take place. Even that is probably difficult to demonstrate on the basis of the electoral figures of the more recent elections in Northern Ireland.

I have entered upon that because it is important that it should be understood, not least in the Province, why it was first proposed that this new privilege of exercising the franchise should be withheld from the Province. But we rely upon the House, Her Majesty's Opposition and the Government, now that there has been fuller consideration and the opportunity maturely to consider the alternatives, to withdraw that discrimination and to apply either clause 7 or whatever re-drafting may be needed to replace clause 7 equally to Northern Ireland as to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. William Powell

As the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) observed, this is merely an extension of some of the principles that we were discussing on clause 6. The fundamental principle that Northern Ireland should have the same rules applies with just as much force as it did on clause 6. Notwithstanding the charming tag that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has chosen to try to label me with, I have undergone a conversion of not such a different character from the one that St. Paul underwent some years ago. My hon. Friend knows, just as well as I do, that I have been talking to him about this particular matter for a great many years—many more years than either of us would choose to remember. The principle is surely sound and the right hon. Member for South Down has correctly outlined the reasons why it is wrong to try to justify different rules for Northern Ireland than for the rest of the United Kingdom.

Some sections of Whitehall may dwell substantially upon electoral abuse in Northern Ireland, but there is a real danger that that is being exaggerated in their minds. We have heard, brutally almost, during the course of our debates how the real nuts and bolts of the Bill are, to some extent, party advantage. Throughout various debates hon. Members have alluded to that. It is obvious that different parties have been trying to protect what they perceive to be their own interests as we have been dealing with a number of different matters.

The arguments about electoral abuse come down to what Sinn Fein does or may get up to. When we hear representatives of those parties from Northern Ireland who are the most determinedly opposed to Sinn Fein argue that we have exaggerated it all and that it is not capable of all the things that are said of it, that is a cry to which we should listen with respect. They are, after all, the people who have to fight Sinn Fein at the polls in Northern Ireland.

It ill becomes hon. Members from the rest of the United Kingdom, who have little or no knowledge of what an election is like in Northern Ireland, to try to devise rules which the overwhelming part of the community in Northern Ireland finds unnecessary. It may be that there are justifications for minor distinctions. I do not say that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is wrong to outline them from time to time, but, when it comes to the major matters I can see no justification for drawing substantially different rules and for exaggerating the prowess and ability of Sinn Fein to produce a false result at the polls.

The overwhelming evidence is that elections in Northern Ireland, just as much as in the United Kingdom, are conducted fairly and properly. I do not see why we should try to enact in statute different rules based upon assumptions which are fundamentally false.

Mr. Kaufman

One of the questions that I ask myself— perhaps the Minister, with the assistance of his officials, could help us—is whether it is too late to lodge an election petition in relation to Leicester, East.

I would very much like to support the amendment moved by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) and the amendments which we have tabled which complete the right hon. Gentleman's proposition. He has properly moved to take out the words "in Great Britain" but the clause is still discriminatory as long as subsections (2) and (3) remain.

The hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) is right. Although the clause provides the new facility for an absent vote — a new facility which in principle Labour Members stongly support — it goes on to more than double itself in length by seeking stringently to limit that new right for electors in Northern Ireland. I must say with great clarity that we find that utterly unacceptable.

I do not want to follow right hon. and hon. Members on the detail of electoral problems and problems of public order within Northern Ireland. Those are matters to be dealt with not in a Representation of the People Bill, but in other ways if they are to be dealt with at all. Indeed, the Committee has recently been dealing with electoral problems in a manner which I must confess does not wholly appeal to me.

It is not acceptable to discriminate in the allocation or extension of the franchise on the basis of issues which relate not to the franchise but to the maintenance of order in a part of the United Kingdom. If we intend to do that, we must also consider other parts of the United Kingdom in other respects. That turns the franchise into a political issue rather than a political right.

7 pm

That being so—and the right hon. Member for South Down was perfectly right to say that in that sense the debate is an extension of the previous debate — I recommend the amendments and support the right hon. Gentleman's amendment in the interest of parity, which was the basis of the amendment that I moved and of the amendments that I supported in the previous debate. The arguments are self-evident. They have been put amply and eloquently by the right hon. Gentleman.

I hope that the Government will accept the amendments so that we can move further still along the road that the Committee has already indicated it wishes to travel.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

I do not know of any election petition in Manchester, Gorton, but I shall certainly take part in it if I have to.

I used to hesitate about discussing Northern Ireland matters if only because, although I had visited the Province a couple of times, I would not have called myself an expert. Having visited Northern Ireland now on a number of occasions and participated in the Committee consideration of the Northern Ireland electoral legislation, I say now with more confidence that my hon. Friends know exactly what it is like and why Northern Ireland should not be treated in any way differently from the rest of the United Kingdom.

I support wholeheartedly what the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) said in moving the amendment. After all, it is in a way an extension of clause 6(6), which the Committee discussed a short while ago.

The Northern Ireland Office seems to treat Sinn Fein as the bogeyman, and gives it far more credibility than it should have. No hon. Member admires terrorism, but the democratic process must be allowed to continue. I will defend that right, and I will support hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies in any similar amendments.

The extension conferring a new facility must have the approval of the Committee. It makes a great deal of sense, it gives more self-respect to the people of Northern Ireland and above all it ensures that they will be treated no differently from those in any other part of the United Kingdom. For that reason, I support the amendments.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I support the amendments. We are dealing with the matter of the franchise and with the right of citizens of the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland to have the same franchise rights as their colleagues in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Parliament has already considered some legislation relevant to the Sinn Fein activity in elections. I did not agree with what the Government did, but I listened carefully to their arguments and appreciated their point of view. I cannot accept that they have a different point of view on the issue now before the Committee because it is a clear-cut issue concerning the right of the people to vote. If one says that, because of Sinn Fein, people are to be asked to identify themselves, although I disagree with the method of identification, I can understand the argument. But I cannot understand any hon. Member arguing that, because the menace of Sinn Fein exists, the right of the people to vote will be taken away. That is the real issue before the Committee.

I am glad that there is a consensus in the Committee that all citizens of the United Kingdom should have the same right to vote at election time. Following the argument that was put forward in discussion of the last amendment and the basis on which it was accepted by the Government, I think that these amendments should be accepted. We shall then be on all fours with the rest of the United Kingdom, and I make a plea to that end.

Mr. Mellor

The fundamental point at issue has already emerged clearly as a result of the debate. I hope that my recognition of it will be apparent from what I am about to say.

The right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) referred to the dilemma in which the Government find themselves with regard to the basic structure of clause 7. The decision was irresistible, as I have said, and it is common ground from what has been said in most, if not all, speeches of hon. Members in the debate that there has to be a dramatic widening of the availability of absent voting arrangements to take account of changes in habits.

In almost any month in which an election is held, there will be hundreds of thousands of people — in some months even millions—away on holiday. It is no longer possible to sustain the argument that they should be deprived of their votes when it is apparent that necessarily they will have booked their holidays long before a Prime Minister takes the decision to hold an election.

As the right hon. Member for South Down recognised, that posed a dilemma. We could add to what was already regarded as an anomalous list of categories, which was riddled with holes and difficulties if we chose to examine it carefully, a couple more equally anomalous categories. After all, what of the person who has to go to nurse a sick aunt? That would be a perfectly legitimate reason for being away from home, but, unless such a person were prepared to claim that it was a holiday—it would not, on the face of it, appear to be much of a holiday — that person would be deprived of his vote. That is clearly not right.

We therefore decided — and I am glad that the Committee accepts this—to sweep all that away. Clause 7(1)(a), which appears to be small and insubstantial—much like many of the others in the Bill—is substantial. It establishes one overall basis for the availability of absent voting facilities by requiring the registration officer to grant an application for absent voting if he is satisfied that the applicant's circumstances on the date of the poll will be, or are likely to be, such that he cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at the polling station allotted or likely to be allotted to him under the appropriate rules.

It seemed to us compelling that if we established that that one clearly understood test had the application set out, countersigned with a penal sanction attached for the first time, this was an appropriate way — indeed, the only way—of moving forward, consistent with the objective of widening the franchise.

Our colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office had to advise us on the likely effect of the widening of the franchise on the Province, against the background of concern about the damage that would be done to the Province if certain parties grew to prominence as a result of massive electoral abuse. Those arguments were sufficiently compelling for Parliament in the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985 to approve a measure that recognised the nature and extent of organised malpractice in Northern Ireland, and to set out a different set of safeguards on the personal exercise of the franchise that will come into effect at the next election.

I was grateful for the recognition by the right hon. Member for South Down, with his customary fairness, of the good faith of Northern Ireland Ministers. They considered that the effect of the measure might be nullified if there was such a broadening of absent voting categories that it enabled many more people to avoid the necessity of going to the polling station and complying with the new arrangements in the statute, with a consequent continuation of malpractice. It was on that basis, and in good faith, that clause 7 was drafted so that the extension of the absent voting facilities, which was to be granted to Great Britain, would not be granted in Northern Ireland.

On Second Reading, the right hon. Member for South Down and his colleagues made clear, as did the Opposition, their concern about our proposal. At the end of my speech in reply to the debate, the right hon. Gentleman asked me whether, as the Bill progressed, we would be prepared to justify, case by case and detail by detail, the reason why the differences were being included in the Bill. I willingly assented to that request, because I realised that we would have to do that if we were to persuade Parliament that our proposal was necessary.

We have had extensive discussions with the Opposition, with Northern Ireland Members and with Ministers from the Northern Ireland Office about the pros and cons of our proposal. I am happy to say that, as a result of those deliberations, it has been decided that the extension of absent voting facilities which we have proposed for Britain should apply also to Northern Ireland. I am pleased that that is to the liking of all parts of the Committee and I am glad that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and I were able to play a part in bringing that about.

I should like to accept in principle—I am constantly advised by parliamentary counsel that there is always a better way of doing something than any mere hon. Member ever manages to put on the amendment paper—

Mr. Kaufman

I do not quarrel with what I think the Minister is about to say, but perhaps he, or one of his colleagues, will explain to us why, if parliamentary counsel are such superior draftspersons to the rest of us, the Government are having to use the Bill to make several more amendments to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

Mr. Mellor

I seem to recall the right hon. Gentleman making a similar point when we were making our fourth attempt to get right certain arcane details of overseas forces disciplinary legislation. By the fourth attempt, I was beginning to run out of reasons.

I should like to accept in principle amendments Nos. 37, 41 and 43, which would remove any restrictions on the exercise of the full absent voting facilities in Northern Ireland. I undertake to bring forward on Report amendments to that end that meet with the approval of parliamentary counsel.

Another group of amendments among those under discussion would not make the arrangements in Great Britain and Northern Ireland the same, and I imagine that the right hon. Member for South Down will not wish to press those.

It is necessary to recognise, as I think we all do, that there is a bona fide reason for being troubled about how the new arrangements will work in practice, though we all hope that they will be trouble-free throughout the United Kingdom and especially in Northern Ireland. However, I hope that the Committee agrees that it would be appropriate to have provisions available in the legislation, which could readily be brought into force if, contrary to the expectations of Northern Ireland Members, there is substantial abuse.

It is important that, after appropriate consultation, the Government should have available a ready way of bringing into force restrictions that would enable the abuse to be corrected. Therefore, we shall wish later to table amendments to introduce a power for absent voters to be required to apply in person, with proof of identity. That power would be exercisable throughout the United Kingdom, or in any part of it. Of course, we hope that it would never be necessary to use it, but the power would be available and could be introduced by affirmative resolution.

7.15 pm

Secondly, we shall table an amendment to enable the Secretary of State to introduce special arrangements for Northern Ireland electors who would normally vote by post to vote in person at special polling stations under rules contained in a new schedule to the Bill. Again, we would not intend to introduce that power, which would also be subject to affirmative resolution, unless problems arose.

Those fail-safe devices have enabled us to assure our colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office that the mechanisms to which they rightly attach importance in other legislation will be maintained and that action will be taken speedily if our wishes and hopes are dashed and problems arise as a result of the widening of the availability of absent voting facilities.

The right hon. Member for South Down has also tabled amendments Nos. 47 to 49, and I think that I may be able to do more than he is asking for in those amendments. They cover a detailed subject, and I should like to go through the existing arrangements, the arrangements that the right hon. Gentleman proposes and the arrangements that we shall propose.

We are dealing with the proxy's right to apply for an absent vote at a particular election. He is exercising someone else's proxy, but cannot do it in person and, therefore, requires an absent vote.

The Bill gives proxies the right to vote by post at particular elections throughout the United Kingdom, but on a different basis for Great Britain and for Northern Ireland. Proxies in Northern Ireland may vote by post if they live in a different district ward from the voters who appointed them. British proxies may apply if they cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person.

The different treatment reflects the general difference in treatment of postal and proxy voting in the Bill. The amendments of the right hon. Member for South Down seek to allow all proxies throughout the United Kingdom to vote by post if they qualify under the present Northern Ireland position or under the Great Britain provision.

We wish to table on Report an amendment that will go further in the direction that the right hon. Member for South Down wishes to go. We shall introduce arrangements to allow all proxies throughout the United Kingdom to apply to vote by post at a particular election if they cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at the polling station allotted to the electors who appointed them. There will be a common rule throughout the United Kingdom, which I think will be helpful.

In addition, our amendment will allow proxies to apply for an indefinite period if they live in a different area from the electors who appointed them. That is intended to meet the needs of overseas electors and service voters, who cannot find a proxy in their own constituency, but find one elsewhere. I hope that our re-think is acceptable to the right hon. Member for South Down and his colleagues.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

I am grateful, as, I am sure, is the Committee, to the Under-Secretary for his careful and measured statement.

I refer first to what the hon. Gentleman dealt with last. In principle, his proposal on amendments Nos. 47 to 49 is self-evidently both simpler than, and preferable to, what would have been the result of our amendments. Subject, therefore, to being able to consider them when they are tabled subsequently, I welcome those proposals. There is no question of my seeking to move the amendments today.

In regard to the major matter, I am grateful both to the Government, and to all others who have concurred with the Government, for restoring the elector in Northern Ireland to the same position as his opposite number in Great Britain. I wish only to allude to the qualifications which the Under-Secretary of State set out. I am sure he would not expect my hon. Friends or myself to offer a verdict on those without having been able to consider them in actual terms. Should we, after considering them, feel it necessary to register our opposition to the principle behind them, as we registered our opposition to the principle of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Bill earlier this Session, I am sure that would not be taken in derogation of the major agreement at which we have so happily arrived on the main point of substance.

The proposal to build into a United Kingdom Act of Parliament the means to vary its application in a part of the United Kingdom by affirmative order is not in itself something which is attractive to representatives of Northern Ireland nor, I think, could it be attractive to members of the Committee as a whole. We act upon the principle that we deal with the franchise by way of legislation and in no other way, and there is a degree of inconsistency in building into such legislation the power to deal with the franchise otherwise than by legislation. That contradiction is inherent in the treaty which has been arrived at between the Home Office and the Northern Ireland Office.

I know that Her Majesty's Government are one and indivisible—that is confirmed by an eloquent gesture on the part of the Home Secretary. There is no gap between one Department and another into which a man could insert the point of a pin. Nevertheless, there seemd to be a trace rather of the voice of the Northern Ireland Office than of the Home Office in certain parts of what the Under-Secretary of State had to say on the amendments. My hon. Friends and I, while reserving the right to restate our objection when the proposals are brought forward and to put forward other considerations in relation to them when we can study them, are happy to accept the major assurance that has been given.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Beith

I beg to move amendment No. 39, in page 10, line 12, at end insert 'and, in respect of a Parliamentary general election, that he cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at the polling station allotted or likely to be allotted to him under the appropriate rules in any other Parliamentary constituency in which he is eligible to vote in Parliamentary elections.'. The effect of clause 7 and other clauses is to widen eligibility for postal and proxy votes. That has been the theme of many of the debates on specific aspects. More people will be entitled to postal and proxy votes. In general, I support that principle. I have sought to qualify it only in particular respects, another of which will come up in the next group of amendments.

One area where the extension of postal votes has a bearing concerns those who have multiple registration in several constituencies. This is not the amendment on which I would seek to address myself to the general issue of whether people should be able to have votes in several parliamentary constituencies. The question that arises on this amendment is simply whether the ease of postal votes will make it easier for them to transfer their votes at will between the several constituencies in which they may be registered.

When I addressed the Parliamentary Under-Secretary by letter on the broader issue of multiple registration, he replied on 14 May 1984—an illustration of how long these discussions have been going on—in these terms: an elector registered twice may not, as you say in your seventh paragraph, 'transfer votes at will between constituencies'. In general, he has to vote in the constituency where he is physically present on polling day. The effect of the extension of postal votes is to remove the presumption that in general the elector has to vote in the constituency where he is physically present on polling day. One cannot say that that general restraint applies to the person registered in several places when all he has to do to obtain a postal vote is to indicate that he cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at the polling station allotted to him. There is no presumption there that he will have to vote in the place in which he is physically present.

The bearing of the extension of postal votes upon multiple registration will not merely be to make it easier, for example, for those who have holiday homes but whose place of work is some distance away, to register for a postal vote. It will also, of course, make it easier for their wives, and any other members of the family who lay claim upon that as one of the places in which they are registered to vote, to apply for postal votes. The test is so much broader than before that it will be relatively easy to indicate that there are reasonable grounds why one cannot vote at a particular polling station in a particular constituency.

I hope the Minister will consider this carefully. I submit that it was never part of his intention in widening postal votes to enable someone to say—I hope the Minister will not be distracted by the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) because I am addressing a detailed point —that, because he is resident on polling day in another constituency in which he is also registered, he should thereby be entitled to a postal vote in the first of the constituencies in which he is registered. If someone is able to vote in another constituency in which he is registered, I do not think that the privilege of having the postal vote should be extended to him.

The object of extending postal votes was to make it easier for people who would not otherwise be able to vote to do so. The greatest motivation for extending postal votes was to assist people on holiday because many people have been disfranchised. That is not the case when someone has a house in the Lake District and a house in London and whose reason for not voting in the Lake District is that he has, for no particular reason, decided to be present in London, where he is also registered to vote.

I do not think that it was ever the Minister's intention to facilitate the switching of votes at will between several constituencies in which people are registered. If I did not think that it was not his intention I might be charging him with attempting to behave partially on the presumption that there might be more people owning houses in several constituencies who could thereby apply for votes at will between several constituencies. The decision to switch votes between constituencies can be highly political if one constituency is marginal and one has a safe majority for the party that the voter wishes to support. Multiple registration confers upon some voters a much greater freedom to use their votes where they think they would be most effective.

We shall argue later whether other considerations justify that, but it is no part of the purpose of extending postal votes to make it easier for people to switch votes at will, otherwise the Minister would not have written to me as he did, saying: In general a voter has to vote in the constituency where he is physically present on polling day. Therefore, I ask the Minister to consider carefully the arguments I have put in support of the amendment. If we do not do something about this, the extension of postal votes will be put to a purpose for which it was not intended.

7.30 pm
Mr. Winnick

I am not persuaded by the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). As he admitted, on most occasions he argues in favour of extending the right to postal votes. We must wonder whether the motive behind the amendment is self-interest on the part of the Liberal party and the SDP.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Has my hon. Friend noticed that SDP Members have not attended today's debate? Nor did they attend Second Reading.

Mr. Winnick

I expect that that is because there is no publicity mileage in today's debate. Therefore, SDP Members have no reason to be present. I am sure that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed privately agrees with me.

We should hesitate to remove a right unless we are persuaded that there is widespread abuse of it. I doubt that the hon. Gentleman could show such abuse, or give any good reasons for changing the present system. The categories of people who, under present regulations, are entitled to register in a number of constituencies are well known to hon. Members.

If students are at college when an election is held, currently they can apply for a postal vote at their home address on the ground they cannot get to the polling station because of their studies. Similarly, if an election is called when the college is on vacation and the student has, perhaps, found part-time employment, he can apply for a postal vote at his college address. I see no reason why that practice should not continue. There is certainly no evidence of widespread abuse.

I am surprised that the Liberal party wants to introduce such a restriction—it is somewhat illiberal. There must be far greater evidence of abuse before we agree to a change that will harm a number of people who currently register in a number of constituencies. At the end of the day, they are entitled to only one vote, and that is an important point to remember. Simply because they are registered in a number of constituencies does not give them more rights than other citizens. The hon. Gentleman is really objecting to the fact that someone can decide whether to vote in one constituency or another. Perhaps the Liberal party believes that that is not in its interests.

Mr. Beith

The hon. Gentleman should talk to members of the Labour party in such areas as the Lake District, the coastal areas of eastern England, constituencies such as those formerly represented by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), Cornwall, Devon and many others where the Labour party has argued strongly that the right conferred by multiple registration is one that accrues especially to those who own several properties.

Mr. Winnick

I stand by my remarks. I believe that the Labour party will oppose the amendment. The hon. Gentleman objects to the fact that a person has a choice. I see no reason to change the present system.

Mr. William Powell

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has introduced a jarring note into our debate. For some hours we have proceeded on the basis of wide agreement among all parties on the principles and on how they should be put into effect by the Bill. The hon. Gentleman has introduced a substantial and important measure of disagreement. It is a jarring note in what has otherwise been a most impressive and satisfactory discussion of the issues.

I have been conscious that the Rockingham Whigs have been in situ and I have been waiting for their contribution— almost trying to tempt them into a measure of disagreement. Alas, that has not happened.

Two factors underlie the amendment. As the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said in his admirable contribution, we are talking about the principle that a person should be allowed to cast only one vote. I am sure that that principle will find universal acceptance in the Committee. However, we live in a world where, because it is not possible to introduce substantial changes to our registers between the dates on which they are drawn up, it is necessary to allow people to register in more than one place. It is legitimate, even satisfactory, that, for example, students should vote either at their university or at their home. It would be wrong for the Bill to withdraw that right. Other groups are also exceptions to the general rule that persons should be registered in only one place. We should not seek to limit the opportunities of students and other people to register where it is convenient.

Wherever possible, voting should be in person. However, there must be exceptions to that, and we are enlarging those exceptions in the Bill. However, the fundamental principle should remain that people vote in person. If a massive number of people voted by post at every election votes might be cast fraudulently on behalf of people who were dead or who had left the country.

As I have, alas, had occasion to say from time to time, we live in a age where there is a more mobile population —people move house more often. The turnover on the electoral roll is, perhaps, higher than it is has been at any time. Estimates for the electoral roll about to come into operation in my constituency show that there has been a 12 per cent. turnover in the electorate since the last electoral roll came into operation a year ago. I should think that a turnover figure of between 8 per cent. and 12 per cent. would be typical of what is happening in the southern part of the country.

There is an enormous movement of population going on all the time, with people moving not just from one street to another in the same community but from one part of the nation to another. People move from, say, Yorkshire to Northamptonshire; some who are dissatisfied with their representation in Northamptonshire move to Yorkshire, where they know that an admirable representation is available to them.

Until we make provision for people, when they move, to change their electoral registration from one constituency to another—we shall not do that in this measure—it is necessary to preserve those exceptions that exist, as outlined by the hon. Member for Walsall, North, in our law. They are necessary until we are able to develop what might otherwise be called a rolling register. The principal defect of the Bill is that we are not making provision for a rolling register, but I will not develop that theme now. I have no doubt that it would be wise for the Committee to reject the amendment.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

I do not see the need for the clause, which seems to deny one the freedom to vote, in the constituency of one's choice, one of our last rights which we value greatly—[Interruption.] People will be eligible to vote in only one nominated place instead of in more than one.

I say that because I am particularly concerned about those at university, who are, rightly, on the registers near their universities and colleges, and, equally, are on the registers in the constituencies of their parents homes. They should have the opportunity to nominate in which one they will vote.

I have read the amendment nine times and still find difficulty in understanding it. Our main concern should be the reliability and accuracy of the electoral register. As my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) pointed out, the new registers are due out shortly. Checking them carefully will be the best way of avoiding fraud—for example, the fraud of people claiming to represent people they do not represent.

I have previously alleged in Parliament that in certain constituencies people have tended to vote more than once. There is a motto, "Vote early, vote often." That concerns me greatly, and that is why I am in favour of giving people more opportunity to vote in person.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Corby said, many people move about the country. They should be entitled to vote in the constituency either in which they formerly lived or in which they pay rates. Whether or not rates are important in relation to the subject under discussion, a person who pays rates should have a vote.

We must do all that we can to avoid fraud being committed—of people voting more than once. To that end, amendment No. 39 is strangely worded and, I should have thought, unnecessary. It is unfair that university students should suddenly be denied the opportunity to vote in the constituencies in which they are based.

I have counted 36 constituencies with smaller majorities than mine.

Mr. William Powell

I hope that my hon. Friend has not left out Erdington and Wrexham.

Mr. Bruinvels

There is no doubt that, in such circumstances, the postal vote can play a vital part in deciding who and which party is returned.

Mr. Beith

Could that be why the speech which one usually hears from the hon. Member who normally occupies the place from which the hon. Gentleman is speaking — the hon. Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman)—is in precisely opposite terms to the speech that the hon. Gentleman is making? The hon. Member for Lancaster has frequently argued for the abolition of multiple registration.

Nothing in the amendment would deprive any student, or anybody else, of the right to register in more than one place. It would simply not grant the right to exercise a postal vote merely on the basis that the person concerned had to be in the other place in which he was also registered to vote.

Mr. Bruinvels

I cannot be expected to answer for my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman), whether she speaks today or tomorrow, from wherever she speaks. I try my best to represent the views of my constituents, to put what I believe to be the right view from these Benches and to speak in accordance with my conscience.

The second part of that intervention by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) was patronising. A university student in the position that I described should have the right to vote. Other than saying that, I shall not be led down what I regard as a suspicious road which does not bear on the subject under discussion.

We are discussing the whole issue of the right to vote and the need to ensure that an absent vote is used properly. Part of that right includes one's freedom to vote in whatever constituency one chooses. Our main concern must be to ensure that nobody votes more than once in any election. For that reason, I cannot support the amendment.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

I appreciate the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and others about the need to ensure that people who have legitimate cause to have addresses in different places should be allowed to vote. That includes students and those who, in the course of their work, have two genuinely different addresses at which they live. In that event, they should be permitted to vote in one of them.

7.45 pm

I have some sympathy with the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in relation to the holiday home factor. In my constituency, people have holiday homes in some of the attractive seaside villages. We know of people—generally Conservatives, I suspect—who are resident in safe Tory seats elsewhere, but who register themselves as voters in the coastal villages of my constituency where their holiday homes are situated. To add insult to injury, they do not even turn up to cast their votes at the local polling station, but claim postal votes. In the event, most of them have wasted their time, because the boundary commissions have made that activity a futile gesture. However, it was an irritant in its time.

I do not see why legislation should allow people who have the privilege of a holiday home in another area to select tactically which is the most advantageous constituency in which to vote. That abuse goes on in some areas, including, no doubt, the west country and parts of Scotland and Wales.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has raised a legitimate point which should be distinguished from the aspect relating to students, who have a legitimate reason to live for a large part of the year at the location of their university. Accordingly, they should be able to vote there.

Sir John Farr

I regret what the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said. He is a nice person and I have known him a long time. It is totally alien to his nature and open character for him to move such a suspicious amendment. I know that the hon. Gentleman is tackling the problem in a hopeless way.

My constituency includes the eight or nine large halls of Leicester university at Oadby. A few elections ago there was thought to be a polling irregularity. The matter was taken to court, and eventually we went to the High Court. The agents of the other two parties and I, together with the county executive at the court, had the authority to inspect the electoral register for the wards in Oadby where the Leicester university students voted. At that time there were about 4,600 people on the register. Remarkably—this proves my confidence in the natural honesty of people in Leicestershire and proves also the error of the path taken by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed —although polling day was a Thursday and the university was in session, only one in 10 people on the roll voted in Harborough.

Students do not waste their votes. I had no way of telling, other than by talking to the students a week or two later, where their votes had gone. All those to whom I talked said they had gone home to vote. There was nothing suspicious about that. We had the privilege of examining the votes cast by the people on the register for the wards in Oadby, and only about one in 10 of the students voted in my constituency. Nationally, at least 70 per cent. of the students turned out to vote. Therefore, one can assume that 90 per cent. of those who voted did so from their homes or by postal vote.

I regret the fact that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has introduced this amendment. Apart from the sheer cost of establishing a centralised electoral register so that the checking of multiple registrations can be carried out effectively, I must point out that the whole idea verges on the fantastic and seems to come from never-never-land.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed is typical of other Liberals I have met outside the House. They are all nice people and have the best of intentions, but they do not amount to much when it comes to the count.

Mr. Mellor

The evening becomes more entertaining as it goes on. The point made by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is perfectly legitimate. Whether multiple registration should be permitted is plainly an issue. The hon. Gentleman is addressing a consequence of multiple registration, but he is fully entitled to introduce into the argument the fact that it is consistent to object, as the hon. Gentleman and a number of others do, to multiple registration and to argue that the manifestation of multiple registration, which gives a voter a choice of constituencies in which to vote, should not be permitted. Although I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, I accept the internal logic of his argument and believe that he has a perfectly sensible point of view. One cannot say that the arguments go totally one way.

I believe that it is not inappropriate that we should stick by the test that has been established for so long—one may register in a constituency where the address has a substantial degree of permanence. It follows that some people will manage to establish, to the satisfaction of the ERO, that they have in more than one place an address that has a substantial degree of permanence. I am not sure whether many people are registered in more than two places, but I understand that there are objections to people being registered in more than one place. Some of those objections are derived from principle and some from a light coating of principle and a feeling that party disadvantage will be involved. I understand that.

We have all been in politics for many years. We have all been introduced to party professionals and others who have myths about the effects of various electoral rules on various parties. On looking at the swings and roundabouts of the various people who are registered in more than one constituency, I dare say that there is no more likely to be party advantage in such registration than there is in having polling hours between 9 am and 10 pm, as Dr. David Butler asserts. I know that many people think that there are advantages and disadvantages.

I do not believe that a feasible or practical way has been devised to make it a practical proposition to prevent multiple registration. I do not think that multiple registration is objectionable, provided the substantial degree of permanence test is satisfied and provided that the person concerned exercises his franchise in only one place.

If people have a stake in a community they are entitled to exercise their vote. One would not need to live in East Lothian very long to realise that one had a sufficient stake in the community not to want to be represented by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). If I had a holiday home in his constituency — not being a landowner like him I do not run two holiday homes—I dare say that I would be driven irresistibly to that conclusion. It is difficult to establish tests.

Mr. Corbett

He has a flat in Putney.

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman might have several flats in Putney. When one asks whether a person's degree of permanence in one place is greater than his degree of permanence in another place one introduces complications and justiciable issues of a kind that would make what should be the relatively simple process of registering to vote a difficult process.

Even if one accepts multiple registration, to hedge it with the type of restrictions that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed seeks to impose in his amendment would be complicated. The hon. Gentleman made the point—I can see where that point springs from—that multiple registration could be seen as facilatating the exercise of a vote by a person who would not physically be in the constituency at the time of the election. It would be likely to facilitate his vote in an area where his degree of permanence was less than in the other place where he was registered. I understand why the hon. Gentleman said that. Surprisingly, the answer to that point was given by the hon. Member for East Lothian who, in an aside, made the revealing point that many people who have holiday homes in his constituency have the temerity not to be in the constituency on polling day when the dreadful opportunity arises to vote in person for him. Nevertheless, such people obtain a postal vote so that they can vote against him from a convenient distance where they are safe from his wrath. That reveals the essential truth of this situation.

It is not only in East Lothian where there is a particularly good reason to try to get a vote in elections, but in many other constituencies. Someone who was once on the register but is also registered at an address elsewhere can obtain a postal vote by applying for such a vote in the constituency in which he will not be on polling day by stating that he will not be physically present on the grounds of change of residence. Technically speaking, he may still be resident at the other address, but if he applies for a postal vote on change of address grounds he is not required to produce any evidence that he is no longer resident at the qualifying address, and the registration officer has no means of investigating the matter. Therefore, in practice, registration officers grant postal voting applications on the grounds of change of residence on demand. That is the reason why I do not think that the change that we are making will, in practical terms, significantly increase the number of people who are registered in more than one place obtaining a postal vote to facilitate their voting in the constituency in which they will not physically be on polling day.

8 pm

In any event, if one accepts, as I do, that there is a case for multiple registration, one is not entitled to hang around the neck of that any inhibitions upon the individual casting his vote in the constituency where it seems to him, for a diversity of reasons, most appropriate to do so. Actually stopping him from doing so would be difficult. Let us say that, as well as having my residence in Putney, I borrowed some money from the hon. Member for East Lothian, who probably has a lot of it around ready for such needy causes, and purchased a holiday home on his estate. I suspect that there are some nice dells and fields on his estate where one could build a convenient cottage. Being an unpleasant person, I might be determined once I got there to vote against him, and I could be impeded by the fact that Parliament had had the lack of wisdom to accept the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. It would still be difficult for the returning officer in East Lothian to test my assertion that I was not capable of voting in Putney, where I was resident, and therefore had to have a postal vote for East Lothian.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed accepts that if one is able to demonstrate that one is incapable of voting in person at either of the constituencies in which one is registered one is then entitled to decide in which one one would cast one's vote. How does the returning officer for East Lothian react? He is perhaps, also living on the hon. Gentleman's estate, is beholden to him and therefore does not wish to facilitate postal voting in the constituency because he realises that, as I am obviously an intelligent man, I shall not be casting my vote for the hon. Member. However, it would be difficult to show that I would not be capable of voting in Putney, whereas he might have a chance when dealing with East Lothian.

For all those reasons, I hope that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will not press his amendment.

Mr. Beith

I can relieve the Minister of one problem. Were he to obtain a delightful residence on the estate of the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), he would find himself in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), not that of the hon. Member for East Lothian. The Minister might then feel even more strongly that he would wish to change his residence on party grounds. However, that is not what we are talking about.

This amendment, as I sought to argue at the beginning, is not an excuse for an argument about whether there should be multiple registration. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) seemed to be saying that, but in doing so he overlooked the fact that, when the Labour party gave its evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, it said, in words that brook of no misinterpretation: The Labour party would support a change in the law to outlaw multiple registration. The silence from the Labour Front Bench, which is occupied by one of the members of the Select Committee and one who listened to that evidence, seems to suggest embarrassment. No one wishes openly to contradict the hon. Member for Walsall, North, but his is clearly not the view of the Labour party. I agree with those hon. Members who say that it is difficult to know which Labour party one is speaking about. Walworth road was clear in its view, and this view is supported by at least one occupant of the Opposition Front Bench.

The Minister produced one genuine technical objection to the amendment, which I recognise. That is the legitimate change of residence case, which gives rise to a technical difficulty if the amendment is passed in its present form. Where I do not agree with him in the change of residence case is in his apparent implication that the sort of people to whom he referred would readily use a change of residence basis to secure the vote that they wanted if they were otherwise precluded by this amendment. He implied that people would keep saying that they had changed their London home to their country residence one year and back again the next, each time so that they could obtain a vote. Conservative Members are at one stage saying that we are dealing with people who are scrupulous, fair and honest and the next minute that we are dealing with people who are imagined to engage in the most dubious procedures.

There is nothing suspicious about the wording of the amendment, which sets out a test to be put to the person applying for a postal vote. Like many other things in the test for a postal vote in the Bill, it places a considerable onus and trust on the applicant and gives the returning officer fairly limited opportunities to check what is being set before him. This is the case in general when applying for a postal vote, which is why I shall seek to probe the matter in the next group of amendments, because we are taking a great deal on trust.

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman will find in the regulations that the returning officer will have more power to refuse and a better basis for doing so, because the reason why a person states that he will not be available to vote in person on the day will have to be clearly stated, and it will have to be countersigned by another person. We have yet to determine who that person should be and whether there should be any limit on those who can countersign. For the first time, there is a penal sanction. People will put themselves at risk of appearing in court if they say something that is demonstrably false.

Mr. Beith

The Minister is unlocking his treasure chest in advance. These are the jewels that should be brought out when we come to consider on a later amendment what sort of counter-signature should feature in the Bill or the regulations. In these electoral matters, people are taken on trust to some extent and are asked to make certain assertions. That is the only reasonable way to proceed.

Conservative Members have several times suggested that there would be no way in which one could check on the extent of multiple registrations, or about applications for postal votes from those registered in more than one place. If that is so, they were talking glibly about dual voting. If there is no way to check anything in multiple registration, there is no way to establish that somebody is voting twice. That is the weakness in our system, and the Minister needs to pay some attention to what should be done about this.

In a number of parts of the country, attempts are made by the parties to establish whether voting twice is taking place, but the process is difficult. I think that the parties have gone further than the formal machinery of the returning officers has done to check whether double voting is taking place. I believe that double voting occurs very rarely. I should be surprised to find that it happens at all. However, we do not know, and the absence of any way to check some of these things is not something that I would hold up as a virtue of the system or as something from which we should step back and on which we should admit defeat and accept that nothing should be done. Dual voting is the kind of electoral offence against which we should have some protection and some check.

I have been criticised for talking about this amendment in rather broad partisan terms. Hon. Members have short memories. I opened the debate in the narrowest sense and sought to present a logical case about the way in which postal voting should be circumscribed. Scarcely an hon. Member who has spoken has not said something containing at least as much partisan interest in the matter as anything that I might have expressed. One has only to go to some of the constituencies that I know and see the extent to which potential second-home postal voters are circulating to encourage their application for a second vote to realise that there is substantial partisan interest in this.

Both the Conservative and Labour parties, when giving evidence to the Select Committee, accepted that there was a problem and that multiple registration should be ended. We should confront multiple registration when we come to that part of the Bill which deals with it. Postal voting is a narrower issue. There is a technical objection to the amendment but it could be overcome by redrafting.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Beith

I beg to move amendment No. 40, in page 10, line 16, at end insert— '(d) the applicant has supplied to the returning officer a certificate of the relevant circumstances which has been countersigned by a Member of Parliament, Justice of the Peace, Minister of Religion, lawyer, bank officer, established civil servant, school teacher, police officer, doctor or a person of similar standing known personally to the applicant for at least two years.'. This is a probing amendment to enable the Minister to tell us more about the regulations. The purpose of the amendment is to provide a system of countersignature. The amendment sets out the people who should be allowed to do the countersigning. The list is familiar because it is the same as that for signing passport applications. Hon. Members must have signed many such applications. It is by no means the end of the road in terms of what should be in the bill or the regulations and it is probably best to deal with the matter in regulations.

The Bill amends the "prescribed requirements" for an absent vote. Schedule 1(7) provides: Provision as to the evidence which shall or may be required, or be deemed sufficient or conclusive evidence, in connection with a person's application to vote by proxy or to vote by post as elector or as proxy. The new requirements may include countersigning, but we do not yet know how extensive the change will be.

It is necessary to hedge postal voting with some checks and limitations for all the reasons already advanced. A postal vote is not as satisfactory in terms of the Parliamentary and Municipal Elections (Ballot) Act as a vote cast at a polling station in a ballot booth. A postal vote can be less secret than a vote cast in a polling station and the voter is open to pressure and intimidation. Hon. Members will have been concerned to ensure that old people can vote in old people's homes or their own homes, free of pressure and prying. It is important that postal votes should be given only when necessary. I support the extension of postal votes to holidaymakers, because the case is fully made out. The case for allowing people to exercise their franchise outweighs the case for keeping the vote in the polling stations, which, in other circumstances, should be our priority. The secrecy of the ballot can best be assured in the polling station.

When we extend the postal vote, we must use some restraint and ensure that those involved genuinely satisfy the requirements. I tabled the amendment to discover the extent to which the Government intend to ensure that and to give the Minister the opportunity to explain.

8.15 pm
Mr. Forth

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) tempts us down some interesting highways and byways. I am as concerned about this problem as other hon. Members are about other matters.

At least two significant problems arise from the wording of the amendment. Clause 7 provides: the registration officer shall grant the application if—

  1. (a) he is satisfied that the applicant's circumstances on the date of the poll will be … such that …
  2. (b) he is satisfied that the applicant is or will be registered …
  3. (c) the application meets the prescribed requirements."
That is an acceptable form of words, but the amendment suggests the inclusion of paragraph (d) which deals with a different principle. The amendment alters the grounds for the acceptance of the test, which is made contingent on a certain category of person providing authorisation for the person applying for a proxy or postal vote. We must look at the categories of people carefully. We are, after all, talking about that most important issue in our democratic procedures—an individual's entitlement to vote in an election. Few issues are more important. We must therefore be satisfied that the mechanism which gives people the vote is above and beyond all reasonable doubt and suspicion.

Members of Parliament are the first to be listed in the amendment. Hon. Members will find it difficult to quibble at that, although an element of vested interest exists. In many, if not most, cases the Member of Parliament willbe authorising a vote for an individual who will be voting for him. One could, therefore, cast a passing doubt on that category, although I doubt whether I should carry many of my hon. Friends with me.

Mr. William Powell

Does my hon. Friend recall a celebrated criminal case some years ago when a Member of Parliament was deceived into countersigning an application? He had no knowledge of the true circumstances, and his good name was abused. That led to a long criminal trial and a substantial number of years in prison for an hon. Member.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because that highlights the difficulties. Many other difficulties could arise. It would be a brave Member who refused to authorise such an application, because of the difficulties in which that might place him subsequently, and the effect that it might have on potential supporters if it got around that he had impugned the integrity of a person applying for a postal vote by refusing to authorise it.

We can let that category pass unchallenged because it is so well and long established. The same applies to justices of the peace, who are above and beyond reproach in such matters.

The next category, ministers of religion, causes problems. I shall tread carefully, because I do not want to cause offence. The title "minister of religion" has become broad and generous. Many people who style themselves as ministers of religion today would not in the past have been accepted as such. I shall not name individual religions or sects, but the title "minister of religion" is not a sufficient safeguard to ensure no abuse. I regret that many people style themselves as ministers of religion. How would the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed satisfy himself that a person so styled genuinely came within that category?

We can accept the category of lawyer without too much argument. [Interruption.] Some hon. Members may not, but I am sufficiently generous to accept the category of lawyer.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The hon. Gentleman was disposing of ministers of religion. How does he square that with the present requirements for signatures for passports? He seeks to gloss over the classification of lawyers. Is he asking the Committee to accept that lawyers cannot be deceived?

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to digress, and I should be reluctant to do that given the pressure of time. However interesting it might be to discuss the authorisation of passports, I am sure that I would quickly be reminded that we are discussing the authorisation of applications for proxy and postal votes. Therefore, I shall not be tempted to follow the hon. Gentleman.

We run into the most fascinating potential difficulties over the term "bank officer." I believe that I am correct when I say that someone could legitimately and properly leave school at the age of 16 and work for a bank. Many young people do. It is an honourable position, but it gives rise to the possibility that, under the terms of the amendment, someone who was of voting age—over 18 —could have his application for a postal or proxy vote authorised by a 16-year-old who had only just started working for a bank but who would be properly styled a "bank officer." That category is unacceptable. The fact that the amendment is loosely cast invalidates it.

Similarly, there are difficulties with some of the other categories, but I shall not detain the Committee by going through them in more detail.

Mr. Beith

Is it not apparent that the hon. Gentleman and I have done a service to the nation if we have brought to the notice of the Home Office Minister with responsibility for passports the glaring deficiencies in the arrangements by which passports are now authorised?

Mr. Forth

Indeed. What has been said this evening may well give rise to significant legislation and the opportunity to consider those matters in greater detail. I am reluctant to do that as I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate.

The categories that I have described are sufficient to invalidate the amendment. The final category has the effrontery to refer to a person of similar standing known personally to the applicant for at least two years. One is driven to ask: of similar standing to whom? Is it of similar standing to the 16-year-old bank officer, to the extremely dubious minister of some religion or other—of which kind is not specified—or is it a person of similar standing to the Member of Parliament who may have a vested interest in giving a vote to someone whose application may not be the most correct and proper?

The amendment is ill-thought-out, ill-considered and poorly drafted. To accept it would not do justice to the Bill. I therefore beg the Committee to reject it.

Mr. Barron

It was interesting to listen to the comments of the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) about the list. I am sure that he could have gone on to the second half of the list and explained the categories in which anomalies might arise in relation to the countersigning of applications for proxy and postal votes. What I find interesting—this is something that the hon. Gentleman missed — is that the categories have something in common. They are middle class, and perhaps potential supporters of the so-called alliance parties.

Coming from a sensible Socialist area of south Yorkshire, I find it amazing that hon. Members have not considered the type of people who are likely to want to have countersignatures on applications for postal and proxy votes. In my constituency, they would normally be elderly people. They would look around and ask who were the responsible people in their lives and areas who could accept — the further responsibility of ensuring that application forms were countersigned. I am amazed that we can have a list of middle-class, salaried people and not consider matrons of old people's homes. They are more responsible, more receptive and more likely to be readily available to sign such forms.

The list that has been presented to us in the amendment includes a Member of Parliament. I am sure that hon. Members and the vast majority of the electorate know that Members of Parliament for areas such as Berwick-upon-Tweed and Rother Valley in south Yorkshire normally live a large part of their lives—when Parliament is sitting—hundreds of miles from their constituencies. The likelihood of people being able to contact Members of Parliament is limited. The same can be said for many other people on the list. If a bank officer is interpreted to mean a bank manager as opposed to a 16-year-old bank clerk, one would need an appointment to see a bank officer or a manager in my local bank to get an application form countersigned.

Justices of the peace are on the list. There are some lay magistrates in my constituency, and a knock on the door would be sufficient to get them to sign an application form, but not everyone knows who the magistrates are. The people who normally do know are not those who see them to have forms countersigned.

School teachers, police officers and doctors are included. People go to see a doctor about their medical needs. They do not want to have to think about seeing the local family doctor to have a form for a vote in a forthcoming election countersigned. The amendment just gives a host of job descriptions which do not really fit people's needs.

I go further than the matron in the old people's home. The signature could be that of a warden of sheltered accommodation — flats or bungalows. Because of the cuts in the housing support grant, in my constituency we have only been building flats and bungalows for old people to release other housing. They have a warden to look after them, and wardens are responsible people.

Mr. Bermingham

Will my hon. Friend define what an "established civil servant" is? Does he have to have so many grades on a Civil Service scale or is he something else? How does anyone know who is an "established civil servant"?

Mr. Barron

That is a fair comment. I cannot answer that question. An "established civil servant" leaves a great many questions about who or what he is. It would be strange to think of accepting the amendment.

Wardens of sheltered accommodation in my constituency are not professional people. They do not have a salary, which is normally one of the marks of a professional person. They are paid weekly and they are on low incomes. It would be difficult to fit them into the category of "a person of similar standing". That means different things to each right hon. and hon. Member. Therefore, we need to ask the Minister to clarify what provisions he believes should be included in the regulations with regard to countersigning.

Where I come from, and in my constituency, one of the people in the community who is of very high standing, and who looks after many things, is the trade union official. I should have thought that he was an obvious person to be included in any list of those who could countersign the form. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said that this was a probing amendment. It seems that the hon. Gentleman has not probed far at all in regard to those who should countersign voting forms.

8.30 pm
Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has already said that consideration is being given to the precise form that regulations should take, the category of persons who should be entitled to be countersignatories and the circumstances in which they should be able to sign an application for an absent vote. Like the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), I understand the reasons why such provisions should be in regulations, although I must confess that I have some doubts about always leaving such important matters to regulations. I would be much happier in many ways if such important issues could be contained within the Bill itself. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give me some reassurance when he replies.

The present absent voting provisions have grave defects. Serious abuses occur. One should be concerned about the fact that such abuses might take place on a wider scale, simply because many more people will be able to apply for an absent vote in future, as everyone agrees. In those circumstances, it is important to build in the best possible safeguards. I understand the difficulties of drawing more closely the circumstances in which somebody should be able to apply for an absent vote, bearing in mind the difficulties of defining holidays and so on. The best safeguard that we can have lies in the category of persons who should be able to countersign. In clause 7 as it stands, it might appear that we are providing absent votes on demand. Many party agents and, indeed, many electoral registration officers who have seen the clause have assumed that we are providing for absent votes on demand.

The possibility for abuse is particularly great in elections where the turnout is especially low. The sort of elections that spring immediately to mind are local government elections. We are extending the provision to them. At those elections, the turnout is sometimes as low as 30 per cent. Many of those who would be prepared to turn out in a parliamentary election, and have a commitment to a particular party, are not prepared to turn out at a local government election. Party activists going round the houses could say to people who said that they had a commitment to that party but doubted whether they would bother to go out and vote, "If you are in some doubt as to whether you will go out and vote, why not fill in an application for a postal vote? It is very easy. You are entitled to it and it will save you the trouble of going out to vote." Even those who are keen to vote could see the advantages of exercising their right to vote at home. As many hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), said on Second Reading, once we get away from the secrecy of the polling booth, the validity of the vote falls into doubt. There is a big question mark over the validity of the poll.

Therefore, we must first define as carefully as we can the "relevant circumstances", to use the terms of the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. I should like the "relevant circumstances", to be defined reasonably closely. I should like the countersignatory to confirm not only that the applicant is who he claims to be, but that the circumstances in which he is applying for an absent vote are genuine and justified.

Who is the countersignatory to be? My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) and the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) referred to some of the difficulties that arise in relation to the wide range of categories laid down in the amendment. I believe that it is probably right to limit the countersignatories to justices of the peace. The reason is simply that when they take up that office they accept certain responsibilities. We all know that there are JPs who are willing to countersign various applications, for reasons that we would not consider justified. Some JPs are much more true than others to the principles to which they swore when they took up that office. Just as JPs are specified for various purposes in the Representation of the People Act 1983, it is right that in this part of the Bill they should be the ones who have to countersign.

I hope that careful consideration will be given to that aspect, because it is one of the most important parts of the Bill. I also hope that at the end of the day nobody will be able to claim, as many people believe at present, that we are allowing absent voting on demand.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

I believe that an absent vote is a right, but it must be established. It is not an automatic right. Therefore, having counter-signatures, in whatever provision requires it, is correct. I should have thought that the initial provisions of the Bill made greater sense than the list supplied to us by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). Immediately the list is in front of us, it is apparent that it is not exhaustive—

Mr. Forth

It is exhausting.

Mr. Bruinvels

Indeed, it is exhausting.

It is apparent that trade union officials should have been on the list, as well as matrons of old people's homes and so on. There is no doubt that it could be extended. If there is to be a list, I should prefer it to be returned to the original provisions. I have looked carefully at the provisions, and I must ask the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed why the right is given to some people and not to others. Why should this be an elitist list, as it is in a way? The list includes a Member of Parliament, a justice of the peace and a minister of religion, compared with a bank officer and a schoolteacher. It is a strange cross-section of people.

I do not necessarily accept that it is a middle-class cross-section of people, but it is strange to link an established civil servant with a doctor. It is particularly amusing, on this day of all days, that under the proposed list we are looking for a civil servant to countersign. I understood that Clive Ponting was an established civil servant, and does not like signing anything. For that reason alone, it is a strange provision.

A minister of religion is included in the list. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) referred to that. All that I would say is that some ministers do not know the truth, for example, about the virgin birth or other points. One must wonder whether they are the right people. I have great confidence in the medical profession. Its members might be around for many years and know the person since birth.

Mr. William Powell

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to express great confidence in the medical profession, but has he noticed that in the drafting a distinction is drawn between a civil servant and an established civil servant, but no such distinction is drawn between doctors? The words "established doctor" do not appear. When he refers to doctors, no doubt my hon. Friend will bear it in mind that the doctor will not have to produce any evidence that he is a duly qualified doctor, if that meaning is to be attached to the word "established".

Mr. Bruinvels

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There is no evidence that the doctor is established and no evidence that he is a medical person. He could be a doctor of letters or a doctor of law.

Mr. Bermingham

Or Dr. Death.

Mr. Bruinvels

I should not like him to sign my application. That could be the kiss of death.

The idea of having to compare one group with another is abhorrent. The definition of a person of similar standing is another peculiar way of trying to assess what sort of person can countersign an application. Surely our main purpose must be to ensure that those who want to vote in their absence are legitimately witnessed in their application and their vote. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will confirm that the provisions as itemised in detail, without the amendment, make far more sense than the details set out in the amendment. For that reason alone, I cannot support the amendment.

Sir John Farr

I heard most of the debate on the amendment before I left the Chamber. I had the opportunity of listening to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) as he moved the amendment. As I said after he had moved the previous amendment, it is a pity to see him knocking around with a suspicious attitude to everyone. He seems to be suggesting that everyone must be vetted by one of the persons listed in the amendment.

Until the hon. Gentleman introduced amendment No. 39, the debate had been one of relative harmony and mutual good humour. It is regrettable that the hon. Gentleman saw fit to introduce an acid-like amendment. It is even more regrettable that he has now introduced another similar amendment. To my simple way of thinking, it suggests that the Liberal party does not trust anyone without having him vetted, whatever he does, if electoral practice is involved. That is extraordinary. It is not the right way to attract new voters to an up-and-coming party.

Mr. Beith

The hon. Gentleman cannot have been following the debates on the Bill very carefully. If he had been following them with care, he would have noticed that until a relatively late stage in our proceedings it was the Government's view that no one in Northern Ireland should have the extended absent voting rights given to him that are proposed for those in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Government have conceded, as a result of argument, discussion, and perhaps a little pressure, that it would be reasonable to make the extension. Both sides of the Committee have been considering ways in which it would be reasonable to extend postal voting and the conditions that should be attached to the extensions.

Sir John Farr

I was about to address myself to the qualifications of those who are supposed to pry into the qualifications of a voter. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) has said, a minister of religion is a rather nebulous creature at this moment. If he were a bishop, I would say definitely that he would not be an acceptable object. Let us suppose that the minister is of lower standing than a bishop. Does a minister in the Church of Scientology count as a minister of religion? Has the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed thought out the consequences of his rather vague amendment, which could have the most appalling results if it were enacted?

As for the reference to a person of similar standing"— well, really! With great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell), that would provide a remunerative lawyer's paradise. With all respect to my hon. Friend, he could spend days and weeks at someone's expense arguing what that provision means. I am sure that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has not thought out the amendment carefully. When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State replies, I hope that he will take fairly short steps in throwing it out.

8.45 pm
Mr. Mellor

I would not want the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) to feel hard done by. He has tabled an amendment that sets out the qualifications for those who should countersign applications for passports and he is entitled to do that as a basis for discussing the countersignatory arrangements for absent voting. When he returns home this evening to his Bournvita and a pamphlet on site value rating, I would not want him to feel depressed by the thought that he alone threw a spanner in an otherwise harmonious works. I say that to him from the bottom of my heart. He should not take this too hard.

Coming to business, the fact is that, contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) said—I appreciate that he was putting the point of view of others and not his own—this is not a part of the Bill that offers absent voting on demand. Clause 7 deals with a unified requirement, so that one test has to be satisfied instead of a mass of anomalous tests. The ERO has to be satisfied that the applicant's circumstances on the date of the poll will be such, or are likely to be, that he cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person. A form will have to be completed to set out the reasons for that. We think that the ERO should have the benefit of seeing the signature of the individual making the application, which will be written in the knowledge that it will be a criminal offence to make a false declaration. We think that there should also be a countersignature. That is my view and I do not think that anyone is arguing against that. The issue that troubles me is whether there should be any restriction based on employment, or some other test, on the sort of person who should be able to act as a countersignatory.

Mr. Beith

Several of the Minister's hon. Friends, notably the hon. Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr), seemed to be arguing that there should be no countersignature. I hope that the Minister will address himself to that argument.

Mr. Mellor

Yes, I think that the primary intention of my hon. Friends might have been to send the hon. Gentleman home to his Bournvita and a pamphlet on site value rating. Perhaps they were not necessarily concerned to torpedo for ever the idea that he has put before the Committee. It is possible that they were arguing that it was damned by its association with the hon. Gentleman. If the argument had been presented to them cold, without them knowing that the hon. Gentleman had advocated it, their attitude might have been different. That is merely idle speculation on my part.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will appreciate that I have been taking his argument seriously. Indeed, I have defended his contribution to thought. Passport application forms require the signatures of anomalous categories and the requirements have been endorsed by successive Governments as being those which should be satisfied before passports may be obtained. I do not criticise the hon. Gentleman for having moved the amendment. The Government take the view in the White Paper that the qualifications of the countersignatory should be registration as an elector and someone who is known to the applicant, but not a member of his family, who is prepared to certify that to the best of his knowledge—there is a penal sanction attached to that — the circumstances described in the application form are true.

We opened up the matter rather more widely in the absent voting consultation paper by suggesting that the qualification should be further tightened by limiting it to certain categories of person. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has mentioned a possible way in which that could be achieved. Further restrictions might have been produced, for instance, by limiting the number of applications which an elector can sign. Of course, a medical practitioner would be exempted from those requirements.

I have listened to the debate with an open mind, because it is true that regulations will be made in due course. That is the normal practice, and not a sinister recent manifestation of a desire to keep things out of the statute book, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley suggested. There will be consultations with the parties and the local authority associations before regulations are introduced, so nothing that we say tonight is conclusive.

In so far as I have listened to the arguments and they have had an impact on me, I believe that the speech of the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) was especially effective. He asked why the warden of an old person's home or of sheltered accommodation could not be a signatory. I hope that I have not damned the hon. Gentleman's career for ever by praising him. If I have, I shall withdraw my remarks immediately and attack him, so that his status and credibility might be restored.

He also mentioned trade union officials. We must recognise that any list of categories, even one as well hallowed by time and experience as the list for passport applications, is open to anomalies and does not withstand much cross-examination. On that basis, I shall leave the debate, having invited the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed to withdraw his amendment, thinking that it will be difficult, and possibly undesirable, to insert any qualifications beyond the fact that the countersignatory must be a registered elector, known to the applicant, but not a part of his family, and prepared to make the required certification.

Mr. Bermingham

I rise immediately to defend my hon. Friend and office sharer the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), who raised an important point. Perhaps eventually the qualifications of countersignatories will be introduced in regulations. The Minister may consider that that matter should be brought back to the House, because it would be an opportunity to tidy up some of the anomalies in other countersignatory cases, for example in passport applications, which can give rise to much hardship and nuisance.

Mr. Mellor

That matter would have to be considered separately. As to the regulations, proper consultation will be carried out with the parties and the local authority associations. Therefore, nothing can be concluded tonight. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed simply wished to have a demonstration of the Government's thinking on the matter. The more that I have thought about it, having flirted with the idea of a restricted list, the more I believe that the proposition in the White Paper is probably the best one.

Mr. Waller

Will my hon. Friend consider whether the category should be limited to justices of the peace, who are established in the Representation of the People Act 1983 as the only people who can sign applications for several purposes? If one said that any elector in a constituency who was not related to the applicant could countersign his application, in practical terms that might become a case of absent votes on demand, although it may not be so in theory. There would be no realistic way in which a returning officer could check whether an application was justified.

Mr. Mellor

My hon. Friend has moved back to another point, but perhaps I should deal with it. If the applicant is prepared to assert that the reason why he is not at his home address is that he is away on business, there is no penal sanction attached to that. One might just as well say in this case that, if someone is prepared to tell a big enough lie, no electoral registration officer can deal with him. We propose a much more formalised method of application which requires someone else to join in the deception, if there is a deception, and we are introducing a penal sanction. I do not agree that it will create absent voting on demand. We are making absent votes properly available to those who need them. There will always be some abuse, as there is with the present system.

As to my hon. Friend's point about justices of the peace, I believe that other hon. Members thought that that would be too restrictive, as do I. We must be practical about this matter. Although it is true that prudent people —the wise virgins who trim their wicks appropriately, as the biblical injunction states—will have made their arrangements for postal votes well before the whistle blows for an election, many people will not — [Interruption.] I am sorry if I have offended the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) by getting my biblical quotation wrong. The election will be called probably no more than three weeks and two days before the polling date, and postal votes will close about two weeks and three days before that date. There will be barely a week in which to make all the arrangements for postal votes. If all the people who will be away on holiday at the time of the election will frantically make arrangements, I wonder whether only justices of the peace could cope with it.

That is another reason why we must have the courage of our convictions and accept that the arguments advanced by some of my hon. Friends, and especially well advanced by the hon. Member for Rother Valley, are conclusive. We should not try to create categories other than that the countersignatory must be an adult elector who is not related to the applicant.

Mr. Beith

The debate has brought out some interesting matters, including a rather sharp division of opinion in the Conservative party. Some Conservative Members believe that there should be a much narrower category of people allowed to countersign an application for an absent vote—narrower than the category that I advanced in my purely probing amendment, and narrower than the Government considered at an earlier stage.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) suggested that it should be limited to justices of the peace. I have not so far detected any support for so restricted a category. However, other Conservative Members have given the impression that a countersignature should not be necessary. Unusually, I find myself midway between those two extremes of Tory thinking.

Absent voting must be extended with some care, for the reasons that I advanced earlier, and for the reasons which led the Government originally to have doubts about the extent to which they would make available a provision for absent voting. Therefore, a countersignature system must be necessary, and my thinking is moving along much the same lines as the Minister's on this matter.

The provision described by the Minister, which will feature in the regulations, together with penal sanctions, may be sufficient for this purpose, but the debate has brought out something else. Among the Government's supporters, the present arrangements for the approval of passport applications are viewed with something bordering on contempt. They are certainly viewed as an inadequate model for fundamentally important provisions, such as the right to an absent vote.

Those views have even more worrying implications, because the control of passports is related to the prevention of terrorism and to many other major issues with which the Home Office is concerned. The fact that this brief examination has displayed the inadequacies, as a model for absent voting, of the present list of people who can authorise passport applications demonstrates that the Minister will have to consider those matters as well. It would appear that there is no support in the Conservative party for the present arrangements for issuing passports. What we should do now when people come to us with their inevitable passport applications I am not sure.

9 pm

The arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) about who might be on a limited list, to use the Government's favourite phrase, apply equally to both issues. The passport list is out of date and does not provide an adequate model. I agree that wardens in old people's homes and wardens in sheltered accommodation would be appropriate for countersignature purposes. They are already sometimes involved in obtaining postal votes for people on medical grounds. There is no reason, therefore, why they should not also be involved in this part of the process. I agree with what the hon. Member for Rother Valley said about the extended categories that ought to be included for all of these purposes. If there is to be a list, it is logical that it should be the same for one Home Office purpose as for another.

On balance, the Minister is probably on the right lines in assuming that the more open attestation provided by an elector to whom the person is known is probably adequate for the purpose; but an element of danger still exists, and I am surprised and concerned that some hon. Members seem to be unaware that there is a problem. I acquit one or two Conservative Members of that charge. However, those who assume that the extension and ease of application for postal votes would create no difficulties do not understand what led to the Government having doubts in the first place about its extension to Northern Ireland. As hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies have mentioned, the problems there may be greater in scale, but they could arise on this side of the water. It is for that reason that the Labour party has been more cautious and unwilling to extend voting rights than either the alliance or the Government. That fact is not recognised by some Conservative Members.

I recognise that the Minister is putting forward fairly sensible proposals. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. William Powell

It would be wrong to allow clause 7 to pass without noting that it introduces a most important change, which fortunately has proved uncontroversial. By means of this clause we are extending the right to vote to people who are on holiday. A very important change is being made to our electoral law. I take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State upon clause 7. The passing of this clause will mark a tremendous improvement in our electoral law.

Sir John Farr

The heading to clause 7 relates to the absent vote at a particular election and to the absent voters list. I wrongly put down an amendment relating to holidaymakers under clause 6. Holidaymakers are fully covered in clause 7. At the last election it troubled me greatly that one came across people who had lost their vote, either through their own ill health or through the ill health of a close relative. The Committee will say that we cannot cater for ill health or for the fact that somebody has suffered an unfortunate bereavement and therefore cannot be expected to leave the place of death or the family home to register his vote elsewhere.

At the last election I came across several instances of people whose close relatives were seriously ill. I have in my files a letter from one gentleman who had to spend his time continuously at the bedside of his wife. She had been taken gravely ill at short notice. He could find nobody to take his place in order to allow him to go and vote. I promised this gentleman and all the other people who wrote to me that when the Bill came before the House I should seek to introduce what I call an emergency clause.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) has pointed out many of the omissions from the Bill. It does not contain an emergency clause. I believe that there should be a longstop of that kind to cover a human tragedy. I should have liked to see an emergency clause, so that all the carefully laid plans of my hon. Friend in clause 7 could not be set at naught overnight. I should have liked to see an emergency clause so that we could do our best to bring some form of voting justice to those who, through no fault of their own, are deprived of the vote.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

In May 1983 the Leicester Mercury launched a campaign throughout Leicestershire calling for a change in the law to bring about absent voting and to give holidaymakers the right to vote.

Clause 7 is welcome on behalf of my constituents and others throughout the country. The campaign that was launched in Leicester was a great success. Democracy can now be seen to have an effective part to play. Many people will now use the opportunity to vote, and I look forward to seeing increased Conservative majorities in many constituencies.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 8 to 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Back to
Forward to