HC Deb 13 February 1985 vol 73 cc367-84
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I beg to move amendment No. 35, in page 9, line 17, after 'keep', insert 'and supply to each of the candidates nominated in the constituency.'.

The Chairman

With this it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 45, in clause 7, page 11, line 8, after 'keep', insert 'and supply to each of the candidates nominated in the constituency.'.

Mr. Beith

The Under-Secretary of State responded helpfully to the points made in the last group of amendments, and I hope that he did so in a spirit of improving the Bill and accepting the sensible suggestions that will prevail in our discussions. There are many sensible suggestions on the Amendment Paper from me and my hon. Friends. I have no doubt that the consideration will proceed apace on that basis.

Amendment No. 35 is a probing amendment because what it seeks to do will — if it is done properly — be done in regulations. One matter that was common to both sides of the argument when we discussed the extension of the postal vote was the importance of the candidate being able to address the voters. If there is to be a considerable extension of postal voting, as envisaged in the Bill, it is important that candidates should have the information that is necessary to enable them to address the voters. The essential part of that information is the list of voters and the place to which that information can be sent. It is already the practice—this is enshrined in the regulations made under the Representation of the People Act 1983 — that returning officers supply candidates free of charge with a copy of the list of absent voters. The Bill significantly changes the law on postal voting. No doubt, the regulations will be modified as a consequence of this legislation. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that candidates have the right to obtain as expeditiously as possible and free of charge a list of absent voters.

The discussion at the conclusion of our debate on the last series of amendments underlined the need to convey all that information to the canndidates, including late additions to the list of absent voters which might be made under more generous provisions to enable people to register as absent voters at a later stage. That information must be made available to the candidates with the utmost speed, and the regulations should make it clear that that should be done. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will give us that assurance.

5.30 pm
Dr. Marek

This is a probing amendment because its provisions will be covered under regulations. If this legislation is passed, many more people will receive postal votes. It has been estimated that up to 30 per cent. of votes could be postal votes. That is why we have to examine this measure seriously.

Until now the postal vote register has been of some interest, but it will be of much greater interest in future to all the candidates and political parties. If possible, I should like the electoral registration officer to have a running list so that between elections political parties and, during elections, candidates, can be supplied as quickly as possible with a current printout of the absent voters list. That is an important point.

Electoral registration officers in some parts of the country have the habit of including in the list the names of electors in previous years, even though they have no idea whether those electors are still in the area. I believe that there will be increased possibilities for illegal voting if many postal vote applications are sent out to voters and are not picked up but are left lying around letterboxes. I do not believe that this is the time to discuss these aspects in detail, because I believe that they will be considered later in the Bill. I look forward to a helpful reply from the Government.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

I am surprised that these amendments have been tabled. All of us who have been candidates for election know that a full list of absent voters is available in the committee room. I am, therefore, surprised to find that that measure needs to be recorded in this legislation. Every candidate has a right to obtain that list. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) hinted at the need for a more accurate list, and I sympathise with his wish. It is important to keep that list up to date. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) indicated in an amendment which has not been selected that changing the list by using a computer would be the most helpful way of keeping the list up to date. It is sufficient for there to be trust in us as candidates and lists on which we can rely. I shall certainly not support either of the amendments.

Mr. William Powell (Corby)

The amendments raise two fundamental principles, which go to the heart of the Bill. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) touched on those principles. For once I am delighted to agree with the points made by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) in his short contribution.

Mr. Forth

Uncharacteristically short.

Mr. Powell

One of those fundamental issues is the accuracy of the register. The purpose of these probing amendments is to ensure that the list is as accurate as possible. Substantial criticisms have been made about the inaccuracy of the registers. Unfortunately, I am afraid that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is not prepared to go far enough in ensuring that the registers are as accurate as possible. The Bill contains a defect because there is not sufficient provision to improve what has been widely held to be a substantial weakness in our present system.

These modest amendments should be supported in so far as they aim to improve the accuracy of the register. One criticism made by the hon. Member for Wrexham, which has been voiced repeatedly during our debates from the time we first discussed the White Paper—no one has been more eloquent on this subject than the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell)—is that we are possibly increasing substantially the number of votes cast by post. In doing that, we are limiting what has been a fundamental principle of voting since the passing of the Parliamentary and Municipal Elections (Ballot) Act. In future, the proportion of people who vote in person will not be as high as previously. By increasing the opportunities for postal voting, we are increasing the opportunities for fraud and dishonesty which may result from ballots being cast in absentia.

I have urged the Committee to enlarge the opportunity to exercise the franchise. Having regard to the criticisms that have been made, much can be said for improving the accuracy of the register rather than increasing, almost at large, the opportunities for postal voting.

Mr. Forth

I regret that my hon. Friend has lost me. I understood that the objective of the amendments was to make existing information available on a wider basis to candidates. I am not sure that the objective was to improve accuracy. Perhaps I have missed the amendment's point. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith).

Mr. Powell

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am saying that it is a weakness of the amendments that they do not try—any more than the Government intend to try—to make the registers more accurate to minimise the necessity to vote by post. We may well have the opportunity of enlarging upon this point later this evening.

The Chairman

Order. The hon. Member is straying some way from the amendments before us. I hope that he will return to them.

Mr. Powell

I accept that rebuke, Mr. Walker. I shall try in my concluding remarks to bring myself back within the scope of the amendments. We must try to ensure that the information that is available is as accurate and up-to-date as possible. These amendments go to that issue. We must try to ensure that the registers actively reflect the electorate that is resident in the constituency. To the extent to which these amendments do not deal with that point they are defective.

Sir John Farr

I respect what my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) has said, and I think that the main intention of most hon. Members who are here tonight is to strive to secure perfection and the utmost accuracy in the electoral register. There are occasions when the electoral register is hopelessly inaccurate.

The Chairman

Order. The hon. Member has just heard me draw to the attention of the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) the fact that such a line of debate is outside the scope of the amendments. I hope that, if the hon. Member wishes to address the Committee, it will be on these amendments and not on some others.

Sir John Farr

I am grateful for your advice, Mr. Walker. However, my remarks relate to the fact that when one compiles a list of postal or proxy voters, as amendments Nos. 35 and 45 are seeking to do, these additional alterations and changes, either by post or by proxy, make what is not an easy task — getting the electoral register accurate — even more difficult. The addition of postal and proxy records would add to the already great imperfections that often occur in general elections.

The Chairman

Order. The amendments deal not with the problems that the electoral registration officer may have in compiling the register but with the distribution of it. The hon. Gentleman should address himself to the distribution of the registers rather than the conduct of them.

Sir John Farr

I have no hesitation in accepting your ruling, Mr. Walker, but I was seeking to point out that the amendments add a further complication. The records are often imperfect, and to include the postal and proxy voters, as recommended in the amendments, would make an already difficult problem even more difficult.

Mr. Mellor

I was wondering what to talk about when I rose, but I decided that it would be appropriate to return to the amendments. A moving picture was painted by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) of his being out in the cold pressing his nose against the window pane while others were inside warming themselves at the fire of ministerial benevolence. I invite him to join us and to put his toes in the embers for a little while. Taking his amendments in the spirit in which they were offered—as a probe — I had some research undertaken which might show him that what he is asking us to do is not necessary because the information is already available. I shall adduce my arguments, and if he thinks that there are flaws I shall be happy to return to the subject at some other time.

The hon. Gentleman has a limited aim. He seeks to ensure that candidates are supplied with copies both of the so-called permanent list of absent voters and of the special list of those who have the right to vote by post or proxy at a particular election. The registration officer is already required by regulations to supply candidates with copies of the special list. The candidates do not need copies of the permanent list, because its contents form part of the special list. That is the fundamental point.

Clause 6(3) requires the registration officer to keep a record of those whose applications to vote by post or proxy for an indefinite period he has granted. That is equivalent to the so-called permanent list of absent voters that the registration officer is required to keep under certain sections of the Representation of the People Act 1983, with which the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed is familiar.

Clause 7(4) requires the registration officer to keep a special list of those who are entitled to vote by post or proxy at a particular election. That is the same as the list required by rule 27 of the parliamentary elections rules, and it consists of those whose names are included in the permanent list or record of absent voters, plus those who have successfully applied to vote by post or proxy at a particular election.

Regulations under the 1983 Act currently require the registration officer to make a copy of the so-called permanent list available for inspection at his office and, as soon as practicable, to supply, on request and free of charge, a copy of the special list to each candidate or his election agent.

I hope that I have satisfied the hon. Gentleman by giving him an undertaking that these requirements will be preserved when the new representation of the people regulations are made after the Bill receives Royal Assent, as I hope and expect it will in due course.

The effect of the amendments would be for candidates to be provided with a copy of the permanent list as well of the special list and for them to be supplied automatically on request.

On the first point, it is perhaps unnecessary for candidates to be suppled with both lists when all the information contained in the first list is contained in the second list. Secondly, I would oppose automatic provision, because not all candidates want it. For instance, candidates of the Official Monster Raving Loony party, which as I understand it is not yet formally part of the alliance, might not always want such information, and I see no reason why we should give it to them gratuitously.

5.45 pm
Mr. Beith

I accept the Minister's undertaking. I hope that he recognises that this issue could be more difficult for returning officers, with the great expansion of the postal vote, than may have been foreseen. There must be hon. Members here who are aware that, even in the present circumstances, returning officers can run into difficulties if there is a sudden upsurge in the number of postal votes registered in the early part of an election campaign. Getting the list to candidates, even under present conditions, is not always done with the expedition that one would desire. There can be no doubt that the returning officers' task will be more difficult in the first election to be fought under the changed rules set out by the Bill, because almost certainly there will be a much larger number of applications and, were there to be substantial delays, that would be a serious matter.

It had been my assumption that, as the right was already in the existing regulations, it would be preserved. The intention of the amendments, which were in no way defective, was to check that that assumption was justified. I happily accept the Minister's assurance, and beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Dr. Marek

I apologise for coming in at this late stage. I wanted to intervene in the Minister's speech. Could he answer one point? I know of cases where the returning officer has not allowed a person to photocopy any part of the list, even though that person may have been a bona fide inquirer. If he wanted to take notes, he has had to do so in longhand. Can the Minister take this on board in the regulations so that bona fide inquirers, possibly a month before an election, will be allowed to photocopy the list, if necessary?

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

I am keen to have an answer to this point, and I am certain that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to answer it. It concerns the cut-off date for drawing up this list before it is provided to the candidates. I am concerned about the accuracy of the list. As many more people will be going on the postal and absentee voters' lists, it is important to keep the lists accurate. I am keen to know whether my hon. Friend is able to estimate the particular cut-off date.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I beg to move amendment No. 71, in page 10, line 1, leave out subsection (6).

The Chairman

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments:

No. 36, in page 10, line 1, leave out 'in Northern Ireland'.

No. 46, in clause 7, page 11, line 24, leave out 'in Northern Ireland'.

No. 50, in clause 9, page 15, line 6, leave out 'in Northern Ireland'.

Mr. Kaufman

Throughout our consideration of this proposed reform of electoral law—during the debate on the White Paper, on Second Reading and during consultations that Her Majesty's Opposition have had with the Government—we have made it clear that absolute parity of treatment between electors in all parts of the United Kingdom, whether in Great Britain or in Northern Ireland, is essential in parliamentary elections.

I have made it clear on behalf of the Labour party that to impose on part of the kingdom restrictions which are not imposed upon another part is to turn the citizens of the kingdom subject to those restrictions literally into second-class citizens. I say "literally" because that adverb is much misused. In this case we are talking about a literal fact.

Citizenship is dependent, among other things, upon the exercise of the franchise. That is a token of adult citizenship. For limitations to be imposed on those with a franchise in one part of the kingdom when they are not imposed upon others is unacceptable.

We have agreed that the expatriate vote should be conferred upon all citizens of this kingdom with the right to vote. We disagree with and make no bones about the expatriate vote, but it is clear from the legislation that any expatriate voter from Northern Ireland will be treated in the same way as an expatriate voter from the other three countries of the kingdom.

Clause 6(6) discriminates clearly, because it refers only to Northern Ireland. The subsection states: A person applying to vote by post in Northern Ireland must provide an address in the United Kingdom as the address to which his ballot paper is to be sent. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) and his right hon. and hon. Friends seek to amend the clause by placing a limitation upon all voters in the United Kingdom who require postal votes. They say that all absent voters who exercise the postal vote may do so only within the United Kingdom. That is an arguable proposition. I have severe misgivings about sending ballot papers out of the country. That is one of the great worries about the postal vote in general and one of the subsidiary worries that I expressed on behalf of the Opposition in relation to the expatriate vote.

A suitable limitation would be to permit all people exercising the absent vote within the kingdom to vote by post, provided that they are somewhere within the kingdom, but to use a proxy vote if they go outside the kingdom. That is my personal preference for a number of reasons.

First, ballot papers would not wing their way all over the world in a way that could lead to misuse. Secondly, it would be a protection for the voters themselves. It would place absent voters on a par. It would mean that someone who had gone on holiday to Miami—assuming the rate of exchange permitted that—would be less likely to have a vote than somebody who had gone on holiday to Brittany. The postal service, even in some Community countries, is not always as good as it might be. Most of us will have sent a postcard home from Italy or France and arrived home before it, and will therefore be worried about ballot papers hanging around after a person has returned from holiday.

The better solution is to restrict the postal vote within the United Kingdom. I make it absolutely clear, so that there is no misunderstanding, that the Labour party favours postal votes for all holidaymakers, wherever they go, in whatever continent. We favour strongly an absent vote for holidaymakers. The suggestions that I make, in line with those made by right hon. and hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies, are not meant to inhibit the exercise of the vote for holidaymakers. We support their solution.

The alternative is to remove the subsection and provide that people in Northern Ireland should be allowed to have their ballot papers sent to them wherever they are, even outside the United Kingdom. In a sense, I am asking the Government to accept the amendments tabled by Northern Ireland Members rather than my amendment, but if the Government accepted my amendment, with assurances, that would be as good as any other solution. I have no pride of proprietorship in amendment No. 71. I have moved it to try to ensure that when the Bill is enacted Northern Ireland electors are treated in the same way as electors in the other parts of the United Kingdom.

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will respond sympathetically. Perhaps in the light of what I have said and what other right hon. and hon. Members may say, he will give assurances and draft more appropriate amendments. Provided that his assurances are reliable and solid, that would suit us well. We regard this as a fundamental issue of democracy within the kingdom, and we hope the Government will respond accordingly.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

As the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) has made clear, two principles are at issue in this debate. The first is the principle of parity and the rights of citizens to vote in all parts of the United Kingdom. The second is the question of the sending of ballot papers outside the realm for the purpose of absent voting. On both those matters my right hon. and hon. Friends are in agreement with what the right hon. Gentleman has just said.

That will occasion no surprise in relation to the first of those principles. The fact that that principle has been so firmly asserted by Her Majesty's Opposition right from the first proposals which underlie this Bill has not gone unnoticed in Northern Ireland.

Ever since I became a Member for Northern Ireland and, indeed, since I first presented myself for election, I have told my electors, "In the end the House of Commons will be fair to you. It may take some time to understand the issues—to understand what is involved—but in the end there is an essential fairness about the House of Commons which derives from the fact that all who sit there go there with the same right, upon the same basis and by the same process." The position taken up — I think successfully—by Her Majesty's Opposition has been a strong confirmation of that view. It will assist in the restoration of stability and confidence in good government in that part of the United Kingdom.

I come, therefore, to the second principle which is at issue. Here again, it seems to me, the right hon. Member for Gorton is right when he says that there is something inherently unsatisfactory in a flight, as it were, of ballot papers issuing forth by post from these shores at a general election, no doubt with various addresses — anywhere from the nearest places outside the United Kingdom, which are presumably the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, to the most remote corners of the globe—with the likelihood in the lottery that they will arrive in the most remote corners of the globe sooner than in the adjacent continent of Europe; for it is a common experience that one receives letters from Australia far more rapidly than letters from France or Italy.

6 pm

That is an electoral absurdity, but that is what would happen. It would give electors who had sought an equal opportunity an unequal chance of exercising that opportunity. It is possible for us to retort to those electors, "Well, you entered the lottery. You took your choice. You decided to ask for a postal vote. It is your fault that the post in Miami, Australia or the south of France was not adequate for you to be able to exercise the franchise in time." That is not an attitude which the House in legislating should take. We ought to be instituting a system which is sound and equitable in itself. I do not believe it can be sound or equitable for rights of voting by post to be exercised from addresses outside the United Kingdom.

There is another, perhaps esoteric, aspect of the matter, but it may be worth mentioning. The provison of the opportunity to vote is an exercise of the sovereign power in this country, which is in commission with the House: to arrange for a vote to be cast is an expression of the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament in this realm. When we provide a proxy vote for an absent voter who has gone on holiday, outside the United Kingdom, wherever it might be, that principle is not breached; but when we send a ballot paper outwith the jurisdiction, in the hope that it will arrive in some foreign parts in time to enable the recipient to vote in this country, we are guilty of creating a breach of that principle.

It may be that at some future time, although I hope not —there have been earlier debates on this subject—we shall extend the whole concept of elections beyond the shores and confines of the realm, but we are not doing so in this Bill. The new rights which the Bill creates do not extend the concept of a general election as something domestic to the United Kingdom. We should not breach that principle by allowing postal voting beyond the confines of the realm.

I hope that the consideration that the Government give to this amendment will find a means of meeting the plea of the right hon. Member for Gorton not just on the first point—I am confident that their sense of justice will ensure that—but on the second point also.

Mr. William Powell

I am delighted to follow the right hon. Members for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and for South Down (Mr. Powell), and to express complete agreement with the way in which they have expressed their arguments. As has been said, the amendments raise two principles, one of them of fundamental importance. The other is of secondary importance, but it goes to the heart of the mechanics by which we ballot.

The principle of fundamental importance is that the rules for election should be the same in Northern Ireland as they are in England, Wales and Scotland. That is a principle by which everyone should be able to stand. Hon. Members who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland come to the House frequently to complain that Northern Ireland is being treated differently from the rest of England. I have listened to those arguments for the past 18 months and more with a growing sense of apprehension that they are not correct in the way in which they are formulated. I have frequently found myself going into the Lobby to support the Government with a heavy heart. On one occasion at least, I have been one of the lone Conservatives prepared to go into the Lobby with hon. Members representing Northern Ireland when they have complained about Northern Ireland being treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The amendment raises a fundamental principle of our election law. I should find it impossible to support a provision which treated constituencies in Northern Ireland, as to the franchise, differently from constituencies in England, Wales, Scotland, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire or wherever.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary recognises that all parts of the House are anxious to ensure, if it is at all feasible—I do not see in this instance how it is not — that Northern Ireland is given the same indivisible treatment under our law as every other citizen of the country.

The other principle is not on such an elevated plane, but it is important. It relates to whether persons entitled to vote abroad should vote by post or by proxy. In the month preceding the general election in June 1983, I and other hon. Members were accosted by disgruntled constituents complaining that they would not be able to vote because they would be on holiday. I always answered that if we were able to secure votes for holidaymakers who were abroad, as likely as not they would be cast by proxy, and that if they were in the United Kingdom, as likely as not the votes would be cast by post. If we allow postal ballot papers to be sent to addresses abroad, the likelihood of them being mislaid is considerable. For all we know, the post in Tibet may be a great deal more reliable than the post in France, Belgium or Luxembourg. If we were to regard it as normal to send substantial numbers of ballot papers abroad, that would be unsatisfactory.

I have argued, I hope most vigorously, in favour of the extension of the franchise. Not every right hon. and hon. Member has agreed with that. There has been a substantial division of opinion among hon. Members on that issue.

The principles have by and large been established during the course of our debates. The outline of the principles is clear. We are now dealing with the mechanics. When my hon. Friend and his advisers come to deal with the regulations by which the principles that we have laid down should be enforced, I hope that he will attach much more weight than the Treasury Bench has so far appeared to do to the idea that persons abroad should vote in this country by proxy rather than that we should waste a great deal of time, effort and money ensuring that they have postal votes. It may be difficult to reach such people. A great many votes may be returned to returning officers after a constituency has declared its result. Electors wishing to cast a valid vote will find that they are ruled out of time through no fault of their own but through the vagaries of the post at home or abroad.

I do not rule out the fact that postal voting for some people abroad may be appropriate, but I hope that much more emphasis will be given to encouraging them to vote by proxy.

Mr. Molyneaux

I wish to record our appreciation for the support from both sides of the Committee for our amendments. We are grateful that this support has emerged towards the end of what has been a fairly lengthy — I do not say battle — correspondence between the Home Office and ourselves.

I should like to place on record the fact that I am not excluding the Minister from my expression of gratitude because he listened attentively and, dare I say, sympathetically, at all times to the case that my right hon. and hon. Friends put forward. He, in turn, explained many of the difficulties, but I think that it is true to say that, as a combined operation, perhaps this was one of the best examples of co-operation between both sides of the House —I include both Front Benches and, indeed, the former leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot). It has given us great satisfaction that we have reached that consensus.

It is important to acknowledge that absent voting is different from postal voting. When we talk about the principle of absent voting and its availability for holidaymakers, we agree with the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) in saying that it would be best exercised by proxy and not by any attempt to work the unworkable and go for postal ballot papers outside the United Kingdom. I reckon from my limited experience of receiving correspondence from abroad that if persons were to entrust their franchise, their right to vote, at a general election, to the European postal system—I shall put it no further abroad than that—only one third of the ballot papers would be returned in time to be included in the count at any given constituency.

Therefore, I hope that the message and advice that go out from the Committee to people who will want to avail themselves of the facility of absent voting will be that they should play safe and be 100 per cent. certain that, if they adopt the proxy method, there is no risk of it being exploited, and that the vote that they cast as citizens of a democratic country will have its due effect.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

I am pleased to be able to follow the leader of the Official Unionist party, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), because he sincerely put forward the views of Conservative Members and also, I believe, of Opposition Members. It is a fact of life that Northern Ireland wishes to be treated in the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom. Therefore, I have great sympathy for the right hon. Gentleman's amendments. I would support them if they were forced to a vote.

I should like to refer to the risk of absent voting and the fact that voting by proxy is by far the most sensible course to take. There is always the element of ballot papers not being sent to the right place and getting lost in the post. Indeed, only today I received a letter informing me that I had been appointed to the Committee on the Local Government Access to Information Bill. The letter is dated 6 February and arrived today. I had already been given dates and times, which were announced in the paper. Yet the letter was posted in and sent to the House of Commons. If it takes that long for a letter posted in this building to be delivered, it shows the difficulties that we are up against with regard to sending postal votes abroad.

I feel strongly that we should stop all postal voting from abroad in the sense that I am unconvinced that the ballot paper will arrive there on time and, more important, that it will be delivered to the right place. One cannot even be certain of who has voted. There might not necessarily be a witness of the person casting his vote although there is supposed to be a witness when one completes the postal vote form.

For that reason alone I hope very much that we shall encourage and support the principle of proxy voting. It would be the only way of guaranteeing true identification. In the past we have heard of massive problems with voting in Northern Ireland. We only have to look at the House of Commons Library research note No. 195, which on page 7 refers to Cmnd. 9140. Paragraph 322 states: There is widespread public concern, shared by the Government, at the extent and nature of electoral abuse in Northern Ireland, including the abuse of postal voting. That causes all of us concern. It is therefore obvious to me and, I hope, other hon. Members that the best solution is to vote by proxy.

6.15 pm
Mr. Robert Maclennan

I am glad not to have to sound a discordant note and to be in wholehearted agreement with the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who moved the amendment. My hon. Friends in the Social Democratic party and the Liberal party adopt his reasoning and believe that the case that he made should commend itself to the Government.

It would be of some interest, if only for historical reasons, to know why the clauses to be amended were presented in the way that they were in the first place. The principle of equality of citizenship in the exercise of the franchise should apply throughout the whole of the kingdom. It is odd that political difficulties within the Province should have led the Government to make such a proposal that did not recognise that fundamental constitutional right. Problems of personation there may be, but that is not the way to deal with them.

Mr. Bermingham

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) for moving the amendment. The reason why my hon. Friends and I tabled the amendment is simple. We could not see why there should be any difference in any part of the United Kingdom. What is good for one is good for all; what is bad for one is bad for all. Against that background, we hope that the Government will accept the amendment.

Mr. Mellor

The right hon. Members for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), supported by clear signs of assent, which I welcomed, from the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), paid tribute to the work done to try to resolve differences that were made clear on Second Reading about the arrangements that should exist in Northern Ireland regarding the extent and exercise of absent voting. I greatly enjoyed participating in those discussions. It has always been my wish to try to ensure that there is the maximum agreement possible on the measure because, plainly, that is the nature of the Bill. As a result of the efforts that have been made, we have been able to clear away some substantial differences.

I do not want to anticipate too much the debate on the next set of amendments. What could have been a highly contentious matter, which could have kept us here for some time, has now been resolved amicably and with a consensus that the right decision has been reached. I am grateful to the right hon. Members for Gorton and for Lagan Valley for their participation in the careful negotiations necessary to bring us to that point.

However, one issue remains unresolved. Before embarking on that, it is important to note that it is the one issue that remains unresolved in this area. It relates to a narrow point of mechanics, if I may say so, without wanting to disparage those who see this as a matter of deep principle. In my view, for what it is worth, it is a very narrow matter of mechanics. Having determined whether there should be absent voting and for what categories, how should it be exercised? Is it right that the elector should be offered a choice in every circumstance on whether he votes by post or by proxy, or should restrictions be placed on his choice? If restrictions should be placed on his choice, should one of the considerations be, in deciding what restrictions to impose, whether it is possible to have wholly consistent arrangements throughout the United Kingdom? The Government have taken—I think rightly —a severely practical view.

The right hon. Member for Gorton has made it clear that the Opposition support the view that it is no longer possible to have general elections when many of the electorate are away on holiday and effectively disfranchised. A real consensus has been established on that, although there are agents of both major parties who see nothing but gloom arising from the proposed changes.

However, I think that the general feeling is that the changes must be made and that democracy will be strengthened by the increased number who will be able to cast their vote as a result of the implementation of the Bill. In certain months we are talking of literally millions of votes. For example, we think that there may have been 2 million voters on holiday at the time of the 1983 general election.

How will the franchise be exercised? Application will have to be made on the Monday that is two weeks and three days before the election. Those concerned will then go to the Hotel Splendid at Torremolinos or some similar location within the United Kingdom. Is it necessary to impose a restriction, dependent on whether the individual is to be in Paris or Spain as opposed to Edinburgh or Birmingham, on how the absent vote should be exercised?

The Government have taken the view, rightly or wrongly, that the issue comes down to a matter of practicality. If a vote is sent through the post, the fact that it goes to Paris or Plymouth is not one that involves a great issue of principle. The problems stemming from tampering with a vote are no more likely to arise if the vote is entrusted to the French postal service than if it is placed in the charge of various parts of the United Kingdom's system.

We have taken heed of the evidence that the Post Office officials gave to the Select Committee. That evidence suggested that, if the returning officer in any constituency in the United Kindom was in a position to issue postal ballot papers on the Monday 10 days before the poll—the Post Office officials said that in their experience that was usually the position in most well-ordered constituencies—there would be time for postal ballot papers to be issued to and returned from at least some addresses outside the United Kingdom. Plainly if someone were at the Hotel Splendid at Ulan Bator, he would be unwise to rely upon the ability of the postal services to get his postal ballot there and back within 10 days.

We say — I hope that the right hon. Member for South Down will recognise the Government's basic principle even if he does not agree with the whole argument—that the voter should have the choice and should abide by the consequences of his choice, just as he does in most of the choices that he makes. If the voter decides to exercise his absent vote by post and the postal service does live up to expectations and he loses his vote, he has taken the decision and that is that. I am not sure whether it is a proper inhibition on our making of rules that voters might make the wrong decision. After all, it is only one of a series of wrong decisions that voters are capable of making in an election.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Hear hear.

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman says that with great feeling. I understand that slightly more than 100 of the electorate in his constituency made the right choice rather than the wrong one, by his way of thinking, during the general election.

We think that the voter is entitled to take the risk that I have described. He should know—no doubt the Post Office will tell him if there is any doubt—what the likelihood is of the postal vote getting to Paris, Spain or Italy and back again. Those who have participated in the debate have not been disposed to favour this proposal. It is not a matter on which I want to invite my hon. Friends to go into the trenches with me, as it were, to turn it into an issue of principle. As I have said, I have never seen it in that way. I want to reflect on what has been said, including the condemnation from various quarters. Therefore, I am reluctant to spoil the consensus which has been established generally in this one instance, but that is not a commitment that the Government will definitely change their minds.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Gorton that we should not in any sense derogate from our position of giving holidaymakers the postal vote by saying that they could exercise it only by proxy. Of course, that might ensure that more votes were actually cast. I remain of the the view, without having had the advice of the House of Commons, that this should be a matter of choice for the voter, and that we have reached a stage where the communications system is such that the crossing of a national boundary should not be an obstacle.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

I wish to float an idea to my hon. Friend which has occurred to me while he has been speaking. During the elections in France I happened to notice that the French embassy in London was open to those who wished to register their votes in England in those elections. What is my hon. Friend's view on the same facilities being made available to our citizens at all our consular offices and embassies throughout the world prior to general elections? The date would be published throughout the country.

Mr. Mellor

At first sight, I am not especially attracted to my hon. Friend's idea as a realistic proposition. I shall think about it and perhaps my view will be different on reflection, but I think probably not.

The Government believe as a matter of practicality that it is better that voters should be given the choice of a postal ballot and that no great issue of principle arises. It is said that there is an issue of principle in the equal treatment of all parts of the United Kingdom. I do not belittle that argument because there has to be a good reason why there should not be equal treatment. As the right hon. Members for Lagan Valley and for South Down and their colleagues know, it is that fact which has motivated me in my efforts to try to ensure the maximum possible correspondence between the practice in Great Britain and that in Northern Ireland.

If there is a good reason for there being a difference in treatment, I do not believe that there is any great argument of principle on why the difference should not be permitted to exist. There is a good reason—I think that we all know it—why postal votes should not be sent out of the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland into the Republic. I do not think that any of those representing constituencies in Northern Ireland would want postal ballots to be sent from the Province to the Republic. It is clear also that no distinction can be made between the Republic and any other country. As a practical proposition, sending ballot papers out of the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland is not something that we would want to suggest.

My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) has become sufficiently convinced of the case for there being precisely the same arrangements in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the United Kingdom to expound that cause with even more zeal than his mentors in the Ulster Unionist party, but that is ever the way of the convert, as we know only too well. St. Paul set an admirable precedent.

If we are to intrude a fact into these considerations, the arrangements in Northern Ireland are not the same as those in the United Kingdom in at least one material particular. I have in mind the important issue of the qualification date. It has never been seen necessary in Great Britain —indeed, it is not necessary—to do other than establish that on one night—it could be any night, but it happens to be a night in October—one is resident at a particular address for the purpose of getting oneself on the register. That has always been thought inappropriate in Northern Ireland because of the fear that people will come from the South for one night, whatever the one night is, register and then return to the South, only to return on election day to exercise the franchise. That is why the qualification period for registration in Northern Ireland is several weeks. No one has said that the principle that everyone should be elected to the House on the same basis is thereby destroyed.

Before doing what everyone in the Committee probably wishes me to do, may I venture the suggestion that this may not be a great matter of principle. One could, of course, go into a trench and say that there were precisely the same compelling reasons for having a different view about whether one sent a postal vote out of the jurisdiction as there properly are for the time that one must be resident in order to register.

Having got that off my chest, I should say that the Government are not greatly attached to the proposition. There is certainly room for reconsideration. We shall reconsider the matter, but I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that that is not a commitment to change it. We can return to the matter later. I shall consult my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and others as to whether we should change the proposal, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will feel that he has achieved what he set out to achieve.

6.30 pm
Mr. Kaufman

My regard for the Under-Secretary of State has grown steadily during the months since we faced each other over the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, and especially since I discovered that he was much more knowledgeable about the music of Berwald than I am. That being so, I am always ready to take seriously what he says. However, he has a strange tendency which, if he is to become leader of the Conservative party—we all look forward to that—he must suppress. It is to introduce extraneous contentious material at the end of a consensus debate. There will soon come a time when the Conservative party will again yearn for consensus, and he may be the very man to bring that to it.

Therefore, with regard to his latter point, I should say that it is on the face of this Bill that we find the introduction of disparity unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will have noted that from every quarter of the Committee there has been support for the proposition of the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) and his right hon. and hon. Friends. Support has come from the Conservative party, the Social Democratic party, the Liberal party and, of course, from Her Majesty's Opposition. That being so, although I understand that the Minister is not giving us a cast-iron, 100 per cent. commitment, we look forward to his returning to the House on Report, or with an amendment in another place —whichever is easier for him in terms of drafting—to meet the point that the entire Committee has asked him to meet this afternoon.

Mr. Mellor

Of course, I give the commitment on that basis. The only point with which I would quibble, although not hoping to prove that the proposition advanced by the right hon. Gentleman is true in my case, is that other hon. Members who may be attracted to the Government's proposition do not show the same enthusiasm for attending our debate as those who dissent from it. However, I do not believe that it is worth having too many divisions on this issue, and in that spirit I shall go away to reflect upon the matter with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Kaufman

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I would only point out that those hon. Members who take part in the debate are, for the purposes of the debate, the Committee of the whole House of Commons. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

The people of Northern Ireland will be happy tonight because of what the Minister has said about the representations made to him by hon. Members from Northern Ireland. We are glad that the voices of those who made representations for and on behalf of the Province were listened to, and that their points were met to a great extent. As he said, he is not giving us a cast-iron assurance, but from what he said it would appear that he will seriously consider the matter and try to meet the points that have been made by the Committee. That is most welcome. The Committee must recognise that all those who are returned to the House of Commons should have equality in their electorates and in the principles of democracy. On behalf of those for whom I speak, I put on record my appreciation of the way in which the Government listened sympathetically to our case.

Mr. Kaufman

Perhaps the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) will allow me to treat that as an intervention, because otherwise I cannot withdraw the amendment. If I cannot withdraw it, it will be negatived, and I am sure that he would not wish that. Once again, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Sir John Farr

I am glad to have the opportunity briefly to talk about clause 6. No one welcomes the Bill more than me. During the previous two elections I met people who, for one reason or another, were unable to vote. Clause 6 lays special emphasis on the record which the registration officer is required to keep. I am glad that the clause is itemised in the way that it is. However, I regret that nowhere in the Bill does one find the word "accuracy". I can keep a record—any Tom, Dick or Harry can keep a record—but what use is the record if it is inaccurate?

I wish to draw to the attention of the House the experience of many hon. Members of their constituents being left off the register due to human error. The Bill provides that the fine for a double vote or misrepresentation will be £2,000, which is level 5 on the standard scale. However, the Bill does not recognise instances of people being deprived of their votes, although they may have gone through all the motions. They may have been resident on the proper night, have filled in the forms properly and posted them in time, but due to human error the register was inaccurate. We must consider how to recompense those who, through no fault of their own, are denied the birthright and the privilege of any British person to vote in a general or local government election. What can we do about that and about making the records much more accurate? The Bill values a vote at £2,000.

The Bill ought to mention that any person who has been deprived of a vote through no fault of his own should be recompensed by the local authority that was responsible for making the error. The Bill puts the value of a vote at £2,000. That is a very high and probably a proper price for a misdemeanour. However, when the misdemeanour occurs because of an error made by a local authority I believe that the innocent person who has suffered should be recompensed in a suitable way. I hope that my hon. Friend will believe it to be appropriate to recommend a five-year rate rebate for everybody who has missed a vote. That is a very insignificant recompense for the value of a vote, particularly in some constituencies where one vote or two votes can make all the difference between the return of one candidate or another.

I believe my hon. Friend ought to recommend that local authorities should do whatever they can to decrease the likelihood of human error. Computerisation is referred to on page 7 of the White Paper. The Select Committee recommended that all local authorities should seek to introduce what it called information technology for the compilation of their electoral registers. Recommendation (vii) in paragraph 1.10, under the heading "Computerisation", states: All authorities should be encouraged, and if necessary assisted, to install and to use modern technology as an aid to accuracy in the compilation of their registers.

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this clause deals exclusively with absent voters. He must not go into the general application of the clause.

Sir John Farr

Thank you, Mr. Armstrong. However, the clause is meaningless unless the record to which reference is repeatedly made is an accurate record. I hope that my hon. Friend will think about what I have said and consider whether further efforts can be made to prevent innocent people from being deprived of their birthright.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

I fully support what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr). The right to vote is very important. Therefore, it is important to keep one's name on the register when one is entitled to vote and to ensure it is removed from the register as soon as entitlement to vote comes to an end.

The registration requirements are set out clearly in clause 6. However, I am concerned about the cut-off date—whether the absent voter list will be accurate for the two weeks before an election is held. We have to ensure that at all times the register is accurate and that the constituency organisations know who is entitled to be on the list. I hope that there will be a requirement that people will have to be made aware of the fact that it is an offence for their name to be kept on the register after they have declared that it is no longer their intention to exercise their right to vote. Provided that that undertaking is given, I believe that clause 6 should stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Mellor

Whether or not the argument is rightly attached to this clause—I take the point that you, Mr. Armstrong, have already made about that—it very much underlies our consideration of the Bill.

This matter has caused considerable concern to the Home Office and to other groups for a number of years. A working party on the electoral register reported in 1978. The Select Committee looked closely at the accuracy of the register. The first chapter of the White Paper upon which this legislation is based dealt with the registration of electors and set out a number of detailed points whereby we endeavoured to ensure that the accuracy of the register was improved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) properly raised the question of correcting the register. If an elector's name has been incorrectly omitted from the published register, he can make a claim for its inclusion. The registration officer will publish a notice of the claim and correct the register at the beginning of the following month. Omissions as a result of clerical error can be corrected at once. The power to change clerical errors has existed since 1969. The power to consider and act upon late claims has existed since 1980. The redesign of form A, the guidance to electoral registration officers, both formally and through meetings at which discussions have been held about the best way to ensure that the maximum number of people are included on the register and, where necessary, excluded, has been continuing at a great pace. As I said earlier, we hope that the accuracy of the register during the next few years will be materially better than it has been up to now as a result of all the initiatives that we have taken.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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