HC Deb 14 February 1985 vol 73 cc611-7

  1. '(1) It shall be the duty of every elector to record his vote at each parliamentary election.
  2. (2) It shall be the duty of each returning officer at the close of each election to prepare a list of the names and descriptions of the electors enrolled for his constituency who have not voted at the election, and to certify the list by statutory declaration under his hand.
  3. (3) The list so certified shall in all proceedings be prima facie evidence of the contents thereof and of the fact that the electors whose name appear therein did not vote at the election.
  4. (4) Within the prescribed period after the close of each election the returning officer shall send by post to each elector whose name appears on the list prepared in accordance with subsections (1) and (2) of this section, at the address mentioned 612 in that list, a notice in the prescribed form, notifying the elector that he appears to have failed to vote at the election, and calling upon him to give a valid truthful and sufficient reason why he failed so to vote.
Provided that the return officer need not send a notification in any case where he is satisfied that the elector—
  1. (a) is dead; or
  2. (b) was absent from the United Kingdom on polling day; Or
  3. (c) is known to the returning officer to have been ineligible to vote at the election
  1. (5) Before sending any such notice, the returning officer shall insert therein a date, not being less than twenty-one days after the date of posting of the notice, on which the form attached to the notice, duly filled up and signed by the elector, is to be in the hands of the returning officer.
  2. (6) Every elector to whom a notice under this section has been sent shall fill up the form at the foot of the notice by stating on it the true reason why he failed so to vote, sign the form, and post it so as to reach the returning officer not later than the date inserted in the notice.
  3. (7) If any elector is unable, by reason of absence from his place of living or physical incapacity, to fill up, sign, and post the form, within the time allowed under subsection (5) of this section, any other elector who has personal knowledge of the facts may, subject to the regulations, fill up, sign and post the form, duly witnessed, within that time, and the filling up, signing, and posting of the form may be treated as compliance by the first-mentioned elector with the provision of subsection (6) of this section.
  4. (8) Upon receipt of a form referred to on either of the last two preceeding subsections, the returning officer shall endorse on the list prepared in accordance with subsection (2) of this section, opposite the name of the elector, his opinion whether or not the reason contained in the form is a valid and sufficient reason for the failure of the elector to vote.
  5. (9) The returning officer shall endorse on the list, opposite the name of each elector to whom a notice under this section has been sent and from or on behalf of whom a form properly filled up, signed and witnessed has not been received by him, a note to that effect.
  6. (10) The list prepared and endorsed by the returning officer, indicating—
    1. (a) the names of the electors who did not vote at the election;
    2. (b) the names of the electors from whom or on whose behalf the returning officer received, within the time allowed under subsection (5) of this section, forms properly filled up and signed; and
    3. (c) the names of the electors who failed to reply within that time, and any extract therefrom, certified by the returning officer under his hand,
    shall in all proceedings be prima facie evidence of the contents of such a list or extract, and of the fact that the electors whose names appear therein did not vote at the election, and that the notice specified in subsection (4) of this section was received by those electors, and that those electors did, or did not (as the case may be), comply with the requisitions contained in the notice within the time allowed under subsection (5) of this section.
  7. (11) Every elector who—
    1. (a) fails to vote at an election without a valid and sufficient reason for such failure; or
    2. (b) on receipt of a notice in accordance with subsection (4) of this section, fails to fill up, sign and post within the time allowed under subsection (5) of this section the form (duly witnessed) which is attached to the notice; or
    3. (c) states in such form a false reason for not having voted, or, in the case of an elector filling up or purporting to fill up a form on behalf of any other elector, in pursuance of subsection (7) of this section states in such form a false reason why that other elector did not vote,
    shall be guilty of an offence for which the penalty shall be a fine of not less than £5 and not more than £50.
  8. (12) Proceedings for an offence against this section shall not be instituted except by the Chief Electoral Returning Officer or an officer thereto authorised in writing by the Chief Electoral Returning Officer.—[Mr. Barron.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Barron

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

I have tabled the new clause to test the feeling of the Committee on the question of compulsory voting, though in view of the empty Benches and the lateness of the hour I do not think that I would carry opinion with me if I were to press the matter to a Division. However, I feel it important that the Committee has the opportunity to debate the issue.

The small turn-out at some elections is viewed with dismay, and while my new clause deals with parliamentary elections, I should like to see the concept applied both to central and local government elections. It seems ludicrous that councillors should be elected to office on the basis of only 12 or 15 per cent. of the electorate bothering to vote.

I have no doubt that from time to time hon. Members have considered the idea of compulsory voting. In a democratic society people have the right to vote; and, being sovereign, they also have the right not to vote. Our form of parliamentary democracy is based on that concept. There could be dangers inherent in that system, however, for if people did not feel the need to vote and turned out in extremely small numbers, we could find ourselves with a Government who were totally unrepresentative of the public at large. In other words, the Government could be elected more by apathy than by the voting determination of the people.

Of course, in a democratic society the state itself is sovereign. That is all the more reason why machinery is needed to ensure that people participate in the organs of government. We must, therefore, balance the two—the need to maintain free elections but to ensure that people participate by voting at elections.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Campbell-Savours

On a point of order, Mr. Armstrong. The Under-Secretary of State is endeavouring to prevent an hon. Member from intervening.

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

A number of hon. Members are trying to tempt other hon. Members on all kinds of things. We should continue with the debate on the new clause.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

Does the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) accept that the right not to vote must be as sacrosanct as the right to vote? Is it not unusual for a sponsored Member to propose this measure when the NUM is not terribly keen on ballots?

Mr. Barron

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. Perhaps the Conservative party is not keen about electing chairmen. I thought that we were trying to discuss in detail the content of new clause 28. If hon. Members want to digress into a discussion on the mining industry or the absence of a ballot in the NUM, I would be prepared to discuss such matters with them.

People feel that compulsory voting is incompatible with free elections. I believe that it is logical to have compulsory voting while there is a free choice on how to cast one's vote. The individual must have the right to stand for election in a democracy. Some hon. Members might disagree, but I do not believe that there is anything wrong with that, given that people are casting their vote in an acceptable and democratic way and given that people are free to stand for election.

The only time it is wrong to have compulsory voting is when something prevents people from standing for election. We should approach this issue in that light rather than see it as a matter of people being forced into a ballot booth to vote. Perhaps Conservative Members will put their views on that point later.

The provisions in the new clause are based primarily on what happens in Australia where there has been compulsory voting for a long time. I do not believe that any one would say that there is great opposition in Australia to compulsory voting. We are not talking about a country which people view badly. The turnout in general elections in Australia is about 96 per cent. [Interruption.]

Mr. Winnick

On a point of order, Mr. Armstrong. It is becoming increasingly difficult to listen to my hon. Friend with meetings, sub-meetings and conversations on the Conservative Benches. My hon. Friend is making an important point.

Hon. Members

Look at the Opposition Front Bench.

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. I deplore the number of sedentary interventions.

Mr. Barron

The provisions are based on what happens in Australia, which is a part of the Commonwealth. All hon. Members should recognise that we can learn from what happens in different parts of the Commonwealth, even though sometimes Conservatives give the impression that we cannot. Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian Congress party, was once asked what he thought of western civilisation. He said that it would be a good idea. When I consider how the civilised part of the globe conducts its affairs, I think that he was quite right. We have much to learn from different parts of the Commonwealth and from its leaders.

We should believe in the system as it operates in Australia. Individually — I have never discussed the matter with my party — I believe that in any circumstances it is better that more people should vote than fewer. I therefore do not object to compulsory voting.

1.15 am
Mr. Stanbrook

How would the hon. Gentleman cope with those who wished to abstain on an issue? Abstaining can be a positive act. It is a perfectly honourable thing to do and is often done in this place.

Mr. Barron

The hon. Gentleman should look at new clause 28 and elsewhere. In Australia, since the introduction of compulsory voting, there have naturally been more spoilt ballot papers. Simply by the law of averages, more voting would mean more spoilt ballot papers. One could make provision for abstention to be registered on the ballot paper, but even if there were such provision, someone might decide not to vote at all as a matter of principle. One would then have to consider the penalties that might be incurred for not voting as required by the state. In Australia the penalties are very small, and I submit that the penalties in new clause 28 should be small, too. I suggest a fine of not less than £5 and not more than £50. Even £50 is not a great sum for some or perhaps most people in this country, given that parliamentary elections are only held once every five years. I do not believe that the right to abstain is a major issue.

Mr. Winnick

I am most interested in my hon. Friend's arguments. Many hon. Members will wish to speak on the new clause, which offers scope for much useful debating. It is rather early in the evening—

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. Is this an intervention or a speech? If it is an intervention, it must be brief.

Mr. Winnick

Would my hon. Friend make provision at some future stage of the progress of the Bill for those who refused to vote on religious grounds, such as Jehovah's witnesses? If it was accepted that some people cannot vote because it is against their principles to do so, there might be more sympathy for what my hon. Friend is trying to do.

Mr. Barron

That would be a difficult question. If one made provision for such people, many other people might claim exemption, too. To some people, the right to abstain itself could be as important as a religious principle. We need to make a decision about the penalties to be imposed. I would not be prepared to make any detailed provision for the right to abstain of religious groups or of anyone else. Anarchists, too, might wish to be added to the list, if I was prepared to make one.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Does my hon. Friend agree that we might devise the term "Christian Abstentionist" to cover people who wanted to be in that category?

Mr. Barron

We could define such a group, but that does nothing to stop us from opening the door to people getting away from exercising their vote, which is what the state is asking them to do.

Mr. Bermingham

It is not the state asking the individual to intervene but the individual exercising the right to influence the state. Surely my hon. Friend has it the wrong way round.

Mr. Barron

I dealt with rights at the beginning of my speech. I thought that my hon. Friend had been listening.

Mr. Winnick

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is interesting that the Liberal Benches were full when we were discussing proportional representation and that there is only one Liberal Member and no Social Democratic Members present now?

Mr. Barron

Perhaps the alliance does not think that my new clause will get it as many seats in the House as new clause 1.

The only objection that anyone could have to new clause 28 is subsection (1), which provides: It shall be the duty of every elector to record his vote at each parliamentary election. Later parts of the new clause deal with the anomalies, on the assumption that subsection (1) is accepted. No major crime is involved and nobody would be sent to prison.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Is my hon. Friend aware that it is said in Australia that compulsory voting favours the Labour party? It is clear that Labour voters often do not vote. Would my hon. Friend like to reflect on that while on his feet?

Mr. Barron

I have found no such relationship. My hon. Friend has said that Bob Hawke and his party have gained from compulsory voting, but it seems to me that the real beneficiary is the country as more people participate in elections.

I have some figures on general election turn-outs in Australia before and after legislation. People will want to know why I tabled new clause 28, and stand in the Chamber at this early hour of the morning to discuss compulsory voting. The third edition of the 1977 Australian encyclopaedia gives the turn-out figures.

Mr. Winnick

What page?

Mr. Barron

It is page 349. It states: The penalties for non-voting are small, but nevertheless the system produces an average poll of 90 per cent. of the registered voters, as compared with less than 50 per cent. when voting was optional. In Australia the turn-out was lower before compulsory voting was introduced than it is now in general elections in the United Kingdom. The entry continues: The 50% figure is actually something of an exaggeration, as the total turnout at the general elections before 1925 was:

1901 52.1%;
1903 39.0%;
1906 46.9%;
1910 59.8%;
1913 70.9%;
1914 61.4%;
1917 68.2%;
1919 69.4%;
1922 54.3%.
It is, however, undoubtedly true that the 1925 election showed an immediate leap to 90.5%. At subsequent elections the turn-out has always been between 90 per cent. and 96 per cent. All hon. Members will agree that in Australia since 1925 turn-outs have been substantially higher than those in Great Britain.

Subsection (2) to subsection (10) of the new clause deal with the practicalities of finding out exactly who has not voted, and sets out the manner in which to define that. A list is made of those who have not voted for valid truthful and sufficient reason". It is important that the list is made up properly so that no one is penalised who should not be penalised because he has good reason for not turning out to vote at a general election. It is important that the introduction of compulsory voting in the United Kingdom should have the same safeguards. That must be considered extremely carefully.

Subsection (10) to subsection (12) deal with the penalties for people who have not voted and not given good reason for not having performed their duty. The penalties are not less than £5 and not more than £50.

I do not intend to go on for much longer. I am sure that some of my hon. Friends will be disappointed about that. This is an important matter and it should not be talked about frivolously. There is some merit in compulsory voting. It is not an infringement of anyone's right to decide whether to vote. It is a way to get more people to vote. The more people who vote the better. That would not necessarily mean that they are better informed politically. That is not something that we should decide on the turn-out in a general election. It has more to do with the education system, and the need for political parties to be active in society to ensure that people are politically more conscious when they go into a polling booth.

1.30 am
Mr. Beith

This is one of the most ludicrous and unattractive proposals that I have seen placed before us in the time that I have been a Member. It is the ultimate confession of failure. If we cannot persuade people to vote for us, we will force them to go into the polling station at a general election. It is not part of the democracy that any of us believe in that we have to force people to vote. Our approach must be to persuade them.

The new clause is not open to criticism. The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) has set out the details of what he has in mind. The true offence comes when one reads that the returning officer will send a form to each elector who has not voted inquiring why he failed to vote at the election and calling upon him to give a valid truthful and sufficient reason why he failed so to vote". Someone might live in Rother Valley and find the hon. Member unattractive and not wish to vote for him. That person will receive one of these forms on the doormat and will have to give a valid truthful and sufficient reason for not voting. He will have to send the form back to the returning officer. When that local government officer receives the form he will give his opinion whether the reason contained on the form is a valid and sufficient explanation for the elector's failure to vote. That is grotesque. It is one of many such forms that would land on the doormat in the kind of society in which the hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends would like us to live, where there is nothing that we can do for which we do not have the permission of the state, and where the failure to do the things that the state requires of us leads us to being dragged before some commissar to give sufficient and valid reason why we failed to do this, that or the other. That is not the kind of state in which I wish to live. I wish to live in a state where men are free. A state in which voting is compulsory is not relevant.

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) was a little hard on what I found to be an entertaining speech by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron). He was right to raise the subject of getting more people to participate in our democracy. We all want that. I am not sure, however, that I can go all the way with him in thinking that we should make voting compulsory. We must recognise that people have the right to opt out as well as in. In any event, for the reasons that we have been going over interminably for the past two days, it is difficult to obtain an accurate register upon which one could base a compulsory voting system.

The hon. Gentleman was right to raise the issue. He has researched it carefully. A great many of the basic premises from which he starts are fair, but in going to the point of saying that there should be compulsory voting he has taken the matter a little too far. I hope that he will feel that, having properly aired the subject, he can let it go—and let us go as well.

Mr. Barron

I was nearly going to say that I was grateful for the Minister's comments. Having been given the opportunity to debate the matter, the Committee has not had a great deal to say, except in sedentary interventions.

The idea of forcing people to vote, which has been happening in Australia since 1925, has never stirred any great complaints about the inhuman or ill treatment of people casting votes in general elections in Australia. Earlier the hon. Member was trying to force people to vote by a different electoral system. I thought that there might have been further debate on the new clause.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn

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