§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)
I beg to move,That the draft Representation of the People Regulations 1986, which was laid before this House on 13th May, be approved.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)
With this it will be convenient to take motion No. 5:That the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 1986, which were laid before this House on 15th May, be approved.
§ Mr. Mellor
The motions relate to England, Wales and Scotland only, and I can be fairly brief.
The regulations give effect to principles which were determined by the House in the exhaustive consideration that was given to the Representation of the People Act 1985. They are significant because they carry into effect the extension of the franchise that was agreed by the House and make provisions for declarations to be made by British citizens overseas. The consequent provisions will, for the first time, enable many of our fellow citizens who work abroad serving the national interest to vote in elections for a period of five years in the constituency in which they were last registered.
The regulations give effect to a further fundamental change in our arrangements, which is to permit absent voting for those who are away on holiday. As a result, all the absent voting arrangements are changed—we hope materially for the better — in the detailed regulations that are set out. However, I apprehend that if I were to go into great detail about them, I would not necessarily carry the House with me. I hope that it may be taken on trust that detailed and, I believe, simple and straightforward arrangements are made in the regulations.
Part III of the regulations, which deals with the registration of electors, contains a number of useful changes relating to the identification of names included for the first time in the draft register, which will assist in the necessary scrutiny of the register by other electors and the political parties.
Part V of the regulations deals with the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers to be combined at combined elections which, taken together with part VI, which contains a completely new set of provisions to govern the conduct of elections where polls are combined, gets away from the difficulties which we found on a number of occasions about combining certain parliamentary elections with Euro-elections and certain parliamentary elections with local elections.
The regulations were properly and fully canvassed with the party organisations before they were laid before the House. I believe that they reflect the principles which we have enshrined in legislation. Many of them are significant and, I believe, worthwhile changes in our election procedure and will enhance the quality of our democracy. On that basis, I commend the regulations to the House.
§ Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)
I make it clear, on behalf of my Labour colleagues, that we welcome the regulations. As the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department has said, they put into the law those matters which have been the subject of debate and agreement between the parties. The first quick point 136 I shall make will not be new to the hon. Gentleman. I still hope that in amendments which we propose to make, one of these days, to the main Representation of the People Act, we shall include proposals to limit expenditure by national political parties in their favour at general elections.
It seems to be a gigantic hole in the regulations that we quite properly control expenditure at the local level regarding expenditure limits for each elector, yet, nationally, parties can spend whatever money they can lay their hands on urging electors to support a party. I hope and expect that most hon. Members will agree when I say that that smacks of Britain moving to an American-type presidential election system, where in my view, a candidate's election depends very much on the size of his pocket or purse. In that sense, a candidate tries to buy his election. None of us want to see that happen in this country.
It seems to me that it is a hole in our regulations where, in the conduct of elections, no limits are imposed on what can be spent to promote, nationally, the image of one party or another. I say that in respect of the hon. Gentleman's party, my party and every party.
Regulation 28(3) deals with information from householders. It raises the fine from £100 to £400 for a householder who does not do what he is obliged to do under the Act in giving information of people who live in the household and who should be on the register of electors.
I have no objection in principle to increasing the fine. I do not want to make heavy weather of the Government's proposals for a poll tax or, as they call it, a community tax. I understand that the electoral register will not be used for the register of ratepayers, but we have been told that the register of ratepayers will be based upon it. We do not want—and we hope that the Government agree—people to feel that, if they do as they are supposed to do under the Representation of the People Act 1983 and properly register their names on the register of electors, they will face the jeopardy of the poll tax.
It would be wrong to have a knock-on effect whereby people are inhibited from properly registering to exercise their vote and are afraid that, in doing so, they will be lumbered with the poll tax. I should like the Under-Secretary of State to assure the House that the Government do not intend to implement the provisions of regulation 29(3) and to introduce a fining system to penalise those who do not register. I do not necessarily expect the hon. Gentleman to answer tonight because, to be fair, that is not within his departmental responsibilities.
We have to keep the two aspects separate. We must preserve the electoral register. All hon. Members and members of political parties have a resposibility, if not a duty, to encourage people who are eligible to have their names on the electoral register to be satisfied that, when they have filled in the appropriate form, they will be entitled to a vote at local elections, parliamentary elections and elections for the European Assembly and that nothing else will happen to them.
§ Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)
I welcome the proposals overall, but I should like to point out some drawbacks. Many Conservative and Labour Members were discontented with the limited granting of overseas votes. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) and other 137 Conservative Members were vociferous in claiming in perpetuity the right of British people living abroad to vote for the Government of their country, which remains their country wherever they live and for however long they live there. However, this measure is a step in the right direction, as is the granting of holiday votes.
§ Mr. William Powell (Corby)
Is my hon. Friend prepared to go so far as to say that the Conservative party's policy should be to extend the franchise to overseas voters beyond the five-year period and that we should campaign for that in the future?
§ Mr. Rathbone
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend who was another supporter of that sentiment during our previous debate on this matter. If my memory serves me correctly, the Government said that they would consider how the policy worked — however it was measured — and, if it worked so properly, they would extend the period. That was certainly the innuendo, if not the commitment. I therefore endorse my hon. Friend's comments.
It is fascinating that, in the closely packed 88 pages of the regulations, great emphasis is placed on the precision with which we should conduct our elections for example, the way in which declarations of identity should be made. Flick open any page and find attached detailed advice and direction as to how elections should be conducted. My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned that the purpose of the Representation of the People Regulations 1986 is to enhance the quality of our democracy. The tragedy is that, precise though the regulations are, all they do is ensconce even further the completely arbitrary nature of the electoral format used in this country under which, more times rather than less, a Government are returned who are non-representative of the majority of people. It is a marvellous Anglicism, it maybe British—let me embrace all of those from north of the border and from over the seas, especially the Irish sea — that we spend all our time here debating and adopting motions which will make what we have work perfectly with great precision, without any credence being given to whether what we have working is what ought to be working.
§ Mr. Rathbone
I plead with my hon. Friend the Minister, as a meteor of good sense in Government, as he has proven himself to be on so many other subjects, however embarrassing it might be to embrace this meteor, to carry into Government circles the argument for the adoption of more proportionate systems of election in this country than we have had over the years.
§ Mr. Rathbone
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not give way. I want to make my speech short because I want to carry the House with me.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take my message to heart as representative of a large body of opinion on Conservative Benches on the benefits of electoral reform, which is not embraced only—
§ Mr. Rathbone
I agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am going as wide as can be because I am denigrating the order for its value in its essence as opposed to in its application.
§ Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)
It did not surprise me to witness the cosy embrace between the Parliamentary Under-Secretary and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett). I agree with the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) about the electoral system. Regulation 100 contains the clear proof and manifestation of the snug cartel which exists between the Labour and Conservative parties as they attempt to outwit the electorate with an outdated and outrageous electoral system—and they know it. [Interruption] It was very encouraging to hear an expression of opinion so clear and strong in its condemnation of that form which we see in regulation 100, which perpetuates the present system, coming from behind the Parliamentary Under-Secretary.
Part II of these regulations deals with overseas voters' declarations. Again, I find myself in total agreement with the hon. Member for Lewes. It is extraordinary that people who live and work within the European Community, even people who live and work for British companies or organisations within the EEC and who are putting forward British interests for more than five years, are to be deprived of their right to vote. The United Kingdom is a signatory to the United Nations covenant—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman is going very wide of the order. I remind him that we are discussing the administration of a policy which has already been decided by the House.
§ Mr. Carlile
I am directly referring my comments to regulation 23, which deals with the content of an overseas elector's declaration. In my view, it is highly regrettable that regulation 23 and that section of part II of the regulations does not contain provisions which enshrine what ought to be the rights of British citizens under international law to be able to vote in British elections. The regulations deprive bona fide British citizens of their right to vote, largely because of criticism that has been made of a small number of criminals who have outwitted the British police. It is a great shame that honest citizens should be deprived of their rights as voters because of that.
Part III of the regulations deals with registration and electors' lists. There is no provision in the regulations, particularly regulations 31 to 36 inclusive, to ensure that people who have many residences vote only in the place where their main place of residence is. In my constituency in rural Wales, and indeed in many other constituencies that are holiday areas, and also in London, where there are many second homes—not least those in which some of us live, at least during the small hours — there is the opportunity for tactical voting not only in the constituency but between constituencies. It is highly regrettable that the regulations do not contain something that brings that to an end.
I should like to deal next with some rather less general and more technical matters, which I hope will not necessitate your scanning the regulations further, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to see whether I am still in order. I should like to ask the Minister whether he is satisfied with the arrangements contained in the regulations for the filling in by voters of forms for registration as voters. At present the forms are distributed in the summer, in August, and have to be in by October. Some of those forms are returned quickly in August, but others are returned rather late. Because of the two-month gap that can arise, or at least 139 the two-month spread for return of registration forms, particularly in areas where the population is rather mobile, such as many areas of London, the register is bound to be inaccurate by the time it comes into existence. I ask the Minister to consider whether it might be better to have a national registration day or week, which would ensure that there was not that span of time during which registration forms could be returned, but a shorter time, so that the register was much more accurate.
Secondly, I should like to ask the Minister about the practice for combined polls. I understand that in some parts of the country, when there have been combined polls—more than one election on the same day—there have been difficulties in the way in which ballot papers have been handed out. In some places, where there were two elections, the polling clerk has simply proffered to the elector two forms, one for each election, to take into the polling booth. In other places, the polling clerk has asked the elector whether he wishes to have a form, a polling paper, for one election or the other, or both. I hope that in the future arrangements will be made— pursuant to the regulations — to ensure that there is a standard practice. That may sound, and perhaps is, a somewhat pedantic point, but I can tell the Minister that it has caused real difficulty. I understand that there is some litigation in being at present because of the lack of standard practice for multiple polls.
The final question that I should like to put to the Minister, who I know will, as ever, be extremely helpful in his answers, is about the practice of distributing marked registers. I understand—although I have never done this myself—that it is possible to obtain a marked register after an election has taken place. That is a register that is marked to show which voters have voted. That may be a questionable practice. One may ask whether marked registers should be available after elections. I am concerned as to whether it is proper that candidates should be able to find out who has voted. Apparently it is possible to obtain these registers at the moment. However, there are widely varying practices as to the time within which marked registers are made available to candidates after the election.
That matter is considered to be important by those who are involved in the management of elections. Is the Minister satisfied with the arrangements for handing such registers to candidates after elections have taken place? If the registers are to continue to be available, will the Minister ensure that there is a standard period within which the registers, if required, must be made available to candidates?
§ Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)
I warmly welcome these regulations. They constitute a major and significant extension of the franchise and in many ways they are historic. I share the disappointment of my hon. Friends who have regretted the five-year limitation on overseas voters, and I believe that many people abroad have a deep and fundamental right to vote in general elections in this country. I hope that at some stage we shall see that five-year period extended further or, preferably, extended without limit. That is a fundamental right of British people who live abroad and who still have a fundamental allegiance to their country.
140 I especially welcome the extension to the right of absent voting to people on holiday. I have always thought that it was a gross injustice for individuals to lose their vote because they had the audacity to plan a holiday without consulting the Prime Minister of the day or the date of the general election. These are welcome extensions and I have no doubt that the House will accept the regulations.
We should all be disappointed at the fairly low poll among service voters. I hope that the Minister will give some assurance that the new arrangements in the regulations will facilitate service voting and encourage a higher percentage poll among such voters.
The Representation of the People Act 1985 provides for candidates to dispatch their election addresses post free and unaddressed. That is an important extension. All hon. Members will be familiar with the great envelope writing exercise of hundreds of thousands of party workers. The Act states that the Post Office will be obliged to distribute unaddressed election addresses to every voter.
Schedule 4 to the Representation of the People Act 1985, under the headingcandidate's right to send election address post freestates:One unaddressed postal communication, containing matter relating to the election only and not exceeding 60 grammes in weight, to each place in the constituency which, in accordance with those regulations, constitutes a delivery point for the purposes of this subsection".The object of that is clear. On balance it will be welcomed as it will mean that workers' energies can be directed into other more fruitful activities. It would be disappointing if the object of that provision was thwarted by a narrow definition of a delivery point. I have examined the regulations carefully for the answer to that, and I have raised the matter in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Minister because, if the Post Office stated that it was only prepared to deliver unaddressed communications to a central point, that would be unsatisfactory for the candidate as he would have to address every envelope to every elector.
Large blocks of flats, military barracks, old people's homes, and so on, usually have one central delivery point. If the Post Office insisted on delivering only to that point there would be no guarantee that the election addresses would be delivered to every elector. The object of the provision is clear, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister wishes it to be used in general elections, but it would be most helpful if he would explain where in the regulations the obligation is laid upon the Post Office to deliver one unaddressed postal communication to each elector, or at least to each residential unit, which is the basis on which most people arrange such deliveries. It is a small point, but I suspect that, like many other small points in these massive regulations, it could have a considerable effect on the way in which the next general election and other elections will be organised.
In general, however, I hope that the whole House will give a warm welcome to this extension of the franchise.
§ Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)
I do not know why Conservative Back Benchers are so anxious to ensure that escaped train robbers and people living in overseas tax havens to avoid paying tax here nevertheless have the right to vote in our elections. I do not share that enthusiasm, but I support the general thrust of the regulations, which are clearly intended to make it easier for 141 people to vote if for reasons beyond their control they cannot get to their local polling booth. I understand that that is the purpose of the regulations, particularly with regard to holidaymakers, and it is obviously a good thing. I just hope that it will work that way.
I should like to deal briefly with the slight variations in the powers and discretions of electoral registration officers in England and Scotland. I have been a little worried about the situation in the Lothian region, part of which I represent and part of which is represented by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. In the past, obtaining a postal vote seems to have involved something of an obstacle course, even under the present regulations. People who registered as absent voters due to disability and had the appropriate forms signed by their doctors before one election assumed that their registration would continue in perpetuity but discovered just before the next election that they had to go through the whole rigmarole again because the registration officer had wiped the slate clean. That seems unfortunate.
Before the recent regional elections there was an equally curious situation when the electoral registration officer made it clear that he was rationing application forms for absent votes. Political parties had to obtain them in tens rather than in the hundreds required in some of the larger districts. Exercising one's right to vote should not involve an obstacle course, and I sincerely hope that the regulations will be administered in the spirit in which Parliament clearly wishes them to operate.
I have one final detailed point. Regulations 45 and 46 in respect of Scotland provide that the electoral register must be set out on the basis of parliamentary polling districts. Some of us have found, in our constituencies and in by-elections elsewhere, some very peculiar parliamentary polling districts. They seem to be based on ancient parish boundaries where drove roads over the hills once connected a remote farm to some outlying village. Such drove roads no longer exist and people can find they have mile long trips to get to a polling station. It is a pity it is so difficult to bring the boundaries of polling districts up to date to enable people to vote at the polling station most convenient to them.
But for those observations, I add my welcome to the regulations.
§ Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)
I wish to address my brief remarks to regulation 66 which relates to section 7(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1985 which applies to absent voters.
We all agreed that it was right that those who were on holiday and unable to vote should be able to exercise their democratic right to vote in their absence. The difficulty was in determining what was a holiday, and in the end it was decided that anybody who had reasonable cause not to be able to go in person to the polling station should he able to claim an absent vote.
Regulation 66 requires an applicant to set out the reasons why his or her circumstances are such that he cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person. There is difficulty in determining what is reasonable. As far as I know, there is no guidance to registration officers on what could be considered reasonable. It may be argued that this will have to be developed in case law, but I cannot see many such cases coming to court and learned judges 142 determining what is and what is not reasonable. At a general election different registration officers may have different ideas about what is reasonable.
Someone may say that he wants to visit his grandmother who lives 50 miles away and will not be back in time to vote that day, for example, and may claim that he has a reasonable case for an absent vote. When canvassing, all hon. Members have come across people who say, don't think I'll bother." When pressed, they add, "Well, I shall be going to a football match as soon as I get home from work and I might have a drink or two after the match. I don't think I'll have time to vote when I get back." If I were an unscrupulous candidate I might say that that could be considered reasonable and that the voter should be able to claim an absent vote for that cause. It may be difficult for a registration officer to draw the line.
It would be possible to manipulate elections, if one were prepared to be unscrupulous and to work fairly hard, especially in elections where the turnout is low — for example, at some local government or parish council elections, which are equally important to the democratic process.
I hope that the operation of the regulations will be carefully monitored and that reasons given will be analysed to ensure that different registration officers apply similar reasoning for granting or withholding the absent vote. Granting the vote to people who are genuinely on holiday is certainly to be welcomed, but I fear that we may be drawing the lines so widely that the whole process of electoral law could come into doubt.
§ Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)
I welcome the regulations but regret the fact that the ballot is still not secret. Yet again, the polling officer will write down the number of each person who enters the polling station, and, when the person votes, it is, therefore, not a secret ballot. In Malta, ballot boxes have been opened and the boundary commissioners have changed constituencies and wards at the next elections. I should have much preferred a genuine, secret vote.
There is still no safeguard for the proper stamping of all ballot papers by the polling officer. In Leicester, at the general election, several ballot papers were ruled invalid because they were improperly stamped. I see no regulations governing that. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure the House that such problems will be avoided in the future.
Like some Opposition Members, I do not approve of overseas electors being able to vote after more than five years' absence from Britain. Unless people are working abroad indefinitely, their country is here and, after live years, they should decide whether they remain abroad and become disfranchised or return to the United Kingdom and vote as before.
On regulation 53, I urge my hon. Friend to remind all registration officers that it is in order for Members of Parliament to receive free copies of the electoral register. In my constituency, the registration officer is trying to charge me £16.50 for the 1986 register. Indeed, I received a reminder only last Thursday. I should be grateful if my registration officer were reminded of that point.
143 The part IV regulations regarding absent voters have been greatly welcomed. Under regulation 63, holidaymakers can now vote. That commitment was given before the original regulations were introduced. We raised the matter immediately after the 1983 general election.
Regulation 29 deals with form A — "Return by Occupier as to Residents." At each general election we see pictures in the newspapers of children aged about two holding their official polling cards. There are regular misunderstandings, with parents placing on the register children who should not be there. The form makes it clear. It states:Please do not include … People under 16.That should be emphasised much more strongly in the registration forms. Indeed, I urge my hon. Friend to make mandatory the checking of the register once it has been compiled. Each occupier of a house should check the register to see whether everyone mentioned on it is entitled to vote. The period for checking is 28 November to 16 December. Similarly, I hope that the ethnic communities can be reminded of their duty not to place people aged under 16 on the electoral roll. Regulation 29 does not make that clear enough.
Declarations of identity are liable to possible misinterpretation under regulation 79(a) and (b). The witness could be in dispute. Although I understand the operation of that regulation, I urge my hon. Friend to make it clear that it is a serious offence to encourage someone to vote who is not authorised to vote. This is a great problem in Northern Ireland with personation. I hope that the provision can be applied under the English regulations.
With regard to the return and declaration of election expenses under regulation 12, most hon. Members stick closely to the requirements for filling in forms L and M as soon as possible within the necessary period. However, I am suspicious that not everything is included.
The requirements on polling cards should make it clear that outside a polling station the purported marked-up ballot paper that is handed out to members of the public as they go in should not appear to be a genuine polling card. This should be properly looked into.
Combined polls come under regulation 100(2)(e)—Modifications of parliamentary election rules"—and control of them is imperative. We had a recent case of a by-election and a local election in Surrey on the same day. I note this regulation because there was great confusion as to how many votes people had. It was two for the local election and one for the by-election. In all these cases, we have to assume that people do not understand their legitimate rights of voting. We must be not patronising, but more forthcoming on the right to vote.
I urge my hon. Friend to look again at the serious matter of personation. Many constituencies have small majorities. We must warn people that personation is contrary to the law, just as it is to vote often, early and at least twice. It is a privilege to vote in any election, and we must also—
§ Mr. Bruinvels
It is a right, but also a privilege. We are British, and this privilege is one of the few things left in this country for which we do not have to pay.
144 I urge a reminder that in parliamentary elections one cannot vote for two candidates. The regulations are fine in detail, but a full explanation of them is also required.
§ 12.6 am
§ Mr. Mellor
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have enjoyed the debate, and I am grateful to the House for the warm welcome that has been given to the regulations.
I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) for speaking with typical courtesy and brevity. The limiting of expenditure is a major decision that I suspect that the House is a long way from making, but we noted his point. The Green Paper on local government finance makes it clear that the electoral register will be one of the sources of information available to local authorities when they compile the community charge register. The question of liabilities and sanctions relating to it is still under consideration, and I shall ensure that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment are clear about the marker that the hon. Gentleman has put down.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) for the attractive way in which he made his speech, although I am afraid that for this particular meteor to plunge into the darkness of electoral reform would be a little unwise, particularly at this time of night. However, I note what he says. Again, this is a major issue of policy that lies outside the regulations, but we have all heard what he said and noted his sincerity.
My hon. Friend also made a point about the limited grant for overseas voting. Our position is clear. We wanted a longer period. Originally, we proposed seven years. In the legitimate interest of obtaining the agreement of the House, so that we would have an unopposed Third Reading for such a major change in electoral arrangements, the period was brought down to five years. I am speaking only for myself when I say that I hope that the House will take an early opportunity to return to this point. After we have demonstrated what a good idea this change is, with the successful carrying through of a large number of people working overseas who have voted in an election, I should want us to broaden the period that is allowed.
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), who almost blotted his copybook in the last minutes of the debate, made six points in a thorough and interesting speech. The first three were policy points, and part of the ritual incantations that the Liberal spokesman—the hon. Gentleman has the honesty to agree with me — has to make on these occasions. What can I say except that we cannot agree with them? He made three detailed points to which I can respond. On registration, one could say that there is already a national registration day on 10 October, because everything relates to where people are on that date.
As to whether or not electoral registration officers send out the forms too early, that matter is within their discretion. However, I take the point, and during our discussions with the EROs I shall ensure that the hon. and learned Gentleman's point is made known to them.
The hon. and learned Gentleman also referred to combined polls and mentioned differences in practice. Our view is that without any form of interrogation a voter should be handed all the relevant ballot papers for the elections that are taking place that day. In the event of that 145 practice not being followed in some areas, perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman will provide me with further and better particulars.
As for the marked register, the argument is that public inspection of the marked register is an important safeguard so that electors may satisfy themselves that the election is honest—that the individual who voted was the person who should have voted. That point was raised in the interesting contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels). That is the basis for the inspection and it is provided for in schedule 1 to the 1983 Act. As to the period within which public inspection should be allowed, that lies within the discretion of the EROs. We should be reluctant more tightly to circumscribe their discretion, but we are prepared to consider complaints about the way in which individual EROS go about their business in the interests of proper administration.
My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) referred to service voters, a point that concerns many hon. Members. The take-up of service votes is reasonably low. However, that matter is slightly outwith the regulations. Our view is that whether or not an elector chooses to exercise his franchise is a matter for him. There is no good reason in practice for the low take-up rate, and I do not believe that anything could easily be done to improve it. The arrangements for service voting are precisely the same in every material particular as for other voters.
My hon. Friend also raised an important point about the delivery of unaddressed election material through the post. We regard this as a useful service for some candidates, who may not have available dozens of elderly ladies to scribble addresses for them—a delightful sight in our committee rooms. The Post Office's criterion for a delivery point is that the place in question must be permanently and separately occupied and accessible to the general public and that it must have a separate letter box and a separate address. That should mean every point to which a postman, if a properly addressed letter came into his hands, would deliver. However, that would exclude buildings in multiple occupation where there is one main letter box. That is why it can never be quite so thorough if one has to rely on unaddressed material as it can be if the material is addressed to somebody. I should not expect the Post Office to seek to wriggle out of an obligation by suggesting that, as a normal part of a postman's beat, unaddressed material was not, in fact, an address for the purpose of these arrangements. I believe that the regulations have been appropriately drawn.
It may just be the mellowness that descends upon me at this time of night, but the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) made what was almost a sensible speech. I have waited for seven years in this House to hear such a speech, and I do not know what has come over him. The rationing of the supply of applications for postal votes is a matter for discretion. More can be and, indeed, are supplied, if requested. As for the definition of polling district boundaries, that is a matter for the returning officer, although most of them consult and will accept—as happened in my constituency—representations made by the parties, if it appears that the polling district is not conveniently drawn for the electors. In my constituency, electors had to cross a busy arterial road and 146 it was determined that they should no longer have to do so. I hope that in most areas that sort of give and take goes on and sensible results come out of it.
I want to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) that we keep in close touch with representatives of the EROs and will be told if any particular difficulties arise. The discretion is fairly tightly drawn in the sense that the main Act provides that an absent vote is available only if a personcannot reasonably be expected to vote in person".That is certainly not synonomous with "cannot be bothered to vote". We expect that the EROs will exercise their discretion.
As to reasonableness, without descending into lawyers' pedantry it would generally be the case that any attempt to define reasonableness further is self-defeating. It is better to rely on the good sense of people who conduct their often rather onerous responsibilities effectively. The number of complaints about EROs is limited, despite all the difficulties that they encounter. We are happy that they are capable of applying good sense to that test of reasonableness. Once again, if difficulties arise that cannot be sorted out through the usual channels, we can always return to this, but I believe that we have drafted a framework which will enable proper sensible, individual decisions to be taken on a case-by-case basis.
§ Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)
Before my hon. Friend finishes, does he agree that almost certainly more members of the ethnic minorities fail to register to vote either as a result of a deliberate act by the landlord or through errors of omission, than there are those who put down the names of their children under the age of 18, either for deliberate or accidental reasons?
§ Mr. Mellor
Yes. The under-registration of ethnic minorities is a problem that we have sought to address through a real effort that we have made pursuant to the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs on which my hon. Friend now sits. There is marked under-registration, I am relying on my memory, a fallible instrument, but it is around 7 per cent. nationally, and as high as 16.4 per cent. in inner London, I was rather shocked as an inner London Member to discover. The Home Office has been going through a series of seminars for EROs and has taken other steps to try to ensure that that figure is tackled and reduced.
Particular problems exist for the ethnic minorities. As a result of this exercise, EROS are more conscious than perhaps they were of ways in which that can be dealt with, and I hope that we shall see an improvement. We have certainly worked hard to try to obtain that. On that basis I commend the regulations to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Representation of the People Regulations 1986, which were laid before this House on 13th May, be approved.