HL Deb 16 July 1931 vol 81 cc887-93

Order of the Day read for receiving the Report of Amendments.

THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE COLONIES (LORD PASSFIELD) moved that the Report be now received. The noble Lord said: My Lords, possibly it would be convenient in making this Motion if I said a word as to the attitude which the Government take up in regard to this Bill. Your Lordships have made very drastic Amendments, leaving very little of the original Bill. Perhaps it is unnecessary for me to say that the Government feel that they cannot accept the decisions of your Lordships' House, and the Bill will go to another place where the Government will feel bound to give advice in accordance with their feeling in this matter. I am not moving any Amendment at this stage, and subsequent proceedings will of course follow their usual course.

Moved, That the Report be now received.—(Lord Passfield.)


My Lords, I am only glad to know that the noble and learned Lord feels that he can tell us what advice the Government is going to give in another place without any infringement of the Privileges of the House of Commons.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and Amendments reported accordingly.

First Schedule [Alternative Vote Rules]:

LORD JESSEL moved, after paragraph 1, to insert: 2. At an election conducted in accordance with these rules, the counting of the votes shall not be commenced until nine o'clock in the forenoon of the day succeeding the day of election or if it is a Sunday until the next day.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I moved this Amendment on the Committee stage, and the Colonial Secretary said that he agreed with me that this was not a contentious matter, but that there were two views. The object of my Amendment, briefly, is to have the counting of votes put off till the next day. The Association of Municipal Corporations is strongly in favour of it, and also the Society of Clerks of the Peace, who also are returning officers. I know very well that the returning officer has an option in this matter, and he can choose, but it bas been represented that so much pressure will be put upon the returning officer in many places that it will not be possible for him to resist.

Of course I do not know, but I think this new system of the alternative vote will be much more complicated than the old simple process, and you may have cases where the counting is prolonged very far into the night. Some members of your Lordships' House who have been in the House of Commons have represented single-member constituencies. My noble friend Lord Banbury was one of those fortunate people, but, on the other hand, I remember perfectly well when I sat for St. Pancras there were four members there. In 1910 we had no fewer than three re-counts for one of the divisions, and we were all kept there till about three o'clock in the morning. It was a sort of Marathon race. At one time one candidate got ahead and then another, and at last amid tremendous excitement at three o'clock in the morning the result was declared.

I will deal with the contention of the noble Lord, Lord Gainford, who unfortunately is not here to-day, but he said he did not mind my quoting him. He said that not only would the postponement create a great deal of excitement, but market day might follow polling day and business would be interfered with. I venture to maintain that in the evening and at night there is a great deal more excitement than next day, when there is time for calm reflection. Very often, as we know, there are a great many rowdy scenes at night, and it would be of great benefit to all those employed on the election, the agents, and the counting representatives, and also the police, if the declaration were postponed to the next day. With regard to market day, I do not think Lord Gainford quite appreciated that, this Bill, whatever may happen to it in another place, at present only applies to the Administrative County of London and to boroughs where the population is more than 200,000. I do not think, therefore, that the reference to market days is very relevant.

The history of this Amendment is an interesting one. It was moved in the House of Commons by Sir Dennis Herbert, and was supported by Major Hills and others. After a short discussion it was withdrawn with a view to raising the question on the Report stage. The Home Secretary stated that in the meantime he would ascertain the view of the returning officers on the question. But, unfortunately, owing to the "kangaroo" closure, which is a very had thing because, as my noble friend Lord Banbury says, it stifles discussion, the question was never raised again. I put it down in this House. I must say that the noble Lord in charge of the Bill treated me very well. He said there were two views upon it, and what I should like is for the Government to accept this Amendment at this stage, and then leave it to the House of Commons to decide. I do not propose for one moment to trouble your Lordships with a Division because this is not a contentious Amendment, but I hope that the Government will think lit to accept it. After all, it will make this Bill, which is rather thin at the present moment a little fatter and there will be a few more lines in it to discuss.

As this is not a Party matter of any kind I think it is better in the interests of the public as a whole that the results should come in simultaneously. I believe the expression "piebald" was used a good deal earlier in the debates on this Bill. The present system is rather pie bald as regards the results because they are declared overnight in some constituencies and not in others. If all the results were declared the next day the whole country would be aware of their fate at the same time and would know what Ministry was coming into power. I only hope that it will be of the right colour next time. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 5, line 16, at end insert the said new paragraph.—(Lord Jessel.)


My Lords, the noble Lord quite rightly says that there is nothing contentious about this Amendment and I cannot imagine that there is any Party interest in it whatsoever; at least, I am unable to detect any. But I do not think the matter is quite so one-sided as the noble Lord made out. I said that I would supply information. It is true that the Association of Municipal Corporations through its secretary has informed the Home Office that the returning officers for the boroughs are entirely in favour of the proposal and a similar statement has been made on behalf of the counties. Undoubtedly it would be easier for the returning officers if it was absolutely laid down that the counting should take place on the following day; but the returning officers may have to suit themselves to the public convenience, whatever that is.

I should like to point out that this Amendment effects an alteration in the law for all the constituencies concerned whether there is any proportional representation counting or not. That is to say, the new system with regard to the alternative vote only comes into play when there are more than two candidates for one seat. That fortunately, although we have had it in a great many cases, does not prevail over the whole of the constituencies and I do not think that there is any reason to suppose that it is going to be the normal thing. It does not seem necessary to alter the law with regard to those constituencies where in fact you do not have more than two candidates in any particular election and where in fact the system of counting will remain as at present. In a great many boroughs it has been found possible to count the votes and, at the last Election for instance, to declare the results within a couple of hours. I think we shall find that in another place at any rate there is a great deal of feeling in favour of retaining that system.

At the present time the law is that the counting of votes must not take place between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on the same night except in so far as the returning officer and the election agents of all the candidates otherwise agree. The Amendment proposed would make it absolutely fixed and settled so that whether the locality wished it or not, whether the candidates wished it or not, whether it was convenient for the locality or not, in no case should the counting take place that same night. If I may express an opinion, that seems to be going unnecessarily far. I am conservative in this matter and I should like to stand by the existing law personally, leaving it practically to the local option. The noble Lord, Lord Gainford, put it very strongly that it was quite a serious matter in some cases to postpone the counting until the next day, because it kept excitement going during the business hours of the second day, which was not necessary and not desirable.

On the wording of the Amendment one or two little points would be necessary to be thought about, but they could be considered later. The actual drafting is riot quite what I am advised it ought to be, but that is not a matter of substance. I can only say that the Government cannot take it upon itself to accept this Amendment. I do not propose that your Lordships should be troubled with a Division if you see fit to adopt the Amendment, but it must be understood that the Government have a free hand to decide in another place what action should be taken in view of whatever opinion may be expressed there. After all, this is a matter which concerns members of the House of Commons a good deal more than it concerns members of this Assembly, and there does not seem to be any reason why it should not be left to the decision of members of the House of Commons. For the moment, at any rate, I cannot accept the Amendment on behalf of the Government, but should your Lordships decide to vote for the Amendment it is not necessary to put your Lordships to the trouble of a Division.


My Lords, I should like to direct the attention of your Lordships to the effect of this Amendment. As the Bill stands now, the alternative vote will only apply to London and those boroughs where there is a population of more than 200,000. That is to to say, it is not of general application, whereas the Amendment is of general application. It does not seem to me that we should propose to change the system in regard to a large number of constituencies which do not require it and as to which there is no reason at all for making a change. Now it is left to the returning officer to determine according to public convenience whether or not the count shall be taken on the next day or on the same night, and I should have thought for the sake of those engaged in the contest in the constituency itself and all those engaged in trade in it, if it is possible it is desirable to get the count over and to finish with all the excitement that same night. If it is against the public convenience it is for the returning officer to decide that it cannot be done, and there is an end of it. I suggest it is better to leave it as it is now. It is not a Party matter.


My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord opposite is a Conservative even if it is only in one instance. Perhaps we can take that as showing which way the wind is blowing the straw and, possibly, the noble Lord may find himself on this side before many years have elapsed. I am also glad to hear from the noble Lord—I think I heard him correctly—that in future there will be only two candidates at elections. Does that mean an arrangement with noble Lords below the gangway? It looks to me very like it. In the circumstances, whether that is so or not, as the noble Lord is for once a Conservative, I shall have pleasure in voting with him.

On Question, Amendment negatived.