HL Deb 18 July 1939 vol 114 cc258-66

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, this Bill has a very high-sounding title, but it is a very simple Bill with a simple object—namely, to alter the date of the coming into force of the register from October 15 to October 1. Elections, as many of you are aware, usually take place in the autumn, and your Lordships will no doubt all agree that it is essential that as many voters should be on the register as possible, especially as regards municipal elections, on which it may be said truly, owing to the early system of local government in this country, that the foundations of our liberties are based. There was a very interesting debate in this House on May 4 of last year, on a Motion by Lord Derwent calling attention to the apathy at elections, especially municipal elections. Several remedies were suggested, which I am not going into at this moment, and Lord Munster, who I regret not to see here in his place this afternoon, replied for the Government. Lord Munster, as your Lordships are aware, may be called the Poo-bah of the Government, because he always has charge of very important measures. I am very proud of Lord Munster, because I think I may claim to be one of his political godfathers, and your Lordships will all agree that he has done very well.

Lord Munster, in replying for the Government, rather disposed of the question of General Elections, because he said that in the last six General Elections no less than from 75 to 80 per cent. of the electors had voted. It is true that higher figures have been obtained, but on the whole your Lordships, I think, agreed then, and will agree to-day, that that is not at all an unsatisfactory figure. He went on to say: I come now to municipal elections. The percentage of electors who record their votes at these elections is, I know, unfortunately much smaller … but in London since 1922—that is to say, at the last four elections of county councillors and the last six elections of borough councillors—the percentage has generally been between 30 and 40. I think it is to be very much regretted that a keener interest is not shown by the people not only in London but in the provinces in municipal elections. We had a number of figures in that debate, and I do not wish to weary your Lordships with them to any great extent, but I will give figures for two of the biggest boroughs in London at the last municipal elections. I see Lord Snell and Lord Strabolgi present, and these figures come from one of the publications of their Party. In Wandsworth there were 245,973 electors, 49,147 who had removed, and 49,539 new names. In Islington, one of the biggest boroughs in London, on the old register there were 200,371 electors, 47,181 had removed, and 41,194 new names. As your Lordships are aware, elections are held for municipal contests all over the country on November 1. The register is out on October 15, and it gives the parties concerned very little time to make the necessary arrangements. The voting in the North of England is much better as regards local elections than it is in the South, and London has lagged far behind any other part of the country. That is due not to any inherent vice on the part of the Londoner, but because the Londoner shifts from one part of London to another in a much greater degree than the voters in any other part of the country.

In March of this year a meeting was held at the Home Office, the Ministry which is responsible for registration. The meeting was what is known as the Advisory Electoral Conference. This meeting was attended by representatives of registration officers, of all the political Parties, and of the Government Departments concerned. I understand that there was general agreement that the register should be published at an earlier date. Your Lordships will doubtless note that all political Parties were represented and agreed on this point. Therefore, there is nothing to be said as regards any difference of politics in this Bill, to which I hope your Lordships will give a Second Reading. I am bound to tell your Lordships, however, that certain difficulties were pointed out as regards existing contracts made by the Stationery Office with the printers, and also as to the alteration of certain other dates, but I venture to hope that if the Government agree to this Bill those alterations can easily be inserted on the Committee stage.

Your Lordships are no doubt aware that many public bodies, and municipal authorities do not as a rule take much notice of a Bill until it has passed the Second Reading, and I may say that I delayed putting this Bill on the Paper to suit the convenience of the Government. But I should like to inform the House that certain bodies have commented favourably on the Bill. The Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee, which represents all the boroughs in London, whatever be their political complexion, passed a resolution in favour of the Bill, and in their Report they say: The alteration of the date of publication of the register as proposed would be advantageous, particularly in cases where, as frequently happens, an election takes place in the autumn. Then they go on to say what I have already told your Lordships: We feel, however, that to enable registration officers and their printers sufficient time in which to carry out their work, it will be necessary for other dates in the programme of revision, including the qualifying period, also to be brought forward, but the Bill makes no provision for these consequential alterations. I might observe on this that there is a great difference in London, because we have these very important elections triennially—they take place on November 1—whereas in the big towns in the rest of the country, like Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, they have annual elections. The most important body in London are the London County Council. This matter, I understand, was considered by the appropriate committee as long ago as March last, and it was clearly stated that the London County Council have no objection to the Bill. I should like to point out, however, that the Bill does not affect the County Council so much, because their elections are fixed by Statute and take place on a certain date in the first week of March.

The Bill is a one clause Bill. Subsection (1) refers to the Economy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1926, by which one register was substituted for two, and at the same time the qualifying period was reduced from six to three months. The dates were altered in respect of the 1929 register, because special power to alter them was conferred by a special Statute—namely, the Equal Franchise Act, 1928. I hoped at one time that this alteration could have been effected by an Order in Council, but on closer examination of the matter, I was informed that this could not be done, and that an Act of Parliament was necessary to carry out the alteration which many of us so much desire. I hope that your Lordships, after this explanation, will show your approval of the principle of the Bill by allowing it to have a Second Reading. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord fessel.)

3.23 p.m.


My Lords, we have no objection to this Bill; on the contrary, there would seem to be some general convenience should the Bill finally become law. I should like, however, to say that I suspect that in the noble Lord's criticisms about the small number of people who have voted there is a certain amount of what in these days we call "wishful thinking." I do not doubt that he feels that if a greater proportion of London's electors had voted at the last County Council election, the results might have been different. So they might. But we must always remember that a small vote is not necessarily unsatisfactory. The British people have a way of not interesting themselves so long as things are going right. It is the same, I have noticed, in your Lordships' House. If something arises which touches the interests of your Lordships, or in which noble Lords are interested and suspect a grievance, we have the pleasure of seeing a great many of your Lordships present, but in ordinary circumstances they take very little notice of what happens. Now it is so in popular elections. If the government of a community appears to the electors to be going on well, whether it be of the county or the State, then they are inclined to let things go, but if things begin to go wrong, then immediately a larger number of them vote.

Well, I feel that we must not be too alarmed because only 40 per cent. voted at the last London County Council election. The results seem to me to be entirely satisfactory. But I agree with the noble Lord that it is very desirable that a far larger number of our citizens should participate in the responsibilities of electing their representatives. Democratic government becomes something of a farce if only a small minority participate in the work. So I should on every ground, whatever the result might be, wish to see a larger number of voters take part in elections. If this Bill, by bringing forward the date, would help, that would be something to the good. But the mere alteration of the date will not create that political conscience in the people which is on all grounds desirable. So far as I know, those interested in local government and in national government, of all Parties, would be very glad if the date when this register becomes effective were brought forward, at least to the time which is proposed by the noble Lord. I therefore support the Second Reading of the Bill.

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, His Majesty's Government consider that the objects of the Bill are good, and the arguments in its favour are valid. There are, however, certain practical points which require consideration. I do not think that any of your Lordships doubt that the annual revision of these lists of names and addresses which together form the register of electors is a lengthy, elaborate and costly procedure. The dates governing the various stages in the preparation of the register are laid down by Statute. The present dates are contained in the Third Schedule to the Economy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1926, which abolished the spring register, and instituted the system of one register a year instead of two. It is necessary for the moment to consider only one of these dates—August 18, which is the last day for the receipt of objections to claimants, and of claims to be registered as absent voters. The significance of that date is this: between August 18 and October 15 the registration officer has to hold any revision courts that may be necessary to decide on claims and objections received, and to prepare a copy of the register for the printers, the proofs have to be printed, checked and returned, and the register finally printed and bound. Thus, the registration officer and the printer have between them just over eight weeks in which to complete the final stages of the register.

In some cases, in favourable circumstances, it is possible to save a few days and to have the register ready for issue before October 15. But taking the country as a whole, the period of eight weeks is no more than sufficient. This statement is based on the advice of representative registration officers and of His Majesty's Stationery Office (who are responsible for making the contracts with the printers). The noble Lord's Bill would reduce this period of eight weeks to six weeks, and it is the considered opinion of those responsible that the proposal is impracticable. It is hardly necessary to emphasize the importance of securing that the register, when completed, should be as accurate as humanly possible: if a mistake is made, there is no means of correcting it until the next annual revision. To curtail the concluding stages in the preparation of the register by anything approaching a fortnight would, even if practicable, greatly increase the risk of mistakes, mistakes for which there is no legal remedy. For this reason alone the noble Lord's Bill cannot be accepted as it stands.

That is not to say, however, that His Majesty's Government have discarded all idea of advancing the date of publication of the register, if it should prove to be practicable in some other way—that is to say, by advancing some or all of the other dates contained in the Schedule to the Economy Act. His Majesty's Government admit the force of the arguments for revision, and they are in fact already exploring the practicability of advancing all the dates, including the qualifying period, by a fortnight. While it is too early yet to reach a definite conclusion, it seems likely that this would be feasible, at any rate so far as England and Wales are concerned.

There is, however, a further complication. All that I have said relates to England and Wales. The noble Lord's Bill specifically excludes Scotland and Northern Ireland. It would alter the operative date of the register for England and Wales, but would leave the Scottish and Irish registers unchanged. So far as Northern Ireland is concerned, the Northern Irish register already comes into operation two months later than the English register, and Northern Ireland would not be affected by any alteration of the date for England and Wales. The Scottish register, however, comes into force on the same date (October 15) as the English register.

The municipal elections in Scotland take place during the first week in November, and, if there is a case for an earlier register in England, there would seem to be an almost equally strong case in Scotland. Accordingly, although no representations have reached the Scottish Office in favour of an earlier register in Scotland, His Majesty's Government have given consideration to the possibility of making a change there similar to that which has been suggested for England and Wales. But here we meet with special difficulties. Owing to a system of tenancy peculiar to Scotland, a large number of removals take place every year on or about May 28, with the result that the work of revising the register cannot be begun in Scotland until some time later than the commencement of the revision in England. The qualifying period accordingly ends a fortnight later in Scotland, and the dates for the various stages of revision are also later. This means that the total time taken in revising and printing in Scotland is already less than the time taken in England, and it may not be practicable further to curtail that time, or, alternatively, to start the work of revision earlier. It appears therefore to be impossible to meet the demand for an earlier register in England, without having different dates of operation in the two countries and this might be inconvenient to Scottish candidates in the event of a General Election being held early in October.

To summarise the attitude of the Government, so far as England and Wales are concerned the Government agree that there would be advantages in antedating the publication of the Register from 15th to 1st October. As regards Scotland, for the reasons I have explained, it does not seem possible to alter the present date of publication. In the event of a General Election for Parliament being held either between 1st and 15th October or shortly after 15th October, Scottish candidates would seem to be at a disadvantage as compared with English candidates and this is one of the difficulties that must be met in the consideration of this matter. His Majesty's Government are much obliged to the noble Lord for having given the opportunity for a discussion of this question. His Majesty's Government are not in a position at the moment to give any definite undertaking to introduce legislation next Session, but the matter will be carefully considered in the light of the various considerations raised in the course of the debate this afternoon before the legislative programme for next Session is settled.

3.37 p.m.


My Lords, I am very sorry to receive from the noble Viscount the intimation that His Majesty's Government are not going to do anything. This matter has been debated and thought over in certain circles not only in London but all over the country for a good many years. I myself have hammered away at this story since 1930. I am not at all convinced by what the noble Viscount has said about Scotland. I cannot speak for Scotland. Scotland itself has never shown any dissatisfaction with the present system. There has been, as the noble Viscount has said, no representation made to the Scottish Office on this subject. I do not quite understand what he said about Northern Ireland. It seems to me they are going to be left alone, and therefore they are out of the hunt. I do not see why, because Scotland comes into the picture and has not asked for anything—there has been no movement as far as I understand in Scotland—unfortunate England and Wales are to have this perpetual disability placed upon them.

As regards Lord Snell's remarks—I am sorry he is not in the House at this moment—I must point out that he is not quite in agreement with the leader of the body he adorned when he was in the London County Council, for Mr. Herbert Morrison, in his well-known paper, whose name I shall not mention but which is published every month, strongly advocated the revision of the register. It is rather distressing for me to see that Lord Snell, having got away from Mr. Morrison and the London County Council, is now in favour of small electorates. I should not have thought that was a doctrine which would appeal to his colleagues on the Front Opposition Bench. I do hope the Government will reconsider this matter because it is a burning question in many quarters. As regards the argument about the registration officer not being able to do his work in eight weeks, everybody knows that appeals in these days are few and far between. It is not like in the old days when an election was fought out in the Registration Court, when there were smaller electorates. Appeals are very few to-day. I should like the Home Office to inquire how many questions come before the registration officer which have to be decided in this way to give time for an appeal to the County Court. I am extremely dissatisfied with the answer of His Majesty's Government, and I hope they will reconsider this matter and next Session will introduce a Bill on these lines.

On Question, Motion negatived.