HL Deb 09 November 1943 vol 129 cc600-14

Order of the Day for the Second Reading.


My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill. The details of the Bill are for the most part of more interest to the elected Chamber than to your Lordships' House for the Bill primarily deals with a new method for registering Parliamentary electors. But your Lordships will expect a very brief account of the measure which also contains some interesting provisions as to the summoning of Parliament, a matter which of course concerns both Houses alike. Hitherto the electoral register has ordin- arily been made up once a year and comes into operation on October 15. This process has in fact been suspended since the beginning of the war, but that is the general arrangement. In order to get on the electoral register, which as I have said comes into operation on October 15, it is necessary for the ordinary voter to have resided in the constituency for the three months between March 1 and June 1 previous. There are some minor modifications to that which I do not stop to describe.

Inasmuch as no one, whatever his qualification, can vote in a Parliamentary election unless he is on the register it follows, of course, that under this present system a great many people will have moved their place of residence since the register was drawn up, and a great many people will have come into the constituency too late in the year to be registered for voting purposes. The lag in fact may be anything between four and a half months and sixteen and a half months. The important reform which this Bill proposes to effect is this. It is provided by the present Bill that material which is continually available out of the National Register (which is absolutely up to date) will be made available for election purposes at any time of the year. That is possible because of the existence and operation of the National Registration Act, 1939. Under that Act, so long as that Act lasts, the whole population is listed and changes of address are duly recorded. The general scheme of the Bill, therefore, is that when a General Election is announced a Parliamentary register will then be made up for every constituency out of the materials supplied from the National Register and this Parliamentary register will be available in time for the electoral campaign. The scheme also applies to the making up of a Parliamentary register for a constituency where a Parliamentary by-election may be due to take place. I leave out universities. Your Lordships know that universities poll on a rather different system of registration.

Your Lordships will see at once the great advantage of that new system—it is obvious. The advantage is that a resident in a constituency will be able to vote when the election comes if he was registered there two months before. His electoral rights will be continually kept up so that no greater time lag than that can occur. Moreover, this brief period of qualification—I can hardly imagine a less period because of the necessary inquiries—will apply equally whatever be the time of year at which an election takes place. This continuous registration system is designed to meet, and I am confident it will meet, the circumstances which exist at the present time where there has been and no doubt will be very considerable movement of population from one place to another to undertake war work or for other reasons.

There is one other feature of the Bill which I think your Lordships will wish me to mention. I refer to the provision made in the Bill for the establishment of a special register for members of His Majesty's Forces, merchant seamen and persons engaged in war work abroad. This special Service register will be made up under arrangements to be carried out with the co-operation of the Service Departments. It will be based on declarations to be obtained from such persons as to the address at which they resided or would have resided but for their service. Anyone who makes a declaration will thereupon be registered for the constituency containing the address given in the declaration. It is believed that under this system very large numbers of members of His Majesty's Forces serving abroad and others entitled to these special facilities will be enabled to record their votes when the time comes for any General Election or by-election for which they are qualified.

So far I think there will be agreement that this is a very useful reform. There is, however, one consequence of the new system which in itself might not be regarded as an advantage unless special provision was made to meet it. This has to do with the interval between the ending of one Parliament and the beginning of another. Under our present system if, as is usually the case, the Royal Proclamation which dissolves a Parliament at the same time calls a new one, the interval between the Proclamation and the meeting of the new Parliament is, in practice, about thirty days. By Statute it could not be less than three weeks, and, in fact, a month's interval is required. When we reflect that in an earlier age the Sovereign sometimes dissolved Parliament without making any provision for calling a new one at the time—and indeed Charles I dissolved Parliament with the idea that perhaps he could avoid having a new one at all—it is remarkable that the modern technique enables the interval when there is no Parliament to be reduced to so short a period. But so short a period is only possible because under the old system the register which was to be used at the Election was already made. Therefore, if you adopt the new system by which the electoral register is made after the Proclamation to dissolve the old Parliament, there would have to be a longer interval, and it would seem, at first, a considerably longer interval.

It is calculated that from the date of the Proclamation to the assembling of a new Parliament, something like eight weeks must elapse. It is quite obvious that that would be most undesirable; it might indeed by very serious that the country should be compelled to be without a Parliament for two whole months, and the question is how to get over that difficulty. It is dealt with in this Bill in a very ingenious way. In modern times the Royal Proclamation which dissolves a Parliament speaks as from the date of the Proclamation. As I have said, it at the same time calls a new Parliament at a date which will be thirty days ahead. But there is no constitutional reason why the Royal Proclamation should dissolve the old Parliament as from the day that the Proclamation is made, and the scheme is that in the future the Royal Proclamation which dissolves Parliament will only dissolve it from a date in the future—irom about thirty days ahead. The consequence will be that the gap, during which there is no Parliament, either old or new, will not be greater than it was before. That will be found to be dealt with in Clause 3 of the Bill.

I would also, in passing, call attention to Clause 34 of the Bill which again deals with what I may call a constitutional point. It deals with the case where Parliament stands prorogued—that is to say adjourned not of its own resolution but by Proclamation—and it is desired for some urgent reason to bring that Parliament together again. We have a regular provision now by which when either House of Parliament is, by its own vote, adjourned for a time, the Speaker and the Lord Chancellor, acting together, can, in case of need, call Parliament together more promptly than it is possible to call Parliament together when it is prorogued.

Earlier Statutes provided that there must be a minimum interval between the notice to reassemble and the date of meeting. That was to give Members of Parliament time to get here. It is not exactly the same point but it is interesting to have in mind—any Scottish Member of this House, I am sure, would be interested in having this recalled—that when the Statute was passed combining the Scottish and the British Parliaments, in the reign of Queen Anne, provision had to be made for the fact that there was a much greater distance for some Members to travel—it might be from the very north of Scotland—and also much greater distances to send the notices. It was therefore provided that in the case of the summons of a new Parliament at least fifty days should elapse between the date of the summons and the day when the Parliament met. That, as I say, is not quite the same point but it illustrates it by analogy. Taking the precise point, in the Napoleonic war, in 1797, I think it was, there was a provision which shortened the period and enabled a prorogued Parliament to be called together in fourteen days. In 1870 the time was reduced to six days. In this present Bill we propose to reduce it to twenty-four hours, There has already been an instance, quite recently, in which when Parliament was adjourned, not prorogued, the Speaker and the Lord Chancellor called the two Houses together at no greater interval of time. That was an interesting illustration, I think, of the increased ease of communications and of the increased speed of travel. The fact is that when Puck declared his ability to put a girdle round about the world in forty minutes, he spoke of something which has now been eclipsed for a long time. As for Mr. Phineas Fogg, who was a great hero of our boyhood, his achievement, compared with what we can do to-day would really be nothing more than travelling at a snail's pace.

I should point out that the main provisions of this Bill are necessarily temporary because they depend upon the existence and working of the National Register which itself has only been established for the period of the war. To that extent we may regard the Bill as an experiment. But if, as I hope, it is a successful experiment, if public opinion approves the change that is made, it will of course be possible for Parliament, in due course, to decide whether the new method should be extended. It will not be possible to make effective use of this new machinery for about four months from its passage into law. After that it will be available for a by-election or, should there be a General Election during the war period, for a General Election. For the rest, experience will show whether it does not really constitute a great improvement in the machinery of our electoral law. If it does, I cannot doubt that Parliament in due time will consider whether it should not be in some form secured as a permanent reform.

There is in the Bill almost nothing which changes the qualifications for a vote; the Bill deals with registration and with the machinery by which registration is accomplished. I remember a distinguished man, Mr. Birrell, attending a Party conclave many years ago and listening with his usual patience to a number of very florid and. enthusiastic speeches on political principles. When asked whether he would like to add a few words, he got up and said: "My young friends, what I would beg you to remember is that all these sentiments are no good unless you get on the register." That is the object of this Bill, and I beg to move that it be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—[The Lord Chancellor).


My Lords, I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing very much with what the noble and learned Lord Chancellor has said to your Lordships. I venture to regard this Bill with a good deal of approval, and I think that it makes certain improvements in the making of registers which might well become permanent. I am sure that the noble and learned Viscount did not mean to be taken literally, but he implied that this Bill did not directly concern your Lordships. I suppose that, narrowly, that may be so, but it certainly concerns our wives, who have votes, and such of our children as are of voting age.


I said that it was of more interest to the Commons.


More interest, yes, but the constitution and the method of electing the other Chamber, and the true representation of the country in the other Chamber, are the closest concern of your Lordships. The noble and learned Lord Chancellor also spoke of a period of two months during which there might not be a Parliament, and special provisions to deal with that. I presume that the noble and learned Viscount was referring to war-time, because the old custom used to be for Parliament to be prorogued for much longer than two months. In peace-time there are frequent occasions when Parliament does not meet for two months, without great inconvenience to the country, and many people would say with advantage. In a time which many of your Lordships will remember, Parliament used to rise some time in July until the following February, and we seemed to get along quite well.


That has not happened for thirty years.


No, but I am old enough to remember that, and so is my noble friend. This Bill, as the Lord Chancellor has said, is temporary, but I would most respectfully endorse what he said about the hope that some of its provisions, if they are found to be successful, may become permanent. I have had the advantage of talking about this matter with the Chief Agent of the Labour Party, a very efficient and devoted official. He welcomes that view, and thinks that the advantages of a fresh register are so important that we should contrive means of keeping the register much more up to date than under the old dispensation. That again depends on some kind of machinery such as the National Registration Act, which is now in force. I presume that the National Registration Act will be continued in force for some time after the termination even of the war in the Far East. I imagine that it will be in force during the whole of the war against Japan, and I expect for some time afterwards. If we have to maintain a system of rationing, as the noble Lord, Lord Woolton, has properly warned the country will be necessary, we shall have to have this system of national registration, and therefore, as far as I can see, we can make that part of the Bill permanent.

Then, as the Lord Chancellor has pointed out, this Bill deals only with part of the whole problem of the machinery of election and the representation of the people. It has, as I dare say your Lordships are aware, the general approval of the Labour Party; we were fully consulted through our Party machinery as to its provisions. So far, so good. My only suggestion—it is not exactly a criticism— is that I regret very much that we have omitted any provision for dealing with a war-time Election in the following way. This Bill, when it is implemented in four months' time, will make a war-time Election practicable; and in another place my right honourable friend the Home Secretary admitted that, however undesirable he might think it, a war-time Election would now be possible. It would be easier still if there had been some provision for going back to the old system, at any rate during the war period, of spreading Elections.

Your Lordships may remember that Elections in our younger days took about three weeks. That had its advantages and its disadvantages. What I am going to say now is, I know, open to argument, but it has been asserted by people of very great experience that the spread-over period prevented what we call "landslides." If it was shown that the electors were apparently swinging too far in one direction, the constituencies which polled later could modify the swing. That may or may not be a good thing, and I do not propose to argue it here; but I would put forward the view, which is strongly held by experienced Parliamentarians, that landslide Elections in the long run do not do much good. If one Party is over-weighted in the other Chamber, the whole Parliamentary system suffers. I believe that history shows that to be true, and I should like the spread for that reason and for the practical purposes of a war-time Election, when a spread over the constituencies would, I think, be advantageous. The dislocation would be less, and, if a war-time Election was spread over three weeks, the danger of interference by bombing would be reduced.

I should like to draw one conclusion from this Bill. As we can agree, it does make a General Election possible. I am going in a very few words to express the hope—a hope which is very widely held, though not necessarily in your Lordships' Housn—that advantage will be taken of it, and that we shall have a General Election as soon as is practicable, war or no war. My reason is this. Unless we have made our reconstruction plans and implemented some of them, or prepared for some of them by legislation, we are going to be in a situation of great confusion after the war. Take, for example, the whole problem of preventing unemployment. Unless we have our plans properly prepared and some of them translated into legislative Acts, I tremble to think what will happen. As soon as we attempt to do that, however, we enter into the region of what is called controversy. The policy which we shall have to adopt to have reconstruction plans of any use at all must, I submit, be drastic, and the legislation must be controversial; but the moment that we propose anything which is controversial we are told that it cannot be entertained in this Parliament. The Prime Minister has said so on several occasions.

I should like to draw the attention of your Lordships to a speech made last Saturday by a very experienced man who holds a position of some responsibility in this country, Sir Walter Citrine, the General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress. In that speech, Sir Walter Citrine pointed out the impossibility of making progress with planning for reconstructon while this ban on so-called controversy remains in the House of Commons. Why is this ban on controversy defended? Because we ore told, apparently, that the present House of Commons has no mandate for anything controversial. That, I know, is a constitutional doctrine which is questioned, but the argument is used continually. Apparently the present House of Commons has a mandate for all kinds of things that we never contemplated would happen, but when it comes to wide schemes of reconstruction then we are told it has no mandate. Very well, we accept that. Then, for heaven's sake let us get a House of Commons with a mandate as soon as possible. I want to say at once that this was not the considered policy of my Party at our last annual conference. It is now the official policy of my Party to continue during the war without a General Election. But this Bill may cause us to alter our minds and I see signs of that in the speech of Sir Walter Citrine, who is a man of great experience and ripe judgment.

This "no-controversy" ban also affects Parliament in this way, that there are certain great measures of social reform which cannot be carried through in war-time be-cause of the ban. The Parliament of the last war elected at the second Election in 1910 and dissolved in 1918 after the Armistice, passed measures of the greatest importance. The period 1914 to 1918 was a very fruitful period of social legislation. Two of the more important Acts passed by that Parliament were the Representation of the People Act which amongst other reforms gave the: franchise to women—and it would certainly be impossible to argue that there was a mandate for that—and the two great Education Acts for England and Scotland. It may be said that that was a progressive House of Commons, which could not be said about the present House.

With regard to the argument that an Election would divide the country, that has not been the experience in our Dominions. The conduct of affairs as regards the prosecution of the war in the great Dominions will bear comparison with our conduct of affairs in this country. The Australian and New Zealand and South African contributions to the war have been magnificent and yet those three great Dominions—one of them at least, Australia, is as close to the firing line as ourselves and at one period was in as great danger as this country was ever in —have had the advantage of having Elections and of renewing the memberships of their great assemblies. And in the United States—where I admit the conditions are different—they are about to embark upon the elections arranged for in the Constitution of the Republic. As to splitting the country I doubt very much whether half a dozen Pacifist candidates would be nominated in the whole country and I am quite sure that every one of them would lose his deposit. They would get no support at the poll.

On the issue of the prosecution of the war to a victorious and decisive end, there is no division in the country whatever. There may be dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war or with certain repercussions of the war on the people's lives; but on the great issue of the cause for which we are fighting there is no division at all. But for the sake of post-war planning and the tremendous issues it involves, it seems to be essential that Par- liament should receive an influx of new life. I saw to-day a very weighty leading article in The Times newspaper which begins by quoting a statement attributed to Lord Halifax, our distinguished Ambassador in Washington, who, addressing a Press Conference on his return from his all too brief visit to this country, is reported as follows: Lord Halifax told a Press conference that 'in planning post-war Britain most people look forward to continuing a National rather than a Party Government as long as possible.' I have no intention of traversing anything that Lord Halifax told journalists in Washington. He obviously could not know from first-hand experience, for he had only been a short time in this country and so was only repeating what he had been told. But whether he is right or not in saving that that is the opinion of most people in this country, a National Government must depend on a National Parliament, that is to say a Parliament that accurately represents the view of the nation.

As every Bill for the prolongation of Parliament is brought before your Lordships that is less and less true of this House of Commons, and that is not a healthy situation. A nine-year-old Parliament cannot represent the younger generation. The same leading article made this remark: It may be that an Election will be possible and therefore necessary before the war ends, at least in the Far Fast. Possible and therefore necessary ! This Bill makes it possible in four months' time, and I would therefore like to support the view that that also makes it necessary. It is not healthy to have a Parliament which is unrepresentative, and even less healthy to have a Parliament in which there is not a vigorous and official Opposition, In order to get those things I think we ought to have a General Election. I hope my noble friends in my Party will in time come to agree with me, and if this Bill helps them to that agreement that is an extra reason for welcoming it.


My Lords, we always hear a speech from the noble Lord opposite with great interest. I do not think he has dealt very much with the Bill itself but rather with some interesting generalities. But when he makes a comparison between the Elections in our great Dominions and the absence of Elections in this country he must recognize that those great Dominions have no bother about black-out, no great difficulty in travelling as there is here. Therefore it is the difficulties of the war here, where we are so close to the enemy, that make it very difficult to have an Election.


In Australia half a dozen towns have been heavily bombed.


It is nothing like the same as here. The other night here at a meeting where a great many people were assembled there were a certain number of casualties, and you could not expect to have a General Election in this country, with the difficulties that we experience at the present moment. The noble Lord knows that perfectly well. I quite agree with him that it is desirable that steps for a new register should be taken and put into force. He said the chief officials of his Party approved this Bill. I approve the Bill, but not for exactly the same reason. I think the idea of a continuous register is a good thing, though I hope that it will not lead to the abolition of the municipal register.

There is just one other point I should like to deal with, and that is what my noble friend said with regard to the spread-over. It is a great advantage having Elections on one day because people go their own way and do not play "Follow my leader." I remember very well what happened in 1906, when Mr. Balfour was beaten at Manchester. The noble Viscount will recollect that in those days Manchester always declared the result of its poll more quickly than any other constituency in the country. I was speaking that Saturday evening at an open-air meeting—we had open-air meetings as long ago as 1906—and my opponent shouted "You are out, Jessel, follow your leader Balfour—he is gone." That was one of the bad points of that system. I do not agree with what the noble Lord said about other parts of the country rectifying the situation and not giving a big majority. Very often, after the first results, the rest of the constituencies followed. It seems to me much better to have Elections on one day so that a constituency itself decides what it wants without being unduly influenced by what is happening elsewhere.

As regards this Bill, I agree that it is necessary to have a new register. Even Members of Parliament themselves, I am sure, feel that the time has come when a new register should be put into being. There is only one point I should like to mention in conclusion. The Lord Chancellor explained the interval which will occur. As a result of that will a man be able to go down to his constituency and still call himself an M.P. during the Election? It seems to me it would be an unfair handicap upon his opponent if that happened. I have nothing more to add, and it was only the invidious comparison made by Lord Strabolgi between ourselves and the Dominions which caused me to intervene.


My Lords, the debate, as often happens, has gone a little wider than the Bill, but I shall deal with a couple of points germane to the Bill which have been raised in the course of the discussion. Let me take first the question put by my noble friend Lord Jessel in his concluding sentences. As he knows very well—he is an old electioneerer—the interval which occurs under our existing system when Parliament is dissolved and another Parliament is called, is an interval of about thirty days, and this covers the period of the campaign. The consequence is, that under the existing system the sitting Member cannot fight a contested election claiming himself to be, at that living moment, a Member of Parliament. He fights on level terms with his opponent and the question is, which of them is to be Member of Parliament in the future. That is a very proper arrangement.

The object of the clause to which I referred in the new Bill is to keep that provision. If you made a provision that the old Parliament should go on till the day before the new Parliament met, the Members of the old House of Commons would all be able to march about the country and in their own constituencies saying they were Members of Parliament. That would not be fair. That is one of the reasons why we have provided, in this Bill, in express terms, in Clause 3, that the Proclamation which dissolves a Parliament and at the same time calls for a new one, is a Proclamation which must operate to dissolve the old Parliament, not at once, but within thirty days, and there would be left another thirty days which would be the period of the actual contest. We shall therefore maintain what I agree with my noble friend—what everyone agrees—is a sound position.

There was a point raised strictly dealing with the Bill by my noble friend Lord Strabolgi. If the noble Lord will forgive me, he completely misunderstood the point which I made. I observed that our modern practice was to endeavour to reduce the period when there was no Parliament to a matter of thirty days. That is a little different from asking whether Parliament is sitting or not. The two things have nothing to do with one another. It used to be the case quite constantly, when some of us were young, that there was no Autumn Session at all. Therefore there was no meeting of Parliament. Anyone who came to Westminster to see Parliament could not see anything, but nevertheless Parliament existed. The Members could write M.P. after their names and, if an emergency required it, they could be called together. That is the important thing. You do not want, in a democratic country, to have a long period during which there is no legislative assembly to be called together. It is not a question whether Parliament is in recess or not. The point is whether there is a Parliament that can be called together.

Under the new system there will be a longer interval between the day of the Proclamation and the day when the new Parliament assembles because, as I explained, the register has to be arranged after, and not before, the Proclamation. It is therefore desirable to provide that the Proclamation shall not dissolve Parliament straight away, but shall dissolve it as at a future date, thereby securing that nobody car say that this country has not got a Parliament during all that time. The time during which it can be said that the country has no Parliament is strictly limited. It is not a question of Parliament meeting for a certain number of days every year or whether it ought to sit for an Autumn Session.

I am not going into the other questions dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, and by the noble Lord, Lord Jessel. They were not really related to the passing of this Bill. I shall make only one observation, if I may, going myself outside the strict text of the Bill—namely, on the subject of Elections during the war. It did seem to me that Lord Strabolgi, in his argument, failed to make due provision for the fact that the most important thing at present is that the war should be actively carried on. The war has got to be carried on by the War Cabinet and by a Government composed of the leaders of the different political Parties. It is all very well for people in either House who are gentlemen of comparative leisure—or at any rate whose public functions are for themselves to decide—to say "Let us have a General Election to improve the political atmosphere and to get on with this, that and the other." Everybody knows that a General Election involves leadership, speeches, appeals of all sorts by the leaders of the Parties and, I must say, though it is easy for us here in this House to discuss these matters, suave. Mari magno, when there is no election that can remove either the noble Lord or myself from this assembly—the consideration should at least be weighed as to whether it is the best way to make sure that the war is carried on with the intensity with which the Prime Minister and others are carrying it on, to say, "Let us have a month or six weeks during which you will have to appeal to your respective followers in an endeavour to get returned to the House of Commons those who are most appropriate for political purposes." That is a consideration that must be weighed, and for that reason I am not surprised that the Labour Party, with its usual sobriety, has declared that it is not in favour of an Election during the war.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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