HL Deb 04 July 1944 vol 132 cc633-6

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, it will require a few minutes only, I think, to explain this Bill to your Lordships and to secure your general assent. It makes temporary amendments in the Parliamentary Elections (War-Time Registration) Act which we passed last year. Your Lordships will remember that the old system of this country was that since you could not vote in a constituency unless your name was on the register, the register was made up on the 15th October, containing the names of residents who qualified from having resided for at least three months, between the 1st of March and the 1st of June of the preceding year. That was a bad system; it involves a very serious lag between the time when the voter is qualifying and the time when he exercises his vote. The lag is at best four and a half months, and it may be as much as sixteen and a half months. All those objections were enormously magnified by the circumstances of the war. In fact, there has not been any keeping up of that register, and it was most important to start a new system in the future.

The Government therefore appointed a very strong Committee, a Departmental Committee on Electoral Machinery, and this Committee made a very ingenious recommendation. It recommended that there should be continuous registration, that the register should always be kept up to date, principally by the use of the National Registration Act, supplemented by other procedure. Under that plan when a General Election came, it would be possible to freeze the new register, and that is the register which would serve for a General Election, everybody on it being qualified, as far as he was qualified, within two months of the election taking place. The Government adopted these recommendations and put them in the important Bill of last year, which still stands. Unfortunately, the Government tried to do rather better than that. The Committee had never taken into their contemplation by-elections. Their proposals were for a General Election; but the Government, striving to do better, included in the scheme of the Bill which we carried last year by-elections. It was very necessary that we should do so, for they produce the greatest difficulty of all at this very minute. The register goes back before the war, and one result is that nobody can vote unless he is at least twenty-five.

It was thus very appropriate that the Government should try to enlarge the scheme in that way, but, having enlarged it and carried the main Act last November, including by-elections, and getting everything up-to-date, it was found necessary to take counsel with the very skilled people—registration officers and others—who make the detailed administrative plan for working the arrangement. That having been gone into closely, it has been ascertained beyond question that, in the view of the most experienced of these people now available, it would be impossible to work the scheme of last year unless it was somewhat modified. The choice really is between leaving the scheme of last year a dead letter—so to speak, preserving it in the refrigerator until it might be brought out in happier times—or altering it in certain particulars. It would obviously be very wrong for Parliament to throw its hand in and say it would do nothing; the situation would grow worse and worse. Consequently, the Government now come forward, with all due apologies, and say that the Bill which we passed last year—on which I made a most eloquent speech last November !—has to be modified.

The modifications are really two. Under the Act of 1943 the qualification for being put on the civilian register, on the score of residence, was continuous residence in a constituency for not less than two months prior to the last day of the month before that in which the election is held. That involves a great deal more in the way of examination and investigation than you might suppose—particularly the provision regarding two months. There is the case of the man who has left his address and moved somewhere else in the same constituency. Against that, you have the man who is a bird of passage and who may have moved through three or four constituencies in the course of the last two months. Every one of these cases has to be individually checked, as our Bill provided last year, and that cannot be done with the staff of experts available now. So many have gone to the war and so many others cannot get the necessary supplementary staff. This Bill therefore makes two changes which will greatly simplify the matter for the time being, though I am far from saying that the changes in themselves improve the system—I do not think they do.

The first change it is proposed to make is this—to give up for the time being this test of continuous residence and put upon the register a voter who is entitled to be included because he is registered in the National Register as residing in the constituency on the qualifying date. That gives the go-by to the bird of passage, no matter how many constituencies he has travelled through. The registration authority simply looks at the National Register, finds the man there, and says, "There you are—I put him on the list of voters." The other thing that has to be done is with regard to the period for qualifying. It puts the qualifying date back another month. We are assured, by those who know the subject best—and it is a most expert business, full of technicalities, as every one who has been an electioneerer knows—that the thing will work. We therefore propose to put back the date by another month, making it three months, and also propose to rely for the time being on the fact that the name of the man or woman is in the National Register at that address without inquiring into his or her recent history and peregrinations.

The Bill is purely temporary. There is a provision in it that it has to be brought to an end by the end of 1945. If, on the other hand, the Home Secretary finds he has got his tackle in order more rapidly than might be feared, it will be open to him to bring the expiration date into operation sooner than the Statute contemplates. These are the provisions of the Bill. I have endeavoured to explain them in non-technical language. I hope I have satisfied the House that we ought to give a Second Reading to it, and by this means secure that the voting at by-elections, as they come along, and at the General Election, when it comes along, will be conducted on a register which is fairly up-to-date.

Moved, that the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

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