§ 6.56 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
My Lords, this is not the last Bill I shall have the honour of presenting to your Lordships this evening so I am sure that you will wish me to move as swiftly as possible; but as this is an immensely technical Bill it is impossible to move at too fast a rate without losing clarity. This Bill effects certain alterations in the existing arrangements for electoral registration; it extends the range of postal voting facilities and arranges for the compilation of fresh jurors' books. It is intended by the Government that these arrangements should be temporary in character. I should like to stress that fact. It was described in another place by a Government spokesman as a stop-gap measure. It is of temporary character and should be reviewed in the light of the recommendations received from the Committee on which the main political Parties are represented and which is considering what changes may be necessary in the machinery of electoral registration to bring it to peace-time requirements, and to what extent use should continue to be made of postal and proxy voting. The Bill also provides for the preparation of fresh jurors' books for England and Wales which will be effective from January, 1947.
The matters covered by the Bill fall under three main heads. First of all, alterations to the existing registration arrangements; secondly, extension of postal voting facilities; and lastly, the compilation of fresh jurors' books. If we come first to what is perhaps the only controversial feature of the Bill, although I hope it will not prove controversial this evening, in Clause I it is provided that an annual register, that is the register 596 published each year on October 15, shall remain in force for all Parliamentary elections until the next annual register is published. Under the existing law the annual register is only effective for Parliamentary elections initiated between September 10 and the end of the year. For a Parliamentary election initiated at any other time, a register has to be prepared especially for the election and published 36 days after initiation. The extension under the Bill of the validity of the annual register is necessary because it is not administratively possible with existing conditions in the printing industry to ensure that in the event of a General Election registers could be produced simultaneously for all constituencies in the time required under the 1943 Act. Therefore, the reason for Clause I is administrative, arising from the position in the printing industry. Even although the likelihood of a General Election in the near future may be remote, the Government consider that it would not be constitutionally proper to allow a position to be created whereby it would be administratively impossible to provide for a General Election were a General Election required. So much for Clause 1.
Clause 2 deals with the qualification for inclusion in the annual register. It provides that next year, as has been the case this year, the annual register shall be compiled with reference to a qualifying date only and not with reference to a qualifying period, such as two months. Without going into all the technicalities arising from the Acts of 1943, 1944 and 1945, I would say that here again the main reason is administrative. We have got to pay a great deal of attention to the quality and quantity of the staff available which makes it impossible in the immediate future to give effect to the provisions of the 1943 Act which would have instituted a two months' qualifying period.
Clause 3 provides for the publication on February 28 of a supplementary register which will contain the names of two main categories of persons; first of all of members of the Forces, seamen and war workers abroad if their applications are received between June 30 and December 31; and, secondly, the names of persons discharged from the Forces or the Merchant Navy between those dates. So, if someone in the Forces or a war 597 Worker abroad fails to get on to the October register he can get on to the supplementary register by applying; and, again, a. member of the Forces who is discharged in the latter part of the year can get on to the supplementary register.
Clause 6 brings us to the second main topic covered. It extends the postal voting facilities to persons in the following three categories: (1), persons who have removed from their registered address provided that the addresses to which they have removed are not, in relation to their registered address, within the areas specified in Clause 20; (2), persons who require to make a journey by sea or air are afforded postal facilities in order to vote. This applies particularly to persons resident in islands. And (3), persons who are physically incapacitated, whether by blindness or otherwise, and who cannot vote in person without assistance, are accorded postal voting facilities. Clause 8 extends until the end of 1946 the special arrangements for extended postal voting which were in operation at the General Election. There, again, the idea is to give ourselves time to survey the whole matter when we have received the report of the very representative committee considering all these matters.
Clauses 9 to 12 bring us to the third topic covered, the compilation of fresh jurors' books. The books at present in use are those which came into force in January, 1940, and were compiled in reference to the register published in 1939. Your Lordships will appreciate that new jurors' books are required, and in addition to arguments drawn from the considerations I have just mentioned, we have to bear in mind that in the new registration procedure we shall not obtain all the information we received under the old procedure about the occupation of the individuals concerned. Therefore, the new procedure introduces the novel principle, which I am sure your Lordships will accept, and which can be summarized by saying that the registration officer, when he has marked somebody down as a potential juror, is not debarred by their occupation or otherwise to regard them as suitable as jurors. Those are the main provisions. I have had to cover them rapidly, and that is probably the wish of your Lordships. I mentioned at the beginning that this is a stop-gap measure. It is essential it should be passed, because without it we should not be able to hold a General 598 Election if one became necessary during the coming year. Your Lordships will no doubt desire to consider it carefully in Committee. I think the main points, for the purposes of the Second Reading, have been covered. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Lord Pakenham.)
§ VISCOUNT SWINTON
My Lords, I think the noble Lord has justified his case for a Second Reading of the Bill, and we should all be sorry we impeded his early demise.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.