HL Deb 24 July 1968 vol 295 cc1074-8

3.58 p.m.


My Lords, with permission, I should like to bring to your Lordships' notice a Statement which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made in another place about a review of electoral law. I will use his own words:

"The Government have studied the recommendations made in the Final Report of Mr. Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law (Cmnd. 3550) and the Government's conclusions are set out in a White Paper which is available at the Vote Office now. May I take this opportunity, Mr. Speaker, of expressing the appreciation of the House of the care which you, and the Members of this House who served on your Conference, gave to the review.

"The Final Report of your Conference contains seventy-one conclusions, of which the Government accept sixty. Of the remainder, four of the conclusions on which the Government differ relate to major issues. First your Conference recommended by a majority that the minimum age for voting should be reduced to twenty. On the other hand the Government have already announced their acceptance of the recommendation of the Latey Committee that the age of majority should in future be 18 and the Government accordingly recommend in the White Paper that the minimum age for voting should also be reduced to eighteen years.

"Secondly, your Conference recommended by a majority that public opinion polls and betting odds should be prohibited for seventy-two hours before the poll: the Government are not convinced that this is practicable.

"Thirdly, while your Conference recommended no change in polling hours at Parliamentary elections the Government consider that the present hours of 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. should be extended so as to end at 10 p.m.

"The fourth major recommendation from which the Government differ is that Party labels should not be allowed on nomination and ballot papers; the Government's view is that these should be allowed if the necessary administrative machinery can be worked out; and I proposed to consult the Parties on this matter.

"The White Paper also contains the recommendations of the Electoral Advisory Conference which was convened at the same time as the Speaker's Conference to consider detailed questions on election procedure. The Government have examined these recommendations and the White Paper explains that we accept all but three of them.

"My right honourable friend the Leader of the House has asked me to say that it is his intention to make arrangements for a debate on these matters when the House resumes after the Recess. The Government would then consider the views expressed during the debate with a view to the introduction of legislation next Session."


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, for having repeated that Statement in your Lordships' House, more particularly as none of your Lordships is entitled to cast a vote at the elections whose arrangements we are discussing. I should like to ask the noble Lord two questions. First, what are the precedents for a Government departing from the recommendations of an all-Party Speaker's Conference on election matters, except on the ground that a recommendation is not practicable? Secondly, is it the intention of the Government to bring in, at the same time as the conclusions which the noble Lord has just announced, the recasting of boundary constituencies in accordance with the recommendations—or at any rate based on the recommendations—of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission, which have to be completed by 1969?


My Lords, may I join in thanking the noble Lord for repeating this Statement. Clearly, careful thought will have to be given to the White Paper, and it is not possible to comment in detail on it at the moment. If I may say so, I think that the decision to reduce the voting age to 18 is right, particularly having regard to the time-lag for many between attaining voting age and actually having the opportunity of voting. Following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, may I ask when the Government intend to introduce legislation to give effect to this reduction of the voting age to 18? Further, if Party labels are to be used on nomination papers and voting papers, how will the authorities deal with a case where there are several claimants to the same Party label? Will this involve the introduction of "primaries", as in the United States?


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, asked what are the precedents for a Government's departing from the recommendations of a Speaker's Conference other than if they were impracticable. I am afraid that I cannot answer that point precisely, so far as precedents are concerned, except that it is always the responsibility of the Government of the day to decide and to make their own decision in matters involving legislation.

Secondly, the noble Lord asked whether it was the intention to bring in at the same time the recommendations of the Boundary Commission; and this brings in the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Wade. My Lords, it is the Government's intention to bring in a Bill next Session with regard to the implementation of changes in the voting age, and it is hoped that the Register of Electors which will embody the changes and include any new age groups will be published in February, 1970. The Boundary Commission are obliged to report by next year. It is not yet possible to say when the recommendations, which will have to be considered by Parliament, will be brought before Parliament for approval.

On the point about several claimants to one political Party, I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Wade, is concerned about his own Party, but I do not think there is any very general concern about this matter. It is one of the details which has to be worked out in a matter which is not always easy.


My Lords, we all recognise that there is a responsibility on the Government of the day to make up their minds. But does the noble Lord accept that in a matter of this kind, where it is a question of altering the rules of the game, there is a very special responsibility on the Government to take account of what has been arrived at through all-Party machinery?


Yes, my Lords, but the Boundary Commission are due to report in the Autumn of 1969, which is still some way hence. The Government see no reason at the present time to take a decision about the work of the Commission in advance of receiving their Report.


My Lords, in my supplementary question I was not referring to the Boundary Commission.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether a Party label is going to be compulsory? Will it actually be a criminal offence to be an independent?


My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord is quite safe. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, for not replying to his supplementary question. I must have misheard him. Perhaps he would repeat it.


My Lords, I said that everybody accepts that the Government have a responsibility to make up their minds on this and all other matters. But I asked: does the noble Lord accept that the Government are in a special position in a matter like this which is concerned with the arrangements for a General Election and where any change in the arrangements is equivalent to altering the rules of the game? When the rules of the game are altered it is important that all the participants should assent to those changes; and in this case we have the guidance of an all-Party Conference.


My Lords, I am quite sure that the Government have this very well in mind. I do not accept that there is any charge in the rules of the game, other than the decision by the Government, the responsible decision, to submit to Parliament a proposal that the voting age should be 18.