HL Deb 11 February 1969 vol 299 cc342-71

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House do again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Stonham.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The Lord Jessel in the Chair.]

Schedule 1 [Miscellaneous amendments of parliamentary and local elections rules]:

LORD BROOKE OF CUMNOR moved Amendment No. 25: Page 22, line 5, leave out paragraph 2.

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 25. Before I expound this Amendment perhaps I may be permitted to say to the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, that there was no need for him to apologise to the non-Scottish members who listened to the preceding debate. I, for one, regard it as one of the fascinating privileges of membership of your Lordships' House that one has the opportunity of studying further the Scottish way of life.


If the noble Lord would forgive me, I would say that I am most grateful to him for his having said that, because I am aware of the fact that we are not continuing with Scottish business at this point because on Thursday he referred to the fact that there is a good deal of miscellaneous business of less importance than this Bill. I was grateful to my noble friend Lord Beswick when he said he would have hesitated to describe Scottish business as "miscellaneous". I am glad the noble Lord has found it worth listening to.


I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, will continue to listen to the business on which we are now embarking, for he should be aware, as a member of the Government, that the Representation of the People Bill applies to Scotland as well as to England and Wales.

After that prelude, I am moving here to delete from the Bill the provision that would alter the closing hour of the poll at Parliamentary elections throughout Britain from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Let me say straight away that this is clearly a matter on which those in another place should have the final word; it is for them, I am sure, ultimately to decide how they should proceed to Parliamentary elections. For that reason if my Amendment to-day is carried and if in another place it is not accepted I would not dream of advising your Lordships to stand firm on it. But in view of the almost complete lack of support for this proposal among the electors, and the total lack of enthusiasm for it anywhere, it seems to me an outstandingly clear case for the Second Chamber to act in such a way as to afford time and opportunity for further consideration of the matter. That is my sole purpose in moving this Amendment to-day.

Let me first of all state the case against myself, because I have read the Home Secretary's words on this in another place carefully. We should all, I think, agree that the election arrangements should be such as to give, in his words, "the longest possible reasonable time" for the electors to cast their votes. He was repeatedly asked for the reasons why the Government had proposed this change in the voting hours, when there seemed to be no evidence of any representations to this effect or pressure in this direction from any quarter. What the Home Secretary said, when a similar Amendment was being discussed in Committee in another place was this: It was the Government's collective view, having discussed and considered the evidence, that there was a case for extending the time to 10 o'clock."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons. 11/12/68, col. 524.] Well, my Lords, it is not surprising, after that statement by the Home Secretary, that he was then pressed vigorously to state what the evidence was, as this evidence had not come to light, either in the preliminary debate on the White Paper which was held in another place in October, or in the Second Reading debate on the Bill. Finally, being challenged, the Home Secretary intervened thus: When a challenge such as this is issued it is easy for an hon. Gentleman to go on and say,'As the Minister did not rise, clearly he had no evidence'. So I intervene. The evidence is that people have been shut out of the poll at 9 p.m."—[Col. 529.] That is the principal evidence on which in another place the Home Secretary and the Government relied for this change. He did, in the course of his remarks, add one other argument. He said: Working hours may be shorter than they used to be … but there is much more travelling than there used to be. Although no one can prove that any particular hours are right, there is a case for extending the time to 10 o'clock."—[Col. 525.] Those were the arguments on which the Government relied in another place.

None of us, I think, would challenge the statement that there is a case for extending voting hours; but there is also, as I shall show, a case against it, and ultimately we all have to use our own judgment as to where the balance of rightness lies. In reaching such a judgment, clearly one of the factors one has to consider is how many additional electors would in fact cast their votes. Nobody is going to dispute that if voting hours are extended by 60 minutes some electors will during this extra 60 minutes cast their votes. The first question at issue is whether these will be people who could not have cast their votes within the original hours, which now, as your Lordships will recollect, are 14.

The poll at Parliamentary elections is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. But I submit that, whatever addition one made to polling hours, there would always be some people who would come along in the extra time. The argument on which the Government have relied could equally well be used to justify a closing hour of 11 p.m., or midnight; or even for keeping the poll open for the full 24 hours, so as to give everybody the finest possible chance. But I think all of us realise that extreme solutions like that would not be sensible, and therefore what we have to judge is whether an extension such as this one hour proposed by the Government is so sensible that it overcomes the disadvantages entailed.

Having repeated the case for this change as stated by the Home Secretary in another place, I come to the case against it. First and foremost, there is not the slightest sign that it is wanted by anybody outside Parliament. There have been no representations on the matter; no evidence has been put in to any quarter or any body that this change would be desirable. In a democracy I should have thought that that was quite a considerable argument.

Secondly, there is no disputing the fact that it would cast extra strain on staff during what is already a day of considerable strain. As I have explained, polling time now occupies 14 hours. The staff have to be at the polling station before 7 a.m. to get everything ready, and in general it is not possible for returning officers to arrange relays: the same staff have to be on duty throughout the whole of those 14 hours. What Parliament is now proposing is that they should be on duty not for 14-plus hours, but for 15-plus hours. It is going to be more remunerative for them, but it will impose upon them an exceptionally long day. In many cases, though not all, these are the same people who go on to the town hall or the council offices to take part in the count, so that their day under the present system is already much more than 14 hours; and unquestionably, we should by this proposal be adding another hour to that day.

What I am now going to say I do not stress particularly, but it is a consideration. Polling day is a day when it is extremely important that no mistakes should be made. Everybody becomes more tired as the hours of duty get longer, and I cannot help thinking that to impose this long day on the key staff throughout the country will increase the number of mistakes.

Of course, it is not only the staff who are affected; the political workers, too, are concerned. A good many of us have at one time or other taken part in Parliamentary elections, not only as voters. I myself fought eight Parliamentary elections, and I am sure that some of your Lordships have longer and better records than that. But even if we have not been in the thick of it ourselves, we know well the splendid people supporting the different Parties who carry the weight of the day. The weight of that day does not fall on the candidates. The nervous strain may be grave for them, but the task of getting people to the poll, and of ensuring that everything that needs to be done on polling day is done, falls on the devoted Party workers.

I do not know what my political opponents would say, but my experience was that those who were working for me were dead tired at the end of the day. Under the Bill's proposal we are going to make that worse; we are going to give them an extra hour. I accept at once that if, in the name of democracy, this extension will secure a substantial additional poll, then the extra tiredness and the extra strain must be borne. But if in fact the additional votes are going to be only a trickle, if the increase in the percentage voting is going to be only marginal, then I am bound to ask whether it is right to impose that serious extra burden both on the official staffs and on the political workers.

I have never rested my argument in this matter on the cost, but it is, I think, relevant to consider what the extra cost would be. I asked the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, whether he could help us on this point. He gave us as detailed a reply as he was able to without notice. It may be to-day that he can give us further information, but on the Second Reading of the Bill he explained that the cost of the 1966 General Election was £630,000. And if payments to presiding officers and polling clerks at polling stations had to be made for 15 hours instead of 14 hours, on the simplest mathematical calculation that would be an increase of one-fourteenth, and one-fourteenth of the sum that I have mentioned is £45,000. But he frankly added these words: The returning officers have, however, expressed doubt whether such an increase would be sufficient, but it is something of that order."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23/1/69, col. 1089.] I would certainly judge that more than a mere mathematical increase would be required to secure the staffs to carry on this additional work. That is not the only additional cost. Later in his speech the noble Lord said (col. 1089): … it will be necessary to alter 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. on about 100 million poll cards for Parliamentary elections, and it will be necessary to pay for a considerable amount of extra clerical time, but we cannot at the moment estimate what it will be. Well, there is something extra. To my simple mind, the thought of altering 100 million cards for any purpose is somewhat frightening, but I know that it can be done, provided, on the facts, that it is really worth while spending the manpower and the mechanical power required to do it. All I am concerned to show here is that there is an element of extra cost involved.

May I say, in passing, that if one really wants to improve the percentage voting at Parliamentary elections I am convinced that what requires highest priority is further attention to the accuracy of the register. I made that point on Second Reading. Best of all, of course, would be to have two registers a year, as I believe all the Parliamentary Parties would like. That, of course, involves considerable additional cost. But, again, what I want to show is that if it is desired to secure a perceptible increase in the percentage voting at Parliamentary elections, this proposal here is not the only way to do it.

At this point in my speech I feel sure that your Lordships will also have perceived that the count, which to many people is the most exciting part of polling day, will throughout the country be delayed by one hour. That does not matter at all to the result of the election and it is important that one should get the right people and the right Government elected. But I think all of us would be rather naïve if we imagined that the British public, as a whole, would welcome a delay of an hour in the count and a delay of an hour in the declaration. Following results on radio and television has become quite a feature of British life: staying up late on polling day to hear the results. Well, one will have to stay up an hour later. I suspect, too, that one will not hear so many results, because I should imagine that a number of constituencies which are now just managing to count on the same night would decide, if they cannot get started until an hour later, that they will put off counting the votes until the next day.

I have no doubt that it is on considerations like these that the all-Party Speaker's Conference, which considered this, among other matters of election law, before the present Bill was introduced, unanimously declared against any change in polling hours. The evidence submitted to a Speaker's Conference and the reasons for their conclusions are not published and we have no means of probing them, but one cannot help supposing that the considerations which secured a unanimous decision by the Speaker's Conference were broadly the considerations and the arguments that I have mentioned to your Lordships this afternoon.

Quite distinct from the Speaker's Conference I understand that the Home Secretary arranged for the local authority associations to be consulted on a more limited proposal; that is, a proposal to extend polling hours not by 60 minutes but by 30 minutes, from 9 to 9.30 p.m.—not so far-reaching a proposal, and with the arguments against it proportionately less strong than those I have set out this afternoon. The local authority associations, I understand, unanimously advised the Home Secretary not to go forward with the proposal to extend the poll from 9 to 9.30 p.m.


May I interrupt the noble Lord? The Home Secretary did not consult the local authority associations; indeed, the noble Lord must be aware that the local authority associations have no direct interest in the matter. My right honourable friend did, however, consult returning officers on the Home Secretary's Electoral Advisory Conference.


I am grateful to the noble Lord for having corrected me, and having stated exactly what happened. I think I have to-day repeated in Committee just what I said on the Second Reading debate; and as the noble Lord did not correct me then I supposed that what I was saying was correct. What the Home Secretary did, I quite appreciate now, was to consult returning officers, whose views are likely to be typical of the views of local government officials, and as being typical they are the people who are consulted on that electoral conference. I do not think that the noble Lord will correct me when I say that they advised the Home Secretary against adopting the suggestion on which they had been consulted.

I am not surprised about that from any point of view, because I have no doubt that those returning officers also perceived another point which I have not yet mentioned; that is, that it is going to cause great inconvenience to electors, and annoyance to the general public, if we have a different closing hour for Parliamentary elections from the hour we have for local government elections. Suppose that a General Election takes place in March or April one year and the Bill goes through unamended, anybody can vote at the Parliamentary election up until 10 p.m. In the second week of May numbers of the same people come along to cast their votes at the municipal elections; they find that if they are after 9 o'clock they cannot get in. They say, "Why didn't anybody tell us?", and the only answer is because Parliament in its wisdom, or unwisdom, has decided that the rules should be different and more restricted for local government elections than for Parliamentary elections. I believe that, in practice, this is going to prove one of the strongest arguments against this change. I think there will be a very powerful revulsion of feeling against the idea of having different closing hours for the two sets of elections.

The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, said—and I think said quite truthfully—in his speech on Second Reading: … this is a question of judgment and not of statistics, and we feel that the interests of the electors should prevail."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23/1 /69, col. 1088.] I too feel that the interests of the electors should prevail; and for the reasons I have given I am virtually certain that the interests of the electors, if we could consult them by referendum, would be powerfully in favour of keeping the closing hour for Parliamentary elections at 9 o'clock, and keeping the same closing hour for Parliamentary and local government elections.

However strong the case, one might wonder whether it was proper to discuss this matter again in your Lordships' House if, in another place, views had been decisive in favour of a change. They were not. The Home Secretary, speaking on Second Reading of this Bill, said: I cannot claim that our decision to extend the hours of poll at parliamentary, although not local government, elections, met with universal enthusiasm in the debate on the White Paper in October."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 18/11/68, col. 927.] If any of your Lordships care to read the debate on the White Paper they will find that that is an understatement. The matter was then considered in detail in Committee in another place—in Committee of the Whole House, not in Standing Committee—and seven speeches were made, one by the Home Secretary and six by other Members. All six other honourable and right honourable Members spoke against this proposal. All six. It was a case of all-Party unanimity among the speakers. There were three Conservatives, two Labour Back-Benchers, and one Liberal, all solid against this proposal.

In these circumstances which I have described, I submit to your Lordships that it is not unreasonable for your Lordships' House so to act that there may be time and opportunity for further consideration of the matter. I beg to move the Amendment.

4.58 p.m.


I hope that the Government will reject this Amendment. Although, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, has put forward his arguments most skilfully, I thought, if I may say so, that he made rather light of the convenience of the public, which was the main reason given in the Government White Paper Cmnd. 3717. I should have thought that that was paramount. Also, the noble Lord said that the Home Secretary had brought forward no evidence that there was support for this change among the public. On the other hand, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, himself brought forward no evidence that there was lack of support for it amongst the electors.

To the people who live at home and factory people who work in the locality, it probably will not make very much difference; but nowadays, particularly with office workers, municipal workers, and shop workers who very often travel tremendous distances, I think this extra hour will be of great importance to them. It will be of particular importance to those who travel into the bigger cities and have to go back again at night. I know from my own experience and that of business friends and colleagues that it is always necessary to let the people who work in offices go home much earlier on the day of the election. No employer grudges this at all, but I should have thought that there was a tremendous wastage of man hours through this very natural and public-spirited gesture. The extra hour will give people the opportunity to get home, particularly if there are train delays, and so on, so that they will not lose their vote.

There is another matter to which the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, did not refer. He mentioned the fears of the returning officers, and gave as one of the reasons against the change the fact that in some cases the poll count might have to take place the next day. But the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, did not mention the question of modern voting techniques. In the Second Reading debate in the other place on November 18, the Home Secretary mentioned the matter of voting machines; he also confirmed that the Government have put in hand a feasibility study on the use of new techniques for voting and vote counting and that the report is expected in about the middle of this year. If we could bring in some of these modern techniques, such as those used in the United States in the Presidential election, surely it would make the whole machinery of vote counting far easier and much quicker and would do away with the natural but fundamental objection mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. Therefore, I should be interested to know from my noble friend Lord Stonham whether the Government know any more than was said by the Home Secretary about when the study is expected. Quite apart from that matter, I feel that the extra hour will be a considerable boon to the working and voting public, and for that reason I oppose the Amendment.


The noble Lord is really making a plea for the convenience of people who leave home before 7 o'clock in the morning and return home after 9 o'clock at night. Could he say how many people are in that category?


I am afraid I probably did not make myself clear. I was not making a plea for those people. I was making a plea for people who do not necessarily leave home before 7 o'clock, but may leave home later; people who do not work in factories from, say, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but who work in offices from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 6.30 and who then have to get from the big city where they work to their home far away. Some people, for example, have to travel from London to the South Coast, and it is those people I have in mind. So far as numbers are concerned, I am afraid that I have absolutely no idea.


I should like to support my noble friend in this Amendment. I have had an opportunity of ascertaining the views of some of those who are responsible for the conduct of elections. They bear out very strongly the view put by my noble friend, that there is no public demand for the extension of polling hours and that those who will be responsible for the conduct of the elections are, not unnaturally, strongly against it. The views also bear out strikingly the point made by my noble friend that in the last hour of polling the degree of error is much greater than it is in the earlier hours. My inquiries have confirmed that view, and I believe that there will be a very much greater degree of error in the conduct of an election if the polling hours are extended to 10 o'clock than is the case at present.

I should like to say a few words about the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi. I cannot think that there are a great many people who do not return home in sufficient time to cast their votes before 9 o'clock. It is true that in London people travel quite long distances, but I should be very surprised if there were many persons (this perhaps excludes persons in exceptional employment) who find it difficult to get to the poll before it closes at 9 o'clock. I speak from some experience of the London suburbs. I am quite sure that there is no public demand for this change, and I hope your Lordships will accept my noble friend's Amendment.


I should like to ask the Minister a question before he replies. I cannot quite make up my own mind about the politics of this matter in relation to the closing of the pubs. at 10 o'clock. Clearly, the object of the Bill is to increase the proportion of electors who do vote. If one has to vote by 9 o'clock, one can vote and then go to the pub. and have a drink—and we know that a great many people do so on election night. But suppose there is this extension to 10 o'clock, and the voter goes to the pub. and forgets to come out in time to vote—for what reason I do not know. I think it is quite possible that this would be a non-productive change in the law, and that the result would be that quite a large number of men voters, at any rate, who would have voted if the closing time had been an hour before the pubs. shut would be absent. I think that would be a pity.


I have not had quite such extensive experience as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, in that I have fought only five elections and not eight, as he has, but I have done a lot of doorstep work. I have had all sorts of excuses given to me when I have been canvassing or knocking up people to come and vote: "I am coming out when I have got my boots on"; or "I will come when I have had my supper"; or "I will come when I have got somebody to look after the baby." But I have never heard the excuse given, "I can't come out until the pubs. shut", which was suggested by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, and I do not think that what he put up will be a serious disability. In fact, had it been regarded as a serious disability, I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, would have thought of it and mentioned it, for he seemed to think of everything else. On the point of the shutting of the pubs., we are suggesting that the poll should close at 10 o'clock. The pubs. do not shut until 10.30. Therefore, it can scarcely affect the matter, since they will still have plenty of time. I do not think that it will be a serious difficulty, quite apart from the fact that it is highly probable there will be an extension of licensing hours on election night to cope with problems of this kind.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, quite rightly said—and I agree—that this was a matter on which those in another place should have the final word. Therefore, I am the more surprised that early in his speech, before he had heard the arguments, he declared his intention to press the matter to a Division in your Lordships' Committee. He had studied only the arguments of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, fairly and properly told us about the speeches made in another place and said that six people in support of the Amendment spoke against the extra hour and only the Home Secretary spoke in favour of it. But what Lord Brooke did not tell us was that, at the end of the day, 110 people voted for the Amendment and 171 voted against it. I think that 171 to 110 is a pretty good majority, both relatively and quantitatively. What is quite remarkable to me is that on a subject about which official Conservatives apparently felt so strongly and so hotly, only 110 could be mustered to vote for it—less than half the possible number.

Before the Representation of the People Act 1948 the hours of poll at Parliamentary elections were from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., with an option for the candidates to apply for an hour's extension at either end. The present statutory hours of 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. were substituted by the Representation of the People Act 1948. This change implemented the recommendation of the 1944 Speaker's Conference. I mention this as a fairly recent indication—it is only twenty years ago—that polling hours are not immutable, and when there is a review of electoral law it is reasonable to take a further fresh look at polling hours, which is precisely what we did.

I submit that it would be difficult to produce indisputable evidence that any particular length of polling hours was the right one. Increasing the total number of hours by one hour, from 14 to 15, unquestionably gives rise to administrative difficulties. I recognise and acknowledge that. But we must have a sense of proportion about this. It will mean adding one more hour to 14—an increase in time of about 7 per cent. It does not seem to me that it is going to lead to anything like the extraordinary consequences which the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, envisages. While I acknowledge these extra administrative difficulties, they have to be balanced against other considerations.

Of course it is right to consider the interests of the election officials, of the candidates and of their agents; and I join with the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, in his tribute to the probity, the quality, the courtesy and the devotion of election officers which I have never known to fail at any time. It is quite right that we should acknowledge this. But, even so, the election is not for the election officers. The election is for the electors and it is their interests which are paramount; it is their election. But you would not imagine, from the speeches we have heard from the other side of the Committee, that the electors have got very much to do with it at all. We have heard about everything else except the electors, apart from the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said, rather rashly I thought, that there was a complete lack of support among the electors. He was careful not to indicate his evidence for that complete lack of support. He did not read any letters of protest about the possibility of an extra hour and I certainly have not heard any protests about it.


Is not the onus of proof on the Government to show the evidence in favour of this change, rather than for the noble Lord merely to decry our apparent lack of evidence against the change?


The noble Lord's experience in this place is not very long. Is he suggesting that on a matter of this kind the Government should conduct a referendum among the electorate, when we believe from considerable experience that an extra hour would be a considerable convenience—I do not want to overdo it—to electors?

Parliamentary elections occur on the average about every four years, and we just cannot accept that all that is necessary is for the poll to be open only for the minimum number of hours necessary. The emphasis must surely be on giving the longest possible reasonable hours, as my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said. From the point of view of the public, it surely cannot be said that 10 o'clock is a late hour at which to be about; and though working hours may be shorter there is much more travelling than there used to be. My noble friend Lord Strabolgi made the point that it is quite impossible to say how many people are affected. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Byers, accepts that. One could not say how many. But there are many people affected, and from the noble Lord's own election experience in the West Country he must be aware of people who could not get back in time to vote. If he is not aware of them, I am.

5.16 p.m.


What we are arguing about is that, from the point of view of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, people require something like an extra three and a half hours after 6 o'clock to get to the polls. I think that merely by adding on this extra hour people who now vote before 9 o'clock are going to vote between 9 and 10.


It may be that some will avail themselves of the opportunity to vote between 9 and 10 but that is not an argument in favour of this Amendment. It is an argument in favour—


But it means that the declaration of the poll is that much later, and everything is moved on. People get more tired and so on.


I shall come to the declaration of the poll point in a moment. I am dealing at present with electors. Although I cannot give the noble Lord any statistics—no one can—of how many more people would be able to vote in a General Election than are able to vote now, I say (and the noble Lord cannot refute it) that there are people who will be able to vote with an extra hour who would not otherwise be able to vote.

I remember an election at which I was a candidate in a country constituency, very much like the one which the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, used to represent, where we had a 93 per cent. poll on a wet February day. It was an extraordinary poll, but still there were some people within my own knowledge who did not vote, and who would have been able to vote had the poll been open an hour longer. For example, there were the railwaymen on the old Great Western, as it used to be. Some of them told me afterwards how deeply they regretted the fact that they had not been able to record their votes in a close election. I can assure the noble Lord that there are people who are affected.

The Government accept that in many areas where at present the count takes place on the evening of the day of the poll, it would have to be postponed until the following day. But I really cannot see that that matters. My own first three elections were fought in a rural division which counted and declared the next day. No one thought it strange, no one complained. In a great many constituencies now, particular country constituencies, the count already takes place on the day after the poll; and if satisfactory arrangements in divisions covering perhaps hundreds of square miles and with 80 to 100 polling stations can be made now, as indeed they are, for the count taking place the following day—which involves custody of the ballot papers overnight—there is no reason to expect any greater difficulty in other areas where, generally speaking, the distances are much less.

A great deal has been said about fatigue of the assistants to the returning officer, and about the fact that it is tiring day. It is a matter great responsibility. It is 14 hours now, and we are proposing to make it 15 hours. But the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, was talking about fatigue in the count after the poll, and he said that this extra hour could well mean that more mistakes would be made. I think there will be less fatigue, because if the returning officer decides to have the count next day then, of course, the counting can be be done under much better conditions with much less fatigue and with less likelihood of mistakes. That argument therefore turns round the other way. Many of the returning officer's assistants who will be assisting at the count will have been at a polling station all day, and I think it is far better in such circumstances that the count should be next day.

I do not believe that there will be any difficulty. These are some of the matters which the returning officers discussed when my right honourable friend the Home Secretary consulted them. I do not think there will be any real difficulty in mustering sufficient counting agents to oversee the count on the candidates' behalf. In my previous experience, there has never been any difficulty in getting counting agents. The difficulties were that you had to disappoint people and upset good supporters who thought they ought to be in at the count but to whom you had to say, "No" because you were allowed to have only a limited number.


May I ask the noble Lord one question? He referred to the returning officers having discussed these matters. As a result of that, were the returning officers in favour of these new hours?


No. I did not know the noble Viscount was not in the Chamber when this point was raised. It was the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, who raised this point. He said it was the local authority associations, but I put that point right. It was the electoral officers whom we consulted on the point about closing at 9.30, which was a tentative proposal at the time. They were indeed against it, and advanced quite a number of arguments against it which of course we have considered, to some of which I am now referring.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, quoted from my Second Reading speech about the extra cost. Obviously, we cannot say exactly how much more it is going to cost because we do not know how many constituencies which at present return on the day of the poll are going to return the next day. Also, we do not quite know about the printing costs. One estimate which I gave, which I said was not complete, was an extra £45,000. Although we do not want to have unnecessary cost, if the extra cost was £100,000 that, among 30 million people voting, would mean an extra cost of one-twelfth of a penny per vote. In the Government's view, if this enables more people to record their vote and one can have a truer election, then that cost of one-twelfth of a penny per elector is well justified and worth it.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, also suggested that confusion would arise in persons recording a vote because the hour of closing at local government elections has to remain at 9 o'clock, and some people who had voted at 10 o'clock in a Parliamentary election might turn up after 9 o'clock at a local government election and could then be told only that Parliament in its wisdom (or its unwisdom, as he put it) had decided that there should be different times. Parliament, in its wisdom or unwisdom, decvided that a long time ago because now, to-day, there are plenty of local government elections which close at 8 o'clock, whereas others close at 9 o'clock. There is no fixed time, in fact. So the confusion exists now. We are not adding to it—and that was, as I say, Parliament's wisdom some time ago. But there is no fixed rule for a time of closing for all elections.

Now it is true that some mixed urban and rural constituencies which have hitherto managed by dint of great effort to get the result out by midnight or soon after may have to decide to wait until the next day. In fact, I think that quite a number will. I do not think this would be a bad thing. I do not know whether your Lordships feel that the kind of stuff we have seen turned out on television hour after hour into the next morning, the next day, the next afternoon, is an edifying kind of spectacle. I should think that, this way, there may be much less frenzied excitement. Everybody will be able to go to bed, including the T.V. commentators, if many counts are taken the next day. But what I do say, whatever the T.V. and radio commentators may think about it, is that an hour extra will be much more convenient to the electors, and the Government think that in elections it is the electors' interest which should be paramount.

My noble friend Lord Strabolgi asked me about the feasibility study which is being conducted. We expect to receive the results of that study by the middle of this year. I cannot of course say in advance whether this is going to affect the issue or not. I should not think that, in a major sense, it would at present, although we may—indeed, I hope we shall—find some things that will be helpful. But even if one assumes that nothing of a mechanical kind is found as an aid which could be put into operation before the next Election, I ask your Lordships to accept it from me that this decision was taken by the Government wholly in the electors' interests; and it is in the name of the electors that, if this matter is pressed to a Division, I ask your Lordships to reject this Amendment.

5.27 p.m.


I think this particular matter is a good deal more difficult than may be seen at first sight. I have a certain sympathy with the Government on this matter because, having had experience not only in a young person's group within a political Party in a marginal seat in London but also of canvassing in two or three rural areas, I can see the force in the Government's argument that in rural areas, where there may be a shortage of polling stations, there may be a case for extending voting hours. I think it is possible to make a little too much of the voting convenience of the public, although I would immediately accept that the public's case must come first. But I have also had experience as a scrutineer in two elections in London, and that gives one sight of the enormous strain which is imposed on those counting the votes, not to mention the scrutineers themselves, who are all volunteers and who have probably done a day's work before they come to carry out their tasks. So we are up against this dilemma.

I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, seemed to imply: that more constituencies should have their counts the day after the poll. I do not know very much about electoral law, and I do not know how feasible it is to bring, I will not say pressure, but persuasion, on those concerned to see that this takes place. The sight of people milling around the town hall after the count may be edifying to those of us who are interested in the political fight, but to a great many people it gives some vestige of mob rule, particularly when scenes of a somewhat disorderly nature occur. So I should like the Government to consider—not necessarily now but when the next occasion arises—whether, to resolve this problem, we should have a kind of two-tier system whereby, in the very rural constituencies, where there may be a need to extend polling hours, this is done, and in other cases to prevail upon constituency officials to have the count the day after the poll.


On the second of the noble Lord's two points, I may say that this is entirely a matter for the decision of the local returning officer. No legislation is needed. Of course, no persuasion ought to be applied. But it is entirely in relation to circumstances that the returning officer should decide whether to have the count on the same day of the poll or on the next day.


I am grateful to the noble Lord for his statement. I wonder whether a recommendation could be made at the next Speaker's Conference that this discretion should be more widely applied.


I am puzzled by the last speech to which we have listened, and especi0ally by the mention of the Speaker's Conference; because, whatever else the Government's action does, it seems to throw considerable contempt on the conclusion of the Speaker's Conference. I cannot make out which of the considerations the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, put forward he imagines had been missed by the Members of all the Parties who sat in the Speaker's Conference and unanimously decided against the course that the Government are now proposing. Neither could I understand what my noble friend meant by people coming round to the town hall to hear the result and thus indulging in mob rule. If coming round to the town hall could influence the result in any way, I could at least understand his argument. But it is too late to influence the result. They have come to hear it.

It seems to me that, whatever else may be the consequences of the proposal—and I agree with what everybody has said: that, of course, the decision in this matter must be for the House of Commons—the only question is: should not the House of Commons have the chance to consider again whether their own representatives on the Speaker's Conference may not have been right? I am a little interested—as the Government in their more sober moments may be interested—in what may be the effect on work the following day if all the results are to come out in the middle of the next day and if people wish to come round to the town halls to hear the results. Would it not become a general public holiday? Would it not be an enormous interference with the work done in industry on the following day? I should have thought that that was at least a possibility.

My last reason for doubting the wisdom of what the Government propose is that the declaration of the polls on the final night of the General Election is one of the comparatively few occasions in the Election which the public rather enjoy. I think that we should be rather killjoys if we were to make it quite impossible for the B.B.C. and the I.T.V. to have their fun, with all these funny people working with computers, and so on. The public rather enjoy it. There may be reasons which the Government have not given to explain why they have come to their decision; but their decision does involve thinking that the Speaker's Conference was unanimously wrong. I should also have thought that it is doubtful whether it is in the public interest to have the next day made into what would almost amount to a public holiday.

5.35 p.m.


I thought that the main case that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, made for supporting this Amendment and for taking it to a Division—as I imagine he intends—was to give the other House an opportunity of thinking again. Well, that is a laudable thing in certain circumstances; but I hardly think it laudable in this case. After all, they must have thought very seriously about this to disagree with the unanimous decision of the Speaker's Conference. I cannot think they did that lightly. It is a weighty decision. To disregard it as they did must have been done after a great deal of consideration. It seems to me that if that is the main reason for our deciding to accept this Amendment it is hardly likely to meet with success. I had hoped that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, would have been satisfied with his great success on an earlier Amendment and would have put all his money on the chance of the other House thinking again on that. On that I had hoped that he would have a better chance; but in this case I do not think he stands very much chance.

I am sure that he thought that that was his main argument, because I did not think much of the rest of the case that he made: for instance, the cost. The cost is really trifling in comparison with the cost of the Election. I do not think that we ought to weigh a matter of £20,000, £30,000 or £40,000 against the opportunity, the increased opportunity, which it might give to people to exercise their vote. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said that there was no demand for this and that there was no case made for the extension, and that probably all that it would do would be to encourage people to go to the poll an hour later than they would otherwise feel able to go. May I give a personal experience of what is involved? I was not a Parliamentary candidate eight times; I think in my case it was four. But on each occasion I have personally seen people locked out of the polling stations at 9 o'clock. I know that people have tendency to go at the very latest moment. Nothing will eradicate that; but they went at the last moment up to 9 o'clock. I have seen considerable numbers of people—at times very considerable numbers—locked out of polling stations and unable to vote.

It might be said that this may happen if the closing time were extended to 10 o'clock; but I doubt that. I do not know at what time the public houses close; but people probably like to get their vote in before closing time elsewhere. Nor do I think it is a disadvantage that, by and large, the count will take place on the next day. In a considerable number of constituencies it already takes place the next day. Even in London, in some constituencies it takes place on the same day and in others on the day after. I should have thought that there would be some advantage in uniformity and in receiving declarations on one day.

The noble Lord said that it would become a public holiday, that the public would congregate outside the town halls to await the results. In so far as the count takes place the following day in a number of constituencies in London, that is already the case. I cannot think that it would make a great deal of difference or that such a large number would be so concerned about the results as to sacrifice a day's work. I think the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, is making heavy weather about this. I think it would be a great mistake to divide the Committee, and I hope that my speech will give him the opportunity of thinking again.


I should like to make one comment, because it has been said that there was no evidence that people would welcome this extension of time. I have not been able to make a survey of the attitude of trade union members on this matter, but I certainly think I can speak for them and can tell the Committee what I believe they would say. As is known, I represent agricultural workers. I am quite sure that agricultural workers, who often have to work, say on milking and other jobs on the farm, for long after normal hours, would say that this was an advantage, and an improvement for them which they would certainly welcome.

I think the same thing applies to workers in industry. I know many of them, and I know that when they have done a day's work they want to go home first. Many of them want to change out of their working clothes. It may be argued that it is not necessary; that they could go straight to the poll; but they like to go home, wash and change and have a meal, and after that they will go to the polling booth. So I think that, without offence and without prejudice, I can tell the Committee that the work-people of this country in industry, and certainly in agriculture, welcome the Government proposal.

5.41 p.m.


I should like to add a reminiscence which very much supports what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has said about people being prevented from voting by getting to the polling booth too late. The one occasion when I was a candidate was in the 1945 election which your Lordships will remember was held in the summer months when haymaking was going on. What has been said about agricultural labourers was very true on that occasion. They were working, and some in my constituency failed to get to the polling station in time for that very reason. Other voters on that occasion were either working outside the constituency or were away on holiday. I lost that election by 15 votes, and I calculate that there were at least double that number of voters who failed to get to the polling station by 9 o'clock. If this 10 o'clock business had been operating—


May I slightly correct my noble friend? I was referring to people who were actually queueing up to get inside the polling station, but when 9 o'clock came they were not allowed to go in and vote.


The people to whom I was referring actually got there a few minutes after 9 o'clock.


The noble Lord, Lord Collison, has sincerely put forward one of the first pieces of hard information that we have had on this question. I have no doubt that there are various categories of people who would like longer polling hours. Having listened to his speech, however, it seems to me strange that the agricultural workers whom he particularly had in mind are exactly those people who live in areas of the country where they do not seem to make any representation for the poll to be open longer at local government elections. It is my experience that in the country areas no advantage is taken of the opportunity to get the polling period lengthened to 9 p.m. in local government elections; whereas generally it is in the hard-fought urban areas where the poll at local government elections is almost invariably ended at 9 o'clock. That is my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, who sought to argue that there would be no confusion. I think it is in those places where there has been positive evidence in years past of people wishing to vote right up to 9 o'clock that the local government polls are always extended to 9 o'clock.


Will the noble Lord pardon me? I do not like interrupting, but he said there is no evidence that country people seek an extension of hours. Since the war I have been responsible for five or six elections throughout the County of Essex and we invariably found that the people in the country constituencies were eager to have the permissible hour's extension.


I am very glad to hear that, because it has always seemed strange to me that it in so many parts of the country there is no move to have longer hours. I never suggested that it was universal throughout the countryside.

I am extremely grateful to my noble friends who have supported this Amendment by their speeches, and to the noble Lord, Lord Byers, for his intervention. I feel that I must press the Amendment because there is here a genuine case for asking that further thought should be given to the matter. The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, drew attention to the fact that a similar Amendment was lost in Committee in another place. I did not think it necessary to mention that, because had that Amendment been carried there would have been no need for me to move this Amendment here. The fact is that it must have been a somewhat uncomfortable Amendment for the Government, because they could not find a single Back Bencher to support them, and a very senior member of the Labour Party indicated that he must abstain because he thought that this plan would be advantageous to nobody.

The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, accused me, charged me, reprimanded me, for having made light of the convenience of the public and for having failed to adduce any evidence that there was lack of support from the public. I hope that when he reads my speech he will see that I certainly did not make light of the convenience of the public. I was seeking to set out the arguments in full force on either side, but I think that the onus of proof in this case is on those who desire a change. I was a Member of another place for 22 years and I cannot remember having received a single letter in that period from any of my 70,000 constituents urging that the polling hours should be extended; that was a constituency where normally there was a heavy poll between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. I understand that in general in London constituencies the time of the heavy poll is edging forward somewhat and it is now more often between 7.30 p.m. and 3.30 p.m. than between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. But I cannot help thinking that if the 25 or 30 members of the Speaker's Conference, all elected Members of another place, had had strong indications from those whom they were elected to represent that a longer polling day was desired, they would have put that forward in the Speaker's Conference; and at any rate some of them would have come down in favour of a longer polling day. Those are the people who should be in closest contact with the electors and I think it significant that not one of those members of the Speaker's Conference came out in favour of the Government's proposal. No, this is something which the Government have thought up and have taken through Committee in another place with the Whips on.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, on having produced one more argument for the Government plan than was mentioned in another place. I indicated that the arguments there adduced by the Home Secretary were very few in number. To-day the noble Lord told us that it would be a good thing if more of the counts were postponed until the next day, because then they would be done more accurately. I am very doubtful that his statement about its being a good thing for the counts to be postponed to

the next day is in accord with public opinion, but he will no doubt have an opportunity—


Will the noble Lord allow me to interrupt him? He made a great point that the extra hours would make people very fatigued and that then they would have to go to the count and mistakes would be made. I said that if they did the count next day they would not be so fatigued and there would not be so many mistakes.


I think that is quite possible, but I do not think it is a conclusive reason for this change. I am certain that if they were consulted, a large majority of the people of this country would say that they would like the count to continue to be on the same day as it now is, on the evening of polling day. I leave it at that. The Government were able to produce hardly any speaking support in another place for their scheme. I think that is sufficient reason why we should ask them to think again.

5.50 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Amendment (No. 25) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 72; Not-Contents, 69.

Ailwyn, L. Emmet of Amberley, Bs. Merrivale, L.
Airedale, L. Ferrers, E. Mersey, V.
Albemarle, E. Ferrier, L. Milverton, L.
Audley, Bs. Fisher, L. Monsell, V.
Balerno, L. Fortescue, E. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Goschen, V. [Teller.] Napier and Ettrick, L.
Blackford, L. Gridley, L. Nugent of Guildford, L.
Brooke of Cumnor, L. Grimston of Westbury, L. Rankeillour, L.
Brooke of Ystradfellte, Bs. Henley, L. Ridley, V.
Burton, L. Hertford, M. St. Aldwyn, E.
Byers, L. Howard of Glossop, L. St. Helens, L.
Colville of Culross, V. Hylton-Foster, Bs. St. Oswald, L.
Conesford, L. Ilford, L. Sandford, L.
Cork and Orrery, E. Inglewood, L. Sempill, Ly.
Craigmyle, L. Jellicoe, E. Somers, L.
Cromartie, E. Kilmany, L. Stradbroke, E.
Daventry, V. Lambert, V. Strathcarron, L.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Lansdowne, M. Swansea, L.
Derwent, L. Lauderdale, E. Teviot, L.
Dilhorne, V. Lucas of Chilworth, L. Trefgarne, L.
Drumalbyn, L. Mancroft, L. Tweedsmuir, L.
Ebbisham, L. Mansfield, E. Vivian, L.
Eccles, V. Margadale, L. Wakefield of Kendal, L.
Elgin and Kincardine, E. Massereene and Ferrard, V. Wolverton, L.
Addison, V. Bowles, L. Chalfont, L.
Archibald, L. Brockway, L. Champion, L.
Beswick, L. Buckinghamshire, E. Chorley, L.
Blyton, L. Carron, L. Collison, L.
Crook, L. Lindgren, L. Serota, Bs. [Teller.]
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. Listowel, E. Shackleton, L. (L. Privy Seal)
Douglass of Cleveland, L. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, Bs. Shepherd, L.
Energlyn, L. McLeavy, L. Silkin, L.
Faringdon, L. Maelor, L. Snow, L.
Gardiner, L. (L. Chancellor.) Mais, L. Sorensen, L.
Garnsworthy, L. Milner of Leeds, L. Stocks, Bs.
Geddes of Epsom, L. Morris of Grasmere, L. Stonham, L.
Granville of Eye, L. Morris of Kenwood, L. Stow Hill, L.
Hankey, L. Morrison, L. Strabolgi, L.
Headfort, M. Moyle, L. Swanborough, Bs.
Heycock, L. Noel-Buxton, L. Taylor of Gryfe, L.
Hill of Wivenhoe, L. Phillips, Bs. [Teller.] Taylor of Mansfield, L.
Hilton of Upton, L. Popplewell, L. Tayside, L.
Hughes, L. Raglan, L. Willis, L.
Hunt, L. Rennell, L. Winterbottom, L.
Kennet, L. Rusholme, L. Wootton of Abinger, Bs.
Kilbracken, L. St. Davids, V. Wright of Ashton under Lyne, L.
Latham, L. Segal, L.
Leatherland, L.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Resolved in the affirmative, and Amendment agreed to accordingly.

Schedule 1, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 2 [Consequential and supplementary amendments of Representation of the People Act 1949]:


Amendment No. 26 is consequential on Amendment No. 6 to Clause 8, dealing with candidates' expenses when a poll is countermanded or abandoned by reason of the death of a candidate. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 30, line 37, at end insert (",and after section 64(4) there shall be inserted as a new subsection (4A) a subsection in terms of section 8(1A) of this Act.").—(Lord Stonham.)


This Amendment, No. 27, is consequential on Amendments Nos. 17 to 20. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 31, leave out lines 9 to 11 and insert ("any bank holiday under the Bank Holidays Act 1871 (in England and Wales, in Scotland or in Northern Ireland, as the case may be) which is not included in the Christmas break or the Easter break and the period beginning with the last weekday before that bank holiday and ending with the next weekday which is not a bank holiday under that Act: Provided that SO much of this subsection as includes in bank holiday break a period before and after a bank holiday shall not apply in Scotland or Northern Ireland to a bank holiday which is not also a bank holiday in England and Wales, except in Scotland New Year's Day.").—(Lord Stonham.)

LORD STONHAM moved Amendment No. 29: Page 34, line 24, after ("Schedule 2") insert ("and rule 41(4) of the local election rules in Schedule 3").

The noble Lord said: Paragraph 31 of Schedule 2 to the Bill provides for the omission from Parliamentary Elections Rule 48(4) and Local Elections Rule 43(5) in Schedule 2 to the Representation of the People Act 1949 of the concluding words which enable a counting agent to copy the statement of rejected ballot papers. It is no longer necessary to give this right to counting agents because paragraph 13(4) of Schedule 1 to the Bill provides for such a statement to be published along with the result of an election. The purpose of the Amendment is to provide for the omission of similar words at the end of Scottish Local Elections Rule 41(4) in Schedule 3 to the Representation of the People Act 1949. Provision for a statement of rejected ballot papers to be published along with the result of a local government election in Scotland is made by paragraph 13(5) of Schedule 1 to the Bill. I beg to move.

Schedule 2, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 3 [Repeals]:


With your Lordships' permission, I should like to move this Amendment No. 31, and Amendments Nos. 32, 33, 34 and 35 together. All these Amendments remove the following words from the particular sections of the Representation of the People Act 1949: The reference in this subsection to rules of court shall not include a reference to rules made before the passing of the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883. There are no longer any such rules as are excluded by the subsection. Similar words to those quoted above also appear in Section 145(4) and 152(6), of the Representation of the People Act 1949. Amendments to remove the words from those sections were made on Report stage in the other place. The present Amendments complete the exercise of removing these unnecessary provisions from the Representation of the People Act 1949. I beg to move.

Amendments moved—

Page 36, line 42, column 3, at end insert ("Section 66(6) from the words 'The reference' onwards").

Page 36, line 45, column 3, at end insert ("Section 74(9) from the words 'The reference' onwards").

Page 36, line 46, column 3, at end insert ("Section 91(6) from the words The reference' onwards").

Page 36, line 47, column 3, at end insert ("Section 109(8) from the words 'The reference' onwards").

Page 36, line 49, column 3, at end insert ("Section 128(6) from the words The reference' onwards").—(Lord Stanham.)

Schedule 3, as amended, agreed to.

Remaining Schedule agreed to.

House resumed:

Bill reported with the Amendments.