HL Deb 23 January 1969 vol 298 cc1030-40

3.16 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. This is a notable occasion, because Representation of the People Bills are few and far between. It is more than twenty years since Parliament considered the last major one. Indeed for your Lordships' House the occasion is historic. In introducing the Representation of the People Bill 1948, the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, my noble friend's father, said on July 5 that year (Hansard, col. 288): It may well be that your Lordships feel that this is a Bill which is mainly concerned with another place At the same time it is an important constitutional matter of which this House properly takes cognisance. The present Bill is also an important constitutional matter of which this House properly takes cognisance. But it is more than that. For the first time it is a matter of direct personal concern to each one of us—or will be if Clause 16 of the Parliament (No. 2) Bill becomes law, so that Peers and Lords Spiritual will be able to vote at Elections to the House of Commons; and if Clause 17 of that same Bill becomes law it will enable some of those who are now Members of this House to stand for election to another place. We are therefore engaged on very much more than an academic exercise.

This Bill is the fruit of the review of electoral law which has been carried on by the Government for more than three years. The main features of that review have been the deliberations of the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law, which was originally set up nearly four years ago and whose Final Report was presented to the Prime Minister in February, 1968; the deliberations of the Electoral Advisory Conference which the Home Secretary convened in 1965; consideration given to points of local government electoral law by the conferences convened early in 1968 by the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland; and finally, as the Home Secretary said in another place, "six months and many meetings" devoted by my right honourable friend and his colleagues to the whole matter. At the end of this process the Government's conclusions on their review of the law relating to Parliamentary elections were published in a White Paper in July, 1968, and debated in another place on October 14.

The White Paper shows that the Government have accepted sixty out of the seventy-one recommendations made by the Speaker's Conference, and forty-two out of the forty-five recommendations made by the Electoral Advisory Conference. It has been suggested that the Government should have accepted without question all the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference—otherwise there was no point in setting it up. We have taken a different view of our responsibilities. Having received the advice of the Speaker's Conference, to the careful and devoted work of which it is not possible to pay too high a tribute, and of the Electoral Advisory Conference, the Government think they would have been failing in their duty if they had not applied their own minds to the subject; and this they did at length and with care.

In the White Paper we set out fully the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference and of the Electoral Advisory Conference which we do not feel able to accept. Four related to major issues: the minimum age for voting; public opinion polls and betting odds; polling hours; and Party labels on nomination and ballot papers. With most of these I shall be dealing more fully later, but I would touch briefly now on one recommendation which is not embodied in the Bill; namely, public opinion polls and betting odds. Whether the publication of public opinion polls influences uncertain electors to jump on the "bandwagon' is debatable. Our main objection to a ban related to a fixed period before polling day is that it could easily be evaded, and it is a sound maxim that a provision which could not be enforced should not be passed into law. As for betting—whether or not one disapproves of it in general or in the context of Parliamentary Elections—the plain fact is that prohibition of the publication of odds would not stop betting on elections. Of the seven other recommendations of the Speaker's Conference which the Government could not accept, I think I need only refer your Lordships to pages 4 and 5 of the White Paper where our reasons are clearly set out.

Perhaps I should say a word about the form of the Bill. The fact that it is not quite so easy to follow as one would wish arises from the nature of the case. The review made it clear that fundamentally electoral law, as we have known it for the last twenty-odd years, is sound and still working well. Accordingly, the Bill proceeds in the main by building on the existing law. Alterations or extensions of the law effected by the Bill are to be found both in its clauses and in its Schedules, particularly in Schedule 1. In the main the clauses are aimed at amending sections of the relevant existing law: but they also amend those Parliamentary and Local Government Elections Rules which are set out in Schedules 2 and 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1949; and Schedule 1 to the Bill now before us. That is concerned solely with amendments of those Rules. Schedule 2 to the Bill comprises detailed consequential and supplementary amendments of the Representation of the People Act 1949, both sections and Schedules.

My Lords, I turn now to the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 deals with the voting age. One feature of the clause will. I am sure, be generally welcomed. This is that as soon as a person reaches voting age—whatever that age may be—he will be able to vote; and the registration procedure will be adapted accordingly. We thus get rid of the arrangement by which only some young voters—the "Y" voters—coming of age during the currency of an electoral register could vote, and then only during the second half of the register's life. This made sense at the time it was introduced, but is now not generally understood, and has become increasingly a source of irritation and frustration.

As for the voting age itself, 21 under the present law, I think we are all agreed that some reduction is justified. The Speaker's Conference recommended the age of 20, and as the Government see it, the choice lies between that and the age of 18, which was the age of majority recommended by the Latey Committee for purposes other than civic and which the Government accepted in the Family Law Reform Bill. This is very much a matter of judgment and opinion, but the Government came down in favour of 18, and this is the age which—although not without dissentient voices—was accepted in another place. Our view was based partly on the argument of consistency—that, although the Latey Committee left the matter open, there is virtue in fixing the same age for civic purposes as for private.

What weighed far more with the Government was the real change in social climate that has taken place over the last twenty years. Physical maturity now comes earlier than it did, but—more important—social and moral maturity is assumed, and conceded at an earlier age. Improved education, and the impact of mass media, particularly television, means that everyone is better informed than ever before on public and social issues. Information arouses interest, and interest arouses a desire to have a voice in the way things are run. We already have evidence of this in the frustration I mentioned over the "Y" voter arrangements. There is much more evidence in the shape of demonstrations and so-called "student unrest", which the Government regard as symptoms— not always desirable in the particular form they take—of a healthy state of affairs. Our young people are no longer children, and they resent being treated as such. Our view is that, if we entrust them with responsibility, they will act responsibly. With all respect to the Speaker's Conference and those who share its view, we think that to fix the voting age at any point between 18 and 21 would be a half-measure, which would be neither understood nor appreciated, and which, for that matter, would be not allowed to stand for long. The changes in the franchise effected by Clause 1 are applied, with slight modifications, to ward elections in the City of London by Clause 23.

Clauses 2 to 6, give effect to various recommendations made in the course of the review on such matters as periodic registration of service voters, extension of the service voter arrangements to British Council staff, disfranchisement of offenders in prison, facilities for wives or husbands of absent voters who accompany their spouses also to vote by post or proxy, and various minor easements in the absent voting arrangements. Clause 6 contains a provision which was not in the Bill as first introduced in another place. By it postal voting facilities— though for a particular election only—will be available to those who are prevented from voting in person on grounds of religious observance.

Clause 7 gives effect to a recommendation made by the Speaker's Conference with a view to ensuring the accuracy of the electoral register, and enables the electoral registration officer to correct clerical or printing errors—but not to make alterations which could have been the subject of a claim or objection while the electors' lists are on public display.

Some of these errors would bear less hardly if we had two electoral registers a year instead of one. The register would also be more up-to-date in the second half of the registration year. The Speaker's Conference, however, recommended against a second annual register and the Government agreed primarily on grounds of economy: because the cost of producing one register a year is about £3 million. My right honourable friend considered the matter further in the light of representations made in another place but confirmed the earlier decision. We have therefore not taken the necessary financial or statutory power in the Bill because the prospect of our being able to afford two registers a year is remote. Moreover, the electoral register achieves, as at the qualifying date, a very high degree of accuracy which has been maintained over the years, despite increasing difficulties experienced by electoral registration officers arising both from the greater mobility of the population and from problems of staff. Clause 8 increases the maximum permitted election expenses, and the sum allowed per elector is stated in terms which will be immediately convertible into decimal currency.

Clause 9, dealing with broadcasting, is very important. Subsection (1) is in tended to give effect to the recommendation of the Speaker's Conference as slightly modified by the Government's conclusions. The intention is that during an election it will now be lawful for candidates to appear in a broadcast item if all of them agree to its taking place, even though one or more of them does not actually take part. We had hoped that the subsection was sufficiently tightly drafted to meet the views of the broadcasting authorities on the way in which they would wish to be free to report and comment on the progress of an election campaign. We have already met them to some extent by dropping from the clause a provision which would have penalised individuals serving the broadcasting authorities for failure to be impartial between candidates in election broadcasts, but there are other points on which we are still examining their suggestion. One thing is clear: Party politican broadcasts, even at election time, would be lawful, must be lawful, as they are now. No one, I think, will quarrel with the provisions of subsection (3) of Clause 9, which removes broadcasting from the field of election expenses; or of subsection (4), which extends to local government elections the ban in the existing law on attempts to influence elections in the United Kingdom by means of broadcasts from abroad.

Clause 10 repeals an out-of-date provision which prohibited election expenses on account of bands of music, torches, flags and banners. It is generally agreed that this can now be dropped, the matter being adequately covered by the limit on candidates' election expenses. Clause 11 makes some useful easements in the law relating to election agents and polling agents and, in particular, the place where an election agent's office may be situated.

Clause 12 is another major feature of the Bill. It makes it lawful for the description of a candidate which appears on the nomination paper, and so on the ballot paper, to include a reference to the candidate's political activities. Such a reference, with the agreement of the main political Parties, has been prohibited for the last twenty years or so and there are respectable arguments for maintaining the prohibition. On the other hand, the Government think—and this is another instance of their taking account of changes in social and political opinion—that the Party system is now so much a part of political life, even in local government, that it is the citizen's constitutional right to know what Party or cause is represented by those offering themselves for his choice. Quite apart from this, there is the fact that at local government elections where there are several places to be filled for a single electoral area, the number of candidates appearing on the ballot paper may be anything from a dozen to twenty or more, making the elector's task at best difficult and at worst almost impossible. It is for such reasons that the Government did not accept the recommendation of the Speaker's Conference that the present prohibition of Party labels should be maintained.

Your Lordships may be aware that the Bill, as first introduced in another place, contained in Clause 12, as it then was, a system under which Party labels could have been used only if they had first been duly registered. Consideration of this scheme in another place showed that its complexity made it undesirable, even for Parliamentary elections, and for local government elections, where the need for Party labels on ballot papers is greatest it would be almost impossible. Accordingly, Clause 12, as it now appears, substitutes a very simple scheme, which has been described as a "free for all", whereby, subject to a statutory limit as to the number of words, the candidate may, if he wishes, include a reference to his political activities in the description on his nomination paper, which will then appear on the ballot paper. There are, it is true, possibilities of abuse and of awkward cases arising where two candidates lay claim to the same Party label. On the whole, however, the Government are prepared to trust the good sense of the majority of those taking part in political life, and think that the simplicity of the scheme now put forward, together with its applicability to local government elections, will be found to outweigh possible disadvantages.

Clause 13 deals with the awkward situation when a candidate dies after polling has begun. Broadly, the proposal is that the poll shall be abandoned. At a Parliamentary election the proceedings will be commenced afresh 28 days later. At a local government election, it will be for the returning officer to fix the date for the fresh election in due course. In either event, no fresh nomination will be needed for the surviving candidates. At the resumed election the surviving candidates may be at some disadvantage in the mater of election expenses as compared with any new candidate or candidates, who, as it were, will be starting with a clean slate. We are considering whether some provision should not be made for such cases, on the lines of an Amendment suggested in another place. Clause 14 gives power to repeal in Schedule 1 to the Bill certain provisions in the Parliamentary and Local Government Elections Rules which are no longer needed and to amend others to bring them into line with the present Bill.

In Clause 15 the Government have introduced provisions relating to local government elections which were not put to the Speaker's Conference or to the Electoral Advisory Conference, because both those bodies were limited to Parliamentary elections, and which were not put to the Conferences on Local Government Elections Law because of their fundamental constitutional character. The Home Departments wrote to the local authority associations concerned inviting their comments. Their views—uniformly hostile in England and Wales, much less so in Scotland—were noted by my colleagues. I have spoken about this with precision because the Government have been charged with failure to consult on an important matter. This is not true. It is true that the exchanges were limited to correspondence and that no discussions, in the sense of a meeting round a table, took place; but as I have said, the matter was discussed and no meeting was asked for. The clause does away with two features of local government elections law which have survived from the days when the franchise, Parliamentary and local, was based on property. The first of these is the non-resident franchise, under which occupation of property in one area gives a vote in that area, over and above the vote the elector may have in the area he resides in: it also gives him the right to stand for the local authority in whose area the property is. The other is the right to stand as candidate conferred by the simple ownership of land or premises.

The Government's proposals in this clause have encountered much opposition, not only from the local authority associations in England and Wales, but from many other quarters, chiefly, though not entirely, from the Party opposite. Their representatives in another place moved several Amendments aimed at nullifying or mitigating the reform embodied in the clause. Among the Amendments was one which would have extended the grounds for candidature, by making it open—as recommended by the Maud Committee on the Management of Local Government—to people whose principal place of work is within the area of the local authority. But none of these Amendments succeeded, and the clause comes before your Lordships in the form in which it was introduced in another place.

Some of the opposition to the clause may have been politically motivated. Much of it, however, was prompted by genuine concern for the quality of local government, which, it has been argued, will lose by the displacement of many keen and able councillors. On this particular point the Government take a more optimistic view. Be that as it may, the fact is that the Government are acting on the principle that residence, not property, should be the sole and sufficient qualification for voting in local government elections, as it has been since 1948 for Parliamentary elections. Personally, I think our case is unanswerable in equity. As for candidature, the parallel still holds good. For Parliament, the field is the United Kingdom. For a local authority, the field is the whole of that authority's area, not merely the ward or electoral division in which the candidate resides.

By Clause 27, the non-resident franchise will cease with effect from the 1970 register, and it is the Government's intention to provide that the property qualification for candidature shall go at the same time. But, under Clause 15, councillors then in office will be able to serve out their time, even though elected on the strength of qualifications to be abolished by the clause.

I should add that, by Clause 23(4), this change will not apply to the City of London. The City, with its small resident population and great local government responsibilities, the Government recognise to be a quite special and exceptional case. The remaining clauses of the Bill are concerned mainly with points of machinery, useful, but not controversial, adjustments and easements.

Of the Schedules, I need only refer to the provision, in paragraph 2 of Schedule 2, extending the hours of poll at Parliamentary elections. Under the existing law the closing hour is 9 p.m. Under the Bill it is 10 p.m. This provision has had a bad reception, not least from the representatives of returning officers, to whom it was first put by letter, and subsequently discussed at a meeting at the Home Office. The difficulties they foresee have been freely acknowledged by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in another place, as also the prospect that in many more constituencies than at present the count will have to be postponed to the following day. But, as the Government indicated in the White Paper, in thus going contrary to a recommendation of the Speaker's Conference, and the strongly held and urged views of returning officers and others, the Government think the extension is in the interests of the people, and that it is their interests that must prevail.

My Lords, the Representation of the People Bill which I have the honour to introduce to the House is, as you will have gathered, the outcome of a long and careful review of electoral law to which valued contributions have been made from many quarters. The result is, if I may say so, a nice blend of radical reform and conservative adjustment—I use the word "conservative", of course, in no political sense: there is indeed much non-Party matter in this extremely useful, sensible and radical Bill. Nevertheless, it will, I am confident, benefit from scrutiny in later stages in this House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª. —(Lord Stonham.)