HL Deb 06 May 1975 vol 360 cc294-8

7.44 p.m.

Lord HUGHES rose to move, That the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 1975, laid before the House on 16th April, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, these Regulations consolidate, with minor amendments, the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 1969, as amended by the Regulations of 1973 and 1974. They do not reflect any fundamental departure from the regulations they replace, their main purpose being to deal with the arrangements for preparing the electoral register and the procedures for absent voting. Most of the amendments are necessary to take account of changes arising from the reorganisation of local government in Scotland, which comes into operation on 16th May 1975. The amendments necessary on this account, while largely changes of nomenclature, are, however, so numerous that it is clearly desirable, in the interests of those who have to use the regulations, to make a fresh consolidation rather than attempt to amend the existing ones. The opportunity has been taken to include a few minor improvements in the light of experience both in Scotland and in England and Wales.

Regulation 9 no longer requires the copies of the registers supplied to polling stations to be marked with the letter "P" against the name of an elector who may vote by proxy. Such an elector is already distinguished on a separate list. This is welcomed by electoral registration officers. Regulation 21 now allows every serving member of a local authority to receive a free copy of the register for the electoral area which he or she represents. Regulation 28(2)(b)(ii) and Form Q, which deal with an application for a postal vote owing to physical incapacity, have been amended to provide that only a registered medical practitioner may sign the certificate in the form. The amendment has been made in deference to the General Medical Council, who take the view that no person other than one who is medically qualified should sign a medical certificate. This, however, is not a change of substance in the arrangements for postal voting. The form now includes, as well as a certificate, a declaration which may be signed by anyone else. Note 2 to the form explains that the application will be accepted if the declaration is signed by a Christian Science practitioner and may be accepted if signed by anyone else. The regulations, if approved, will come into operation on 16th May next, when the local government reorganisation in Scotland takes effect.

Moved, That the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 1975, laid before the House on 16th April, be approved.—(Lord Hughes.)


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, for explaining the changes which these Regulations introduce at the time of the new system of local government in Scotland entering into effect, and for doing it with clarity. There are two general points which I wish to raise. The first causes more irritation than anything else in the arrangements when elections come; that is, the question of postal votes for people on holiday. This is a matter which was raised yesterday in connection with the referendum, and I say straight away that I am not at all concerned with the arguments on the Referendum Bill. But from Scotland's point of view, this is the moment when I should draw attention to the fact that it is about 10 years since the Speaker's Conference made a recommendation on this subject, and since then I believe feeling has grown much stronger about it. So if the noble Lord can tell us anything about the future on this, or what the Government have in mind, that would be helpful. I know that there are objections—the additional clerical work, increased opportunities for fraud and so on—but in the age of the computer and sophisticated office machinery, with the knowledge that there is a very good spot-check system and very adequate penalties, it should become possible in future to deal with this matter without saying that there are obstacles of that kind in the way.

Secondly, there is the question of Service voters. Yesterday I heard the Minister of State, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, say something which indicated that the Government were not satisfied because only about 30 per cent. of Service voters were voting in Elections. I was glad to hear that, because my impression is that there are difficulties arising from Servicemen and their families being moved around both within Britain and abroad. The forms did not seem to catch up with them, and many months passed before they became enrolled. I would ask whether the noble Lord could say anything this evening to add to what his noble friend Lord Harris indicated yesterday. I am sure there is a general feeling that if something could be done to speed up the system of Service votes it would be appreciated by many Servicemen and their families.


My Lords, as the noble Lord will appreciate, if there had not been a reorganisation of local government there would not have been a need for amended regulations. This is very largely a simple changing of names, so neither of the points which the noble Lord has taken the opportunity of raising arise from the regulations. I can particularly appreciate what he has said about the difficulty of the form catching up with the Service voters because, though the noble Lord himself took steps some hours ago to acquaint me with the fact that he was going to raise these points, owing to the difficulty of communication I received his notes only about three minutes before we started to discuss these Orders.

I have noted what the noble Lord said about the remarks of my noble friend Lord Harris in relation to Service voters in yesterday's discussion. I have no doubt that this is a matter which will be considered by the Home Secretary. I will certainly take the opportunity of drawing the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to both the points which the noble Lord has raised, and perhaps if there is any prospect of anything being done about the recalling of the Speaker's Conference on these matters it will be possible to let the noble Lord know in writing.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he has said. Although I tried to send him a message, I certainly did not expect him to come with all the answers on these points. However, by these Orders we are passing regulations, even though they are not much altered or, in many cases, are the same, on all these subjects. There are whole sections on Service voters and postal ballot papers. Therefore, we could not really let this Order pass without making some inquiry on subjects which are the ones which arise in the public mind when these matters are being dealt with.


My Lords, I was not complaining about the fact that the noble Lord had taken the opportunity to raise these matters. I am quite certain that if I had held his views about holiday voters and had been in his position I would have taken the same opportunity. All I was suggesting was that, as we were not looking, in these regulations, at the principles involved, but were merely applying the existing procedure to the new authorities, the giving of postal votes to holidaymakers and the question of Service voters did not directly arise. However, I agree that the noble Lord has quite properly raised the matter and I shall certainly make sure that my right honourable friend is made aware of these points. As I say, if I can do anything by writing to the noble Lord in due course, I shall do so.

On Question, Motion agreed to.