HL Deb 03 April 1979 vol 399 cc1848-67

Standing Order No.43 having been suspended pursuant to Resolution of 2nd April:

5.25 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill before your Lordships' House is a simple but necessary measure of legislation. Its purpose is to facilitate polling on 3rd May when, as your Lordships know, we are to have a Parliamentary General Election on the same day as district council elections are due in England outside Greater London and in Wales. The Bill does not extend to Scotland or to Northern Ireland, as there are no local government elections there on 3rd May.

I submit that the Bill makes no substantial constitutional or even legislative innovation. The simple purpose of the Bill is to make the essential practical and administrative changes in the legislation and rules governing parliamentary and local elections, so that the two sets of elections can proceed together. There is, of course, a tradition in this country, albeit on a smaller scale than the situation we are in at the moment, of holding parish and district council elections on the same day; and people are familiar with that process.

I would stress, however, that it is not the intention that this Bill should establish a framework for the holding of combined elections to different legislatures. It is drafted specifically to meet the circumstances of 3rd May. This measure is designed as a bridging operation between the rules governing parliamentary and district council elections, making provision where absolutely necessary to ensure their smooth running. It is not the Government's intention that this Bill should make any radical innovations; nor should it touch rules and regulations which do not need to be harmonised. Wherever possible, the normal rules—and I would stress this point—will apply and the elections will proceed in accordance with the usual practices with which people are familiar.

I should now like to turn to the detailed provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 provides that in the situation we are now in—a Parliamentary General Election on 3rd May—the rules regarding the conduct of district council elections and the conduct of parliamentary elections will be modified, subject to the Schedule to the Bill. I am prepared to turn in detail to the Schedule to the Bill if your Lordships wish that to be done, but I rather sense that at this particular juncture, apart from mentioning one or two specific points, your Lordships would not wish me to go through that Schedule in great detail, especially as the main details were spelt out in the course of a Statement I made to your Lordships last Thursday, when the announcement of this forthcoming Bill was made. I trust that would meet with the approval of the House.

Clause 2 provides that the parish council elections, or community council elections as they are known in Wales, should be postponed for three weeks until 24th May. I should say that the Government deeply regret the necessity for this postponement. We fully recognise the importance of parish and community councils elections at the grass roots of democracy, but it quickly became clear to us as we made the contingency preparations for this Bill that attempting to hold parish and community council elections as well as parliamentary and district council elections on 3rd May presented insuperable obstacles both for the electorate and for the counting process.

As your Lordships will know, some districts may have as many as 60 or 70 parish councils, each with 10 or 12 vacancies and each unwarded, so that the elector would be asked to select 10 or 12 names from a ballot paper which contained perhaps 30 or 40 names. Obviously that would significantly delay the process of voting and could, in our view, cause great confusion. However, the Government are aware of the strong feeling in parishes and communities that all the preparatory work for the election should not be nugatory. We therefore accepted in another place an Amendment from the Opposition Back-Benches which has the effect of permitting persons who will be validly nominated by the time this Bill receives Royal Assent, if it does so, to remain so nominated even though the new closing date for nominations will be some weeks hence. This will save time and expenditure for both parish councillors and their officials; and your Lordships will have seen that this particular Amendment now forms Clause 2(3) of the Bill before your Lordships' House. We have also made provision in this Bill for all the extra costs incurred in postponing the elections to be borne by central Government from the Consolidated Fund. This, it seems to Her Majesty's Government, is clearly reasonable and necessary.

As I said earlier, I was not proposing to go through all the paragraphs of the Schedule individually in detail, for the reasons I mentioned before, and I trust that that will meet with the wishes of your Lordships. Perhaps I might now, however, go through them very rapidly and deal with two particular matters which your Lordships may feel are of particular importance. Paragraph 1 deals with the same polling stations being used; paragraph 2 with polling hours; and paragraph 3 with new notices of guidance to electors. Paragraph 4 concerns polling agents to some extent, and paragraphs 5 and 6 deal with postal voting at the dual elections. Paragraphs 7 and 8 deal with the question of ballot papers, and here I pause because this may be where your Lordships will wish to have a little more detail. The question of ballot papers is an important question. I hope that noble Lords will permit the latitude of some visual aids at this point. I have specimens of the ballot papers which will be used at the Parliamentary and district council elections.

The Parliamentary paper which I am holding up—I hope that it is not too distant from your Lordships—will be fairly familiar in form. It contains the names of four supposed candidates for the parliamentary election. But right at the top it has in black the words "Parliamentary election", and underneath that "You may vote for not more than one candidate", the "one" again being emphasised. Apart from those notices at the top, this will be very familiar and it is in the usual colour. So that that is fully conventional and on white paper. In Wales, the two headings that I read out to your Lordships will also be in Welsh.

The district council paper will be in what is called buff grey. Your Lordships will probably be able to see that it is very distinguishable indeed from the customary parliamentary election white paper. Again, that has two headings. There are five supposed candidates on this sample and at the top, above the names, there are two headings "District council election" in heavy type, and underneath that, in slightly lighter type, "You may vote for not more than two candidates", the "two" again being in heavy type. So that your Lordships may feel there is a clear distinction between those two ballot papers.

So far as the district council paper is concerned, the colour has been chosen by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, following extensive discussions with political parties, the paper manufacturers and the printers. We had to take into account such factors as colours which illustrate political allegiance—so that it was not possible for certain colours to be considered—and the difficulty for a small number of the electorate in distinguishing between colours. We are confident that we have arrived at a readily distinguishable paper. Moreover, the district council paper will have three black lines around it, as a safeguard for the elector and, of equal importance, for the counting assistants as well. I have dealt with that matter in some detail.

So far as the remainder of the Schedule is concerned—and if your Lordships wished me to go into this in more detail, I should of course be fully prepared to do so—perhaps I may mention in passing, for the moment, that paragraph 9 deals with ballot boxes. This is one of the matters that I touched upon in the Statement to your Lordships last Thursday. Paragraphs 10 and 11 deal with arrangements which apply at the close of polling, and during the counting of the votes. I fully recognise that this Bill makes certain changes to a procedure of election which is firmly established and indeed, I think, admired. But the Government have made the minimum changes necessary to meet these unusual circumstances, and I believe that the procedures which we shall have on 3rd May, if this Bill is passed, are worthy of our fullest confidence. I therefore commend the Bill to your Lordships' House. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Boston of Faversham.)

5.34 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord for explaining the purpose and, indeed, some of the details of this measure. It is, of course, happy for us that elections to another place are strictly a matter not for this House, and I think it ill becomes this House to attempt to interfere in any way with matters concerning another House, even if we are perhaps, at the present time, labouring under the feeling that the same respect has not been paid by another House to some of the procedures which we value in this House. However, we are big-hearted people in this House; we do not like to be too touchy about these matters, and we shall no doubt continue to pass these Bills with the indecent haste which is being demanded of us.

I must express regret—it was expressed in another place by people of my party—that the Government have chosen this procedure for running the election which has made this Bill necessary, whereby two kinds of elections are being held on the same day. The more one considers the matter, the more one regrets what I can only describe as the Government's obduracy in not being prepared to postpone the local elections. It is true to say that certain non-party organisations, such as the Association of District Councils, have expressed concern at the practical implications of what is being done. The noble Lord gave us samples of the two ballot papers which, regrettably, only came to hand halfway through the proceedings in another place, which created an element of confusion.

If I may, I should like to raise two small points of detail here. I should have thought that the numbers at the top of these forms, saying how many votes you are allowed to cast, might have been in rather larger type. It seems to me that they should be in lettering of the same size as the lettering across the head of the voting form, because we have to bear in mind that this will be a confusing matter. There is a rather more serious problem, which was also mentioned in another place. My honourable friend David Howell referred to the question of having to unwrap all these voting forms, which might impose delays on the count. He had the decency to admit that he had a slight personal interest, in that his constituency is normally the one which first declares itself, and perhaps it will be ousted from first place as a result of this. But it is a serious point if each of these forms has to be unwrapped.

The fact is, as the noble Lord pointed out, that there are two forms and it seems to me exceedingly likely that when a voter has cast his vote he will put the parliamentary form inside the local form and drop them both into the ballot box. There is a distinct possibility that—dare I say it?—the parliamentary form, which is of not less importance than the local form, will be inside the grey one. It suggests a real danger that we might find that some of the parliamentary forms will be lost in the counting process, though I do not doubt that in due course they will be checked if a recount is necessary. It was suggested by my honourable friend that it might be wise if the polling booths contained an instruction to people, asking them, if possible, to put their ballot forms in without nesting them one within the other. It is a small, but nevertheless important, administrative point.

A more difficult question, which I have already mentioned to the noble Lord, is the point which was raised by my honourable friend Geoffrey Finsberg, which also attracted the support from the Government side of Mr. Ogden. So I think there was a measure of all-party agreement about this. Unfortunately, Mr. Finsberg's Amendment was not allowed, on the grounds that it was outside the scope of the Bill, but I have reason to believe that had the Amendment been allowed the Government might well have been disposed to accept it. This refers to the anomaly of the different polling times which occurs in the cases where there are borough by-elections and county council by-elections. Curiously, it appears that, whereas the polling for parliamentary and local elections runs from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., by-elections operate only from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Again, this is something on which the local authority representatives have expressed misgivings.

One can visualise what will happen. A voter will go in at a quarter to eight in the morning and say, "I am going to vote for my local Parliamentary candidate and for my local authority candidates, and while I am here I might as well cast my vote for the by-election". He will then be told, "We are terribly sorry, but we can't allow you to do that for another 15 minutes, because this is not one of the hours permitted for that vote". When this ridiculous situation occurs, the voter is not going to be very pleased with the polling officer. The voter will be even less pleased if he goes in at 9.15 in the evening to cast various votes and they say, "We are terribly sorry, but that particular voting closed 15 minutes ago". It is manifestly a ridiculous situation.

My impression is that in another place this unhappy situation was to some extent recognised by the Minister, since he gave us some rather modified hope that he might be able to attend to this matter when he said: We have given very serious consideration to the hours of the poll and have consulted the draftsmen. It is outside the scope of the Bill, and at this stage we are unable to give a promise that it can be put right. However, I will continue to give it some thought, without making any commitment whatever, to see whether it can be changed, even now".—[Official Report, Commons; 2/4/79; cols. 1024 and 1025.] That is what the Minister said, and this is why I think it is proper for us to raise the point again in this House—even now, as the Minister said.

I fear that the noble Lord the Minister will take refuge behind the not unfamiliar device of saying that it is administratively impossible to do anything about it. I have to tell him that Oppositions and Back-Benchers have heard that story before and that they are not inclined to be terribly convinced by it. They are rightly, I think, inclined to believe that if a Government really want to do something, even in the situation that we are in now, they can usually find a way to do it, either by bringing in an agreed Amendment or, possibly, by bringing in an order subject to a Negative Resolution which could be passed tomorrow.

I believe that if the Government fail to do this they will have perpetrated an administrative nonsense, for which they are rightly going to be held to be accountable. As I have said, we are going to have the nonsense of a voter going in to vote for one series of elections and being told that he is out of time to vote for another series. This will offend his common sense.

I know that the Minister has tried very hard to see whether there is some way in which he can get around this problem. I hope that he will be able to tell us that, even now, he may be able to find some way around it. I have to tell him that if he fails to find a way around the problem the Government will, rightly, have to accept the blame and any opprobrium that attaches properly to them if they fail—and I believe that there will be opprobrium.

Having said all that, and having issued that modest warning, I have to say that obviously this House recognises the need for the Bill and accepts in principle that it is a necessary Bill. Therefore we shall do our best to speed it on its way.

5.45 p.m.

Viscount SIMON

My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, for his very clear introduction of this Bill, first may I apologise to him for the fact that I did not hear his Statement on Thursday. If during the course of my speech I ask some questions which he answered on that occasion, I hope that I shall be forgiven. The noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, suggested that perhaps your Lordships' House was not the appropriate place to discuss a Bill which affects Parliamentary elections to another place. With respect to the noble Lord, I would suggest that most of us here are district council electors and parish council electors, and as this Bill deals also with district council and parish council elections I should have thought that we were just as much entitled to discuss the Bill as the other place. Therefore, I hope that the other place will not take any umbrage at our doing so.

If during the helter-skelter of the last couple of days any of your Lordships have found time to lead the proceedings of the debate which took place in another place yesterday, they will recognise the considerable degree of confusion that has resulted from the decision to which, in this Bill, we are being invited to give legislative effect. This is not the fault of anybody in your Lordships' House, but when he comes to reply I wonder whether I might ask the noble Lord to let us into any secrets as to whether the Prime Minister—who we understand had the advice of the Cabinet on the day that he fixed the General Election—was apprised of the difficulties which were going to arise from this decision. I think that they are very serious difficulties. Naturally, we are going to let this Bill pass, and we shall have to make the best of those difficulties, but I really think that they should be recorded.

As your Lordships know, the Bill arrived here in typescript a little less than two hours ago, so we cannot properly perform our duty to scrutinise the Bill. However, I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to one or two of the matters which arise out of it. First, the simultaneous campaign for parliamentary and district council elections will inevitably result in the parliamentary elections dominating the situation. The electors will be stimulated by television, radio, the Press and everything else, and I feel that it is more than possible that important local interests will not receive that sufficient attention from the electors which they deserve. In particular, because the basic dispute between the parties on a national scale will dominate the scene, I feel that this arrangement inevitably will operate against the interests of independent candidates in the district council elections, and we all know that very often there are very valuable independent candidates who stand for district councils.

Secondly, the arrangements proposed for the counting of votes will, if I understand them correctly—and perhaps the noble Lord will be able to comment on this—result in the fact that district council candidates and their counting agents will not be able to be present during the first stages of the count. As was explained in another place, this is a purely practical matter; one simply could not get them into the place where the original count will take place when the ballot papers are taken out of the ballot boxes. But, whatever the reasons are, the result is, I believe, the loss of a very well established and valued constitutional right of the candidate to be present throughout the counting of the votes.

Third, when—as is possible—the political parties engage in common promotional publicity on behalf of both their parliamentary candidate and a number of district council candidates, will there not be very great difficulties about the apportionment of expenses? We all know that that is a matter which, if it goes wrong, can invalidate an election.

Finally, I wish to be brief, but I should like to refer to the parish council elections. I am informed—and I do not know whether the noble Lord can correct me or confirm—that the National Association of Local Councils was not consulted about the postponement of the parish council elections (community councils in Wales) for three weeks. It would have been very much better—and I am just wondering whether the Prime Minister and the Cabinet considered this—if they were going to do that, to postpone the district council elections as well. The noble Lord may point out that in that case the district council and the local council elections would be on the same day, but so they were going to be anyway. In fact, there is a real value in having them on the same day. We all know that sometimes there is difficulty in getting sufficient interest aroused—although there ought not to be—in parish council elections and that interest would be much more easily stimulated if they were to take place on the same day as the district council elections. I really cannot see why it was not thought right to postpone both the district council and the parish council elections and to hold the General Election on 3rd May as proposed.

The noble Lord said that the Bill contained provisions for the costs incurred by the postponement of the parish council elections to be met from public funds. In the explanatory memorandum it says: …the additional expenses of the postponed elections to be paid out of the Consolidated Fund". But when I looked at the Bill I found that it merely said that the expenses of the returning officers attributable to the postponement should be charged to the Consolidated Fund. Other people will incur additional expenses, as well. It is now too late to amend the Bill, but I wonder whether there is any administrative procedure by which the higher cost of separate elections which fall on the parishes, which is very serious, could be reimbursed. After all, if the parish and the district council elections are all on the same day the overall expenses of the election are shared between the two. Now, with the parish council elections on another day, the whole of the overhead expenses will have to fall on the parish councils, and it seems to me that the Bill has not in fact succeeded in doing what is set out in the explanatory memorandum. I should be happy if the noble Lord could comment on these matters. Apart from that, I can assure him that noble Lords from these Benches, whether present or not, will warmly support this Bill.

5.54 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to declare an interest, in that I happen to be president of the Devonshire Association of Parish Councils and I should like to reinforce some of what the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, has just said. On the very day that this was announced I received this telegram: The Devonshire Association of Parish Councils protests most strongly at proposed postponement of only the parish council elections to the detriment of parish councils". If there had been any previous consultation, which I gather is one of the complaints that has just been made, I should not have received that telegram. The whole approach to this is one of the things that those of us who still like to think of ourselves as independent have against the system as it is now. In the fairly recent local government reorganisation, the whole tendency has switched to party politics. Fewer and fewer independents are now being elected because the party machines are taking over. In my view, and certainly in the view of my local parish councils' association, this is to the detriment of the ability to keep in touch with the grassroots of this country. One could give a number of examples of that. I do not think that there were consultations, and it is absolutely scandalous that there were no consultations with the national body of the parish councils before this was arranged.

I agree that we have had one of the things for which we were waiting; namely, the assurance that there will be no extra expenses put on the parish councils because of this postponement. I trust that means that there will be no necessity for renominations; I trust it means that there will be none of the other difficulties that come about as a result of having local parish elections postponed in this way just when arrangements had been completed. These arrangements were made a long time ago, before the Government decided to go to the country.

Of course, one hears locally that the reason why the Government have decided to hold the district and the General Election on the same day is because it is a good way of getting out the wavering, not-so-keen supporters of the Government party. Be that as it may, to my mind it is no excuse for upsetting the grassroots elections of this country, which are the parishes. I wish to protest as strongly as I can at this high-handed manner of treating them. I should like to conclude by referring to the Bill in general. I had a talk only the day before yesterday with an erstwhile returning officer who said that he could foresee hours and hours of extra work and extra trouble, because wherever there is going to be a recount they will have to recount not only all the parliamentary votes but all the district votes as well, in order to see that papers have not got into the wrong box. Apart from passing on that comment, I should like to make use of this occasion purely to protest on behalf of the parish councils associations throughout the country and on behalf of my own county in particular.


My Lords, I should like to follow the noble Lord who has just spoken, as a vice-president of the National Association of (what are now called) Local Councils. One recognises that one cannot stop the Bill anyway, nor indeed would any Member of your Lordships' House wish to do so, but it is an opportunity to register some kind of a protest against the treatment of the parish councils. As one sees it, they will be caught midway between the direct elections to the European Parliament, on the one hand, and the parliamentary and district councils on the other. I have known small groups of people working in the rural areas over a long period of years; they are the last grassroots local representation and they have stimulated great interest, but they feel very disturbed about the present situation.

I am hoping that this Bill will give rise to some very interesting incidents in the polling booths when one of your Lordships—who are not normally given a vote in a parliamentary election, being classed with lunatics and aliens and, I believe, certain kinds of prisoners—may by accident be given a vote and it will be very interesting to see how the polling officer wrests the paper back from his Lordship who should not have had it. Having said that, I should like to say that the parish councils feel, with some justification, that they have been treated very badly, and I am sorry that it has to be my Government who present a Bill of which this will be said in time to come.


My Lords, I should not like this Bill to go through without a protest—which it certainly has not—but I should like to emphasise what the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, said, which I think is of particular importance. I happen to be one of those who very much regrets the fact that party politics ever found their way into local government elections. That is not merely an opinion of ignorance, because I happened to be speaking to one of the most distinguished Members of your Lordships' House only last week, and found that he shared the same opinion. As the noble Viscount said, this is most definitely going to influence the elections for local council members in a party direction. For that reason I very much regret it. It is too late to do anything now, but I sincerely hope that it will not happen again.


My Lords, while we seem to be in a period of registering protest, perhaps I might be allowed to register mine, not on the subject of the Bill but on legislation in general, about which, on occasion, the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack and I have had interchanges. My question is directed to the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham. I am not quite sure what phrase he used, but he gave me the impression that this is, to use the vernacular, a one-off occasion, in other words, this is a Bill specifically designed for this one occasion and after that it will go into limbo. My question is quite simple: If that is so, why is there no provision in the Bill for repeal, as there was in the Scotland and Wales Acts?

6.2 p.m.


My Lords, may I say first of all that I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, for the general observations he made at the outset of his speech. He, and indeed a number of other noble Lords, have expressed concern about postponement of the elections; particularly he asked why, if there was going to have to be postponement, the district council elections should not have been postponed along with the others. I think the main point is that, as I am sure he will know, there was a particular difficulty so far as the district council elections were concerned. The notices for those went out last Thursday, on the very day when notice of the Bill was given, and it was felt that that being so it was better to let the process continue.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, also mentioned the form of the ballot paper, and in particular asked why the numbers at the top could not have been in rather bigger type, the same sort of type as the notice right at the top. We have taken quite extensive advice on the whole of the design, including that point, from design experts and others, and as a result of all that, it was felt that the most essential headings were parliamentary in the case of that one and district council in the case of the other one. I quite take his point that it might have been possible to have suggested that, and indeed perhaps other alterations as well, but the whole form of the two ballot papers was in fact considered rather carefully. But I understand the point he makes.

With regard to the sorting out of the ballot papers, the noble Lord makes a very real point about his hope that electors will not fold them all up together; that is really his point. It might be helpful to your Lordships if I were to spend about a minute on the question of the counting and the verification procedures. I am obliged to him for raising the point, because the more publicity there is about these matters the better and greater help will be given to the electors. It might be helpful to your Lordships if I were to spell out some of the details as far as this is concerned.

The arrangements which will apply at the close of polling and during the counting of the votes are these. Each ballot box will contain both parliamentary and district council ballot papers. That is clear. When the presiding officer has completed his tallying of the ballot paper accounts, he will then make the usual arrangements to send the ballot box to the parliamentary returning officer. The first job of the parliamentary returning officer, which he may start in accordance with usual practice on the night of Thursday, 3rd May, or delay until the following day, is to verify that he has received the correct number of papers. This involves tipping out all the papers and separating them into white parliamentary ballots and grey district papers. The district council papers will be arranged according to their wards.

I am sure that many Members of your Lordships' House will have attended counts on various occasions and will know that as the boxes are emptied out on the tables the first thing that is done is that any folded ballot papers are opened up. So very great care will be taken to see that no difficulty of that kind arises. There are certain other details concerning the counting of the votes, but perhaps that covers the point the noble Lord was concerned about. So far as the counting is concerned, perhaps I may leave it there.

There was then the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, about the timing of the local by-elections and, in particular, the time that the polling will actually take place. He was good enough to mention that my honourable friend the Minister of State at the Home Office, Mr. Brynmor John, did undertake to look at that. He was also kind enough to say that I had looked at it, and I can certainly confirm that I have done so very closely and sympathetically. Perhaps it would not be untoward if I say that in the course of doing that I had discussions with the noble Lord and then followed up the discussions to see whether there might be a way round this matter. I certainly recognise that there is a very real difficulty here; that was why I followed up the undertaking given by my honourable friend the Joint Minister of State, and also why we looked at it sympathetically this afternoon.

I will now deal with some of the detailed points arising out of the timing of the polls. The position is this. The hours of poll at local government elections are specified in Rule 3 of the Local Elections (Principal Areas) Rules. For the district council elections on Thursday, 3rd May, Schedule 1 to the Bill provides that these hours are extended, to 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; but, as indeed the noble Lord pointed out, these changes to the rules do not affect the other local authority by-elections which may have been scheduled to take place on 3rd May. There may well be some of those not only in London but in a few other parts of the country as well. The difficulties here as we saw them were really these: that to extend the Bill further to cover the local by-elections as well, would, in our view, have extended its scope unnecessarily.

The Bill is concerned only with parliamentary and district council elections which are arranged by law and take place on 3rd May. These elections so far as the by-elections are concerned are incidental. I should stress that there are very few of them in fact throughout the country. I am advised that to change the rules governing the London borough by-elections or county council by-elections would require a Statutory Instrument subject to the Negative Resolution procedure in both Houses of Parliament. I ought perhaps also to add that it would be ultra vires. This is one of the things that we did look into, to see whether it might be a way round the problem. It would be ultra vires to confine this Statutory Instrument to certain specified elections and not apply the excluded polling hours to all local government elections taking place on 3rd May or at some other later date. It would certainly be outside the scope of the powers of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to give administrative directions to try to do that.

A number of suggestions were very helpfully put forward for our consideration by the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal. One which we considered was whether it might be possible to get over the problem by issuing directions. However, I am bound to tell your Lordships that that would have been outside the scope of the powers possessed by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and that therefore that avenue of escape—if I may put it that way—was, we felt, closed to us.

There was one other problem which we foresaw; namely, even if it had been possible to grapple with the provisions of this particular Bill and to amend the Bill in such a way as to accommodate the wishes of the noble Lord, we might well have encountered the difficulty that time is so short. Both Houses of Parliament are scheduled to sit for just one more day and I know that in your Lordships' House I do not need to spell out the point that a certain amount of to-ing an fro-ing sometimes needs to take place, when there is more time, between the two Houses of Parliament. That again we foresaw as a distinct difficulty which might perhaps affect the election itself. Therefore, I confirm and emphasise that we looked at the situation most sympathetically.

The noble Lord is quite right in saying that there will unfortunately be inconvenience for some electors—hopefully a small number. We recognise that. We would like to have found a way to overcome it and have certainly pursued the point made by the noble Lord. However, I am sorry that it is not possible to be more forthcoming than that.

Viscount SIMON

My Lords, this is a very important point. This matter was raised in another place, and if an Amendment had been accepted in another place they could have done this, could they not?


My Lords, I do not think that it is for me to speculate on what another place might have done. The noble Viscount has made his point and no doubt it has been heard. I am sorry that I am not able to take the matter further than that.

The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, raised several points. As regards the tendering of advice to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, I am afraid that I am not privy to the precise words which might or might not have been put forward. However, I am quite sure and confident that all the members of the Government involved in these matters knew that the basic advice concerning the possible need for the Bill was that there was no obstacle to provision being made for the two elections to take place. I am quite confident that that would certainly have been before all of us as members of Her Majesty's Government.

The counting of the votes, was another matter raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Simon. I hope that his concern will have been assuaged to some extent by the observations that I made on the subject. There was one particular point that he made about the counting agents and the fact that it would not be possible for the counting agents concerned in the district council elections to be present when the verification procedure takes place right at the outset of the count, under the direction of the acting parliamentary returning officer. The difficulty here is that we felt that it would have been impracticable to have had such large numbers of people at the count. Those of us who have been to counts know that there are quite a number of people milling around—if one can put it that way without any disrespect—and it is important to keep the number down. It was for that reason that we came to the conclusion that the only practical solution to the problem was to deal with it in the way proposed. I understand the point that the noble Viscount was making and appreciate the concern which he has expressed.

There was also the question of the parish councils—a matter which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, by my noble friend Lady Phillips and, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Somers. Unfortunately it was not possible, within the time available, to carry out the consultations which might have been hoped for which have been mentioned by noble Lords. I regret that it was not possible to do that.

The noble Viscount, Lord Simon also raised the question of expenses—in other words, the allocation of costs as between candidates standing for parliamentary election and district council election. That is a matter for the law and ultimately, should the need arise, a matter for the courts. However, the basic point here is that expenses should be apportioned separately so that they relate either to the parliamentary election, where that applies, or to the district council election, where that applies. I think noble Lords will recognise that very many constituencies in the country have experience of this. For example, in 1955 there was an overlap in the campaign between the local elections and the parliamentary election. Therefore, there has already been some experience of overlapping campaigns, even though not a parliamentary election on the same day. Thus, I would not feel that there would be particular difficulty in that respect.

The question of costs was also raised by the noble Viscount and by the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh. Certainly as regards the costs of parish council elections, I can say quite firmly that the expenses of the returning officers cover everything. They organise the elections for the parish and therefore, we envisage no difficulty so far as that matter is concerned.

One other matter has been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, was concerned about whether the Bill would lapse after this year and why provision had not been made in the Bill for a specific date for it to come automatically to an end. In Clause 1 there is reference to this year—that is to say, 1979. It is, I understand, not usual to put in anything about repeal, and the Wales and Scotland Acts were most unusual in that respect. Therefore, I believe that the noble Lord can feel satisfied that no great problem arises, and I hope that my explanation meets his point.

On Question, Bill read 2a: Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order No. 43 having been suspended, pursuant to Resolution of 2nd April, Bill read 3a.


My Lords, before I move the Motion, That the Bill do now pass, I should like to interpose a few words and express my grateful thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, and other noble Lords for the co-operation which has been extended in your Lordships' House concerning the Bill. I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Boston of Faversham.) On Question, Bill passed.