§ 5.23 p.m.
§ Lord BELSTEAD rose to move, That the regulations laid before the House on 22nd November, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, it might be for the convenience of the House if I were to speak to all three sets of regulation which are on the Order Paper. Noble Lords will have observed that the provisions of all three sets are substantially the same. All the regulations amend existing regulations so as to remove the requirement that the names of Service voters and merchant seamen should be marked on the register respectively with the letters "S" and "M" against their names. As I am sure noble Lords are aware, there has been concern for some time among Servicemen and their families, that they are indentified by this marking. The fact that this dislike exists is in itself an impediment to electoral registration and, if Parliament agrees the regulations, I hope this will provide an encouragement for Service voters to register in greater numbers.
§ Noble Lords will also be aware of the concern generally that is felt by Servicemen and their families about voting arrangements. There will in fact be an opportunity for the House to consider this during the debate next week on the Second Reading of the Representation of the People Bill which is to be introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran. I shall only say now that the Government fully acknowledge that concern and are glad of the opportunity both in that Bill and in these regulations to improve the electoral registration system for Service personnel and their spouces. I should also like to express our gratitude to those organisations, including for example all the trade unions and staff associations representing merchant seamen, who took a constructive part in the consultations we have had on this matter.
§ The second effect of the regulations applying to England, Wales and Scotland, but not Northern Ireland where there are no similar bodies, is that parish and community councils are added to those who are entitled to receive free extracts from the electoral register. At present, Members of Parliament, prospective 917 parliamentary candidates and their agents may receive free copies of the whole register and, in respect of their particular areas, local councillors and local election candidates or agents may receive extracts. The National Association of Local Councils have represented for some time that such free copies should also be made available to parish and community councils. The Government, recognising the value and importance of local councils, accept this and have incorporated their proposal in these regulations.
§ Those bodies entitled to a limited number of free copies may purchase, if there are sufficient available, extra copies at a special rate of 10p per 1,000 or part of 1,000 names; we do not propose to change that fee. But the third part of the regulations is a proposal to increase the fee for copies of the register to persons who do not qualify for free or discounted copies—for example, mail order firms and market research organisations—from 50p to £1 for 1,000 names. This is partly to compensate for inflation since the fee was last fixed two years ago but also because the Government do not see why central and local government, who produce the register for electoral, not commercial, purposes, and who bear equally the costs of electoral registration through the rate support grant system, should be asked to subsidise the private sector in this way. Ideally, we favour a discretion to each local authority to fix its own fees, as the costs of production of the register vary widely from area to area, but that would require substantive legislation for which there is no prospect in the present Session. In the meantime, therefore, we are proposing an increase in the fees so that local authorities may at least have some realistic reimbursement.
§ Moved, That the regulations laid before the House on 22nd November, be approved. —(Lord Belstead.)
§ 5.28 p.m.
§ Lord BOSTON of FAVERSHAM
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for explaining these regulations. The argument that on grounds of security the letter "S" should be removed from the names of Service voters on the electoral register is very strong. In some ways I suppose some people might feel it rather a pity to lose that indication, and the letter 918 "M" from alongside merchant seamen's names, because it helps to draw to people's attention, including political campaigners, the need to ensure, for example, that any necessary help is given to electors in arranging postal and proxy votes. However, there is also the argument against those designations being continued in the register, that it is only in the case of Service voters and merchant seamen that occupation is mentioned and that either occupations should be given in all cases or in none at all, and there remain the overriding considerations of security which the noble Lord mentioned. I should perhaps say that I have spoken to my noble friend Lord Blease, who would wish to be associated with the point about security, especially in relation to Northern Ireland.
So far as the provision in the regulations for free copies of the register, or part of it, is concerned, that seems wholly admirable. As for the proposal for increased charges in the way Lord Belstead described, perhaps that can hardly be described as admirable, particularly by those who are likely to be affected, but it is undoubtedly a fact of life and it probably is right that there should not be a subsidy out of public funds for those particular, and especially commercial, purposes. It is not of course possible to amend the regulations, so they have to be accepted in their entirety or not at all, and especially in view of the security argument advanced, with which I certainly wholly agree, we on this Bench would not wish to stand in the way of the reglations.
§ Lord BANKS
My Lords, I should like to join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for his explanation of the regulations, and I wish briefly to say that we on these Benches fully support the three sets of regulations. The Represention of the People (Armed Forces) Bill [H.L.], which was introduced into this House by my noble friend Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, would have allowed Service spouses to choose whether or not to be registered as Service voters, and so would have gone part of the way to doing what these regulations will do. As the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has indicated, my noble friend will next week be sponsoring another Bill in place of that one, but I am glad that these regulations cover that part of the Bill which he originally introduced. He introduced that Bill because of the great 919 concern expressed to him by Service spouses on the security grounds which have been referred to already this afternoon, and I am glad that this matter is now dealt with in these regulations. I welcome, too, the importance which the Government attach to parish and community councils by providing for them to receive a copy of the register without fee.
§ Lord BELSTEAD
My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for the welcome that they have given to the regulations.