§ 4.38 p.m.
§ Lord LLOYD of KILGERRAN
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill which I have the privilege of introducing to your Lordships has been passed through all its stages in another place. It is intituled:An Act to make further provision with respect to the registration for electoral purposes of persons having a service qualification and the correction of registers of electors; and for purposes connected with those matters".Therefore, this Bill is much broader than the Bill which your Lordships have been good enough to give me leave to withdraw.
Many wives of Servicemen were effectively disfranchised as a result of the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1976. They did not feel prepared to register as Service voters for a variety of reasons. First, there was the question of the "S" against their names on the electoral register. Then they 1004 protested against the form of attestation which had been imposed upon them, and they were surprised and annoyed that they were not allowed to vote in the way an ordinary woman in this country is able to vote. The objections, of course, apply to a few men who are also spouses of members of the Armed Forces.
They had to make an appropriate declaration. They objected to the fact that it had to be attested by a commissioned officer, a warrant officer, a noncommissioned officer or by any officer of any Government department. Therefore, many Servicemen and Servicemen's wives have found this procedure very distasteful. The purpose of Clause 1 of the Bill is to enable the wife or husband of a member of the Armed Forces residing in the United Kingdom to have the option to register as a Service voter or to opt to register as a civilian elector and vote in the usual way.
However, the purpose of Clause 2 of the Bill is quite unrelated to Clause 1. It enacts powers for the electoral registration officer to amend the published register of electors so as to include the name of a qualified elector who has been omitted from the register. Clause 3 of the Bill deals with certain consequential matters to which I shall refer later.
As this is a question of franchise and civic rights of fundamental importance and indeed a precious possession of every person, perhaps I should take up a little more of your Lordships' time in describing the background to the Bill and its various clauses. I shall in the circumstances be as brief as I can, as I do not wish to delay the 20 or so persons who wish to speak on another matter.
Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act 1949 sets out the persons who can have the right to be put on the electoral register in order to vote at election time. Section 10 of the 1949 Act included at subsection (4) wives or husbands of members of the Services. Then came the 1976 Act, which changed the situation in regard to spouses of members of the Armed Forces in that it compelled them all to be registered as Service voters. Therefore, Clause 1 of this Bill contains a number of subsections aimed primarily to restore to Service spouses the right either to continue 1005 to be a Service voter, in which case there are certain advantages arising, or to exercise their rights as a civilian voter. There are also subsections which restate the present legal position, and those two subsections have been introduced for easy reading.
I turn now to Clause 2. Your Lordships may recall that there was a working party in 1978 which dealt with questions relating to voting rights and the procedures for voting. In Section 37 of the report of the working party on electoral registers in May 1978 it was recommended that existing legislation should be amended to permit the electoral registration officer to add to the published register the name of an elector he is satisfied was entitled to be registered on the qualifying date. Then the report goes on to cite the many circumstances in which a man or woman's name might have been omitted from the register.
Then in paragraph 38 of the report it said:An amendment made under the procedure recommended in the preceding paragraph should not be effective for a pending election if made during the election period. This is consistent with existing provisions for amending the register. It should be open to objections procedure and there should be a right of appeal to the courts against the electoral registers' officers' decision".As I said, in view of the heavy business of the House I do not propose to go into all the subsections of Clause 2. I am fortified in taking this course because the Bill was carefully considered in the other place. I should like to assure your Lordships that the Bill has had the fullest consideration with outside interests, apart from having received the support of the Government and the Opposition in the other place. The consultations during last summer involved political parties, local authority associations, many electoral registration officers, and, not least, the Armed Forces Wives Association, in which I must declare an interest as I have the honour to be one of its three political vice-presidents.
The Bill was introduced for Second Reading in the other place on 9th November by Mr. Christopher Onslow.
§ Lord BOYD-CARPENTER
My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to intervene? When he referred to Mr. Christopher 1006 Onslow, was he not in fact intending to refer to Mr. Cranley Onslow?
§ Lord LLOYD of KILGERRAN
My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord for that correction. Wherever I used the word "Christopher" I meant "Cranley", and I am sorry that I in-advertently made that error. I should like to pay a warm tribute first of all to Mr. Cranley Onslow for piloting this Bill through the other place with such skill, and secondly to Mr. George Cunningham, the Member of Parliament for Islington South and Finsbury, who, as the Opposition spokesman, took so much trouble in identifying the clarifying aspects of the Bill.
The result of all these all-party discussions and discussions with outside institutions and persons was that the Opposition in the other place were able to let this Bill go through on the nod. The success of these discussions around the Bill was also largely due to the close personal interest taken in the Bill by the Minister of State for the Home Office, Mr. Leon Brittan. I should like to pay a tribute to his work and also to the assiduous efforts of members of the staff of his Department.
This Bill, therefore, does not come before your Lordships as an ordinary Private Member's Bill drafted in an amateur form. It is indeed a well-polished effort, fully examined by able Home Office officials and Members of the other place. I commend this Bill warmly to your Lordships. I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran.)
§ 4.48 p.m.
§ Lord HOUGHTON of SOWERBY
My Lords, I rise to support this Bill. After the clear explanation given by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, we realise that this Bill is to provide the remedy for faults in previous legislation. Under the Representation of the People (Armed Forces) Act 1976 it seems evident that neither House of Parliament understood what a grievance they were imposing on Service wives. Apparently even in the year 1976 we were unaware that married women wanted to be recognised as independent citizens and not merely, as the noble Lord said, as appendages of their 1007 Service husbands. The sponsors of the Bill in another place freely acknowledged that this was to correct a mistake that was made previously. So much for the quality of the revising powers of this House. We apparently were at fault along with another place. Apparently none of us foresaw what indignation the earlier legislation was going to arouse.
The second part of the Bill is to remedy another fault in previous legislation. Apparently we had not provided power for registration officers to correct omissions from the list. If people were left out in slabs, they were left out and apparently there were no means of putting them in, even though it was a simple error of omission, and therefore the Bill is to be supported because it provides a remedy for those two faults.
Whenever a Representation of the People Bill comes before Parliament there are always side-effects, always other issues which merit consideration. Close on the heels of this Bill came another Representation of the People Bill in another place. Only last Friday, a Bill was brought forward to provide electoral facilities for people on holiday, a matter which has received considerable attention, especially when general elections or by-elections are held in the summer and at holiday times. At the last Conservative Party Conference approving noises were made about doing something to provide electoral facilities for those who had unavoidably to be away on polling day because they had already booked holidays or accommodation, and last Friday the Minister of State at the Home Office gave a blessing to the Bill, saying that the Government's approach to it was positive and they wished to see something done.
Unfortunately, there were procedural snags about the Bill—there always are—and the suggestion was made that it would probably be better if these matters were dealt with in a Government Bill. That is the old story; a Private Members' Bill never does the job properly so one must wait for a Government Bill which will probably do it just as badly or not do it at all. That is the chief danger with a Government Bill; one never gets it. There is always pressure on the time of Parliament and these things are squeezed out.
1008 Anyway, the Minister of State in another place who gave his blessing to the Bill finished the afternoon by talking it out; so much for the Government's positive approach to the Bill. So the Bill was left in suspense last Friday afternoon as the clock struck four. It seems to me that we could improve the shining hour this afternoon by giving some help to a Bill which the Minister of State, after giving it his blessing, left to the mercy of the Private Members' Bill procedure, and that is the first thing I think of in this connection.
Why can we not take the opportunity of turning this small but important Bill into something even more worthwhile? I am advised that in order to do that it would be necessary to extend its Long Title. This, I understand, can be done if what one proposes to do is relevant to the Bill. This is a Representation of the People Bill, which is presumably about as wide as any Long Title can go, and I would wish to see whether we might make this a more worthwhile Bill by including in it other matters which this House might consider. We are pressed for time this afternoon and I do not wish to dwell unduly long on the items I have in mind, but we may not be so hard pressed another day when we come to consider the Bill in its later stages. Now that the Protection of Public Information Bill has been dropped and the Local Government Bill, a sizeable piece of work which was coming before your Lordships' House, is not to come after all, we may have the time which another place will not to look at further reforms in our electoral law.
The second matter which we might well consider while we are at it is the longstanding grievance of British citizens working abroad who are deprived of the vote in elections in this country and in referenda unless they have a residence in this country, and "residence" may be an actual residence or one of those legal problems described as a "constructive residence". "Residence" is a wonderful word in taxation and electoral law and the lawyers have been playing about with it for years. So that is another grievance which might be considered. I have heard from some of my noble friends that the real trouble about British citizens living and working abroad is that they are probably undesirable citizens, tax exiles, or there may be others who choose not to live in 1009 the land of liberty and endeavour but who prefer to enjoy the sunshine in the South of France; so, they say, there is no reason why we should give them any voice in the future of this country when they do not live in it or intend to return to it. That is arguable and I will not dwell on that.
I come to the third point, which is much nearer home, and that is the franchise for Members of your Lordships' House. Why do we put up with this indignity? Why do we say that lunatics, bankrupts and Peers shall be excluded from the franchise? We share this triple crown of incapacity and are not allowed to appear on the register of parliamentary voters.
§ Lord BOYD-CARPENTER
My Lords, has the noble Lord forgotten also prisoners serving long-term sentences?
§ Lord HOUGHTON of SOWERBY
As to who we really are is a matter we can go into in more detail on another occasion, my Lords. All the same, what has become of that old tag about no taxation without representation? Since your Lordships' House has been deprived of all parliamentary authority on matters of taxation and finance, why have we not long since claimed, then, to have some voice in the affairs of the country relating to economics, finance and taxation, along with other citizens? I am sure there is a history to this matter, but admit frankly that I have not looked it up. I do not think we need dwell unduly on the history of some of our institutions; we look at them in the light of modern requirements, and there is not the slightest reason why Peers should be denied the vote on the parliamentary register and should be deprived of the rights of every other citizen.
It is said that these important matters should go to a Speaker's Conference. We have believed that in the past perhaps, but I was interested to see that last Friday the Minister of State wanted to put the—fact on record to make clear that we cannot regard a Speaker's Conference as being a necessary certificate before proceeding in these matters".—[Official Report, Commons, 7/12/79; col. 870.]I agree with that, especially since I served on a Speaker's Conference at great length on the question of reducing the age of qualification for the franchise from 21 1010 years of age. The Speaker's Conference, by a very large majority, decided against reducing the age of voting to 18 and proposed a compromise of the age of 20. But what did the House of Commons do with that? They brushed it aside and said, "It is either 21 or 18. There is nothing in between. If, under the Latey Report, young persons are to be able to marry at the age of 18, they should be allowed to vote. If they are to be allowed to take out mortgages, they should be allowed to vote," although originally this business of 18 was, "Old enough to fight, old enough to vote"; but when "old enough to fight" was taken out of the argument, there were then other reasons for reducing the age for the vote to 18. I mention that merely as an illustration that, even when a matter goes before the Speaker's Conference, Parliament does not always accept what it says.
I give notice, my Lords, that I will study this matter closely and see whether I can help improve the electoral law and widen the franchise to cover those who may have grievances over being excluded at present. I would not wish to imperil the Bill. I wish merely to consider making the attempt to improve it, to extend it, and to send it on its way as a more worthwhile Bill, completing a job only half done in another place at the present time.
§ 5.1 p.m.
§ Lord UNDERHILL
My Lords, I rise to support the Bill, and I should like to speak in particular about Clause 2. I do so because I was a member of the Home Office Working Party on the Electoral Register, to which the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, has referred. People's names are left off the register for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes the household form A is not received, or, for various reasons, there may be a failure to complete it. Some people either do not care about it, or forget about it. Sometimes people will put on the form the names of themselves and their family, but leave off the names of other qualified persons living in the dwelling. We all know that only about a third of the eligible young voters who become 18 in the course of the year appear to become registered. All of us who are involved in elections at various stages know that at election times there are countless people who suddenly find that 1011 they are not on the register. Although there are provisions for people to check the electors' lists, the number who say, "I must go down to the post office or the library to see whether my name is on" are very few indeed. Moreover, people who have been on the register for years have no reason to believe that they are no longer on it; hence they do not check the lists.
In 1969 there was the important amendment which gave the electoral registration officers the power to place on the electoral register the names of persons who had been on the electors' lists but had been left off inadvertently. The proposal in Clause 2 of the Bill goes much further, and I welcome it. It is that where an electoral registration officer has sufficient evidence to prove that a person should be registered, even though his name is not on the electoral list, that person should be included. That proposal is in full accordance with one of the recommendations of the working party, as has been stated by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran.
I was pleased to note that the noble Lord referred to the provision for an objections procedure. The report stated quite clearly that members of the working party were greatly impressed by the views of the political parties at national level that an essential part of the registration procedure is a claims and objections stage. If, as is proposed in the Bill, we are to have a very important improvement, it is vital that the objections procedure should be maintained. I hope that during the course of the debate the House can be told whether—as I believe will be necessary—there are to be revised regulations to deal with this new amendment. It would appear to me rather doubtful whether the present regulations relating to claims and objections, with regard to the preparation of the annual register of electors, would be sufficient to deal with the amendment proposed in the Bill. Therefore, if new regulations are necessary, perhaps during the debate we can be told when draft regulations might be issued.
Of course, the Bill does not meet—and I do not believe that its sponsor intended it to meet—the position of electors who during an election find that 1012 their names are left off the register. I recall that prior to my retirement as national agent of the Labour Party we had countless complaints of this kind, and I am sure that the other political parties had similar complaints. At the last election, and in particular on polling day, the number of complaints we received from one area of London—which was featured in a television programme—could only be described as disgraceful. Whole blocks of people who had been on the register for years, and had lived in the area for years, had been left off the register. I readily accept that nothing can be done about that during the election period. There must be a cut-off date. Electoral registration officers could not possibly cope with the burden of work beyond a certain cut-off date. Therefore despite the amendment, there will be countless people left off the register through no fault of their own. This may arise for a number of reasons; and the report of the working party dealt with some of those points.
Those of us who have experience of being in touch with electoral registration officers in various constituencies know that the work on the electoral register varies considerably. The intensity of the door-to-door canvass also varies considerably. I hope that even though there is to be this amendment, the Ministers concerned, together with the people at the Home Office, will concentrate on the work of registration and will still regard the house-to-house canvass as an essential feature, and one which must be improved in many areas.
As for the suggestions of my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby, many of us have always been a little apprehensive of piecemeal amendments to the Representation of the People Act. One can make mistakes. A proposal can be carried on a feeling that something ought to be done, but then the problems of the mechanics may prove very difficult.
For a number of years I was a member of the Home Office Electoral Advisory Committee, on which sits representatives of political parties, Home Office experts, representatives of other departments, returning officers, and electoral registration officers, who have great experience. My experience on that committee was that everyone was concerned with one objective: how to improve our electoral law 1013 and how to make it as democratic and as fair as possible at every stage. That often meant hours of deliberating on one simple amendment, to make sure that in making that amendment one did not cause two or three other complications.
Therefore I hope that the House will be very careful in considering any further extensions to the Bill without there being opportunity for a body to look at the matter. Here I do not necessarily suggest a Speaker's Conference, because often a Speaker's Conference refers matters to the Home Office Advisory Committee for expert opinion. I believe that that kind of expert opinion is vitally necessary. In conclusion, in welcoming the Bill, may I say that if there is one inquiry that ought to take place, I believe that it is a thorough, independent inquiry into the whole question of election expenses, a matter which every election agent goes into with some trepidation.
§ 5.9 p.m.
§ Lord BOYD-CARPENTER
My Lords, I apologise for not having put my name down to take part in the debate, but I desire to speak very briefly simply to make three points. First, as the father of a serving soldier, with a highly independent daughter-in-law, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, for bringing the Bill to us and for dealing with what he is quite right in saying is a grievance among those wives of serving personnel who take their civic duties seriously—and there are many such people. Secondly, I should like to congratulate the author of the Bill in another place, my old friend Mr. Cranley Onslow, who suffered inadvertently from being misnamed. He was responsible for taking the Bill through another place—and, if I may say so, most appropriately, because in another place he represents a constituency inhabited probably by more members of the Armed Forces than is any other in the United Kingdom.
Thirdly, I want to do what over 30 years I have always found very difficult to do; namely, to offer some advice to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. He has never yet taken my advice, but there is always a hope that my luck might turn. However, I hope that he will take very seriously the advice given by his noble friend, the noble Lord, 1014 Lord Underhill, who obviously, from his past experience, speaks with enormous authority on these electoral matters—probably with more authority than anybody else in this House.
One is always tempted, when there is a Representation of the People Bill in either House, to come forward with one's own favourite improvements; and I agree wholeheartedly, on the merits, with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in relation to the holiday question. It has always seemed to me very hard, particularly in these days when people have to book their holidays six, eight or nine months in advance in order to get package holiday terms, that if you are honest when going abroad and say you are going on holiday, you cannot get a proxy vote, but if you say you are going on business then it is normally made available. This is an anomaly; and as people, having booked their holidays, have very little choice if the Prime Minister of the day decides, as the Prime Minister of the day did decide this April, suddenly to have an election, they can be disfranchised. But I beg the noble Lord to resist temptation: not to follow the example of Oscar Wilde, who said, "I can resist anything except temptation". Because if the noble Lord succumbs to temptation and, at the Committee stage of this Bill, puts forward all these reasonable amendments, it is perfectly certain that your Lordships, lulled by his eloquence, will accept them.
Then, of course, this Bill will have to go back to another place, to take its place in that crowded programme, for that place to deal with the Lords' amendments; and as another place, in its infinite wisdom and mercy, has decided that it wants to have the first stab at the Local Government Bill—I am bound to say, my Lords, that I wish it luck!—there is not going to be very much time there to deal with Lords' amendments to a Private Member's Bill. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, will make delightful speeches at the later stages of this Bill, but will not actually press any amendments.
§ 5.12 p.m.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
My Lords, bearing in mind that the debate which is to follow has the names of no fewer than 23 of your Lordships down to speak, I am 1015 happily in the position of being able to say what I want to say in a matter of a few minutes. I should like to say from these Benches that in our view this is a wholly desirable Bill which will achieve something that has been long overdue.
I think the only comment I want to make in addition to that is that I understand that the Bill makes provision for the electors' register to be amended after publication. It may well be that I have missed something, but my understanding of the situation is that after the electors have returned the household form every local authority allows a period during which people who think they are entitled to be on the register and have completed the household form A can go down to their local town hall to see whether their name is on it; and, if it is not, to raise the matter of its absence with the electoral officer. I am wondering in what way this is going to be changed when the Bill makes provision for the electors' register to be amended after publication. I thought this was the normal practice, and I am wondering whether this hides some other method which is to be employed. If so, I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, or the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, whether they could enlighten me on that matter.
§ 5.14 p.m.
§ Lord SANDYS
My Lords, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, I am pleased to welcome this Representation of the People Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran. It is doubly welcome, both for its substance and for the fact that it is the first Private Member's Bill to have successfully completed its passage through the House of Commons during this present Session. I congratulate the sponsors of the Bill on its speedy and uncontroversial passage through another place, and I hope that your Lordships will be able to afford it a similar reception.
As the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, has explained, the Bill makes three important modifications to our electoral law. First, if enacted it would permit the spouses (mainly the wives) of Service personnel residing in the United Kingdom to choose whether they wished to register under the civilian or the service electoral registration schemes. At the moment they must register as Service voters and, as has been 1016 explained, this has given rise to much concern and, indeed, to a substantial number of people losing their votes at the elections earlier this year. Secondly, the Bill provides that the electoral registration declaration made by members of the forces when they register need not in future be attested or countersigned by more senior ranks or public officials. Thirdly, the Bill provides a new power for the electoral registration officer to correct the electoral register after it is published so that the names of those electors who are qualified but who have accidentally been omitted can be included. This is, of course, of general application, and does not apply to Service voters alone.
It may assist the House if I describe in rather more detail the background to the Bill and the consultations which have been conducted on these proposals; and, of course, your Lordships have listened with great interest to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran. I must, however, reduce my remarks as much as possible, and I hope that this will be with the approval of the House. I feel we should first of all turn our attention to the Service wives. The arrangements made for servicemen and their wives to take part in our elections—a very basic and important right—have not had a particularly happy history. The frequent removals and changes of address, often at short notice, which are suffered by Service families; the absences for substantial periods abroad, and the fact that in many Service situations electoral registration must take a second place to more pressing matters, has meant that under the several schemes tried out since special Service voting was introduced in 1918 the rate of registration, which has no element of compulsion for Service voters, has been consistently lower than all concerned would wish. This has occurred under all Governments, and despite several inquiries and all-party discussions in the Speaker's Conference.
There is some evidence, however, that for serving servicemen the position has improved since the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1976. Noble Lords may recall that this was also a Private Member's Bill, based on Speaker's Conference recommendations, and introduced in another place by the same honourable Member responsible for the 1017 present Bill. It is now the basis of the Service registration scheme, and it may assist your Lordships if I describe this briefly. Servicemen need to register only once during their Service career. Once their registration is forwarded and accepted by the registration officer in respect of their home address, or an address with which they have had some connection, it remains valid until they leave the Services. If they move house they should of course notify the registration officer of a change of address; but they are not required, as are civilian electors, to send in an electoral registration form every year. When they have registered they are entitled to the special privileges of Service voting; voting by proxy when abroad or by post or in person at all national and some local government elections when serving in the United Kingdom.
Before the 1976 arrangements were introduced registration of Service personnel was running at a rate of 25 per cent. or less of those eligible. Since then the overall rate of registration has significantly improved, to the present level of 50 per cent. But there have been problems, and because the franchise and its exercise is so crucial to our democracy the Government wish to lose no time in seeing these put right. Indeed, less than three weeks after taking office my honourable friend the Minister of State at the Home Office Mr. Brittan, to whom tribute has been paid in relation to this Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, was able to indicate in an adjournment debate in another place that the Government accepted the need for changes in the operation of the Service scheme. He announced that the Government were initiating consultations with the political parties, the electoral registration officers and others closely concerned to see precisely what those changes should be.
One aspect has already been attended to, in that this House gave its approval last week to the regulations which have the effect of removing the special markings on the electoral register which denote service voters and merchant seamen. When approved by the other place—we hope, later this week—and implemented for the next electoral register, this will remove an understandable point of concern to Servicemen and their families. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, raised 1018 the question of whether new regulations other than those referred to already are necessary. Yes, they are; and these will be brought forward at a later stage.
Two other important aspects of the Service voting scheme are dealt with in the Bill. First subsection (1) of Clause 1 provides that it will no longer be necessary for the wives of Servicemen residing in the United Kingdom to register in pursuance of a Service declaration. In future, they will be able to choose to register as civilian or as Service electors. This was the scheme which the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, unsuccessfully pressed on the last Administration in the Bill which was passed by the House last Session but which foundered in the Commons on the Dissolution. Over the summer, it has been the subject of considerable debate with electoral registration officers, particularly those in areas with high concentrations of Service voters, and the local authority associations and the political parties. We are grateful to all who have considered these matters for their constructive comments.
There was complete agreement about the need for changes in the system, although it is only fair to say that the local authority associations and the electoral registration officers, while agreeing to the principle that Service wives should register as civilians in the United Kingdom, believe that giving them an option between one system and another could unnecessarily complicate the process and cause difficulties. But, after due consideration and in the light of the support of the political parties, and, not least, of the Service wives themselves for the option scheme, the sponsors of the Bill in the other place decided in its favour; and the Government do not oppose them. We very much hope that when the new scheme is implemented the Service wives will again be fully enfranchised and that any administrative teething problems will soon be sorted out.
Clause 1(2) of the Bill deals with another aspect of the voting scheme which has caused difficulties and complaints from all Service voters. The Bill removes the requirement that all Service declarations should be attested—and I have referred to this earlier. Although the regulations following the 1976 Act considerably 1019 widened the ranks of persons who could countersign the forms, to include, for example, non-commissioned officers and justices of the peace, attestation now seems an unnecessary complication to the system. If electoral registration officers have difficulties in determining the validity of any particular application they can refer to indices of Services personnel kept by the Ministry of Defence centrally. These changes to the Service voting scheme should have the overall effect of restoring the franchise to some of the Service wives who felt unable to register under the old arrangements, and should improve the scheme for all Service electors.
The second clause of the noble Lord's Bill goes wider and affects more particularly the civilian electorate. In effect, it is an implementation of a recommendation made by a Home Office working party in 1978, established on the suggestion of the Speaker's Conference to consider the way in which the electoral register could be kept more up to date. The working party consisted of Home Department representatives, local authority officials and registration officers, academics and representatives of the political parties. I am glad to note that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, took part in his previous capacity as a member of the working party. Their recommendation, which is now contained in the Bill before your Lordships' House, will enable the electoral registration officer to correct the register after it is published to omit the names of electors who are qualified. I should make clear that the qualifying date of 10th October (15th September in Northern Ireland) remains central to the system of electoral registration, and that electors must continue to send in their Form 'A'. Only those who can claim residence on that date will he able to have their names included; but the Bill will assist many electors who discover after publication of the final register that, for whatever reason—their fault or someone else's—they have been left off. I hope that those comments may be for the assistance of the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell. He addressed a particular comment to me and I hope that those remarks may assist him in that regard.
Clearly, there will need to be procedures to ensure that this new opportunity is not abused. There will therefore be regula- 1020 tions made to provide for proper opportunity for interested electors, including the local political parties, to register any claim or objection to the new names which it is proposed to add. The Government also intend, as the working party recommended, to keep the electoral registration system under review so as to ensure that, as far as possible, it meets objectives of accuracy and clarity at reasonable cost to the taxpayer and local ratepayer.
I hope that with these remarks I have been able to clarify points raised by noble Lords, especially the noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Wells-Pestell. I do not feel that I am going to be able to satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, because the Long Title of the Bill is a very difficult matter to change; and there are three very important matters which he raised in his most interesting speech in regard to holidaymakers, to Peers and other disqualifications which will be extremely difficult; but this is, of course, a matter for the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, to consider with his advisers.
When my honourable friend the Minister of State gave on 21st May this year the Government's broad approval to changes in the scheme he could not have expected that the necessary legislation could flow through so quickly. Owing to the good fortune of the ballot for Bills in another place, and the preparedness and advance work done by honourable Members in the House of Commons, and by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, we are able with unusual speed to mend three limited defects in our electoral system. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ 5.27 p.m.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down I wonder whether I may put this point to him. It is hardly fair, I appreciate. What is the situation of a person who, on the 15th October, is living, say, in Birmingham and who has completed the household Form 'A' and then for reasons beyond his control, a week or 10 days later moves a hundred miles away? When the list of the new area in which he is living comes out some weeks later, am I to understand that he can then go to the electoral officer and say, "I am now living in this area, although I was not living here on the 15th October"—and, that the electoral 1021 registration officer will have power, if he is satisfied that he lives in that area and is a ratepayer, to put him on the roll?
§ Lord SANDYS
My Lords, I think it would be difficult to give the noble Lord a sufficiently accurate answer to his important question. I think that the only answer should be that this would be a matter that we could raise between ourselves before the Committee stage of this Bill.
§ Lord LLOYD of KILGERRAN
My Lords, conscious as I am of the 20 or more of your Lordships who wish to speak in the important debate following this interesting debate, may I thank all those noble Lords who participated in this debate and who have given unanimous support to the terms of this Bill. I should like particularly to thank the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, because he has filled in many of the parts of my opening speech which I had necessarily shortened in the present circumstances. May I join the noble Lords, Lord Boyd-Carpenter and Lord Sandys, in making an appeal to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby? This Bill is intended to deal quickly with an immediate grievance. As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, said, there are women who object most strongly to being the appendages of their husbands in these voting rights. Some women put the matter far more graphically: they say that they object to being chattels of their military husbands on non-military matters in relation to voting rights. Therefore, my appeal is that at the Committee stage—if I may so presume—there will not be any serious amendments so that the Bill can go back to the other place and can be passed into law as quickly as possible.
The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, made a number of interesting suggestions about further reforms necessary in future Representation of the People Acts. May I suggest to him, with great humility, that he and I on another occasion might join together in putting forward another collection of Bills to your Lordships' House, but not to try to introduce anything of the kind that he has suggested to this Bill. It is the duty of the Government and of both Houses of Parliament to make sure that those who are entitled to vote can do so as readily as possible and have the opportunity of exercising 1022 freely their basic civic rights. In my view, this Bill gives those rights back to certain classes of persons.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.