HL Deb 29 January 1981 vol 416 cc852-65

4.28 p.m.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This Bill is intituled: An Act to require every elector to be treated, for the purpose of the right to vote in parliamentary and local elections, as resident at his main residence only". This is a very short Bill to remedy a serious defect in the law on the voting rights of citizens of Great Britain in local and parliamentary elections. The present state of the law gives unfair and unjust advantages to a limited class of persons in this country; namely, those who are able to maintain two or more residences, one of which is usually referred to as their main or principal residence, and a second home, which is often termed the holiday home or the weekend cottage.

Under the present law, which is based on the Representation of the People Act 1949, a person with a second home, or holiday home or weekend cottage, is legally entitled to be entered on the register of electors for voting purposes, in each of the districts where these homes exist, at local as well as at parliamentary elections. I shall refer to this legal right, to be registered in more than one district, as the right to dual registration. I hope to satisfy your Lordships that in these modern times this legal right requires to be modified, as it can result in a gross abuse of voting rights. It tends to undermine the democratic rights of those citizens who normally live in many districts where second homes exist.

I shall contend also that the right to dual registration is politically and morally wrong. As usual, I choose my words carefully. I say that it is based on property rights in such a way as in effect to constitute an outrage upon the modern democratic and political rights of citizens, as exercisable at Parliamentary and local elections.

This Bill has as its object to require every elector who has a second home to choose or to declare which of these is his or her main or principal residence. He or she will then be entitled to be entered on the electoral register in relation to that one residence and that one residence only. At the present time the procedure is that the owner of a second home is required in advance to enter the names of persons residing at that second home on a qualifying date, usually about 10th October. If the form is not returned by the owner of the second home, the usual practice is that the local authority's returning officer leaves the entries as they are on the previous register without further investigation.

There is plenty of evidence to show that most owners of second homes are not themselves resident at their holiday or weekend homes on the qualifying date, although they may have entered their names and in many cases those of their relatives on that form. The signing of this form gives all the people on the form the right to be registered on the electoral register, subject to objections being raised. These are usually very difficult to maintain. Many holiday homes are sublet to other residents who themselves are probably denied the right to vote because it is the owner of the premises who is obliged to complete the initial registration form.

This kind of dual registration is becoming more and more common. I have here a copy of a statement by the housing officer for North Cornwall, as reported in the Cornish Guardian of 13th September 1979. This statement says that if the present trend continues there will be more than 3,500 holiday homes in North Cornwal alone by 1984. In that area, second home ownership is increasing by 4 to 5 per cent. each year. This trend is followed in many areas of Scotland, England and Wales. It is well known that many of these second homes remain empty for many weeks in the year. In some of our villages they constitute a large percentage of the housing accommodation. The lack of available housing in many rural and seaside areas is often due to the high number of these second or holiday homes. As your Lordships will be aware, in parts of Wales in recent months, there has unfortunately been a considerable amount of militant action against such homes.

I am not concerned today with the social consequences arising from lack of housing which may be accentuated by second home ownership. I am concerned with the injustice which arises from dual registration which enables a limited class of person, those who have holiday or weekend homes, to exercise voting rights, if they so choose, in an area where they do not themselves reside for most of the year and cannot therefore have much knowledge of local conditions because their main residence is situated elsewhere.

Extensive research has shown that there are in general two types of elector with dual registration. The first type comprises those who do not let their second homes commercially. These properties may be empty for 40 weeks a year. Alternatively, they are often let to friends and relations. Usually they are empty for most of the winter months. Some are occupied only for a limited number of weekends in the year.

The second type of second home comprises those let or advertised for letting during the periods when the owners are not in occupation and who therefore, by their letting contract, could not, even if they wished, occupy the dwelling at election times. There is also considerable evidence to show that some owners advertise their second homes to let, even over the registration period. Many estate agents have confirmed that that is the position. Checks have been made in many places which show that visitors are in residence over the registration period, or that the property is empty at that period. In some areas there are regularly hundreds of objections to the registration of electors with second homes. As soon as the electoral register is published there is a statutory right to object within a given time. It is very difficult to secure amendments to the register, but in 1980 I am told that 700 objections were raised to the registration of persons with second homes in North Cornwall and that 300 of those 700 were accepted and the names struck off the register. Such dual registrations are still accepted without investigation on the signing of the standard form claiming residential qualification. Application to the courts in these matters is notoriously expensive to pursue.

I think it is fair to say that in general it would not occur to many second home owners to register for electoral purposes in the district of their holiday or weekend home, but in marginal seats there are many cases of political agents regularly writing to second home owners asking them to apply for registration in the district of their second home. These political agents are often very helpful, because they even supply the owner of the second home with a copy of the requisite form to fill in.

Although dual registration occurs widely, there is little evidence of dual voting. This is difficult to check. I am not in any way suggesting that any political agent of any political party does other than sometimes actively to promote dual registration in certain areas. In my submission, it should be the main concern of all political parties, as a matter of basic principle, to limit entries on the register to the district of the person's main residence and not to permit dual registration, as at present. As I have said, in my view it is morally wrong that persons who are absent for much of the year should be permitted to vote, if they so choose, or if they are pressed to do so, in a district where they cannot have adequate knowledge of the locality because it is not their main residence. The right of a limited number of persons to dual registration because they have second homes can cause distortion of the true electoral position in a district.

With your Lordships' permission, I should like to read a short letter that I have received from a person living in a village just outside St. Ives in Cornwall. The letter is dated 13th January 1981. If the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, at any time wishes to see it, I can make it available. The writer is first kind enough to congratulate me and give me support in putting forward this Bill. He says—and I quote: It is in my opinion, and I know it is the opinion of many Cornish people, a reform long overdue. We are sick and tired of having our democratic rights as a distinct part of the United Kingdom undermined by those who only live among us for a tiny portion of the year and therefore cannot possess adequate knowledge of our local needs and conditions. A case in point is within this very village—Lelant—where a particular house is occupied for one month of the year only, this being only one case out of several locally but probably the most irritating because of the shortness of the actual stay of the owners, who presumably have the usual voting rights". Then he thanks me for putting forward this Bill.

I will now revert to the terms of the Bill, which are quite short. The first clause amends the Representation of the People Act 1949, and says: Where, apart from this Act, a person would fall to be treated for the purposes of sections 1 and 2 of the Representation of the People Act 1949 as resident at more than one place, he shall after the passing of this Act be treated for those purposes as resident at his main residence only". I pause there because I realise that there may be some Committee points—some problem arising out of a definition of "main residence". My advisers on this Bill and I discussed the position of students, and we feel that if there is a question as to what is the main residence of a student at university, that is a matter which can be dealt with quite adequately at Committee stage. I should also like to remind your Lordships of something that you probably know quite well. The term "main residence" is well known in the field of capital gains. However, so far as this Bill is concerned there is no hardship in somebody declaring what is his main residence for registration on the electoral register.

Clause 2 of the Bill has three subsections. One is its Short Title, that it shall be called the "Representation of the People Act 1980". Subsection (2) says: Nothing in this Act shall affect the validity of the electoral registers in force at the passing of this Act". Then the third subsection deals with the extent of the operation of the Bill, and says: This Act shall not extend to Northern Ireland ". In my view, now that the numbers of second homes have increased so considerably, the time has come for the right to dual registration to be abrogated. Persons should be registered on the electoral register in respect of one place of residence only, as is the practice for the majority of citizens in the United Kingdom. There is no hardship in this matter, as it seems to me. No serious administrative problems should arise. A person must decide what is his main residence and then he can get on to the electoral register in that way. In conclusion, may I say that the well-known democratic principle of "one person, one vote" should not be allowed to deteriorate and perhaps be sullied by lapsing into "one house, one vote" for a limited class of persons, namely, those who maintain a second home. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

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

4.46 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I first have to apologise on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, who should have been speaking on this Bill from the Dispatch Box, but he has intimated that, unfortunately, he has been detained elsewhere. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, not only for putting forward this Bill but for explaining it so lucidly and so effectively putting forward the democratic principle that is involved. Concern has been expressed by large numbers of people for a long time that it is possible for a person to be included on electoral registers for more than one constituency, where-ever that person has a residential qualification. We know there are instances where some persons have a London flat, a residence outside London and, also as the noble Lord has said, an additional holiday home which is used for occasional visits and for holidays. There may be other persons who have a number of residences in various parts of the country. I emphasise quite clearly that legally these persons have a complete right at present to be registered in more than one constituency where they can claim to have a residence.

It may be argued, why should we worry about it because the law makes quite clear that a person may vote in only one constituency at a general election? I thought the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, made a very good point when he stressed the position of holiday homes. There have been a number of election courts which had to be convened to deal with the question of holiday homes and as the noble Lord has said, there is considerable concern among other residents about the position of the Parliamentary vote in those constituencies.

As one who has been involved in running elections all my life and trying to get the maximum vote, I know what can be done in a marginal constituency. To make it quite clear, there have been some constituencies in which large numbers of persons have registered at their holiday homes and have affected the result in a marginal constituency, because persons may decide in which constituency they will exercise their vote if they are registered in more than one constituency. Of course, a sensible person says, "Where can my vote best serve the party I want to support"? So, even if it is only a holiday home which he visits for only a few weeks a year, that is the marginal seat in which he will vote. Whether he is Liberal, Conservative or anybody else, that is where he will exercise his vote.

There is a deeper point involved. Say a person has, legally, three electoral registrations in three separate constituencies. I know that in the last twelve months we have been very fortunate in that we have been free from by-elections but there could be a Parliamentary by-election in each one of those three separate constituencies and a person may legally vote in each by-election even though he cannot vote in more than one constituency at a general election. That would mean that a person would have three votes for a representative in Parliament. Surely that cannot possibly be justified by anyone and therefore in that respect the Bill is a further step towards fairness in parliamentary elections which I am sure all your Lordships will support. The whole point of our election law is to try to bring fairness and the maximum amount of democracy into our elections.

I have said that election courts have been held to consider objections and claims. The test, of course, is whether a person has a room or a house which he is entitled to occupy as his own and to which he can go at any time. It is on that principle that persons have more than one registration and residence is not even broken by being away for some time.

That brings in the question which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, as to the position of students. We are concerned with the position of students because it happens now that a student has a proper registration in the university or college town where he or she is studying and does not know that the parent has included his or her name on the household form "A", so he finds himself registered in more than one constituency. So he or she decides in which constituency he or she will exercise the vote. Most students are at their university town or college town for longer periods than they are at what might be termed their main residence. This is a point which should not prevent us supporting the Second Reading of this Bill, but it is a point which can properly be dealt with in Committee. I hope that is the course that your Lordships will decide to take.

I have not the slightest idea what attitude the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, will take on behalf of the Government. It may well be that he will put forward the position of registrations for local government. If a person is qualified by residence to be on the register, it could be argued that, therefore, that person must be a ratepayer, because the house is occupied, and he has a right to be registered in more than one local government area. By law although a person may vote only in one constituency at a general election he may vote in as many local authority areas as he can reach by car from one place to the other. In fact we know of persons who have been members of a county council and also members of more than one district council, quite legitimately. This is a point that might be put forward in opposition to the Bill. But I would argue that this is another point which we can deal with quite easily on Committee.

Under the present law Peers who cannot vote for Parliament are on the electoral register with the letter "L" beside the name, which indicates that they cannot vote at a parliamentary election. The same system could be adopted if it is felt that this local election argument is an important one. Therefore, despite these two provisos which can be dealt with adequately, I believe the noble Lord has put forward such a powerful case for the democratic principle of one vote only, and one registration only for a parliamentary election, that I hope the House will support the Second Reading of the Bill.

4.53 p.m.

Lord Balfour of Inchrye

My Lords, I rise to oppose this Bill, which I think is a bad Bill, for reasons which I hope to give in a very few moments. It extends beyond the acceptance of the principle of one man, one vote. It lays down where that man should exercise his right to vote and it says it must be his main residence. I think that is unfair in certain cases. It raises a question, which I will touch on in a moment, on what is a main residence.

Let me take the first instance where it is unfair. A man has a house in London; he owns it. At the same time he has an interest in Scotland, he has considerable agricultural interests, but his only residence there is a small crofter's cottage. The Government of the day come along and make some extreme proposal as regards Scotland. According to this Bill, if you accept that the man's main residence is in London he is not able to exercise the right to vote on some great Scottish national issue, or on important local Scottish issues, because Scotland is not his main residence. Yet it may be very much more important to him, and possibly to the country, that his single vote should be exercised where his greatest interests lie; his interests not only of his personal pocket and his agricultural land, but also what he feels is right for the country. Let us remember that Caithness and Sutherland was once a constituency with a margin of, I think, three or four votes when Mr. Gandar Dower beat Sir Archibald Sinclair, as he then was. I cite that as an instance of where the single vote of a man entitled to vote by reason of his large property interests has a national importance which he should be free to exercise, and which he could not exercise under this Bill.

The other point I want to raise concerns main residence. Who defines what is a main residence? So far as I am aware, the only body in this country that exercises the right to endeavour to define what is a main residence is the Inland Revenue, when property passes from husband to wife. There is no capital gains tax, but the capital gains tax is assessed and comes into operation when the wife dies. Who is to say that the small property the man owns in London should be subordinate to his much larger Scottish interests with only a small crofthouse? I think it is a new proposal to put into law, a main residence without any definition of what such residence is. When the man comes to cast his vote under the present principle of one man, one vote but with the restriction of locality which this Bill proposes, I think it will be very unfair on the man. I sincerely hope that if this Bill gets a Second Reading today it will die a natural death during the course of its endeavour to reach the statute book.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, and only because his speeches are always so clear, may I ask him to clarify two points he made? First, is it not a fact that where a taxpayer owns two residences he can at this moment elect with the Inland Revenue to choose one of them as his main residence? Does not that answer one of the noble Lord's points? Secondly, would he not agree that if the gentleman who lives in London and has the great landed estates in Scotland does not own the crofter's cottage but stays at a local hotel, under the present law he would not be able to vote in Scotland even though his landed interest in Scotland was a very pertinent electoral issue?

Lord Balfour of Inchrye

No, my Lords, I am afraid I would not agree. We are not in Committee, so I will not take the argument further. I may add that I think there has been far too much talk by the mover of the Bill about holiday homes. I am thinking of people who have great interests in two places, the greater interest not being in the small home he has in London which may or may not be defined as his main legal residence.

5 p.m.

Lord Glenkinglas

My Lords, I should like to say a word or two about this Bill because I think, as in so many cases, it is highly confusing, and a great deal of what has been said so far this afternoon has merely added to my confusion. I find it most extraordinary that we should be starting this Bill in this House. I know that we complain that Bills far too often start the other end and then come up to us. But here we are starting a Bill in this House on people voting in general elections when not a single Member of your Lordships' House has a vote in a general election. Therefore, we are really fishing in waters which ought to be quite different.

However, I slightly object to the theory that you have to choose your main residence because if you happen to have a second home you might vote in the second home either because you happen to be there or for any other reason and you did not really know anything about it. I know thousands of people who have only one residence or who might indeed choose a residence as their main residence, and who do not know anything about it either. If you are going to try to say that your residence is the basis of your intelligence, I find it difficult to comprehend!

Other points have been made that seem to me to be equally odd. For instance, one such point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. I know that the noble Lord has the most enormous experience in running elections throughout the country. I have had only a certain amount of experience as regards running an election in one particular constituency. One of the factors was that we had a great many people who were non-resident in the large county of Argyll. In the areas where they were most prevalent—I think that perhaps the Island of Tiree would be the one that had most croft houses owned by families living in Glasgow, Canada and other places—their average voting percentage was about 17 per cent. So, I find it difficult to believe that holiday cottages swing votes to any very great extent.

I think that we are on a number of pretty bad points. The fact is that it is perfectly right in our democratic system for people to say, "I want a Liberal Party or a Conservative Party or a Socialist Party elected at this election. Where can I go that gives my wishes the biggest chance of success?" I know that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, would entirely agree with me that if he could help in an issue of that kind he would do so in order to help his candidate—

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I should like to interrupt for one moment. It is quite true that under the present law I would do so because the law is there. But that does not make the law right; it ought to be abolished.

Lord Glenkinglas

My Lords, it does not make it right to change it. What the noble Lord is then saying is that what you have got to do is vote for a Member of Parliament and not for the Government. Perhaps I am biased, but looking back over the last 20 years I think that the calibre of the candidates, and therefore of the Members of the other place, has deteriorated quite enormously. It might well be that I would want to vote much more for the party than for the local Member who was standing for election, and I see no reason why I should not do so. For those reasons and indeed many other reasons, which are mainly Committee points, I think that this is an ill-thought out Bill, and I certainly do not think that it should start in this place.

5.4 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, for the clear way in which he has introduced this Bill, the purpose of which, as he has described, is to prohibit multiple registration of electors in Great Britain.

The noble Lord is establishing something of a reputation in this House on electoral matters. In this Parliament the noble Lord has already seen on to the statute book the Representation of the People Act 1980, dealing with the voting arrangements for spouses of service personnel residing in the United Kingdom and for the correction of the electoral register after it is published. That was something which all of us very much welcomed. But, despite the habitual persuasiveness of the noble Lord this afternoon, I cannot offer the same degree of enthusiasm with regard to this measure. My noble friend Lord Glenkinglas in his speech just now said that we were on to a number of pretty bad points. The speech which I have in front of me says, rather more gently perhaps, that this is, we think, an undesirable change in our electoral laws and one which could present certain practical difficulties.

As the House will know, the persons entitled to vote at an election in Great Britain are those British subjects and citizens of the Republic of Ireland who are 18 years of age or over on election day, are entered on the electoral register and are not otherwise disqualified from voting. This franchise is common to Westminster and to the European Parliament elections and to local elections.

It is entry on the electoral register which is the key factor with which we are concerned now. We are all familiar with cases where, despite considerable publicity, people who are otherwise qualified simply have not checked—perhaps they have not taken very much trouble—and then find that on election day they are not on the register and cannot vote. Such cases, affecting as they do the most basic rights of the citizen, are deeply regrettable. We all very much hope that, as a result of the earlier Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, going on to the Statute Book, this situation will happen far less frequently.

Overall, however, I think that there would be widespread agreement on the general integrity and accuracy of the electoral registers which we have in this country. That accuracy is something which is all-important, not only because of the effect on the essential rights of individual citizens to have their entitlement to vote protected, but also because the canvass for the electoral register is our only annual survey of population in this country.

I should like to stress that the Government really are not complacent about the quality and the accuracy of our electoral registers. As part of the secondary legislation necessary to implement Lord Lloyd's earlier Bill, to which I have referred, the Government have proposed substantial changes to the various electoral forms which are in use, to make them more readily comprehensible and easier to use. In conjunction with the British Youth Council we have conducted publicity campaigns to encourage young people, eligible for the first time, to ensure that they are entered on the electoral register and we have done other things besides.

At first sight, this Bill which the noble Lord is putting before your Lordships' House may seem consistent with that policy to which I have just referred—the policy of trying to see that the register is as good as we can possibly make it. By providing that an elector will henceforward be registered only in respect of his main address this Bill would—so the noble Lord is arguing—apparently eliminate multiple registration and make registers of electors a more accurate reflection of the true electorate.

But, if I may say so, I fear that the noble Lord's argument begs two questions. First, is it right that a qualified person should only be able to be entered on one register? Like my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye I shall argue that this is not such a self-evident proposition and that in certain cases multiple registration is arguably desirable. Secondly, in imposing this first requirement of registration only at the main residence, is there not a danger that the essentially simple process of electoral registration will be complicated so as to make the end result more inaccurate? If I may, I shall argue very briefly that if the noble Lord's Bill were implemented less, rather than more, accurate electoral registers in Great Britain could very well be the result.

But, on the first question of the statutory entitlement to be registered on more than one electoral register, I should point out that it is, of course, necessary that the electoral registration officer should be satisfied that a person claiming to be entitled to be registered was resident on the qualifying date—10th October in Great Britain and 15th September in Northern Ireland. But the term "resident" is not defined in any statute, but is decided on the facts of each case by the registration officer according to principles established in case law. And, against all decisions of a registration officer there is a right of appeal to the courts.

It has been established in successive judgments that while a person is not to be registered for an address where he or she is staying temporarily on the qualifying date, a person is to be registered for his normal place of residence even though he may be temporarily absent from it on that date. The term "constructive" residence has also been used in several judgments to denote where someone's residence at an address is not interrupted by mere absence if he intends to return and has the right to do so at any time—for example, if he goes away on a business trip.

One principle which has underlain judgments on residence is that a person may be able to claim residence at more than one address. If you are not resident continuously for the whole year at a particular address, the present law allows you to register by virtue of establishing constructive residence both at that address and at one or more other addresses which you may habitually use. It is that opportunity—of registering at more than one address—which, of course, the noble Lord's Bill would remove.

In his speech the noble Lord told us of the registration officer in Cornwall rejecting some 300 out of 800 applications for inclusion on the register. If I may say so, that shows that the correct principles were being applied by the registration officer. But this Bill strikes at the concept of constructive residence on which our electoral registration legislation is built.

There are, after all,—and we are talking in practical terms—several groups of people who might legitimately claim to reside in more than one place. There are students, for whom this Bill could cause particular difficulty, although of course I go along with what the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said, that many matters can be looked at closely in Committee, and of course always are in this House. However, I think that the Bill would create some very real difficulties for students. There are people who have perhaps temporarily left home, which they still regard as their base and to which they return regularly, to look after sick relatives or to assist in a family business. And there is the group which the noble Lord and, I think, other noble Lords have had in mind; they are the people who own, or who rent, or who otherwise are occupiers of two homes. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, will acknowledge that there is a very clear law in this country against double voting in elections to the same authority. It is unlawful for any person to vote more than once in a general parliamentary election, no matter on how many electoral registers he is entered. Indeed, the noble Lord very fairly recorded this in his speech. There is thus, if I may say so, no elite group—as the noble Lord also suggested in his speech—based on property, of parliamentary electors in the sense of persons who have more than one vote. I think that we would agree that there is no suggestion of that.

However, let us look for a moment at local elections, to which the Bill also applies. My noble friend Lord Glenkinglas said that perhaps we were fishing in waters in which we ought not to fish at all because we are talking about general elections in this Bill. This Bill talks about waters in which your Lordships can fish, when there are local elections when we do have a vote; and I think that, therefore, we take particular interest because this Bill also applies to local elections. There we find that electors may vote in separate elections to different authorities so that, for example, a businessman living both in London and Devon is entitled to vote in both local authority elections. Again—I am afraid that I am robust about this—I do not think that that is necessarily undesirable. Yet it would be prevented if this Bill became law. An elector who lives in two different places—and many of us who work in politics have to live in two different places—will use local services and will be personally affected by the administration of local matters. I think that many of us would consider it a retrograde step if such persons were simply to be deprived of the local franchise. Any reduction in the capacity of informed people to involve themselves in local affairs is, in principle, undesirable.

However, the noble Lord's Bill would confine any elector's right to registration to his main residence; and this is, I would suggest, a more complicated change than has been suggested so far this afternoon. For, if the franchise is to be restricted in this way—and certainly this business of the main residence has been criticised by my noble friends—then someone will have to decide whether a person's application for registration is truly in respect of the main residence.

The noble Lord has perhaps overlooked the fact that in our present system the registration officer relies to a considerable extent on the forms submitted to him by householders. It is not every individual elector who actually submits the registration form. Thus, it will apparently fall to the householder to determine whether or not persons in the household are being entered in respect of their "main" residence. Of course, I acknowledge that, in the case of a family, that is absolutely straightforward. But in other cases, involving landlords and tenants or large residential institutions, it will not be so simple. Difficulties cannot easily be resolved by the registration officer. He may notice that a person has been left off the form in comparison with previous years; but is this because the person is no longer qualified, or has left the area, or because the address in question was never his main residence?

In case I may sound as though I am starting to nit pick, this point was made by the Working Party on the Electoral Register, which reported in 1977. A very distinguished member of that Working Party—before we had the pleasure of welcoming him to this House—was H. R. Underhill, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, to whom we always listen so carefully on these occasions. The working party, of which he was a member, felt that the prohibition of multiple registration, as provided in the Bill, would conflict with the registration officer's statutory duty to register all persons in the district appearing to him to be qualified. I agree with the conclusion which the noble Lord and his colleagues on the working party reached. I would only add that in our view the noble Lord's Bill would certainly complicate the registration officer's job and make the process of electoral registration more difficult and more expensive.

The working party to which I have referred went on to make another criticism of the proposed prohibition of multiple registration, which I think is also worthy of consideration before we complete this Second Reading. The working party said that: Enforcement [of such a provision] could be difficult without some process of correlation between different registers, which itself could involve questions of compatibility between different computer-held records". It is certainly difficult to see how a ban on multiple registration could effectively be enforced. Unlike Northern Ireland, there is, of course, no centralised registration record in Great Britain. Only by having precise advance knowledge could a dual registration be discovered. Although in Northern Ireland, where of course multiple registration is prohibited, it is relatively easy to cross-check several entries on one register, that would not be possible for the 400-odd registers in Great Britain. In any case, the fact of dual registration would not necessarily be conclusive evidence that there had been a deliberate offence. It is quite possible for a householder to put on the registration form names of tenants and others without their being involved in any way.

Therefore, it is precisely for the practical reasons which I have described that the Government believe that the noble Lord's Bill would introduce a complicating and, I must say, I think an unnecessary factor into our electoral legislation. It would make more difficult the task of electoral registration officers, on whom of course there is the statutory duty to see that the register is made up properly. It would, in certain instances, impose onerous tasks on individual householders. It seems to the Government that the mischief against which the noble Lord believes his Bill to be directed is, at least in local government terms, not a mischief at all; and, in parliamentary terms, is certainly only an arguable and not, I submit, a proven case. Therefore, I cannot undertake that the Government will support or assist the passage of the Bill, although I thank the noble Lord for the opportunity which we are having to debate what I think is an important matter.

5.20 p.m.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, may I first of all generally thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this interesting debate, which the noble Lord the Minister has said is a very important matter. I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, for his support. He is, of all noble Lords, the most expert in these matters as the one-time national agent of the great party to which he belongs. I think that he paid a great tribute to the Bill, for which I thank him, when, to use his words, he said, "This is a further step in the progress of parliamentary democracy. It brings fairness and maximum democracy to our land." He very fairly raised two points, which I have always had in mind and which are Committee points, as he accepted, and they related to the position of students, and also to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, in regard to multiple voting, and multiple registration therefore, at local elections. I think it is agreed in this House that both of these are important points which can be dealt with on the Committee stage.

I was most interested in, and grateful for, the powerful contributions by two distinguished Peers of the Realm from Scotland. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, for the example he gave of a problem arising with a man who had a house and lived in London and interests of the kind he indicated in Scotland. There again, I think that perhaps he was asking that this Bill should not apply to Scotland. Again, this is a point which can be dealt with in Committee. He also referred to the definition of "main residence". As the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, was good enough to interpose, it is for the person concerned to elect to the Inland Revenue for capital gains purposes what is his main residence. Also the question of what constitutes a main residence arises when you try to get mortgage arrangements in respect of loans in regard to a house.

The noble Lord, Lord Glenkinglas, was good enough to say that perhaps I was completely out of step in encouraging your Lordships to consider this matter in this House. But the very fact that we are not allowed to elect at a general election would appear to me to justify our taking up this point, because how could there be clearer objectivity in discussing a matter of this kind when none of us has any interest of whatsoever kind. But I entirely agree with him that there is this problem regarding local government. Again this can be dealt with in Committee.

I am grateful to the noble Lord the Minister for his kind words about another Bill in which I was concerned, and which eventually came on to the statute book, in regard to the form of entry on the electoral register of spouses of members of the armed forces. The noble Lord referred to a commission which discussed matters a couple of years ago, of which the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, was a member. He quoted from the report of that commission, saying that it would appear that certain aspects of the present Bill were objected to by that commission. I console myself that the same argument was raised against me in the Bill on the representation of the people as regards services' spouses, and happily I was able to overcome the objection raised on the basis of that commission's report.

I think all noble Lords who have participated in this debate have indicated that most of the points they have raised arc points which could be dealt with in Committee. Therefore, I am not going to go into detail to deal with all the points raised, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, will not think I am being discourteous at this stage in not endeavouring to deal with the substantial points he has raised on behalf of the Government. In these circumstances, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time.

5.25 p.m.

On Question, Whether the Bill be now read 2a?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 46; Not-Contents, 77.

Airedale, L. Kilbracken, L.
Auckland, L. Kirkhill, L.
Avebury, L. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.
Aylestone, L. Lloyd of Kilgerran, L. [Teller.]
Balogh, L.
Banks, L. [Teller.] Lockwood, B.
Barrington, V. Longford, E.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Melchett, L.
Birk,B. Mishcon, L.
Boston of Faversham, L. Noel-Baker, L.
Brockway, L. Peart, L.
Collison, L. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Cooper of Stockton Heath, L. Rochester, L.
David, B. Segal, L.
Davies of Leek, L. Shinwell, L.
Foot, L. Stone, L.
Gaitskell, B. Strabolgi, L.
George-Brown, L. Underhill, L.
Goronwy-Roberts, L. Whaddon, L.
Gosford, E. Wigoder, L.
Hale, L. Winstanley, L.
Jeger, B. Winterbottom, L.
Kaldor, L. Wynne-Jones, L.
Kennet, L.
Abinger, L. Hornsby-Smith, B.
Allen of Abbeydalc, L. Hylton-Foster, B.
Ampthill, L. Ilchester, E.
Armstrong, L. Killearn, L.
Balfour of Inchrye, L. Kinnaird, L.
Belstead, L. Lauderdale, E.
Bessborough, E. Lindsey and Abingdon, E.
Boardman, L. Long, V.
Boothby, L. Lyell, L,
Caithness, E. Mancroft, L.
Cathcart, E. Marley, L.
Chesham, L. Merrivale, L.
Cork and Orrery, E. Mersey, V.
Cottesloe, L. [Teller.] Middleton, L.
Craigavon, V. Morris, L.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Dacre of Glanlon, L. Renton, L.
Daventry, V. Rochdale, V.
de Clifford, L. Sackville, L.
De La Warr, E. St. Aldwyn, E.
Denham, L. Salisbury, M.
Derwent, L. Shannon, E.
Elles, B. Sharples, B.
Elliot of Harwood, B. Skelmersdale, L.
Energlyn, L. Somers, L.
Faithfull, B. Spens, L.
Falkland, V. Stanley of Alderley, L.
Ferrers, E. Stradbroke, E.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Strathclyde, L.
Gainford, L. Strathspey, L.
Gisborough, L. Sudeley, L.
Glenkinglas, L. [Teller.] Swansea, L.
Gormanston, V. Swinfen, L.
Gridley, L. Teynham, L.
Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L. (L. Chancellor.) Vickers, B.
Vivian, L.
Wakefield of Kendal, L.
Hanworth, V. West bury, L.
Hawke, L. Wootton of Abinger, B.
Holderness, L.

Resolved in the negative, and Motion for Second Reading disagreed to accordingly.