I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
In moving the Second Reading of this Bill, I would like to apologise to the House for having to amend the original Act so soon after the House was good enough to pass it last year, but circumstances have arisen which make it necessary. We have found that there are imperfections, which I will detail, not so much in the Act itself, as in its administration. In connection with this real difficulties are being experienced. I take it that the House generally, having passed the Act of last year, will agree with me that it is very desirable that it should work. None of us can be proud of the imperfection of electoral registration at the present time, under which, when by-elections take place, a very substantial number of people, both men and women, who ought to be able to vote, are unable to do so because of the staleness of the electoral register. I think therefore that everybody will agree that there is an onus on Parliament to see that in by-elections the poll shall be as representative as the electoral arrangements can enable it to be.
The purpose of the Parliament (Elections and Meeting) Act was to provide an effective electoral registration system, despite the difficulties brought about by war-time circumstances and conditions. It provided for the introduction of the continuous registration system recommended by the Departmental Committee on Electoral Machinery. It is fair to say that the Committee had not contemplated that the system of continuous electoral registration would apply to by-elections—they were concerned with General Elections, not only post-war elections but also war-time General Elections—and they made recommendations whereby the electoral machinery would work for them. But they had not taken into account by-elections, and indeed they were not asked to do so. The Government were, however, anxious that by-elections should be fought on a representative and up-to-date register, and they provided accordingly in the Bill, which Parliament was good enough to accept. Certain practical difficulties have, however, arisen which were not foreseen in November last, and, if these are not overcome, I have to confess that the new system cannot be brought into operation at an early date.
Under the Act of 1943, the qualification for entry on the civilian register is continuous residence in the constituency for not less than two months prior to the last day of the month before that in which the election is initiated, and by "initiated" I mean, in respect of a by-election, the date on which the writ is received. If the date were 27th June, the civilians qualified to vote under the Act would be those resident in the constituency for not less than two months before 31st May, that being the last day of the month preceding the date of the initiation of the by-election. The Act also provides that on removal to another constituency, a civilian retains his qualification to vote in the first constituency until he acquires a fresh qualification elsewhere. Discussions have recently taken place with representative clerks who are electoral registration officers, and they have shown that many of them —I agree largely in counties in England and Wales—are unable to cope with the work entailed owing to war-time difficulties. Local government has lost to the Forces many experienced officers needed to organise and supervise the complicated clerical work. Secondly, extra clerical assistance is most difficult to obtain. In individual offices the number required may be few. The estimate for England and Wales is about 1,200 clerical assistants to do the routine work under supervision, but also—this perhaps is even more difficult—400 additional persons competent to instruct and supervise in this work, which must be accurately done; otherwise there would be, quite properly, loud complaints as to the imperfection of the official by-election machinery. Thirdly, to recruit and to train these extra officers would be a long and rather difficult business.
The clerks concerned are, I am sure, very anxious to help. In fact local government officers during the war have had to carry an increasing burden of new duties in which they were not hitherto experienced, and I think the adaptability of the officers and staffs, and indeed the members, of our local authorities, in all these war-time activities, commands the admiration and appreciation of us all. There is, therefore, no lack of good will. They are anxious to do their best. But some of them, after going exhaustively into the matter, assure me—and I have felt after careful consideration that I must accept their assurance—that they can see no method of coping with the work in the near future. Under the existing legislation, many of them fear a serious breakdown, due to errors and omissions by untrained clerical assistants, and, of course, a breakdown in one area will affect others, through removals, owing to the necessity to trace cases of removal through until registration obtains in the constituency to which the elector has removed. Fixing the appointed day, therefore, under the Act, which I am sorry I have not yet done—I had hoped to do it well before now—must wait until arrangements are adequate, not in a limited number of constituencies but in all of them, because, unhappily, I do not know—nobody knows —where by-elections are likely to occur. They may occur in any part of the country. Therefore the machine should be ready to function over the country as a whole, so that wherever a by-election may occur the machine will be ready to go ahead and the elector will be able to do his duty if he wants to do so. I am faced, therefore, with the situation that under the legislation as it stands, I should have to postpone the appointed day indefinitely, and the purpose of the amending Bill is to meet this difficult situation, which I very much regret.
The Bill does two things. It suspends the requirement of two months' continuous residence and substitutes a provision that a person shall be entitled to be included on the electoral register for civilians if he is registered in the national register, as residing in the constituency on the qualifying date. I know that Members in certain parts of the House are rather averse from abolishing, for the time being, this qualifying period. I sympathise with them. I like some attachment to the soil on the part of the electors in a constituency, and I do not, in any way, dispute the sentiment of those who feel rather unhappy on this point. But I have taken the greatest pains to see that the Bill is temporary, and that it will be brought to an end as soon as possible. Secondly, the Bill, partly in consequence of the first point—this is one of the ways of trying to meet the objections to it—puts back the qualifying date by one month, so that it will be a month earlier than it would have been under the Act. If my memory serves me rightly, it will be the end of the month next but one before the date of initiation. Anyway it will be a month further back in time.
This scheme will very much simplify the work of the electoral registration officers in a number of ways. Having mastered them reasonably well myself after much patience and industry I could describe these ways to the House, but I should bore the House and I am not sure that my clarity would be good enough to make the House understand what I was seeking to make it understand. I can say broadly that the existence of the two months' qualifying period in itself involves a considerable amount of individual clerical work, tracing the residence and so on of the elector. There is not only the question of getting him registered in the constituency in which he would be entitled to vote in the first instance, but of tracing him on removal if he moves. If the qualifying date is suitably put back—and also for the time being the qualifying period—the clerical work is enormously simplified. I can assure the House that that is so, but if any further detail is required my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be in a position to deal with any points that may be raised. The new scheme is not an ideal one but the Government are satisfied that it provides the only way of enabling by-elections to be fought on an up-to-date register in a short period.
Because the Government and I recognise that the Bill is not ideal, and because we ourselves would have preferred to preserve the modest residential period of two months if we could have done so, I have taken the greatest care to see that the Bill is temporary. There are a number of points which are designed to meet that end. In the first place, the word "temporary" appears in the Title of the Bill. In the second place, there is a mandatory direction to the Secretary of State that as soon as he is satisfied that sufficient staff and facilities are available for the operation of the 1943 Act, he shall make an order bringing the Bill to an end. I can assure the House, not only that there will be no wish on my part to avoid that obligation, but that the conscientious officers of the Home Office will see to it that I do not avoid the issue even if I wanted to.
I want to be absolutely honest with the House. I, personally, do not think it will. I do not think it ought to be, unless circumstances should force us, for example, to have a war-time General Election—which Heaven forbid. My own view is that whether a General Election comes during the European war or thereafter, this Bill ought not to be used if it is possible to avoid it, and every effort will be made to that end. The Bill also provides that the Measure shall come to an end on 31st December, 1945, unless a Resolution is passed by each House of Parliament extending the period of the operation. Thus the Bill cannot be extended beyond 31st December, 1945, without the specific and affirmative assent of both Houses of Parliament.
I think, therefore, that I have done everything I can to prevent any misuse of the Bill by the Government or by the Home Secretary for any political or other consideration. It is only because of the urgency of putting the new arrangements into effect for by-elections that the Government have been prepared to suspend, even as a temporary measure, the requirement of the two months' continuous residence. On this there are arguments both ways. Persons who change their residence should be enabled to exercise the vote in the new constituency at a reasonably early date. This is especially important when rapid transfers of the population are taking place, sometimes voluntarily to follow up war work and sometimes by direction of the Ministry of Labour, and so on. On the other hand, I cordially agree that it is in principle and in practice undesirable that persons should vote in constituencies in which they are birds of passage. They ought to have some modest degree of attachment to the soil of the constituency. The Departmental Committee, on which all parties were represented, recommended two months' continuous residence. The Government recognise that this is reasonable and that a residential qualification should form part of the permanent law.
But the choice now is between temporary suspension of the provisions and indefinite postponement of what all sections of the House desire. To meet legitimate apprehensions on this point the Government have proposed safeguards, including a mandatory onus upon the Home Secretary which will have to be observed. Nothing in the Bill impairs the doctrine that some degree of residence shall be the basis of the electoral qualification, and such disadvantages as attach to suspending the two months' continuous residence requirement are greatly mitigated by the other proposal in the Bill which puts the qualifying date back by one month. Under the 1943 Act the qualifying date is the last day of the month before that in which the election is initiated. Perhaps I may give an illustration to show how this works. If an election is initiated in June, under the existing Act the qualifying date would be 31st May. Under the Bill it would be 30th April, a month before. Persons qualifying to vote would be persons registered in the national register as resident in the constituency on 30th April. The great majority of these will have been resident in the constituency for a long time. Ordinarily, the newcomers will be a small fraction and most of them will be persons intending to reside indefinitely in the constituency. A few of these will be entitled to vote under the new Bill when they would not have been entitled to do so under the Act, but no-one will seriously object to that.
There may also be a small proportion of birds of passage, a species to which in this connection I have already objected and as to whom I think the House will agree with me. It is to exclude these transients that the continuous residential qualification is of value. In fact, by putting back the qualifying date we shall substantially secure the same result. For example, a person going to a constituency for a short visit will not be likely to get his national registration card altered on the highly speculative possibility that he might be able to vote in a by-election in that constituency. If he is registered as resident on the qualifying date he is not likely to be in the constituency on the polling day, which will be more than three months later. Still he could vote, and this possibility is admittedly a drawback. It is one of the reasons for making the Bill temporary. Putting back the qualifying date also prevents any danger of voters being artificially moved into a constituency for a by-election.
To take as an example an election initiated in June, the authors of the conspiracy would have (a) to know before 3oth April that an election would be initiated in the constituency in June; (b) to arrange for a number of persons to get themselves registered in the national register as resident in the constituency on or before 3oth April; and (c) to arrange that these persons should go to the poll in the constituency when the polling day Occurred in August. I have had a lot of experience of elections, and this would be too troublesome and would not be worth while. On the other hand, some enterprising party with a new technique might of course be able to develop practices which have not occurred up to now to the old-established firms. There are further safeguards. It is an offence already to make any false declaration as to residence, for the purposes of the National Registration Act. Moreover, individuals would be 'put to a good deal of inconvenience, not the least being that their ration books would have to be transferred to the area of their alleged residence; they could survive for only four weeks, as a general rule, on emergency cards. Therefore, the danger of gerrymandering is negligible, I hope, and need not be seriously considered.
I say again that I very much regret having to ask the House to amend this legislation so soon after its passing. We thought we were all right. The registration officers then thought they were all right, but they have been squeezed again and again for man-power. They assure me that the position is not satisfactory now and I feel that I must accept their assurances.
We passed the Act in November, 1943, on the assurances of the registration officers. The right hon. Gentleman has found that they were wrong; is he now satisfied that they are right?
They were perfectly genuine. They are very helpful and cooperative. They thought that with a big effort they could do the job. The fact is that with every month that goes by there is a tightening up on local government staffs as regards both number and quality, and the position becomes more serious. I cross-examined them, and believe me. I have not taken this matter lightly. I put them through the third degree. We have made every inquiry, in order to get the situation relieved. I can assure my hon. Friend that their case is genuine, and that we have to do something about it.
Yes, I will give information about that. I quite agree that it is material. My position under the existing legislation is that I cannot give a date. I do not know when the appointed day would be and I could not forecast the date. If the Bill is passed, I hope it will be possible to fix the appointed day for a date about two months after the date on which the Bill becomes law.
I have explained the provisions of the Bill. I would add that I have taken the liberty of asking the House to be good enough not only to give us the Second Reading to-day, but to take the remaining stages to-morrow. If we are to do this, we must work with all speed. We want the electorate to be able to vote as fully as may be in by-elections, even though the results of by-elections have been somewhat varied from time to time. Let as many people vote as may be. In the circumstances, I should be grateful if the House would give me the Second Reading of the Bill as early as possible, and take the remaining stages to-morrow.
I should like to say, on behalf of the Labour Party, that we support this small amending Measure. We take the view that the Government have made out their case for the Bill. I think there is general agreement in the country and in the House, that the sooner we get an up-to-date franchise for by-elections the better it will be. At the moment, by-elections have become largely a farce because of the pre-war register. We will support any Measure that will help to secure a better way of consulting the real views of the electorate than that we have at present. I was very pleased to hear the Home Secretary say that if the Bill were passed, we should be able to have the provisions in operation, in about two months, for any by-election that might then occur. I think hon. Members on all sides of the House will consider that that is not too soon, as the date from which we can have properly fought by-elections. This Parliament is already an old Parliament. Many people think it is out of touch with the electorate. Therefore it is all the more imperative that, when we have refreshment of the House of Commons by new Members coming in, these should be as representative as possible. On those grounds, therefore, we give our general support to the Bill.
It has been suggested in certain quarters of the House that the Bill should be held up because it does not fully amend the Act of 1943 in the way that all Members would desire. The Bill deals with the position of civilians. Many hon. Members have suggested that it should be held up until those Sections of the Act of 1943 dealing with the Service vote can also be dealt with. There is, on the other hand, a strong feeling that it would be a mistake to wait until after the deputation that is to go to the Service Ministers and to the Home Secretary on the question of the Service vote before getting by-elections properly fought. The question of the Service vote should be dealt with as a separate matter and should not be allowed to postpone this Bill. We take the view that it is better to get the Bill through first, and to deal with further amending legislation on the Service vote question afterwards, if necessary. I would like to say, on behalf of my party, that we do not take the view, however, that there should be a long postponement of that matter. The question of getting the Service man on the register is very urgent and must be dealt with by the House——
The only point I wish to make is that we wish the Bill to go forward. We do not wish that it should be postponed in order to deal with the Service question at the same time. We take the view, however, that that matter itself must be dealt with at an early date, and that it would be a scandal if it were allowed to wait. We hope therefore that the Government will be able to get the Bill through to-morrow, and we shall help them in every way we can to do so.
I join with the hon. Member who has just spoken, in the hope that by-elections may accurately reflect the opinions of the electorate. I do so as one of the newer entrants to the House. I am in favour of providing adequate machinery to enable those resident in a Division to express their vote when the opportunity may arise. I am sorry that, after all our labours last year, we should have to go back and amend the Act in one important respect. I fear two things, one of which is that the Home Secretary's hopes in regard to the adequacy of the amending Measure may prove unfounded. I understand that the assurances given this time last yeas about the other machinery were that that machinery would work perfectly. It seems to me—I do not want to get out of Order —that there are other respects in which the law that we made then will require amendment. That is all I desire to say about that point.
One matter which does trouble me is this. As I understand the situation, there has been no difficulty in the boroughs in operating the existing law. It follows, if the Hill receives its Second Reading, that all the work which has been done up to date in those boroughs will be thrown on one side. I cannot understand why what has been done in the towns should prove impossible in the country. I have done all I can to understand it, and I say straight away that, if I were satisfied of the real difficulty in the country, I should have no hesitation in giving this Bill my unqualified support. As I understand it, under this system a card index or file has to be kept. A suspense file has to be kept, for people who are not put in until two months have elapsed. All that is required is personnel to keep the card index system working. That is fairly simple work. It may take a little time to teach someone how to keep a card index properly, but I should have thought it was not work which was incapable of execution in the county districts. If it is, then we must make the changes which the Home Secretary has put forward.
I regard, and I think hon. Members opposite regard, the preservation of some residential qualification as a matter of great importance. I deplore the fact that, after one year, we have to come back and remove that qualification. At the same time, if the necessity really exists for this alteration, I think that, subject to one or two minor points, which would be proper for the Committee stage, the Home Secretary has put forward the best alternative proposals. I must say that I listened with the greatest care to his statement in introducing this Bill, and it seemed to me that we were asked to accept, in blind faith, the statement of these individuals that they could not do what is being done without difficulty in the towns—that they could not get the staffs required. If they cannot, I suggest that the Minister of Labour might be of some assistance. Before this Bill receives its Second Reading we should have the details of these difficulties more fully explained.
After very careful inquiries I shall support this Bill. My right hon. Friend has taken every care to consult experienced men, persons responsible for working the machinery of elections, and in the light of experience, this particular amendment of the law is necessary. I believe I am expressing the feeling of the House when I say that if we let this Bill go quickly through its various remaining stages to-morrow my right hon. Friend should, as a reward, give an undertaking to meet the wishes of the House and to deal with the larger problems, which experience has shown are crying out for solution, particularly those in relation to the Servicemen and the prisoners of war. I think the right hon. Gentleman should in that way reward the House for their good will and readiness to give him support on this Bill.
The other issue to which I wish to refer, I have already raised by intervention. I think the Government ought to make it definitely clear that it is not their intention to use this particular provision for a General Election. It would make a General Election a farce to have a temporary Bill of this kind in operation, and it would, inevitably, discredit the next House of Commons if it was elected on machinery of a kind provided merely to meet an emergency in relation to by-elections. The right hon. Gentleman has said once that the Bill ought not to be used for a General Election and I hope he will say it twice. Those are my two points. It should be made definitely clear, in the Bill, that the Government are honest in this matter, that it is merely a temporary emergency Bill, and that its passing is not an excuse for avoiding the larger problems of the Service and prisoners of war vote.
I think the House has to accept a large part of what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary told us about the difficulties of staffing among the registration officers, because the Home Secretary is in a better position to know the facts of the case than we are. But I do not think the House should accept without question all that the Home Secretary has been told. It would be as well if the House knew a little, as I am sure some hon. Members do—especially my right hon. Friend—about the machinery that used to operate in peacetime for making up the register, I think it was every six months. When I was a very young man, and presumably requiring work, an emissary from the registration officer asked me, at about the time when the register had to be made up, if I would like to go round ascertaining the names of residents who had been in a particular borough for a certain time.
Possibly that is relevant to what I am about to say. My hon. Friend's great-uncle and myself were, probably, equally inexperienced. We had it in common, that we were not trained staff. The Home Secretary spoke of highly-trained staff being necessary to make up the register. Actually, that is not the case. With all my inexperience, though probably I had agility to run round the houses and find out who 'was living there, which is something that my hon. Friend's great uncle could not have had, I feel sure that I was not fully trained for the work. Nevertheless, I was asked by the registration officer to do it, as were many others in a similar position. I think the gentleman who asked me was the rate collector. He had something to do with it.
My first point then is that I do not believe that the difficulties are really as great as my right hon. Friend has been made to believe by these local government officers. How is the register being made? He did not tell us that. Is it being done by the town clerk or registration officers in the constituencies alone, unaided? I have an idea it is being done mainly through the national registration officer, who has in his possession an index of the residents in a particular constituency. I am also given to understand that even the food officers have been brought in to assist in this matter. I really think that if a genuine effort is made to compile a register, which I am sure my right hon. Friend desires as much as any of us, on as wide a basis as possible, the difficulties will not be as great as the local government officers represent.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris), said that it would be undesirable to have this sort of register based on a brief residential qualification in a constituency, for a General Election. But millions of Service voters under the present Bill are registered precisely on those terms. They require to have no residential qualification. All they need to do is to indicate where they lived or where they would have lived, had they not been called up into the Services. I do not think, following his argument, that a register of this sort, so far as civilians are concerned, would be so undesirable. I agree that we want the electors to be related, as closely as possible, by residence to the constituency from which they are going to send a Member to this House. But we are living in war-time. We have to put up with war-time conditions, not only for the duration, I fear, but for some period after the war, including possibly a General Election, which my right hon. Friend says may not occur for 12 months after the cessation of hostilities.
Possibly I misunderstood my right hon. Friend, but I think he knows that it is the desire of many of his colleagues in the Government that a General Election should not be rushed immediately after hostilities with Germany have ceased. I am inclined to think that such an election as we had in 1918 would be undesirable from the country's point of view.
I thought the Home Secretary would have taken this opportunity, which I believe, Mr. Speaker, you would have permitted him, to say a little upon what is happening about the compilation of the present register and how far they have got with it. Under the original Act the Home Secretary has to make regulations; when he feels that sufficient staff and printing facilities will be available for the publication of the civilian register in the constituencies he should set certain machinery in force. We do not know what has been done and we are vitally interested in knowing. I imagine that some of my hon. Friends will be candidates at the next Election, and that just as it is desirable that the electors should know something about their candidates so candidates ought to know something about the electorate. Otherwise, how can they invite the support of the electorate? If the register is not published in very good time before the Election it will be a haphazard Election.
I urge my right hon. Friend to get the necessary staff, as I believe he can, so that the registers, in so far as they are complete—of course they will not be entirely complete until they are frozen on a certain date—with the Service side as well as the civilian side, can be published in the post offices and candidates or their agents can look at those registers to see whether all the constituents have been registered who they think ought to be registered and the electors themselves can see whether they are actually on the registers. They have no means of finding out at the moment whether they are on the register, and will not have any means of knowing until, all of a sudden, the register is published shortly before the Election, and then it may be too late for them to lodge their appeals and show why they ought to be put on. A citizen ought to be given some indication, by the publication of the registers, incomplete though they may be, whether he has a vote in a constituency at the next Election. I do not wish to oppose this Bill, which is very limited in its extent, but I ask the Home Secretary to be a little more forthcoming. The House is very much interested in this registration of electors and, so far as I have understood his remarks, the right hon. Gentleman has left us considerably in the dark as to how far the register has proceeded on its way to too per cent. perfection. I do not suppose any register will ever be that, but we are concerned to see that as many people as possible are registered, and at the moment we know very little about it.
Like many other hon. Members who have spoken, I am just a little puzzled to know precisely why this difficulty has arisen. I thought it was common knowledge that the new register is being prepared by using the bottom part of the old food cards, which merely have to be collected and filed in order, and then, as the changes come along—in one country district that I know of they amount to about Too a week—the register is just kept up to date. In this particular district of which I have personal knowledge, there is no suggestion that there has been any difficulty. Still, I feel one must accept the view of the Home Secretary, although I should be interested to hear a few more details about how that difficulty has arisen. If we are told that this is necessary, I certainly support this Bill, but in the couple of minutes during which I propose to detain the House I should like to reinforce the point of view put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger). This Bill asks us to do certain things to legislation recently passed, because it has been decided that the Act of 1943 will not allow an election to be properly conducted at the present time. I venture to suggest to the Home Secretary that this will not be the only thing which he will have to do to that Act of 1943. I have put down an Amendment in Committee. I rather doubt whether it is in Order. In view of the fact that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw spoke at some length on the subject covered by my Amendment, my hopes are rising that it may probably be held to be in Order, though I see by the look on your face, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that those hopes may be falsified.
The Home Secretary was asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) to give one or two additional concessions as a reward for passing this Bill, and I ask him if he will look into this point. Will he consider carefully what will happen under the arrangements which exist under the Act of 1943, for the publication of the register? Undoubtedly he should recognise that if there was a General Election even after this Bill has been passed after the announcement of the decision to have an election has been made, there will, most certainly, be an interval of a minimum of three weeks and much more likely five weeks, before anyone can get hold of a register. I do not think the public of this country will understand why for five weeks after the announcement has been made of a General Election, no candidate and no elector can find out how the register has been made up. I cannot see why, when this Bill has been passed, and as soon as he gets his appointed day, the right hon. Gentleman should not start publishing the register once a year, as it always has been in the past, and then, when the moment arrives, it may be frozen. It may be ten per cent. wrong, which will depend on the length of the interval, but there will be something for someone to work on, and it will be no more inaccurate than registers have been in the past. There will be uproar if there is an Election and if for five weeks candidates are milling around like tanks with no objective in front of them because they have not got one in the shape of the register.
I welcome this Bill, even if not wholeheartedly, and I am a little surprised that so much has been said in regret at the reduction of the qualifying period. I should like to say a word or two in favour of reducing this qualifying period in principle, so that we may welcome this Bill a little more enthusiastically than we do at present. I suggest that the whole conception of a qualifying period is a relic of a dead age. During the greater part of the 19th century, those entitled to vote were a very small and very select proportion of the population. Even after the Bill of 1884, I think I am right in saying that only about ten per cent. of the male citizens over 21 had votes. Between 1832 and 1884, the right to vote was a very special privilege given to relatively few citizens, mainly in relation to their ownership of certain property. The number of electors being very much smaller then than it is now, the majorities by which hon. Members were returned to this House were, normally, considerably smaller than present-day majorities. In those days it might have been worth while for some wealthy political gerry-manderer to do precisely what the Home Secretary has so well described as quite out of the question in these days of large electorates, namely, putting some friends of his into a constituency, and acquiring for them the property qualification which would enable them to vote. Indeed, I believe when the Lancashire cotton industry was interested in repealing the Corn Laws they did attempt something of that kind by setting up a fund to give a voting qualification to people who would, they knew, vote for the Whigs. When that was the basis of the franchise, it was very natural to put in a qualifying period, and a rather long qualifying period, to reduce to a minimum the chance of any gerrymandering.
The other basis for the affection which has been shown for a qualifying period rests upon a totally false view of the British Constitution, a view which treats this House of Commons as though it were something equivalent to the Senate in the United States, where the duty of members is to represent the special interests of the part of the country from which they come. That is supposed to be the duty of an American Senator. The Senator for Ohio represents the special interests of Ohio, and so on. In our case, surely, the matter is entirely different. We are not sent here to represent, at any rate on matters of major policy, the special interests of individual constituencies. Each one of us is not sent here to represent the special interests of his constituency. On the contrary, we are all sent here, the 615 of us, to represent the interests of the entire adult population of our country. If I am right in saying that that is the proper view to take of the British Constitution, and the decision having been taken that there shall be no special qualification for the franchise, but that the whole adult population shall vote, it seems to me that all this affection which is shown for a qualification period is rather misplaced. I cannot understand upon which basic principle it rests.
The important thing to me is that every citizen should have a chance of voting somewhere. In the case of the overwhelming majority of normal citizens, who live in one place and stay there, there will not be any particular difficulty. The only people we are dealing with are those who are constantly moving about the country, or those who happen to have made one of their infrequent moves round about the time of a General Elec- tion. Why should those people suffer any special difficulty? If there is a man whose life is such that it causes him to be constantly moving around the country, why should he not exercise the vote like any other citizen; and if he is going to vote, surely he should vote in the constituency in which he happens to be at the time of the election and not in the constituency where he was before, say, his last move but two?
I should like to point out one situation which might arise. If we are to implement the proposals contained in the White Paper on Employment Policy, we might have half a million people directed into labour camps, in order to keep employment high, and they would be entitled to vote.
I am grateful for that intervention. I am sure that all of us can cast our minds back to the hectic three weeks before we were elected to this House about nine years ago. At that time the qualifying period was something like nine months before the polling day. I am sure all hon. Members will agree that one of the real headaches for a candidate and his agent arose from this purely mechanical problem of removals. The energies of candidates and their agents had to be directed to this perfectly footling mechanical problem, which has nothing to do with the merits of the case. Why should not candidates and agents be free to do their real business of presenting their policy to the electors? During an election under this nine months' qualifying period I think about half their energies are directed to chasing up removals, and what it comes to is that the candidate who happens to have a very good machine for chasing up the removals is at an advantage of anything up to 1,000 votes per election, over those people whose policy may be quite as good, but who have not got the advantage of this purely mechanical assistance.
When this Bill was first introduced and I saw that the qualifying period was reduced to two months, I thought that one of the worst problems of honest, straightforward democracy had been divided by four and a half—the nine months' period having gone down to two months, and the removals, therefore, being two-ninths of what they had usually been. I am delighted to see that under this temporary provision they will be even slightly smaller, and I cannot understand what is the basic principle on which hon. Members opposite derive this remarkable affection for a qualifying period as such. It seems to me something which impedes those citizens, who happen to have moved just before an election, from using their votes—something which says to them: "You have just come to Cornwall, and you used to live in Sunderland. If you want to vote, go back to Sunderland, where you have already lost the interest of residence, because you have not been in Cornwall long enough to know anything about Cornwall." But we do not vote for Sunderland or Cornwall; we vote for Britain.
Rather inconsistently, and for quite a gratuitous reason, I am glad that other Members of this House do not share my views on this point because I welcome the fact that the Home Secretary has given an undertaking which, if I understand it rightly, will mean that it will not be so easy to have an immediate Election when the war is over. In answer, I think, to my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir Percy Harris) the Home Secretary pointed out that, in certain circumstances, a wartime Election might be pressed upon us. I still stick to the view that this House of Commons ought to have been renewed years ago, war or no war, but there is one period in which there ought not to be a General Election, and that is in the five or six weeks immediately following the collapse of German resistance in Europe. That will, inevitably, be a period of maximum change, disturbance, excitement and all the rest. I think there is no one who is interested in having an Election at that time except such party managers as conceive that they would get an advantage out of it. Everybody who has studied the end of the last war will agree, I think, that it was a disastrous mistake to hold a General Election one month and three days after the Armistice. I must press the Home Secretary to go a little further, and to say quite definitely that this Bill will not be used in order to get a General Election set in motion, so to speak, a month and three days after the armistice is signed.
If he cannot do that, will he do something less? I would ask him a question which he may, or may not, be able to answer. He said that if he possibly can, he will gather together the personnel necessary to make sure that the General Election is conducted under the conditions of the unamended Act. It seems to me that he must have in mind some estimate, however provisional, of the length of time that it would take to gather the necessary data. Whether it would be a week, six weeks or nine weeks, he must have some period in his mind. Whatever he has in his mind in this connection ought, I think, to be available to the House and to the country. We ought to have as much knowledge as he has—naturally, we cannot have more —of the sort of time schedule involved, after the collapse of resistance in Europe, for getting together the necessary personnel and the publication of the register—the earliest time at which a General Election can be held—and if he can help us in this, I shall be most grateful.
I shall detain the House only a few moments and I should not have done so at all, but for the remarks with which the hon. Baronet began his speech. It should be made clear from this side of the House, that, not only in this party, but in all parties, there is a genuine attachment to the residence qualification for reasons which appear to me to be good reasons. Speaking for myself and, I believe, for the great majority of hon. Members of this House, I should certainly have voted against the Second Reading of this Bill, had I thought it was intended to disturb the residence qualification for good and all. I accepted this Bill as a necessary evil on the word of the right hon. Gentleman, but if I thought that an attempt were being made to destroy the residence qualification, I should vote against it.
It is no surprise to me that the little Fuehrer of the small party of carpetbaggers should see no advantage in the residence qualification, but in spite of this carpet-baggers party, the people of the country, on the whole, are attached to IL It is true that, on major issues, the electors of a particular constituency vote in the interests of the country rather than in a purely local interest, but that does not mean, for a moment, that they ought to disregard the needs of the particular locality. I expect the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan) would be the first to disown any intention of standing for South Kensington.
I, for one, am the first to recognise that one of the great advantages of the British Constitution is that it permits persons to stand for a constituency outside the locality of their residence. It is of vital importance to the people of this country that they should treat the personal characteristics of a candidate as something of very great value, and it is because the residence qualification insists that they should do that, that we, on this side of the House, at any rate, attach a great deal of importance to it. The hon. baronet appears to regard the vote as a purely indefeasible right. That it is a right of every adult citizen, I do not dispute, but it is not merely a right. It is also a privilege, and a responsibility, and I can well understand that those who do not desire it to be treated as a privilege and a responsibility, should desire to get rid of the residence qualification.
There is another and practical reason why this qualification should be retained. One of the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference was in favour of the assimilation of the local and the Parliamentary franchise. Theoretically, I dare-say, there are arguments against such assimilation, but, practically, it would be of great advantage. Whatever may be the truth about the residence qualification in the Parliamentary franchise, I think there would be a good deal of opposition in the country, if it were desired to abolish it in the local franchise. If it is proposed to go forward with the recommendation of the Speaker's Conference, it becomes extremely important to retain the residence qualification for the Parliamentary franchise. Personally, I should have thought it better to provide the 600 or 1,000 extra personnel required in order to work the existing Act.
I should have thought it better to provide that extra personnel now, than to tamper in this way with the residence qualification and I, personally, regret that the Rules of Order prevent us from saying that we do not propose to see that civilians are better off than Service personnel.
May I ask the hon. Member a question? He has been pretty abusive about me and my party, as he always is. Supposing a bona fide citizen happens to have moved, as I suggested, from Sunderland to Cornwall one week before the General Election is held, is it the wish of the hon. Member opposite to deprive that citizen of a vote unless somebody can afford to pay the fare from Cornwall to Sunderland?
I agree entirely with the views of the hon. Member who has just spoken as regards the residence qualification, but I disagree profoundly with the rather unfortunate remarks he has been making about the hon. Baronet the Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland). I agree with him that we do not represent only, as the hon. Baronet says, the whole of Britain, but that each of us represents his own constituency as well, and I think it would be most unfortunate if any other impression got about the hon. Member's constituency.
I did very specially point out that it was on major political matters that we represent the whole of the nation. On minor matters of personal grievances, I made no suggestion that we did not represent the small-scale interests of the individuals who live in our constituencies.
It would be most unfortunate if we got the system of the party list such as exists on the Continent and such as might exist here, if we had no residential qualification. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I feel in a rather awkward position, getting so many cheers from the Conservative side; and I had better not pursue this matter any further. If I may pour a little oil on troubled waters, I would say that the hon. Baronet was, perhaps, somewhat naive about the danger of a khaki Election. He seemed to think that that was the only great chance which people had of deceiving the British electors. Members opposite know perfectly well how to do it, without having one. Although I would deprecate a khaki Election, I do not think that, even without one, we should be free from the kind of trap Elections that we have had in the past.
I rose, however, to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on having performed a job of work very efficiently. It may be said that it was a very simple job; but what might he have done? He might first have waited for five or six months. Then he might have sent a questionnaire to a large number of people. He might have called all the local mayors, town councillors, and other prominent people together, and said, "I wish to bring to the notice of all the inhabitants of every part of the country the need for them to register. You will please get out notices, fly-bills, and stickers, and you will stick them all over the town. You will then hope that people will read them; and if they have not read them it will be their own fault. You will follow that up by a sort of Gallup poll, and ask people whether they have registered." He might finally have sat back perfectly satisfied, having achieved 75 per cent. registration. It may be said that nobody would be so foolish as to do that; but another Department, which we are not allowed to refer to to-day, is controlled by a gentleman who has done precisely that. We may congratulate the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary on having filled his office very much more satisfactorily in this respect than the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary, of State for War has filled his.
I would like to say a word or two on this Bill, hoping for the unusual event that what is said here will influence Government action. I would not have spoken upon this subject but for one or two observations which were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) and my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale). I think both misrepresented the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland). The fact is that the division of the country into constituencies is a convenience for the House of Commons, and has, always been constitutionally regarded as such. If one looked back to the ways in which Parliament was elected from time to time, one would find that that principle was insisted upon on many occasions, in very many Statutes. Therefore, my hon. Friend was correct in stating that the House of Commons does represent the country as a whole, and that the constituency is a geographical convenience; for everybody recognises that a constituent exercises his suffrage, not only by voting at elections, but by continuous contact with the Member who represents the area in which the constituent lives. It is by that contact that he influences the decision of a Member of Parliament, who must think not only of what he has promised his constituents, but of having to return to the same constituents, to justify what he has done. Therefore, it is perfectly right to say that representing a particular constituency is a very healthy thing for a Member of the House of Commons.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich that party lists would be a very bad substitute; but the hon. Member for Oxford, with his usual intemperance, went right beyond that. It is not necessary to have a residential qualification to secure that result, because people normally live for a long time in the same place. We are not a population of vagrants: we are not moving about the country all the time. The vast majority of us live in the same place for a long time; and, therefore, continuous contact between a Member of Parliament and his constituents is preserved by social realities without the need for Statutes. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnstaple emphasised that point, and I would be very loth to hear any Member on this side of the House express such regard for the residential principle as has been expressed by hon. Members opposite.
I should like to offer an argument in support of what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnstaple. If hon. Members will looks at the proposals of the White Paper on Unemployment Policy—and some such proposals probably will be carried out at some time or another—they will see that large bodies of people will be forcibly removed from their places of residence and put to work somewhere else. Elections can take place when a large part of a constituency is empty—and, indeed, they normally will. The White Paper, and most of the proposals of the Government, insist upon a high mobility of labour. That means that the receipt of many of our social services by the worker is going to be made conditional upon his accepting directions to other parts of the country, when it suits the Government. So there may be a considerable part of the electorate shifted about. Those people are going to be the most dissatisfied part of the population: so I can quite see why my right hon. Friend does not want to see the residential qualification insisted upon. It is just that section who will be the victims of bureaucratic interference, and of that regimentation against which my hon. Friends opposite have been protesting in the Press and elsewhere. This is the section to whom I want to give the greatest chance of voting. [Interruption.] Yes, if a Labour Government cause conditions which make people dissatisfied, that dissatisfaction should find expression in the election. It is essential that we should arrange our system of election so that no considerable body of citizens is prevented from having a vote at an election.
My hon. Friend is suggesting that these sections of the population are completely disfranchised; but that is not so. They can still vote in the parts of the country where they are registered.
Some of them would be able to go back to vote in their own constituencies—those who could convince rich Conservative candidates that they would vote for them. We have seen that sort of thing in the normal course of elections, when workers who have moved out of the constituency have come to the polls in cars provided by rich candidates. But I want it kept to the smallest possible margin consistent with the machinery of registration, and I am certain that that is the overwhelming desire of the electors of this country.
May I thank the House for the way in which this Bill has been generally received? My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary came to the House, standing, to some extent, in a white sheet, to apologise for the necessity of the Bill, which is to amend legislation recently passed in this House. I think everybody accepts the desirability of the Bill, if the necessity for k is shown. My hon. Friends the Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller), the Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg), and the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) all, to some extent, doubted the necessity for this Bill. I would point out that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would not wish to bring in a Bill of this kind unless he was absolutely satisfied of the necessity for it. It is not a Bill out of which any Minister is going to gain very much kudos. We were attempting, by the Act of last year, to introduce a wholly novel system. We were aiming at having a register for wartime by-elections, which would be kept continuously up to date. There was to be no fixed annual qualifying period, as in the machinery laid down by the Act of 1918: that is to say, residence between two fixed dates in the year; nor, let it be noted, was the qualifying period for elections under the 1943 Act to be the two months preceding the initiation of the election. What we aimed at was a system which would give a qualification to anybody who, at any time, resided for a continuous period of two months in a constituency. That is to say, without any trouble on the part of the elector, he could move from one part of the country to another. He might be resident in Westminster, and he might then move, let us say, to Glasgow, and remain there for six weeks, and then go to Southampton, and reside there for nine weeks. This machine was to pick him up, and register him as an elector, not in Glasgow, because he had not resided there for two months, but at Southampton; and, at the same time, to take his name off the register in Westminster. To provide a machine which would do that automatically, without the need for any action whatever on the part of the elector, was aiming at a very high standard.
We thought that this machine could be worked, even under war-time conditions, but I myself sounded a note of caution in the Debates on the Committee stage. My hon. Friend the Member for the Abbey Division of Westminster (Sir H. Webbe) moved an Amendment, which would have still further complicated this operation, and, in resisting this Amendment, I observed that we anticipated considerable machinery difficulties in the new system. My anticipations, I regret to say, have been more than fulfilled. After no fewer than three meetings at the Home Office with the Clerks of the Peace, we are absolutely satisfied that this rather difficult machine cannot be worked at the present time. It is not solely a matter of numbers of personnel; it is a question of having people of sufficient ability and capacity to supervise that personnel if it could be obtained. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Commander King-Hall) and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw both asked whether it would not be possible to publish a register at some time of the year. They will recall that the Act of 1943 does provided for this matter. Section 12 of that Act provided for two things at two different stages. In the first stage, clearly, it is impossible, owing to shortage of printing facilities in war time, to print lists of electors or registers. In any event, you can publish the register only when the qualifying date has closed. You could not have a register. What you could have would be electors' lists, and these could be published only if sufficient printing facilities were available for doing so.
My hon. Friend should have raised his point when the 1943 Measure was before the House, because, in Subsection (3) of Section 12, he would have seen:
As soon as the Secretary of State is satisfied that sufficient staff and printing facilities are available for the operation of the following provisions, the electoral registration officer shall provide for the publication in each constituency of a list of persons who appear to be qualified to be registered if an election were initiated on that date.
What would happen at the present time would be this. Supposing this Bill were in force, and a by-election took place, electors' lists would be published on, I think, the 20th day after the initiation of the election, that is, approximately 33 days before polling day. These lists would be available to the candidates during the period of the by-election, but this Section was put into the 1943 Act because we knew that printing facilities throughout the whole country, for printing registers simultaneously, were not available. As soon as my right hon. Friend is satisfied that this printing operation can be done, then it is provided by the Act of 1943, and by the Regulations made under it, that there shall be an annual publication of electoral lists as they stand in all constituencies, and that, month by month, additions to and deletions from this register shall be published, so that, when this stage is reached, when the printing facilities and staff are available, hon. Members will have their month-tomonth lists of electors registered for every constituency.
Of course, I cannot prophesy when these facilities will be available, but I can give the assurance that the Minister will be most anxious to bring this part of the 1943 Act into force at the earliest possible opportunity. I can anticipate that printing facilities will not be available until the end of the war in Europe, but, of course, it is difficult to give a definite statement upon that point.
Would it not be possible, and was it not suggested when the matter was before the Committee, for people interested, like election agents, to have an opportunity of getting in touch with the registration officer and seeing these lists? There would be nothing to prevent that, I take it?
The Minister will consider this point, but hon. Members must bear this in mind. In our constitutional theory, anyone who can get nominated may stand for any constituency in which an election is taking place, and, therefore, it would not be fair or reasonable to supply lists of electors privately to the established political parties and not to other people. There has to be publication of the lists, but the point will be looked into. The hon. Member for Oxford and one or two other hon. Members spoke with interest about the residential qualification as a permanent feature of our system. I entirely agree, and I think it was clear from the Minister's speech that he agrees also.
I can give that assurance without any qualification whatever. It is not only a war-time measure, but it will expire at the end of 1945. This Bill is brought in because we see no real or practical alternative. It is intended only to provide for by-elections. As my right hon Friend said in his opening speech, the aim is to secure registers for these by-elections which are reasonably up to date and which give electors a reasonable chance of exercising their franchise. That is the whole object of the Bill. It is a purely temporary Measure, hedged about with all sorts of safeguards, and I think the House would be well advised to accept it.
I wish to make two points. One is on the question of the issue of lists. There are a certain number of constituencies—I think 19—of which one happens to be mine, which are to be redistributed very soon. It is essential to be able to get proper evidence before the Boundary Commission so that agents and others asked to give evidence should at least know the number of people who would have been able to vote in various parts of the constituency. I hope the Minister will consider that matter. I also want to protest, for the second time in this House, against the action of the Executive, in keeping either labour or paper short, which is interfere- ing with important Parliamentary functions. I spoke three months ago on the refusal of the Treasury, which is responsible for the Stationery Office in the matter, to allow the reprinting of certain copies of hon. Members speeches in this House. The answer then given me was quite unsatisfactory. I think there was a matter of Privilege involved in that case. Hon. Members were entitled to have reprints of their speeches if they so desired, and it was the action of the Executive, in keeping paper and labour short, which resulted in hon. Members being denied facilities, which they have enjoyed ever since HANSARD was taken over and printed by the Stationery Office. In this instance, because of the action of the Minister of Labour, on the one hand, and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, or the Minister of Supply, whichever is responsible for paper, on the other, these difficulties are being put in our way, We are prevented from doing our Parliamentary duties properly, and I think my right hon. Friend should look into the action, which places hon. Members in this unfortunate position.