Scotland (Electoral Arrangements)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th March 1950.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Pearson.]

10.15 p.m.

Photo of Sir William Darling Sir William Darling , Edinburgh South

I want to take the opportunity in this still crowded House to congratulate the hon. Lady the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland on her appointment and to say that the Government are perhaps right in supposing that, although there are very few Scotsmen in the administration, perhaps she is worth ten ordinary Scotsmen. We are grateful for her presence on the Front Government Bench,

I intend to speak on the recent election, that important event which took place on 23rd February, in which millions were deeply and profoundly concerned. I want to ask how the Government prepared for this great event. After all, they had the choice of the day and the choice of the month, and this seems to me to have been an excellent opportunity, a perfect opportunity, for the planners. Here was an opportunity where there were no encumbrances of Tory misrule; here was a fresh and fair country into which none had ever entered before, and on this occasion, at any rate, the people were eager to co-operate with His Majesty's Government. They were concerned to express their vote, and this was surely a test of the State's capacity to plan and administer.

How did it go? That is the question I ask. It went as we see it. There were a number of interesting and some unfortunate occurrences. There was a very big poll, but there was also a very defective roll. There were many omissions from that roll, there were many blunders, miscarriages and mistakes. I know that the argument will be advanced that it went not too badly after all, and that the errors were infinitesimal among the millions of votes cast. But this will not do for me. I think that the suggestion—if it is the suggestion the hon. Lady is going to make—that those relatively few votes were unimportant is one that I must challenge. I challenge that assertion because if nine of us are important on these benches and on the Government benches, I submit that nine votes in Scot- land cast for any candidate and made null and void by the mismanagement of the Government's arrangements are also no less important. I think votes are vital, however they are cast, whether by humble people or by people in positions of strategic importance.

If the hon. Lady uses that argument—as I think she will, because she has that simple fresh innocence of her sex—I should like to tell her that she will not get away with it. Perhaps I may mention to her the well-known instance of the young lady who was embarrassed by an unexpected baby and who excused herself by saying that it was only a little one. The fact that these mistakes are only infinitesimal will not, in my opinion, enable the hon. Lady to excuse herself.

This new registration was the first under the new Act and was prepared, in the words of the Act by "a house-to-house or other sufficient inquiry." What is "other sufficient inquiry?" Officers faced with this duty found difficulty in interpreting that phrase. As the hon. Lady knows, we have large tenement buildings in Scotland. It is said that "other sufficient inquiry" in some instances consisted of the officer calling at the two lower flats and calling upstairs on the fifth or sixth floor, and asking who lived there and who wanted to vote. It is a misunderstood phrase which should be more clearly and exactly defined. The Service votes were disappointing to the Government on this occasion. Perhaps the Government were at less pains to see that Service men were instructed to vote; certainly my information is that many of the units barely understood what the voting arrangements were. I hope that those concerned will see that in future the Service voters are given the same opportunity as they had in 1945.

As to the register at home, the Government had four and a half years to prepare it, and it was a bad register. That is not only my own view. I call evidence from Glasgow—a centre where, at any rate, the views of their representatives will be respected by His Majesty's Government. Councillor Mrs. Jean Roberts, who is well known to many here, said that persons who had lived at the address for years were not included. In the Tradeston division, the Glasgow "Evening News" said, one in eight could not vote, and at one station, of 100 who came to vote only 20 were on the register. That is the register the Government have had four and a half years to plan and prepare. In Camlachie, the same newspaper said, 12 people an hour went away without voting. I do not know whether those are reliable statements, but they are statements made by reputable persons in a reputable newspaper.

In Edinburgh, of which I can speak with greater certitude, a careful and prudent city, the Lord Provost has called for a report owing to the widespread criticism of the electoral roll. In Fife the county council were concerned about the matter. Bailie John Maxwell, of Buckhaven, is quoted as having said that he knew of cases of husbands and wives living together, and the wives were omitted from the roll. Provost Drummond, of Lochgelly, is reported to have said that in his town the roll had been "an absolute scandal," and that in one street 50 electors who had been voting for years had been deprived of their vote, and that in another street a whole family of seven were all down on the roll, to the youngest child aged three. Mr. John Sneddon, of Kelty, said it was the worst electoral roll ever issued in this country.

These are the views of the Kingdom of Fife, but they are also shared, you will be grieved to learn, Sir, by the County of Ayrshire. The new Member for Ayrshire, Central (Mr. Manuel) is reported to have said that candidates and parties in Ayrshire—he was speaking with the authority of a newly and somewhat unexpectedly elected Member of Parliament—were dismayed at the number of people who at the poll had no vote.

That is some of the evidence upon which I base my argument that the roll was carelessly and inadequately compiled. I read a letter in the Scottish Press which said that children had votes and the adults none, and another writer said that he had two votes, one at his home and another at his "digs" where he lived only five days a week. Someone else said that she had votes in her household for herself and for each of her five youngsters. I know that this will grieve the Home Secretary, whose broadcast encouraged the belief that admirable arrangements had been made. All this was a disappointment to me, as I know it must be to him.

Here is another example. This is a sinister one. The wife of a well-known Member of Parliament, whose politics were known, I regret to say such is the bold character of the lady, had her name on the roll; she went to see it there; but when she went after the roll had been rearranged, although the names of her household, including her insignificant husband, appeared on the roll, her name had been deleted. The clerk informed her that he thought she was under 21. The remarks of the lady quickly dissipated that illusion.

Then there was a Conservative, the chairman of a Conservative association, prominent for 20 years in that capacity. His is a remarkable case. His name was on the register. I went with him to see about it. He is a constituent of mine, and his effective running of the association in one of the wards contributed largely to my handsome majority. His name was on the roll. Previously, he had been to see what it was there; but between that time and the time of the election he received a postcard saying what an application for a postal vote had been received and was being dealt with. He paid no attention to this postal communication for it did not appear to refer to him. However, when he went to vote he found against his name "P.V." These mystic letters meant nothing to him, until he was told that they meant that he had a postal vote and could not vote then and there. He went to the registration officer and told the registration officer, and he said, "So far as I am concerned you have had a postal vote. It appears you have a postal vote, and if the Postmaster-General loses it, it is just too bad." This was a well-known Conservative. I do not say there was any mystery about this, but it raises suspicions in my mind. There was a well-known Conservative woman whose name disappeared from the roll, and there was the case of this well-known Conservative man.

There were other anomalies. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Argyll (Major McCallum) drew my attention to some significant matters relevant to this inquiry. In 1935, in Argyll, 43,000 persons were on the voters' roll. Ten years later it was 44,000 and in 1950, 38,000. The Registrar-General in 1939 finds that there is a population of 61,000; in 1949, 66,000. I know that the population are not all voters, so if we take one-third of the population which, from the Register-General's point of view, would give 44,000 persons eligible to vote, why are there on the electoral roll only 38,000? These figures seem to require some examination.

Then there is the question of voting. I was informed that there was some impersonation, and I asked why the identity card, so uselessly carried about and maintained for many years, is not used on such an occasion. If identity cards do not prevent impersonation, why should we not dispose of them.

Spoilt papers are one of the greatest grievances. The Secretary of State for Scotland said that there were rather fewer than 2,000 spoilt papers in Scotland. These spoilt papers are the most grievous thing that can happen to voters. They are perfect votes and the intention of the voter is clear, so why is the intention of the voter denied because an officer of the Crown has failed to die-stamp the voting paper? That is a very great hardship. Because of the failure of His Majesty's Government's officers to discharge their duty, it seems to me that the voter is disfranchised. I am not suggesting that there is any impropriety in these matters, but it is the case that in one of the wards for which I sit a very determined supporter of mine entered a polling booth and said "Is this where you vote for Darling." I do not say that it happens, but it would be quite possible for the polling officer to invalidate her desire to vote for the gentleman referred to by merely eliminating the die-stamp. It is the business of the Crown to see that adequate arrangements are made to protect the voter, but why cannot these die-stamps be done away with?

Photo of Mr Adam M'Kinlay Mr Adam M'Kinlay , Dunbartonshire West

The hon. Gentleman suggests that we should do away with the die-stamp. Does he propose to close all the printing works in the interim period before the election because if there is not a stamp on the ballot paper there could be phoney papers printed. I am not suggesting that this is done, but it could be done.

Photo of Sir William Darling Sir William Darling , Edinburgh South

If the only alternative to the training of polling officers in their important duties is the control of the printing works during the period, I prefer to rest on the possibility of getting these officers to discharge their duties. I do not believe, however, that in this country the forgery of ballot papers to the extent that would affect an election is practicable or possible. The responsibility must be with the Government. If the voter goes to the polling booths and fills in accurately his ballot paper, it should not be invalidated through any mistake, blunder or omission by one of the officers charged with that responsibility.

I want to say one word about postal votes. They were not issued with sufficient care in every instance. I have before me a postal vote. There is one number on the ballot paper, a different one on the envelope and another number on the identity declaration. Because of those different numbers the document was quite invalid.

Cars are another problem which affect us in the country severely. We are affected by this matter much more than are people in the towns, who often are within walking distance of the polling stations, or can get to them by public transport. In the country, in my own instance, it takes the greater part of the forenoon to reach the polling place, even with transport. Therefore, I suggest that the use of cars should be widened if the agricultural population are to have reasonable facilities for giving their votes.

An instruction card is issued to every voter. This is an extraordinary little document which, of course, I have carefully studied. On this card it says that it is the business of the voter to see that the presiding officer stamps the official mark on the ballot paper before he gives it to the voter. I do not think that this instruction should be given, or at any rate it ought to be modified. Then it says, "Put one cross to name to right opposite name of candidate." That has been read by some people as "to the right opposite." The words, "right opposite" caused confusion. I suggest, with due deference to the right hon. Gentleman, the Home Secretary, that the words should be, "Put a cross to the right after the name." It seems to me that this would be less likely to be misunderstood than the present wording. The third observation on the card is a cryptic one. It says, "If you put any other mark on the ballot paper, your vote may not be counted." I can assure the House that in Scotland the returning officers would not take "may." They would say quite plainly that in these circumstances, the vote must not be counted. Why the permissive "may?" In my experience, there was no permission; it was absolute.

With regard to the polling booths, these were often in obscure places, which were not easy to find in the dark. They opened at 7 a.m., and I saw men and women wandering about wondering where the place was. There should be large signs outside the polling places. Instead of that, there were signs with a lot of small print and then words in larger print announcing that it was a polling booth. I had to guide a number of persons to the polling booth. I suggest that these places should be well and fully labelled, and I suggest that the idea that boards cannot be put within a reasonable distance of polling stations should be reviewed. What is a reasonable distance? I informed the police that it should be six feet. If I had not done something of this kind, people would have passed and repassed the place and would not have known that it was a polling station. They might easily have thought it was some obscure place lit up rather earlier than usual in the morning. Many of the polling stations were upstairs, and old people had to clamber up the stairways to vote.

I must draw to a close, though there are other important matters which I could mention. Why, for instance, should not the counting be done on the same day as the polling? Why should there be a photograph taken in one Scottish polling booth of a child aged two putting a ballot paper into a ballot box? No unauthorised person should be allowed in a polling booth. Yet this picture appeared in the Scottish Press. I may say that if these things are encouraged, I shall at the next election produce a series of more interesting performances than even a child of two putting a voting paper into a ballot box.

The committee which has been set up should have consultations with the candidates and their agents. I think there should be a survey of buildings suitable for polling stations. I think theft should be advisory bureaux to help people to understand the problems of voting. There should be electoral rolls in other places than post offices, which are now the most crowded and inconvenient places for inspecting them. There should be authority to allow a vote when the error of the elector is apparent. There should be a card sent to a voter when his or her name is taken off the voters' list. I suggest that the last election was a great opportunity to show administrative efficiency. For forms of government let fools contest,Whate'er is best administered is best. The last election was not very well administered. I hope that the Government will think over these matters and do better next time, because if not, there will be not a Socialist victory but a Tory triumph.

10.35 p.m.

Photo of Miss Peggy Herbison Miss Peggy Herbison , Lanarkshire North

I am sure that hon. Members on all sides of the House are indebted to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Sir W. Darling) for raising tonight a matter which has caused some concern, and perhaps much heart-burning, in Scotland. There have been many complaints from cities, as well as from country districts, of the nature of those given tonight.

I may tell the House that at my own eve-of-the-poll meetings, I stressed the importance of the right to have a vote and the even greater importance of recording that vote. In fact, I stressed the most important thing—perhaps the most important when the poll is about to take place—and that was how the people could record their votes. I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman when he stresses the seriousness of being denied that right for any reason at all.

I suppose that there has never been a perfect register; but the pre-war registers were much more accurate than those used at the last General Election. As hon. Members know, the production of the annual registers was suspended at the beginning of the war. In 1943, the preparation for compiling registers was again revived, but those registers from 1943 to 1949 were not compiled, as the prewar registers were compiled, from information obtained by the registration officers, plus the result of the completion of registration forms sent to the electors. From 1943 to 1949 the information was obtained from the offices of National Registration.

The Representation of the People Act, 1948, laid it down that the next register, and those which followed, must be compiled in the way which was followed in pre-war days. I am sure it will be generally agreed that the method of the door-to-door canvasser and the use of registration forms is the only way of getting what would be an accurate register. The first under this new system was published on 1st October, 1949, and electors qualify on the preceding 15th June. This is the register about which we are having great complaints tonight and, I believe, correct complaints with a very real foundation.

But it is only fair to say that there are two reasons why the registers this time were much less satisfactory than they were pre-war. The first reason is that this was the first register for ten years compiled from material collected by the canvassers and from information on registration forms. The organisation which we had in pre-war times had largely been dispersed. The records which we had pre-war, and which were a great use each time, were completely out of date. We had to set up a new organisation, and find a new record system. Canvassers had to be obtained, but in a number of areas this was difficult, and when we did obtain them some proved to be not so efficient as we should have liked; but however good the standard of an initial effort—and we must take this as an initial canvass—it is almost certain to be less accurate than the type which we had before the war, when there were accomplished canvassers in most districts, apart from the fact that they had the previous records on which they could fall back. I would, then, give as the first reason why the register was not satisfactory the facts that we had difficulty in getting canvassers and that they did not have the records that previous canvassers had to fall back on.

Photo of Sir Edward Keeling Sir Edward Keeling , Twickenham

Is not the hon. Lady aware that the spring register of 1949 was prepared on a house-to-house canvass, and that the register on which the General Election was fought was not the first compiled from a house-to-house canvass?

Photo of Miss Peggy Herbison Miss Peggy Herbison , Lanarkshire North

The register on which the General Election was fought was the first one prepared under these regulations.

The second reason that could be given—and I am not trying to say we are at all satisfied with the position, but it is desirable to find out whether there are reasons for the great inaccuracy—was that the register related to the qualifying date in June, 1949, and in spite of all that the Opposition say, we did re-house a great many people in Scotland between June, 1949, and 23rd February, 1950. Many people had moved into different areas. They did not try to find out whether their name was on the register. When they went to vote, they found their name was not there. If they had taken precautions they might have found they could get a postal vote for their old area.

Photo of Sir William Darling Sir William Darling , Edinburgh South

I have had no complaints from the new housing areas.

Photo of Miss Peggy Herbison Miss Peggy Herbison , Lanarkshire North

The hon. Gentleman may not have had any complaints, but in my constituency and those of other hon. Members we did have definite complaints from those who had moved into new housing areas.

Those are the two main reasons for these inaccuracies. The registration officers, because they are really the people responsible, did generally a fairly good job of work in trying to get an accurate register in circumstances of very great difficulty. I would add that perhaps greater co-operation from the public might have helped to make the register more accurate. The Home Department, by radio and by advertising that the registers were on view in the post offices, did try to bring it home to the public that they ought to go and see if their names were on the register. If that had been carried out, the register might have been much more accurate than it was.

It is understandable that people who have lived in a house for 30, 40, or 50 years might take it for granted that their names would be on the register, but we have information that in one whole new property every name had been left off. Blame could be attributed to the canvassers, but it does seem strange that not one person in that new block of property took the precaution of finding out whether her or his name was on the register.

There will be a new register published tomorrow. We hope that this register will be much better than the one published last October. The canvassers have had a better chance. The next register will be published on 15th March, 1951, relating to a qualification date in December, 1950. Great efforts have been made, and will continue to be made, to get people into the habit of going to see the register and ensuring that their names are on the register. A suggestion has been made that instead of a period of two weeks, a period of four weeks might be given for the inspection of the registers. I think that is an excellent suggestion, because not only Labour Party agents but I expect Conser- vative Party agents would be given the time to help people to get their names on the register.

There were many other points raised, but in the short time left to me it has not been possible to deal with them.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at a Quarter to Eleven o'Clock.