I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Anybody who has the good fortune to introduce a Private Member's Bill has to steer a middle course. He has to navigate with caution, because on the one hand lie the shifting sands of triviality, and on the other lie the jagged rocks of frustration.
The Bill is not a party Measure. [Laughter.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite may laugh, but the fact is that it is not. It is not a controversial Bill. It is a very simple one indeed. It is designed to allow absentee voter facilities to be extended in Parliamentary elections to any person who will be outside his or her constituency throughout the hours of polling.
Before I go any further, I should like to ask hon. Members to check that they have the correct copy of the Bill, which had to be reissued because the Explanatory Memorandum was incorrect. The responsibility for this correction being necessary is entirely mine, and I hope that the House will not have been inconvenienced thereby.
Under the law as it stands, the following categories only may vote as absent voters, a really limited list indeed. First, people who are away on business. Secondly, people who are sick, or blind, or infirm. Thirdly, those who have moved house to another area. Fourthly, Service voters, including their wives. Lastly, people who, generally speaking, are concerned with the conduct of the particular election. Broadly speaking, all these people may vote by post, and most categories of them may vote by proxy if they are abroad or will be on the high seas on polling day.
Those arrangements leave out many categories of people who will be away from home, and must be away, on polling day, and I should like to give some examples of these categories.
First, there are wives who are accompanying their husbands on business trips. The extraordinary situation prevails that whereas the husband is entitled to vote by virtue of being away on business, his wife who accompanies him may not do so. This strikes me as a particularly unfair arrangement, and I have had many letters from my constituency and other constituencies, written by wives who do not like being disfranchised in this way. Shades of Mrs. Pankhurst! How absurd that women should be granted the vote only to have it removed from them in many cases by this glaring anomaly in the present law. A good deal more concern would be felt about this matter if husbands did not get the vote when they were accompanying their business wives.
The second category which is disfranchised in this way comprises men or women who are attending conferences—for example, trades union conferences, conferences of professional bodies, or of the many learned societies with which this country is blessed. Hon. Members on both sides of the House nowadays say a great deal about the better use of leisure, and we must expect that as more leisure becomes available to the general electorate more opportunities will present themsleves for people to go on educational or leisure trips. These are often of considerable importance to them and may have to be set up well in advance, thereby effectively preventing their presence in their constituencies on polling day.
The vastly increased opportunities for education which we are glad to see presenting themselves to the electorate mean that this consideration becomes more and more important with every year that passes. People are interested in wider fields of activity and are no longer content merely to sit back and look at television. They will wish to be away from home more and more in future.
Another category which is disfranchised consists of people on holidays which have been arranged in advance. Vast numbers of people nowadays take their annual holidays away from home, and this number has been increasing year by year, ever since the holidays with pay Act was passed, as long ago as 1948. I need not emphasise what an enormous proportion of the population go away from home or even abroad for their holidays. Equally, most hon. Members will know their own difficulties in making their holiday bookings when the dates of holidays have to be fixed well in advance. This may be necessary for people in industrial employment, or to fit in with school holidays.
The British Travel and Holidays Association estimates that 4 million British people go abroad for their holidays every year, and the number rises yearly. We must be glad that, owing to the prosperity of the country, people are able to take these holidays at home and abroad, but because they are able to do this they ought not to be disfranchised should an election occur during the time when they have fixed their holidays. This problem will be increased if the Channel Tunnel is built. If, as we all hope, it becomes a reality in the relatively near future, the mobility of our population will increase to an even greater extent. We can sum up by saying that Britain is on the move, and that the House must be sure that our electoral law keeps up with events.
Another category of people which will be effectively disfranchised under the present law comprises those persons who are concerned with the hotel or tourist industry. These are in a special and separate category of their own, because they normally have to go on holiday either in the spring or the autumn—before or after the main holiday season. It is a great shame that these people should not be able to register their votes when the time comes, because Parliamentary elections now seem to take place mainly in the spring or autumn. The tourist industry earns Britain many millions of pounds in foreign currency and is vital for our general economy. In effect, it is one of our major export industries.
Another anomaly exists in respect of people who go away from home to look after sick relatives. What an absurdity it is that as the law stands the sick person can register for a postal vote while his well-meaning relative, who leaves his own home to look after him, is disfranchised. Many hon. Members will have had representations from their constituencies and will realise the wide demand that exists for extending absentee voting facilities, which are required in all the cases that I have outlined and many similar cases.
I cannot specify a complete list of all the circumstances under which people should be able to have an absentee vote, because there are so many of them. There is one category which I have not been able to include in the Bill, in order to keep it relatively simple and suitable for a private Member. This category comprises United Kingdom residents who are serving abroad. Many of these people represent the spearhead of our vital export trade, and I shall say more about them later.
I am sure that many hon. Members will object to the Bill for a variety of reasons. Let us consider the various snags. There are always some hon. Members who object to any forward-looking legislation, and one of the arguments which these people will put up is that the Bill, by increasing the number of postal votes which are registered, might in some way degrade the sanctity or the secrecy of the polling booth.
To these objectors I emphasise as strongly as I can that the polling booth remains, and must always remain, the normal method of voting. That is fundamental. The essence of voting in this country is that a person attends at a polling booth and marks a ballot paper in the secrecy of the booth. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides will agree that it would be wrong to undo all the traditional and historical build-up of personal attendance at a polling booth.
At the recent General Election about 40,000 persons registered their votes in one way or another. The number of spoilt votes was very small. Some people, perhaps pursuing a policy of "A plague on all your houses," voted for all three candidates; a few others, perhaps in an agony of indecision, voted for none at all, and one quite simply wrote across his ballot paper, "Ringo for President." I can assure hon. Members that the heart of republicanism still beats in England, albeit in a rather lukewarm way—to the extent of one in 40,000. But, seriously, I do not feel that the arrangements now proposed will lead to any invasion of the secrecy of the vote. If I thought that they would lead to any such invasion I would in no circumstances be moving the Second Reading of the Bill today.
Another difficulty which I am sure will be raised—and, to be fair about it, will be of very real genuine concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House—is the whole question of the administration and handling of the additional numbers of postal and proxy votes. Before we pass the Bill we have to think out how this proposal will affect registration and returning officers and their staffs and, also, what cost to public funds might be involved.
At present, I think that it is established that, approximately, 2½ per cent. of all those who vote do so, in fact, by post. That is an average figure throughout the country. The best estimate that I have been able to obtain of the maximum number who might vote by post under the new arrangement now proposed would be 5 per cent. Therefore, the total figure of postal and proxy votes to be dealt with might rise from approximately ¾million to something like 1½ million, but I think that this is probably a maximum.
One reason, of course, is that the signing of a declaration before a witness, which is catered for in the Schedule to the Bill, is a considerable deterrent. It is a bit of a pest and nuisance to do. I think that that is a valid reason for not making this thing too easy. We only want bona fide applications. So, also, by way of a deterrent, is the threat of a fine for any false statement.
On the question of administration, how difficult really would it be? I have had the opportunity of consulting various registration and returning officers on this. Opinion, naturally, is a little divided, but a good proportion of them say that this could be coped with. I think, too, that we can look at foreign countries and see what occurs in them, because many foreign countries are far more liberal—with a small "1"—about their postal voting facilities than we are. Several foreign countries extend their postal voting very wide indeed. This is so in Australia and in certain States of the United States of America. In Germany, in 1957 over 1½ million postal votes were cast, but I doubt whether it is valid to go too deeply into the facts and figures concerning foreign countries except in so far as they show that this problem is not an insuperable one.
Another administrative point which I am sure will be raised is how long should we allow for the registration authorities to deal with the extra number of postal votes or proxy votes which would be involved. As things stand at present, the latest day for receipt of postal votes is D minus 12, that is, 12 days before polling day, and I feel there is no doubt at all that an extension of at least two or three days will be required to allow the authorities to handle the increased number of votes.
Of course, there is an obvious difficulty here. I so far as one lengthens the period between the receipt of postal votes and polling day one simultaneously cuts down the time available for the public to post their applications for such votes. This is a real difficulty, and what one gains here on the swings one loses on the roundabouts.
Hon. Members will notice that for the purposes of the Bill as drafted I have left the date at 12 days. That is as it stands now. This point can be debated ad nauseam, and doubtless will be in Committee, but I suggest that the House will agree that there is no sense in being drawn into the quicksands of a prolonged argument on this point today. It is not, after all, a Second Reading point but a Committee point. I agree that there is here a point to be discussed in Committee.
Another administrative point which I am sure will arise is that the application for an absentee vote on the form in the Schedule to the Bill is an application concerning one election only, and also that the application cannot be made before the writ for the election has been issued. It could, of course, be argued—and perhaps some hon. Members have thought about this—that the opportunity for earlier application might ease the task of the registration officer. But the essence of the Bill is that an absentee vote is only going to be granted to those unable to be in their constituency on the day of the election, and so a bona fide declaration to this effect cannot be made until the date of the election is known. Equally, of course, until the last day for nominations the returning officer cannot print and send out the ballot papers.
There is a difficulty here, but one must recall that the details of election timetables can be altered by Statute, and if we found, after the Bill became an Act, that the registration authorities were in difficulties over this, then the thing could be altered, again by Statute, for subsequent elections without the necessity of the matter coming back to the Floor of the House for further legislation.
As to cost, which in all these things must not be left out of account, the best estimate of additional cost for such things as stationery and extra staff for handling votes, and so on, is about £100 per constituency.
The hon. and gallant Gentleman has given us two estimates. One is that the additional cost will be £100 per constituency and the earlier estimate which he gave was that whereas 2½ per cent. of the electorate now vote by post, after the Bill became an Act that figure would go up to 5 per cent. Could the hon. and gallant Gentleman give us the basis of both those estimates?
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. As he has pointed out, these are only estimates. There is no definite way in which one can test this until the Bill is put into effect. These are the best estimates that I have been able to obtain after a great deal of research with authorities with knowledge of past elections. I think that the very point which the hon. Gentleman has raised is perhaps one of the strongest arguments for putting the Bill into effect. Let us try this, in short, before the general review of the electoral law and we shall then know, when we come to the Speaker's conference, how the electoral law of the country should be altered.
The registration officers and party agents seem to know a good deal about these difficulties, but it is of very great interest that in the last General Election a computer belonging to the Hampshire County Council was used for sorting, listing and handling the postal and proxy votes cast in all six Hampshire constituencies. Of course, computers are not available everywhere, but I think that this is an example of how the electoral law needs to be brought up to date, and can be brought up to date. We must move away from the horse and buggy era into the twentieth century.
I am sure that hon. Members opposite will also say—I know that this will be the burden of many of their arguments—in effect, "Do not worry about this Bill today. The reform of the electoral law is already provided for by the Speaker's conference which is to examine this whole subject. It is not a good idea" —I think they will say—"to deal with the subject piecemeal."
I should like to spike those arguments in advance. On 2nd February, in answering a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) about the extension of postal voting, the Prime Minister said that this was
amongst the questions that will be considered by a conference organised under your chairmanship, Mr. Speaker. There were some 29 or 30 other proposals which we felt were inimical to the working of our democracy, which…I think will also fall to be considered."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1965; Vol. 705, c. 886.]
I need hardly say that the Prime Minister, in his usual winsome way, managed to attribute those difficulties to the shortcomings of the previous Administration.
However, if the Prime Minister says that 29 or 30 major changes in our electoral law are to be carefully considered by Mr. Speaker's conference, one must realise that the task will take years rather than months. However skilled or eminent the chairmanship of that conference, Members of the present Government will at least have difficulty in finding time to attend frequently or regularly to discuss electoral reform because of the plethora of reviews to which they are already committed.
Meanwhile, while we continue for the inevitable months and years awaiting the result of the conference which has not yet been called, but which, I am sure, will shortly be called, more and more of the more enterprising voters will continue to suffer under what the Prime Minister himself has described as a system
inimical to the working of our democracy".
Like many other things, this is not one of the problems which can be solved in one hundred days of dynamic action.
Does not my hon. and gallant Friend also realise that whatever recommendations the Speaker's conference may make to this House, if the recommendations are fiddled about with, as the last Speaker's conference recommendations were fiddled about with by the Socialist Party, there is really no point in waiting?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The point made a few minutes ago by the hon. Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) is germane to the same argument.
Any hon. Member, on either side, who pays attention to the correspondence from his constituents—and I am sure that there are many hon. Members who do—will be aware of the urgent need for reforms in many aspects of our electoral law. I should like particularly to have included in the Bill a revision of the arrangements for Service voters, because I know from detailed and fairly recent experience that the arrangements for Service voters contain a multitude of anomalies and anachronisms.
There is the question, also, of the votes of United Kingdom citizens who have employment abroad, for example, as technical advisers and experts in underdeveloped countries. There is a large and growing number of these people, and our proceedings this morning were opened with the presentation of a Bill to promote further measures by the Minister of Overseas Development to extend the means of financing those operations abroad, which have been described by hon. Members on all sides as vital operations for this country.
I should like to quote a letter which I have recently received from a lady in Scotland when she saw that the Bill was being introduced. She states:
With reference to postal votes, may I point out that there must be hundreds, or even thousands, of British men and women who used to be employed by the British Government in Commonwealth countries but who, on the attainment of independence by these countries, are now employed by their Governments instead. The result of this now is that when there is a General Election at home in Britain, the British-born subjects of our Queen are not allowed a postal vote.
I pointed this out to my Member as soon as we discovered that our son, who is a geologist in Tanganyika, was not eligible to vote at the last election. He said that it was one of those things that they hoped to get right. Can you possibly ensure that this matter gets attention in the Bill you are sponsoring, because when young men and women spend several years of their lives in these developing countries, having been encouraged to do so by British Governments of all shades of opinion, it is rather extraordinary that they are not allowed to vote as to what sort of Britain they want to come back to. The result of the last election might have been very different if some of our Tory sons abroad had been remembered.
That is an extraordinary argument. Do hon. Members opposite suggest that the argument is invalidated simply because they do not like the party to which the correspondent belongs? Let us be straight about this. This is not a party matter. It is fantastic to suggest that because something which a lady writes indicates that she is a Conservative, that invalidates what she is saying.
Let me continue and see what other impeccable statements the lady makes. She goes on to say:
There are in all these countries teachers, doctors, bank managers, engineers, and so on, and it cannot endear them to any Government to be prevented from voting in British elections when many of them are on contract tours of, say, two or four years' duration only.
There is the problem in a nutshell.
Let us be clear about these people who are doing valuable work in the developing countries. Most of them consider themselves to be based in the United Kingdom. They intend to return here at the expiration of their contract of service abroad and they point out that when they are overseas they are disfranchised.
Another letter which I have received complains that any Commonwealth citizen coming to this country as an immigrant, from whichever country he comes, and who comes here, perhaps, only to make a nest egg for himself and then to go back home, perhaps to Asia or the West Indies, becomes entitled to a vote after only a very few months here.
Why does the hon. and gallant Member consider it meritorious for British people to go abroad to help other countries, but regard it as injurious when people from those countries come here to help us?
I neither said nor implied that it was injurious for those people to come here. I am very glad to have them here.
There is another aspect about United Kingdom citizens working abroad. Many of these people pay United Kingdom Income Tax to a greater or lesser extent. We therefore come back to the old principle of no taxation without representation, a principle which caused our predecessors in this place a great amount of trouble a couple of hundred years ago and a principle which I do not wish to develop further today. Let us, however, be clear that we have this very important principle of no taxation without representation.
Yet another special category comprises people who are taken suddenly to hospital at the last moment in the two weeks immediately before an election. It should be administratively an easy thing to arrange votes for these people. There are other chestnuts, other well-known anomalies in electoral law, as it stands now. There is the question whether or not party labels should be attached to candidates' names on ballot papers. The illustration is always given of the natural confusion which arises in the minds of electors in Wales, for instance, when the names of all three candidates are Jones.
I should also like to overhaul the rules which govern the conditions under which Service men may not only vote, but may apply to become Parliamentary candidates. There is something wrong with this. However, by the exercise of severe self-restraint, I have not included any reference to this matter in the Bill. This improvement of postal voting for these people, it is agreed, will not solve all the anomalies in the electoral law. As I started by saying, this is a simple and very limited Measure, but there is no doubt at all that this is a case where half a loaf is better than no bread.
I should explain, also, that the Bill covers only Parliamentary elections, that is, General Elections and by-elections, and not county or local government elections. The reason for this is quite simply that the machinery of local government elections is, of necessity, less sophisticated than that for dealing with Parliamentary elections. All the expenses in the case of local elections fall upon local authorities and there is no general grant or rate equalisation grant for that purpose.
When considering the Bill, I felt that, with the very much lower percentage poll which is normally found in local elections, it would on balance be better to restrict the Bill to Parliamentary elections only. I would emphasise to the House that this was a practical consideration and I do not pretend that it is logical one. It would be much more logical to say that what is sauce for the Parliamentary goose is sauce for the county or borough gander.
In passing, I would also like to make it clear that the reason I have excluded local elections from the Bill as drafted is not, in any way, because I regard local government elections as less important than national ones. I think that it is fair to say that the men and women who serve on local councils throughout the country, generally speaking, do excellent work for their fellow men and the country as a whole. They usually get more kicks than ha'pence and I feel that perhaps Members will agree that tribute is not sufficiently often paid to them in this House.
Would my hon. Friend perhaps be prepared to consider Amendments which might be put forward in Committee, as we shall find that the Bill will have a Second Reading, there being no arguments against it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Could we have an assurance that he will give careful consideration to the matter, to see whether local authorities could not be brought within the ambit of the Bill?
I certainly would agree. This is a valid point to consider in Committee. As I hope I made clear, I think that it is a very finely balanced one.
I should like to conclude by emphasising that there is no epoch-making or revolutionary idea contained in the Bill. After all, the whole concept of postal voting was introduced only as recently as 1948, and introduced, incidentally, by a Labour Government, to give credit where credit is due. What is proposed now is only a logical extension of that principle to cover the larger numbers who travel both at home and abroad in this age of the motor car, the jet aircraft and the quick airmail service.
Any hon. Member who votes against the Bill today is, in fact, voting against the modernisation of Britain. Let us now start to blow away the cobwebs of bygone years and hand on our democratic system to our children, bright and burnished.
And I talked it out. The right hon. Member is one step ahead.
I congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles), on steering almost exactly the same course today in his arguments. May I raise, first, one point which I was not able to raise a few moments ago? The hon. and gallant Member raised the question of British citizens who are serving abroad in Africa and other places and are unable to vote. As far as I understand the Bill, it would not affect their position at all. As I see the electoral law in this country, it is based on the fact of a residential registration which enables one to vote—
With respect, what I said was that this was one of the many anomalies which want correcting, but which I have not included in the Bill today, as I thought that it was a case of half a loaf being better than no bread.
I beg the hon. and gallant Member's pardon. I understood him to mean that the Bill would have an effect upon that situation.
As the right hon. Member for Enfield, West (Mr. Iain Macleod) has pointed out, I was on my feet when the Bill of a year ago was talked out. On that occasion I opposed the Bill because I felt, and still do, that any electoral reform should come through the normal channels of a Speaker's conference. There is not only one anomaly; there are many. As a relatively new Member of the House, I was extremely surprised when the hon. Member for Exeter (Sir Rolf Dudley Williams), who is not now in his place, talked about "fiddling" in the context of Mr. Speaker's conference. I am naive enough to believe that these things are above fiddling—a matter on which the hon. Member for Exeter might well be an expert.
wonder whether the hon. Member is aware of what happened at the last Speaker's conference? I would remind him that the conference was held before the 1945 Parliament, and that agreed conclusions were reached, but the Government which came into power overthrew these conclusions.
Whether the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King), in his other form, voted or not in favour of that, I would not know. All I know is that some other reforms in the way of registration in 1950, under the aegis of the then Home Secretary, were made in such a way as obviously to be against his own side.
I would have thought that a Speaker's conference was the best way to approach this matter, because there are so many other anomalies which ought to be dealt with. For example, there is concern, correctly, that everybody who is entitled to vote should do so. I wonder whether hon. Members have considered the effect of the present timing of registration which takes place in an October. It is thus often over a year before an election is held based on that register.
In some rural constituencies this may not have much effect. In some of the suburban constituencies it has a very great effect and I know of one of the London constituencies where there was a very low poll. It was no reflection on the candidates on either side; it was due to the fact that there is a transient population there. One year after the register was compiled, it was completely inaccurate.
I should have thought that if our main aim is to get more citizens to vote, the major task to tackle is registration, and I believe that we should have two registrations a year and also fix the dates to accommodate the local conditions on the one hand and the possibility of an autumn General Election on the other.
Another anomaly which ought to be tackled, because this would bring in large numbers of voters, concerns the registration system for young voters. Far too often when canvassing one meets young people who have been 21 for some time, but are still not entitled to vote because of the odd dates written into the legislation.
While I agree with the need to look at the postal vote and the proxy vote, I disapprove of the wholesale nature of the amending Clause. It is drawn extremely generally. This is not a question which could or ought to be raised in Committee. There is a general Clause which says:
unable or unlikely to be able to go in person to the polling station".
Since the postal vote was introduced, we have tended to move on specific lines. There is a postal vote given because of movement due to employment or occupation—that is desirable—illness, incapacity or blindness. One is dealing all the time with specific reasons for having a postal vote, and not the umbrella reason of being unable to be in the constituency. Other reasons are a journey by air or sea, removals, serving with the auxiliaries or the Reserve, and so on. It goes right down to the Service voter's proxy. The postal vote, as at present drawn, needs attention.
I represent part of a large provincial city where movement is taking place because of clearance. One has the odd situation that someone who moves just across the road from my constituency outside the City of Leeds can get a postal vote. If he moves within the county borough—it might be a distance of nine miles—he cannot get it. For this reason alone the question of postal votes as already developed needs looking at, let alone extension in the general way proposed.
The hon. and gallant Member mentioned what happens in Australia. The difference between ourselves and Australia is that Australia has compulsory voting. I can see the argument for greater extension of postal voting if there is compulsory voting. The postal vote has to be provided then and in Australia a very high percentage of the people vote compared with the situation before compulsory and postal voting was introduced.
It is true that there is compulsory voting in Australia, but there is no compulsory voting for Australian citizens when they are travelling abroad. Arrangements are made for Australians travelling abroad to contact any Australian Embassy and cast their vote there. That is the approach.
This is the whole point—because of the basic premise from which they work that there is compulsory voting at home. I can see that this logically follows from that point, but I do not believe that postal voting is so important in our electoral system.
Widespread development of postal voting would raise certain fundamental issues. I have met large numbers of old people at elections and concede that they vote for all political parties. Perhaps because they were alive when the franchise was extended, old people think it an honour to go along and vote when often they ought to have a postal vote. I am not making a political point. One can see that these people believe that they fought for the right and should exercise it personally. We ought to beware of making the postal vote too extensive, not for any party political reasons, but because it is the right of the individual to go along and vote.
I have great sympathy for people who deliberately say that they will not vote, because to some degree they are expressing their views about the political parties. I am not thinking of people who are too tired to go. I am thinking of people who say deliberately "A plague on both your houses".
The hon. Member is at the moment arguing against an extension of the postal vote, whereas a few moments ago he was complaining about the difficulty in the county borough of Leeds when someone moves a matter of nine miles and is unable to get a postal vote. I cannot understand his logic. Will he explain it?
The hon. Member should be the last person to put that argument forward.
If there were this wholesale extension, it would raise administrative problems. For example, there is the question of the length of time that would be needed. I have discussed what extra time would be required to deal with the postal vote and am told more than three days. I was given the impression that a large degree of extension of postal voting would cause problems in the registration office. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) raised the question of cost, although that is not a fundamental issue.
There is not only the question of administration inside the registration office. All who are active in politics know that postal voting has become a big political administrative problem in the last 15 years. One appoints a postal voting officer. One gets to know how people are moving and where they are moving to. This is fair enough, because it is a question of getting more people to register, and one wants people to register in a certain way.
However, I believe that there is a great advantage for any political party which has in its employment large numbers of paid officials. It will put a premium on the political party which in its constituency office has paid staff which can deal with the problem. I know of a constituency represented by one of my hon. Friends where this is the case. Those concerned do a magnificent job from a postal voting point of view and get large numbers of people to register. I know of constituencies where it is done on a large scale voluntarily. But, in general, it will be a very great advantage to the political party which has paid staff, because this requires a great deal of ferretting out. It is necessary to know the people who look after the old people in old people's homes. One must get into the hospitals, and so on. It becomes a game. Therefore, I believe that when the postal vote is looked at again, a major reform needs to be brought about.
I was in America just before the presidential elections. Registration there is a party political matter. The basis of it is to get one's people to register. That is not the basis in this country. Over the years it has been a matter of the State, through the registration officer, registering people as of right because they live at a certain address. The postal vote development in the last 15 years has moved away from this. I know that advertisements are put in the newspapers, and so on, but it is up to the various parties to get as many postal voters as they possibly can.
I believe that in any reform that takes place the registration of postal voters should be the responsibility of the registration officer. He could work through the local authority and the welfare offices, and it should be his job to bring to the notice of registered electors in every way, far more than at present, their rights in this respect. It should go to the extent of visits to old people's homes and hospitals.
Whatever may be said on the question of party advantage, the argument should not be pooh-poohed because it exists to the degree that, by nature of social existence, in many parts of the country representatives of the party opposite have an open sesame into hospitals, and so on, in a much bigger way than my party has. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am sure that this is so, but I speak in general terms. It is as elementary as going to a hospital and to the right person there and saying, "May I have a look round? I am dealing with postal votes". There are many people who feel that this is something which they could not do. There is a social classification involved here. During one election my wife was my postal vote officer and she dressed for the job. I recall her saying on one occasion, "Today, I must look like a Tory before I go out".
The hon. Member has adduced some interesting remarks, but the burden of his argument is based on the theme that because it is bad for his party it should not be done. That conflicts with what I believe we are discussing, which is whether or not these reforms are good for the electorate.
With respect, I have argued the need for reform but I have now changed my tack. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I am now dealing with another point and I suggest that when we consider the whole question of postal voting we should put more of the responsibility on to the registration officer, for the reasons I have given.
Perhaps the hon. Member will explain what relevance it has to the Bill whether or not one can easily obtain admittance to a hospital? At present, there is provision for postal voting by sick voters and it is difficult to see how his argument has any validity.
I was seeking to argue that there is a case for looking at the whole question of postal voting and the method of obtaining postal votes. The Bill deals with the general aspect and I believe that we should have a Speaker's conference, which I do not believe would result in a fiddle. It is wrong to try to deal with the question of postal votes in this general way because a great many questions should be looked into, particularly since we have recently had a General Election.
In developing his argument on the last occasion, the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet said that the Home Office had been rather jealously safeguarding the practice in electoral reform that any particular reform should be introduced as part of a thorough reform over the whole range. On that occasion he justified his Bill with the argument that there would be a General Election in October and that, therefore, it was urgent that it should be done. Hon. Members opposite might deploy that argument in a different context now. There has been a General Election recently and I believe that there should be a Speaker's conference to deal with all these matters.
The Bill before us is drawn in too general a way. We need a Speaker's conference to look at the whole gamut of reform, particularly the aspect of postal voting, which should not extend too far. For this reason, and because I believe that the Bill is too widely drawn, I must oppose it.
I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles) on having reintroduced the Bill and giving the House an opportunity this time to pass it through all its stages. All hon. Members will agree that his speech was extremely fair and moderate. He went out of his way to meet the criticisms which are likely to be levelled against the Measure and he certainly recognised the difficulties which might arise through an extension of postal voting in the way in which he has considered it in the Bill.
My hon. and gallant Friend was absolutely right to have adopted a cautious attitude towards the Measure, as, indeed, all of us must be careful about any act on our part which extends widely the practice of voting other than at the polling booth. I recognise the force of some of the points made by the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees). There must be the possibility of abuse in any step we take in this direction. Obviously it must be the concern of us all to try to minimise this risk.
I do not go so far in my fears and doubts as some hon. Members did on the previous occasion when there was a discussion on the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies). The fears then expressed seemed to suggest that an extension of postal voting for people who are away on holiday or for other reasons would mean that the vote itself would not necessarily be secret. There was the other fear—which I found somewhat difficult to follow—that it would not always be a vote freely given. That fear was widely expressed in the past, the fear that when postal votes are collected there is the possibility, to put it no higher, of intimidation.
I do not go with those arguments, but since they were raised before I wonder if the Joint Under-Secretary would say what has been the result of the investigations into these possibilities and into any other technical difficulties which might arise through an extension of postal voting.
Does my hon. Friend not realise that, as a result of the previous Bill, all those matters were given careful consideration by the Home Office and that the Bill which is now before the House is the outcome of the Parliamentary draftsmen and of the assistants of the Home Office, which, at any rate by last June, had recognised that all those difficulties were fully met? I do not know what my hon. Friend has in mind in supposing that the circumstances have changed between what they were last June and now.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend. That is what I was hoping to find out from the Joint Under-Secretary. I wanted to be certain that there had been no fundamental change. I recognise what my hon. Friend said; that in drafting the Bill my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester had had in mind the results of some of those investigations and inquiries.
I am sure that the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) would not wish to mislead the House. Whatever happened when his party were in power and when he had conversations with Government Departments I would not know, but I do know that the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles), who has introduced the Bill, was good enough to see me at an early stage. However, I do not think that he would claim that the Bill has been given the approval of the Home Office.
However that may be, no doubt the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity, as I hope, to develop his argument on this point. I was under the impression that there had been fairly thorough investigations by the Home Secretary's electoral advisory committee, and that this Bill in its present form successfully meets the technical difficulties advanced in criticism against previous attempts at this legislation—
Order. This amounts to a correction of an intervention, inviting a second intervention and a correction of the intervention and the correction.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for intervening to enable me to continue my speech. I have no doubt that the Under-Secretary will deal with the point later, when I hope that he will give hon. Members an opportunity to intervene during the course of his remarks.
I turn now to the aspect of the Bill that naturally concerns me and interests me most. As a Member representing a holiday constituency, I have seen in successive elections there the need for a Measure of this kind. I do not go quite as far as some hon. Members representing holiday constituencies have done in pressing the need for this Measure because of the fact that landladies and others who have to be in those constituencies during the holiday peak periods can take their own holidays only in off-peak periods, which seem to coincide with the most favoured timing for General Elections.
That is a point, and a strong point, and a view strongly held in my constituency and others, but I have been impressed with the other side of the coin, so to speak. As I have toiled up and down the streets as a candidate during election campaigns, seeking support and introducing myself to the members of the electorate, whoever they may be, I have been most impressed by the fact that a very large number of them, on some days all of them—particularly when the sun is shining—but, in any case, the majority of those I meet in the streets, are people from outside the constituency who are visiting Bournemouth on holiday.
Their numbers are growing. I am delighted to meet them, of course, but when I do so I have to explain, in almost every case, first, that they are not able to vote for me, and, secondly, that if they do want to exercise their vote they must cut short their holidays and go back where they came from. That brings me into a little local difficulty with my landladies and hoteliers, who do not like my advocating that their guests and clients should cut short their holidays in order to return home and vote.
This places many people in considerable difficulty. Visitors to Bournemouth come mainly from the Midlands and the North—many also come from Wales—and we will be very loath, for instance, to discourage people from coming into my constituency during the course of this year—from now on—because we are all on tenterhooks waiting for the Prime Minister once again to submit himself to the test of electoral fortune. Everyone is at present waiting for the election: "Is it to be March? Is it to be May? Perhaps October—oh, no, it was October last year. Perhaps he will hold it over in the hope that his party fortunes will rise rather more and he will be able to get back again." All these speculations are being discussed, not only here but everywhere—and particularly amongst those who are at present planning their summer holidays.
Hon. Members will know that if people want a holiday away from home they have to plan far ahead these days. I was particularly interested yesterday, as were all my hon. Friends, when an hon. Member opposite asked the Leader of the House whether he would give a longterm forecast of the date for the Summer Recess in order that the hon. Member could plan his holiday. If ever there was a clear illustration of the need to plan in advance, that was it.
I am sure that we all recognise this need to plan holidays, because more and more people now take their holidays away from home. Before the war about 15 million people did so, but today the number has more than doubled. That presents an increasing problem, not just for the tourist industry and the transport industries but also, when considering the opportunities we give to people to record their votes in an election, for those who naturally and properly defend the democratic system.
At least three-fifths of the population will have an annual holiday involving some movement inside the country or outside it. I am told that something like two-thirds of that number have been taking their holidays during the July-August peak period. A great deal of effort is being made to stagger the holiday period and so level it out, and more people are being actively encouraged to choose times other than those that have come to be regarded as peak periods. Therefore, we will not in future be able to plan elections so as to avoid having a large number of people away on holiday.
People's holidays are timed by many interlocking factors. There are family commitments—school holidays have been mentioned—employment conditions and, of course, there are cost considerations as well. Holidays taken outside a peak period are very often considerably cheaper than in the peak period. People choosing this May for their holidays would be very unfortunate if the Prime Minister—if he is able to hold on as long—has a General Election in May. They will all find themselves either having to cut into their very narrowly defined holiday period or missing the opportunity of voting at all.
I have been wondering why it is that hon. Members opposite are against this Measure. What exactly is it that worries them? Here we have a party whose members represent themselves as the great dynamic reformers, the people who are to redress all the ills of the past and put everything right in the glorious hundred days, or whatever it may be. Here we have party members who have fought an election campaign—[HON. MEMBERS: "And won."]—on the theme of modernising Britain and bringing things up to date. Yet, for some reason or other, they dislike this Bill.
I think that they are scared of this Measure. They are afraid of it. I wonder why? I think that the hon. Member for Leeds, South came closest to the answer in many respects. He rather gave the game away, if I may say so, by talking about the superior organisation of the Conservative Party—[HON. MEMBERS: "Pay-roll."] He referred to the superior organisation of the Conservative Party. Their attitude seems to be that, because we are better at the game than they are, they must not be a party to any extension of the opportunities for reform.
There is also still the terribly old-fashioned Victorian outlook that they carry into the present day in thinking that everybody who goes away on holiday, particularly those who go abroad on holiday, are automatically Conservative voters. This is not so. As hon. Members must be aware, the practice has been growing of organised holidays in parties. The trade unions are sharing in this to an increasing extent. The wise trade unions are booking holiday villas on the prime coastal resorts in the south of France and in the south of Spain well in advance, to enable all their members to go and enjoy the opportunities of a cheaper package holiday. Again, it would be disastrous for some hon. Members opposite representing marginal seats if coachloads of their own supporters, being trade unionists who might be claimed to number the occasional Labour supporter amongst them, were to be abroad at the time when the next election came and were not to be given the opportunity to record a vote.
The hon. Gentleman has said that our assertion is that those who go away are only the wealthy. This is not so. Does he not realise that one of the objections to the Bill is the fact already referred to of the broad umbrella, that it brings too many categories of people under the broad umbrella to whom it would not be fair to give the postal vote? For example, on the subject of wealth, it would bring in the tax evader who spends three-quarters of the year in Bermuda and returns and registers himself in this way.
This is the reverse of the coin—representation without taxation. The hon. Member has made a complete travesty of what I was saying. I let that pass, because in order to get in his point he totally distorted my earlier remarks. I will not weary the House by going back over what I said.
Enough has been said on the point of holidays to emphasise how strongly people feel about it. All hon. Members must have had experiences of this kind during the last General Election, when people asked why they should be disfranchised merely because they happened to have booked their holidays ahead. Why should they? If reasonably abuse-proof opportunities can be provided to enable them to record their vote, we should support the Measure and encourage this reform.
In the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill there is a suggested formula by which this can be done. This seems to be an eminently sensible and practical way of setting about it. I agree very much with my hon. and gallant Friend that there is no reason to wait for the umbrella legislation being planned by the Government for total electoral reform before taking a limited and practical step of this kind. I most strongly urge the House to give the Bill a Second Reading today.
I do not want to disturb unduly the non-party approach to this question which has so far characterised the debate. I agree with much of what the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles) said. There are many anomalies in the electoral law as it stands. The hon. and gallant Gentleman enumerated some. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) enumerated others. I dare say all of us, with the experience of the last election fresh in our minds, could enumerate many within our own recollection in our own constituencies.
There are undoubtedly many anomalies and injustices in the present electoral law, but I remind hon. Members opposite that they had 13 years in which to do something, about it, but they did not do it. So it does not lie in their mouths to talk about modernising what is anomalous legislation. Still less does it lie in their mouths in view of the turmoil which is now going on in the Tory Party about how to elect their own leader. There is no postal vote there. In fact there is no vote at all at the moment. They are trying to get round to rigging it somehow.
However, we may be able to include this in the Speaker's conference, because, if we are to talk about increasing democracy in the country and ensuring that everyone can vote, we must put our own houses in order, and the Tory Party must get round to modernising and making more democratic the election of its own leader. This is a weakness in our present democratic situation that we cannot tolerate for much longer. The country is waiting for the Tory Party to solve this problem. It is sub judice at the moment, but it has been sub judice for about 100 years.
Mr. Speaker, I was wondering how long you would wait.
I come to the Bill. Everybody in the House would agree with the proposition that we ought in our legislation to try to ensure that everybody who is entitled by the law that we make to vote is given the opportunity to vote. This is a principle which would be generally accepted by everybody in the House. It is irrelevant—here I speak very sincerely and seriously—whether any political party might be advantaged by the Bill or by any other reform of the electoral law. Nevertheless, being party politicians, we are very highly suspicious individuals. This may or may not be a desirable trait, but, nevertheless, it is in all of us.
When we see the Bill we believe, and large numbers of people in the country believe, that it will be of advantage to the Tory Party. This may or may not be a justifiable suspicion, but it is there. We oppose it on those grounds. I do, anyhow, because I suspect that it gives an advantage to the Conservative Party—an unfair advantage.
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that what he is saying is that he feels that a large number of the electorate should be disfranchised just because they do not agree with his own political faith? Does he not feel absolutely ashamed of himself?
I am not saying that at all. I am not basing my opposition to the Bill wholly and solely, or even mainly, on this point. I am merely saying that our suspicion that this is the purpose of the Bill is one reason why some Members on this side may feel well disposed to object to it. It is not my main reason, but it is the main reason of some of my hon. Friends and it is certainly the main reason of people in the country.
Let me return to how we are to maximise the opportunity to vote. This is the kernel of the problem which we are discussing. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) referred to the possibility of compulsory voting, as in Australia. I do not think that it is practicable so long as we have a secret ballot. My hon. Friend was quite right when he said that there were some people who, paradoxically, voted by deliberately abstaining. People go into the polling booths and spoil their papers. The hon. and gallant Member for Winchester gave examples. "Home rule for Scotland" is often written over ballot papers in Scotland.
Nevertheless, in the context of the Bill, compulsory voting would solve the organisational problem which my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South, discussed. This is undoubtedly where the Conservative Party would benefit, with the much greater finance available to it than we have and with a much greater number of full-time paid officials who can devote their time to what is essentially an organisational problem. There is no doubt about this and hon. Members opposite know it very well; and they are entitled to pride themselves, as they do, on the great skill with which they get out the postal vote, undoubtedly due to the power of money at our elections.
In this analysis, is the hon. Gentleman taking into account the immense amount of work done for the Labour Party by people not directly paid by it, but paid from other sources, such as shop stewards and employees of the co-operative societies? Would he not agree that the number of quasi-professional troops available to the Labour Party is probably in excess of the number available to the Conservative Party?
The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. I wish that he would come to West Fife to see how we set about it there. We had one part-time volunteer for the whole of the postal vote in a county area, while the Conservatives, who had not a hope in hell of winning West Fife, had two or three full-time people on the postal vote. That example can be repeated many times over the country. However, it is not worth arguing about this and most hon. Members would agree with what I have said.
I turn to the other alternative, which is whether we should have fixed dates for our General Elections. The hon. and gallant Gentleman suggested that because the election date was uncertain it was very difficult for people to arrange their holidays. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) suggested the same thing. He said that he could not advise his constituents and others about when to take their holidays within the next year. I can tell him. He can tell his own constituents and anybody else with perfect safety to organise their holidays any time between now and October, 1969. They will be in no difficulty whatever.
I am very much in favour of elections at fixed periods on fixed dates, on the American model, at four-yearly or five-yearly intervals. The present situation gives enormous power to the Prime Minister of the day, which is quite counter to what I would like to see. The present system puts far too much power in the hands of the Executive and of the Chief Executive, the Prime Minister.
We had a very good example of how this power can be abused when we had the former Prime Minister in power until last October. For two or three years at least, he and the Conservative Party hung on to the last dregs of power left to them. In that period we had no effective government whatever.
I will try to tremble back from it, Mr. Speaker.
If we have fixed dates for our General Elections, many of the problems which the hon. and gallant Gentleman put to us would not arise, because people could then arrange their holidays to ensure that they did not conflict with the timing of the election. The same would apply to people arranging business engagements, whether abroad or in some other part of the country.
No doubt the Conservative Party would be appalled at the prospect of four or five years' rule by the present Government. They certainly have a lot to be frightened of. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Certainly, but much of what they are terrified of is clearly in the national interest, and we put the national interest before the Tory Party interest, or our own party interest. I believe that the country would welcome the fixed election date principle. I do not think that people very much like the idea of a constant atmosphere of electioneering, and this principle would make irrelevant the attempts to solve the problems which arise from the present situation.
The hon. and gallant Gentleman anticipated my main argument and that of my hon. Friends—that this is a problem which cannot be tackled piecemeal in this way. On this ground, the previous Administration steadily resisted all kinds of Bills which sought to deal with anomalies in the electoral law. I disagree profoundly with the hon. and gallant Gentleman when he says that half a loaf is better than no bread. This is the exception to that rule and in this case half a loaf is very much worse than no bread.
The inter-party talks, the Speaker's conference, may take a long time, but they are vitally important. A very critical balance of interest must be established in these talks. We must not create the impression, or even the suspicion, that this is a fix among the three parties. We have also to take account of the fact that there are minorities who are not represented at the Speaker's conference and we have to make sure that the electoral law is not weighed against them. If they go on for a long time, it will be because the subject is vital to our democracy. It is much more important to get the right answer than to get a speedy answer. The Bill will give us the wrong answer for the country as a whole, and for that reason I shall oppose it.
We have had an extremely enjoyable speech from the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton). I was delighted when he began by saying that he considered it absolutely irrelevant whether the Bill was of particular advantage to either political party. I entirely agree with him about that. However, he immediately went on to intimate that he was opposing the Bill because his hon. Friends were strongly of the view that it would be of some special help to the Conservative Party.
I join in congratulating my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles) on being fortunate enough to win the Ballot and on choosing this subject. I was extremely surprised that one of his electorate at Winchester should choose to vote for someone called "Ringo" instead of my hon. and gallant Friend. I did not know that one was allowed to talk about what happened with ballot papers, so I have never dared to tell my story.
However, my hon. and gallant Friend and the Member for Fife, West were brave enough to tell their stories. The vote which I was more disappointed about losing than any other was that of somebody who wrote right across the ballot paper, "I love Loveys". Of course, it was not allowed, and that was a great disappointment to me.
The Bill is an extremely simple and just Measure. I am amazed that there should be any opposition to it. Having listened to the arguments today, I am still not convinced that there is any real opposition to it. I am glad that it has been as widely drawn as it has and that it deals with all categories of absent voters who happen to be out of their constituencies at the time of an election. It will, of course, largely apply to those on holiday.
We had an excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden), who explained the difficulties in holiday areas. It will also apply to those who are away from their constituency for health reasons. It will deal with the difficulty of wives who go away with their husbands on business trips. This is an anomaly which has existed for a long time, and I know of an hon. Member who has tried to remove it. I understand that in the latter case returning officers have had some discretion in the matter.
I should like to mention one class of the electorate. It is only a small class, but, as I read the Bill, people in it are not included in the Bill. I refer to people who belong to closed orders, people who live in nunneries or monasteries. Even though they choose this particular way of life, I do not think that this is a good enough reason why they should be disfranchised.
As I said earlier, I have never really understood the reasons for the objection to the Bill, especially as with full employment—"Thanks to 13 years of Tory rule"—people in full employment "Thanks to 13 years of Tory rule"—people in full employment are able to take a holiday away from home or to go away for their health's sake. The main objection taken to the Bill, which I cannot accept as a good enough objection, is that a larger Measure should be introduced to ensure a comparable quota of votes for each constituency.
This is a strong point, but it is not a good enough reason to prevent the wrongs covered by the Bill from being put right in the way suggested by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester. I understand that the number of people who are disfranchised throughout the country is about 3 per cent. of the electorate. However, in many constituencies it is as much as 10 per cent. In some it is as high as 20 per cent. This is not right in this day and age.
Elections take place in early summer or early autumn. I disagree with the suggestion of the hon. Member for Fife, West for a fixed date for elections. The country could get into such a state of chaos and mess before the Prime Minister was allowed to go to the country that it would not be acceptable. Also, I think that there would be a great deal of political manoeuvring a few months before an election if everybody knew exactly when it was to take place. But, at the moment, it is the prerogative of the Prime Minister to spring it on us, and I feel that this is right.
As has been said, arrangements for people to go away from home often have to be made many months in advance. They should not be expected to change these arrangements or to lose their vote. To put it simply, that is not democracy. In a civilised country where everyone has the opportunity for education, democracy should be as near "one man, one vote" as possible.
If the Bill is not passed, we will be denying a right to others which we grant to ourselves, because Members of Parliament and their wives who are fighting the election in a constituency where they do not live have the right to a postal vote.
I know about this because many hon. Members live in my constituency—it is such a delightful place—but I am ashamed to say that at the last election one or two of them completely forgot to make arrangements for a postal vote. Apart from this minute axe, I have no axe to grind concerning my constituency because it is one of those which my hon. Friends refer to as having a slightly indecently large majority. Therefore, this matter does not affect us very much.
I do not believe that voting should be made compulsory—I do not think that it is right in this country—but I certainly believe that everyone who wishes to register his vote should be given every consideration and encouragement to do so. If the Bill becomes an Act, it will simply be a step towards a more complete democracy in this country.
I am grateful for the opportunity of making a few remarks on a Friday. As a new Member—I am not claiming any privilege, because this is not a maiden speech—I have been impressed by the friendly atmosphere of Friday debates—or I was until the end of the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles) who, by referring to the 100 days, introduced the first party point of the debate.
However, the hon. and gallant Member was the first speaker and was entitled to do that. All that I would say, in reply, and while sticking out my tongue, is "Thirteen years" and let it go at that. I want to deal with the problem which we are debating.
I do not want to chase up the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden), but he was just as provocative.
We are concerned with the possibility of allowing more people to vote. This is ostensibly the purpose of the Bill.
It should be put the other way round. The purpose is not to allow more people to vote, but to prevent people who normally would be entitled to vote from losing their right to vote.
I have not the long experience of the Parliamentary mind to see what the difference is in that intervention. I should have thought that the main purpose of the Bill was to enable more people to take advantage of their right to vote. Perhaps that clarifies the point.
I think that we should have a bit more evidence on why people do not vote before we even suggest, as the Bill suggests, a limited extension of postal voting. I do not think that even those of us who have been candidates, and successful candidates, could claim to know why 10 or 20 per cent. of the electorate do not take the trouble to vote. We know that there are people who have religious objections, but they are a very small minority. I do not think that any of us has carried out any thorough research into why people do not vote.
However, we know certain facts. My remarks are addressed principally to the Government Front Bench, because a review is under way of the whole procedure of electioneering. Surely it is the roll itself which should be examined. I speak as one representing a constituency in Glasgow. Certainly, big cities, with major redevelopment schemes under way, are seriously affected by the movement not of an itinerant population, but of people genuinely being shifted from one area to another.
The rapid progress of redevelopment in major cities is a considerable factor in the reduction of the number of voters in a constituency. They lose their vote because they are not on the electoral roll. I should like the Under-Secretary of State to give some assurance that one of the things which we may reasonably assume will be looked at sympathetically in the future is the six-monthly compilation of the roll.
The second point I wish to make which arises out of this is: who may have an advantage? I do not think that any hon. Member opposite should attempt to deceive himself or the House about this. If the proposals would affect seaside resorts generally it is fair to concede that there would be a greater advantage to the Conservative Party. I can never understand why holiday resorts are so backward politically. Like other areas of the country they are dependent on the general well-being of the economy. It has nothing to do with any successes which the Conservative Party may claim to have achieved in the past 13 years. Seaside resorts have always been backward politically.
I think it a fair point to make that, just as hon. Members opposite could argue that this would be to their advantage, we might argue that any improvement in the electoral rolls of big cities would be of advantage to the Labour Party. I do not approach this matter from the point of view of whether it is good for my party, or for me, but on the basis of trying to see how the greatest advantage may be derived by including the greatest number of people eligible to vote.
There is the minor matter of the number of spoilt papers. I am drawing attention to this—it has nothing to do with people being on the electoral roll—only because it is most annoying if, having voted, people find that their vote was not valid because it did not have the official mark upon it. I know that the responsibility is on an elector to ensure that his ballot paper is stamped, but there are a hundred and one things that people should know about but they do not. In my own constituency there were 56 such papers, according to the official list published in HANSARD. They were not valid because of the want of the official stamp.
I have drawn the attention of the local sheriff to this matter, but I am reminded of a remark made by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to the effect that my majority was so big that I could afford to be generous. As my majority was in the region of 14,000, I am not worried about 56 votes. But in constituencies in Liverpool and Manchester, where there were 85 and 143 spoilt votes respectively, because there was no official mark upon them, it could be a serious business. Here we have two specific points which are worthy of examination if our aim is to include more people with the right to vote and to ensure that, having voted, their vote is in order.
We hear talk about what goes on in Northern Ireland. There are suggestions about jerrymandering, prejudice and the rest of it, but it is fair to say that in the 12 constituencies in Northern Ireland there were one-third fewer spoilt ballot papers than in Provan.
The question of people who are outside the electoral area applies mainly to constituencies in large cities where there are overspill agreements and big redevelopment schemes. In Glasgow, thousands of voters still in the city were not eligible to vote because they had been removed from one constituency to another although they were in the same electoral district. This seems to me absurd and something which should be looked at. Reference has been made to conferences and business trips and even, in the case of Scotland, attendance at the General Assembly. Many of us are concerned about the rigid application of the present legislation. There should be an opportunity for including genuine cases, but there is the danger that we may make it too easy for people so that they may not appreciate the importance of an election and the sacrifice they would be making by having to give up their vote because they are on holiday. In the long run, this might equate itself politically with no great harm being done.
I feel sure that we can carry organisation to ridiculous lengths. We could amalgamate our forces and find that we were working in conjunction with the Conservatives or the Liberals. Fortunately, we are not much bothered with Liberals in Glasgow, but, certainly, any party which has a good organisation would find that they were working hand in hand. That becomes absurd when we think in terms of politics and voting having something to do with ideals and opinions and not necessarily with organisation.
If there is to be any improvement, extension or change in the present law I think that, by and large, it would work out evenly. We should confine ourselves to the real dilemma, and not make it too easy to vote, so that people will realise the value of the vote.
I think that they would. There is a reference in the Bill to persons being unable or unlikely to be able to go to the polling station. This brings in the question of good faith. Unless we are proposing to set up a tremendously com- plicated semi-judicial machinery, someone, in good faith, may say, more than two weeks before the polling day, "I shall not be in the constituency on polling day."
Surely the hon. Member would agree that the procedure advocated in the Bill would put a person to considerable trouble if he complied with it. He would have to go to more trouble to do that than would be involved in strolling along to a polling booth to vote. He would have to find one of the people specified in Clause 1(2,b) and find a form to fill in. Surely that involves greater difficulty than strolling to a polling booth.
That is my fear. Let us face it, polling agents have to be sworn in before a justice of the peace. An effective party organisation, having identified the people concerned, could say to them that if they came to the Conservative Party headquarters, or the Labour Party headquarters, on such a night, "We will have a J.P. and a minister and everyone lined up for you."
So to this extent it is not true that it will inconvenience people. It may inconvenience some, but it will not inconvenience them to the extent that hon. Members opposite suggest. If a party has an effective election machinery it will not be of great inconvenience to the electorate, and to that extent I do not think that the argument is a good one.
I rise with great pleasure to support the Bill so ably introduced by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles), and I am bound to say that I do so with particular pleasure because I am a constituent of his and—a point highly relevant to the debate—I voted for him by post. I shall be curious to know why hon. Members opposite think it right and appropriate to enable me, a comparatively privileged person, to have the opportunity to vote by post whereas a more humble person should be deprived of that opportunity. I should have thought this to be a very undemocratic difference from the beginning, and I have not yet heard it defended.
Does the hon. Gentleman not see a difference, that he was voting because of an enforced absence, whereas someone who goes to Bournemouth for a week's holiday is voluntarily absent?
Yes, but the implication of that argument is that the ordinary, common or garden person is hardly entitled to take a holiday, or, if he does, he must be punished by some form of electoral disability.
I speak as one who has fought a great number of elections. Some I have lost and some I have won. There have been moments when I have had reason to doubt the wisdom of the electorate. They were on occasions when I lost. There have been moments when I have had reason to exalt to the skies the insight, the foresight, and very other good quality of the electorate. Those were on the occasions when I won. But I have never had any doubt—and I would hope that no hon. Member on either side of the House has any doubt—of the wisdom of the principle by which the verdict is arrived at, the basis of one man, one vote. Whatever other differences there may be between us I would have thought that upon this we should have unity.
I like these Friday debates, as, I think, most of us do, but I have never supposed there to be a moment when, whatever other differences there may be, unity between us should not be expressed upon this one point, that whether we win or whether we lose we come here on the basis of one man, one vote. Therefore I am distressed to find in any quarter of the House any opposition to that proposition.
Upon what is the machinery which yields the verdict by reason of which we sit here based? It is based upon the Representation of the People Act, 1949. The Bill itself refers to that Measure. The significant point in that is the date, 1949. That is 15 years ago. There are few Measures, in fact, of this kind which, after 15 years' experience, are not capable of improvement and amendment, and if hon. Members on either side of the House would look at the difference in the position which has taken place during these last 15 years they will find it impossible to argue that there is not an urgent demand for amendment now of this law.
I quote my figures from a Board of Trade Command Paper. In 1937 15 million people went away on holiday. I shall not weary the House by going through the figures for all the other years, but come at once to the conclusion that, in 1963, 31 million people went away on holiday. That is 60 per cent. of the population. I would have thought that it was now accepted by both parties that the holding of an election in a holiday month is a practical impossibility. We could not have an election when 60 per cent.—perhaps less in any later holiday months, but not much less—were on holiday away from their homes.
The position in which we now are is made possible only because that 60 per cent. normally have holidays in the same month. But time moves on, and we have moved forward in these last 15 years, and more and more people are now taking their holidays in other months. It was, indeed, the official policy of the late Government, and it is, I suspect, of the present Government, to spread holidays so far as possible over a longer time. In so far as they are successful in that effort, in so far will it ruin the democratic system under which we at present work. It is vital that they should face up to that position.
It may be within the memory of hon. Members here that the most recent election was won by the margin of 0·7 per cent. I am not concerned, on this issue, with the question of who won, but it was won upon a margin of 0·7 per cent. Figures we have heard quoted this afternoon seem to reveal that had fewer people been away from their homes for holiday or for other reasons at the time of the election something between 3 per cent. and 5 per cent. more voters would have taken part. In other words, the decision which was reached was in fact a democratically invalid decision. Perhaps the majority of hon. Members opposite would have been increased; or perhaps it would have been diminished; but, whether increased or diminished, it was an invalid decision in so far as it purported to be based upon one man one vote.
Let me for a moment turn to my own constituency of South Dorset. We are very largely a holiday-making constituency. It is a wonderful place for a holiday. If an hon. Member, on either side, seeks a good holiday, I warmly commend him to come to South Dorset where, I can assure him, he will be very well looked after indeed. All the best Englishmen live in South Dorset.
However that may be, the point I am seeking to make is that I was elected with a majority of 935, a majority in the constituency of 2 per cent. The evidence goes to show that the number of persons away from that constituency on holiday and voteless in that period was of the order of 2,000. It may have been that, but for that, I should not have been here at all. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I fully recognise that ironic applause. I asked for it deliberately. It may have been that, if this Measure had been law at the time of that election, I should not now be here, but equally it may well be that I should have been here with a majority of 4,000 instead of 900.
What might have been the effect in the country as a whole I am not concerned to argue. What I am concerned to argue is that the result of that election was in fact unjust in the terms of any proper democratic system. I should have thought that that point of principle which I have tried to describe is one which both sides of the House must accept.
The argument, if there be an argument, arises not upon the point of principle but whether in fact the administrative Clauses of this Bill, which may be argued in detail later in Committee, are likely to be effective or likely to be ineffective.
I turn briefly to the speech of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Hugh D. Brown). I found it quite impossible to understand what he meant when he said that the Bill would make it too easy to vote. Surely it is clear that a voter can walk down the street a distance of perhaps 700 or 1,000 yards, put his cross on the ballot paper, and then go home again. I would not have thought that difficult. But he thinks it is easier to go to a minister of religion or an inspector of police, or someone in one or another of several categories specified in the Bill, sign a form in front of two witnesses, return it to the electoral officer, and then post a letter. Really, the suggestion that that is easier is I should have thought a proposition which could not possibly have been sustained.
My anxiety, if I have any anxiety, is in fact that what the Bill proposes may possibly be thought too difficult. This particularly affects constituencies which base themselves on the holiday trade. At the height of the season Weymouth has about 60,000 visitors. I have tried to do some research to discover the number of persons in Weymouth employed in looking after those 60,000 visitors, but I have found nothing on which I can rely.
Let us say that one-sixth of that number are so employed. That is perhaps not unreasonable, which means that during the holiday months 10,000 people are engaged in looking after 60,000 visitors. Come October, I know not what proportion, but a high proportion of that number must go away for their holidays. I estimate this figure at about 2,000.
That kind of situation is peculiar to seaside resorts. I think that hon. Members on both sides should forget which party is going to benefit. I do not know, but even if I did I would not think it right to have any conclusion on it. If we work on principle—the principle of one person, one vote, whoever may get it—we would obtain the justice that we in this House ought to seek.
I accept the correction.
I am happy to follow the hon. Member. There can be nobody in the House who can congratulate the parties on the wisdom of the machinery which they set up. As the hon. Gentleman appears to us to be almost the incarnation of the cross benches, he cannot, I am sure, claim that those who voted him into this House voted particularly for him rather than for his party.
I was about to say that those folk in Dorset, South, who were misguided enough to vote for him have no guarantee, any more than we on this side of the House had at one time, that, having elected him, they will find at the end of the Parliament that he represents the point at which he began the Parliament.
I propose to deal with the use which the hon. Gentleman made of statistics, for his speech in that respect was almost an embodiment of the aphorism that there are three kinds of lies—lies, damned lies, and statistics. Nothing can be more misleading than to attempt to pray statistics in aid of the argument that there is real merit in the Bill. I do not think that anybody, even those who have done research on this subject, knows why people do or do not vote at an election.
What we know is that at a General Election consistently between 24 and 26 per cent. of the electorate in any constituency do not vote. Of these, some have scruples, or objections either to the candidates or to the principle of voting, or other grounds of principle on which they do not make use of their vote. How many of those people go on holiday at that time is impossible to tell.
What is certainly true, however, is that no issue of principle is raised by the Bill, and it was, I think, a mistake in a speech that was otherwise admirable and wholly charming for the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles) to say that it did. The hon. and gallant Gentleman opened the debate with great sincerity, and I congratulate him on the charm and moderation with which he presented his Bill.
The weakness of his speech, and that of the speeches of hon. Gentlemen opposite, lies in the fact that those who had taken part in the debate have excited themselves considerably by arguing that somehow or other principle is on their side in presenting the Bill. It is nothing of the kind. The principle of the franchise in Britain is based on the fundamental premise that the vote is a personal vote, personally cast, and those who have spoken, and particularly the hon. Member for Dorset, South, might profitably have paid some attention to the 1949 Act.
What the hon. and learned Gentleman is saying is in direct conflict with the facts. He says that the whole basis of our system is a personal vote, personally cast. It is not. The 1949 Act makes provision for votes to be cast both by post and by proxy.
I do not want to indulge in an argument about who is stating what is fact and what is not fact. The hon. Gentleman is quite right when he says that the 1949 Act makes provision for proxy and postal voting. The hon. Gentleman interrupted me. Perhaps he will do me the courtesy of listening to my answer.
The 1949 Act does what the hon. Gentleman says it does, but it does so to avoid such anomalies as are unavoidable among people who want to exercise their vote. It makes provision for proxy voting for people out of the country on Her Majesty's service. It makes provision for postal voting for people who are physically or otherwise unavoidably prevented from exercising their vote, but the principle of voting is laid down in Section 12 of that Act, which says:
All persons voting as electors at a parliamentary election shall do so in person at the polling station allotted to them under the parliamentary elections rules …
It goes on to say that there are some exceptions which enable people who otherwise would vote, and who want to vote, but are unavoidably prevented by circumstances not within their control, to exercise their vote in some way other than a personal vote.
The principle that I have stated is, therefore, established, namely, that voting in this country is voting in person by the person who votes, and the provisions which have been made have been most carefully defined to ensure that if people are personally prevented from voting, they shall not be disfranchised. But this situation is different from that postulated by the Bill. What the Bill seeks to provide is that even if a person is not sufficiently identified with his duty and voluntarily absents himself from the possibility of exercising his personal vote he may, nevertheless, still exercise that vote by the generosity—
This applies particularly to the lower-paid weekly wages earners. Is the hon. and learned Member suggesting that it is possible for such people to come back from a holiday to vote? He knows that they may have subscribed towards the cost of the holiday for the whole of the previous 12 months and that they cannot get their money back. When they started subscribing there was no possible means of knowing when an election would take place, and they are prevented from attending to vote.
The Conservative Party has a genius for discovering widows, orphans and poorly paid workers whenever it suits the argument they are putting forward. I am not suggesting that a poorly paid worker who is caught while on his holiday by a suddenly sprung election or an unduly delayed one, like the last one—there are people who may genuinely and seriously wish to vote but who cannot get back in time—is not at a disadvantage, but in general the prinicple expressed by the Representation of the People Act is that unless it can be shown that clear categories of exceptions exist—and there are always people who will be caught in the pincers, however carefully an Act is worded; hard cases make bad law—as far as possible voting shall be restricted to people who can vote in person and who wish to do so.
Will the hon. and learned Gentleman answer the point of substance that we are urging? The Representation of the People Act was passed in 1949, and it may very well have suited the social conditions of that year. What we are asking the hon. Gentleman to do is to meet the argument that since 1949 there has been a social revolution in this country; that millions of people now go on holidays, and that the Act which was suitable in the circumstances of 1949 is an anachronism in 1965.
I did not know that an Act passed in 1949 was an anachronism in 1965, but in any case perhaps the hon. Member will first give his attention to the matter of principle, which seems so difficult for hon. Members opposite to understand. I am not really surprised at that; I accept the fact that it is so. I wanted to speak for only a moment or two. I did not realise that the lesson was so difficult to learn.
Before we go on to discuss the possible consequences of the Bill I beg hon. Members opposite to realise that the issue of principle is quite clear, and that it does not apply only to the 1949 Act; it is fundamental to the whole basis of our voting law, and always has been, ever since this country achieved universal franchise.
Because the principle upon which the exceptions have been based has always been the same, namely, that people shall be allowed to vote other than in person only if they are prevented by circumstances over which they have no control.
I am quite willing to sit down as often as hon. Members wish to interrupt me, but I must make this point because it is important. In America, the system of voting is based not on a personal vote, but entirely upon the capacity of the separate parties to get their people registered in order to vote, and once they have registered they may vote, wherever they may be in the world. In Australia everybody must vote, whether he wants to or not, and if he does not vote he is prosecuted and has to show reason why he did not vote. Once that principle is established it is obvious that provision can be made for it.
But in this country the principle is neither one of registration by parties nor of compulsory voting; it is a free vote, and provision is made for absent voters who want to vote to do so only if by some reason outside their own control they are prevented from voting in person. If we introduce the other principle—that people who, of their own volition, make it impossible for themselves to exercise their vote—we are introducing a totally new provision, because in Britain there never has been any attempt to do that.
The hon. and learned Member has just enunciated—and he has done it splendidly—exactly the principle which I am trying to establish in the Bill. I am seeking to provide that people who are prevented from voting should be permitted to do so by post. There is no departure from the principle of an individual vote. In fact, if the hon. Member had been here when I began my speech he would have known that I specifically said that the first principle was that those people who could vole should do so in the secrecy of the polling booth.
I know that. I was here when the hon. and gallant Gentleman began his speech, and I congratulated him on it. The one thing which I am not prepared to let hon. Members opposite run away from—even the hon. and gallant Member, if he was thinking of doing such a thing, which I am sure he would not do, as an ex-naval officer—is the essential difference between us. The difference between him and me—and I am supported by the Act of 1949—is that I believe the principle to be that if by circumstances beyond the control of the voter he is unable to vote—if the Government stop him, or if God stops him, by putting him in bed, ill—then provision can be made for him to register his vote.
But if a man goes on a holiday, even though he may be prevented from coming back because he is too poor to afford to do so, he has, nevertheless, put himself voluntarily into that position. I am sure that I have made the position clear.
I hesitate to be drawn into a theological argument between the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester and my hon. and reverend Friend, but even if a man goes to visit his sick mother he chooses to do so. If he is commanded by Her Majesty to go to Burma he has to go. That is the difference. It is a simple enough difference, and I am sure that I have spent too much time on it. It is the schoolmaster in me.
Once the principle or the difference of principle has been established; once it has become clear that a Bill is based on no other ground than that of the balance of advantage—whether it be to the general advantage of the people of Britain as a whole, or to their disadvantage, must depend upon other considerations than those of principle, and I suggest that the balance of advantage here lies in not passing the Bill.
I am not greatly impressed by the argument that it favours the Conservatives—although I believe that it does. I am sufficiently naive and possibly sufficiently tactless to say that if it were not so the Conservatives would not be so anxious to push the Bill through. I am not very impressed by the argument—and many people who, in the past, have believed that it was to their advantage to do certain things in politics have woken up the day after to find that they have made a mistake.
What is certainly true is that there are many anomalies in the law laid down in the Representation of the People Acts. I agree with the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Curran) —although I do it with the greatest reluctance—that the enfranchisement legislation of Britain needs bringing up to date. But there are very many much more serious anomalies which are an affront to our democracy than this relatively trivial one.
It is agreed that not more than between 3 or 5 per cent. of the electors vote at any time by post. It is certainly true—for this is an incontrovertible statistic—that between 24 and 26 per cent. of the people, for one reason or another, abstain in almost every General Election, and in by-elections very many more. There must, therefore, if we are concerned to establish the principle of one man one vote as far as possible, be very many much more serious anomalies to be dealt with than this one.
Of course, one of the two major anomalies which give grave offence and which, in my view, are much more disastrous to the proper working of our democracy than this one, for it covers an infinitely wider range, is the inadequacy of our system of census registration, as a result of which it is believed that about 20 per cent. of the electorate at the last election were disfranchised by reason of the fact that the register on which it was fought was so out of date.
In the same way, the provision of registration for election disfranchises all the young people in Britain from voting not until they are 21, but, in general, until they are 23 or 24, because it often hapheps that the election does not occur until some two or three years after the registration has been made.
These are serious matters. There are other matters, and I am not from that trying to argue that, in fact, merely because that is a less important one it should not be dealt with just because there are more important ones waiting to be dealt with. What I am arguing, and what I believe is a valid point, is that, bearing in mind that there are serious matters requiring attention within our electoral law it would be better to hasten the Speaker's conference to get all these anomalies put right because one of the worst things that can happen with electoral law is the tinkering about with it.
Let us give two good reasons, and, having done so, I will sit down, because I have spoken for longer than I intended. I think it undesirable to tinker with the electoral law in the way the hon. and gallant Gentleman is trying to do for two reasons. The two difficulties are these. If, in fact, we do what the hon. and gallant Gentleman wishes we can do it only in one of two ways. We can either allow to the parties already existing the extension of their powers to register those people from whom they are hoping to get votes by post or, alternatively, we can put into the hands of the electoral officers the responsibility of ensuring that the collecting of those votes and the provision of those facilities to enable those votes to be posted should be theirs.
It is quite clear that unless we alter the basis upon which the administration of the electoral law of this country is carried on we cannot put upon the administrative machinery, either of the Home Office or of local government offices, the tremendous burden of collecting all those votes and making available to people provisions that will enable them to take advantage of this new legislation. I think that this must be granted.
If, on the other hand, we leave it to the existing parties and approach more nearly to the position of the United States of America and get party registrations for this purpose, we clearly give to the two major parties in this country a tremendous advantage. I am not primarily concerned about the difference between Tories and Socialists. The Liberals are obviously at a major disadvantage, but, of course, at a much greater disadvantage are the smaller parties.
What we do, in effect, is to hasten the day when, as in the United States of America—that is one of its weaknesses—we have two enormously powerful parties with enormous registration instruments and, in many senses, with very little difference between them in their electoral appeal, and with all the rest of the parties absolutely nowhere because they have not the capacity or the resources to make the requisite registrations. I do not think that hon. Members opposite can really intend that this should be the result of legislation of this kind, but, in fact, this is its result.
The other equally important problem created by this sort of legislation which makes it undesirable to do it in this ad hoc, split up fashion is that the research done by the hon. and gallant Gentleman concerning the timing of this matter seems to me to be extraordinarily inaccurate. He did not say from where he got his information that the result of between 3 and 5 per cent. was some three days longer, that some 15 days would be required in order to increase the time for getting postal votes. I would think that the hon. and gallant Gentleman is not only guessing but is guessing optimistically for his cause.
With respect, I did not pin any particular validity on these figures. I made it quite clear that they were the result of discussion with such authorities as I have had the opportunity to pursue.
I want, if the hon. and gallant Gentleman will permit me, equally vaguely to say that my understanding of the position from such inquiries as I have been able to make is that even the present 12 days that are provided for the limited amount of proxy and postal voting that goes on now places an inordinate strain on the machinery of the returning officers.
The second point I have to make is that my information is to the effect that, in fact, something like a further six days would be required for 5 per cent. And that if, in fact, the figures were increased above 5 per cent., the administrative problems—and there are at present the existing provisions, the appointment of the day for nominations, the appointment of the beginning of the election, and the like—would make the task of postal voting much greater and make it quite impossible for the returning officer to do the job within the time allowed for the election.
These, in my submission, are serious arguments. None of them, I think, is invalidated by party considerations, which I have most carefully subdued, and I would submit to the House that if, in fact, we were to pass the Bill, which, for all its superficial attractiveness, is nevertheless half-baked, we would be doing not a service to democracy but a disservice to the machinery of election and to the whole of democracy.
On a point of order. You will recollect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that a few minutes before 1.15 p.m. I called a Count. It was disallowed, for what reason I do not know. I have made myself acquainted with Standing Orders Nos. 29 and 30, which relate to Counts, and it is specifically stated in those Standing Orders that I am not allowed to call a Count between a quarter-past one and a quarter-past two. There is no reference to the minutes occupied by the Count.
I wish to ask you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, what authority there is for refusing a Count a few minutes before a quarter-past one and whether I would be in order in calling a Count a few minutes before a quarter-past two.
I am glad that the hon. Member has raised the point of order. I thought that I had explained the matter to him when he came to the Chair, but it was right that he should raise it in the House. The Standing Order states that the Count cannot take place between certain hours on other days and between a quarter-past one and a quarter-past two on Fridays. The Count occupies four minutes. If the hon. Member tried to call attention to the fact that there was not a quorum present at two minutes before 1.15, that would have meant that the Count would have taken place during the forbidden time. It is a tricky point, but the hon. Member must accept my word that that is right.
As to the point that the hon. Member has raised about the future, I shall be prepared to rule upon that at a quarter-past two, although the same considerations will not then apply. It will be at a quarter-past two, but not before, that the hon. Member will be able to call attention to the number of hon. Members present.
The hon. and learned Member for Warrington (Mr. W. T. Williams) became somewhat confused in his arguments and turned what has been a straightforward and interesting debate into one of complexity. It is clear that more and more people are becoming interested in registering their vote. This is somewhat different from one's early days, when there was a certain amount of apathy and indifference to matters political. Today, however, rather like the Americans, we find that the usual run of people are particularly interested in how local elections are conducted, what the results are and what the result of a general election is likely to be. Thus it is fair to say that the Bill is of real interest to the majority of the electorate. In saying that, I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles) upon introducing the Bill. I hope that it will have a smooth passage and that it will not be opposed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) covered most of what I have to say. I, too, enjoy that part of the world and I share the town of Bournemouth with him as well as representing the additional delightful resort of Christchurch.
The Bill is overdue. I hope that during its passage in Committee upstairs—I notice that the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department on the Government Front Bench does not object to the idea that it will go upstairs, so that we can, perhaps, assume that it will have a smooth passage this afternoon—consideration will be given to an Amendment to allow the Bill to cover local elections as well as postal votes for those on holiday or those who are prevented from registering their votes for the various reasons categorised by my hon. and gallant Friend.
After the last election, I received numerous letters from people who were on holiday regretting that they were unable to vote on polling day. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester, in his simple, straightforward and easy-to-follow exposition of the case, commented that 4 million people spend their holidays abroad. I assure him that 850,000 of the 15 million who have been quoted as going on holiday annually find their way to Bournemouth. Indeed, our hotel business does extremely well. We have over 400 hotels. I am glad to have made a good point for my constituency.
The existing situation is ludicrous. We quite rightly give postal votes to the aged, the infirm and to business men and to the other categories which have been described, but we still do simply nothing for the conscientious holidaymaker who is anxious to register his vote without interrupting his well-deserved, much-needed annual rest.
With the growing affluence of the British public, of all classes, of all parties and all levels, who want to go on holiday, why should they not have the facility of voting by post? As my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West said, the Government want people to stagger their holidays as an obvious means of relieving the pressure on resorts and on transport.
If there is a full spread of holidays, there will be an increasingly large part of the year when the Government dare not have an election when people are away. My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) made this clear. This virtually precludes Governments from having elections in summer months, when party workers and canvassers can operate much easier and without the hazard of bad weather and the possibility of illness and accident.
My other point, which affects me especially in Bournemouth, East and Christchurch, is that on the announcement of an election the conscientious voter will arrange to return home, perhaps three of four days or even a week earlier, thereby not only causing disruption to his holiday, but depriving hotels and boarding houses of revenue which is their livelihood. Hoteliers, who mostly take their holidays in the autumn, are often unable to vote, and this is a matter of real concern to this highly responsible section of society. We all know that general elections are not good for trade, but if people could still vote while they were on holiday this facility would make a great difference.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester fairly and properly drew attention to some of the difficulties of implementing his excellent Bill. As an adult society, we should be prepared to face the administrative problems and to provide the facilities that this modern age demands.
I am grateful that we have had a debate in which hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed their concern about our election law. I should like to congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles), both on his good fortune in the Ballot and on the moderation with which he advanced his case this afternoon.
I think that it has been noticeable, considering the natural sensitivity of the House on election law, that hon. Members have approached this subject with considerable restraint. Nothing is more natural than that the House should be anxious and cautious about changes which are made in our election law. In no field, however, is diligence more necessary. It is right and proper that, from time to time, we should scrutinise with jealous care the way in which our elections are conducted.
We have been reminded that, after the last war, major changes were made in our electoral law. I believe that, on the whole, both sides of the House recognise that the changes which were then made were satisfactory, but there are respects in which people reasonably see room for further development and improvement and they have given a great deal of consideration to this question. So indeed have the Government.
Before I state the Government's view on the Bill, it would be as well if I were to say a few words on the development of absent voting arrangements in our electoral law. As a result of piecemeal legislation in the nineteenth century, election law at the beginning of this century was in a chaotic state. It was recognised that review and reform were necessary, but they were delayed by the outbreak of the First World War. It was during that war that the Prime Minister of the day invited Mr. Speaker of the day to convene and preside over a conference of Members of both Houses of Parliament to consider election matters, including the registration of electors.
Two of the recommendations of the conference related to absent voting, and were given effect in the Representation of the People Act, 1918. Then, for the first time, we had provision for members of the Armed Forces and others on war service to be registered as absent voters. Secondly, registration officers were given power to place an elector's name on the absent voters list, if there was a probability that the claimant, by reason of the nature of his occupation, service or employment, might be debarred from voting at a poll at Parliamentary elections. This remained the only provision for civilian absent voting until the 1940s.
We all know that the successful experiment of the Speaker's conference on electoral matters was repeated in 1944. One of the recommendations of that conference was that voting facilities should be extended to invalids. I was in the House at the time, and I am very proud of the fact that it was this side of the House which was in power to ensure that sick people should have the right to cast their votes from home.
It should be clearly understood that there is no reluctance on this side of the House towards postal voting. Both sides of the House have, from time to time, extended the scope of postal voting. The recommendation for invalids was given effect in the Elections and Jurors Act, 1945, which also made provision for people who had moved house and lived on an island without a polling station to be eligible to be treated as postal voters.
I am very interested in the Under-Secretary of State's review of the past facts. Will he please say something about the arrangements which were made for postal and proxy voting for Service men and women in the 1945 election? Is not that part of the story? Can he make some reference to the way in which we coped with the administrative difficulties presented by doing that?
I shall do my best to oblige the hon. Gentleman as I go along. No doubt he will remind me if I fail. Indeed, I have no doubt that he will remind me.
Following Mr. Speaker's conference in the 1940s, there was the Oliver Committee on Electoral Registration, on which all the political parties were represented and which reported in 1946. This was the Committee which had been asked to consider the use of postal and proxy voting and this was immediately following the 1945 General Election. Apart from the recommendation designed to clarify the existing provisions so that there should be no doubt that candidates and officials at elections were eligible to be treated as absent voters, the Committee recommended no change in the absent voting provisions for Parliamentary elections. This was the all-party position in 1946.
I recognise that changes come with a changing era. The changed pattern of holidays and the differing numbers who take holidays are new factors. I wish to ignore none of these things, but I want to ask the House to bear in mind that this is only a part of the problem which faces us in modernising our election law. The Labour Government of 1945–1950 were responsible, in the 1945 Act, for a wide extension of absent voting, and, in the Representation of the People Act 1948, for the small amount of tidying-up which the Oliver Committee thought was necessary. I believe that hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise that we have played our full part in making it possible for large numbers of electors who would have been disfranchised before the last war now to be able to exercise their vote.
It is never in the interests of any candidate to seek to prevent people from casting their votes. We have all suffered the frustration of having people come to us at the General Election and say that they would like to vote for us, but that they will not be there. I have, written across my heart, the experience of having a lady from a good council estate in Cardiff, West tell me that there were four votes in her house for me. My eyes lit up. Then she said, "But we shall be away on 15th October". We have all tried all sorts of ways to get votes for people if they are voting in the right way. Otherwise, of course, we leave it to their judgment.
The Bill rejects the view of the Oliver Committee, which was based on very different principles. It would allow any person who can expect to be away from his qualifying address at the time of an election to apply for absent voting facilities, supporting his application with a witnessed declaration that he would be unable to vote in person. Therefore, the proposal is that anyone in the country can say, "I expect to be away on election day", get a responsible person to sign and support their application and they would then, by Statute, be entitled to a postal vote. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] The hon. and gallant Gentleman is allowed to make his proposal, and I am allowed to say clearly what it is. However, I am always disturbed when hon. Gentlemen opposite cheer me.
Under the proposals of the hon. and gallant Gentleman, the registration officer would not be required to look into the circumstances himself. All he would have to do is to accept the declaration in good faith. Any person whose declaration was not made in good faith could be proceeded against.
It is regrettably true that at the time of any election a number of people are away from their homes, and under the existing law they do not qualify for absent voting facilities. This must include a great number of people, like the lady to whom I referred, who would be very anxious to cast their votes, and they do not see why they should be deprived of the right if they have to go a way for family circumstances, or a holiday, or for any other purpose which does not enable them to qualify for a postal or proxy vote.
Perhaps the hon. and gallant Gentleman will forgive my saying at this point that I got rather heated when he and my hon. and learned Friend, who made a notable speech, suggested that God might be responsible for the sickness of people. I can never be silent at that awful theological assumption, and that was why I intervened so strongly.
To come back to election law, we can always sympathise with the desire to see arrangements introduced which will help to produce as large a poll as possible.
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the question of people who are away on holiday, I wonder whether he would not agree that it seems extraordinarily unfair that people who have worked very hard throughout the year, and who have planned their holiday long in advance, are prevented from voting or prevented from taking their holiday, because that is the crux of the issue.
I am not arguing against the necessity for examining this problem. I shall submit to the House that to select this out of all the other problems would be to lose our sense of proportion and balance.
Equally, it would be possible for me to produce examples of other hardships caused to people by our present election law by circumstances quite beyond their control, but they are not dealt with in the Bill.
Is there any valid reason for refusing to carry out a vitally necessary reform, which is quite separate from other particular matters merely because we have not the opportunity to deal with the whole of the electoral reform now? This is a cognate issue, beautifully drafted by the Parliamentary draftsmen, and—
Thank you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. The hon. Gentleman would be right in his argument if we assumed that we had now had the detailed consideration of the problem which is being discussed. I do not accept that, after consideration by Mr. Speaker's conference, the parties concerned in the House will of necessity agree with the hon. and gallant Gentleman about the right way to tackle this problem. I am not saying it is not to be dealt with. I am saying that we are on the verge of a conference which we hope will have the distinguished chairmanship of Mr. Speaker. The last Speaker's conference reported within five months, and the House should remember that it dealt with a far more difficult electoral situation at the end of the war than we have now.
The House will be interested to know that postal voting at General Elections has been much of a pattern since 1950. In 1950, the proportion was 1·6 per cent. of the total vote; in 1951, 2·6 per cent.; in 1955, it was down to 2 per cent.; in 1959 it was 2·1 per cent.; and in 1964, 2·6 per cent.
The hon. and gallant Gentleman was right with his figures for the proportion of the votes cast. At the last General Election the poll was 77 per cent. of the total electorate; in 1959, it was 78·7 per cent.; in 1955, 76·7 per cent.; in 1951, 82·5 per cent.; and in 1950, 84 per cent. The facilities for absent voting were the same at all those elections. We all know that there are many other factors that decide the size of a poll at a General Election.
The House can expect to receive it within five minutes—as I reach it.
The hon. and gallant Gentleman was not in the Chamber when I began, so I should like to tell him now that I throughly enjoyed the way in which he presented the Bill. I could almost smell the salt air as he proceeded. There are some other considerations to be taken into account in looking at the Bill. I want to deal, first, with the question of principle.
I thank the Under-Secretary of State for giving way and for his kind remarks. I apologise for not having been here when he began to speak. When I came into the Chamber he seemed to be agreeing with me so strongly that I thought that perhaps he would vote for the Bill.
When the hon. and gallant Gentleman has known me longer he will understand that I always like to be kind to the people I am about to turn down.
It has been one of the accepted principles of our election law that an elector should vote in person unless he is unable to do so for reasons beyond his control. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington (Mr. W. T. Williams), in a forceful speech, made that perfectly clear. Both sides of the House have agreed on this principle throughout the years. That is why hitherto the facilities for voting by post or by proxy have been confined to a few well-defined categories. My view is that any departure from this principle ought to be the subject not merely of a debate in the House, but of very careful thought and full consultation between the three parties It may have unexpected consequences. It is so easy to slide into accepting what seems like a reasonable proposition to many people, only to find that we have created other anomalies.
This proposal belongs properly to a review of the whole sphere of elections legislation. Hon. Members will know that there is no major electoral reform that has reached the Statute Book through Private Members' Bills, at least not in modern history. It has been the result of consultation between the parties, coolly and calmly. No doubt each will watch its own interest but, above all, will watch the interest of the country as a whole.
A word about the secrecy of the ballot, because two cardinal features apply to our voting procedure. The first is that it is personal and the second is that it is secret. If there is one thing on which the British people are touchy it is that somebody might find out how they voted. Even the most faithful sometimes do not like one to look over their shoulder in the voting booth. They like to feel confident that their votes are being cast in secrecy.
The more we extend the postal voting system the more we are opening people to pressures. Hon. Members may know of one custom which goes on—not in Wales; I would not dream of suggesting that it happens there—by which it is not unknown for party agents, once the news is known that the postal votes are out on Tuesday, to see that their representatives are knocking on the doors to make sure that people fill in their votes and, if they are not sure how to fill them in, to help them. All parties have done this sort of thing. It undermines the principle of the secrecy of the ballot.
The officials who deal with the receipt of the postal ballot have also taken the declaration of secrecy, but although they have done that there is no way of ensuring secrecy in the completion of the postal ballot paper.
Hon. Members were concerned about so widening the net that, as the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester himself admitted, they are prepared to lengthen the period during which postal ballot papers could not be received—as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington reminded us—by as much as six days if the number of votes goes up to 6 per cent. That is the advice which I, too, have received. The more we do this the more we are going to hit at the cases of hardship; the people who have to go into hospital a week before the day of the General Election. They could not get their postal votes because 12 days before the election is the last day on which an application can be made.
If the proposal of the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester goes through, far more people who find that they must leave home for urgent reasons, over which they have no control and which they could not possibly have anticipated, will be prevented from gaining the postal vote which they can now get. Hon. Members will appreciate that in these six days applications for postal votes begin to crowd in.
Instructions to postal voters warn them to mark their ballot papers secretly, but there is no guarantee that this is followed. Another form of absent voting is by proxy. For voters other than Service voters, vote by proxy is confined to persons who will be or are likely to be at sea or out of the United Kingdom on the day of the poll by reason of the nature of their occupation, service or employment, or service in one of the reserve or auxiliary forces.
The proxy vote is usually exercised by some close relative but not always. At the last General Election I had the great honour and privilege of being entrusted by a sea captain with his proxy vote in Cardiff, West. I would not say that I voted for the better man, but I certainly voted for the better party. The captain trusted me and I cast his vote as I thought it wise to do. There is an enormous element of trust in the proxy vote. People ask their friends, if whole families go away, and an extension of the proxy vote is something that we are not particularly anxious to see on any considerable scale. There is also no guarantee that the proxy vote will always be exercised as the person would like.
The whole world, by and large, admires the purity of our election laws. The way in which the General Election is conducted in this country, even though the hitting is hard, and the standard by which it is conducted earns the admiration of the entire world. But I suspect that we might be putting our reputation in jeopardy if there were a wide departure from the principle of voting in person. There has been the secret of our strength.
I come to the practical difficulties. Even if we were agreed that it would be right to allow absent voting facilities to any person who is away from the constituency on polling day, and, as I have said, this is a matter best left— —
Mr. Deputy-Speaker, my hon. Friend did me a favour, if not you, because he has brought into the net a welcome addition.
Before the Count we were considering the practical difficulties of the Bill. The hon. and gallant Member for Winchester wants to give genuine holiday makers the right to cast their votes by post, but the Bill does not seek to limit the grant of absent voting facilities to a person who will be away for specific reasons; it is enough for them to say that they expect to be away. That could make a mockery of our election laws.
Another point is that, from time to time, proposals come before the House to have election day on a Saturday, or that it should be declared a public holiday. If these proposals were accepted, one can well imagine that we could have half the country away, and the burden on the postal voting system would be such that even with the aid of the computer in Hampshire it would be difficult to undertake that work.
The hon. and gallant Member has tried his best, I know—without the help of the Home Office, may I say, in answer to the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. Rees-Davies)—to limit the scope of the Bill, but the truth is that it is impracticable to draw the provisions in such a way that they would benefit only persons who have made bona fide arrangements to be away from home at the time of a General Election.
To prevent abuse, reliance would have to be placed solely on the possibility of proceedings being instituted against any person whose declaration was not made in good faith. The House knows what an enormous problem that would be—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Of course it would be, because we would have to spend our time proving that people were not acting in good faith. One does not have to be a barrister to realise what a difficult task that would be. The hon. and gallant Member really seeks to open the door so wide that anyone who wished it could choose to have the postal vote. That would change the whole approach to personal voting—
I am grateful for the continued help of the hon. Gentleman, but I would say to him that that question has been answered not once or twice, but several times in this debate.
I should like now to deal with the returns for the latest General Election. The total number of ballot papers issued for postal votes at the last General Election was 818,901. The number of covering envelopes received by the returning officer before the close of the poll was 723,927. The number of covering envelopes received after the close of the poll—thus, those people being disfranchised—2,944. The number of covering envelopes returned as undelivered—another dangerous possibility always present in postal votin—14,597.
The number of covering envelopes, including the postal votes, received by the returning officer by this afternoon—77,433. The number of cases in which the covering envelope or its contents was marked "empty", "rejected", "declaration rejected" or "vote rejected", for various reasons—16,291. The number of ballot papers returned by postal voters which were included in the count of ballot papers—707,636. I think that I have given the House the information it wanted about postal votes at the last General Election.
The other question that I wish now to bring to the attention of the House is this. If we set up, as I hope and believe we shall, in the next few days, another Speaker's conference, it would be quite wrong for the House to anticipate the decision of that conference and leap to its own decision this afternoon. The party opposite, Conservative by name and usually conservative by nature—I am paying a compliment—ought to be the last to want to leap into a change of this sort, even though its members have made quite clear that they believe in their hearts that it will help them. Some of my hon. Friends also seem to think that it would help the Tories if we were to embark on this change in the law.
I believe that our people expect us here to move cautiously in changing the electoral law. My advice to the House is not to prejudge this issue, but to decide that this is a matter that should be considered by Mr. Speaker's conference. I have such a high opinion of the hon. and gallant Gentleman that I believe that he will see the wisdom of this course—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I see that my judgment is not as good as I had thought.
Perhaps the hon. and gallant Gentleman will, between now and four o'clock, give a moment or two of thought to the subject, and bear in mind that he can still see that his aims and objects can be advanced, if he has faith in the Front Bench opposite, in Mr. Speaker's conference. If he has no faith in his right hon. Friends, I can understand his pressing it this afternoon—
One of my hon. Friends, speaking with much greater authority than myself, gave a guarantee that people could make their arrangements to 1969—and no one was more encouraged than I was.
I draw to my conclusion now, because the House will realise that the arguments that can be advanced on this subject have already been advanced. The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Curran) was anxious about the postal arrangements in the 1945 election, I think, when the Conservative Party ran the General Election machinery—it was the party in charge, even though the circumstances were very different then. If the hon. Gentleman is still perplexed, he had better talk to me on some other occasion. To deal with it now would not be fair to the House, anxious as I know it is to turn to its next business after it has disposed of this Bill.
The hon. and gallant Gentleman has had a fair run for his money. He was fortunate in the Ballot and we have congratulated him on that. His views have had a good airing. They have been considered, and will be considered to much greater advantage, maybe, if he allows further time for it. I hope that he will withdraw his Bill, but if he should decline to do so I say, more in sorrow than in anger, that I shall have to advise my hon. Friends to divided against it.
I do not rise, any more than did the Joint Under-Secretary, to close the debate. There are many voices, including that of the Liberal Party, that we have not yet heard. However, having heard the view of Her Majesty's Government, it is only right that the view of Her Majesty's Opposition should be stated shortly.
I join the Joint Under-Secretary in the congratulations he gave to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles). My hon. and gallant Friend was fortunate in the Ballot and in his speech, and also in picking a subject of this nature, which has afforded a debate which all hon. Members on both sides have enjoyed. It has been a wonderfully good-tempered and extremely interesting debate.
One of the essential things in government is, when there is a hopelessly weak case, that there must be somebody who can argue it with the maximum amount of charm. The Under-Secretary fulfils this rôle absolutely to perfection. Every time the Government get into this sort of trouble, the cry "Send for George" goes out. It was thought on this occasion that, if the Under-Secretary could charm a bird off a tree, which normally he could, he might have a shot at charming an admiral off the bridge. I think it right to say—the hon. Gentleman will not regard this as personal in any way—that his speech was delightful, delicious and deplorable. Indeed, with the exception of my hon. and gallant Friend's, it presented the most convincing case that has yet been given to the House for giving the Bill a Second Reading.
I do not propose to dance a careful minuet up to my conclusion. I believe in the Lewis Carroll version of sentence first and trial afterwards. Therefore, for my part I advise my hon. and gallant Friend not to listen to the blandishments of the Parliamentary Secretary but to ask the House to give a Second Reading to the Bill.
The Bill has had a rather odd history, because a very similar one came up at 2.49 p.m. on Friday, 10th April, 1964. It was talked out by the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees). I hope that by saying that I shall not be thought to be criticising the hon. Gentleman. Although I was a supporter of that Bill and had my name on it as one of those supporting it, as I do on this Bill, I thought that the hon. Gentleman was quite right, because an hour and a quarter on a Friday is quite inadequate to discuss a matter of this nature.
Clearly this does not apply to this debate. That Bill having failed to get a Second Reading on that day, the Second Reading went on the nod by mischance and the then Opposition, now the Government, saw to it that the Bill died of malnutrition at the Committee stage.
Perhaps I may clear up one point in reference to the Home Office. I think that this is important, although I do not think that there is any dispute about it. Both the Under-Secretary and my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. R ees-Davies) are right. The position was that, after that Bill obtained, by chance, a Second Reading in the last Session of the last Parliament, the Home Secretary and the Home Office did what they could to iron out some of the difficulties and make it a more acceptable Bill. That obviously was clearly right and appropriate. It is obviously clearly right and appropriate that we should be clear that Her Majesty's present Ministers at the Home Office and the Home Office have no responsibility for this Bill.
The purpose of the Bill is quite clear and the main arguments for it are quite clear. We have been moving for some time now towards a position—this has been encouraged by Governments of both parties—in which holidays should be staggered over a longer period. It has been rightly said that special arrangements were made as long ago as the 1945 General Election to take account of special circumstances. How much more, therefore, should we 20 years later see whether we cannot meet this point.
It has been rightly pointed out that yesterday an hon. Member opposite asked the Leader of the House for information about the Summer Recess. Having held that office, I have some sympathy with the Leader of the House's response, which was that one step at a time was enough for him and he would be—he did not quite say this, but this is how I gathered it—happy enough to get to Easter and then see what happened after that.
There is a very important point here. The House knows that the Press is drenched with travel supplements and travel articles in the very early weeks of the year. It is in those weeks that holidays which simply cannot be postponed are planned, because a large part of the income going into many homes is mortgaged, as it were, for this family holiday. The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock), whose name is on the back of this Bill, as is mine, said in the debate on 10th April, 1964, that 80 per cent. of the holiday bookings for each calendar year are made by the end of January.
The question is whether it is reasonable—I will come to the Speaker's conference point later—to recognise in our electoral arrangements something which beyond argument has become part of the way of life of this country. We do not live as we used to do. We do not take our holidays in the same places, or even in the same countries, as we used to do. The spread of people taking holidays is vastly greater than it used to be. The question before the House is basically whether we are prepared to recognise this fact—because nobody can dispute that it is a fact; the tourist figures are there and are known—and make arrangements for it, or whether we are not.
The arguments against are these, to summarise them briefly. There is, first, the argument—I hope that this is not one to which the House will listen—that because there are other anomalies we should not put this one right. This has never been an argument to which the House has been at all sympathetic, and it certainly should not be sympathetic to it on this occasion.
The hon. Member for Leeds, South dwelt on this and made it an important part of his speech, as indeed he did in the debate last April. He painted a fascinating picture of his wife going out in search of postal votes. He said that on these occasions she liked to look like a Tory. I was not clear whether she made herself less attractive or more attractive than she undoubtedly is when she was carrying out this particular exercise. If you want to get a vote get a hat.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) is not here. Apart from his speech, his contribution of calling a Count on a Friday on a matter like this I think was a deplorable one. That is a point of view I take not just because of this Bill. I took it consistently also when I was Leader of the House. It will be noted that a Count was called and that Labour Members who were within the Palace of Westminster did not respond to that Count when a matter of first importance was being discussed.
We heard from the hon. Member for Leeds, South what was basically the simple, cloth-cap approach. He and some other hon. Members opposite simply believe that the Bill may work to the advantage of the Tories. Oddly enough, I do not think that that is so. The vast spread of holidays abroad, which, as I say, is part of the pattern of the way of life of our country, and—accepting the hon. Gentleman's argument as being valid—the greater ease with which Tories can come back especially to vote—do not mean that if it were possible to obtain this sort of vote, party advantage would fall to any one side.
Nor do I think that he is right to think, as he apparently does, that there are vast numbers of paid Tory canvassers in all the seats to look after postal votes. I can give the experience of my own constituency. I have an agent who looks after not only my constituency, but that of Enfield, East, two seats, and he has no other paid help. The postal vote is looked after in every ward by voluntary unpaid workers. That is typical of practically every constituency in the country. The example quoted by the hon. Member for Fife, West, who said that two or three paid Tory workers looked after the postal vote in West Fife, was almost too funny to require contradiction.
Is the right hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that the Tory Party machine is not linked to the basis of obtaining postal votes? Is it not recognised by political experts throughout the country that the Tories are linked extensively to this practice and spend a great deal of money on it?
That we work hard at it I admit, but I know that every hon. Member on this side of the House will bear me out when I say that it is voluntary work. If hon. Members opposite do not have enough voluntary enthusiasm to get this work done for them, that is their business and not mine.
I now turn to the suggestion of the Under-Secretary that we should not deal with this matter because there is to be a Speaker's conference. To quote his exact words, he said, "We shall lose our sense of proportion and balance if we isolate this one issue and deal with it by legislation in advance of a major inquiry". What will he do next week when the Rookes v. Barnard case comes up? What is the difference between that case and this? Are they not exactly the same and on all fours?
He will vote with us; he is an honourable man. It is proposed that next week we should legislate on one matter. In fact, that is the price of the inquiry. The Bill is not the price of our inquiry.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman quite frankly that we will gladly join in the Speaker's conference and play our full share in it and will examine all these matters, but he cannot call in aid the Rookes v. Barnard case. The hon. Gentleman is smiling and I think that he sees the merit of this argument. The argument that it is wrong to legislate on a particular issue—the strongest argument against the Bill today; indeed, the only one—is made absolute nonsense by the Government's proposals which we shall consider next week.
The unhappiest part of the hon. Gentleman's speech was his suggestion that those who would have to attest these declarations might take their duties rather casually. He said that there were dangers in this. He knows that the people concerned are justices of the peace, ministers of religion, medical practitioners and so on. I do not qualify under any of these heads.
That is quite true, but one does not exercise that right. I was about to say that it is a common feature of life at home in my constituency for people to ask my wife, who is a justice of the peace, to sign any of the hundred different forms—and this would be one of them—which justices of the peace, among others, are entitled to sign.
I am sure that the Under-Secretary does not want to suggest that a signature is just slapped on to the bottom of a piece of paper. That is not the case. Anybody who holds the office of justice of the peace, or who is in any of the professions specified in Clause 1(2,b), would take the greatest care to make certain that the signature he gave was honourable.
The second point the hon. Gentleman made was that he took some credit for an earlier Labour Government having made special provision for sick people. This is true. But what of the relative to goes to look after a sick person? The hon. Gentleman must have sympathy with this case. Unless something like the Bill is passed, if a man or woman goes to look after a relative who is sick, he is not entitled to vote. I cannot believe that there is any hon. Member who regards that anomaly as defensible.
It has been said that it is essential to our form of democracy that wherever possible one should vote in person, and I agree. But there are already exceptions to that, mainly introduced, to their credit, by the Labour Government. What we are considering is whether the additions which the Bill would make are reasonable additions to the exceptions. The House is not being asked to decide whether it is desirable to have a Speaker's conference—we agree that it is and we will play our part—but we are being asked to decide on the principle of the Bill.
Let it be quite clear that those who vote against the Bill, by voting against the principle, will show themselves as reluctant both to understand what has happened to the pattern of life in this country and to redress the almost admitted wrongs and anomalies which exist.
I hope that even at this stage the Under-Secretary will withdraw his advice. There are Committee and other stages of the Bill, but the decision on Second Reading is the decision on the principle of the Bill and anyone who goes into the Lobby against the Second Reading will go in against the principle of tile Bill. It would be only right to make the position of the Government absolutely clear.
We join to the full in agreeing about the desirability of the Speaker's conference and we will take part in it in every way we can and contribute to it. But if the Bill is denied a Second Reading, or, if given a Second Reading, is subsequently mangled in Committee, or at its later stages, I must tell the House that a future Conservative Government will introduce a similar Bill at the first opportunity.
I have been interested in the speech of the right hon. Member for Enfield, West (Mr. Iain Macleod), as many of us on this side of the House were. He and the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) asked why the Labour Party were opposing the Bill, but, in return, we pose the question why the Conservative Party regard it as of such prime importance. Why are such distinguished Members present on the benches opposite for this debate? [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are yours?"] Our distinguished Members know that they can leave the matter in capable hands.
I am very intrigued that such a political pundit as the right hon. Member for Enfield, West should be put up by the Opposition to make a strong political case on behalf of a fragmentary Bill dealing with one aspect of the electoral system. We on this side, naturally, want to see reform, but we do not want it to be based on the assumption of the Opposition that it should be to their electoral advantage and to our electoral disadvantage.
One could feel more sympathy for the Opposition if they showed more concern for the electorate when it came to elections. It is well known that the Conservative Party always like to fight an election on the oldest register possible. This has been proved over a number of years. Why do they want to fight an election on an old register? The answer is, because they know that many people are missing from it and the other parties do not have the facilities to find these people and to take them to the poll, whereas they have.
As a mere back-bencher, may I say that I think that the Labour Party made a tactical error. But that is another question.
As hon. Members on this side know, and as those of us who might be new to the House, but not new to elections, know, one of the most important and necessary things is that we should have a modern register. I hope that we can return to a register which is compiled at least twice a year. The greatest possible play has been made about the number of people who take holidays during elections. Figures have been given which we do not dispute. But the number of people who move house through slum clearance, and so on, and change not only the town in which they live, but the county, is far in excess of that number. This sort of thing makes it exceedingly difficult to keep the register up to date. There are tens of thousands of people affected in this way as against probably hundreds of people who are affected by holidays. The question of the register is one of the most important questions which faces the Speaker's conference.
I should have thought that hon. Members opposite would show a little more consideration for other aspects of electoral reform instead of dealing with one specific point which they see as a cardinal political issue in future elections. I recognise the political ability of the right hon. Member for Enfield, West, and he sees it as a cardinal issue. It would be entirely wrong for the Government to accept an amendment of the electoral law in this respect without considering the other aspects of it.
Reference has been made to abuse of the postal vote. I raised with the right hon. Member for Enfield, West the ques- tion of the facilities available to the Conservative Party. I was told of one occasion when the postman was followed round on the morning that postal vote forms were being delivered so that people could be followed up and dealt with immediately. Mention has been made of the clamour for postal votes, but the figure which we were given—77,000 I think it was—of postal votes which were not cast at the last election is illuminating.
The people involved in this matter recognise that it is a question of organisation. A tremendous amount of work is involved. The more we throw the emphasis on to political organisations, the greater is the danger of destroying the validity of the secrecy of the ballot. As a back-bencher, I shall certainly press on the Speaker's conference that this type of registration should be dealt with by the Administration and not by the political parties. It is wrong, and it amazes me that members of the Liberal Party should support such an amendment. But that is their folly, not ours. I think that it mitigates against smaller parties compared with its effect on the Conservative Party and Labour Party.
It is no good the right hon. Member for Enfield, West protesting about the lack of organisational and voluntary workers in the Conservative Party. It is well know that they have mastered the situation by paying people to do nothing else but go round week after week, year after year, dealing with this matter. They have sympathisers in professional organisations who assist them in this form of registration.
It is noteworthy that the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles) has listed a number of people who would be allowed to sign the form for a postal vote. It includes medical practitioners, barristers at law, members of the police force—no mention of a trade union official. Why should our people be put to inconvenience in dealing with this matter when it is made easy for hon. Members opposite? My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) made a valid point about the bias which exists in connection with this type of vote.
We must consider the whole question of electoral reform. There is a lot to be done to make the electoral system more democratic and more accessible in the form of registration and every other form. I should like an average, not of 77 per cent., but of 90 per cent. and more of the electorate to vote. This is a general desire. The position will not be improved by putting on the register a few more people who will further the point of view of the Conservative Party. We should rip the veil off the hypocrisy which has been introduced in this debate and deal with the facts as they are.
The Labour Party opposes the Bill not on the ground that it is opposed to a review or even consideration of the postal vote system, but because it wants the whole electoral system dealt with. It was interesting to hear the right hon. Member for Enfield, West say that the Conservative Party would, if the Bill is rejected on Second Reading and if it was returned to power, immediately introduce a Bill to deal with the problem. They see the Government with a majority of four or five which might be overturned by a manipulation of this kind. Why did not the party opposite do this during the last 13 years? They never bothered about the electoral system when they had a majority of 100, but when they see that it would be to their advantage to do so they take steps to reverse the situation. I think that, in fairness, these things ought to be said.
This is a Tory Bill. It does not deal with the matter in its entirety and leaves many questions to be answered. We saw the Tory supporters at the door of the Chamber when a Count was called. I hope that their visit to the Chamber will prove to have been in vain and that we may approach the Speaker's conference in an atmosphere of complete reform of many of the aspects which have been referred to today. I hope that we may respect the validity of those people who wish to go to the poll to vote for any party and that we shall restrict this question to those who genuinely need to be able to vote by proxy or by postal vote.
An extension of this kind may have undesirable connotations. We must be able to make voting more acceptable in other ways than by an extension of the franchise in this manner.
The hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) said it was remarkable to him that the Liberal Party was able to support the Bill. I find it bewildering that a radical party of the Left can conceivably oppose it. In the last analysis this is a Bill designed to achieve one thing, to give the right to a maximum number of people to cast their vote at a General Election.
I believe that the very basis of our present Parliament and voting system is that everyone should have the opportunity to vote. People at present penalised and prevented from voting are those who—as I have tried to say in a number of interjections—having planned their holidays long in advance, and often at great sacrifice to themselves, are faced with the alternative, at the time of an election, of cancelling their holiday or losing their right to cast a vote for the candidate of their choice.
I believe that this is something which runs completely contrary to the whole of our electoral system, which is the admiration of the free world and one of the finest contributions which this nation has made over the years to the democratic system of government enjoyed by many countries of the West.
We shall this year be celebrating the 700th anniversary of the Parliament of Simon de Montfort and I think that it would be most appropriate if this very small Measure, this very small addition to the present freedom to vote, could be put on to the Statute Book. It would be an appropriate step to take.
I thought that the Joint Under-Secretary, for whom we all have a great respect and affection, was, to say the least, embarrassed. As he was reading his brief, which had been admirably prepared, I thought that the hon. Gentleman was as embarrassed as if he had been invited to organise an Eisteddfod at Clapham Junction. I do not think that he would be among those who would wish to deny the right to vote to a worker who had saved for his holiday. That is the question confronting right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the Government benches this afternoon. That is the matter which they will have to discuss with their constituents if they oppose a Second Reading of the Bill. This is the question which will be put to them eventually, and this is the matter for which they will have to answer.
It has been suggested again and again during the debate that the Bill is a political issue. If that were true, is it conceivable that I, as a member of the smallest of the three parties, with certainly the least financial resources and very often the weakest organisation, would be prepared to support such a Bill? The answer is, "Yes." The answer is "Yes" because, if we come to the heart of this matter, if we are opposing the Bill on the ground that it will give a special advantage to one political party, what we are saying is that we are going to use the power of Parliament to prevent Conservatives, or Liberals, if hon. Members like, from casting their votes for the candidates of their choice.
The logic of this argument, an argument which has been put forward, I believe, with real sincerity by a number of hon. Members on the Government benches, is one which I find deplorable. To suggest that, because one party might be able to extract a greater advantage than another from this issue, is surely completely wrong.
What we have to do as members of political parties is so to fire our own people with enthusiasm as to see, if there is a challenge to be met, that we can meet it. I know that, for my part, if there are three paid organisers to look after the postal vote for another party in my constituency at the next election, as was suggested as the case in one constituency represented by an hon. Member on the Government benches, I shall be more than happy to meet that challenge with at least three dedicated workers on whom I can rely to give at least equal time with that given by any paid organiser.
I know that the hon. Member has listened to the arguments, as I have been listening to his, and I wonder whether he would say why, for the normal purposes of registration, it shall be the duty of the registration officer to register voters and why there should be an ad hoc, almost private, register of registered postal voters? Why the difference in this essential respect?
I will take the hon. Member's point. There is a great deal to be said—and I was coming to this—for the argument which has been put forward that the whole question of the postal vote should be dealt with by the returning officer and not by the political parties. I accept that that is a very strong argument indeed, but I do not think for a moment that it beats the objective of the Bill. This is a matter which could, in any case, be raised, and I think it would be in order for it to be raised, in an Amendment if and when we reach Committee, but that does not invalidate the argument behind the Bill or the purpose of the Bill.
I represent a constituency where a very large number of people are engaged throughout the summer months catering for visitors. They do an admirable job and provide holiday facilities for people from all parts of the country. Their only chance of taking a holiday is either in October or, alternatively, in the early spring. The last few General Elections, in 1955, 1959 and 1964, all came either in the spring or the autumn.
That means that a large number of people in my constituency, and in many other constituencies with holiday resorts, have been denied the right to vote, or, alternatively, denied the chance of a well-earned rest at the end of their working year. Surely it is reasonable to ask that provision should be made for people in this category, just as I have suggested that it is reasonable to ask for provision to be made for those who have saved all the year, to provide themselves with a holiday at any time which may happen to conflict with a General Election.
Ever since the great Reform Act there have been innumerable conflicts over changes in electoral law. Many battles have been fought, some have been won, and a few have been lost. It would be tragic if we turned this issue into a battle of any size at all because, if the argument is to be sustained that because of Mr. Speaker's conference this Measure should be postponed, the argument could equally be sustained that the Measure should be introduced now, and after Mr. Speaker's conference it can be amended or altered in the light of the recommendations that emerge.
It is important that this matter should be dealt with immediately, if only because of the problem with which the Government are confronted, having as they do, a small majority. I am not making a political point here. It is simply a matter of fact that at any time now there is the danger of a General Election, and that risk will inevitably increase as the months go by.
I do not think that hon. Gentlemen opposite would care to confront the electorate again and have to say to them, "We regret that because we were waiting for a conference which we were unable to convene we have had to deny many thousands of you the right to vote again, or, alternatively, you have to give up your holiday".
I would be the first to recognise that the hon. Gentleman's party has done a great deal to fight for the right of the individual to have a free vote. That is why I am so astounded. I cannot believe that he and his colleagues are prepared to vote against a Measure which will extend the franchise to those who are prevented from being able to go to the polls.
If hon. Gentlemen opposite are prepared to say to the person who has worked all the year, "You cannot have your holiday, you have to vote, or, alternatively, you lose your vote and you have your holiday", and if they are prepared to say to the seaside boarding house keeper, "You must lose your holiday at the end of your working year", are they prepared to say to the woman who, for example, goes away from home to look after a sick relative. "You are to be denied your vote"? That is precisely the effect of the present law.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that because he votes Liberal he attracts some attention. Does he recall that some years ago the Young Liberals said that there should be no extension of postal voting facilities until we had had another look at the whole question of the mechanics of postal voting?
It was the Young Liberals who pointed out that the great weakness in postal voting was that it eliminated the secret aspect of the business, because the voter signed a form when he received his ballot paper and thus told the world how he was going to vote. The postal voter receives a ballot paper with a number on it. He also receives a slip which he signs, and it is by this means that he tells everyone just how he is to vote. It was on that basis that the Young Liberals said that there should be no extension until the whole set-up had been examined.
The hon. Member made a speech, not an intervention. I accept the point that he makes; the Young Liberals made that recommendation. That does not mean that the Liberal Party or I have to accept every recommendation which the Young Liberals make. I do not think that the Conservative Opposition would accept every recommendation of the Bow Group, or that Her Majesty's Government would accept every recommendation of the Young Socialists, although every stimulating suggestion is worth looking at.
As I understand the argument advanced by the hon. Member, he is against the entire postal voting system. Are we now moving into the position where Her Majesty's Government are, first, denying the vote to those who are on holiday; secondly, denying it to those people who are looking after sick relatives and, thirdly, denying it to those who are entitled to a postal vote—who are away on business, or on Her Majesty's Service, or are ill?
Does not the hon. Member's case rest rather on the question of the indecision about the date when a General Election should be held? There is no point in arguing about holidays or other reasons why people are not able to vote in person. Should not we try to introduce a system on the American lines, whereby we can fix a date for the 'General Election, so that everybody would be able to vote, because he would know what the date was well in advance? Would not that be a major question to be considered by the Speaker's conference, in the light of modern conditions, rather than the question of removing difficulties of people who cannot vote in person?
That may be a good point. It is not one that I have considered in detail. I rather like our present system. I have not considered whether or not the American system would be an advantage, because I do not think that it is relevant to this debate. I do not intend to speak for very much longer, but I thought that one radical voice ought to be raised today, as no radical voice has been raised from the Government benches.
The truth is that the Government, if they are to maintain the principle which for so long they have proclaimed they exist to promote, namely, the right of every person to have an opportunity to cast his vote for the candidate of his choice, must accept, in all honesty, a Bill which is merely designed to extend that right to those people who, more often than not through misfortune rather than for any other reason, are prevented from doing so.
It has already been argued at length that much greater reforms are needed. I am prepared to accept that argument, but let us at least take one step forward. Before the Government go out finally let them show the electorate that they are taking one step in the direction of electoral reform, for this has been one of the things which they have promised the country for many years.
Even for one who has been in the House for only four or five months—since 15th October last—this is something of a connoisseur's Friday. I never thought that I would ever hear a Liberal spokesman talking about electoral reform without mentioning proportional representation. I would expect it to be at the forefront of every Liberal's case, particularly on a day like this. It is surely one of the most important matters in the eyes of this radical wing of the semi Left—much more important than considering means of providing electoral opportunities for people who cannot vote in person. But not a word about it.
The other reason why this is rather a connoisseur's debate has been the presence of right hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Front Bench. If I may say so, I really enjoyed the speech of the right hon. Member for Enfield, West (Mr. lain Macleod). I enjoyed it the more particularly because he was flanked on one side by his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and on the other by his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg).
One gets a sort of bonhomie in this place on a Friday which is very refreshing after the party wind has blown during the week. I have never seen such an array of forensic and semi-forensic talent on the Opposition Front Bench in the middle of a Friday afternoon. One asks oneself why they are all here. The thought that really crosses my mind—I will banish it even before it takes shape—is if this Bill is so important that on a Friday afternoon we have the unique sight of the Leader of the Opposition scurrying through the door past the Bar so as to get here in time, why was it not debated by the Tory Government during the whole 13 years that they were in office?
It is not even as if the then Government did not have the opportunity of adopting a Measure of this kind. This is the second time in a period of 12 months that the House has debated such a Measure. As the right hon. Member for Enfield, West said, on 10th April last year a somewhat similar Measure was in front of the House. On that occasion we find, looking at the HANSARD Report of the debate, that we did not get one Front Bench spokesman for the then Government supporting the principle of the Bill.
In the course of his speech—and I took some notes of what he said—the right hon. Member for Enfield, West said that the Press today is drenched with travel supplements and is saturated with articles about the allure of holidays. The right hon. Gentleman then said, "We do not live as we used to do." How right he is. He went on to ask whether we were prepared to recognise this fact. As recently as April, 1964, it appears that the right hon. Gentleman was not prepared to recognise this fact. I do not see how it can now be argued that the Press at the beginning of 1965 is more drenched and saturated than it was 12 months ago and that the difference in the volume of travel advertising that is being thrown at us is so much greater as to make the right hon. Gentleman and his Front Bench colleagues now prepared to support a Bill which they were not prepared to adopt in April last year.
May I make two brief points in response to that? First, if the hon. Gentleman studies history he will find that the present Government were not willing on these matters some years ago to join in the Speaker's conference discussions on them, and, as far as April last year is concerned, if he looks at the Bill he will see that my name was on the back of it. I was not, through my own fault, in a very strong position in April last year to carry this Measure through.
I admit that the right hon. Gentleman was not in a very strong position at that time, but his two right hon. Friends on his left and right were in a position a year ago to adopt the Bill as a Government Measure and to push it through.
The other point is this. I would not have thought that it lies in the right hon. Gentleman's mouth to say that the reason why they did not adopt the Bill was that the then Opposition would not join in the discussions. If that was a good reason for not introducing it some years ago, it is just as good a reason for not supporting it now.
From what the right hon. Gentleman said this afternoon, I understand the position to be that irrespective of the attitude which we on this side adopt towards this constitutional reform, if by any unhappy mischance at the next election the country is graced with a Conservative Government, they will, presumably, be prepared to go ahead and push this kind of Measure through, despite the Speaker's conference and despite the fact that there is no party agreement on this point of great constitutional principle and of great importance to the freedom of the individual.
Somebody this afternoon suggested that we should slip the veils aside. For all my party fervour, I should not like to expose the party opposite in complete nudity, but we can at least lift the corner of the outermost of the seventh of those veils. What one can say is that the backing that the Opposition Front Bench gives to the Bill this afternoon is—and, indeed, must be, in view of their past history—motivated by the thought that there is party advantage for them in it. If that is not their attitude, they would be satisfied that a Speaker's conference is to be called to discuss the whole of electoral reform and electoral law. Indeed, it has even been suggested by the Liberal Party that it should discuss whether we should have fixed-term elections and decide, presumably, how many people should have votes, in what form they should have them and whether the wife of a lorry driver who is away from home should have his vote. All these are matters which, clearly, would be part of the Speaker's conference, which would be an all-party conference.
It has already been pointed out that the one way historically in which we do not get electoral reform is by a Private Member's Bill introduced on a Friday. The right way to get it is to have all-party discussion and to have a proper conference at which the whole matter can be ironed out so that there is no suspicion of unfairness on either side. This, surely, is important when one is considering constitutional reform. There should not be left hanging in the air any kind of suspicion that a certain reform would be to the advantage of either the Government or the Opposition party. The object of elections is to decide Governments, but it is extremely important, not only to be fair but to be seen to be fair, that the system should be seen to be equitable and that all parties should agree this fact.
I admire the synthetic indignation of the Liberal Party from the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell). It was extremely impressive. [Interruption.] I am entitled to express that view, even if I do not describe it as a fact. It seemed to me that again the Liberal Party was trying to raise what has been used in our view as a matter of party politics into some great constitutional principle.
When one considers the constitutional principle which is involved, it comes down to one thing alone. Section 12 of the Representation of the People Act, 1949, which the Bill seeks to amend, sets out clearly the principle upon which we regulate our elections. Subsection (1) states:
All persons voting as electors at a parliamentary election shall do so in person at the polling station allotted to them under the parliamentary elections rules except in so far as this section makes exceptions for"—
Then it sets out about a dozen exceptions:
(a) those registered as service voters;
(b) those unable or likely to be unable to go in person to the polling station for one of the following reasons:—
It then goes on to include
(c) those unable or likely to be unable, by reason either of blindness or any other physical incapacity, to go in person to the polling station or, if able to go, to vote unaided;
(d) those unable or likely to be unable to go in person from their qualifying address to the polling station without making a journey by air or sea
(e) those no longer residing at their qualifying address.
There is one common thread to all these exceptions and it is quite simply that the Act starts off on the basis that people shall vote in person unless there is some good enforced reason why they cannot get to the polling station.
The hon. Member refers to the "synthetic indignation" of the Liberal Party. What he is now suggesting—I think that the House should be clear on this—is that it is more appropriate and more equitable for a company director who is away on business to have the right to vote under the terms of the Act from which he is quoting than it is for the seaside landlady who has worked hard all the year to have a holiday.
I am not saying that for one moment [An. HON. MEMBER: "You are."] I am not. If the hon. Gentleman finds that in what I am saying, his imagination and powers of inference are far greater than I would have dreamt.
Nowhere in this Act is it confined to the seaside landlady who is on holiday. What this Bill does under Clause 1(1,a) is to prescribe, in as general a form as it would be possible for any
lawyer to draw, people who might—not are, but might—be away from the constituency on polling day. I think that before this House gives this Bill a Second Reading it ought to consider the generality of this provision. Frankly, it is enormous. The Bill says:
Those not falling within any of the above"—
and most of the people who are forced to be away are included in one of the above.
Most of them are; I did not say all of them. I should be quite prepared for the Speaker's conference to consider the inclusion of those people who are not included in any of the above. It seems to me that the wife who is travelling with her lorry driver husband should be entitled to vote, but this Bill is not the way to do it.
The Bill then goes on to say this:
Those not falling within any of the above paragraphs but unable or unlikely to be able to go in person to the polling station…
This means that if anyone is unable or unlikely to be able to go to the polling station, on the face of the Bill, they are entitled to a postal vote, by reason not of incapacity nor of the fact that they are away on work but only by reason of their absence from the constituency throughout the poll. This is as general as it could be. There could be a case of a housewife in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Enfield, West who decided to go to Knightsbridge for her shopping on polling day. All she has to do— [Interruption.] This is what the Bill says. It may not be the sort of case which the Bill is intended to cover but it is the sort of case which the Bill, in fact, covers. All that our Enfield housewife has to do is get an attestation that she will be or is likely to be outside the constituency on polling day—not for any good reason. No discretion is given to anybody to decide whether or not it is a valid reason that she should be out of the constituency. The Bill does not say that this is confined to people who are on holiday. It does not say that it is confined to anybody.
All that one has to do is to go along and say, "I shall be away on Thursday, 15th October. I wish to go to Harrods
to do my shopping. I know that you are a justice of the peace. Will you sign an attestation to that effect?" This is what the Bill says. Having got that attestation, the position thereafter becomes even more absurd, because once a person has that attestation all one can do is governed by Section 13 of the Representation of the People Act, 1949. Section 13 says:
An application to be treated as an absent voter at Parliamentary elections shall be made to the registration officer and—
I hope that the House will note these words
and shall be allowed by him
—there is no discretion given to the registration officer
—if he is satisfied that the applicant is, or will if registered be, entitled under the last foregoing section to vote as an absent voter.
We are in this absurd and anomalous position, that if the Enfield suburban housewife wants to go shopping at Harrods on polling day—
I will give way in a moment. If the mythical Enfield suburban housewife going up to Harrods to do her shopping on polling day wants to vote, under the provisions of the Bill all she has to do is go to a doctor and get him to sign an attestation saying not that she will be but that she may be likely to be out of the constituency on polling day. She then has to take the attestation to the registration officer, who is given no discretion to decide whether the reason she may be out of the constituency is or is not valid. Under the terms of Section 13, he is bound to register her as an absent voter. If the House is prepared to legislate to include that sort of case, it is a most extraordinary position. I will now give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I believe the position to be that on Thursday evening Harrods does stay open later than 6 o'clock. Be that as it may, whether the housewife goes shopping at Harrods or decides to go to the seaside for a bathe in the sea, it matters not. The fact is that by the provisions of the Bill—and this is not just a Committee point; this is the principle underlying the Bill—the House would be opening the door to anybody who is prepared to say, "I am likely to be absent from the constituency between certain hours on polling day", and once the person has said that, under the Act the attesting authority and the registration officer are given no discretion, and the person must be entitled to a postal vote.
Comparing the principles underlying the Bill with what was expressed in Section 12—that, normally, people in this country shall vote in person at a polling station—the Bill seems to be flying in the face of those provisions of the Representation of the People Act. It may be that the House thinks that that is what we want to do, but what I want to try to make clear about the Bill is that that is what it is doing. It is not merely adding an exception to the list in Section 12. It necessitates an absolute amendment to the Section in order to change the basis upon which people are entitled to vote.
I think it is a bad Bill. I do not for a moment—nor do any of my hon. Friends—claim that the electoral system is perfect. Of course there are anomalies and absurdities, and we know that there are certain extra people who ought to be able to vote by post. But a Private Member's Bill, and particularly one in this form, is not the way to do it. That is the basis of our objection.
We have had from the hon. Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) a most interesting speech which made a most interesting series of Committee points. I am sure that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles) would be prepared to consider many of those points about the scope of the Bill when, as we trust, it reaches the Committee. The hon. Gentleman aired his legal knowledge with great ability, and we shall look forward, no doubt, to hearing him at much greater length in Committee.
It is a bitter disappointment that persons of the calibre of the Joint Under-Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) should be making speeches against this entirely admirable Bill. It is a matter of bitter disappointment to all my hon. Friends. In his extremely able and attractive speech the hon. Member for Leeds, South put forward as many arguments as he could—indeed, to the extent of rather scraping the bottom of the barrel—against the Bill. Many of the arguments he adduced could be discussed in Committee, some of them particularly interesting ones. However, only one further point was added to what he had to say in the speech of the Joint Under-Secretary; the impassioned plea that we should not leap in, but that, on a matter like this, we should wait.
It was odd to have that sort of argument from the Labour Front Bench, for this matter has been under consideration for many years. For him to suggest that we should not leap in was quite fantastic. The matter was considered about a year ago in the House. The suggestion that we should not leap in was the Under-Secretary's only new contribution to the debate, although I am the first to admit that what he said was said with great charm and in an admirable speech. I suppose that it could be called the Welsh answer to the Blarney stone. His speech was able in the extreme.
Previous to that the hon. Member for Leeds, South deployed all the real arguments, his first, which has been reiterated throughout the debate, being that we should not deal with this anomaly because there were other anomalies of equal importance. What a preposterous suggestion. It is rather like a doctor saying to a patient, "Do not go to the dentist to have your teeth put right until you have had a major operation to remove your appendix." How absurd!
The hon. Member for Leeds, South and several other hon. Members rightly pointed out the other anomalies which exist. There is the anomaly concerning the registration of voters, improvements which could be made for "Y" voters, and so on. But how the passage of the Bill could in any way impede any future reforms I cannot understand. Here we have, in a compartment, something which is entirely appropriate for private Members' legislation. I have understood that one of the great purposes of Private Members' Bills is that a private Member who hits on some aspect of our law in a fairly narrow compass should try to alter or improve it.
Here we have such a situation and I would have hoped that we would have had that all-party co-operation on this matter which, from time to time, enables laws to be initiated and passed by back bench hon. Members. It has been a great disappointment to note this lack of co-operation.
The main argument of hon. Members opposite is that because there are other anomalies in the electoral laws we should deal with them all together. That would be an acceptable argument if there were anything in the Bill which would impede or in any way obstruct future plans which might be put forward by the Government as a result of a Speaker's conference. There is nothing in the Bill which would prevent the Government making reforms at a later stage. I am surprised, therefore, that hon. Members of the calibre of the hon. Member for Leeds, South and the hon. Member for Barons Court should have taken the attitude they have adopted.
The next complaint of the hon. Member for Leeds, South, reiterated by several of his hon. Friends, was that the Bill was too broadly drafted. If so, are we not able to consider that further in Committee? If hon. Members opposite consider that it is too broad they are at liberty to table Amendments which, I am sure, would be considered sympathetically in Committee.
It was extraordinary to hear the argument that people would go to almost unbelievable lengths to get a vote by post. Do hon. Members really believe that, merely out of a whim, a person would go to such lengths? Do they not appreciate that people would have to go to considerable trouble—perhaps not a great deal of trouble—to obtain a postal vote? It is not sensible to suggest that a housewife will say, "In about three weeks' time I might want to go to Harrods to do some shopping on the late opening day and may not be back in time to cast my vote. For that reason I want a postal vote". What a preposterous suggestion.
The reason that illustration was given was because one can imagine troops of Tory solicitors going around with attestation forms saying to suburban housewives, "You do not need to go to the poll in person. Sign here and you will be entitled to a postal vote". That is a danger.
If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is a danger I really am very surprised, because I have always rated his abilities very highly. Does he really think that Conservative supporters have nothing better to do at election times? We are too busy persuading the doubtful voter, and making sure that we get all our people out. To adopt such a course as is suggested would be the very height of absurdity. We must also remember that a person has to go to very considerable trouble filling in the form, and so on.
We have also had this talk about payment. Is it really suggested that we in the Conservative Party have paid staff to deal with this matter at election times? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] In that case, hon. Members have not observed what goes on in their constituencies. In my own constituency, as well as in the constituencies of my right hon. and hon. Friends, that work is done entirely by voluntary workers, but just because hon. Members opposite cannot persuade their voluntary workers to get down to it and do a decent job of the postal vote they say that a large number of the voters should be disfranchised—
Is the hon. Member seriously suggesting that the Conservative Party does not have a great number of full-time paid workers—many of whom, by the way, are called missionaries?
Missionaries may well be needed where the hon. Gentleman comes from—I do not know—but the people he has in mind are more normally called missioners. We have, of course, missioners from time to time who do admirable work, but at election time this work is done, I venture to submit in 99 per cent. of constituencies, by voluntary workers. That is certainly so in my own case. If hon. Members opposite cannot get their voluntary workers, they should not penalise other people who can. It is a valid point that the Labour Party has large numbers of people who are paid—perhaps not directly by the Labour Party—to work on its behalf at election times. It has union officials by the dozen and shop stewards by the dozen.
About 50 per cent. of hon. Members opposite who have spoken have assured us that they do not consider party advantage as being strictly relevant to the issue, but the other 50 per cent. have quite frankly said that they oppose the Bill because they think that it would be against their party's advantage. I accept that many of them will oppose it because they think that—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] We have had it from hon. Members opposite, and we have had it in terms from the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme).
There is some point in that argument from their point of view, and it is something that we on this side should consider, because it might not be right to pass, ahead of other reforms, legislation that would be of major advantage to one side. However, I do not think that any one suggests that any advantage is more than minimal. If it is more than minimal, it represents an extraordinary admission of failure by the party opposite. Is it such an advantage that it counteracts the arguments in favour of giving the vote to a person on holiday, or someone accompanying a sick relative abroad, or to some other part of the country? Is it of such overwhelming importance?
The hon. Gentleman must accept that minimal advantage is not acceptable in a democracy. The Labour Party suffered recently from an electoral disadvantage because of the disposition of the electorate. It is wrong for anyone to argue this in a party manner, as the hon. Gentleman has this afternoon.
This has not been put in a party manner. My hon. and gallant Friend is merely seeking to allow more people to exercise their right to vote. If, ancillary to doing that, some slight party advantage may be conferred, as some hon. Members opposite have alleged, that party advantage should not be considered. We are trying merely to make our system of democracy more effective.
Has my hon. Friend considered that possibly the advantage on the Bill might lie with the Labour Party, in that the higher income groups when on holiday could, and often do, travel long distances to return for the poll? In an interruption I gave an example of a lower income group who over a period have subscribed for a holiday and who certainly have not the money to return from their holiday on polling day.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for that short intervention.
It may well be that those hon. Members who think that one party or another may be advantaged are completely wrong. However, this is a consideration which none of us should have in our mind on the Bill. My hon. Friends and I have no such thought in our minds. This question was considered in Committee on the earlier Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies). Powerful arguments were deployed in speeches made on that Bill by hon. Members opposite, almost per incuriam in favour of the Bill.
The hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough), who voted against the Bill in the end, made an accusation against the Conservative Government which I think was a false one. He suggested that the Stratford-on-Avon by-election was so timed as to ensure that the engineers who might have proposed to vote Labour were on holiday, but that the landladies were there because it was in the season. The hon. Gentleman then suggested that this was an extremely bad thing and was Parliamentary chicanery. That point, made in all seriousness by the hon. Member for Jarrow, is the type of suspicion which would be eliminated by the Bill.
There is not one strong argument against allowing the Bill to pass. This in a narrow compass is a piece of Parliamentary reform which can be done appropriately by private Members' legislation. We have it on a Friday, I imagine with no Whips on opposite, because this is a Friday and this is private Members' legislation. It is a matter of considerable significance, because it would give people who are entitled to vote the opportunity to vote.
In the changed context of today, with millions of people going abroad every year, with millions now taking their holidays away from home, this is of much greater importance than it was at the time of the first post-war Conservative Ad- ministration, 13 or 14 years ago. Now, with people taking holidays in this way, it is of the greatest importance.
People now plan their holidays many months in advance. Hon. Members opposite, even, are already planning their holidays for the Summer Recess, as we heard yesterday afternoon when an hon. Member opposite asked for the date of that Recess to be announced soon so that holidays can be planned. If there had to be a snap election then, hon. Members opposite would not be in a difficulty, because special provisions in the existing legislation cover candidates.
If, in the present context of a very small Government majority, a snap election had to be called, would it be right to expect people to cancel their holidays in order to vote? What possible reason can there be for not allowing them to vote? Is there any greater merit in the man who goes to another part of the country on a short business trip than in the person who works himself into the ground trying to export and then takes a holiday? Where is the merit differential in that one?
What about the person who goes on a business trip abroad and takes his wife with him? Is it right that the wife should not be allowed to vote? Is it right that she should be deprived of her vote while her husband, to whom, no doubt, she gives great solace on the trip, has the right to vote? Where are the arguments which have caused this extraordinary turnout of Government supporters on a Friday?
The hon. Gentleman has made a number of concrete specific proposals for Amendments of the existing law appertaining to the postal vote. Would he not concede that the Bill is so general as to raise many problems? Would it not have been better, even if the subject were appropriate for a Private Member's Bill, to raise the specific issues mentioned, on many of which the hon. and gallant Gentleman might have had wider support?
The Bill is so framed that it can have just the sort of Amendment the hon. Gentleman suggests. The whole of Clause 1 could be amended to meet that point and specifics, as it were, inserted instead of the more general phraseology to be found in Clause 1(1,a). The Short Title would meet this, because it reads in such a way as to be inclusive of the sort of thing I have been discussing.
I concede that it may be appropriate for the scope of the Bill to be somewhat limited and I know that my hon. and gallant Friend would consider Amendments of that category in Committee. With that assurance, no doubt the hon. Member for Leeds, South will support us in the Lobby. No serious argument has been deployed against the Bill. The reason for hon. Members opposite opposing the Bill is that they think—I know not whether they are wrong—that the significant thing here is party political advantage. I find that bitterly disappointing.
|Agnew, Commander Sir Peter||Goodhew, Victor||Mitchell, David|
|Allan, Robert (Paddington, S.)||Grant, Anthony||More, Jasper|
|Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead)||Gresham-Cooke, R.||Onslow, Cranley|
|Batsford, Brian||Grimond, Rt. Hn. J.||Page, R. Graham (Crosby)|
|Beamish, Col. Sir Tufton||Gurden, Harold||Pearson, Sir Frank(Clitheroe)|
|Bennett, F. M. (Torquay)||Harris, Reader (Heston)||Peyton, John|
|Bennett, Dr. Reginald (Gos & Fhm)||Harvey Sir Arthur Vere (Maccles'd)||Rees-Davies, W.R.|
|Berkeley, Humphry||Harvey, John (Walthamstow, E)||Renton, Rt. Hn. Sir David|
|Berry, Hn. Anthony||Heald, Rt. Hn. Sir Lionel||Ridsdale, Julian|
|Bessell, Peter||Higgins, Terence L.||Rodgers, Sir John (Sevenoaks)|
|Biffen, John||Hornsby-Smith Rt. Hn. Dame P.||Roots, William|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Howe, Geoffrey (Bebington)||Royle, Anthony|
|Birch, Rt. Hn. Nigel||Hunt, John (Bromley)||Russell, Sir Ronald|
|Black, Sir Cyril||Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye)||Sharples, Richard|
|Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hn, J.||Jones, Rt. Hn. Aubrey (Hall Green)||Sinclair, Sir George|
|Buck, Antony||Kershaw, Anthony||Taylor, Sir Charles (Eastbourne)|
|Bullus, Sir Eric||King, Evelyn (Dorset, S.)||Teeling Sir William|
|Carlisle, Mark||Langford-Holt, Sir John||Thompson, Sir Richard (Croydon,s.)|
|Clark, William (Nottingham, S.)||Lloyd, Ian (P'tsm'th, Langstone)||Thorneycroft, Rt. Hn. Peter|
|Clarke, Brig, Terence (Portsmth, W.)||Longden, Gilbert||Walker, Peter (Worcester)|
|Costain, A. P.||Loveys, Walter H.||Walker-Smith, Rt. Hn. Sir Derek|
|Curran, Charles||Lucas, Sir Jocelyn||Wall, Patrick|
|Doughty, Charles||Lucas-Tooth, sir Hugh||Williams, Sir Rolf Dudley (Exeter)|
|Elliot, Capt. Walter (Carshalton)||McAdden, Sir Stephen||Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)|
|Fisher, Nigel||MacArthur, Ian||Wise, A. R.|
|Wood, Rt. Hn. Richard|
|Fletcher-Cooke, Charles (Darwin)||McLaren, Martin|
|Fraser,Rt.Hn.Hugh(St'fford & Stone)||Macleod, Rt. Hn. Iain||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Fraser, Ian (Plymouth, Sutton)||Meyer, Sir Anthony||Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles and|
|Sir J. Eden.|
|TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Mr. W. W. Hamilton and|
|Mr. W. T. Williams.|
We now have an illustrious Government Front Bench present, almost matching my own. The Government Chief Whip is here, we notice. One is interested to see that hon. Members opposite are adopting this extraordinarily reactionary and inflexible attitude on this matter at this stage of their short career. One hopes that the Bill will be passed and will be considered in detail in Committee and have the overwhelming support of both sides of the House.