Business of the House

Civil Service – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2 April 1979.

Alert me about debates like this


That if the Representation of the People Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House, further proceedings on the Bill shall stand postponed and that as soon as the proceedings on the Motion relating to Representation of the People [Money] have been concluded, this House will immediately resolve itself into a Committee on the Bill.—[Mr. Joseph Dean.]

Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Before I call the Home Secretary, I should tell the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the leader of the Liberal Party.

3.53 p.m.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I made a short statement to the House last Thursday afternoon on the contents of this Bill, which is a simple and necessary measure. Its purpose is to facilitate polling on 3 May, when, as the House knows, we are to have a parliamentary general election on the same day as district council elections are due in England, outside Greater London, and in Wales. There are of course no local government elections on 3 May in London, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

This Bill is not radical or far-reaching in effect. As I have consistently said—most recently during the debate on the European Assembly elections regulations—there has never been any constitutional or legislative obstacle to holding two elections on the same day. It is certainly theoretically possible to hold two separate elections on the same day without legislation, but Parliament has always considered, rightly I believe, that the practical and administrative difficulties involved are such that special provision is essential.

It may be helpful if I remind hon. Members of the arrangements which already exist to combine the elections of district and parish councillors. Since at least 1933, there has been provision in the Local Government Acts that when the election years of those councillors coincide, the elections may be combined. There is no provision in the Local Government Act 1972 or in the subsequent election rules made under that Act for different coloured ballot papers or for the use of the same polling station and staff.

I recognise that to meet the particular problems and special circumstances of 3 May this Bill has to be a little more extensive than that, but I should like to stress that we have made the minimum alterations necessary to the legislation and regulations governing the conduct of parliamentary and local elections. We have made no fundamental changes. The Bill could be described as a bridging operation, bridging the differences between the conduct of parliamentary and local elections, so that they may both carry on side by side in accordance, as far as possible, with normal practice.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

There will be plenty of time to discuss detail, but I will certainly give way.

Photo of Mr Michael Marshall Mr Michael Marshall , Arundel

I wanted to clear up one point while the right hon. Gentleman was speaking. Can he confirm that returning officers will be given discretion, if they have enough ballot boxes, to use separate boxes for district council votes and general election votes?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

That is not the case. I will come to that in a moment.

The Bill provides for district council elections to be held using the same polling facilities as for the parliamentary elections. Where, in a few cases, there are London borough or county council by-elections, they will proceed separately and in the ordinary way.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Camden Hampstead

The right hon. Gentleman will remember that I raised this point first with him when he made his helpful statement last Thursday. He assumed then, as I think all of us did, that there was some provision which might have covered London. However, does he now realise—if he looks at Hansard, I think that he will see that there was a genuine misunderstanding—that certainly in my constituency and probably in others in Greater London, voters arriving at five minutes past seven o'clock will be given one ballot paper for a parliamentary vote but will be told that they must come back at five past eight o'clock in two of the 11 wards in my constituency to vote in the borough council by-elections? Is it really impossible to bring those by-elections, where they take place, under the same Bill?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

Hon. Members will realise that there are no district council elections in London. It is certainly not impossible; there are two by-elections in London and I know of two other places in the country. I considered this. My view is that if there are any by-elections to be held on that day, they should be held under the normal rules and regulations. I am sure that that is the best way in which to proceed.

Photo of Mr Reginald Eyre Mr Reginald Eyre , Birmingham, Hall Green

The right hon. Gentleman spoke of separate facilities. In metropolitan county council by-elections, what separate arrangements will apply in addition to those for district council and parliamentary elections?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

Under the arrangements that we are setting up, we shall all use the same polling booth for Westminster elections and for district council elections. Otherwise there would have to be a separate room, with separate ballot boxes, and those elections could not be involved with the elections that we are dealing with here. There will be only a handful of those in different parts of the country.

The Bill is a contingency measure, designed to meet the circumstances of the elections on 3 May. If, for example, by some circumstance the general election had been held on 7 June, a different Bill would have been needed to provide for that election and European Assembly elections on the same day.

Before turning to the provisions of the Bill, I should say something in recognition of the responsibilities which the Bill will impose upon acting returning officers in England and Wales. They are generally senior officials of district councils. I am aware that the standard opening speech by any election candidate on election night, whether he wins or loses, expresses his indebtedness to the acting returning officer and his staff. On this occasion, whatever the outcome of the individual contest, we shall be more than ever indebted.

Although I believe that the procedures consequent on this legislation are straightforward and involve no radical departure from the way in which we conduct our elections, there will be heavy pressures of work and responsibilities on the returning officer and his staff. We should not forget that during this election.

Photo of Mr Dudley Smith Mr Dudley Smith , Warwick and Leamington

May I make one point, which I believe is fairly important? Given that people will be voting in more than one election, will the right hon. Gentleman give guidance to election officers and their staffs about whether they should call the attention of electors to the fact that they may have a second or third ballot paper in order to vote, or will that be left to the initiative of the individual who is arriving at the ballot booth?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

The normal advice will be given in this respect. I assure the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Smith) that there need be no—

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

Advice on this is posted outside the polling booth. When we reach the Committee stage the hon. Gentleman will see that there is a section in the schedule concerning the advice and guidance that should be given, and we can look at it in depth when we come to the schedule.

Photo of Mr Clement Freud Mr Clement Freud , Isle of Ely

On the subject of advice and guidance, I notice that on the Home Office document returning officers are told to count both lots of papers before they sort the parliamentary papers. In order to save a great deal of time in counting the district council election slips, would it not be possible to leave it to the discretion of the returning officer whether he should shoot all the district council slips back into the box and lock them up until the next day?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I shall come to that in a moment, but I have arranged for the different coloured ballot papers to be available by five o'clock this evening so that right hon. and hon. Members may look at them. I believe that the initial sorting will need to be done very carefully. In that sense the count will be an additional check to ensure that a general election paper has not gone away to a district election count. However, we shall come to that in a moment. Perhaps we can leave the matter there.

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

I know that my right hon. Friend is trying to answer as well as he can, and I do not expect an immediate answer, but nowhere in the Bill is there any mention of the vital matter of election expenses. It may be inaccurate, but many people in various localities are suggesting that two election addresses can be put in one envelope, that two or three names can appear on one poster, and so on. I wonder whether—not necessarily now but before the debate ends—my right hon. Friend could make it quite clear what his intentions are and what the law is in this respect.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I do not think that there is any problem about a constituency in which district council elections axe taking place concerning the sharing of meeting halls and and matters of that nature. The election expense returns will have to be accommodated. I checked with the various political parties. A judgment must be made about the sharing of election expenses. This does not need to be attended to in this legislation. The law on election expenses is quite clear. They have to be shared. That is what matters.

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

One matter that is worrying many people in constituencies concerned with both elections is that the postal ballots will come in presumably in different envelopes. They will then be sorted—those for the general election and those for district council elections. At first, the general election papers only will be counted. This means that those people—I fear there may be many—who have put their vote into the wrong envelope by mistake, which undoubtedly will happen, will effectively be disfranchised. Can my right hon. Friend direct—right hon. and hon. Members may think this is funny, but it is a real worry—that at least the envelopes are opened together and before the count for the general election, so that the votes may be in the right place when they are counted?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

We are talking about postal votes. The checking on that will have been done a number of days before.

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

Will the opening be done beforehand?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

Yes, as is usual.

Clause 1 provides that in the circumstances of a dual election on 3 May, the election rules set out in the Representation of the People Acts and the Local Government Acts will be modified as set out in the schedule to the Bill. I shall deal with the modifications one by one.

Clause 2 provides that the parish or community council elections, which were also due to be held on 3 May, should be postponed for three weeks, until 24 May.

Photo of Mr Wyn Roberts Mr Wyn Roberts , Conway

I understand that nominations for the community council elections are due to close on Thursday of this week. Can they be frozen at that date, or will these nominations have to be resubmitted?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

They will be frozen.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

The right hon. Gentleman says that the nominations will be frozen, but is he aware that in the instructions sent out to returning officers for special delivery on Saturday morning the returning officers were told that all the nomination papers sent in for parish councils and community councils—which have been checked with great labour—will have to be scrapped and new nomination papers sent out and checked all over again?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

In that case, I had better check. I am sorry if I have given the wrong information. I shall check to make sure what the situation is. I apologise.

Photo of Sir John Cope Sir John Cope , Gloucestershire South

As I understand it, the instructions are as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) says they are. However, it would be much better if they were as the Home Secretary thought they were. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will modify the instructions to the extent that he is right and the instructions are wrong.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I was wrong. One of the reasons why we are paying for the community elections is that there will be extra expense involved. They will not be frozen, and nominations will have to be resubmitted. I think that is right. I remember discussing this. The elections will be three weeks later and other people may want to be involved in them. We are postponing the elections, and I think that it is right that it should be done in this way.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

Is it true that there were absolutely no consultations with the association representing parish councils on this matter?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I know that consultations took place with many people, but I could not confirm specifically whether they were held with the association representing parish councils. I would have hoped so. Consultations certainly took place, but the decision had to be mine—that is the job of Home Secretary.

Photo of Mr John Farr Mr John Farr , Harborough

I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman took his decision very carefully, but will he undertake to look at this decision again after he has heard the debate? One district council may have 43 parish councils, and an average of 15 to 20 nominations for each parish. That represents a lot of the work that has already been completed and will have to be done again. This will be a considerable expense, which many believe could be avoided.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

Nevertheless, the polling date has been delayed three weeks. I apologise for misleading the House. We must give other people the chance to submit their nominations, if need be. That is what weighed with me when I made my decision. It is a judgment that I am sure is right.

I was making the point, in relation to clause 2, that parish or community council elections are postponed for three weeks. It became clear to me, as I examined the circumstances, that the practical difficulties of holding parliamentary, district and parish elections on the same day were insuperable. As we have just heard, in many districts there can be up to 60 or 70 parishes, each with their separate elections and each unwarded. The ballot papers in an unwarded election can contain 20 or 30 names, with a request that the elector selects a dozen or so of those. We decided that to vote in such an election and to vote for a varying number of candidates on the other papers would make it very complex and would raise many more difficulties at the counting stage. As I have indicated, we have an obligation to pay for the inevitable costs that will be incurred in the postponement of the parish and district elections, and this we shall do. District councils will shortly be advised of the necessary accounting arrangements.

The central provisions of the Bill are in the schedule. It has been our priority to ensure that the manner in which these two elections should be conducted should be as simple and straightforward as possible for the electorate, and should guarantee the essential privacy and integrity of the ballot.

First, it is essential that the same polling stations should be used for both the parliamentary and the district council elections. In most areas of the country this already applies. Special circumstances, however—such as, for example, a rewarding of a district council's area—may cause a temporary difference in the arrangements. Paragraph 1 to the schedule ensures that it will be an obligation to bring the arrangements into line.

Paragraph 1 also ensures that the acting officer for the parliamentary election is responsible for the appointment of the polling staff, who will be paid by him on a scale of charges authorised by the Treasury. This scale will include a substantial allowance for those who are obliged to supervise the conduct of their elections.

Paragraph 2 of the schedule provides that the polling hours at all elections shall be between seven o'clock in the morning and 10 p.m.

Photo of Mr Tom Litterick Mr Tom Litterick , Birmingham, Selly Oak

I notice that paragraph 2 is unqualified, but there has been no mention of by-elections. In the city of Birmingham on 3 May. [HON. MEMBERS: "We have dealt with that."] In that case I withdraw my question.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. Before the Home Secretary replies, may I say that he is probably establishing this afternoon a record for the number of interruptions in a Second Reading speech? Most of the questions that have been asked could be put in Committee if hon. Members felt so inclined. I hope that that will be borne in mind.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The necessity for many of these interventions arises from the fact that quite a lot of what we are dealing with is handled by way of regulation and not by Bill. To the best of my knowledge, although the Home Secretary has been sending out these regulations to returning officers, they are not available to Members of Parliament. Therefore, unless we probe the Minister now we cannot know what we shall or shall not want to do in Committee. Would it not be greatly to the convenience of the House if the Home Secretary ordered copies of the regulation to be made available forthwith in the Vote Office? It is a gross inconvenience to the House that he has not done so before the commencement of this debate.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

The hon. Member made a valid point in the earlier part of his submission. I cannot deal with the second part. That is a matter for the Home Secretary.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I take the hon. Member's point. These are not regulations, however, but guidance from the Home Office. That does not invalidate the essence of what he is arguing. I shall see whether these items can be put in the Vote Office and in the Library. They are not regulations. If they were I could not just send them out at my own whim. They take the form of guidance that interprets legislation and regulations. I am not in any sense trying to bypass the House of Commons.

Photo of Mr Stephen Ross Mr Stephen Ross , Isle of Wight

May I inform the Home Secretary that the guidance notes are available in the Library?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I am grateful to the hon. Member. Circulars of that kind normally go into the Library.

Under paragraph 3 new notices of guidance to electors will be drawn up—

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

Is paragraph 2 of the schedule supposed to apply to parliamentary and district council elections, or, as it says, to "all elections", in which case the parish council elections, which are postponed, would also be held between the hours of seven o'clock in the morning and 10 at night? I guess that the Home Secretary does not intend to increase the hours of the parish council elections, but I believe that he has accidentally done so.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

The Bill is certainly not meant to do that. It applies to the elections on 3 May.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

The argument on that matter can take place later.

Paragraph 4 makes it clear that all the polling agents appointed by candidates are to be notified to the parliamentary returning officer rather than to the district election returning officer.

Paragraph 5 makes certain limited changes to the rules governing the issuing of postal ballot papers. It provides in effect that all applications for postal ballot papers for either election will be sent to the same local authority officer and must be sent within the same time scale. Electors will have until 19 April to make such an application. I hope that eligible electors will apply quickly, given the incidence of the Easter break.

Some commentators and some right hon. and hon. Members believe that this creates an anomaly and that certain differences will remain in the qualification for a postal vote between the two elections. Of course, in the majority of circumstances the qualification for an absent vote at a parliamentary and a local government election is the same. There are two broad groups of postal voters. There are those who are entitled to an indefinite postal vote—perhaps because of the nature of their occupation, service or employment, or because of their medical condition. Thre are also those who may apply for a postal vote because of their circumstances at a particular election—because they are temporarily unwell, are absent because of their employment, or are employed by the returning officer for the purposes of the election. These categories operate under the same rules both for parliamentary and local government elections.

The one difference that may cause inconvenience to some of the electors is that at parliamentary elections an elector who is no longer residing at his qualifying address and has moved to an address in another county electoral division, or, in a rural area, to another parish, also qualifies.

With the district council election, Parliament determined that there should be no absent voting facilities for local government electors who had moved. To make a change to bring these entitlements into line would be administratively neat, but I concluded that to make such a change would not be a mere matter of administration but would be a fundamental change in the eligibility for postal votes for local government elections.

This is the sort of matter on which a Government should act only after full consultation, perhaps in a Speaker's Conference on electoral law. In the Bill we have concentrated only on those matters that are essential. Thus we are also not making any change to entitle district council candidates to share the free postal facilities for parliamentary candidates. My hon. Friend the Minister of State will deal with that matter when we come to the appropriate amendment in Committee. I believe it to be an example of a change which is not essential for these elections.

Paragraphs 7 and 8 deal with the important question of ballot papers. It will assist the House if I spell out fully the arrangements I have made in the light of consultation with the major political parties and with the printing and paper making industries. In making these arrangements, I was anxious that there should be no confusion in the minds of the electorate as to which ballot paper refers to which election. I was equally anxious to make it easy for sorters, many of whom usually do the work in the evening after a full day at their normal work, to distinguish between the two ballot papers so that they can put each in their appropriate piles for eventual counting.

We have had to move quickly on this matter over the weekend and this morning, and copies of what I propose will be available in the Vote Office by five o'clock. I have decided that each ballot paper should have at the top a clear statement in bold capital letters of the election to which it relates. It will state "Parliamentary election" or "District council election" at the top of the paper. Below that there will appear a statement of the number of candidates for whom the elec-for may vote—

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

It says "small capitals" here in the Bill.

Photo of Sir Timothy Kitson Sir Timothy Kitson , Richmond (Yorks)

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider putting on the top of the ballot paper the district council to which the election is taking place? My constituency may be unique. We have district council elections for six different councils—Middlesbrough, Stockton, Richmond, Hambleton, Teesdale and Harrogate. The counts will be some 80 miles apart. If we get the ballot papers mixed up in the course of sorting for six district councils, we shall get into the devil of a mess. The Home Secretary ought to consider putting the name of the district at the top of the ballot paper. Sorting for six separate districts will be an impossible task.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

This is a point that I have not considered for the district elections. I am advised that it will appear on the reverse of the ballot paper, but may I look into that?

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

In the Bill it says "On the front".

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. Will the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) realise that he cannot have a conversation with the Member who is addressing the House whilst he remains seated?

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We are becoming a little confused because the Secretary of State's brief clearly does not conform to the Bill before us, which says: On the front of every ballot paper there shall be printed at the top, in small capitals"— not "bold capitals", and so on.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

We may well be confused, but that does not mean that the hon. Gentleman can conduct a discussion while he is sitting down when someone else is addressing the House.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

There is no need for confusion. The front of the ballot papers make abundantly clear which is for the parliamentary elections and which for district council elections. Details are given on the back of the paper in the district council elections.

Photo of Mr Dudley Smith Mr Dudley Smith , Warwick and Leamington

I do not wish to add to the confusion, but the right hon. Gentleman said that these ballot papers would be on display in the Vote Office. Are the papers which he is holding up actual copies? From where I am sitting they look very similar, and there does not appear to be a difference in colour. Surely the difference in colour should be considerable.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I shall come to that in a moment. I have endeavoured to give way as much as possible but if hon. Gentlemen make a decision at 20 yards' distance, without the aid of binoculars, we shall have a curious example of shortsightedness which shows itself in other places. I am trying to be helpful. Each ballot paper will have the statement at the top. Below that statement there will be a list of the candidates for whom an elector may vote. In Wales these headings will be bilingual. Except for that, the parliamentary ballot paper will retain the traditional form, colour and shape with which we are familiar.

The district council ballot paper will be printed on a different coloured paper. We consulted a doctor on this matter, as I thought that there might be questions about colour blindness. There may be people who are not only shortsighted but colour blind, so I checked that the colour that I had chosen was such that nobody could raise an argument about colour blindness. After consultation, I decided that there should be a national standard colour for the district council ballot paper. The colour that I have chosen is light grey. The manufacturers have christened it "election grey" and samples will be available for inspection.

I thought that hon. Members would agree that this colour is easily distinguishable. It is not so dark as to make it difficult to read either the description of the candidates or the cross made by the voters. Arrangements are in hand to distribute this paper nationally so that all local printers have the same coloured paper in good time.

The district council ballot paper will have a large border of three black lines round the names on the front. They will be easy to see and will also appear on the back. These will constitute a distinguishing mark both for the sorters and for the voters. They may prove parti- cularly useful in poor light—and to people looking over 20-yards' distance—whereas an otherwise clear distinction between the white and the grey may be less obvious.

Photo of Mr John Farr Mr John Farr , Harborough

I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman has said so far, but nowhere in the debate has reference been made to borough council elections. Can I take it that when he mentions district councils he also means borough councils?

Photo of Sir David Price Sir David Price , Eastleigh

Is the right hon. Gentleman really satisfied that in poor light—and most of us agree that many polling booths are in poor light—people with bad sight will be able to distinguish the papers? I believe that the papers require a much bolder distinction than the one that he proposes.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I have looked at the matter carefully. I believe that they will be distinguishable. The papers will be easy to sort. I do not believe that there is a problem, and I told the House so when I considered this matter last Friday. Let us suppose that the ballot paper was to be pink or red or blue or one of any of the colours under which the Liberal Party stands in different parts of the country. I can imagine all the interruptions that we would have had. I felt that grey, with the lines, was the best choice.

The Bill provides that the same ballot boxes will be used in both elections. There is no difficulty here. All acting returning officers are now being asked, on the basis of a formula given to them by my Department, to calculate how many ballot boxes they need. They have been told to provide a standard size ballot box for every 1,500 registered voters. This is big enough for most polling stations. I am told that the boxes can hold up to 2,500 papers but that the most they will need to take is 2,000. Most areas have spare boxes and, since Northern Ireland, Scotland and London have surplus ballot boxes, necessary arrangements will be made to ensure that enough ballot boxes are available in the right places.

When I considered this matter some weeks ago, I considered the production of boxes. We need 45,000 boxes for the whole country and we considered how many boxes our sole supplier made. The man who makes them appeared on television. It is surprising how many people, since seeing the wrong information given on that programme, said that they could also make ballot boxes. That shows that television is at least a good advertiser, even though on this occasion the wrong information was given.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, if a ballot paper has already been issued to a person claiming to be the elector in a parliamentary election, when a second claim is made, a pink paper is normally issued. Will the duplicate paper for the district council elections also be pink, or will another colour be used so that duplicate parliamentary and district council papers will not both be pink?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

At this point I say "Help". It is a valid point, and I shall find out. Whoever thought of pink showed great perception. I shall consider the matter.

Photo of Mr David Stoddart Mr David Stoddart , Swindon

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the peculiar problem that exists in the London borough of Camden, where there will be two council by-elections on that day? Has he given any thought to that? I have heard what he said, but I do not think that it covers this situation. The same confusion will exist there for voters as exists in district council elections elsewhere.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I have not catered for that situation in the Bill. If there are by-elections in other areas, sufficient ballot papers are available. Such by-elections could be organised in another room in the same building, or wherever is appropriate. My job is to ensure that these two elections can take place on the same day. I do not believe that we should amend the Bill to cover a handful of places where by-elections are taking place.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

The right hon. Gentleman says that it is his job to ensure that the two elections take place on the same day. He is struggling manfully to answer all these questions about the manifold difficulties, but why has he not yet addressed himself to the fundamental point? Parish council elections have been postponed until 24 May. Why could not the district council elections also be postponed until then?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

That is a matter for the district councils. I have heard interesting suggestions today about how that could be done. My national control involves parish council and community council elections generally. By-elections are things that are decided locally.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

District councillors in many parts of the country are worried about the dual election. The Association of District Councils believes that there is very real national concern. Why were the district council elections not put off until 24 May?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

We had to make a judgment. I have not heard many complaints. I am told that there will be a high turnout for the local elections and that the present arrangements are right.

Paragraphs 10 and 11 of the schedule describe the arrangements for the close of polling and the counting of votes. I shall describe the arrangements step by step. Each ballot box will contain both parliamentary and district council papers. All the papers will be sent initially for the parliamentary count. At that stage the parliamentary returning officer will divide the papers between parliamentary and district votes, keeping the district papers separate by wards and tallying the numbers against the ballot paper accounts.

The parliamentary returning officer will then proceed to the parliamentary election count. I recognise that the count may commence and conclude a little later than has been the practice at recent elections. The district council ballot papers will be sent, if necessary, to the district council returning officer. Each box will be labelled with a description of the area to which the ballot papers in it relate.

The returning officer will then check that he has the right number of ballot papers, count the votes, and declare his results. Under the normal rules he is entitled to commence his count as soon as practicable. It is clearly sensible that there should be local discretion. This is fully in accordance with the normal practice. All the necessary arrangements to make the administration of the general election and local elections a success have been taken.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State will handle the Bill. As it is an important Bill I felt that I should move the Second Reading. I have to attend a number of important meetings on other matters and I hope that the House will excuse me if I am not in the House for the Committee stage.

Photo of Sir Peter Emery Sir Peter Emery , Honiton

I compliment the Secretary of State on the number of times that he has given way. I waited until the end of his speech so that I did not interrupt him on a matter that he intended to cover.

Could a practice which would not be normal in a general election be allowed in the counting of votes because of the duality of proving the numbers? Normally, when the count starts in a general election the ballot boxes are proved and one proceeds through to the count until the result is announced. However, occasionally when there is a small majority, a recount is postponed until the next day.

It has been suggested to me that it will be in order for the returning officer to prove both lots of papers and then postpone the rest of the parliamentary count until the following day. In other words, there could be two bites at the parliamentary count.

I hope that that will not be necessary. Can the Home Secretary say whether the law will allow that? Does he agree that it should be avoided where possible? I hope that he agrees that in such circumstances it would be better to do the whole count the next day.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I shall have that checked. I understand that the count could be postponed to the following day. There is no problem of storage, because the votes would be packaged. It would be a local decision. However, I shall check the situation.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman could deal with another important matter. What happens in the event of a recount? We must bear in mind that the alleged district council votes will be sent to another returning officer's area. In the event of a recount, will those votes be returned so that they can be examined with what is believed to be the totality of the parliamentary votes, to check whether any parliamentary votes have inadvertently been sent out in the district council boxes? If that is not done there will be a completely different type of recount. For the first time all the votes cast will no longer be liable to checking in a recount.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

The hon. Member is correct about recounts. What will be different is the sorting out of the votes between the general election and the others. A recount will take place as before, and it will not involve the district council papers.

Photo of Sir Timothy Kitson Sir Timothy Kitson , Richmond (Yorks)

There are six different districts in my constituency.

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

The hon. Member has no need to worry about a recount.

Photo of Sir Timothy Kitson Sir Timothy Kitson , Richmond (Yorks)

I am talking about the district elections. If some of the ballot papers inadvertently are sent to another district, there should be some communication before the results are declared. Two votes for Harrogate might go to Stockton, two votes for Cleveland might go to Northallerton and two from Richmond to Stockton or Middlesbrough. I should like the fears on this matter to be allayed.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I shall consider that matter. It is not a problem that arises in the parliamentary election.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

I believe that such a situation could arise in the parliamentary election. Many constituencies have small majorities. What happens when district council votes have been returned to a foreign district and a recount is demanded? Will the boxes be sent back, or will they be held until after the recount?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I do not think that there is a problem. There are to be two sets of different papers, which will be sorted out on the night. I have been told that there is nothing to stop the returning officers from telephoning each other. The sorting out and validation of parlamentary election papers will be done on the night. I do not think that there will be a problem.

I have tried to answer many questions during a most unusual Second Reading speech. I hope that the House has an interesting Committee stage.

Photo of Mr George Morton Mr George Morton , Manchester Moss Side

Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel).

4.38 p.m.

Photo of Mr David Howell Mr David Howell , Guildford

The House is grateful to the Home Secretary for setting out the details of the Bill, with the assistance of various visual aids. There are considerable problems involved in making the Bill work—if it can be made to work—and to ensure smooth and efficiently operated elections.

The Bill is not of our choice. We should have preferred a general election on 26 April. However, that was said to be impossible. I always welcome any measure which will ensure a high turnout, but if jamming the elections together causes real electoral confusion that is a high price to pay in a democracy. We must examine the matter with care.

The weekend press was full of worries and anxieties expressed with varying degrees of intensity by local authority officials. One of the most graphic was that which was quoted on Saturday by a North Yorkshire official who described the elections as The biggest potential cock-up I have seen in 25 years in local government. I hope that it will not be as bad as that. We must take steps to ensure that it is not, although, when I was reflecting on the Bill, it passed through my mind that it would be characteristic of this Government to bow out in one final, glorious Home Office muddle. It is our duty to take as many steps as we can within the framework of the legislation to prevent that. We wanted an election on 26 April, but 3 May has been put upon us and we must seek to minimise the confusion, which could otherwise be considerable, and get matters right.

I wish to ask a number of questions and I know that my right hon. and hon. Friend have many more to put to the Minister. Some can be dealt with in Committee, but many need to be answered and clarified before we can get to a sensible Committee stage.

I start by declaring a personal interest in a small matter. It concerns no one except myself and it is simply that as a result of the Bill my constituency will not, on this occasion, be the first to be declared to the nation on election night. Presumably the honour will go to a metropolitan constituency that does not have district elections.

I turn to the major and serious issues before us. The biggest worry in the minds of many of my hon. Friends is the question of single ballot boxes containing voting slips for both the district council and the general elections. The Home Secretary waved before us the two separate voting slips. I was glad to see that the black lined edges will be on the outside of the paper as well as the inside. I share the view of some that, although grey may have been the most economical colour to produce at short notice, there could be difficulties between grey and white. We shall be dealing with millions of votes, with tens of thousands in many individual constituencies, and there is great pressure and tenseness on the night. In those circumstances, there will be difficulty in trying to sort out the piles of grey paper and white paper that spill out of a single box.

If that process cannot be done swiftly, we are producing a counting system which could go on well into the night and the following day. If it were necessary to start unfolding the voting slips before we could discover whether they were to be counted in the parliamentary or district council elections, we would be in serious mess.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be fairer to those who are to do the counting, many of whom will have been on duty since 7 a.m., if the general election counts took place on the Friday and the district council counts on the Saturday?

Photo of Mr David Howell Mr David Howell , Guildford

That is a matter for the returning officers to decide, but I accept that there will be serious pressures on those organising the count and on the returning officers.

It is vital that it should be easy to distinguish between the two sorts of ballot paper when the votes are tipped out of the ballot box. If there is any failure there, we shall be heading for serious difficulties. The grey pieces of paper will be put aside and, I understand, repackaged and, in due course, either counted on the spot or shunted off around the country to the right place for the district council count.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When the Home Secretary was speaking, I asked for copies of the circular covering many of the details not given in the Bill to be made available for hon. Members in the Vote Office. The right hon. Gentleman said that they were available in the Library. I have just been to the Library to get a copy and was told that there are no copies there.

May I ask that in order to avoid this nonsense, and so that the House may know what it is debating, the Home Office should be required to put copies of the circular in the Vote Office? Before you were in the chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Secretary of State referred to the document, and it ought therefore to be laid on the Table of the House and made available in the Vote Office. May I further ask that the debate be adjourned until the circular is available to hon. Members?

Photo of Mr George Morton Mr George Morton , Manchester Moss Side

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's observations will have been noted in quarters other than the Chair. None of the matters that he raised is for the Chair except the last point about the adjournment of the debate. My answer to the request is "No".

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker

Photo of Mr George Morton Mr George Morton , Manchester Moss Side

There was no point of order.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

With respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, there is a point of order. It is that when a Minister quotes from an official document he has to lay it on the Table of the House. If he refers to such a document, it is customary for him to lay it on the Table.

Since the Home Secretary misinformed the House by saying that the document was available in the Library when it was not, it should be made available to hon. Members in the Vote Office. That is crucial as it is proposed that the House should go straight from Second Reading to the Committee stage and we must know the detail of the circular before we can proceed even to a proper Second Reading debate. Immediately after Second Reading, it may be necessary to submit manuscript amendments to the Chair. We shall be too late if we wait for the Committee stage.

It is more than a discourtesy for the circular not to be available. The House is utterly frustrated from doing its job if it cannot have available copies of the circular to returning officers which covers so many material matters, including, for instance, the question of the returning officer's mark, without which a ballot paper can be challenged before the courts. That and a number of other matters do not appear anywhere in the Bill.

Photo of Mr Stephen Ross Mr Stephen Ross , Isle of Wight

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I put the record straight? It was I who said that copies of the circular were available in the Library. It may be that the copy that I got from the Library was the last one available. I do not want the information that I gave to be wrongly ascribed to the Home Secretary.

However, I support the representations of the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop). I went to the Vote Office first and, when I discovered that no copies were available there, I was directed to the Library. It is vital that hon. Members should see copies of the circular. I realise that they were available only some time after 3 p.m. when they had been issued. Many of the matters that we are discussing are covered in the circular.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of what an hon. Member who has had the opportunity to read the circular has told the House, may I again put a plea to you to suspend the sitting until copies of the circular can be placed in the Vote Office so that hon. Members may have them for use in the debate and so that the House may conduct its business properly?

Photo of Mr George Morton Mr George Morton , Manchester Moss Side

Is the Minister of State able to assist the House?

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Circulars are issued in every election for the guidance of returning officers. They are not regulations. We are debating the regulations laid down in the schedule to the Bill.

We have made the circular available in the Library as a matter of courtesy, but such circulars are issued at every election without copies being provided in the Library. I shall see whether additional copies can be made available. We recognise that there are difficulties, not least being the fact that the debate is going on, but it is perfectly proper for us to conduct it on the basis of the Bill as printed.

Photo of Mr David Howell Mr David Howell , Guildford

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It appears from what the Minister has said that a clear requirement on the Government has arisen. The Minister has said that a copy has been available in the Library. However, we know from what the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) said that the copy is no longer available in the Library, because it is in the hon. Gentleman's hands. Will the Minister undertake forthwith to make arrangements through the necessary instructions for a plentiful supply of further copies to be made available immediately, so that my hon. Friends may leave the Chamber, obtain them and ascertain the contents of the documents and their relevance to the debate?

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Some Opposition Members are suggesting that we waste time by suspending the sitting. If there is a reason for a pause in our consideration of the Bill, there are several other items on the Order Paper with which we could proceed.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I support the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop). We are dealing with an extremely important Bill. It is introducing a revolutionary change in our electoral practice. The piece of information with which we are concerned is vital to a proper understanding of what the Government have in mind. Surely a brief suspension of the sitting to enable copies to be circulated to those who are interested in the debate would be entirely proper.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

I shall arrange for photostat copies to be circularised. I see no reason why the debate should be suspended. I accept what the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) said. Copies will be photostatted and circularised for the convenience and information of hon. Members.

Photo of Mr David Howell Mr David Howell , Guildford

I think that I was making a speech before the points of order began. If I may, I shall return to it. I hope that we may proceed with the debate and that the necessary documents will be provided as soon as possible.

I was referring to the situation that will arise when the grey voting slips have been pushed aside and put back into the ballot boxes, awaiting either a count in the hall where the parliamentary count is taking place or to be shipped to the count relevant to the district to which they belong.

Photo of Mr Anthony Durant Mr Anthony Durant , Reading North

It is the normal custom to wait until the end of a count before a candidate may ask for a recount or re-examination. Perhaps it will be suggested to the Home Office that the candidate or agent be permitted to check the bundles before they are despatched somewhere else.

Photo of Mr David Howell Mr David Howell , Guildford

Some of my hon. Friends referred to recounts. Consideration must be given to whether the bundles should be allowed to leave the hall until it has been ascertained whether a recount is sought. I do not know whether that is intended. I do not know whether it appears in the guidance notes that we have not seen. There is nothing about it in the Bill. The Minister should give his attention to that. If it is not considered, further difficulties could arise in addition to the difficulties that will arise in any event.

Photo of Sir John Cope Sir John Cope , Gloucestershire South

A problem arises if there is likely to be a recount in the district election. It is my understanding of the Bill that the candidates and their agents in district council elections will not be present at the verification. There is no provision for the candidates or agents in the district council elections to be present at a parliamentary count unless they are present in some other capacity. I realise that the Bill may be modified by amendment, but that is how it stands.

Photo of Mr David Howell Mr David Howell , Guildford

That is another matter that I hope the Minister will note.

I was about to turn my attention to those who attend the parliamentary counts. A number of representations have already been received. In a letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw), the Association of District Councils explains that it is worried about the problems that may surround paragraph 11 of the schedule involving the requirement on the returning officer to verify.

The returning officer is required to verify both the ballot papers for the parliamentary election and the papers for the district council election. The association rightly states that there should be some flexibility in the arrangements, and if parliamentary returning officers prefer to defer verification of the district council ballot papers until the following day they should be allowed to do so. I do not know whether the splitting of the verification function is possible under the Bill. If returning officers find that that is the least inconvenient way to organise matters, I urge that consideration be given to that part of the operation.

The Home Secretary mentioned the difficulty of different qualifications arising in some circumstances in the facilities for absent voters for parliamentary elections and the lack of facilities for such voters in district elections. That is an awkward development. I take the right hon. Gentleman's argument that if a change were to be made we should be plunging into changes in our electoral law. However, that is what the Bill is doing anyway. I ask the Minister of State to reconsider the proposition that the qualification should be harmonised.

Some organisational difficulties have been brought to my attention. I have no doubt that many more have been brought to my right hon. Friend's attention. Polling cards for district elections have already been printed. They bear the wrong time. Printed on them is the nine o'clock closure time. Is the Minister able to reassure us that the cards still have validity even though the time on them is wrong? Have they all to be changed? Will the parliamentary election card suffice for both elections? Some reassurance made from the Government Dispatch Box on that complexity would be in order. If we receive no assurance, there will be those who have doubts about the timing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) talked about timing and the disparity between times for voting in by-elections in London that happen to be taking place on 3 May and a general election that is taking place on the same day. I have some sympathy when my hon. Friend paints a picture of potential voters arriving to cast their votes at five past nine in the evening and finding that they are ruled out from voting in the local elections. That is an absurdity among many absurdities and it deserves some re-examination and thought by the Minister and the Home Secretary before we go much further with the Bill.

Photo of Mr Dudley Smith Mr Dudley Smith , Warwick and Leamington

My hon. Friend will remember the Home Secretary chiding me for not being able to see the difference between the two ballot papers when he held them at the Dispatch Box. I have now had the opportunity to examine them closely. In artificial light they are not all that different. I am sure that many old people will experience considerable difficulty distinguishing one from the other. Is my hon. Friend aware that the greatest snag arising from the exercise is that on the top of the parliamentary ballot paper the voter is told that he is entitled to one vote and on the local election paper he is told that he is entitled to two votes, or whatever the number may be? That advice is in type that is by no means heavy enough, especially for elderly people. Voters may have difficulty in distinguishing how many votes they have.

Photo of Mr David Howell Mr David Howell , Guildford

I hope that the Minister will note my hon. Friend's contribution. He has the advantage of me, as he has seen the two pieces of paper. I have not seen them, except when they were waved around in the hand of the Home Secretary 8 feet or 10 feet away from me. I share my hon. Friend's concern about the similarity of colour. I realise that there are difficulties about choosing another colour. Pink is difficult, for political reasons, and because of the difficulties raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop). Blue is difficult, for political reasons. I suppose that lavender would be considered in thoroughly bad taste. We are left with a small range of colours.

I suggest that these are serious worries. I have heard it said outside the House that unless the grey is a firm and darkish colour, in many instances we shall have confusion in bad light at the count. Once there is confusion about which papers belong where, the smooth working of the elections will be seriously jeopardised.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Budgen Mr Nicholas Budgen , Wolverhampton South West

It may be that I am anticipating my hon. Friend, but I ask him to deal with the question why the district elections cannot be postponed. So far those contributing to the debate have been pointing either to the difficulties of having the two sets of election together or to ways in which difficulties may be mitigated. So far no one has addressed his mind to the postponement of the district elections.

Photo of Mr David Howell Mr David Howell , Guildford

To some extent my hon. Friend is anticipating me. He is also commenting on a view with which I began my few remarks. That is not a satisfactory situation. The Opposition wish to postpone the district elections—they have made that clear—but not because of the question of a higher or lower turnout. That should be beyond argument. We want as many votes as possible at all democratic elections. However, there is a serious prospect of disorder. That is emphasised and underlined by the debate this afternoon, the difficulties to which we have referred and the many questions that we have put to the Home Secretary.

The Government argue that considerable expenditure on organisation has been incurred. That will give rise to further expenditure. Expenditure has been incurred in setting in motion the wheels of the district elections to be held on 3 May. Notices of election have been posted all over the country. Candidates have prepared and have had printed their election literature. That is my understanding of the position. It may be said that that also applies to parish councils. I gather from the local authority council which organises parish councils that 150,000 leaflets and 10,000 posters have been printed urging people to vote in the parish council elections on 3 May. There are difficulties there.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Budgen Mr Nicholas Budgen , Wolverhampton South West

Will my hon. Friend explain to the House what kind of expenditure we are talking about? In my short experience, I have found that if the Government want to do something, expenditure is never a problem. On the other hand, if they do not want to do something, even the tiniest expenditure means a vast increase in the public sector borrowing requirement.

Photo of Mr David Howell Mr David Howell , Guildford

These points may be fairly put to the Minister. It is not for me to defend a Bill that I do not like and propositions and arrangements that lead to confusion.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

Does not my hon. Friend concede that the Government have already said that they will spent a great deal of money on press and television advertising to explain all the confusions with which we have been dealing? We must set against the money spent on district council elections the money that will be spent explaining this ridiculous Bill.

Photo of Mr David Howell Mr David Howell , Guildford

I am sure that the Minister will take note of that as well. Whether that is also the view of those who are getting geared up and involved in the district council elections, I do not know. My hon. Friend has spoken to people who hold their view. There is also the commitment of effort and organisation on election literature that rises above cost and reimbursement by the Government. It means that the wheels have been rotated too often and are too far in motion to be stopped. We should like more reassurance from the Minister on the question whether the costs of postponing the district elections would be of the size that the Government claimed. It is right to press for satisfaction on that point.

I am almost rivalling the Home Secretary in the length of my speech, plus interruptions, although not all of them were caused by my comments at the Dispatch Box.

Orderly elections are in everybody's interests in a free country. We are determined, as we made clear earlier, to protect the conduct of these elections against threats of terror and violence. We shall see that there is no question of terrorism interrupting the orderly conduct of these elections. It is also our duty to protect our elections from administrative bungling and complexity. For those reasons I remain far from convinced that the Bill provides the best arrangements. Changes will be needed both in the guidance and regulations. I have no doubt that my hon. Friends will press for them. Those matters must be taken carefully into account.

At the end of the day, as we must make the elections work, I advise my hon. Friends at Second Reading that the Bill should go forward to Committee and that they should not oppose it, though I fully understand many of the worries that have been expressed by hon. Members on both sides.

5.5 p.m.

Photo of Mr Stephen Ross Mr Stephen Ross , Isle of Wight

I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: this House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill to facilitate the holding of Parliamentary elections on the date laid down for the holding of district council elections which fails to postpone the said district council elections. I should have thought from the comments from the Home Secretary and the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) that it was apparent to those listening to the debate that to hold the district council elections and the general election on the same day was far from satisfactory. If the Government cannot accept the amendment, I hope that at least the Opposition Front Bench will support it.

The reason for tabling the amendment is that parliamentary and district council elections should not be held on the same day, and not in such a rush as has been decided. My view is that the matter has been rushed. It has not been properly thought through. We know full well from the comments made so far that the instructions to returning officers are not readily available to Members of Parliament. I suggest that they were probably not available to the local authorities until this morning. A vast number of problems will arise. I do not think that there will be any time in which to sort them out. In the long run we may organise elections whereby we vote on a large number of matters on the same day. However, we have neither the facilities nor the machinery to do so at present. I agree with the remarks made about the identification of the ballot papers. There will be problems.

For instance, the Government lost a vital Division by one vote last week. The next Government may well be elected on just such a majority. It may depend on one vote that goes missing between Harrogate and Scunthorpe, by the sound of it. I know of two instances in elections—other hon. Members may have similar tales to tell—where votes have been wrongly counted. The first time I stood for the Isle of Wight county council I was told that I was in by 25 votes. The result was put up on the notice board. I knew that I had won by more votes. After my insistence that the bundles should be looked through, I found that I had been elected by 125 votes. One bundle went into the wrong lot.

I do not want to tell tales out of school. The general election of 1970 went against me. After the votes had been announced in the hall, another 35 votes for the Labour candidate were found on the floor. That put me into third place. I spotted those votes. These things happen. The result given inside the hall differed from that given outside. We know thaht errors occur. Therefore, it is desperately important that we should get the matter right.

We all agree that this general election will be very important. I agree with the Leader of the Oppositon that this will probably be the most vital election since the war. We should concentrate our attention on it. The integrity of the district elections must also be maintained. This can be achieved only by holding the elections on different dates. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I suggest a three-week postponement. If we can put off the parish elections, why not put off the district elections? We are playing a pretty poor trick on the associations of local councils.

I should like to quote from the newsletter of the Bembridge parish council, which is in my constituency. It goes to great lengths to interest people in parish affairs. There is a notice about the annual parish meeting. It says: A new Parish council will be elected on 3 May 1979. It also says "Do come and vote." All that will be thrown overboard. The nominations will be null and void. I cannot understand why those people cannot be allowed to stand. Shall we compensate these people, who work on a shoestring anyway, for the expense of the material they have used? That is not provided for in the Bill. That is another good reason for throwing out this provision. I have not yet heard from the Home Secretary or from the hon. Member for Guild-ford why it is impossible to put off these elections for three weeks. Unless we get an explanation, and a satisfactory one at that—

Photo of Mr Roger Moate Mr Roger Moate , Faversham

Can the hon. Gentleman advise as to the consequences of his amendment being accepted by the House? Would it, in practice, mean that we could not have a general election on 3 May, as presumably we should need some other mechanism to secure the holding of the district council elections?

Photo of Mr Stephen Ross Mr Stephen Ross , Isle of Wight

The effect of the amendment, unless it is wrongly drafted, would be that the district council elections would be held on the same day as the parish council elections—in other words, three weeks later than 3 May. That is what is intended.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

Perhaps, as I have an amendment on the Order Paper in a similar sense, the hon. Gentleman would agree with me that, although nothing can now change the date of the general election, because the Royal Proclamation has been made, if his extremely moderate reasoned amendment were to be passed we should not have all the welter of confusion that we have talked about this afternoon.

Photo of Mr Stephen Ross Mr Stephen Ross , Isle of Wight

It is certainly not my wish—I know it is not possible, anyway—to try to change the date of the general election. There are certain pieces of legislation, including tomorrow's financial business, which have to be got through, and, with Easter falling in the middle of the month, probably it would have been rushing matters too much to hold the general election on 26 April. From my point of view, 3 May is perfectly satisfactory as the date for the general election. What my hon. Friends and I are trying to show is that what is possible for the parish council elections should be equally possible for the district council elections. Why cannot we do the two things at once? I hope that other hon. Members who agree with me will support my amendment.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

There is one point on which I should like to have clarification from the hon. Gentleman. If the House were to pass his reasoned amendment, the Bill would fall.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

Would the result of the Bill falling be that the general election could not be held on 3 May—

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

—or that the district elections could not be held? It is not self-evident to the House. Which of the two events would cease to happen if the Bill fell? Would it mean that the general election could not be held on 3 May or that the district council elections could not be held on 3 May? The hon. Gentleman's amendment has much to commend it—certainly to me—but I want to know what would be the effect of voting for it.

Photo of Mr Stephen Ross Mr Stephen Ross , Isle of Wight

I do not have the benefit of having someone in the Box to give me legal advice. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman, who is an expert on these subjects, probably knows the answer already, but my advice is that it would mean that the district council elections would not be held. There has already been a Royal Proclamation, and the general election must go ahead.

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

Would not the effect of passing the amendment be twofold? First, the district council elections could not be held together with the general election and, second, the parish and community elections would have to be held on the same day, because the second purpose of the Bill is to postpone the parish and community elections, which would otherwise have been held on the same day.

Photo of Mr Stephen Ross Mr Stephen Ross , Isle of Wight

I suspect that the hon. and learned Gentleman's observation is absolutely correct.

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

If that is right, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the confusion that he is endeavouring to avoid by his amendment would be perpetrated in exactly the same way but at different elections?

Photo of Mr Stephen Ross Mr Stephen Ross , Isle of Wight

I trust, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we might then get the Government to think again and produce a sensible Bill. After all, we shall be here for another two days. Let us be quite clear that the announcement of the whole of this arrangement was most unsatisfactory. First, the Home Secretary was not intending to make a statement to the House. Secondly, it was indicated that he would make a statement after the Independent Broadcasting Authority Bill had gone through. In the event, the Home Secretary's statement was made three-quarters of the way through, when many of us who were looking for the opportunity to question him last Thursday were engaged on other matters outside.

The way in which this Bill has been introduced has been thoroughly disgraceful. It will certainly work against democracy in local elections in this country. It will go right against the interests of the independent members, many of whom serve with distinction on rural councils in our country. They will suffer as a result of this Bill. The whole idea behind the Bill is that it is believed by the Government Front Bench that it will help the Labour Party to get a bigger vote in the local elections. That is the reason behind it, and we know it. I hope that other hon. Members who want to uphold democracy in this country will support my amendment.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it your wish, for the convenience of the House, that we should henceforth debate both the amendment and the substantive motion, or that we should debate the amendment that is now before the House and then have another debate on the substantive motion? We need to know what is in your mind.

Photo of Mr George Morton Mr George Morton , Manchester Moss Side

Both should be debated together.

5.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

I should simply like to ask the Minister why this Bill is 60 years late. These circumstances could not have arisen in this form before 1918. Before 1918, parliamentary elections had to be held, within certain prescribed and customary rules, a month after the writ was received, and that was at different times in different localities. The elections, in other words, were spread over a period of nearly two months. Then from 1918 parliamentary elections—I think this was as a result of the Representation of the People Act 1918—had to be held on a single day, the same day, in all constituencies.

Obviously, in so far as similar provisions apply in various Acts relating to local government, the possibility then arose of the two events occurring on the same day. It is well known and an axiom of all English constitutional law—and, I would have suggested, of Scottish constitutional law and Northern Irish constitutional law as well—that the Crown can dissolve Parliament at any time and summon another one for any date. There is no dispute about this. The only limitation upon that is that Parliament will be dissolved after the expiration of five years if the Crown fails to do it.

It is equally true that nowadays the Crown does not do it of its own volition but does it on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of the day. All these things have been known for centuries. They are not new. What was new in 1918 was that for the first time parliamentary elections had to be held on one day. The provisions for various types of authority—county boroughs, county councils, urban district councils, rural district councils and parish councils—differed according to the different local authorities, but they all had prescribed dates upon which elections were due to occur. Clearly, it could hardly be argued that, because some Act of Parliament said that there had to be a county council election somewhere in the United Kingdom on a particular day, that would therefore stop a parliamentary election from being held. As, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, there is really no provision in law saying that there cannot be two elections on the same day. It must, I should have thought, be axiomatic that, if the Crown summons Parliament—something which it has been doing since 1236—for a particular date, the essential procedure must follow.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Home Secretary told the House earlier today that by 5 p.m. copies of the ballot papers would be available in the Vote Office—not that he hoped that they would but that they would. It is now 5.19 p.m., and they are not available in the Vote Office, contrary to the assurance given to the House by the Home Secretary. May we ask the Minister to intervene, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to tell us what on earth has happened, and when the Home Secretary's assurances to the House of Commons are to be honoured? The House should not be expected to put up with sheer incompetence of this sort on a day when we are being invited to take the Committee stage of a Bill immediately after Second Reading.

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

I am trying to explain that the incompetence goes much further back—

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was hoping for some response from you or the Government on what the House has been told about a paper from which the Home Secretary quoted. An official paper from which the Home Secretary quotes in debate must be laid on the Table of the House and be available in the Vote Office. I ask you to protect the House on this matter.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure that it was no disrespect to the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) got up and immediately resumed his speech before I could intervene. I am having inquiries made. So far as I know, the papers are being brought here. I hope that the House will forbear. As soon as I receive news, I shall communicate it to the House. As soon as the papers are received, they will not only be made available in the Vote Office but distributed, via the usual channels, to hon. Members who are in the Chamber so as to minimise the inconvenience.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I ask you to order that a note be made in the Journal of the House that a paper from which the Home Secretary quoted was not laid on the Table, contrary to the rules of the House?

Photo of Mr George Morton Mr George Morton , Manchester Moss Side

Order. I understand that the rules do not say that the paper has to be laid instantly. However, I notice that is about to be done. In view of the unusual circumstances, and as we have had an assurance from the Minister, perhaps we can now proceed.

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

I hope that it will be clear that the Home Office—I mean the Home Office under every successive Government since 1918—has only itself to blame for all the carping and criticism that it is now getting from hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Successive Bills have been laid before the House of Commons and before another place—not always by the Home Office; in some instances by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, or whatever it may have been called, now the Department of the Environment—and all of them, as my right hon. Friend said in his opening remarks, have envisaged that two elections could take place on the same day. Yet none has made any special provision for that eventuality.

Presumably one of the problems is that there are not enough ballot boxes and that not enough can be made in the time available. If so, who is responsible for the public expenditure by local authorities on this issue? The Home Office pays for parliamentary elections. It could have ensured that there was always enough provision for the possibility that the Crown, on the advice of the Cabinet of the day, would want an election on any given reasonable day, whether a local election day or not. Nothing has been done until the last minute.

My right hon. Friend has been very honest in these matters and told us how this problem arose. He said last week that it has arisen because some people—in my view silly people—had the view—this was a view originally taken by those interested in the European elections—that the European elections should take place on the same day as some other election, be it a local or a parliamentary election. That view came from people like those who felt that there would not be a high poll in the referendum on our entry into Europe. Indeed, then, guidance to returning officers was intentionally fiddled so that they would declare a turnout which was on a slightly different basis from the one that had hitherto been used for a parliamentary election turnout.

However, that is by the by. The people who thought in that way were wrong. The people of this country turned out to vote in the referendum just as, in my view, they will turn out on 7 June to vote in the European elections. The idea was that there would be a low poll and that therefore it must be combined with something else to ensure a high poll. I do not know whether that idea was taken up by Conservative Central Office, but the Opposition Front Bench are certainly not opposing this Bill. However, that idea was certainly taken up in Transport House, which said "What a lovely idea. We can do it with other elections, too." We then have this Bill popping up at the last moment after 60 years in which the possibility was known to exist.

It is about 13 years since I asked why the Home Office had not revised the Hackney Carriage Acts for 130 years at that time. It is now rather more. It is still necessary, if a taxi is towed away, to feed hay to the horses. The Home Office has a habit of not bothering to look at legislation and of assuming that things will go away and nothing will happen if it does not bother about them until the last moment when it may be necessary.

Even now this legislation—perhaps it is a good thing in the light of the extraordinary speed with which it is being rushed through—states that it relates solely to this circumstance. If it happens again, we shall need new legislation—no doubt produced at the last moment. As the Crown has the undoubted right to dissolve Parliament and to summon another—indeed, it is devoutly to be wished that it should—may we eventually have some permanent provision about what should happen if the election date for a new Parliament subsequent to the next one falls on the same date as some other election in the United Kingdom? As has been made plain, not all elections fall on the same date. Why should this matter be ignored for 60 years and suddenly be considered at the last moment?

That is what I meant when I said that it was an illustration of what was wrong with the British system of government. In that time—I think it is fair to say that since 1918 we have not had a Liberal Government, although we had a Liberal Prime Minister for four years in that period—

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

I forget the date when Lloyd George ceased to be Prime Minister. We have certainly had both Conservative and Labour Governments and we have had Coalition Governments as well in that period. But not once has anyone thought of providing for this eventuality until a month before the necessity for it arose. That is not the way to run a country. That is what is wrong with the basic system of government. In this instance the Department for which the Home Secretary is currently responsible but for which before and after him other Home Secretaries have been and will be technically responsible failed to advise him and them; they were, are and perhaps will be equally ill served.

There was a case for having those elections on 7 June, side by side with the European elections. There was a case for having all local elections on 24 May. But there is no case for isolating the parish council elections between the general election and the European elections, when party workers of all persuasions will be exhausted, to say the least. There will be a minimal turnout in many areas because of this. The local councils association is very disturbed. I recently heard its leader on the radio asking why we could not have all the local elections on the same day, and saying that if necessary it should be 7 June, the same as the European elections.

I do not mind very much whether the local elections are on 24 May or 7 June. There is a good case for either date. I shall be more than happy to support the suggestion implicit in an amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) for the Committee stage that 24 May should be the day. I am very concerned about the confusion that will ensue from the present arrangements.

5.28 p.m.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

I support most enthusiastically the amendment so ably moved by the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross). The Home Secretary said that he wanted to make the Bill simple and straightforward. Then, for over half an hour, we had example after example of what a confused mess we are to face on 3 May.

It seems self-evident that the general election is the most important election facing the country. It is right that it should be held at the earliest possible date. I should have liked it to be held on 26 April, as would my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and most Opposition Members. But the Prime Minister, in his wisdom, decided that it was necessary to advise Her Majesty that the general election should be held on 3 May. Therefore, we accept it. But why, in the name of goodness, must we have the district council elections on the same day?

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

Perhaps I may correct my hon. Friend. It is in the name not of goodness but of something much more macabre.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

I am beginning charitably. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) may find himself more in agreement with the strictures that I propose to make later.

In justification of his decision, the Prime Minister and many of his colleagues say that it will help to have a high turnout for the local elections. We pride ourselves on working very hard to get a high turnout for local elections. However, we do not lose sight of the fact that among the most important of local elections are those which are closest to the people—community or parish council elections. Yet those elections are being treated with the utmost derision and contempt and are being held entirely on their own on 24 May.

One might say in parenthesis that the whole problem could have been avoided if a day other than a Thursday had been chosen. There is nothing sacrosanct about Thursday. We could have had the general election on a Tuesday or a Wednesday. I think that honour would have been satisfied all round. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) nodding asset.

Let us look at some of the elements of confusion. I am very concerned, as I am sure many hon. Members in all parts of the House are, about the elderly. They will have the awful confusion of the ballot papers. I have seen the grey and the white. Vast numbers of elderly people have eye diseases, such as cataract. It will be difficult for them to distinguish between the ballot papers. I am glad to note that I have the support of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Lee) in this. On top of all the confusion of the names with which elderly people will have been bombarded over previous weeks, they will be given two ballot papers which to those with bad eyesight in a poorly lit polling station will be virtually indistinguishable.

Photo of Mr Dudley Smith Mr Dudley Smith , Warwick and Leamington

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Is he also aware of a matter that, although it may be comparatively minor, is significant? Not all of us are blessed with a reasonably uncommon surname such as his. There could be on the parliamentary ballot paper a Smith, Brown and Jones who were Conservative, Labour and Liberal and an entirely different Smith, Brown and Jones on the local election ballot paper, who could be Labour, Conservative and National Front.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

Not only is that so, but the Government accept that it is so, because, as far as I recall, in the specimens that were circulated earlier there were two Browns on the local election ballot paper and two Browns on the general election ballot paper. Of course that is possible and of course it adds to confusion.

In sum, this amounts not to an elevation of the status of the local election but to a severe criticism of it. The local election should be about local people and local issues. It will be submerged in the national election, and many of the voters will be totally confused.

There are other elements of confusion. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) specifically asked me to refer to one in his constituency, which includes part of the Peterborough district council, for which the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Ward) is generally responsible. But some of the districts—I think that my right hon. and learned Friend said six—fall into the Huntingdonshire constituency. Therefore, ballot papers must be transported backwards and forwards for a total distance of about 45 miles in the course of a few hours.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton raised a most important point when he intervened in the Home Secretary's speech. Some of us tried to support him when he asked—and who better than the hon. Member for Peterborough to know all about marginal seats?—what would happen if district papers had been returned in the ballot boxes and then there was a demand for a recount. The instructions, which were rather late arriving, but of which I had a copy through the good offices of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Cope), say: It is a matter for the Parliamentary returning officer to determine when he can complete the arrangements to transport the boxes. If it is more convenient, he need not wait for the end of the parliamentary count to do so. At the very least, that instruction should be amended. Otherwise, there could be confusion.

Photo of Mr Michael Ward Mr Michael Ward , Peterborough

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in 1966, when we had seven recounts in my constituency, on the first count a complete village set of papers, amounting to about 600, were put back into a box and locked away in an outside room? It would surely be possible in this complicated situation for such accidents to occur. However, does not the hon. Gentleman agree that that is just a price of delay that we shall have to suffer on 4 May and that most hon. Members should be prepared to accept?

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

It is not as simple as that. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made his point. I was aware that something like that had happened, from the stories with which we were regaled in this House after his predecessor, now in another place, told us about the anxieties and traumas of that mammoth count, when he finished up with a majority of three.

The following is not too fanciful a picture. The results in a number of marginal seats could be declared, having been accepted by the candidates present in the small hours of the morning, and then if there were a gap of 24 hours or 48 hours before the district council results were announced it could transpire that bunches of ballot papers had been mixed up in the middle. We could face a number of election petitions to unseat candidates who thought that they had been declared properly elected in the small hours of the Friday morning.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Budgen Mr Nicholas Budgen , Wolverhampton South West

If a party is returned only with the greatest number of seats, but with no overall majority, and only marginally with a greater number of seats than the next party in the House, it could even be that the Queen would invite the leader of one of the two great parties to form an Administration and then find that as a result of two or three successful election petitions the Government had to change.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

I am confident that the margin between the parties will be somewhat larger than that, but my hon. Friend makes a valid point to supplement the point that I made.

Photo of Mr Ian Grist Mr Ian Grist , Cardiff North

My hon. Friend may not be aware that in Wales, in the constituency of Brecon and Radnor, which we hope to win, two parts fall into other districts—Brynmawr, which falls in the Ebbw Vale constituency, and Cefu Coed, which falls in the Merthyr Tydfil constituency. Yet both those areas count in the Brecon and Radnor constituency for parliamentary purposes. Will Brecon and Radnor have to finish its entire count before Ebbw Vale and Merthyr Tydfil can even begin their count? In both those seats, and possibly in Brecon and Radnor, there could be recounts not only on marginal wins but on the question of lost deposits.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

My hon. Friend will not be surprised to know that I was not aware of those particular Welsh aspects, but he makes another valid point that underlines the main point of substance that I am seeking to make. The matter deserves the most careful and detailed reply from the Minister of State, such as we did not have during the Home Secretary's speech.

Talking about the count, I wish to refer to a point that I made briefly in an intervention—concern for the staff. The matter has been brought to me several times over the weekend, not by people who will count in my constituency—because we always count on Friday—but by people who count in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) but live in my constituency. They say that some of them will be in the polling stations from just after 6 a.m. having got up rather earlier, and will work right through the day until 10 p.m. It is quite a job. We all know and appreciate what a job it is.

Those people will have the added difficulty this year of issuing two sets of ballot papers, in whatever colour—

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

The hon. and learned Gentleman mutters a derisory comment. I suggest that it is quite a problem. I am a little concerned about the extra clerical work, because it is work which must be conducted with the most scrupulous accuracy if it is to be right.

At the end of the day, at 10 p.m., those concerned have to pack up and go to the count. Then, according to what the Home Secretary said in answer to questions in the House when he made a statement last Thursday, it will be anything up to a couple of hours before they get on to the count proper, at which stage their powers of observation and their speed of counting, and doing all the other things, will be considerably diminished. One or two of them have pointed out to me that they are genuinely worried about making mistakes. We can all tell stories of lost ballot papers from our experience. These people are genuinely worried about this. They say that this is something which they do not contemplate lightly.

Had the local elections been determined for the same day as the European elections, this is not a complication which would have arisen, because the European votes will not be counted for some three days after the election. Again, that is something which the Minister should take on board. However, the lack of concern for the staff worries me greatly.

Then, again dealing with all the confusions, we come to the confusion which will face thousands of people up and down the country when they suddenly learn, from reading their newspapers tomorrow, that their perfectly valid nominations for the parish council are now invalid. I suggest that this is treating these people in a very cavalier manner. There is, perhaps, a case for saying that the nomination date—as has been done in the case of postal votes—could be extended. But to say that those who have been duly, properly and validly nominated by 5 April must discount those nominations and start again is a disgrace. I beg the Minister, at the very least, to do something on that score.

Concerning the ballot boxes themselves, I do not know what the situation is in every constituency. I know that in some constituencies—my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Price) tells me that this is so in his constituency—there are quite enough ballot boxes for the papers to be put separately into them.

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

Since none of us has had the opportunity to read these notes until just now, we have all been thinking about ballot boxes alone. That is all that is mentioned in them. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in some parts of the country the polling stations in which to put them will not be available, because in some parts temporary huts are often used, in many constituencies, which are so small that just before closing time there is a queue outside?

It might not take twice as long to do these two votes, but it will take, say, 50 per cent. longer, so where we have temporary huts and not big schools or buildings such as that, we need more space. There is no provision in the guidance notes for the provision of extra huts into which to put the extra ballot boxes.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

Perhaps I may make one of the more constructive interventions of the afternoon. I wish to report that the supply of ballot papers is now being distributed to hon. Members and is available on the Table, and that extra copies are available in the Vote Office for those who are not present in the Chamber taking part in the debate now.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

I am sure that I speak for the whole House, in this if in nothing else, in saying "Thank you" to the Minister for that intervention.

Perhaps I may indicate that hon. Members will be seeing for themselves for the first time that my recollection was indeed correct, and that the Government have indicated two "Browns" on the district council election and two "Browns" on the parliamentary elections—totally emphasising the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Smith).

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West


Let us revert to the point that I was making about ballot boxes. I should like to reply properly to the hon. Member for Nottingham, West. In my constituency there are a number of polling stations which are actually in the living rooms of private houses in villages. This is a problem. However, I think that the real problem is that we could have people queueing to vote who would not be able to vote, not because they had not themselves allowed the normal time that they allow for going to the polling station but because the extra clerical procedures were denying them their franchise. That is again a very important point. We must at the very least have some sort of monitoring system so that everyone who arrives on the premises of the polling station before 10 p.m. is allowed to cast his or her valid vote.

Photo of Mr Tim Rathbone Mr Tim Rathbone , Lewes

On the question of ballot boxes, does my hon. friend accept that part of the difficulty might be overcome by allowing local returning officers the option of having either a single ballot box or having two, and, when we go into Committee, the Chairman seeing fit to call an amendment in my name which would change the word from "shall" to "may"?

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

I would willingly accept anything designed to improve the present confusion. Of course, in a district such as my own, where district and constituency are exactly coterminous, that would be an admirable solution, and it ought to be available for the returning officer to opt for that if he so wishes, at the very least.

I do not wish to continue at greater length—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I suggest to those hon. Members who are making facetious comments that every point that I have made is valid, that not one has any exaggeration in it, and that every situation which I have envisaged is entirely possible.

What this matter comes down to is that the person who has had the greatest sense in the debate so far is the hon. Member for Isle of Wight in moving the amendment. He got in rather quicker than I did. I had a simple amendment in manuscript form together with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West. But the hon. Member's amendment would have the effect of preventing this colossal mix-up. I genuinely fear for our democratic process and for our local candidates being submerged in this welter of confusion and totally subordinated to national issues. I hope that even at this late stage the House will exert its authority and reject this Bill, so that the Government are obliged to bring in another measure tomorrow.

5.47 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Lee Mr John Lee , Birmingham Handsworth

We have all been candidates, but I do not know whether I have the unique distinction in the House of also having had the responsibility of being a returning officer in an election, although not in this country, and for an area the size of the constituency of the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Kitson). Therefore, when the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) refers to the length of time and the fatigue involved, I know exactly what he means. I think that we shall be demanding a great deal of people, and probably far more than it is reasonable for us to require of them. I shall comment on the effects of that, as I anticipate them, in a moment.

When the House withdrew its confidence from the Government last Wednesday, what it really did was to serve notice on the Prime Minister that he should tender advice to Her Majesty that an election should be held at the earliest reasonable opportunity. There is nothing in the constitution that requires it to be held on a particular date. As the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) pointed out last week when referring to the last two instances when a Government were so defeated, whereas on the last occasion Ramsay MacDonald had Parliament dissolved straight away, on the preceding occasion, in 1886, seven weeks elapsed before it happened.

There would be nothing improper and it would be to everyone's advantage if the general election had been held clear of Easter, the Budget and the local elections. It is arguable that the Budget itself has to be tailored for the fact that the House has withdrawn its confidence from the Government. I think that that is accepted. But there seems to be no reason whatsoever why Dissolution should not have been on 4 May and the general election on 24 May. We would thus have avoided the kind of mess into which we have now got ourselves.

I do not think that it would have been reasonable to have gone beyond that. Had the Government won last week, I was hoping that we would have a general election on 7 June, so that the matter could be enmeshed, at least politically, with the Common Market issue—not that I have the slightest intention of voting for any European candidate, anyway, but certainly in order that the Common Market issue could have been brought forward as a major factor in the general election. That is no longer possible.

What are we faced with? We face a situation in which, as several hon. Members have said, we sweep aside the parish council elections in the most imperious way. That is bad enough. But, worse still, we shall have to have this long, marathon count. I honestly hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear in mind the kind of difficulties that will arise for returning officers faced with close results and with stray ballot papers. If we are to have a situation—it looks by no means impossible—in which, perhaps at the ballot paper reconciliation before we even get to the count, the sealed-up local authority election papers will have to be unsealed and searched in order to find stray papers, it will be absolutely intolerable.

It is not quite so likely to apply in urban areas, although it is possible. But it is more than likely that it could happen in very large widespread constituencies, not all of which postpone their counts until the day after the election. Government supporters remember the Carmarthen election result of the last general election because it was the one seat which Labour lost. It is a large electoral area. One imagines that the difficulties, although they are surmountable and were surmounted, were daunting enough. But they must have left the people concerned with the administration of them extremely fatigued. Imagine a constituency of that territorial character, with the complications of district council elections and the possibility of very close results, as happened in Carmarthen when it produced a majority of exactly three votes. One can well see that we shall be imposing on our staff a quite intolerable strain.

Obviously it is difficult at this late stage to withdraw the Bill. I do not think that that is a reasonable request to make of the Government. But there might at least come forth from the Home Office a directive that, in order to spare people from excessive strain and to reduce the possibility of difficulties arising over the cross-referencing—indeed, the cross-losing—of ballot papers, all the counts should in any event be postponed until the following day. That would minimise the difficulties. I do not say that it would eliminate them. It could avoid a situation which might result in great difficulty.

I have not only been a returning officer. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Ward), I have had the trauma of being on the wrong end of a very close result. My parliamentary baptism of fire was to be defeated by 10 votes in a total poll of more than 50,000. For that reason, I am firmly of the belief that absolute accuracy of returns is of paramount importance.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

I intervene because the hon. Member is a barrister, and I am not is it a convention, or is it a legal requirement, that once counting agents and others have gone into a count, they cannot leave until it is completed? If that is a requirement of the law, that more and more reinforces the hon. Gentleman's argument.

Photo of Mr John Lee Mr John Lee , Birmingham Handsworth

Speaking off the cuff, I think that it is convention. There have been several instances where there has been a complete impasse as a result of an extremely close result and, because of sheer fatigue, the counting has been postponed until the following day. It happened at Plymouth in the last election, it happened at Carmarthen in 1974, and it happened to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) in 1964. Those are three instances which I happen to remember. Presumably, since no one raised any legal objection subsequently, it is a convention. But if it be a convention and a matter which can be rectified simply, I suggest that the Home Office should take that step and provide for it for the future.

I hope that I shall be in order if I make one or two observations on what is probably my last appearance in this House. I make this suggestion for the future now that we are considering the general character of elections, as we are bound to in relation to the Representation of the People Act 1918, from which all subsequent legislation flows, including the present Bill.

I wonder whether the time has not come when we ought to think in terms of keeping Parliament lawfully in being until after an election. It is a constitutional solecism to talk about the re-election or the defeat of a sitting Member. As from the Royal Proclamation, there is no such being as a sitting Member. In contrast with local government, where, under the Local Government Act, the outgoing councillor remains statutorily such until four days after the election in which he retires or is defeated, a Member of Parliament ceases to be such from the Royal Proclamation.

Imagine a Cuban-style crisis arising in the middle of a general election and it being necessary, perhaps, to vest in Government statutory powers of an emergency kind. We have no provision for this to occur. It may seem that the usual 20 days' campaign is not a very long period in which a world crisis can arise, but it is possible. The coming election, because of the intervention of Easter, will be statutorily longer and we shall be deprived of the mandate of any Parliament and any Government for a longer period than usual.

I find this somewhat worrying. In the future, I should like to see an arrangement comparable to the American vesting day. A suitable way to avoid the difficulties which could arise in a crisis would be if outgoing Members remained with their membership expiring at midnight on the day before the new House met to elect Mr. Speaker. There would then be complete continuity.

In that way, we would avoid the difficulties which could arise. It is not likely to occur internationally, but such an arrangement could be of importance in the event of some internal crisis. I cast out the suggestion. I know that this is not the Bill by which it could be done. But I hope that it has been in order to raise it, and it may be that it will interest some hon. Members after I have gone.

5.56 p.m.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

The first difficulty of an entirely avoidable nature which the House encountered was the intention of the Government not even to make a statement which could be questioned here. But, having overcome that by having a statement made here, the Home Office then sent round a circular which after so much trouble hon. Members have acquired in the middle of this debate. In some cases this was delivered by special arrangement to returning officers on Saturday morning. The astonishing aspect is that the Home Office then made no arrangements for anyone who knew about the subject to be available at the Home Office on Saturday so that the returning officers could raise queries which they wanted to determine in order that they could raise matters with Members of Parliament which they wanted discussed in this debate.

A returning officer in my constituency rang the Home Office with a query about the circular which he received last Saturday on a matter which he wanted to discuss with me in preparation for this debate. The duty officer told him that he knew nothing about the arrangements and that no one was available who could answer questions on them.

That is scandalous, and I think that the Minister of State owes it to the House to say why he and his right hon. Friend did not trouble themselves to see that one officer in his Department was available on Saturday so that returning officers could ascertain what the Government intended in time to discuss it with their Members of Parliament in a proper way before the weekend was over.

The circular says, after all, that there are delays in the post. Mr. Deputy Speaker, you can say that again.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

It says more than that. It says that returning officers must not rely on the post.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

It says that they must not rely on the post. It says: Unofficial industrial action by Post Office workers has already caused severe delays in the South-East of England … Guidance on matters in this circular may, however, be sought by telephone from the special inquiry office which has been set up for this purpose at the Home Office. The telephone number of this office is 01–213 3633 and all inquiries should be put to this office and not to the individual members of staff whose numbers have been given in previous circulars. Quite so, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Why was there not anyone at that number who could give that service which the circular announced until it was too late for returning officers to find out the answers they wanted?

There are matters which are inadequately covered in this circular. Neither the Bill nor the circular goes fully into the question of official marks. If ballot papers do not bear the official mark, they are spoiled papers. Presumably, it has to be the right official mark.

One of the returning officers in my constituency tells me that the law requires that one cannot use an official mark which has been used in the last six years. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Kitson), where there are seven different returning officers, that means that there are 42 official marks, presumably, which cannot be used. I understand that returning officers have a machine with five rows, each of five pins. Those who are skilled at filling in their pools will be able to calculate more quickly than I what are the permutations. The guidance says that the same official mark must be used by all returning officers. Annex A on page 3 says: The same Official Mark must be used for both elections. In the district council elections in my constituency, there will be three different returning officers and in my hon. Friend's constituency in Yorkshire there will be six, plus the parliamentary one, making seven, This means that they have to use the same official mark. There will be at least 42 that they cannot use. That, of course, is not the minimum because there are certain to have been by-elections in some of those seven in the course of each of the last six years. We may find ourselves in a situation where there is no official mark that can easily be discovered—I dare say the services of a computer might be able to find one—that has not been used.

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

I rise to offer some help to the hon. Gentleman and anyone else who may need it on this narrow point. He mentioned permutations. In my constituency is the headquarters of the well-known Littlewoods pools company. I am certain that the company's excellent British computers would be made available to any returning officer who wanted to feed in information and straight away receive any of probably 200 valid permutations. That is a free offer that I hope the hon. Gentleman cannot refuse.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

I do not know, without the necessary access, what is the actual form laid down by the law for the imprint. I do not know, nor, possibly, does the Minister, how many prongs of the 25 available have to be used for a valid mark. No guidance is given in the Bill or in the guidance notes on this point. This is the sort of confusion that is likely to arise and which, if the situation goes wrong, could result in a whole spate of applications to the High Court for declaring papers invalid.

Cases have been recounted in this debate of votes going astray. The late clerk of Devon county council, Mr. Godsall, told me how, in one constituency for which he was returning officer, two unopened boxes were found after the result had been declared. He destroyed the contents because he reckoned that there were not enough to overturn the majority. Perhaps that was good sense, although it might have provided considerable occupation for lawyers had it been known at the time.

Photo of Mr John Lee Mr John Lee , Birmingham Handsworth

Did that person realise that he was committing a grave criminal offence?

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

Yes, he did, and he had another drink on the strength of it, recalling the occasion.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

It was back in the 1950s.

I am concerned about the question of counting agents' verification and recounts. This is the first time, so far as I know, in the whole history of democratic elections this century—I am open to correction—when candidates' counting agents and, indeed, candidates themselves will not be allowed to be present when the boxes are opened with their votes inside. It is proposed that neither district council candidates nor their counting agents wilt be present to check that the votes cast for them are put in the correct piles and then despatched to the right returning officer—two crucial matters.

This is not a task that can be undertaken by the counting agents for the parliamentary candidates. They will have enough to do watching their own. Who will be in a position to ensure that there have not been included with district council votes, despatched before the close of the parliamentary count to district council returning officers, votes which should have been included in the parliamentary count?

It is crucial for democracy that the electorate and the candidates should have confidence in the fairness of the arrangement made. Here, the Government are deliberately arranging affairs so that the entire spectrum of district councillors will be disbarred from ensuring that the votes cast for them are properly counted. This is a major constitutional aberration and an entirely avoidable one. If the district council elections were postponed for one week only, that problem would not arise. Why are the Government so determined to have these two elections on the same day, knowing that they are creating huge areas for honest error as well as considerable areas for dishonest error? That is what the Government are deliberately and knowingly doing.

When will the result of the district council elections be known? My own constituency is widespread with 76 different polling stations. It is by no means the most far-flung constituency. Counting does not begin until the next day. It is not until then that the ballot boxes have been safely gathered in. That day, Friday, is the day before a bank holiday weekend. Monday is a bank holiday. Normally, it is bank staff who are used to count. The urgent Home Office communication sent out gives the not very generous pay and allowances which will be offered to these people. How many will want to take on this job on a Friday, knowing that it may not be completed on the Friday?

I am advised by one returning officer that it may take as long as five hours to complete the verification before the count is started. What happens when it gets to be so late on the Friday that the returning officer decides to suspend the count? He may do that because he notices that the counters are starting to make mistakes from fatigue. Will they be asked to count on the bank holiday Saturday, the bank holiday Sunday or the bank holiday Monday? Or will the count be adjourned from Friday until Tuesday? The Secretary of State has said nothing about this, yet this is the reality.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

Yet Parliament is to meet on the Wednesday.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

Indeed, in close-run constituencies it would be an unwise returning officer who allowed the district council ballot papers to be dispatched to the many corners of the constituency, there to be jumbled in with the others from a different parliamentary constituency, because he would not know until the end how close the result would be.

If the returning officer releases those papers and then has to call them back—by definition he probably cannot call them back until they have reached their intended destination—he faces the problem of the bank holiday traffic on a Friday evening. We are talking about the complete constipation that descends on the road system in many areas on the second part of a bank holiday Friday. That is when the ballot boxes may have to be recalled from the district returning officers to the parliamentary officers so that a recount may take place there to ensure that there are not papers for the parliamentary election which were inadvertently enclosed within the papers sent, wrongly, as entirely district council papers. These are some of the realities of choosing such an absurd system just before a bank holiday weekend.

The Secretary of State assured us that he had consulted doctors about colour blindness. But eyes get tired as well as being colour blind. After 10 hours of scrutiny, eyes can become very tired, particularly if some of those doing the counting have also been polling clerks during the day, as may happen in some areas. Are these two shades—white and off-white—so very dissimilar that mistakes cannot be made in good faith?

"Ah," says the Secretary of State, "but look at the back of the paper", referring to the papers which we did not have but now have. The backs of the papers will indeed say which ward or constituency they are for. Did the Secretary of State intend another operation, that during the verification process the papers should be turned so that their backs might be examined as well as their faces?

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

Does my hon. Friend realise that the Home Office is so confused that it has even given two separate addresses for the one fictitious candidate on these ballot papers?

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

The Home Office has done some remarkable things including predicting the conferment of a viscountcy upon you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. One sees that, if the papers are looked at with great care.

Among the matters over which this House has no control are the circulars sent out by the Home Secretary. All that we can do—I think we are entitled to do this—is to ask for undertakings from the right hon. Gentleman. He is an honourable man, and I would certainly accept an undertaking that he gave. One undertaking that I would ask for is that he will rescind the permission to parliamentary returning officers to send out the packages of votes which are believed to contain district council votes to district returning officers before the declaration of the parliamentary poll.

When the Secretary of State was out of the Chamber, for reasons that I entirely understand, a number of hon. Members said that it is likely that parliamentary papers will find their way, through honest error, into the packages of district council ones. I said, because the right hon. Gentleman did not mention this, that on a bank holiday evening, with bank holiday traffic congesting the roads severely in many areas, the purely mechanical problem of recovering all the packages of votes from district council returning officers will be all but insurmountable.

The only safe course, therefore, is for all the papers to be retained after verification by the parliamentary returning officer until the declaration of the poll. Until the declaration of the poll, recounts can be requested.

It does not inspire me with confidence in the person who drafted this circular that there is no mention of recounts in it. Can it be that this simply did not occur to him? Nor is there mention of the possible difficulties in finding an official mark which has not been used in any of the constituencies concerned, district or parliamentary, in the last six years.

This has all the hallmarks of a hastily cooked-up scheme. It is distasteful to the House, it is unjust and even ruinous to the individual, to have to sort out in the High Court after the election the results of a lack of administrative forethought. That must be undesirable. I hope that it will be clear to the Home Secretary by now that the only sensible way of dealing with this problem is to postpone the dis- trict council elections until after the parliamentary election.

There is a further point, which is not just to do with money. The district councils do not have an unlimited number of highly qualified and experienced staff, used to dealing with election matters. In many district councils a great deal of time has been expended verifying the parish council nomination papers. There is no need whatever to scrap them and say that all nominations must be submitted de novo for the delayed parish council elections. By all means, let us say that new nominations by new would-be candidates are receivable. But that is no reason for rendering invalid nominations that have already been received, the validity of which has been checked at such high cost in time to officials who will be grossly over-burdened arranging the parliamentary election.

I understand that the law requires that all the notices for the European Assembly elections should be sent out three days before polling day for the parliamentary elections, which are to be held on the same day as the district council elections. This shows the sort of burden that will be cast on district councillors.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

In fact, it is one day before.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

One day, a day when the district councillors will be busiest, and a day when they need to be fresh for the ardours of the count. How absurd that is.

In many district councils only three or four people possess the necessary skills to do this type of job reliably. Needlessly to waste their time by declaring null and void all the valid parish council nominations that have been received, checked and approved is an unforgivable piece of administrative nonsense.

Photo of Mr Michael Ward Mr Michael Ward , Peterborough

Is not the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) nit-picking? Is not the task of having notices published by the man who does it regularly for the returning officer a very simple and straightforward operation? Will he not have planned them and had them printed some time before?

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

No, it is not. The notices have to be posted up in all the required places and it must be checked that they have been so posted. The Home Office circular states that there may be a postal go-slow at the time. In that circular a specific warning is given by the Home Office that we cannot rely on having a postal system functioning at the time. It is not just a matter of putting a notice in, for example, the London Gazette. Notices have to be posted up all over the place. If they are not, applications can be made to the courts because the requirements of the law have not been carried out.

All in all, this Bill is an unprecedented mess. It is also an entirely avoidable mess. What is equally clear is that neither the Secretary of State nor his professional advisers in the Home Office have thought this matter out properly before asking Parliament to agree to it. That is a gross affront not only to Parliament—which depends for its credibility upon elections which are not only fair but are seen by the public at large to be fair—but to the public.

To make elections unnecessarily complicated is a service to no one. We all know that there is one reason only for the Government endeavouring to force this on the country. They believe that they can win a few extra seats for the Labour Party in the district council elections. The Government are seeking to abrogate some of the most important democratic safeguards, such as the presence of candidates and their counting agents when the ballot boxes are opened, for that one shoddy purpose.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

I believe that the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Cope) gave me notice of a manuscript amendment dealing with the question of nominations which are validated for an election which is postponed, which is what we are talking about with regard to community councils. I can tell the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) that I would be prepared to accept a manuscript amendment, and that all nominations for community councils which have been validated to date will not be scrapped.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

The Minister said "community councils". Does he include parish councils?

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

They are called community councils in my part of the world, but of course they are still parish councils in England.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

Perhaps at some time the Minister of State will tell us why he had to rely on my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Cope) to table an amendment. If the Government had looked, even with cursory intelligence, at this matter they should have suggested the amendment themselves instead of having to rely on a Conservative Back Bencher to do their administrative task for them. This merely reinforces the point I made earlier that this scheme, for such a shoddy purpose, was not thought out properly beforehand. I am afraid that that is the inescapable truth.

6.28 p.m.

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

The inescapable truth is that those who oppose the Bill because they are afraid of what will happen when the district council elections are held on the same day as the general election have loosed upon the House a flood of alleged confusion—confusion which does not exist. The truth is that they have deliberately underestimated both the intelligence of the electorate and the skill of electoral staffs.

When the electors go to the polls for local elections, as they will by the thousand, and with a percentage about double that which normally turns out, the Opposition are afraid of what will happen to them. When the country goes to the polls and there is the highest possible turnout, the Opposition will find that they will, as the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) indicated, lose vast areas of the country which the Conservatives gained when the turnout was very small. That is the only reason for opposition to this excellent and necessary Bill.

The hon. Member for Tiverton pointed out that a Conservative Back Bencher had had to produce an amendment that was acceptable. That is what the debate is for. That is what the House is for. In this way we find mistakes and errors in what has been done and can point them out and have them repaired.

As for the electorate not being able to see the difference between the two bits of paper, I suggest that that is a very unusual idea. Apart from the difference in colour, name and printing, if a person enters a polling station who is blind because of a cataract, he or she will go to the polling station with a cataract anyway and will go to the presiding officer and ask for help, just as if there were one ballot paper only.

The only confusion that I find with these ballot papers is that whoever invented them has seen fit to put: Brown, John Edward—Merchant—Labour",Brown, Thomas William, Swindon—salesman—Conservative and Jones, William David, Wiltshire—gentleman—Liberal". adding Merton, Hon. George Travis—commonly called Viscount Merton—Independent which seems a very odd way of ensuring that nobody could ever believe that it was a real ballot paper.

The only people who are confused are those who have put forward the amendment. They have not even bothered to think through what the result of the passage of the amendment would be. They have said that it would create less confusion because they do not like more than one election in one place at one time, as they think that one person could only understand what he or she was doing if there was only one vote. Apart from the fact that in other democratic countries, such as the United States, people are used to voting for very large numbers and seem to exercise a form of democracy of which we approve, the Representation of the People Bill has two purposes. The first of these is to enable the district elections and the general election to be held at the same time. The other is to postpone the parish or community elections which otherwise would have been held on the same day as the district council elections.

Instead of having the general election with the parish or community council elections, which would, according to the Opposition, no doubt create the same confusion and traffic constipation as the hon. Member for Tiverton described, there will be a different combination of elections. However, they are of very great importance, and here we come to the true democratic process.

I hope that we all agree that it is a tragedy that the electorate fails to recognise the importance of local elections. It is a tragedy that the electorate is not prepared to vote at them. In my Leicester constituency, only now do people realise that by allowing a Conservative council to be elected they have allowed the cutting by three-quarters of council housing in a stress housing area. They do not recognise the damage that can be done by a local council. They are prepared in general to appear at the ballot box only for a general election.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

Before the hon. and learned Member has apoplexy, will he concede that most of the people who will vote in the local elections on 3 May—I shall welcome a high turnout—will be coming for the most part to vote on national issues?

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

No, I believe that there is great misapprehension on this matter. Members of Parliament, and sometimes even our own colleagues in our cities, cannot understand that national and local issues are closely bound together. The main reason why people vote is complicated. In some cases it is related to money, to what they can buy, and in some cases it is related to jobs, but in other cases it is because they want to protest about housing. After all, the Minister for Housing can declare Leicester a stress housing area, but it is the local authority which says that, stress area or not, it will not build. When the electorate turns out in its thousands, as it will in Leicester, to vote against the party that behaves in that way, it is not for the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) to say why they will do so. They are coming to exercise their democratic right to vote—

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West has been talking on and off for the last hour—

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

Yes, and making a jolly sight more sense than the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner).

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

Some people have a very high opinion of themselves. It would be fairer if we were to consider the issues in a reasonable manner.

The areas of alleged confusion are not such as would cause the sort of concern that has been suggested by Conservative Members. There has been discussion about postponing counts. Every area will do what it sees fit. In Leicester it has been decided to have the parliamentary count in the evening and, in order that, people may have some sleep, to hold the local election count at 5.30 in the afternoon. That is a perfectly sensible and reasonable arrangement, which has been settled locally.

The confusion created by hon. Members on the Conservative Benches reminds us of the story that is sometimes told against us, which is that politics is the oldest profession in the world. The Bible tells us that even before the world was created there was chaos and confusion. When one listens to Conservative Members deliberately creating chaos and confusion, one understands how the oldest profession came to be so dubbed.

6.36 p.m.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Budgen Mr Nicholas Budgen , Wolverhampton South West

I shall make a brief speech because, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you have so often rebuked me in this Parliament for being too long.

Photo of Mr Myer Galpern Mr Myer Galpern , Glasgow Shettleston

What I have been told privately leads me to hope that that is the correct explanation for the hon. Member's brevity.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Budgen Mr Nicholas Budgen , Wolverhampton South West

It has been made plain by my right hon. and hon. Friends that there is the gravest risk of confusion. It is plain that however the vote may go tonight there is a strong preference on our side of the House for the district elections to be postponed for at least a week. There are good reasons for that which do not in any way depend upon the likely outcome of the district council elections.

I hope that when the Minister of State replies to the debate he will try genuinely to assist the House by answering the question that I posed earlier. What are the arguments against postponing the district council elections? How much would it cost to recompense the local authorities for extra expenditure? What disadvantages would be felt by the candidates in the district council elections? It is plain that the overwhelming preponderance of opinion in the House is to the effect that there are real disadvantages in what the Government propose, and we would like to know what can be balanced against those disadvantages. What is there in favour of having both elections on one day as compared with the no doubt considerable cost and inconvenience of postponing the district elections? We would wish to be in a position to make a balanced judgment.

This is not a small matter. The Government want, probably for electoral reasons, to hold the general election and the district council elections together. The Opposition Front Bench is clearly not minded to recommend that we should vote against the Second Reading. However, real damage will be done to a sense of fairness if a substantial number of Back Benchers independently vote against the Second Reading. We want valid reasons for voting for the Bill. It is not good enough for the Government to assume that because there is some tacit agreement the Bill can be pushed through without proper reasons being given.

6.38 p.m.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Camden Hampstead

I found it difficult to follow the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) because he was not speaking up. What he said caused some confusion, but I am sure that his intentions were good.

There is now no Home Office Minister on the Government Front Bench, and so I shall converse on various subjects until a Minister bothers to come back to us. We understand why the Secretary of State could not be here, and we totally excuse him. But there is no reason why others from the Home Office shoud not be present. I appreciate that the Minister of State has been here and may wish to pay a visit somewhere. But, if the Bill is sufficiently important to be put through the House in one day, two Home Office Ministers should have the courtesy to stay in the Chamber. I shall not discuss the principal matter that I wish to raise until a Home Office Minister returns.

Instead I shall talk about the ballot papers which we have been given as examples. They are printed on interesting paper. The colour is distinctive. The Home Secretary described it as election grey. I call it muddy grey.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Camden Hampstead

In that case I shall revert to my main point. I quite understand that the Minister of State had to go somewhere. I do not intend to oppose the Second Reading or to vote for the Liberal amendment. I want to stress to the Minister of State what I regard as a most serious point which I put to the Home Office on Friday. I have tried to put it again at the request of my electoral registration officer. It is a problem which concerns two-elevenths of my constituents. There are 11 wards in my constituency. In two of them by-elections are to take place on 3 May. Those who advise the Minister tell him that there are only two or three such by-elections, that they do not matter, and that the Bill should not be changed. However, democracy will not be served by having electors in two of my wards turning up to vote between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. on 3 May expecting to be able to vote for the borough council candidate and the parliamentary candidate and finding that they can vote for only one.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

Perhaps my hon. Friend will go on with his earlier discourse until he can have the attention of the Minister for the important point he is making.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Camden Hampstead

Until a moment ago the Minister of State was paying his usual customary and courteous attention to points raised during a speech. He is clearly being distracted, and no one, human though he may be, has more than two ears. The Minister is in difficulty.

In those two wards, voters of all ages and all parties will turn up and some of them will be disfranchised. Those turning up between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. will not be able to vote for the borough council candidate. Those who turn up between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. will be similarly disfranchised.

The poll cards will be issued by the returning officer. There will have to be one poll card for the borough council election and another for the parliamentary election, both showing different times. I understand that at present separate polling stations will be used as well as separate boxes. That is not the point.

The point is that people will turn up to do their democratic duty and find that it is not possible. Why is it so difficult for the Minister to say that he will arrange for a suitable amendment to be made when the Bill goes to another place, so that the hours of poll in the places where there are by-elections are the same? That is as far as I go, and I should have thought that I have made a reasonable request.

I am not asking for coloured papers or non-coloured papers, though I do not want all the papers to be placed in the same box. All I want is for the Minister to say that he understands my point and that people will not, if they go to polling stations at the parliamentary hours, be disfranchised for two of the hours from voting in a borough council election.

The Minister may ask why did I not table an amendment. I did, but I was told that it was outside the long title and therefore unacceptable. I do not argue about that. But I understand that it would be possible for the Government to put this right. I make an appeal to the Minister to try to do that. It is a small thing, but it would be helpful in the cause of democracy. It is a worry both to the candidates who are fighting those two by-elections and to the returning officer. In the end, the poor presiding officers will have to bear the brunt of the anger of the people who turn up expecting to vote in two elections and who find that they cannot.

I hope that the Minister will find a way to get round this difficulty. I also hope that he will acquit me of any discourtesy. Like me, he probably did not expect the Bill to be debated today when he planned his engagements. I have to be somewhere else at 7 p.m. Normally I do not leave once I have made a speech. I sit through the debate, sometimes to the bitter end. I hope that when I read the report of the debate tomorrow, I shall see that the Minister found it possible to say that the polling hours problem can, and will, be solved by a suitable amendment in another place.

6.45 p.m.

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

I join the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) in hoping that the Minister can arrange, through another place, for polling in every district council and parliamentary election to take place on 3 May between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. That would be a straightforward procedure. I think that we have one by-election on that day in Liverpool. It should not be beyond the skill and knowledge of draftsmen to achieve that result through an amendment in another place. That is as far as I agree with the hon. Member.

In this debate Conservative Members have called for an immediate general election, as early as 26 April. That would have caused difficulties, because there is a lot of business before the House this week. The next available date was 3 May. Either both elections should be held together or one should be postponed.

Photo of Mr Stephen Ross Mr Stephen Ross , Isle of Wight

Why could we not have had the general election on a Tuesday or a Wednesday? Why must it always be on a Thursday?

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

We never have them on Saturday or Sunday either. We should not be deciding these issues in the context of an emergency. If we had wanted a general election on a Saturday, we could have decided that 12 months ago. That would have been logical. For many years we have held general elections on a Thursday. We are stuck with Thursday, although every hon. Member recognises that two elections on one day in one place will cause difficulties. The difficulties will not be for the candidates as much as for those organising the election. However, good agents and returning officers, with good staff, should be able to overcome those difficulties. More doubt and worry about this issue has been expressed in the House than I have heard in Liverpool since the election date was announced.

The United States can manage massive polling lists, as can Ireland, under the proportional representation system. Are Conservative Members suggesting that it is beyond the wit of British electors to go to a place on a particular day, receive two pieces of paper and decide where to put their crosses? Are they saying that that is beyond the skill, wit and intelligence of voters? If they are, they grossly underestimate them.

If the Whip will belt up for a moment he will be able to listen to me. I can put my point a little more bluntly, because he now needs me more than I need him. "Belt up" is the colloquialism we use in Liverpool, and has nothing to do with the measure that I supported two weeks ago on the subject of seat belts. My expression was a plea for some attention.

After many years of effort, the party nomenclature is now to be stated on the ballot paper. However, it is in the smallest print available. Could not the party affiliation—describing the candidate as a Labour or Conservative Party candidate—be in bolder letters for this election? We are supposed to be helping electors. In one constituency at the last general election there were three people by the name of Hughes.

Whoever produced the guidance must have had a Liberal streak, because in the example the Labour candidate is described as a merchant, the Conservative candidate as a salesman and the Liberal candidate as a gentleman.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

The ballot papers are reproduced from the Representation of the People Act, which sets out those names and descriptions. They are nothing more than illustrative. I hope that my hon. Friends will not have heart attacks on their account.

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

I thought that my hon. Friend was going to steal my punchline. Some time ago I inquired of the Table Office how to describe myself at election time. It was no use my saying that I was an ex-coal miner, since I was then a full-time politician. I was told that by Act of Parliament I was a gentleman. A Member of Parliament who seeks reelection is known as a gentleman.

Local government and national Government issues are bound together. In Liverpool, Liberals and Conservatives control the city council. One-third of my time is spent trying to sort out the errors of that local government. Hon. Members are being subjected to more and more pressure to give more time to local government affairs.

If there were an Act that provided that Members of Parliament should give no time and use no influence locally to effect housing, roads, or schools, our lives would be easier. Inevitably, much of our work involves local government.

At election time it has been the practice on Merseyside to distribute a voters' guide. Political parties are not allowed to distribute poll cards. By the free post that we are allowed at election time, we send a note saying that the registration officer will send an official poll card. We suggest that this time we should be allowed to inform electors that they have one vote for a local councillor and another for a Member of Parliament and to include the names involved in each.

I hope that the Minister will not say that we shall be restricted in our use of the free post. I accept the weight restriction, but the candidate should decide how to use his free postal delivery. I hope that the parliamentary candidate will not be told that he can make no mention of local government, because that would be the opposite of what is intended.

I see no difficulties that cannot be overcome in having the two elections in one day. I have more confidence in the people of Liverpool than perhaps some Opposition Members have in their constituents.

I regret that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Lee) will not be here in the next Parliament, because of his own choice. He and I have not always agreed, but he is a respected and honourable Member of the House and he will be missed by many. He said that he was once a returning officer and that he was defeated by 10 votes in one election. I was not clear whether he was defeated as a returning officer or as a candidate, but I am sure that he meant that he was defeated as a candidate. It is not the voting that counts but the counting of votes.

6.56 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Farr Mr John Farr , Harborough

I shall be more brief than I intended because the Minister of State has dealt with a matter that I intended to raise in relation to nominations for parish councils. I refer to annex A, paragraph 4, of the guidance notes. I am delighted that the instructions in that annex are suspended and that those who have already been nominated for parish councils may allow their nominations to stand in suspense. They will remain valid, contrary to the instructions in the guidance.

Mention has been made of the work that has already been done on the presentation of nomination papers. In my constituency there is a district and a borough council. In the district council alone there are 43 parishes, and an average of between five and 20 parish councillors are to be elected for each parish. The number of possible nominations for one district is between 600 and 700. That means that much work has already been done. I am glad that that work has not been wasted.

A little heat has been generated already by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) and the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner). The hon. and learned Member is my political neighbour. I must assume that he generated the heat because he sees defeat looming and that he is anxious to use this last chance to make as great an impact as possible on the House of Commons.

Paragraph 11 of the guidance document is headed "Fees and Expenses". I have been in touch with my local district councils and the returning officers. They believe that because of the complex and difficult task that they will have to perform, the fee of £22 for presiding officers and £16 for clerks is not enough.

Under the guidance issued by the Home Office when it was thought that district and parish council elections were to take place on 3 May, the fee for the presiding officer was not to exceed £25. In the new guidance notes which have been distributed by special delivery today, the maximum suggested is £22 and £16.

This will be an unusually difficult and complex election to administer. A more realistic approach should be taken to cater for the arduous and difficult task that the officers must undertake. I should like to see the remuneration increased considerably to £40 for the presiding officer and £30 for the poll clerks.

The other point that I wish to raise has been dealt with at length by a number of hon. Members, apparently without success. Parliament will not gain anything by having the district council and general elections on the same day. The plea has been put by many hon. Members that it is still not too late to separate the dates and to postpone the district council elections. It is still possible to preserve 3 May as the date for the general election alone.

1 make no secret of the fact that last week—when it was not too late and up to which time we could have arranged for a three-line Whip tonight—a number of my hon. Friends strongly urged that we should press for separate days for the elections. It is not a question of concern over the number of people voting in the district council elections. It is more a concern about the message that the various candidates have to get over. The message of all candidates will be indistinct, confused and, to a certain extent, garbled.

I have already had to think twice about a suggestion that I should canvass in my constituency with my local district councillors. I can see that if I were canvassing on national issues, I would make no progress and my district council colleagues would be held up at every house by complaints about leaking pipes or drain covers which need replacing.

The general election is too important for us to allow it to be clouded by local government issues. It is too late for the House to alter the path on which we are irrevocably proceeding. I regret that and I believe that the general election would have been more easily understood by the electorate if we had postponed the district council elections by a week.

I commend the Home Office for going to the trouble of providing the explanatory notes and guidance and specimens of the two sorts of ballot paper. While the designs are sufficiently different, I can foresee problems in polling stations such as those in old village halls where the screens around the polling booths are very high. They prevent anyone from seeing where a voter is putting his cross, but they also prevent light from penetrating and my fear is that, whether or not there is artificial light, some voters will have difficulty in discerning the difference between the different coloured ballot papers. If it is not too late, I hope that we may be able to get a completely different colour for the district council election papers. With those reservations, I welcome the Bill.

7.4 p.m.

Photo of Mr Roger Moate Mr Roger Moate , Faversham

I thank the Home Secretary and the Minister of State for accepting the proposal that nominations for parish council elections that have already been submitted and validated should retain their validity. That indicates a helpful flexibility on the Government's part.

I urge the Government to offer the same flexibility to the proposition of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) and others who have referred to the problem of local council by-elections taking place on the same day as the general election. I urge the Home Secretary to understand the frustration that will occur and the complaints that will follow if electors are told when they go to the polling station between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. that they can vote in the general election at that time but will have to come back in an hour or so to vote in the council by-election. Obviously, they will not return. Only a small amendment would be necessary to solve that problem.

I wish to make a few points in answer to some of the arguments from Labour Back Benchers. It has been suggested that hon. Members who dislike the idea of holding the elections on the same day fear a high poll because we would lose seats in the district council elections. I do not believe that to be true. We all welcome the principle of high polls in district council elections. We wish that all council elections had the 70 per cent. poll that we expect in general elections. If we bring the matter down to party terms, I believe that the Conservatives will do much better in my area if we have a high poll in the district council elections. No doubt some Labour Members believe that their party will do better in other areas, but that is not a consideration in the minds of those of us who dislike the idea of having the elections on the same day.

Some of my hon. Friends have argued that there will be great confusion in the minds of the electors. I do not agree, although I must say that if we wanted contrasting colours for the ballot papers to enable the electorate to distinguish between them, we should not have chosen white and light grey. It is difficult to think of two colours that are more similar. However, I am sure that the electors will manage to distinguish between them and I do not see that as a major problem.

There may, however, be some confusion at the polling stations. Obviously it will take longer to fill in two ballot papers and there could be problems when queues develop, perhaps only a few minutes before the polling stations close.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

Some of us have submitted a manuscript amendment which will solve that problem if it is accepted.

Photo of Mr Roger Moate Mr Roger Moate , Faversham

It is a mechanical problem and is not fundamental to the principle of what we are debating. A significant principle is involved, and the Government should have thought more than twice about introducing a considerable constitutional innovation when they do not have the moral authority to do so at this stage in their life.

The Home Secretary and the Prime Minister should have bent over backwards to avoid such an innovation in the last stages of this Parliament. There are arguments in favour of holding several elections on the same day and arguments in favour of fixed-term elections, giving us county council, district council and general election polls on the same day, but we should not be debating those in the context of the deadline that we are facing.

The Government should have tried for other options—and there are still other options open to them. One option was not to have gone for a Thursday poll but to have arranged the general election for Monday 30 April or Tuesday 1 May. That would have avoided many of the problems that will be imposed on electors and returning officers.

Another option, and one which I would have preferred, was for the Government to have gone for 26 April. Had the will been there, they could have done that. Looking at the business before the House this week, it is difficult to believe that the arrangements for a general election on 26 April could not have been put through the House on Friday and Saturday last week if the Government had wanted it. It should have been possible.

Even though they rejected that, they could have gone for the following Monday or Tuesday. There is no constitutional obligation to have a general election on a Thursday. It is only a convention, and I do not suppose that many electors even think about whether the vote is on a Tuesday or a Thursday. I understand that once the proclamation has been issued we are bound to that Thursday and we therefore have to face the other option set out in the amendment, namely, the deferment of the district council elections.

I urge the Government to accept the amendment. I recognise that we shall not please all the district council candidates. Many would regret a deferment. They want to get their elections over, just as we want to get the general election over. However, in the interests of the electors and our voting system, there is a case for deferring the district council elections so that they take place on the same day as the parish council elections.

I base my argument on the confusion that I believe will occur on the night of the count. I am not saying that that confusion cannot be avoided. It will be avoided. It will have to be avoided. However, it will be avoided only at the cost of immense pressure on the returning officer, his staff, the scrutineers and the party workers. The strain on that fairly small band will be considerable.

I do not wish to advance a partisan argument, but I suspect that in many areas the Conservative Party is considerably stronger than the Labour Party. However, I suspect that there will be a great strain on many of the local Conservative parties. In general elections we often find that candidates in local elections are the party workers who act, for example, as scrutineers. On the night of the count they will have to be divided between several counting stations. That means that the parties will have to produce a large number of scrutineers. I do not suppose that many of them will be able to do so. That problem could be avoided.

There are arguments for having elections on the same day, but I do not think that anybody could invent a dafter system than bringing all the ballot boxes to one centre, spending a couple of hours splitting the papers, resealing the ballot boxes and sending them around the countryside in the middle of the night to different destinations, where they will be counted by exhausted workers who have worked all day in some other capacity. It may have made sense to have an electronic system and computers, but a nonsensical procedure is being applied to our voting system.

It is thoroughly undesirable that at the moment when we want clarity and absolute confidence in the accuracy of the count there should be introduced an element that is totally chaotic, undesirable and avoidable.

The Government should not have introduced such a measure in their last days in office. It is an innovation that should be debated at leisure. It is a major constitutional change. It is not a proposal that a dying Government should introduce in their last couple of days in office. I hope that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) will press his amendment to a Division. I hope that there will be sufficient support for it to secure its passage. That will force the Government to think again and, presumably, to introduce a short Bill tomorrow, which would pass through the House quickly, to defer district council elections for three weeks.

7.13 p.m.

Photo of Sir John Cope Sir John Cope , Gloucestershire South

I shall intervene only briefly because most of the ground that I had in mind has already been covered adequately.

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) says about the apparent obsession for having elections on Thursdays. There should not be that obsession, because it is not so long since many elections were held on other days. Occasionally other days are selected even now for local and district by-elections, and those elections proceed perfectly satisfactorily.

I am grateful to the Minister of State for saying that he will bring the Bill into line with what the Home Secretary said about parish nominations. I apologise for not tabling my amendment at the proper time and for having to table a manuscript amendment. When I read the Bill I thought that the reference to the poll being postponed meant that an amendment was not required and that nominations would stand. I remain of the opinion that the legal interpretation that no amendment is required holds good and that nominations already handed in will be valid for the postponed poll. I do not pretend that my legal knowledge is better than that of the Home Office draftsmen. If they think that an amendment is needed, Ministers must bring one forward.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) suggested that those who argue against having more than one election on the same day believe that there is some failing in the intelligence of the voters that will cause difficulties in voting in two elections on the same occasion. That is not so. The argument of my hon. Friends and myself is based upon the confusion that may occur in the counting and the necessity for the counting to be impeccable and beyond question afterwards so that no one may argue about the result of the election or about what has happened.

The confusion will arise not because there are two elections on the same day but because the boundaries of parliamentary seats are not coterminous with the boundaries of local government areas. My constituency is an example although not an extreme example. There are two districts within the constituency, one full district and one that is part of another. The Stroud district, which is the part, has part of another constituency within it. Many ballot papers will need to be verified in one place and counted in another for district purposes.

It seems that district council candidates will not be able to witness the verification of their ballot papers. Their agents and representatives will not be available when the verification is carried out.

When we turn our attention to the amendment, I expect that we shall be told that it is difficult to have the candidates for the districts in attendance in person for the verification. I understand that. That is because they will be required to be in two places at once. Secondly, there are a large number involved. The numbers involved in addition to the ordinary parliamentary count will be extremely difficult to manage without problems.

It is the problem of boundaries, especially now that parliamentary boundaries are considerably out of date in comparison with the local election boundaries, that is the nub of the difficulty. For that reason, and because of the confusion of the counting and the necessity for the counting to be beyond question, I am inclined to support the amendment. If necessary, I shall support the amendment that may be moved in Committee that has the effect of holding district council elections on a different day.

7.17 p.m.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers , Gosport

There is one reason that has not been given so far in this short debate why the district council elections should be postponed, The reason is that increasingly in the past 50 years we have seen a polarisation in district elections. The Labour Party initially brought politics into local government. Previously individuals had been elected more because they were known in their localities than because they were representatives of political parties.

It may sound an unusual argument to advance in the run-up to a general election, but we must remember that we stand not only for our parties but for all individuals in our constituencies. I recognise that there are some who do not wish to carry party political labels in local elections. There are those who wish to stand as independents and rate-payers.

I regret that by confusing the general election with district councils the Government are putting forward a formula that will inevitably mean that those who do not wish to carry a party label in district elections will be squeezed out. The polarisation will be increased. For that reason I, too, support the amendment. The district elections should be postponed.

7.19 p.m.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

I do not know whether the party that ultimately gave house room to Mr. Joseph Chamberlain is exactly the best equipped to start complaining about the introduction of party politics into local government. As the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) was not in the Chamber for a considerable part of the debate, I propose to deal no further with his intervention.

There are two major matters and many smaller ones that need to be answered arising from the debate. I hope that I shall be acquitted of any discourtesy if I do not manage to cover them all. Except for one brief but commented upon absence during the debate, I have heard most of the main arguments.

First, when the ballot papers were seen by those in the Chamber, the argument about the difficulty of making a distinction between them ceased to have its original stridency.

The Opposition, who seem to be finding excuses or reasons where none exist, commented on the colour of the papers. All three political parties were consulted. This was the only colour upon which they were prepared to agree. That is not conclusive. However, it is an indication of the difficulty of choosing a non-partisan colour and of the consultations that took place over a short period. Apart from the colour, the lines around the paper are a sufficient indication of the distinction between the two. Thirdly, the person going into the polling booth will, in most cases, be able to read "District Council Election" on top of the paper. That ballot paper will be completely different from the parliamentary paper. It will be distinct in its own right.

Photo of Mr David Howell Mr David Howell , Guildford

Some of us are not worried so much about the distinction in the polling booth as about the distinction when the folded papers are poured on to the table at the count. For example, the Minister may think that I hold in my hand the district council polling slip. However, I am holding the district council polling slip with the parliamentary polling slip folded inside. It will he natural for many people to go into the polling booth, make their marks on the two papers, fold them together and put them in the box. I hope that the Minister will not dismiss this point too lightly. I hope that when the Government send out a new combined notice of guidance they will make it clear that voters should be advised to put their papers separately into the ballot box and not fold them together.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

The papers must be unfolded and verified.

The argument has been put on the other level. It was said that the poor hapless voter, suffering from cataracts, with severe defects of vision, will not be able, in the poor light which obtains in most polling stations, to differentiate between the two types. Now, apparently, it is said that the people responsible for the count will suffer from these defects. We have considered this problem. I do not think that it will be a problem. The ballot papers are sufficently distinct for us not to run into this difficulty.

I do not suppose that I shall be able to answer the second major point to the satisfaction of those determined to vote for the Liberal reasoned amendment. I do not imagine that argument sways many votes in the House. Nevertheless, it deserves to be attempted.

I come to the question of why it is not possible for the local elections to be postponed and what would be the effect if the Bill were defeated. If the amendment is carried, the district council elections must be held, under section 43 of the Local Government Act 1972, on the first Thursday in May. The proclamation of the general election next Saturday could not be made, for practical reasons—for example, the doubling of the number of imprints. We are talking about the postponement of the general election.

The second point was why a general election should not be held on 26 April, especially if we sat on Friday and Saturday. However, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) unfortunately came too late to the debate to appreciate the full subtlety of the point. The proclamation would have to be made on a Saturday. If we had sat last Saturday, it would already have been too late. In practical politics, it was impossible for that to happen: 3 May was the first proper date on which the election could have been held. The Opposition fulminated in favour of a general election and a quick opportunity to test their unpopularity in the country. However, in our view it was proper that the election should be held on 3 May.

I say this with diffidence. There was an underlying tenor in some of the contributions to the debate which devalued the intelligence of the electorate. It would be otherwise if we had never held two elections on the same day. We now merely seek to substitute two elections of one kind for two elections of another. We had intended to hold community and council elections for which there would have been many candidates. We apparently did not find the great traumas over which the Opposition have agonised for some hours.

Photo of Mr Stephen Ross Mr Stephen Ross , Isle of Wight

The Minister virtually told the House that if the amendment were carried, and the Second Reading defeated, that would mean that the general election of 3 May would be postponed. What is to prevent the Government from saying tomorrow, with a simple Bill, that they will postpone the district elections for three weeks?

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

The hon. Gentleman forgets that the process has already been put in train for local elections. That was done on Thursday last under the statutory procedures laid down by the Local Government Act 1972.

Having heard those who sought to find reasons, I have no confidence that any supplemental or replacing Bill would have any different fate in this House from today's Bill.

Photo of Mr Roger Moate Mr Roger Moate , Faversham

The Minister dismissed 26 April. He said that the following Thursday was the first proper day on which an election could be held. What is improper about the Monday, or Tuesday 1 May?

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

I was coming to that point. It is amazing how, for the purposes of argument, hon. Members may say that those involved may at one and the same time be exhausted and totally fresh. It is said that the counters, the scrutineers and the returning officers will be absolutely exhausted if the district and parliamentary elections are held on the same day. But it is also said that they may exist in an almost permanent state of election, with polling on Tuesday, counting on the Wednesday and parliamentary elections on the Thursday, with no tiredness or jaded outlook on life. That is naive. It is totally unrealistic to think that local elections or general elections held two days before the other may not have severe and unlooked-for effects upon the other.

I now deal with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Lee) about the question of staff tiredness and the delays that may occur, and whether we could delay a count, once undertaken, if it appeared from all the circumstances that fatigue was creeping in. Under rule 46(5) of the parliamentary election rules, counting may be delayed between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. if the election agents agree. Therefore, an election may be stopped for the reason mentioned by my hon. Friend.

The most difficult point was raised by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) and others. I refer to the sending away of ballot papers that are proper to one form of election to another place or to another area. I hope to be helpful. First, there is the verification procedure. I think that may eliminate the vast majority of problems. Secondly, immediately the officials working on another count discover a package in the wrong box, they may communicate with their counterparts in the other rooms, or other places even, to secure the correction of this position. That is of special importance where there is likely to be a recount.

We would propose, on page 4 of annex A, in the paragraph to which the hon. Gentleman referred, to insert a sentence asking returning officers to take account, in the sending away or the disposition of the ballot papers, of the possibility of a recount in their area. It would be known in advance—except in a few very unusual circumstances—where there was the likelihood of the most closely contested elections. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will find that somewhat helpful.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

I am most grateful to the Minister. I am worried not about his putting in such a reasonable instruction as he has suggested in the circular but that we are still left with schedule 11 to the Bill, which says that after each ballot paper account has been verified, The containers shall then be delivered to the returning officer for the election of district councillors". As I read it, that gives a statutory direction to the returning officer which removes discretion from him. I am not asking the Minister of State now to reply aye or nay. I have tabled a manuscript amendment to which we can come later. I merely ask him to have in mind that, however good the intentions expressed in the circular, if they are at variance with what is said in what will then be the Act, it will not be possible for that discretion to be exercised.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

As I understand it, on the ordinary meaning of the word and on the interpretation of the statute, "then" means "thereafter". It does not involve a mandatory duty which juxtaposes the finish and the sending away. However, I will look into that point for the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the use of the mark. Rule 20 merely says that the official mark shall perforate the ballot, and does not give any further specification. If real confusion were to arise, we would issue further guidance upon this point, but we have no evidence at the moment of such confusion. That is why the elections unit was set up. For the hon. Gentleman's information, I point out that it was not set up on Saturday. Those who contacted my right hon. Friend's private office were referred to the responsible officials in my Department and received advice over the weekend, so that it really was only a question of having contacted my right hon. Friend's private office rather than going through the elections unit. But the unit will be fully operational this week and will be available for advice.

One hon. Member thought that polling hours might be extended in all elections, including the succeeding parish or Community elections, for the longer period, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. That is not so. A cursory reading of clause 1 shows that it is limited to these parliamentary and district council elections.

I have made inquiries concerning shortage of staff. There is no shortage of staff and there will be no difficulty caused by the burden of this work. Indeed, I understand that the work at polling stations is a much sought-after prize in many parts of the country. The only complaints I ever receive are that certain favoured retired people get preference over other people who are equally capable of doing the job and who are equally keen to do it.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

Concerning staff and hours, what will happen to those who are at the polling station at 10 p.m. and who, because of the queue and the extra clerical work, have not had their ballot papers and voted? Can they still do so?

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

That is a totally different point and I shall deal with it in due course.

The hon. Member for Hampstead, (Mr. Finsberg) raised a very difficult point with me, and we have given it serious consideration. One of the problems which many hon. Members do not take into account is the amount of thought that is given to these matters in places such as Hampstead and the amount of information we receive. A similar point has been raised about Camden, which is in a similar position.

We have given very serious consideration to the hours of the poll and have consulted the draftsmen. It is outside the scope of the Bill, and at this stage we are unable to give a promise that it can be put right. However, I will continue to give it some thought, without making any commitment whatever, to see whether it can be changed, even now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) mentioned ballot papers and said that he hoped that the size of print used for party nomenclature would be larger in the future. I do not think that that is exactly germane to the present Bill. When he sought to correct the descriptions on the ballot paper, he was in error, because the party description is not a fixed party description. It is merely an injunction that not more than four words should be used when making a designation.

The hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) mentioned the presiding officers' fees and said that he hoped that the minimum set down in the circular would be raised to take account of the extra responsibility. We have been in discussion with the representatives of the officials concerned. We have agreed that presiding officers who have a single election—that is, one without a district council election —should have £18, and that it should be £22 for a combined election, with poll clerks receiving £24 and £32 respectively. That is above the minimum quoted, and it is a recognition that extra responsibility and extra work are involved.

The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) mentioned his experience. We all have our different experience and I suspect that we generalise from the particular. The experience we have seems to be transmitted into a national experience. It is not my experience, from having visited my own and several other constituencies during elections, that there are the vast queues between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I do not think, therefore, that we have quite the position that he envisaged. The returning officers have been asked in the circular to have regard to the various problems when they are considering the number of staff re

Division No. 110]AYES[7.40 p.m.
Beith, A. J.Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen)Grist, Ian
Budgen, NickFreud, ClementHodgson, Robin
Durant, TonyGrimond, Rt Hon J.Hooson, Emlyn

quired and the sort of provision that is needed. None of us would want a person who has gone to the poll to be denied, on a technicality, the right to cast his vote.

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

When I mentioned this point, I was not suggesting that the Bill should be amended. I was merely saying that, where the circular talks about ballot boxes, there should be another paragraph saying that the Home Office will pay for extra little huts, when these are the only places at which it is possible to vote when queues arise. I am hoping that my hon. Friend will say that the Home Office will pay for the extra necessary equipment.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

We have said that we are taking reasonable steps. As all these regulations have a Welsh connotation, I wonder whether, if we were to talk about "further tai bach", it would be widely understood in Wales in terms of the little hut.

One cannot always anticipate every problem. Let us be absolutely fair and say that there has not been a general election yet in which there has been no complaint, in which everything has moved perfectly smoothly and in_ which everything has gone without protest being made.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

No. I propose to finish now, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I believe that every hon. Member has had an opportunity to make his point on Second Reading, and we still have the Committee stage before us.

We have made every provision for people properly to exercise their franchise. The British electorate are not so ignorant, naive or capable of deception that they will be confused by these ballot papers. They will cast their votes properly according to their democratic duty. I think that many hon. Members who doubt this fact will be pleasantly surprised on 3 May.

Question put, That the amendment be made:

The House divided: Ayes 17, Noes 137.

Knox, DavidPardoe, John
Mawby, RayShepherd, ColinTELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Maxwell-Hyslop, RobinViggers, PeterMr Peter Bottemley and
Moate, RogerWigley, DafyddMr. Patrick Cormack.
Allaun, FrankHealey, Rt Hon DenisOakes, Gordon
Archer, Rt Hon PeterHeffer, Eric S.Ogden, Eric
Armstrong, ErnestHooley, FrankOrme, Rt Hon Stanley
Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham)Horam, JohnPalmer, Arthur
Bagier, Gordon A. T.Hoyle, Doug (Nelson)Parker, John
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)Perry, Ernest
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood)Hunter, AdamPowell, Rt Hon J. Enoch
Bean, R. E.Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford)Price, C. (Lewisham W)
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony WedgwoodJackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln)Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)
Bidwell, SydneyJanner, GrevilleRobertson, George (Hamilton)
Bishop, Rt Hon EdwardJeger, Mrs LenaRodgers, George (Chorley)
Blenkinsop, ArthurJohn, BrynmoorRooker, J. W.
Booth, Rt Hon AlbertJohnson, James (Hull West)Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)
Boothroyd, Miss BettyJones, Alec (Rhondda)Rowlands, Ted
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)Jones, Barry (East Flint)Sever, John
Buchanan, RichardJudd, FrankShore, Rt Hon Peter
Callaghan, Rt Hon J. (Cardiff SE)Kaufman, Rt Hon GeraldSilkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)
Carmichael, NellKilfedder, JamesSilverman, Julius
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)Lamond, JamesSkinner, Dennis
Coleman, DonaldLee, JohnSnape, Peter
Cox, Thomas (Tooting)Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)Spearing, Nigel
Craigen, Jim (Maryhill)Litterick, TomSpriggs, Leslie
Crowther, Stan (Rotherham)Lofthouse, GeoffreyStallard, A. W.
Cryer, BobLoyden, EddieStewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiteh)Luard, EvanStoddart, David
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)Lyon, Alexander (York)Stott, Roger
Deakins, EricLyons, Edward (Bradford W)Tinn, James
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)McCartney, HughVarley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Dormand, J. D.McElhone, FrankWainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Eadie, AlexMacFarquhar, RoderickWalker, Harold (Doncaster)
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun)McGuire, Michael (Ince)Ward, Michael
English, MichaelMcKay Allen (Penistone)Watkins, David
Evans, John (Newton)MacKenzie, Rt Hon GregorWeitzman, David
Faulds, AndrewMaclennan, RobertWellbeloved, James
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.McNamara, KevinWhite, Frank R. (Bury)
Flannery, MartinMadden, MaxWhitehead, Phillip
Foot, Rt Hon MichaelMarshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Ford, BenMarshall, Jim (Leicester S)Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)
Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)Mellish, Rt Hon RobertWilliams, Sir Thomas (Warrington)
Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)Millan, Rt Hon BruceWilson, William (Coventry SE)
George, BruceMiller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)Wise, Mrs Audrey
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr JohnMitchell, Austin (Grimsby)Woodall, Alec
Gourlay, HarryMolyneaux, JamesWoof, Robert
Hamilton, James (Bothwell)Morris, Rt Hon Charles R.
Hardy, PeterMorton, GeorgeTELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Harrison, Rt Hon WalterMurray, Rt Hon Ronald KingMr. Alf Bates and
Hart, Rt Hon JudithNoble, MikeMr. Ted Graham.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 39 (Amendment on Second or Third reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House.—[Mr. Dormand.]

Further proceedings postponed, pursuant to Order this day.

Queen's Recommendation having been signified

Resolved,That, for the purpose of any Act of the present Session to postpone certain parish and community council elections, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of the Consolidated Fund of any expenses of the returning officers attributable to the postponement.—[Mr. Tinn.]

.[Sir MYER GALPERN in the Chair]

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.