I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am slightly surprised that we have an opportunity for a brief discussion of a not very complicated or controversial measure. I am grateful to hon. Members who spoke earlier for their brevity ane forbearance, which has made this debate possible. I hope to be as lucky, at the conclusion of the debate, as they have been, but perhaps I may briefly explain why, when I drew a relatively high position in the ballot, I chose this subject.
I must confess, as I have confessed in the House before, that I am conscious that the need for further legislation is my fault. I share the blame with the late Government, the late Opposition and, indeed, with all hon. Members, because the simple fact is that, with the best of intentions, when we last changed the law in an effort to help the wives and husbands of Service personnel we did not get it right. The problem was not spotted in Committee here or in another place. But subsequent developments have shown that, unintentionally, the law as it was then made to read has had an unfortunate effect on a number of people, particularly Service wives, who have since been in a state of considerable indignation.
I should like to quote from some of the letters that I have received on the subject. None of them comes from my own constituents, but I have received them from frustrated electors up and down the country. A typical letter comes from a lady in Tidworth, who rightly identifies my 1976 Act as the cause of the present unsatisfactory position. She presses that the law should now be amended as the Bill now proposes. She says:
Discussion at our battalion wives' club meeting shortly after the general election revealed that a high proportion of wives had no idea that they were supposed to fill in the special form, F/Vote/34. They completed the ordinary form which is dropped through every letter box in October, and then were very disappointed to discover in May that the electoral officer had destroyed them.
I am not criticising him. I know that he must do that. As the law stands, that is, unhappily, the case.
The writer goes on to describe the efforts that she made to get herself on to the electoral register, unfortunately without success, with the result that she and her husband were deprived of their votes at the last general election. She adds:
I beleieve it is the responsibility of the unit, or in our case the battalion, to see that Service personnel and their wives are provided with appropriate forms, and it would from a distance in Westminster be easy to blame the unit for failing to distribute them. However, living among the grassroots, we know how overworked our husbands are, due to under-manning. In October 1977, for instance, I was aware that I should be filling in a special form, hut our entire battalion was away in Norfolk and Kent on frantic crash-course training for a tour in Northern Ireland starting in early December, having only formed up after two years in Gibraltar a few months before.
There are other instances. Another correspondent, this time from Hereford, tells me that she knows of votes being lost at the last election because men were away from their units when the forms were being sent round. When they applied to register, they were told "Sorry, you are too late."
Apart from the difficulties of Service life—the turbulence and so on that we know about—other considerations bear hardly on Service wives living in this country. A flight sergeant in the Royal Air Force wrote a letter to Royal Air Force News, of which he sent me a copy. He wrote:
Although there are undoubted advantages in the Service registering system, there are drawbacks".
As in his case, many would rather forfeit such advantages in order to safeguard their families from what he called the "'S' branding". He makes the point that his wife's
aspirations in local government would not so easily be questioned by her rival candidates if she were free from this stigma.
That is one objection to another feature of the present system of Service registration which I am glad to know the Government intend to take steps to change, although it is not necessary that that should be done by amending legislation, such as the Bill.
Apart from any handicap that local government candidates may suffer if they have an "S" against their name on the register, many Service men, and very many Service wives, do not like having an "S" against their name on the register because it appears to single them out. In present conditions—I shall not go into them at great length—it is reasonable that they should not be singled out in this way, so it is a good thing that there should be that change.
I said that I had had a number of letters from the constituents of other hon. Members, and I am happy to say that I have a fairly comprehensive set of sponsors to my Bill. Indeed, I could have added a good many more names if the total had not been limited to 11, because this is a problem which affects every hon. Member's constituency. Although the number in each constituency may be quite small, the total up and down the country is quite large. There is a case to be met, and I hope the House will agree that it should be met by passing the Bill. It will help our considertaion of the Bill if any hon. Member who has a point to make makes it, thereby giving the House the opportunity to scrutinise the Bill carefully. I accept that it needs careful scrutiny. I am not arguing that it should be rushed through. Indeed, I suggest that it might be helpful if it were considered on the Floor of the House when an appropriate opportunity arose.
Let me first explain that part of the Bill which deals with Service registration. The position at the moment is that described in the 1976 Act. Applicants for registration as Service voters have to complete an appropriate declaration. I understand that there is form F/Vote/33 as well as form F/Vote/34, and these forms are available on Her Majesty's ships and in Army and RAF units or from electoral registration officers.
At present, anyone making such a declaration has to have it attested by a commissioned officer, warrant officer or non-commissioned officer of the rank of sergeant or above or by an officer of any United Kingdom Government Department, or, in certain circumstances, a JP, a doctor or a clergyman may add his name as the appropriate witness. Many Service men and Service wives find this procedure distasteful, and I understand that the Government take the view that we might find an opportunity in Committee to amend it in the appropriate way to remove the attestation requirement. Again, I hope that the House will think that that is a sensible provision, because there seems to be no good reason to force potential Service voters to jump through this hoop.
The effect of the 1976 legislation was to force Service men's spouses to register as Service voters. This surprised many of them and annoyed many of them, and it does not seem to have had the effect of increasing the number of those able to vote at any election, parliamentary or otherwise, which ought in this House to be our overall objective. If we can avoid it, we should never stand between the citizen and his vote. Our purpose should be the precise opposite, to make sure that as many as wish are able to vote at any election where they are duly qualified.
The provisions of clause 1 are aimed at that purpose. If it is enacted successfully, the husband or wife of a member of the Armed Forces residing in the United Kingdom will in future have the option to make or continue with a Service declaration, which attracts the advantage of Service voting facilities, or he or she may opt to register on form A as a civilian elector and to vote as a civilian elector in the usual way.
I accept that it will be necessary to take administrative measures to prevent an abuse which might lead to duplication of registration and increase the dangers of double voting. As with much else in the Bill, this is a technical matter upon which I am sure the Minister will be able to expand.
This is a convenient moment for me to express my thanks to my hon, and learned Friend, the Minister of State and his Department for the time and trouble that they have taken in enabling me to put before the House a Bill which is in such a carefully polished form. I trust that the House will find that the Bill is in a carefully polished form. It is certainly better than any amateur attempt of mine might have been. It will save the time of the House because it has been thoroughly considered by those in the Home Office whose duty it is to make sure that the Representation of the People Act is all that it should be. I hope that I have satisfied the House on the need for change.
I turn to the second purpose of the Bill, which is rather different but still consistent with its overall objective to enable people to vote. The Bill contains provision for the amendment of the electoral register after its publication. There have been some fairly well publicised cases of registers being found to be imperfect. A working party on the electoral register reported in May last year and recommended in paragraphs 37 and 38 that
existing legislation should be amended to permit the ERO … to add to the published register the name of an elector he is satisfied was entitled to be registered on the qualifying date. The mistake may have been made by the elector, by the person who completed (or failed to complete) Form A or by the ERO or one of his staff. It would be for the FRO to decide whether an elector's name should be added in this way. He could have regard to any relevant information".
To the list of those who might be responsible for such an error should be added the previous owner of a house into which an elector has moved. Most are aware that it is the habit of registration officers to send out form A some considerable time in advance of the date by which it has to be completed. It often happens that when a house is changing hands the previous householder says "I am not going to be here so I will not fill in the form", and he tears it up. When the new elector moves in, having suffered all the traumas of setting up a new house, it is understandable that he should let the relatively unimportant matter of completing the appropriate form pass his mind until it is too late to do anything about it.
It is agreed that something should be done about that, and that is the intention of that part of the Bill. Clause 2(1) enables the registration officer to be
satisfied by such evidence as he may require that any person whose name is not included in a register of electors as published is entitled to be registered in that register, he shall make the necessary correction in the register.
That gives effect to the recommendation of the working party. The result is that the person entitled to be registered need not be disfranchised because his name is not on the published register.
Other requirements must be met. It is important that the original requirement of residence in the right place at the right time should be met. It is proper that no late entries will be accepted. It is proper also that there should be provision for the resolution of disputes and objections. Clause 2(2) provides for an appeal to the county court from any decision of the registration officer either to add a name or not to add it. It is fan to say that both the potential elector and those who feel that his claim should not be accepted without question should have the opportunity to be heard.
It is important to stress that if there is an election already in process at the time that a decision is taken to add a name, the addition of the name will not have the effect of enabling that person to vote in that election.
Reluctantly, but I think rightly, it has to be accepted that if we are to provide for an appeals or challenge procedure, we must allow time for it to work. Given that elections are relatively short affairs, it would scarcely seem reasonable to me—I do not know what view the House would take—that somebody should be able to force through his entitlement to vote at a time when the electoral machinery is overloaded in any event. It would be most satisfactory if we were able to give instant enfranchisement. That is a matter to which the House may return on another day after further consideration.
I have put before the House the bones of the Bill and the propositions that it would have the effect of placing on the statute book. I hope that they will commend themselves to the House. I also hope that the House will feel that it will have an ample opportunity to discuss and consider these important issues. After all, all matters of electoral entitlement are important. I hope that I shall obtain the consent of the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
I think that the author of the Bill, the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), who is to be congratulated upon it, made clear that the father of the Bill is very much the Home Office as well as himself. I can only hope that the trust which he apparently believes he wrongly put in the Home Office draft on the first occasion is better placed this time. I think that the hon. Gentleman is perhaps mistaken in thinking that someone in the Home Office did not realise what he was doing last time. I think that it is probably the case that he knew perfectly well what he was doing but was unaware that the hon. Gentleman had a different intention in mind.
Certainly form A, which is sent to electors at the time of registration, makes clear that wives—spouses—of Service voters are not entitled to be placed on the register in the normal way. I think that the statute as it stands makes that very clear, too. The difficulty—the error so-called that we are now trying to correct—could have been apparent at a previous time. That is as much as I want to say about the first part of the Bill dealing with the registration of Service voters.
We do not have much time to discuss the Bill this afternoon. Therefore, I want to concentrate on the second half—that is, the half relating to the correction of errors in the register. When the Minister of State intervenes, I wonder whether he could throw some light upon the matter mentioned by the hon. Member for Woking—that is, the right of a third party to object to the addition of a name to the register under the procedure provided in the Bill. Will that right exist only, as I think the hon. Gentleman implied, by means of a court action, or will there be another procedure, perhaps involving the advertising of the proposed names to be added, and then a procedure for someone to take objection to the names proposed to be added and to invite the registration officer to consider new facts that he might bring to his attention?
I understand—or I did until I heard the hon. Gentleman—that this is a matter that might be dealt with by regulation. Some time before the Bill passes through all its stages we need to have that absolutely clear, and even if the Minister of State is not able this afternoon to give us chapter and verse, I hope that he will be able at least to assert that there will be an opportunity for objection to be taken to the addition of names to the register under the provisions of the Bill.
More generally on the correction of errors, I think that every Member of Parliament, particularly, is aware of the enormous irritation caused to a person when he discovers that he is not entitled to vote, not because he lacks the proper substantial qualifications but because he did not get on to the register in the previous year. Unfortunately, of course, he normally discovers that within a day or two of the election. I think that we would be kidding ourselves if we thought that a great part of the irritation would be removed by the Bill.
It will continue to be the case that within a short period of the election a person will discover that his name is not on the register—usually when he does not receive the polling card, for example—and he will then make the same objection as he does now. Under the Bill, by that time it will be too late for him to arrange to go on to the register.
When a register remains in force from February to February, if there is a council election in the spring and a general election in prospect in the autumn, at least the discovery in the spring of the omission of a name will have the effect of enabling the person involved to have his name put on the register for the autumn election.
I accept that. I expect that my experience is similar to that of other hon. Members. When I visit polling stations on election day and someone makes a great fuss because his name is not on the register, and practically assaults the officer at the polling station, I find that it is absolutely no consolation to say to him "You cannot vote for or against me at this election, but it is all right, you will be able to vote for or against the councillors at the next election in a few months' time, perhaps." That does not calm him down. The irritation will remain as long as we do not allow corrections to be made during the election. However, principally for the reason stated by the hon. Gentleman—the burden of work upon the returning officer in the election—I do not think that it would be right to allow the corrections to take place at that time.
Why do the mistakes occur? It is partly because people do not inspect the draft register. It is unrealistic to expect them to pop into the library, look up their names and make sure that they are on the register. That will not change; not if past behaviour is anything to go by.
There are various reasons why people's names do not go on to the register. First, householders make mistakes and do not put people on the list who should be on it. Form A used to be a pretty badly drafted form. It is much better now. As forms go, it is not bad. There is still a bit of improvement that could be made by taking out all the scaffolding, the As, the Bs and the ones and twos. We do not need that scaffolding. It should be taken out once the document has been drafted. Even when it has been improved in that way it will, for many people, always be a fairly formidable form, if only because people must decide first whether those living in their households are British subjects. As one-quarter of the people in the world are British subjects, that is the first difficulty that the householder must overcome.
Secondly, a householder might intentionally keep a person's name off the register. I remember that a few years ago the hon. Gentleman entertained us one Friday afternoon with an account of one of his constituents who kept his son off the register because he knew that his son intended to vote against the hon. Gentleman. That constituent was committing a criminal offence. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was not committing a criminal offence by not doing anything about it.
It may be that we have gone a little far in softening the warnings on form A about the necessity to fill it in and the fact that it is a criminal offence not to fill it in or knowingly to fill it in incorrectly. I raise that only as a possibility. We had reached the stage where we did not want constantly to be bombarding the public with warnings that they were committing criminal offences, but we may now have gone too far with the electoral registration form.
The Bill will allow the registration officer to correct printers' errors and those made by himself and his staff. The question arises as to just how much extra work will be put on to registration officers and their staffs by that fact. This consideration—the work placed upon registration officers, especially at or near the time of an election—is one which has constantly bothered Mr. Speaker's Conference in considering this problem. That consideration of extra work cannot be the final one, but it is one that we should take into account.
In considering the amount of extra work, my view is that a large part of it will arise in respect of new attainers of the right to be on the register—the 17year-olds, for want of a better term. It is worth mentioning that, according to information that the Minister of State gave me a month or two back, one-third of all the people whose names are entitled to go on to the new register on account of age—that is, one-third of those people who in any year acquire the age entitlement to be on the register—are not put on it. Usually, the parents just do not think that their son or daughter, at 16 years and 10 months, is at the age of entitlement to go on to the register. Although the form states very clearly in bold type, only three lines from the top, that their son is so entitled, parents do not read three lines from the top of the page.
That is why I was pleased to see the recent public advertisement by the Home Office drawing people's attention particularly to this age point. More needs to be done in that direction, otherwise registration officers will find a large number of 18-year-olds asking to be added under the provisions of the Bill, having been left off only because their parents were unaware of the exact age requirements.
I hope that the Minister will consider doing more and spending more in the way of advertisement in order to correct this manifest injustice which results in one-third of the people failing to go on to the register although they are entitled to do so. Subject to those qualifications, I welcome the Bill and hope that we can go into some of these details in Committee.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) on his success in the ballot for Private Members' Bills. On behalf of the Government, I very much welcome the Bill, which covers two aspects of electoral law. I believe that, when enacted, they will be of considerable assistance to the electorate generally and to Service spouses in particular.
In dealing with the franchise, we are dealing with a very important matter, a most precious possession, and it is the duty of the Government and of this House to do everything possible to make sure that those who are entitled to vote can do so as readily as possible and have an opportunity to exercise freely a basic civic right.
Many wives of Service men were effectively disfranchised at the last general election because they did not feel prepared to register as Service voters. They did not want to be regarded as appendages of their husbands. It therefore gave me great pleasure to tell the House on 21 May 1979, in one of my first acts as a Minister of the Crown, that I fully understood and sympathised with the feelings of those wives. It gives me as great pleasure today to support a Bill which will remedy what was felt to be an unfair system and will enable a large number of Service spouses to exercise their civic rights once again.
As was explained, the purpose of clause 1 is to provide that, when a wife or husband of a member of the Armed Forces is resident in the United Kingdom, that wife or husband should have the choice to register for electoral purposes either as a Service voter or as a civilian voter on form A, like other electors.
The purpose of clause 2 is quite unrelated but is also important. It is to enable the electoral registration officer to amend the published register of electors so as to include the name of a qualified elector who has been omitted.
During the Adjournment debate on Service voters on 21 May, which was initiated by Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes), I said that the Government fully accepted the need for changes in the operation of the Service electoral registration scheme as it affects spouses, most of whom, of course, are wives, and I was glad to be able to take a different view from that of the previous Administration when the matter came before the other place in a Bill also put forward by a private member.
At that time, so soon after taking office, I was not able to commit the Government to the detail, nor was I at all sure of when and how the opportunity to legislate on this matter would arise, but, because of the good fortune of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking, we were able to have extensive consultations in the summer with interested groups and to examine thoroughly the voting arrangements for Service spouses. In the light of those consultations, the Government are able to support the legislation proposed by my hon. Friend. Indeed, as I shall explain, in some respects we shall in due course be asking the House to go further.
We are grateful to the political parties, the local authority associations, the many individual electoral registration officers and, not least, the Forces wives for taking part in these consultations. The comments that we received were uniformly constructive. They certainly showed wide agreement for changes in the present system, which, as my hon. Friend explained, inadvertently led to extensive disfranchisement.
The 1976 Act has, on the whole, worked well. I think that it is right to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the real achievement that the Act made. Only in limited respects has it been found defective. However, I believe that it needs adjustment to meet the needs and wishes of Service wives.
The 1976 Act required Service wives to register as Service voters through the Service channels whether or not they were living in Service quarters or accompanying the Armed Forces. That meant, for example, that many wives of those serving in the Royal Navy who had never lived in Service quarters and did not regard themselves as Service wives in that sense were obliged to register as Service voters. That proved unacceptable both in principle and practice to many Service wives. I believe that that is now widely acknowledged—indeed, it has been brought home to us by the representations that many hon. Members have received—and therefore we should support measures to put the matter right as soon as possible.
In fairness, I should tell the House that there are different ways of going about achieving that objective. Alternative schemes have been put forward, but, having considered the alternative schemes, some of which commend themselves to those interested more than the present scheme, I have reached the same conclusion as my hon. Friend—that, in all the varying circumstances of their lives, Service spouses, while living in the United Kingdom, should have the option to choose whether to continue to be registered as Service voters or, instead, to be registered in future on form A in common with all other civilians. While living overseas with their spouses on duty, it will, of course, be to their advantage to remain within the Service voting scheme.
I should also make clear that we intend to make two other changes which will benefit not only the wives of Service men but the Service men themselves. First, we intend to abolish the requirement for the attestation of Service declarations. Although the 1976 Act introduced improvements in this respect and considerably widened the field of those who could attest or countersign a Service declaration—originally it could be done only by a commissioned officer—many Service voters still object to the arrangements. The purpose of attestation was to assist electoral registration officers by providing them with a guarantee that the application was a genuine Service one. But, if they believe that there is doubt, the machinery exists between the electoral registration officers and the Services centrally to check the records and to correct errors. I hope that we shall be able to agree with the sponsors of the Bill appropriate amendments to drop attestation at a later stage. In order to do that, it will, of course, be necessary to seek to amend the long title of the Bill.
The second change which we favour does not require primary legislation and, with the approval of both Houses of Parliament, we hope to put it into effect for the 1980 electoral register now in preparation. That change is to drop the requirement for Service voters to have a simple "S" used against their name on the register of electors. To do that, it will be necessary to make the appropriate change in the representation of the people regulations.
Many people feel that, apart from all else, even on security grounds, it is wrong that "S" should appear against Service voters' names on the register. We welcome and will like the opportunity to put that matter right as well.
As has been explained, clause 2 deals with a quite separate matter. It proposes the enactment of a recommendation of the working party on the electoral register. That working party was set up on the recommendation of Mr. Speaker's Conference on electoral law of 1973–74. In its report, the working party recommended that existing legislation should be amended to permit electoral registration officers to add to the published register the name of an elector he is satisfied is entitled to be registered on the qualifying date, that this should be subject to the objection procedure, and that there should be a right of appeal to the courts against a registration officer's decision.
Hitherto, the only way a voter could have himself included, if this was not simply a question of correcting a printer's error, was by seeking an order of mandamus in the High Court. That process is obviously expensive and few electors without expertise, as well as cash, are in practice able to make use of it. It is interesting that the widely reported case during the election in May involved a member of the Bar and his wife. Clause 2 should help people to enjoy the franchise which is rightly theirs in as simple a manner as possible.
During this brief debate, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), who speaks from the Opposition Front Bench on these matters, raised several points that plainly we shall want to look into and to deal with in Commitee with considerable care.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the procedure for objections and the right of appeal to the courts. Plainly it is important that there should be a procedure. As I have said, it is proposed that there should be a right of appeal to the courts, if necessary, to deal with the view taken by the electoral registration officer after objection has been taken either as to a refusal or as to an inclusion. But the precise mechanism by which that process of objection and appeal can and should take place is, I think, something that we ought to leave until we consider the Bill in Committee.
I understand the shortage of time, but may I ask the Minister whether he agrees that in principle, therefore, a third party ought to be able to know the names of those people proposed to be added to the register so that he can then make representations to the electoral registration officer?
I certainly agree with that, and that is envisaged in the Bill. That must be so. It is a fundamental principle. One can object to the draft register at present. It is right that one should be able to object to changes. But that means that there is a clash between the two competing considerations.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of late changes and pointed out that many people will realise that they are not on the register only when the election starts. As presently drafted, the Bill does not make changes possible as late in the day as that. Therefore, one has to try to achieve a balance. Hon. Members may wish to consider alternative possibilities to that which is proposed in the Bill, but there is no easy solution to that problem. Nevertheless, on this matter, as on the matter of Service voting, I think that the Bill marks a real improvement in our important electoral procedures. For that reason, I commend it to the House.