§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Mr. Speaker
I wish to announce that I have not selected the Amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger):That this House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which introduces a new and undesirable element into the British Constitution and threatens to undermine the independence of honourable Members of this House.However, that will not prevent him from voting or speaking according to the terms of that Amendment, if he should succeed in catching my eye.
§ 4.20 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. James Callaghan)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
From the frequency with which I appear to be at the Dispatch Box, hon. Members may think that I cannot be kept away. I promise that it would be quite a simple matter to keep me away if there were not so many Home Office Bills coming along and debates having to take place.
This Measure carries out the Government's intention to introduce legislation this Session, our aim being to complete, with the co-operation of the House, consideration of the Bill and of the regulations flowing from it in time to include any new age-group which the House may decide on in the register of electors to be published in February, 1970. It is, therefore, necessary for me to ask for the co-operation of the House in pushing ahead—I suggest with not undue speed—with the consideration of the Bill so that we can get any new age-group on to the register in time.
The Bill owes its existence to the recommendations of your Conference on Electoral Law, Mr. Speaker, the Electoral Advisory Conference, which was comprised of officials and other functionaries in this sphere dealing with a number of machinery matters, and the White Paper which the Government published last July, Cmnd. 3717, which was the subject of our debate a few weeks ago, last Session.
The Bill also amends the law relating to local government elections. Some of 914 the Amendments are necessary to bring that law in line with the changes which we propose for Parliamentary elections, the most obvious example being the voting age. Other amendments are mainly concerned with points of machinery, and they derive from the recommendations of the Conferences on Local Government Elections Law, which met earlier this year and which were called at the invitation of the Secretary of State for Scotland and myself. There are also two policy changes affecting the local government franchise and candidature for local government elections on which the Government reached their own conclusion. I will come to these when discussing Clause 15 of the Bill.
Thus, in addition to the recent debate which we held, I can claim that every item in the Bill has been the subject of very careful scrutiny. In view of some of the comments made in our last debate, I think that I should state, in terms of arithmetic, that the Government have accepted 60 of the 71 recommendations that came from your conference, Mr. Speaker, and that, in the case of the Electoral Advisory Conference, the Government have accepted 42 of the 45 recommendations therefrom.
To the extent that the provisions in the Bill do not reflect wholly the advice which we received—although overwhelmingly they do, except on one or two important issues—I remind the House that, as I said on 14th October, the Government devoted six months and a great many meetings to the various Reports and gave great consideration to the conclusions that were reached. It is fair to say, therefore, that the ground has been well prepared for the Bill. There may be differing views about it, but nobody can claim that the Bill has been brought forward in haste or without substantial consideration.
Before considering the Clauses, it might help if I commented on the general scope and form of the Bill. It deals with the law relating to Parliamentary elections—elections to this Parliament at Westminster—throughout the United Kingdom. It also deals with the law relating to local government elections in England, Wales and Scotland.
As to the form of the Bill, I wish that I could point to a tidy and logical pattern, with each provision falling neatly into 915 its appointed place. But in the nature of things, this was not possible. If the recent review of electoral law points to one conclusion more than any other, it is that, fundamentally, the electoral machinery as we have known it for the last 20 years—certainly as most of us in the House have known it—is sound and is still working well.
That was a major conclusion to come from the Report of Mr. Speaker's Conference. On only two matters are radical changes called for—the voting age and the question of party labels; but even these are reflections of change in the social and political climate, rather than of any defect in the existing law.
On the question of broadcasting by candidates, the law is obscure. That is perhaps not surprising, since it was not framed with such broadcasts in mind. Our proposals in the Bill take as their starting point what was generally understood to be the effect of the law as it now stands, make some changes with a view to rendering such broadcasts easier to put on and put the whole matter in clear and unmistakable terms.
Alterations or extensions effected by the Bill are to be found both in its Clauses and Schedules, particularly Schedule 2. In the main, the Clauses are aimed at amending Sections of the relevant existing law. But the Clauses also amend those Parliamentary and Local Government Elections rules that are connected with the subject matter of the Clauses. The Parliamentary and Local Government Elections rules are set out in Schedules 2 and 3, and Schedule 2 is concerned solely with amendments of those rules. I have gone into this technical explanation because, in so doing, we may save time in Committee, when hon. Members will be able to see to what they are referring and why these matters have been arranged in the way I have described.
Schedule 1 regulates in detail the procedure to be adopted by the Registrar of Political Descriptions, set out in Clause 12. It sets out in great detail precisely what those provisions are, and I shall return to this matter.
Clause 1 is a major part of the Bill. It reduces the minimum age for voting at Parliamentary and local government 916 elections to 18. It is clear, from our earlier debates and from the recommendations of your conference, Mr. Speaker, that there is general agreement that some reduction in the age is called for. As I see it, the choice lies between the age of 20, which was recommended by Mr. Speaker's Conference, and the age of 18, which was the age of majority recommended by the Latey Committee for other than civic purposes and which is now embodied in the Family Law Reform Bill, which, I understand, will be considered in another place next week. The arguments were fully gone into in the debate on the White Paper, and the Government have considered the matter again in the light of that debate.
A number of hon. Members, and especially those who served on your conference, Mr. Speaker, put the case for fixing the age at 20. Others, including those who did not serve on that conference, thought that the age would be better at 18. Sufficient spoke in favour of 18 to give a fair indication that the sense of the House is divided on this matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] That would not be unusual in a Chamber of this sort. There is, I think, little need for me today, having gone into the age question only a month ago, to repeat all the arguments I adduced then. There is no new argument of which I am aware.
Eighteen is the age which Latey found to be suitable for the assumption of civic responsibilities. It is an age which appeals to the Government as being appropriate for the casting of a vote. This is a matter of judgment and opinion on which the House will want to make up its mind, the Government having made up their mind, as I have indicated.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. It is for the Minister to decide, first, whether he will give way, and, secondly, to whom.
§ Sir D. Glover
The Home Secretary is giving us a very reasonable speech. Can he tell us whether, in Committee, we will have a free vote?
§ Mr. Callaghan
I do not think that that question arise out of what I am saying—[HON. MEMBERS: "It does."] Oh, no, it does not, but I will give him an answer, subject to its being regarded as being in order.
The Government have made up their minds on this subject, and the hon. Member will not be surprised to hear that they propose to ask their supporters to join them in the Division Lobby. It would be surprising in such circumstances that we should want to shilly shally, and to say that we do not mind whether they vote or not. So we shall advise all our hon. Friends to support us, and we hope that enough of them will do so. We will, of course, welcome any hon. Members opposite who wish to do the same, including particularly, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Enfield, West (Mr. Iain Macleod), who has his views on the age of voting.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
As there is a division of opinion in all parts of the House, and as the Government have rejected the recommendations of Mr. Speakers Conference, surely there is a strong case for allowing the House to express its own opinion free of the party Whip.
§ Mr. Callaghan
I have no doubt that the House will express its own opinion. As far as I am aware there is no one capable of dragooning any hon. Member into a Division Lobby—[Interruption.] It may apply to the sheep on the other side, but not to the wolves on this side. Personally, I think that the Opposition are on a false scent here. It would be remarkable if the Government did not give some advice to their followers. It would be astonishing if they did not give that advice.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
Does not my right hon. Friend agree that it is a little odd that hon. Members opposite should accuse hon. Members on this side of breaking their election promises and then express pained surprise when, as my right hon. Friend has said, we propose to carry out something that the electors were promised, and approved, in 1966?
§ Mr. Callaghan
Hon. Members opposite object both to our carrying out our pledges and to our not carrying them out. What they really object to is any situation other than one in which, by divine right, they feel they should be constantly ruling the country—[Interruption.] But I had better return to the Clauses.
The remainder of Clause 1 need give little ground for controversy. By subsection (2) effect is given to the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference that young voters should appear in the register for the year in which they reach voting age, and should be able to vote as from the date on which they attain that age. This gets rid of the cumbersome and confusing arrangements about "Y" voters which has been so much criticised. Subsection (2) also provides that if a person who is in the register will be of voting age by the date of the poll he may be treated, in effect, as an elector before that date for such purposes as, say, applying for absent voting facilities or being appointed as a proxy. That seems to be a sensible reform, although I doubt whether much use will be made of it.
The changes in the franchise, and a number of other provisions of the Bill—for instance, those relating to Service declarations and absent voting—are applied, with slight modifications, to ward elections in the City of London, by Clause 23.
I do not propose to spend a great deal of time on Clauses 2 to 5. They give effect to various recommendations made in the course of the review of electoral law, either by Mr. Speaker's Conference or the Electoral Advisory Conference, on such things as continuous registration of Servicemen, extension of the Service voter arrangements to British Council staff, easier registration for merchant seamen, disfranchisement of offenders in prison, enabling wives or husbands of absent voters who accompany their spouses also to vote by post or by proxy, and various minor easements in the absent voting arrangements.
I might point out that we do not seek by Clause 5 to disfranchise persons detained in approved schools or in psychiatric hospitals. It would be difficult—and, in the Government's view, undesirable—to try to distinguish between 919 those detained following a conviction and others.
Clause 7 lays on the registration officer the general duty of ensuring the accuracy of the electoral register—this was recommended by Mr. Speaker's Conference—and enables him also to correct clerical and printing errors. He will still have no power to make alterations which could have been the subject of a claim or objection while the electors' lists are on public display between 28th November and 16th December.
§ Mr. Joel Barnett (Heywood and Royton)
While my right hon. Friend is on the question of the function of the registration officer, as everyone must be concerned not only to get the maximum number on the register but to get the maximum number of people to be able to vote—that is, by postal or other method—would it not be as well to consider giving the further task to the registration Officer, rather than leaving it to political parties and individual voters, of getting voters a postal or a proxy vote? Would my right hon. Friend consider in Committee the possibility of giving this extra function to the registration officer?
§ Mr. Callaghan
The registration officers are a little chary about taking on this kind of function, not only because they already have a number of responsibilities but because they do not want, as far as they can help it, to extend the area in which they have to exercise discretion. We can certainly examine in Committee any amendments my hon. Friend may care to put down, but I have found that to be the registration officers' general approach to that kind of question.
§ Mr. Donald Chapman (Birmingham, Northfield)
I intervene to ask my right hon. Friend to consider one question sympathetically. Why has he turned down the idea of having two registers a year? I understand that it is a matter of finance, but, ready for the time when finance is not such a problem, could we not have in the Bill an enabling power for two registers a year to be brought in by statutory Order when the Government think the time is ripe?
§ Mr. Callaghan
I am not sure whether the Money Resolution, as drawn, would permit of such an order being made. My hon. Friend is quite right in saying that 920 it is a question of cost. I do not carry the figure in my head, but it is big—about £2 or £3 million a year—and in present circumstances the degree of additional accuracy that is likely to be attained, although substantial, was not thought to be decisive in the matter.
As we all know, the register, as it becomes stale, does fall away in accuracy. I appreciate that there is a very strong case for doing what my hon. Friend suggests, but the Government have ruled it out at the moment on the ground that it would cost about £3 million extra a year. In any case, as I say, I do not know that the Money Resolution would cover that point.
Clause 8 increases the maximum permitted election expenses. There was no challenge to this in the House when we had our recent debate, and, therefore, I assumed that we should go on with the figures that were mentioned. There is one small cloud, as big as a man's hand, which forecasts the arrival of the decimal currency system. Instead of there being, as before, in the case, for example, of a county constituency a sum of 2d. per elector, the figure is now 1s. for every six electors. The 1s. will be the equivalent of five new pennies, so that hon. Members will not be able to get more than six electors for that amount, and if they want only one it will still cost them 5 new pennies. However, I do not think that it will make very much difference to anyone.
Clause 9, dealing with broadcasting, is very important. Subsection (1) gives effect to the recommendation of Mr. Speaker's Conference, which was slightly modified in the Government's conclusions as set out in the White Paper in July. During an election it will now be lawful for candidates to appear in a broadcast item if all of them agree to its taking place, even though one or more of them does not take part. By limiting these arrangements to itemsabout the constituency or electoral area,the way is left clear for general party political broadcasts to take place without infringement of the law. I have long felt that it is wrong that a single candidate who does not wish to take part should be able to prevent all others taking part.
§ Mr. Callaghan
He can veto it, but the change will be that he will say, "I shall be campaigning 40 miles away and I do not want to take part in the broadcast. You can take part even though I am not present."
§ Sir C. Osborne
A candidate 40 miles away can still say that he will not agree to the broadcast. There will be the same veto, so there is no change in the situation.
§ Mr. Callaghan
This is what Mr. Speaker's Conference recommended and is what I am asking should be done in a way in which I think hon. Members would prefer.
The candidate may say, "I do not wish to take part, but I do not mind if you do". This seems to be sensible. I am told by one weekly periodical that it ought to be put the other way round and that we should say no one should be able to veto a broadcast if the broadcasting authorities are willing to offer it to all the candidates. I do not see that it should be in the hands of the broadcasting authorities.
They would be able to say, "We have arranged a broadcast for all of you tomorrow night. We hope that you can all turn up; it will be at 7.30. You cannot come? That is very deplorable, but we have provided equal facilities". That would be a monstrous proposition which would be putting far too much power in the hands of the broadcasting authorities. I hope that I have got this right by providing that a candidate could say, "I do not want to go, but you can carry on". Personally, I should feel it far more worth while to be campaigning in the streets than to spend a lot of time preparing for a short broadcast.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
Surely, if this Opportunity were given to the broadcasting authorities, one could rely upon them to behave in a reasonable way? It is quite wrong for the Home Secretary to suggest that the broadcasting authorities would abuse any trust placed in them in the manner to which he has referred.
§ Mr. Callaghan
I am sure that they would start with the intention of behaving in a reasonable way, but there are different interpretations of behaving in a reasonable way at the height of an election, when not everyone is so calm and 922 considering the matter so coolly as we are this afternoon. This is the way in which it is phrased in the Bill, but we shall no doubt discuss it again in Committee.
Reasonable equality of treatment for those taking part in an election broadcast is secured by subsection (2), which makes it an offence for those concerned with putting on the item to show favour. By subsection (4) the B.B.C. and other television authorities are, subject always to their general duty to be impartial, given the same freedom of reporting and comment as the law allows to the Press. That was a recommendation of Mr. Speaker's Conference. It is a substantial reform which I dare say the B.B.C. and Independent Television will welcome.
Clause 12 deals with permitted registered political descriptions in nomination papers and ballot papers. It has been suggested that by these provisions we are importing a novel—not to say unconstitutional—element into our electoral process. I regard this, as I said earlier, as no more than reflecting a change in the social and political climate. I believe that a person is entitled to know to what party the person for whom he is voting belongs. The voter is well within his rights as a citizen to vote for a party and not for an individual. I believe that there is a residual fiction about voting for an individual in many cases.
As the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharpies) said, when we discussed this matter last time, when he wound up the debate for the Opposition, there is little doubt that the general public would agree to this I do not think that there is much difference between us on this.
I have found, rather to my surprise, that the present ban on references to political activities has existed only for the last 20 years. Before that, it was a case of "anything goes". We now propose both to recognise the fact of party affiliations and to subject references to them to a system of control. The reason it was altered at the time—but I believe in the wrong way—was that someone described himself as "Labour" on a ballot paper. The 1947 Committee considered it and ruled it out.
Provided that we have the Schedule right—and I think that it is broadly right, 923 but I shall want to know what the Committee decides when we get to that stage—it is better that we should recognise both the fact of party affiliations and subject reference to them to a system of control. There were signs that this was getting out of hand, and this seems to be the best way of dealing with it.
§ Mr. Denis Coe (Middleton and Prestwich)
Will my right hon. Friend explain why he has excluded local elections, where undoubtedly the greatest confusion is likely to arise?
§ Mr. Callaghan
I gladly gave way to my hon. Friend, because he has done so much work on this matter, but if he had paused for a moment he would have found that I was coming to that point.
This is a feature of control which is most difficult. The length and complexity of Clause 12 and the related Schedule 1, though clearly necessary, are such as to make the scheme a practical proposition only for Parliamentary elections and so far as I can see, virtually impossible to apply in practice to local government elections. They have substantial differences in party organisation and a far greater number of organisations contesting those elections. There is a great number and variety of local authorities and a great number of last-minute interventions.
I agree that in many cases the problem is greater in many local authorities than in Parliamentary elections, but that does not invalidate the general proposition about putting descriptions on the ballot paper. I left this out because I was not satisfied that there was a scheme which would meet the local authority elections point. I will consider, in Committee, whether it is possible to do something in this way. My mind is not completely closed on the subject. A number of propositions have been put forward, but they are fraught with practical difficulties.
§ Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)
If we are to have these descriptions on the Parliamentary ballot papers, which I have never been convinced is a good thing, will my right hon. Friend consider the possibility where registration has been accepted nationally of Labour, Conservative, or Liberal that it should be accepted locally? The rest could sort themselves out. They usually call themselves "Independent", whatever they are.
§ Mr. Callaghan
I am not sure that that would be fair, but, leaving that argument on one side, the authorisation, of course, attaches to a particular candidate, and candidates would not be the same in local government elections as in national Parliamentary elections. We would, therefore, have to go through all this process for local government election candidates. I wonder whether it would be fair to say that everyone else falls outside. It is difficult, but this proposition is a means of informing the elector about what he is voting for.
§ Mr. Callaghan
No, I am not ready to give way to the hon. Member.
Of the remaining provisions of the Bill—[HON. MEMBERS: "Give way."] The last time I gave way to the hon. Member he was extremely unfair.
Of the remaining provisions of the Bill, I think I need make special mention of only three: removal of the non-resident local government franchise; abolition of the property qualification at local government elections; and hours of poll at Parliamentary elections.
Clause 15 deals with the first and second of these. I wrote to the Official Opposition and to the Liberal Party about this. After a lapse of some weeks I had to publish the Bill, because of the necessity for proceeding with the timetable I have already outlined. Therefore, I was not able to get the observations of the Opposition. I do not complain about that. I hope that they do not complain about my publishing the Bill before I had their observations.
§ Mr. Callaghan
I was about to award the hon. Gentleman a halo. I had a reply from the Liberal Party expressing its agreement with our proposals. The Greater London Council and the local authority associations of England and Wales object to the proposals that I am bringing forward.
I will leave hon. Members opposite to develop their case. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will be fully capable of dealing with it when he winds up. I 925 warn hon. Members opposite now in advance that they will have a doughty opponent in my right hon. Friend, because abolition of the property qualification for local government candidates in England would be doing no more than bringing the law in England into line with that in Scotland, where they have got along very well without that qualification for a number of years.
§ Mr. Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairn)
Will the Home Secretary give way, because this is a Scottish point?
§ Mr. Campbell
Perhaps the Secretary of State for Scotland will deal with this later, because the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum says that Clause 15 will not apply to Scotland. From Schedule 4 and enactments already in existence it appears that much of the equivalent of Clause 15, if not all of it, may be applied to Scotland. This is of great concern in Scotland. We would be grateful for a clarification later this evening.
§ Mr. Callaghan
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will deal with this point. If it says only some provisions, I assume that it means some provisions and not all provisions. I do not know what the concern of Scotland is, unless those in Scotland feel that they want the business vote there. I have not heard that particularly expressed. I warn hon. Members who want to make this point that they will have to develop it against that background.
§ Mr. Callaghan
No, I have already given way enough.
I have been handed the document which was put out by the Labour candidate at a recent by-election. It says:Do you know that several hundred people who reside outside the Leeds boundary but have business interests in Leeds have a vote in City Ward?This candidate was fighting City Ward. He then set out where they live:Some of them live as far away as Renfrewshire. Surrey, London, Oxford, Kent and 926 Warwickshire. Others live at Bridlington, Knaresborough, Selby and Otley.Is it not sensible that the residents on a housing estate in Leeds should be represented by someone living in Leeds rather than someone living in Oxfordshire or Renfrewshire?
§ Miss Harvie Anderson (Renfrew, East)
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the lady in question who lives in Renfrewshire employs a very large number of citizens in the centre of Leeds and runs there a worldwide organisation which is one of the largest dollar earners that there are there?
§ Mr. Callaghan
I am very ready to accept that, but I do not see what difference it makes to the proposition on the whole. Leeds residents should vote for Leeds councillors—that is all; likewise in every other town and city.
To the extent that there is genuine concern about this—I do not rely on this; I mention it in passing—I think that the Maud Committee, if it recommends any larger boundaries, may redress the position. This may be some solace to hon. Members opposite. However, I do not rely on that, because to me that is not the essential thing. [Interruption.] I doubt whether the boundaries of Leeds will go as far as Renfrewshire.
§ Mr. Tom Boardman
Will the Home Secretary therefore give us an assurance—this is on the English point—that both the Maud Committee and the Boundary Commission reports will have been received and implemented before this part comes into operation?
§ Mr. Callaghan
If I had thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to ask me that, I would not have given way. That is nothing to do with the Bill and I would be out of order if I were to attempt to discuss it now. Neither of these changes will apply—[Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Gentleman is quite capable of evading the rules of order. I know that. Neither of these changes will apply to the City of London—
§ Mr. Callaghan
I am not being disrespectful if I say that someone evades 927 the rules of order. I am being disrespectful only if I say that Mr. Speaker condones it.
§ Mr. Quintin Hogg (St. Marylebone)
What the Secretary of State means is "avoids the incidence of the rules of order".
§ Mr. Callaghan
I always thought that avoidance was legal and evasion illegal. However, I will not pursue that; I must get on.
Neither of these changes will apply to the City of London which, with its very small resident population and its heavy local government responsibilities, constitutes a quite special and exceptional case. Nor will these changes affect councillors now in office, who will be able to serve until their normal term expires in due course.
I come now to the matter of polling hours at Parliamentary elections. This is the one major change which is effected, not in a Clause of the Bill, but in a Schedule—in paragraph 2 of Schedule 2. This is for the good technical reason that the provision to be amended is itself not in a Section of the Representation of the People Act, but in Schedule 1 to that Act. This is another instance in which, as explained in the White Paper, the Government have thought it right to depart from the recommendation of no change which was made by Mr. Speaker's Conference.
I cannot claim that our decision to extend the hours of poll at parliamentary, although not local government, elections, met with universal enthusiasm in the debate on the White Paper in October. Before we took the decision, as I said in our previous debate when I was challenged, representative returning officers had pointed to the administrative difficulties likely to be involved in a closing hour of 9.30 p.m., which was what at first the Home Office had in mind, and they renewed their representations in stronger terms. I also have had pointed out to me that the extension will mean difficulties for party organisations and party workers. However, there it is.
I think that it is important that the electors should have the opportunity to vote and be given as much opportunity as possible. That is why the Government 928 have included in the Bill this extension of the time. I have naturally been interested, as I am sure that the rest of the House has, by the use of voting machines in the United States.
§ Mr. Onslow
I am glad that the Home Secretary, by giving way to me, has rediscovered his benevolence, although he is still being despotic. What consideration has the right hon. Gentleman given to the damaging effects which might flow from prolonged delay in the announcement of the results of a General Election? The House generally seems to be agreed that it is important that these should be known as soon as possible. Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that the extension of the polling hour is likely to lead to a great deal more counting the following day and thus a great delay in the publication of the result?
§ Mr. Callaghan
I think that it is bound to lead to more counting the following day; I agree with that. That is why I was coming on to discuss possible improvements which we might look to offset that disadvantage. [HON. MEMBERS: "Not for the next election."] That is only one election. I assume that elections will go on for many years after that.
Under the present law, we in this country cannot use voting machines. As far as I know their use is currently limited to parts of the United States, where they take two forms. One involves the use of a ballot paper which is either marked with magnetic ink or punched with a hole with a view to its being electronically counted. Its use explains why those of us who sat up got the results so quickly when we watched the recent American elections.
The other resembles a fruit machine and it requires a voter to pre-set a series of levers indicating the candidates of his choice, both as elected representatives and for various official posts. He then pulls a master lever and the machine records the vote on appropriate dials. There are precautions against manipulation, but there is no subsequent record of how the voter has voted; I think that this is a disadvantage of the system.
Mr. Speaker's Report on Electoral Law did not make any reference to this subject, but I think it is of great interest and that we ought to follow it up. Therefore, the Government have put in hand 929 a feasibility study of the use of computer and related techniques both for voting and for vote counting. This is being undertaken by a joint automatic data processing unit—I apologise for the term—which is shared jointly by the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police, but there is no sinister significance to be read into that.
They are studying what can be done in this way in a working party which is chaired by the Home Office and includes representatives of those concerned in the conduct of elections in England and Wales and in Scotland. I have asked whether there may be any prospect of our moving to a system of this sort. I have no final information on when we shall have the report, but I hope that it may be received in the summer of next year. Four members of the working party went to the United States to study procedures in the recent Presidential election, and I hope that what they saw will enable them to come back with information which might be of value to us.
§ Mr. Lubbock
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am encouraged to hear what he says about the use of mechanical and electronic machines for speeding up the counting of votes. But is he aware that Mr. Speaker's Conference considered this matter? We sent to the then Home Secretary a paper which we had received showing how it could be done and we asked that full consideration be given to it.
§ Mr. Callaghan
With respect, the hon. Gentleman's recollection is at fault there. Mr. Speaker's Conference considered the question in the context of registration of electors. In that connection, I ought to say that the Government did what Mr. Speaker's Conference asked. A feasibility study was carried out, but the conclusion—which I accepted—was that, in the absence of something like a national numbering system, a centralised computer-based electoral register would not be sufficiently accurate and, therefore, in the absence of such a numbering system, it did not seem possible to go ahead with it. We may come to a national numbering system for other purposes, perhaps, and it might then be possible to have a better system of registration—the point 930 which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Chapman) had in mind earlier. But that would be some years off yet. I see from my notes here that copies of the report were placed in the Library of the House, so that hon. Members will be able to study it there.
§ Sir C. Osborne
As an ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, could the right hon. Gentleman say about how much the new machines would cost?
§ Mr. Callaghan
No, Sir. That is one of the pieces of information which I hope to have from the working party when it reports back to me. It is one of the matters I have asked it to examine. Clearly, in the light of all I have said about a second register, the hon. Gentleman's suspicions are probably well founded. I imagine that any Chancellor of the day would look rather narrowly at proposals for voting machines unless we could show him that we should save money in other directions.
§ Mr. Callaghan
The best jackpot I can think of will be the return of a Labour Government at the next election.
Perhaps I should finish on that note. I have not tried to cover all the Bill's provisions; they will, no doubt, be argued out in Committee. I do not think that one can accept the argument which was advanced in the last debate, that the Government should uncritically and unanimously accept a Report from Mr. Speaker's Conference, however wise, all-powerful and all-inclusive that body may be. One cannot push that argument too far. Nevertheless, I have shown that the Government have basically accepted most of the recommendations which have come forward, and, where we have altered them or put forward our own, I hope that it will be agreed that there is at least a good case for doing so.
I am sure that the Bill will benefit from scrutiny in Committee, as there is a lot of non-party material in it. I look forward to the Committee stage. I promise the House that I shall approach it with a view to accepting Amendments where they can be accepted, if they are 931 shown to be better than the drafting of the Bill as it now stands.
§ 5.3 p.m.
Mr. Richard Sharpies (Sutton and Cheam)
The House is grateful to the right hon. Gentleman not only for the care which he took in explaining the Bill, but also for the manner in which he presented it, with his customary good humour.
The main part of the Bill implements the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference and of the Electoral Advisory Conference, which included all-party representation. Many of the proposals in the Bill will make useful reforms which we on this side fully support. Although many of the reforms, taken by themselves, are of minor import, it can be said that they add up to a useful package which will improve the system of voting at Parliamentary and local government elections.
Once again, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I express our gratitude to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the members of your conference for the work which you and they did. Also, we express our gratitude to all those who served on the Home Office Advisory Conference, which included representatives of local authorities and of the main political parties.
I am glad that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the Bill adopts the vast majority of the proposals of both Mr. Speaker's Conference and the Home Office Advisory Conference. If I concentrate this evening on the more controversial part of the Bill, I hope that the House will not think that I am ignoring the importance of those parts of it upon which there will be general agreement in the House. There are questions arising on the main part of the Bill which we shall wish to pursue in Committee, which, I understand, will be a Committee of the whole House. I take up now—I shall not refer to it again—the question of election expenses. We accept in principle the proposals in the Bill. If we have Amendments to put forward, they will be Amendments on detail.
The right hon. Gentleman said that, if the proposals in Clause 1 are to be adopted in time for the 1970 register, it will be necessary for the Bill to have a 932 fairly quick passage. It will be helpful if the Secretary of State for Scotland can tell us the date by which this much be achieved. It will not be our wish on this side to delay the Bill unnecessarily, although it will be our duty to give careful examination to its provisions.
Now, leaving aside the vast mass of the Bill for discussion in Committee, I turn to some of the matters which we on this side regard as more or less controversial. First, the question of extending voting hours. The proposal here, as the right hon. Gentleman admitted, is directly contrary to the recommendation of Mr. Speaker's Conference, which recommended that there should be no change in the hours of polling. No hon. Member on either side would wish to restrict facilities for anyone to vote where a genuine need for such facilities can be shown. However, my information—I do not think that it is far wrong—is that the heaviest polling is almost all constituencies comes usually between 8 and 8.30 p.m. and that polling falls off to a small trickle between 8.30 and 9 p.m., there being very few people who leave it until the last possible moment.
§ Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in some polling districts where there happens to be a large electorate great confusion and crowding can occur at the last minute or two through the sheer weight of the electorate in that district?
§ Mr. Sharples
If there are difficulties about this, the Government should have presented them to the House, which is being asked to make a decision on the matter without any evidence having been presented to it. What is more, no evidence of this kind was presented to the right hon. Gentleman's Electoral Advisory Conference. I do not know what evidence was presented to Mr. Speaker's Conference on the subject. Our difficulty is that we do not know what that evidence was, but, in the light of all the evidence the Conference had, it come to the conclusion that there should be no change in the voting hours.
§ Mr. Callaghan
May I intervene on a technical matter? My Electoral Advisory Conference was not asked to consider this question. That is why no evidence was put forward. I do not know what it 933 would have been if it had been asked to consider it.
§ Mr. Sharples
Evidence was presumably put forward to Mr. Speaker's Conference, and in the light of all the evidence it came to the conclusion that there should be no change. In our last debate on these matters I asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he could say what that evidence was, and he did not do so. I must come to the conclusion that it does not exist.
§ Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)
The hon. Gentleman must remember that every hon. Member who spoke in that debate on the White Paper was under Mr. Speaker's urging to be brief, because many hon. Members wanted to speak. I for one had a great deal of evidence to present from my constituency on this subject, but I did not want to take too much time.
It is the Government's proposal, and it is for right hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench to present evidence, if there is any to be presented.
One thing that was made quite clear by the Home Secretary was that the extra hour, for Parliamentary elections only, is opposed by every organisation concerned with the conduct of elections. He admitted quite frankly that it must lead to the declaration of results being delayed, and to more results being declared on the following day.
I was not very impressed by the dissertation at the end of his speech about voting machines, which should be considered entirely separately from the question of the extra hour. Their use is a very big issue, and should be referred to a Speaker's Conference before there is a fundamental change in voting procedure of the kind the right hon. Gentleman outlined. I heard of the proposal for the first time this afternoon, and view it with grave misgivings.
§ Mr. English
I cannot understand why the hon. Gentleman criticises my right hon. Friend for not producing evidence on a change in the hours and then suggests that the voting machine change should be referred to a Speaker's Conference, which would not publish the evidence. I sincerely hope that my right hon. Friend does what he proposes—has it investigated and publishes the evidence 934 to the world—and does not hide it away in a Speaker's Conference.
§ Mr. Sharples
A fundamental change of this kind should not be made without first being referred to a Speaker's Conference. In our last debate on these matters I spoke about the desirability of publishing the evidence to a Speaker's Conference. This is an entirely different matter.
§ Mr. Callaghan
Perhaps by a slip of the tongue, the hon. Gentleman referred to a "proposal" to change to voting machines. There is no proposal. I have instituted a feasibility study, and when we see whether such a change is feasible we can consider whether a proposal should be made, and by whom it should be considered. There is no point in referring it to a Speaker's Conference, which will have no evidence before it until it sees the results of a feasibility study.
§ Mr. Sharples
We want to consider not only the feasibility, but, very much more important, the desirability.
One clear recommendation from the Home Office Electoral Advisory Conference discussions on local government elections was that the closing hour of polling stations should be the same at General Elections as it is at local government elections. This view was supported by all parties and by all who took part in the right hon. Gentleman's conference. The proposal before us will not only create considerable additional difficulties, both for party organisations and those concerned with the conduct of elections, but will lead to grave confusion.
If there are different hours for the closing of polling stations at local government elections and at General Elections, and if there is a local government election shortly after a General Election, many people will believe that the polling station closes at 10 o'clock. They will go there between nine and 10 o'clock and will be prevented from voting in the local election because the polling station has closed. If there is to be a change—and I do not believe that there is a necessity for it, it must be the same for local elections and General Elections, and must not be as proposed in the Bill.
I turn to the question of party labels, which we discussed in our debate on 14th 935 October. I said then, and still believe, that many people desire to be given a better indication when they are polling of the political parties which candidates represent. This applies particularly to local elections; I do not think that the same difficulties have arisen to any extent at Parliamentary elections. But possibly the voter needs help at local elections, particularly where there is a large number of candidates—possibly up to three representing the same party—and he must make up his mind between perhaps 12 or 16 people on the same ballot paper. The Government have put forward a very elaborate and complex scheme, and that is almost certainly the reason why it is has not been possible to extend their proposals to the conduct of local elections—the one place where this facility is really needed.
The Government's proposal introduces a system of registration which it takes four pages of a Schedule to explain. Not only will a candidate for a Parliamentary election have to have a statutory dog licence, but there is provision for a fee to be charged for people to register their names. It may not be very much for a large party to pay, but presumably it will be the same for the registration of any name, and it may be a considerable burden for a small party or an independent candidate wishing to represent a particular point of view.
This raises a serious issue of principle. The principle which the Government are introducing will lead to a considerable extension of the power of the party machine—I say that advisedly, as a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party—by converting the Parliamentary dog licence into statutory form. A licence which can only be issued by the party headquarters greatly increases the power of the central organisation over the selection of candidates for Parliamentary elections.
It may be that this is what the Government want. They are having their difficulties, for instance, in Pembroke. We have had ours in the Conservative Party. We understand these things, and sympathise perhaps with the Government in some ways. Nevertheless, a serious extension of the power of the political machines at the centre would be brought about by the introduction of statutory licences to 936 stand for Parliament backed up by the force of law.
§ Mr. Sharples
I am coming to that, but I am against the idea of registration of political parties.
The whole philosophy of the Conservative Party on the question of selection of candidates depends upon the autonomy of the individual Conservative associations in the constituencies, and we feel very strongly about it. I make it clear that we cannot accept the proposal now put forward. First, it is too complex, secondly, too rigid, and, thirdly, concentrates too much power at the centre. We are prepared to consider a less rigid scheme, but feel strongly that any scheme must be equally applicable to local government elections. It is no good introducing a scheme of this kind unless it can apply to both types of election.
We believe that it is up to the candidate in the first instance to make himself known in his constituency. If he cannot manage it, then he should get out and make room for someone who can. If it is felt that electors need some kind of help when going to the polling station, I cannot see why a simple amendment of the law should not be made to allow a poster to be displayed in the polling station indicating the name of a candidate and the party which he purports to represent.
Only a simple amendment to the law would be required to do this. It would be quite easy to specify the maximum size of the poster and the maximum number of words, in addition to the candidate's name, which it could contain. This would not involve any question of discretion on the part of the returning officer or of the polling clerk. They would merely have to ensure that the poster was of the statutory size and did not exceed the statutory number of words.
§ Mr. A. H. Macdonald (Chislehurst)
Who would be responsible for printing such a poster? What would be the consequences, and on whom would they fall, if there were any error? Who would take 937 responsibility for production of such a document?
§ Mr. Sharples
The situation would be the same as for any other election literature. The responsibility would fall upon the candidate and his party's election agent. I cannot see any difficulty there. There is no need for the elaborate proposal in the Bill—a proposal so elaborate that it could not be applied to local government elections.
§ Mr. Lubbock
May I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to a difficulty about his own proposal? There is nothing, in the scheme he suggests, to stop someone from mischievously going to Sutton and Cheam, having a poster printed saying that he is a Conservative, and getting it exhibited in the polling stations, thereby confusing the local electorate.
§ Mr. Sharples
There is nothing to stop a person from confusing them now like that. A person might put up posters all over my constituency saying that he is a Conservative representative, but if one has taken the trouble to look after one's constituency and to get oneself known, as one should, such action will not have the slightest effect.
§ Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)
Is the hon. Gentleman's purpose to allow the Conservative Party to carry on with its farce of having so-called "independent" candidates in rural districts?
§ Mr. T. L. Iremonger (Ilford, North)
Will my hon. Friend cap his admirable proposal for Parliamentary elections by saying that he hopes the Conservative Party will have nothing to do with the Government's proposal and will not register?
§ Mr. Sharples
I have made the position clear in relation to the Government's proposal. I was heartened, however, by the fact that the Home Secretary said that he was prepared to consider alternative schemes and that his mind was not entirely closed on the matter. We shall be able to discuss these proposals in Committee, but I thought that it would be helpful if I gave notice of the kind of ideas we have in mind so that there will 938 be time for him and his advisers to consider them before we go into Committee on the Bill.
I want now to turn from the question of party labels to a much more controversial subject—Clause 15, which abolishes the non-resident qualifications of voting at local government elections and property qualification for election to a local authority. These matters were not considered in detail in any way by the right hon. Gentleman's Advisory Council. Since they have been published, the Government's proposals have been almost universally condemned. On 7th November, the Under-Secretary of State, replying to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), admitted that the proposals were opposed by most local authorities.
§ Mr. Sharples
I leave aside party issues for the moment.
The Home Secretary himself confirmed the opposition of the local authorities. Today, I received strong representations from the C.B.I. on the matter. The Government's proposal means that a very large proportion of those who have given service on local authorities for many years will not be able to stand again for areas they now represent. For example, 24 councillors in Birmingham, 18 in Manchester, 14 in Nottingham and 12 in Glasgow will be excluded from standing again. The same sort of situation will apply throughout the country, both in small and large boroughs. On 13th November, The Times said:The resident sixth-former is given his say, and the non-resident employer is deprived of his. Hardly a good bargain for responsible local self-government.
§ Mr. Dan Jones (Burnley)
I appreciate the point of view the hon. Gentleman is expressing, but surely he is aware that the solution is simple. All they have to do is to move into their constituencies.
§ Mr. Sharples
The areas mostly affected are the commercial and industrial areas of the large cities. This is one reason—a good one—why the Home Secretary is unable to extend the proposal to the City of London. Of course, I know that the majority of those affected are Conservative councillors, but not all. Do not the Government recognise the 939 madness—and I say "madness" advisedly—of forcing out of local government a large proportion of people who have had local government experience, and this just at a time when the whole structure of local government is about to be reorganised?
§ Mr. Tony Gardner (Rushcliffe)
In view of trends in elections over the last two or three years, it is hardly likely that the people who are now making representations to the hon. Gentleman have spent very long in local government.
§ Mr. Sharples
Many have, but it applies equally whether they have spent a long time or a short time.
§ Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)
Would not my hon. Friend agree that many people have been in local government for many years without being in control of the local council? Does not that dispose of what the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Gardner) has just said? Secondly, would not my hon. Friend recognise that in places like Birmingham it is possible to live near to a ward and yet still be outside the city limits, nearer to it than to a ward which is right on the other side of the city?
§ Mr. Sharples
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Surely it is right that people who have interests and businesses in a city should be able to have a say about how the rates they pay are raised and spent. For instance, higher education cuts right across local boundaries, but it must be in the interests of commercial people in an area to have a say about the direction of higher education.
This proposal arises from a minor reference by a representative of the Socialist Party to what he thought there might be in the way of abuses of the property qualification. So far as I know, no evidence was given to the Home Secretary's Advisory Council of concrete cases of abuses. There was simply the suggestion that there might be abuses about which, apparently, nobody had heard.
If the Government genuinely believe that there is some unfairness in the business vote, why do they not accept the recommendation of the Maud Committee, which went into this business in 940 considerable detail, not to narrow the franchise and the qualification, but to enlarge the franchise? In paragraph 424 of its Report, the Committee said:Our conclusions are that:—The Maud Committee went on to say:
- (a)the present legislation makes it difficult for certain people to stand for election and may be the cause of their resorting to arrangements to enable them to satisfy the requirements of the law;
- (b)mobility of people increases; many may have just as much interest in the area in which they work as in the area in which they live and this should be recognised;
- (c)the effect of the law is to exclude some people who might be valuable candidates for election to local authorities, particularly in urban areas."We recommend that there be additional alternative qualification for election to a local authority, namely that the person should have had a principal place of work within the area of the authority during the whole of the 12 months preceding the election.I do not understand why the right hon. Gentleman did not accept that recommendation, which extends the franchise, instead of trying to force out of local government a number of people who have done good work in it for many years. Surely we do not have a surplus of good people who understand local authority work, and I say that without reference to any party or sectional interest.
If the Government feel that there may have been some abuses of the business qualification and the property qualification, why should they not accept the Maud Committee's recommendation and bring the qualification of property and business into line with the ownership of property, so that people who have been in business, or in work, or who have owned property, in the area for the previous 12 months could be included? This would have the effect of considerably widening the number of people able to take part in local elections and, what is more important, of considerably widening the number of people able to stand for election to a local authority.
§ Mr. Callaghan
Of course, I considered that proposition. The hon. Gentleman keeps referring to the business vote, but, as he pointed out, the Maud Committee referred to just that and a principal place of work. Would he tell us what effect he thinks that this would have on some local authority areas where 941 the number with the qualification of a principal place of work might swamp, or at any rate substantially affect, the result of an election? I can think of examples; I hope that the hon. Gentleman has thought of them, too.
§ Mr. Sharples
This is something which we have considered. We think that it would be right to accept the recommendations of the Maud Committee.
§ Mr. Sharples
This is something which we would want to consider, but in principle we would be prepared to accept the recommendation of the Maud Committee which, by extending the opportunity of voting, would be far more satisfactory than the right hon. Gentleman's proposal, which is designed simply to restrict people and to drive certain people out of local government.
§ Mr. English
I am sorry to interrupt a second time, but the hon. Gentleman will realise that he has made a very important statement. Before my right hon. Friend intervened, the hon. Gentleman used the expression "business vote" and has just again referred to extending voting, while on other occasions he has used the word "qualification". Is he suggesting that the vote should be extended to all people who work in an area? That would have a vast effect on places like the City of London, but it might be acceptable to hon. Members on this side of the House, although I do not know. Or was the hon. Gentleman relating it purely to qualification? He has used both terms and it is important that he should make it clear what principle he is accepting.
§ Mr. Sharples
These are matters which we can better discuss in Committee. I have attempted to make our position clear. If there is to be a change of any kind, we want an extension of voting and an extension of the power to stand as candidate. How we go about that in detail can be discussed in Committee.
In broad principle we accept the line advocated in the Maud Committee's Report. The House can only draw the conclusion that the proposals in Clause 15 have been conceived in spite, that they are the direct result of the last local governmental elections, which were a disaster 942 for the Labour Party. I give notice that we look upon the Clause as a piece of political gerrymandering, and we shall put this right when we are returned to office.
The other major question in the Bill is that of votes at 18. This is a major constitutional reform, which, as we said at the time of the last debate, should be decided by a free vote. I gave an undertaking on behalf of this side of the House that there would be a free vote on this issue. The House and country will be disappointed that the Government have not had the courage to take the same action. People will be disappointed by the indication given by the right hon. Gentleman this afternoon that the Whips would be on for his party.
When we last debated this matter the House listened with great attention and respect to the words of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg), when he spoke with deep conviction against this proposal. The House will also want to take careful note of the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference, namely, that the voting age should be reduced to 20. Speaking entirely for myself, I take a different view, although I realise that in doing so I do not have the advantage of the evidence presented to Mr. Speaker's Conference. I base my view on the recommendations of the Latey Committee which have been, broadly speaking, accepted by the House. Having accepted those recommendations in respect of other matters, it is logical that this principle should be extended to the question of voting. We will most probably have a very full debate about this in Committee and it is best to leave the detailed arguments until then.
The Bill is a mixed bag. It implements many of the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference and the Home Office Advisory Council, together with recommendations which we on this side feel are desirable and will help with the progress of elections generally. On the other hand, it introduces some very controversial issues, to which I have referred. I am glad that we are to have the Committee stage on the Floor of the House, because it will enable everyone to have an opportunity of speaking and of registering their opinions, by their votes, on each section of the Bill. 943 Therefore, although I have grave reservations about certain parts of the Bill, I would advise my right hon. and hon. Friends not to divide the House against it tonight.
§ 5.44 p.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)
I share the satisfaction expressed by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharpies) that we are to have the Committee stage of the Bill on the Floor of the House, because there are many constitutional matters which it is right should be discussed here. I also share the view of the hon. Gentleman on one other matter, and that was in the doubt that he cast upon the need for extending polling hours to 10 o'clock. I can only speak from my own experience in London and it may be that there are others with experience in other parts of the country, perhaps in country districts, with different views, but I know, from a long experience in London, that to extend the hours to 10 o'clock will not bring in any more votes.
It will be a substantial burden on the returning officers, and the very large number of party workers involved. I hope that before we proceed further with this we will have the views of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, or other hon. Members who maybe have different experiences, as to why it is necessary to extend the hours. At the moment, I do not have sufficient evidence to come to a similar conclusion.
There are two matters upon which I want to comment tonight. There will be plenty of opportunity in Committee to deal with the other matters, many of which we have considered previously at Mr. Speaker's Conference. My first point deals with the proposal that the political label of each member should be published, with his name, on the ballot paper. Mr. Speaker's Conference did not recommend this. I do not know whether it might have recommended this after the Greater London Council elections, because many of us became convinced then that some such change in our electoral system was desirable.
I warmly endorse the Government's proposal that this change should take place. Of the two decisions which each voter has to make at a general election 944 —the decision between the record, policy and leadership of the political parties, and which he considers would best govern the country during the next five years, and the decision as to which individual will best represent his interests in Parliament—there can be no doubt that the first decision is by far the most important.
This importance of the political vote as against the individual vote has grown immensely during the past 30 years, partly because the functions of government have increased so much during that period that nowadays they affect the welfare of the public proportionately so much more than any individual Member of Parliament can ever influence the welfare of his constituents, and partly because radio and television have brought party politics and national affairs into the home. All of this has resulted in a comparative shrinkage in the personal appeal of individual candidates, however distinguished they may be.
Many people regret this, considering it to be deplorable, but it is a fact of life which we have to recognise. I welcome it as a healthy appreciation by the electorate of the realities of our political democracy. Evidence of this change can be seen in the fact that nowadays relatively few independent Members are elected to the House and that the political swing is usually constant over large regions of the country, irrespective of the record, character or ability of local candidates.
We should have enacted this proposed legislation before, and maybe would have done if it were not for the fact that we who live in this intensely political atmosphere are apt to overrate the political knowledge of our constituents, and the extent to which we or our party colours are known to them. When the Greater London Council election voting figures were known, it seemed to me that the case for doing this at local government elections was overwhelming. I want to tell the House what happened in my constituency at Lambeth. There were 18 candidates, of whom four had to be elected. We had four candidates, none of whom was more popular than the other, yet the vote varied between them by 1,250. The man who got the most votes was highest in the list, but was certainly not as well known as the others. That result 945 was plainly because the electorate was not aware of the situation, in spite of the intensive efforts made by the election agents and the organisers to associate the names with the party to which they belonged. Therefore, I agree completely with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam and urge that, if it is possible—and I realise that there are severe technical difficulties—a candidate's name and his party label should appear on the ballot paper in all local elections.
I turn now to the question of the voting age, on which I have already expressed a strong opinion, but about which little has been said today. I hope that there will be an opportunity to discuss it later. I very much regret the suggestion that the Whips will be on for this controversial issue. I think that the Home Secretary must regret it, because he expressed the view that this was a matter which individual Members should decide. I do not know whether he questions that.
§ Mr. Callaghan
I am sure that they will so decide. The real question is whether the Government intend to give any advice to their followers. They do, and they will.
§ Mr. Strauss
When I asked my right hon. Friend, on 24th July, whether there would be a free vote, he said that he could not give a reply—and, of course, he could not do so at that time—but he went on to say:I would express the view that it is basically a matter about which hon. Members themselves will have to make up their own minds."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th July, 1968; Vol. 769. c. 579.]Surely that meant that they would be able to make up their minds without the pressure of the party Whips upon them. The view that there should be a free vote is held very strongly by many hon. Members who support the reduction of the voting age to 18, as they consider it to be a constitutional issue on which hon. Members should be allowed to come to a conclusion without any Government pressure being put upon them.
I wish to make a brief comment on one or two of the arguments put forward on the last occasion that we discussed this matter in the House, in favour of reducing the voting age to 18, because 946 there was no opportunity then—I spoke early in the debate—to answer them. Some of them should be answered. The first was that it was illogical that, if in a number of civil matters, as suggested by the Latey Committee, the effective age should be 18, it should not be 18 in matters affecting Parliament and votes. I appreciate the desire for consistency, and if I thought that it was an evenly balanced case, and that the argument for or against the age of 18 was a nice one on which one might come down on one side or the other, I would go for uniformity, too. However for those of us who think that 18 is too young, and that it would be damaging to our democratic and electoral system to reduce the age to 18, there is no virtue in consistency. We have to do what we think is right.
Two separate bodies considered the age of majority. The Latey Committee said that when it came to the question of permission to marry without parental consent and holding property 18 should be the age. It went on to state very clearly and definitely that that did not mean that in civic matters and voting matters 18 should be the age.
§ Mr. Mendelson
My right hon. Friend, with his integrity would not wish to mislead the House. This is not a matter of formal logic. Nobody argued that, because of formal logic, we must, after the Latey Committee's Report, follow through with a reduction in the voting age. The substance of the case was argued, namely, that if people are, by law, to be entitled to make these very important decisions in the matter of, contracts, for instance, they are also entitled to be trusted when it comes to taking part in our political life.
§ Mr. Strauss
That is my hon. Friend's view and that of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. It was not the view of the Latey Committee, which said that it did not accept that the civic field and the private field either would or should necessarily go together. That is all that I am saying.
§ Mr. Lubbock
Should not the right hon. Gentleman point out that the Latey Committee was specifically enjoined not to consider the voting age? Therefore, 947 nothing which it said on this subject is of any interest to us.
§ Mr. Strauss
It is all the more remarkable that the Latey Committee went out of its way to comment on this matter and issue a warning. I speak for the majority of members of Mr. Speaker's Conference. It was with the warning of the Latey Committee in mind that we decided, on balance, for what appeared to us to be overwhelming reasons, that 18 was too young for the voting age. It is not illogical for the second body to come to a different conclusion from the first body because it was considering entirely different aspects of the problem.
If it comes to logicality, is it logical to argue that, because in future boys and girls of 18 will be allowed to marry without parental consent, it follows that they should vote at that age? There does not seem to be any logic in that. They are two entirely different matters.
Another argument advanced was that most young people, if they have the vote at 18, will not be able to exercise it until they are 20 or more because we have elections only every four or five years. That is an irrelevant argument. The only question which the House should consider is this: when an election occurs, is it in the interests of the body politic that adolescents aged 18, with such maturity and experience of public affairs as they have been able to develop at that age, should vote in an election and influence perhaps its outcome? It is not a question of the age at which they are likely to vote first. When an election is held, will they be mature enough to be able to exercise a reasonable judgment on the merits of the parties and their policies?
§ Mr. Mendelson
How can my right hon. Friend completely dismiss the case about those sectors of the electorate who are well above the minimum voting age when he knows very well that even those who wish to reduce the voting age to 20 only were very much influenced by the argument that people had to be 22, 23 or 24 and not 21 before they had the first chance to vote? My right hon. Friend cannot accept it for that half of the argument and reject it for the other half.
§ Mr. Strauss
That did not influence me in the slightest, and I do not think that it influenced anybody else. It was purely the question of maturity when an election is held. That was the only argument which we had in mind. Although a person may be 22 or 23 by the time that he votes in a General Election, the probability is that he will exercise his vote in a local government election at a much earlier date.
It was said by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and others that young people now mature mentally much earlier. Everybody knows that that is true about their physical development. There is no evidence whatsoever that their earlier physical development is accompanied by earlier mental development. The majority and minority Reports of the Latey Committee dealt with this matter. In the majority Report it was said that the B.M.A., the only body which gave evidence on this matter, was noncommittal on this point, but it went on to say—and I must, in fairness, quote this—that probably from the psychological point of view the adolescent of today matures earlier than the adolescent of previous generations. No one suggested that they mature so much earlier that we are entitled to reduce the age from 21 to 18.
I have spoken, as many others have done, to university teachers and others who, from long experience, definitely take the different view that there is no earlier mental maturity nowadays than there was some years ago.
§ Mr. Strauss
For reasons which I will develop in Committee, I will tell my hon. Friend and other hon. Members why we consider 21 too old and 20 a more appropriate age. Of course, there is nothing magical about the age of 21. So much for the point of view of maturity. I will, however, say this to my hon. Friend. The fact that the very non-committal statement of the B.M.A. appeared to suggest possible earlier maturity was one of the reasons why Mr. Speaker's Conference suggested a reduction in the age from 21 to 20.
I hope that I will not be accused of repeating an argument which I have put before, but I will do it briefly. I put it 949 again because I was criticised by some of my hon. Friends when I used it before. It was said by a number of hon. Members that if people were allowed to vote at the age of 18 that would inject a measure of idealism into our political affairs. I suggest to the House that idealism untempered by experience and knowledge—in short, maturity—can be a dangerous thing. It can easily be en-flamed by demagogic appeals and lead to activities which mature people would deplore. This has certainly happened in other countries in Europe in a vicious way. I do not say that it will—but it could—happen here. Idealism alone is not enough.
In deciding whether people are fit to vote at elections, it is not idealism that counts. Ripeness is all. Sufficient ripeness of age is all-important. I was attacked on an earlier occasion for making the point that we have evidence already of where the idealism of many of our young people is going. I do not doubt that it is idealism. In Scotland and Wales, their idealism is going wholeheartedly in support of extreme nationalist movements. I do not question their idealism, but that is where it is going.
It was also surprising and alarming to find that the idealism of much too high a proportion of our youth is being attracted by the racialist doctrines of the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell).
§ Mr. Mendelson
This is a serious matter. I did not realise that my right hon. Friend would introduce that point. It is a most serious allegation to make without evidence. There are very many people in public life and who work for local authorities in looking after young people who say again and again, at conferences and in reports, that it is precisely among the younger generation that there is more tolerance and understanding and a better growing up together than among the medium-age group.
§ Mr. Strauss
That is what one would hope and expect. I do not want to repeat my last speech. I ask my hon. Friend to look at it and consider the reason which I then advanced as a result of public opinion polls to show that support for the views of the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West was held far more strongly and by greater 950 numbers among the 16–20 age group than in any other age group. That is a fact. It was on those public opinion polls that I made this statement, deplore it as one will.
I would like to remind the House that from the figures which have been given us by the Home Office—the figures have varied three times since I served on Mr. Speaker's Conference, but one assumes that the present figures are correct—the number of new electors aged between 18 and 21 to come on to the electoral roll as a result of the proposed change will be 3 million. A simple arithmetical calculation shows that that represents an average of 4,800 per constituency. I hope that when we consider this matter in Committee every right hon. and hon. Member will ponder this huge accretion of adolescent voters to his electoral register and the consequential distortion that is likely to take place in the national and local election campaigns and the unhappy consequences that may result.
§ 6.5 p.m.
§ Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)
Like the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), I am a London Member. I begin by sharing at least the right hon. Gentleman's experience that in London, at any rate, there would be far more disadvantages in extending the hour of polling to 10 p.m. than in leaving the position as it is. I do not believe that, with all the facilities which exist for postal voting, and with the polling stations open for 14 hours, it is necessary to keep them open for a further hour at that time of night. I do not attach a great weight to this—the real argument against it is that of strain on the staff—none the less, in some areas this change would risk a certain measure of rowdiness outside the polling stations at that sort of hour, which, I am sure the House would agree, is wholly undesirable. I hope, therefore, that in Committee the Home Secretary will be prepared to think hard about this again.
I want to say something about votes at 18, to which the right hon. Member for Vauxhall devoted a large part of his speech. The Government's handling of this matter has been odd in the extreme. I regard it as very wrong—and here again I agree with the right hon. Gentleman—to put the Whip on on this issue. The 951 Home Secretary was a little ingenuous when he said that any Government could give advice. Of course they can. The Home Secretary can give it from the Dispatch Box. The only reason why he wishes to reinforce that advice with that given from another quarter is his fear, I take it, that the advice given from the Dispatch Box may not be sufficiently compelling.
Let the Home Secretary take courage. Let him have a little more confidence in his own persuasive powers. In all seriousness, this is a matter on which parties are divided and which is, in the true basic sense, a constitutional matter on which it is very wrong for any Government—I would say the same of my right hon. Friend the Opposition Chief Whip had he taken the same line—to apply the Whip.
§ Mr. Mendelson
I am very touched by the keen interest of prominent Members of the Opposition to protect the freedom of voting on this side. When, however, we had the vote on a six-line Whip on whether we should apply to enter the Common Market, which surely was the constitutional proposal overriding all other constitutional proposals and against which the present proposals are modest to a degree, we had no such speeches from hon. Members opposite. They wanted us to be ridden through by a six-line Whip, never mind the freedom of back-benchers.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
If the hon. Member thinks that I wish to assume the rôle of permanent supervisor of the Patronage Secretary, he makes a mistake.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
Although it is irrelevant to this issue, I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Member about what he has said on that point of substance. I would have said, with him, that that was also the sort of issue on which it might well have been thought reasonable and right to allow a free vote. The hon. Member cannot, however, hold this against me because I did not speak in that debate and, therefore, he does not know what I would have said. I see you looking at me with some disapproval, however, Mr 952 Speaker, and I will return with celerity to the question of votes at 18.
The Government's attitude is extraordinary. The Speaker's Conference apparently accepted the age of 20. That proposal was carried overwhelmingly. Having said that, I would say that my own view is very much the same as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharpies). I think the time has come to make this change. I was not a member of Mr. Speaker's Conference and, therefore, I do not know the arguments in favour of the age of 20. I am bound to say that I cannot find any. It seems to be an age in respect of which there is no better argument for changing the law than for allowing it to remain as it is, with the vote at 21.
But there are arguments for reducing the age to 18. First, if this country's policy leads it to war, young men of 18 are conscripted to serve—and many do serve without such conscription. One remembers the notice put up in a public house frequented by the Royal Air Force in Lincolnshire in the last war, to the effect that group captains under the age of 21 years would not be served with liquor unless accompanied by their adjutants. The generation to which I have just referred played a big part in the war. The Latey Report was not allowed to, and so did not, make any recommendation on this point, but there is a sound argument for saying that if young men or girls of 18 are to be treated for serious civil purposes as mature people—as being able to own property and contract marriage—it is some indication that they are also ripe for the responsibility of exercising the franchise.
That is not to say that all of them will exercise the franchise sensibly. But that is true of any other age group. Many hon. Members may have reason for self-congratulation at that fact; I do not know. We do not seek to exclude people in older age groups because in our view they are unfitted to vote, and I see no reason why we should exclude persons of 18 years of age as a category on those grounds.
Incidentally, it is interesting to note that for many years the age of 18 has been the one at which a young person has been treated as fully mature for National Insurance purposes, and it is also of historical interest that the heir to 953 the Throne can succeed without a Regency resulting if he is 18 on the demise of the sovereign. It was that fact which enabled Her late Majesty, Queen Victoria, to succeed without a Regent when she was only a few months over the age of 18. [Interruption.] My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) will recall that Her present Majesty has also had the advantage of advisers of great ability and charm. I express that in the past tense.
There is a deeper reason for reducing the age to 18, which was touched upon by the right hon. Member for Vauxhall. There is a great deal of unrest and confusion among many of the more intelligent members of this generation, and there is undoubtedly a feeling of frustration. The acceptance of this proposal would not cure it, but it would reduce the causes of frustration. If an intelligent young person thinks that he or she knows how the country should be run—and at that age most of us thought precisely that; it was only as the years passed that doubts began to creep into our minds—it is frustrating to know that he or she can do nothing except demonstrate in the streets.
If these young people know that they have the same rights as older people to influence the way in which the country is governed, through the ballot box, it may have the effect of giving them an added sense of responsibility. It is not a cure-all, but it has a certain advantage in this direction, and it is for that and the other reasons which I have mentioned that I shall support this proposal in Committee.
I am extremely sceptical about the provision concerning political descriptions on ballot papers. As has already been pointed out, it will strengthen the already growing power of the party organisations. What will happen if at an election more than one candidate claims a certain political designation? This can happen when a Member falls out with the constituency association of his own party but nevertheless decides to stand at the next election. That situation may well arise in Pembroke.
I do not see why a Member or candidate so placed should be denied the right 954 to call himself whatever political animal he wishes. Yet presumably two people will not be allowed to describe themselves on the same ballot paper as Labour or Conservative, or any other party. I do not wholly understand the rather elaborate phraseology of the Clause, and I hope that the Secretary of State for Scotland will endeavour to clear up this point. At the moment it seems likely to operate very harshly in exceptional cases.
If the Home Secretary is right in saying that the voter is entitled to know the political colour of the names on the ballot paper, why on earth is he not providing for it in local government? In local government elections the voter is presented with a sheet which sometimes has as many as 18 names on it. It is far more difficult to know the political colour of all those 18 names than is the case with the three or four, at the most, at Parliamentary elections. It is not good enough for the right hon. Gentleman to say that he has produced such confusion in trying to deal with Parliamentary elections that he hesitates to make such a proposal in respect of local government elections. [Interruption.] That is a fair, if unfriendly, paraphrase of his observatons. If he is right in saying that the voter has such a right, it is up to him, as Home Secretary, to devise the means. I am doubtful about the whole proposal. I do not want to see an increase in the power of the party machines, and this proposal will, in some measure, work in that way.
Why has the opportunity not been taken to extend the facilities for postal votes in respect of voters on holiday? In these days holidays are a very important part of people's lives, and it is asking a great deal of them to return to vote, even at a crucial election, especially when a person is allowed to vote by post if he is prepared to say that he is away on business. I agree that there is a greater administrative problem involved in allowing anyone genuinely on holiday to be able to vote by post, but I hope that the Secretary of State for Scotland will deal with that point.
Clause 8(1)(b) does not go far enough in dealing with the question of local government election expenses. Has the right hon. Gentleman taken into account the situation in London, where, at the next move, Greater London Council 955 elections will be undertaken on the basis of one candidate per Parliamentary constituency? That poses a case for expenses comparable with those allowed in respect of Parliamentary elections for the constituencies concerned. If organisations similar to the Greater London Council are set up in other parts of the country—and this may well be one of the Redcliffe-Maud recommendations—a similar situation may arise in the provinces.
By far the worst part of the Bill is Clause 15, dealing with the non-resident qualification for voting and for being elected. The right hon. Gentleman did not do himself justice when he said that this will cause some trouble but that it may well be alleviated by the Redcliffe-Maud recommendations. If he thinks that, need we have such changes now? Why does he not leave this alone now and wait and see the situation which will arise when these recommendations have been made, accepted and enacted? Why is he doing this in the teeth of the expressed views of local authorities?
My hon. Friend referred to the Question which I addressed to the Minister of State at the Home Office a few days ago, when I asked him what had been the reactions to the proposals circulated to certain local authorities. The hon. Gentleman said:We have written to the local authority associations on proposals to abolish the non-resident qualification for electors and, in England and Wales, the qualification for candidates based on property.When I asked him what response he had had, he said:Most of the local authority associations which replied were against them. Scotland is in rather a different position. But, in the end, it is up to the Government to decide what to do, and what we have decided is in the Bill. "—[OFFICIAI REPORT, 7th November, 1968; Vol. 772, c. 1066–7.]I remind him that in the end it is not what the Government decide, but what the House of Commons decides.
What is the use of consulting people if one has no intention of considering their views? Why put the local authorities to the inconvenience of consultations undertaken at very short notice if, when their replies come in against one's proposals, they are disregarded and one sails forth with legislation?
956 Nor do right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite appear to understand fully the unfairness of what they are proposing as it affects the vote. There are people in my own borough of Kingston-upon-Thames, for example, who play a great part in the life of the town and yet live outside it. They pay heavy rates. There seems to be no reason why they should not exercise a vote in the town to which they have given such great service. When one looks at the principle, here is an outstanding case of taxation without representation. I need not remind the House that it was the adherence of a previous Government to that view which lost us the American Colonies.
Far more important is the abolition of the property qualification for election to local authorities. Surely the problem in local government today is to get enough people of the quality required for the very responsible unpaid work involved. It seems madness deliberately to prevent competent people from serving. An hon. Member opposite interjected earlier, "But would not people on a housing estate prefer to be represented by a resident?" Very well. Let them exercise their vote in favour of a candidate who is a resident. But why deny to others the chance to come forward as candidates and serve if, and only if, the electors decide to vote for them?
§ Mr. Hamling
What the right hon. Gentleman must bear in mind also is that, even though electors on a housing estate may wish to vote only for someone who lives on the estate, he is in favour of other people outside interfering in that election and voting in it.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
There are two points, of course, and I am now on the second of them, and there may be separate amendments on them. As for the first, the hon. Gentleman knows that the non-resident vote is comparatively limited in size and unlikely to have any such decisive effect. However, I am on a different point, which is that of denying to individuals whom, ex-hypothesi, the electors want as their representatives, the right to be their representatives simply because they do not live in the town concerned.
It is no use saying, "They are all the Tories". It is true that the Home Secretary had some difficulty in finding a 957 local authority which was not controlled by members of my party when he undertook his consultations, but that is not my fault. As the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, it may be that the right hon. Gentleman is more responsible for that than anyone else. However, it is not only one party which would be affected by the proposal. It is not only my own party, which in Camden alone would lose four effective committee chairmen by it. Why deprive a local authority of four competent men for this reason?
I have looked up in "Who's Who?" the particulars of that very distinguished gentleman who leads the Labour Party on the Greater London Council, Sir Reginald Goodwin. He may have other homes, but the only address that he gives in "Who's Who?" is at Pulborough, in Sussex. In my view, that does not make him any less competent to perform his duties at County Hall, but, unless he has taken the precaution of securing another address, he will be disqualified from serving on the Greater London Council as the act of this Government. Right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite must not think that this is simply a party matter.
The issue is simple: do we want the best available men to run our local authorities? If we do, do not let us introduce this piffling restriction.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I remind the House that many right hon. and hon. Gentlemen wish to speak. Mr. English.
§ 6.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
Mr. Speaker, having sat through the debate on the White Paper without succeeding in being called, I am grateful to you for calling me today.
At the outset, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will understand if I am in much the same difficulty as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharpies) in discussing the Bill. If one has to do it briefly, one cannot refer to all the points in it of which one approves. If I am critical of parts of the Bill and refer to matters that are not in it, I hope that my right hon. Friend will realise, none the less, that I am very much in support of it.
958 I agree especially with the principle of votes at 18. The right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd Carpenter) ably stated the case for this. There are problems in any extension of the franchise, but this is a far smaller percentage extension that those carried out successfully in the nineteenth century by a House based on a much more restricted franchise and with much more to fear from the possible results of adding millions to the electoral roll.
If war broke out, we would promptly call up our 18 year olds and expect them to serve in the Armed Forces. If that is the case, surely they have some right to choose the Government which may call upon them to serve?
§ Mr. English
My sister was called up in the last war and is one of the few people who have been both a sergeant major and an adjutant. Women are called up these days.
There are some points in the Bill which I query. I cannot see why, in Clause 23, my right hon. Friend wishes to retain the archaic provisions of the constitution of the City of London. My right hon. Friend probably is quite familiar with the fact that the only reason why the City of London is as it is now is because the House of Lords in the 19th century did not want the prestige title and job of Lord Mayor to go to what was the London County Council, then being created. The chairman of it was not allowed to be Lord Mayor and, therefore, the City of London was excepted from the London County Council area. The G.L.C. set-up is slightly different, but in this one part of the country we still have an authority which is elected on a most peculiar basis, to say the least of it.
I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam say that he would be prepared to consider the possibility of a franchise based on place of work.
§ Mr. English
I share my hon. Friend's view, but the hon. Gentleman mentioned voting as well as qualification on this basis and, when I asked which he meant, he refused to say. I suspect that he was 959 not quite sure which he meant, but he said both, and it is a matter which should be cleared up by the Opposition Front Bench before this debate ends.
If, for various reasons, we do not wish to say that the City of London should have a resident franchise, which would be rather silly with only 5,000 people living there, the possibility of a franchise which did not deprive the business electors of their votes but said also that the half-million people who suffer from the problems of rush-hour traffic in travelling to and from the City is one which should be considered. They should have a right to some say about their future—they spend a third of their working lives in the area.
I cannot understand why, in Clause 16—perhaps the Secretary of State for Scotland will explain this—we say that a candidate must be qualified at the date of nomination. If a person is of the right age at the time he takes up his duties as a councillor or hon. Member of this House, that should be sufficient. The Americans go further and say that a President can be elected as long as he qualifies at any time during the four years he is in power. I do not suggest that solution, but I do suggest that it is sufficient for someone to become qualified in age to sit by the period for which he was elected. I suspect that we are faced with a bit of drafting over-simplification here to which I will address myself in Committee.
I am particularly unhappy about the method by which the Bill was prepared and the results of it. It was suggested by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam that certain facets of the problem should be sent to a Speaker's Conference. I hope—in saying this I am not in any way directing my remarks against you, Mr. Speaker—that that will not be done. You gave a great deal of time over three years, as did other hon. Members during your Speaker's Conference, to investigating this matter. You are always bound by precedent, as the members of your Conference were. The first Speaker's Conference for this sort of purpose was held at a time when it was not customary publicly to report Committee proceedings. Because of that, the precedent arose and it has continued. 960 Surely we are now in a different age and should consider the matter differently.
§ Sir D. Glover
As the hon. Gentleman is implying that Mr. Speaker was bound by precedent, I hasten to release Mr. Speaker from that position. We at Mr. Speaker's Conference took a vote about the proceedings. We could have voted the opposite way and said that our proceedings should be published.
§ Mr. English
I imagine that members of the Conference were influenced by the fact that such proceedings had never been published in the past.
§ Mr. English
Exactly. Although the conclusions of the Conference are published, the very vote to which the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) referred was not, I think, published because the minutes were not published. It is, I believe, true that the minutes of Mr. Speaker's Conference held before the first war on the issue of the House of Lords have never been published, unless they were published very recently. One could say that the hon. Member for Ormskirk has committed a technical breach of privilege by revealing one of the unpublished proceedings of Mr. Speaker's Conference.
Presumably many people and bodies gave evidence to this conference. Two right hon. Gentlemen only moments ago offered differing views on the question of votes at 18. Presumably—as I think they were both members of Mr. Speaker's Conference—they heard all the evidence presented to that conference. We are not entitled to be made aware of that evidence and we therefore cannot be aware of the reasons for their holding different views on this subject.
We have been told that many people in the country have made suggestions about, for example, polling hours. Presumably the hon. Gentleman the Member for Sutton and Cheam who spoke about this at some length has contacted many of these people, bodies and political organisations to gain their views or asked the Conservative Central Office to do it for him. Since all these bodies went to so much trouble to give their views, based on experience and knowledge, why, while their opinions may differ, cannot then-evidence be published so that the country can consider the pros and cons of 961 these details? I doubt if agreement would have been reached on many issues if the entire proceedings of the conference were to be published, but I see no reason why the evidence submitted to the conference should not be made available for us all to see, as well as possibly the nature of the voting.
My right hon. Friend seems to be bound by a similar piece of archaism. Presumably many bodies submitted evidence to his Electoral Advisory Committee, including local authorities, local government officers, political parties, and staff of the Home Office and Scottish Office, all of whom are represented upon it. Nowhere do we have a record of the evidence on which their suggestions were based. In some cases it seems that some of the suggestions do not inspire confidence. I said, "Thank heaven for Cabinet Government" when I first considered the matter. It does not, based on the absence of evidence from Mr. Speaker's Conference, inspire confidence in one when one learns that the conference reported, "We do not mind lowering the voting age to an age which nobody has yet suggested, but we do not like the age of 18."
It does not inspire confidence if it is suggested, for the first time in English history, that one cannot publish before a conclusion is reached some of the opinions which have been given about the result of an election—which frankly is what the recommendation to prohibit Gallup polls would mean. Upon hearing about this I again said, "Thank heaven for Cabinet Government", because with respect perhaps that form of Government is more responsible than a conference of the type about which I have spoken, remembering that in these two instances it, in my view, reached the wrong conclusions.
The real objection I have to the system—in this respect my right hon. Friend was somewhat complacent in his speech—is that nothing new has come out of it. For about two hours today we have discussed the details of the Bill, but all the principles on which the Measure is based are merely extensions of principles that started to be passed by this House in 1832 and were first suggested to the House in the eighteenth century. Slowly the franchise was extended. Slowly property qualifications have disappeared—I 962 am surprised that no hon. Member has mentioned that property qualifications for voters are at last making their final appearance in this country—
§ Mr. English
I deliberately referred earlier to "English history". I gather that property qualifications disappeared in Scottish history at a much earlier date. Being half Scots and half Irish, I am referring to English history as a compromise. We have done less, as a percentage in terms of extending the franchise—and certainly far less in terms of changing the principle—than was done in the 1920s when women were admitted to the franchise and in the nineteenth century when working-class men as well as middle-class men were admitted to it.
The case against party labels on ballot papers was rested by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam on the fact that the central party organisation would become stronger, and that was a valid argument to adduce, although I do not believe that the appearance of a name on a ballot paper will necessarily result in that happening. In any event, we are arguing about a question of machinery about how a name makes it appearance. The hon. Gentleman suggested that instead of appearing on a ballot paper the name should appear on another paper in the premises, which is a small distinction.
I wish to suggest a different piece of machinery whereby an answer could be found to the hon. Gentleman's main point. I refer to the American practice of holding primary elections. It is often said that we cannot have primary elections under the British system of Government, because we do not have a fixed term in the House of Commons. That may well be the case with our Members, but in America it is very rare indeed that a sitting Member of Congress is unseated at a primary election. Therefore, can we not ignore that argument and say that a voter might, if he desired, but not otherwise, put on the register the fact that he wants to vote in a primary election for a new Labour candidate, a new Conservative candidate, or a new candidate from such other party as he may desire? He would 963 then have some choice himself in deciding who was to represent him. In many cases, this would be the most hotly contested election for 20 or 30 years, in the case of a safe seat. In a marginal seat one could say that to some extent the voter might be influenced by a candidate's views or might even just not like his face.
In a safe seat we all know that in practice there are virtually no possible persons who control the choice of candidate other than a small group of active party workers who sit on what the Conservative Party call their executive committee and we on this side call a general management committee—
§ Mr. Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)
As the hon. Member says, things are changing. His own party has recently had the experience that no seat is really safe.
§ Mr. English
The hon. Member will find that that was said of his party, for example, in 1956, at the time of Suez, but I think that he will also agree that he now sits for a safer constituency than he did. It is true that there are still many seats in the United Kingdom where the personal qualities of the candidate may influence the election, but the turnover of seats at any one election is very small—smaller than people outside realise, though, of course, we know it here. In the overwhelming number of seats the voter never has a choice of candidate.
The case put by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam had some validity, but it would have had a great deal more validity if he had said that the Labour voters of a constituency should choose the Labour candidate and the Conservative voters choose the Conservative candidate. Instead of that, he said that the local party or association ought to have the power rather than the central party. It is about time we considered some things of this character.
What I should like to have seen in the Bill would have been the more or less agreed measures that we have; the items which are party or Government policy, such as votes at 18—but also a scattering of controversial proposals on which we could have had completely free votes, so that we could have a proper 964 debate upon them. Valuable though this Bill is, I hope that we will try to think of some system whereby new ideas can come into our political life, because it is new ideas that in many cases we need in our political life, and more participation by voters in it, as in the case I have mentioned.
§ 6.44 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)
The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) knows from the conversations we have had that I heartily agree with what he said about secrecy in your conference, Mr. Speaker. I regret that the arguments made available to us there have not been made available to the House as a whole. But the position is not as bad as he imagines, because certain evidence presented to the conference has been published, and any of the other organisations or bodies which submitted memoranda to us could have published those memoranda had they so chosen—
§ Mr. English
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is the hon. Member's last statement a correct statement of the privileges of this House?
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Member has been here long enough to know that a point of difference is not a point of order.
§ Mr. Lubbock
All I can tell the hon. Member is that one organisation—the Electoral Reform Society—sent the conference a memorandum which it circulated amongst its membership. As far as I know, no officer of that Society was had before the Bar of the House for breach of privilege, so it must have been all right—or perhaps I am mistaken, and it might even now not be too late. But the arguments themselves, apart from the evidence, are equally important.
The hon. Member alluded to the publication of opinion polls, on which Mr. Speaker's Conference came to what I think was a bizarre decision, but as far as I can remember very little evidence on this subject was presented to us. The conclusion was arrived at on the basis of the arguments carried on internally among members of the conference. I believe that if one is to have this kind of procedure, there should be a sort of Standing Committee stage, the proceedings being reported and made available 965 to the House afterwards. One would not expect a Bill to go through the House without being dealt with by a Standing Committee, whose proceedings were published. Any other idea is ludicrous.
What the hon. Gentleman said about precedent having debarred the conference from giving of its information to the House is probably correct, I dare say—but I am not at liberty to say. All I emphasise is my hope that if we use this method in future for giving the House advice on electoral law, we will do it properly, and give not only the bare bones of that advice but the arguments on which it is based.
I shall not deal with the question of votes at 18 at any length now, as I spoke on this subject in our previous debate, but it might be very interesting for hon. Members who were not on the conference to read what kind of arguments we had there. We must have had a great deal more time to devote to the subject than the House has. We are now having a debate lasting six and a half hours, in which time we have to cover not only votes at 18 but a multiplicity of other matters. That means that we cannot go into the same detail as the conference, which continued its work over three years, could have managed to do, so the hon. Gentleman is quite right there.
I want to take up one or two points made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) who has, I am sorry to see, left the Chamber. He is, apparently, anxious to answer the arguments put for votes at 18 but not to listen to any of the contrary arguments. His argument that knowledge comes with maturity made a curious proposition. People can have very great knowledge but no maturity and, conversely, can be very mature and still have acquired no knowledge. I am not sure into which category the right hon. Gentleman himself falls, but that was a most curious proposition of his, and one that I do not think that I have ever heard advanced before.
Had the right hon. Gentleman been present, I would have asked him: how does one measure maturity? It is, of course, impossible of measurement. Maturity varies from one individual to another, so whatever we say is a question of generalisation. To suggest that 966 evidence be produced by the British Medical Association does not help us at all. I am sure that the B.M.A. would have something valuable to say on the question of physical maturity, but nothing at all about judgment, on which it is not competent to pronounce—
§ Mr. Lubbock
Yes, perhaps especially political judgment, because I do not think that the British Medical Association has particularly distinguished itself in political judgment in the past.
The other extraordinary statement made by the right hon. Member, and I hope that he will see fit to withdraw it, was that young people are racialist. I have never heard such an extraordinary and unwarranted proposition being advanced in this House. It is one for which the right hon. Gentleman has no evidence whatsoever. As I talk to the young people in my constituency, I find the very opposite to be true. The young people between 18 and 21 are more concerned with promoting racial harmony than are many of their elders, who have fixed ideas and do not want to see any kind of multiracial society created in this country. I do not know what kind of people the right hon. Gentleman talks to. They must be a very peculiar set.
§ Sir D. Glover
As the right hon. Gentleman is not at present in the Chamber to defend himself, I should say that the Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) is rather misquoting. The right hon. Member said that these were the findings of the poll, not that they were his own views.
§ Mr. Lubbock
I do not know who took this poll and on what kind of sample it was based, nor the other details. The right hon. Gentleman did not see fit to give a reference.
§ Mr. Hogg
I think that the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) is being unjust to the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss). It is no part of my function to defend him, but he referred to his speech in the debate on the White Paper and said that he had stated at length then what the nature of this investigation was. Whether that is so or not, I am not in a position to say, but that is what the right hon. Gentleman told the House.
§ Mr. Lubbock
I shall certainly refer back to the right hon. Gentleman's previous speech and see if I can find any reference to this poll. Unless we know how it was conducted and on what sort of sample it was based we cannot know whether we should attach credence to it. My own experience is absolutely contrary to the proposition. Young people are very much less racially inclined statistically than are the population as a whole. They are more keen on promoting racial harmony. Very substantial evidence has to be produced for a proposition such as the right hon. Gentleman advanced.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I hope we can get on with the debate. A large number of hon. Members wish to speak.
§ Mr. Lubbock
I do not want to spend a lot of time on the question of votes at 18 and I think I have said enough about that. I shall be coming back to it in Committee. Nor do I want to spend a great deal of time on the question of the single transferable vote, except to underline one or two reasons why we should make the change and why I shall seek to persuade the House to do so in Committee. This matter has not received sufficient attention.
I was rather struck when I listened to the Minister without Portfolio talking about his negotiations in Rhodesia. He spoke of the delimitation formula which was proposed to be adopted there and said itprovides that, as the number of Africans on the A roll increases, the Africans' chances of capturing A roll seats should increase proportionately.He was saying that whatever decision is arrived at in Rhodesia it should be such as to give the African population a fair representation in the House of Commons in relation to the number of votes cast by that section of the population.
It would be interesting to ask him why he thinks the system on which we are spending a lot of time and effort arguing with Mr. Smith—and which I agree with him is vitally necessary to safeguard the interests of the population—would not be applicable in the United Kingdom. Is it not rather curious that we are not able to arrive at an agreement in the case of the "Fearless" proposals—and I agree with the reasons given by the right hon. 968 Gentleman for not doing so—when on no occasion in this country have we suggested that there is a defect in our electoral system of the character described by the right hon. Gentleman?
With the first past the post system an hon. Member can be elected with fewer votes than are given to his opponents. We have a situation where usually the Government party has fewer votes than its opponents combined and sometimes, as in 1951, fewer than the votes for the largest single opposing party. We had the case of the successful party obtaining a majority out of all proportion to its popular support. I know that some hon. Members claim credit for this system, but it tends to give larger majorities than the difference in votes would seem to indicate.
We have had 17 General Elections since 1900 and of those six have failed to give very large majorities. Four have given no clear majority to any one party—in 1910 twice, in 1923 and in 1929. Two of those General Elections gave very precarious majorities—in 1950 and as recently as 1964. It cannot be said that automatically our first past the post system gives the leading party a very substantial majority. We find a very small number of votes can have an inordinately larger effect, as for example in 1964 when there was a Labour majority of four in Brighton, Kemptown and 14 in Ealing, North and the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) now has a majority of one.
§ Mr. Lubbock
In certain constituencies a very small number of voters can exercise a disproportionate influence on the result. Similar effects can be brought about by changes in constituency boundaries. When a few voters are transferred from one constituency to another through a boundary change it can mean the defeat of a sitting Member or a change in the whole political character of that constituency. In very General Election a very large proportion of those who vote have no effect on the election whatever. I believe an hon. Member has said that in an overwhelming number of constituencies the voter never has a choice. That is a valid criticism of our system.
969 I have mentioned Brighton, Kemptown. Until the hon. Member who sits for that constituency was elected in 1964, no Labour vote cast in Sussex has ever contributed to the election of an M. P. Conservative voters in County Durham are in the same position and in South Shields the Conservatives' failure to elect a representative of the party they prefer has been continuous since the Reform Act of 1832.
§ Mr. Lubbock
The hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) may think that is fine, but let him put himself in the position of a Conservative voter in such constituencies, or of a Labour voter in one of the Sussex constituencies, apart from Kemptown. I hope to develop this argument in greater detail in Committee.
§ Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)
The hon. Member is making good debating points on the lines of a Liberal reform system, but will he express an opinion on the adverse factor making splinter parties by which it is impossible to have firm Government of either the Left or the Right? Experience in other countries in Europe, such as France, shows the complete bankruptcy of the politics of the system the hon. Member is advocating.
§ Mr. Lubbock
The hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. J. T. Price) has displayed his total ignorance of electoral systems.
§ Mr. Lubbock
The hon. Member should not interevene if it is to make stupid remarks like that. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] He has referred to other countries, but France has never had a proportional system of election. It has had the second ballot system, which is nothing like the kind of procedure which we advocate. The single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies operates in the Republic of Ireland where it has been so successful that in a recent referendum two-thirds of its population voted for retention of the system against the advice of the Government.
It has also been successful in the Province of Tasmania, Australia where, interestingly enough, there are only two parties, Labour and Liberal, whereas in the rest of Australia there are four 970 parties, the Australian Labour Party, the Democratic Labour Party, the Country Party, and the Liberals. In the one State in Australia with the single transferable vote system there are two parties and where there is not that system there are four. I hope that the hon. Member for Westhoughton will consider the experience of other countries before he makes sweeping generalisations in talking about the single transferable vote. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not go into the argument in any greater detail now, because I promise that we shall have plenty of opportunity in Committee, providing that my Amendments on this subject are selected.
The first question which I want to ask the Secretary of State—this is a detailed point, but it may save Amendments in Committee—is whether it would not have been better in Clauses 5 and 6, which amend the Representation of the People Act, 1949, to have reprinted those Sections of the 1949 Act which are affected, such as Sections 12 and 23, so that we could have read them as a whole together with the amendments made by the Bill, instead of having to refer back constantly to the 1949 Act.
Clause 7 enjoins the registration officer to make corrections where he finds that somebody has not been included, although he had intended him to be so included. Will there be any addition to the election rules so that the list of omissions will be published by the registration officer on a suitable date, because otherwise perhaps 20 or 30 people who had been wrongly excluded from the register could be afterwards incorporated in it on the decision of the registration officer, although the political parties and others who might require this information would not be aware of it unless a supplementary list was published?
Coming to Clause 8, which deals with expenditure, I believe that, apart from the money which is spent in Parliamentary constituencies, thought should be given to the enormous outpourings by certain parties and other organisations nationally which are able to affect the results of elections. It is illogical that we should consider the expenditure by candidates in isolation.
During the 1964 General Election there was a terrific national Press advertising 971 campaign by the Conservative Party showing what different Ministers had done, how one of them had built 1,000 houses a minute, how another had erected 20 hospitals every half an hour, and how a third had constructed 1,000 schools in a fortnight. Everywhere one looked in the national Press this advertising appeared, with the grinning faces of the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) and others peering out at one.
I am not objecting to this money being spent. I say that it must have a substantial effect on the minds of the voters in the various constituencies, just as much as, if not more than, the £750 and the additional 1s. for every six entries in the register which the candidate himself can spend. It may cumulatively be a much greater amount. Therefore, I am asking whether the Government do not think that there is a question of principle here and whether there should not be a more thorough means of limiting the maximum expenditure in a General Election, which includes the money which is poured out by the parties nationally as well as their candidates in the field.
It would appear that Clause 9(1)(a) imposes a bar on pre-recordings being made and then, after nomination, their being transmitted by the broadcasting authorities. I do not see that this is necessary. I suggest that instead of "made" it should be "transmitted" in paragraph (a). That would allow the broadcasting authority greater freedom to pre-record a programme—
§ Mr. Lubbock
I will just finish the sentence, Mr. Speaker: providing that the people who had taken part in the programme were nominated, it could be transmitted later.
The much more serious thing I want to say about Clause 9 is on subsection (2), which apparently makes it illegal forany person…in managing or taking part in the management of the item or in editing it for the broadcastingto favourany of the candidates taking part".I can see this creating all sorts of difficulties for the broadcasting authori- 972 ties and for those who conduct programmes. Let us suppose that Mr. Robin Day, in interviewing myself, the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) and the Secretary of State for Scotland, gives me 20 seconds longer than he gives the right hon. and learned Gentleman.
§ Mr. Lubbock
It would be difficult because, once the right hon. and learned Gentleman gets going, he is very difficult to shut up. I have had experience of this, because I have taken part in programmes with him. I will put it the other way: let us suppose that Mr. Robin Day allows the right hon. and learned Gentleman 20 seconds longer than me—that is only too likely. Would he be guilty of an illegal practice because he has not given me or the Secretary of State the same time as he has given the right hon. and learned Gentleman? This will create all sorts of difficulties for those who are in the chair in discussion programmes and also for the producers who, after all, do not have any say in how much time each of the candidates is given.
Then there are the questions which may be addressed to the candidates. Somebody may think that Mr. Robin Day has been looking up his records. Mr. Day may find that I have never spoken on agriculture; so he asks me, "What do you think of the Price Review?" I then say, "You should not ask me that. You are guilty of an illegal practice because you are disfavouring me by asking me a question which you know that I cannot possibly answer". I think that subsection (2) should be deleted, unless the Government can bring forward much more concrete arguments in its favour than they have done so far.
On Clause 12, I agree with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam that party labels are of much greater importance in local elections than nationally. Since a number of hon. Members have mentioned the situation in London, where it is particularly acute. I should like to ask a question. I know that it is unfair on the Secretary of State for Scotland to seek to make him answer a question on London. Perhaps he can give me the reply some other time.
973 If for the reasons given by the Home Secretary it is impossible to extend this to all local elections—I appreciate that if all the candidates in 1,250 local authorities, which multiplied by 3 for the parties comes to 3,750 people, have to be authenticated in some way it will be an enormous undertaking—I wonder if special arrangements could be made for areas such as greater London where the problem is particularly acute. The London Government Act, 1963, contained separate provisions for electoral law. I suggest that somebody studies this before the Committee Stage.
Lastly, I think that the Government have made the right decision in Clause 15. I can understand that the local authority associations have objected to it, because they are mostly controlled by the Conservatives. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West put his finger on it when he said that this is the last remaining vestige of the property vote in our electoral system. I think it is about time it was removed.
I go further and assert that there is another problem which we should deal with at the same time. That is the question of people who have holiday cottages in various parts of the country and who use them as their addresses for voting purposes. This is quite a serious problem in some parts of the country, where there may be up to 700 people, so I have been told—there is very good evidence for this, and I will give it to the right hon. Gentleman if he likes to look at it at some other time—who, though normally living in a fairly small constituency, say, for only a few weeks of the year and who for the rest of the time follow their occupations in London, make their holiday cottage their principal residence and flock down there at a General Election to try to influence the result.
I should like to see a situation in which no one would be able to vote in a constituency unless he could show that his residence there was his principal residence. I suggest that this should be determined by an election court which would ask him where he spent most of his time. If a man spends two weeks or four weeks in his holiday cottage and the rest of the year in South Kensington, obviously, he should be registered in South Kensington and exercise his vote there.
974 The proposal to extend polling by one hour has caused some anxiety because it came in the recommendations of neither Mr. Speaker's Conference nor the Home Office Advisory Conference. I agree that it calls for a good deal more justification than we had from the Home Secretary today. If it would enable a lot more people to exercise the vote who are debarred from so doing under the present opening hours, I should favour the change, but I am not sure how one could ever prove that that was so. Since it will cause the maximum inconvenience and lead to delay in the publication of results, as more counting will have to take place the following morning, I suggest that, instead of making the closing hour 10 p.m. straight away, we should start with 9.15 and then, if it was found that a substantial number of additional voters were enabled to go to the poll, as shown by an increase in percentage turn-out, there would be a good argument in favour of going a little further. At the moment, however, there is no proof one way or the other, and it will create a great deal of difficulty for returning officers.
There is another point in this connection. The hours for local government elections and General Elections ought to be the same. I had hoped that the Government would propose opening the polls at 7 a.m. for local elections as is done for General Elections. On many occasions, I have found on going along to the polling stations that people arrive at 7 o'clock expecting the poll to be open, only to be told that it does not open until 8 o'clock because it is a local government election. They say, "We were down here only last month when there was a General Election, and we were able to vote at 7 o'clock". Then they may go off to work and not be able to come back before 9 o'clock in the evening, thus being deprived of their vote. I regard that as somewhat unfair.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I remind the House that many hon. Members wish to speak. Interventions prolong speeches.
§ Mr. Lubbock
I am just coming to an end, Mr. Speaker.
In general, my party will give the Bill its support, but there will be many points, such as those which I have mentioned, 975 which we shall wish to take up in Committee.
§ 7.13 p.m.
§ Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)
The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) made the usual and predictable reference from a Liberal speaker in favour of the single transferable vote. When the Liberals were a major party, they showed very little enthusiasm for it. However, it is a matter to which we shall return when we discuss the Bill in Committee.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English), I am not greatly impressed by arguments for or against any proposition simply because it comes from Mr. Speaker's Conference or from the Latey Committee's Report. The House of Commons is now discussing the matter. The House will listen to the arguments, and it will make up its mind. As for the question of a free vote, again, I should be more impressed by a call for a free vote from the Opposition if they had shown much enthusiasm for free votes on constitutional questions when they were in power. They never did.
§ Mr. Hamling
I am in favour of free votes. All I am saying is that it does not lie with right hon. and hon. Members opposite to talk about them now when they themselves, when they had power, showed no enthusiasm for them. That was all. The hon. Gentleman was not listening.
Publication of the Bill is a certain sign that in five years we shall need another. The Government have shown a certain amount of timidity in putting forward the Bill in this form at this time. In one or two directions they have shown great vision, but in the retention of aldermen, on the question of expenses, on the extension of certain provisions to local elections in addition to changes to be made in Parliamentary elections, they have shown some timidity.
I take, first, the question of expenses. The sum of £1,150 may seem reasonable in my constituency at the moment, but will it seem reasonable in five years? My feeling is that it will not. I strongly recommend that we look carefully at this 976 question. It is not we who have to carry out the requirements. The responsibility falls on our agents; we are putting on election agents the job of keeping within the law although we ourselves do not have to. This is an unfair imposition, and I regard the limits as laid down in the Bill as far too narrow. I agree with the hon. Member for Orpington, for once, when he draws the attention of the House to the scale of national advertising campaigns and calls for a review of that aspect of expenses. I hope that these will be matters to which we return in Committee.
I agree with what most speakers have said so far about party labels. Our concern here should principally be with local government elections. In my own borough, for example, we recently had a county election for the G.L.C. There were two candidates named Middleton. Perhaps I should not make this point, since the confusion helped my side, but one of the Labour candidates was elected as against two Conservatives, and it is my firm belief that it came about because a good many Conservatives voted for our Mrs. Middleton, thinking that she was the Conservative candidate. I always assume that the balance of intelligence is on the side of Labour voters. Similarly, in recent local elections we have had two Mrs. Bradleys appearing on the ballot paper. This also is confusing for a lot of ordinary people who are not as familiar with our Mrs. Bradley as, perhaps, they should be.
In some constituencies the list of candidates is surprisingly long. St. Pancras, for example, seems to go in for very long lists; I have seen as many as 24 candidates at a local election in St. Pancras. I do not know why St. Pancras should be so generous in candidates, but I am certain that, whenever there is a long list of that kind, an indication of party on the ballot paper would be a great advantage.
Although I appear a little concerned with the party aspect of the labelling question, I must add that I find it difficult to understand how the system would work. However, we shall return to that in Committee, no doubt, and consider the detail. I see nothing sinister in the proposition put forward by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
§ Mr. Hamling
No doubt, the hon. Gentleman sees something sinister in most things coming from this Government, but he is thoroughly biased.
Now, the question of broadcasting. I regard Clause 9 as reasonable, but I wish we could do something either through the Bill or in some other way to end the dreary party political broadcasts. They give neither party much real advantage. They are rather like the soap advertisements. They convince no one who knows anything of the real facts, and I wish we could see the end of them.
I wish we could have a situation in which broadcasters were given exactly the same freedom as the Press. I realise that some broadcasters are biased, but so are some journalists. We have learned to live with it and understand, and I believe that most electors have already discounted in their minds the bias of whatever newspaper they read. How else could so many hundreds of thousands of people vote Labour regularly, and yet regularly buy the Daily Express? They are impervious to all the nonsense and misrepresentation in that newspaper.
On the question of non-resident and property qualifications abolition, we had the usual predictable reaction from the hon. Members of the party opposite. This made me smile at their earlier assumption of the rightness of free votes. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharpies) said, "When we return to power we shall change it "—nothing about a free vote. The party opposite opposed the abolition of university seats and the business vote. It opposed every reform in our constitution, including the abolition of the property qualification for Members. It opposed so many of these salutary changes.
Now hon. Members opposite say that business interests should have a say in how the rates are spent. But the 19th-century battle is over. We no longer have political representation based on financial interests. That is one of the major changes that has come about in our constitutional debates, and it would be a retrograde step if we went back on that, if we were to relate voting to property, to one's wealth. [An HON. MEMBER: "No taxation without representation."] What about the workers in 978 the firms who have, by their work, contributed to the wealth of that firm? Are they to have no say?
§ Mr. Sharples
That is the very point I made. The Maud Committee recommended that the workers should have a say.
§ Mr. Hamling
No doubt my right hon. Friend will return to this point.
The proposition is a retrograde step. What does one do with one's wife in this instance? I must declare an interest, because my wife is a property owner, and a substantial ratepayer in the City of Liverpool. She has never taken advantage of the law to vote in elections in Liverpool.
§ Mr. Hamling
She keeps it as a trust. She knows the Old Testament very well.
We on this side of the House do not accept that democratic rights should be related to property holdings or personal wealth. We have moved away from that. It is very interesting that the Opposition should reserve their strongest criticism of the Bill for the overturning of one of the most reactionary principles in our constitutional history.
But they welcome my right hon. Friend's sticking to the City of London as it now is. That is one of the worst examples of timidity in the Bill. The City of London's separate entity should go, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will have second thoughts. It should be taken over by Tower Hamlets. Its rateable value would greatly contribute to the ending of squalor in that London borough.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam wanted to go back even further and return to the business vote. I was not sure whether that was now the official policy of the Conservative Party.
I come to the question of the extension of hours, and must again declare an interest. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), I represent a London seat, and I live in the same borough; I have lived there for 20 years. I am strongly in favour of extending the voting hours to 10 o'clock. My right hon. Friend said that 979 in his experience he could see no advantage, but I can. Canvassing in my constituency, I have known many an elector who has been unable to vote because he returned from work too late. Travelling to South-East London as I do regularly and often, I see an enormous number of workers who live in South-East London and do not get home until well after 9 o'clock or very late in the evening. There is a great deal of traffic down the Old Kent Road through Deptford and Greenwich at that time of night of people who live in that part of London and work well over on the other side. That also happens in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ilford. North (Mr. Iremonger). I used to work in his constituency. The extension should apply to local elections; there should be no difference.
Unlike my right hon. Friend, I am also strongly in favour of lowering the voting age. Like him, I am in favour of a free vote, but the reason is that I am always quite happy to follow the Government. I do not really need a Whip. I can make up my own mind, and, except very occasionally, support my Front Bench. I know where my duty lies—in the Government Lobby. If I am not out of Order in saying so, I am in favour of two propositions in politics—to keep the party opposite there and my right hon. and hon. Friends where they are.
Given time, Mr. Speaker, I could no doubt relate even those two propositions to the Bill.
The question is whether 18-year-olds are fit to vote, and in my view they are. If we look at mental capacity, we can visualise certain people well over the age of 21 who are completely unfit to vote.
§ Mr. Hamling
I have seen in my constituency—not my present constituency, but up North, where I used to stand—people who were clearly not fit to vote, being taken from a home to vote by attendants. 980 But we shall not apply the standard of mental capacity. We do not and should not. We say that people vote because they are a certain age.
But if we were to take the standard of mental capacity, my vote every time would be for our young people. I have taught young people for many years and am most impressed by our younger generation, a finer generation than we have ever had at that age. They are the inspiration of the V.S.O. and the driving force behind Task Force and Shelter; they are the driving force behind all the most idealistic and progressive social institutions in our society. They are altruistic and unselfish, and I have nothing but admiration for our young people. I can see nothing in any speech made today to indicate that they are unfit to vote at the age of 18. Who are the cynics, who are the dispirited, who are the disillusioned? Not our young people. Who are the most wicked people in our society? Not the young, but the old. If we are to talk about unfitness, we should look at ourselves.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Miss J. M. Quennell (Petersfield)
The hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) will, I am sure, forgive me if I do not pursue him in his argument, especially in the fascinating vista of what he is about to do with his wife. When the Home Secretary said that the Bill had no tidy or logical pattern, he was right. It is an extraordinary hotch-potch. It introduces considerable constitutional changes. It tidies up a lot of electoral loose ends. It introduces certain changes in local government elections as well.
One of the aspects open to criticism is the introduction for the first time, of separate electoral practices for local government elections and general and Parliamentary elections. This must be bad. I shall not rehearse the arguments which many right hon. and hon. Members have expressed about the desirability of local government elections conforming with Parliamentary elections, including timing, ballot paper, presentation, etc., and I would merely add that it is most desirable that they should so conform.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)
But surely there is a difference now in time.
§ Miss Quennell
I accept that, but there is to be a very considerable difference as far as the ballot papers are concerned, and that must be undesirable.
Clause 1 has attracted much attention. I shall not discuss the question of the 18-year-olds, except to ask whether the accession of the new voters to the electoral register in 1970 will in any way prejudice or delay the implementation of the Boundary Commission Reports, which are based on figures which must now be falsified by the accession of new voters to the register.
There has been considerable discussion of Clause 15. I quote my own experience. For some years, I was fortunate enough to be councillor for a large and scattered rural division of a county council. My arrival on the council was the result of a contest, the first for 33 years in that division. There was a contest because I decided I would have a "crack" at the sitting councillor. Thereafter, interestingly enough, a political party from a town 40 miles away but still within the county saw fit to persuade one of its members to stand against me. That was a good thing because I always knew that I would have a contest. It kept me on my toes and stimulated a great deal of interest within the division which would not otherwise have arisen. Thus, the Government's proposal here will mean a loss in big scattered areas where, one can infer from the Registrar-General's reports, there is not even as much as one person per acre, just a sprinkling of knee caps and elbow joints, and where it is difficult to find candidates. The proposal will mean a deprivation in the rural areas of counties.
I warn the Home Secretary that in Committee I shall seek to correct a serious omission from that part of the Bill dealing with local government. It is not widely appreciated that in certain local government elections physically handicapped persons are deprived of the full franchise solely because, while there is provision for them to vote in Parliamentary and county council elections, at district council elections they cannot exercise the same franchise as the physically normal because they are not then entitled to use the proxy or postal vote available to them in Parliamentary elections. It is intolerable that we should reduce the franchise for certain groups 982 simply because they are physically handicapped, and I shall seek to correct the anomaly.
While the hon. Member for Woolwich, West may have some constituents who find it inconvenient to vote within the existing hours, we are going to ask for an incredibly long, hard working day from polling clerks and their staffs on an election day. Even now, it is a 14-hour day, and with the proxy and postal voting devices which exist, one would have thought that adequate.
The Bill, however, recommends an hour's addition, to make the polling day 15 hours. We must bear in mind that the staff who man the polling stations, and upon whom our democracy rests on these occasions, have at least an hour's work in tidying up once polling is closed and in the sealing of the tins according to law. The preparation of the polling station beforehand probably takes as long. Thus, we are opening up the prospect of a 17-hour day—and that is a very long day by anyone's standards. It is impossible to expect people to work hours of that length and then set about the count. It looks to me as if the count will have to be the following day and the declaration of the poll that much delayed.
Then there is the elaborate and complex machinery proposed in the Bill for establishing a registration of political parties. There seems a complete weakness in the Bill in that there is no definition of a political party. Indeed, there is no attempt to create such a definition. The phrase used in Clause 12 is "registered political description". The phrase "political description" is used throughout. Yet the registrar is to have enormous power over our constitution and political life hereafter. The powers he is to be given are terrifying.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) drew attention to the registrar's difficulty if he had to decide between two parties which use the same name or description—as the Bill calls it. He could postpone or delay consideration of the application for as long as he liked, apparently. There seems to be no curtailment of that power in the Bill. Under another Clause, he might hold inquiries, but into what, when there is no definition of a political party? What is to be the 983 position in relation to people who want to call themselves "Independent Conservatives" or "Independent Labour Party"? Apparently, they may call themselves "independent" but not independent with a political description.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
I remind the hon. Lady that there is an honourable and long-lived party, the Independent Labour Party, which could register in the same way as anyone else.
§ Miss Quennell
But what criteria the registrar will apply in deciding what is Independent Labour, Independent Liberal or Independent Conservative, heaven knows. The idea that hereafter parties may have to pay fees for putting forward candidates is a principle which we have never considered before and which should now be considered very deeply.
This will be a very controversial Bill. I cannot see how it could be otherwise. I find the machinery envisaged for the registrar deeply disturbing. The Bill will have a long and complicated Committee stage on the Floor of the House when perhaps we shall be able to sort out some of the problems which so many hon. Members have observed.
§ 7.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport)
The hon. Lady the Member for Petersfield (Miss Quennell) has made a most engaging contribution to the debate, but I am sure that she will forgive me if I do not proceed along the lines of her argument.
I regard the Bill as one of the most important to be introduced during this Parliament. In the 19th century there was the great fight, which was eventually won, for full adult male suffrage, and by 1928 women over the age of 21 had obtained the vote, too. Now we have this most imaginative proposal to introduce voting at 18. The Government are to be commended on their courage in introducing it.
There are other important proposals in the Bill. One example is Clause 12, which provides that political descriptions of candidates shall be inserted on nomination and ballot papers in Parliamentary elections. I agree with the proposal as far as it goes, but I agree with other hon. Members that the political descrip- 984 tion should also be inserted on papers in local elections. I appreciate that there are difficulties, but difficulties are intended to be overcome, and in this case they can be overcome.
I have always been proud of my party affiliation. I joined the Labour Party at a very early age, and I have never belonged to any other party. In the mining valleys of South Wales it was almost axiomatic that if one were interested in politics one joined the Labour Party. Some people tend to try to give the impression that it is not quite nice to be closely associated with a political party. While I think that some political issues transcend party politics, I believe that clear party divisions are essential to the survival of our democratic institutions.
From time to time there are calls for a coalition Government, but people who make such a call are deluded, because our party system as we know it is the greatest safeguard against totalitarianism; and it was the totalitarian system which produced Hitler and Stalin. People should have a clear choice, and party labels are essential in Parliamentary elections when people not only vote for a Member of Parliament but participate in the election of the Government.
But there is also a need for labels in local government elections. My argument is borne out by the fact that almost all the major local authorities are administered by the party system. Otherwise, it could be said, they would be in a state of disarray. I know that hon. Members opposite and their party often try to make a pretence of being non-political, but I have always found that to be a loaded term. In South Wales people sometimes use different descriptions from one election to another, leading a sort of chameleon-like existence.
Speaking as the first Welsh back bencher to take part in the debate, I must say that in Wales we have a particular problem because of the similarity of names—the Joneses, the Williamses and the Davieses, and so on.
§ Mr. Hughes
And the Evanses.
I give the example of the Parliamentary election in Anglesey in 1964, when 985 he candidates included J. E. Jones, E. G. Jones and R. T. Jones. Fortunately, there was a fourth candidate who was named Hughes, and, needless to say, he won the election. I hope that the Clause will be amended in Committee so that labels can also be used in local government elections.
I also support the proposal to extend the hours of polling. Ten o'clock is reasonable in all the circumstances and will be of particular benefit to Wales. There, we are witnessing the rapid decline of the coal mining industry. Perhaps the House need not be reminded that coal has to be mined where it is found, and it is often found in the most inaccessible places. Miners tend to live near their place of work. However, with the closure of many mines in South Wales, there has arisen the problem of the siting of new factories. The valleys where the mines have existed are often unsuitable for industrial development, and the Government have, therefore, devised a strategy of siting industry and building factories at the heads or mouths of the valleys.
This, in turn, has meant that people now have to travel further to work, and likewise have further to go home in the evening. Added to that, there is the incidence of overtime working, which has long bedevilled industry and which is partly the cause of much of its inefficiency. Nevertheless, we have to accept that much overtime is worked, and, besides producing inefficiency in industry, it is a positive deterrent to people to participate in the normal democratic process.
With longer distances to travel and overtime work, people tend to come home late, have a meal, curl up by the fire and watch television, so that before they look round it is nine o'clock and the polling booth is closed. [Laughter.] The right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) may laugh, but that is nevertheless the fact, as will be borne out by the experience of many hon. Members.
The kernel of the Bill is Clause 1, which provides for votes at 18. This is an imaginative proposal and a challenge to the young. It has long been apparent that our young people are keen to participate and that they have opinions about government. Those opinions are not to be discouraged, particularly when 986 young people are now better informed than ever before. Many more are stay-on at school beyond the statutory limit; many others go to universities and colleges.
A large percentage receive some form of additional adult education or training. Hardly a day goes by without our reading in the papers about young people demonstrating, for one cause or another. Now, at last, they have the opportunity to participate in our normal constitutional process by exercising their right to vote.
Young people are maturing earlier, and eager to take on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. I was surprised to listen to the tale of woe poured out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss). I was sad to hear this, particularly bearing in mind the progressive points of view which he has put forward in his earlier days. We hear much more now about the need for participation in our affairs, and this proposal will create the feeling of involvement.
At one stroke it will introduce 3 million young people to the voting register. They can, and should, supply the boldness, imagination and idealism which tended to be in short supply in our affairs. These are the qualities that are needed if Britain is to overcome its difficulties. I support the Bill and am pleased to be associated with a Labour Government who have had the courage to introduce such a radical Measure.
§ 7.53 p.m.
§ Mr. Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)
In the interests of brevity I will not follow the hon. Member for Newport (Mr. Roy Hughes) in his dissertation, but I would support him in his contention that the party system is the bulwark against totalitarianism. While we have a strong party system we have not got a great deal to fear from the advances of totalitarianism from outside sources. Whether political parties themselves become totalitarian is another matter.
I would like to strike a discordant note, having sat through most of the speeches today, because I find the Bill a very depressing document. Apart from the question of the lowering of the voting age, with which I will deal briefly, there 987 are many other smaller but important considerations and, even putting aside self-interest and party prejudice, most of these changes are for the worse. I do not think that the lengthening of the polling hours by one hour will make any material numerical change in the pattern of voting. It will merely put an additional strain on the officials and the party workers. It will make the night's counting all the more gruelling, not only for the candidates but for all those involved.
The placing of political affiliations on the ballot paper may, in the end, cause more confusion than it seeks to end. I have always felt that, if a person is not intelligent enough to work out for himself which party a particular candidate represents, he is not really worth a vote at all. If one cannot take the trouble, before going to the voting station, to make certain that A, B or C represents Conservative, Labour or Liberal, one should not be entitled to vote. Despite the strength of the major parties, there is still a minority number of individual votes cast, particularly in local government, and it seems strange that, if this provision comes about, it should not apply also in local government.
Why depersonalise the situation further? If we wish to go to straight party labels, why not have the ballot papers marked "Conservative", "Labour", "Independent", "Liberal" or any other party? It recalls to mind the story, probably apocryphal, of the man who implied that he was so bigoted that he would vote for a pig if his party put up that animal. We have to try to get more personalities back into politics, in the interests of democracy. It could be extremely difficult, and this is a very vexed problem into which we shall go in more detail in Committee, to decide whether a particular party is allowed to use a particular label.
The Under-Secretary said that he remembered in previous years a party called the Independent Labour Party. I would accept that and regard it as a proper label to be used in certain circumstances. But what of a group of individuals or a so-called party which describes itself as "The Real Conservative Party", or "The New Labour Party", or "The Old Liberal Party", or 988 even the straight definition, the colloquial terms of "Tory" and "Socialist"?
As far as I can see, there is no objection to these names being registered. One could imagine the "old women" of both sexes being very confused by this, quite apart from the general electorate. The theme and variations of party and group labels could be infinite and, in the end, they are calculated to do more harm than they would improve the present system.
I also think that the suggestion of abolishing the non-resident vote is a retrograde and political step. It will have the effect of losing a large number of useful men and women to the service of local government, especially at a time when, as every party knows, it is very difficult to get good local government members. If there were a surfeit of talent, all well and good, I would perhaps go along with hon. Gentlemen opposite, but we know that it is extremely difficult for all political parties to get people of calibre, of service, to go on to local councils.
Inevitably, whatever the political consequences, local government will suffer. It is also particularly pointless and partisan at present, when we know that the Maud inquiry into local government is coming along shortly. It may well recommend larger units, it may recommend newly-defined areas. Why muck about now, why not leave it to see how the pattern emerges in the months to come?
I would like to support the increase in election expenditure which, I am sure, all hon. Members will find welcome because the parties have been at their wits' ends recently in trying to run an efficient campaign with a budget eroded by inflation. I am sure that hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House who have had the experience of fighting a by-election recently will subscribe to that view. My feeling, however, is that the allowance is still not generous enough. I agree with the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) in pleading that perhaps we could still, without undermining democracy, allow a larger total sum. It would not give an undue advantage to rich parties like the Labour Party; it would be perfectly fair. On the whole, we have, very carefully, because of increasing inflation, to watch this question of election expenses.
989 I am very disappointed that the Bill does not tackle two fundamental weaknesses in our present electoral system. We live under the principle that everyone enfranchised is entitled to vote, indeed, we feel that they should be encouraged to vote. Yet the classification for postal voting is very niggardly. All of us have discovered electors who find, to their annoyance, that they are disqualified because they have to go away and are out of time in applying for a postal vote. A system should and could be devised whereby postal votes could be obtained up to 48 hours before the poll. The public is abysmally ignorant of the postal vote procedure. Many people do not understand it or know how to go about applying for it and much more could be done officially in the collection and organisation of postal votes.
The biggest defect of the whole Bill is that it does not make any provision for the holiday vote. With a more prosperous society, and with better opportunities for travel, more and more people at all levels are holidaying away from home at different times of the year, not just in August. It is surely common justice that they should not be denied a vote if a by-election happens to come along in their particular area or if a General Election should fall while they are on holiday. The other fundamental weakness to my mind is that the out-of-date way in which we count our votes is perpetuated by the Bill. I know that the Home Secretary referred to the feasibility study into whether we cannot devise a new system for the counting of votes. I welcome this.
I would hope very much that in this computerised age we could, because when one looks at some of the results which have occurred over the years one realises that quite serious errors have been made in the counting of votes. It might not matter much in a constituency where the majority is extremely large and where only a handful of votes is lost, mislaid or miscounted, but it could be crucial in a key marginal seat.
Reference has been made in a different context to the contest which took place at Peterborough in the last election, which the representative of my party won by three votes, and at Kemptown, Brighton, in 1964, which the party opposite won by seven votes. We know that 990 on both those occasions there were innumerable recounts, with different results each time. It should not be beyond the wit of man to devise a system efficiently and expertly to count the votes quickly and help to put candidates out of their agony on polling night.
This Bill is basically about votes at a younger age. Many people are puzzled about the cult of youth which is going on, which is exploited by the various media and which is latched on to by so-called progressives who do not wish to seem out of date, or who may have more calculated motives. We are, perhaps, the most youth-conscious country in the world. It is in many ways surprising, because there is nothing very unique in youth. It is an experience which we have all undergone and inevitably those who are young today will themselves grow old in due course.
The one precious asset which we all have when we become older—and this was referred to by the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss)—is experience. It is something which comes with the years. One's experience is different from everybody else's. It can be applied in civic and social responsibilities. With social responsibilities, one has to equate developed experience.
The question which we must ask ourselves today—indeed, in the weeks and months ahead—is whether there is a proper dividing line and whether it should be at the age of 18. Probably most people between the ages of 18 and 21 would agree that it is a good idea to have a Parliamentary vote. I think that it would be fair to say that tht majority of people over 30, and probably in the 30–40 agre group, do not favour the idea of those younger people receiving the Parliamentary vote. As we have heard several times today, Mr. Speaker's Conference recommended overwhelmingly in favour of the age of 20, which has always seemed to me to be a sensible age. When we have a conference, why do we not accept its views?
I would like to be very contentious and say that, in my opinion, the reason is a political one. The Government think that they can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at the next General Election with the aid of 3 million voters who, like most of us in our youth, may be going through a radical and Left-wing 991 phase. I believe, however, that, not for the first time, the Prime Minister has miscalculated on this issue. So woeful has his Administration been and so tarnished is his image that he will not gain the support of the majority of these new voters if they come on to the registers.
If we are embarking on such an exercise, why should the age be 18? Why not 16? Indeed, why not 8? My son, who is an avid newspaper reader, all of 8 years old, commented the other day, quite unprompted, that "Mr. Wilson seemed to be in a mess and it was time to send for Mr. Heath. "Such a diagnosis warranted him a Parliamentary vote and I would have been very much in favour of his gaining one.
§ Mr. Smith
Short-term political considerations are a bad basis for the long-term interests of democracy. Political considerations should not enter into an issue like this. It needs to be carefully thought out if we are not to tamper with the well-tried structure of the constitution. Even taking the most altruistic view of what is taking place, I am far from convinced that this is necessarily the right step. It is too important to be viewed from the narrow vantage point of one party.
The consequence of votes at 18 will be interesting. It will be difficult to gauge the exact effect of the step initially, and probably it will be hard to attribute the course of particular voting patterns at the next General Election, but certain other patterns might well emerge in years to come.
The better and more responsible way, however, would have been to reduce the voting age one stage at a time and at each stage to analyse the results obtained. This would have been far more satisfactory and far more in the interests of democracy. It is interesting to speculate. Many people say that the Prime Minister will be remembered for many things. I think that he will be remembered for very few things. One thing for which he will be remembered is the time when he reduced the voting age to 18. I believe, also, that it will be commented and remembered that it was that step which led in the end to his political downfall.
§ 8.05 p.m.
§ Mr. Tony Gardner (Rushcliffe)
I do not want to follow the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Dudley Smith) in detail, but in defence of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister it should be made clear that the view that the voting age should be reduced to 18 has been held by the Labour Party for a considerable time. I fought two General Elections with that as one of the planks of my political platform. The idea has not, therefore, suddenly arrived at a particular time of crisis in the life of the Prime Minister. Hon. Members should be fair about this.
I want briefly to give general support to the Bill, basically because it gives the vote to some people who at present do not have it but should have it, and because it takes the vote away from people who now have it but should not have it. I am, however, in agreement with those right hon. and hon. Members, on both sides, who have complained about the way that we are dealing with the Bill tonight. Like them, I agree that constitutional issues of this kind should be dealt with on the basis of a free vote.
Having said that, however, I must also confess that if I felt strongly against any provisions of the Bill, I should have no hesitation in going into the "No" Lobby. I do not know why hon. Members opposite have made such heavy weather of all this business tonight. On various occasions, some of my hon. Friends have never found it difficult to ignore the advice given to them by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, and I have no doubt that on other occasions some of us may choose to ignore that advice again.
I should like to add my voice in support of the decision to reduce the voting age to 18, because I believe that young people between the ages of 18 and 21 will use that responsibility at least as wisely as a good many of us who are 40 and over—and I am sorry to confess that I have now reached that ripe old age.
§ Mr. Gardner
A great deal of the issues which we are debating—I refer particularly to the speech of my right 993 hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss)—have been debated many times. Every proposal to extend the franchise has been opposed on the ground that the new voters in question were incapable of acting rationally and making political judgments.
In the late 18th century, Edmund Burke, the philosopher father of right hon. and hon. Members opposite, when reflecting on the revolution in France, talked about the awful possibility of governments of tallow chandlers and the like. I do not know what he would think of hon. Members opposite today if he could be resurrected and visit this House. Again, in 1850 even a good Liberal like John Stuart Mill was rather frightened of the prospect that if the poor got the vote they would use the taxation system to exploit the rich. While it is true that they have done this to some extent, there are some hon. Members who, no doubt, believe that modern Chancellors of the Exchequer use that taxation power to exploit the poor as well.
I have been looking through the great debates which took place in the House at the end of the First World War, in 1917, particularly on the issue of votes for women. It is clear that the issue is still the same. During the long nights of the Committee stage of the Representation of the People Bill, 1917, speaker after speaker talked about how women were hysterical and emotional and were given to running off at tangents.
§ Mr. Gardner
Yes. Despite these possible disqualifications, the House decided that it was right that women should have the vote. The interesting thing is that exactly the same arguments have been used today. It has been said that young people are immature, lack experience and tend to support ideals rather than act rationally. I would not wish to tangle with my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall on logic. I do not believe that it is possible to prescribe a logical age for voting. I suppose that the present age of majority, 21, has something to do with one's ability to mount a horse wearing a suit of armour. Certainly it has nothing to do with the ability to make up one's mind on political matters. Therefore, we can- 994 not make judgments about what the voting age should be or whether or not people are capable of exercising what we may call good political judgment.
I am sure that many of us in political life have performed the very difficult and sometimes sad task of ensuring that old people know about the requirements and opportunities for postal voting. How many of us have gone to geriatric wards in hospitals to make sure that the old men and women use their democratic right? Some of them simply do not know what day it is, and yet we try to persuade them to go out and vote. We cannot make a judgment about this proposal on that kind of basis. Any voting age must of necessity be wholly arbitrary.
There are other things which we should consider. We should ask ourselves whether the mature in our society have made such a good job of things, whether the over-21s, or more likely, the over-25s, have always been wise in their political judgments over the last 20 years.
§ Mr. Gardner
Or even the last three.
The record of the last 20 years shows that on most occasions the electors have supported the Conservative Party, but that is not my point. I am talking not about political parties but about the judgments which people make on the great affairs of this world. I am not sure that we who are now in politics have given to our young people the best possible world. The real case for representative democracy—and that is what we are talking about—is a question not only of rationality or the age of majority, but whether the Government in power have to take account of the opinions, views and needs of the people they govern.
I happen to believe, with my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling), that the majority of young people have ideas about poverty, war and peace, homes, education and race which are a little more civilised than most of the views of most people of my age. For that reason, and for that reason alone, I believe that a Government elected on the basis that they must take account of the ideals and views of people between the ages of 18 and 21 are more civilised. Therefore, I support the Bill.
I welcome the proposal to put political labels on ballot papers. I confess that I 995 am in some agreement with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharpies), because I cannot understand the need for the very complicated machinery which exists to register political names. Perhaps the reason is the considerable number of pseudonyms which right hon. and hon. Members opposite have used from time to time. I picked out a list from the Library. Over the years they have been called Conservatives, Liberal Conservatives, Conservative and Liberal, Liberal National, National Liberal, National Liberal Conservative, Conservative and National Liberal, Liberal Unionist, Scottish Unionist and Ulster Unionist. At local level, the variety is even wider: Conservative Ratepayers, Progressives, Citizens. You pay your money and you take your pick.
§ Mr. Gardner
I do not think that this matters very much because a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. When the electors go to the polls, they can recognise a Conservative by the title which he uses. The difficulty comes when he describes himself as an Independent. I represent the largest single local government unit in my area, an urban district. It is a small urban district divided into very few wards. We have wards with five council seats in them. On occasions, we have five Conservatives, five Socialists, five Ratepayers, a few Liberals and a few Independents. The result is that people cannot distinguish one from the other.
I therefore welcome this proposal. If the problem of deciding who shall use political labels is real, I should have thought that we could overcome it by writing into the Bill a provision that those who use the word which is ascribed to an existing politial party should be promoted by that political party according to the rules of that party. From time to time we must look at the way in which trade unions conduct their elections. I see no reason why we could not find a formula which would avoid this messy business and the need for registration.
I welcome the proposal to alter the arrangements for property qualification in local elections. I am not in the least surprised that the local authority associations have made representations. Surely 996 the issue is whether we should base the right to vote on the fact of citizenship or on the fact of contribution. We have heard the argument that, since the business community in any town pays rates, it has the right to vote. But the business community which pays rates passes those rates on to its customers. Should not those customers have the right to vote? Leicester City Corporation, which is not far from my area, made a very substantial profit this year on its transport undertaking. Should not passengers from outside Leicester who contributed to that substantial profit have the right to a say on how it shall be spent?
I know of one very small urban district in which not one but the whole membership of the council in charge of it lives in the surrounding rural district. If by any stretch of the imagination this can be called democracy, I do not know what we are talking about. The change in property qualification will take us yet another further step forward along the road towards real democracy. I shall vote for it for that reason.
I hope that in Committee we shall have an opportunity to consider the points which have been made about the detailed operation of the Bill and not merely extend the political labelling downwards but examine how our electoral system works. I hope that we shall give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 8.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Keith Speed (Meriden)
I find myself in agreement with many hon. Members who have been distressed at the way in which we have been informed about this debate. The fact that Mr. Speaker's Conference was not able to reveal evidence means that many of us, particularly the newer Members, are working very much in the dark.
I agree with hon. Members who have spoken, about votes at 18. The fact that Mr. Speaker's Conference decided in one way or another should not influence us. In our discussion tonight about votes at 18 I have had the impression that we have been talking about cheeses rather than people. We have heard a lot about maturity, and ripening into maturity. Some hon. Members have been a little patronising. I am 34 years of age. I was young 10, 12 or 13 years ago. I am sure that the present generation of people 997 between the ages of 18 and 21 have a real share of idealism, as all younger generations have had, right through the ages. Those who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War were prepared to turn their idealism into action, although some of us may not agree with what they did. Many other young people between the ages of 18 and 21 could not care less about our present problems. Nevertheless, many are concerned, and feel frustrated about them.
That is not the main point. With respect: to my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Dudley Smith) and certain other hon. Members who are unhappy about giving votes at 18, I would point out that we can all think of a certain age at which votes should be given. In this matter one is reminded of the question, "How long is a piece of string?". There is no ideal age at which a person should exercise his right to vote. In view of educational and other advances that have been made, however, it is clear that the age of 21 is no longer appropriate, especially if legal responsibilities are to be given to people at the age of 18.
One great social change is taking place, in purely financial terms. A young, single man working in industry—not as an apprentice, and with no intention of training for higher education—is probably contributing more to the economy, by way of direct and indirect taxation, than a man twice his age. That is one argument why people of that age should be given the vote.
Hon. Members have also referred to young people in the Services. At the age of 18 I was engaged in a fairly responsible job in the flying control of an aircraft carrier in the Korean War. I did not have the vote then, and so I had no say in the political complexion of the Government who sent me to Korea. But it went further than that, because although I became 21 years of age in March, 1955, and the General Election was held in May, 1955, because of the extraordinary system that still exists I was not entitled to vote then, and did not vote until the General Election of 1959, by which time I was 25. To me that situation is completely unacceptable.
At the age of 18 or 19 many young people are happily married, and wish 998 to take on responsibilities. Many have one, two or three children. Some people may say that they have married too young, but it is a fact of life that we have to face. It is what the law allows, and shortly the law will allow such people to enter into contracts and do many other things. For those reasons there is a strong argument for giving young people the vote at the age of 18. Nothing that I have heard outside or inside this Chamber has dissuaded me from that view.
We must bear in mind the fact that the vast majority of young people are not straining at the leash to have the vote at 18. That is my experience in talking to young people. Nevertheless, the arguments in favour of it are cogent and, that being so, we should consider the effect that giving these people the francise will have on some hon. Members, because it is very important. I have already rehearsed some of these arguments in a previous debate. I then received no reply. I hope that I shall get one tonight. I then asked the Home Secretary, by way of a Parliamentary Question, what would be the increase in the electorate of an average constituency by granting votes at 18. I was told that, on average, it would add 6 per cent. to the electorate in any given constituency, plus 2 per cent. for the first time only, because of the problems of people who were not getting the vote between the ages of 21, 22 and 23.
The figure of 6 per cent. means, in a constituency of 50,000 or 60,000 an additional 3,000 or 4,000 votes. My researches in this matter have not yet been disproved. The situation is more complicated than some people think, because in a very small constituency, in the heart of a city that is dwindling, a lower than average number of people is entitled to vote. We all know of constituencies in the hearts of cities with electorates of 20,000, 22,000 or 25,000. In some cases a vast number of young people live in such constituencies, but are not registered to vote there because they are in bed-sitters.
We all know of some sprawling growth constituencies which are considerably larger than the average—80,000 plus. My researches show that there is an above-the-average number of young people in 999 such constituencies. In the present situation the disparity between the large and the small constituencies will be exacerbated by giving votes at 18. I am in favour of giving people votes at 18, but, since I represent one of the largest constituencies, my situation will get worse. The vote in my constituency is likely to rise by considerably more than 6 per cent. We have heard a lot about democracy in respect of local government elections, but it seems to me that if democracy is to mean anything it is important that we should devise some means to redress the balance, so that there is not such a great difference between the very large and the very small constituencies.
I have referred to the question of redistribution. If the situation is to be made worse by the passing of the Bill—as will undoubtedly be the case—there is a strong case for the Government's implementing redistribution within six months of receiving the report from the Boundary Commission. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me that assurance tonight, because many other hon. Members who represent constituencies like mine will otherwise find themselves in a difficult position.
On the question of party labels, I agree with those hon. Members who say that the new proposal is nonsensical in its present form because it does not cover local elections. In respect of General Elections, I echo the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington that we must think the electorate pretty dim if we think that it needs political affiliations to be spelt out in such a way. I can see real difficulties arising. I am told by Parliamentary agents that the present scheme will be largely unworkable and probably not understood by small parties and people who wish to stand to fight for a particular cause—anti-vivisectionists, or people who are anti-Common Market or pro-teen-age party, or whatever it may be.
The question who will supply the registrar with the licences is also an important one. I must declare an interest, in that I am a former employee of the Conservative Central Office. I do not wish to be disloyal to it, but I must point out that ultimate wisdom does not lie in the Conservative Central Office, or in 1000 Transport House, or in the Liberal Party headquarters, or whatever it may be. My first responsibility is to my local political party and not to the boss-men in No. 32 Smith Square. I am sure that hon. Members opposite feel the same about their local political parties.
We could examine the splits and schisms of the party opposite—Labour and National-Labour before the war—and the problems that occurred then. One also knows the problems that can occur in a constituency where a party wants to ditch its present Member or candidate and adopt someone else. We can see many problems arising from giving too much power to the party machines. I echo what the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharpies) said. If this proposal goes through it will take away the influence of local parties.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) spoke of primary elections. It is a mistake for a Government to tell political parties or individuals what they should do. There is nothing to stop any political party having a primary election if it wishes. When my party's candidate was chosen for Brighton, Kemptown, there was virtually a primary election for all the members of the Conservative Association. Thousands of them turned up at the Winter Gardens, or wherever it was, to cast their votes for candidates. Earlier this year, when I was chosen as the Conservative candidate for Meriden, a special meeting was held to which all paid-up members of the association were invited to come and say whether or not they liked me as the choice. Indeed, there have been cases where similar meetings have resulted in the committees being told to go away and put forward another candidate. It is wrong for the Government to be expected to legislate to tell people what they should do. If people are to work in the political machine, one has to command their confidence and trust; otherwise, in the final analysis, they will neither work for nor vote for one.
A lot has been said about local government voting, residential qualifications, and the rest of it. I hope that the Government will look again at the possibility of allowing people who work but do not live in an area to be allowed to stand for the area in local government elections. This is well worthy of consideration, following the Maud Report. Considerable 1001 and radical changes are due in local government, about which we may hear before this Bill goes through all its stages. In the present state of play, it would be foolhardy to introduce a change of this sort which may be upset completely by a new form of local government. If the arguments about property and qualifications for standing at local government elections have any force, they seem to raise equally good arguments for doing away with the rating system. However, that is another matter, and I will not go into it now.
There is an argument for saying that Members of Parliament should reside in their constituencies. I live two miles from mine, and I should be happy to move across the boundary. However, some hon. Members who are keen on people standing for local government living in their wards, might not be so keen to live in their constituencies.
Returning again to the subjects of democracy and the representation of the people, I am most concerned about redistribution, not because I must declare a personal interest in that, by 1971, I shall have the largest electorate in the United Kingdom, but because there is a very important principle at stake. Under the present system, while hon. Members are expected to attend to their constituency duties and their parliamentary duties in this House on national affairs, an intolerable financial and physical burden is being placed upon them, when one considers the great disparities between electorates of 130,000 or 140,000 and others of 20,000 or 15,000. It is not fair to the people whom we represent that their votes should have only one-seventh or one-eighth the attention of those of people living in cities. If we pass this Bill and especially that part of it dealing with votes at 18, with which I agree entirely, we shall make the situation worse. Representation of people can have any meaning only if the Government give a clear pledge that redistribution will be effected without delay.
§ 8.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)
I agree with the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed) in supporting the proposal for the vote at 18 years of age. I am glad that he has drawn attention to the arithmetic. A person born in the 1002 second half of 1938 would not have cast a vote in a Parliamentary election until 1964, by which time he would have been 26. By bringing the effective age down to 18, most people will vote for the first time in Parliamentary elections from the age of 20 and upwards. A small proportion will vote at 18, but most of them will not vote until they are 20 or 21.
The only point with which I want to deal is one which has not been discussed very much in this debate nor in the previous one. It concerns the compilation of the electoral register.
Whatever the law says about the right to vote at 18, if people are not on the register they cannot vote. I am surprised that so little attention has been paid in the debate to the system of compiling the register and appeals for inclusion or, for that matter, exclusion. I suspect that the present system is not very well understood by the general public.
Compilation takes place at a time when the general public are far from thinking about elections. This is inevitable, because there must be a time lag between the compilation of the register and the election. However, difficulties are created when people who have not been paying much attention to this process find, after 16th December or a similar date, that they do not have the franchise for another 14 months; that is, if they are not on the register.
Why do we have this weird system of dating these matters? What significance has 10th October as a qualifying date or 28th November for the publication of the lists? Why is 16th December laid down for those who wish to appeal, and why is 16th February laid down for the publication of the register? When I have been an election agent I have been questioned about the significance of these dates and have been unable to give the answer.
Could we not have a system of dates which is more easily recognisable and which, over a period, people would come to recognise as the dates by which they should be paying attention to their electoral rights? I defy any hon. Member to ask the passer-by, the ordinary voter—the same might be said of people who are interested in politics—the meaning of these dates, or even what the dates are. 1003 I am sure that they could not answer. I am equally sure that not sufficient publicity is given to this process and that the general public do not know enough about getting on to the register.
The Home Secretary referred to the possibility of publishing two registers a year, and mentioned the likely cost. Such a course would not settle the problem. We would still have the problem of informing the electorate of the process involved and their rights—of ensuring that it becomes common knowledge that on a certain date the public must see that their names are on the list and that, if they are not, they will not get a vote.
In May, 1967, an interesting study was conducted by the Home Office into the problem of the degree of error in the electoral list. Although at first sight an error of 4 per cent. overall does not seem appalling, it means, by my calculations, that nearly 1½ million voters who should have been on the list, and who were entitled by law to be on it, were not included.
The error becomes worse with the passage of time, as people move from one address to another and as they are not living at the qualifying addresses shown on the register. Between the original compilation of the register and its publication, we see that the error has grown by 3 per cent., so that not 96 per cent. of the people are correctly registered but only 93 per cent., and as the register gets older the error increases, so that by the end of the electoral register's life it is only 85 per cent. accurate.
In other words, the people listed at the addresses shown on the register are accurate only to the tune of 85 per cent. A system which permits this element of error in a matter so important as the franchise, which is the most important civic right anybody has, is inadequate and needs urgent study.
Not only is this error overall, but there are different margins of error according to different groups of people. In view of the Government's intention to reduce the voting age to 18, they should seriously consider this substantial error in the registration of "Y" voters where, according to the survey which I have quoted, there is a 26 per cent. error on 1004 the register as it stands. This means that only about 74 per cent. of "Y" voters who are entitled to be on the list actually get onto it.
The survey also shows that, in the 25 and under age group, there is a 7 per cent. error compared with a 4 per cent. error overall, and that in the 25 to 29 age group the error is 6 per cent. There is also a high degree of error in respect of people who move house during the previous 12 months.
I believe that our present system of registration deserves a great deal closer scrutiny than it has been given, and that the Bill would provide a good opportunity, since we are making so many minor administrative reforms as well as major constitutional changes, to study very much more closely the techniques of registration, particularly as nowadays we have such sophisticated methods as data processing and the use of computers.
My right hon. Friend referred to a study which had been made on the use of computers. I have a copy of this study, although I have not yet read it very closely. It claims that, within five years, computers will be in use at local level throughout the country for the compilation of the electoral register. If that is the case, very serious attention should be given to whether this antiquated system of dates, which seems to go back a couple of decades or more, should not be revised, and whether we cannot do things a little more expeditiously and a little more clearly.
It seems, on the face of it, rather odd that more than five months should elapse from the official qualifying date to the actual date of the publication of the register—from 10th October to 16th February; that in these days, when we have all these data processing techniques, it should take such a long time to produce the register. The longer the lapse of time, the more inaccurate the register becomes.
A great deal more attention should be given to publicising the register and making it available to people for checking. At present, it is usually on a shelf somewhere in public libraries, or hidden in a corner in some post office. I do not believe that it is in all post offices. I remember once having an argument in Sheffield to get the register displayed 1005 in a post office on a new housing estate, where it was particularly important that people should be able to see it. There were very strange objections to that being done, though I never found the basis for them.
I see no reason why the Government should not place a statutory obligation on every bank to display the draft electoral register. The banks have all sorts of statutory obligations—why not require them to put in a suitable space a copy of the register? Every post office might easily be required to display it. Why no: have a copy in every school? That may sound an odd proposition, since school children cannot vote—
§ Mr. Hooley
—but it would draw the attention of the children to the existence of this document. They could discuss it, teachers could draw attention to it, and the children, in turn, might have some influence on their parents, at any rate at that time of the year. And that is the lime when citizens should be paying attention to their right to be on the register.
I would go further. I believe that a citizen should have a statutory right at any time to claim to be included in the electoral record, with the exception of the brief period between the publication of the notice of an election and the polling day itself. I believe that there are countries where, in substance, this is done, though I cannot, offhand, quote chapter and verse. In a matter so fundamentally important as the franchise, a system should be devised by which a citizen who finds that, by administrative accident or his own oversight, his name is not included, should be able to make a statutory declaration, if necessary before a magistrate or in proper legal form, saying, "Unfortunately, my name has been left off the list. Nevertheless, I am an elector. I reside in such-and-such a street. I require you to register me as an elector" for the constituency, ward or electoral district.
This would not require monstrous administrative arrangements. It could be done. I am quite convinced that in a matter as important as the franchise we are far too casual, far too haphazard in the compilation of the electoral register, and in making certain that all 1006 citizens who have the right to vote can exercise their vote.
§ 8.45 p.m.
§ Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) has concentrated on the matter of the register. That is the first point on which I wish to comment, although I would not go so far as he does. From my experience at a by-election not long ago, I am pleased that Clause 7 will make provision for amendment of the register for inadvertent omissions from it, because a large number of voters in one street on that occasion found themselves unable to vote and could do nothing about it.
There is a matter concerned with the mechanics of the Bill about which I am displeased. That is the failure of the Government to extend the absent voters arrangements to cover voters who are away on holiday. At the same by-election, a very few days after the middle of September, not hundreds but thousands of my constituents were away from home on holiday and could not get a postal vote. There is strong feeling on this matter among those who are affected. It will be a great pity if we do not take the opportunity given by this Bill to increase the scope of postal voting and put this matter right.
I strongly support what has been said by several hon. Members on both sides of the House about the extension of voting hours. I am particularly pleased to be able to agree with the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), whom I unsuccessfully opposed in a General Election a few years ago. Against that very slight and questionable advantage of people being able to vote in that final hour there are grave disadvantages to be set. I hope that the Government will have second thoughts on this matter.
We have made clear from this side of the House—and I am glad that my hon. Friends have been so forceful about it—our opposition to the change in local government elections as provided in Clause 15. Some voters will feel even more remote than they are already from the processes of local government. The provision will limit still further the ranks from which candidates at local authority elections can be drawn. It will restrict the number of professional people who can 1007 stand for election. In both respects this seems exactly the opposite of what we want. I am glad that we on this side of the House will oppose it vigorously.
My last point concerns the first point in the Bill and the main one that we are considering tonight, the reduction of the voting age to 18. I hope that I am not coloured in my views on this by the accident of representing a constituency which contains a university. More important, I hope that hon. Members and the public will not be influenced in making up their minds on this subject by the current publicity given to a very small minority of students, because students as a whole are a small minority of the total age group that we are discussing. We have to look at this age group as a whole and make up our minds about it. I find it exceedingly difficult to make up my mind on this matter.
The Government are going against the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference, and those of us who were not members of that Conference do not have access to the evidence and arguments which were weighed before coming to a conclusion. Here is one of the few subjects on which there has not been public demonstration in the last few years. There has not been much pressure for votes at 18. Indeed, there is no sign of the Strangers' Gallery bursting at the seams tonight to hear what we are discussing.
§ Mr. Lane
That is true. The majority of comparable democracies do not have votes for people as young as 18. Yet if we believe that some change is desirable, we do not have to wait until the pressure builds up irresistibly or until we see that the majority of other countries have taken the same step.
It has been generally accepted, though there is some difference of view about it on the benches opposite, that today young people reach maturity, however we define this word, earlier than they did 10 or 20 years ago. This was at the basis of many of the recommendations of the Latey Committee, which are now being incorporated in the Family Law Reform Bill. The Latey Commitee's recommendations and the consequent Bill are 1008 obviously among the main factors that we cannot help taking into account when we are making up our minds on this issue.
A distinction can be drawn between private rights, which were covered by the Latey Committee, and the civic rights that we are discussing on the Bill. There is a clear indication of this in paragraph 25 of the Latey Report, which says that the Committee does.not accept that the oivic and the private field would or should necessarily go together".I suggest that we should not exaggerate the degree of separation between them, because the one is very relevant to the other in this connection.
It is also arguable that if a man or woman of 18 is to be still more fully exposed to the majesty of the laws of the land he or she can claim the right to have some say in choosing those who will make those laws. If the Latey recommendations are carried into effect in legislation, and if in future the age of majority for these important purposes covered by the Latey Committee is reduced to 18, it will strike an increasing number of people as odd and wrong that the voting age should not be the same. We shall see building up thereafter pressures which we should perhaps be wiser to forestall by reducing the voting age in line with the age of majority as recommended by the Latey Committee.
Weighing up all the arguments for and against, I come down in favour of the provision in Clause 1, though only by a very small margin, for three other considerations. First, I believe that we in politics have always under-estimated the general astuteness of the electorate. I hope that we shall not make the mistake of under-estimating the shrewdness and judgment of the age group of 18–21 that we are discussing tonight.
Secondly, if the voting age is reduced to 18 I believe that it will help to achieve what we all want—that is, a greater feeling of involvement by young people and a reduction in the current cynicism.
Thirdly—this is a point which was mentioned from the other side of the argument, but it applies to this side of the argument in favour of Clause 1—even if the qualifying age is lowered to 18, the average age of men and women voting 1009 for the first time will be about 20, compared with 23 today.
I appreciate that we on this side are having a free vote.
I add support, finally, to the point eloquently made by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed). It is deplorable that tonight we are debating the Bill in the absence of any commitment by the Government about redistribution as a result of the Boundary Commission. We are getting more and more conscious that jumbo constituencies are emerging. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden mentioned one. My hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) spoke about this problem in an earlier debate.
Each year we are getting further and further from the principle of one man one vote in Parliamentary elections as this discrepancy in size increases. Obviously it will get greater still by several thousands in some cases if Clause 1 is carried into effect. If we decide to reduce the voting age, it becomes even more urgent that the Government should act promptly on the recommendations of the Boundary Commission. If they delay, I believe that they will be open to very grievous censure by the House and the country.
§ 8.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Alan Lee Williams (Hornchurch)
I hope that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) will forgive me if I do not comment on the earlier part of his speech, though I found myself very much in agreement with the latter part. In the two or three minutes at my disposal, I shall comment, first, on the speech of the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Dudley Smith)—not in the Chamber at the moment—who accused my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister of bringing in a proposal for votes at 18 simply because he thought that there would be support among young people for the Labour Party.
The hon. Gentleman is referring to the wrong leader of the party in this connection. It was Hugh Gaitskell who, on behalf of the Labour Party in 1959, was responsible for setting up a youth commission under the chairmanship of the present Lord Chancellor. As a member of Transport House staff at the time, I was responsible for servicing that inquiry. 1010 We came out in favour of votes at 18. The conclusions of the inquiry were published just before the General Election in 1959 and, unfortunately, they were lost in the general picture and did not figure largely in that campaign. But that was the date when the Labour Party first came out in favour of votes at 18.
The main argument for lowering the age for the franchise is to be found in the pressures which face young people. I refer principally to the commercial pressures. I believe in the old saying that there should be no taxation without representation. The earning power of young people today is such that they form a very wealthy group. It is not often appreciated that the amount of money in their hands normally on a Thursday or Friday is quite striking, working out in terms of a year at about £1,500 million, which means, roughly, £30 million a week. That is the same amount as we spend on defence, and almost twice as much as we spend on National Health Service costs.
In short, young people have about 8 per cent. of the total national income, which is about £18,000 million. Thus, in a sense, one can regard them as an extremely wealthy group. One has to take deductions into account, of course; they have responsibilities at home, they have to pay taxation and pay for social security benefits, but one is talking about a sum of £900 million, in round figures.
Young people today have a lot of money, and they have the responsibilities which arise from having money. What is more, commercial interests concentrate very much on this section of the market. In that sense, therefore, it is only right that they should have a corresponding say on the political side. There is considerable evidence that the young are exploited commercially. Without wishing to get involved in the argument, I must express a little anxiety about some of the present proposals regarding the age of majority. As young people are independent in the economic sense, if they are to be allowed to enter into hire-purchase contracts and the like, without necessarily having experience in such matters, they may be led into considerable difficulty.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), I consider that a distinction ought to be drawn here. 1011 It may be argued that it is not a logical distinction, but I think that there is an element of logic in it. I am happy with the proposal for votes at 18, but I am not sure that it is wise to throw on young people responsibility in hire-purchase and other obligations which flow from what is regarded as the age of maturity.
§ 8.59 p.m.
§ Mr. Quintin Hogg (St. Marylebone)
One can no more vote against the Second Reading of this Bill than one could vote against the Second Reading of the telephone directory. There is no single principle within it against which one could vote. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharpies) said in opening, the great majority of the Bill's provisions are either actively supported or, at the least, not objected to by all right hon. and hon. Members. Therefore, I shall concentrate as much as I can on those elements in the Bill which are controversial.
There appear to be four: the question of votes at 18; the question of authorised party labels; the abolition of the non-resident and property qualifications for voting and serving on local councils; and the question of polling hours.
I also share the views expressed by more than one of my hon. Friends that the Bill fails to make adequate provision for postal voting, particularly in relation to holidays. One cannot but contrast the Government's eagerness to extend the polling hours with their reluctance to make any concession on postal voting, although the two proposals have a certain relationship to one another. The extension of polling hours, at considerable inconvenience to the staff, and, at any rate in London, with only a marginal utility in respect of votes, could very largely be avoided by more generous provisions for postal voting.
I agree with those of my hon. Friends who said that the provisions for the maximum legitimate expenses in local elections should be more generous than they are. I have more than once warned in the House that where maxima are too low there is a tendency to fudge the accounts. I have given that warning hitherto, I think, in relation to parliamentary elections. The Bill extends the 1012 maxima in relation to those elections, but I am rather of the opinion that the maxima in relation to local elections are too small. The Home Secretary has explained to me that for very good reasons he cannot be here at the winding up speeches. I told him that none the less I might, with great reluctance, be a little critical of him. I accept his explanation that the Secretary of State for Scotland is a more than adequate understudy, and I shall therefore proceed to be mildly disagreeable about the controversial items in the Bill.
I see more than a coincidence in the four controversial points that have emerged. I have already pointed the contrast between the Government's eagerness to extend the polling hours and their reluctance to make concessions in relation to postal voting. But what about the contrast pointed by several of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed), between the enthusiasm for stopping local electors from voting for the candidate of their choice, in the name of democracy, and the remarkable reticence, amounting to coyness, even disingenuousness, about the Government's refusal to commit themselves to a redistribution of the parliamentary constituencies, so as to ensure that each vote cast has approximately the same value, at whatever inconvenience and injustice to the electors? That, coming from a party which is constantly casting its eyes across St. George's Channel with a noise of rebuke to authorities in Stormont, comes remarkably ill.
Again, one can draw a separate kind of contrast between the enthusiasm to give the vote to 18-year-olds on the basis, as the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Alan Lee Williams) has just reminded us, of the vast property qualifications which they now represent and the abolition of the rights of voters with a property qualification to vote in local elections in the constituency where they are taxed.
A visitor from Mars might be puzzled at these contrasts, but we are not visitors from Mars. We were not born yesterday. We know perfectly well the reason why the Secretary of State was so complacent in his opening. It is because, in what should have been an uncontroversial Bill, he has managed to introduce about four pieces of political gerrymandering. That 1013 is why he was so good humoured and why the Secretary of State for Scotland is busy writing down his notes like a cat that has been at the cream.
§ Mr. Hogg
I have not really got going yet. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, who has always been very courteous to me, but there is a point here. On at least two of these cases the Government have gone against Mr. Speaker's Conference. This prompts me to say that we must ask ourselves whether we are really sincere when we keep on praising Mr. Speaker and his Conference.
This is the third of three debates. Each time we have paid what we modestly call "tributes" to Mr. Speaker's Conference. I wonder whether we are sincere. I wonder whether we should ask ourselves what Mr. Speaker's Conference is for, what it is about, and how long it can go on if its principal recommendations are being disregarded. My conviction is that Mr. Speaker's Conference has a particular constitutional function, and this is quite irrespective of the question of whether its minutes are published and is not a matter of legitimate controversy, although I have noted with a good deal of sympathy some of the criticisms of the present practice that has emerged in the debate.
As I see it, the sponsors of the theory of Mr. Speaker's Conference have a genuine danger in mind. This is that, in any given Parliamentary situation, one side of the House, in modern conditions elaborately organised and smoothly disciplined—on matters of this kind, of course—is able to take, if it wishes, an electoral advantage, a party advantage, over the side which represents the Opposition. Those who have supported the theory of Mr. Speaker's Conference have done so in the hope, and, up till now, in the belief, that this danger will be circumvented if changes in our constitutional rules and the rules we play of getting in and not getting in are not changed by virtue of a temporary parliamentary democracy, because that way leads to political corruption, gerrymandering, and even, possibly, to tyranny.
I must say that I view the disregard of Mr. Speaker's Conference even in small matters with a good deal of disquiet. 1014 I know it is true—so the right hon. Gentleman need not put this down in his little note book—that there was one point on which I differed from Mr. Speaker's Conference. This was on the recommendation that opinion polls should not be published within 48 hours or so of the election. But that was not a matter of party controversy and I think, therefore, that the Government were entitled, without breaching the general principle I have annunciated, to differ from Mr. Speaker's Conference on this point in toto. I complain of the Bill because, under cover of an uncontroversial Measure, the Government have introduced some serious pieces of political gerrymandering and introduced also a serious breach of political principle. I must apologise for not giving way earlier to the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling), and I now do so.
§ Mr. Hamling
I am most grateful. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has sat down at precisely the moment which suits my case, because he has been talking about importing gerrymandering. Surely the abolition of the property qualification, the abolition of absentee voting, is the abolition and not the introduction of gerrymandering.
§ Mr. Hogg
I do not think that it has been called gerrymandering before, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not be disappointed, if I manage not to overrun myself, with the degree of attention which I give to that problem, but I have not reached it yet.
That brings me in the order of my discussion to votes at 18. I say at once that I am conscious of having made two rather closely related speeches on this topic recently and, with the permission of the House, I will not repeat myself more than is absolutely necessary for the point which I am about to make. It is the fact that I am personally opposed to this proposal. In that I have the misfortune to differ from my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) and several others of my hon. Friends, but I have the advantage of the powerful support of the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss).
In a word, my argument is based not upon any lack of maturity at 18, as to 1015 which dogmatism is probably out of place, but upon the conviction that there is a case for a period of time after maturity, of which three years is prima facie not a bad period, in which to go about the world getting experience before one is held to one's contracts, before one makes an irreparable mistake in marriage and even before one has what I still regard as the privilege, as well as the right, of the parliamentary franchise.
Having heard the debates about this, I believe that I might well be in the minority on this point, even though the matter were committed to a free vote of the House. Nobody would be happier than I if that were the case than that I should yield, as I always do, to the opinion of the majority, but I must confess that I regard the Government's decision to put on the party Whips as a parliamentary outrage.
After all, Mr. Speaker's Conference came to a contrary conclusion. What is being done here is that experienced and universally respected hon. Members from all parties, including the party opposite which, I suppose, formed the majority of Mr. Speaker's Conference, respected, universally honoured and experienced members of the party opposite among others, are being dragooned by the Whips into the Lobby contrary to their expressed and published opinion. I cannot see the necessity for this.
The Home Secretary said that this was a matter upon which the Government should give advice. But I cannot see for the life of me why the Government should give advice. Do they seriously think that their own supporters are not sufficiently prudent in political matters to come to a conclusion upon this topic of their own accord? Or are the Government, like a raddled political courtesan, so apprehensive of the possible results of seeking the embrace of an electorate which has already shown un-mistakeable signs of disliking their haggard and meretricious approach, that they try to take refuge among the inexperienced and the gullible and, not content with the art of seduction, have now descended to the practice of rape?
It may be that the young are more idealistic than the old, among whom I am beginning to class myself. I have not noticed this in my life. I have noticed 1016 that they are more easily led to strange causes of one sort or another. I do not think they are more or less idealistic than the old. Some people get better as they grow older and other people get worse as they grow older—and I do not pretend to say into which category I fall.
§ Mr. English
I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman could only produce the sort of sentence he gave us earlier after a prolonged reading of Gibbon. Does he recollect that, upon this issue, the electorate accepted our embraces with considerable affection?
§ Mr. Hogg
But they will never do so again, not in my lifetime, and I hope to live till I am one hundred.
That brings me to the question of party labels. Here I must confess to a modest change of heart. I started with a prejudice in favour of this proposal. I thought that there was a good deal to be said here, and what is more I think that the electorate would like it. I am bound to say that having seen the proposals in the Bill I have changed my mind. Anything which takes four pages and a bit of a Schedule and a page and a half of Statute to explain cannot be very good electoral practice. When I learned by penetrating this thicket that did not include any provision for local elections, which is the only area in which it would do any good, I turned against this proposal in rather a big way.
I am bound to reflect, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames, that the extended power it will give to the central party machines is not intrinsically a good thing. But surely it is wrong to give parties a copyright in names? Why should not someone who thinks that I am either a dangerous Socialist or a wet Liberal call himself a true Conservative? I have no doubt that somebody will try to do so, and I do not see why he should not. If someone does not think that the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) represents the true McCoy of Gladstonian liberalism, why should he not get up and say, "I stand as a Gladstonian Liberal"?
What about the fancy names? Why not have God's Candidate, or the People's Candidate or the Queen's Candidate? These things are all right if people do it off their own bat, but once they get the 1017 imprint of some mysterious central registrar, with a stamp showing that they have paid the requisite fee for this title, they will get some kind of official blessing. On the whole, I believe that the whole proceeding has become more trouble than it is likely to be worth, and I am against it.
Being so disgustingly old I am bound now to have my revenge over a debate we held 20 years ago, when we last discussed this matter. Then the party opposite destroyed what was a very harmless, and to my mind very convenient practice, which would have rendered this proposal wholly unnecessary. During the greater part of my adult life, candidates issued to electors, as part of their free election material, a thing which was called a polling card. It is not what we call a polling card today because it contained one's name in thick type with a nice fat cross against it to show exactly what one expected the elector to do when he got into the polling booth.
At local elections, when, as we heard, there are often 18 to 20 candidates, this was a very convenient practice. The party opposite, despite my warning, treated this as a very undemocratic process. They thought the electors were so open to suggestion that once they saw the name of "Hogg" with a cross against it, they would all flock to do what Hogg required, forgetting that there was another set of polling cards which said exactly the opposite at the disposal of every other candidate. If we would only go back to the system which should never have been disturbed, the whole of this party label business would be rendered unnecessary and all the objection to it would disappear. The 4¼ pages of Schedule and the 1½ pages of close print would be omitted.
That leads me to the question of local franchise. It contains the two salient examples in the Bill of a deliberate and cynical attempt to change the rules of elections in the brief moment of party supremacy which remains to hon. Members opposite. I beg them even now to think better of this device. I have seldom known meanness to pay in politics. The public remembers and resents it. I agree with my hon. and right hon. Friends that the lesser of these two proposals—that is, the question of the vote—contravenes 1018 the principle of no taxation without representation.
I look to the hon. Member for Horn-church, to defy his party Whips and to vote with us in Committee in support of the principle which he advocated so eloquently. It is very strange that the grammar schoolboy should be given the vote at the local election at 18 and that the person who will be taxed by rates in the constituency will have it taken away. I wonder what justification for the proposal exists, except for the absurd preoccupation of hon. Members opposite with the mere fact of residence.
There was a saying in, I believe, the Talmud that where a man's heart is there is his treasure also, and where a man's treasure is there is his heart also. But I cannot say that it is necessarily true that where a man's bed is there is his treasure also or, for that matter, his heart. Without endeavouring to show the wanton idealism which, as a result of this debate, I have come to associate with grey hairs, I am bound to say that I fail to see the logic of this approach.
So far as the vote is concerned, the matter is relatively inoffensive because it is relatively unimportant. It only breaches a fundamental principle, and that the Government do every day of the week. Therefore, we need not pay much attention to it. The result will be relatively small. But I should have thought that even this Government would have thought twice before limiting the supply of qualified candidates eager and able to serve in local government.
Although, as the House knows, I have had no direct experience of local government, I have always thought that this House derived a great deal of its virility from the fact that we have never made the mistake of the American Congress of insisting that electors could vote only for their neighbours residing in the same electoral district. That was a great error of the Founding Fathers and I have never ceased to rejoice that we never made it, even though the origins of our liberality of practice may not have been wholly respectable.
We were challenged by one hon. Member opposite on the meaning of "democracy". But when is it democratic to prevent electors from choosing the candidate of their choie whether or 1019 not he dwells within the electoral boundaries? Of course, I recognise that there have been limitations heretofore.
§ Mr. Hogg
That is a fair point. The hon. Member for Woolwich, West is entitled to his crusty Conservatism if he wishes to embrace it. I only say that I am not quite as crusted as that and I question the principle, at any rate, even in its present application.
I was interested to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, in opening the debate, say that the Redcliffe-Maud proposals were more, and not less, liberal than the status quo. But what can be the advantage of denying the electors of a local constituency the right to continue to support those who have served them well and who present themselves for re-election?
That kind of meanness is endemic in the party opposite. They did it over the London boroughs, depriving them of the vote for a whole year. It did not pay them then. It will not pay them now. The under-18s will vote against them; the extra hour at the polls will not benefit them; the various changes in party labels will give them no advantage, and the local constituencies will continue to elect councils which drive the Labour Party where they deserve—into the wilderness.
§ 9.24 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. William Ross)
This was a quiet, sedate, businesslike debate until the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) got up and promised us that he would be the cream in my winding-up coffee. He certainly livened up the debate and completed his peroration by telling us that the under-18s would vote against us.
§ Mr. Ross
I am glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has given us warning that he will produce that Amendment.
If we were to decide exactly what changes were made in electoral law on the basis of party political advantage, I doubt very much whether the proposals 1020 in the Bill would be the ones that we would bring forward.
I resent very much the right hon. and learned Gentleman's suggestion that there is here serious political gerrymandering. He must know that that is abusive exaggeration, some of the other kind of laughter that he himself put into it. He did not mean us to take him seriously. For whatever reason, that was the approach that he decided to adopt to the debate. Anything is good enough for a laugh and for brightening us up at this time of night. [HON. MEMBERS: "Get on."] I hope that hon. Members opposite will allow me to reply to the debate in my own way. I am sure that although the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not agree entirely with everything I have said, he does not object to the way I have said it.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that it was difficult to be dogmatic about votes at 18. That is perfectly true. We must, however, appreciate that we have had evidence from the Latey Commission and of the interests of young people that this is a change that it was right to make.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) suggested that young people are more idealistic, and I believe that they are. He said, however, that the young people in Scotland and in Wales would vote nationalist. I am not interested how they vote. I am interested in whether I think they are sufficiently mature to be granted this right. I am satisfied of our ability on this side of the House to persuade them how to use their vote in the right way at the right time. It is not a question of party advantage. If a proposal is put forward with the idea of securing party advantage it is one of the surest ways of ensuring that such advantage will not be gained.
We had the suggestion that if the Government make up their mind to do a thing the last thing that they should do is to put Whips on. I have been in the House for 22 years and have heard this argument about free votes time and time again—when it is to the advantage of people putting forward the argument. It is a new idea that if anything concerns constitutional change there must be a free vote. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that on many occasions we have dealt on the Floor of 1021 the House and in Committee with matters of constitutional change when there has not been a free vote. It is wrong to talk about hon. Members being unwillingly dragooned by the Whips.
It is wrong to suggest that there is anything sinister about the Government's making up their mind on certain serious proposals, proclaiming those proposals to the House and asking their supporters to join them in the Lobby. I am grateful that there have been indications that many hon. Members opposite agree that what the Government are doing is right. If I did not think that what the Government were doing was right I should not be proclaiming it in this way.
§ Sir D. Glover
Cannot the right hon. Gentleman appreciate the fact that we are here dealing with a totally different proposition? Nobody objects to the Government's forcing their business through on a Whip, but in this case we are dealing with a question which was referred by the House to Mr. Speaker's Conference—Mr. Speaker being the most distinguished servant of the House—and in respect of which certain conclusions were reached by that conference. The House is now being asked to ignore those conclusions. Surely this is a supreme example of an occasion when we should have a free vote.
§ Mr. Ross
That point was raised in our last debate. It is wrong to suggest that because a conference of any kind—and I appreciate the importance of Mr. Speaker's Conference—comes to certain conclusions, and the Government subsequently think it right to carry through certain changes which do not conform with some of those conclusions, they are doing something wrong. We are not denying the right of the House to know what the Speaker's Conference did. The question of secrecy is a matter of tradition. What we try to achieve is a consensus—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Yes. It does not mean that if a Government think that a certain thing should be done they should not seek to do it.
If hon. Members change this tradition they are changing the whole form of Mr. Speaker's Conference, and that is not a satisfactory way to deal with the matter. The small amount of disagreement that there has been with the findings of the conference indicates its value. 1022 The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that some people get worse as they get older.
As for party labels, I cannot ignore the fact that to an increasing extent the public has been led to conclude that it is the party that matters. One of my hon. Friends deplored the fact that we had party political broadcasts. Equally, this is an indication of the importance that the major parties attach to the existence of parties and of proclaiming parties. We have newspapers producing Gallup Polls, National Opinion Polls and the rest. They do not mention the name of a single candidate. How, then, are people to vote? It is the major parties which are mentioned, and we spend the five years between elections building up the parties. However, when people go to the polling stations, they are confronted with only the names of candidates.
A number of points relating to this matter were raised during the debate. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharples) suggested that the scheme of registration for which the Bill provides was unnecessarily elaborate and that it would be enough to amend the law so as to enable posters to be displayed at polling stations indicating which parties the candidates represented. Superficially, that suggestion has its attractions, but when more than one candidate claims to represent a party, or two labels are almost identical, difficulties arise. In such circumstances, there is the risk of electors being confused or misled.
There is nothing in the Bill to prevent anyone seeking to register himself as a Gladstonian Liberal or a True-Blue Conservative from so doing. But, it must be remembered that anyone who seeks to become a candidate has first to produce £150. Now we are told that the fee for registration will deter people from putting themselves forward. There is no indication that it will be a burdensome fee, but hon. Members will appreciate what is involved in fighting an election even in the smallest constituency.
Those considerations apart, we have also to consider the practical difficulties which arise if candidates are permitted to put up their own posters in polling stations. If that is not to happen, is it suggested that the returning officers should do it? They may be local officials 1023 and, as a result, they will be brought into politics. While the suggestion is an attractive one superficially, it is one which must be ruled out.
A number of hon. Members referred to local elections, and I agree that, if we could get a scheme for party labels at local elections, it should be adopted. But again, we have to appreciate the difficulties. It may be that hon. Members have some ideas on the subject. If they have, we shall be glad to hear them in Committee. If we can get a practical scheme, I think that we should take advantage of it. But no one should underestimate the difficulties. I have in mind constituencies like my own, which consist of a county area and at least four burghs. The Conservatives in the four burghs call themselves by at least six different names.
§ Mr. Ross
There can be confusion, even in registration. Registration would need to be done locally rather than nationally, and we cannot see a way of duplicating in local areas the kind of good organisation which will come from the Registrar of Friendly Societies, who will handle it on a national scale.
§ Mr. Hooley
Would my right hon. Friend not concede that it would be possible to have a system of local registration under which the existence of a registered party name at a central level could be taken as conclusive proof of registration locally?
§ Mr. Ross
It is not a permanent register. We have just had municipal by-elections in some parts of Scotland and I doubt whether any candidate stood representing the Conservative Party. This is a matter of tradition. They stand as Progressive, Moderate, Ratepayers' Association, and a multiplicity of other local names. I assure my hon. Friend that it would be difficult to work his suggestion.
Away from the party label question, we come to the matter of the registration process. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) was concerned about the accuracy of the register. Bearing in mind that when the register is first put out it is about 96 per cent. accurate, it must be the most 1024 accurate of its type in the world. Electoral registration officers are, naturally, anxious to improve it even further, and perhaps the changes that we are making will do this.
Some play was made about the power which we are giving to electoral registration officers to correct mistakes. I wish to make it clear that this is not a question of names being added when people have failed to take their chances when the register was first prepared and was then available for inspection. Mistakes may be made, either by the printer or the officer. These can be put right—the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) will be interested in this—and the lists of corrections in these cases will be made available to the public and others who are interested.
Considering all the facts, I suggest that we have everything to congratulate ourselves on the completeness of our register. We have a widespread scheme of publicity through television, radio and the Press. I assure the House that we will be prepared to look into any idea for improving this state of affairs.
Remarks have been made about so-called "political gerrymandering" in connection with Clause 15 and the change which we have made in connection with the abolition of the property qualification in England and Wales. Naturally, this does not apply in Scotland, because we have already wiped it out there. I refer to the qualification of a candidate by virtue of an ownership of land or property. At present, it means that someone living in London and owning a grave in Liverpool—or any other piece of land—is entitled, by virtue of that ownership, to become a candidate in a local election. I agree that this may seem to be an exaggeration, but it is the truth of the position.
The special qualification relates only to becoming a candidate, and somebody can become a candidate without being empowered to vote. Everyone will agree that this state of affairs should come to an end. Most of the non-residents who become candidates do so on the basis of getting on to the electoral roll by virtue of the non-resident provision. What does this mean? I have with me a copy of the relevant form. It says that for registration a non-resident local government elector on the qualifying date must 1025 be a British subject or citizen of the Irish Republic—for this purpose Commonwealth citizens are British subjects—and must be in occupation, either as owner or tenant, of rateable lands and heritages of a yearly value of not less than £10. He must be 21 or over, or will be by 15th June next. That is the present position.
But companies and public bodies do not have this vote. The fact that companies or public bodies, or the like, occupy land and heritages does not entitle their officers and members, as such, to be registered. That means that a very limited number of people get this privilege. The number of voters in England and Wales is about 32 million, but the number who get the vote in this particular way is only about 130,000. The number is very small indeed. Therefore, when we work it out, it will be appreciated that only very few people have this privilege, so to suggest that wiping away that privilege is gerrymandering is a bit nonsensical.
To remove this privilege means that we take people off the electoral roll. It means that people who, at present, can stand as candidates will not be able to do so. But there is nothing to prevent their standing as candidates in the area in which they reside. I have listened often, and learned a lot from that listening, to the right hon. and learned Gentleman speaking about the family, about the Englishman's home being his castle. Surely, in this case, where the family home is, and where his residence is, is the right place for a man to exercise his rights. We have come back away from this business of property qualification, of the financial test in relation to the vote, and I sincerely hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will think again about this matter.
I am satisfied that what we are doing is absolutely right. If people want to continue to serve it is far better that they get their qualification in the city, the town or the county in which they will presume to become rulers and governors. The Parliamentary position, of course, is entirely different: we are dealing here with local government. It becomes absolutely clear that this step is right.
It was suggested that it was only right that those with the financial stake should 1026 become, through that privilege, elected members determining the educational standards for all the people in the area; should determine exactly the standards for roads, and everything else. That is quite wrong. To suggest that in, say, Glasgow, if we wipe out this special privilege it will not be possible, out of the million citizens there, to find 12 men to replace these privileged people does not say very much for the Conservative and Unionist Party in that city. I know that this is something that applies to all parties, and that we may well be affected in our party, but I am quite satisfied that we will be able to find the right candidates.
§ Mr, Lubbock
I am not disagreeing with the right hon. Gentleman, but why has he not taken the opportunity of the Bill to integrate the City of London with one of its neighbours so that the remaining property qualification there is eliminated?
§ Mr. Ross
We are not dealing here with joining two constituencies together under the Bill, but I have a note of what the hon. Gentleman suggests.
One of my hon. Friends asked: why treat London differently? The answer is that it is so unique. Here, the number of electors would be about 7,000, and most of them would be caretakers, security people, and the rest.
The right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone got rather mixed when he referred to the Maud Committee. That Committee did not relate to franchise, but purely and simply to a person becoming a candidate. That Committee said that everyone who worked in an area could become a candidate in that area. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why not?"] This would swamp the thing and we would not get local representation. What we want is identity and local representation.
§ Mr. Ross
This would mean that there would be no limitation. I look forward to the right hon. and learned Gentleman putting forward an Amendment like that and justifying it to the people in every 1027 town and village in the country. It would be quite wrong. What we want is local interest and local identity.
§ Mr. English
My right hon. Friend said that this was not like Parliamentary elections, but does he not agree that our proposal for local elections is like Parliamentary elections? We do not allow alien taxpayers to vote or to stand for Parliament. Anyone outside the jurisdiction of the election has not the right to vote. Surely he will agree that the Opposition are putting forward an anomolous case?
§ Sir L. Heald
Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is nothing to prevent him as an alien from standing in my constituency at the next General Election?—[HON. MEMBERS: "He is not an alien."] Yes, he is a Scotsman. It is not a fact that there is no limitation of this great and wonderful attachment the right hon. Gentleman has been speaking of in Parliament? Why should we have it in local government?
§ Mr. Ross
I can assure the right hon. and learned Member that there is no danger of the eventuality he spoke about, because the people of Kilmarnock would not allow me to leave Kilmarnock.
On the point raised by the hon. Member for Orpington about how to adjudicate fairness in respect of a political broadcast during an election, we are trying to follow through a recommendation of Mr. Speaker's Conference that there should be fairness and that it should be seen to be fair. This obligation is laid on those conducting these broadcasts or television programmes. If they do not meet the obligation they might be guilty of an illegal practice under the Bill. Hav- 1028 ing placed this provision in the Bill we have to rely on their good sense. I am certain that a matter of 10 seconds more for the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for St. Marylebone might be considered an advantage to the others on the programme rather than a disadvantage.
The hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. Gordon Campbell) asked me to say whether Clause 15 applies to Scotland. Part of the Clause applies to Scotland, but the property qualification does not at the moment apply to Scotland, so that the part which abolishes that qualification is not necessary in Scotland; but the part dealing with non-resident franchise applies there.
As to the timetable for the Bill, during the debate on 14th October my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Home Affairs said that the Government's intention wasto complete the consideration of the Bill and of the affirmative Representation of the People Regulations in time to include any new age group upon which the House may decide in the register of electors to be published in February, 1970."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th October, 1968; Vol. 770, c. 49–50.]If the new form A is to be ready for circulation to registration officers in time to prepare for the canvassing, the relevant regulations must be approved by the end of May. We would like to get the Bill out of the Commons by Christmas and on to the Statute Book by Easter.
I want to make one final point in case somebody thinks I am dodging it. This is about postal voting, mentioned by the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) and the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone. This matter has been considered before, in a Private Member's Bill recently.
When people will take their holidays is unpredictable. It would be very difficult to regulate this, but it was estimated that it would mean a considerable increase in the number of people having postal votes. It would mean that an extension of time would need to be allowed to the electoral registration officer for issuing forms. At the moment, I think it is 12 days. It would need to be at least 18 days. This would affect the timing of the election. Because of that, and because of the confusion and difficulties which would arise, 1029 this has hitherto been ruled out. This is why we rule it out now.
§ Miss Quennell
Can the Secretary of State say whether the 3 million extra voters envisaged as a result of a lowering of the voting age by Clause 1 will in any way delay the implementation of the Boundary Commission's proposals?
§ Mr. Ross
I do not think that the two things are entirely related. We have not yet got the report of the Boundary Commission. It is difficult to say what we should do about that until we get it.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman talked as though there was at present some strange uniformity in every constituency. This is not so. He said that we were departing from the one man, one vote principle, or from the weight of one vote for each person, by introducing this and creating a further imbalance. He should know that it takes fewer votes to elect a Member of Parliament for a county constituency than for an urban one.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman should study the rules. There are some small constituencies in Scotland. This arises from the present rules. I would not like to see changes made here. I hope that he does not have false ideas about what the present position is. I am satisfied with what we have here.
I believe that the workmanlike changes we are making by the Bill will improve the position and I am glad to commend the Bill to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Concannon.]
§ Committee Tomorrow.