HC Deb 27 February 1985 vol 74 cc411-4

'No canvassing for an election may take place within twenty-five yards of any place designated as a polling place for the election.'.—[Mr. Simon Hughes.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

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

I am grateful that the new clause has been selected and do not propose to press it to a Division, as it is a probing new clause concerning the practical experience of returning officers to whom I have spoken who are worried that there is a lack of definition in the law. I apologise for the new clause not being the jewel in the crown of the parliamentary draftsman.

During elections, many allegations and counter-allegations concerning the behaviour of candidates' helpers reach the returning officer, mainly because the law on canvassing is unclear. I shall give some examples of the questions that are asked. Should people be allowed into the school porch with stickers on or with posters in their hands or with polling cards with the names of the candidate? Should it be permissible to buttonhole people as they walk up the footpath to the polling station or to whisper in their ear the name of the preferred candidate as, at 9.58 pm, they sneak in to cast the last vote of the day?

Can the committee rooms of the other party be five yards opposite the entrance to the school where polling is taking place, plastered with posters influencing the voter who might not have made up his mind on the person for whom he should vote? What about that famous aberration, the sticker on the tree? Is it possible to have the name of the candidate plastered all over the trees, the railings or the corrugated iron? In my constituency, I am grateful that there are trees and corrugated iron because they are the only solace that they give to the opposition. They tend to have no posters in windows, but to cover the rest of the constituency. However, trees and corrugated iron do not have the vote yet.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

Except in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hughes

Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) considers himself to be nearer to these aberrations on the Celtic fringe than I am. Certainly, in Southwark and Bermondsey, the trees and the corrugated iron do not vote.

What about the latest and most recent addition to this panoply of alternative canvassing—the sandwich people on the pavement, parading up and down? They give the name of the candidate or — in an election such as the by-election at which I was first elected to the House, in which there were 16 candidates — the number of the candidate, which might be easier to remember.

The problem is extended and expanded by the increase in technology. What about the loud hailer, the megaphone or the public address system coming down the street shouting, "Vote, vote, vote for Alan Beith, David Mellor, Kevin Barron or Simon Hughes"? Are they obliged, five yards before the entrance to the polling station, to go quiet, slide past and then incite people again? Can they aim their fire at the gate of the polling station so that as people go into vote they are battered with the name of the technologically best-equipped candidate? I hear grunts of approval from the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron). Obviously, hard tactics are employed, which is why he ends up with a relatively large majority.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

If the new clause were to be accepted, would it be permissible for one, during the campaign or the three-week period, to call on those who live next door to the polling station? On the wording of the new clause, it would seem that we are to be excluded from the whole of the area, and some may welcome that. Let it not be said that the hon. Gentleman's drafting is as daft as his new clause.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) was about to get my approval for his intervention, but he lost it with his final sentence. As he will recollect, at the beginning I said that my new clause was intended as a general proposition relating to election day. As he suggested, schoolkeepers, having had to put up with all the inconvenience of election day, might be pleased to be spared by the canvassers who try to get around the Alsatian in the days before the election to cull the one or two votes that there may be in the school-keeper's house.

The issue is what should be the definition and the acceptability of canvassing. It is a practical problem that occupies much of the time of officers of local authorities — returning officers and their staff — each time that an election is held. I am not suggesting that, where it is proper and lawful, one should put off those who wish to canvass. It is not in the same category as that illegal practice that would be carried out by a priest, a vicar or a minister seeking to exert spiritual influence. Halsbury says: Ministers of religion may legitimately address their congregations upon the candidates' conflicting claims, but in this connection must not hold out hopes of reward for the hereafter, or threaten to excommunicate or to withhold the sacraments, or denounce the voting for any particular candidate as a sin. I am not suggesting that the kind of practices about which we are speaking come into that larger than life category, but people are for ever being told, "Take off your badge; you can't go into the polling station wearing that sticker; stay outside if you are carrying those posters."

Mr. Beith

My hon. Friend will remember that one of the difficulties faced by people at polling stations because of the unlimited discretion that is given to returning officers is that tellers are frequently made to stand out in the rain or on the other side of the street when they are carrying out the legitimate democratic practice of assembling a list of the number of people who have voted.

Mr. Hughes

My hon. Friend is right. If one looks at the statutes that govern elections, these are discretions that most electoral registration officers and returning officers would prefer not to have. They have to adjudicate, and the circumstances are infinitely variable. They have a very hard job to peform not only on polling day but afterwards in trying to convince people that they have made a fair decision.

When asked in opinion polls or on the street who they will vote for at elections, many people say that they will make up their mind when they get to the polling station. If that is the case, we have to ensure that people reach polling stations in a fit state to make up their minds once they arrive there. The last impression might not be so valuable as the first. The reason for the new clause and the request to the Minister to assist not only the House but all those who seek to make sure that we have free and fair elections is the need for a boundary, a guideline and a reference point.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that anybody who occupies a residence within 25 yards of a polling station will be unable to put a poster in his window?

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Member for St. Helens, South made a similar point. If we defined "polling station" as opposed to "polling place" we should not prevent a schoolkeeper who lived within the curtilage of the school from doing so. If, however, the schoolkeeper or caretaker lives in the polling place there is sometimes a problem if they wish to display party political propaganda on election day. To my knowledge, schoolkeepers have been asked to take down posters that they have displayed because they look out over the playground and people see them last as they go into the school. That is a relevant issue.

The practice in Rother Valley and in Southwark may be different. The results may well be different, too. The hon. Gentleman no doubt wishes it were otherwise but that is not the case. I hope the Minister will either say that the law as it stands needs no amendment or that he will be willing with his right hon. and learned Friend to look at the present practice and reassure the most harassed people of all on election day, the returning officers, who very often face political difficulties in trying to interpret something that is not at the moment defined.

Mr. Mellor

I have listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman. We have tried to deal not with some of the larger points but with some of the details relating to electoral regulations in order to discover what improvements need to be made. We have made a thorough trawl through the detail, assisted by many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) who knows a great deal about these matters.

My difficulty about responding as fully as I would have wished to the new clause is that the Government have not had these matters drawn formally to our attention during the course of the consultation exercise and the many discussions that have taken place. I fully understand his examples relating to the exercise of discretion that is involved. I have not participated in any election where there have not been difficulties. However, I am not sure whether a rule of the kind that the hon. Gentleman proposes would result in clarity or would create anomalies of a different kind. One may be thrown back on the ERO's discretion as the only appropriate way of keeping order in view of the many problems that can arise.

9.15 pm

I would say only that if there are matters that the hon. Gentleman wants to set out more fully in writing, I and my officials will look at them, as we have tried to do genuinely with every point, however large or small, that has been brought to us in this measure. Up to now we have not had widespread reports that people think that a change is necessary in either the statute or the regulations, which it is worth bearing in mind will be drawn up later, so there is not such a short timescale. But I shall consider sympathetically any points that the hon. Gentleman or any of his hon. Friends wish to raise on this at a later date.

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful for that. As I said, I do not intend to do more than test the temperature today. I understand that at conferences of senior officers of authorities concern has been expressed about this issue, certainly by more than just the officers in the London borough of Southwark. It may not have featured as prominently as other matters that have been legislated upon or upon which legislation is proposed. I shall take up the Under-Secretary's offer and ask my chief officers, and those whom they know share the same concerns, to make formal representations to him and to his Department in the hope that where there has been confusion and chaos in the past practices may be made easier and any injustices may be remedied. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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