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Clause 9—(Mode Of Voting Of Service Voters)

Volume 393: debated on Wednesday 3 November 1943

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I beg to move, in page 9, to leave out lines 26 to 28.

These lines deprive a soldier of his present right to vote by post. When the 1918 Act was before Parliament the right of voting by proxy was introduced in the later stages of the proceedings, and it was made clear that the soldier would still retain his right to vote by post. At the moment, a soldier has got that right as well as the right to vote by proxy, but this Clause will take away from soldiers serving overseas the right given in the 1918 Act. Although I have been unsuccessful in trying to retain for the soldier his right to a business vote, I hope the Government will be more favourable to this proposal and that they will stick to the provisions of the 1918 Act and leave the soldier the right to vote by post or proxy which he has enjoyed up to now.

The Under-Secretary said in the course of the Second Reading Debate that in many parts of the world voting by post would be quite out of the question because postal communications would not be received in time. That is admitted. I am not suggesting for a moment that soldiers in the Far East would be able to vote by post, but I do say that this House is entitled to resist the Government if they try to take away the right to vote by post in cases where it is practicable. Men serving in the Central Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East could perfectly well vote by post. I would recall the statement by the Under-Secretary that this Bill will operate in one if not two General Elections. By that time I should hope that the second front will be started and will be even nearer than the Central Mediterranean. If soldiers are at Cherbourg or Brest, or perhaps at Calais, surely we should not deprive them of the right to vote by post. But that is the proposal in this Bill. We have had tremendous developments since the last war in the transmission of mails. I suppose I have groused more about mails than anyone, because I have been without mail for something like two and a half to three months, and the whole of my formation was completely browned off because of that delay. We have had the development of the air mail service and of air-graphs, and they could and should be used for this method of voting. Let us use these immense benefits that we have been given so that the soldier can register his vote.

Another factor is that we have developed wireless, and that will enable soldiers to know where by-elections are to be held, the candidates and their political opinions, and give them every facility for taking that great interest in politics which the modern soldier has shown. It is possible that the sending out of ballot papers to soldiers and their return to this country may involve rather undue delay, and I put forward the suggestion, which was one made in 1917, that the Army authorities should have a number of blank ballot papers which they could fill up. Then the soldier would be able to vote by post, and there would only be the one way delay of the postal service. That would extend the area in which soldiers could vote by post to everywhere except the Far East. It would enable those in the Persia and Iraq Command to vote by post.

I ask the Committee to give the matter grave consideration before they abolish what is now an acknowledged right of the serving man. I admit that it is a right which it is difficult to exercise, but it is for Parliament to see that it is made possible for that right to be exercised. With great respect I feel that the Government have been idle in the matter of helping the soldier to vote by post. At one time after Dunkirk, when we were stationed in this country, I was given orders by the higher command to publish notices about by-elections so that soldiers could vote, but in some cases the notices did not arrive until three days to a week after the by-election had been held. If it should be said against my proposal that the soldier now has the right of voting by proxy I ask the Committee to judge the difference between voting by proxy and personal voting. The soldier does not like the business of sending a proxy to somebody of whose views he is not absolutely certain. I make the point before—

This discussion is getting to be a discussion upon the whole Clause, and I would remind the Committee that if we discuss the Clause now we cannot do it again.

I am sorry, and I will try to curtail my remarks, which were merely a rejoinder to a possible reply. Soldiers have the right now to vote by post and I suggest that we should improve it, and ensure that as many soldiers who are serving overseas as possible may vote in the elections. By that means I hope we shall get a better Parliament and a happier Army.

The object of my hon. Friend's Amendment is to provide postal voting facilities for the members of His Majesty's Forces serving overseas.

Members of His Majesty's Forces serving at home have, under the Bill, the right of voting by post. My hon. Friend says that it is practicable and feasible for members of the Forces in the Mediterranean, and even as far afield as Persia and Iraq, to exercise postal voting facilities. I wonder how long he thinks it would take for postal communications to be sent out and to get back, with the names of the candidates and so forth—

Three and half days for the Central Mediterranean area, and six days for Persia and Iraq.

That certainly is not my experience of the postal facilities to the Middle East, nor, I am sure, the experience of anybody else in the Committee. The maximum period which one could allow would be, I think, nine days. The date of nomination eight days after the election commences and the polling day is nine days later. The names the candidates are not known until nine days before polling. In many cases nobody knows whether there will be a contested election or not until nomination day. Not only should we have to cable or in some other way transmit to the Forces overseas the names of the candidates in each constituency, but to describe their politics—

And it would be a very wise precaution to include their portraits also. There is a further difficulty about the proposal, and that is that enormous numbers of members of the public in this country do not know the name of the constituency in which it is their privilege to vote, and the confusion which would arise in the Forces when soldiers were presented with a list of 615 constituencies, and the approximately equal number of candidates of varied political colour, and had to decide with a pin which they were going to plump for, shows, I think, that the method proposed would be no improvement upon that suggested in the Bill. My hon. Friend keeps citing the provisions of the Act of 1919 as if they were the acme of perfection in these matters. I should have thought that anyone who was a member of His Majesty's Forces at the time of the General Election in November 1918 would know perfectly well that the arrangements then were extremely defective, and we are aiming at something a great deal better. I am sure it is wise and proper to provide that members of the Forces serving overseas shall vote, if they vote at all, by means of proxies. The person on the spot here will know when the election is fixed, will have an opportunity of seeing the candidates and hearing their views, and taking part in the election on behalf of the absent soldier. I am sure that any other method would lead to confusion and chaos, and that this is the most effective way in which we can provide for a member of the Forces serving in distant parts of the world to exercise his vote.

Amendment negatived.

Motion made, and question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

I listened with great interest to the last remarks of the Under-Secretary. I am bound to confess that I do not know any more satisfactory way of dealing with the problem of the votes of the soldiers serving abroad than the proxy vote but I am also bound to say that I do not like the proxy vote. I think other hon. Members feel the same way about it. In practice I am afraid it often turns out that a soldier, when no election is pending, may fill up a form of appointment of a proxy and send it away and long afterwards, when he has probably forgotten it, some person with whom he is no longer in touch, is able to exercise a vote on his behalf. It is not very satisfactory; in many cases it degenerates into a mere delegation of voting functions and it is another and a rather objectionable form of plural voting. I wish I could suggest some more satisfactory alternative. I think the postal system which has been suggested would be open to abuses even more grave and I have no constructive suggestion to make except this—that between now and the Speaker's Conference which is to deal with the whole electoral question, the Government, who have resources not open to the private Member, should see whether they cannot devise a more watertight and equitable manner of recording the votes of absent soldiers. I think that if we thought hard, we might find a better way.

I regret that we were not able to discuss an Amendment on this subject which stood in my name and which would I think have satisfied my hon. Friend the Member for Kennington (Mr. Wilmot). In it I suggested what is the recognised method of Service men's voting everywhere except in this country. I am rather surprised at the lack of interest in the Committee in this question. I should have thought that it was a question which would have been exercising the minds of the Committee, in order to see whether this country could not follow the example of the Dominions in this matter. We are simply told that notwithstanding all the improvements in the postal service, voting by post is quite out of the question. That seems to me a sad confession of failure. The fact that only two Members have spoken on the question indicates a lack of interest by Members of Parliament in their voters who are serving for them overseas. It is an attitude of mind which I have found reflected among the soldiers in the Middle East. They think that they have been forgotten by their Members of Parliament. On the other hand, the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) when it was a question of taking away the business vote, talked a lot about the soldier and about plural voting, but when we get on to the question of how the soldier's vote is to be registered, he is no longer in the Committee. It is true that many people give lip service to the rights of the serving man but when it comes to taking part in a Debate of this sort, apparently they have no interest in it at all.

Is not that rather unfair? The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) has been in the Committe for a very long time.

That is my point. I chose somebody who had been talking a great deal on the question of the business vote and the position of the Service men in relation to it, but who when it comes to the question of voting by the Service men is no longer interested. [HON. MEMBERS: "How do you know?"] I withdraw at once. I do not say that the hon. Member is uninterested in the matter but I say that he shows no evidence of his interest. I can only say that I also have been present during those Debates, and I noticed that the hon. Member talked a great deal about the plural vote, but now when we are talking about the Service men's voting, he does not take the trouble to be present.

What is the system adopted by the Dominions in regard to voting by Service voters in the field? They manage perfectly well under the system which I have outlined in the Amendment which unfor- tunately we have not been able to discuss. It is the Australian system. Each soldier receives a ballot card from a commissioned officer and is given his number. He fills up the card, hands it back to the commissioned officer who initials it, puts it in the field envelope, and off it goes to be counted. If such a system as that has worked in the case of South Africa, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, is it not time the Government considered whether it could not be worked for this country? Is the only answer to be "You must let the soldiers appoint proxies"?

I do not wish to interrupt the hon. Member without cause but will he explain how we could be without a Parliament—because that is what it would amount to—while these votes were going out to the Far East and coming back?

I gather that under the original proposals there would have been a lapse of some 46 days and that this has been cut down to 17, by the provisions of this Bill. There would be no difference in a General Election if you had Service voters. I do not think there is any difficulty on that account. My point is that at the present time except for the Far East, all our theatres of war are sufficiently near by air mail to be in easy communication with this country within 17 days. [HON. MEMBERS: "Eight days."] If that is wrong, then I will say that many of them would be within eight or nine days, if you cut it down so that it became one-way transmission, and the commissioned officer simply had to send the ballot-paper back to this country. You have a very wide field indeed if you use the airgraph. The Under-Secretary will find if he consults his colleague the Postmaster-General that the whole of the Mediterranean area would now be within eight days and I believe you could also bring in the Persia and Iraq command on, say, two days of the week if not the remainder. I ask the Government to reconsider this matter. I think the attention given to the question of voting by Service voters up to now has been extremely unsatisfactory. We are approaching, we hope and believe, the end of the war, and the time is come when we ought to take full advantage of all modern inventions, in order to achieve what we all want to see, namely that the man who is fighting for his country gets first consideration when it comes to a question of voting for his country. For those reasons I ask that this matter should be considered, if possible on this Bill, in another place, and if that is not possible, that it should be put down as a matter of urgency for consideration by the Speaker's Conference.

I agree with most of my hon. Friend's Amendments but not with this one. The position is bad enough under Clause 3, because under that Clause this country would be without an effective Parliament for about five weeks. That is one of the great scandals of our Constitution. This country should not be without an effective Parliament for more than 24 hours. We must remember that there are lots of troops now in India and Burma and there will be some in China before long and some in the Solomon Islands, and we all know the delays which take place now in the air mail from North Africa. The proposal of my hon. Friend would mean a great increase in the time between the date of nomination and the date of election.

There is the nomination. The papers have to be prepared, they have got to be sent to innumerable destinations, and the election cannot be completed until they have come back. What period is to be allowed—one month, two months, I should think three months? It is not disrespectful to the Dominions to say that the whole situation is not in peril if for some substantial period of time there is no Australian, New Zealand, Canadian or South African Parliament, because vital as their war effort is their position in relation to the whole struggle is not comparable to the position of this House. It would be intolerable if we were incapable of assembling a Parliament for a period of about four months, because that is what would be involved. I hope when we come to the Speaker's Conference that the whole situation will be rectified. His Majesty ought to summon a new Parliament instead of dissolving the old one, so that there is always in existence a body which can deal with matters in a middle of an election. It is true that Parliament is never altogether dissolved. If there is a demise of the Crown during an election the election is off for six months. Mr. Speaker will remain Mr. Speaker for certain functions. Let us realise the in- credible position we shall be in, especially if the kind of things decorating the Front Bench—they have gone home now—had complete freedom from us for four months.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.