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Clause 7—(Civilian Absent Voters)

Volume 393: debated on Wednesday 3 November 1943

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I beg to move, in page 6, line 27, at the end, to add:

"Subject also to the provisions of this part of the Act a person being on the qualifying date a British subject of full age and fulfilling the conditions of registry prescribed in subsection (1) of section five, but subject to such physical incapacity that he is unable to exercise the right conferred on him by this Act, may appoint a proxy to vote for him, or be placed upon the absent voters' list, at any election for which he may be registered in the civilian residence register."
In moving this Amendment, I am proproposing something which is wholly non-controversial. This is entirely foreign to my own nature, but this Amendment is one which I feel certain no hon. Member need feel ashamed to support. I speak on behalf of the tens of thousands of bedridden persons all over this country. They are good citizens like you and me. They pay their rates and taxes in the same way as we all do, but, unlike us, they suffer this terrible cross of being held to their beds for life. The Government give them no remission of taxation on this account. The local authorities give them no remission of rates on this account. Yet though they bear not only as great a burden as we do, but a much greater one, they are, by what I feel sure must be an oversight, denied an opportunity to record their votes. We know that at election times some bedridden persons are dragged and pushed and pulled to the polling booth to register their votes, but the vast majority of them cannot stand the strain, and they have to stay behind and are unable to record their votes. I would ask the Committee to remember that many of these persons are those who, by reason of wounds received in the last war in our defence, are condemned to a lifetime in bed, and I ask myself how many more after this war will be in a similar tragic condition. Are they to be denied the right of franchise? Shall we fail to make the provision that these persons shall be able to vote from their beds as they are doomed to conduct all other forms of business?

I should like to support the arguments put forward by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for King's Norton (Major Peto). Some of the passages that have been exchanged across the Floor of the Committee to-day have been quite reminiscent of old times, but I cannot think that this Amendment which we are now moving can really raise any opposition from any part of the Committee. Any man or woman who is bedridden may be a member of any political party. I think we have all had examples in our own divisions during election time of a man or woman who has struggled out of bed because he or she was strongly in favour of risking health in voting for the candidate whom they favoured. I hope my right hon. Friend will accept this Amendment, because I feel it will do justice to many tens of thousands of people who would like to exercise their vote, who keep their interest in politics and who are only debarred by their disability.

Whatever the merits or demerits of this proposal may be—and I should imagine that it might be viewed with some suspicion by my hon. Friends opposite, who might think that the great preponderance of what I might call the bedridden vote is a Conservative vote—at the same time it does lie outside the scope of the present Bill. It is clearly a matter which must be discussed at the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Reform, along with other topics of a similar character, such as motor cars, expenses and so forth. Therefore, while I express no opinion on the merits of my hon. and gallant Friend's suggestion—I feel considerable sympathy with it—I suggest that he regards his essay to-day as by way of a demonstration with a view to the Speaker's Conference.

I regret very much that the Under-Secretary has been so begrudging in his treatment of this particular Amendment. He might at least have gone the length of saying that the whole matter would be considered and that his Department might make a representation for future consideration, because I can assure him that Members on this side of the Committee do not look on this with any suspicion at all. We support the statements of the Mover and Seconder that this is something which deals with people belonging to all sections of the community, and I believe that if the question had to be carefully analysed we could claim among the workers injured at their work and old age pensioners, aged people, to benefit more appreciably than Members of the Conservative Party. But I trust that none of us look at it from this narrow party point of view and that this question might be examined as a question affecting the rights of ordinary citizens of this country. It is true there are thousands and thousands of people who have contributed very greatly to the welfare of the country in industrial organisations and in business and by military, naval and Air Force service who are to-day, because of the position, denied full rights of citizenship. They are unable to exercise their vote. Many of them who have not the opportunity of mixing with the general discussions and arguments that go on during elections, and having had many quiet moments to think over things and over their position, are very competent to cast a very intelligent vote. Therefore I would ask my right hon. Friend whether he will not rise in his place now and give us an assurance that his Department will consider this matter very carefully and make a recommendation to Mr. Speaker for future consideration.

It is quite clear that the Speaker's Conference will be comprised of hon. Members of this Committee and that Government offices as such will not have any special standing before it. This is purely and primarily a House of Commons matter. It seems to me that it will come before the Speaker's Conference automatically. It appears to be a matter on which a good deal of sympathy is expressed from all sides of the Committee, but it seems to me to be outside the scope of a Bill the purpose of which is to provide a simpler method of registration for holding an election under present conditions.

Surely the right hon. Gentleman will agree that while we are discussing this, and while it extends the narrow limits of this Bill, most Members are concerned with making the next election as full a one as they possibly can?

It is perfectly clear that if there is such a general measure of agreement, steps will be taken to meet it at the forthcoming Conference.

The whole Committee, I think, is in sympathy with the Amendment, and if we are prepared to give way on questions of vital principle on this, we may be called on to give way on others. I think the consensus of opinion is such that the Speaker's Conference cannot ignore it if and when it comes up for consideration, and I suggest that with that the Amendment does not need to be pressed.

Someone has handed me a copy of the OFFICIAL REPORT of our Debates on 28th October, in which a question was put to the Home Secretary by the hon. and gallant Member for King's Norton (Major Peto) on this very point, and the Home Secretary replied that any question of this type would be appropriate to the forthcoming Debate on electoral reform. It does seem with great respect to my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that the Home Office is very conveniently—

May I explain that this is not a Debate on electoral reform? There is the promise of a two-day Debate on electoral reform, but this is not the occasion.

Would that be following the Speaker's Conference? In what sense is it forthcoming?

May I put one point to my right hon. Friend? I quite understand the Home Office view in this matter, and perhaps it might be argued quite strongly that this is a case for the Speaker's Conference. My right hon. Friend was apparently disturbed that it might come rather outside the scope of the Bill. I will try to show him that that is not the case. The Preamble of the Bill says it is to:

"make temporary provision as respect parliamentary elections and the registration of parliamentary electors. …"
It is quite true that this Bill is purely a machinery Measure, but as a result of this war, as the hon. and gallant Member for King's Norton (Major Peto) pointed out, a number of people, soldiers, sailors and airmen may be bedridden. Therefore when the next election comes it seems to me rather important that these people should have the vote. The temporary provisions now being made in this Bill are partially to provide for circumstances which will arise and affect electoral machinery as the result of the war. This is one circumstance which certainly will, and I claim that it is within the scope of this Bill. Consequently could I ask the right hon. Gentleman between now and the Report Stage to consider the matter in that light?

I approve of the suggested Amendment. A great number of people who owing to the war are bedridden to-day may be bedridden for a month, two months, six months. Eventually an election will occur, and these people will be enfranchised because they have not had an opportunity of being registered. I am very interested in the blind workers. Blind people are registered. At an election they are taken to the poll and somebody does the necessary signing on their behalf. My right hon. Friend says this is not a matter for the Government as such; but we know that if the Government are sympathetic it is far more likely to be given full consideration at the Speaker's Conference, and not treated as a matter for the future. I maintain that it is something for the present. I hope that my right hon. Friend will reconsider the matter, and at a later stage bring in an Amendment to cover the point.

Surely, in spite of the speech of my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, this matter must be in Order on this Bill; otherwise you, Mr. Williams, would not have called the Amendment.

Technically, it is correct that the subject does come within the scope of the Bill, or the Amendment could not have been called.

I meant to convey that, although technically within the scope of the Bill, this point did not seem to me an appropriate one for this Bill, as it would involve extending the franchise. It is an idea with which we all have some sympathy, but a great deal of detailed work would have to be done on this proposal before it could be embodied in legislation. You have to decide first whether you are going to provide for the temporarily bed-ridden or the permanently bedridden, and matters of that sort. It would mean a great amount of re-drafting, some special Clauses, and a great deal of delay. I suggest, therefore, that the matter would be much more appropriately dealt with at the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Reform.

Has my right hon. Friend read the Explanatory Memorandum? It says:

"Part I of this Bill deals with registration of electors and facilities for voting at Parliamentary elections."
We are asking that facilities for voting at Parliamentary elections should be extended to people who at present are in such a physical condition that they are unable to go themselves. We are asking only for facilities for voting at Parliamentary elections.

Can the right hon. Gentleman give any reason why, when a husband is allowed to register his wife or a wife to register her husband, in a case like this, where there is real need for somebody else to register a person who is unable physically to go and do it, nobody is allowed to register that person? Take the case of the returned war prisoner who has been wounded, and is unable to do things for himself, although mentally alert. He may be living in the same house as his father and mother. The father may register the mother, who is perfectly capable of going to register herself, but neither the father nor the mother can register the son, who is physically incapable of going. My hon. Friend has just read out a quotation on the purposes of the Bill. Surely a person who is competent to vote except for his physical condition, should be given a chance to vote.

Such people will be registered in any case. This has nothing to do with registration. It is a matter of voting rights.

But it may be a business qualification. A man who has been in business, and has left his business to go to the war, may still have business qualifications when he returns; but he is not permitted, because of his physical condition, to exercise his vote.

It is clear that we are going to have a Report stage, and equally clear that on all sides of the Committee there is support for this proposal. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to consider the matter between now and the Report stage? It seems to me a weak argument to say that the provisions dealing with absent voters and property voting are outside the scope of the Bill—whatever my right hon. Friend meant by outside the scope of the Bill.

I cannot give that undertaking, because it is the intention to take the remaining stages of the Bill to-day, and such a proposal would entail a tremendous amount of re-drafting, dealing with the definition of physical incapacity and the question of whether it should be temporary or permanent incapacity, and so forth. A great deal of machinery would have to be provided to enable these persons to exercise a proxy vote. It is clear that it cannot be done before the end of the Session. Unless it is through both Houses before the end of the Session this Bill will lapse, to the regret, I should imagine, of everybody. I have expressed the Government's sympathy with the proposal, and I have stated that in my view it is a more suitable subject to incorporate in a Bill dealing with electoral reform than in one dealing with temporary registration.

Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking about action to be taken in another place? That would seem an easier way out.

It seems to me a perfectly appropriate thing to put into this Bill. Why should not my right hon. Friend do it in another place? He has plenty of time to think about it before it goes to another place.

I do not see where the difficulties are going to arise. Surely such a person may get a doctor's certificate, and vote by proxy?

I apologise for not having been here through the Debate, but a point seems to have arisen since I came in. For the second time in a week we are being presented with a Bill which has to be rushed through because of time being short. If that is true, if we cannot adequately discuss the Bill and Amendments cannot be considered, why cannot we sit five days in each series of Sittings, instead of three?

We really cannot go into a full discussion of the number of days upon which we sit now.

I beg to give notice that I shall raise this matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible moment. This has happened twice in a week. I think the authority of the House is being flouted by the Government.

When the hon. Member comes to raise the matter on the Adjournment—

As a point of Order, the hon. Member cannot give notice of that kind now.

I was just going to say, will the hon. Member then come armed with particulars of the number of days on which he appears?

I naturally had in mind persons who were bedridden for life. I had particularly in mind ex-soldiers who are bedridden by reason of wounds received in the last war. A doctor's certificate could quite easily settle the point. As the right hon. Gentleman cannot give an assurance that this might be discussed in another place—and it appeared to be an excellent way out of a very natural difficulty—can he give me any assurance that he will himself recommend that the matter be discussed by the Speaker's Conference or suggest any means by which it can be discussed at that Conference?

I have listened with very great care to what my hon. and gallant Friend has said and to the obvious consensus of opinion in all parts of the Committee, and I want the Committee to understand that it is no mere obstinacy for the sake of it that has made my right hon. Friend raise the difficulties with which we are faced today. The position of those who can come on to the absent voters' list is clear. It is limited to those who by reason of their occupation, service or employment are debarred from voting, and we have covered that and not gone beyond the existing provision in the present provisions of the Bill. This, as my hon. and gallant Friend has made clear and would be the first to appreciate, is an extension of that point, and there is a difference between my hon. and gallant Friend and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Sir W. Brass) as to what was in their minds. My hon. and gallant Friend had in mind the permanently bedridden person. Obviously my hon. Friend had a more extended class and that shows the sort of difficulty which would have to be faced and for which provision would have to be made. It would also at once suggest to other hon. Members different classes for whom an extension might be made. My hon. and gallant Friend has obviously sought to take every reasonable method of presenting his point, and what he suggested is a suitable way of dealing with it, namely, that the Government should, as they must and will do, take full note of the expression of opinion from the Committee and see that this point is raised at the Conference not only with clarity and full consideration of its obvious methods but with every preparation having been made to deal with the practical difficulties it may involve. Therefore, I do, with gratitude to my hon. and gallant Friend, accept his last suggestion, and the Government will give full consideration to this matter and see that the opinion of the Committee is communicated properly to the Conference in the way I have suggested.

In view of the explanation of the right hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary and particularly in view of the explanation and assurance of my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.