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Clause 10—(Arrangements For Exercise Of Rights By Service Voters)

Volume 393: debated on Wednesday 3 November 1943

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I beg to move, in page 9, line 34, to leave out from "person," to "shall," in line 35, and to insert:

"serving in the armed forces and every seaman."
The whole simple object is to throw the onus of securing that the Service man shall have the opportunity of voting on the Army authorities. At the present time the Bill is drafted in these words:
"… every person appearing to be qualified to make a service declaration …"
This Amendment would simply alter that to say:
"… every person serving in the armed forces and every seaman …"
It is purely a drafting Amendment.

The object of the words which my hon. Friend seeks to leave out is to avoid the necessity of the papers being sent to those who are known to be aliens and serving in the Forces, because of course the aliens are not qualified as electors and it seems unnecessary that they should receive the documents in question. In fact it would be putting them in a difficult position because they might easily by mistake fill up the form and there would be confusion and false declarations caused. I cannot think that any injustice is being done to anyone who is qualified as an elector and I would ask the Committee to leave it in the form I suggest.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

An enormous amount of the success of the scheme depends on the instructions issued by the Service authorities. I want to impress on the Home Office that they shall co-operate with the Service authorities in drafting these Regulations in a way that the ordinary commanding officer can understand. I have raised this question earlier on Clause 8 in connection with the words:

"is residing at a place in the constituency, or would be so residing but for his service as a member of the forces or a seaman."
Every commanding officer would get into a hopeless muddle over things like this unless there were clear instructions from those who understand these things, and it would make all the difference to the working of the Service man's vote if the Service authorities issued clear instructions which could be understood by all. Can I have an assurance that that will be done?

I will certainly give the hon. and gallant Member this assurance, that so far as the Home Office is concerned we shall be most happy to co-operate with the Service authorities in drawing up the necessary instructions. At the same time I do not think we shall be in a position to complain if they take the view—and it is possible they may—that they are more capable of drafting language easily understood by the soldier. So far as we are concerned, we shall be most pleased to co-operate in getting the instructions known.

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

I beg to move, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again."

It is now over on hour after the time for the Adjournment of the House in accordance with Standing Orders. We are to be asked to pass the whole of this Committee stage to-night, the Report stage and Third Reading. It is quite obvious that as a result of a Division earlier in the day, the Government ought to give reconsideration to the Bill. There will be no opportunity for reconsideration in this Committee before the Report stage.

I find it difficult to accede to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, for this reason. This Bill is a matter of considerable urgency, both as regards by-elections and as regards the possibility of a General Election soon after, or possibly soon after, the termination of hostilities. We also have on the Order Paper to-day the Prolongation of Parliament Bill, and we desire to get both these Bills through before the Session ends. For that reason we must get their Second Reading begun in another place on the next Sitting Day. But I will give my hon. Friend this assurance, that it is perfectly clear that the Committee stage of this Bill will not be taken in another place until the next series of Sittings, and that will give us an opportunity of considering the position, particularly in regard to the Amendment he indicated, and of considering other points which Members have made. That will give an interval during which any further necessary Amendments can be taken in another place. Having given that explanation and assurance, I hope that, seeing we have now, I think, passed the stage at which contention was likely to arise on Amendments, we can get through the Committee stage on the remaining Amendments, many of which are of a purely drafting character, very speedily. For that reason I hope the Committee will consent to proceed.

I quite realise that we are getting to the end of a Session, but we all know there is going to be a short Recess so that the Government could decide to modify the programme. If you consider the importance of this Measure, it is a public scandal that we are dealing with it in the way we are doing.

It has obviously appeared that there are grave differences of opinion about this Bill, and that its implications are imperfectly understood, even by people on the Front Bench. I would suggest a little more time for consideration. After all, the Water Undertakings Bill is out of the way, and we have a day which can be used for this Bill. I suggest that the Minister should reconsider his decision not to accept the Motion. Further consideration should be given to the Bill by the Government. I realise that it is urgent, but there is no reason why we should pass bad legislation because it is urgent.

I should like on this occasion to support the Minister. On principle, I am all in favour of time. It would have been much better if the Bill had been introduced earlier in the Session But this is an emergency Measure. The register is terribly out of date, and by-elections are taking place in most unsatisfactory conditions. It was because of the pressure of the House, over a long time, that the Government, at a late hour, introduced this Bill. I agree that it is not a perfect Bill. I do not think that even the Minister would say that it was. It was brought in to meet special circumstances. But the Speaker's Conference will, we hope, get to work very early in the new Session, when many of these points can be considered, and Amendments brought about. It would be nothing short of a disaster if this Session ended without this Bill going on the Statute Book.

I hope the Committee will support the Under-Secretary, for one very obvious reason. The Bill will have to be finished to-night if it is to be taken in another place on the next Sitting Day. I am aware that there is a feeling among some Members that the Measure should be postponed for further consideration, but it is my conviction that the Bill, with the Amendments which the Minister is going to move presently, will make as good a Measure as can be made in the circumstances which face us. All the Amendments which have been moved on that side have been dilatory in their—

I apologise. The word slipped out. The Amendments which have been moved would, in my view, worsen the Bill, and the Amendments which those Members have still on the Paper would make it no better. I, therefore, appeal to the Under-Secretary to ask his friends to withdraw their Amendments, and we may then finish the Bill in good time.

On a point of Order. When has the word "dilatory" become unparliamentary?

Has it not been constantly ruled, both from the Upper and the Lower Chair, that the word "dilatory" as applied to an Amendment which has been discussed by the House, is a reflection on the Chair?

I have no particular objection to the word "dilatory," but I thought that possibly at that minute it would be well if I pointed out that hon. Members cannot accuse other Members in whole blocks of being obstructionist. That was really my meaning.

My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has made the point very strongly that time is short, and that we have to get the Bill on the Statute Book. Whose fault is it? Not that of the Members of this Committee. It is no use suggesting that, because we are deeply concerned about matters connected with this Bill, we are being dilatory, or obstructionist. The Bill need not have been brought in at the end of the Session. I suggest that the best thing would be for my right hon. Friend to accept the Motion. If he cannot do that, he should at least agree that at the end of the Committee stage he will allow the matter to be reconsidered.

We are all agreed that this Bill has not devised the best possible system of voting that can be devised, but I beg the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) to withdraw his Motion, which would probably have the effect of leaving the registers as they now are. If there is one thing on which all Members in all parts of the House would probably agree, it is that the present registers are hopelessly out of date. It is a denial of democracy to continue to hold elections on the present registers one week longer than is necessary. I hope that, although there are imperfections in the Bill, the fact that we are going to get new registers will be considered so great an advantage that the Motion will be withdrawn and we can get on.

My right hon. Friend made what he apparently thought was an attractive offer in suggesting that what we have said to-day would be considered by the Government, and that if necessary Amendments would be moved in another place. It seems to me unsuitable that Amendments to a Parliamentary Elections Bill should be brought up in another place, where nobody can have any interest in the matter. Surely the proper place is this House.

Even on war-time legislation I cannot recall a Bill of this nature, on which there was really a substantial Committee stage, with Amendments being moved, some by the Government, and the Committee stage being followed on the same day by the Report stage and the Third Reading. I hope that the Under-Secretary will at any rate be able to tell us that if we finish the Committee stage to-night the Report stage and the Third Reading-will be taken at a later date.

I would like to support the Motion to report Progress. I have listened with great attention from the beginning of the Debate, and I have been very struck by the quiet way in which all the Amendments have been moved. I have also been struck by the fact that they have been moved by Members who have served overseas and have been through the mill in this war. I hope the Government will realise the intensity of feeling among many of us, who have the impression that the Government have been very inflexible in face of the views which have been put forward. If we cannot get Progress reported, I think it will be quite wrong and out of accord with the spirit of the times if we try to carry the further stages of the Bill after the Committee stage.

The Committee ought to be quite clear what the consequences of abandoning the discussion at this stage would be. This Bill is, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South-west Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) said, a very urgent Measure. It has been pressed upon us from all quarters of the House. There has been no delay by the Government in preparing this Measure. It is a very complex Measure, and the Government machine has worked at very high pressure in getting it ready. If we abandon the discussion at this stage and do not take the further stages of the Bill to-night, it is dear that the Second Reading cannot be taken in another place until the middle of the next series of Sittings. The intention of the House is to adjourn at the end of that series. It is clear that if we report Progress now, the Bill will have to be reintroduced next Session. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] The only alternative is for the House to sit in the following week. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] I cannot give any undertaking that that course can possibly be taken. I do not know what arrangements can be made with regard to Business and so forth, and it is impossible for me to give any undertaking that that course will be possible. It is therefore clear that if we report Progress now, that may necessitate the reintroduction of the Bill in the new Session and its discussion de novo in that new Session.

We have now made very good progress with the Committee stage; the Amendments still on the Paper are, in the main, of a drafting character, and some of them are points of very small import. I am confident myself that we could complete the Committee stage within the next hour, and considering the appeals that have often been made in regard to the hours of Sitting that the House shall sit longer for particular purposes, I do not think that it is asking the House to inflict any great hardship upon itself to complete the Committee stage, which, I think, can be done in the course of the next hour.

I think we ought to try to take the remaining stages. At any rate, we ought to proceed with the Committee stage and see what progress we can make.

It is right that it should be pointed out—which I hope to do without showing any hostility to the right hon. Gentleman who has so well conducted this Bill—the rather serious Parliamentary situation into which the Government have got themselves. It would be in Order, on this occasion, to point out again and again that there have been cases known to all of us under ordinary party political fighting when there has been opposition to a Bill and when the Government have perhaps suffered, as they have done to-day, a bad fall, and there has been a good deal of feeling and a Motion has been made to Report Progress. There has usually followed discussions behind the Chair between the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the House, and a compromise has been reached in which the Government have agreed not to take the Report stage and the Third Reading. The right hon. Gentleman tells us that he has no authority to make any bargain of any sort. Neither the Leader nor the Deputy Leader of the House is present. Everybody appreciates the enormous strain under which Members of the War Cabinet are meeting, but there is an unfortunate fact, or a fortunate fact, as I think it is, that we are still the Parliament of Great Britain assembled. It is the duty of the Government to have regard to the feeling of the Committee. It is absolutely certain that the feeling of the majority of the Committee, and perhaps I might say of the Tory Party, is in favour of having some compromise decision by taking the Committee stage to-night and the further stages later on. The right hon. Gentleman says he has no authority and makes an offer, which has no value at all, to see how we get on. He has dealt with this matter in a very inadequate way. I understand that on the first and second Sitting Days of the next series of Sittings the Business that has been put down may come to and end before the conclusion of the Sittings, and it should be possible, by the usual arrangement behind Mr. Speaker's Chair, to arrange for an hour or two to be given to this Bill. I shall certainly vote against the Government if we go to a Division and they do not come to a decision. I do not think in war-time we ought to abrogate the ordinary traditions and rights of the House, and rights not in a written sense in that when the Government have a bad Division and there is a feeling among some of their supporters—and it is even a stronger feeling when it is among their opponents—that the Government should proceed up to a certain point and that we should be met. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will get up and promise that he will not go further than the Committee stage.

The suggestion the right hon. Gentleman has made is a fair one. There is obviously some feeling in the Committee, which I quite well understand, that some of the points raised to-day will require further consideration in this House. For that reason, if we can proceed with the Committee stage and try to complete it, as I think we can in about an hour, we can then report Progress and take the Report stage and Third Reading at some other time.

I rise to congratulate the Under-Secretary on his very kindly speech to his friends. It was a great contrast to what took place last week, when we were discussing the Workmen's Compensation Bill, when I heard one of the most impudent speeches I had ever heard in my Parliamentary experience. To-day the Conservatives are raising this issue, and a fellow Member of their own party gets up and says that they are prepared to give more time, although a few minutes ago he said that the Bill must be got through to-night. Within five minutes he says that it does not need to be got through to-night but on some other occasion. The thing does not work. He knows that he would be defeated if there was a vote, and that is why he has done it. Do not let the noble Earl become swell-headed; what he has said has nothing to do with it. What has to do with it is the fact that there are more Members against the Government than there are for.

Surely the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) does not condemn the Government because they bow to the wishes of a democratic Assembly?

The Government see a majority of opinion against them at the present time, and therefore they agree to finish the Committee stage to-night and then to report Progress and they will come again in the next series of Sittings and take the further stages of the Bill. The hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) is an astute Parliamentarian and will no doubt accept the arrangement. It is evidence to me of this, that as the war situation changes the Conservative Party in this House are asserting themselves and that the Government are not a Coalition Government but merely a branch of the Conservative Party masquerading as a Coalition Government.

Motion, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again," by leave, withdrawn.

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