Before I call upon the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) to move the first Amendment which stands in his name, it may be convenient to suggest that we should take both Amendments together and afterwards if necessary separate Divisions can be taken upon them.
On a point of Order. Am I to take it you are not calling the Amendment which stands in my name? I know that it is similar to a previous Amendment, but it raises a rather different point.
I assumed that it was consequential on the hon. Member's previous Amendment. Perhaps he will be content to raise the point involved on the Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill".
I beg to move, in page 6, line 2, after "unless," to insert "either."This Amendment is to be read along with the next Amendment on the Paper. Both Amendments refer to the business premises register. The proviso at the top of page 6 of the Bill provides that persons entitled to the business premises vote must themselves apply for registration. The effect of these Amendments would be that anybody would be entitled to apply on their behalf. In practice of course only party agents would exercise this right, and if the Government prefer that words should be used limiting this right to the party agent I should be content. If that right is given to the party agent, I am sure the business premises register will be much more complete. In introducing this Bill, the Home Secretary said he was not seeking to alter the franchise, but was merely providing a new method of compiling the register in the absence of an official canvas by the registration officer. I submit that the provision in the Bill for compiling the business premises register is so inadequate that many occupiers of business premises will in the result be disfranchised if Clause 6 remains as it is, and that in effect if not in intention the Bill will make a change in the electoral system. My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary in winding up the Second Reading the other day said that the right of the business premises occupier to apply for registration would be advertised, and that the party agents would be able to distribute forms of application. Official advertisements are, however, so numerous that many people do not read them, and even those who do very often find them incomprehensible. Also it will be quite impossible for party agents, in the time available, to get in touch, as my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary suggested they should, with those entitled to apply. It would be far easier for the agents to apply on their behalf. I hope that the Government will either accept this Amendment or, on the Report stage, will introduce an Amendment giving agents the right to apply.
I should like to add a word to my hon. Friend's remark in support of this Amendment. As I read the Bill, it is almost entirely a Bill for machinery, and in no circumstances does the Bill handicap any voter who is qualified to vote. Indeed, the whole purpose of the Bill is to assist in every way those who desire or are entitled to be on the register. This Amendment gives further assistance to the individuals who are qualified under the business premises qualification. I cannot conceive that any handicap should be put in their way. On the other hand, I suggest that every assistance should be given to them. The Amendment would not affect their qualification in any way. That they should receive this assistance such as my hon. Friend describes seems to be only right and reasonable, and I hope that the Minister will see his way to accept this Amendment.
In the opinion of my hon. Friend, the Clause as it stands gives an entirely proper handicap in the way of a business voter. I personally hope that my right hon. Friend will accept one of the other methods of dealing with this problem rather than the one which has now been suggested. I, personally, do not at all like the idea of bringing in the political agent as a part of our electoral machinery. Some of us think we should be better without political agents at all, but it certainly seems to me that the political agent, indeed the political association, has no constitutional existence at all and therefore that it would be a mistake if in precise terms permission was given to people whose existence this House does not in fact recognise to act as applicants on behalf of business people. By all means provide for application to be made on behalf of business people; but I submit that it would be dangerous to limit that right to particular people. How they would be described in an Act of Parliament I do not know—the people we all know as political agents.
I only want to intervene to make one point, which is that this Amendment does not propose adding anything new to the law as it now exists, but the Bill as it stands cuts down the right of the people who want to have their claim to vote registered. If one looks at Rule 10 in the First Schedule to the 1918 Act, it is made perfectly plain that where a claim is made on behalf of another person what this Amendment proposes to do under this Bill can at the moment be done. There is no particular reference in that Act to political agents, nor is there in this Amendment, but as this is merely a Bill dealing with machinery, I support the Amendment, which I hope will be accepted.
May I support what has been said by one hon. Member with reference to party agents? In the future we may have an entirely different political organisation. There will be no such people as party agents, who in law have no existence whatever. I think that is a very strong point, and we should be very careful indeed to whom we give power in regard to such an important matter as that which is embodied in this Bill. I query the wisdom of the limitation of the Amendment which was adumbrated by my hon. and gallant Friend.
As my hon. Friend who moved the Amendment stated, this would enable the party agent or anybody else, on behalf of someone who claims to be a business premises voter, to apply on his behalf Clause 6, Sub-section (1) of the Bill. I think my hon. Friend indicated on the Second Reading that there would be considerable objection to this course. The business premises vote under the scheme recommended by the Departmental Committee and embodied in the Bill has to be claimed by the individual. In peace-time the business premises register is compiled as a result of a canvass undertaken on behalf of the electoral registration officers. Under this Bill we recognise that no canvass is possible, and therefore a claim to be placed on the business premises register must be made by or on behalf of the individual claimant. There would be a great disadvantage in permitting anyone to make a claim on behalf of someone else. The only check upon the facts stated in the claim is by some penal proceedings for which penalties are provided under, I think, Clause 15 of the Bill. That is the check upon a fraudulent claim. Clause 15 says:
Now a reason for the provision of those penalties is that in a vast number of cases it is quite impossible for anyone to check the accuracy of the facts in the claim in the time allowed. As everybody knows, the civilian register—the residents register—does not come into existence until the last day of the month preceding the election, and there are only 10 days for the making of an application to be entered on the business premises register. There is very little time therefore in which any proper check at all can be undertaken, and for that reason heavy penalties are imposed upon the maker of a fraudulent declaration. If a party agent or anybody else were permitted to hand in claims for inclusion on the business premises register, the task of the authorities would become very difficult and, moreover, there would be no check that the facts stated were correct. If a party agent were charged with making a fraudulent declaration, he would tell the court that he himself had made the statements in good faith. The Amendment quite frankly states that its object is to enable party agents to make claims on behalf of the business premises voter. That suggestion was carefully considered, as I understand it, by the Interdepartmental Committee which dealt with this matter. It is recommended quite clearly that claims by persons wishing to be placed on the business premises register would have to be made by the persons entitled, on their own initiative and on the basis of the same qualifying date, the date of the Royal Proclamation. That is the recommendation of the Committee representatives, and that is the recommendation which we have thought fit to embody in this Clause of the Bill. On the Second Reading my hon. Friend the Member for West Edinburgh (Lt.-Commander Hutchison) suggested that this vote might be claimed on behalf of a husband by a wife or on behalf of a wife by a husband. That would be a much more limited proposal than the one made in the Amendment now before the Committee. The position, of course, is that the wife of a man entitled to a business premises vote is herself, quite independently of her husband, entitled to a business premises vote also, and the same thing, of course, applies to the husband, where the wife is the occupier of the business premises. We see some advantage in that proposal—that each of these persons is entitled to the business premises vote in respect of the premises, and it will save the duplication of applications and a good deal of extra correspondence if the vote can be claimed on behalf of the husband by the wife and on behalf of the wife by the husband, and, therefore, when we come to the Amendment which makes the proposal I will, if the Committee agrees, table a manuscript Amendment in proper form to be embodied in the Bill."Any person who makes an application to be registered in the business premises register, knowing the application or declaration contains a statement which is false, shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £50 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or to both."
I do not wish to embarrass my right hon. Friend who has dealt with this matter with so much tact and patience, but what he has just said is that this Amendment if carried might result in thousands of applications for business votes being lodged and it being quite impossible to check them. If that is so, what is going to happen if the people who are properly entitled to business votes themselves make application? Surely that is the worst possible reason for opposing this particular Amendment. If the machinery is such that people who are properly entitled to vote and who make proper application in the manner already described by the Bill itself are going to swamp it—that is what I understood my hon. Friend to say—then I submit that the whole matter should be very seriously reconsidered.
No one except the voter himself or his wife can swear that that statement is true. Although in practice it will not of course be possible to check each application, it will be assumed that the greater number of applications are bona fide for the simple reason that the person making them will be liable to a heavy penalty if the declaration is false.
That does not quite answer my point. The position now seems to be that the applications which are made by the persons who claim that they are themselves entitled to a vote are not, in fact, to be subjected to any close scrutiny. My right hon. Friend said that no one but such a person, in fact, could supply the information which is called for by the form. If that is so, then the political agent or anyone else who sought to make a claim would not be able to do so. That is no argument against providing the opportunity which the movers of this Amendment have sought, and I am afraid that in this case my right hon. Friend has made me more suspicious of this particular provision and more anxious to secure some real piece of machinery by which these people who, under the law, are entitled to a vote shall be able to claim it.
Does the Minister admit that under the law as it stands, as my hon. and gallant Friend the hon. Member for Daventry (Major Manningham-Buller) pointed out, a person may apply on another person's behalf? If so, the Home Secretary was not quite correct in stating that this Bill is not making any change in the electoral system.
The short answer to that is that the business premises register under the present law is compiled annually and is open to inspection, and ample time is available for claims and objections to be made. In the case of the system proposed by the Bill, the whole matter will be carried through with immense rush and hurry in the few weeks immediately preceding the election. I think the cases are very different for that reason.
That is not an answer to my question.
I have listened to the Under-Secretary on this point, and I confess I am not satisfied with the reasons he has put forward for adhering to the Bill in its present form. The effect of the Bill in its present form seems to me to deprive large numbers of business voters who are away on business from their particular area from obtaining their right to vote. The danger he apprehends from a flood of claims coming in which cannot be checked in the time provided seems rather exaggerated, because under the present law, whereas a claim by a husband or wife to the business vote is accepted, where a claim is put in by anyone else the burden of proving that claim rests on the person claiming on behalf of another. It does not rest on the registration officer, so that unless claims are supported by appropriate evidence the registration officer can refuse flatly to accept them. If that procedure was carried on under this Bill, it might enable a lot more people to exercise the right they now have under the existing law regarding the business vote.
I beg to move, in page 6, line 5, at the end, to insert:
"Provided also that it shall be the duty of the registration officer to send within the prescribed time to each person rated in respect of business premises a copy of such form and to draw his attention to the provisions of this subsection."
It might be for the convenience of the Committee if this and the two following Amendments were discussed together.
I take it that Members of the Committee will feel that the wording of this Amendment is quite clear to them, and therefore it is unnecessary to go into the details of reading it. I assume, and I think all Members of the Committee rightly assume too, that the object of this Bill is to make it as easy as possible for those who are qualified to be on the register as voters in another election to do so, and that every possible handicap should be removed. With regard to those who are qualified to vote as occupiers of business premises, I contend, and my hon. Friends agree with me, that this particular class of voters or potential voters are, in fact, handicapped very considerably in so far as they have in a very short time to apply either individually or now, as has been suggested by Amendments, their wives might apply for them to be put upon the register. My right hon. Friend emphasised a few minutes ago the very short space of time there is for this to be done and gave his reasons for not allowing a third party to apply on behalf of the applicant, but in this particular instance it seems to me it is causing a very great handicap for those who are qualified for a business premises vote if they have themselves got to do it.In every other instance, so far as I can see, reading the Bill, a form will be sent to an individual who desires to vote, whether he is a soldier, a merchant seaman or an ordinary civilian. They will either be automatically on the register or specifically reminded of the fact that they have facilities and privileges as voters, but as regards the occupier of business premises the Bill, as I see it, at present says there is to be no form or reminder of any kind. I suggest that there is nothing easier than to see that he gets ordinary assistance to remind him that he is qualified and that if he wants to vote he must register as such. Therefore this Amendment suggests that the registration officer should send to all those qualified a reminder in the shape of a form. The registration officer can readily ascertain who are qualified from the valuation rolls at the present time. All those on the existing register are on the valuation roll and those on the new register will also be on the valuation roll. I suggest it will be difficult to find a reasonable excuse why the registration officer should not fulfil this common or garden duty. Human nature is sometimes careless and sometimes indifferent. It may be that in other instances the owner of business premises is away ill or has no time to do the job unless specifically reminded to do so. We feel very strongly about the Amendment. A most important principle is involved, and I trust the Under-Secretary will take this Amendment as seriously as it is intended by those who have brought it forward.
I should like to endorse what my hon. and gallant Friend has said in moving the Amendment. I hope my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will accept the Amendment. The whole point of this question is not whether there should be a business vote or not. Parliament has given the vote and should see that knowledge is provided to let people know that they are entitled to a vote. I find that on this point I am very much reinforced by the Report of the Committee on Electoral Machinery. If my right hon. Friend will turn to page 35, he will see what the unanimous Report of the Committee was. They said:
If the Committee came to the conclusion that it is quite possible for the returning officer to send that information to the business man when he is qualified, it must be equally possible to send it before he himself has made a claim. The machinery is there, it is admitted it is there by the Committee, on which this Bill is founded. Therefore I suggest to my right hon. Friend that he cannot say the machinery is not there. It is, and I cannot see what argument there can possibly be for saying that the machinery should not be provided to let those people who are entitled to business qualification know that they are entitled, and how to make their claim."Under the head of 'Construction' it is proposed that particulars of Business Premises qualification should be obtained by claim. Maintenance will, however, be requisite. Here the national registration system can provide no automatic machinery. The onus of revising these qualifications cannot be left with the E.R.O., and the initial and subsequent qualifications must be for a year, renewable by application. To facilitate such applications the E.R.O. should send an application form to each elector already possessing the Business Premises qualification in order that he may apply for a renewal if qualified."
I should like to support the Amendment, particularly from the point of view of a business man who may well be overseas but whose wife would not realise that she might apply on his behalf and thus obtain not only for him but for herself a business premises vote. I think it is important that if this application must be made, it should be made in the easiest possible form, and that this Amendment that a form should be sent by the registration officer within a prescribed time to each of the persons entitled in respect of business premises would meet very largely the objection I raised on Second Reading. I realise, of course, that there will be a certain amount of wastage of paper, but I do not think that a small amount of waste paper should stand in the way as regards the business premises vote.
I am not quite clear whether we are discussing the single Amendment standing in the name of the hon. and gallant Member for Thornbury (Sir D. Gunston) regarding the sending of a notice by the registration officer, or whether we are dealing at the same time with the two other Amendments to Clause 6. I should be grateful for your guidance, Major Milner.
I had intended solely to move the insertion at the end of line 5, the Amendment which I originally moved. That is one to which I attach great importance.
I understood the Committee agreed that it would be for the general convenience if all three Amendments were discussed together.
May I with respect point out that there may be a desire to have a Division on this Amendment and not on the others?
There is no difficulty about that. The Committee may discuss the three Amendments, and if there is a desire to have a Division on the Amendment which the hon. and gallant Member has moved, that can take place.
These are different Amendments.
I had hoped it might shorten discussion and avoid repetition if the Amendments were discussed together but I am, of course, in the hands of the Committee.
On a point of Order. I think it is true that the second Amendment, which deals with the application for the business premises vote, is a rather different matter from that contained in the first and last Amendments of the three. It might be convenient to have a discussion on the first Amendment and then have a discussion on the proposal of my hon. Friend the hon. Member for the Abbey Division (Sir H. Webbe) that this duty should be imposed on the Inspector of Taxes. We could take those two discussions together with consent, but I am quite happy to deal with each Amendment in the order in which they stand on the Paper.
I gather that the Committee would prefer that course.
This Amendment proposes, as I understand, to facilitate the entry of applications for registration in respect of the business premises vote by placing upon the registration officer the duty of sending within a prescribed time a copy of the form of application to each person rated in respect of business premises. There is some machinery objection to the proposal, but more formidable objections on merits. The registration officer and his staff will frequently have great difficulty in carrying out work which, under the new scheme, will be essential to the preparation of a new register. To add to this work the labour of obtaining the rate book and going through it and sending out notices to all the persons who may be thought, from an examination of the rate book, to have a claim to the business premises vote, would be in many cases impracticable. Secondly, the particulars recorded in the rate book are frequently insufficient to show whether an individual whose name appears in the book is rated in respect of a dwelling or of business premises.Also, there is the very large class of business premises occupiers who do not pay rates at all. An enormous number of blocks of offices are leased to business tenants for a rent which includes the amount of the rates, the landlord being the ratepayer. On the one hand, you would be sending out forms of application to people who would not be qualified for the business premises vote, and raising, false hopes in their breasts, while, on the other hand, you would be missing out a large number of people who would be entitled to be entered on the register. The proposal has defects from both angles. That, I suggest, is why the Inter-Departmental Committee came to the conclusion that this matter must rest upon individual claims. So far as publicity is concerned, my right hon. Friend and I have already promised that every possible step will be taken to publicise the existence of the business premises vote at election times and to enable people to make their applications. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Thornbury (Sir D. Gunston) quoted from page 35 of the Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee. He thought that that paragraph strengthened the case for the Amendment. But the paragraph deals, not with elections initiated in what I might call the first stage, but with elections initiated in the second stage contemplated by the Bill. Once we have a business premises register, it is practicable on a subsequent occasion to send out notices to persons entered thereon reminding them that they are entitled to be entered on the business premises register. When we get to the second stage, when the business premises register is compiled on a different principle, that course is practicable. I would not like to be dogmatic on this point, but I think it is contemplated that the regulations on the second stage shall provide for some reminder to be sent to the persons already on the business premises register. I assure my hon. and gallant Friend that, while the first stage is operative, it is not possible to find any method of getting in touch with persons who are entitled to the business premises vote, in order to stimulate them into making the necessary application.
I cannot regard the speech of my right hon. Friend as at all satisfactory. He has virtually admitted that the machinery proposed under this Bill will in fact involve the business man in considerable difficulties. He has given reasons for not accepting the proposal made in this Amendment. I ought perhaps to explain why I put my name to this Amendment while I have at the same time an Amendment down urging an alternative piece of machinery. I think I am justified in supporting both proposals, because I am concerned only with seeing that the business man gets some opportunity of making application properly for his business premises vote. The first objection is that the study of the rating lists by the registration officer would be an impossible task. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend has been advised by his own expert officers, but I have talked about this matter to registration officers in divisions where the problem is very serious, and they see no insuperable difficulty. They are the men who have to do the job, and they say that, by and large, it can be done.My right hon. Friend's second objection is two-fold. He says that, on the one hand, people will receive copies of forms when they are not entitled to vote, and, on the other hand, people who are entitled to vote, who occupy premises in respect of which they do not pay rates direct, will not get any vote. I am certain that those who have put their names to the Amendment will realise that the Amendment in itself will not secure a 100 per cent. perfect piece of machinery, but it will do a great deal more than nothing. If there are going to be thousands of business men, who do not pay rates direct, who will not get forms, there must be many more thousands who, under the Bill as it stands, will get no qualification whatever. We shall be very happy to have something less than perfection if we can have the very substantial something which the Amendment would give. Every business man is accustomed to receiving letters, particularly from Government offices, which do not concern him, and the receipt of one more or less will go quite unnoticed. I do not think our hearts need bleed for people in that position. I think that the objections of my right hon. Friend are not substantial. I must revert to what was said on Second Reading about the way in which the business man is going to be given this vote. There is going to be publicity. It has been pointed out to-day how completely ineffective official publicity may be. The other suggestion was that forms might be sent to political agents for them to canvass in the districts. Although the voice was the voice of my right hon. Friend the Under- Secretary, I saw, from long acquaintance, the imprint of the hand of the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary in that suggestion. That suggestion is quite improper. It is the business of this House to provide by Statute the machinery to enable the citizen simply and easily to claim that vote, and to exercise it. It is entirely wrong that we should contemplate throwing this burden of notifying business men of their right to the business vote upon people who, as I said just now in another connection, have no constitutional existence whatsoever. Particularly is it wrong at this time. There is supposed to be a political truce, which some of us are trying to observe. As a result, the ordinary political machinery, as every hon. Member knows, is in many cases virtually non-existent. Most—indeed, I would say all—of those political agents who are capable of doing a job more closely related to the war effort than that of running party politics are, or should be, differently engaged. In fact, the political agents do not exist in a large number of instances to carry out the duties which my right hon. Friend, speaking, I am certain, on behalf of the Home Secretary, has suggested they should do. It is just a piece of humbug to suggest that this business can be done by the political agent. It is the business of this House to secure by Statute that there is proper machinery, so that the business man entitled, under the Constitution, to a vote, can have the same opportunity of securing that vote, as nearly as we can, as the residential voter has. There is at the moment a gross disparity between the position of the residential voter and that of the business voter. This is not the right machinery, and I suggest that it is the duty of the Government to find adequate machinery to deal with what may turn out to be a great injustice.
I cannot help feeling that practically the whole of this discussion is completely unreal. The arguments put forward by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department are overwhelming in the light of existing circumstances. The hon. Member for the Abbey Division (Sir H. Webbe) put up, no doubt, the best case he could for the proposition which has been put forward, but it is difficult to persuade most of us that any business man will not be alive to the fact that he is entitled to this vote. Therefore, any suggestion that because he is not spoon-fed with regard to this vote and will therefore miss it strikes me as being completely out of accord with the facts as we know them. He will still be able to vote like an ordinary citizen, and the business vote in any case is an extra vote to which many people believe he should not be entitled. It is there for him, and all he is asked to do is to apply for it, not year after year but only in the first instance, due entirely to the exigencies of war-time conditions. After the first year his name would have been noted, and in all probability he would be reminded. If the Amendment is carried, it will mean that overworked returning officers will have to send out these forms literally in their thousands, taking the country as a whole. That in itself will be a tremendous work, and a very large number of them will be completely wasted. The line to be taken is a reasonable one, and anyone entitled to the vote who is keen enough to exercise will watch for his opportunity to become registered. I hope that the Under-Secretary will resist all attempts to add this burden to returning officers at the present time, with all its resultant waste in man-power and indeed, of paper.
The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall) has given the game away. He says he does not like the business vote, and, therefore, why make it easy for people to exercise that vote? The answer to that was contained in the very excellent speech of the Under-Secretary on Second Reading, when he said it was necessary to give publicity to the fact and suggested that forms should be sent round to all the agents of the political parties in the country. That seems to be foreign to the hon. Member's idea of democracy. Surely we ought to adopt this really democratic principle and impose this duty on returning officers of sending an application form to everybody who appears to be running business premises. The amount of time involved would not be great when you bear in mind the importance of securing that everybody, whatever his party, has a clear right to vote in an election.
I entirely agree with the opinion expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for the Abbey Division (Sir H. Webbe) that the case put up by the right hon. Gentleman was entirely unsatisfactory to those of us who feel strongly on this Amendment. He was inclined to make very heavy weather of a very simple thing. It is only a reminder and not a case of the possibility of fraud being involved or of anybody getting on to the register who ought not to get on. Who was more entitled to send a reminder than the registration officer? There may be a case here and there where some people may not be on the valuation roll and where some may get the form perhaps who do not need it. But such cases will only be very few. The vast majority of people will be on the valuation roll and the registration officer can very readily, even in the time available, obtain that information and bring it to the notice of all concerned. I am thoroughly dissatisfied with the case presented by the right hon. Gentleman, and unless he proves to be considerably more conciliatory I am afraid we must press the matter to a Division.
I hope that the Under-Secretary can meet us on this point. I was amazed to hear that the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall) was anxious about the waste of paper. Fancy a Socialist worrying about the waste of paper.
Is it not true that Socialists are organised to prevent all waste?
Are they really so anxious about the waste of paper as to prevent from voting someone who has the right to vote in this country? The Under-Secretary of State has made an extraordinary argument, that if the amendment is accepted it will not cover everybody, and a certain number of people not on the rate roll will not be included, and also he says that to send forms to certain people not entitled to them might cause a heart-burning. That is not a serious Parliamentary argument. If the Amendment is accepted it will remind a lot of people and tell them they are entitled to the vote, and I beg of the right hon. Gentleman to consider the position again before he rejects the Amendment.
I appreciate the anxiety of hon. Friends, some of whom have a large number of business voters in their constituencies, that every possible step should be taken to enable those people to exercise their right. I am bound to point out in respect of the proposal in the Amendment, which suggests that persons rated in respect of business premises should receive a copy of the form, that the rate books do not say who is and who is not rated in respect of business premises at all, and if persons are so entered in the books, they may not, and in many cases will not, be entitled to a business premises vote, because they are residing in the same constituency already, and I am bound to point out that the result of circulating these forms to these persons will be that large numbers of people will obtain the forms who have no claim to the business premises vote whatever. In those circumstances, I suggest that the proposal will not clarify the position in regard to the business premises vote. It will add a tremendous lot of fog to the position. When an election comes along there will be announcements in the Press and broadcast, and so forth, in regard to the business premises vote, but it will add to the confusion if, at the same time, forms are going out which are not reaching the right people in many cases and in thousands of other cases are reaching the wrong people. I suggest that the Amendment, no doubt designed with the best intention in the world, will only make confusion and chaos, and I therefore suggest that its supporters will be well advised to reconsider their position before dividing the Committee.
The position in regard to the Amendment does not create any more confusion than the position with regard to an individual who has a residential qualification and a business qualification. The returning officer would not experience very much difficulty in differentiating between the business vote and the residential vote. Everybody can tell from a particular street whether it is a residential place or a business place. That is reflected in the return which is made in regard to the payment of rates. The business firm pays a greater sum than the residential voter in my constituency in the majority of cases. Here is an attempt to deprive business men of the vote, and that is not the intention of the Bill or of Parliament. If small injustices creep in and men are likely to be deprived of their votes, I would remind my right hon. Friend that one of the duties of the election agent is at all times to try and sustain the votes of people whose names do not appear on the register but which ought to appear. When the registers are being prepared such names are put forward by representatives of all parties. If after that has been done there are people who are still deprived of their vote, it is just too bad. There is no justification for trying to deprive men of their votes who pay a much greater volume in rates and taxes and have greater liabilities than residential voters.
It is very remarkable that those who are supporting this Amendment are those who support the business voter. Were it not for the fact that this is not the time to embark upon widespread controversy, I am sure that my hon. Friends on this side of the Committee would take grievous exception to the perpetuation of the business vote at all. The argument put forward in such dulcet tones by the hon. Member for Holborn (Sir R. Tasker) opens the position very wide. Surely, at this time of day this Committee would not really support the principle of two votes to the man who pays the most in rates. It would be impossible to justify the business vote unless you were prepared also to give a plural vote to every workman in respect of the place where he carried out his employment.
Does the hon. Member support the university vote?
I do not. The only tenable principle of voting is that each citizen in respect of his citizenship shall be entitled to one vote in the place where he lives. While I agree that this is not the time to seek to make fundamental changes in established voting practice, it is most unfortunate that those who are supporting the Amendment should seek to pursue this archaic and obsolete piece of class prejudice to the point of a division.
On a point of Order. Is the hon. Member, who is now letting all the cats out of the bag, in Order in discussing this matter at all?
I was watching the hon. Member. He has been in Order, but should not go far on his present line.
I am most anxious to keep in Order, and I should have thought that it would not have been in Order but for the Amendment, which just opens the door to a discussion of these things. That is why the proposers of the Amendment were so unwise, but if we were called upon as a Committee to justify plural voting, we would all find it very difficult. The best thing to do is to let the Clause be and remember that the least said the soonest mended.
I want to refer to the remarks of the hon. Member for Kennington (Mr. Wilmot). I do not propose to discuss whether the business vote is desirable or not. That, I suggest, is completely out of Order. I want to put forward the general principle that if, under the existing law, an individual is entitled to a vote, he or she should have every fair opportunity of obtaining that vote. I feel that the Mover of this Amendment has made out a case that as the Bill now stands the owner of the business vote will not have an equal and fair opportunity. My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, a few moments ago, appeared to admit this, to say that the machinery proposed under the Amendment will create fog, will not clarify the position and will not remove grievances. If that is the case, could he not see his way between now and the Report stage to consider whether there are any legitimate grievances and, if so, take the opportunity of putting forward counter proposals to remove them?
There is a Scriptural text which says:
I would like hon. Members to realise how tough Members on the other side are over this small matter and to take it as a warning as to how much tougher things will be when we come to tackle them on bigger subjects. If those who are affected by this dual vote were suspected of being in any way "Red," there would be no question from the other side of sending them a reminder."He that is faithful in the least is faithful also in much."
I hope the Committee will insist on a Division and support the Amendment, because it is disgraceful that the Home Office should seek an occasion of this kind to do a very dirty trick—it is nothing more or less—in endeavouring to disfranchise a not very considerable but at least a worthwhile considering section of the electorate.
On a point of Order. Is it in Order, Major Milner, for an hon. Member who has not listened to the Debate to come into the House and make charges of a character that are quite demonstrably untrue?
I have followed this matter from the first. How long I have been in the House is of no importance whatever. I am entitled to vote and to express my opinion before I vote. As I was saying, this is one more of those dirty tricks we are getting from certain members of the Government, and I hope the Committee will insist on carrying the matter to a Division. Many people affected are at the moment on war duties or are away from home and are being called on for all kinds of additional jobs. Now they are to have put on them the onus of having to claim their own vote.
An extra vote.
It is not an extra vote; it is a statutory vote to which they have been entitled for many years. The Home Office has no right to endeavour to change the franchise in this way under an emergency Measure of this kind.
There seems to be some misapprehension about this Amendment and as so many Members who have now come into the Chamber did not hear the statement which was made by my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary a short while ago perhaps they would not mind if I made the point with which the Home Office is here concerned. I want to assure the hon. Member for Hulme (Sir J. Nall) that there is no desire whatever on the part of the Home Office either to gain any advantage or to alter the existing franchise. The business vote has been put in in exactly the way it exists at present. This is an emergency Measure for dealing with extremely difficult conditions under which any election will have to be held under this procedure. We are not dealing with a normal peace-time election, where you can have as many workers and as many paid officials as you need, or at any rate as you are allowed under your statutory allowance. An election under this pro- cedure will take place under the maximum difficulties with regard to staff. Everyone knows how depleted are the staffs of local authorities, from whom we are constantly receiving complaints. If the Amendment is carried it will put upon the returning officers and registration officers who are liable under the Amendment such a task that the machinery may very well break down.
It is not a question of principle; it is a question of arithmetic, a question of how many people are available at a given time to do a given job. The Home Office has tried, in setting up the machinery under this Bill, to get what it was clear the House of Commons wanted—the possibility of as good a register as possible under war-time conditions. It may well be that if more is put upon the machinery that exists it will break down so that nobody will be happy or satisfied.
In response to the speech of the hon. Lady, for whom I have the highest personal regard, I would like to, say that there are many firemen who can write. It really is nonsense to say that it cannot be done. I will undertake to do it on a voluntary basis in any constituency where a by-election may be held, and in the light of that offer I hope the Government will agree to the acceptance of this Amendment. If they do not, many hundreds of thousands of people will be disfranchised.
I see a representative of the Scottish Office on the Government Front Bench, and while I do not want to take part in any dirty work or to be intimidated by a display of force I would like to get some information as to the position in England. I know what it is in Scotland. Business premises have a valuation notice served on them, and that notice can be used in connection with the voters roll. There are many things in this interim Bill that do not meet with the acceptance of Members on this side of the House. Speaking as a member of the largest single administrative local authority in the country, I can say that the City of Glasgow assessors' staff has been so depleted that even the preparation of such a register will be a very difficult job. Is it proposed to issue a supplementary register so that the names can be checked? Members on the other side always leave the electioneering cupboard bare. They rake out the infirmaries and, if possible, would do the same with the graveyards. I am satisfied that if a valuation notice was served that ought to be sufficient for anyone to give an indication that he is on the valuation vote.
I am sure it is the sense of the Committee that a vote should be taken on this matter now but, nevertheless, it is clear from the speech of the hon. Lady who has just intervened on behalf of the Home Office that the Government are under some misapprehension. They have accepted the principle yet they tell us that it is simply a question of machinery. But the question of machinery will not arise at a general election and, therefore, there will not be any undue strain. The subject in which most hon. Members are interested through this Amendment is a by-election and surely the difficulty of setting up machinery for a by-election cannot be compared with finding that machinery at a general election. I hope, therefore, that the Amendment will be accepted.
I do not think the Home Office have met the case adequately to-day. I regret to say that owing to other duties I was not able to be present in the Chamber when the Committee heard earlier speeches on this matter, but if the issue were the straight issue of whether in normal times the business vote should be abolished or retained, I should vote unhesitatingly for its abolition. I shall do so in future, but that is not the issue to-day. The issue is quite different. This Bill is a temporary expedient to maintain the status quo and to ensure that there shall be fair play during the time a by-election or a general election is conducted. The speech of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Home Security, if it is the final reply for the Government, has not met the case at all. It is common knowledge, I think, that there is a sufficiency of staff in Whitehall Government Departments who could be lent to the local authorities. I am sure they could be well spared, and I think it would be a pleasant holiday from their otherwise no doubt strenuous labours. At this late hour I hope the Government will accept the Amendment because it is quite clearly the majority opinion of the Committee that the status quo should be maintained and that there should be no nibbling at the present situation as regards the right and ability to exercise a vote at a general election.
I want to ask one question of the Under-Secretary. Will he threaten to withdraw this Bill if the Government are defeated on this Amendment, in the same way as we were threatened on the Workmen's Compensation Bill last week?
There is a large number of Members present in the Committee who were not present during the discussion on the Amendment, and although I have already made two speeches on this matter, if not three, I will make the same speech again—
On a point of Order. Is it in Order for hon. or right hon. Members to repeat their speeches?
That is a matter for the Chair.
I am sure that if you find me infringing the Rules of Order, Major Milner, you will interfere. The short point raised in the Amendment is that those who are entitled to the business vote shall be given every facility for claiming it and exercising it. We are all agreed about that. We are not discussing the merits of the business premises vote. The Amendment suggests that every person who is rated in respect of business premises should be sent a copy of a form of application. My objection to the Amendment is this. In the first instance, rate books do not themselves show who is rated in respect of all hereditaments. In some cases they do, but in many cases they do not. Therefore, in fact you would not get at the right people by limiting the circular to those rated in respect of business premises. In the second place, many of the persons registered in respect of business premises do not have a second vote. They only have that if they reside in a different area.The result would be that we should send out many forms of application to people who have no entitlement whatever to the business premises vote, and that might mislead them perhaps into thinking that they are entitled. On the other hand, you will miss many of the people who are entitled because they are not rated in respect of the business premises they occupy. All big blocks of offices in the City of London and no doubt in other cities are rented to people who pay a rent which includes rates. They do not themselves directly pay rates. You would leave out numbers of people who are entitled to the business vote. The attitude of the Government is that we should try to give effective publicity to those who are entitled to the business vote so that they may make application, but that we should not take a step which is going to lead to confusion and will not ensure that the circular gets to the right people. That is the clear issue, and on it the Government are quite ready to divide.
I would like to ask the Under-Secretary to give a reply to the question asked just now by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. G. Griffiths). I ask it for what I hold is a good reason. The Under-Secretary has just proved, to the satisfaction at any rate of some hon. Members, that if the Amendment is adopted, the machinery contemplated by this Bill will be rendered virtually unworkable. He says it will mean sending a great many notices to a great many people, many of whom will not be interested in the least and who have no rights under the Clause at all. If that burden and obligation are imposed upon registration officers, it is quite easy to see—it has been stated twice by representatives of the Department—that the whole machinery would become unworkable. If therefore this House insists upon introducing into the Bill a provision which would render the machinery contemplated unworkable, so as to make the Bill in that respect abortive, we are entitled to know what would then be the attitude of the Government to the Measure as a whole. Only the other day, on a quite different matter, when an Amendment which if carried would not have rendered the Bill unworkable the Government took the line—many of us protested against it—that if the Amendment were insisted upon it would be such a revolt against the Government that they would withdraw the Measure altogether with such advantages as it gave to a hard-pressed set of people. If they adopted that attitude upon a vote which would not have rendered the machinery abortive, we are entitled to know what their attitude would be if this Amendment was insisted upon.
On a point of Order. If the Under-Secretary is entitled to repeat his speech, may I be allowed to repeat my reply?
I do not think the Parliamentary Secretary did unduly repeat his speech.
Division No. 29.
|Acland-Troyte, Lt.-Col. G. J.||Gretton, J. F.||Robertson, D. (Streatham)|
|Agnew, Comdr. P. G.||Gridley, Sir A. B.||Ross Taylor, W.|
|Anstruther-Gray, Major W. J.||Grimston, Hon. J. (St. Albans)||Royds, Admiral Sir P. M. R.|
|Apsley, Lady||Hammersley, S. S.||Russell, Sir A. (Tynemouth)|
|Beamish, Rear-Admiral T. P.||Hannon, Sir P. J. H.||Salt, E. W.|
|Beattle, F. (Cathcart)||Henderson, J. J. Craik (Leeds, N. E.)||Sanderson, Sir F. B.|
|Bennett, Sir P. F. B. (Edgbaston)||Higgs, W. F.||Savory, Professor D. L.|
|Berry, Hon. G. L. (Buckingham)||Hulbert, Wing-Commander N. J.||Selley, H. R.|
|Boles, Lt.-Col. D. C.||Hunter, T.||Shephard, S.|
|Bower, Norman (Harrow)||Hutchinson, G. C. (Ilford)||Simmonds, O. E.|
|Brass, Capt. Sir W.||Hutchison, Lt.-Com. G. I. C. (E'burgh)||Smith, Bracewell (Dolwich)|
|Brocklebank, Sir C. E. R.||Jeffreys, General Sir G. D.||Smith, E. P. (Ashford)|
|Cadegan, Major Sir E.||Kerr, Sir John Graham (Scottish U's.)||Smith, Sir R. W. (Aberdeen)|
|Campbell, Dermot (Antrim)||King-Hall, Commander W. S. R.||Snadden, W. McN.|
|Challen, Flight-Lieut.- C.||Lamb, Sir J. Q.||Southby, Comdr. Sir A. R. J.|
|Channon, H.||Lancaster, Lieut.-Col. C. G.||Strickland, Capt. W. F.|
|Clarry, Sir Reginald||Leighton, Major B. E. P.||Stuart, Lord C. Crichton- (Northwich)|
|Cobb, Captain E. C.||Linstead, H. N.||Studholme, Captain H. G.|
|Colegate, W. A.||Lloyd, Major E. G. R. (Renfrew, E.)||Sueter, Rear-Admiral Sir M. F.|
|Craven-Ellis, W.||Loftus, P. C.||Summers, G. S.|
|Crowder, Capt. J. F. E.||Lyle, Sir C. E. Leonard||Tasker, Sir R. I.|
|Davies, Major Sir G. F. (Yeovil)||Manningham-Buller, Major R. E.||Tate, Mavis C.|
|Davison, Sir W. H.||McCullum, Major D.||Taylor, Major C. S. (Eastbourne)|
|Denman, Hon. R. D.||Macdonald, Captain Peter (I. of W.)||Thorneycroft, Maj. G. E. P. (Stafford)|
|Doland, G. F.||Mellor, Sir J. S. P.||Touche, G. C.|
|Duckworth, W. R. (Moss Side)||Mitcheson, Sir G. G.||Tufnell, Lieut.-Comdr. R. L.|
|Dunean, Capt. J. A. L. (Kens'gt'n, N.)||Moore, Lieut.-Col. Sir T. C. R.||Webbe, Sir W. Harold|
|Emmott, C. E. G. C.||Morgan, R. H. (Stourbridge)||Wedderburn, H. J. S.|
|Errington, Squadron-Leader E.||Nall, Sir J.||Williams, Sir H. G. (Croydon, S.)|
|Ersklne-Hill, A. G.||Petherick, Major M.||Willink, H. U.|
|Evans, Colonel A. (Cardiff, S.)||Peto, Major B. A. J.||Windsor-Clive, Lt.-Col. G.|
|Everard, Sir W. Lindsay||Plugge, Capt. L. F.||Wise, Major A. R.|
|Fermoy, Lord||Radford, E. A.||Wootton-Davies, J. H.|
|Findlay, Sir E.||Raikes, Flight-Lieut. H. V. A. M.||Wright, Group Capt. J. (Erdington)|
|Galbraith, Comdr. T. D.||Reakes, G. L. (Wallasey)|
|Cammans, Capt. L. D.||Reed, A. C. (Exeter)||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:—|
|Gower, Sir R. V.||Reed, Sir H. S. (Aylesbury)||Major Sir Derrick Gunston|
|Graham, Capt. A. C.||Reid, W. Allan (Derby)||and Mr. Turton.|
|Greenwell, Colonel T. G.||Richards, G. W.|
|Albery, Sir Irving||Brown, T. J. (Ince)||Daggar, G.|
|Ammon, C. G.||Brown, W. J. (Rugby)||Davies, Clement (Montgomery)|
|Aske, Sir R. W.||Buchanan, G.||Davies, R. J. (Westhoughton)|
|Assheton, R.||Burden, T. W.||Dobbie, W.|
|Attlee, Rt. Hon. C. R.||Burke, W. A.||Drewe, C.|
|Barr, J.||Butler, Rt. Hon. R. A.||Driberg, T. E. N.|
|Barstow, P. G.||Campbell, Sir E. T. (Bromley)||Eccles, D. M.|
|Baxter, A. Beverley||Cary, R. A.||Edmondson, Major Sir J.|
|Beattie, J. (Belfast, W.)||Chapman, A. (Rutherglen)||Edwards, Rt. Hon. Sir C. (Bedwelty)|
|Beechman, N. A.||Charleton, H. C.||Edwards, N. (Caerphilly)|
|Bowles, F. G.||Cluse, W. S.||Edwards, Walter J. (Whitechapel)|
|Brooks, T. J. (Rothwell)||Cooke, J. D. (Hammersmith, S.)||Evans, D. O. (Cardigan)|
|Brown, Rt. Hon. E. (Leith)||Cove, W. G.||Fildes, Sir H.|
I have not yet spoken on this Amendment, and so I cannot repeat what I said. The Under-Secretary's short point was that if the Amendment is carried a number of people will get forms who are not entitled to the vote, and vice-versa. The short answer is that even if there be a little overlapping—I do not think it will be very substantial—that is no reason why the exercise of the business premises vote should be made largely impossible, as the Bill without this Amendment will make it. I hope the Committee will support the Amendment.
Question put, "That those words be there inserted."
The Committee divided: Ayes, 112; Noes, 146.
|Foster, W.||Lawson, J. J.||Richards, R.|
|Frankel, D.||Lees-Jones, J.||Riley, B.|
|Fraser, T. (Hamilton)||Levy, T.||Ritson, J.|
|Furness, Major S. N.||Little, Dr. J. (Down)||Sexton, T. M.|
|Gallacher, W.||Mabane, W.||Shakespeare, Sir G. H.|
|George, Megan Lloyd (Anglesey)||McEntee, V. la T.||Silverman, S. S.|
|Gibbins, J.||McEwen, Capt. J. H. F.||Sloan, A.|
|Green, W. H. (Deptford)||McGhee, H. G.||Smith, E. (Stoke)|
|Grenfell, D. R.||McGovern, J.||Sorensen, R. W.|
|Griffiths, G. A. (Hemsworth)||McKie, J. H.||Spearman, A. C. M.|
|Grimston, R. V. (Westbury)||McKinlay, A. S.||Stephen, C.|
|Gruffydd, W. J.||Magnay, T.||Stewart, J. Henderson (Fife, E.)|
|Guy, W. H.||Mainwaring, W. H.||Stewart, W. Joseph (H'gton-le-Spring)|
|Hall, W. G. (Colne Valley)||Maxton, J.||Strauss, G. R. (Lambeth, N.)|
|Hannan, I. C.||Mayhew, Lt.-Col. J.||Summerskill, Dr. Edith|
|Hardie, Agnes||Mills, Sir T. (Leyton, E.)||Thorneycroft, H. (Clayton)|
|Harris, Rt. Hon. Sir P. A.||Montague, F.||Tinker, J. J.|
|Henderson, A. (Kingswinford)||Morris-Jones, Sir Henry||Walkden, A. G. (Bristol, S.)|
|Henderson, J. (Ardwick)||Morrison, G. A. (Scottish Univ's)||Walker, J.|
|Henderson, T. (Tradeston)||Morrison, R. C. (Tottenham, N.)||Watkins, F. C.|
|Heneage, Lt.-Col. A. P.||Mort, D. L.||Watson, W. McL.|
|Hepworth, J.||Murray, Sir D. K. (Midlothian, N.)||Watt, Lt.-Col. G. S. H. (Richmond)|
|Hill, Prof. A. V.||Murray, J. D. (Spennymoor)||Westwood, Rt. Hon. J.|
|Hollins, A. (Hanley)||Naylor, T. E.||White, H. (Derby, N. E.)|
|Holmes, J. S.||Nicholson, Captain G. (Farnham)||White, H. Graham (Birkenhead, E.)|
|Hore-Belisha, Rt. Hon. L.||Oldfield, W. H.||Whiteley, Rt. Hon. W. (Blaydon)|
|Hudson, Rt. Hon. R. S. (Southport)||Paling, W.||Wilkinson, Ellen|
|Hume, Sir G. H.||Parker, J.||Wilmot, John|
|Jenkins, A. (Pontypool)||Peaks, Rt. Hon. O.||Windsor, W.|
|Jewson, P. W.||Pearson, A.||Woodburn, A.|
|John, W.||Peters, Dr. S. J.||Woolley, Major W. E.|
|Johnston, Rt. Hon. T. (St'l'g & C'km'n)||Pownall, Lt.-Col. Sir Assheton||Wright, Mrs. Beatrice F. (Bodmin)|
|Jones, A. C. (Shipley)||Price, M. P.||Young, A. S. L. (Partick)|
|Jones, L. (Swansea, W.)||Pritt, D. N.|
|Keir, Mrs. Cazalet||Procter, Major H. A.||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:—|
|Kendall, W. D.||Qulbell, D. J. K.||Mr. Boulton and Mr. Pym|
|Kirby, B. V.||Ramsden, Sir E.|
I beg to move, in page 6, line 5, at the end, to insert:
The object of this Amendment is to secure that when a husband is entitled to a business vote he can apply for himself and his wife, and when the wife is entitled to a business vote she can apply for herself and her husband. I think this Amendment will save a lot of paper, and I hope that it will be accepted."Provided also that any person qualified to be registered by virtue of the foregoing provisions of this subsection may apply on behalf of the wife or husband of such person."
As I indicated in a previous discussion, it is the desire of the Government to meet the point of my hon. Friends by enabling a wife to make a claim in respect of her husband or a husband in respect of his wife as regards the business premises qualification. That seems to us to be sensible, because both are qualified voters, and it will save paper if an Amendment on these lines is made; but the wording of my hon. and gallant Friend's Amendment is, in our view, not quite appropriate, and I will therefore read the terms of an Amendment which I will move as a manuscript Amendment in preference to my hon. and gallant Friend's Amendment, if he will agree to accept it:
"Where a husband and wife are qualified to be registered in respect of any business premises by virtue of the foregoing provisions of this Section the said application may be made by either of them on behalf of both of them."
I am greatly surprised that the Government should accept an Amendment conceding such a principle. The scheme of the Bill is that people shall be entitled to be put upon the register in respect of a business qualification provided they take the trouble to apply. A great many of us are altogether against plural voting and it is interesting to see that when a large section of the Tory party shows its loyalty to a united Government by rebelling against a minor provision it should do so in order to gain some advantage for its own section of the community. Plural voting is a vicious principle. It gives a privilege to those who already have too many privileges, and I think the opportunity might have been taken to abolish it altogether, and to get nearer to the principle of allowing each citizen one vote and no more. However, if the Government do not feel able to do that, and think the business qualification shall be preserved, we ought not to be asked to go beyond that. A man who is entitled to a vote in respect of a business qualification should make his own application. There is no reason for giving one of two parties the right to apply on behalf of the other, who may not desire to vote at all. A great many wives of business people may have sufficient common sense and sense of equity not to desire to exercise a vote in another constituency over and above the vote they already have in their own constituency. Apparently there is to be no machinery for inquiring whether the other person desires to go on the register. A husband's application on behalf of his wife will put her upon the register even if she does not want to go on, and similarly a wife's application would put her husband on the register even if she did not want to go on.What is the reason for this? Is it that hon. Members opposite know that unless one of the couple is given the right to apply for a vote the other would never apply at all? It seems a vicious principle and entirely undemocratic. In a democratic community persons of an agreed age ought to be entitled to vote, and if it is thought necessary that they should apply before they are put on to the register let anyone so entitled make his or her application, but do not let us have a kind of packed jury, a kind of packed electorate, numbers of people being put upon the register and given an extra vote which they do not desire and which this Amendment exempts them from asking for. This is giving an extra privilege which is not now enjoyed and is against all democratic principles.
I shall be pleased to accept the suggested manuscript Amendment of my right hon. Friend, and therefore I ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
Is it the pleasure of the Committee that the Amendment be withdrawn?
As it is evidently not the wish of the Committee that the Amendment should be withdrawn, I should like to explain the position. Under the existing system the business premises register is compiled by the electoral registration officer. No man or woman has to take any step whatever in order to be placed on the register. A canvass is made and those who are qualified are placed on the register automatically. Under the scheme of registration in the Bill a business premises vote has to be the subject of an application. It has been held out as a hardship that claims are not permitted to be made by agents, solicitors and other people of that kind on behalf of other persons, and the Government are not prepared to concede that point, but I think it is perfectly reasonable to make the concession in the case of a husband claiming for a wife or a wife claiming for a husband. Each of them has an independent right to vote in respect of the qualification of the other. Therefore they are both voters, and each can vote whether the other applies to be placed on the register or not. Let me take the case suggested by the hon. Member in which a husband applies for himself and his wife to be placed on the register although the wife does not want to be on. What conceivable injury is done to her by being placed on the register? Nothing can compel her to exercise her vote, or grant a proxy in favour of her husband exercising her vote.
Does the right hon. Gentleman say it is reasonable to allow a husband to put his wife's name on the register without asking her consent, because it could do no harm and she need not vote?
I do not want to go into domestic matters, but nobody could have any legitimate grievance because somebody else, the husband or the wife, had secured that a name should be entered in the register. Nobody is compelled to vote by virtue of being on the register. It is, in our view, perfectly reasonable, especially when people are spread all over the world in connection with the war effort, that a wife should be able to apply on behalf of her husband, or vice versa. There would be considerable hardship on people entitled to this vote if neither could make the claim on behalf of the one of them who happened to be away from home.
I am grateful to the hon. Members who refused to allow the Amendment to be withdrawn, because it gives me the opportunity in a few words to answer the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman). It is appropriate apparently for Members of the Labour party to cash in politically in war-time, and it is the most abominable thing for the Tory party to refuse to allow them to do so. That is all I have to say, and I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for seeing the sense of this matter.
I am sorry that the Parliamentary Secretary has taken the line he has, because it is an endeavour to get half of what the justice of the House has decided should not be granted. Any man who is qualified can get a vote on application, and with electors so widely scattered as they are under present conditions this concession opens the door to the greatest possible abuse, and I shall ask my hon. Friend and other Members who have a desire for fair play during an emergency like this to reject the Amendment.
As the hon. Member responsible for bringing forward this point on Second Reading, I should like to thank my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary very sincerely for meeting us in the spirit he has on this matter.
I should like to put one point. Suppose a man and his wife are qualified for a business vote in a constituency in London and the husband puts his wife's name in the register there, and it also happens that she has an interest in a business in Yorkshire or Lancashire and desires to be placed on the register there. Would she be entitled to two votes if she applies herself to be put on the register in, say, Lancashire? Or, her husband having placed her on the register in London, would that prevent her from voting where she desires to vote in Lancashire?Another question on which I should like some information is what is meant by a wife in this connection. In some recent legislation we have given a definition of a wife and the term has been interpreted as including, not only those who have been legally married, but also as being applicable to the case of a couple who have lived together over a number of years. It has been held that the woman in such case is entitled to be regarded in the same light as a wife because of the couples' long association even though they have never gone through the legal ceremony of marriage. That kind of definition has been accepted by the Government in regard to other legislation, and I should like to know what is to be the definition of a wife within the terms of this Bill. I would also like an answer on the first point which I raised, because it may be a definite hardship if a woman, or a man for that matter, who wants to vote in a particular constituency, cannot do so because the husband or the wife, as the case may be, has effected a registration in another area.
It may be that when the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) goes to his own constituency, he will find that a good many of the business people and shopkeepers who voted for him in the past will not appreciate his efforts to get them put off the register. There is no party advantage involved in this question. There are scores of thousands of business voters all over the country who would vote for the Labour party or for any other party, or for any Independent candidate. To say that it is a question of party advantage is just nonsense. The whole point is one of common fairness, that people who, under the existing law are entitled to be registered as voters should have reasonable facilities for being assured of their names appearing on the next register. For my own part may I say to the Under-Secretary that I would not have made so much of the last Amendment if I had known that he was going to accept this one, because this goes a very long way. The whole thing is that it is quite wrong to use an emergency Bill for gerrymandering the franchise and that is what the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne wants to do on this occasion.
I really think the House of Commons is not at its best today, when we see dozens of Conservative Members pouring into the Chamber not because they have been fetched in by the Government Whips but obviously, as I believe, speaking subject to correction, fetched in simply by people who desired to see the last Amendment carried.
That proves there is no Conservative caucus.
It shows it does not work properly.
I realise that it is possible out of a minor issue for serious consequences to arise for the so-called unity between all parties. It is a thing that we should turn over in our minds that disaster might easily come from what is after all a very tiny matter which was, and I say so quite frankly, misunderstood by about three-quarters of the Members who trooped into the Aye Lobby in the last Division. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] They were under the impression that the business vote was going to be taken away. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] We, although we are emphatically against plural voting, acquiesced in the inclusion of the provision in the Bill, yet apparently that was not enough, and a considerable section of the party opposite was willing to jeopardise the unity of the nation for what is, after all, a very small matter.
May I intervene to say that the hon. Member really must not consider himself qualified to speak for three-quarters of the Members on this side of the Committee; also he must remember that there are Members on this side who prefer to act of their own accord.
Perhaps I may also intervene to suggest to the hon. Member that he should discuss the present Amendment and not the one which the Committee has just disposed of.
I apologise, and will try to keep to the point at issue. I have very little more to say except that I am very sorry that the Under-Secretary has seen fit to accept this Amendment. It appears to me that the way in which he did it may give hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite the feeling that they have got the Government on the run in regard to this matter. The right hon. Gentleman gave no explanation of why he was accepting the Amendment. He just got up and accepted it without the Committee having a real chance of discussing it. I am sorry he did so, and, as far as I know, my hon. Friends on this side who feel deeply on this issue will see that the matter is carried to a Division.
I certainly would not criticise the Committee for exercising its judgment. On the contrary, I think it is a good thing for hon. Members to show that they are examining this Bill. But I find myself in a difficult position. I remember when the business vote was provided for during the last war. It was clearly intended that it should be one vote. It was never intended that it should be a double vote. It came as a complete surprise when an attempt was made to put a different interpretation upon it and it was found that by "extending the franchise to the women, you more or less automatically doubled the business vote. It was never the intention that the business vote should give an opportunity for women who had not a business qualification to vote twice. The idea was that a man who was working in one place and living in another should have a chance to express a business man's view and that was quite different from the provision for the extension of the franchise to women, the provision which gave a woman the franchise because her husband had the franchise. I do say that this is a matter which should be thoroughly inquired into by the Speaker's Conference when it sits. I do not think this is the occasion to make the change. We have the undertaking that there will be a conference to consider the whole problem and I hope that that conference when set up will deal with this anomaly.
It is interesting to note that hon. Gentlemen opposite seem to have come to the conclusion, which has been held widely in some other quarters, that there is some unsatisfactory thinking going on in the Home Office these days. With regard to this point, I think they have found something sinister in a suggestion which is surely only common sense. If you have in time of war a man and woman living in the same house and applying for a business premises vote, is it not rather pushing purity to an extreme, to suggest that each of those persons should sit there and write a letter each applying for that vote, thus duplicating not only their own effort but also the effort of the authority which receives the letter. I think my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has taken the common sense view of an Amendment which has nothing more than a common sense and economising purpose.
It is abundantly clear as this Debate continues that a frightful lot of nonsense is being talked about plural voting. I am surprised that an experienced Member like the hon. Member for Nelson and Come (Mr. Silverman) who is also an ornament of the legal profession should not have known the difference between the registration and the recording of votes. Whatever the machinery of legislation, no citizen of this country, except graduates of certain universities, in any circumstances has two votes and therefore all the talk of plural voting and multiple voting is sheer nonsense.
I apologise for troubling the Committee again but certain points have been made which call for a reply. Let me say at once that the suggestion of the last speaker is quite mistaken. Plural voting does exist in circumstances other than those mentioned by him but if he were right it would only strengthen the case for opposing this Amendment. The hon. Member says now that if a husband exercising his right under the Amendment—the principle of which the Government seem prepared to accept—should put his wife's name upon the register in respect of a business qualification the effect of that would be to deprive the wife of her residential qualification. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] The hon. Member cannot have it both ways. My original point was that this was objectionable, because it might have the effect of putting upon the register in respect of a business qualification, a woman who did not desire it. The hon. Member says it would have the additional effect of giving her a vote in a business constituency in which she was not interested, at the expense of her vote at home in the place where she resided and where her political interests lay. I say that argument is wrong, but if the hon. Member is right the case against the Amendment is even stronger.The hon. Member for Hulme (Sir J. Nall) said that the business people in my constituency would not thank me for interfering with their rights of plural voting. If the plural vote is wrong it should be abolished, even if those who now enjoy it desire to retain it, and I am prepared to take the chance of what will happen in my own constituency in regard to the activities which I pursue in the House of Commons. The hon. Member also said that we ought not to take the opportunity afforded by this temporary and provisional Measure to gerrymander the electoral law. He will observe, however, that I am not proposing to alter anything. I have not moved an Amendment. I am resisting one and if there is any gerrymandering it is on the part of those who want the Amendment carried. I am perfectly content for the moment and for these provisional purposes, with the Clause as drafted by the Government. I am against plural voting and would take an opportunity if there were an opportunity of abolishing it but I am prepared to waive that view. The Government have said that in this temporary Measure they are going to preserve plural voting and I am not seeking to use the opportunity, but other hon. Members for their own private party purposes and in order to retain the privileges which they ought never to have had and even extend them, have moved an Amendment which would have the effect of extending those privileges. In that case I think we are entitled to protest.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for accepting this Amendment. I think it is desirable in the interests of the Service man, that his wife should be able to register for him and for herself. Up to now, I was of the opinion, and I think rightly, that if the Service man was deprived of his business vote, automatically his wife would also be deprived. To the extent that that has now been altered I am grateful. As regards the present Debate, it seems to me that the Labour party are making a mistake because the last Division which we had appeared to split the Tory party, and this division, if we have one, will certainly unite it again.
I am surprised at the solicitude of hon. Members opposite for the welfare of the Labour Party and I am sure we are all deeply grateful for that. Hon. Members argue that it is not a case of plural voting but of alternative voting and one hon. Member declared that, apart from the university franchise, no person in this country had two votes. As I understand it, the position is that if a person has a business in one constituency and a residence in another, that person can vote in both constituencies as long as they are not constituencies in one borough. Consequently, there is plural voting.
This Bill does not alter the position in any way.
But the hon. Member did not say that. He said that no person had two votes except the person who had a university qualification. Supposing a man has a business in London and his wife has a business in Norwich, and the wife registers her husband for a business vote in Norwich and the husband registers his wife for a business vote in London, then those people at a by-election which, say, takes place in London and a by-election which takes place in Norwich, have two votes. That seems to be unfair to the other citizens. The Under-Secretary has evidently accepted this Amendment. That is probably why the Government got their majority, but some of the friends of the Government knew that he was going to make this point.
I would like to reply to two Questions by the hon. Member for West Walthamstow (Mr. McEntee), who asked, first of all, supposing you found a wife who possessed two business qualifications, one in respect of her own business and one in respect of her husband's business, what would her position be? The position is that she is qualified to be on the register in both constituencies, but she can only exercise a vote in one of them, and, of course, she has a free choice as to which constituency she votes for. The last speaker mentioned a man having a business address in London and another in Norwich. The answer is that he can select whichever constituency he prefers for voting purposes. Nobody can cast more than one vote in respect of a residence qualification, nor more than one vote in respect of a business qualification, but a person who has a business qualification may have a residence qualification somewhere else. Then an hon. Member asked "What is a wife in relation to this Clause?" It bears the natural and ordinary meaning, and we need not go into any of the refinements such as exist in the Royal Warrant and so forth.I think it would be a pity if we got away from the very small point at issue here on to a discussion of the merits of the business premises qualification and the business vote. These questions will all be discussed at the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Reform. The short point here is that under the existing law for business qualifications a husband and wife are placed upon the business register automatically by a public authority without either of them taking any step of any kind. That is what happens under the existing law. What is proposed under the Bill is that they will only get on the register if they make separate applications. We are not extending this to applications by agents, solicitors or anybody else, but we do say it is reasonable to allow the husband to apply in respect of the wife and the wife to apply in respect of the husband, because they are the two voters concerned. Where a man is serving His Majesty overseas, in the Army or in the war effort, it would be wrong to deprive him of his right to be on the register because you did not give him the opportunity.
The Bill says that where one spouse is unable to apply, then the other spouse should apply for him or her, but the Amendment allows one spouse to apply for the other without the knowledge and without the consent of the other.
Both spouses are under the existing law placed on the register without their consent by public authority and at the public expense. The hon. Member thinks it unreasonable that a wife should do something on behalf of the husband and a husband something on behalf of the wife. It confers no duty whatever and does not commit the person in whose name the application is made to do anything at all. In my view, and I think in the view of the majority of the Committee, we are for the first time telling people that if they want to secure certain rights they have got to apply for them. It is perfectly reasonable to allow a wife to apply on behalf of a husband and a husband on behalf of a wife, and it will save a great deal in time.
I think it only fair to say that supposing the existing Amendment is not carried, then a Government Amendment which has been handed to me in manuscript is so like the present Amendment that it could not be moved until the Report stage. I think the Committee ought to know that.
Where a man and his wife have registered both in London and Manchester and the wife votes at a London by-election, would she be permitted to vote again at Manchester? If she is so permitted, then, in fact, she gets two votes.
Not two votes in the same election, and, after all, this is a point for the Speaker's Conference.
Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
I had understood from the Chair that the original suggestion was that the Amendment was to be discussed with the previous Amendment, but that it was decided that they were to be dealt with differently.
I am afraid that point has passed.