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Clause 2—(Continuance Of Section One Of 7 & 8 Geo 6 C 24)

Volume 416: debated on Thursday 12 April 1945

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

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

7.45 p.m.

:This is the Clause which continues the abolition of the two month's residence qualification, and maintains in its place the qualification of residence upon a single day some months previous to the coming into force of the register. When we brought in the original Act of 1943, this two months' residence qualification was embodied in the Act. It was put there as a result of the Report of the Committee on Electoral Machinery. It obviously involves complications from the point of view of the electoral registration officers, coupled, as it was with a system of continuous registration for bringing the register up to date month by month. In the Spring of 1944, round about D-Day, the electoral registration officers came to the Home Office and said this system was proving unworkable. As a result of their representations, the Act of 1944 was passed, providing for residence upon a single day, coupled with a fixed annual register coming into force on 15th October. We think, now that peacetime conditions have returned, although we cannot have the system of continuous registration for bringing the register automatically up to date in accordance with the movements of the population, we might go back without insuperable difficulty to the system of a two months' residence qualification. Both the right hon. Gentleman and the Undersecretary of State for Scotland during their speeches on the Second Reading affirmed their belief in a residential period —a definite period for qualifying for being placed upon the register—and with that my hon. Friends and I upon these Trenches are in agreement.

We attach importance to a residential qualification, and I think that view will be generally accepted in all parts of the Committee, but, now the war is over, although we cannot get back to a system of continuous registration as was envisaged by the Act of 1943, we do not see why we should not now return to a period of residence as the basis for being placed upon the electoral register. It does not seem to us to involve any very great difficulties. I think the number of staff involved was calculated in 1944 at something like 400 supervisory officials and some 1,200 clerks, to prepare a register with a residence qualification. In fact, I think probably the number of staff required would be smaller than that, because that number of staff was required for the operation of a system of continuous registration which is a much more complex matter. I do not think there would be much to be added to the staff requirement as a result of returning to a two months' period for qualification to be entered on the register. In our view, it would certainly be much more satisfactory. Both the Lord President of the Council and other Members of the Government have declared themselves to be against the voting of what are called birds of passage—people who come into a constituency and stay there for a few weeks, or perhaps two or three months. With a single day as a qualification to be placed upon the register one is bound to get on the register quite a number of people who have no real ties with the constituency at all. Of course, in peace time it used to be a three months' period. I think it is quite reasonable, in the conditions prevailing today with a mobile population, that the period should be shorter, but we think there ought to be some residence qualification, and therefore we do not think that the Clause ought to appear in this Bill at the present time.

I want to support my right hon. Friend in his appeal to the Minister that we should now return to a two month's residence qualification. It seems very surprising to me, in view of what happened at this recent election, that the right hon. Gentleman is endeavouring in this Bill to perpetuate the same system under which the election was fought in July, 1945. Surely, never since the extension of the franchise to its present proportions have there been anything like so many complaints as there were over this election. I think there is not a Member who was satisfied with the way in which the General Election was conducted; I mean the way in which so many people were left off the register. For one who has been a lifelong voter in a constituency, and has perhaps lived in the same house all the time, to have been left off the register, for some unearthly reason, is the kind of thing that happened. We should not carry on a system such as that for any future election.

The Lord President of the Council, who was then the Home Secretary, made all the arrangements in 1943 for this two months' qualifying period, and they were only withdrawn in 1944, in the very tense situation of the war at that time, because of the impossibility of acquiring sufficient staff. Surely, we should now be looking ahead—and the Bill does look ahead. There must be sufficient staff available by the time they will be wanted. About 1,200people will be required altogether, to compile the Register based on the two-months' qualifying period. Surely, it is a poor advertisement of the Government's demobilisation plans that the Government should be so pessimistic about the situation so far ahead that they do not think there will be 1,200 people ready to do this work. That is a surprising confession on the part of the Government. We should delete the Clause, which embodies a purely wartime qualification. Even the two months' qualification is a wartime system, and as soon as possible I hope we shall get back to the prewar system. I urge that in any election which may take place in the fairly near future we should not go through the same experience as we had this year, for causes outside anyone's control. Surety, those same causes do not operate in peacetime, and will not operate by the time future elections take place. Surely, the time has come when we should return to the two-months' qualifying period. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree to the deletion of the Clause.

I support the view that we should return to the form of the 1940 Act. I dislike dropping the qualifying period, and particularly so when registration is based on the registration cards and when the person concerned is registered purely as to where he had his food on a particular day. I want to raise another matter, and perhaps the Minister can give us an answer when he replies. It relates to travellers' cards. I believe a lot of people have travellers' cards. I should like to know whether they are all registered where they happened to be feeding on 30th June, the qualifying day, or whether they are allowed to opt. It is an important point. We are elected here not to represent a body of people but to represent a constituency and the people living in it. That constituency looks to us to represent its views. It therefore follows that it is of great importance that we should be good representatives for that area, and it is of great importance that electors should be able to judge in that matter. But how can persons who happen to be eating their food on the 30th June in a particular area, but may otherwise have very little connection with the place, judge whether any one of the candidates is the person to represent that area or not? It is obvious that he cannot do so.

Apart from that difficulty, there is the fact that some people may remove during the qualifying period of two months, but I am sure hon. Members will agree that it is absolutely necessary that they should be properly catered for. It does not seem to present any difficulty, in view of the new provisions for personal voting, and it would be possible to take the last place where they spent two months, and to relate their vote to that place so that there would be no question of their losing the vote. There may be a lot of grievances in the Committee on this matter of the residence qualification. The Lord President of the Council, when he was speaking on the 1944 Bill, used extremely strong words on the matter and he justified even the temporary departure from the qualifying date by the fact that it was necessary to make provision for by-elections. It had nothing to do with the General Election. It was only on that account, and as a temporary Measure that the Government were willing to extend this qualifying period.

The General Election has come and gone and we are now being asked to go on with this system, which has not been satisfactory. I regard the matter with apprehension. It is true that the right hon. Gentleman tells us that there arc manpower difficulties, but really I cannot see that it would be impossible to find, even here, the very small number of people required. It is not a question of finding them today or tomorrow, but only in the period between next June and next October, which is long way away. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider seriously whether it is not possible to find the very small number of people who will be required at that time, getting on for one year ahead. I urge the Committee to reject the Clause, if the right hon. Gentleman will not change his mind. I feel that a very important principle is involved.

:The date 30th June is very important, but I do not know whether that is a reason why anyone should fast on it, and why the mere fact that some- one has dinner in some place or other on 30th June disqualifies the person from voting in an election. The logical application of the hon. and gallant Member's remarks might be that everyone should dine or lunch out of his own constituency on 30th June so that he should not acquire the disability which the hon. and gallant Member thinks he would. With regard to travellers' cards a person is registered in accordance with the permanent address shown on his identity card. The person who has a traveller's card and is staying in some seaside resort, say, away from home on the qualifying day, is not registered in respect of the place in which he gets his food on the travellers' card, but in respect of the address which is on his identity card.

I thought that it was on the travellers' card that we are allowed to get our food, without being registered in the particular shops.

:Yes, but that has nothing to do with the question of registration for electoral purposes. That depends upon the address that is shown on the identity card, and the national registration officer passes on the information as to the number of people he has registered to the electoral registration officer. Apart from that, I stand by what I have previously said and by what my right hon. Friend the Lord President said, about the desirability of getting back to a residential period, and I had hoped to be able to include such a provision in the Bill. But I consulted with the registration officers throughout the country, and I was assured by them that, at any rate so far as the next register is concerned, it would be quite impossible for them to operate the provisions for a continuous register. I cannot help thinking that the number of additional staff said to be required for this has been very considerably minimised by the right hon. Gentleman. I know it was based on some information given previously by the county registration officers—

8.0 p.m.

It was given by the Lord President of the Council, on information supplied to him by the county registration officers, and I gather that at that time the borough registration officers—I am speaking entirely from memory—felt that they could do the job. I am bound to say that neither of those groups of registration officers now feel that they would be able to do the job, and it is only because of the purely physical difficulty, of the fear of the registration officers that if we put the duty on them they would not be able to fulfil it, that I have not been able to include provision for continuous registration in the Bill.

One does not wish to press this matter unduly; one appreciates the difficulties, but it is a curious change from the time before the 1943 Act, when it was said, although we were at war, that the system could be worked. I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman, if it cannot be worked during the next year, does the retention of Clause 2 in the Bill in its present form in any way obstruct the operation of a qualifying period for a subsequent period?

:I think the hon. Gentleman has given the correct interpretation of the Bill, but I will have that particular point examined.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.