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Clause I—(Annual Register To Be Used For All Parliamentary Elections Until Registers Are In Force Under 7 And 8 Geo 5 C 64)

Volume 416: debated on Thursday 12 April 1945

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I beg to move, in page I, line 12, leave out from "the," to end of line 13, and insert:

"fifteenth day of October nineteen hundred and forty-six."
I think it would be convenient for the Committee if the third Amendment on the Order Paper, standing in my name and the names of some of my hon. Friends, were considered with it, because the two go together—in page I, line 20, at end, insert:
"(3) If at any time prior to the fifteenth day of October, nineteen hundred and forty-six, a resolution is passed by each House of Parliament providing that this Section shall apply to an election at which the time fixed for nomination falls before the fifteenth day of October, nineteen hundred and forty-seven, the operation of this Section shall be so extended."
The object of the Amendments is to carry out what I believe to be the intention of the Home Secretary, which is to make Clause I temporary in character. The Bill contains in its Title the words:
"To amend the law relating to electoral registration and to voting at parliamentary and local government elections"
and the sub-heading in italics before Clause 1 is:

" Temporary provisions as to Electoral Registration."

In moving the Second Reading of the Bill, the right hon. Gentleman made it clear that the whole Bill, in his opinion, was to be of a temporary character. He said in his Second Reading speech:

"I have to ask the House today to pass another Measure that will make temporary provision for elections that will be held during the coming year, 1946."

Later in his speech he said that in Clause I, that is, the Clause now before the Committee:

"We propose that the register now in force shall remain in force until 14th October next and that all Parliamentary elections during the intervening period shall be fought on that register."

Towards the conclusion of his speech he said:

"The Government are working in the hope that certainly in the case of the register it will be compiled to come into force on 15th October, 1946, they will be able to rely upon the canvass, publication, claim and objection method which was the practice prior to the difficulties into which the war brought us."—[Official Report, 21st Nov., 1945, Vol. 416, c. 447–455.]

Therefore it is perfectly clear that he intends this Clause to be of a temporary nature. However, when one looks at Clause I, it is unlimited in duration in its terms, and the purpose of the Amendments which I am discussing is to make Clause I apply to the register to be prepared next year, that is, the register which will come into force on 15th October, 1946, coupled with a proviso that if it is impossible after that for the 1947 register to return to the proper method of residential qualification, etc., an affirmative Resolution of both Houses may continue this Clause of the Bill for a further year. I believe that these Amendments are in accordance with the intentions of the right hon. Gentleman. All the other Clauses in this Bill have a time limit of some sort brought into them, including the provision in Clause 8 in respect of postal voting. I therefore think these Amendments are, in accordance with the intentions of the right hon. Gentleman and the general wishes of the Committee.

I do not complain of the quotations made from my Second Reading speech by the right hon. Gentleman. I appear to have expressed myself with sufficient clarity to make my meaning understandable. This is really a conflict between hopes and fears. If I accepted this first Amendment I should be put in the position that I must produce legislation based on the report of the Committee on Electoral Machinery in time for it to be operated so that a register can be produced on 15th October, 1946.

:I beg the right hon. Gentleman's pardon. I hope I made myself clear. If the Amendments are accepted, Clause I will then apply to the register which comes into force on 15th October, 1946, but it would only be after an affirmative resolution of both Houses that Clause I would apply to the Register of 1947.

:I think that is so. I have appointed the Committee. The names were made known during last weekend. I hope the Committee may be able to get on with its business with reasonable dispatch. I am quite sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who is Chairman of the Committee, will endeavour to secure that that shall be so, but after I have received the Report it will be necessary to prepare legislation, and to submit it to the House. They may cover a very large number of points in the recommendations that they make, and I should desire as far as possible, that the next Bill which is introduced on this matter should be on the basis of the permanent legislation of the country. I do not want to bring in another Measure that would be a temporary one dealing with two or three years or even a shorter space of time. In those circumstances I might possibly be hampered in 1947 if the Amendments of the right hon. Gentleman were passed. I hope it will not be so, but I do not want to come back to this House in so short space of time as that, merely to get the prolongation of this Measure, if our fears in regard to the speed at which the giving of effect by legislation to the recommendations of the Committee should be justified.

7.30 p.m.

I hope that the Committee will agree that this Clause can be left in its present form. I have given to the House on Second Reading and to the Committee again this evening my pledge that I will do all I can to expedite legislation, but until I see the form of the Report, it is not possible for me to promise that the legislation will be available by 15th October, 1947, and I do not think, in the circumstances, it would be reasonable to expect that we should have to produce an affirmative Resolution if, in fact, we were not in a position to have the register on a permanent basis by that date.

I confess I am a little disappointed by the right hon. Gentleman's reply. Here is a Clause which comes under a heading in italics:

" Temporary Provisions in respect of legislation ",

and of course, as all lawyers know, words in italics in a Bill have no legal validity. But we go on from those words in italics to a Clause which is permanent in form and I am a little disappointed that the right hon. Gentleman, even though unable to accept the Amendment which would give a definite run of a year plus a further year if Parliament agreed, has not placed any limitation at all on the operation of Clause I of the Bill. I had been prepared to give two years for certain if that was the period which he required. I think it is a little unreasonable when you have a Bill ostensibly of a temporary character that we should not have any time limit in the most important Clause in the Bill. As I say, I am disappointed because, as the matter now stands, it rests entirely on the assurance of the right hon. Gentleman. I have a great respect for the right hon. Gentleman and I am quite sure he will do his best to carry out his assurance. At the same time I say it is unsatisfactory in a Bill expressed in its headings as temporary in character, to have the main operative Clause in a permanent form.

The right hon. Gentleman has expressed his disappointment so pleasantly and has gone a stage further by saying that he would be content with a two year run and then a year by an affirmative Resolution, that I will try to meet him on that point at a further stage of the Bill.

I am very much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move, in page I, line 17, at end, insert:

"(2) Notwithstanding anything in the Act of 1945 the annual register which is due to come into force on the fifteenth day of October, nineteen hundred and forty-six, shall instead come into force on the first day of October of that year, and in subsequent years the date for the coming into force of the annual register shall be the first day of October."
The object of the Amendment which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends is to secure a longer interval than exists at present between the date of publication of the register and the municipal elections, which take place on 1st November in each year. This matter was brought to the attention of the House on 17th January, and the then Solicitor-General promised that the matter would be given full consideration by the Government. So far as I know, since that date nothing further has been heard of this matter, but the Committee will appreciate that its urgency has become the greater by reason of the fact that recent changes have assimilated the local government register with the Parliamentary register and thereby greatly increased the total of local government electors.

It will be within the experience of many Members of the Committee that wards, for local government electoral purposes, now include many thousands of electors, and it is a matter of real difficulty from the point of view of political organisation to arrange for the necessary canvass, and the necessary delivery of election addresses, in the very short period which elapses between 15th October and 1st November. The object of this Amendment is to secure that that period is substantially doubled. This question is in no sense a party issue. Hon. Members on the other side of the Committee are, I am perfectly certain, equally concerned with hon. Members on this side, to secure that local government elections are treated with the seriousness and importance which they deserve. They are probably as much concerned as we are at the lamentably low percentage of local government electors to go to the poll. If the register could be published earlier, it would be possible for all the parties concerned, by advance organisation, to secure that the issues at the local government election were more fully understood and more widely known among the electors, and I am perfectly certain that hon. Members opposite would be the last people in the world, in view of their own recent endeavours in this respect, to deny the electors such activities. I do appeal to them to consider the merits of this proposal.

I am aware that the difficulty of only getting a register some 15 days before the election is, in some cases, met where the political agent is on good terms with the local authorities and capable of getting an advance sight of the register, but that kind of procedure is highly undesirable. It makes for inequality, it makes for unfairness, and is not a becoming feature of any system of political organisation. I would therefore commend the idea contained in this Amendment to the Committee as being a small contribution to the more smooth and efficient working of the machinery of local government.

I wish to associate myself with the case so ably presented by the hon. and gallant Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Major Boyd-Carpenter). I fail to see why the date should be 15th October. Surely it would be more convenient if it were 1st October. My hon. and gallant Friend has referred to the importance of local government elections and hon. Members in all parts of the Committee I am sure agree with the case he put forward. I cannot but think that 15 days is a very short period to allow for elections of this nature. Mention has been made of the low polls at municipal elections. That fact must be present to the minds of all hon. Members in the Committee at the moment, and I suggest that every step should be taken to further interest in municipal matters, and make the most convenient arrangements to further the proper carrying out of municipal elections. I think that a month is a reasonable period. It would help all candidates and would be of advantage to the municipal electors themselves. For these and many other reasons I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be prepared to accept this Amendment.

I have listened with great attention to the remarks made by the two hon. and gallant Gentlemen who have both addressed the Committee on this Amendment. I have every sympathy with the point of view which they have expressed. It is true that a former Solicitor-General did promise that the matter would be taken into consideration. This is one of the matters that will come before the Committee of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and I hope that in the permanent legislation which will result from that Committee it may be possible to include this Amendment. I am sorry that I cannot accept it tonight, because I could not give a guarantee that next year the physical arrangements for printing the register would be made in time for the register in that year to be published on 1st October.

I would say that, of course, there is one other inconvenience which was not mentioned by either of the hon. and gallant Gentleman, and which is a very real one, in having a register published as late as 15th October. This year the date for nomination for provincial borough councils were 18th October, and for the metropolitan borough Councils 23rd October. I do not care how carefully a register is compiled. It is certain that, owing to human frailty, a few people are sure to be left off. I have contested a very large number of elections in my time, and I have never known an election when on the day before polling day there have not been a certain number of electors who, for some reason or other, were not registered. It creates a great difficulty if a nomination paper has been filled up in good faith, relying on the old register, and then, in the few days which I have mentioned, in between the date of the publication of the register and the date of the deposit of the nomination paper itself, there is a person whose name does not appear on the new register. There are great practical reasons for making this Amendment when we come to the permanent alteration of the law, and I assure the hon. and gallant Gentlemen who have so persuasively set forth the reasons for this Amendment today that I will endeavour to include it in the permanent legislation which I shall bring forward.

In the light of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, and, in particular, having regard to the fact that he has put a far more powerful argument for the Amendment than ever I or my hon. Friends were able to put, I am certain that if I ask leave of the Committee to withdraw the Amendment we can have some confidence that the assurances which the right hon. Gentleman has given will bear better fruit than did those of the Solicitor-General. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.