The following Question stood on the Order Paper, in the name of Mr. SILVERMAN:
64. To ask the Prime Minister whether he is aware that the date chosen as polling day in the coming General Election is such that nearly 500,000 electors in Lancashire will have no reasonable opportunity of casting their votes; and whether he has any proposal to make to remove or mitigate this injustice.
On a point of Order. May I ask whether, in view of the fact that you have shown latitude on previous occasions, Sir, you could allow Question 64 to be answered, although it has not been reached, as it affects a great many electors in the coming election?
I can only at this stage allow questions of urgent public importance, of which Private Notice has been given.
As Question 64 is in my name, might I ask whether it would be possible for it to be answered, in view of the fact that it affects a great number of people?
Hon. Members can ask questions in that way only by Private Notice.
In view of the fact that so many thousands of electors are affected, might not the Prime Minister be allowed to answer?
Might I perhaps be allowed to make a statement at the end of Questions, by the indulgence of the House, which would, in fact, answer a Question which is of concern to a great many Members?
I think that would be a very satisfactory course.
At the end of Questions—
You and the House, Mr. Speaker, have granted me the indulgence of allowing me to answer, in the form of a statement, a Question which was put down by an hon. Gentleman opposite. The statement is a very short one. I was asked whether, as the date designed for polling day in the coming General Election would deprive nearly 500,000 electors in Lancashire of a reasonable opportunity of casting their votes, I have any proposal to make to remove or mitigate this injustice. I do not admit the figures as being accurate. It is probably a very remarkable exaggeration. [HON MEMBERS: "No."] That is my opinion. The hon. Member said 500,000; I should think it was more like half that number, but still that is quite serious. We are examining the point about these holidays, which affect certain boroughs. I am not, at the moment, in a position to make a statement on the subject, but railway facilities may certainly be considered as a means of assisting holiday-makers. [Interruption.] I am not going to bandy discourtesies with the right hon. Member opposite, who seems to have come out of his tenure at the Home Office with worsened manners. The question of railway facilities, I say, can also be considered. It is a matter for friendly discussion to see if any particular hard case, of a town taking its wakes in a particular week, causes a serious loss to voters of their chances of discharging their civic duties.
When the Prime Minister is considering the matter, will he bear in mind that there are other large centres of population, including the City of Edinburgh, where the same difficulty arises?
That is just one of those difficulties. If it were merely a question of these Lancashire towns, the matter might not be so difficult, but as claims can be made of all kinds, we might not be able to meet them.
Does the Prime Minister realise that the holiday period in question is one which these people have forgone for five years; that their arrangements were made before the decision was taken as to the date of the Dissolution; and that hundreds of thousands of people will regard any failure to make it possible for them to cast their votes reasonably, with other citizens, as a denial of the democratic liberties for which the war was fought?
Is not the Prime Minister aware that the first week of July is an important holiday-time for workers all over the country, as well as in Lancashire, and that the proposed date will cause great inconvenience and, unfortunately, make it impossible for a large number of people to vote?
Will the Prime Minister realise that in any case the question closely affects the industrial burghs of Scotland, and especially on Clydeside, and will he decline to extend to any other part of the country facilities which are denied to that industrial area?
As my constituency is one of those affected, may I ask the Prime Minister whether it would be possible, by a short Bill, to arrange that those constituencies which are on holiday should vote on the Monday or, alternatively, that they should be able to vote, say, at Blackpool or one of those holiday places?
May I ask the Prime Minister whether he is aware that there are something like 10 constituencies in Scotland affected in this way and that many of the people concerned will be so faraway from home that it will be impossible to return by rail, even if they could afford it? May I also ask whether this date has been chosen intentionally—I assume it has not—and, if not, is there any reason why a simple Bill should not be passed through the House of Commons making it possible to postpone the Election for one week or two weeks, which would not affect the date of the count, which comes three weeks after the Election?
That would not be any release from this difficulty because the practice of staggering the holidays is very widespread.
Why not stagger the Election?
If the Election were postponed for another week, another group of constituencies would be similarly affected, and if it were postponed for a fortnight, that would also be the case. I have seen a list of all the constituencies affected which spreads over five weeks, and that would get us into the harvest season, when other great difficulties arise, which have long been considered as cramping the freedom which should exist for a General Election, But I will say that I am quite ready to discuss this with the leaders on the other side to see if anything can be done which is of manageable proportions, to meet the particular Lancashire difficulty which has been described and which is much more wholesale than other cases.
May I ask the Prime Minister if he would consider the possibility of a short Bill to give the returning officers, with the consent of the Home Secretary, the power to postpone voting within a certain period—it may be a day or so—in order to cover a particular wakes period? I am not suggesting that it is possible to make a general postponement but that we should adapt this to the particular circumstances of the towns in Lancashire and the places in Scotland which are most affected.
I would be quite ready to have discussions on that point through the usual channels, and if the thing were agreed, it could be passed very quickly. But I cannot hold out hope that every part of the country from which people go in the holiday season, can have special treatment. That would be beyond all power, but with regard to these Lancashire towns, which I know very well myself—Oldham, for instance—the whole population goes away.
Do not forget the Clyde.
I do not suppose that we shall be allowed to forget it.
Is not my right hon. Friend aware that, no matter what date in the whole twelve months is decided upon as the date of the General Election, some objection would be found to it, no less valid than the present one?
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to bear in mind that it is not only Lancashire that is concerned, and that in our coalfields we have staggered holidays so that there shall not be an actual interruption of coal production? In my area there is one group of collieries whose turn it will be for holidays, where there are 10,000 workers. Taking account of all these, there are 30,000 workers going on holiday, and if this proposal were restricted to Lancashire it would be keenly resented.
That just shows the difficulty of attempting to make special arrangements.
Would it not have been better if the Prime Minister had taken this into account before rushing the Election—[Interruption]—and had accepted Labour's offer to go on until the Autumn?
All these difficulties would have been removed to a later period if the representatives of the Labour and Liberal Parties had consented to go on until the job was finished.
Who walked out? [Interruption.]
Is it not a fact that the Prime Minister was so uncertain about this House continuing its life that he proposed a referendum and the introduction of a new feature into the British Constitution?
I think it is time we stopped all these practice shots in advance of the General Election.
May I make a suggestion to the Prime Minister? It is that the General Election should take place in every constituency in the country on 5th July but that returning holiday-makers—seeing that the votes are not to be counted until the 26th—should, under the guidance of various parties and the municipal authorities, have power to cast their votes after coming back from their holidays.
I think it is hardly possible to state more effectively the case against the proposal which has been made.
I rise to a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. I heard an extremely insulting expression applied to a Member of another place, namely, the word "blackmail" and I ask you, Sir, whether it is in Order to use this dis- respectful expression about a Member of another place?
I did not hear it myself. It is, of course, out of Order to make derogatory remarks about Members of another place or to mention them by name unless they have office.
On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. I assume that I am the Member to whom the Prime Minister referred. [HON MEMBERS: "No, no."] I did not use the word "blackmail." I referred to Lord Beaverbrook and said he was the Hitler of this country.
I distinctly heard the word "blackmail."
May I respectfully ask you, Mr. Speaker, what is the precedent, when a statement is made by the Prime Minister with the permission of the House, for a long Debate to follow, as has been the case to-day; and will you. Sir, intimate, how long this Debate is to continue?
I have given the House one or two reminders on this already.
Does the Prime Minister realise, in spite of the heat engendered in the series of questions just now, that this is not really a party question at all; that electors in constituencies of hon. Members on both sides of the House are equally interested in having a proper opportunity to vote; and that it is quite possible, by a short amendment to the Representation of the People Act, to provide opportunities for everybody to cast their franchises in cases where, by tradition, the holiday period has already been fixed in advance of the Government's decision as to the date of Dissolution? Would it not be right and proper and in accordance with the dignity of this House, that in the present circumstances we should all cooperate to give everybody a reasonable opportunity to exercise the franchise at this time?
No heat has been engendered in my breast; in fact I rather enjoy these occasions. But I thought my answer to the Leader of the Opposition would be of a nature which would be, on the whole, in the general line of the inclinations of the hon. Gentleman.
We ought to get on with Business now.