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Postponement Of Polling Day Bill

Volume 411: debated on Monday 11 June 1945

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Order for Second Reading read.

7.17 p.m.

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This is a simple Bill though an important one. As the House will remember, when the date of the Election was fixed representations were made from various sides of the House that something ought to be done in order to meet the difficulty where in a constituency there was, in fact, a mass holiday in progress on 5th July. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 31st May said this:
"In order to meet the problem arising from local mass holidays which will be in progress on 5th July, the Government are prepared to consider legislation under which, in constituencies to be specified in the Bill, polling day will be postponed to 12th July."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st May, 1945; Vol. 411, c 373.]
My right hon. Friend went on to say that in order to legislate on those lines there must be general agreement, and he invited Members and town clerks to get into touch with the Home Office and the Scottish Office. This Bill carries out the policy so indicated, and I hope it will be agreed to by the House. An original list of constituencies and also a supplementary list which might come within the principle laid down were circulated, and we have done our best in the Home Office and in the Scottish Office to produce the right Schedule. I propose to refer to the constituency of Nelson and Colne, which has a Schedule all to itself. It turned out that in that constituency there were mass holidays in two places in progress on 5th July and in the third place on 12th July, there being no mass holiday in progress on the 19th. There were no technical difficulties about postponing polling day until the 19th and as this was generally desired in the constituency, according to our information, postponement has been made to that date. The scheme is, I am sure, the only practicable one.

There are two constituencies, namely, Westhoughton and Coventry, where substantial holidays will be in progress on 5th, 12th and 19th July and in such cases postponement to the 12th or the 19th did not meet the difficulty. Suggestions were made, in particular by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Coventry (Captain Strickland) and also in a slightly different form by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman), that we should provide for polling on two different dates in the same constituency, or alternatively, extend the provisions for postal voting. These suggestions were naturally carefully examined, but the Government came clearly to the conclusion, with which I hope the House will agree, that neither of them was practicable. To have two different polling days either for the whole constituency, as would be necessary in Coventry, or for different areas of the same constituency, as might have suited the hon. Gentleman opposite, would have been a constitutional innovation. It would, I am sure, have caused confusion, and I believe in the working out it might have been found unsatisfactory and unpopular. It would also have caused extra work to returning officers and their depleted staffs, which I doubt we should have been justified in doing. It would certainly have raised a lot of argument. Our electoral machine is based on the principle that in each constituency there is a single polling day on which all those who record their votes otherwise than by post, vote, and on which the whole campaign gradually proceeds to its climax and its conclusion. There would have been great difficulty about making an innovation which would have cut across that general scheme.

With regard to what is done by the Bill, having certain constituencies which poll on one day while others poll on an earlier or later date, whichever end you start at, that is not a constitutional innovation, and up to 1918 was the ordinary practice when the Election was spread out over a considerable period of time. Actually, as far as the present Election is concerned, we shall not, of course, get what people got then, namely, the results of the earlier polls before polling in the other constituencies took place. In all cases, as the House knows, the count is postponed until 26th July, and in the constituencies covered by the Bill the count will take place on precisely the same date as those which vote on 5th July. With regard to the extension of postal voting this would, I am satisfied, be impossible with the staffs at present available and would break down the already hard-pressed electoral machine. It would, moreover, be difficult, if we adopted it, to resist pressure to extend it to cases where there might not be a mass holiday but where electors were not in the place in which they were on 31st January, either because they were on holiday or possibly for other, even more compelling, reasons.

In deciding what constituencies should be in the Schedule we have been very much assisted by Members, by town clerks and by others. I would, however, like to make it clear that the responsibility for this Schedule rests on the Government, and, in particular, on myself and my Noble Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. If mistakes have been made, let them be laid at our door, and not made the basis of criticism of Members or of anybody else. We have done our best to deal with this problem in a practical way in order to remedy the outstanding cases to which hon. Members rightly drew attention, and I commend the Bill to the House.

7.24 p.m.

I think that the House will welcome this Bill. Obviously, the problem with which it deals and which, I think, it solves fairly, was created by the comparatively sudden decision to take an Election at this time. The arrangements for holidays in Lancashire towns had already been made long before the date of the Election was known. In Lancashire, it has been customary, from time immemorial, to have mass holidays at staggered dates and the dates in each case have become traditional and almost fixed. During the war, many people—I think most people—have dispensed with holidays, at any rate, in the sense of going away. They have had their mass holidays at home, but this year, in view of the changed circumstances, great numbers of people who had forgone their holidays for almost the whole of the war, made arrangements to go away before the date of the Election was known. They had committed themselves in ways that would have involved serious financial hardship, if they had sought to cancel their arrangements in order to discharge their duty as citizens by taking part in an Election which, I think, is, by common consent, as important an Election as has ever taken place in the history of our country. I think we are all pleased that, at any rate, this part of the evil consequences of having an Election so very quickly and unexpectedly has been mitigated.

I would like to make two other comments. I notice a tendency in some newspapers to claim credit for the Conservative Party for generosity in having made these arrangements. The Schedule shows that there are some 24 constituencies involved and of those constituencies seven are held by Members on this side of the House, and 17 by Members on the opposite side.

Most people who are Members hope to retain their seats, and questions of the generosity of one side or the other might be left out of account. We might all agree, on both sides of the House, to say that we have co-operated in doing the fair and proper thing, and that is to see that everybody had a reasonably equal and adequate opportunity of voting. This Bill does so, and we are all glad that it has been done. The only other comment I would make is on what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said about having two different days. I confess that I am satisfied with the arrangements for my own constituency. It is true that it gives us ah Election all by ourselves, after everybody else has finished. It has the consequence of prolonging the campaign by 14 days. It may be that on both sides the inconvenience of that will be felt, and obviously it may turn out to be more expensive, but these are all disadvantages which on both sides we are all very glad to endure, in the interests of having an Election in which every elector in the constituency will be able to cast his vote.

I do not think that there would have been any insuperable difficulty in the case of my own constituency in having two polling days. The constituency includes more than one local authority. While I appreciate the difficulties of having more than one polling day in a constituency with only one local authority, I do not think those objections apply to the same extent in a constituency where the staggering of the holidays goes according not to the constituency, but according to the local authorities, different local authorities having their holidays at different periods. It would have been possible in my own case for polling to take place in every part of the constituency, except one large one and one rather small area, on 5th July, on the same date as the rest of the country, and having another polling day for those other parts which are under separate local authorities. But I am not complaining in the least. If it was generally felt that it was more convenient to have one polling day for the whole constituency, we, in Nelson and Colne, are satisfied with that arrangement. We would have been satisfied with any arrangement, whether it involved a postponement of Election day, or a number of different polling days, which made it possible for us to maintain our proud record of having a very high poll.

We have always prided ourselves in that constituency on that. In 1935, out of 51,000 people on the electoral register, 46,000 actually cast their votes. I would like to express the hope that throughout the country there will be as high a poll as that, and that these arrangements for Nelson and Colne will have the result that we shall get practically a 100 per cent. poll on the day. I do not want to detain the House longer, but I thought it right that somebody on this side should say that we accept with great satisfaction the arrangements that have been made, and congratulate the Government on having found a way out of the difficulty which they have created.

7.31 p.m.

I would like to say how much I welcome this Bill. I will not follow the hon. Gentleman the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) into what are the exact causes of this Election coming about as it has. I would prefer to keep this matter on a non-controversial basis. The position before this Bill was introduced was that had the General Election taken place on 5th July, a very large part of the electors in the Darwen Division—that part which lies in the Turton Urban District Council—would in effect have been almost disfranchised because of their holiday week and, quite understandably and naturally, this being the first peace holiday, many of them would have taken themselves to more luxurious parts of the County of Lancashire. Therefore, to begin with, I and many others in the Darwen Division were considerably disturbed that many of the electors would have been disfranchised had the General Election been held on 5th July. Indeed, even when the alternative date, the I2th July, was suggested, I was rather disturbed, because it was possible that on that date part of the town of Darwen might have gone on its wakes week; but I understand that it will not be so now, that the wakes week will start on 13th July, and therefore the alternative which I pressed on my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary—that in the Darwen Division there should be two polling days—a request similar to that made by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Nelson and Colne—no longer holds, and so I need not press it on the Home Secretary to-day.

This Bill, which I hope we shall pass through all its stages very quickly, will ensure that everyone in the Darwen division will be enabled to exercise their democratic right of voting for the candidate they deem best. I myself, if I were returned to this House, would not be happy if I thought that I had been returned when many of the electors had not been able to exercise their right of voting for or against me, and I am sure that any other candidates in the field would have been unhappy if they thought that any of their supporters had been away. I am sure it is the feeling on all sides of the House that in this very important General Election everybody should be entitled and enabled to exercise their free democratic right of expressing their opinion as to who should be returned to this House of Commons. I welcome this Bill, which goes a very long way to facilitating that, and I thank the Government for the broad view they have taken on this matter. I would only conclude by saying, with regard to the observations of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Nelson and Colne on the polling average of his constituency, that if he will see me afterwards I think I can convince him that we have a much better record in Darwen.

7.34 p.m.

I agree with what has been said about this Bill doing a great deal to rectify the grievance imposed on many electors in various parts of the country. I rise to ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman a question. He realises, I hope, that the whole of Warrington is a large municipal borough, but a large part of the constituency of Newton is a part of Warrington, the Orford Ward in particular. Also the Sankey District is only divided from Warrington by a canal, and there are other parts of the constituency in which the residents work in Warrington. Consequently there are about 4,000 electors, or perhaps even 5,000, who work in Warrington but live just on its borders, with the exception of Oxford which is in Warrington. Therefore I rise to ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman whether the Newton division of Lancashire under these circumstances will be put in the Schedule.

7.35 pm.

The only hon. Members who have spoken in this Debate so far are those affected by the contents of the Bill, and I think it may be at least of interest if someone who is not affected by it should offer a few observations. This Bill does not affect my division at all, but it may be as well to take a little objective study of it and to consider whether it is a good constitutional principle. I could not let this Bill pass without registering my view that it is a retrograde step of which we ought to be very careful, both now and in the future.

:The hon. Member asks me why. The reason I regard it as retrograde is that it is going back to the sort of elections which took place over 1oo years ago. [Hon. Members: "No."] It is heading in that direction.

I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman that the old system before 1918, when there were elections in different constituencies on different dates, was a very bad system—for obvious reasons which there is no need to enter into now—but this Bill does not go back to that. It leaves nomination day the same. It leaves the count the same. It leaves the declaration the same. None of the major purposes that were to be served by the change in the law in 1918 are affected by this Bill at all.

The hon. Gentleman is making a second speech; he cannot do that.

I was going to ask you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, if the hon. Gentleman had the permission of the House to make a second speech, but he still has not answered my point, which was that this Bill is heading towards the system which existed over 100 years ago. I am dealing with more recent history than that to which the hon. Gentleman is referring. I was thinking of those contests which we know so well from history, such, for instance, as the contest of Westminster which engaged the attention of Charles James Fox and various of his friends over a period of three weeks. During that time, votes could be polled at any time during the three weeks. My objection to a Bill of this kind is not, of course, that it is recapitulating that system but that it is heading towards it. It would seem to me a most unfortunate thing if we sponsored a system which is going backward in history to a system which, over 100 years ago, it was decided was unfortunate. My objection to this, in principle is that democracy undoubtedly carries with it certain responsibilities. It may be unfortunate that some people cannot vote on a particular day, but, if they are away for a holiday on polling day, then it is not too much to ask of them, if they wish the advantages of democracy, that they should exercise their obligation of taking the trouble to go and vote.

:Will my hon. and gallant Friend allow me? Speaking as a Lancashire man, may I ask him if he is aware that most Lancashire people book up their holiday months ahead, that they save up for it, and it would cause great hardship for them to come back specially for polling day; and would he suggest that half my constituents should be disfranchised?

:They are not disfranchised for, if they choose to come back, they can do so, and if my hon. and gallant Friend thinks it is a great hardship to go and register your vote I can only tell him that I entirely disagree.

:It is a great privilege to vote and I regard it as lie duty of those who wish for a democratic government to exert themselves to some small extent in order to exercise that right and privilege. As I explained to the House, it is only the constitutional principle with which I am concerned. I have no intention of registering any objection to this Bill. I was inclined to think, from the enthusiasm with which it was greeted by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) that he himself regarded it as satisfactory in his particular division. I find the hon. and gallant Member for Darwen (Captain Prescott) shares that view with him.

:May I interrupt my hon. and gallant Friend by telling him that my division is in it too?

I explained to the Home Secretary when I began that mine is not.

That is why the hon. and gallant Member is not in favour of it for anybody else.

:May I ask the hon. and gallant Gentleman, if he had been the Member for Darwen, would he have made the same speech?

:Of course, hypothetical questions are always difficult to deal with, but I adhere to ray main point, that I should expect those who wished to support me to take a little trouble—

to come and register their vote, whether for or against me. I do not mind whether people vote for or against me so long as they vote, and in so doing give some thought and attention to what they are doing. I feel, however, that this is not a Bill which should be allowed to pass without the comment that it is heading in the direction of a system which was regarded many years ago as undesirable, and we should at least be vigilant in the future. May I say in passing that I recognise the necessity for it on this occasion, but we should be vigilant to ensure that we do not extend this principle, to arrive perhaps at a stage where no one is required to vote but somebody comes round—perhaps a man from the Prudential—with the ballot box in his hand and takes it from door to door so that people shall not even be asked to take the trouble to go to the polls. It is only on those grounds that I wish to express my view to the House and to ensure that if we let it go on this occasion we are not recognising a principle which will be extended further.

7.43 p.m.

Amidst the general acclamation of this Bill, somewhat tempered by the observations of the last speaker, I feel that I must state the position which arises in my own constituency of Coventry, because I cannot rejoice in the general acclamation with which it has been met. In my own constituency we have done what the Government asked us to do, namely, staggered our holidays over three weeks, and the three weeks come during the time of this Election, so that no choice of dates benefits Coventry in the very least. On 5th July, 22,000 workers in Coventry will, generally speaking, not be able to record their votes because they will be away. Nor could the adjournment until the following week or the week after help, because in each of those weeks other workers will be away. However, I want to pay my testimony to the courteous way in which my case has been considered both by the Home Secretary and his staff, and I am quite satisfied that they have given every consideration to the position, which is just one of those unfortunate things. I cannot help thinking, however, that this House would do well to consider whether in future elections there might not be some extension of the postal voting rights of citizens. After all, what we all want to do is to see that every man has the right to record his vote. I feel that in this particular case my own constituency is almost unique in the position which it will occupy in the coming Election. But I feel that even there, where so many of the electors will be away on holiday, they, will accept the general principle. It is not a thing, however, in which we should rejoice and I much regret that it has been necessary for this step to be taken.

7.45 P.m.

:Perhaps I might, with the leave of the House, say a word or two in reply to the hon. Member for Newton (Sir R. Young). Without criticising or blaming him in any way, I would like to point out that the Prime Minister's statement, asking for information, was made on 31st May, and that I heard about his constituency only to-day.

:And I only knew that Warrington had made application. The people I am talking about are in Warrington.

Warrington was in the first list—I am not quite sure—but whatever Warrington did the position in the hon. Gentleman's constituency was such as he described to us. It is not because Warrington's poll has been postponed that the people will not be in Newton-le-Willows on 5th July. That would happen whether Warrington's poll had been postponed or not. The trouble is that we asked for information some time ago. The Bill was published last Friday, and everybody except in the constituencies which are in the Schedules will have been booking halls and making arrangements, and I feel that there would be great difficulty in putting into the Bill on the Committee stage to-morrow a new Schedule. If there was overwhelming evidence, however, that the sitting Member and his opponent or his several opponents and the town clerk and all concerned were agreed that it should be put in I am not saying that we would not consider it. But without strong evidence of a general local desire by candidates and others for postponing we ought not at this stage, when people have made so many arrangements, to put a new name into the Schedule.

Surely it is not a matter for the candidates to determine but for the residents in Warrington. We are putting 3,000 to 4,000 people off the register.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House, for Tomorrow.—[ Commander Agnew.]