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Parliamentary Elections (Conduct Of The Count)

Volume 656: debated on Thursday 29 March 1962

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I will, with your permission, Sir, and that of the House, make a statement about the conduct of the count at parliamentary elections.

Under the Representation of the People Act, 1949, the returning officer is responsible for the conduct of the count, including the grant of permission to attend the count to persons other than those, such as candidates and their agents, who have a statutory right to be present.

The Act requires any person attending the count to make a declaration of secrecy. I have no power to give directions to returning officers, but I propose to ask my Advisory Electoral Conference, whose membership includes the national agents of the political parties as well as representative returning officers, to consider whether any guidance might usefully be given on the question of admission to the count, including the admission of representatives of the Press and of television, and to make recommendations.

In the meantime, I feel sure that returning officers will exercise their discretion to admit persons to the count in such a way as to ensure that the counting is not impeded and that secrecy is not infringed.

May I thank the Home Secretary for making that statement and for the way in which he received my right hon. Friend and myself when we saw him on this subject? If I may phrase this is an interrogatory manner to keep in order, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware that the concern over this matter does not arise in any sense from a desire to keep the television cameras out on these occasions, or to reduce the opportunity for public interest in them to be stimulated?

Is he aware that it arises from a feeling that we must get the priorities right; that the purpose of an election, and of a count, is to return an hon. Member to this House, and that we have to protect the secrecy of the procedure and its accuracy? It is that about which so many of us feel worried.

In view of the fact that it may well be that there were breaches of the requirements at Orpington, notably of the requirement for a declaration of secrecy to be signed, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman will make it perfectly plain that, notwithstanding any derelictions that there may have been, everybody who was present at the count was subject to the requirements of the Representation of the People Act and the secrecy provisions, just as though they had signed a declaration?

May I also ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he thinks that this conference could be called together quickly and how long he thinks that we may have to wait for recommendations from it, in view of the large number of by-elections which are proceeding and from which more trouble may well arise?

It is certainly not our desire to be unduly restrictive. Unless we legislate again, all I can give is guidance. That is why I am using this method, which keeps the matter in proportion and does not exaggerate. It applies to television cameras and it will be known that before this last occasion, on about 30 occasions during the last General Election, television cameras were permitted at counts by returning officers. But we must keep the matter in proportion. We just do not want them to go too far.

On the question whether there was any contravention of the law at Orpington, the returning officer and anybody else concerned would be susceptible to the law and not responsible to me. We must leave the matter where it stands. I will certainly call the conference together quickly and hope that it will make a report without too much delay.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman watched the count at the Orpington by-election with interest—[HON. MEMBERS: "So did you."] I did too, and so there, at any rate, we have something in common. May I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman is satisfied that the inquiry he proposes should not be made rather wider? Is not a great deal of the electoral law now out-of-date, and does not it need looking at again? Vast sums of money may be spent outside an election campaign altogether. It is difficult for some people to know what to charge for electoral expenses. A great deal of the law was thought of before television became a popular medium for a democracy to see what goes on. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider—I do not expect an answer now—whether there should be a wider inquiry into the operation of the electoral law?

If the right hon. Gentleman does not want an answer now, I will not give him a final answer. It is the duty of the Home Secretary to review the electoral law from time to time. I do not think that a special inquiry is necessary. If the right hon. Gentleman, or any right hon. Gentlemen opposite, or their parties, have any particular points which they wish to bring to my attention, they will have my personal attention.

I want to refer to the question of the accuracy of reporting by the television cameras, but not in the interest of the electors seeing what was happening. In my view—and I have spoken to an hon. Member who is now present and is sitting on the Government Front Bench—an element of entertainment was brought into this at Orpington, because the ballot papers were shown on the table.

Right up to the last moment it appeared as if the Conservative candidate and the Liberal candidate were running neck and neck, with only five votes in it, whereas the true position, because of the vast majority against the Conservative candidate, must have been apparent to anybody in the counting room—anybody with experience—from at least half-past ten. However, this excitement was deliberately kept up until twenty past twelve.

This was a completely inaccurate picture of what was happening at the count.

I have made very close inquiries and consulted the authorities—that is, the I.T.A. and the B.B.C. It appears that of all the instances on which this has ever occurred this is the first time that the piles of ballot papers accruing to each candidate have been shown on the television screens. This is precisely the sort of matter I want to have looked at, because, as I said in my statement, it is our wish that the counting should not be impeded and that secrecy should not be infringed.

Speaking for myself, any excitement I might have had disappeared very early in the evening and did not continue to a very late hour.

Reverting to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) about widening the review of the electoral law, does the Home Secretary agree that this would not be the appropriate body to do that? On the question of receiving representations from us, the Home Secretary will be aware that we submitted—I believe at his request—a memorandum last November of views that we held, to which we have not yet had any other observation than an acknowledgement.

Yes, Sir. We received a document from the Labour Party which was full of constructive ideas. I am sorry that it has so far been met with no more than an acknowledgement. I think that that is all that I need add at this stage. I agree that this body is not suitable for the wider issues.

On a point of order. Mr. Speaker, I have just about stood enough of this sort of thing. I raised this matter in the House in the first place. I had to put up with sitting here for many, many hours only two days ago. I refrained then from raising that matter with you because I did not want it to appear that there wag some difficulty between two women Members of the House of Commons. But you, Mr. Speaker, have deliberately ignored me now, although I raised this matter in the first place. I should like your permission to ask the Home Secretary a question.

I did not deliberately ignore the hon. Lady. I should find it very difficult to do so.

In view of what has happened, I will certainly allow the hon. Lady one question.

Mr. Speaker, I assure you that I should make it very difficult for you to ignore me at any time if I wanted to be taken notice of.

Is the Leader of the House aware that last Thursday I asked him to contact the B.B.C. to see whether it would be possible for the film of what happened at the count at Orpington to be shown to hon. Members so that when we discuss the matter, as we shall have to following the report of the conference, hon. Members will have had the opportunity of seeing what actually took place at the count?

I will certainly make inquiries and, if it is possible, I will make arrangements with the Leader of the House for the films to be available for hon. Members to see.