HC Deb 11 July 1973 vol 859 cc1683-95

10.58 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Lane)

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 8, leave out 'six' and insert 'twelve'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

With this amendment it will be convenient to take Amendment No. 2.

Mr. Lane

These amendments, which go together, fulfil an undertaking that I gave in Committee. Hon. Members will recall that the Committee accepted Government amendments which had the effect of extending from six months to 12 months the period of grace within which applications might be made after the coming into force of the Act or after completing the qualifying period of ordinary residence in certain cases.

At that time I promised that an amendment would be put down to Clause 3, which had by then been approved by the Committee, which would similarly extend the period during which a person holding an office which may not be held by an alien shall be protected from loss of office.

We have had in mind mainly the position of Pakistanis in the Civil Service and in other forms of Government employment. I agree that if at the end of the period of protection the application for registration made by the person concerned had not been finally settled the protection would be extended until a decision had been reached. The amendments put into effect the undertakings which the Government made.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

In Committee we asked in many amendments that there should be a period of two-years' grace. We have not tabled an amendment again to that effect. If we had done so it would not have been selected because the matter had been debated fully in Committee. I still believe that two years would have been better than one year. However, that argument has gone by the board. I am made happier because Amendment No. 26, which we shall come to later, gives the Secretary of State power to extend the grace period beyond one year for an indefinite period in circumstances which he thinks appropriate.

I am happy to say that we have reached unanimity not only on ideas but on drafting.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 2, in page 2, line 33, at end insert: '(3) If, at the expiration of the period of twelve months mentioned in subsection (1) above, the said person is awaiting determination of an application by him for registration as a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies, that subsection shall apply as if for the period of twelve months specified therein there were substituted a period expiring on the determination of his application.'.—[Mr. Lane.]

Mr. Lane

I beg to move Amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 35, leave out from second be 'to until' in line 40 and insert: 'precluded from remaining a member of a local authority'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

With this amendment it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 4, in page 2, line 37, leave out 'held before 16th February 1974' and insert: 'provided that his application for registration as a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies has been received under the terms and within the period laid down in Schedule 2(2) of this Act'. No. 5, in page 2, line 37, after '1974', insert: 'nor shall he be under a legal incapacity to have his name entered upon the register of electors or to vote in parliamentary or local government elections held before 16th February 1975 if, on the 10th October 1973, he is awaiting determination of an application by him for registration as a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies'. No. 6, in page 2, line 37, after '1974', insert: 'neither shall he be under a legal incapacity to have his name entered upon the register of electors if on the 10th October 1973 he is awaiting determination of an application by him for registration as a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies nor to vote in a Parliamentary or local government election held before 16th February 1975 provided that his application for registration as a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies is approved by the 16th December 1973'. And Government Amendment No. 7.

Mr. Lane

The House will know that Amendment No. 3 and Amendment No. 7 are the two Government amendments which we are recommending the House to accept. We promised in Committee that we would consider carefully the points raised about voting rights. It is mainly the rights of eligibility to register to vote which are involved in this group of amendments, although one or two other tidying-up points are covered as well.

We undertook to see whether we could put down a suitable amendment on Report which we could commend to the House in spite of the complications involved. The outcome of the consideration which we have given to the matter, in the light of what was said during Second Reading and in Committee from both sides of the House, is Amendment No. 3 and Amendment No. 7. I note that the Opposition have tabled an amendment which is similar in approach to the Government's amendment.

Amendment No. 3 to Clause 3(3) leaves out the saving about people on the current electoral register, which reappears as our new subsection (4)(a) of Clause 3. Thus Clause 3(3) as amended will deal only with the saving for members of local authorities.

Amendment No. 7 will add two new subsections—namely, subsections 4 and 5—to Clause 3. As I have explained, the new subsection (4)(a) repeats the saving for those on the current electoral register. That is the one which will be in force until February, 1974. The way in which the saving is expressed is somewhat different and is in line with the explanation which I shall give on the new area which the amendment covers. The effect is the same.

The substantive new provision is that the new subsection (4)(b) provides that a citizen of Pakistan who ceases to be a British subject on the commencement of the Act shall nevertheless be treated as a British subject at any election for which the 1974 register is used if he is awaiting determination of an application for his registration as a citizen of this country and if, in those cases where it is required, he has the qualification of five years' ordinary residence in this country.

I must explain the provisions in slightly more detail as they are important provisions. First, I shall deal with the qualifying date. The opening words of new subsection (4)(b) are taken from Section 1 of the Electoral Registers Act 1953. They cover the qualifying dates for both Great Britain, which is 10th October, and Northern Ireland, which is 15th September. As far as Great Britain is concerned, the words simply mean if, on 10th October 1973, he is awaiting determination of an application for his registration as a citizen …". This covers the case not only of those who apply themselves, but also of those who have an application made for them—for example, young people almost at the age of 18 who are still technically dependent children but are old enough, as children of that age who have been born in this country are, to be on the electoral register and in due course to vote.

To be entitled to have his name on next year's electoral register—the one to be drawn up next autumn—a citizen of Pakistan must not only be awaiting the result of an application for citizenship but must also have the five years' residence qualification where the application is made under Section 5A or 6(1) of the British Nationality Act. That qualification is not needed where the application is made under Section 6(2)—that is, wives of citizens of this country—or under Section 7—that is, children under 18 3f citizens of this country.

I should like to say a final word of explanation about the last words of subsection (4)(b). Those Pakistanis I have mentioned are to be treated as British subjects for the purposes of any election at which a register of electors published in 1974 is used. This is simply to cover the case where the register published in February 1974 continues in force for a few days beyond 16th February 1975, when it is due to be replaced, because, for example, of a printing delay or a strike.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)

I suppose that I am not alone in not being entirely clear about the complexities of the very complicated way in which the hon. Gentleman has found it necessary to bring in the amendment, for which we are duly grateful. I am in no way cavilling—I simply want to be clear. As I read the amendment—and I think that I was wrong in the way I read it—I assumed that a person would be eligible to vote during the currency of the next electoral register providing that, by polling day in whatever election was taking place, his application had gone in. Am I wrong in that? Does his application require to be in by 10th October this year?

Mr. Lane

That position is the latter. The application has to be in, although not necessarily settled—this is the key point—by 10th October next. Once that is so, and if he is satisfied that he is qualified to have applied, then the person is entitled to go on the register which will then be in force from February 1974 until, normally, the middle of February 1975, although conceivably a few days longer if there is some hold-up in the next new register coming in.

The new subsection (5) which we seek to add to Clause 3 is an important extra safeguard. This gives an electoral registration officer power to require a statutory declaration as to application for citizenship, or as to the five years' residence qualification, in just the same way as he can now require a statutory declaration as to someone being a British subject. In practice, the registration officer may not use this power very often but it will be there if he needs it either at the stage when he is compiling the electors' lists or at the stage of claims and objections.

I want now to explain simply how the provisions will work in practice from this late summer onwards.

First of all there will be a large publicity effort to explain to the Pakistani community who will be entitled to be on the next electoral register and who will not. We shall arrange this in conjunction with the Community Relations Commission, by means of leaflets, notices in papers which are read by the immigrant community, and features on radio and television. This is an important part of the exercise which we shall carry out as thoroughly as we can.

The next stage will be the canvass, when Form A is sent to householders. A Pakistani householder who knows that under the Bill he is to be treated as a British subject will complete the form as a British subject and sign the declaration that those listed are British subjects. Then the electoral registration officer, with his local knowledge and contacts with the local Community Relations Council will know broadly whether to accept the declaration. If he is in any doubt he can ask the householder or anyone in the household whether he has applied or whether in the relevant cases he has been here for the necessary five years. This applies to heads of households. If there is still doubt he can seek a statutory declaration, just as such a declaration can be sought under any objection in existing law.

Mr. Kaufman

In an attempt to make this as trouble free as possible may I ask the hon. Gentleman's Department to consider a form of acknowledgement which could be sent out for those purposes and which a person could produce if required? This might greatly simplify matters.

Mr. Lane

The hon. Member is suggesting a form of acknowledgement from the Home Office to say that we have received an application for United Kingdom citizenship. I will consider that. We have gone into this and we do not want to complicate our own major exercise. If we have to say "No" to this that will be the reason why. I will look further into the hon. Member's suggestion. We are confident that the measures we have provided, in the amendment and in the publicity we will give, will avoid abuse or confusion.

There will be this publicity among the Pakistani community. There will also be the good sense, knowledge and skill of the electoral registration officers and there is the stage of claims and objections before the register is finally settled. Every electoral registration officer has to rely very largely on the declarations made by householders. As the law stands a false declaration at that stage can attract a fine of £50.

Clearly the vast majority of Pakistanis are as law abiding as everyone else. They want to avoid getting into difficulties with authority, whether for electoral registration or anything else. It is possible that some names may get on to the register in error. This may involve a challenge at an election, and there may be the possibility of a petition, but this is a risk which might have arisen even with the Bill in its original form or even with the Bill amended in the rather extreme way which the Opposition wanted to amend it in Committee.

This is an unavoidable part of the untidyness caused by Pakistan's decision to leave the Commonwealth. We are satisfied that we have thought out the machinery of the new provisions as thoroughly as we can.

These are important amendments and I have spoken at some length. We have considered very carefully all the arguments and I hope that hon. Members will not press Amendments Nos. 4, 5 and 6. There are good reasons why in each case we believe that the amendments we are commending will do the job more satisfactorily. On that basis I commend them to the House.

Mr. Ivor Richard (Barons Court)

The Under-Secretary is fulfilling the undertaking given in Committee to consider the points we made and to look at the arguments. Speaking for the Opposition I can say that it seems that on the whole the assurances he gave then have been fulfilled. By and large the provisions of Amendment No. 7 cover the majority of the difficulties that we felt were arising under the old Clause 3.

11.15 p.m.

I understand that the effect of the amendment is that a person who was a Commonwealth citizen but has ceased to be a Commonwealth citizen by virtue of Clause 1 can, nevertheless, continue to regard himself as a British subject for electoral purposes, provided he fulfils the criteria set out in the new subsection. That means that he can apply for registration before the qualifying date of 1st September this year when the Bill comes into force. There is nothing to prevent a person from submitting an application now in advance of 1st September. Provided he gets his application in now, when it comes to the compilation of the register in October, all he will have to do will be to fill in the ordinary form, complete the declaration that he is entitled to be registered as a British subject for electoral purposes, and go on next year's electoral register.

Mr. Lane

indicated assent.

Mr. Richard

I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's confirmation, because it is important that people affected by the general provisions of the Bill should realise that they do not have to wait until 1st September 1973 before they can make their application and that they are not confined to the short period between 1st September and 10th October.

Secondly, is the Under-Secretary satisfied that sufficient forms are available at reasonably convenient places for people who might be affected by the Bill to fill in? I assume that they will technically have made the application once the form for registration has been filled in and posted or delivered. I should be grateful for confirmation that all that people at present on the register who are worried about getting on it next year have to do is to get a registration form, fill it in, and send it off as soon as possible and then, when the ordinary form arrives in October, fill in it in the ordinary way and they will be on the register for an election in 1974. If that is the effect, we on this side of the House are grateful that the Government have conceded the justice of the case.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Bradford, West)

I, too, am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for bringing forward the amendment. I was unable to support the Government when it came before the Standing Committee, but I was equally unable to support the Opposition amendment because I felt that we had to have proposals for electoral practices which were entirely watertight. In other words, we had to be certain that those who would exercise the franchise were British subjects in the sense that they had registered as United Kingdom citizens or had the qualification to become United Kingdom citizens and whose application for registration had not been processed. In view of the existing electoral law, it would have been wrong if those who intended to remain technically aliens should have been able to exercise the franchise. I therefore much welcome the Government's amendment. It is a bit circumlocutory compared with mine, but plainly these matters must be spelled out in some detail.

I should like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to explain whether those whose application has not been determined by the time of compilation of the new register on 10th October must have had their application approved by 16th December, which is the termination of the verification period. I take it that that is not so, and in that sense my hon. Friend's amendment is much more generous than mine and I welcome it.

In another sense, however, it is less generous, and here I refer to paragraph (a) of the new subsection (4): if at the commencement of this Act he is registered in a register of parliamentary electors or local government electors, shall be treated as remaining a British subject for the purposes of any election at which that register is used". There could well be those who were entitled to be registered on the electoral register but who for some reason or other did not get on this year's register though entitled to vote at parliamentary or local government elections for the period after 15th February when the new electoral register comes into force. It seems to me that this amendment, therefore, is limiting the right to those who were previously on the electoral register. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am glad to be corrected.

Of all the issues which we faced in Committee, the question of voting was the most important, apart from the question of the Azad Kashmiris. I am glad that the Government have been as generous and as wise as they have in their amendments.

Mr. Kaufman

As I was, I think, the first Member to raise this matter on Second Reading, it is right that I should acknowledge the Government's response. The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Wilkinson) said that the Government were being more generous than he was in his amendment. They are being less generous than my amendment is, but I am none the less grateful that they have responded in the spirit we asked them to show on this matter generally. It would be churlish, therefore, if I were to press my amendment, or even to move it. With one exception, we have moved, as I always hoped we should from the moment the Bill was published, towards a consensus on this matter, and, although I still prefer my amendment, I shall not take it further.

I turn now to the important matter of the availability of forms, to which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) referred. I imagine that the Under-Secretary will have been told by his officials already that they are a little weary of me. If they have not, they are extremely forbearing people, and I thank them for it. However, I must warn the hon. Gentleman that I do not intend to forbear from making them even more weary, if necessary, on the question of forms.

The hon. Gentleman has been extremely responsive on this matter. He has already sent to the Manchester Pakistani Welfare Bureau the quantities for which I asked. I trust that, should the number of applications increase further—in the new circumstances, it is pretty certain to do so—the Department will accept the force of the point made by my hon. and learned Friend regarding the importance of free availability of forms to the exercise which all of us in the House have now decided should take place. I shall be glad to have an assurance about that.

Mr. Lane

I am grateful for the way in which these amendments have been received. I shall try to clear up the matters which have been raised.

The first was raised by the hon. and learned Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard). The answer is "Yes." Anyone can and should apply now and may have applied at any time since Pakistan left the Commonwealth or since the Bill was published. There is no need to wait. The sooner that applications for registration for United Kingdom citizenship are in, the better.

The hon. and learned Gentleman and the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) asked about the forms. I repeat the assurances that I gave in Committee. We shall do our best to keep a supply of forms available wherever they are needed. If the association to which the hon. Member for Ardwick referred runs out and likes to telephone, they will be replenished as soon as possible. We shall watch the position carefully in the weeks ahead.

The main point asked by the hon. and learned Member for Barons Court was whether it was enough simply that applicants should fill in and dispatch the registration forms. Yes. But an applicant must also be qualified. The two parts have to be read together, and that is a very important technical proviso. He must have got in his application for citizenship and he must be qualified to have made it. Once he has done that, he has taken all the steps necessary to get advantage of the continuity provision to get on the electoral register.

Mr. Richard

Where will the forms be? At which Government office will they be deposited so that people can get them and fill them in?

Mr. Lane

The main stocks are in employment exchanges all over the country. That is where applicants can go in any event. Other organisations are helping in this. But that is, so to speak, the main stream.

Mr. Raphael Tuck (Watford)

The hon. Gentleman was good enough to inform me of this privately when I asked him, but can he say whether it will be possible to publicise this so that it may be generally known?

Mr. Lane

I thought that it was fairly generally known. But any more steps that we can take to publicise it, we shall take.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Wilkinson) asked two questions. Dealing with the first, no, it is not necessary that the application for United Kingdom citizenship should have been approved by 16th December for this electoral continuity to be enjoyed.

My hon. Friend's second question was whether the continuity was limited by the new subsection (4)(a) proposed in Amendment No. 7. This is covering a different point. It merely continues the present qualification to continuity in any election held during the currency of the 1973–74 register.

With those explanations, I hope that the House will accept the amendments.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, East)

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, may I ask him to deal with two further points? What happens if an application is subsequently refused on the wording of this subsection? Secondly, whose is the judgment as to whether an applicant has been ordinarily resident? A form may be filled in and sent off which states that the applicant has been ordinarily resident for five years, but the Home Office may take the view that he has not. Does that invalidate his enrolment on the electoral register?

Mr. Lane

If there is any doubt about ordinary residence, that is one question which we in the Home Office shall have to settle when we are looking at an application for United Kingdom citizenship. For the purpose of getting on the electoral register, the important point is that someone who is in his view qualified for United Kingdom citizenship should have made his application. If he fulfils that, he can fill in the electoral registration form—Canvass Form A—by the early part of October and, if he is not challenged or the electoral registration officer is satisfied, he goes on the register for the succeeding 12 months quite separately from the later processing of his application by the Home Office.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 7, in page 2, line 41, at end insert: '(4) A person who by virtue of section 1(1) above ceases to be a British subject—

  1. (a) if at the commencement of this Act he is registered in a register of parliamentary electors or local government electors, shall be treated as remaining a British subject for the purposes of any election at which that register is used;
  2. (b) if on the qualifying date for a parliamentary or local government election held within the period of twelve months beginning with 16th February 1974—
    1. (i) he is awaiting determination of an application for his registration as a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies, and
    2. (ii) where the application was made under section 5A of the British Nationality Act 1948, or under section 6(1) thereof as modified by Schedule 1 to the Immigration Act 1971, he was, throughout the period of five years ending on the qualifying date, ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom,
  3. shall be treated as a British subject for the purposes of any election at which a register of parliamentary electors or local government electors published in 1974 is used.
(5) The Representation of the People Regulations 1969, the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 1969 and the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 1969 shall each have effect as if the requirements that may be made under regulation 23(1), regulation 10(1) and regulation 24(1) respectively included a requirement that a person who asserts that he is entitled to be registered by virtue of subsection (4) above should make a statutory declaration as to any fact relevant in establishing that entitlement —[Mr. Lane.]

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