HC Deb 22 April 1975 vol 890 cc1249-373

4.0 p.m.

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. William Rodgers)

I beg to move Amendment No. 13, in clause 1, page 1, line 11, at beginning insert 'Subject to subsection (4A) of this section'.

The Chairman

With this we are to take Government Amendments Nos. 26, 29 and 31, with Amendments (b), (a) and (c) to Amendment No. 31, and Government Amendments Nos. 33, 35, 37 and 38.

Mr. Rodgers

Amendments Nos. 31 and 38 are related to Amendment No. 13. The Committee will see that these amendments are designed to make special provision for those members of the Armed Services and their spouses who are eligible to be registered as Service voters to vote in the referendum whether or not they are so registered and for voting to be conducted by the Services in units and, in exceptional circumstances, in advance of the day appointed for the poll.

For what I understand are technical reasons, together with the amendments on Service voting we are taking a further group of amendments—Nos. 26, 29, 33, 35 and 37. It may be for the general convenience if I dispose of these straightaway.

The purpose of the second group of amendments is to substitute an Order in Council for an order made by the Secretary of State under Clause 1 of this Bill. The reason is that many Departments are involved given that the referendum concerns England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and that there will be—if the Committee agrees—special arrangements for Service voting. It therefore seemed preferable for the order giving effect to the detailed provisions to be made in Council rather than by any one individual Minister.

Let me turn to the principal issue of substance. In the course of my remarks I shall refer particularly to Amendment No. 31. It is the key amendment. If it is agreed I doubt whether there will be much dispute about the other consequentials on Service voting.

In moving this amendment I should first explain why it is required and then how we have in mind its intention can be fulfilled. As a preliminary, however, I should say this. The Committee may wonder why the provisions of this amendment were not included in the Bill as printed. The explanation is simple. We were well aware of the special problem of the Service voter. We were conscious of it because of the problem of the Service voter in General Elections, which I shall come to in a moment; because of direct representations made to us by Service men; and not least because of the interest shown by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I recall, for example, the remarks of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) and the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) on 11th February at Question Time.

The obstacle was of finding a way round the problem which would not delay the referendum or create more anomalies than it removed or be inconsistent with the safeguards which, under the Representation of the People Acts, we regard as necessary. This was not easy. It was a race against time that we did not win before the Bill was printed. I am glad to say, and I hope the Committee will be glad, that we won it subsequently.

I now turn to why special measures are required for Service voters. All Service men and women—there are about 340,000 of them—are entitled to register as Service voters. In addition, so are their spouses when accompanying their husbands or their wives, as the case may be, overseas, and these number about 55,000. There are, therefore, some 400,000 persons, give or take a few, in this category—that is, Service personnel and their spouses when accompanying them overseas—who are entitled to register as Service voters.

The fact is, however—and this is the nub of the matter—that only some 25 per cent. of these are actually registered on the current electoral roll. There are a number of reasons for this clearly unsatisfactory state of affairs. But I should like to emphasise—and this is what we are concerned with today—that, as the Bill now stands and in the absence of the amendments I am proposing, some 300,000 eligible Service voters would be unable to make known their wishes on their country's continued membership of the European Community.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing (Moray and Nairn)

Accepting that the referendum is a fairly unusual situation and that my party, the Scottish National Party, believes that these people should be encouraged to vote, does the Minister consider that the ordinary rules for parliamentary elections should be in any way relaxed, because they still put the onus on the Service man to make his own arrangements to make sure that his name appears on the register?

Mr. Rodgers

I think that the hon. Lady is being somewhat premature. If she finds that I have not dealt with that point during my remarks, certainly I shall be very glad to answer it later. The point she now makes is in my mind as it is clearly in hers.

Up to 1969—hon. Members will probably know this—Service personnel were required to register only once as Service voters, after which their names were included automatically in subsequent electoral registers, provided that they remained in all respects qualified so to register. There were, of course, disadvantages in this system, as in any system, but it did result overall in a majority of Service men and women, and, where appropriate, their spouses, being registered as Service voters—a majority but only a moderately small majority, if I may put it in that rather complicated way.

In 1969 the Speaker's Conference recommended changing to annual registration to bring Service practice into line with civilian, and in the hope, falsified by events, that the new system would boost the number registered. In fact, since 1969 the percentage of eligible Service voters registered on the electoral role has fallen dramatically, contrary to expectation, to a point at which, as I have said, only about one person in four would be able to vote in the forthcoming referendum. It was because of this problem—the problem referred to by the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mrs. Ewing)—that the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law in 1973 recommended a return to the previous system of Forces' registration.

I can tell the hon. Lady and the Committee that the Government intend at an early opportunity to bring before the House of Commons appropriate legislation to give effect to this recommendation of the Speaker's Conference. However, meanwhile we are faced with a situation in which, as matters stand, some three-quarters of the Armed Services will not be able to vote in the referendum.

It is the Government's view, bearing in mind that an important factor of the Service man's failure to register is the conditions of Service life, which are largely beyond his control, that on this occasion Service personnel and their spouses should be permitted to vote on the basis of their eligibility to register as Service voters.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)

There seems to be one category that has not been covered. Some of us were members of a Select Committee which visited Germany last week and talked to the Forces. It appears that under these proposals one category will be omitted. Has any thought been given to those dependants of Service people who are of voting age and are living with their spouses, husbands or wives, or their mothers and fathers in Germany, because it appears at present that they may not be enfranchised by the amendment? Will the Minister clarify that point?

Mr. Rodgers

The hon. Member will know that there is an amendment on the Notice Paper relating specifically to this point. Since it is in the group which you, Mr. Thomas, have specified for our current debate, I shall be referring to it in a moment. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that it is a special group. I will tell him what our view is about what ought to be done.

I turn to subsection (b) of the amendment, which seeks to make provision for advance voting and unit balloting. If the Committee agrees—and I hope it is right that I should seek to explain some of these details—that Service personnel and their spouses should qualify to vote in the referendum on the basis of their eligibility as Service voters rather than on the basis of the current electoral register, it remains to be considered what special arrangements are necessary for the conduct of the Service poll.

Hon. Members will agree that at this late stage it would be unfair to require the substantial number of Service personnel overseas who have not already done so to make proxy arrangements for voting in the referendum. In any case, there is evidence that proxy voting, although necessary in General Elections for reasons of time, is becoming increasingly unpopular and it may be thought to be particularly inappropriate in the special and unpredictable circumstances of this referendum.

Mr. Roderick MacFarquhar (Belper)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the likelihood is, as in the case of the 1945 General Election, that the 25 per cent. of Service men who are on the electoral register, and presumably have proxies, could, if they desired or by mistake, vote twice—once by proxy and once directly in their unit under this amendment? This happened in 1945. Can the Minister confirm that it could happen under these circumstances?

Mr. Rodgers

I cannot confirm that, for reasons I shall explain in a moment which are encompassed by our amendments and our further proposals for voting. I cannot deny, and I am not doing so, that there are bound to be certain anomalies in any proposals of this kind. It is for the judgment of the Committee whether the anomalies outweigh the advantages, as we see them, of these amendments. What we are proposing is that Service personnel throughout the world and their spouses when overseas should be given the opportunity of voting locally at special polling stations within their units, the votes so cast being returned for counting to the United Kingdom.

This is a considerable undertaking. It is important to bear in mind, in considering the practicality of what we are proposing, that the Services are at a considerable advantage in that they are already sub-divided for the greater part into units of a suitable size for polling. For example, in Army barracks, RAF stations and Navy ships there is a com- mand structure capable of speedily and effectively controlling the organisation of a vote of this kind. Similarly, the task of returning the votes to the United Kingdom for counting will be greatly facilitated by the Services' own movements organisation, especially the scheduled trooping flights of the RAF to and from the Far East.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

I am grateful to the Minister for what he has just said. If I understood him correctly he said that there were 400,000 members of the Armed Services and their spouses overseas. [Interruption.] Perhaps I have misunderstood. May I ask for clarification? Will the facilities to which he has referred extend to all members of the Armed Forces and their spouses whether they are serving within the United Kingdom or outside it?

Mr. Rodgers

The arrangements I am explaining will apply to all members of the Armed Forces wherever they are but to their spouses only when their spouses are abroad.

Mr. Gow

This illustrates the dilemma and seems to be one of the anomalies. Can the Minister tell the Committee why spouses will be able to vote under the arrangements he has set out only if those spouses are without the United Kingdom but not if they are within the United Kingdom. I assume from that that the spouses of those serving in Ulster will not, as I understand it, be able to avail themselves of this Service facility.

Mr. Rodgers

The answer is that the spouses of those serving within the United Kingdom will be able to vote in the normal way, with the rest of the electorate. Under our proposals, subject to any qualifications I may make, we expect that all Service men and their spouses wherever they are will be able to vote. But some will be voting under the special arrangements spelt out in our amendment and some will be voting in normal circumstances, living in the United Kingdom.

4.15 p.m.

Rather than my giving way on a number of occasions, it will be in the interests of the Committee if I make progress. I shall go through the other points, and if there are any remaining issues I will attempt to answer them in due course.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

May I ask a question on this point? I understand that there are, in the Minister's plans, 1,600 Service voting units at home and overseas at which balloting will take place. How many of the 1,600 are overseas? Can the Minister take us more into his confidence about the reasons why he feels it necessary for the ballot boxes to be returned to this country for counting?

Mr. Rodgers

I prefer not to give details about the first point. This figure of 1,600 may be a little smaller than that. It illustrates the difficulty of being precise. We have to think of units which make good practical sense from the point of view of voting, bearing in mind also the size of polling stations in this country. I would be glad to help the hon. Gentleman but I must not mislead him by implying that these matters are finally settled. The figure fluctuates. We believed it to be 1,600 a few days ago. We now think that it may be nearer 1,000.

If the Committee wants details of this kind today I am afraid that it may have to vote against the amendments because a lot of the detail is difficult to obtain. It depends on local information, and we must rely a great deal on the advice received from those on the spot.

To deal with the point about the ballot boxes, we take the view that it makes practical sense because we can get the ballot boxes back in time. That is also consistent with the view that if votes can be counted in this country they should be. Had it not been possible to get the boxes back in time a difficult situation might have arisen.

The existing sub-divisions in the Services, whether 1,000 or more, are for the greater part readily adaptable for voting purposes. There may be upwards of 1,000 of these units, and each would have its own presiding officer appointed to supervise the arrangements for and the conduct of the poll, including in the first place the drawing up of a nominal roll listing the names of all Service personnel and their spouses overseas serving within the catchment area of the voting unit.

I have been ready to admit that it is impossible to devise a system of voting that is 100 per cent. foolproof. I am satisfied that the arrangements we are making, coupled with the fact that the identity and circumstances of most Service personnel are known to others within the same unit, will provide adequate safeguards against abuse.

The provision of facilities for unit voting would, with two exceptions, enable all those in the Armed Forces who are eligible to be included on the electoral register as Service voters to vote in the forthcoming referendum. The first exception is Service men who, by reason of their geographical location on polling day, would not have their votes returned to the United Kingdom in time for the count—in other words, they are the exception to the large number I mentioned in reply to the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow).

These people are a minority, but they could number 10 per cent., though we shall try to reduce this proportion. For the greater part, they are made up of sailors who will be at sea and out of range of shore on polling day, but they also include other personnel who, for operational reasons, may be unable to reach a Forces' voting unit. With the cancellation of existing proxy arrangements they would effectively be disfranchised unless they were given the opportunity of voting in advance of the date appointed for the referendum. For this reason, the amendment seeks to make provision for advance voting. The details of the way in which this will be effected are still being worked out.

I apologise to the Committee, but I must say again that the whole exercise is exceedingly complicated and I think that in some ways we have been bold to attempt it in the time. The details of the advance voting are still being worked out, but the likelihood is that any votes cast in advance will be sealed and deposited in ballot boxes under the charge of the unit presiding officers or, in the case of isolated individuals, returned by post direct to London.

The second exception to which I referred concerns Service men and women who, having registered as Service voters, have either recently left the Armed Forces or will do so between now and polling day. These people will not be able to vote in Service voting units, but they will still appear on the electoral register as Service voters. If in view of the provision for unit voting, the names of all Service voters in the Armed Forces were to be deleted from the electoral register, these people would lose the right to vote in the referendum.

It is impossible to say how many are likely to be in this position, but a broad estimate is that there may be about 6,000 currently registered as Service voters who have left the forces. To prevent them from being disfranchised we propose to allow the existing register of Service voters to stand, in addition to the provision for unit voting. This will also enable Service men's wives, who have registered as Service voters and returned to this country since the compilation of the register, to cast their votes.

I should perhaps say something about the arrangements for the retrieval of the overseas Service vote within the timescale of the count.

Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)

Will the hon. Gentleman say why he has seen fit to exclude a small number of people? Civilians attached to Service units overseas—not those at home—are in a similar situation, except that they are not in uniform, nor are they defined under the provisions of the amendment as people serving the Crown. Would it not be right and proper to include this small number of people? They meet all the criteria that the Minister is setting out. They are attached to units, they could work within units, and their votes could be recorded in the same way as those of serving personnel. Would it not be sensible—perhaps this has escaped the Minister's thinking—for this to be considered and these people to be allowed to vote?

Mr. Rodgers

The hon. Gentleman makes his point very fairly, but he is wrong in saying that they meet all the principles. One principle which they do not meet is that under the present electoral law they are not Service voters. Every person who is considered under the present legislation to be a Service voter is met by the scheme that I am proposing, but there are clearly some categories outside the Service voter, as defined, and one of these categories is referred to in another amendment on which I wish to comment briefly. But that is an important dividing line, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise its validity even if he may not agree that the fence is set up at the right place on this occasion.

I now propose to say something about the retrieval of the Service vote, because hon. Members may wonder how we can bring the ballot boxes home in time. We are helped—it is interesting to reflect upon this—by the fact that the greater part of our Service deployment overseas is east of the meridian of Greenwich, and therefore they will experience polling day rather sooner than we shall. It is strange that under these arrangements people will be voting elsewhere in the world while we shall still be asleep in our beds.

Voting overseas will generally be between 0700 and 2200 hours local time on 5th June if this still turns out to be the date but, given that many people are east of London, they will be polling ahead of our polling here, and this will enable us to bring all the votes cast to the counting point in the United Kingdom within 42 hours of the close of the poll. We are satisfied that the arrangements for Service voting will not delay the declaration of the result, which was an important factor when we were considering whether we could introduce these amendments.

I should add that despite all our efforts there will be a relative handful of men who will not be able to vote in the referendum, including some who are registered but who will effectively be disfranchised because proxies will be cancelled. I am satisfied that they will number a few hundred at most. We shall do our very best, but at the end of the day some will be left out.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

Will my hon. Friend explain why proxies will be left out? The matter has been explained to me in general terms elsewhere, but I am not satisfied with the explanation. Can my hon. Friend be more specific?

Mr. Rodgers

The basis is that we shall not cancel the Service register because we do not want to disfranchise Service men and their wives who have come home from overseas service, but we propose to cancel all proxies, because, if we do not, there is a possibility of a serious anomaly arising whereby Service men will be able to vote in their units, and a large number will have a proxy at home.

It so happens that there is a small number—perhaps 300 or 400, we are not certain—who will not be able to vote either on the day or in advance under these provisions. I cannot say how many of these have proxies, but if there are 400 in this category, and if the number of those registered is proportionate to the total registration, there are likely to be only about 100 people who will be disfranchised who would otherwise be able to vote under the present provisions of the law.

Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that because some people may break the law and attempt to vote twice, 100 people must be disfranchised altogether?

Mr. Rodgers

No, I am not saying that. I think the hon. Gentleman should have a greater sense of proportion. This is a difficult matter, and I think the Committee supports as many safeguards as possible to avoid duplication of voting, even by accident.

We could leave—and if the Committee wished it it would have to be so—all the proxies remaining, but this would mean that 100,000 people would have an easy opportunity to vote twice in the referendum. I do not for a moment suggest that they would, but the possibility would be there, and this possibility goes beyond anything which the House has previously considered in looking at the provisions for elections of any kind. Therefore, for the sake of maintaining that probity, less than 100 people, I think it will be, who may be on the register and have the right to a proxy will lose it. I am sorry about it, but this is where the balance should be struck.

Mr. Onslow

That is a remarkably small figure. If the proxies are cancelled, any Service man who is away from his unit on the day of voting and is not registered with some other unit will be unable to vote. I think that a considerable number of people, for instance, those attached to the Ministry of Defence, will be affected in this way. Does the hon. Gentleman stick to his figure of 100? I think that it is likely to be a considerable underestimate.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Rodgers

Yes, I stick to the figure. I cannot be absolutely certain; I say "about 0.1 per cent. of the whole". The hon. Gentleman seems to be overlooking advance voting. We are saying that we think that 90 per cent. will vote in their units—I hope that the figure will be higher—and that 10 per cent.—I hope that the figure will be lower—will be eligible to vote in some other way. There remains a tiny residue who simply are not in contact for long enough at the right times in the right places, and whom we do not think we can reach I greatly hope that I am right. If I believed that it were not so, I should tell the Committee. We are trying to reduce this to a minimum. On the best estimate that we can make, it will be only a handful.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

The Minister of State says that it will be only a handful. What about the considerable proportion of men who will be on leave when the referendum is held? Would it be possible for them, if they undertook not to use a proxy, to do it from their depots in this country?

Mr. Rodgers

No, I do not think that they could do it from their depots in this country, because it would need the sort of verification that we have in mind in their units. I do not think that the provisions for advance voting will fail to cover such an eventuality If, on further examination, I find that the figure is any greater, I shall bring it to the attention of the House of Commons, because I am concerned that we should reduce it to the very minimum. For the moment I have no other proposal which I could make which would reduce it beyond the figure I mentioned, nor any other method that I could adopt which would prevent it from rising were the circumstances such as some hon. Members believe.

I turn now to Amendment No. 31. I shall deal first with the two amendments standing in the name of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), which would bring members of the reserve and auxiliary forces within the arrangements for Service voting. The important point—this bears on something I said in reply to the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery)—is that members of these forces are civilians and there is no reason to suppose that they will not have availed themselves of the opportunity to register in the normal way. They are not on a forces register. They register at home, like all of us. If they will be abroad on reserve duty on the day of the referendum—we estimate that there may be 3,000 of them abroad on 5th June—they will be entitled to a proxy vote under Section 12 of the Representation of the People Act 1949, which makes specific provision for reservists.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

How will this be drawn to their attention?

Mr. Rodgers

This, again, is an example of how premature giving way on my part merely extends the length of the debate, because I was going to say, before the hon. Gentleman intervened, that I am sure that the amendment which has been tabled by the right hon. Gentleman, and this debate, will bring to the attention of reservists likely to be abroad the desirability of making proxy arrangements.

I am ready to consider whether there are any special steps we can take to the same end. If hon. Members will volunteer suggestions today—or, even better, after today—we shall do our best to take account of them. From our point of view it is right that all reservists who will be abroad on the day should recognise fully their entitlement under the 1949 legislation. I hope that in these circumstances those who put their names to this amendment will recognise that reservists are fully covered and will simply urge on me that the undertaking I have already given should be properly fulfilled.

This brings me to the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Woking, which would include adult dependants overseas within the scope of our arrangement. I am instinctively sympathetic to this proposal, and we did not overlook the position of dependants, particularly children over the age of 18, when we drafted our amendment.

This comes back to what I said earlier in reply to a point made by the hon. Member for Honiton, that the basic difficulty is that dependants overseas have never been entitled to register as Service voters. This seems to me to be strange, but so be it; this is the way it has been.

So far as I am able to establish, even the recent Speaker's Conference did not hear any evidence on this point. It may be an odd by-product of our debate on the Bill that the matter has now arisen. I intend to draw it to the attention of Mr. Speaker's Conference if it is reconvened, and I think it would be the wish of the House of Commons that Mr. Speaker's Conference should consider this rather curious and anomalous position where a distinction is made between dependent children and other dependants.

I should add that we estimate that the number of Service children overseas who are of voting age is fewer than 1,000. We have no figures for parents of Servicemen.

So, while taking the view that it is an anomaly which Mr. Speaker's Conference should consider following the practices and understandings of the House of Commons on changes in electoral law, I am not able to accept the amendment. I hope that, given my undertaking and given the fact that this raises an important new question of principle—this group is not within the definition of Service voters—the hon. Gentleman, having drawn our attention to the strength of feeling on the matter, will there let it rest.

Mr. Antony Buck (Colchester)

What the Minister of State said is historically extremely interesting, and no doubt the matter should have been dealt with in the past. Will he now give a real reason, other than an historical one, for not accepting the amendment as tabled? It may be that the amendment as tabled goes against precedent, but we believe that if the precedents are bad the amendment is good.

Mr. Rodgers

I did not think that I was arguing purely on grounds of history or precedent, but that we have some well understood practices that safeguard not only the House of Commons but our political system by which changes in electoral law are carefully considered by Mr. Speaker's Conference in advance. This is a principle which the House of Commons has ordinarily endorsed. Given that the numbers are small, I soberly suggest to the Committee that in these circumstances we should carefully reflect whether we should make a change of this kind.

These are complicated matters. There are some precedents for what we propose in the circumstances of 1945, but that was a long time ago and, as you, Mr. Thomas, and other—but few other—Members will recall, the steps then taken delayed the declaration of the poll for 21 days.

I hope that these amendments will commend themselves to the Committee. They will not delay the declaration of the poll. I hope that the Committee will be sympathetic to some of the detailed problems which we must still try to solve within the broad umbrella of the amendments.

Mr. Ian Gilmour (Chesham and Amersham)

The Opposition are naturally very pleased that the Lord President and the Minister of State have gone a very long way to meet the wishes of this side of the Committee about enfranchising Service voters. If we are to have a referendum, it obviously would have been intolerable that three quarters of those serving the country in the Armed Forces and their dependants would have been disfranchised.

We all agree that the 1969 Act was regrettable in this way, as in others. I am glad to hear from the Minister of State that the Government intend to introduce legislation shortly to give effect to the recommendations made in 1973 by Mr. Speaker's Conference.

What the Minister of State said about the arrangements, though complicated, certainly seemed sensible, and I do not wish to question them much at this stage. He said that all the Service votes will be back within 42 hours of the closing of the poll. Will that be time enough? Is he not presupposing that the House will agree to a national count? If the House does not agree to a national count and we have either a county count—if I can use that expression—or a constituency count, surely 42 hours will make it a bit late. At some stage we should like clarification on that. It may be that somehow the arrangements will have to be speeded up.

The Minister of State was right when he said that some of my hon. Friends—especially my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Percival) and my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow)—will want to press him a little further on their amendments. We shall wait to hear what they have to say and what he has to say in reply.

At present I should like to welcome the amendments so far as they go, and the accommodating spirit which the Minister of State has shown.

Mr. Onslow

Far be it from me to do anything other than praise the Minister of State for taking this major step forward in the enfranchisement of the Service electors. The Committee knows that it is largely to his credit that we are considering these amendments today. Without doing anything to provoke the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House, I believe it is fair to say that he is only marginally interested in this matter. I do not suppose that we shall hear a great deal from him. The initiative has come from the Minister of State for Defence, and it is quite appropriate that he should have propounded the Government amendments at some length.

Whilst the arguments introduced by the hon. Gentleman are still fresh in our minds, I should like to ask him one or two questions, bearing in mind that he told us that it was as a result of representations from the Services and both sides of the House that these amendments have been brought into the Bill. I hope that we can draw encouragement and press still further—in the light of representations which are still coming in from the Services, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) has reminded us and which will come in, I have no doubt, from many of my hon. Friends—that the changes still do not go quite far enough.

It is in any case quite clear that the Government's plans are still in some flux. For example, I quoted the letter which the hon. Gentleman wrote to me three days ago. He was thinking then in terms of 1,600 voting units; now there are to be slightly over 1,000. There seems to be a considerable area of indecision and imprecision here, and it may be that if that exists we can take advantage of it to make some other changes as well.

I am not clear about what precisely is the position of some of the categories of Service men. For instance, that Minister may find some difficulty in telling us what is the position of men in detention centres. What, in particular, is the position of the wife in BAOR of a man who has been returned to this country to serve his time in a detention centre in the United Kingdom? I dare say that the Official Box will be kept quite busy working that one out, but perhaps it illustrates how complex it becomes when we come to consider all the realities of Service life. A more serious point concerns the position of a man who has left the Forces, and the wife of a man who has left the Forces. Are they enfranchised only if they were registered as Service voters before leaving the Forces? If that is so, how does the distinction stand up as between men who left from service overseas and men who left from service in this country?

This may seem a niggling point, but I have a strong suspicion that decisions of this sort will need to be taken, because voters will come forward to claim votes and the authorities, whether they be the ordinary electoral authorities or the Service authorities, will need to be advised. It may be that the advice will have to go out as far as the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, and to SSAFA and other organisations to which Service men and women, and ex-Service men and women, turn when they are in doubt.

I have considerable sympathy with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) in so far as it applies, for example, to NAAFI girls overseas. Are they to be disfranchised? Are education staff in Germany, who I think are classed as civilians and engaged as such, to be allowed to vote on the Service register or are they to be treated as civilians and told for one reason or another that they are disqualified? I make the point not because I have fault to find with the amendment iself, but because I feel that there is need for the situation to be as clear as possible for the enormous variety of contingencies which individual would-be voters will find themselves faced with.

4.45 p.m.

I must also press the hon. Gentleman on one other point in particular; namely, the number who are likely to be disfranchised because of the cancellation of all proxies. If that number will be only 100 on polling day—whenever that may be—I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has counted the number who will be on leave, on exercise, on courses, in hospital, seconded from their own unit to some other unit, or away on duty. I am thinking of RAF air crews who are flying at a station other than their own. They are still serving and carrying out their duty. Because all proxies are cancelled, are those people to be denied any opportunity to vote, and are there really going to be only 100 of them?

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)

Does my hon. Friend agree with the hon. Gentleman, nevertheless, that it is impossible to make this arrangement perfect and that there are always going to be anomalies? Does he agree that the summation of the points made by the hon. Gentleman might be—I do not want to be unfair—that if there are only a few hundred anomalies it is too bad, but if there are thousands or hundreds of thousands we must try to do something about it? Is that a fair summing up?

Mr. Onslow

I hesitate to adjudicate on that point. I put it to the Minister that he should make his decision in the light of the facts as he sees them. If he puts it forward as a fact that only 100 will be away on the day, I suggest that that is not something on which he should rely to the extent to which he has so far been prepared to do so.

I turn now to the amendment to Government Amendment No. 31 in my name and the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), who will probably also seek to catch your eye, Mr. Thomas: after 'spouses' insert 'and any adult dependent having a right of abode in the United Kingdom as defined in the Immigration Act 1971'. Having once served on a Speaker's Conference, I was interested in the arguments which the hon. Gentleman put forward, but I cannot say I was convinced by them. I do not know whether he has served on a Speaker's Conference.

Mr. William Rodgers

indicated dissent.

Mr. Onslow

I am sorry to see that the hon. Gentleman has been denied that experience. If he had served on one of the Speaker's Conferences he might be taking a different view of the matter. The fact is that Speaker's Conferences exist mainly to provide the Government with excuses for doing what they want to do. When a conference recommends something the Government do not want to do, it might as well not have existed at all.

I was on the Speaker's Conference which considered whether the voting age should be lowered. That conference recommended by a substantial majority that it should be lowered to 20. The Government did not take a blind bit of notice. We might as well have saved ourselves the time and effort, and gone off to watch a cricket match, instead of spending a long time, under Mr. Speaker's painstaking chairmanship, discussing arguments, producing a report and finally expecting the House to take it seriously. Watching cricket would have been much more interesting and worth while, for the Government of the day did not feel that they should accept our recommendation that the voting age should be lowered to 20. They thought that it should be lowered to 18, and, of course, that is what happened.

The holy writ, the tablets of stone from the Speaker's Conference are very often treated as though they are a matter of no account. Fair enough. The House is entitled to do that. It is not bound by Speaker's Conferences. But, by the same token, Ministers should not say that because the Speaker's Conference has never pronounced on a matter the House may not consider it, although it is free to take a view once the matter has been through that part of the mill.

Therefore, I do not find it a compelling argument that the Speaker's Conference has not recommended on the matter. I suspect that in this instance the only reason why it has not made a recommendation is that it has never thought of it. The evidence that comes before the Speaker's Conference is not always of the most perfect kind. Sometimes, on a hot, sunny afternoon, the members do not devote all the attention that they should to the arguments, and do not question the witnesses with the pertinacity and penetration that we should like. Sometimes, they nod off a bit. Hon. Members who have served on Sneaker's Conferences can bear me out. From my imperfect recollection of my own experience, I am not sure that everybody always heard everything that was said, or paid total attention to all of it.

I suspect that the Speaker's Conference which considered the matter of the Service voter and his wife never thought that there were further considerations, such as the 18-year-old son and daughter, or even the mother-in-law, or the widowed Service man who happens to have his sister or a housekeeper to look after his family. The fact that the Speaker's Conference never thought about it is no reason for the Committee not to make good the deficiency by enfranchising those who would otherwise be denied a vote in the referendum.

That may be a daring and naughty thought to put before the Committee, but we are told that the referendum is a unique event. The Minister reminded us that the circumstances were special. I think that someone has even said that no precedents are being created, which is always a dangerous thing to say. But if we are to take that kind of statement at face value, I am not sure that a dangerous precedent would be created if we did the sensible thing and went just that millimetre further than the Speaker's Conference has recommended and enfranchised a thousand adult children, perhaps 75 mothers-in-law and 123 housekeepers.

Mr. Goodhart

Five thousand mothers-in-law.

Mr. Onslow

Let us enfranchise all the mothers-in-law who come within the ambit of the amendment. I have no objection at all to mothers-in-law.

In any case, I must tell the Minister that his arguments are not quite so strong as he may have thought for this further reason. I do not recall that the august, all-powerful, all-seeing, all-wise Speaker's Conference has ever devoted much thought to the question of holding a referendum. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, who knows all about these things, does not remember—

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

What about the conference held under the presidency of Mr. Speaker to discuss what could take the place of the House of Lords, which considered whether referenda could?

Mr. Onslow

What an interesting question! My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham will be ready to deal with it, because it is right up this street. I see him relishing the prospect of straightening the hon. Gentleman out on this important subject. But that is a minimal contribution to the debate in which we are engaged, which is about whether a number of people who would not otherwise be allowed to vote should be enfranchised in the way proposed by my amendment.

From time to time, the House discusses what it is pleased to call the representation of the people. It does it in the most schoolmarmish way that it is possible to conceive in the 1970s. When hon. Members, particularly Ministers briefed by the Home Office, turn their attention to the representation of the people, which means your vote and mine, Mr. Thomas, to put it in slightly less pompous terms, there is the underlying presumption throughout that you should not be allowed to have a vote because you will do something naughty with it. I do not subscribe to that view. It is the right of every citizen to have a vote, and it is a matter of the gravest moment for any Minister to say to an elector "You may not exercise your right as a citizen", for this, that or the other reason. We are often, perhaps subconsciously, more ready to deny the vote than to extend it.

I see no good reason why any Minister should deny the vote to the people covered by my amendment or to the many other people who are at present disfranchised because they are not registered, or perhaps because they will be on holiday. They are still citizens. They pay their taxes, they owe their loyalty to this country, and they expect the right to vote in return for their consent, however reluctant, to be governed. I hope that when the argument is finished, my hon. Friends and perhaps some others will be prepared to support that proposition in the Lobby.

Mr. English

I had thought that these amendments were tabled as a concession to those who wanted votes for holiday makers, residents overseas and so on. It now appears from the fact that we have the two subsequent groups of amendments that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House did not table the amendments as part of a deal but that they were merely a concession—I do not know to whom. Perhaps they are a concession to my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence.

This is the first of what I consider to be several examples of undoubted attempts to bias the referendum. I do not think that anyone will vote against this group of Government amendments, but it is illuminating that the very first amendment in Committee was moved by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence, who, I believe, is the only Minister to have appeared on a "Midweek" television programme as a member of the Britain in Europe or the European Movement Committee before the Ministerial guidelines were published and Ministers were allowed to express their views—

The Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows well enough that he should be speaking on the question of the Forces' vote.

Mr. English

That is the example I wish to choose. The statement of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the White Paper made it clear that the electoral law used for the referendum would be the normal electoral law. There are occasions when we need to change electoral law, but it is much better to change electoral law when it is necessary to change it, not for the purpose of a particular election or a particular vote, in this case on a referendum.

Mr. Michael Latham

How can the hon. Gentleman sustain that argument when we have been told umpteen times from the Government Front Bench that the referendum is intended to be a unique exercise?

5.0 p.m.

Mr. English

I can easily sustain it. A referendum and an election are both consultations with the voters. The uniqueness of the referendum lies in that it is a consultation with the voter on a particular question other than which party should govern the State, which is what an election is about. Its uniqueness in that respect does not mean that the Government should change the people who can vote. The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) said he believed in every citizen of the United Kingdom, wherever he was, having a vote, but he has not expressed that point of view frequently in relation to General Elections.

Sir Anthony Royle (Richmond, Surrey)

Surely, the hon. Gentleman has missed the main point. A General Election is not just to elect a Government. It is a matter of 635 constituencies electing 635 Members of Parliament. Each constituency elects an individual who will represent the electorate of that constituency here at Westminster. The referendum is totally different. It is a new method, totally anti-constitutional, whereby the nation as a whole will vote "Yes" or "No", not for an individual.

Mr. English

The hon. Gentleman destroys his case by saying that the referendum is totally anti-constitutional. The Government who have introduced the Bill and the amendment do not think it anti-constitutional, any more than I do.

Mr. Onslow

I must tell the hon. Gentleman that his reference to my inconsistency, as he sees it, tends to bear out my impression that in debates on these matters he listens only to his own speeches and not to those made by other hon. Members. If he will take the trouble to visit the Library when he has finished his contribution and read the contribution I made on 10th May, in which I advocated the extension of the franchise to the half-million voters who were disfranchised by his Government in October last year, he might withdraw the charge which he has levelled against me.

Mr. English

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I do not recollect that he has raised these matters in debates on the representation of the people, which is the point I am making.

Mr. Onslow

My speech was on the Representation of the People (No. 2) Bill.

Mr. English

The whole plethora of interventions made in the speech of my hon. Friend, the speech of the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) and what has been said so far by Opposition Members on the points of detail in relation to Service men illustrate just how bad it is to attempt to change electoral law quickly without taking the normal relatively slow processes of considering all the details involved, their implications, anomalies and so on.

The hon. Member for Woking said that Speaker's Conferences were not of much use. That may or may not be so, but what is certain is that we take a considerable length of time to consider any change in electoral law. We consult all returning officers, they send reports to the Home Office, the Home Office presents evidence to the Speaker's Conference, and a Bill is prepared which goes through all its stages in both Houses at a fairly slow pace, rather than at the fairly rapid pace with which it is hoped this Bill will go through so that the referendum may be held. It would have been much better to keep the electoral law for the purpose of deciding which voters shall vote when we are trying to get the Bill through quickly.

Sir Raymond Gower (Barry)

After all that my hon. Friends have put to the hon. Gentleman, cannot he see any distinction between the exercise that is now being carried out and a normal election? Will he not accept that the referendum is analogous to the broad question that is put in an American presidential election? In United States' elections ample provision is made in every overseas consulate for all United States' citizens to vote. In an exercise of this kind, cannot we make extraordinary arrangements to ensure that all British citizens will have the opportunity to vote, although that is not done in General Elections? Cannot the hon. Gentleman see any distinction?

Mr. English

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the example he gives. A resident of my constituency once sought to obtain a vote, she being an American citizen. What the hon. Gentleman forgets is that electoral law in the United States Is not one law but 50 laws. Even in the presidential election there are 50 laws—or 51, because the District of Columbia is separate—according to which most people cannot vote in this sort of circumstance. The hon. Gentleman chose a bad analogy.

It is important to consider some of the details. For example, the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham asked how—if we do not have a national count—we attribute the votes to particular constituencies.

We cannot ignore the repercussions of this upon electoral law. When Opposition Members promote the vote for holiday makers, as they have promoted it in electoral law, they will not wish to ignore the repercussions for electoral purposes. They will not then be saying that the referendum is unique. They will be saying that if it can be done for Service men overseas or holiday makers for the referendum it can be done for a normal election. They would use completely opposite arguments to those they are using today.

How do we attribute those Service men to their constituencies? We have all had experience of meeting Service men who think that they are in one's constituency whereas they do not even live in the same county, never mind in the same constituency. We know of people who have been in the Forces for a long time who do not know anything about their Member of Parliament or whether or not he is any good. Service men are not encouraged—rightly, no doubt—to talk politics. How are they to be informed in this case or in any other? Is there to be in normal elections a free post to every person on the register? Is some central body in Britain to be provided with the register of Service men so that they may be written to if either side wishes to write to them?

In election times, or indeed now, are we to have free travel for canvassers to go to Germany to canvass and talk to the Service men? How are they to be informed? Presumably—although this has not been said—they will receive the case for "Yes" and the case for "No", and, in addition, they will get the Government's case, with which, as representatives of the Services, they will presumably be inclined to agree, though the so-called Government's case is actually that of only 16 members of the Cabinet.

Mr. Michael Latham

I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's argument but I have some difficulty. He will recall that both on Second Reading of the Bill and this afternoon Ministers have indicated that about 300,000 Service men have not registered. That is what the Lord President said on 10th April, and it is reported in column 1422. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that they should be disfranchised for the purposes of the referendum?

Mr. English

When a person has an opportunity to register and does not do so, it is his fault. The hon. Gentleman mentioned 300,000 Service men, but does he know the estimate of the number of civilians in this country who are missed off the electoral register because they have not sent in the form, because someone else sent the form off and did not include their name, or simply because of clerical errors in the offices of returning officers? The estimate is 1,500 per constituency. Having taken a case in the High Court the day before the last election to get some of my electors put on the register, I do not think that that is an underestimate. There are certainly more people missed off the register in this country than these 300,000. The 1969 Act may have changed the system and may have had a bad effect, but the point that I am making is that those Service men had the opportunities given to them by the existing law but fewer and fewer of them have availed themselves of those opportunities.

We are now changing the existing electoral law. If we changed it tonight—and I have no doubt that the amendment will be carried—it is bound to be the case that some Conservative Members will say "If you could do it for a referendum you can do it for a General Election."[HON. MEMBERS: "Quite right."] I am glad that the argument has finally penetrated the minds of some Conservative Members. If that is the case, we are in a genuine difficulty, because how do candidates in General Elections, along with proponents of the two sides in this case, put over their point of view?

There is a great distinction between people overseas and people at home. Even if we send two little pamphlets to people overseas they will not see the television programmes. It may be that they will be able to hear overseas radio broadcasts, but will there be provision of videotapes of television programmes and will they be shown to those concerned? I am thinking of videotapes putting forward both sides of the argument.

Mr. Onslow

The hon. Gentleman is revealing all the "schoolmarmish" sentiments which I warned the Committee against. He is saying, in effect, that no one will be considered as qualified to express an opinion unless he has heard the candidate, read all the papers and listened to many broadcasts. There are many people who do not want to be confused by a lot of stupid things which we as candidates feel necessary. There are many people who just want to vote. The hon. Gentleman's argument will carry no more weight with them than it does with me.

Mr. English

I would have thought that the education of the electorate is the reason for my party being in power and not the hon. Gentleman's party. In the days before the 1870 Education Act the hon. Gentleman's party or another one was almost continually in power.

Mr. Adley

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) made an interjection about General Elections with which I personally do not agree, but will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he has taken on board the point that people overseas and Service men serving overseas, whilst they could vote and their votes could be counted in a referendum, could not possibly use the same voting machinery for a General Election? Would the hon. Gentleman say that the 100,000 Service votes should be divided by 635 and scattered around each constituency—

The Chairman

Order. I hope that the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) will not be drawn. We are discussing not a General Election but whether the Forces shall vote in the referendum. That is the question before us, and I hope that hon. Members will keep to it.

Mr. English

I accept your ruling, Mr. Thomas. I think that I have made my point. The point at issue is that we are making an exception to general electoral law. In my view that is a bad thing. By doing so we are giving votes to people overseas who have been cut off from sources of information about the subject in question. I realise that no one will vote against the amendment, but I deprecate the precedent of extending the right to vote far overseas where people are influenced by other media and forms of communication other than those of the country whose future they will be voting upon.

5.15 p.m.

Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)

I draw the attention of the Committee to two or three matters, and in doing so I bear in mind that there are many hon. Members who happen to believe that a referendum at any time is complete and utter nonsense in terms of the British constitution. There were many of us who were unable to speak on Second Reading and I think it will become quite apparent during the many amendments which will be discussed that we shall wish to develop our objections to referenda.

The Lord Chancellor in 1911 said: The referendum would also be fatal to representative government. The political genius of the English people was the first to discover, and after great difficulty to develop, the real basis of liberty and of self-government in this country—a system which has been copied all over the world.

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)

On a point of order, Mr. Thomas. Some of us are trying very hard, against our better nature, to listen to the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery). If three of the hon. Gentleman's chums who are sitting behind him do not shut up we shall not be able to hear what he says.

The Chairman

We all want to hear each other. There are some whom we want to hear more than others.

Mr. Emery

I am delighted to have that ruling, and I assure you, Mr. Thomas, that my hon. Friends will be delighted to hear many speeches by Labour Members in developing certain points.

I shall now finish the quotation. The Lord Chancellor said: Every referendum is an attack on the representative system. I accept immediately that the amendment is an improvement, but I do not believe that it in any way alters the general view that many of us have—namely, that the whole matter is nonsense and has been engineered merely to get the Labour Party out of a rather difficult internal situation.

The Chairman

We are discussing not the general issue of whether there shall be a referendum but whether the Forces are to vote.

Mr. Emery

With your great knowledge you will realise, Mr. Thomas, that the position of the Forces must be an intimate part of the totality of the vote. It is that argument which I am developing and which I will—

The Chairman

Let us try to keep within the terms of the amendment and not broaden the debate to include the whole question of the referendum.

Mr. Emery

I would never think of trying to broaden the debate, Mr. Thomas. I was merely laying the foundations for the argument which I wish to propound about the voting of the military.

It seems right that every person who can be brought to the polls, if there should be a referendum, should be encouraged to take part. The major difficulty that the Government will face is if the vote is a low poll—for example, let us say there was a turnout of only 48 per cent. and we were to find that 24½ per cent. were in favour of coming out and 23½ per cent. in favour of staying in and 52 per cent. of the electorate had not spoken. The Government would then be in a difficult and embarrassing situation. Therefore, we should take steps to encourage more people to vote.

I congratulate the Minister of State on introducing this amendment. I am certain that it will not have been popular with all his colleagues in Government. It must be evident that it is highly unsatisfactory for the Minister of State to come to the Dispatch Box—I praise him for admitting this quite openly—and say that the Government do not have all the details about the number of proxies that will he struck off. They do not have exact details as to the number of units. Some of us were led to believe two weeks ago that the figure was 1,600, but the Minister has now spoken of about 1,000. He could not give us the exact details. He implied that it was a complicated and difficult matter, but the Committee has the right to expect that when a Government come forward with a major constitutional issue they have thought the thing out thoroughly and completely. I have to say that that was not apparent from some of the hanging ends of the hon. Gentleman's speech. I say so in the nicest possible way.

I wish to deal with the situation of civilians who are attached to Service units overseas. The Minister of State said that civilians were ruled out of the provisions because of the definition in the amendment that persons concerned were not members of the Forces. That is a judgment which obviously has been taken by the Government, but it would be feasible in the amendment to make it possible for civilians serving overseas and attached to military units to be considered in the same category as members of the Armed Forces defined in the amendment. There would surely be no difficulty in adding that provision. Male and female civilian personnel attached to overseas units are under the command of the unit commander, they are frequently paid by the unit and they are under unit discipline. Therefore, in all senses they are an integral part of that overseas unit.

In recent years we have seen an increase in civilian personnel in overseas posts either to back up the uniformed personnel or to replace them. Although I agree that those personnel are in a small category, they should surely have the right to be considered in exactly the same way as are personnel in uniform. The line taken in Ministry of Defence advertising is often to the effect "You will be doing a job shoulder to shoulder with the military man, but as a civilian you are backing up the work of the unit."

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Since in common sense terms those people are employees of the Crown, would they not normally be entitled to vote in the same way as diplomats serving abroad would be able to vote?

Mr. Emery

That is a sensible suggestion, but nothing of the sort was implied in the Minister of State's speech this afternoon. Perhaps it would help if the people to whom I refer were put in the same category as diplomats serving overseas. The point I am making is that I believe they should not have been excluded.

I should like to turn to consider the exclusion of people on the proxy register. What will be the position of a person not serving overseas who finds that he is not able to vote with his unit, but turns up at the address at which his proxy is registered and asks to vote in person at the polling booth? I realise that normally the man must go through the proxy procedure.

Mr. George Cunningham

No, he does not.

Mr. Emery

In the normal way he would have to go through that procedure. I suggest that, if necessary, he should be allowed to turn up and vote in person. That will deal with another small section of those in the category which I am considering.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)

Is it not a fact that somebody who has a proxy and turns up to vote in person will not be allowed to vote because he has that proxy? However, if the proxy is cancelled, such a person will be allowed to turn up and vote.

Mr. Emery

My hon. and learned Friend states the position as I see it, but, again, that situation was not dealt with by the Minister of State. I should like the matter to be made clear. In other words, if the proxy list is done away with, will the Service man originally appearing on such a list be able to vote?

Mr. Michael Latham

Does this not also cover the question of the Service man who is at home on leave and, therefore, cannot vote in his unit overseas?

Mr. Emery

My hon. Friend has taken my third point—namely, the situation of members of the Armed Forces who are on leave or on courses. Surely at any one time between 5 and 10 per cent. of Service personnel are on leave. Therefore, if they are not in their units, how does the Minister suggest they will have the opportunity to vote? They may not be on the electoral register of the area in which they are spending their leave. Is there not some way to deal with people on leave in view of the advanced voting procedures envisaged in this new step to be taken by the Government? Anybody going on leave should be able to cast his vote in secret, the vote would be held by the unit commander until all the votes are put together, and would then be sent forward for counting. I appreciate that this would involve an extra amount of work, but it is surely not such a great task when one considers voting on a matter of such importance as the referendum.

There is a great deal of difference in the situation facing a member of the Armed Forces on leave and that facing an ordinary civilian on holiday. It has been suggested that Service men are in the same situation as the holiday maker who has not the right to vote if he is away on holiday during the ballot. However, in many cases Service men have to take their leave periods at the end of courses, between postings or at the end of service in a particular unit. Therefore, the time at which they take that leave is not in their own hands but is dictated by the exigencies of the Service. Therefore, there is a distinct difference between the ordinary civilian on holiday and a member of the Armed Forces on leave. The Government should seek to provide a specific method for people on leave to be able to vote in the referendum.

I believe that the amendment embodies a number of new difficulties. It is important that the Government should be able to provide proper and reasonable answers on these points. This does not mean that at this stage we should vote against the amendment, because it advances along a road which many of us see as necessary, if there is to be a referendum. However, that does not mean to say that in the present situation the amendment is entirely acceptable. I think the Committee will be satisfied on these matters only if hon. Members are given proper answers to their questions.

[Mr. W. T. WILLIAMS in the Chair]

5.30 p.m.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

I am grateful to the Minister of State for the Government amendment. The Committee should also be grateful to him for the general tenor of his speech and the reception which he gave to the amendments to the amendment.

I think that as many people as possible should vote in the elections and in the referendum. I am wholly unmoved by the extraordinary reasons advanced such as that some people do not have the benefit of television or that they have not registered in the way laid down by Mr. Speaker's Conference. The voters have a basic right to vote. The Committee should find ways in which the voters can vote and not find ways in which they cannot vote.

We are apt to display the well-known schoolmasterly attitude that we must at all costs stop people cheating. That attitude makes the tax system of the United Kingdom so complicated. It is thought that 1 million people must be put to enormous inconvenience to stop three people cheating.

Voting in my constituency is not easy. There was a time when the candidates had to charter a ship to convey the voters from North Ronaldsay to Sanday. Some of the voters were usually drunk before they arrived at the polling station. Per- haps the whole procedure was illegal. They were the whalers in the Antarctic. There was competition from the elements. Sometimes the Island of Foula was cut off for two or three months and the General Election had passed by before the people of Foula had a chance to take part in it.

The difficulty at General Elections is the short time. There are only 10 days until nomination day, and then 10 days until polling day. That is what makes the matter difficult.

The Minister said that even the referendum was a difficult problem and that the Government had not had much time in which to consider it. However, nearly six months have elapsed since the General Election when the Government conceived this device of getting themselves out of this muddle. It is possible for the people to vote on this matter at any moment. There will be no nominations. Neither will there be a dissolution of Parliament. I hope, therefore, that the Government will look again at the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow).

It is nonsense to say that we can alter the electoral law only after a Speaker's Conference. The House is master of its own procedures. If it can produce a referendum, surely it can produce the means of carrying it out.

I am not much moved by the arguments about holiday makers. I have always thought that holiday makers should vote. Since it is only the rich who go on holiday at 10 minutes' notice, others have booked holidays long before the election is announced. Therefore, I hope that the old arguments about holiday makers voting will not be applied to this amendment.

It is true that Service personnel are scattered to many places, sometimes on leave, on detachment, on ships, and so on. I think that the Minister of State was sympathetic to that point. I should have thought that things could be arranged so that Service people who were away could vote. Bearing in mind that the time scale of a referendum is different from that of a General Election and that voting can take place at any time within reason, I should have thought that something to cover these categories could be arranged.

The trouble with devices to prevent people from cheating is that they do not stop people wanting to cheat. People can always cheat if they are determined. Such devices end up by stopping the votes of the innocent people who are not trying to cheat. I believe that it is possible to device a way whereby people who are detached from their units or those attached to their units can vote. I was not clear about Service spouses. Will they have to return to their place of registration to vote? If that is the case, that will put them to some inconvenience, not to say expense. Will the ordinary arrangements for Service men's wives to vote apply in this case? Why should they not be treated as their husbands are to be treated.

I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us about the proces of voting. Will it be carried out in one day, and if so, why? Postal voting cannot take place in one day. What will be the arrangements for Service personnel to cast their votes? He must allow as many people as possible to vote even though that may be contrary to the nonexistent advice of a Speaker's Conference.

Mr. Ian Percival (Southport)

I hope that it will be for the convenience of the Committee to speak on the need for amendments (b) and (c) to Government Amendment No. 31 tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Sir M. Havers) and myself. Amendment (b) is to leave out '(as defined in section 46 of the Representation of the People Act 1949)'. Amendment (c) is to add at the end— 'For the purposes of this subsection the expression "member of the forces" means a person serving as a member of any of the naval, military or air forces of the Crown, whether on full pay or otherwise, and includes a person serving only as a member of a reserve or auxiliary force: and the above references to the naval, military or air forces of the Crown shall include any women's force administered by the Admiralty, Army Council or Air Council '. We are dealing with enabling powers. The Minister of State gave a detailed account of how it is proposed to use those powers. That was helpful. However, we are not discussing that. Whether or not the powers will be exercised in a special way will be discussed and decided when draft orders are laid before Parliament for affirmative resolutions under Clause 1(5).

Our purpose must be to ensure that sufficiently wide powers are available to enable the Government and the House by Order in Council to ensure that people wo should be able to vote are enabled to do so on an issue which is of vital importance to the future of the country. Recognising that purpose, we should make the enabling powers as wide as possible and make sure that we do not confine ourselves in our future activities by not having made the enabling powers wide enough.

The Government, prompted by the Opposition and other quarters, have shown great concern for the position of the Regular Service men and women. That is right and proper. Though the Opposition will comment on the detail of how the Government have done that, we agree and applaud their intentions in desiring to make adequate provision for Service men and women. However, we do not think that the Government have shown sufficient concern for the auxiliaries and volunteers. Nobody has a better right to vote than the men and women who are members of the auxiliary and volunteer forces, who give their time and energy to preparing themselves and others to defend their country should the need arise. It would be insufferable if any of them were deprived of their vote because of our failure to ensure that they can exercise that right. The Government must go out of their way to ensure that.

The amendment was prompted by the knowledge that the council of the TAVR associations was concerned about the position on 5th June. They estimate that more than 2,000 members of those associations will have been serving with the Regulars on 5th April. I do not know whether the Minister's figure of 3,000 is confined to the TAVR or includes other auxiliaries. However, it is clear that we are referring not just to a few people. Those people are aware of their right to proxy votes. However, I can anticipate their feelings regarding what the Minister said about their position. I do not think that what he said will give those people much satisfaction. The Minister said that they were civilians. So they are. So what? On the day in question they will be serving as soldiers, sailors or airmen. They will be subject to the difficulties experienced by all the other soldiers, sailors and airmen serving in the same place. It is an irrelevant distinction to this argument. It is ungenerous to suggest that the right to a proxy vote should suffice. Surely we can do better than that.

The Minister said that there was growing evidence that proxy voting was becoming increasingly unpopular. There are problems about people getting registered. It is not unreasonable to suggest that if the matter is left as it is, quite a few of those 3,000 people who were mentioned will not get a proxy vote. I suggest that it is not very generous of the Minister to say what he said and to leave it there. We ought to be able to do better than that.

We are to put special provisions at the disposal of Regular Service men. That is very right and proper. We are to allow them to vote at special unit polling stations. I see no reason why the gentlemen of the TAVR or the ladies of the women's Services who will be serving with units at the time of the referendum should not participate in those special arrangements as well.

We have heard about the arrangements which are already proposed for serving personnel. We agree with and applaud them. However, we hope that they will be improved more as a result of the debate. I am sure that it is obvious that our intention is to improve what is already proposed, rather than to destroy.

I should like the Minister of State to address his mind to certain questions when further considering the amendments. Why limit those special provisions to members of the Services as defined in Amendment No. 31? Why not widen the position so that, if we see any other way of assisting these people by making available the provisions which we are to make for the rest of the Services, we at least have the power to do so? Why close the door on that opportunity?

We are limiting the scope of these enabling powers by adopting the definition of members of the Services which is set out in Section 46 of the Representation of the People Act 1948. That definition is limited to members serving on full pay, and it expressly excludes auxiliaries and volunteers. There is no necessity to hang that definition around our necks here. There is no reason why we should not permit ourselves a wider definition which leaves scope within which we can do whatever may occur to us as possible, practical and useful in the remaining days before the referendum.

That is what Amendments (b) and (c) would do. Amendment (b) takes out the existing definition, which is extremely limited, and Amendment (c) substitutes for that narrow definition a much wider one. I accept that that definition is probably wider than would ever prove necessary. It may be unnecessary ever to use it. But if the Government were to persist in rejecting that amendment, which is advanced for that purpose and has only that effect, and were then to discover new unforeseen difficulties or new ways of meeting the difficulties which they now say they recognise but cannot meet, and were to find themselves unable to take advantage of them because of the limits of the enabling powers, it would be too late for them to deal with those situations.

We submit that if just one auxiliary or volunteer Service man or woman were to be deprived of his or her vote because the Government had refused to accept the amendment and this Committee had rejected it, that would be a terrible indictment of both the Government and this Committee.

I hope, therefore, that by the time we reach Amendments (b) and (c) to Amendment No. 31 and the Committee has to make a decision on them, the Government will either have changed their mind and will accept them or that there will be sufficient right hon. and hon. Members who care sufficiently about these auxiliaries and volunteers to carry these amendments against the Government.

5.45 p.m.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, East)

Listening to the discussion on the amendment which seeks to change the method of voting for people serving in the Forces, one would imagine that there was no procedure which enabled anyone interested and serving in the Forces to have his or her name put on the electoral register. In fact, as we know, there is a method by which Service men and women may have their names put on the proxy list, and many have taken advantage of it.

But we have been told by the Minister that apparently 300,000 men and women serving in the Forces are not on the proxy list. There may be many reasons why they are not on that list. It may be difficult to get on to it. However, I suggest that one substantial reason is the lack of interest in politics which members of the Forces who have not bothered to register must have. If they were interested enough to wish to vote at General Elections, their names would appear on the proxy list. I fail to see why we should make a special amendment on this occasion to draw into the total numbers permitted to vote those who have not been interested to come forward and register.

Mr. Emery

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that a number of people who have no interest in the party political battle would, when it came to the very future of this country in Europe on this major constitutional issue, believe that that transcended politics and that they ought to vote?

Mr. Lamond

It is interesting to ear the hon. Gentleman put forward that theory. I thought that the argument from the other side was that the decision about Europe should be made by elected Members of Parliament, not by a referendum. If the decision were made by Members of Parliament, those serving in the Armed Forces for whom there is such concern at the moment would have no say in the future of this country. If we followed the line proposed by the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends, members of the Armed Forces would certainly be denied any opportunity of registering their opinions about this country's future.

I am not happy about the amendment, because we have been told that, in order to include in the electoral roll those who have thus far been so uninterested that they have not bothered to register, we must suspend the existing arrangements for the proxy vote list.

The Minister assured us that not much inconvenience will be caused by this arrangement. Indeed, he has estimated that perhaps no more than 100 Service men or women would not be able to vote at their unit polling stations who presumably would be able to vote if the proxy register were not suspended. I have some doubts about that figure. It would be astonishing if, out of about 300,000, only 100 people were unable to get to the unit polling stations.

Even if only 100 people were thus denied the opportunity to vote, they would be drawn from those members of the Services who had taken the trouble to register on the proxy voting list. Therefore, those interested people would be denied the opportunity to vote which they would have had had we not interfered with the existing system.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

I do not know whether the hon. Member was present at the beginning of the debate to hear what the Minister of State and I had to say. I do not think he was, and, therefore, he missed hearing that the arrangements for Service voting were altered in 1969, as a result of which those who registered have gone down by about 50 per cent. and that makes it more difficult for some Service men to vote. It would seem also to destroy partly the hon. Member's argument about the lack of interest, unless he thinks that the level of political interest in the Forces has seriously declined since 1969. Is he saying that it is more important to ensure that 100 people vote than to enfranchise 300,000 who will not vote otherwise?

Mr. Lamond

I have heard every word of the debate. I heard the Minister make that point concerning the alteration in the arrangements which had led to a diminution of the voters' list. That proves nothing except that those not on the list are not interested enough to overcome the difficulties. It is important that we do not disfranchise those who have overcome those increasing difficulties, difficulties which became more severe after 1969, in order to enfranchise no matter how many other people who are not interested enough to have taken the necessary steps.

Mr. MacFarquhar

Do I understand my hon. Friend to be saying two things against the Government amendment? Is he saying first, that it breaks the principle that Government spokesmen have established of keeping as close as possible to the traditional General Election system, and, secondly, that it will create a number of very striking anomalies? Am I correct?

Mr. Lamond

Yes. I want to ask the Minister what will happen under the arrangements since I always like to be able to explain satisfactorily to the constituents who come to my "surgery" what I have done at the House. If I know my constituency, some of those 100 people who have been disfranchised will arrive at my surgery saying that they have complied with the letter of the law in order to ensure that they have a vote in the referendum and at General Elections. They might say that their friends in their unit laughed at them for going to the trouble to register, asking why they are interested since the matter does not involve them. A constituent might say to me "I am interested enough in politics to have made sure that I have the opportunity to vote, but now I discover that my friends who have been uninterested in the past are to be enfranchised and allowed to vote while I, who have complied with law and done everything to overcome all the increasing difficulties, have been denied the vote." Can anyone sensibly answer that man's complaint?

Mrs. Winifred Ewing


Mr. Lamond

I certainly cannot.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

As a Member of Parliament with two military bases in her constituency and with about 8,000 potential votes involved, I am quite an expert on all the things that go wrong. Many of these 8,000 who have taken all due steps find, through the sheer problems created by their travelling around, that when they go to the poll in my constituency confidently expecting to vote they do not have a vote. This is the problem the Forces are up against. This is a fact of life, and the margin of error in my constituency is plain for anyone to see. It is not because of any failure in the constituency; it is because of the system. Surely there is a case for saying that these people are in a special category and that whatever the safeguards of the past, which have not worked, we should certainly now consider treating them specially.

Mr. Lamond

I am disappointed in that intervention because it will not enable me to answer sensibly the hypothetical question of a constituent who had done everything to secure a vote but is disfranchised as a result of some subsequent action by this House which he is powerless to comply with.

If the total number of people involved is about 300,000, the average per constituency is about 500 spread evenly over Great Britain. Of course, these people are not spread evenly because some constituencies are more fruitful recruiting areas than others, particularly working-class constituencies. In those constituencies, therefore, there may be far more than 500 people who are in the Forces.

We have not yet decided whether the vote is to be counted on a national basis or on a constituency basis. There are hon. Members with majorities of fewer than 500. We do not know the distribution of the Service voters, so that no one can say what the result would have been in any constituency had the Service men's vote been counted there. I do not believe that those who are arguing for a count on a constituency basis are doing so because of the convenience of that arrangement. They want a constituency count because they want to find out how their constituencies have voted.

The Temporary Chairman

Order. The hon. Member is going a little wide. Will he restrict his remarks to soldiers and not to constituencies?

Mr. Lamond

I am speaking of the constituents who are Service men. I am saying that the Service men entitled to vote in a constituency could easily number 2,000 or 3,000—

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

Eight thousand.

Mr. Lamond

I do not go to the extremes of the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mrs. Ewing). I do not think it is going too far to put the number at 2,000 or 3,000. No one can say, if the amendment is passed, that his constituency has voted in a particular way unless his majority is exceptionally large. I would not accept such a suggestion unless the majority was more than 2,000 or 3,000. That is the point which those who argue for a count on a constituency basis should bear in mind.

6.0 p.m.

Dr. Glyn

I do not follow the hon. Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Lamond) in all his arguments, but for once I support the argument of the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mrs. Ewing). A large number of Service people, through no fault of their own, are not on the register for various reasons, some of which are administrative. The Minister will bear me out on this.

In principle I am against the referendum because it impinges on the sovereignty of Parliament and I do not regard the result of the referendum as binding on Parliament.

It is our duty—the Minister made this quite clear—to ensure that as many people as possible can vote in the referendum. It is particularly important that the Services should be included in that vote.

Mr. Russell Kerr

Will the hon. Gentleman elucidate, for the benefit of the House, what he means by not being bound by the result of the referendum?

Dr. Glyn

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has made the position perfectly clear. The hon. Gentleman was present when she did so. I subscribe fully to that view.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) disproved the theory that it was necessary to involve television and the other media. After all, we had elections before we had television. The Minister has moved a long way towards meeting our demands.

However, there are one or two points on which I should like elucidation. First, there are Service men who are on leave from overseas, there are those on courses and there are those who are on duty. I accept that no machinery can be perfect. A considerable number of people could easily be left out. For example, there is the soldier who is posted from BAOR to Northern Ireland. If he had been posted after last October, he would not get the vote unless he was one of those who already had a proxy vote. More effort should also be directed to giving the wives and dependants of Service men the vote.

The Minister mentioned advance voting. Advance voting might cater for those Service men who are on leave and for various other categories. Certainly it could cover the TAVR and those groups of people who through no fault of their own would be excluded at present. If the Minister could enlarge on this aspect, it would be of great help to the Committee.

The question of a constituency count or national count is not of great importance, because Service men's votes could be boxed up, and if the Committee decides that the count is to be on a county or a constituency basis we need only say that in addition to that total number the count for the Service men was X thousand or Y thousand.

I represent a constituency which includes a garrison and I know the difficulties that Service men experience. I welcome what the Minister has said and I hope that he will go a little further in his concession to make sure that all Service personnel and their wives are included in this important decision.

Mr. Leadbitter

When I raised this matter earlier and asked for clarification I hoped that it would have been cleared up, but it has persisted and has been aggravated. Will the corollary of depriving Service men or anyone of a proxy vote mean that those who have the proxy vote will be able to vote personally? That is the issue to which we should address ourselves.

It is not a reasonable assumption that to ease the administration of the voting and counting we should arrive at this peculiar decision not to allow proxy voting. This is contrary to the Government's previous thinking on the referendum and the well-tested practice in many general and local elections. What is abundantly clear is that those who have found it essential, particularly since 1969, to be on the proxy list—and that is another test—should be able to say to the Government that the Government have no right to pursue this course of action because inevitably some people will be disfranchised. Since when was it in the power of the House of Commons or the Government to disfranchise anyone? The Government must think again.

The Minister feels, in response to the point I raised, that there would be a propensity for members of the Forces possibly to vote twice. This would be a breach of the law. One of the great things about this country, whatever else is said, is that basically we are a law-abiding nation. Although there may be some justifiable concern—and I do not quarrel with that—about breaches of the law, the basic nature and character of the British people is to help the Government by a consensus of opinion and response to carry out the processes of law in the country.

It must be possible for Parliament to accept from practice and experience that members of the Forces who in the past had a proxy vote, and more essentially since 1969, should have such a vote. The need for a proxy vote has been crystallised in this debate. Fewer people have wanted one, for reasons important to them. We should tell them that we know they are law-abiding citizens and comply with the law of the land. They will only vote once. The likelihood of people voting twice bears considerably less weight than the lack of certain people having a chance to vote if this measure is adopted.

I distrust Governments when they talk about putting down Orders in Council on this kind of Bill. Some night at 1 o'clock, when many hon. Members may have disappeared on other commitments, an Order in Council could be debated. We cannot do much about that, especially if the Government decide on a particular procedure to deal with an Order in Council limiting the debate. We would be left with about half an hour to discuss it.

It is not for a Labour Government—it cannot be for any Government—to seek in some way to justify the administrative niceties of counting and collecting the votes by disfranchising people on any consideration whatever. I hope that some thought will be given to this.

We have reached a fine art in developing our administrative scrutinies, using methods of computerisation, apart from the checks and balances available to us from experience. We stretch the imagination of the House of Commons too far by suggesting that we cannot administer this proxy vote for the small number of people involved. There might have been an argument in logic if large numbers had been involved. People in the Forces are not necessarily static. Many of them are mobile, many of them may not even be near a ballot box and some of them may be ill. It does not matter what it is. The Government have a duty to make this matter abundantly clear in Committee.

This is supposed to be a serious matter. The referendum is serious for everyone. It is not for the Minister to decide who will not vote by the nonsense of this little bit of machinery. The Government may not like my remarks. It is not for the first time that Front Bench Members have not liked what back benchers have had to say. However, I should like any Front Bench Member to come outside Parliament with me and say to the people who have fought for the right to vote "We inside Parliament have a right to deprive you of your vote."

Therefore, since this is a serious matter, I must say to the Minister that if I do not get a firm undertaking about it—not just a promise to do something on Report, if we are to have a Report stage—I shall not vote for his measure.

Mr. Richard Wood (Bridlington)

We can no doubt continue for some time discussing the details which are of immense importance to those who will be affected by them, but the real point at issue has been touched on by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter)—that is, whether the Government are prepared to show willingness to try to include among those capable of voting as many people as they possibly can. I hope that during the remainder of this debate and in subsequent debates on other amendments all hon. Members—from the Lord President downwards, if I may express it so—will have this principle in mind.

The Government have said on many occasions that the referendum is unique. It is certainly unique to my hon. Friends, who hope that it is so unique that it will never be repeated. But if it is to exist and if it is unique, surely the Government ought to be moved by a willingness to enfranchise as many people as they possibly can. In other words, will they be impelled by a desire to remove all the obstacles they can and then remove a few more which have so far been thought to be immovable? I hope that this is the spirit that will impel them. It is what this debate and our subsequent debates on other amendments are about.

I should be very sad to see the adult dependants disfranchised and unable to vote. The arguments that I have heard so far do not suggest to me that it would be impossible to give them the vote in this unique referendum. I hope that every effort will be made to include them. I shall be very interested to hear the Minister's answers to the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn) and those asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) about the volunteers who happen to be in camp on 5th June, or whenever we vote. If they are in camp in this country, presumably they will be eligible for the ordinary postal vote. But if they are abroad, will they be included in the arrangements which the hon. Gentleman is proposing?

Lastly, I hope that the Minister will take seriously what he himself said very seriously, I believe, about publicity. Any arrangements that he is able to make—and I hope he will go even further than he has so far suggested—should be publicised to the maximum extent so that everyone understands them and can take advantage of them.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. Carlisle

In opening the debate the Minister said that he would listen with care to any constructive remarks that might he made in the course of it with regard to the detail of what he is now proposing. I hope shortly to make one or two such constructive remarks.

I have a degree of sympathy with the Minister, having had something to do with electoral procedures when I was at the Home Office. I realise that what at first sight would appear to be the simplest thing of all, such as merely explaining how people got into a polling station to put a cross on a piece of paper, turns out, when it comes to the details, to be some what complicated.

However, as I understand it, the purpose of the amendment is to say for the first time that those who are in the Services or their wives who are actually not on the electoral roll should nevertheless be allowed to vote. One of the Minister's hon. Friends has said that this is a monstrous principle. However, as was pointed out in the evidence given before the Speaker's Conference on this matter, one of the reasons why the percentage of those in the Forces who are registered is low is that Queen's Regulations do not permit them to take part in party politics and, therefore, at a normal election their interest is often considerably less than that of others in filling up forms to vote and things of that nature.

If the referendum is unique it is clearly right, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood) has said, that the principle that should underlie these debates is to see that the highest proportion possible of those entitled to vote are able to vote. Therefore, I go along entirely with the Minister in his general proposals. Specifically, however, what is the order which the Minister intends to lay? As I understand the amendment, it states clearly that those in the Services and their spouses who are abroad or at home should be allowed to vote under special provisions, even though they are not on the electoral register.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) has handed me a letter written to him by the Minister on 18th April in which the Minister suggests, for reasons which, frankly, I do not understand, that the order which the Government will lay will cover Service men who are abroad or at home and will cover the wives of Service men when abroad but will not cover the wives of Service men who are stationed at home. If that is correct, will the Minister explain the logic of it? If the argument is that, the Service man and his wife are at present often, for other reasons, off the electoral roll and for the purpose of this referendum we shall allow them to vote, why should it make any difference whether the wife happens to be a wife abroad with her husband or a wife at home with her husband?

The very basis of the amendment is that these people are not on the electoral roll at present. I agree that if a wife is in this country and on the electoral roll, she can use her vote in the normal way. The object of this amendment, however, is to allow those who are not on the electoral roll to vote. If a woman's husband was in this country it would not matter.

Mr. Gow

Perhaps I may assist my hon. and learned Friend. The Minister of State, in answer to an earlier intervention from me, confirmed that the position is precisely as my hon. and learned Friend feared. Therefore, he may wish now to advance arguments not in order to measure what is a hypothesis but against an argument that the Minister of State has confirmed.

Mr. Carlisle

That is what I thought was the result of the Minister's answer to my hon. Friend's intervention. What I cannot understand is the logic behind this. What I was trying to point out, as the purpose of the amendment is to enfranchise those who otherwise would not be enfranchised because their names are not on the electoral roll—and with that purpose I agree entirely—is that the logic must be the same for doing it for a wife in this country as it is for doing it for those who are abroad. There must be more wives in this country than there are abroad.

The second point is that I cannot accept the powerfulness or the logic of the Minister's argument against the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington has just referred. Presumably in practice, since these people are not on the electoral register, in each unit someone will have to draw up a list not only of the members of that unit who are entitled to vote although they are not on the register but also of their wives. If that list has to be drawn up, why cannot the list include the dependants of those who are living with them if those dependants are over the age of 18?

To take a simple example, there may be a young Service man aged 19 with a wife of 17 who will not be entitled to vote. There would have to be some sort of certificate for a person to sign, saying "I am the wife of a Service man and I am over 18." Why should not these people be able to say that they are the son, daughter, mother-in-law, father-in-law or whatever of the Service man and that they are over 18 and entitled to vote?

I cannot see the distinction between what the Government propose and the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking. There is bound to be a Report stage because this is a Government amendment. We have only one or two days in which to table amendments. I ask the Government seriously to consider tabling an amendment on Report which would widen the rights of Service men and their wives and include dependent children.

The only argument advanced against this by the Minister—it is completely fallacious—was that the Speaker's Conference had recommended that Service men and their wives should be able to vote but had not said anything about dependent children. Let us be clear about the history. What the Speaker's Conference was looking at was the fact that there was a relatively small proportion of people on the Services register. It recommended that we should go back to the system whereby Service men should be on a continuous register—they should be registered when they first entered the Services and remain on the register throughout. The conference also said that that should apply to their wives, who are classed as Service voters. That is not this proposal.

This proposal has nothing to do with the Speaker's Conference proposals. It is purely for the purposes of the referendum. We are saying that we will enfranchise those who would not otherwise be enfranchised so that dependent adults of those in the Services will be in a situation identical to that of members of the Services and their wives.

I entirely accept the force of the argument advanced by the Minister with regard to proxy voting. I do not agree with my hon. Friends who have criticised the removal of proxy votes. It is probably a necessary part of enfranchising people in another way. Can the hon. Gentleman confirm—I believe I may have got it wrong in my intervention during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) because I was thinking of postal votes—that if proxy voting is removed and the person is in this country he will be able to go to the polling station and vote? His name must be on the register if he has a proxy vote.

Despite the advocacy of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Percival), I am not quite sure whether I fully understand the purpose of amendment (c). Am I not right in saying that those who are in the Territorial Army or who volunteer in some way or other are in exactly the same situation as every other citizen? Presumably they are already on the electoral register, having been in this country on 10th October last. They will have had as much chance as anyone else to be on the register. If that is so, they are covered by proxy or postal voting without the need to extend the provisions in the way suggested.

I ask the Minister urgently to reconsider the position of dependent adults and the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton about the people attached to the Services although not members of them, NAAFI workers and so on. They must be in the same position and could equally be covered by Government amendments on Report.

Mr. Goodhart

I suspect that I am more in favour of the general principle of the Bill than is the Minister of State. Now that the Bill has received a Second Reading may I express the hope that we are all united in wishing that there will be the largest possible turn-out in the referendum and that as many British citizens as possible will have the right to cast a vote.

It would have been intolerable if only a portion of those serving in the Armed Forces had been able to cast a vote. particularly since the British Army of the Rhine plays a major part in the defence not only of this country but of the European Community as a whole. However, the number of problems associated with this move seem to have grown with the debate. What will happen to those who are on short courses? What will happen to those in detention? We have been encouraging hundreds of Service men to serve in the Persian Gulf area. How will they cast their votes? There is also the problem of the 3,000 members of the TAVR who will be serving with units overseas.

The Minister seemed to think that these people would be reading about our discussions in the columns of the newspapers or clutching at Hansard to study their rights. That is a wild illusion. I hope that every effort will be made, through individual letters, to tell these volunteer Service men about their rights and the machinery which exists.

The problem of dependants is dealt with in amendment (a). The Minister said that there were only 1,000 dependent children who might he enfranchised by the amendment. That is still quite a lot. There are other dependent relatives. The hon. Gentleman seemed to think there were only a handful. My amateur researches suggest that there are over 1,000 grannies, mothers-in-law, aunts and fathers-in-law living abroad in Service housing. Are the administrative difficulties so great that such people cannot be included?

The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) referred to the position of American Service men, suggesting that many of them were not given the right to vote. I have with me the thick list of instructions to American residents overseas who wish to cast their vote in ordinary elections. It is a complicated procedure because there are 50 States and more territories with slightly different rules. It is notable that in almost every case the States allow the dependants of Service men to have an absentee vote. If the Americans can do it with their vastly more complicated procedures, I do not believe that it should be beyond our administrative capacity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) spoke of those who work for the Services and who are Service men in almost everything but name—the NAAFI girls and the NATO wireless operators. I hope that in future amendments we shall be extending the right to vote to all British civilian citizens working overseas. But we have not yet come to those amendments.

In answer to a Question some time ago the Prime Minister seemed to suggest that there would be concessions on this matter. We now read in the Press that any intended concessions have been torn up by the Lord President of the Council. I hope that that report is wrong, but it would be a grave anomaly if people such as NATO wireless operators and NAAFI girls were not given a vote.

I hope that the Minister of State will look at the debate in a generous mood and follow the principle that as many British citizens as possible should be given the right to vote in this referendum.

6.30 p.m.

Mr. Gow

I propose to address my remarks to Amendment No. 31. I wish first to question the whole procedure of laying an Order in Council to define the circumstances in which Service men and their wives can vote. I do this because the opportunity for debating an Order in Council is necessarily very much less than the opportunity for debating a clause in a Bill. I think that the Committee is entitled to join the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) in saying that the tendency for Governments increasingly to take action by delegated legislation is one which we deplore, and particularly so with a Bill of this importance. I agree with the Lord President of the Council, but I do not think he will disagree with me when I say that the opportunity to debate an Order in Council is less than the opportunity to debate a clause in a Bill.

We have heard from several Government Members that one reason why it has not been possible to include in the Bill the provisions that will be in the Order in Council when it is made is that the decision to hold a referendum has been taken very recently. I wish to seek to disprove that assertion. I have here the text of a letter which was written by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to whom the House was privileged to listen yesterday. Almost exactly three years ago he wrote to his right hon. Friend who was then the Leader of the Opposition in these terms: I am firmly opposed to the principle of the referendum.

The Chairman

Order. That may well be, but we must try to keep to the question of votes for the Forces.

Mr. Gow

Just so, Mr. Thomas. The point I am seeking to make is that the argument advanced from the Government benches for the wording that will appear in the Order in Council not appearing in the Bill is that the referendum is a new concept that has suddenly been sprung upon us. I am seeking to show the Committee that we have known about the prospect of a referendum for more than three years, and I have called in aid the words of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who for the time being at any rate is a member of the Cabinet.

Suppose, Mr. Thomas, that you do not think the words of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster are sufficient to substantiate the point I am putting forward. In that case I am, happily, able to call in aid the words of the Secretary of State for the Home Department, because on the very day that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster wrote to the Prime Minister the right hon. Gentleman received another letter, this time from the Secretary of State for the Home Department.

Mr. Russell Kerr

An organised campaign.

Mr. Gow

The right hon. Gentleman said in his letter: I doubt if this would ever work in practice, although if it did the result would be a very substantial undermining of the existing system of parliamentary responsibility. I hope that with those two brief quotations I have shown that the Labour Party, and notably the Prime Minister himself, has had in contemplation the holding of a referendum on this matter.

Mr. George Cunningham

We know that.

Mr. Gow

It does no harm to remind Labour Members of it. It lends credence to the point that has been made from this side of the Committee that the Government's claim that they have not had time to prepare their own legislation does not hold water.

Mr. Cunningham

The idea of a referendum is not new. What is relatively new is the idea of conducting it with a franchise different from the one which applies for parliamentary elections, and it ill behoves Conservative Members who are asking for a different franchise to blame the Government for lack of time to devise a method to give effect to that.

Mr. Gow

I was complaining about the device of an Order in Council to deal with a matter of great constitutional importance.

I now turn to the question whether the wives of Service men in the United Kingdom should be granted those facilities which the Minister of State described in his agreeable opening speech. This is what the 1965 Speaker's Conference recommended with regard to wives of Service men. In Cmnd. 3550, published in February 1968, it said: it should be the duty of the commanding officer of each unit to see that this"— that is, the registration— is carried out in time for entries to be made in each ordinary register. The obligation on Service authorities to obtain such information at such times should extend to wives of service men in the United Kingdom". I ask the Lord President of the Council to pay attention to this instead of talking to his hon. Friend. This is an important matter, and I hope that the Minister of State will deal with it when he replies to the debate.

The Speaker's Conference said that the facilities should extend to wives of Service men in the United Kingdom, yet the Minister of State is proposing to go against that recommendation and deny them the facilities which they would have if they were outside the United Kingdom.

Mr. Russell Kerr

You are not on hourly rates.

Mr. Gow

There is another matter to which the Committee would like an answer. What administrative arrangements will be made so that commanding officers are encouraged to give every opportunity for Service men to vote? I now quote from the minutes of evidence given to the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law on 23rd January last year. This was how a senior electoral registration assistant replied to a question from Mr. Speaker: With an annual application", said Mr. Holland, the registration officer for Kensington and Chelsea, the only difficulty we have found in practice is that there are many less applications than we used to have when they stayed on indefinitely. It seems as though the annual application does not reach the people concerned, or they are just not interested in doing it. Our number of Service voters has dropped drastically since we have had annual registration. Later, in reply to Mr. Speaker, Mr. Heaton said that about 25 per cent. only—a figure confirmed by the Minister of State in his opening speech—of Service voters were entitled to vote. I hope that the Minister of State will tell the Committee exactly what provision he has in mind for the Order in Council which he will lay to deal with this matter.

Mr. Leadbitter

It is on this point that the Committee must persist in seeking a definition. The hon. Gentleman will remember that paragraph 14 of the White Paper published in February made abundantly clear the Government's undertaking to ensure that the postal and proxy voting facilities which are available for general elections are also available for the referendum poll. When the Bill was published in March that was still the intention. It is the amendments which cause us to ask what has happened between the original statement of the Government's intention and today.

Mr. Gow

I support the question which the hon. Gentleman has addressed to the Minister of State. The point to which I was coming was the breath-taking assertion by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) that, because many Service men do not have the advantage of watching television, they might be deprived of the right to vote. It may not have occurred to Labour Members that there are many of my constituents who cannot afford television sets but who nevertheless have the right to vote and who in February of last year inflicted such a defeat on a Labour candidate that he lost his deposit. The argument that only those who watch television should be allowed to vote is a piece of arrogance typical of the Labour Party.

I hope that the Minister of State will accept Amendment (b) in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton).

On Amendment (a), an astonishing argument was advanced by the Minister of State. He relied on precedent. It may be that Tory Governments have relied on precedent, but it was astonishing to hear a Minister of State in a Labour Government rely on precedent as a defence of the status quo. I hope that the Minister of State will tell the Committee that he can accept Amendment (a).

As for Amendment (c), the definition of "member of the Forces" given in Section 46 of the Representation of the People Act 1949 is much too restrictive. I hope that on consideration the Minister of State will agree to accept Amendment (c) as well.

Mr. Michael Latham

As there are three Service bases in my constituency, I want to clear up one or two points so that I can explain the position to those of my constituents who are at those bases. I have a heartfelt reason for saying this, because in February of last year Service men constituents of mine came to see me because there had been a muddle over the voting arrangements which ended with their not being able to cast their votes.

Amendment No. 31 in the name of the Lord President of the Council is the main amendment in this group and arises from his speech on Second Reading, in particular that portion of it which is reported at columns 1422–23. There was one important sentence in the Lord President's speech which did not entirely tally with what the Minister of State said today. It related to the question of men on leave. Speaking of Service men and their wives, the Lord President said this: The present proxy voting arrangements for Service men abroad will be cancelled, but those in this country will be able, if they prefer, to vote instead in person or by postal vote."—[Official Report, 10th April 1975; Vol. 889, c. 1422–23.] What is the meaning of the words "those in this country"? Does it mean that those at present based in this country—for example, Service men at the three bases in my constituency—will be able to go along in person to the polling station or to vote by post? If so it is clear, but it does not deal with those at present on leave.

An alternative meaning of the words "those in this country" may be Service men who are on leave from their units abroad and who are physically in this country on referendum day. The amendment is so general as not to make the matter clear. I see no reason why it should not be possible for Service men in that situation to go to a unit in Britain and present their identity cards and cast a vote. Alternatively, they could cast their votes at a polling station.

6.45 p.m.

The second matter of detail concerns people who will lose their votes because of the proxy system being abandoned for the purposes of the referendum. The Minister of State said that one of the advantages of the unit voting scheme abroad which he put forward and which I support is that as a matter of hard fact the vast majority of units are east of the Greenwich meridian and they would have a time advantage. The Committee will remember that there was a certain amount of mirth when the Minister of State made that point.

Although I accept that most units abroad are east of the Greenwich meridian, no doubt some lie west of the Greenwich meridian and there will be some Service men in that position on referendum day. My father, who was a regular Service man until he retired not so long ago, was for a time posted to a United States naval base in Norfolk, Virginia. That is west of Greenwich and for that there is a substantial time lag. What arrangements have been made so that Service men in that position will be able to cast their votes and so that their votes will be transported to the central counting base in time to be counted?

Finally, even after having listened to the Minister of State I cannot understand why it is necessary to disfranchise anybody. The Minister of State said in effect that it would be very risky to allow Service men to be able to have a proxy vote under present arrangements and also to have the possibility of voting in their units. In reply to my intervention the Minister of State said "The hon. Gentleman must keep this matter in proportion. There are hundreds of thousands who would potentially be able to do that and only one hundred or so will lose their vote under the arrangements that I propose."

I do not think that there are likely to be many Service men who will want to break the law by casting two votes, whether deliberately or otherwise. That is not a serious possibility. In any case, even if it were a serious possibility, which I do not for a moment accept, Clause 4 enables the Government to prevent any challenge on that matter.

The Committee would feel much happier if the Minister of State were to say that the Government do not want to take away anybody's right to vote and that there is no reason why both systems should not be combined, as many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) have suggested. I hope that this point will be further considered.

Mr. John P. Mackintosh (Berwick and East Lothian)

Agreeing that we are not discussing the principle of this deplorable measure or going into any of the unfortunate details other than those necessary to get the widest possible vote in this great democratic breakthrough—I agree with the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) that in this great adventure in non-parliamentary government we should get the maximum vote that we can muster—I wonder whether what the Government had in mind in the amendment was permission to vote for all those who are full-time employees of Her Majesty abroad in connection with the Army, the Navy and the Air Force.

I should like to ask the Minister of State, who is in a position to know because he is a Minister for the Army, how many full-time civilian employees are attached to and work with the Army abroad. If we are increasing the number of civilian personnel who are rendering assistance to the Forces, is it not ironical that these people should be denied a vote? I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would tell us how many full-time civilian employees of the Crown, attached to the Forces abroad, are in this category. Would it not be better to enfranchise this group for this purpose by saying not "Armed Forces" but "all full-time employees of the Crown stationed abroad attached to the Armed Forces "? I believe that it is anachronistic for 50,000 Service men and their wives in Germany to be able to vote, but not the considerable number of technical, skilled, medical and other staff attached to them who are for practical purposes identified with the Forces.

Mr. Michael Mates (Petersfield)

I express my sympathy with the Minister, sympathy which comes from my practical experience. I know the difficulty which he is encountering in trying to cover, I am sure perfectly genuinely, as many people as he can. He was very candid when he said that he was bound to fail with a few. I shall not go into the sort of extreme cases where he might find that he is unable to get a vote into the ballot box.

I should like to ask the Minister about the timing of the vote. My hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) raised the question of the different time zones. I lost the thread of the Minister's speech. He started by saying that there would be a variable time during which the vote was taken, quite apart from how far various units were from Greenwich. He went on to say that some units would be unable to vote on the day, because they might be in ships at sea or taking part in a remote exercise, and, therefore, would have to vote a day or two days before 5th June—if 5th June is the date. These votes would have to be sealed.

Later the Minister said that there would be others who would be away from their units for a considerable time, and it would be administratively extremely difficult for them to vote in the lodger unit. They might be doing an exchange with a foreign unit on their own or in a small number. They would have to cast their vote a week or two weeks before 5th June.

The Minister said that there would be people on leave and doing courses. Therefore, we are now stretching the time during which polling might take place for certain Service men to perhaps three weeks at the outside, but at least 10 days. If this is the case, is it not opening the door to the solution of many of the difficulties which his right hon. Friend the Lord President put forward as to why various people serving abroad, other than Service men, cannot vote? If this principle is to be accepted for Service men—and I warmly recommend that it should be—why can it not be accepted for other officials working overseas?

The Chairman

The hon. Gentleman will know that we shall come later to other categories overseas. Perhaps he will leave his arguments until then, trusting that he will catch the eye of the Chair.

Mr. Mates

I was trying to make certain that I had understood the Minister of State aright when he said that the voting would be stretched over perhaps 10 days or a fortnight in certain cases. However, I shall leave the point, as you have directed, Mr. Thomas.

The second point I should like to make, which may be of some help, is that to allow dependants of Service men over the age of 18 to vote, as well as other civilians who are working in Service establishments, would not cause the administrative difficulties that the Minister seems to envisage. Certainly in Germany, where the bulk of them are, and in almost every other station, all these people are identified. In Germany they come under the Status of Forces Agreement, and dependants are given a status identification card. The dependants and wives of Service men in Germany come under the command of the Commanding Officer for certain administrative and legal purposes.

There would be no administrative difficulty in drawing into this wider franchise all the people who support the Services and all those members of families who are not at present included in the amendment. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not allow administrative difficulties to make this impossible, because administratively it would not be difficult, and he could allow many people who are not drawn within this net to vote in the referendum.

Mr. William Rodgers

Occasionally during the past two hours I have reflected on the foolishness of trying to do good. I had hoped that the Government amendments would be warmly welcomed and swiftly passed. However, not only have I been accused of blocking amendments in the name of other right hon. and hon. Members, but doubt has even been cast on the validity of the Government amendments themselves. Therefore, I come to the Dispatch Box somewhat ruefully and conscious that if I speak as long as I did at the beginning I shall be forgiven by no one, and that if I speak shortly I shall be forgiven by none of those who have raised important points during the debate. My only comfort is that I shall be condemned cross-bench for whatever I may or may not say.

I was grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) for what he said about the complications of electoral law. I have been learning rapidly until today, but I have learnt even more rapidly in the past three hours. All the points which have been made will be taken fully into account.

I was also grateful for the generous remarks made by the hon. Member for Petersfield (Mr. Mates) at the end of our exchange. From his own close personal and recent experience he knows the problems, but I shall not take refuge in the administrative difficulties in meeting the wishes of the Committee. On the contrary, I would argue that we are able to do only as much as we are offering to do and as much as I hope the Committee will approve of, because of the organisation and discipline which characterise the Armed Forces and which make the impossible possible from time to time. That is why I draw no conclusion from this particular experience for other occasions.

The hon. Gentleman argued an important point which is at the heart of my objection to the two other amendments which are being put forward. What we are seeking to do—and I can give an undertaking that we shall continue in this way—is to ensure that all those who are currently eligible to be on the Service register have the best possible chance to vote on the day. That is our commitment. It is embodied in the legislation. It will be embodied in the Order of Council made by the Lord President and in the regulation then made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

There is a difference between doing our best for those who are entitled—although they may not be registered—and bringing in other categories. This is a difference not of administration but of principle. I can fully understand that the Committee may take a different view, but I ask hon. Members who are in favour of the Government's amendment to recognise that it is a different view in principle and has nothing to do with our wish to widen the area within which those who are entitled to vote are able to do so on the day.

With respect to a number of hon. Gentlemen, including the hon. Member for Melton (Mr. Latham), my opening remarks were not necessarily taken in at the time. I blame no one for that. Our present arrangements, as I spelt them out, are meant to allow for a wide variety of situations and to create a wide variety of formulae. There will be voting in units. There will be advance voting. There will be circumstances where proxies continue. Without going in detail into every point raised, we accept the wish of the Committee to enable all those Service men and their spouses and those who come into this category as previously accepted to vote either on the day or in advance if possible.

The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) spoke about the 42 hours' delay. I remind him that it is usually on the Saturday afternoon following a General Election that the results from the constituency of the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart), if not from that of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) and possibly that of the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mrs. Ewing), are declared. In other words, although we anticipate the outcome of the General Election, the total vote is not usually known until after 36 hours.

7.0 p.m.

Our best estimate is that, whether there is a count at the centre or in the counties or constituencies, we shall be able to deliver the votes within the time scale that I indicated. But we allow for flexibility. I repeat my undertaking that we shall do our best, and we hope that those disfranchised will be very few.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) who said in a passionate speech that it was wrong for the House to take away anyone's vote, but ultimately it is for the House to decide to enfranchise or disfranchise. It is a difficult decision for the House to make under its own legislation determining elections of whatever kind.

What I have said is that my best guess is that if the amendments are approved, and if the regulations are made in the spirit that the House would wish, it is possible that 0.025 per cent. of those who might now vote will be disfranchised. It may be that some of those will be in the constituencies of the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn or of my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool. If so, I am sorry. If they were all in mine I should be prepared to deal with them one by one, explaining the greater good. There is a greater good as we see it. Given the greater good, we shall nevertheless do what we can to reduce that figure to the absolute minimum.

The electoral law is highly complex. It may not be known, for example, that if one elects for a proxy and turns up in the polling station before the proxy has voted, one can vote. This is a useful safeguard for some who might appear to be disfranchised by the circumstances of this legislation.

We shall naturally consider everything that has been said today. We are most anxious that wives should no more be disfranchised than their husbands, and we do not believe that they are. There is flexibility on the day of voting, again, to include as many as we can.

We are satisfied that volunteers are properly provided for under the normal electoral legislation. In response to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), I give an undertaking that we shall do all we can to make these facili- ties known to those who may be abroad, serving as reserves, on the day. We are doing our best in this legislation. We believe that the principle upon which the amendments are based is sound, and we hope that they will be supported. We also hope that the other amendments will not be pressed, because they do not fall within the principles which I think the Committee, on reflection, will believe to be important and deserving of continuing respect.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)

My hon. Friend did not answer the question about the adult dependants. Will he say something about them?

Mr. Rodgers

The adult dependants, like the children of Service men serving abroad, are not within the category of Service men normally accepted by the House. In other words, they are not eligible to be registered. Therefore, pending a decision of the Committee on wider matters, I ask hon. Members to reject the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow).

Mr. Carlisle

I am still not convinced. The Minister is specifically allowing to vote those who are not registered—Service men and their wives—by saying that they can go to a polling station, give their name and then vote. Why is it different if the adult dependent is not a Service man's wife?

Mr. Rodgers

It is a question of eligibility. All Service people are eligible to vote, although many of them are not registered. The dependants are not eligible under existing legislation.

Mr. Onslow

The Minister's distinction will not stand up, because he is applying that criterion to Service men and their wives overseas and separating the Service wives in this country. If he relies on the criterion of what the Speaker's Conference recommended, surely he understands that It recommended that there should be no distinction between Service wives, whether their husbands were overseas or at home.

Mr. Walter Harrison (Treasurer of Her Majesty's Household)

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to

Question, That the amendment be made, put accordingly and agreed to

[Sir MYER GALPERN in the Chair]

Mr. MacFarquhar

I beg to move Amendment No. 101, in page 1, line 11, at beginning insert 'Subject to subsection (4AA) of this section'.

The Deputy Chairman

With this amendment we are to take the following amendments:

No. 14, In page 1, line 12, leave out paragraph (a) and insert— '(a) all the persons who, at the date appointed for the holding of the referendum are resident either within the United Kingdom or who are British citizens having a right of abode in the United Kingdom under the Immigration Act 1971, and who would otherwise than as hereafter stated be entitled to be registered to vote as electors at a parliamentary election, whether or not present within any constituency at the date of the referendum, whether or not temporarily or permanently resident at the date of the referendum outside the United Kingdom or for any reason absent from the United Kingdom, and whether or not their names appear on the electoral register current at the date appointed for the referendum, and'.

No. 16, in page 1, line 14, after 'constituency', insert 'with the exception of those persons who are citizens of the Republic of Ireland and not also citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies'.

No. 17, in page 1, line 14, leave out 'and'.

No. 19, in page 1, line 17, at end insert— 'and (c) British nationals who—

  1. (i) were on the tenth day of October 1974 resident in a country outside the United Kingdom in an official or business capacity, and
  2. (ii) are at the date of the referendum of the age of eighteen years or over, and
  3. (iii) are not entitled to vote in the referendum under paragraph (a) or paragraph (b) of this subsection'.

No. 21, in page 1, line 17, at end insert— '(c) British subjects resident within any of the countries of the European Economic Community'.

No. 22, in page 1, line 17, at end insert— '(c) British subjects having the right of abode in the United Kingdom but residing abroad who are not on the current United Kingdom electoral register and who do not have the right to vote in any other country'.

No. 24, in page 1, line 17, at end insert— '(c) persons entitled to vote, as set out in subsection 3(a) above, but who may be absent from home on the day the referendum is held, and (d) all persons having a right of abode in the United Kingdom as defined in the Immigration Act 1971 who are temporarily resident overseas on the day the referendum is held'.

No. 32, in page 2, line 4, at end insert— '(4A) An order under this section may enable the Secretary of State to make special provisions with respect to any persons to permit such persons to vote in the referendum notwithstanding that they are not duly registered in accordance with section 1(3)(a) of this Act who have had an address in the United Kingdom and possess a certificated right of abode in the United Kingdom '.

No. 102, in page 2, line 4, at end insert— '(4AA) An Order in Council under this section may make or enable the Secretary of State to make special provision with respect to persons, or any description of persons, who are citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies, being British passport holders, living abroad, and may do so differently with respect to different cases; and any provision so made—

  1. (a) may permit persons to whom it applies to vote in the referendum notwithstanding that they are not duly registered under the Representation of the People Acts, and, if they have or have had an address in the United Kingdom, notwithstanding that the conditions of those Acts as to residence are not satisfied; and
  2. (b) may enable persons to whom it applies to vote at a date earlier than that appointed under subsection (4)(a) of this section and may also enable them to vote at a polling station set up in accordance with that provision or by post'.

No. 128, in page 2, line 4, at end insert— '(4B) An Order in Council under this section may make or enable the Secretary of State to make special provision with respect to persons, or any description of persons, who are working for international organisations of which the United Kingdom is a member or for other governments under schemes approved by Her Majesty's Government or for the spouses or adult dependants of such persons, and may do so differently with respect to different cases; and any provision so made—

  1. (a) may permit persons to whom it applies to vote in the referendum notwithstanding that they are not duly registered under the Representation of the People Acts, and, if they have or have had an address in the United Kingdom, notwithstanding that the conditions of those Acts as to residence are not satisfied; and
  2. 1314
  3. (b) may enable persons to whom it applies to vote at a date earlier than that appointed under subsection (4)(a) of this section and may also enable them to vote at a polling station set up in accordance with that provision or by post'.

No. 103, in Clause 2, page 2, line 16, at end insert: '(except in so far as special provision is made in pursuance of section 1(4AA) of this Act'.

No. 39, Clause 2, page 2, line 32, at end insert:

'(d) in a country outside the United Kingdom by Her Majesty's representative in that country'.

Mr. MacFarquhar

The substantive issue is covered in my Amendment No. No. 102.

We are now taking the question of British citizens abroad separately from the question of holiday makers.

The issue is the extension of the franchise for the purposes of the referendum—and the referendum only, in my view—to British passport holders, citizens of the United Kingdom and colonies, who are living abroad but who have or have had an address in the United Kingdom. They are people who, one assumes, have no constituency, so there is likely to be no question of the principle being extended to a General Election, when the elector is voting on a constituency basis for individual Members of Parliament.

As a non-professional draftsman I am conscious, as any back bencher must be, that my amendment may not be framed elegantly or precisely enough to achieve my exact object. If so, adjustments could be made if it were passed. In framing the amendment, however, I have been guided by the way in which the Government framed their amendment on Service voters which we have just passed. If the Government's amendment was well drafted, mine should be reasonably satisfactory. I hope that the Government will respond on the question of principle rather than on details, just as my hon. Friend the Minister asked the Committee to vote on the Government amendment on the principle and not to press relatively trivial amendments.

The principle behind the amendment was set out by several speakers, including myself, in the Second Reading debate. We are often told by the Goverment that the holding of the referendum is a unique occasion, and I agree. The referendum has never before been used as an all United Kingdom device. That is one unique aspect. Secondly, Cabinet collective responsibility has been abandoned for this unique occasion. Thirdly, Government Ministers and back benchers have been allowed a free vote, despite the Government recommendation on policy on the crucial issue of whether we should be in or out of the EEC. Again, Cabinet Ministers are allowed publicly to disagree outside Parliament on the issue that the Government are recommending.

It is not my purpose to question the Government's policy in enumerating these novelties. I am in favour of the referendum and I am prepared to accept the novelties. In all those ways the referendum is unique and will have a number of unique consequences. Its introduction has caused a great deal of heart-searching on both sides of the House of Commons.

In the unique circumstances of the referendum I believe that there should be a unique extension of the franchise to British citizens living and working abroad as defined in the amendment. Whether we are "pro" or "anti", we all agree that it is an issue which will settle the fate of Britain for decades, perhaps even for centuries.

A person who misses a General Election by being abroad or by some other accident of whereabouts has the consolation that within three, four or five years—perhaps even eight months—he will again have the opportunity to vote on the shape of the Government of the country. Given the time that it takes a Government to get legislation through the House of Commons, missing one General Election need not be regarded as a major deprivation. However, in this case if someone misses the vote by being abroad or by not being on the Service register he will have lost the right of ever casting his vote on this crucial decision that affects not merely the voter himself but his children, grandchildren and, doubtless, further generations.

Mr. Neil Marten (Banbury)

Is that an admission that this is our last chance to get out of the Common Market?

Mr. MacFarquhar

I know the hon. Gentleman's views on this issue but I suspect that if the referendum goes the way I hope it will—in favour of a "Yes" vote for staying in—even if his energy is unflagging the hon. Gentleman will find that a great many people who may follow him in the referendum will not pursue the matter further.

Many thousands—probably tens of thousands—of people who are abroad are abroad precisely because Britain is in the Common Market. Parliament took a decision and we went into the Common Market. Many of the people abroad in Government employment and in business went abroad for that reason. Their future will be affected by the referendum vote even more directly and more swiftly than will be the future of Members of Parliament and the rest of their fellow-citizens.

Mr. Mike Thomas (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East)

Does not my hon. Friend agree that those who entered the eight other Community countries after we signed the treaty were not only permitted but actively encouraged to do so?

Mr. MacFarquhar

That point is well taken. Entry into the Common Market set up a whole series of movements of people which led to British citizens being abroad. British citizens whose future is concerned with the Common Market are threatened by not having the right to vote on this issue. Can the Government maintain that on this crucial decision, this unique occasion, those people who are most directly affected by it should he denied the vote?

7.15 p.m.

There is an analogy here with the 1945 General Election. It was felt then that it would be unjust and plainly ridiculous if the men who had fought abroad for the right of this country to continue to hold General Elections were denied the right to vote in the General Election that the Labour Party insisted that the Coalition Government should hold.

Mr. Ken Weetch (Ipswich)

Have not the first category of persons my hon. Friend mentioned gone abroad voluntarily, whereas the absence abroad of people during wartime was anything but voluntary?

Mr. MacFarquhar

That is an incredibly fine point. It was always possible for a Service man, if he wished, to register as a conscientious objector. Those who fought for their country did so voluntarily. The people I am talking about have gone abroad voluntarily for their country. To draw that kind of distinction is to strain at a gnat.

The collection of Service men's votes and Service men on that occasion included civilians—bristled with difficulties even greater than those affecting citizens abroad on this occasion. The debates of the time and the commentaries on the election show that there were stupendous difficulties for the Government of the day in attempting to arrange for those Service men to vote.

There was the remoteness of Service men, including civilians. There was the fact that in the wartime situation which still prevailed in the Far East there were transfers between units. There was the danger of someone voting twice, once by proxy and once directly. In one of the books that dealt with that election it is pointed out that in Oxford as many as 8 per cent. of Service votes voted twice. They were caught by the registration officers—perhaps an indication that any anomalies that might arise in this case could also be caught by our efficient officers.

Even more important, at that time the number of Service voters was almost 10 per cent. of the voting population—3 million Service voters out of 33 million. Special provisions were made for prisoners of war, which made the arrangements extremely difficult for the election officers. Even for the civilian population there were tremendous difficulties because over the previous five years the population had been highly mobile. The literature of the time shows the enormous number of complaints that were made about the whole situation.

There is a basic difference between then and now. Then, hon. Members of both parties accepted that the occasion was a special one and that the Service men had to be given the right to vote. With a will to overcome the difficulties, they proceeded and succeeded. I am not attempting to gloss over the fact that there will be difficulties on this occasion, but they can also be overcome. Indications that difficulties could be overcome were given in an article in the Sunday Times of 20th April on the subject of expatriate votes from which I quote: Whitehall experts are not too bewildered by the prospect of having to round up such a far-flung electorate. There was no indication as late as that that the people who will be in charge of administering the vote if the amendment is passed were bewildered or horrified at the thought of doing so.

I know that one or two hon. Members have raised the issue of tax dodgers. It is thought that floating around the Continent, and especially in the sunnier climes, there may be hundreds of thousands of such people to whom the vote should be denied. If it were possible in the time available to eliminate those citizens who have gone abroad and never intend to return by forcing them to sign an affidavit to the effect that they do not intend to return, I would be prepared to contemplate excluding them. However, that is a very small problem.

According to an article in the colour magazine of the Daily Telegraph written by someone who has surveyed certain colonies on previous occasions and who knows them well, there are approximately 10,000 living on the Costa del Sol and perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 people living on the Algarve. Even assuming that all those people are tax dodgers, that would amount, on the basis of the figures that I believe the Lord President has, to only 1 per cent. of the total electorate involved in the amendment.

Even if such people were to be included in the franchise it is highly unlikely that the tax dodger would bother to vote. In the first place, by going abroad to dodge his taxes he has, in effect, cut off his links with this country and is probably uninterested in its future. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he might well fear that if he were to go to a consulate or embassy and sign some documents he might in some way incriminate himself. I suspect that this is a phoney objection. At the most the amendment is liable to put only a few thousand such people on the register, and probably not even that many.

It seems that in the previous debate on Service men voters the Government have given away the principle on which they are fighting this amendment. It is noticeable that two of my hon. Friends who are no longer present—namely, the hon. Members for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) and Oldham, East (Mr. Lamond)—responded directly to a question put by me on this issue. Both my hon. Friends admitted that the whole principle of sticking as close to the register as possible had been given away. That principle has been sold down the river by Government Amendment No. 13. I am glad that it was successful not merely because the principle was established but because 75 per cent. of Service men will not be denied the vote.

A further point that arose out of the previous debate is the extent to which the Government are prepared, on something to which they are committed, to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve a desirable result. My hon. Friend the Minister of State was honest enough to admit that even now he has not worked out all the details. He could not give the precise number of units within about 50 per cent. In effect, he asked us to take him on trust. He indicated that he would do his best to ensure that the will of the House—namely, that the maximum number of Service voters will be entitled to vote in the referendum—will be observed.

If the Government are prepared to accommodate themselves to these difficulties with Service voters and if they are prepared to come to the Committee without having completed their arrangements on this subject, I see no reason for their not being prepared to go further on the question of citizens who are living abroad.

The Minister of State told us that 300,000 Service men might have been disfranchised. I have heard from responsible people that the number of British citizens abroad is even higher. I have heard of figures as high as 3 million although I do not think that that view is held very strongly. I gather that a more likely figure is approximately 1.2 million, of whom perhaps 400,000 are on a register. We are all glad to know that 300,000 Service men will be given the vote but it seems that 800,000 citizens intimately concerned with the referendum vote will not have the vote.

Mr. Adley

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs gave a Written Answer last Thursday and disclosed that 366,000 British passport holders currently living abroad have the right of abode in the United Kingdom as defined in the Immigration Act 1971, excluding those living in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States? If the hon. Gentleman examines the list he will find that the numbers are nothing like as alarming as is suggested by many of those who have been trying to oppose the idea that he is putting forward.

Mr. MacFarquhar

The problem is that the people who are citizens abroad and who would fall justifiably within my amendment include those resident in the United States or in one or two other countries such as Australia and Canada. They are not normally in the habit of registering with embassies and consulates. The number may be significantly larger. I am working on the basis of figures which I have been given by, I think, reliable sources.

I address a number of questions to my right hon. Friend the Lord President. First, is it true that whatever the number of foreign citizens abroad there will be no question of delay in the referendum vote if they are enfranchised by the amendment? Will he say "Yes" to the question that there will be no delay on account of this amendment? Secondly, is it true, as reported in the Sunday Times and as I quoted a short time ago, that Whitehall thinks that it can handle this vote? Thirdly, will he tell the Committee, especially in view of the last intervention, precisely how many people he believes are likely to be disfranchised if the amendment is rejected by the Government?

If the answers to the questions that I have raised on the practicability of the amendment are such that the amendment would not delay the referendum vote, I appeal to the Government to reconsider this issue. I ask my right hon. Friend to remember two things. First, the referendum itself was an item of party policy on which most of my right hon. and hon. Friends voted for the Government. Secondly, the conduct of the referendum is not an issue of policy within the party or, as far as I am aware, anywhere else. That policy is now being decided. I point out to my right hon. Friend that the amendment will not add to the Government's expenditure by £60 million or £100 million as in the case of the pensioners' earnings rule.

This is an amendment which is designed to give large numbers of our fellow citizens their most precious political possession—namely, their vote. That is a matter for which the House of Commons and the people have fought over the centuries. I plead with the Government not to deny it to them.

7.30 p.m.

Sir Michael Havers (Wimbledon)

The Committee will appreciate that there is a great deal of work still to be done tonight. Therefore, I shall be brief.

A great deal has already been said by the hon. Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar). I agree with him that this is a unique occasion. The result of the referendum will be felt not just for months or years but over generations. It is an issue which, uniquely, is being taken away from Parliament, for it is an issue which is fundamental to the United Kingdom. It is an issue which, if the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) and his colleagues are right, will be decided by the country and not, if they get their way, by Parliament.

The official Opposition's view is that British people overseas working for Britain should be entitled to vote in this most important referendum.

I believe that if these proposals are practicable they should be implemented, but I also feel that we should like to hear about the difficulties of the proposals. As I said in winding up the Second Reading debate, there has been a great deal of time for thought to be given to the question of how the voting should be carried out. The Government have had since February to consider these matters. Therefore, we shall find it difficult to accept any excuse that there is not enough time to put into practice what should be done if we are to give Britons a vote.

The Opposition have tabled amendment No. 22, which we believe is neater and more effective than Amendment No. 101. We are a little anxious to see how wide the amendment is. There is nobody in the Committee, however anxious or keen he may be that overseas Britons should be given the right to vote, who would wish to extend the provision to Hong Kong Chinese, Kenyans or Ugandans. But there is a safeguard provided in the subsection which requires the Secretary of State by Order in Council to publish and provide for the classes entitled to vote under the amendment. That would have to be confirmed by the House in an affirmative resolution.

If the amendment proved to be too wide, the remaining safeguard would exist to enable the House to make certain that the classes to be given the vote are given it and nobody else. The House will retain the power to take action in that regard. Therefore, we can safely rely on the Secretary of State—and, if not, on the House—to provide those safeguards.

The principle of the matter has already been established. Therefore, although I prefer our Amendment No. 22—not only because it pinpoints the right of abode but because it excludes those who have a right to vote in another country—if the safeguards I have outlined are included, we would be prepared to support Amendment No. 101.

Mr. Maurice Edelman (Coventry, North-West)

I have much sympathy with the point of view put forward by the hon. and learned Member for Wimbledon (Sir M. Havers), who supports the need to narrow the definition of those who might be eligible. The people who are intended to be covered by the amendment are clear in the minds of many of us—namely, those British people abroad who have some entitlement to vote in the referendum by virtue of birth, residence or the fact that they have made some contribution to Britain abroad. Therefore, in general terms I support the views advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar), who moved this necessary amendment.

As the referendum goes on, discussions about its constitutional validity right up to the moment of the referendum will centre on the definition of "the people". In its origins it began with the denunciation of an action which took Britain into the Common Market in defiance of, or contrary to, the wholehearted willingness of the British people. I would regard it as lamentable if we were to make a distinction between "the people" and what George Orwell called the "non-people"—those who are eligible to vote because they belong to the people and those who, somehow or other, will be excluded by an arbitrary definition of themselves as "non-people". For that reason we should consider who are the people at whom the amendment aims.

I know that there is some prejudice against those abroad who might be considered eligible to vote on the ground that they are tax-dodgers or people who have fled from Britain to serve some private interest contrary to the country's national interest. However, it is within the observation of most of us when we go abroad that those residents abroad with whom we are concerned in this discussion are engaged in the export trade, or are civil servants, teachers, students—all kinds of useful people who serve our country abroad and should be considered eligible to vote.

Mr. George Cunningham

Does my hon. Friend agree that civil servants are covered anyway? They have the vote at present and will have a vote in the referendum without any special arrangements having to be made.

Mr. Edelman

I agree with my hon. Friend, but I was thinking of those members of the Civil Service who had retired to the countries in which they had served and should be entitled to a vote in the referendum since they consider themselves to be part of the British people. It is a category of people who should not be excluded from such an entitlement.

I am sure that semantics will enter actively in the course of the campaign. Those who wish to adopt a demagogic standpoint on the referendum increasingly will wish to make divisive distinctions between those people who vote in the referendum and those who should not. Gradually distinctions will be made between patrials and non-patrials—between people and "non-people". There will be a possibility of a gradual escalation in terms of those who should be excluded from the right to vote in the referendum. Therefore, my hon. Friend in urging the rights of those Britons who are abroad to vote in the referendum is urging a course which should commend itself to the Committee.

It is the nature of a referendum that those on one side or other tend to take a suspicious view of the motives of others. I do not attribute undesirable motives to those who say that the "non-people" should be excluded. I do not imagine that such people are more likely or less likely to vote "Yes" or "No", as the case may be. What I am concerned about is their entitlement to take part in the referendum. I believe that as our fellow Britons abroad, they have as much entitlement as anybody resident in this country. Therefore, to exclude them is to take an entirely arbitrary decision. Even on the grounds of administrative convenience, there is no reason why Britons resident abroad should not declare their votes at the nearest consulate or embassy. I see no reason why, once we have defined the category to be included, those people should not report to the nearest consulate and exercise their constitutional right.

What is happening now is that we are agreeing that if we allow them to be excluded, there will be some arbitrary constitutional distinction between Britons in London and Britons abroad. For those reasons I believe that my hon. Friend's amendment should be supported.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

I rise to indicate my support and that of my right hon. and hon. Friend, for the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Belper (Mr. Mac-Farquhar) and, being in a generous mood, for the Opposition amendment. It may be that the amendment has been too widely drawn. In that case, it can be corrected. Therefore, I intend to be present if the amendments are pressed to a Division.

Amendment No. 14, which has not been selected for a vote, had the great merit of defining those entitled to vote.

I am concerned about the 350,000 citizens abroad. There is particular concern for the 100,000 men and women whose jobs have taken them to Europe since we joined the Common Market. Unlike Service men and diplomats, who are already registered to vote, those people have been sent abroad to promote exports to further the interests of British commerce and industry or to represent our interests in the various international organisations. For example I refer to the British staff of the European Parliament and those working in the Commission in Brussels. It is unfortunate that those men and women, on whom depends the success of our future participation in the Community, shold be deprived of a vote through an oversight of Parliament.

It is irrelevant to argue that to give such people living overseas a vote would require a change in the electoral law when the referendum process requires new legislation. I raised this matter in a public speech on 21st February. I understand that there are administrative difficulties. However, it will be difficult to persuade Parliament that from February to June it has been impossible for the Government to devise a scheme for registration of such people at consulates or embassies.

My remarks on the subject were reported and I received many letters, one of which is from a member of the staff of the European Parliament. It reads: Those of us who have been sent out here for more than six months cannot remain on the register legally in our old constituency in Britain so unless a very complex postal system is set up, the proposal to vote at a consulate seems to be the best one. That is a view with which I agree. I do not propose to go into the question of tax vultures in detail. A typical letter on the subject reads: But is it a serious offence to follow our chosen calling abroad? Is a British citizen to be taken to have demonstrated unconcern with his country's future by the act of departing its shores? This is self-evident nonsense. I accept that we do not allow such persons to vote at General Elections, when we choose Members of Parliament. Having left the country, those people are not entitled to direct representation by a specific Member of Parliament. That does not apply in the case of this peculiar—I use the word in its real sense—referendum. We have much more time in which to organise. A number of categories of people might have been included at parliamentary elections. They were excluded in the past because of the limited length of notice of the General Election. That cannot apply in a referendum when its date is known and the procedures have been fixed for some time.

I support the amendments which seek to extend the franchise to those living abroad.

7.45 p.m.

Dr. Colin Phipps (Dudley, West)

I support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar). I speak from personal experience as a United Kingdom citizen who worked abroad for eight years. My family and I lived overseas and three of my children were born in foreign countries. During that period I worked for a British company, although I had every intention of returning to the United Kingdom. However, I was not dismayed at the fact that I could not vote in the General Elections. I knew that I was unable to vote for a specific Member of Parliament in one constituency. However, I was equally aware that when I returned to Britain I would have the opportunity to vote in as many General Elections as occurred during the remainder of my life.

However, I submit that had I been living overseas when a referedum—which we were told was unique—was held in the United Kingdom I would have resented the fact that I was not allowed to vote, not only on account of my future and of that of my wife but on account of my four children.

This is the situation in which a large number of British citizens currently find themselves. They are working overseas, in many cases for periods of two to five years. They do not resent the fact that they cannot vote at General Elections. However, they will resent being unable to vote in a referendum which will uniquely determine the future of the country in which they and their children will spend the majority of their lives.

We are not speaking of the hordes of tax dodgers living on the Costa del Sol. The argument against enabling them to vote is akin to the argument that we should scrap the National Health Service because it is abused by 2 per cent. of the population. That argument has neither substance nor logic.

We have been told that if this amendment were adopted it would affect what happens at General Elections. I do not believe that that has any substance. There is a distinction between a unique, once-and-for-all referendum—its uniqueness has been stressed time and time again—and General Elections, which are repeatable year after year, as we expect in the present political climate. Since the war I believe that we have averaged one election every three years. People will have many opportunities to vote at future elections. However, there is a difference between a referendum and an election. I do not believe that we shall be setting any kind of precedent. At an election the electorate vote for Members of Parliament. People not associated with a constituency have never appeared on a register. I see no reason why the amendment should cause their names to be put on the register in the future.

It was said that there would be great difficulty in determining the eligibility of British citizens. I was told that many Indians, people from Hong Kong and so on would be able to vote in the referendum. However, if it is not beyond the wit of the Lord President to devise a method of identifying people who are entitled to vote, it is time the Department was reorganised.

Mr. George Cunningham

It is.

Dr. Phipps

I cannot comment on my hon. Friend's interjection.

Mr. Cunningham

That is passing the buck.

Dr. Phipps

the entitlement is spelt out in the amendment and I support It. However, it is said that it is administratively impossible to organise a new system in the time. I find that an unacceptable argument. Within the time available to us it may be difficult to identify every person working overseas. There may be people who may be disfranchised, but the fact that a small percentage will be disfranchised is no reason for disfranchising all British citizens living overseas.

Mr. Adley

I shall not speak for too long, but this is the only intervention that I intend to make during the Committee stage. I should like to reassure the Lord President that I have no intention of filibustering or trying to delay the passage of this legislation to which, however much I disapprove, the House has given a Second Reading.

The hon. Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar) made his key point when he said that the Government have already given away the principle of the proposals now before the Committee in the way in which they have treated the Service vote. The Minister of State for Defence said that the anomalies may outweigh the advantages of the proposals being made. That does not release us from our duty to devise a referendum which provides the maximum opportunity for the maximum number of our subjects to vote in the forthcoming referendum.

I should like to thank the Lord President for his courtesy in listening to the representations that have been made to him, but I understand that the Government are not looking favourably on this amendment, on the official Opposition amendment, or on the amendment proposed by the Liberal Party. I regret that. I suggest that there is a certain lack of determination to ensure that as many people as possible are given the opportunity to vote.

I should tell the Lord President, in case he is still not aware, that the feelings of our citizens overseas, particularly those who are working abroad, are running very high on this issue. All they have heard so far is what they and I consider to be a series of ill-argued and untenable excuses rather than reasons why this object which so many of us seek cannot be achieved.

In order to promote the official Opposition amendment, I should like to refer to the leading article in The Sunday Times of 20th April. Towards overseas Britons, on the other hand, the Government is being less statesmanlike. It wants to admit none of them to the poll, and is putting pressure on its own MPs who think otherwise. No one knows how many extra voters are involved, and Mr. Short has put up every kind of administrative objection to offering enfranchisement to any of them. Admittedly, time is short. But the most practical amendment, proposed by the Conservatives, would limit the external vote to passport-holders with the right of abode here, who are not on foreign electoral registers. In practice this would confine the entitlement to Britons working temporarily abroad, rather than those who had left for good. I hope that the hon. Member for Belper will agree that if his amendment is passed tonight, any subsequent alterations can be taken and made in the light of the Conservative Party's amendment.

A number of arguments have been adduced by the Lord President and others against this proposed course of action. I should like to list six main points which have been made against the proposals. The first is that these people could have registered. The right hon. Gentleman said that. Secondly, the expression "tax dodgers" has been used. Thirdly, it has been said that irregularities may be created; fourthly, that it might create an unfair pro-European bias in the poll; fifthly, that it might cause delay; and, sixthly, that it will be difficult to arrange. I submit that none of those six points has been or will be substantiated.

On 14th April the Lord President said: someone in my constituency who, because he lived in a slum tenement and had been moved during the currency of the register, would not have a vote."—[Official Report, 14th April 1975; Vol. 890, c. 25.] That is not correct. It is true that if he moved from the right hon. Gentleman's constituency to another part of the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne he may have to make a bus journey to go to vote, but he is not deprived of his right to vote. It is up to him whether he chooses to exercise his right. That speech by the Lord President caused a great deal of resentment amongst many people working abroad.

The second point concerns tax dodgers. I wish that somebody could define a tax dodger for me. The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) was sitting there earlier muttering "Tax dodgers". Are these people criminals? Are we now saying that the morality of those who are entitled to vote is to be judged by the Government of the day? That is approaching a "1984" situation. There are no doubt many tax dodgers in the United Kingdom as well. Perhaps those who oppose these proposals should seek to weed out the so-called tax dodgers from people currently on the register.

The third point was that irregularities may be created. I do not know whether hon. Members saw the article in The Times earlier this week about the postal vote factory which had been discovered in Belfast. There may be irregularities if these proposals are accepted but that would not be unique. If I were certain that there would never be an irregularity at any election in this country, I should give a great deal more credence to those remarks. I do not think that I am alone in having been accosted after every General Election by constituents who had been deprived of the right to vote.

If it is good enough for the citizens of Eire to vote not only in their referendum but in ours, and that is not con- sidered to be an irregularity, that argument cannot be sustained. Indeed, I received a letter from a gentleman called John Leeson who said:

I was for many years a constituent of Miss Joan Quennell in East Hampshire Division, and I am now working and resident in the Republic of Ireland. Is he to be deprived of his vote when many people from Eire will have the chance to vote? That is one of the numerous and anomalous points which under the present arrangements will be repeated time and time again.

The fourth point concerns the supposed pro-European bias in the amendment. I am delighted to tell hon. Gentlemen opposite that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) was persuaded to put his name to the amendment in the early stages of its birth. I doubt whether he would be prepared to countenance anything which he felt would provide a pro-European bias in the referendum. The amendments are no more aiming to help our subjects living in France or Belgium than those living in Zambia or New Zealand provided—it is a big proviso—they have the right of abode.

In case hon. Members are not aware, I should point out that it is not difficult to define the right of abode.

Mr. English


Mr. Adley

The hon. Gentleman says "Ha!". I do not know how many passports he has looked at, but he will find that most of our citizens living abroad have taken good care to see that they have this right of abode marked in their passports. For instance, Mr. Leeson, to whom I referred, is one of the people about whom we are talking who has stamped in his passport, Holder has the right of abode in the United Kingdom. Since the passage of the Immigration Act 1971, it is not difficult to define who has the right of abode. If there are any places on this earth where they are experts in deciding who has or has not the right of abode in the United Kingdom, they are our embassies and consulates to which the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Edelman) referred.

Mr. George Cunningham

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that there are tens of thousands of people in the subcontinent, to take only one area, who are waiting—for another purpose, of course—for embassies and consulates to determine whether they have that right of abode? Does he want to set up another lot of queues for the embassies and consulates to decide whether people have the right of abode for the purpose of the vote?

Mr. Adley

The hon. Gentleman makes my point. The fact is that the people to whom he refers have not yet got the right of abode. They are waiting for it. They have applied for but not yet got it. Because they have not got the requisite remarks stamped in their passports, they would be automatically excluded because they do not have the right of abode under the 1971 Immigration Act.

8.0 p.m.

The fifth point concerns the delay. I accept what the Lord President says, that it would be unfortunate if there were a delay, but from the soundings I have taken there is no reason to suggest that if the Committee were to pass the amendment tonight instructions could not go out to our embassies and consulates to ensure that there is sufficient time to advise them on how to conduct the poll and to advertise it. The onus of being on the embassies' lists would rest on the shoulders of the British citizens seeking to vote. Thereafter there could be a two-week period in which a register could be prepared of those who were intending to vote.

I received what I think is the longest telegram I have ever received—

The Deputy Chairman

I hope that the hon. Member will not read it out because we want to get on with our business.

Mr. Adley

I take note of what you say, Sir Myer. The telegram comes from the Chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in France and was written after consultation with our Consulate-General there—

Mr. English

At a cocktail party, no doubt.

Mr. Adley

The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) makes stupid and sedentary interventions which are out of keeping with the sincerity of those of us who are trying to protect the rights of British citizens working abroad.

Mr. English

Some of these ideas are thought up at cocktail parties, and the suggestion that the story the hon. Member is about to tell was thought up at a cocktail party at the British Chamber of Commerce in France has not been denied.

Mr. Adley

I was not aware that such a charge had been made, let alone denied. I do not have the opportunity of attending as many cocktail parties as the hon. Member who is no doubt a great expert on cocktail parties.

The idea of registering our people abroad to enable them to vote is not difficult and it can be done. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker), the former consul for Phnom Penh, advises me that all that our embassies and consulates need is the necessary instructions from the Government.

If the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) wants any further clarification on the question of the right of abode I shall be happy to show him a letter I received from a British subject abroad. I hope that it will convince him that our embassies and consulates are able to decide which people have this right of abode.

What is the position of the Channel Islanders and the citizens of the Isle of Man? I have received a number of letters from such people. Will they have the right to vote? What about people serving with Voluntary Service Overseas? I have had representations from that organisation, and it tells me that it has 1,200 volunteers working abroad and that, as things stand, these people will be deprived of a vote.

If one accepts that there are no valid reasons in "managerial" terms for not accepting the amendment, its opponents have to cast around for other reasons. There was an article in the Guardian last Friday which indicated that Mr. Reg Underhill, of Transport House, had been circulating Labour Members of Parliament to the effect that this proposal could be contrary to the interests of the Labour Party at a future General Election. I am sure that Labour Members would not put the interests of their party above the interests of their country, and I do not believe that this particular point needs to be argued. I hope that those of us taking an interest in the referendum, however much we may dislike it, are able occasionally to raise our eyes above the trough of party politics.

Many people abroad are extremely angry already and will be even more furious if the Government continue to oppose these proposals. Their anger will not be confined to words. It has been suggested to me today by two or three British subjects on the Continent that they would seriously consider taking the Government to the Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg if they are denied what they consider to be this fundamental human right. The European Court and Commission of Human Rights which were set up by the Council of Europe, and the setting up of which were ratified by the United Kingdom in 1951, allow not only member countries but persons, non-Government organisations and groups of individuals to put a complaint to the Commission on Human Rights. It would he appalling if the Government found themselves hauled up before that Commission for depriving United Kingdom citizens of their democratic rights. The Lord President must take this matter seriously because it would be unfortunate if the referendum were to become embroiled in a legal argument in this way.

The Government have said that they will follow the voice of the people. All that the three amendments seek is to provide as strong a voice as possible for those hon. Members who have said they will be bound by the referendum decision. It is hard to comprehend how the Government expect many people to take the referendum and the result seriously if they do not intend to take positive steps to enfranchise as many people as possible. The Government seem to be saying that we have to choose between getting it right or getting it soon, and it seems that the "soon" case has won.

That is the wrong attitude for the Government to take its embarking upon such an important piece of legislation. A number of people on the Continent are determined that if they are denied the right to vote they will organise a "private enterprise" ballot. Yesterday I met the Director of the Netherlands-British Chamber of Commerce. His organisation has already prepared a letter which will be sent out at the end of this week if the House does not give our people abroad their due entitlement. Those Members of Parliament who want to listen to what the people are saying will perhaps be able to listen to the views of the disfranchised Britons in Europe and take note of what they are saying.

Referendum day for me was to have been a sham. I fear now that if the amendments are not accepted, instead of it becoming a day of sham it will become a day of shame.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (Lichfield and Tamworth)

I believe that I am the first speaker to oppose the amendment. I listened carefully to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar), but nevertheless I shall oppose the amendment on two grounds. First, it is the wrong time to make this kind of change in our electoral law. Secondly, the change is based on a faulty and weak principle.

The reason why it is the wrong time to make a change is that once we have decided to refer the issue to the British people it is the wrong time to start debating precisely what we mean by "the British people", which it seems to me is what the debate has been about. There is the assumption that when we as politicians suggest before a General Election that the matter should be referred to the British people there is very little ambiguity in the minds of most people about precisely what that term means.

We know that what is meant by "the British people" has been a unique, slow, difficult process of development, refinement and extension. Of course, it is a process which most of the predecessors of the Tory Party have opposed whenever it was proposed to extend the franchise in the past. However, at least there is a working agreement on what is meant by "the British people". This is the wrong time to start opening up that whole issue in depth.

Dr. Phipps

Does not my hon. Friend agree that since this is a unique event, this is the only time that we shall be able to consider what we mean by "the British people".

Mr. Grocott

I shall deal later if I may with what I consider to be the weak argument that this is a unique event. I am suggesting that the idea of "the British people" is something that we have come to accept as meaning a particular registered franchise, and that that is something which by all means we should change, but this is not the time to change it.

It is a strange basis on which to operate in Parliament if, whenever a proposal comes forward, the debate degenerates—perhaps that is too unkind a word—to the basic principles, in this case the principles on which an election should be fought. It is almost as if a decision had been made by Parliament to develop a new kind of school and that we should find ourselves in Committee debating the whole notion of the school building system—what bricks, doors and windows should he used, and how the school should be constructed.

We know what we mean by "the franchise" and we should accept that. This is the wrong time at which to take a decision of this sort.

Perhaps the most important point I want to make is that this business is founded on a false principle. I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, West (Dr. Phipps) and my hon. Friend the Member for Belper on these points. One of them in particular suggests that the reason why we should have this extension of the franchise in this instance is the importance of this issue and this decision. They may be right. It may be their view that this is a crucially important decision. Other people may have views on that point. However, I should have thought that in a democracy the people who decide what is a crucially important decision should be the electorate. They should be able to decide what is and what is not important.

I reject entirely the principle that there should be different bases of franchise for a referendum, for a General Election and for local elections. A good principle in a democracy is to keep our electoral machinery as simple and as intelligible as possible. To have completely or substantially different bases of voting for each different type of decision that the electorate is called upon to make is a bad and weak principle.

Mr. R. G. Mitchell

If my hon. Friend is defining the British people as those who are registered as electors, why did he not oppose the previous amendment which has allowed a large number of people who are not in the electorate to vote?

Mr. Grocott

I accept that point and I would be one of those who would say that all alterations to the standard electoral methods are a mistake. That also applies to the original amendment. The simpler the issue is kept, the better It will be. As soon as concessions are made. the whole question of the franchise is thrown out into the open again.

I turn to the question of what is and what is not an important decision.

Mr. Leadbitter

A unique decision.

Mr. English

How does my hon. Friend know that it is unique?

Mr. Grocott

The question of what is or what is not a unique decision—

The Deputy Chairman

The hon. Member must not wait to hear what other hon. Members have to say from the neighbouring benches. Let him carry on with his speech.

Mr. Grocott

I like a little warmth to be engendered in the debate, and interjections add warmth to it. The public can decide what is a unique decision. If I was an expatriate Englishman—an Englishman living abroad—and I learnt one week that I had to decide on the Common Market and the next week that there was to be an election in my local authority, that one party was proposing to demolish the street in which I had lived all my life and that my family had to be rehoused elsewhere, I should regard that as an important decision and I should want to take part in the debate thereon. What happens to be important and what happens not to be important is something which is seriously debated among hon. Members and the public at large.

8.15 p.m.

I should like to deal with one final point about the irrevocable nature of the decision.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan (Farnham)

The hon. Gentleman referred to an incident which would doubtless be extremely important to his family. However, he would not be able to vote on it because he is talking about voting on an issue. Voting on an issue is totally different from electing someone else to vote on an issue on his behalf, which would be the case whether it was a municipal or a parliamentary election. This is a different matter altogether.

Mr. Grocott

Frequently elections at a local level can be about specific issues, although the executives of the decisions are the local councillors. That is a rather fine distinction which does not exist in the minds of the electorate and it is one that I would not accept.

I come to the point about the irrevocable nature of the decision that is being made. Time and again it has been said that this is an irrevocable decision, whereas in General Elections we do not make irrevocable decisions. I can think of all sorts of circumstances in which decisions at a General Election have resulted in irrevocable decisions being made by Governments. For example, there was the decision on the death penalty or the decision on destroying historical buildings. An even more important one where a decision was made, as a result of a vote at a General Election, which was to all intents and purposes irrevocable, was the decision in 1970 to join the Common Market. This was thought to be an irrevocable decision by the Parliament elected in 1970.

This is the wrong time for this decision about fundamental extensions to the franchise. Many of the claims which suggest that we should have different bases of franchise for different types of elections are weak and are founded on faulty principles.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

The hon. Member for Lichfield and Tam-worth (Mr. Grocott) has brought the Committee back to what is the central question of the whole debate; namely, what is "the people" for the purposes of the reference to the people which this Bill proposes to make? In so doing, he echoes something which was said a good deal earlier by the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Edelman), who, with a great deal of sagacity, observed that the validity of the outcome of what we are engaged on will, to some extent, depend upon the satisfaction that it is, indeed, the people, in the natural sense of the term, who have been consulted.

The meaning of "the sovereign people", the electorate, is one of the most fundamental parts of the law of any country. I do not think it is claiming too much to say that the definition of the franchise in the law ought to be altered only after grave deliberation and by due process in a context in which we are deliberately setting out to consider what the franchise ought to be and how it ought to be changed. We ought not, therefore, by a side wind in some other connection, however important, either to limit the franchise or to extend the franchise. If either of those large steps is to be taken, it ought to be taken with such deliberation that all who are involved in it have maturely considered what will be the consequences of our action.

There is no doubt what is the basic definition in our law of a person entitled to vote, of a member of the sovereign people. That definition is not "British national" or "citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies". It is "British subject"—though I add immediately that of course there is another category equated with "British subject" for this purpose, and that is "citizen of the Republic of Ireland".

For my part, I believe, and I have long argued, that those definitions are obsolete and ought to be changed. I believe that there are many on both sides of the House of Commons who believe that we need a new definition of "citizenship", and that when we have it, it is to that that the fundamental right of the vote should be attached. But just because I happen to be of that opinion and just because I have often argued that it is an intolerable anomaly that citizens of the Republic of Ireland should have the franchise in the United Kingdom, I do not accept that we ought to alter that fundamental definition otherwise than as a part of a major reconsideration of our law of citizenship and of the franchise. We cannot do the thing, I repeat, by a side wind.

Of course, the category "British subject" is immensely extensive.

Mr. Adley


Mr. Powell

I dare say that I shall be dealing with the question put by the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) as I go along.

Mr. George Cunningham

Do not bother.

Mr. Powell

I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman has a question to put, we shall be able to settle it.

The definition "British subject", which is the fundamental category to which the franchise is attached. is of immense extension. It comprehends some 800 million human beings. I may have got it wrong to the extent of 100 million one way or the other, but it is an immensely extensive category. Therefore, we have limited that category in our law of franchise in one way, and in one way only—by residence, by the fact of residence established in a particular way on a particular date in the year. All those who are British subjects in the widest extension of the term enjoy the franchise in the United Kingdom by the one qualifying proviso: that they are resident on a particular defined date.

What is being proposed in nearly all these amendments is to throw over that concept altogether and to substitute, in effect, a different definition of citizenship and a different limitation of citizenship. Some of the amendments refer to "citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies." It may be that it would be preferable so to limit the basic qualification of the franchise, but that is not our fundamental law at present. Others refer to British subjects who have the right of abode in this country. There seems to be the idea in some quarters of the Committee that this is an easy concept, one that is readily established. I assure you, Sir Myer, that hon. Members who so imagine are greatly mistaken.

The right of abode in this country applies, amongst other categories, to all those whose fathers were born in this country and to all those, being British subjects, whose mothers were born in this country. I have not exhausted the application of that qualification, right of abode, by what I have said, but it is quite sufficient to make my point, for "British subject with right of abode in this country", if that is to be our limitaton, will bring in millions—and we do not know how many—in all parts of the world whose connection with the United Kingdom may be remote, may be virtually non-existent or may be extremely close.

Mr. Adley

The right hon. Gentleman, therefore, is presumably saying two things. He is saying, first, that the Foreign Office is quite hopelessly and totally incorrect in its definition as given in the Answer to which I referred earlier. Second, he is also speaking completely against the Government amendment to enfranchise the Forces.

Mr. Powell

I will deal with both points in the order in which they were raised. I think I am right in saying that the Foreign Office reply applied to British passport holders. British passport holders are a small category among British subjects.

Mr. Adley

I must put the facts on record. The Question I asked and which was answered by the Foreign Office refers to British passport holders currently living abroad who have the right of abode in the United Kingdom as defined in the Immigration Act 1971."—[Official Report, 17th April 1975: Vol. 890, c. 158.]

Mr. Powell

Just so, British passport holders. Part of my point is that the franchise is not concerned with the holding of a British passport and that it is a most radical alteration of the whole concept of the franchise to substitute for the category of British subject qualified by residence the holding of a British passport—a very much more limited category not precisely coincident even with "citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies."

I take the other point to which the hon. Gentleman alluded. In the amendment which the Committee has made we have not altered the franchise. We have not altered the entitlement to vote. We have facilitated the exercise of that right by those who already possess it under existing law. What will happen under any of these amendments is that we shall alter the franchise in a way of which we cannot foresee the outlines or the consequences and of which the definition in thousands of cases must necessarily be a matter of doubt.

Mr. Adley


Mr. Powell

The hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington perhaps wonders why it will be a matter of doubt. I will explain. An individual may walk into a consulate in India and say "I have a right of abode in the United Kingdom because my father was born in the United Kingdom." Maybe he has that right of abode. But before he could exercise that right by taking up residence in the United Kingdom a great deal would need to be done to establish the fact and circumstances of the birth of his father in the United Kingdom.

This would have to be carried out, if we are taking seriously what we are endeavouring to enact, in thousands of cases. There has been talk about anomalies and discrimination. If that were not done, and it could not be done and everyone realises that, we should have brought into contempt and discredit our electoral law by making it clear that we had not even a proper means of deciding who was entitled to exercise the franchise and, incidentally, to exercise the franchise in what has been claimed to be a uniquely important matter.

Mr. Adley

With respect, the right hon. Gentleman is attempting to make a mockery of this. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] The person going into the embassy or consulate in India will have to be able to prove immediately his right of abode in the United Kingdom. If he does not have the proof it will be so obviously clear—[HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense"] Hon. Members are not familiar with the facts. Secondly, if these millions of people in India have lived there for a long time they will be on the register, and again they will be disqualified under the terms of the amendment.

Mr. Powell

There is such abundant material for proving the absurd impracticability of these amendments that one is almost overwhelmed by it. The hon. Member has produced more. Someone must walk into a consulate and say "I hereby affirm that I am not entitled to be on the electoral register in any other country." Let me take an example which can easily exist. A child may be born of British parents in Chile and may be resident in France. That person may inquire whether under one of these new-fangled amendments he is to be entitled to the franchise in the United Kingdom on this unique occasion. The question is asked—and he must certify on his honour, under penalty presumably—"Are you entitled to be on the electoral register in any other country?"

8.30 p.m.

It is not sufficient for that person to have a vague idea that 20 or 40 years ago he was liable to be conscripted in Chile. He has to know whether, since the fall of Allende, there has been a change in the electoral law of Chile—[Laughter.] I do not know why hon. Members laugh. This is a real and practical possibility, and it is thrust at us by the terms of the amendment which it is proposed to make. The very consideration of the chaos and contempt into which we should bring our process of legislation if we were to make this change.

There is only one safe ground on which we can stand. There is only one action we can take which will save us, against all corners, from the charge of unreasonable discrimination, and that is to say that the privilege of voting for the purpose of this referendum is the same as that at which we have arrived by a long process and which is embodied in our electoral law. That may be open to criticism, and it may be changed in the future, but one thing is certain: we cannot without confusion or disgrace change it here and now in this context.

[Sir STEPHEN MCADDEN in the Chair]

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Edward Short)

On a number of occasions I have told the House that in preparing the Referendum Bill we thought it important to keep as close as possible to our normal tried and trusted electoral arrangements, and that includes the definition of the electorate. We felt this because we believe that it is essential to ensure the credibility and acceptance of the result. I am sure that the Committee wants the widest possible acceptance of the result, whatever it is.

Nevertheless, during the Second Reading debate a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House argued for an extension of the franchise to some or all British people overseas. In replying to that debate my hon. Friend the Minister of State pointed out some of the practical difficulties involved, and I shall say a little about these in a moment.

Let me first assure the Committee that since the Second Reading debate we have carried out a careful re-examination of this matter. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) for the help he gave me and the long discussions we had on the matter.

Any scheme raises problems of principle, as the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) has just said, as well as practicability. There is, first, the difficulty of trying to devise a scheme that differentiates between those for whom there was most sympathy on Second Reading, namely, the engineer working on a construction project in the Middle East and the business man promoting United Kingdom exports—many of whom will have proxy votes anyhow—and at the other end of the spectrum those who have chosen to escape the obligations, especially the tax obligations, of United Kingdom citizenship by taking up residence abroad. Is it just and equitable that people who have gone to live abroad to avoid their obligations as citizens should have a vote? I do not think it is. That is the first basic problem—to differentiate between the worthy people on the one hand and the second group of people to whom I have referred on the other hand.

In our study over the last week we established that it would be possible to construct a scheme under which those citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies who would be outside the United Kingdom on 5th June would be able to vote. The reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar) is that it would probably still be possible to do it in the time, though in a very makeshift way. But I must be honest and say that I think it could still be done.

In working out this scheme we felt that there were five minimum conditions and we could not accept anything else. The first was that the right of abode, within the meaning of Section 2 of the Immigration Act 1971, had been established and stamped in the passport. This is also suggested as a qualification in the official Opposition amendment.

The second condition was that people were not on a current parliamentary election register in the United Kingdom The third condition was that they or their spouses had resided at some time In the United Kingdom. The fourth condition was that their occupation, service or employment or that of their spouses was abroad. The fifth and final condition—a vital assurance of continuing connection with this country—was that they declared an intention to return to reside in the United Kingdom.

We felt that those five conditions were the absolute minimum. Hon. Members will realise that only the first of those five conditions could be verified in practice by looking at the passport. I am sure that some hon. Members would feel some doubt about using even the first, about which the right hon. Member has been speaking—that is, the right of abode qualification. If hon. Members will think back to the debates on the Bill in 1971, they will remember how difficult and controversial the debate on patriality was. So I know that a great many hon. Members would feel great doubt about accepting even the first condition.

The other four conditions cannot be checked at all. They would be covered, as the right hon. Member for Down, South said, by a simple declaration of facts and intentions. It would be impossible to check any of those four conditions in the time. So the first problem is the impossibility of checking four out of five conditions and the danger of abuse which would flow from this.

However, if these conditions were met, overseas voters could attend to vote at about 265 high commissions, embassies and consulates throughout the world which have the facilities and the trained United Kingdom staff to cope with the procedure. The very small number of posts—I was shocked by the smallness of the number taken over the whole world—itself creates anomalies. People might have to travel some considerable distance to vote. Ironically, it would be the hardworking business man who would be much less likely to make the trip than the lotus eater who lives around the Mediterranean.

The five conditions I have mentioned, taken together, formed the fairest scheme that could be devised, and yet they still left a number of very serious loopholes and inequities and they created at least as many anomalies as the scheme was designed to remove.

Sir Raymond Cower

Does the Lord President recall that the point has been made in the past and has been expressed at one or two Speaker's Conferences that in some of these cases a certificate could be accepted from an organisation such as the British Council, or indeed the BBC, which has temporarily in its employ abroad British citizens who might not be on a register here? There would not be any doubt about that. The Lord President will be well acquainted with people who are posted by the British Council or by the BBC to foreign countries.

Mr. Short

British Council employees can vote already. I shall say something about the other point in a few moments.

I was saying that the five conditions, taken together, were the fairest scheme that we could devise and yet they still left a number of serious loopholes and certainly created as many anomalies as the scheme itself was designed to remove.

Let me mention some more. I have already mentioned that the ability to vote would depend on access to a suitable post, so that distance, time and money to make the journey and not merit would be a determining practical criterion. Secondly, the declarations—four of them—would be open to abuse, since even if a false statement were uncovered there would be no prosecution for this offence unless the individual returned to this country at some future date, and a great many people will not return to this country at any time.

Dr. Phipps

This is the second or third time that my right hon. Friend has made this point. What is his justification for expecting widespread abuse of a perfectly simple process in which people are asked to sign a declaration?

Mr. Short

There are tens of thousands of people—I do not know how many—who would simply be able to turn up under this scheme at a post abroad, sign a declaration and get a vote. In our electoral law we must be able to check the qualifications for inclusion in the franchise. There would be no check of any kind here.

Thirdly, those living overseas who had returned to this country on leave during the referendum would not be able to vote, nor would, for example, the doctor who had been working in Central Africa and who had returned to this country since last October.

Fourthly, any register in the United Kingdom excludes by accident—I referred in an earlier debate to the person in my constituency—up to 3 per cent. or 4 per cent. of the electorate in every election. The million or more people who are entitled to vote in the United Kingdom but who are not registered would not be able to vote while an unknown total of British people overseas, many of whom have turned their backs on this country and who have no intention of returning, people without any entitlement to vote, would be enfranchised by the amendments.

I was asked about the offshore islands. Arrangements would have to be made for United Kingdom citizens who are resident in the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man, who are excluded from our parliamentary register, to vote there. However, the citizens of those islands who are not citizens of the United Kingdom would not be able to vote. It is clear from the marked differences between the various amendments on this topic how difficult it would be to find an agreed solution to the practical problems.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) and other hon. Members want the extension of the franchise limited to people overseas in an official or business capacity. A similar qualification is one of the five which we devised. If the lotus eaters I have talked about—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] There are many thousands of them. If the lotus eaters turned up at the embassy in Madrid and claimed to be writers or consultants it would be impossible to check in the time available.

The hon. and learned Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve) by his amendment and the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) would confine the extension to residents of other Community countries. That would be unjust to, for example, the doctor in Kenya, the engineer in Paraguay or many others whose service outside the Cornmunity is just as worthy as the service of officials working in the Community in Brussels. My hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) by his amendment would confine it to those working for international organisations or other Governments.

The official Opposition's amendment would deny a vote to those overseas who have the right to vote in any other country. However, entitlement to vote in Australia or New Zealand is not a matter of personal choice. It is a matter of residence qualification. It is certainly in itself no test of the weakness or strength of somebody's attachment to the United Kingdom. It would rule out the vast majority of British people living in Australia and New Zealand.

I have already mentioned my doubts about the "right of abode" qualification suggested by the Opposition's amendment. This is not shown in passports issued before 1971, which are probably the majority. Those holding such passports would have to turn up at the embassy or the post and establish this right when they went to vote. That would involve documentary proof, such as birth certificates or the ability to prove five years' residence in this country. It might not be easy for those possessing the right to prove it in time, and it would place an intolerable additional burden on the posts.

Although the Committee, I hope, accepts that any scheme we could produce would be anomalous and frequently unjust in its differentiations between groups, and open to the possibility of considerable abuse, even these problems are not the major reason why I ask the Committee to reject the amendments. It is fundamental to our electoral system that entitlement to vote rests upon a residence qualification and that the electoral register showing those entitled should be open to challenge by anyone.

Service voters are entitled to vote. The Government amendment which we passed earlier simply makes it easier for them to do so. That is the difference between the Service voters and those with whom the amendments are concerned. In the case of the Service voter we were discussing an extension of the facility to vote. Here we are discussing an extension of the entitlement to vote, an extension of the franchise.

8.45 p.m.

People overseas who are on the register but who are overseas because of their occupation, service or employment are entitled, with their wives or husbands to a proxy vote. I hope that they will all exercise that right. But if the Committee accepts the amendments, it will be enfranchising an unknown number of people, some of whom are genuinely attached to this country and are pursuing its interests abroad, but many of whom have chosen to live abroad merely to avoid their obligations as citizens in this country, participating in the country's life and its future. I do not know how many such people there are, but there are many of them at one end of the spectrum.

Sir M. Havers

The right hon. Gentleman has told the Committee many times of the tens of thousands of lotus eaters. He says again that there are many of them. When these various categories were considered, an estimate must have been made of their numbers. I do not expect the answer in figures, but can the right hon. Gentleman tell us the percentage of the lotus eaters, the tax avoiders, so that we can see how many genuine people there are who should be entitled to vote? I believe that there are many of them.

Mr. Short

I cannot give those figures, but, of course, there are many of them, and there are many genuine people as well. Of the genuine people, however, a large number already have the vote and can exercise it because they are on a register in this country. They can vote by proxy.

I support what the right hon. Member for Down, South said. Such dramatic changes in our principles of entitlement to vote as are proposed in the amendment should be avoided in the referendum. Such decisions should not be taken in such an arbitrary way when they involve undermining so many of our traditional safeguards.

The Committee should be in no doubt that if the amendment is carried and the referendum result is close, the vulnerability of the scheme to abuse and its anomalies will undermine confidence in the result and acceptance of the result. For those reasons I ask the Committee to reject the amendment.

Mr. John Lee (Birmingham, Handsworth)

I accept my right hon. Friends argument on the substance of the matter. If, however, it is intended that there should be no departure from the principle of the franchise, why has it been decided that Peers should be entitled to vote?

Mr. Short

Peers are excluded from voting in a General Election because they are members of one element in Parliament, but they vote in the local elections. They are on the local government register. There is, therefore, no extension of the franchise there.

Mr. Goodhart

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) has clearly shown that there are considerable problems in the amendments, that additional thought may have to be given to them and that they may have to be reworded. But I still believe that the principle put forward by the hon. Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar) is worthy of consideration and passage by the Committee.

The Leader of the House spent a great deal of time talking about anomalies, but the situation which he envisages contains many anomalies and the passage of the last series of amendments will create still further anomalies. I have in my hand a letter from a legal adviser to the EEC who is at present advising the EEC at the Geneva Conference on the Law of the Sea. He was asked to go to the EEC to represent this country. He will not be entitled to vote in the coming referendum, but because of the amendments another legal adviser who is a colonel serving in SHAPE down the road, will be entitled to vote.

It is an extraordinary situation that the Government, who have never been a friend of the Forces and on every occasion seek to cut down our defences, should extend the facility to vote to tank drivers, those who fly nuclear bombers, those who serve in Polaris submarines and even those who fight in wars in the neighbourhood of the Persian Gulf but should deny the right to vote to people who are serving in hospitals in Europe and who work officially in the headquarters of the European Commission, in the Council of Europe and in the European business community.

Clearly, there will have to be another look at the wording of the amendment at another stage or in another place. It is extraordinary that the Government should extend the facility of the vote to the Services and deny it to those who are officially serving the Government abroad in other capacities.

Mr. George Cunningham

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) has done a common thing. He listened intently to all the practical objections which were put forward so cogently by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and proceeded to sweep them aside, entirely ignore them and say that there must be a way round those practical objections.

I can speak briefly because most of what I wanted to say has been said by the right hon. Member for Down, South. The House of Commons is in a situation which is, unfortunately, not infrequently met. Through its negligence over the years it has reached a position from which it cannot retrieve itself in a short period of time. The House of Commons has neglected the business of citizenship law for the last several decades, and as a result we simply cannot in a matter of a month or two change the franchise on to a basis which will stand up and be defensible or even definable.

The right hon. Gentleman estimated that the number of British subjects in the world would be about 800 million. I would put the number at more than 1 billion. We must take into account the entire populations of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Rhodesia, Canada, Australia. New Zealand and many more that I cannot remember. The entire populations of all those countries add up to about one quarter of the world's population. All those people are entitled to vote in British elections on the ground of nationality.

Sir R. Gower


Mr. Cunningham

If the hon. Gentleman questions whether one quarter of the world's population is entitled, on the ground of nationality, to vote in British elections I should be grateful if he will explain his point to the Committee. There is, of course, the important qualification that such people must be resident in this country on the previous October.

Sir R. Gower

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the majority of the people to whom he refers have never been near these islands. He is exaggerating wildly.

Mr. Cunningham

The difficulty is that the essence of what is proposed in the amendments is to my mind totally acceptable. We want citizens of this country—and we do not have such a thing as citizenship—to be able to vote in a referendum. The House should have thought of this matter some time ago. It should have created citizenship. The vote should attach, as the right hon. Gentleman said, not to the status of a British subject, which is a complete anachronism, but to the status of citizenship.

The citizenship which most of us possess is citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies. There are millions of people throughout the world who possess precisely the same legal citizenship as we possess. Most of them have never been near this country and will never come near it. I think all Members would agree that they do not want such people to vote in elections. Therefore, we have the practical difficulty of distinguishing, for example, between a British business man in Hong Kong, who we would want in principle to be able to vote in the referendum, and the ordinary Hong Kong indigenous resident, who we would not want to be able to vote but who possesses precisely the same legal citizenship as the British business man. There is the practical difficulty.

Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)

The official Opposition amendment suggests that we should not allow the vote to those who have the vote in any other country. That gets round the difficulty that the hon. Gentleman puts forward.

Mr. Cunningham

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the matter is that easy I invite him to think about it again. It seems that some hon. Members have the idea that every country runs its electoral affairs in the same way as ourselves. They believe that there is a register in every country which is brought up to date every year and that it is only necessary to consult the register to see whether someone is entitled to vote. I do not know whether it is still the position in Canada but I know that some years ago the Canadians drew up a register for an election when they knew that an election was coming. That is why there was a long delay between the announcement of an election and the actual election. To determine whether a resident in Canada is entitled to a vote in Canada is not as simple as is the issue in the United Kingdom.

The right hon. Gentleman drew attention to the greater difficulties which would apply in many other countries but I am invited to address myself to the conditions which are provided for in some of the amendments. First, I turn to the Liberal amendment, Amendment No. 14. We all know that the provisions for pouring funds into the purses of Opposition Parties have not yet got under way and that the Liberal Party did not have a chance to spend a lot of public money in doing its homework, but it is too bad that a party should put into an amendment—and amendments can become part of our statute law—the term "British citizens".

9.0 p.m.

The phrase "British citizens" features in the Liberal amendment. There ain't such a thing as "British citizens"[Interruption.] I know that there ought to be, but there is not. Do the Liberals mean "British subjects "or" United Kingdom citizens". They did not know, so they put in the phrase "British citizens". That is the sort of thinking that has gone into the preparation of some of these amendments.

Another amendment uses the term "British national". That has been legally defined, but it includes a group that is much more extensive than those included within the definition of United Kingdom citizen.

The definition used in the official Opposition's amendment, Amendment No. 22, of "British subject", but with the disqualification of no right to vote elsewhere, is subject to the objections I have put forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bel-per (Mr. MacFarquhar) used the definition of "British passport holder", which has been objected to on cogent grounds. The hon. and learned Member for Wim- bledon (Sir M. Havers) gave the game away when he said that he could not define this elephant, but would recognise one when it walked into a polling station.

If we are to extend the vote, we must have a definition which everybody can comprehend and enforce. What the hon. and learned Gentleman said at the end of his remarks, with a rather tongue-in-cheek expression, was that he would leave the matter to the Lord President. In other words, the Government could come up with something which would define precisely who was to be given the franchise.

Sir R. Gower

If the hon. Gentleman adduces all these objections to the official amendment, will he support another amendment in similar terms, possibly tabled by the Government, which would afford protection to a more limited number, namely, those born in the United Kingdom—in other words, the same category as that listed in the Opposition amendment, but limited to those born here?

Mr. Cunningham

Writing statutes is quite a complex process and it cannot be tossed backwards and forwards across the Chamber. Citizenship of the United Kingdom is not limited to people born in this country. If my son is born abroad, he is a subject of the United Kingdom and Colonies. The difficulty is to find an enforceable and clear definition.

I am suggesting that on grounds of nationality there is no definition which is both logical and clearly definable and, therefore, enforceable. If one then adopts a test of "national", which is too extensive, whether by taking "British subject" or "citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies", one has to have an auxiliary definition to restrict that. Again, in these amendments a number of botching attempts are made to do this. There is the right of abode—but enough has been said about that. There is the proposal in one amendment that the Government should be given carte blanche to extend citizenship to any group which they could successfully define and to which it is sensible to have extended it.

Then there is the proposal that it should be extended to citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies who are abroad in an official or business capacity. The person going into the consulate will have to satisfy the consul that he is in that country in either a business or an official capacity. I do not know whether that applies to a trade union capacity. Perhaps a trade union capacity ranks as a business capacity or an official capacity. The consul will have to decide these matters while 2,500 applicants are queueing up outside the door.

The Liberals have adopted the most liberal arrangement for dealing with this situation. They say that they want to give it to any British subject who is abroad for such-and-such reasons or for any reason is absent from the United Kingdom. I should have thought that would probably bring in about 800 million people throughout the world. That would call in question whether the referendum was a true test of opinion of those who can reasonably be entitled to a vote in it.

I am glad that the Government have at last taken seriously the matter of citizenship legislation. They announced a few weeks ago that they hoped in the summer to produce citizenship proposals for this country. When that legislation is passed it will be reasonable to give citizens, even when they are abroad, the right to vote in referenda. Although I think that my hon. Friend's idea is acceptable and attractive, I regret that I feel we must stick to the current franchise.

Mr. Macmillan

I thought that the Lord President's arguments were thin and shabby. He spent some time saying that the good boys should have the vote while the bad boys should not, basing his argument on the English, the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh who are non-resident of the United Kingdom or who are away for long or short periods. He said that their right to vote should depend on their worthiness and on their reasons, good or bad, for being outside the United Kingdom. I think that he referred to people who were dodging their citizenship obligations. In view of the fact that the Government have not yet defined citizenship, it is an odd phrase for him to use.

At ordinary elections a residence qualification has always been fundamental. It has always been fundamental to the election of a representative for a parliamentary or local authority constituency. However, once we start the game of direct democracy which a referendum represents we are in a different league. The Government have started a game without having though out the rules, and now rejects improvements.

I accept the argument that it is different for Service men and women to have the vote wherever they may be. They have established a right to vote. It is now being made easier for them to exercise that right. However, it is a false argument to say that an attempt to extend that system to civilians living abroad is extending the franchise. It is not an actual extension of the franchise, although it may be a potential extension if it leads to changes in elections too.

The present definition of British subjects, without any residential qualification, is broad. We need a definition of citizenship. Those who support the concept of referenda should have thought this through before they expressed their support. People living in the modern world are abroad a great deal. However, if they miss voting at a General Election and return to this country they do not go unrepresented, since they have a representative in the House wherever they may live when they return to the United Kingdom. The fact that they did not vote for him does not deprive them of their voice in a representative democracy. The duty of a Member of Parliament is to represent all his constituents—those who voted for him, those who voted against him, and those who come to live in his constituency between elections.

Mr. Powell

The right hon. Gentleman will recall that the Government of which he was a member imposed a referendum upon Northern Ireland for the purpose of deciding whether its people wished to remain part of the United Kingdom. Will he recall to the Committee what the franchise was on which that referendum was conducted?

Mr. Macmillan

That was a different situation. Under emergency legislation we had abolished and taken over for the time being the functions of Stormont. That created an entirely different situation.

Mr. Powell

What was the franchise?

Mr. Macmillan

The right hon. Gentleman asks me what the franchise was. I cannot remember.

Mr. Powell

I can help the right hon. Gentleman. It was exactly the same franchise as that which had been used for electing the Stormont Assembly and local government.

Mr. Macmillan

That was a point which perhaps the right hon. Gentleman may have moved at that time. No doubt it is a good argument in relation to Northern Ireland now, but it would have been better if he had used it then.

Mr. Powell

I voted against the referendum.

Mr. Macmillan

I was making the point that a person is not disfranchised and unrepresented because he is unable to vote abroad. It may be tiresome and awkward, but it does not leave him without a Member of Parliament to represent him. In a referendum, which is a once-for-all decision on a specific issue, it is much more important to cover all persons who are entitled to vote, wherever they may be, because that is a decision that we are asking people to make for themselves rather than allow, as I still maintain we should have done, their parliamentary representatives to make it on their behalf.

The Leader of the House and the Government have shown great frivolity and contempt, for, in all the time that they have had to think about this referendum, they have produced such a small and mean measure. They have not thought how to get proper representation in what they have called "this unique adventure".

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

I will be brief, because I realise that the Government want the vote as soon as they can get it.

I will come straight to the point—the electorate of the United Kingdom. For many years the experience of most hon. Members has been that quite a number of people who have been on the electoral register have been disqualified from voting year after year because they happened to take their holidays when election day fell. Even though many of us, with our constituents and friends, have thought it only justice if the holiday maker could—

The Temporary Chairman

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I think he is anticipating the next amendment, which deals with holidays, not this one.

Mr. Spriggs

I will deal with the amendments now before the Committee. I suggested that it is odd that people who reside abroad and hold British passports, who probably have not worried themselves one jot about the last few General Elections and many municipal elections, should show an interest in the referendum. Anyone claiming the right to vote should at least have a qualification, and people who do not have a residential qualification should not be allowed to vote in the referendum.

If the amendment in the name of my non. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar) and Amendment No. 22 are forced through they will create many problems for future elections. If the amendments are accepted the Committee will not only do great damage to the electoral machinery as it has been operated over many years but the electors will have every right to claim that hon. and right hon. Members have been unfair on this issue.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Gow

I rise to speak in support of Amendment No. 16 which stands on the Order Paper in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) and myself. I listened with close attention to the speech by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and I well understand the argument which he advanced that, if changes are to be made in the franchise, they should be made root and branch and after the most careful consideration of all the implications.

Nevertheless, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and I have tabled the amendment because we think it right on this occasion to draw attention to the anomaly which we believe exists in that citizens of the Republic of Ireland living in this country are entitled to vote in our referendum even though they were able to vote in the Republic's referendum before that country became a member of the EEC.

This anomaly arises from Section 1(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1949. It has been recognised as an anomaly by all hon. Members. It grew up as a result of the historical connection between the United Kingdom and what is now the Republic of Ireland, but we can see no justification for giving to one class of foreign citizen the right to vote in this referendum while denying it to every other class.

We put down the amendment to draw the attention of the Lord President and the Committee to the anomaly and in the hope of extracting from the right hon. Gentleman an undertaking on this point.

Mr. English

Pro-Market Members who support this amendment are in an extremely anomalous position. I do not include in that situation the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) because his point was rather different. However, the main point of this group of amendments is to extend the franchise to British subjects resident overseas. I thoroughly support my right hon. Friend the Lord President in resisting them.

I regretted the extension proposed by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence. On the same principle that I regretted that extension, I fully support my right hon. Friend's opposition to this amendment. What worries me is that convinced Europeans support the amendment rather than the proposals of the European Commission itself, or the proposals of the Council of Ministers. That worries me but I am not surprised at it, especially having heard a former Minister of Agriculture who did not know about the butter subsidy shortly after we joined the Community, and since I discovered that the Lord President of the Council in the previous Conservative Government denied the existence of the subsidy or its application to Britain even though we were in the Community. Since then I have never been surprised at the lack of knowledge of some convinced Europeans on proposals being made in Brussels.

Therefore, in the context of this debate I wish to quote from one of the Commission documents, COM (74) 2250, which was passed in Brussels on 18th December 1974. That was the: Action programme in favour of migrant workers and their families. Section III relates to Civic and political rights. Other parts of the document deal with migrant workers from third countries, but this section relates to migrant workers who are citizens of one or other of the member States but who have migrated to another member State. Therefore, it is exactly in point with this amendment. I do not intend to quote the whole section but the most relevant paragraph states: The objective to be attained is the granting to migrants, at the latest by 1980, of full participation in local elections according to conditions to be defined relating in particular to the qualifying period of residence. "Local" in that context does not mean local authority elections in our context. It means local in the context of the Common Market, for example, parliamentary elections in Britain as distinct from elections to the European Assembly, which will start to take place in 1978.

The principle that the Commission has adopted, following up a directive from the Council that it should consider the matter, is that people should be granted the franchise in terms of their place of residence, that it would be foolish to provide for, for example, a Frenchman living in London to vote in Nice or for an Englishman living in Brussels to vote in some part of the United Kingdom, but that it would be more sensible to provide for them to vote where they live and are resident. It is the exact opposite of the principle proposed in the amendment. If the amendment were carried, it would have the result of complicating the future European electoral law were we to stay in the European Community.

The whole point about the Commission's proposal is that it was one that the Commission felt should be adopted by all nine member States because the principal provisions of European electoral law in those nine States provide for people voting by residence. It would be immensely complicated if we did it in any other way. The Commission followed the principle of the existing electoral laws, not anticipating—and who would?—that anyone would wish to change the existing electoral laws in such a way as is proposed by the amendment.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that we are voting for a referendum and not for the election of various levels of government in the country? Does he suppose that the legislation we shall eventually pass as a result of these proceedings will determine the law for General Elections in this country? He is mistaken if he does.

Mr. English

The hon. Gentleman was not here when we discussed the previous amendment. We discussed it in great detail earlier this afternoon. I mentioned Service men, overseas residents and holiday voters when I spoke on that amendment and referred to this amendment and the next one. When I said that the precedents would be reflected in electoral law—the hon. Gentleman will find this in Hansard tomorrow—I said that hon. Gentlemen opposite would be advocating that those overseas and holiday voters should eventually have the vote in General Elections. With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, the only reason why I omitted it at this stage is that it is late at night and this has already been raised in an earlier discussion when the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) took part in the debate. Therefore, I did not wish to weary the Committee by taking it through the argument again.

I can only assure the hon. Gentleman that Conservative Members agreed with me at the time and that he is the odd man out in this context. Almost every hon. Member who participated in that discussion agreed that it would reflect into future electoral law and they approved the fact that it was likely that on future occasions Service men, for example, would be able to vote. However, if the hon. Gentleman is saying that he does not think that they should vote at General Elections, no doubt he will discuss that on a future occasion.

Most people believe that the franchise is something that is not restricted merely to General Elections or referenda, that voters are voters whatever they are decided by law to be, and that what we decide here today is bound to have its repercussions on the electoral law for General Elections. In any case the hon. Gentleman's argument is no argument at all against the point I was making about the European Commission's proposals, because although referenda are unique here they are not unique in Europe. When the Commission talks about giving voting rights to people, it is not talking about elections. It is talking about voting rights for all the issues on which people vote. In many European countries—France, for example, in the case of British admission to the Community—referenda are, if not frequent, at least not unique. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman's argument is not related to the Commission's document from which I was quoting.

The point I am making is that pro-Marketeers who are advocating the amendment—I recognise that not necessarily all those who are advocating the amendment are pro-Marketeers—are deliberately trying to make a change in electoral law which will have its repercussions not only, or probably, upon our English electoral law but will cause difficulties in the implementation of one of the Brussels directives of which, presumably, they approve.

Mr. Douglas Henderson (Aberdeenshire, East)

Is there such a thing as "English" electoral law?

Mr. English

Oddly enough, there is a distinction between English and Scottish electoral law, and I am surprised that a Scottish National Member should not know that. This matter will arise on a subsequent amendment relating solely to Scotland that is to be moved by my right hon. Friend the Lord President, when the hon. Gentleman will realise that there is a distinction between the two. Furthermore, I hope he will realise that there is such a thing as Northern Ireland electoral law too, which is quite different again.

The point at issue is the very simple one that we are complicating not only our electoral law but also the European proposals. I do not mind that because I believe that the referendum will take us out of the Common Market. But any hon. Member who wants to keep us in the Common Market is in an extremely inconsistent position in supporting the amendment because he is saying that we should make a change that is directly contrary to the Brussels recommendation. I am surprised—indeed, almost disheartened—by hon. Members' inattention to Community documents and by the fact that pro-Marketeers have not looked this up, taken it to heart and applied it to the circumstances of their amendment.

Mr. Michael Marshall

The proceedings of the Committee so far have reinforced the fears that many of us had when the whole question of a referendum was mooted. We are seeing once again a field day, if not for the lawyers, at least for the barrack-room lawyers. The range of argument on this group of amendments is particularly hard to take for those of us who feel that the referendum is a bogus issue and, as the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) said on Second Reading,a squalid device. Other hon. Members on the Government benches have pointed to it as a flagrant abrogation of parliamentary sovereignty. In that context, everything that has happened today can only reinforce comments of that kind.

However, I want to turn briefly to Amendments Nos. 17, 19 and 39, standing in the names of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton), my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) and myself. I believe that these focus on both of the amendments in the names of Labour Members and those emanating from the Opposition Front Bench, in trying to bring some semblance of order into what is otherwise a situation of chaos.

I have some sympathy for the Lord President. Anyone who has seen him and his hon. Friend the Minister of State coping over the last few weeks must recognise that they are having to clear up the mess that the Prime Minister has thrust upon them. I do not expect them to leap up and agree wholeheartedly with me but anyone analysing the situation dispassionately must see that this is the fact. While I have great sympathy with them in their attempt to put forward some spatchcock of a device which will enable the Government to get off the hook it behoves the Government to approach this matter constructively and at least to make the best of a bad job.

9.30 p.m.

Nothing that has been said tonight in any way suggests that that is what will happen if these amendments are rejected. What is it we are trying to achieve? It is being argued that we shall have all kinds of difficulties about the lotus eaters and that we will have problems which will carry over into future General Elections. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) argued this. Quite frankly, I do not accept that view. If we are to have the referendum it will be a unique event. General Elections are entirely different, and there is no question of opening up voting processes which could apply to future General Elections

The initiative must rest with the Government. It is not good enough to suggest that there is no time available, as the Lord President did. If we are to make a stab at this device we should try to show willing. This is where I do not think the Government have gone far enough. We have had the assurance about Service voters. We have seen some attempt to widen the franchise for this occasion. But proposals now before us which would effectively allow the vote to go more widely to cover British citizens overseas for purposes very much in the interests of this country are proposals which it ought not to be beyond the wit of this Committee to encompass in legislation.

All the arguments that have been advanced by the barrack-room lawyers do not take into account the abilities of those in our consulates and embassies overseas. People who consult our representatives in those posts will find that they have a considerable degree of intelligence. I do not believe that it is expecting too much of them to use discretion in assessing what is a reasonable pattern of British voters for this unique occasion. It is something at which the consular sections are particularly skilled. To become tied up in knots about lotus eaters and so on is, in a way, to ignore what the exercise is about. Surely it is that we are seeking, if we must have the referendum, to get the broadest possible British vote on the future of this country in the EEC. That is a unique event.

If that is accepted, surely the Lord President does not imagine that there will be thousands of those whom he described as having turned their backs on the country fighting to get into our consular sections to make their views known. If there are such people I do not believe that they will be particularly fussed about the referendum. We should respect and try to encourage initiative from those who feel strongly on this issue.

Out of the many representations I have received on this subject let me quote that of someone who is serving as a senior official in the British Steel Corporation's Paris office, Mr. Richard Barber. He has recently written to me in moving terms about the way in which he undertook to work on a two-year minimum contract for the corporation as part of its activities within the EEC. He now finds that he is not to be allowed to put forward his view on this great issue, something on which he clearly has first-hand knowledge.

How can we justify our inability to encompass this type of voter? This must be a feeling shared on all sides of the Committee. There is something wrong with the way in which we tackle our legislation if on an issue as unique as this we cannot embrace such people.

The initiative rests with the Government. They must show willing and meet the views of those who have put their names to Amendment No. 101 or perhaps even accept the amendment proposed by my Front Bench. These are minimum requirements. If the Government show themselves insensitive to what is proposed they will perpetuate the whole image of the Bill as a dog's breakfast from which we are being given very little chance to pick out the bones and make something that will lead people to feel that the exercise is not as spurious and as bogus as it clearly is in so many ways.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

It is some time since I have been so undecided about how to vote as I am on this amendment. The practicalities of the situation lead me to support the Government, because the last thing that I want to do is to delay the referendum. The sooner we get the damned thing out of the way the better it will be for the House of Commons and for the country as a whole. On the other hand, a basic sense of fair play tells me to vote against the Government.

I accept the argument put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar) that this is a unique situation and a unique vote which will decide important issues for this country for a long time to come. Why should British people who happen to be working abroad or who are on holiday there be disfranchised from taking part in arriving at a major decision for this country?

There is a case for saying that there should be no change in the franchise, but in the last amendment we conceded a change in it.

Mr. Edward Short


Mr. Powell


Mr. Mitchell

With respect to my right hon. Friend and to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), a change has been made to include not just those who are on the electoral register but those who are entitled to be on it. By our decision on the last amendment we have decided to allow Service men who have not taken the trouble to get themselves on to the electoral register to vote in the referendum. We have given them a special dispensation.

The Minister of State, Privy Council Office (Mr. Gerry Fowler)

There is a distinction to be drawn here. The franchise means those who are entitled to register to vote, whereas those who may vote are on the register at any one time.

Mr. Mitchell

However one takes the argument, and however one defines it, the Lord President said that many people who are working overseas have a proxy vote. Some of these people have taken the trouble to make that arrangement, but others have not. Some Service men have not taken the trouble to get themselves on the register, but they are to be allowed to vote. Why should not similar rules apply to those who have not taken the trouble to get a proxy vote? Once we concede a change for one group of people, why not make a change for others? This will give rise to a ridiculous situation. At an Army camp in Germany Service men may be working alongside British civilian employees. Service men will get a special dispensation to vote, but civilian employees will not. We have already made a change, and, therefore, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that, because of my sense of fair play, I shall have difficulty in supporting the Government. The previous amendment having been conceded, I cannot see how the Government can fail to concede this one.

Mr. MacFarquhar

My hon. Friend said that on the ground of practicality he may be swayed towards supporting the Government because he does not want to delay the referendum. The Lord President conceded that what was suggested could be done by the referendum date.

Mr. Mitchell

To be fair, my right hon. Friend listed five minimum requirements and said that only the first of them could be met, which is a powerful argument. The change having been made for Service men, I cannot see why a change cannot be made for civilian employees, and so on.

Mr. Tim Renton (Mid-Sussex)

My brief remarks will follow on closely from those which have just been made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell). I wish to speak particularly to Amendment No. 19, which stands in my name and in the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) and for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart).

Amendment No. 19 would give the right to vote in the referendum to British nationals who— (i) were on the tenth day of October 1974 resident in a country outside the United Kingdom in an official or business capacity"— that is, to persons who by virtue of being outside the country on 10th October 1974 in this capacity have disqualified themselves from the current British electoral register.

I regard this as a de minimis extension of the list of those who should be able to vote in the referendum. It is precisely the people classified in the amendment who do not fall within the description of "lotus eaters", those whom the Lord President does not think should have the right to vote because they have removed themselves from Britain for sybaritic reasons.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel said, one of the depressing features about the debates on the Bill is that we are constantly having negative reasons given to us why the vote should be restricted; but surely in respect of this unique occasion, as it has come to be trite to describe it, the Lord President, with all the wit and capacity available to him, should be looking to see who are the right people to whom the vote should be extended. I submit that people who were out of the country on 10th October in an official or business capacity of whatever sort are precisely the type of persons to whom the vote should be made available.

Mr. Powell

As the hon. Gentleman is referring to his Amendment No. 19, will he indicate to the Committee what definition of "British national" he is using?

Mr. Renton

I am using the same definition as applies in other amendments of the same sort. I am thinking of those who would ordinarily be on the British electoral register and who in ordinary circumstances would have a vote here but who, because they were out of the country on 10th October in an official or business capacity, do not have the right to vote. It is specifically to these people, who were away on that date because they were serving their country and for no other reason, that the vote should be extended.

My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel quoted a letter from an employee of the British Steel Corporation in Paris. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides have received similar letters. I have received a letter from a constituent who has been seconded to Iran for two years on a major export job. He writes pointing out that he is there to help the British export effort. Why on earth should not the vote be extended to him on this issue, in which his experience would be of special value?

It is true that in the ballot everyone is equal. However, the people to whom my amendment relates have a broad view of Britain; they have been outside the country and they know what we need in terms of trade and foreign affairs. Because of their external experience their vote will be of special value.

In an earlier very unfortunate speech the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) contemptuously dismissed the wish of this side of the Committee to extend the right to vote through various amendments. He queried whether an immense pressure would not build up on embassies and consulates to decide to whom the right should be extended. He also queried whether the right should not be extended to trade union officials. I would certainly say that trade union officials who were outside the country on trade union business on 10th October should have the right to vote.

9.45 p.m.

Although this will mean work for embassies and consulates, it should be possible to get over the problem of a definition by a guidance letter from the Government stating that such people had to come to the embassy with a letter from the Government or a United Kingdom employer confirming their case. On such a unique occasion I believe that embassies and consulates would welcome and accept the inconvenience gladly in order to ensure that the vote was extended in this matter to those who, I believe, most clearly should have it.

[Mr. GEORGE THOMAS in the Chair]

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

Attempts have been made to dissuade the Committee from approving the amendment by arguing that if we do so it will become a precedent for what happens at General Elections. However, it sems to me that the reply to that has been given already in the debate many times and it has not been rebutted. The reply is contained in the two worth "unique" and "irrevocable". The relevance is that those were the adjectives used to justify holding a referendum and making the great shift from decision by Parliament to the decision of a question by a referendum.

We were repeatedly and sincerely told we need not fear that a referendum on this subject would open the door to referenda on any other important subjects, as this was unique and irrevocable. Those two adjectives are fully justified. Those who have urged that for those reasons we should have a referendum and who have accepted the concept of uniqueness and of irrevocability cannot now argue that the special provisions we make for the franchise here are bound to flow over and infect the law for the conduct of ordinary parliamentary elections

I listened with great respect and care to my right hon. Friend the Lord President setting out the undoubted practical difficulties. However, I do not find myself convinced, for the following reason. I am thinking of a particular person but he is typical of many thousands of British subjects in question here. He was born and educated in this country and fought for this country in the British Army. He is a British subject or citizen—whatever one likes to call it—by birth. He worked in this country, and then went to take up an important commercial position in France. He is an important member of the British community there. He is working hard and for the benefit of this country. He is concerned for the future of this country, and no doubt when he retires his home will be in this country. Surely he can be regarded as a person who has a proper stake in the matter, a proper right like the rest of us to vote in the referendum. Whatever meaning one gives to the word "nationality" it must embrace a person of that kind. There are tens of thousands like him.

I do not believe that my right hon. Friend the Lord President did justice to the argument by his reference to the lotus eaters. None of us can give an exact figure for the number of useful and devoted citizens on the one hand or the number of lotus eaters on the other. It is not right to try to influence the argument by suggesting that the lotus eaters are the rule and the useful citizens the exception.

Mr. Edward Short

My right hon. Friend is using precisely that argument in the other direction.

Mr. Stewart

Not at all. If my right hon. Friend will follow me, he will understand.

I am not suggesting that one community is notably larger or smaller than the other, because we do not know. However, my right hon. Friend undoubtedly gave the impression to the Committee that the number of lotus eaters had great influence on him in causing him to make the recommendations that he did. It is not in dispute that there are a considerable number of people who in right and justice should have the vote. We now have to meet the Lord President's argument that we cannot provide it for them without opening the door to many abuses. But it is a recognised principle of our criminal law that it is better that a guilty man should go free than that an innocent man should be punished. I trust that it is a recognised principle of the administration of our social services that it is better that the scrounger should get away with it than that a claimant with a right should be denied something to which he is entitled. Therefore, I should want to hear much more evidence to suggest that the lotus eaters massively outnumber the rest before I could give weight to the arguments advanced from the Government Front Bench.

My right hon. Friend and I have both been in various ranks of Government for quite a time. We know that it is remarkably easy for Governments to demonstrate that the exact wording of amendments put forward by back benchers will not work out in practice. Possibly, when we see the fruits of the admirable measure to provide for Opposition parties to have more research work done it will not be so easy for Governments to pick holes in back benchers' amendments, but that time is not yet.

We all know quite well that if a Government make up their mind that in principle something should be done they can find a way to do it. If the Government concentrate their mind on the undoubtedly large number of people who should be able to give their vote on this issue, and say "We are determined to help them and to cut down on abuses as much as we can"—because it is no good trying to be perfectionist in the electoral law; there are bound to be some loopholes—if they concentrate their mind on those who should be enfranchised, and resolve to do all they can to prevent abuses, I am sure that we can get an amendment at which no one could cavil on the ground of its being impracticable. Therefore, I hope that the Committee will support my hon. Friend's amendment.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

As I was in Committee upstairs I did not have the benefit of hearing the Lord President's speech in which he referred to the lotus eaters. It was no surprise to me that the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) advanced the argument that he did, because, like me, he has had a goodly experience of our embassies and knows of our fellow citizens who have gone out into the world to tarn money for this country, to help our exports. I was sickened when I heard one Member on the Government benches say that people went abroad to line their pockets. That was the most disgusting statement that I have heard for many years.

Mr. John Ovenden (Gravesend)

I suggest that the motives for working abroad are not completely altruistic and patriotic, and that as a by-product of working abroad there is a certain financial reward, which is sometimes greater than that for working in this country. Not all those working abroad are assisting this country's export performance. Some are working for our foreign competitors and undermining our economic performance.

Mr. Costain

If the hon. Gentleman had worked in some of the tropical countries in which I and some of my colleagues have worked he would realise that there is no disgrace in being paid for working in conditions which affect the health.

However, that is outside the debate. Those who work in the embassies, representing this country overseas, understand the details of the problem much better than those in this country who, through no fault of their own, do not really understand all about it. Are not they best qualified to vote in the referendum?

Are the people who work overseas, who know the problems of the countries in which they are working and have seen the operation of the Common Market for many years, to be disfranchised because the Lord President says that they are lotus eaters and because it is too difficult to give them the vote? Surely they have a stronger case than most for a vote, because they know most about the problems.

We have accepted that the Services should be able to vote because that is convenient. There are nicely compact battalions and regiments, but, because it is more difficult to allow the people who work overseas to vote, we say that it is impossible. That is nonsense. We should give them the vote.

Mr. MacFarquhar

A number of interesting points have been raised during the debate on which, as the mover of the amendment. I should like to comment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), with that characteristic humour which is so happily common to us of Scottish blood, poked fun at the fact that there were lots of amendments and that they differed in their provisions. He poked fun at the poor Liberal Party for not having research assistance. In all seriousness, my hon. Friend, who himself said that in principle he was in favour, should have realised that the presence of a lot of amendments is not an indication of stupidity on the part of hon. Members but an indication of the widespread interest of hon. Members in the measure.

Mr. George Cunningham

I did not ridicule the existence of a lot of amendments. I drew attention to the fact that, although I supported the idea in principle, each amendment failed in practice to find a way of securing a definable limit.

Mr. MacFarquhar

If my hon. Friend does not know when he is ridiculing hon. Members who heard him perhaps do.

It was suggested by one hon. Member who had clearly not heard the speeches of the Prime Minister, other Cabinet Ministers—my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Grocott)—that this was not a unique occasion. I was staggered that he should suggest as unique an occasion when a person abroad might want to vote to prevent the destruction of a historic building in his constituency. If that is the kind of unique occasion which he is prepared to compare with this, the argument has been debased.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), who was in good form, argued that this was the wrong time and that it was necessary to have grave, deliberate and mature consideration. He said that we could not do this as a side wind—whatever that is. The referendum measure has not been thought of by most hon. Members for a reasonable amount of time which could be described as mature. Even the Government proposals for a referendum, which I entirely support, has not gone through what one might in all honesty descibe as mature consideration. That is why we have difficulty with all these amendments.

For the right hon. Gentleman to say that he wants a referendum on this issue and then to bring out all the constitutional arguments that he would have used if he had opposed a referendum to deny the franchise extension is illegitimate.

The lotus-eating argument has been dealt with sufficiently, and the point has been made that, whether we like it or not, merit is not a qualification for voting. Even hon. Members who oppose me accept that.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)

Does my hon. Friend agree that there are many electrical, mechanical and civil engineers, technicians and technologists of all kinds who work abroad on behalf of this country on long-term contracts who will be excluded unless the Government give way?

It being Ten o'clock, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report Progress.

Back to