HC Deb 29 January 1985 vol 72 cc181-243

5.5 pm

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 2. line 12, leave out 'or treated for the purposes of registration as resident' With this, I shall speak also to amendment No. 16, in page 2, leave out line 19.

There is a certain amount of indecision in the Bill as it stands, and I hope later to give examples. As the first Member to move an amendment, I point out that the Bill is a long one, comprising 27 clauses and a number of schedules. As I am sure that we shall examine the Bill carefully, and word by word, I shall try to make progress and keep my remarks succinct at this stage. I hope that the Government will listen carefully to what I say. I hope that, if they are persuaded by some of my arguments and reasoning, they will be generous enough to admit that there is merit in some of the amendments and accept them. If they do not accept the amendments because they are incomplete, I hope that they will take the amendments and bring them forward again on Report as Government amendments.

The amendments are not complete. I do not believe that it would be sufficient to leave amendments Nos 11 and 16 without adding extra words to them. The amendments seek to define a little more closely the conditions under which a person qualifies as an overseas elector. I believe that if a person moves from this country he should be registered as an overseas elector according to permanent residence when he was last resident in this country. A student can be registered at a university in London while his permanent residence is in another area; for example, in Northumberland. Students can properly establish residences in both places and appear on both registers at the same time. After graduating, the student could go abroad for, say, 10 years. I believe that it would be wrong if he continued to be registered as an overseas voter in that area of London where his name is on the electoral register.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can help on this point. If his amendment is accepted, will it have the effect of precluding a person who was a service voter, but who has left the armed services, from having a vote?

Dr. Marek

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. He anticipates what I was going to say. I said that the amendments were incomplete.

This case need not be confined to students, but could include landlords and business men. A person may conduct a business in a particular town in a particular constituency, but live in another constituency not too far away. Although his permanent residence is somewhere else, that person could be registered in both places. It would be wrong, if that business man sold the business and said that he was going to work abroad for a number of years, for him to be registered for the place where he had his business. If that person returned, he would return to his home and not to where he had his business.

As I understand the Bill, it allows people, such as students, those with jobs in different parts of the country, and others properly to register in more than one place. They would then be able to decide whether to register as an overseas voter for constituency A or B. That would be wrong. If they are to be treated as overseas voters, they should be registered for the place in this country of their last permanent residence.

I agree that if the amendments were accepted without any addition voters such as service men would not be able to vote. That applies also to patients in mental and other hospitals. It would be wrong for me to insist that because the hospital was their last place of residence they should be registered for that hospital. For that reason, the amendments are not sufficient in themselves.

I should like to refer the Committee to two documents. The first is Cmnd. 9140, "Representation of the People Acts". On page 26, paragraph 7 states: The right to vote should be extended to British citizens resident abroad who have previously been registered as electors. The right should be exercised in respect of the constituency in which the elector was last resident before he or she left. Separate arrangements would have to be considered for young people who left the United Kingdom before they reached voting age. Perhaps it is a loose form of words, but the document states: The right to vote should be exercised in respect of the constituency in which the elector was last resident. To me, that means where the elector lived, where his home was, and where he spent his evenings and slept. It does not mean the artificial words, or treated for the purposes of registration as resident. The Government's reply to the first report from the Select Committee on Home Affairs sets out the Government's views. I hope that those views have not changed since they published that reply and that they will agree with me on that point.

I should also like to refer the Committee to Home Office circular RPA 200. On page 8, under "Residence", it states that on the one hand, a person is not to be registered for an address where he is staying temporarily on the qualifying date and, on the other hand, a person is to be registered for his normal place of residence even though he may be temporarily absent from it on the qualifying date. Clearly, my amendments must be supplemented, perhaps on Report. The intention is that the person should be registered at his normal place of residence even though he may be temporarily absent. To continue the analogy, overseas electors should not be given the choice whether they are to be treated as electors for the place where they are ordinarily resident, or—there may be a safe Labour or Tory seat or some other consideration—to say, "I wish to be registered as an overseas voter for the seat where I had my business or where I was at university." He may not necessarily be resident at the university for three years; he may have been there for one year doing a diploma.

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

Is not the hon. Gentleman's argument directed at the practice of multiple registration? Is not the evil against which he is now inveighing merely an extension of the choice available to those who are multiple registered to those who happen to be overseas at the time?

Dr. Marek

I shall not comment on the hon. Gentleman's remarks at this stage, because I am sure that multiple registration will be discussed later. I am not seeking to argue that we should change the current practice of allowing students to register at two places. A student who spends 30 weeks a year at university can establish residence in that university. If he then spends the remaining 22 weeks of the year at his home, he can establish residence at his home.

There is a distinction between that and what the hon. Gentleman invited me to consider. The distinction is that the overseas voter leaves both addresses at which he has been resident and moves abroad for five, six, seven or 10 years. His links with his registered address must necessarily become weaker as time passes. If the Committee decides that that person should be allowed an overseas vote, it should be allowed only for his normal place of residence — his home. That is partially recognised in Cmnd. 9140 and RPA 200 also talks about that.

5.15 pm

RPA 200 states: The question of whether or not in borderline cases a man is to be regarded as resident is … one to be resolved 'on a commonsense jury basis … by the ordinary understanding of man in the use of ordinary words in the English language'. If decisions are to be made in that way, they will be much more difficult if we have the words, or treated for the purposes of registration as resident". If those words are deleted, we would be saying that the person is "resident at that address". It would then be necessary to table further amendments to ensure that service voters, hospital patients and the other categories mentioned in RPA 200 could nevertheless be registered as overseas voters at their normal addresses.

Precision is the necessary prerequisite for such a provision. We must know where we are. We do not want electoral registration officers to have to make value judgments, or to have these matters going through the courts, with arguments going backwards and forwards. We should legislate precisely. We can start by removing the words that I have mentioned, and we could table further amendments to satisfy the conditions contained in RPA 200.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

There are two reasons why the Committee should not accept the amendment. The first is the one that I raised in an intervention. In its present form, the amendment would undoubtedly prevent service voters who subsequently go abroad from having a vote. It would have the same effect on mental hospital patients. I do not doubt that it would be possible to build in a host of exemptions to take account of those difficulties, but I am against complicated legislation. I do not want to see the Bill further complicated, unless there is a pressing need.

The second reason why the Committee should not support the amendment relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). The hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) said that he does not like the consequences of multiple registration. However, once we accept the principle that, for example, students may have two residences for the purpose of an election address if they are resident in this country it is nonsense not to carry forward that principle to when they go abroad for the relevant period. It is inconsistent. The hon. Gentleman should strike at the basic problem or accept the consequences.

Dr. Marek

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that a student undertaking a course at a university well away from his normal residence should be treated, during a period abroad, as an overseas voter entitled to a vote at the place of study, even if he has been there for only one year?

Mr. Hogg

I am saying that if it is right for him to vote as a resident at the university, which is a fairly tenuous connection in any case, I do not think it a particular mischief for him to carry that address forward if he goes abroad. The problem lies more in multiple registration than in being abroad.

Mr. Beith

I am glad that the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) tabled the amendment, as it highlights one of the several difficulties arising from multiple registration and the way in which the concept of residence for registration purposes has been diluted in recent years. It has become apparent from a number of cases in both England and Scotland that what used to be understood by residence no longer holds in relation to electoral registration. It does not mean that the person lived or slept at the residence on the night, as in the case of the census, or was merely temporarily absent. It is possible to claim a number of residences at one and the same time on very general grounds. A person registered in several places can then choose where to exercise his vote.

The issue raised by the amendment is whether the person concerned should be able to exercise that choice from Tenerife, just as he can already exercise it from London, Liverpool or anywhere else in the United Kingdom. In other words, can he, as an overseas voter, exercise the same choice as he could within the United Kingdom? The amendment treats the symptom rather than the ailment. It is sometimes necessary to do that if the ailment cannot immediately be cured, but serious administrative difficulties arise. If we do not establish a procedure to check whether a person is resident where he claims to be resident in the United Kingdom, how can we do so in respect of the limited number of overseas claims? That is the basic problem.

As the problems of multiple registration will arise at several points in our consideration of the Bill, it is not without value that the Government have been required to consider them at this early stage. The idea that residence can be claimed and granted in respect of a large number of places strikes at the ordinary meaning of the word "residence", as the hon. Member for Wrexham pointed out. The use in the Bill of the phrase treated for the purposes of registration as resident underlines that problem.

I doubt whether the amendment can be made workable, although it seems to me even more illogical, undesirable and unfair to allow a person resident abroad to choose between several constituencies than for that to be possible from a base within the United Kingdom.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

I find the amendments somewhat strange and confusing. I should have thought that both categories of electors should be treated in exactly the same way. It seems unfair, and indeed contrary to the Labour party's views, to seek to increase democracy by trying to ensure that everyone in this country can exercise the vote while seeking to deny people that right if they have to go abroad to work or study, although they may have played an active part in the electoral process in the past.

I believe that the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) is more concerned about the practicalities of multiple registration. Certainly, one must always check very carefully against the electoral register to ensure that nobody votes more than once.

Dr. Marek

The hon. Gentleman is indeed confused. I am certainly not seeking to deny any student, or indeed anyone else, the right to vote as an overseas elector. I am merely seeking to ensure that he is registered and casts his vote according to his normal residence, not some artificial residence with which he has no strong links.

Mr. Bruinvels

A student registered both at his home address and at his university address may take one year of his course at the Sorbonne. The hon. Gentleman is surely not saying that such a person cannot choose the constituency in which he wishes to cast his vote. That would seem thoroughly unfair. I do not see why students should be treated differently from other people.

As the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has said, we shall be discussing multiple registration at several points in our consideration of the Bill. The electoral registration officers will perform their duties. I am sure that the hon. Member for Wrexham is not seeking to cast aspersions on them. It seems thoroughly unfair that a person who goes overseas should not be able to cast his vote in the constituency of his choice. So long as he keeps in touch with the United Kingdom—he may still be paying rates and taxes here—he should have the right to vote. I strongly oppose the amendment.

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

I am glad to have the opportunity to reply to the first substantive debate in the Committee. It has been a well informed debate and I hope that it sets the scene for those to come in the several days of our consideration of this matter.

I will deal first with the effect of the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) and then with the substantive point that he has raised, as that is clearly of more concern to him than drafting points. The effect of the amendment would be precisely that described by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) in his formidable address. My hon. Friend's contribution was all the better for being short and he made the two points that needed to be made. I shall reply in the same vein but at rather greater length.

The amendment would merely omit the provision whereby service voters are deemed to be resident at a particular address. Three years ago, voluntary patients were linked to that provision. If a person in either of those categories moved overseas the amendment would prevent his voting. I know that that is not the hon. Gentleman's intention, but that would be the effect of his amendment.

The hon. Gentleman is really concerned to narrow the choice of people registered in more than one constituency. Our provisions would use the definition of residence contained in the 1983 Act. That definition does not make any distinction in quality between the two qualifications which may be acceptable to the electoral officers of the constituencies concerned. The electoral officer has regard to the guidance of the courts, which have established that a person is entitled to registration in respect of a particular address if there is a substantial degree of permanence.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) pursues a lonely but dignified crusade against multiple registration.

Mr. Beith

It is not lonely.

Mr. Mellor

I meant by reference to some of his other crusades. Nevertheless, it has been held that a substantial degree of permanence can attach to more than one residence at the same time. That is why, as my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham has explained, it is difficult to address that matter in the Bill. I should say in defence of the draftsman that a good deal of effort has been made to try to ensure that the provisions do not become an excuse for people to do more picking and choosing other than on the one matter that has already been exposed. The Bill has been carefully drafted to ensure that where someone, within the qualifying period, has been registered in subsequent registers in different constituencies, he may qualify as an overseas elector only in respect of the last constituency in which he was registered.

It is recognised that some people may, within the seven-year period or whatever period the House may decide to be appropriate, have been registered in different constituencies in different years. That is taken care of. It is also carefully provided in clause 2 that a person may make an overseas elector's declaration only in respect of one constituency. If a person makes more than one declaration in a certain year, one for a first constituency and another for a second, the second declaration cancels the first. That is provided for by clause 2(5). Clause 2(4) provides that, if a person makes more than one declaration on the same day, both declarations are void.

5.30 pm

There is a difficulty if someone who wishes to qualify as an overseas elector is able to show that, when he was last registered in the United Kingdom, he was registered in two places. It is hard, within the definition of resident used throughout the 1983 consolidated statute which the Bill follows, to determine which residence has the greater permanence. That is not a judgment which the statute gives us a basis for making. I hope that the hon. Member for Wrexham will agree that, even if we were to conclude that it was desirable to try to establish which of the two residences was the more permanent, it would not be a very worthwhile exercise.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. He has uncovered the only occasion on which someone qualified as an overseas elector has a choice as to which constituency he should vote in. In drafting the legislation, we were at pains to avoid giving someone the opportunity to elect in which constituency he wanted to vote. Manifestly, some constituencies are more attractive than others to the individual elector. As the hon. Gentleman has percipiently noticed, the only exception occurs when, on the last occasion that a person was registered in the United Kingdom, he was registered in more than one place. As several hon. Members have acknowledged, it is an inevitable corollary of the existence of multiple registration—with which one may or may not agree—that someone in that position who then moves overseas should have a choice.

I hope that my explanation shows that we have thought about the problem and have sought to deal with the hon. Gentleman's point. However, I fear that I cannot offer him any hope that we could remove the option that exists in that narrow case.

Dr. Marek

I am grateful to the Minister for having had the matter considered by his Department. I only wish that some way could be found to limit people's choice. The situation is clearly undesirable, and finding a solution would be better for everyone. This is not a political point.

I hope that we shall be able to return to the substance of the amendments on Report if any new idea comes to mind. Meanwhile, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. William Powell (Corby)

I beg to move amendment No. 12, in page 2, line 14, leave out paragraph (c).

The Chairman

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments:

No. 14, in page 2, line 14, leave out 'seven' and insert 'five'.

No. 66, in page 2, line 14, leave out 'seven' and insert 'ten'.

No. 69, in page 2, line 14, after 'seven', insert 'or such other period, being not less than seven years as the Secretary of State may by order determine; and no order shall be made under this section unless a draft therefore has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament'. No. 30, in clause 3, page 5, line 8, leave out 'seven' and insert 'five'.

Mr. Powell

This group of amendments deals with the first major area of principle with which the Bill is concerned. Essentially, the amendments offer the Committee a choice. The Bill stipulates a period of seven years as the cut-off point for residents overseas beyond which they would not qualify to vote in this country. The official Opposition's amendment, No. 30 suggests five years. Amendment No. 66 suggests 10 years. The amendment in my name leaves the period at large.

It might not be inappropriate for me to observe that it is only once in a generation that Parliament considers major extensions to the franchise. There have been a number of measures over the years, but the last major debates on the representation of the people occurred in the 1940s. The right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) is the only veteran of those days. It may be another generation before we reconsider the laws relating to our franchise.

Clause 1 deals with an important issue of principle: who should qualify to vote in our elections? In making that choice, we must reflect on the fact that social conditions change over the decades. The social background to the debates of three decades or more ago was very different from that of today. First, it is plain that the population is much more mobile within our country. People move much more often than they used to. Secondly, it is much more likely that people will go abroad than used to be the case—allowing for the circumstances of the couple of years or so following the end of the second world war, when there were still substantial numbers of servicemen abroad. The number of British subjects working abroad at present may well run to a million or more, and they are to be found in every corner of the globe. Many of them—perhaps the great majority—

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

How can the hon. Gentleman give a minimum figure of a million when on Second Reading the Secretary of State estimated half a million and when, in answer to a question that I put down, the Home Office admitted that that figure was only an estimate?

Mr. Powell

As the right hon. Gentleman says, my figure is an estimate. I do not accept the estimate made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. My information, which has been drawn from a number of sources, suggests that the figure might be very much higher. At bottom one can only guess.

Sir Edward Gardner (Fylde)

I have no doubt that my hon. Friend has seen "The Government Reply to the First Report from the Home Affairs Committee", in paragraph 2.8 of which the Government estimate that of the roughly three million British citizens resident abroad perhaps 600,000 ar so are of voting age".

Mr. Powell

As there are no accurate statistics, we have to guess. It is clear that conditions exist today which make it much more likely that British subjects will serve abroad for a period. We already make provision to enable Crown servants and British service men, abroad for a temporary period, to vote. Such provision should be extended to a much larger number of people.

The cut-off point is a matter of judgment and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has opted for seven years. The House is now being asked to consider a series of different judgments. We are debating not the principle of whether the franchise should be extended to British subjects who are resident overseas, but for what period during their absence they should qualify to be registered. We should remember that registration is the crucial element in determining who is able to vote. The franchise rests only with British subjects resident abroad who have registered to vote. Figures that have been made available through the Library show that for France, which has a generous law towards its nationals who are resident abroad, although many qualify, few vote. There might be many reasons for that. Although some British subjects have left permanently and are therefore unlikely to want to register, many others have every intention of returning. The date of their return might be determined by a fixed contract. Although some might return after a fixed period of service, others have an open-ended contract and might return at any time.

Information that I have been given through the European Assembly suggests that there might be 250,000 British subjects living in the European Community who would qualify for registration if they were so minded. However, a large proportion of them would be excluded by the seven-year rule. I know people for whom seven years would be too short but who have every intention of returning to and retain substantial links with Britain. I have in mind a man who works in Greece. He is the highest sterling earner in Greece and is able to contribute substantially to our balance of payments through shipping and insurance. His children are at school here and he has a house here on which he pays rates. However, the house is let, so he does not qualify because he is not resident here on the qualifying date. We should also consider those who go to the orient. People who serve companies that are based substantially in the far east have to undergo an extensive period of training to learn Japanese or Chinese, for example. We often hear that the business man who seeks a contract must be in China for 10 years before getting the slightest idea that there might be a contract going. Nevertheless, such people intend to return to Britain at a convenient time.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

My hon. Friend seems to be arguing that, once a person who is registered in Britain goes abroad, he should have the privilege of having a share in choosing a Government in Britain although he has no property here, pays no rates, pays no taxes and makes no contribution to Britain. Is there not an argument for saying that people who are abroad in those circumstances and who do not retain their connection with Britain should be told that there is no representation without taxation?

5.45 pm
Mr. Powell

There is such an argument but it is not necessarily convincing. The principle of no taxation without representation has not been imported into our law and it would be a bad principle to import. If my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) were appointed a Commissioner to the European Community and he served two terms there lasting eight years, he might be able to retain a residence in Britain which he did not let. He would be able to return to that residence and qualify for registration. He would be able to continue to register because he could afford a second home. The people who will be discriminated against are those who are unable to afford a second home, which is a prerequisite to registration.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

Is my hon. Friend entirely right? I accept that someone who has a second home and who is resident here on the qualifying date has the franchise, but does he agree that it is not sufficient for that person to be here only during the night of the qualifying day? Must he not be resident in order to justify registration?

Mr. Powell

My hon. Friend might have stated the law, but I should be extremely surprised if the practice of registration was not that a person qualified as a result of being resident purely on the qualifying date. My hon. Friend's argument is fascinating and arcane, but I believe that residence on the one day is all that is required. That is why it is not unknown for people who are staying with friends on the relevant night sometimes to find that they are on the electoral roll. The form refers to only one day, although occupiers are told that it can be filled in in advance.

The amendments will set the pattern for the future. It may be a further generation before these matters are substantially reviewed. Although we may discuss whether the clause will stand part of the Bill, we are at present discussing the choice of four different periods — five years, seven years, 10 years and at large. The pace of social change is developing in such a way that we would be wise to opt for the longest period, that is, at large. Many people retain permanent connections in and intend to return to the United Kingdom. They would be excluded even under the seven-year rule. As we have allowed for the principle, it would be appropriate to take it to its full extent by eliminating paragraph (c), which my amendment seeks to do.

Mr. Kaufman

I wish to speak to amendments Nos. 14 and 30. As the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) said, we are not debating the principle of the expatriate vote. The Opposition remain totally opposed to the clause, and on clause stand part my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) will explain why we oppose it. As the hon. Gentleman said, these amendments deal with the content of the clause rather than with the principle behind it.

The hon. Gentleman advanced his case in a peculiar way. He admitted that he was providing what might be a massive franchise at a guess by offering the expatriate franchise at large. His reason for providing it was extremely dubious — that more British people travel abroad for longer periods now than was the case in previous generations and centuries. That is strange. The number of people who travelled from this country to colonise large parts of the world, which resulted in the British Empire and then the British Commonwealth, was larger in absolute numbers and far larger in proportionate numbers than those who travel abroad on short contracts now. There has been no change in the social circumstances. The change that could justify his amendment, were it to be justified, is the change in the methods of communication, which make it theoretically possible for a ballot paper to be sent to distant parts and returned. The reliability of a ballot paper reaching its destination and being returned on time must take account of the extremely dubious record on reliability of certain overseas post offices, but I do not wish to go into that now.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise a further difference, which is that the improvement in communications and in the media enables people resident abroad to follow and retain an interest in affairs in the United Kingdom to a greater extent than was previously possible?

Mr. Kaufman

If the hon. Gentleman means that people resident abroad can gain through newspapers knowledge of what is taking place in the United Kingdom, it depends on which newspaper they read. If he means that they obtain information via the electronic media, the coverage, for example, in Nepal of affairs in the United Kingdom is minimal, not necessarily representative and, therefore, proportionately satisfactory.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

The right hon. Gentleman probably underestimates the effectiveness of electronic communications in conveying news, and the high standard of communications of the BBC world service abroad, which may even be higher than its service within the United Kingdom. When I travelled in the Punjab recently, I heard the results of a match between Brora Rangers and Keith Athletic. That is a remarkable piece of information which few Scottish newspapers carried.

Mr. Kaufman

Presumably the hon. Gentleman would base the casting of his vote on such a consideration.

The principle will be debated on clause stand part. I speak to amendments Nos. 14 and 30, which reduce the period from seven to five years. The Opposition believe that, if the Committee unwisely decides to endorse this principle, it is right to limit its scope.

As the Bill stands with the seven-year period, the expatriate franchise could include two general elections and any intervening by-elections. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) pointed out, the link with this country of a person who is abroad grows weaker as the period of absence extends. A person who remains out of the United Kingdom for two general elections cannot claim the right to participate in displacing or endorsing a Government under which that person has not lived. Such a person has not paid that Government's taxes, and has not experienced that Government's policies at first hand. His connection with the United Kingdom will have grown tenuous, and will at best be second hand and gained from listening to whatever uncertain communications there may be on the BBC world service and from buying the overseas edition of The Times, the Daily Mail, or whatever.

We have a constituency system of parliamentary elections. Under it a person votes not for a Government but for a Member of Parliament to represent him or her. An overseas voter who has not lived in the constituency in which he or she has a right to vote will not be in direct contact with the issues and problems of the constituency. As a parent, he will not have experienced the education system or been able to campaign about school closures. As a sick person he will not have used the National Health Service, been in hospital or been able to form an opinion about health provision. As a driver, he will not have used the roads or public transport and, therefore, cannot know about those issues. He will not have been a householder who has paid rates and, therefore cannot have an opinion about local government finance policy, the rate support grant policy and other matters which form the nexus of issues on which people base their vote.

Mr. Beith

The same gentleman might have experienced the nationality of his children being threatened by legislation introduced by the Government, might have had his taxation substantially altered, favourably or unfavourably, and might have had the services of the British consulate removed from the place in which he lived.

6 pm

Mr. Kaufman

He might even have been blown up by a British nuclear weapon, in which case the matter would not arise. Such a person will not have been able to play a direct part in the affairs of the constituency, even so limited a part as signing a petition, or the major part of being active in a political party, residents association, ratepayers association, the women's voluntary service, the scouts, ex-service men's associations, or any of the organisations that make up the web of community that exists in Britain and in which those who live outside the country cannot participate.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if a person who ordinarily resides abroad were permitted to vote in more than one general election, subsequent to the passing of the Bill, those accumulated votes could influence the outcome of a general election?

Mr. Kaufman

That is true. The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) has a colleague who was elected with a majority of only seven votes at the general election. It would be perfectly possible in a general election, with the Government's estimate of an average of 800 such votes in each constituency, for a result to be swayed by those votes. In a narrowly contested general election, of which we have had three during the past 20 years, it may be possible for the Government to be changed as a result of the casting of such expatriate votes.

What is more, it is extremely unlikely that someone who benefits from the expatriate franchise will have had personal contact with the candidates opposing the sitting Member of Parliament, although at some stage before he left the country, he may have met or corresponded with the Member. If this fancy franchise is to be invented, it should be limited to one statutory length Parliament, during part of which it is likely that the voter would have had a chance to live under the Government on whom he would be delivering a verdict, and during which he would have observed and experienced the services of the Member of Parliament for whom he would vote. An elector who has lived in Britain for part of the Parliament which will end with the general election in which he has an expatriate vote should have been able to shoulder the burden, if there was any, and to reap the benefit, should there be any, of the Government upon whom he will deliver a verdict. He should also have had the chance to meet the sitting Member of Parliament and to become involved, to some extent, in local issues. He will at least have paid some taxes.

I do not know whether the gentleman who has done the country so much long-distance benefit from Greece has also been sending cheques regularly to the Treasury as part of his contribution to the nation's well-being; he will not have paid rates; he will not have paid domestic telephone bills; he will not have paid fuel charges; he will not have experienced all of the burdens upon which citizens have the right to express an opinion when they cast their votes in a general election.

We believe that five years is a reasonably long time for anyone to be away from the country and yet have a definite intention of returning. We are dealing with the absence from the country of the entire family. If the rest of the family stays in Britain and is resident here, while the person applying for the vote is absent, the latter will almost certainly retain the potential for a residential qualification. If he has residence, he retains vicariously, and possibly personally, all the obligations except the payment of income tax.

Our amendment stretches the benefit in favour of the applicant, because it could allow him to vote in a by-election in which he would not know the would-be successor to the Member of Parliament who had vacated the seat, although he might know his opponents, if they had previously been candidates in an election when he was still resident in Britain. As by-elections have developed in recent years, they have concentrated much more on special rather than general issues, and on local as well as national issues. If we make it possible for him to vote in a by-election, we shall have extended the benefits of this dubious franchise as wide as they should go.

To go beyond five years—the statutory length of a Parliament—would stretch the theoretical residential qualification to the point of mockery. The fact bears repeating that the British franchise is based not only upon the constituency but on residence, as the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, albeit in a different context. What makes this franchise fancier than any other fancy franchise that we have had for a long time—certainly since the abolition of the university vote—is that it is based not on residence but on option. That being so, it should not be a franchise at large, as proposed by the hon. Member for Corby, but it should be strictly limited to the length of one normal Parliament. The hon. Gentleman's amendment would allow someone a voice in the Government of the country without having experienced the effects of that Government.

Our contention is that five years is the maximum for which any logical and democratic justification can be found for the expatriate franchise. That is why we shall ask the Committee to accept our amendment.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

I am pleased to support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell), which stands also in my name.

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) seemed to position himself in an awkward corner as a small islander among the Socialist internationals. To try to attach importance to the size of the group whose enfranchising we are discussing is completely immaterial to the debate. As other hon. Members have said, that becomes more irrational as communications become easier. The communications aspect applies not only to the delivery of the vote, or the ability to vote—the ballot paper—through increasingly speedy mails, but to the ability of those who live abroad, sometimes very far away, to visit Britain regularly.

I speak from personal experience. I lived in the United States of America for almost eight years, which, under the Bill as it stands, would disfranchise me in British elections. However, I had every intention of returning to Britain, as I did, and I visited Britain regularly — sometimes as many as three times a year. That is not a picture of someone losing his roots in or connections with Britain, or of someone experiencing vicariously what the country was going through during that period.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

Does my hon. Friend not attach importance to the issue already raised by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman)—that in this country we vote for candidates in a single constituency, and that the longer the period that has elapsed, the less is the likelihood that the individual will have a close connection with the constituency, particularly as the information which he obtains about affairs in the constituency while he is abroad is likely to be small? I have much sympathy for the proposition that five years, rather than seven, would be appropriate, bearing in mind that that is approximately the length of one Parliament.

Mr. Rathbone

I anticipated that point and will return to it in a moment.

There is nothing peculiar in this country in voting for a candidate in a constituency. It may be called something different in other parts of the world, and almost always is, but in almost all electoral systems people vote for a candidate or, in some cases, a series of candidates from one geographical area.

To take up another point raised by the right hon. Member for Gorton — representation being tied to taxation—we have all been brought up with, and I think abide by, the thesis of no taxation without representation. When that is turned on its head it becomes an incredibly peculiar statement, particularly from the Opposition. By taking that line the right hon. Gentleman is saying that only those who pay taxes should have the right to vote. Many people right now vote legally, straightforwardly and regularly, yet may not pay income tax, capital taxation, local taxes or even indirect taxes because of the narrowness of the way that VAT is drawn. [Interruption.] It is conceivable. The right hon. Gentleman may not have them in his constituency, but I have them in mine. If he ties the right to vote to having established that right through paying taxes, he is starting down a most uncomfortable route.

Dr. Marek

Although the people to whom the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) is referring may not pay taxes directly, every time they go to a shop they pay tax. More important, they place themselves under a liability to pay tax.

Mr. Rathbone

The hon. Gentleman has raised a good point. His right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton did not make that point. It would be very difficult to measure when a person had made himself available to pay taxes to an extent sufficient to earn the vote. For instance, on that line of argument, every visitor to this country pays taxes when he makes purchases. Does he automatically have the right to vote? I do not think the right hon. Gentleman would argue that.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

The hon. Gentleman said that when he was living in America for eight years he visited this country regularly. Presumably on entering Heathrow he became eligible to pay tax indirectly. Can he tell me who does not pay tax in Britain? I am fascinated by the concept that somebody does not pay tax in some way.

Mr. Rathbone

I have just deployed the argument. If we are referring to direct taxation, I can produce instances. If it is indirect taxation, many people are disfranchised, because they pay taxes from time to time on a visiting basis. On that line of argument they should be given the right to vote. What is marvellous about this discussion is that it illustrates so beautifully how complicated is the whole attempt to tie representation in any way to the payment of taxes. That was the line that the right hon. Member for Gorton was pursuing. It should not bear any consideration by us.

Mr. Stanbrook

My hon. Friend is asking that people who will live perhaps thousands of miles away from this country for the rest of their lives may take part in deciding what sort of Government we should have, even though they make no contribution to the welfare of the country. Surely that is the basic argument, apart from the argument about taxation. The basic question is; what are the people to whom my hon. Friend is referring contributing for the privilege of helping to determine the Government of the country?

6.15 pm
Mr. Rathbone

It is difficult to measure. Opposition Members should not laugh, because it is a serious point. The fact that a person is living on the other side of the world does not mean that he is not contributing to the welfare of the country. Many of the people we are talking about are making a direct contribution — perhaps by payments to their families, by payments for educating their children, by a contribution to a pension plan or a retirement fund, or in innumerable other ways. They may also be making a contribution by way of improving exports to the countries in which they are living by developing contacts for future services and exports to those countries. Why should we apply such measurements only to people who are living abroad? Why not apply them to people living in this country? We would tread a very dangerous path if we were to start to try to qualify by behaviour someone's right to vote.

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. Gentleman is reaching a point that I wanted to make. Once one starts weighing the contribution to the country, one is indeed in difficulty. Some of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues might say that those who have been unemployed and supported by the state for a certain time should be deprived of the vote.

Mr. Rathbone

I very much doubt whether that was in the mind of any of my hon. Friends. It is a dishonourable suggestion. All sorts of qualifications — honourable, dishonourable or somewhere between the two — might be applied to individuals. Thank goodness, years ago we moved away from a property or any other qualitative qualification for the right to vote.

On Second Reading I pointed out that other countries operate a reasonable system of establishment of a right to vote in perpetuity for citizens living abroad. There are six bases on which a French citizen can establish a right to vote—in the commune of birth, in the commune of last domicile, in the commune of last residence, in the commune where one of his antecedents is or has been registered, in the commune on the electoral register of which one of his children is registered, or in any commune of choice of more than 30,000 inhabitants. That is a broad spectrum under which a French citizen living abroad, for whatever period of time, can register his right to vote. That encourages the French citizen who is living abroad to participate in what is going on in his country and to vote accordingly.

Mr. Ron Hayward (Kingswood)

Does my hon. Friend not find it amazing, as the French people do, that senior employees of Airbus Industrie, who are contributing to the general wealth of Europe — of Britain, France and Germany—and who are resident in Toulouse, are not able to vote because they have been resident as senior salesmen there for many years? It is a cause of some amazement to the French that British citizens in that position, helping the European export effort, are not able to vote in their own country.

Mr. Rathbone

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that pertinent illustration of the point that I was making, showing the contrast with the situation applying to French nationals. Parallels are often drawn between the constitutions of this country and those of France and the United States. Sometimes they are parallel, but in some respects they have diverged, and two of the three have more liberal ways of allowing their citizens to vote.

The United States guarantees the constitutional right to vote to those who live outside the United States of America, subject to two conditions: first, proper registration within the person's state of residence; and, secondly, that the person has a valid United States of America passport, a national identity card or other national registration card. That is a timeless and basic right of United States of America citizens.

One should look warily at the conclusion that a period of time is any illustration of the links that one has with one's country. There are those who have lived abroad for many years, perhaps even decades, who are extremely close to this country, who follow matters here and who visit and have relatives and interests in this country. Though they are incredibly tied to Britain, it is ludicrous that they should not have the right to vote here.

There are those who have gone away for two years and who feel completely divorced from this country, who have no interest in what goes on here, who have re-established their families perhaps on the far side of the world and who never think about Britain, or, if they do, it is of no importance in their lives.

I plead with the Home Secretary to reconsider the matter. It is, of course, his intent to try to strike an agreement with the Opposition on an important constitutional development which, as has been pointed out, comes once in a blue moon. In this part of this constitutional reform, a part which will affect so many people—though "many" is not the important quotient—it is for those who might have the right to vote if they did not have the time barrier to that voting that I ask his reconsideration.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

The hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) was right to stress the fundamental importance of this debate, because it goes to the underlying principle of our representation. We are, after all, considering the constitution of the House, the manner in which hon. Members are elected to compose the House and, thereby, to decide the nature of the Government and, to some degree, to keep control over the policies and administration of the Government.

Our representation in this House never has been a representation of all who are British citizens, wherever they may be in the world. As the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) pointed out, that is an alternative approach which other democracies, such as France and the United States, have taken. That is not the principle on which this House is, or has been, constituted. It has been constituted on the principle of geographic identity and representation, and the election of a person responsible for the representation of that constituency. It is, in a sense, a congress of constituencies.

The Government find themselves in the difficulty of falling between the two alternative principles. They have moved away from the principle of geographical representation and have appeared to embrace the principle of citizenship. Yet they have settled down in a middle position, where the principle of citizenship is qualified by the length of last registration in a constituency in the United Kingdom. The anomaly of their position is amusingly illustrated in clause 2 (3) (b), which requires that the declarant must be a British citizen.

Under our existing law, a citizen of the Irish Republic, if he is resident in a constituency in the United Kingdom, is a parliamentary elector in that constituency. The Government do not propose to say in the Bill that he has been registered in a constituency, that he has been away for only seven years and that therefore he can still vote in that constituency. They place citizenship as the deciding criterion of his qualification when he is not resident in the United Kingdom. That illustrates the anomaly and contradiction of attempting to combine a geographical representation, as we essentially have it in this House, with a citizenship representation of those living outside.

Any effort to find a criterion which will satisfactorily identify persons not living in a constituency and who should help in deciding the outcome of an election in that constituency proves to be a failure. One criterion which has been quoted is that of intention, and we have been told, "Here are British citizens who lie abroad for the good of their country," as it used to be said of British ambassadors, "and, dear folk, they have the intention of returning home one day."

Maybe they do, and maybe they do not. There is no means of ascertaining that or of foreseeing its fulfilment. And in any case, where should they then be registered? Should they be registered and able to vote in the constituency in which they were born and perhaps brought up—say a mining constituency in west Yorkshire—even though, owing to the course of their career and success in a commercial life, Torquay, Bournemouth, Eastbourne or some lush area in the home counties may be their intended place of eventual sojourn?

Mr. Douglas Hogg

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is wrong to focus on the constituency in which the vote is to be cast. He should begin by asking whether it is just to deprive such a person of a vote. If the answer is that it is not just, it then becomes a matter of mechanics as to where the vote is cast.

Mr. Powell

If the vote is given the mechanics must follow, but I do not accept any recognisable criterion of justice. We are concerned with the application of a system, and it is incompatible with the system on which this House is constituted that we should extend the franchise to British citizens wherever they may be in the world and whatever may be their relationship with this country. Still less satisfactory has been the criterion of the benefits which they confer on the home country. It would go ill with many of us if we had to explain to the registration officer the benefit that we confer on the United Kingdom before he would agree to register us at the address where we are resident. That illustrates the difficulty of arguing a case on some preconceived principle of justice or fairness for those who have no local identification in this country to enjoy the franchise.

6.30 pm

The difficulty in which the Government find themselves is shared by the Opposition in endeavouring to modify the principle in the clause as it stands. It was ingenious, I admit, of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) to argue that five years is the length of a Parliament and that after five years, if a Parliament has run its full length, there will be another show on the road. However, on any logical consideration, five years is no more satisfactory than seven years as an arbitrary dividing line between those who are identifiable with a constituency by the simple fact that they live there, that their home is in that constituency and that they are part of the local community, and the alternative principle, towards which the Government have partially lurched, of conferring the franchise upon all citizens, wherever they may be. It seems to me that the right hon. Gentleman is on firmer ground in rejecting that principle when we come to consider the clause.

My right hon. and hon. Friends and I believe that the new principle that we are trying partially to shoehorn into our constitution is not acceptable. Therefore, we shall oppose the Question, That the clause stand part of the Bill. However, as five years is, so to speak, a lesser evil than the seven years of the unsatisfactory arrangement in the clause as it stands, then five years be it, rather then seven, though there is little of a logical character to be urged in favour of that choice.

Mr. Beith

A fascinating picture has been painted for us tonight, in particular by the Opposition Front Bench. It is the picture of the properly qualified voter, the person who reads a good newspaper and is familiar with the political events of this country, who follows closely in the electronic media, as they were described, the to-ings and fro-ings of British politics, who pays his taxes and rates, who knows, and has had personal contact with, the candidates standing in the constituency in which he intends to vote and who genuinely resides at the place in which he has an electoral qualification. Those are all the characteristics which, it is said, persons living abroad lack. Therefore, they are the reasons why they should not have the franchise extended to them for five years, seven years or for an indefinite period, as proposed at the start of this debate.

All hon. Members know that if those were to be the relevant criteria we could challenge almost every voter who comes into a polling station. Indeed, there is a provision for party agents to be present in the polling stations and to challenge voters. If they could apply those criteria as well as the criteria which they can now apply, such as being the person one claims to be, they would have a field day. Very few voters in any of our parties would get over the threshold. Therefore, we begin with an unrealistic picture. It is unrealistic in this sense. I refer to the last of the qualifications that I mentioned. It assumes that a person is always genuinely resident in the place for which he has an electoral qualification.

The point is that we are now debating not whether we should give the vote for five or seven years to persons who are working abroad, but whether we should extend the franchise to those who have been unable to maintain a residential qualification in this country by means of ownership or occupation of property. We are talking about extending the franchise to many who are probably the less well off among those who are working abroad: those who have been unable to preserve their electoral rights in Britain by owning property and filling in forms relating to that property in the United Kingdom.

As was pointed out earlier, those who are reasonably well off will probably have opted, for other reasons, to maintain a residence in this country and perhaps not to let it out, so as to be in a position to fill in annually the form that keeps them on the electoral register. As many hon. Members know, it is by no means necessary to complete the householder's form year after year in order to remain on the electoral register. The tendency is for names to remain on the register unless evidence is produced that they ought to be taken off it. Therefore, very many people who now live overseas, some of whom may suffer from the serious disadvantages mentioned by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman)—that they have not read the overseas edition of The Times and have not paid their taxes—are qualified to vote because of their occupation of property in this country, while others do not qualify.

It is to the generally less well endowed category, those who have been unable to preserve a residential qualification in this country, that the amendments to this clause are addressed. They include people who work for international institutions like the United Nations, the European Community, people in trading activities, missionaries and those who are engaged in low-paid service overseas, including an increasing number of manual workers. If there has been a social change in recent years, it is probably reflected by the increase in the number of manual workers who go, for example, to work for a number of years in the Gulf states, where work is available in the construction industry.

Therefore, we are referring to a range of people, some of whom have votes and some of whom do not, entirely according to whether they have been able to maintain property in this country. There is no reason to assume, as some hon. Members who have criticised this proposal have assumed, that links with this country tend to diminish as time passes. I know of no basis for that assumption. Indeed, there is considerable evidence to suggest that those who are forced to be absent from this country for a longer period develop an increasing affection for, and sometimes a concern to return to, this country. There is no evidence to suggest that a period of absence from this country reduces involvement and commitment.

I am very glad that tonight the right hon. Member for Gorton did not use the arguments relating to bank robbers who are resident in Spain—arguments which seemed to carry with them the underlying assumption that all of those who live abroad are tarred with the same brush and display some kind of basic disloyalty to this country. It may be that the right hon. Gentleman is saving those arguments for the debate on clause stand apart, but he has concentrated until now upon the more limited argument relating to qualification.

The Government sought initially to exercise a judgment about the period for which it was reasonable to give an electoral qualification to those who had been unable to preserve one by having maintained a residence in this country. The Government decided upon seven years. If newspaper reports are to be believed, there is reason to believe that the Government may be persuaded by the Labour party's argument that if we are to extend the franchise we should do so only for five years, not for seven, thus reducing the effect to the period of one Parliament and one general election. I am opposed to that reduction. I have put down an amendment stating that we should consider a period of 10 years. That period might be more widely accepted.

I sympathise with the argument of the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) that there is no obvious reason for setting a time limit upon this qualification. I accept the view that the qualification can continue indefinitely. Indeed, there are a very large number of people who have looked for redress of what they consider to be an injustice in this legislation but who will not get it because they have already been working abroad for more than five or seven years and, in doing so, have been serving the interests of this country.

There is something fundamentally ill-advised about bringing forward a legislative proposal that is designed to remedy an injustice, only to find that the proposal does not serve to remedy the grievance. The sense of injustice is perhaps greatest among those who have been working abroad for five, six, seven, eight, or 10 years, very many of whom are working in the interests of this country. If those people, by the limitations imposed by these amendments, do not get relief from injustice, what purpose have we served? That is why I am so critical of a limitation even to seven years. I am even more critical of a limitation to five years. I believe that we have aroused expectations. Indeed, the speech of the Secretary of State for the Home Department to the Conservative party conference helped to arouse the expectation that something would be done about what is felt to be a real grievance.

It is certainly felt to be a grievance when set alongside the practice of so many other countries which rate their citizenship more highly than do we. British citizens working abroad feel that almost every other country in the world sets a greater store by the standing of its citizens working abroad and makes a more genuine assumption about their loyalty than do the British Government. That feeling will be even stronger and will not be assuaged if we give the impression that we are legislating to remove this grievance, and yet so limit the offer—in this case five years—that many will not benefit at all, while those who do benefit will be lucky if they get a vote at one general election.

Charles Hargrove, better known as a former correspondent of The Times, but now the chairman of the British Conservative Association in France, makes the point in a letter which he has written to my right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal party. He said: The Government has at last acknowledged that voting rights should be attached to British citizenship but has nevertheless included a restriction that is justifiable neither in principle nor in practical politics, i.e., to limit the voting right to those who have been abroad for less than seven years—on the grounds that, beyond this time limit, a Briton's links with his mother country would have become too tenuous. We argue from direct personal experience that the facts belie this assumption. Loyalty to Britain, and the willingness to defend and promote British interests, cannot be determined by a fixed time limit. I share his view and I think that it is a mistake for the House to arouse the expectation that the Bill will remedy a real sense of injustice and then so to limit that remedy that it does not prove to be a remedy at all.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

The approach of the right hon. Members for South Down (Mr. Powell) and for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) to this matter is uncharacteristically narrow. The approach of the right hon. Member for South Down has essentially been to ask whether it is right that a person resident abroad should have a vote in a constituency from which he has long departed. Answering that question in the negative, he goes on to be critical of the general approach adopted by the Government. That is the wrong approach for the reason that I shall shortly mention. The first question to ask is whether it is right to deprive of a vote a British citizen who intends to return. If the answer is that it is not right to deprive such a person of a vote, we have a lesser question as to the place of voting.

The Labour party, in this matter as in others, is extremely reluctant to see the franchise enlarged. Indeed, it is putting itself in the rather bizarre position, as has been described by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), of arguing in favour of something approaching a property, rate-paying, tax-paying, education—[Interruption.]—or residential qualification. The right hon. Members for South Down and for Gorton ignore the much broader consideration which is raised in the debate — the concept of loyalty, of allegiance, of affinity. That is a matter which the right hon. Member for South Down often comes to in other contexts — allegiance, affinity, loyalty or blood. All those justify the proposition that British citizens resident abroad have, prima facie, a right to vote.

Mr. Kaufman

Does the hon. Gentleman regard it as a sign of loyalty to nip off to the Channel Islands or somewhere else to dodge tax?

Mr. Hogg

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman asked that question. I shall come to it later when the House deals with amendment No. 29 which he has tabled. I support amendment No. 29 because it is undesirable that people who have renounced their domicile of origin should have a vote. But that is a narrow point. I take his point in so far as it goes, but it does not go to the root of the matter. The root of the matter is allegiance and affinity. If a person has undiluted allegiance and affinity to Britain, prima facie he has a right to vote.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

Will the hon. Gentleman explain how he evaluates allegiance, loyalty and affinity? If he can define and judge whether somebody truly has loyalty and allegiance, he may carry more hon. Members with him, but I suspect that with such abstract concepts he will be hard put to say that he can identify loyalty in one man but not in another.

6.45 pm
Mr. Hogg

There are two answers to the question that the hon. Gentleman has fairly posed. The first is that if a person does not have the allegiance and affinity of which I have spoken he is not likely to want to cast a vote. In a sense, the casting of a vote is the manifestation of the affinity and allegiance. I accept that that is a subjective judgment and the hon. Gentleman may take a different view, but I think that it is a view that will be shared by many hon. Members.

In the end it comes to a question of balance. Where do we strike the balance in such matters? I would rather ensure that everybody who deserves a vote has a vote, even if it includes a few unworthy folk, rather than, in the desire to exclude all unworthy folk, exclude people who should, in all conscience, have a vote. I would rather err on the side of enlarging the franchise than on the side of restricting it. Those are the two answers that I would give to the hon. Gentleman.

I have tabled amendments Nos. 66 and 69. Amendment No. 66 provides for the same term of 10 years as that proposed by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. There is no great magic in seven or 10 years, but because I am in favour of enlarging the period I go for 10 rather than seven or five years.

Amendment No. 69 is a little more important because it gives my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department the power to alter the period. I envisage a power to extend what I hope will be a 10-year period to a longer period, subject to an affirmative resolution of the House. The justification for that is that in the course of time many of the fears that have been put forward in the debate will seem to be misplaced. People will come to realise the injustice of excluding people from the franchise. If that is the view, it is right that we should enlarge the period. As has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell), it is rare that the House has a chance to discuss election matters of this kind. To find time for primary legislation to enlarge the period would be difficult. Therefore, I prefer to do it by way of delegated legislation subject to an affirmative resolution of the House.

Mr. Fisher

By using the word "subjective" the hon. Gentleman gives away his case. He is making a value judgment about those abstract virtues which he suggests should be the qualification. The charm of the right to vote by a residential qualification is that no value judgment is made. If the hon. Gentleman has to make a value judgment, he puts himself in an impossible position. He can surely see the distinction between an objective test and a subjective value judgment.

Mr. Hogg

All questions that deal with justice are in the end subjective in their character. What is just or unjust is essentially a subjective test. Absolute standards cannot be applied. I am asking the House to form a collective view, albeit subjective, as to what is just, and I have put forward my arguments.

Mr. Bermingham

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that were amendment No. 69 to become law it would give the Secretary of State an awesome power to alter the voting pattern in Britain? He could shorten or lengthen the period depending on whether it was in his interests. That would make it a recipe for gerrymandering.

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman does not understand the real purport of amendment No. 69. It deals only with the period relevant to the overseas voter. That is the only period that can be altered — in this case from seven years to whatever period might be desired. But it is subject to an affirmative resolution of the House, not a negative resolution. It must have the affirmative approval of the House. That is a device to avoid the difficulty of bringing the matter back by way of primary legislation. If we rely on that, we shall never have the matter back in our lifetime.

Mr. Bermingham

With great respect, the hon. Gentleman misses the point. If the amendment were to become part of the Bill the Secretary of State would be in a position, if he thought it in his interests to do so, to pass a resolution in order to enhance the period for the overseas voter. The Secretary of State tends to belong to the governing party which tends to command a majority in the House. Therefore, for purely political ends the Secretary of State could alter the period to his party's advantage, and that is something that we have never permitted.

Mr. Hogg

As I would expect of the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham), that is an ingenious argument, but, as I would also expect of him, it is wholly wrong, for this cogent reason. We cannot tell, for example, how many overseas voters there are.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Have a guess.

Mr. Hogg

Far less can we tell what are the political affiliations of overseas voters. I am sure that, being well advised, they are all Conservatives, but that may change in the course of time.

The point I seek to make is that no Secretary of State can form a very clear view of the political affiliations of overseas voters. If we are indeed vexed with this question, we should be much more vexed with the position which enables the Prime Minister to call an election as and when the Prime Minister chooses. That is a much greater power in this context than any power that the Bill may give to the Secretary of State for the Home Department.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

I am glad to have the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg). I seek to reply first to the point that the hon. Gentleman made at the beginning of his remarks, when he said that the question—and he seemed to imply the sole question—that we should ask is whether it is unjust for individuals who are expatriates from the country to be denied the vote. He seemed to suggest that that was the sole matter that we had to decide and that that injustice should be remedied.

I can understand that many thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of people serving this country perfectly well—and, of course retaining allegiance to this country—all over the world are in that position and feel that sense of grievance. It may be that sense of grievance partly which has given rise to the amendment, although I shall come to some more esoteric points in a moment. But it cannot be that that is the sole question to be decided. However much our sympathy may be for persons placed in that situation, it is the responsibility—not the right, but the duty—of the House of Commons to decide what would be the effect of applying that principle to the constitution of the country as it currently operates.

The argument that has been put forward on this aspect—and the hon. Gentleman made no attempt to reply to it — is overwhelming. If the vote is afforded to expatriates, some advantage may be given in removing an injustice for some individuals, but serious injury will be inflicted on the constitution. That has to be taken into account. Those matters must be accepted, or at least understood and argued in the House of Commons by hon. Members.

I do not expect the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) to apply his mind to these matters, because the Liberal party has long since abandoned any idea of sustaining the principle that we should uphold the doctrine that a Member of Parliament represents his constituency. Most hon. Members have considered that to be a very important principle. Indeed, I believe it is one of the principles that have enabled our democracy to be a better and more adult democracy in some respects than democracies of many other countries. I say that in no boasting or, I hope, chauvinistic spirit. However, we know that the Liberal party and, in latter days, catching up a little breathlessly, the Social Democratic alliance, have long since abandoned that principle on the high ground that it would suit their members to move a system of proportional representation. They have not concealed their view. Nobody can accuse them of that. But they have elevated it into the highest principle of all.

On some occasions the leader of the Social Democrats, or the leader of the Liberals—I forget which, but I dare say that they are interchangeable in this respect, if not in others—has insisted that, after any election in which there was a balance, the most essential principle that would need to be settled beyond anything to deal with unemployment, the cost of living, foreign policy or nuclear weapons would be satisfying the demand of the Social Democrats and Liberals for proportional representation. Thus, the Social Democrats and the Liberals elevate this to a very high place. It cannot be placed higher. If that is the situation, we do not expect any sympathy from them.

I was slightly surprised by the second reason advanced by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed for wanting to tear up this part of the constitution. It was that high expectations on this subject were aroused at the Conservative party conference, and he thought that those expectations should be satisfied. It is the first time that I have ever heard a spokesman for the Liberal party say that we must satisfy that monstrous regiment of men and women who assemble at the Conservative party conference. I shall come to them in a moment because they are relevant to the debate. I do not expect for a moment that we shall have any support from the Liberal party or the latter-come-lately Social Democrats on the subject. A few years ago they were not so passionate about proportional representation and tearing up the relationship between the Member of Parliament and his constituency, but they are now. However, I shall leave them aside.

I agree entirely with what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). The amendment that he has tabled is not, of course, even a second best; nor does he claim it to be so. He said that it is a modification of one of the worst parts of the Bill. It is, I suppose, one of the simplest axioms of our modern politics that any amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend is better than one tabled by the Home Secretary. In this case, I am sure that that is true. On that basis alone, I would be happy to go into the Lobby with my right hon. Friend, just as I am happy to accept his views on almost every subject. I do that in this case with slight reluctance, as he will understand, for the very arguments that he advanced. It is difficult to make anything resembling a silk purse out of this sow's ear of a Bill. It cannot be done. My right hon. Friend can have no great expectation of success in that enterprise. If any Member could do it, my right hon. Friend could, but it cannot be done. I suppose that that is the worst part of a bad Bill.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone), who supports the amendment, got into some very deep water. He said that the numbers do not count. The implication of the hon. Member for Grantham is that the numbers do not count. Under the present arrangements, if the numbers of people voting in a general election to decide the Government of a country were to be the equivalent of, say, half the total electorate, would anybody be fool enough to suggest that it would not matter if half of them paid taxes and half did not?

The principle of the numbers is, therefore, very important. The numbers of those who are to be included in the Bill is important. We have not been given the answers yet, and we do not know whether we shall be advised of them. I know that an amendment has been tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton which deals specifically with this matter. That amendment, as I understand it, will not allow the Government to go ahead with the Bill until they have given detailed evidence of the numbers involved. Of course we are entitled to know what the numbers are, because they could significantly alter the situation.

The argument of the hon. Member for Grantham, that many people in the country do not pay taxes, is nonsense. The Bill proposes — and this is novel in our constitutional procedure, as far as I know—that people who do not pay taxes are deliberately to be given votes. If that principle is to be incorporated in our constitutional or electoral practice, it ought to have been properly discussed. According to the Liberal party, it was discussed at the Conservative party conference, and that is enough for the Liberal party. As long as it was discussed there and got a thumping vote, the Liberals support it.

Mr. Beith

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept, as I did, that the Home Secretary appeared to be addressing himself at the time not to the Conservative party conference but to a far wider audience, and that the expectations that he aroused were not in that body but among those overseas who might obtain the vote? Should a person in this country who, by the very extent of his poverty, has had no income and therefore has paid no taxes for a period of time be deprived of the vote?

7 pm

Mr. Foot

I am not in favour of depriving anyone of the vote if he has residential qualifications in this country. If the hon. Gentleman is seeking to build the whole of his great fabric of change in the constitution on that slender basis, the edifice will collapse even quicker than the structure that he proposed in his previous argument, and that was pretty weak. The hon. Gentleman should think rather more carefully. We are talking about a considerable number of people in different parts of the world who will have the power to settle elections in this country and results in individual constituencies without having participated in any of the normal processes of electoral appeal.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has poured scorn on all the methods by which we, as humdrum candidates, try to put over our views—for example, the reading of newspapers. I suppose that people are still entitled to read The Times if they want to do so and not to be jeered at by representatives of the Liberal party for engaging in such an extraordinary activity. I do not claim that I am always successful in elections, but the methods by which we decide them are pretty good. If the methods are to be changed, there must be good reasons for doing so.

By considering these issues in Committee, I believe that we are illustrating our case even more clearly than if we were having a full discussion on the principle. That is often the result of detailed discussion on what the Government propose. It is a form of discussion which exposes their case all the more clearly. In this instance it has exposed the fact that there should have been proper discussion between the parties. I know that the Home Secretary mocks that view. I know also that he has the Select Committee up his sleeve, or something of that sort. However, we do not have government by Select Committees. Select Committees are not fitting substitutes for proper consultation between the parties. The hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Powell), who moved the amendment, said that there had been hardly any discussions or debates on Representation of the People Bills since the 1945 Parliament, of which I was a member. I think that there have been more debates than the hon. Gentleman recalls, but I take his point.

It is true that this is a major Bill which involves an unspecified extension of the franchise in a way that we considered previously not to be right and which many of us still believe to be wrong in principle. If the Government wanted to go ahead with such a proposition, it was their duty to find the means whereby there could be proper and open discussion. I am not suggesting that there should have been secret talks, talks between the usual channels, or any hugger-muggery. The Government should have arranged for open discussions to take place. They are proposing to bring 500,000 or 1 million people into the franchise, whichever party they may vote for. Of course, we all have our guesses about that. There must be discussion with the other parties, even if the Liberal party does not want to attend. The Government should have made their proposal and we should have discussed it. If that had been done, we would have been able to consider these matters properly.

The right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), who always raises these matters to the very highest plateau of moral integrity, suggested that the Government have merely misunderstood the situation. I wonder whether they do not understand it all too well. A simpler explanation of their behaviour is that they preferred not to have discussions with the Opposition. In taking that view, the opportunity for discussion is removed and discussion becomes superfluous. As I said on Second Reading, they could have arranged a Speaker's Conference. That would have allowed the issue to be brought out in the open, and people would then have been aware of what the Government were proposing. Perhaps a compromise could have been reached, but I would not have been in favour of it. I believe that the principle of expatriate votes is fundamentally wrong in our constitution. That is why we shall do our best to resist clause 1.

I repeat that it is my view that the Bill was not introduced in a proper way. Presumably the Bill was discussed by the Cabinet. We are talking about the sort of Bill that is introduced only once in half a century, and I suppose that the Bill might have been discussed even by the present Cabinet. When it was discussed, I am sure that the interests of the Conservative party were well taken into account. After all, it would have had its representative sitting with them. The spokesman, chairman or manager of Conservative Central Office, whatever he is called, is a Minister and he could have been present. I am sure that that precaution was taken. In this instance he might have plucked up courage and said a few words.

I am sure that the Government received guidance. Even if that did not happen in open Cabinet in case it might sneak out 30 years later, I am sure that consultations took place with Conservative Central Office before the Government went ahead with the Bill. One can imagine Conservative Central Office saying, "It is all right with us, boys"—or girls, or whatever one chooses to say. "We think that you should go ahead. Do not worry. If you read the report of the Select Committee, you might find a few examples that can be used to bolster your case. Try to dress it up as if it is a real constitutional proposal." I do not believe that it is anything of the sort. If this part of the Bill is enacted, greater benefit will be brought to the Conservative party than to any other party. That is one of the reasons why the Government have decided to pursue it.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

The right hon. Gentleman has been condemning the Government in robust terms and pouring scorn on the Select Committee's report. Has he forgotten that clause 1 is more restrictive than the enlargement of the franchise that is proposed in paragraph 52 of the Select Committee's report, and that two of the Labour Opposition's Front Bench home affairs spokesmen were parties to the Select Committee's recommendation?

Mr. Foot

All the matters that the hon. Gentleman has raised were discussed on Second Reading. I shall be happy to debate them again now and to answer his questions. Events have illustrated the wisdom of what I and others have said.

It is improper for a Government to say that a Select Committee should be designated as a substitute for proper consultation between the parties or as a substitute for a Speaker's Conference. One of the reasons why Speaker's Conferences have had authority is that they have not been used too often. When major changes have been proposed, there have been attempts by almost all Governments to try to reach sensible agreements. The Government are guilty of a gross dereliction of duty in not taking that course. That is why we should sling out the whole Bill if we have the chance to do so. However, I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton that we should try to improve parts of it if we can.

When we come to decide whether the clause should stand part of the Bill, we shall have the opportunity for a fuller debate. Let us take the opportunity to sling out the entire clause and to trim down the Bill to the clauses which can decently be presented to the House of Commons. If that is done, it will be a slim Bill.

Sir Edward Gardner

I am glad to be able to take up some of the remarks of the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot). He always makes a compelling and engaging speech even though the arguments that he adduces are entirely unconvincing, as they have been today. He joins the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) in suggesting that there is no need in justice, logic or necessity to introduce the new right that will be created by clause 1, which will give those living abroad the right to vote in our elections.

This measure is no novelty. It does no injury to the constitution. As the Committee will appreciate, we have this provision already. Already people living abroad are entitled by statute to vote in our general elections by proxy or by post. They are known as people with the right to service votes—members of the armed forces and their wives or husbands, members of the Diplomatic Service and the Crown service generally. A number of other people have the privilege of being able to decide by their vote at an election this country's future course and conduct.

The clause seeks to extend that right in the name of justice to those people who are at present isolated from this country and frustrated in their desires to give guidance about the future conduct of the Government. Therefore, it seems to me, as I hope it seems to most hon. Members, that that principle, against which the right hon. Members for Blaenau Gwent and for South Down have been arguing—they say that that principle should not exist and that, if accepted, it will damage the constitution—should be upheld and welcomed by the Committee.

Clause 1 and the amendments we are considering will extend the franchise to people who will thereby benefit. I should like to ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary a question. Perhaps I am entering the realms of speculation and the imponderable, but it is a responsible question to which I hope I shall receive a reliable answer. The Government, in their reply to the recommendations of the Home Affairs Select Committee, suggested that about 3 million British citizens are living abroad and that about 600,000 of them would receive the vote because they had lived abroad for seven years. Can my right hon. and learned Friend assist the Committee by estimating how many British citizens will be enfranchised if the Bill's provisions come into force, first, for people living abroad for seven years and, secondly, for people living abroad for five years?

We are really trying to decide whether we should shorten or lengthen the time a person may live abroad without disqualifying him or her from the privilege of having a vote. Opposition amendment No. 14 suggests a period of five years. I am not entirely convinced by the arguments of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) who suggested that the five-year period should be accepted because that is the statutory life of a Parliament. I do not believe that that is necessarily the yardstick that should be applied in deciding how long or how short the period should be.

7.15 pm

I hope that the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent accepts, in spite of the fact that he does not appear to put much value on the findings and recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee, that the Committee's recommendations, as with all good Select Committees, were based upon the consideration of a considerable quantity of evidence in testimony and documentary form. The Government, having considered the Committee's evidence and having concluded that that evidence could be acted upon, decided that the period during which a person could remain abroad and retain the vote should be seven years. The Government may be right or they may be wrong—that is a judgment.

As the Bill is drafted, the period is seven years. I shall not argue that that period is precisely right or wholly wrong or something that we should reconsider. One can play around with the figure and state, as in amendment No. 66, that it should be 10 years or state, as in another amendment, that there should be no limit, as my hon. Friends the Members for Corby (Mr. Powell) and for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) have argued. One takes into account those good and respectable arguments. But it is all guesswork. No one can pretend—I certainly will not pretend on anyone's behalf — that that guesswork is reliable. We must come to some conclusion.

I am opposed to those of my hon. Friends who believe that there should be no limit. I believe that there should be a restriction. At least for an experimental period, we could have a five-year or seven-year limit. I have two reasons for suggesting that the period should be five years. First, if the Government are prepared to compromise and to come down from a seven-year period to a five-year period, they will not breach any principle. Secondly, this is a constitutional Bill. When we discuss a constitutional instrument, it is essential that we should try, if possible, to have not just a majority in favour but a consensus. By accepting the Opposition's suggestion of five years, we have a better chance of obtaining a consensus than if we voted for seven years. If I may say so, because I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary cannot say this for himself, my right hon. and learned Friend will have been wise in the extreme in deciding, as I hope he will, to accept the five-year period. We badly need the Bill, and we need to remove all obstacles to its passage.

Mr. Bermingham

This measure will extend the franchise, and I have never been in favour of extending the franchise. I shall give my reasons when the Committee considers whether the clause should stand part of the Bill. This is not the time to advance those arguments because we could range widely in discussing these matters.

If we are to extend the franchise, we must fix a time limit, because there comes a time when a person who has gone abroad ceases to have any realistic contact with the United Kingdom.

The argument has been advanced that there should be no limit. The hon. Gentleman who advanced it should consider for a moment the reality of what he was saying. The country receives many immigrants and it is one from which many people emigrate. In effect, he was saying that as years pass and more and more people go abroad we could reach the point when the number of people abroad entitled to vote for an unlimited period could well exceed 8 million.

I am a strong supporter of Select Committees. When Select Committees make recommendations, they are what they are—advice arrived at from the evidence they have heard. They rely upon the Government replying to the recommendations and the House debating them. A Select Committee in no way believes that it can impose its rule upon the House. It merely gathers evidence and expresses opinions. It is against that background that we look at the work of Select Committees.

The hon. and learned Member for Fylde (Sir E. Gardner) seemed to think that the number involved in extending the franchise was about 600,000. I have studied the number of people who voted in the last general election. It was approximately 31.6 million, and 600,000 is 1.5 per cent. of that. If one then discounts that 1.5 per cent. by the average turn-out figure of approximately two thirds, one arrives at the figure that the overseas voting content will be approximately a 1 per cent. addition to the electorate. It has been known for 1 per cent. to decide general elections.

I put that matter before the Committee because when I was exchanging views with the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) it seemed that he entirely missed the point. I ask the Committee to reject amendment No. 69 decisively because although I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman's powers of logic, occasionally, with great respect to him, he seems to miss the point. We shall soon begin to know the number of persons involved in the exercise because they will be recorded constituency by constituency as the votes are registered.

In this day of modern science, it does not take too much ingenuity to work out how to poll those who are resident abroad and who seek to vote in our general elections. It would not be beyond the wit of the then Secretary of State to ascertain whether the total number of external electors—if I may put it that way—were of benefit to his or her party. It is against that background that I felt that this measure would put an intolerable strain upon the democratic political system. That is why I urge the Committee to reject amendment No. 69. It contains basic law. It puts a future Secretary of State in an almost intolerable position. When the matter is thought out logically, we can see that it is not one that we would wish on any Secretary of State.

I similarly ask that amendment No. 66 be rejected because 10 years is too long, for all the reasons that have been advanced. If we have to accept the idea of external voting, five years seems a sensible compromise.

Mr. Hayward

I was interested in the contributions of the right hon. Members for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) and for South Down (Mr. Powell) who, in essence, said that we should not make the change because this is the constitution as it stands. They were implying that the constitution is unchangeable. We should recognise, after reviewing these matters over the years, that change is necessary. Over many centuries we have made many valuable changes to the constitution, such as the enfranchisement of females. If we pursue the argument that we should not change the constitution, we would never have given women the vote. I am aware that there are those who hold the view that it was not a good idea.

Circumstances change. As against 20 years ago, there are many people who do valuable work abroad on behalf of this country. The right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent asked whether the figures were large or small. The figures are reasonable, and they are likely to grow. For that reason, we should make the change. As we enter into more and more agreements, whether they be industrial or commercial, or in terms of the United Nations or the EEC, more people will work abroad. For that reason, I support the clause which introduces the overseas franchise.

I share the view expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Corby (Mr. Powell) and for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) that, as the periods of such international agreements become longer, it is important that people should be allowed to remain enfranchised in this country for longer. Many people already work in industry in Europe and have been abroad for more than seven years. It is likely that they will be there for seven, 10 or 15 years. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) is not present, but what would happen if Ferranti in his constituency took money from the ESPRIT programme in the EEC, in association with Padua or Rome universities, and many of Ferranti's employees worked there for several years? They would be disfranchised. That is unacceptable. Having accepted the principle that we should enfranchise people who are resident overseas, we should accept it in full and not put a time limit on it.

Mr. Maclennan

I support the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Powell). Before I give my reasons for doing so, I wish to defend the Home Secretary against the accusation that he proceeded improperly in arriving at his conclusion as to how the Bill should be constructed on this point.

The right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) was, as usual, locked with the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) in historical conservatism. He put forward the argument that because the Home Secretary had not followed the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference there was something improper about proceeding with this method of extending the franchise.

I must remind the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent of how the Labour party, when in government, treated electoral conferences. He will recall that, because he was there. I was not a Minister at the time, but I was a member of the electoral conference. He will recall that an electoral conference in the 1960s proposed that the voting age should be reduced from 21 to 20. The Labour Government at that time properly took the view that that was inappropriate, and they rejected the recommendation of the Speaker's Conference. There was nothing sacrosanct about it.

Lest the right hon. Gentleman should peddle the illusion that Speakers' Conferences are in some way more pure and less sullied by political consideration than Cabinet discussions or the proceedings of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, let me tell him of my experience at the hands of one of his colleagues when, at a second Speaker's Conference on electoral law, the issue of votes for holidaymakers was considered. I voted in favour of extending the franchise to holidaymakers. I was summoned by a right hon. colleague of the right hon. Gentleman to explain why I voted against—

Mr. Foot

Bill Rodgers.

Mr. Maclennan

If I am forced to divulge the identity, I shall tell the House that it was the then deputy leader of the Labour party who, on the instructions of a Cabinet Committee, summoned me to explain why I had voted against Labour party policy handed down by Transport house.

It is nonsense for the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent now to don a white sheet and speak as though this were some great matter of principle. He is an honourable man who has been in the House long enough to beguile us with historical recollections, but his stance today is clearly humbug. What is the great principle whereby he opposes the extension of the franchise? He says that we need to know how many people will be involved. If he had been more frank, he might have said that it depended upon how many more Conservative voters the Government would reap. The number can scarcely be regarded as a matter of principle, and is in any event incalculable.

7.30 pm

The hon. Member for South Down stood firm on conservative historical grounds—the constitution as it is and always should be. That cannot satisfy those of us who see British constitutional history as a process of development and change to reflect social and political changes. One of the most important political changes in the lifetime of most of the participants in this debate has been the extent to which British citizens now travel, live and work abroad, not just to serve their own narrow interests, but to serve their country's interests. They stay abroad for long periods, but they return from time to time and they are very familiar with what is going on here. As the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) pointed out, communications have also greatly improved in our lifetime. Residents abroad almost certainly have as sharp an awareness of the issues involved in a general election as many people resident in this country.

In my judgment, residence is not as sound a principle on which to stand as the principle of justice. It has long been recognised in the United States and in France that a citizen's most important right is to seek to influence the complexion of the democratic Government of the country to which he belongs. I freely confess that my original thinking and that of my party on this was not dissimilar to that of the Home Secretary on Second Reading. We felt that there might be some diminution over time in the citizen's links with his home country and a consequent decline in interest in the outcome of elections. I thought that on balance that argument suggested the need for some time limit on the exercise of the right to vote, but that has been overborne in my mind by the wider view so eloquently expressed by the hon. Members for Corby and for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) that citizenship should carry the right to vote.

I hope that if the Committee divides on this issue, all Members will be permitted to vote freely, without the imposition of the usual party sanctions, and to exercise their individual judgment. I intend to vote for the amendment of the hon. Member for Corby. If that fails, I shall vote for the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) as second best. Indeed, my hon. Friend himself made it plain that he preferred the wider proposition of the hon. Member for Corby.

We are unlikely to have the opportunity to change this law for a long time. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Grantham, which would allow alterations through secondary legislation subject to affirmative resolution, is thus deserving of favour if the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Corby is not carried. Nevertheless, it is preferable to arrive at a conclusion today by means of the primary legislation before us. If the Home Secretary's mind has also been changed since he last spoke on this matter, I hope that it has moved in the same direction as my own.

Mr. Bruinvels

On Second Reading I said that the Bill would give many more people the right to vote. In the past, British subjects resident overseas have been unfairly denied the franchise. The number involved is about 600,000, of whom 100,000 work in the European Community. I see no reason why those people should not have the right to vote.

I was not surprised that the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) opposed the change as I recall the boundary commission report which failed to appear until after the 1970 election. On the other hand, the right hon. Gentleman supported the abolition of the House of Lords, which I should have thought would be a fairly major constitutional change. His attitude seems to depend very much on the story and flavour of the day.

The majority of people living overseas still pay taxes and they pay rates on homes in this country. As house owners, they are responsible people. I cannot see how the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) can imply that they act irresponsibly. In my view, they are not tax exiles, and it is time that they had the right to vote. This is democracy at work and the whole Committee should support it. After all, the right to vote is one of the most important rights and privileges of a citizen. Ambassadors and senior diplomats based abroad have the right to vote, as do service men stationed abroad, and the system seems to work well. So what is everyone worried about now?

The people involved, of course, must keep their names on the register. That has always concerned me, because, if they do not do that, they lose their connection with a particular constituency. If, however, they maintain their names on the register—and as house owners they should do so—they ought to be entitled to vote. Are they likely to return to Great Britain or Northern Ireland? That is the test. If the answer is yes, I cannot see why they should not be given the vote. There is no uncertainty in such a case; they have made their position clear.

On 10 December, I said that people living abroad should be allowed to vote, but that seven years was a rather long period and I hoped that the period would be shorter. I refer hon. Members to column 815 of the Official Report. Clearly, I must be in favour of a five-year term. However, I also said that the list should be continually checked. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who is not in the Chamber at the moment, maintained that a number of gentlemen living overseas have failed to have their names removed from the register. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary would agree with me that it is against the law for a person to keep his name on the register after he has left his house permanently. I believe that the law would be brought heavily to bear upon those who offend against electoral practices.

As I have made plain, I favour amendment No. 14. I believe that five years is the right length of time. I have some sympathy with the right hon. Member for Gorton, because five years is about the length of time between one general election and another. Paragraph 2.7 of "The Government reply to the First Report from the Home Affairs Committee" suggests that, as time drags on, the link with the United Kingdom becomes more tenuous. Therefore, any absence of more than five years might well justify one in supporting the right hon. Gentleman's amendment. In any case, is anyone likely to keep a house for longer than five years? I doubt it.

Throughout the five-year period, the resident abroad is likely to be represented by the same Member of Parliament. He is likely to come to this country for holidays, and it is likely that his salary will be paid here. He will have a real connection with the United Kingdom. Those who work overseas but keep up their connections with the United Kingdom would strongly resent some of the allegations that have been made about them today. They are not rogues. They are promoting this country, improving business and increasing our exports. Of course, they must nominate their most recent address, and that will be made clear.

What is wrong with a voice from abroad being heard in Britain? If someone has a contribution to make, let him make it.

Mr. Barron

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bruinvels

I will give way for one moment only.

Mr. Barron

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he seems to be very knowledgeable about the situation. Can he tell us how many more people are likely to appear on the electoral register as a result of this measure?

Mr. Bruinvels

I said at the beginning of my speech that 600,000 people would be likely to benefit — 100,000 of them in the EEC. The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) seems to have been blinded by my scientific knowledge. I believe that up to 600,000 people will be involved. However, I shall enter one caveat, as the hon. Gentleman will hear later.

I cannot support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell). That amendment would lead to an infinity. There must be an acid test. The Committee would be shirking its duties and responsibilities if it were to vote for the amendment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) is now really my honourable friend, as he is no longer a Whip. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] He is keen that the voting right should last for no more than seven years. However, he has also put his name to amendment No. 66, which stipulates 10 years. I believe that both are wrong. The figure should be five. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham that the measures should be passed by both Houses of Parliament, but I believe that it should be done now rather than later.

The Bill is good news. I hope that British citizens resident overseas will now exercise their right. I am sure that they will.

7.45 pm
Mr. Stanbrook

If there were any logic or any consistency of approach in the Government's proposals, or even any simplicity — so that they were at least consistent with the range of our law on the subject—they would have some merit. However, they lack logic and consistency. So, with respect, do all the amendments.

Our electoral roll consists of British subjects, Commonwealth citizens and citizens of the Irish Republic living in this country. The essential qualification is residence in this country. It does not matter that not all the voters are British citizens. It does not matter that many of them have their origins abroad.

What happens when the Government propose to enlarge the franchise? They do not extend to those living overseas the franchise that I have described. They extend a right to vote to people who have British citizenship. That is a special category of nationality not shared by everyone registered here or everyone on the existing electoral roll. If we are to be consistent, these proposals should apply to those who are entitled by reason of residence here to a vote, even though their origins may lie in the Republic of India or in Argentina.

Equally, we could have said that the franchise should be restricted to British citizens, so excluding those who do not owe allegiance to Her Majesty. That solution would be consistent and logical. I believe that it would be right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) believes that votes are such a good thing that they should be given to as many people as possible, and that no one should be deprived of a vote—although clause 1 extends the right to vote. He believes that we should extend the right on principle.

My second objection to the proposals is that the basis of the House is representation. We represent the people of our constituencies. We represent their interests, their desires, their thoughts and wishes, the way in which they want the country to be governed and even the day-to-day affairs that concern them. Such representation will not be possible when anyone on the electoral register of a constituency may be living in the south seas, and may have been living there for 10, 20, 30 40 or 50 years and may never have returned to the United Kingdom.

I accept that one should not demand a price for the right to vote. However, the logic of the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) is that people who have not contributed to the welfare of our country for years could be entitled to vote for representatives in Parliament. That is made possible by the way in which the amendment has been drawn.

I believe that the proposals are wholly wrong in principle. The Home Secretary should reconsider the whole matter and introduce a proper Bill based on British citizenship as the qualification for the right to vote. I would support such a Bill.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Leon Brittan)

Before I deal directly with this group of amendments, perhaps the Committee will allow me to say something about our general approach to these matters. It was said at the beginning of the White Paper, to which the Bill broadly gives effect, that our stance has always been that major legislation of this kind must be put forward only on the basis of the fullest possible consultation between the political parties represented in the House of Commons". Before presenting the White Paper we sought the views of all parties in the House informally on the Select Committee's major recommendations. The detail of the Bill has been worked out after the most scrupulous consultations with party officials and local authority associations. That does not mean that any one party can, or should, have a veto. There are central issues on which, as we said in the White Paper, our firm view is that legislation is essential. They are the extension of the franchise to people who live overseas, the extension of absent voting, especially for holiday makers, and the increase in the deposit. Those are the fundamental principles that are embodied in the Bill. Once they are accepted, there are many other important issues relating to how far and how fast to go in the implementation of those principles. Those issues are a matter of judgment rather than of principle. It is essential that we proceed with the greatest possible common agreement, or at least acquiescence, between the parties.

The matter was made clear on Second Reading when I said that we regarded our proposals on the franchise, for example, as a "sensible compromise" between those who oppose any extension in principle and those with whom the Government sympathise, who believe that the vote should be given to all British citizens throughout the world, no matter how long they have been away. On the question of the deposit, I said that we accepted that there is no figure that is clearly and absolutely right and can be defended against all other figures. I also said that we should listen with care to what was said.

I hope the Committee acknowledges that I made it clear that it gave the Government no pleasure to introduce absent voting provisions in Great Britain which would not apply to Northern Ireland. It is in that spirit that, since Second Reading, I have engaged in further discussions in an attempt to secure for the Bill as much support as possible, or at least acquiescence, in all parts of the House. I think that my efforts have met with some success. That has inevitably meant that other parties will have to go along with some provisions, often fundamental ones, which they have hitherto found deeply distasteful. For the Government, it has meant a readiness to go less far in the Bill than we should have liked. However, we shall stick firmly to the principles to which I have referred and, in so doing, make some fundamental changes in our electoral system. It is on that basis that, today and in subsequent debates, the Government will recommend that the Committee accepts some of the amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr, Kaufman).

As to the amendments before the Committee, I propose to advise the Committee to accept the amendment that limits the qualification period for overseas electors to five years after departure, and further amendments to clauses 1 to 3.

We have been presented with quite a menu of choices. Some say that we should not change something fundamental in our constitution and that the basis of residence, which has existed until now, should not be altered. The right hon. Members for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) and for South Down (Mr. Powell) have united on this matter, as they have on similar ones in the past. In an historical sense they are right. Residence has indeed been the basis for the franchise, but my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) gave the complete answer to that argument. He said that our constitution has evolved constantly and that it is right to recognise profound social changes that have taken place. It is true that many people now go to live and work abroad for shorter or longer periods of time. Unlike in the past, they do not lose touch with Britain. They have family and friends here, they might have property and children at school here and they are often liable to the payment of rates and taxes. Hitherto, as long as they were abroad they lost the most essential tie, the right to vote. One of the purposes of the Bill is to put that right. It is high time that we did so, and it is essential to get the principle of doing so firmly on the statute book.

Right hon. and hon. Members who oppose the change are right to argue that, if we are making such a fundamental change, it is reasonable to proceed at a pace which, if not acceptable to those who do not want such change, is at least tolerable to them. After all, they represent a substantial section of the population. It is for that reason, among others, that I do not agree with the recommendations advanced by my hon. Friends the Members for Corby (Mr. Powell) and for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone), supported by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), to whom I am otherwise grateful for his defence of the method by which I have put these issues before the House.

I do not agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Corby and for Lewes and the hon. Members for Caithness and Sutherland and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who wished to go less far, but further than is provided for in the Bill or amendment No. 30, because I believe that, as the principle is new, it is right to proceed with caution and general acquiescence and because I accept the argument that there must come a point, although it will vary from person to person, at which a person's links are likely to have been attenuated substantially to the extent that it is unreasonable for that person to expect to enjoy the franchise. It is not right that the extension of the franchise should be indefinite.

Any time limit is arbitrary and the length of time that it takes for links with the United Kingdom to be attenuated will vary according to individual circumstances. There is no right and magic period of time. I therefore listened to the enticing suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) that I should take the power to bring before the House an order to vary the date that is agreed by the Committee. I do not shirk from the responsibility although it would not be mine alone—the House would have to approve any proposition that I put before it. However, I do not ask the Committee to go along with my hon. Friend's suggestion, as we are familar with the limited parliamentary procedures that the passage of such an order involves. Serious principles are involved and I should be unhappy if I or a successor had to make further changes by so cursory a parliamentary procedure.

It is important that the principle be enshrined in the statute book. Although I do not believe in an indefinite period at the moment, I believe that, as time goes on, many of the objections that have been voiced against moving at all will be seen to be invalid. It is likely that a case for a further extension will be made out. Even those who are not convinced that we should move at all will be persuaded, when they see how the Bill works out in practice, that, far from not moving, we should move a great deal further. It is right to proceed on the basis of the maximum consensus or acquiescence obtainable. I therefore commend the five-year limit to the House.

The Select Committee chaired by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fylde (Sir E. Gardner) played an important and crucial part in laying the foundations of the legislation. Although the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent has never been a friend of Select Committees, the House will regard his aspersions on them and the slighting way in which he spoke about them as unworthy of the House and the right hon. Gentleman.

I owe my hon. and learned Friend an answer to his specific question about the numbers involved. An estimate of 600,000 people who would be entitled to vote under a seven-year provision appears in the White Paper. It might be thought that through simple arithmetic five-sevenths of 600,000 would produce the right figure for a five-year qualification. I am advised that the figure would probably be more than that because of the pattern of people going abroad and the period that they stay abroad. It is impossible to be absolutely precise, but the figure would be somewhat more than five-sevenths of 600,000.

I hope the Committee will accept that the spirit in which the Government are approaching the entire legislation is not confrontational. We are building on the Select Committee's report and listening to, but not always accepting, what is said by the other parties. Where we cannot accept what is said because of the basic principles that we wish to see enshrined in the legislation, we seek at least to accept in part and to render tolerable what may not always be acceptable.

In that spirit, I ask the Committee to support the five-year proposition put forward by the right hon. Member for Gorton and not any other amendments that may be put to the vote.

Mr. William Powell

During the past two and a half hours we have had a spirited debate. I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary for the way in which he has shown the Government's approval of a principle which I sought to argue, even if he sought to put limits on it.

Those of us who have argued for the amendments have been accused of wishing to tear up part of our constitution. Not for the first time, the House was treated to an eloquent defence of the constitution by the right hon. Members for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) and for South Down (Mr. Powell). The right hon. Member for South Down identified the clash of principle in the amendments. He said that we were a representational democracy, the basis for which was residence plus registration and identified the principle behind the amendments as one of citizenship plus registration. The right hon. Members' eloquent defence of the constitution was the most reactionary that the House has listened to since the days of the Rockingham Whigs.

We live in an evolutionary democracy and the great radical, the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent, has been most active in seeking to secure a rapid evolution for our constitution. He is a student of both history and literature, and managed to make both Colonel Sibthorpe and the late Squire Thorne seem positively progressive.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his support for the principle, but I shall ask the House to divide on the principle as I have laid it down. I accept many of the criticisms made by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook). In reality there is little difference in principle between us. However, those who stressed the representational basis of our democracy as being residence plus registration should remember that exactly the same representational principles are fundamental to the French and United States constitutions. Members of the House of Representatives and of the Senate in the United States and members of the National Assembly in France all represent individual constituencies elected on a single basis. In tabling these amendments we are not seeking to challenge that.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 20, Noes 381.

Division No. 80] [8.4 pm
Alton, David Jackson, Robert
Ashdown, Paddy Kirkwood, Archy
Bruce, Malcolm Maclennan, Robert
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) Meadowcroft, Michael
Cartwright, John Prentice, Rt Hon Reg
Freud, Clement Rathbone, Tim
Hancock, Mr. Michael Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Hayward, Robert Shersby, Michael
Howells, Geraint Steel, Rt Hon David
Wallace, James Tellers for the Ayes:
Wrigglesworth, Ian Mr. William Powell and
Mr. A. J. Beith.
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Dormand, Jack
Adley, Robert Dorrell, Stephen
Aitken, Jonathan Douglas, Dick
Anderson, Donald Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Dubs, Alfred
Ashton, Joe Duffy, A. E. P.
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble) Durant, Tony
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Eadie, Alex
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Eastham, Ken
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)
Barnett, Guy Emery, Sir Peter
Barron, Kevin Fairbairn, Nicholas
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Farr, Sir John
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Fatchett, Derek
Beggs, Roy Favell, Anthony
Bell, Stuart Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Bendall, Vivian Fisher, Mark
Benn, Tony Flannery, Martin
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Fletcher, Alexander
Bermingham, Gerald Fookes, Miss Janet
Best, Keith Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Blackburn, John Forman, Nigel
Blair, Anthony Forrester, John
Boscawen, Hon Robert Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Bottomley, Peter Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim)
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Forth, Eric
Boyes, Roland Foster, Derek
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Foulkes, George
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Franks, Cecil
Bray, Dr Jeremy Fraser, J. (Norwood)
Bright, Graham Fraser, Peter (Angus East)
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Freeman, Roger
Brooke, Hon Peter Gale, Roger
Brown, Hugh D. (Proven) Galley, Roy
Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith) Gardiner, George (Reigate)
Bruinvels, Peter Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A. Garel-Jones, Tristan
Butcher, John George, Bruce
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M) Glyn, Dr Alan
Campbell, Ian Godman, Dr Norman
Canavan, Dennis Golding, John
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S) Goodlad, Alastair
Carter-Jones, Lewis Gould, Bryan
Carttiss, Michael Gourlay, Harry
Cash, William Gower, Sir Raymond
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Griffiths, E. (B'y St Edm'ds)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Clarke, Thomas Ground, Patrick
Clay, Robert Grylls, Michael
Clegg, Sir Walter Gummer, John Selwyn
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Hamilton, James (M'well N)
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.) Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)
Cohen, Harry Hannam, John
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D. Hargreaves, Kenneth
Conway, Derek Harris, David
Cook, Frank (Stockton North) Harrison, Rt Hon Walter
Coombs, Simon Harvey, Robert
Cope, John Haselhurst, Alan
Corbett, Robin Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael
Corbyn, Jeremy Hayes, J.
Cowans, Harry Hayhoe, Barney
Cranborne, Viscount Haynes, Frank
Crouch, David Heathcoat-Amory, David
Crowther, Stan Heddle, John
Cunliffe, Lawrence Henderson, Barry
Cunningham, Dr John Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Dalyell, Tam Hickmet, Richard
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli) Hicks, Robert
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) Hind, Kenneth
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l) Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Deakins, Eric Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Dewar, Donald Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)
Dicks, Terry Holt, Richard
Dixon, Donald Home Robertson, John
Hordern, Peter Merchant, Piers
Howard, Michael Michie, William
Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford) Mikardo, Ian
Hoyle, Douglas Miller, Hal (B'grove)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Mills, Iain (Meriden)
Hughes, Roy (Newport East) Miscampbell, Norman
Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S) Moate, Roger
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Irving, Charles Monro, Sir Hector
Janner, Hon Greville Montgomery, Sir Fergus
John, Brynmor Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)
Jones, Robert (W Herts) Mudd, David
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Neale, Gerrard
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Needham, Richard
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Nellist, David
Key, Robert Neubert, Michael
Kilroy-Silk, Robert Newton, Tony
King, Rt Hon Tom Nicholls, Patrick
Knight, Gregory (Derby N) Norris, Steven
Knowles, Michael Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Knox, David O'Brien, William
Lamond, James O'Neill, Martin
Latham, Michael Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.
Lawler, Geoffrey Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Lawrence, Ivan Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Leadbitter, Ted Paisley, Rev Ian
Lee, John (Pendle) Patchett, Terry
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Patten, Christopher (Bath)
Leighton, Ronald Pawsey, James
Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd) Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Pendry, Tom
Lewis, Terence (Worsley) Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Lightbown, David Pike, Peter
Litherland, Robert Pollock, Alexander
Lloyd, Ian (Havant) Portillo, Michael
Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham) Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Powley, John
Lofthouse, Geoffrey Prescott, John
Lord, Michael Price, Sir David
Loyden, Edward Proctor, K. Harvey
Luce, Richard Radice, Giles
Lyell, Nicholas Raffan, Keith
McCartney, Hugh Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
McCrea, Rev William Randall, Stuart
McCrindle, Robert Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)
McCurley, Mrs Anna Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)
McCusker, Harold Renton, Tim
McDonald, Dr Oonagh Richardson, Ms Jo
Macfarlane, Neil Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas
McKay, Allen (Penistone) Rifkind, Malcolm
MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute) Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
McKelvey, William Robertson, George
Mackenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Robinson, Mark (N'port W)
Maclean, David John Robinson, P. (Belfast E)
McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st) Roe, Mrs Marion
McNamara, Kevin Rogers, Allan
McQuarrie, Albert Ross, Wm. (Londonderry)
McTaggart, Robert Rossi, Sir Hugh
McWilliam, John Rost, Peter
Madden, Max Rowe, Andrew
Madel, David Rowlands, Ted
Maginnis, Ken Rumbold, Mrs Angela
Major, John Ryder, Richard
Malins, Humfrey Sackville, Hon Thomas
Malone, Gerald Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Marek, Dr John Sayeed, Jonathan
Marland, Paul Sedgemore, Brian
Marlow, Antony Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Sheerman, Barry
Mason, Rt Hon Roy Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Mather, Carol Shelton, William (Streatham)
Maude, Hon Francis Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Maxton, John Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Mayhew, Sir Patrick Silkin, Rt Hon J.
Maynard, Miss Joan Silvester, Fred
Mellor, David Sims, Roger
Skeet, T. H. H. Tinn, James
Skinner, Dennis Torney, Tom
Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury) Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E) Tracey, Richard
Snape, Peter Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Soames, Hon Nicholas Viggers, Peter
Soley, Clive Waldegrave, Hon William
Spearing, Nigel Walden, George
Speed, Keith Walker, Cecil (Belfast N)
Spence, John Waller, Gary
Spencer, Derek Walters, Dennis
Spicer, Jim (W Dorset) Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Stanbrook, Ivor Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Stanley, John Wareing, Robert
Steen, Anthony Watson, John
Stern, Michael Watts, John
Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton) Weetch, Ken
Stewart, Allan (Eastwood) Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood) Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles) Welsh, Michael
Stewart, Ian (N Hertf'dshire) Wheeler, John
Stott, Roger White, James
Stradling Thomas, J. Whitfield, John
Sumberg, David Wigley, Dafydd
Tapsell, Sir Peter Wilkinson, John
Taylor, Rt Hon John David Wilson, Gordon
Taylor, John (Solihull) Winnick, David
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E) Wolfson, Mark
Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth) Woodcock, Michael
Thomas, Rt Hon Peter Yeo, Tim
Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen) Young, David (Bolton SE)
Thompson, Donald (Calder V) Young, Sir George (Acton)
Thompson, J. (Wansbeck) Younger, Rt Hon George
Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Thorne, Neil (Ilford S) Tellers for the Noes:
Thorne, Stan (Preston) Mr. Ian Lang and
Thornton, Malcolm Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd.
Thurnham, Peter

Amendment proposed: No. 14, in page 2, line 14, leave out 'seven' and insert 'five'.—[Mr. Kaufman.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 382, Noes 21.

Division No. 81] [8.18 pm
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Brooke, Hon Peter
Aitken, Jonathan Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)
Alexander, Richard Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)
Anderson, Donald Bruinvels, Peter
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A.
Ashton, Joe Butcher, John
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble) Campbell, Ian
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Canavan, Dennis
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Carter-Jones, Lewis
Barnett, Guy Cash, William
Barron, Kevin Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Clarke, Thomas
Beggs, Roy Clay, Robert
Bell, Stuart Clegg, Sir Walter
Bendall, Vivian Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Benn, Tony Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.)
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Cohen, Harry
Bermingham, Gerald Concannon, Rt Hon J. D.
Best, Keith Conway, Derek
Blackburn, John Cook, Frank (Stockton North)
Blair, Anthony Coombs, Simon
Boscawen, Hon Robert Cope, John
Bottomley, Peter Corbyn, Jeremy
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Cowans, Harry
Boyes, Roland Cranborne, Viscount
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Crouch, David
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Crowther, Stan
Bray, Dr Jeremy Cunliffe, Lawrence
Bright, Graham Cunningham, Dr John
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Dalyell, Tam
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli) Howard, Michael
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l) Hoyle, Douglas
Deakins, Eric Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Dewar, Donald Hughes, Roy (Newport East)
Dicks, Terry Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)
Dixon, Donald Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Dormand, Jack Irving, Charles
Dorrell, Stephen Janner, Hon Greville
Douglas, Dick John, Brynmor
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Dubs, Alfred Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Duffy, A. E. P. Jones, Robert (W Herts)
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Durant, Tony Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Eastham, Ken Key, Robert
Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke) Kilroy-Silk, Robert
Emery, Sir Peter King, Rt Hon Tom
Evans, John (St. Helens N) Knight, Gregory (Derby N)
Fairbairn, Nicholas Knowles, Michael
Fatchett, Derek Knox, David
Favell, Anthony Lamond, James
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Lang, Ian
Fisher, Mark Latham, Michael
Flannery, Martin Lawler, Geoffrey
Fletcher, Alexander Lawrence, Ivan
Fookes, Miss Janet Leadbitter, Ted
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Lee, John (Pendle)
Forman, Nigel Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Forrester, John Leighton, Ronald
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim) Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd)
Foster, Derek Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Foulkes, George Lewis, Terence (Worsley)
Franks, Cecil Lightbown, David
Fraser, J. (Norwood) Lilley, Peter
Fraser, Peter (Angus East) Litherland, Robert
Freeman, Roger Lloyd, Ian (Havant)
Gale, Roger Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)
Galley, Roy Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde) Lord, Michael
Garel-Jones, Tristan Loyden, Edward
George, Bruce Luce, Richard
Glyn, Dr Alan Lyell, Nicholas
Godman, Dr Norman McCartney, Hugh
Golding, John McCrea, Rev William
Goodlad, Alastair McCrindle, Robert
Gould, Bryan McCurley, Mrs Anna
Gourlay, Harry McCusker, Harold
Gower, Sir Raymond McDonald, Dr Oonagh
Greenway, Harry Macfarlane, Neil
Griffiths, E. (B'y St Edm'ds) McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N) MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)
Ground, Patrick McKelvey, William
Grylls, Michael Mackenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Hamilton, James (M'well N) Maclean, David John
Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife) McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)
Hannam, John McNamara, Kevin
Hargreaves, Kenneth McQuarrie, Albert
Harris, David McTaggart, Robert
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Madden, Max
Harvey, Robert Madel, David
Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael Maginnis, Ken
Hawkins, C. (High Peak) Major, John
Hayes, J. Malins, Humfrey
Hayhoe, Barney Malone, Gerald
Haynes, Frank Marek, Dr John
Heathcoat-Amory, David Marland, Paul
Heddle, John Marlow, Antony
Henderson, Barry Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Marshall, Michael (Arundel)
Hickmet, Richard Mason, Rt Hon Roy
Hicks, Robert Maude, Hon Francis
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Maxton, John
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling) Mayhew, Sir Patrick
Holt, Richard Maynard, Miss Joan
Home Robertson, John Mellor, David
Hordern, Peter Merchant, Piers
Michie, William Shelton, William (Streatham)
Mikardo, Ian Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Miller, Hal (B'grove) Shersby, Michael
Mills, Iain (Meriden) Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Miscampbell, Norman Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Moate, Roger Silkin, Rt Hon J.
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James Silvester, Fred
Monro, Sir Hector Sims, Roger
Montgomery, Sir Fergus Skeet, T. H. H.
Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe) Skinner, Dennis
Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon) Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)
Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes) Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)
Mudd, David Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Neale, Gerrard Snape, Peter
Needham, Richard Soames, Hon Nicholas
Nellist, David Soley, Clive
Nelson, Anthony Spearing, Nigel
Neubert, Michael Speed, Keith
Newton, Tony Spence, John
Nicholls, Patrick Spencer, Derek
Norris, Steven Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Stanley, John
O'Brien, William Steen, Anthony
O'Neill, Martin Stern, Michael
Onslow, Cranley Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Oppenheim, Phillip Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S. Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
Page, Richard (Herts SW) Stewart, Ian (N Hertf'dshire)
Paisley, Rev Ian Stott, Roger
Patchett, Terry Stradling Thomas, J.
Patten, Christopher (Bath) Sumberg, David
Pawsey, James Tapsell, Sir Peter
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Taylor, Rt Hon John David
Pendry, Tom Taylor, John (Solihull)
Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Pike, Peter Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Pollock, Alexander Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Portillo, Michael Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)
Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down) Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Powley, John Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Prentice, Rt Hon Reg Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Prescott, John Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Price, Sir David Thorne, Stan (Preston)
Proctor, K. Harvey Thornton, Malcolm
Radice, Giles Thurnham, Peter
Raffan, Keith Tinn, James
Raison, Rt Hon Timothy Torney, Tom
Randall, Stuart Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Redmond, M. Tracey, Richard
Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S) Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover) Viggers, Peter
Renton, Tim Waldegrave, Hon William
Richardson, Ms Jo Walden, George
Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas Walker, Cecil (Belfast N)
Rifkind, Malcolm Waller, Gary
Roberts, Allan (Bootle) Walters, Dennis
Robertson, George Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Robinson, G. (Coventry NW) Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Robinson, Mark (N'port W) Wareing, Robert
Robinson, P. (Belfast E) Watson, John
Roe, Mrs Marion Watts, John
Rogers, Allan Weetch, Ken
Ross, Wm. (Londonderry) Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
Rossi, Sir Hugh Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Rost, Peter Welsh, Michael
Rowe, Andrew Wheeler, John
Rowlands, Ted White, James
Rumbold, Mrs Angela Whitfield, John
Ryder, Richard Wigley, Dafydd
Sackville, Hon Thomas Wilkinson, John
Sainsbury, Hon Timothy Wilson, Gordon
Sayeed, Jonathan Winnick, David
Sedgemore, Brian Wolfson, Mark
Shaw, Giles (Pudsey) Woodcock, Michael
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Yeo, Tim
Sheerman, Barry Young, David (Bolton SE)
Sheldon, Rt Hon R. Young, Sir George (Acton)
Younger, Rt Hon George Mr. Robin Corbett and
Mr. John McWilliam.
Tellers for the Ayes:
Alton, David Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Ashdown, Paddy Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
Beith, A. J. Maclennan, Robert
Bruce, Malcolm Meyer, Sir Anthony
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) Rathbone, Tim
Cartwright, John Steel, Rt Hon David
Farr, Sir John Wallace, James
Freud, Clement Wrigglesworth, Ian
Gregory, Conal
Hancock, Mr. Michael Tellers for the Noes:
Haselhurst, Alan Mr. Michael Meadowcroft and
Hind, Kenneth Mr. Archy Kirkwood.
Howells, Geraint

Question accordingly agreed to.

Mr. Corbett

I beg to move amendment No. 24, in page 2, line 22, leave out subsection (4).

The Chairman

It will be convenient for the Committee to discuss at the same time the following amendments:

No. 25, in page 2, line 23, leave out paragraph (a).

No. 67, in page 2, line 24, leave out 'seven' and insert 'ten'.

No. 31, in clause 3, page 5, line 16, leave out subsection (5).

Mr. Corbett

The purpose of amendments Nos. 24 and 31 is to remove the right of people who leave the United Kingdom as children from eventually qualifying for votes in elections to this Parliament.

It is a nonsense for people who, for example, are taken by their parents to Australia, New Zealand, the United States, the Gulf States, to any part of Europe or wherever else in the world and who grow up in those countries and absorb their traditions and cultures to claim that they have a legitimate interest in voting to elect a Member of Parliament for a constituency in Britain which they can scarcely remember.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) earlier pointed out that elections under our system are for Members of individual constituencies. The overall votes are not put into a heap, counted and then Members allocated against the total number of votes cast for a party. That is an important distinction which most, if not all, hon. Members hold precious.

There is a great difference between what is being proposed in the Bill and, for example, postal votes for holidaymakers. I wish to make it clear at the outset that we welcome the concept of postal votes for holidaymakers, remembering that they leave constituencies for a time and return to them because they live in them and are part of those communities.

I was born in Australia. I left that country long before I was able to qualify to be on an electoral register there. However, under matching proposals in the Australian legislature, because I was born in that country, I might be told that I could vote for the equivalent of an MP for Fremantle in the sunshine state of Western Australia. Unhappily, I must confess to having no memory of Fremantle. I feel that it would be impertinent of me either to have the right to vote or to wish to cast a vote for a constituency in that fair city.

It cannot be right that people who have been taken, most likely by their parents, perhaps half a world away should, at a later stage, have a proper claim to a vote on the basis of having a genuine constituency interest.

We shall later discuss amendments requiring those claiming votes, although they live overseas, to declare an intention to return to the United Kingdom. That is a straightforward request for those, for example, whose jobs take them abroad, whether or not they are on fixed contracts. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton explained, it is easy to demonstrate their position on the basis of residential qualification here.

That is not the case for those—we do not know the numbers—who, for whatever reason, decide to live permanently abroad. That does not apply only to those who retire abroad. There are others who prefer to live in sunnier climes or who have other reasons for living elsewhere. I do not criticise them in any way.

As the Opposition pointed out when we debated the last amendment, it is stretching credulity enormously—not to question the feelings of such people towards the place of their birth; I readily confess to having such feelings about Australia—to accept that, having lived out of the country for many years, the links are strong enough for them to have the right to vote for Members of this House in named constituencies.

As distinct from requiring people to demonstrate an intention to return—I hope that, when we debate that later, that requirement will commend itself to the Committee—giving the right to vote to younger people who may have been away from the United Kingdom for a long time and who may have no intention to return would, I submit, be out of step with what the Bill proposes in asking people to give a serious declaration of intent to return.

The view of my hon. Friends and me is that only those UK citizens who reside here but who are abroad temporarily and who fully intend to return should be entitled to vote in our parliamentary elections. I invite the Government to share that view.

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) is showing formidable virtuosity this evening. He stood before us announcing the largest victory in a Division that the Labour party has had to announce in many a long year. Before we got over the shock of that, he was at the Dispatch Box moving an amendment in words that made such compulsive listening that an unseen hand dragged me to my feet straightaway to accept it. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman proposes to do next. [Interruption.] Perhaps he should leave while he is ahead in the game.

Mr. Kaufman

What about an Oxford degree?

Mr. Mellor

Whether his name should be submitted for an honorary degree at Oxford university I leave to his Front Bench colleagues to consider. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) goaded me into making that observation, and I shall, if necessary, plead that in my defence.

The Committee has approved arrangements by which adults who leave this country are entitled to vote in United Kingdom elections for a period of five years after they have last appeared on a register for a United Kingdom constituency, and they will vote in that constituency.

A genuine problem has always arisen about what to do with those children who leave the country with their parents but who within the five-year period attain voting age. It seemed logical to the Government that they, too, should qualify for the vote, just as they would if they had been living in Great Britain. However, severe practical difficulties arose about determining in which constituency they should vote. Should they qualify through their parents and be entitled to vote in the constituency in which their parents were registered, or should they qualify in relation to the constituency in which they had previously resided, which might be different from the constituency in which their parents had lived? Both of those alternatives contained practical drawbacks.

Having regard to the importance which the Opposition attach to this amendment and to the very reasonable basis that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary gave in the previous debate for reaching an accommodation over matters of constitutional signifiance like the Representation of the People Bill, the best thing that I can do on behalf of the Government is to recommend to my hon. Friends that they should accept the amendment.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

As was seen by the size of the majority in the last Division, the old alliance, which has probably operated covertly for a long time, has been brought out into the open. This amendment is welcomed by my right hon. and hon. Friends.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) put forward the valid reason that a person who went away from the United Kingdom as a young child would remember very little about the constituency in which he would be entitled to vote. The Minister referred to the practical difficulties. For example, if somebody went to the British consulate in, say, Chicago and claimed that his parents had been resident in a particular constituency it would be impossible to find out whether that was true. Although it would never cross the mind of any hon. Member, it might cross the mind of some of those who wished to disrupt our electoral proceedings that people could be sent en bloc to register as voters in a constituency that they thought they had some chance of winning. There would be no practical way of curbing such an abuse.

For that reason, and other reasons that have been given, the amendment deserves our support.

Amendment agreed to.

8.45 pm
Mr. Barron

I beg to move amendment No. 27, in page 2, line 33, at end add— '(5) The provisions of this section shall not come into operation until such time as the Secretary of State has laid before Parliament an estimate, country by country, of the numbers eligible to apply for qualification as an overseas elector under this section.'. No hon. Member has stated how many people will be eligible to vote when the franchise is widened by the acceptance of clause 1. I am amazed that during the Committee stage of a Bill that will introduce a major constitutional change in the electoral system of this country nobody has stated how it will work, how much it will cost and how many people will benefit from it. I should have thought that any reasonable, sensible Government would have regarded that as a priority when introducing a Bill of this kind.

There are differences of view about how many people will benefit from the extension of the franchise. On Second Reading the Home Secretary said that he believed about half a million people would benefit from the extension of the franchise. Earlier today we heard that 600,000 people would benefit from its extension. There are 250,000 members of the armed services serving abroad who are qualified to vote. That figure was given by the Home Office to the Select Committee on Home Affairs. The evidence was that 245,379 people were on the 1982 register. In its written evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the Home Office stated that 150,000 people living in Europe and 250,000 living elsewhere might be entitled to vote. That works out at an average of about 600 per constituency. The Home Office figures mean that about 400,000 people would benefit from the widening of the franchise. The more we look at the guesstimates relating to the widening of the franchise, the more intriguing the position becomes.

Further evidence was submitted to the Select Committee on Home Affairs by the Social Democratic party. In page 147 of its written evidence it said that probably several million people would benefit from the widening of the franchise. However, when the Social Democratic party gave verbal evidence to the same Committee, its representative, Mr. Briggs, referred in page 162 to about 600,000 people. Therefore, the several million had dropped to 600,000 by the time the SDP appeared before the Select Committee on Home Affairs. But even the addition of 600,000 people represents about 1.5 per cent. on a countrywide basis. In those circumstances, a marginal seat could be put at risk. Hon. Members know that during a hard fought campaign at a general election, even 1 per cent. can influence the outcome. In those circumstances, that figure could have an effect upon the outcome of the election.

Amendment No. 27 asks only for estimates to be made on a country by country basis before the Bill is passed. It is also relevant that the effect upon constituencies of such a widening of the franchise should be ascertained. Certain constituencies may have substantial numbers of voters of this kind. I refer to the recent report of the Boundary Commission that was implemented in 1983. We tried to create average constituencies containing electorates of 60,000 to 66,000. If there are to be 600,000 votes from abroad, or even more if certain people are to be believed, the figures must be ascertained. That should have been done in conjunction with the report of the Boundary Commission.

I am not against the extension of the franchise in certain cases, but I am certainly against its extension by means of the Bill. It does not do justice to the British constitution. It is hurried and it is misconceived because it does not give to hon. Members all the facts that they need before they proceed further with the Bill.

Mr. Mellor

I am not sure that the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) is right to suggest that the proposal is vitiated by the fact that no one can with complete precision say how many people will benefit from it. After all, that is true of many of the changes in the franchise that have been proposed. It is certainly true of one that is not a matter of great controversy—holiday postal votes. Nobody knows quite how many people will be away on holiday. It will depend on the time of year. No one will know the extent to which the franchise is widened by that.

Mr. Kaufman


Mr. Mellor

I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman will say that they are already on the register. That is fair enough. But we know that a substantial number of British people live and work overseas, some of whom—those who have been overseas for up to five years—will qualify for the vote. Except in certain countries where there is a particularly good reason for British citizens to make themselves known to the British embassy for reasons of public safety and other considerations, it is not a requirement that people should disclose to the British authorities, either within the country or anywhere else, where they are living. So there is no accurate way in which one can say how many British people are living in any particular country, whether a European country or further afield.

However, we can give some estimates, and some have been given. The fact that those estimates are really guesstimates is not a fair criticism. It is just one of those facts which we must acknowledge is inevitable when, in a free society, we do not monitor where our citizens go, how long they stay there or where they live when they are there.

There would be an abuse if people could emerge and claim that they were entitled to vote when that claim was not sustainable. We shall put requirements into the regulations that will ensure that a proper declaration has to be made before a consular official who will satisfy himself that the person who makes the claim is properly entitled to do so. Having submitted the form via the consular official, it will then go to the electoral registration officer, who, before admitting somebody on to the register, has to be satisfied.

Not only do we not know how many people will be potentially enfranchised as a result of this, but we certainly do not know how many people will take up the offer. After all, unlike a vote for somebody who is resident in the United Kingdom, it will cost money. A sum of money will have to be paid in order to apply to be registered as an overseas voter. The only indicator that we have is the service vote where only 55 per cent. of the service men and their wives who are entitled to a service vote actually apply for it.

For anyone to stand at the Dispatch Box or anywhere else in the Chamber and claim to be able to give an accurate figure of how many people will be enfranchised is an impossibility. I do not apologise for the fact that no Government could accept the amendment, consistent with wanting to do what we believe and hope that everyone, however reluctantly, accepts is a not unreasonable aspiration for any Government, in an era where an increasing number of our citizens, for perfectly valid reasons, will live and work abroad for some period in their lives. Therefore, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not be too discomforted by the fact that I have not been able to give as good a reception to his amendment as that moved by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett). I hope that he will not feel that he has to press the amendment to the vote.

Mr. Wallace

We cannot support the amendment. It would have been helpful if one could have had some idea of the numbers concerned, but, even if we had had a global total, as far as I am aware there is no information available to any of our agenices abroad which could have told us how that would have affected the 650 constituencies that are represented in the House of Commons. The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) was concerned with the effect that it could have in the constituencies. Even if we had a total figure, that would not give us any greater idea about the effect in individual constituencies.

It is clear, as the hon. Gentleman said, that we have agreed to the extension of the franchise in principle in giving the limited right to vote to people who have been overseas for five years or less. If the Committee agrees to that in principle, it is not a matter of fundamental concern to us how many it will affect. If we believe that people should have the franchise, they should have it, be they 600, 6,000 or 600,000. There is nothing in the amendment which would help us.

The Bill can become an Act without us knowing the figure. Only this particular clause would be inoperative until we had that figure, and even then the figure would be only a matter of interest. The Secretary of State would not have to wait for a positive resolution of the House of Commons to operate the clause once we have the figures. It might be of more than academic interest, but, none the less, it would be a waste of time. I do not believe that the amendment merits the support of the Committee.

Mr. Barron

I accept that in some ways the amendment is badly worded, but I hope that the Committee realises that if the constitution is changed we should make sure that the effect of such a change does not create an imbalance in the electoral patterns of British constituencies.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Knowsley, North)

As improved by Opposition amendments, the Bill will now allow British residents abroad to vote in British elections five years after they have left Britain provided that they make a declaration that they intend to return to the United Kingdom to take up permanent residence. The five-year limit, and the declaration, which will be moved as an amendment to clause 2, are clearly improvements in the Bill. But they still do not make it a desirable extension of the franchise. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said, we are still opposed in principle to the extension of the franchise to British citizens living abroad.

Our reasons for that opposition are not just that the Bill would give the vote to those who have emigrated, which it would and which is wrong, or that it extends the franchise to those British citizens who have left the country for tax reasons, which it would, and which is equally wrong. Nor, indeed, are we opposing it merely because it will give the vote to those who are fugitives from justice. It will, of course, and their numbers are not necessarily insubstantial. Clearly, it is and should be offensive to all hon. Members that such people should have the vote. It is indefensible that they should have the power to influence the outcome of elections in Britain when they have no commitment to Britain and no responsibility for the consequences or effects of their decisions.

Nor are we opposed in principle to the extension of the franchise merely because there are anomalies. There are anomalies. Clearly it is wrong that a British citizen should have committed an offence by failing to fill in the application to register whereas a resident living abroad has an option whether to register for the vote. We believe that that is wrong, and we oppose the extension of the franchise in that area, because we do not believe that those citizens living abroad who are making no financial contribution towards the maintenance of Britain should have any part to play in determining what Government shall be elected. Nor are we opposed merely because there are no sanctions for any false declarations made by British citizens living abroad. Those are all valid and important reasons why one should critically question, if not oppose, any such proposal substantially to enlarge the numbers of those eligible to vote in British elections. However, the main reason we oppose the amendment is that it offends against the basic principles of our democracy.

Our constitution is based upon the notion of representative government in which single-Member individual constituencies elect single Members of Parliament and votes are cast by citizens, electors who live in the constituencies, and have a residential qualification in the constituencies. It is based upon the assumption that an elector carefully evaluates the candidate, his record and his views and has the opportunity, although he may not exercise it, to see, to meet, to question and to hear the candidate at public meetings. It is based upon the assumption that an elector, in exercising his right to vote and determining his choice of the competing candidates, will have regard to the issues in a locality in a local campaign and, indeed, in a national campaign.

9 pm

None of that can happen if the elector resides abroad. He cannot have a proper or continuing relationship with his Member of Parliament. Although some hon. Members earlier in the debate suggested that such people can find out what is happening in this country by reference to British newspapers which are circulating abroad or by occasionally tuning in to the BBC world service, those are in no sense adequate substitutes for a long, continuing and thorough understanding and knowledge of British politics at a national level. They cannot provide an effective means for British citizens living abroad, sometimes in the most remote parts of the world, to have ready access to what is happening in the locality, in the community and in the constituency in which they are nominally registered or to knowledge of the Member of Parliament whom they are supposed to be able to hold to account and for whom they will be able to cast a vote for or against at any subsequent election. That kind of relationship or intimacy is not possible, yet it is crucial to our democracy and to our relationship with constituents and electors who are residing abroad and may have been so resident for a considerable time.

Mr. Beith

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that those matters are essential, why does he believe that postal votes or proxy votes should be allowed to be exercised by persons resident abroad who have a property qualification in this country?

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I am establishing the principle, which I think most hon. Members have always acknowledged and accepted, but which in certain cases may not be able to be policed. We all acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman and his party make a great play of the number of multiple registrations that occur. We know that they occur. There may be a good case for doing away with them. We recognise that in practice it is difficult to stop that practice, still less to police it. In no way am I trying to suggest that the kind of individuals to whom the hon. Gentleman refers should possess that right. I am realistic enough to acknowledge that there is no means by which one can prevent it. All those British citizens—and we are talking now about 600,000—were they to purchase property in the country and, quite misleadingly, fill in their electoral registration forms to suggest that they are resident permanently at the relevant time presumably could get away with it. One would not want to approve or endorse that, but I see no way at present in which one could police it.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

The hon. Gentleman was speaking as if the ownership of property in the constituency entitles the owner to be registered. Surely that is not the case. A registration which was claimed on grounds of ownership of property surely ought to be rejected by the registration officer. If I may say so, I think that underlay the intervention of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith).

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

The right hon. Member is quite right. This is based not on the ownership of property but on the register of residents at a particular time. That principle, which we believe is important, underlines our democracy, and therefore ought to be protected.

If it be the case that those British citizens resident abroad cannot have a continuing understanding and knowledge of what is happening in a particular constituency over the period of a Parliament, even through the best efforts of the airmail editions of The Times or of the world service 24-hour broadcast, they cannot keep up with a campaign in a local election or a national election in which the issues arise on a daily basis and the campaign is fast-moving and changes daily.

British citizens living abroad do not see the daily effect of the Government's policies. They do not feel the consequences of unemployment and the destruction of our major cities. They do not suffer the results of cuts in education, social services and health provision. They have not witnessed the destruction of our environment and the quality of our life. They do not participate in the daily dialogue and debate with their fellow citizens, which is so crucial in moulding and sustaining political attitudes and decisions on the way in which individuals will vote.

That sort of knowledge and intimacy is impossible to acquire while living abroad. It is clear that it could not be sustained if, as the hon. Members for Corby (Mr. Powell) and for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) suggest, British citizens resident abroad were able to vote in perpetuity in British elections. They advanced an extraordinary, indefensible and absurd suggestion in taking the opposite view and the Committee had the good sense to discard it.

The arguments of principle against extending the franchise to British citizens resident abroad are powerful and compelling. The Government have not addressed themselves to the issue of principle. Instead, they have had a clear regard, as always, to their own narrow self-interest. Conservative Governments do nothing else. They have a clear, conspicuous and deliberate regard for their own self-interest. Apart from the arguments of principle, that in itself is a good and sufficient reason for my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against the clause this evening.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

It is regrettable that we are being asked to support the amendment. I did not find it possible to support that which it seeks when the Committee divided earlier. The hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) has talked about British citizens resident abroad not being able to keep fully up to date with United Kingdom affairs. No one would expect the BBC to have the ability to enable them to do so. The occupants of the Opposition Front Bench have treated the BBC as a tuppenny affair of no account whatsoever, which provides a service that is not listened to abroad.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk


Sir John Farr

No, I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. I have listened to him for quite a bit today and I shall not give way now. I shall be prepared to let him intervene in a moment.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I have spoken only once in this debate.

Sir John Farr

And that was for too long.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. I wanted to correct what he has said. I am not critical of the BBC's world service. It is a service that I hold in high esteem. I listen to it a great deal and no doubt I shall listen to it when I leave this place tonight. I was taking up the comments of other hon. Members, who seem to think that the service provided by the BBC by means of its world service is sufficient to allow British citizens living abroad to know exactly what is happening in the constituencies in which they have a vote. It is clear that it is not. It is not intended to provide that information and it cannot be a substitute for living in a British constituency.

Sir John Farr

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that clear. No one could suggest that an individual could base his opinions on British domestic politics, or on those of any other country, on the strength of a radio programme being broadcast from that country. However, the BBC's world service is an opinion-maker abroad. Its current affairs programmes are highly regarded and it is listened to avidly in every English-speaking country of the world, and in most non-English-speaking countries. I have taken the trouble, with a battery pocket radio, to listen to the BBC on the short wave in most countries of the world and the programmes have come over very well and clearly.

Ex-British residents who are still British citizens but who have probably lost the vote in the United Kingdom still have their national daily newspaper sent out from time to time from London or wherever. They have their own local newspapers in Africa and Asia. Most of the countries within those continents are basically English-speaking. The media are delivered in English.

The most important item of English news of which people in other countries are far more abreast than we in London is the state of the English football league. The second most important item is the state of English domestic politics—which party is favoured for election, which party is doing well and which is doing badly. I do not accept that people who go to live abroad—perhaps earning valuable foreign currency for Britain—are out of touch with all that matters in Britain after as short a period as seven years.

The position is even worse now because of the last series of Divisions. The seven-year period was bad enough, but it has been reduced to five years. That is a ridiculously short period. I agreed with what my hon. Friends the Members for Corby (Mr. Powell) and for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) said about the privilege that should be automatically associated with a British passport holder — having the vote as long as he or she wishes to exercise it. My hon. Friends mentioned the fact that many of the people who went abroad earned valuable money for Britain and our balance of payments. My hon. Friends did not have time to mention one point, but I believe it is right for the Committee to bear this fact in mind. Many of those people who are living in African and Asian countries are agents for British invisible earnings. They are engaged largely in transmitting insurance to Lloyds and the London insurance market and in helping with the consignment and shipping of goods around the world and may not come to Britain for a number of years.

I know people who are intensely proud of being British and who, in a calendar year, can earn a great deal directly for our balance of payments but have not been on an electoral register for 10 or 15 years. I do not believe that it is right for the Committee to say, "We shall reduce that period from seven years to five years so that anyone who has forgotten the events of the recent past in Britain will be disenfranchised." I believe, nevertheless, that five years is better than the previous position when people overseas did not receive the vote.

I admire the memory of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. He may recall that, when corresponding with me in recent months about the proposed change in the legislation, he told me that seven years was the period during which a person would be entitled to vote in British elections after leaving the United Kingdom. In good faith I told my constituents who had gone abroad that the Government undertook to stipulate a seven-year period. I shall now have to explain—I do not know how to do so, because I did not vote with the Government last time—how a sudden shift of opinion after many years of deliberations can be justified in changing the period from seven years to five years.

In addition to having a good memory, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is a sensible and balanced Minister. I hope that he will say that this measure will be undertaken for a trial five-year period and that, after that trial, the Government will introduce another Bill to abolish the provision altogether.

Mr. Beith

I do not propose to add a great deal to what I said about the amendments, which also went to the heart of the issue of overseas voting. It is obvious that overseas voting has been a part of our electoral pattern for a long time for service voters and for others who work overseas but maintain their electoral qualifications in this country. They can do so, as was mentioned earlier, not merely by virtue of the ownership of property, to which I referred, but by the occupation of property or the claiming of residence. That is what it is all about. They can make that claim in respect of a parental home long after they have, for all normal purposes, ceased to reside there.

We have referred, and will refer again, to the wide way in which a residence is defined and interpreted in British electoral law. I make the point to underline the fact that many people who are already abroad exercise voting powers in the precise circumstances which the hon. Member for Knowsley, North thought unsuitable.

9.15 pm

There are arguments of principle against any departure from the notion that one must be resident in the country to exercise a vote in it. Those arguments have been set aside previously for similar reasons, but they exist, and the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) pressed them. They do not outweigh the reasonable claim that citizens of this country, often serving its interests abroad, have to exercise an influence upon the Government who greatly affect their lives, as they affect the lives of those resident in the country.

The justice of such a claim is recognised by most of the other democracies with which we deal. It is wrong to apply to those people some greater test of their ability to put a cross in the ballot paper than is applied to citizens here. Were such a test to be applied, many of them would pass it with flying colours and would demonstrate a greater awareness of and following of affairs in this country than is shown by many of our countrymen when they vote. That is not the issue.

We are not seeking to apply an education test. It almost takes us back to the days when people could not vote in many southern states of America unless they passed an entremely partial test of knowledge of the American constitution, which was often applied more rigorously to those with a black skin than to those with a white one. We do not apply such a test. There is no reason why we should raise such a point in this context as an argument against extending the franchise.

I do not believe that the Labour Front Bench is primarily motivated by an argument of principle. It has drawn the conclusion that two characteristics are possessed by many of those who live abroad and might wish to vote in this country. One of the suggestions that comes sometimes from the Front Bench, and sometimes from muttered interventions, is that such people are, by and large, disloyal and that by their decision not to live in this country they have forfeited their claim to any vote here. I dismiss that claim, but it is repeated. Earlier in the debate — for those who questioned it — there were cries of "Strasbourg votes" and other such terms of derision from hon. Members around me. I believe that there are those in the Labour party who choose to see residence abroad as a fundamental disloyalty to this country. That is nonsense.

The second characteristic attributed to people living abroad is the likelihood that they will not vote in any large proportion for the Labour party. I have no idea whether that is so. The Labour party has no idea either. Were they even to follow the proportions of people within the United Kingdom, they will not vote in large numbers for the Labour party. They merely reflect trends in the United Kingdom.

I fear that the Labour party's apprehension of how such votes will be cast has primarily motivated it tonight. That is not the basis upon which we should be arguing the matter. There are reasonable grounds for accepting the claim of people living abroad, who are often serving the needs and interests of this country, to exercise voting rights here. I shall therefore support the inclusion of the clause in the Bill.

Mr. William Powell

This is one of the clauses which was capable of improvement in Committee. It has been altered, but in my judgment it has been worsened as a result of the Committee's decision. No improvement has been secured — exactly the reverse. Nevertheless, a principle has been established for the first time which I hope will be capable of enlargement in the future. It is that British citizens resident abroad should be enabled to vote at our elections.

The hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) did neither himself nor the Labour party any service by the manner in which he chose to advance the case of the official Opposition, and I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) correctly analysed the motives behind that. It is absurd to dwell at such length on tax exiles, fugitives and emigres. The great majority of people who would qualify under this provision come into no such category. They are working abroad, usually for the good of this country and to its very substantial advantage. The emphasis placed on fugitives and the like in the weeks and months during which the Bill has been under public discussion is patently absurd. Virtually all fugitives would be disqualified in any event because of their previous criminal convictions. It is inconceivable that people who have emigrated should choose to register, let alone to vote in this country, and the same applies to tax exiles. It is utterly unjust to place so much emphasis on entirely negative factors.

The hon. Member for Knowsley, North relied on what he described as two fundamental princples of British democracy — representational government and the intimacy between elector and candidate, which he said was essential to the working of our democracy. Representational government is in no way affected either by the original Bill or by the amendment that has now been passed. In other equally democratic sytems the principle that we have now begun to accept is already part of the law. No one would seriously challenge the quality of representational government in the French National Assembly because French citizens are entitled to vote even if they are resident abroad. Equally, no United States citizen would dream of suggesting that the quality of representational democracy—each member representing an identifiable geographical constituency — is in any sense diminished because nationals resident abroad are entitled to vote in United States elections. It is equally wrong to suggest that the quality of our representational democracy will be diminished as a result of the small step that we have taken today. On the contrary, it will be improved and for that, at least, I welcome the acceptance of the principle, even though it has been severely qualified by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

As for the intimacy which the hon. Member for Knowsley, North regards as essential to our democracy, we would naturally like to have the most intimate possible democracy. The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) suggested that even in the most intensely contested constituency contact between candidate and electors scarcely rose to more than 1 per cent. during the course of an election campaign. I believe that it is rather more than that, but let no one deceive himself that it is possible for any candidate to become intimately involved with and known to every elector in the course of his campaign.

At the time of an election, any register will contain the names of thousands of electors who have moved to other constituencies, often a great distance away. Is it seriously suggested that it is fundamental to our democracy that such people should travel hundreds of miles to follow the kind of campaign that may have characterised ancient Greece but which has very little coincidence with current democratic practice in this country?

There are many imperfections in our system, and the existence of removed voters is one of the most severe. However, in laying so much emphasis on such matters, without appearing to realise how blemished and inaccurate his remarks were, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North was almost selling himself and his party short.

Not only today, but on other occasions, the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) has concentrated a great deal of gunfire on whether the Government have played fair over the method of consultation. The right hon. Gentleman and I seem to have one thing in common. In the past week, only one of our national newspapers has not brought to the attention of its readers the stories and suggestions made in all the other national newspapers. It may be that the right hon. Gentleman, like myself, reads only that one newspaper. We were therefore unaware of what was appearing in other sections of the press. Experience may have taught the right hon. Gentleman to doubt the quality of other newspapers. However, surely no one can be in any doubt about the fact that there have been substantial consultations between the Government and the Opposition about the form that the debate should take.

I am very dissatisfied with the outcome. However, for the first time, we have enshrined a new principle in our law — a principle which will enable our constitution to evolve as it should, rather than to become static and ossified, surrounded by the carbuncles of history, which have no place in our evolving society. Because we have achieved that much, and because of the manner in which my right hon. and learned Friend presented his arguments in support of that principle, even though he went on to urge that it should be limited, I must, for all my disappointment, support the inclusion of the clause in the Bill.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The essence of the remarks of the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) is clear. He does not want any distinction to be made between those who live here and those who live abroad. He believes that, however long someone has lived abroad, he should continue to have the vote here. Like the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), the hon. Gentleman seriously distorted, in a malicious manner, the grounds of our opposition to the clause. They did not present our case fairly—but perhaps that was not to be expected.

The hon. Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) said that the Bill is an improvement because at least it introduces the principle that people who do not live in this country should be able to vote. One could argue that the Bill is an improvement to the extent that the number of years has rightly been reduced from seven to five. However, that improvement does not deal with our basic objections to the clause.

Extending the right to vote to those not resident in this country is a major constitutional departure. Reference has been made to the Select Committee. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), like myself, is not an enthusiastic admirer of Select Committees. I voted against the establishment of the new Select Committees. However, I am, I suppose, to some extent an opportunist in that, once the Select Committees had been established by an overwhelming majority, I decided that I might as well serve on one. I am serving on one now. I am sure that my right hon. Friend would be interested in the subject of its inquiries, which is the working of the special branch.

Before I was a member of it, the Select Committee recommended, amongst other things, that the right to vote should be extended to those who live in EEC countries. It did not recommend that the right be extended as widely as the Government propose. What is so wrong is that people who are to be given the right to vote need not have any link with a constituency. It is not suggested that they should be paying income tax. It will indeed be representation without taxation. Nor is it suggested that people should own a property or be a tenant of a property in the constituency. There is absolutely no link. The case for introducing this new concept would be stronger if such qualifications were included.

In a highly marginal constituency—

Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)

Like the hon. Gentleman' s.

9.30 pm
Mr. Winnick

No, I am glad to say; but like several Conservative Members' constituencies where the majority is perhaps only a few hundred votes or less it is likely that the decision about who will be the Member of Parliament will be made by those who live abroad. That is quite wrong. People who have no link with a constituency and who do not pay taxes should not be able to determine who represents a constituency. Some unkind things have just been said about the majority of the hon. Member for Corby.

Whatever might happen in other countries—the hon. Member for Corby has given some examples—there is an important link between residence and voting which should continue. Right hon. and hon. Members have referred to how the right to vote has been extended previously. The extension of the franchise to women has been mentioned. In all previous campaigns, especially with the extension of the franchise to women, there was tremendous pressure in the country. Indeed, we all know that some women suffered greatly in prisons as a result of campaigning for their right to vote. It is almost impossible to believe that that was only 70 years or so ago. The same was true for the campaign to remove property qualifications. I see no pressure to extend the right as it is now proposed.

Mr. Foot

There was at the Conservative party conference.

Mr. Winnick

That is quite likely. The right to vote is being extended purely for political gain. The Conservative party has concluded that more votes are to be gained in this way than in keeping the present position. If it had come to any other conclusion, we should not now be considering clause 1. It is unfortunate that the Conservatives are using their majority, as they have on other issues, to advance their own cause. For those reasons and others which I and my right hon. and hon. Friends have explained, I believe that there is every reason for voting against clause 1.

Dr. Marek

We live in a world of nation states and we vote to elect a Government so that we can be guided and have rules to enable us to live together. If certain people decide to leave one nation state to live in another, for whatever reason, there is no reason why they should be given a vote in the state that they have left.

We have a representative form of government. Such a form of government is never perfect. We can argue whether we should have proportional representation or a first-past-the-post system. There are different ways of trying to achieve the aim, which is that every person should be able to vote on and in full knowledge of every issue. Clearly that is impossible. We must approximate, and so we have representatives.

In deciding to whom we grant the franchise we must do the same. Should we grant it willy-nilly and to everyone who has been in the United Kingdom and leaves it? That end of the spectrum was suggested by the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Powell). I vehemently oppose it. Should we decide not to grant the vote to anybody living abroad, even if a person has lived abroad for a couple of years in the service of the country, such as in the armed forces? Most hon. Members would agree that there should be provision for granting service men and women the vote. There is provision for other people such as members of the British Council and diplomats to vote, but there are injustices. People who work for the World Health Organisation do not get the vote if they leave the United Kingdom.

Sir Raymond Gower (Vale of Glamorgan)

Why would the hon. Gentleman extend the vote to diplomats and the other people whom he classified but refrain from extending it to a person who works, for example, in the oil industry in the Gulf?

Dr. Marek

The hon. Gentleman misheard me. At present the vote is extended to diplomats, who must make a declaration every year, whereas service voters can make one declaration which will run from year to year. The vote is already given to those people.

However, the vote is not given to people who work abroad because of their employment or occupation. It is a grey area and we must draw a line where we think we can provide the best form of representation. I disagree with the clause. It is a better clause now because it gives people who have left the country only five years during which they can exercise their right to vote as opposed to seven years. But there is a blanket covering for anyone who leaves the country for five years to vote. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), in advocating an indefinite time, said that people abroad may return from time to time, but a person could return for a couple of weeks every year for 40 years. At least as of now they can do it for only five years. Nevertheless, that is not good enough.

We have three options. We can extend the vote by this open method, which is the Government's choice. We can do it by insisting that people who move abroad have the vote in the country in which they live. That is certainly possible. The Select Committee's report gives a list of countries where the right of vote is given. That point has not yet been made tonight. In Antigua, Bermuda, Australia, Barbados, Canada — some hon. Members mentioned the United States, but not Canada — Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Mauritius, New Zealand, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Surinam, and Trinidad and Tobago we have the right to vote.

Mr. Stanbrook

All those countries are members of the British Commonwealth; they are states in which all citizens are British subjects. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a difference between Commonwealth states and foreign states?

Dr. Marek

I am talking about general principles, and the Government have chosen the first principle that I mentioned. The second way to tackle the problem is to allow people to vote in their country of residence. An EC committee considered that matter, but I do not know whether it has produced a report.

The third way to tackle the problem is to limit the franchise to some categories of people, and to say that we will give the vote to people who go abroad, provided that they are in the armed services, in the Diplomatic Service, employees of the World Health Organisation, employees of a British company, or those in the service of, and connected with, British companies. We would not give the vote to those who go abroad simply to become tax exiles or—this has not been mentioned in the debate — as fugitives from British justice.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

Has not the Opposition Front Bench tried to achieve that by amendment No. 29, which might be accepted? If it is accepted, it will have the effect of excluding tax exiles from the franchise.

Dr. Marek

We have not yet reached that amendment, but I hope that it will be accepted by the House. It will go some way to solving the problem, but it will nevertheless be imperfect. I would prefer the vote to be given on a definite basis. Only those who go abroad for valid reasons should be allowed to vote here. Ideally, those who wish to vote in Britain should be liable to general taxation here. Why did not the Government think of that?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) said that the expatriate votes could make all the difference in a general election. Of the 16 memoranda included in the minutes of evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, No. 6 was submitted by the Conservative and Unionist Central Office, and No. 8 was submitted by the British Conservative Association in France. Conservative Members must realise who is interested in such matters. Memorandum No. 9 is a supplementary document from the British Conservative Association in France, and memorandum No. 11 was submitted by the British Conservative Association in Belgium. We should compare that with the one memorandum submitted by each of the other political parties.

However impartial or objective one wishes to be, one cannot completely dissociate oneself from the political consideration of whether the change will benefit one party or another. I would not believe an hon. Member who said that he was being dispassionate and objective and that anything he said should be taken as the gospel truth.

The Bill has been improved, but I still do not like it, and I shall vote against clause stand part.

Mr. Mellor

We have been over this course before, but I was grateful to the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) for taking us on a tour of his speech in the House last December, which was a re-working of what he said in the debate on the White Paper last June.

The surprising thing about the proposal is not that it has been made, but that it has taken so long for it to come before the House. Britain is a trading nation—a Labour Prime Minister once said that exporting is fun—and we all know that some people spend an increasing amount of time working overseas for Britain. As I said on Second Reading, the increase in overseas work knows no class barriers. One need only look at the people travelling on an aircraft to the Gulf to know that it has nothing to do with class. Therefore, as the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, it is a sign of the lack of self-confidence of the Labour party that its members should be so troubled by the proposal.

9.45 pm

The Government attach importance to obtaining as much consensus as possible for the proposal. We must also consider the practicalities involved in enabling the Bill to reach the statute book in a sensible timescale. For that reason, I unashamedly say to the those of my hon. Friends who are unhappy about the restriction of five years that this is an appropriate bite out of the problem. It may not be as much as they would wish, but it represents all that is reasonably practicable at this time. I am confident that after a general election, in which these arrangements will work well, it will be possible for the House of Commons to return to the issue in the next Parliament. I for one would be all in favour of the House doing so. I believe that the clause is a worthy part of the Bill and I commend it to the Committee.

Question put, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill:

The Committee divided: Ayes 243, Noes 165.

Division No. 82] [9.45 pm
Adley, Robert Cope, John
Alexander, Richard Cranborne, Viscount
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Crouch, David
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble) Dicks, Terry
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y) Dorrell, Stephen
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Emery, Sir Peter
Beith, A. J. Fairbairn, Nicholas
Bendall, Vivian Favell, Anthony
Best, Keith Fletcher, Alexander
Boscawen, Hon Robert Fookes, Miss Janet
Bottomley, Peter Forman, Nigel
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Forth, Eric
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Fox, Marcus
Brooke, Hon Peter Franks, Cecil
Browne, John Fraser, Peter (Angus East)
Bruce, Malcolm Freeman, Roger
Bruinvels, Peter Freud, Clement
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A. Gale, Roger
Butcher, John Galley, Roy
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) Gardiner, George (Reigate)
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S) Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)
Carttiss, Michael Garel-Jones, Tristan
Cartwright, John Glyn, Dr Alan
Cash, William Goodlad, Alastair
Chalker, Mrs Lynda Gower, Sir Raymond
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Greenway, Harry
Clegg, Sir Walter Gregory, Conal
Conway, Derek Griffiths, E. (B'y St Edm'ds)
Coombs, Simon Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Ground, Patrick Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Grylls, Michael Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)
Hancock, Mr. Michael Moynihan, Hon C.
Hannam, John Mudd, David
Hargreaves, Kenneth Neale, Gerrard
Harris, David Needham, Richard
Harvey, Robert Nelson, Anthony
Haselhurst, Alan Neubert, Michael
Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael Nicholls, Patrick
Hawkins, C. (High Peak) Norris, Steven
Hayes, J. Onslow, Cranley
Hayhoe, Barney Oppenheim, Phillip
Hayward, Robert Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.
Heddle, John Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Henderson, Barry Paisley, Rev Ian
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Patten, Christopher (Bath)
Hickmet, Richard Patten, John (Oxford)
Hicks, Robert Pawsey, James
Hind, Kenneth Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling) Pollock, Alexander
Holt, Richard Portillo, Michael
Hordern, Peter Powell, William (Corby)
Howard, Michael Powley, John
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock) Price, Sir David
Howells, Geraint Proctor, K. Harvey
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Raffan, Keith
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Jackson, Robert Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)
Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick Renton, Tim
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Jones, Robert (W Herts) Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Rifkind, Malcolm
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Robinson, Mark (N'port W)
Key, Robert Roe, Mrs Marion
Kirkwood, Archy Rossi, Sir Hugh
Knight, Gregory (Derby N) Rost, Peter
Knowles, Michael Rowe, Andrew
Knox, David Rumbold, Mrs Angela
Latham, Michael Ryder, Richard
Lawler, Geoffrey Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Lawrence, Ivan St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.
Lee, John (Pendle) Sayeed, Jonathan
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Lightbown, David Shelton, William (Streatham)
Lilley, Peter Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Lloyd, Ian (Havant) Shersby, Michael
Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham) Sims, Roger
Lord, Michael Skeet, T. H. H.
Luce, Richard Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Lyell, Nicholas Soames, Hon Nicholas
McCrea, Rev William Speed, Keith
McCrindle, Robert Spence, John
McCurley, Mrs Anna Spencer, Derek
Macfarlane, Neil Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)
MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute) Squire, Robin
Maclean, David John Stanley, John
McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st) Steen, Anthony
McQuarrie, Albert Stern, Michael
Madel, David Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Major, John Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Malins, Humfrey Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Malone, Gerald Stewart, Ian (N Hertf'dshire)
Marland, Paul Stradling Thomas, J.
Marlow, Antony Sumberg, David
Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Tapsell, Sir Peter
Mates, Michael Taylor, John (Solihull)
Maude, Hon Francis Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Mayhew, Sir Patrick Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Meadowcroft, Michael Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Mellor, David Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Merchant, Piers Thornton, Malcolm
Meyer, Sir Anthony Thurnham, Peter
Miller, Hal (B'grove) Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Mills, Iain (Meriden) Tracey, Richard
Miscampbell, Norman Trippier, David
Moate, Roger Twinn, Dr Ian
Monro, Sir Hector Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Viggers, Peter Wilkinson, John
Waldegrave, Hon William Wolfson, Mark
Walker, Bill (T'side N) Wood, Timothy
Wallace, James Woodcock, Michael
Waller, Gary Yeo, Tim
Walters, Dennis Young, Sir George (Acton)
Wardle, C. (Bexhill) Younger, Rt Hon George
Watson, John
Watts, John Tellers for the Ayes:
Wells, Sir John (Maidstone) Mr. Ian Lang and
Wheeler, John Mr. Tony Durant.
Whitfield, John
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)
Anderson, Donald Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Haynes, Frank
Ashton, Joe Heffer, Eric S.
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Home Robertson, John
Barnett, Guy Hoyle, Douglas
Barron, Kevin Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Hughes, Roy (Newport East)
Beggs, Roy Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)
Bell, Stuart Janner, Hon Greville
Benn, Tony John, Brynmor
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Bermingham, Gerald Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Blair, Anthony Kilroy-Silk, Robert
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil
Boyes, Roland Lamond, James
Bray, Dr Jeremy Leadbitter, Ted
Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E) Leighton, Ronald
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M) Lewis, Terence (Worsley)
Campbell, Ian Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Canavan, Dennis Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Carter-Jones, Lewis Loyden, Edward
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) McCartney, Hugh
Clarke, Thomas McCusker, Harold
Clay, Robert McDonald, Dr Oonagh
Clwyd, Mrs Ann McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.) Mackenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Cohen, Harry McNamara, Kevin
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D. Madden, Max
Cook, Frank (Stockton North) Maginnis, Ken
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston) Marek, Dr John
Cowans, Harry Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Crowther, Stan Mason, Rt Hon Roy
Cunliffe, Lawrence Maxton, John
Cunningham, Dr John Maynard, Miss Joan
Dalyell, Tam Michie, William
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) Mikardo, Ian
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l) Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Deakins, Eric Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Dewar, Donald Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Dixon, Donald Nellist, David
Dormand, Jack Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Douglas, Dick O'Brien, William
Dubs, Alfred O'Neill, Martin
Duffy, A. E. P. Patchett, Terry
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. Pendry, Tom
Eastham, Ken Pike, Peter
Evans, John (St. Helens N) Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)
Farr, Sir John Prescott, John
Fatchett, Derek Randall, Stuart
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Redmond, M.
Fisher, Mark Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)
Flannery, Martin Richardson, Ms Jo
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Forrester, John Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim) Robertson, George
Foster, Derek Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Foulkes, George Robinson, P. (Belfast E)
Fraser, J. (Norwood) Rogers, Allan
George, Bruce Ross, Wm. (Londonderry)
Golding, John Rowlands, Ted
Gould, Bryan Sedgemore, Brian
Gourlay, Harry Sheerman, Barry
Hamilton, James (M'well N) Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Shore, Rt Hon Peter Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood) Thorne, Stan (Preston)
Short, Mrs R.(W'hampt'n NE) Tinn, James
Silkin, Rt Hon J. Torney, Tom
Skinner, Dennis Walker, Cecil (Belfast N)
Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury) Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E) Wareing, Robert
Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S) Weetch, Ken
Snape, Peter Welsh, Michael
Soley, Clive White, James
Spearing, Nigel Wigley, Dafydd
Stanbrook, Ivor Wilson, Gordon
Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles) Winnick, David
Stott, Roger Young, David (Bolton SE)
Strang, Gavin
Straw, Jack Tellers for the Noes:
Taylor, Rt Hon John David Mr. Robin Corbett and
Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth) Mr. John McWilliam.
Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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

Committee report Progress.

Back to