§ Order for Second Reading read.5.12 pm
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I apologise for the fact that I cannot be here for the wind-up speeches because of a commitment that I found difficult to escape. I have informed the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) of my proposed absence.
The purpose of this Bill is to extend the existing franchise for British citizens overseas and to set a new limit on candidates' election expenses at a United Kingdom parliamentary by-election.
In 1985, the House decided that the right to vote for Britons abroad should no longer be confined just to members of the forces and other servants of the Crown. In building on those existing arrangements, as we did in the Representation of the People Act 1985, we showed, I hope, that our electoral arrangements can evolve and adapt, in a sensible and practical way, to changing social circumstances without losing their essential character and continuity. The House is rightly cautious in new legislation on the franchise. We set an initial time limit of five years on the period during which a British citizen resident abroad may register to vote. We also imposed, both in the Act and in regulations made later, a number of restrictions and conditions on the extension we were making.
The Government made a commitment, at the time that we agreed to these restrictions and conditions, that we would review them in the light of their operation. My predecessor said:as time goes on, many of the objections that have been voiced will be seen to be invalid. It is likely that a case for a further extension will be made out."—[Official Report, 29 January 1985; Vol. 72, c. 217.]After three years' experience of the overseas franchise, the time has come to make that case.
The arrangements made in 1985 have not proved attractive to our citizens abroad. Only 12,000 overseas British citizens worldwide were registered to vote in 1987, the first year of operation, and also a general election year. In 1988 the numbers registered in the whole of the United Kingdom fell sharply to just over 2,000. There has been little improvement this year, despite the opportunity for registered overseas electors to vote in the recent European parliamentary elections. There are 2,832 overseas electors on the register for England and Wales, 132 in Scotland and just six for the whole of Northern Ireland—a total of only 2,970 for the United Kingdom. We must, I believe, ask ourselves why this franchise is used by less than I per cent. of those of our overseas citizens eligible to vote here. Do the arrangements made in 1985 offer a fair deal to our citizens overseas?
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
Voting is a voluntary activity. If overseas citizens are not voting, that is their right. Perhaps the Home Secretary will start looking at the number of people in this country who do not 1141 vote and change the way in which our voting procedures are organised. Perhaps he will think about supporting my idea for compulsory voting.
§ Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there is a difference between registration and voting and that the Opposition parties have consistently and rightly supported drives against under-registration in the United Kingdom as a whole, so logically they should also support attempts to make registration easier for United Kingdom citizens abroad, too?
§ Mr. Hurd
My hon. Friend is right. He has made his point neatly.
We have received emphatic replies on the question whether the existing restrictions are excessive. Much of what the overseas voters say is borne out by the full response that I received to the consultation paper issued on the subject last spring.
Change is needed in two basic respects. The first is the discouraging five-year cut-off, with its automatic denial of democratic rights after an arbitrary period. The second is the cumbersome bureaucracy which, as a result of our caution in 1985, we have imposed on our citizens abroad who want to vote in our elections. Some of those bureacratic burdens, notably the requirement to seek attestation of all first applications from a British consular office, are in secondary legislation. We shall in due course seek the consent of the House to reduce those burdens and, where practicable, to remove them altogether. Where we can help our citizens abroad, for example, by sending them annual reminders of the need to register, rather as is done for domestic electors, we shall do so, and clause 5 would enable me and my right hon. Friends to require electoral registration officers to do that.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
Has the right hon. Gentleman estimated the cost of imposing that duty on electoral registration officers? What is the basis of his assertion about the number of those people who might be entitled to vote if they registered?
§ Mr. Hurd
I shall ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to deal with the hon. Gentleman's second point. On the first point, we have made a calculation—but it may not be exact. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to question it, he should do so. I doubt that he would seriously be able to undermine our estimate.
I turn to the main provisions of the Bill and the fundamental question of where the cut-off for overseas voting should be set: for how many years should a British citizen be able to reside overseas and still be able to cast his vote in our parliamentary elections? I readily acknowledge that there cannot be a precise or objective answer. A balance must be struck between the claims and interests of those who have been abroad for a long time but have retained close and continuing connections with Britain and those who cut adrift from such links much earlier.
1142 In 1985, we took an ultra cautious, tentative approach and set the limit of five years. Following our experience of the system, we can now see that many of the fears expressed at that time were misconceived. Perhaps they overlooked the extent to which a system requiring annual registration is self-regulating. Some hon. Members,. especially on this side of the House, who responded to our consultation paper strongly argued that there should be no time limit, as is the case in several other major democracies. That is an arguable point of view with which I have much sympathy. We should try to get a reasonable view after listening to as many opinions as possible. We should not ram through legislation against such strongly held views. I recognise the strength and sincerity of the view that we must draw the line somewhere and that the constituency link is not infinitely elastic.
The Bill proposes a limit of 25 years, which would enfranchise citizens working on longer-term contracts abroad who intend, as many do, to retire to the United Kingdom. The Bill will include, by and large, citizens who, encouraged by successive Governments, have gone abroad to work for international and world development organisations, to advance British economic interests as private business men or to pursue careers in European Community institutions. It will recognise the rights of thousands of British citizens across the globe who, through modern communications, cheaper air fares and a genuine affection for their country, maintain strong links with the United Kingdom. Many of them have family and friends, property, children at school and are often liable for payment of taxes here. They may be business men, journalists, teachers or officials, voluntary workers, missionaries or church workers.
I remember the first debate that I attended on this subject, when the Labour party held the view that such people were lotus eaters. I remember the former Labour Leader of the House, now Lord Glenamara, using that phrase. I hope that we have moved on and that Labour Members will not argue that the people whom we have enfranchised in a rather timid and tentative manner should be described and denounced as lotus eaters.
§ Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
The Secretary of State said that the limit is to be increased from five to 25 years. Given that within 25 years there will probably be at least two boundary changes in a constituency, is the Secretary of State satisfied that people living abroad will have sufficient links with constituencies to know in which constituency to register? Registration by overseas citizens is voluntary, contrary to the answer that the Secretary of State gave to the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), whereas registration for people living in Britain is not. It is illegal not to register to vote in this country, so therefore there is a distinction. I accept the generality of the Secretary of State's argument for the 25-year limit, but will electoral rolls be accurate, bearing in mind the fact that registration officers do not keep them for 25 years?
§ Mr. Hurd
Registers are available. The hon. Gentleman is neglecting the fact that overseas citizens will have to register every year. The extent of contact will vary from case to case, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's objection is sound because they will be maintaining 1143 contact by registering every year. We should not disenfranchise them because they have lived abroad for 15 or 20 years rather than five years.
§ Mr. Hurd
I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.
I can understand the argument for having no time limit. I used to accept the argument for a tight limit, which was the mood of the House four years ago. I hope that we have moved on and that the House will agree, in the light of experience, that clause 1 strikes the right balance. I hope that it will be accepted in that spirit.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
Many hon. Members believe that it is absurd that anyone who has been away from Britain for 25 years should be able to vote. Is there not also the question of their commitment to the United Kingdom? Under the law as it currently stands, for them to be able to vote they must show that they do not intend permanently to live outside Britain. That provision is to be dropped. Such people pay no taxes to the Exchequer, so why should they be entitled to vote here?
§ Mr. Hurd
The hon. Member has returned to the lotus-eating argument, which I hoped had been disposed of many years ago. His approach is deeply old-fashioned because it does not take into account changes in society. Thousands of people have been encouraged to move abroad by the Government and for business reasons. In the old days, it was thought that the only people who should be allowed to vote were diplomats and soldiers of the British Army of the Rhine. That is the old-fashioned concept to which the hon. Gentleman is sticking. Most overseas citizens have links here and will return to Britain at the end of their working lives. The world has moved on, and in future people will increasingly work overseas. To dismiss such people as having lost their connections with or loyalty to Britain is a deeply obscure and reactionary point of view.
§ Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)
For tax purposes, what will happen if people sell their businesses overseas, thereby escaping capital gains tax? Has a determination been made regarding their tax liabilities or responsibilities? Does not the Bill have implications for final estate duties? Does registering to vote determine where one's heart or one's residence is?
§ Mr. Hurd
I shall not follow my hon. Friend down that byway. We made it perfectly clear in 1985, and we do so again now, that there is no connection between British tax laws and the provisions of the Bill.
I mentioned earlier the denial of democracy that is inherent in the present arrangements. That denial is especially obvious—I think that this is a quirk—in the exclusion from the right to vote of young people who, through no fault of their own, were not registered to vote when they went abroad or were taken abroad by their parents. It was clear from the consultation exercise that it is common ground that we can and should enfranchise that group of people. Clauses 2 and 3 seek to do just that.
Clause 4 deals with a matter that has already been mentioned in interventions—the requirement for the applicant to make a statutory declaration about his future place of residence. Many of our citizens abroad have objected, understandably, to making such a declaration. It 1144 was never connected with tax, but many of them thought that it was. That view was reflected by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). In the light of experience, we cannot see much point in having that declaration. It cannot be verified one way or the other by the person considering the application. It is a symbolic gesture, and if it has any effect at all, it is only that it might allow a dishonest person to vote while preventing an honest person from doing so. It adds only nuisance value to the procedures, and the Bill would abolish it.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way because he will not be here at the end of the debate and I am anxious to push him on these points. Taxation is crucial. Ministers and the Prime Minister have stood at the Dispatch Box and, with regard to local government changes, have said that whether someone pays rates influences the policies for which he votes at local elections. One justification for the poll tax was the fact that so many people are out of the rating system. In other words, voting must accompany the payment of taxes. The Home Secretary's argument today is the reverse of that. People who do not pay taxes will still be able to vote for policies to which they will be making no financial contribution. That is a complete reversal of what Ministers have insisted should apply in local government and it is now to be applied to central Government.
§ Mr. Hurd
The hon. Gentleman is attacking the whole concept of overseas voting. But that concept has been established for several years and it is not seriously contested in the House. The hon. Gentleman is mounting a rearguard and reactionary opposition to something that has been on the statute books for some time. There has never been a connection between the existence of this franchise since 1985 and the taxation laws. The hon. Gentleman would be the first to object if we tried to make such a connection. That connection has not existed and the Opposition are not about to propose one. We are talking not about a new principle today, but about the ramifications and restrictions which in the past have hedged in the principle of the overseas franchise.
§ Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way as he will not be here for the wind-up.
The Home Secretary referred to democracy and extending the franchise. Why will he not come clean with the House? Under the existing legislation, there are 500,000 target voters overseas. Under the new proposals in this Bill, there will be 2 million target voters. That is what the Bill is all about. The Government want to enhance the number of votes that the Conservative party will get at the next and subsequent general elections. All this stuff about democracy is a charade. Why will not the Home Secretary come clean?
§ Mr. Hurd
That is not worthy of the hon. Gentleman. I do not know why he is so defeatist. I thought that the Labour party was in a rather more confident mood. The assumption that Labour is going to lose, or fail to gain all the votes of the officials in the Commission, is strange. I thought that the Commission was now Labour's particular buddy. I advise the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) to have a little more confidence in his prospects and his capacity to enlist the votes of 1145 Commission officials and the children of missionaries. The hon. Gentleman's intervention has not really edified the House.
The other main purpose of the Bill is contained in clause 6, which sets a new limit on candidates' expenses at by-elections for seats in this House. I gave an assurance in a written answer on the day that I presented this Bill that the new limit is without prejudice to the outcome of a longer-term review that I have set in hand, and I repeat that assurance now. I also repeat, as I said in the written answer that appears in Hansard of 21 June, that the review will cover general election expenses as well as by-election expenses. I am preparing a consultation paper which will enable me to seek the views of political parties and election registration officers on the question of election expenses at general elections, by-elections and European elections. We will need a little time to glean views and bring forward sensible proposals.
Meanwhile, the Bill recognises what all hon. Members recognise: the intensity of campaigning at modern parliamentary by-elections and the need to set realistic limits for them. The Bill does that. It applies to parliamentary elections throughout the United Kingdom. As I said earlier, proposals for some easing of the regulations covering consular attestation of overseas electors' declarations will be brought before the House in due course. At the same time, we will try to meet another point and seek the consent of the House to lighten the burden of attestation—[Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West is listening—which three years ago we placed on holidaymakers and others applying for the absent voting facilities provided by the Representation of the People Act 1985.
On those terms, I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)
This Representation of the People Bill is short and contains only six clauses. However, it is important. What is the Government's motive in introducing the Bill now? There is a commitment to the Bill in the Conservative party manifesto. In addition, the Bill's title suggests that it is about improving the representation of the people. In part, I believe that that is true. However, I believe that the Government's main purpose is very party political. As I said in an intervention earlier, they want to increase the number of votes cast for the Tory party at the next and subsequent general elections.
In the Bill, the Government extend the franchise for British citizens, many of whom have lived outside the United Kingdom for some considerable time and do not have any intention of returning to live here. Many of them do not pay British taxes and their links with the United Kingdom are minimal. I believe that many of them are out of touch with the political situation in this country.
The Conservative party believes that many of the expatriates intend to vote Conservative instead of Labour. If we accept that assumption, then it is clearly in the interests of the Conservative party to maximise the number of British citizens living overseas who are eligible to vote.
In the Representation of the People Act 1985, arrangements were made for British citizens to vote while 1146 they are out of the country on holiday. Again, the thinking conveyed by many Conservatives at that time was that better-off people tend to vote Conservative and better-off people tend to go overseas for their summer holidays. Therefore, a drive to get absent voters to vote in a general election was seen by many people to be a net vote winner for the Conservative party.
I believe that there are two major elements to the Bill. It extends the period that a British citizen may live overseas and qualify as an elector from five years to 25 years. Not only may those citizens have lived out of the country for much of their lives, they will also no longer be expected to demonstrate that they ever intend to return to live in the United Kingdom. Clearly that will embrace a number of people, many of whom will have severed their links with Britain. Many will be married to nationals of the country in which they reside and will perhaps have children who may be receiving education in that country. Their children may be married themselves, and there may be grandchildren. Similarly, those British citizens' children may have careers in the other country. Those citizens will feel locked in for good in the other country and they will never return to Britain. I have friends who are in that position.
Those people have made their choice of life styles. I cannot see why we should extend a franchise, as the Bill suggests, to all those people, without exception, which will enable them possibly to determine the type of Government in this country when to all intents and purposes their lives are unaffected by the type of Government in this country.
I believe in principle that the British citizens who reside in this country and who must put up with the consequences of the policies of a Government—Labour or Conservative—should determine the political complexion of the Government who are elected as a result of a general election. At the same time, I believe that British citizens who live abroad temporarily—for a limited period—should have the right to vote.
The other main element of the Bill is the extension of the franchise to young people who, when they resided in the United Kingdom, were unable to have their names added to the electoral register because they were too young to vote. A possible consequence of that measure is that many young people who might have resided in the United Kingdom only for a matter of weeks or even days and who can know very little about the United Kingdom will now be entitled to vote and determine the kind of Government that we have in this country. Many young people live in countries in which local newspapers report only what the British Government do and rarely report on Opposition parties in any detail. Such young people would invariably vote in the same way as their parents, and that is what the Tory party is banking on.
We should take account of two criteria when considering political representation for British citizens. First, as a fervent democrat, I believe that we should always do all that we can to encourage people to vote. We have fought for our democratic system for hundreds of years. We must protect it, reform it and nurture it to take account of changes in our society and the world about us. I am sure that all hon. Members would support that objective.
The second criterion is that those who are granted a vote should intend to reside in the United Kingdom after their stay overseas. Why should we do what the Bill seems to propose—which is to give the vote to people who have, 1147 perhaps, emigrated for good and are probably out of touch with what is going on, or people who abuse Britain by becoming tax exiles? Why should we spend public money encouraging such people to have their names included on the electoral register? There are exceptions—perhaps not many—to the general rule laid down in the Bill. I hope that the details will be carefully looked at in Committee.
As a result of the Representation of the People Act 1985, the number of people throughout the world who registered in 1987 reached only about 11,000 or 12,000, as the Home Secretary said. Clearly, that number is not very high, and it certainly fell short of the 500,000 target for which some Conservatives hoped.
I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us the Government's estimate of the number of people throughout the world who will be enfranchised by the Bill. Will he confirm that his Department is using an estimate based on the international passenger survey of 2 million people who now become eligible to register as a result of the Bill? If the number of people who are enfranchised by the Bill were substantially to increase, it is possible that our general election campaigns will no longer be limited to the British Isles.
It has been reported that the Conservative party bought a mailing list as part of a drive to persuade 100,000 people living abroad to register in 1987, in time for the last general election. However, that measure fell flat and only a small number of people registered as a result of the Conservative party's appeal. After 1992, when we can expect many more British people to live in EEC countries, the demand for absentee voting will certainly increase. If the Government increase the number of possible voters further still by extending the franchise, both the Labour and Conservative parties could be supported by their sister political parties on the continent in canvassing political voters. In some ways, that may sound fanciful, but, if the number of registered voters is sufficiently large—perhaps about 2 million—it is possible that campaigning for a general election might have that new emphasis. I am not sure whether that is a desirable trend. Do the Government wish to encourage it?
The extended franchise in the Bill could result in new methods of campaigning for votes in a country such as the United States. A large number of British citizens emigrated to the United States of America over a considerable number of years. Many of them have retained their British citizenship and would be able to register to vote in British general elections. One can envisage certain United States or international businesses based in the United States contacting potential voters to encourage them to vote in a certain way. Do we as politicians wish to encourage that kind of external interference in our political and democratic processes? The data bases exist and the mail-shot technology is well-established. Does the Minister agree that such interference could be a consequence of the Bill? I should be interested to know whether the Conservative party wishes to encourage it. Clearly, there are two sides of the coin, and I wonder whether the Conservative party has fully thought them through.
As the Home Secretary suggested, clause 1 extends to 25 years the period during which British citizens may be registered as voters under the 1985 Act. Why have the Government introduced such a jump from five to 25 years? What does the Minister regard as the quantitative and qualitative benefits of such changes? Clause 2 extends the 1148 franchise to British citizens overseas who could not register in the United Kingdom because they were under age. Clause 2(1) states that a condition for being able to vote is thathe was last resident in the United Kingdom within the period of twenty-five years
What does that mean? The Minister is a lawyer and he is well versed in these matters. A woman could come to the United Kingdom, have a baby and then, a few weeks or months later, return overseas. Would the baby have resided here? Would he eventually qualify to vote? In the context of the Bill, what is a resident? The Representation of the People Act 1918 states that a resident should be ordinarily resident. If the parents are on the electoral register, does it mean that the baby could be regarded as ordinarily resident?
Electoral law relies on discretion. Therefore, we must tighten up that important part of the Bill so that we make it absolutely clear what residence means. There are no definitions in the Bill. Clearly, that is a matter to which the Standing Committee will give attention. That is especially important as electoral law is rarely tested in the courts.
One question that arises from extending the franchise for overseas people is how the Tory party will stimulate the latent vote. I hope that the Minister will confirm that. the Government will not abuse their position by producing more so-called Government information leaflets to encourage people overseas to vote Conservative. If the Government are so keen on extending the franchise, did the Minister consider giving the vote to certain aliens who are settled in the United Kingdom? At least they know what is going on politically and they can make value judgments before casting a vote.
Clause 4 abolishes the requirement for British citizens overseas to declare that they intend to return to the United Kingdom so that they can register to vote. That means that the vote will be given to people who have left the United Kingdom and, perhaps, intend never to return. When people live overseas for long periods they usually do not pay United Kingdom income tax. Should we take a leaf out of the book of the Americans who, during the war of independence in 1776, said that there should be no taxation without representation? Does the Minister consider that for many of the tax exiles who have given up Britain to live overseas there should be no representation without taxation? If these tax exiles pay tax they should, by right, have a vote. Does not the Minister agree that this is a reasonable criterion for extending the representation of these people?
Clause 5 enables—
§ Mr. Maclennan
I am listening with growing disbelief to the Labour party spokesman suggesting that there should be some kind of property qualifications for the British citizen. Is that really his intention? Obviously, only those with property worth a certain amount will be in a position to pay taxes.
§ Mr. Randall
I am saying that the way in which this Bill is worded makes it open ended, with loose definitions. I am suggesting that we should considerably tighten up the Bill's wording. The point which I have just made about residency is one good example of a massive loophole. If we do not tighten it up, it will create great difficulties in this kind of electoral law.
Clause 5 enables annual reminders to be sent to overseas electors. I presume that these would be similar to 1149 the forms that we receive in the United Kingdom from our individual returning officers. In principle, we must support that notion, but will the Parliamentary Under-Secretary give the House the cost of doing so?
The Home Secretary did not respond to the intervention of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). Will he give us the cost of implementing this proposal? Will officials chase up people to return their forms as they do in the United Kingdom, and what will be the cost?
Clause 6 increases the limit on candidates' election expenses for by-elections, In principle, we welcome the increased level for three reasons. First, by-elections have tended to become national events, not merely to do with a particular constituency. Clearly, that implies extra costs for political parties. Secondly, the growing sophistication of campaigning in by-elections—for example, the extensive use of computer data banks—means that all parties incur greater costs during the highly competitive by-elections which must be catered for. Thirdly, and perhaps most important, the political parties must remain within the electoral law at all times. We must not create pressures for parties to adopt imaginative accounting methods in order to keep within the strict financial limits.
The increase is a stop-gap measure. I hope that the Government will carry out a much more comprehensive review of election expenses at by-elections.
§ Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)
I have known the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) for a number of years, and I never expected to hear from him one of the most reactionary and fuddy-duddy speeches I have ever heard in the Chamber. It was quite apparent, even from his comments about it being primarily Conservative voters who take overseas holidays, that he is probably not even in touch with his own constituents who, I bet my bottom dollar, go to Spain, Italy and France for their holidays. Good luck to them.
I was hardly surprised that the new-found internationalism of the Labour party lasted not one minute beyond 15 June. It has suddenly developed an antipathy to people from our country who choose to work overseas to create wealth for this country and jobs for the hon. Gentleman's constituents. I am sure that he has many manufacturing companies in his constituency which are proud of their exports. Those exports could not be successfully competed for abroad if there were no salesmen and technical back-up teams overseas. This, above all, is one of the arguments against the five-year rule.
There is a logical argument which says that once people have retired they may not have the vote. However, anyone who works and lives overseas for five, 25 or 30 years has an important link with the United Kingdom. When talking to many of our citizens overseas, I find that they keep closely in touch with home and many of them subscribe to local papers. Sometimes, they are more informed about events at home than many people in this country.
I certainly welcome the Bill. It also helps to rectify the unjustified distinction that currently exists between Crown servants and people working in the European Commission, the European patent office or private 1150 business. It is plainly absurd that someone who has spent a lifetime in the diplomatic service overseas is, under current legislation, regarded as having close links and a permanent vote in the United Kingdom, while someone working in the European patent office is not.
A number of British citizens abroad pay taxes to the United Kingdom. That is particularly true of those who have retired from local government, the police and the Civil Service who have their tax deducted at source. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West seems to make no distinction between the groups, and I find that strange.
§ Mr. Randall
I accept that those people pay taxes and in my speech I attempted to clarify that. The Bill is worded in such a way as to convey a blanket statement which embraces all people. In Committee we must introduce amendments to make it clear so that those people to whom the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) referred will not be penalised.
§ Mr. Jones
I do not accept that there should be a link between paying taxes and voting. I simply refute what the hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends said, in apparently disparaging terms, about many of our citizens who live overseas and have various connections with the United Kingdom.
I am conscious that other Members wish to speak so I shall not detain the House too long. I wish to refer to the remarks made by my right hon. Friend about postal votes in the United Kingdom. They are important and the present arrangements are unsatisfactory in a number of regards. I hope that my right hon. Friend will look at ways to make the attestation much simpler. There is no doubt that people have found it difficult to understand and it has imposed an incredible burden on returning officers who, to all intents and purposes, have been unable to make checks. I hope that my right hon. Friend will look at other problems in the postal voting system at the same time.
There are far too many acting returning officers and registration officers who insist on absent voters in the elderly or incapacitated category having to declare from exactly which illness or condition they are suffering, rather than simply allowing them to state that they are unable to travel to the polling station because they have difficulty walking. That approach is too intrusive because some people may be suffering from diseases some of which may be terminal and would not want them disclosed on the forms that are available to the political parties and registration officers. It would be to everyone's benefit if we could create a much simpler system of postal vote applications.
We have a unique opportunity to try to bring our citizens in line with those of many of the other European countries and beyond. Socialist Governments in France and elsewhere seem to have no difficulty in allowing such an approach to be taken towards their citizens abroad. It seems extraordinarily insular for some Opposition Members, though not all, to take an entirely different view.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
This debate has certainly given us an extraordinary indication of how far the Labour party has strayed from its original desire to see adult suffrage extended throughout this country. We listened to an appalling 1151 statement from the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) which showed not only a total lack of knowledge of the historical roots of the Labour party, but of the present day world in which we live. To suggest that expatriates are ignorant of what is going on in this country shows a lack of awareness of the modern means of communication and is a slur on many of our citizens who are great patriots and live abroad in the service of this country. Many of them take a closer interest in what is happening here than do a number of citizens living closer to home.
The suggestion by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West that it was in some way undesirable to conduct a domestic election abroad, or to inform British citizens about the issues on which a general election was being fought, is surely unworthy of serious support. Labour policy as expressed by the hon. Gentleman seems to be to encourage a tax connection between overseas voters and this country, but many people who live overseas are not particularly well off, and the nexus between tax and voting in parliamentary elections has never had the Labour party's support before. The hon. Gentleman has made an appalling, reactionary statement, which I think would come to public notice were it not for the apparent lack of press interest in the debate, notwithstanding its importance.
That leads me back to a question that I put—perhaps not very clearly—to the Home Secretary in an intervention. How important will the extension of the franchise be? There has been a broad variation in the estimates of the number of people who will he affected, which have ranged from half a million to 2 million.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg)
Our estimate is that the number will not exceed 2 million, although we are not sure of the precise figure.
§ Mr. Maclennan
That is very significant: it suggests a substantial addition to the electoral roll, and I consider that highly desirable if the voters are citizens of this country. It is bound to have cost implications, however, and the Minister will probably want to mention those when he winds up the debate.
The 1985 Act was a cautious Act. The rule requiring citizens to have lived abroad for no longer than five years was particularly restrictive, and did not reflect the fact that many people who work abroad do so in cycles lasting considerably longer than that. The Government were right to extend the period, but any such restriction is bound to be somewhat arbitrary, and the choice of 25 years is clearly that. The Home Secretary said that he had toyed with the idea of imposing no such temporal restriction, and I feel that there is a good case for that, as people who fall on the wrong side of the 25-year boundary may have just as good a claim to be registered as voters as those who fall just on the right side. The drawing of such lines is certain to create anomalies.
§ Mr. Maclennan
The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to contribute: I do not intend to speak for long.
The Government's decision to simplify the procedures is sensible, as procedures were partly responsible for 1152 defeating the intent of the earlier Bill. The declaration of intention to return to this country strikes me as a particularly pointless requirement, which we do well to dispense with. It would be fairly simple for someone who was sufficiently keen to vote to make such a declaration, and it would be impossible to judge whether it was valid.
I entirely support the Government's proposals relating to those who leave the United Kingdom before they are old enough to vote. The general principle of extending the franchise in this manner is, I believe, right and just. I do not consider most people who live abroad to be parasites; in my view, they are hard working, and many contribute to the promotion of this country's commercial and diplomatic objectives. Without their work the United Kingdom would be more insular and out of touch with the rest of the world than any of us would wish. There are lotus eaters living on these islands, but no one suggests that they should be subjected to a test of whether they serve the nation. Many of us could nominate categories of such people, but it would be intolerable to do so, and it is equally nonsensical to categorise people living abroad in the same way.
The increase in parliamentary by-election expenses takes account of the considerable pressures faced by all political parties fighting such elections, which have become increasingly national events. The risk of a formal breach of the law is very great, and legislation should take account of that. I hope that this measure will enable the law to be enforced more severely than it has been on occasions in the past.
Broadly speaking, I welcome the Government's proposals.
§ 6.7 pm
§ Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
Let me start at the end of the Bill with clause 6, which deals with by-elections. I do not believe that anyone who has been within 100 miles of the organisation of a by-election in the last decade can say with hand on heart that the law has been observed in relation to the expenses of virtually any serious candidate. Raising the limit will not cost the parties a penny more. The money has already been spent, and we all know it. This measure is long overdue.
I am disappointed, however, that the Government have not taken the opportunity to rectify a problem that we thought we had got rid of by raising the deposit for parliamentary candidates. I do not agree with such deposits in any case—I think that signatures should be used instead—but one of the reasons for raising the deposits was to cut out the non-serious candidates. Winning a seat in the House is not a game; its purpose should not be publicity for stunts and organisations. Raising the deposit, however, has not stopped the nonsense at by-elections, where numerous candidates for different parties simply abuse the system for free national publicity.
I think that we could have taken the opportunity to abolish the requirement for a deposit and instead demand a minimum of 500 signatures for the nomination of candidates. Personally, I would go for 1,000; 500 is a compromise. I am serious about this. Anybody who claims to be a serious candidate for this place and who cannot find 500 signatures is, frankly, playing games with the electorate. We should cut out the monetary problems facing minor parties that are serious but are bereft. of 1153 financial support. Although I am due to be in Birmingham on Wednesday evening, I should like to be here to move an amendment to clause 6 to that effect, if I would be in order in doing so.
My intervention earlier led the Home Secretary to believe that I was against the Bill. That is not the case, and I made my position clear when we debated the subject previously. I presume that the 25-year period will date from Royal Assent. To the best of my knowledge, electoral registers have not been kept by registration officers for 25 years. That means that the information going back that far will not be available.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg
The hon. Gentleman is right in some respects, but the problem to which he refers can be met because most county or district council archives have the information. Where they have not, the registers can be obtained from the British library or from the national library of Scotland.
§ Mr. Rooker
I am pleased to hear that. I am happy so long as they are available. The local authority in Birmingham does not keep registers that far back, although I am aware that they are available at the central reference library or at the local studies department of the university, but one has to go through a process to obtain them. It is important that the registers are available so that the registrations can be checked. This is a serious matter concerning the right of people to vote in a constituency, and there must be a degree of certainty in the matter.
The electoral register is notoriously inaccurate. We do not debate election law and matters affecting the representation of the people often enough. Indeed, we do so only when we are obliged to do so or when there is a highly partisan issue following a change. That has not prompted this debate, but let us be clear that we are not adequately debating the Bill.
The measure has not yet been published for two clear weekends between its date of printing and Second Reading. It is being rushed through Parliament. Our normal conventions and Standing Orders are not being followed. That is by agreement, so I make no complaint, but it means that the Bill will not be scrutinised line by line and will not have a Standing Committee stage upstairs. We shall not have the chance that we would otherwise have to consider fully the way in which the electoral register works.
The electoral register can be described as a snapshot of one day. As I say, it is highly inaccurate. The poll tax register, on the other hand, is a rolling register; once one is on it, one stays on it. There is no requirement for an annual re-registration for the poll tax register. It changes only if the person's address changes.
I do not understand why our electoral registration system cannot follow the system in other western democracies. Under their system, once registered, a person remains registered until or unless there is a change of address. In Britain, particularly in the inner cities, there are enormous registration difficulties. There is massive under-registration, particularly for that one day, and that causes people to lose their vote.
I appreciate that it is easier nowadays for people to get back on to the register—if, say, somebody failed to fill in the form on the day in question—but administrative hurdles must still be surmounted. That involves getting the 1154 necessary form, filling it in and taking it to the electoral registration office. There would be no need for that if we adopted the rolling register so that, once registered, one remained on it. Other countries do it and there is no reason why we should not do the same.
Time permits me to make only a brief reference to the question of stateless persons living in this country. Consider, for example, people who came here from the Baltic states in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Many of them have never taken British nationality. Some of them could not even pass the naturalisation test; even today their command of the English language is not that good. But they have struggled and managed to survive in this country. They will not take Soviet citizenship because they are not Soviet citizens. So they find it difficult to obtain a passport, although the Home Office goes out of its way to issue such people with special documents.
While I would not think of linking taxes with votes, we should bear in mind that those stateless persons pay their taxes in this country, and they will have to pay the poll tax because they pay rates now. They will be on the rolling register for poll tax purposes. They have lived here perhaps for decades and I do not see why provision cannot be made for them to vote in British parliamentary elections.
We in this House—by "we" I mean the two major parties—are so conservative in making electoral arrangements that it beggars belief. Why is there no provision in the Bill to get rid of the necessity for voting to occur on a Thursday? Why not allow voting at weekends? The Thursday rule is a throwback to market days when constituencies were bought and sold.
Why is there no provision in the Bill for compulsory attendance at polling stations? I refer, of course, to compulsory attendance, not to compulsory voting. In recent weeks we have seen pictures of tanks trundling over people who were fighting for the right to have a proper vote and voice in the way their country is run. People in Britian gave their lives for the vote. It is people's civic duty and responsibility at least to get off their backsides and go to the polling station. Even if they do not like the candidates on offer, they should at least register their attendance at the polling station.
If time permitted, I would explain in detail how our system of voting is archiac, unfair and undemocratic. It is long overdue for reform to bring us in line with the more modern and democratic systems that are used in most other countries. We have not exported our voting system to, say, Poland or the Soviet Union. They do not use the first-past-the-post method. By their system, a single candidate can be defeated. In Britain, a single candidate gets elected without even the need for an election.
There should be a provision in the Bill to tidy up the rules applying to the description, the six words, on the ballot paper. I was astonished to discover during the Euro-elections that Members of the European Parliament remain MEPs, in the way local councillors remain in office, up to and beyond the day of the election and are able legally to describe themselves on the ballot paper as, "Member, European Parliament". That gives an unfair advantage to certain candidates, and the rule applying to the words that may be used needs tidying up.
When I inquired into that matter, I was surprised to learn that at the last general election the Prime Minister actually had "Prime Minister" on the ballot paper. The words read, "The Conservative candidate, Prime Minister." In the five general elections that I have fought, 1155 and reached this place, the Prime Minister in only one of them described herself as the Conservative party candidate. That was in 1983. In the two elections in 1974 and in the 1979 election she did not even describe herself as "The Conservative candidate". She described herself as the "Finchley and Friern Barnet Conservative candidate"—distancing herself at that time, when she was a member of the Cabinet, from the then Leader of the Conservative party. In those six words, no former Member of Parliament who holds a ministerial office should be entitled to display ministerial office on the ballot paper. I hope that an amendment to that effect will be made to the Bill when it is debated again next Wednesday.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
I agreed with some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), and certainly democracy should be more valued in Britain than it is. My hon. Friend said that everyone should be under a legal obligation to attend a polling station at election time even if they did not wish to vote. I agree, and I confess that I am often disappointed when people tell me, "We never vote." Sometimes they say it almost with pride.
One thinks not only of what happened in China a few weeks ago but of the intense struggle that was fought in Britain by men and women to obtain the vote. Women went to prison and on hunger strike for the elementary right to vote. No wonder we on the Labour Benches take a different view from some people about the need to preserve, defend and value our system of parliamentary democracy. We need no lectures from the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) and the Members of his party about our commitment to parliamentary democracy and civil liberties.
I also agreed with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr about the need for tighter restrictions at by-elections. I see no reason why such elections should become a kind of circus. The restrictions could be tighter without denying anybody the right to stand for election to Parliament. It is well known that a number of people stand at by-elections who would not dream of standing at general elections. They do so because they obtain the publicity that they would never get at a general election.
The Bill devalues democracy. I accept that many people who go abroad on contracts or with the armed services or to the EEC in Brussels have every right to retain their vote. I would be the last person to wish to take away that right to vote in national elections. We have made that clear on a number of occasions, and when the Representation of the People Act 1985 was passing through the House. The basic questions concern the number of years abroad, continued commitment to this country and whether the person intends to return to Britain. Before a Conservative Member mocks that, it should be borne in mind that that was precisely what the Government brought forward and what now exists in law. Before a person who lives abroad can vote, he must sign a declaration that he does not intend to reside permanently outside the country. The Home Secretary did not give any reason that I can accept why that should be abolished.
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland gave the impression that everybody who goes abroad, for no matter how many years, does so for the best of reasons, in 1156 the interests of Britain, but we know that that is not always so. Some of these people go to escape the law and many others to escape paying tax here. Even now, they believe that it is far better to go abroad where their tax liability will be much less than if they stayed in Britain. Have they gone abroad for the best of reasons? Should we congratulate them on that?
The Bill proposes that people who go abroad can stay for up to 25 years without any evidence of their continuing commitment to the United Kingdom or that they will ever return, and still have the vote. However, the Government argued about local elections that it was necessary to have some kind of financial commitment, through paying rates or the poll tax, before one could have the vote. They laid that down in the law. Even the poorest people, those on income support, have to pay 20 per cent. of the poll tax before they have the right to vote. That was a new commitment that the Government introduced, against which we strongly argued.
The Government now propose that those who go abroad for many years, and therefore pay no tax in the United Kingdom, will still be able to vote in a general election even if they have no intention of returning. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) rightly said, if a child leaves the country with his parents, when he comes of voting age, he will be able to vote even if he has never been back to the United Kingdom. The Minister will no doubt correct me if I am wrong on this.
§ Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)
I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the position of expatriate workers who live in a British colony. I am thinking in particular of those in Bermuda. They may have given an undertaking or signed a document saying that they have no intention of coming back to the United Kingdom, but they do not have a vote in that British colony. After they have fulfilled the residential qualifications in Bermuda they may not obtain the Bermudian status that gives them the right to vote. Many expatriates would like to continue their long-term interest in the United Kingdom and vote in United Kingdom elections but cannot do so, and the tax disincentives for them are considerable.
§ Mr. Winnick
The hon. Gentleman will no doubt be able to pursue that point in Committee. I have noted what he said, but he did not convince me that our opposition to the Bill is wrong.
I am convinced that if Conservative central office thought that the Tories would lose as a result of this measure, it would not be before us now. The Tory party has come to the cynical conclusion that it will get votes from the provisions of the Bill. It may be right, and I will not challenge that. To maximise the votes that they can get from abroad, the Government have decided on this measure. The Tories would gain far more votes than the Democrats. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland is being naive if he does not understand why the Bill is before us.
§ Mr. Maclennan
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for drawing attention to my principled opposition to the Labour party's view.
§ Mr. Winnick
I am willing to concede that the hon. Gentleman has made a principled stand, but his principle is misplaced. There is no reason to take such a stand. The 1157 points that we have made are far more principled and are far more concerned with preserving our democracy, and with our commitment to this country and its political process. This is a shabby scheme. It is understandable that the Conservative party should introduce it, but those of us who vote against it will do so with every justification.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I do not support the Bill, which smacks of international gerrymandering. The Home Secretary tried to dress it up in the language of the extended franchise, but we know that the instincts and intentions of the Government are base. They think that the Bill will extend the trawl. They will be going out looking for the international redneck vote to supplement the miserable performance that they are fully expected to have at the next general election.
I listened carefully to the Home Secretary, who said that not enough people were voting under the existing system for overseas voters introduced by the Representation of the People Act 1985. Roughly 500,000 people overseas are eligible to vote. Something like 13,000 of them voted in the 1987 election. As I said to the Home Secretary, voting is a voluntary act. I do not know why 500,000 people minus 13,000 did not turn up to vote.
§ Mr. Rooker
Is my hon. Friend aware that, out of the 500,000 who registered, only about 2,000 actually voted?
§ Mr. Banks
The statistic that I saw in the Library a little while ago suggested that the 13,000 voted. Let us not quibble. If 500,000 people were registered, only a small number decided to vote under the existing system. One would have thought that the Home Secretary would try to get the additional people to register and vote instead of saying that he will make it easier for people to register by having fewer restraints. There are no restraints on up to 500,000 voting anyway, so we are now looking for the greater number of up to 2 million who may register as a result of the changes proposed in the Bill, and thus be eligible to vote. We do not know how many will vote.
This is absurd. If we looked at this logically, we would be asking about the franchise here and about the 30 per cent. of people who were eligible to vote at the last general election but did not. Why do we not lower the voting age, or declare a public holiday on polling day? Why do we not try to get through the House compulsory voting? Why do we not change the voting procedures? Why do we not have run-off campaigns between the candidates so that whoever ends up as Member of Parliament speaks for over 50 per cent. of the constituency? Why do we not have postal votes for everybody? One could go on talking about the way to tap into the extra 30 per cent. of people who do not vote in a general election, but no Conservative Member makes that proposal.
I support the proposal that British citizens overseas in the diplomatic service, in the armed services or on short-term contracts should have their right to vote while working overseas because they are showing a continuing long-term commitment to this country. When people have effectively emigrated and have not the slightest intention of coming back, I do not see why I should be expected to 1158 support their right to vote for a Government whose economic and social policies will not affect them. We are talking about tax exiles. We are talking about people who have put two fingers up to this country because they do not want to have anything to do with it. They have said, "We are clearing off. We will go abroad and live off our ill-gotten gains." Those are the sort of people who will be in the extended categories.
Taxation is crucial if one is living overseas. It is not crucial here. If someone lives in this country, he is living under the laws that have been passed by the Government. Taxation is not crucial in this country but a person who lives overseas, with no intention of coming back, and who pays no taxes in this country should not have the right to vote for policies which will never cost him anything and which will never affect him economically or socially.
§ Mr. Banks
I will not give way. I will be sitting down in a few moments so that we may vote by 7 o'clock.
The Prime Minister herself has said that, unless people are contributing to local taxes and rates, they will not act responsibly in the way that they vote at local elections. If it is good enough for the Prime Minister to use that argument, to which we are opposed, I do not see how the Government can try to take the reverse position in regard to those who live overseas, who have no intention of coming back to this country and who pay no taxes or rates here.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North. I am no narrow-minded nationalist, but I am damned if I will support the right of tax exiles to vote for policies in this country. The Government see this as a way of trawling round the country looking for the redneck vote. It will not do them any good at the next election. In the meantime, I am opposed root and branch to the proposals in the Bill.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
The importance of the measure was displayed by the Minister who stated that potentially there were 2 million votes involved. That means that over 3,000 votes might be involved per constituency at a time when the electoral register is in collapse because of the poll tax. There are 76 constituencies in England where the electorate has dropped by more than 1,000 in the last year, including a drop of 2,170 in Finchley which, according to the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, is not due to demographic reasons, but must have something to do with registration. In a letter to me the only explanation offered by the Prime Minister for the registration figures not being as high as they should be is the September 1988 postal strike. That is an unfortunate explanation which does not apply to the position in Scotland where there was a similar collapse in registration in the major cities between the general election of 1987 and 1988. Therefore, the poll tax is relevant to the Bill.
I am concerned about the low priority that is being given to this important legislation. It is not just, as the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), the representative of the SLD, said, that the press are not here; many hon. Members are not here either. The Bill is being rushed through, hopefully for some, in less than two hours. We are not giving it the consideration that major 1159 constitutional legislation should have. The Secretary of State, who introduced the Bill, has left the House. With all respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall), we are leading with the reserves. It is an important measure which should be discussed in prime time.
The Representation of the People Act 1985 was discussed at considerable length during 1984 and 1985. It was of wider scope than the present measure but Labour voted against it on Second Reading. Considerable time was spent on it in a Committee of the whole House. Only when certain amendments were introduced was there agreement not to vote against it on Third Reading. All the concessions made at that stage for overseas voters are being overridden. The position is even worse. Clause 1 extends from five years to 25 years the period during which people can pick up electoral registration overseas. The original proposal in 1984 was seven years, but it was amended to five years; now it is to be 25 years.
Under existing legislation people who were under 18 when they left this country are excluded. That condition is being removed. A person who left the country as a babe in arms may, 18 years later, qualify for registration and may vote in English elections, yet some people in this country will be excluded from their birthright by the operation of the poll tax which deters them from being not just on the poll tax register but on the linked electoral register.
The minimal requirement of a declaration that a person did not intend to reside permanently outside the United Kingdom is being abolished. People will not even have to say that they intend to return here at some stage. We should ask who should he on the electoral register and what principles should he involved. People should be involved with the nation and should participate in its affairs. They should be concerned about the services that are provided because they benefit from them.
I do not accept the principle of no representation without taxation which operates in regard to the poll tax. Everybody within a society should be entitled to vote as a birthright, but we have to decide what a society is. Society does not mean that a person leaves the country, settles in another area and devotes himself to that nation where he will develop interests distinct from his interests here. Someone who settles overseas is bound to become more involved with the interests of the country where his children are growing up.
The explanatory and financial memorandum refers to the costs of registering overseas electors. If there was a decent principle, I would not quibble about the cost because we cannot put too high a price on democracy. We should be willing to spend any amount to ensure that people have the franchise. It will cost £1.72 to register an overseas elector and 62p each year to maintain registration. That expenditure can be contrasted with the failure of the Government to try to stimulate electoral registration in this country through advertising.
Expenditure on advertising by the Home Office to encourage electoral registration amounted to 0.31 per cent. of total Government advertising expenditure in the past year. We should contrast that with the expenditure of more than £6 million by Abbey National in its campaign to encourage people to exercise their vote on the society becoming a plc. Abbey National was not allowed to ask people to vote yes, but it encouraged full use of the franchise. Should we not encourage full registration of electors? Should we not get rid of poll tax legislation which 1160 for the first time has introduced the principle of no registration without taxation? That principle applies in Chile where, at the recent referendum, in order to register people had to pay an amount equivalent to one month's money on an employment scheme, as a result of which many of the Chilean working class did not have a vote. The vote against Pinochet would have been much greater but for the financial constraints on people.
The poll tax is creating a similar situation in Britain. For the first time since the franchise was extended universally—in 1918 for all men and in 1928 for all women—there will be a tax on those who qualify to vote. A similar situation applied in the 19th century and before 1918 when we had the 40 shilling vote and other fancy franchises.
Those are the types of measures that we should be considering in a Bill such as this. We should be discussing my Re-enfranchisement of the People Bill, which would detach the poll tax register from the electoral register, rather than the nonsense before us today.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
I am shocked that we should be debating a Bill such as this which basically shows the Tory party's deep concern for its future. It has to scrabble round the world looking for tax dodgers, crooks, thieves and wastrels, anywhere that it can, in order to get a Tory Government re-elected in two years' time. That is what the Bill is about. It has nothing to do with democracy.
The Home Secretary has given us an eloquent testimony of his commitment to democracy by clearing off the minute that he finished his speech. He may have gone abroad; I do not know. Perhaps he has gone to see a tax exile. There is something disgraceful and distasteful about the Bill.
If the Government were serious about ensuring that democracy in Britain worked properly, they would not have pushed through the poll tax which has taken thousands of people off the register. The London Central European constituency had 40,000 fewer voters two weeks ago than it had in 1984. That was the result not of the migration of people from central London, but of fear of the poll tax. That was the reason behind the poll tax.
Local authorities are spending less and less money on voter registration and canvassing follow-ups. The voter registration system is less accurate than it used to be. The Housing Act 1988 and the activities of dodgy landlords further discourage people from registering. That has always been a problem and will continue to be one.
The Government's only answer to all the problems of non-participation in elections is to threaten people with the poll tax and offer the vote to tax dodgers living abroad. A baby born in Britain today and taken out of the country tomorrow would, after its birth had been registered and a passport issued—if that were possible in the time—be eligible to vote in British elections from 2007 until 2014, having played no part in Britain's political or economic life.
Thousands of people are denied the right to vote who are legally resident in Britain as asylum-seekers or refugees, or who have another nationality but are legally resident and work in Britain, making their contribution to society. It is not just those who pay tax who should have the vote. Those political exiles are making their 1161 contribution to society, but they are denied the right to vote here and in their country of origin. It is monstrously unfair for us to preach democracy while denying such people the right to participate in elections.
About 15 million people across Europe, often the poorest, are suffering the ravages of economic policies pursued by Governments such as ours and are being denied any participation in a democratic process that can influence their lives. That is distasteful, and the Home Office should examine the ways in which the electoral register and the franchise in Britain could be extended to people living and contributing to society here rather than scrabbling round the world looking for tax exiles to vote for them.
The raising of the parliamentary limit on by-election campaigns is nonsense. Parliamentary by-elections have been turned into a circus by the activities of the Front-Bench spokesmen of all parties in the House and by media exposure. There is an increasing antipathy towards all political parties in by-elections because people feel that they are being taken for a ride. They feel that they are spectators in their own electoral process.
Raising the limit to about £14,000 for by-elections, plus the unit cost increase for each vote of 16.4p for every entry on the electoral register, means that by-election campaigns will cost about £20,000 or more per candidate. Multiply that by five or six candidates, and we are talking about £100,000 worth of political publicity being pushed out, often during a two-week by-election campaign. That is not a promotion of democracy, but a way of squashing and squeezing smaller third parties.
I am happy and proud to be a member of one of the two largest parties in Britain, but, as a Member of the House, I have a duty, as others have, to ensure that democracy is fair and that everyone has a right to express their point of view.
The Bill seems to be a bit obsessed with money all round. We heard at the beginning that the Government estimate an expenditure of £1.72 per overseas voter to be registered, but there is no increase for voter registration in Britain. We must consider that.
We must also consider the electoral deposit. There is a general feeling that if we increased the electoral deposit we would reduce the number of candidates and get away from irritants from third, fourth, fifth, sixth, 10th and 12th parties; that is wrong. We should not prevent people from contesting elections or submitting their name for election as a result of their inability to pay a cash deposit. If there is to be a limit, it should be based on the number of signatures in support of a candidature. At the moment that is only 10, but there is no reason why it should not be substantially increased and the parliamentary election deposit abolished at the same time.
Many hon. Members have put forward different proposals for extending and improving participation in democracy in Britain. The Bill does nothing towards that. It helps not one jot to improve democracy in Britain; it only enfranchises those who, in effect, have emigrated.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
Someone said earlier that he did not know where the 25-year rule came from. We know that it comes from the 1964 general election when many people upped and left the country because a Labour Government 1162 were elected. The 25-year rule was a way of enfranchising all those who have left Britain since 1964. It is no mere coincidence.
§ Mr. Corbyn
There were those who, under the previous Labour Government, were paid large sums of money to write articles in the Sunday newspapers saying that they could not afford to live in Britain because of what they considered to be the penal rates of tax. I do not consider that to be a basis for re-enfranchising them. They should show some commitment to Britain by living here and contributing to our society.
I hope that when the Under-Secretary of State replies he will at least show that the Home Office has considered the points that have been made tonight. I hope that the Bill will not go forward and that we shall not extend the franchise in the way that the Government want, but that we shall extend democratic participation in Britain.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg)
In the course of the debate a number of hon. Members have outlined their own views about defects that they perceive to exist in our electoral system. I acknowledge that many of the problems they mentioned are not addressed by the Bill, which is narrowly focused and is intended to be so. That is why we have not sought to address the points made, for example, by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) regarding the deposit and eligibility to stand.
In short, we are seeking to extend the franchise to people who hitherto have been deprived of it. The broad principle by which I stand—and I am glad that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) stands by it as well—is that British citizens should, unless there are persuasive reasons to the contrary, have the right to vote. That seems to me to be an admirable principle. We should not deprive British citizens of the right to vote unless there is an obvious and compelling reason why we should do so. That approach is adopted by most developed countries.
We live in a world in which citzens of Britain and of every other country must live abroad, or choose to do so, to work, or for an increasing number of other purposes or reasons.
§ Mr. Hogg
No, I shall not give way for the moment—and perhaps not at all, because my time is extremely limited.
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) launched an attack on tax exiles. It is possible that among those to whom the franchise will be extended by the Bill will be people whom the hon. Gentleman calls tax exiles. However, the fact that some unworthy people may be caught in the net is not a good reason for denying a franchise to the very many worthy people who are presently denied it. People now go abroad for long periods for a whole variety of reasons. They work in international agencies, commerce and business, and they serve as missionaries or educationists. The list is endless. To describe the people who may be given a franchise by the Bill in the way that the hon. Member for Islington, North described them, astax dodgers, crooks, thieves and wastrels",1163 is deeply offensive to the many people who go abroad for wholly legitimate reasons.
§ Mr. Hogg
I shall give way in a moment, but I must finish this point.
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland made the important point that the Labour party is, in its attitude to the Bill, departing from the standards that it has set itself for many years. Labour is saying in effect that people should not have the right to vote unless they pay tax. That argument was explicitly deployed by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall)—he nods assent. If that policy were adopted, the huge majority of students who are currently entitled to vote would be denied that right. If we were to adopt the argument of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West, millions of old-age pensioners who do not pay tax would also be denied the right to vote. That would be the consequence of the proposal made by the right hon. Gentleman from the Labour Front Bench.
§ Mr. Randall
When the Minister reads the Official Report tomorrow, he will learn that I referred only to tax exiles.
§ Mr. Hogg
We heard otherwise from some Opposition Members, and those honourable exceptions included the hon. Member for Perry Barr. Nevertheless, the Opposition's argument against the Bill is that there should be some linkage between the obligation and the fact of paying tax and the franchise, which I do not accept in respect of parliamentary elections.
§ Mr. Hogg
No, not at this moment. I gave way to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West. I have enjoyed the many interventions of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), but he had ample opportunity to put his point of view.
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland asked a number of questions, which I shall try to answer. We do not know the number of persons who will be eligible to vote. Our best estimate is that the total will be of the order of 2 million. If you, Madam Deputy Speaker, were to ask me how many people we estimate will take up the franchise, I would reply that our broad calculation is 60,000. That is the figure we have in mind. In 1987, 12,000 overseas citizens registered to vote in the general election that year, but we do not know how many did so.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West made a defeatist speech in suggesting that the purpose of the Bill is to increase the number of Conservative votes. I have two comments to make on that point. First, we are taking the high moral ground that British citizens are, prima facie, entitled to vote even when they live abroad. Secondly, it is extraordinary that the Labour party should suggest that its policies are so unattractive that it will not have supporters among those living abroad. That may be right, but such a view tells us something about the Labour party. When I hear the hon. Member for Islington, North describe British citizens overseas astax dodgers, crooks, thieves and wastrelsI am not in the least surprised why he supposes that Labour will not receive many votes from them.
1164 The explanatory memorandum gives information about the important aspect of costs. For local government, the cost will be £1.72p per voter initially and thereafter 62p per year. The calculations are set out in the annex to our second consultation paper that is now in the Library. Those figures have been made available to local authorities in good time, and I am pleased to report that there was no particular criticism of them. I do not claim that those figures are 100 per cent. accurate, but the order of the estimate is correct.
Hon. Members who attacked our abolition of the declaration fail to grasp what we are about. The declaration in its present form requires people to assert that they do not intend to live permanently outside the United Kingdom. No honest man can put his name to such a declaration, because such a circumstance is unverifiable. More importantly, any honest man considering whether he is capable of making such a declaration truthfully must bear in mind that his intentions may change. There is no reason why a person who is essentially honest and recognises the basic facts of life should be penalised in the way that the Opposition suggest.
The criteria affecting children are clearly set out in the Bill. Young persons will be entitled to apply to register if they were resident in the constituency during the relevant time period—and residency is a matter of fact, meaning a permanent connection—and their parent or guardian was also registered at a relevant address within the appropriate constituency. I see no lacuna in that situation.
I shall bring my remarks to a conclusion. I have not answered every hon. Member who has spoken, but I propose to do so in writing instead. The justification for the Bill is an appropriate extension of the franchise to people who should not be denied it. On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 162, Noes 19.1165
|Division No. 268]||[6.58 pm|
|Alexander, Richard||Carttiss, Michael|
|Allason, Rupert||Channon, Rt Hon Paul|
|Amess, David||Cnope, Christopher|
|Amos, Alan||Colvin, Michael|
|Arbuthnot, James||Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Cran, James|
|Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)||Davies, Q. (Stamfd & Spald'g)|
|Ashby, David||Davis, David (Boothferry)|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Dorrell, Stephen|
|Atkins, Robert||Dunn, Bob|
|Atkinson, David||Dykes, Hugh|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)||Emery, Sir Peter|
|Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)||Fallon, Michael|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Fenner, Dame Peggy|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)|
|Boswell, Tim||Forth, Eric|
|Bottomley, Mrs Virginia||Fox, Sir Marcus|
|Bowis, John||Freeman, Roger|
|Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard||Fry, Peter|
|Bright, Graham||Gale, Roger|
|Brooke, Rt Hon Peter||Garel-Jones, Tristan|
|Browne, John (Winchester)||Gill, Christopher|
|Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)||Gow, Ian|
|Buck, Sir Antony||Greenway, John (Ryedale)|
|Budgen, Nicholas||Gregory, Conal|
|Burt, Alistair||Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)|
|Butler, Chris||Ground, Patrick|
|Carlisle, John, (Luton N)||Grylls, Michael|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn|
|Carrington, Matthew||Hague, William|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Miller, Sir Hal|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Mills, Iain|
|Hanley, Jeremy||Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)|
|Hannam, John||Mitchell, Sir David|
|Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)||Moate, Roger|
|Harris, David||Moss, Malcolm|
|Hawkins, Christopher||Moynihan, Hon Colin|
|Hayward, Robert||Neubert, Michael|
|Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.||Nicholson, David (Taunton)|
|Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)||Norris, Steve|
|Hordern, Sir Peter||Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley|
|Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)||Oppenheim, Phillip|
|Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)||Page, Richard|
|Howells, Geraint||Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Hunt, David (Wirral W)||Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth|
|Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)||Porter, David (Waveney)|
|Hunter, Andrew||Portillo, Michael|
|Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Irvine, Michael||Raffan, Keith|
|Jack, Michael||Redwood, John|
|Janman, Tim||Renton, Tim|
|Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey||Rhodes James, Robert|
|Jones, Robert B (Herts W)||Roe, Mrs Marion|
|Jopling, Rt Hon Michael||Sackville, Hon Tom|
|Kilfedder, James||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)||Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)|
|Knapman, Roger||Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')|
|Knight, Greg (Derby North)||Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)||Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)|
|Latham, Michael||Shersby, Michael|
|Lawrence, Ivan||Sims, Roger|
|Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)||Speed, Keith|
|Lightbown, David||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Lilley, Peter||Stevens, Lewis|
|Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)||Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)|
|Lord, Michael||Stradling Thomas, Sir John|
|Lyell, Sir Nicholas||Summerson, Hugo|
|McCrindle, Robert||Tapsell, Sir Peter|
|Macfarlane, Sir Neil||Taylor, Ian (Esher)|
|MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)||Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman|
|Maclean, David||Thurnham, Peter|
|Maclennan, Robert||Trotter, Neville|
|McLoughlin, Patrick||Waddington, Rt Hon David|
|McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick||Wheeler, John|
|Malins, Humfrey||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Mans, Keith||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Maples, John||Wood, Timothy|
|Marshall, John (Hendon S)||Yeo, Tim|
|Marshall, Michael (Arundel)|
|Martin, David (Portsmouth S)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Mates, Michael||Mr. John M. Taylor and|
|Maude, Hon Francis||Mr. Sydney Chapman.|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Pendry, Tom|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Pike, Peter L.|
|Cohen, Harry||Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert|
|Cousins, Jim||Skinner, Dennis|
|Cryer, Bob||Spearing, Nigel|
|Douglas, Dick||Winnick, David|
|Godman, Dr Norman A.||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|Madden, Max||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Mahon, Mrs Alice||Mr. Harry Barnes and|
|Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)||Mr. Jeremy Corbyn.|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Maclean.]
§ Committee tomorrow.