HC Deb 17 July 1995 vol 263 cc1373-87 7.13 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Nicholas Baker)

I beg to move, That the draft Local Government Elections (Changes to the Franchise and Qualification of Members) Regulations 1995, which were laid before this House on 26th June, be approved. For many years, our electoral law restricted the right to vote and to be a candidate in any election to British and other Commonwealth citizens and to citizens of the Irish Republic. However, the treaty on European Union conferred certain electoral rights on Union citizens, which extends our franchise further. The rights conferred by the treaty are to vote and to be able to stand as a candidate in elections to the European Parliament and in local government elections. Regulations approved by Parliament last year conveyed into our domestic legislation rights with regard to European parliamentary elections and, accordingly, Union citizens resident in this country were eligible to participate in the European parliamentary elections held in June 1994. Of course, British citizens living abroad in the European Community enjoyed similar rights.

The draft regulations deal with the second aspect of electoral rights contained in the treaty and they accordingly extend to resident citizens of other member states the right to vote and to stand as a candidate in local government elections.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

As the issue is rather complex, will the Minister clarify the position of Gibraltar? Did Gibraltar residents qualify previously because Gibraltar was allegedly part of the Commonwealth although it was not, or do they now qualify because they are part of the European Union? Will the Minister explain to my constituents whether Gibraltar residents who are British citizens had the right before, will still have it or will perhaps never have it?

Mr. Baker

I hope that, before the end of the debate, I shall be able to give my hon. Friend an answer about Gibraltar but, if he will allow me to proceed, I shall do what I can before then.

Progress has been reported to Parliament by means of the usual explanatory memoranda. One explanatory memorandum was submitted by the Home Office on 22 April last year, and supplementary memoranda were submitted on 18 May and 30 November. The matter was debated by European Standing Committee B on 19 July 1994 when the Committee endorsed the Government's main policy objectives.

One of those policy objectives was to avoid the somewhat bureaucratic system of information exchange which is required under the directive governing European parliamentary elections. Our participation in that information exchange at the time of the 1994 European parliamentary election confirmed us in our view that it served little purpose. The directive on local government elections does not contain the same requirements, which is much to be welcomed. During the review of the European parliamentary directive—a process that has just begun—we shall be seeking to have the requirements for information exchange removed or at least reduced.

The regulations are being brought forward now because the directive stipulates that member states shall bring into force the laws, regulations and administrative provisions necessary to comply with the directive before 1 January 1996.

Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd)

Will the Minister tell the House whether there is a set timetable for implementation by other European member states?

Mr. Baker

Other European member states have, like us, declared to which elections the provisions shall apply, and they are subject to the same time limit as us—1 January 1996. That means that we must have the procedures in place in time to enable Union citizens to be registered during this autumn's electoral canvass.

Although representation of the people legislation is complex and detailed, the draft regulations are pretty simple. They extend local government electoral rights to resident Union citizens by means of simple amendments to the nationality criteria contained in the Representation of the People Act 1983. Draft regulation 3 effects the necessary changes with regard to the right to stand as a candidate, and regulation 4 deals with the right to vote. The general principle of the relevant article of the treaty is that non-national residents in a member state should be treated, for electoral purposes, in the same way as nationals of that state.

The simple amendments to which I referred are all that is necessary to give full effect to our treaty obligations, and they do no more and no less than that. We are not introducing any requirements of citizens of other member states that we do not require of our own citizens, and no changes are made to the way in which previously enfranchised nationalities are dealt with. That is in line with the welcome provision that allows the existing laws of individual member states to apply as far as possible.

I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) that, in the case of our local government elections, our existing law can continue to apply unchanged. To register a vote, for example, a European Union citizen must have been resident in Great Britain on the qualifying date of 10 October, or 15 September for Northern Ireland, in exactly the same way as British, other Commonwealth, or Irish citizens. Citizens of other member states who wish to be candidates in local government elections must conform to the nomination procedures to which candidates have conformed hitherto.

The majority of the draft regulations are set out in the two schedules, where consequential amendments are made to primary and secondary legislation. I hope that the House will agree to them.

7.20 pm
Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd)

The Opposition extend a guarded welcome to the extension of the right to vote in local elections in this country to all citizens of member states of the European Community on the same terms as Commonwealth citizens. We shall extend a warmer welcome when there is clear evidence that British citizens living in other European Union countries enjoy similar privileges, especially in countries such as Germany, where there have been long-standing constitutional objections to extending the franchise to non-nationals.

It is worth recalling for a moment that, before the 1990s, voting rights for non-nationals existed only in Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands. In Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg and Portugal, only nationals had the right to vote.

The movement of European Union citizens across intra-Union frontiers has grown apace, especially in the past five years or so. An estimated 5 million European Union citizens may be enfranchised by the regulations if fairly applied by each member state. I hope that the Government will reassure the House and the British people, however, that the new regulations will be fairly applied, and that some of the Governments of countries that I listed earlier, such as the Germans and the French, will not deny the right to vote in local elections to UK nationals residing in those countries. Well in excess of 150,000 of our nationals reside in Germany and France, while we provide that right to 100,000 Germans and French nationals who reside in the UK.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I apologise for missing the beginning of the debate; I was downstairs in a meeting.

The Minister may well have made the argument already, but I understand that, when we passed the legislation for the Maastricht treaty through the House, automatically other EU citizens in this country had the right to vote in our elections. Is that not the case with regard to UK citizens in other EU countries? If not, why the difference?

Dr. Howells

No. As I understand it—I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—it was not regarded as part of the competence of either the Commission or the European Parliament to grant that, and it needed to be debated separately in order to become a right. It is important that we understand that distinction because the House may wish to know that, at 1 January 1992, about 410,000 UK nationals were living outside the UK but in the European Union.

We welcome the fact that the Home Office had effectively issued three consultation papers, in the form of supplementary explanatory memoranda, on that subject during 1994, because it raises issues that go to the heart of our democratic system. Indeed, if our response as a Parliament had not been the right one, we might have sent to Brussels dangerous and misleading messages about our willingness to cede to the Commission and to the European Parliament the competence to make decisions about aspects of home affairs that, Opposition Members believe, lie entirely within the competence of this Parliament.

Mr. Marlow

Am I right or am I wrong in saying that EU citizens in this country were able to vote in our local elections in May of this year, and that that had nothing to do with the European Parliament, the Commission or any European institution, but was a result of the House having passed into law the provisions of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1986? If it happened here, why did it not happen for UK citizens in other EU countries?

Dr. Howells

I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is right. I do not believe that European Union nationals living in this country had the right to vote in local elections last May, which is the reason why we are considering this legislation now. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not confuse voting in local elections last May with voting for the European Parliament, which European nationals living in this country certainly have a right to do.

Mr. Nicholas Baker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making the argument that I wanted to make before I got off my knees. EU citizens living in this country had the right to vote because of legislation that we passed in this Parliament; they had the right to vote in the most recent European elections, as British citizens did in their countries. We are now carrying out a similar process in relation to local elections in our respective countries.

Dr. Howells

That opinion was shared by the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities, which, in one of its reports, warned that a cautious approach was necessary as the granting of legislative competence in the Council would result in an irreversible transfer of power from national parliaments. More ominously, the Committee also warned that if Community competence were accepted, it would extend to national elections.

The second supplementary memorandum on European Community legislation, issued by the Home Office on 30 November 1994, expressed its satisfaction with the final draft of the directive and especially with the proposals for registration for local government elections. They should be conducted according to the laws of the member state of residence, rather than along the lines of the so-called voluntary scheme used for European Parliament elections, which sought to impose a much more standardised model throughout the 15 member states.

In other words, European Union citizens will be registered according to existing national practice and as part of the normal annual canvass. That is a simple, straightforward proposal and, with the important proviso that the Government maintain the utmost vigilance both in advancing the reciprocal voting rights of UK nationals living elsewhere in the European Union and in guarding against electoral fraud and illegal manipulation of votes in this country, Labour supports the motion.

7.27 pm
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

This is the first time that I have ventured into the European fray, and I do so with a fair degree of trepidation. My party colleagues in the House and in my constituency are all well aware of my private reservations, but this is the first time that I have placed those reservations on the record. I believe that it is fair to say that I have not done so in the past because I wanted to do what I could to help the Government, so I have kept a low profile, but there comes a point, however trivial that point might appear, when each one of us concludes that enough is enough. I have reached that point.

I am not alone. Two surveys that I have carried out in the past month or so of my constituents and Conservative party members in my constituency reveal that more than 85 per cent. of those who have replied to both surveys are unhappy about any further dilution of our sovereignty, which is what I judge that the regulations amount to.

Before I go further down that track and disturb my hon. Friend the Minister, let me give him some good news. I have no problems with regulation 4 because I subscribe to the principle of no taxation without representation irrespective of where a person is born or what is written in his passport, and because I believe that anyone who lives in this country and becomes liable to pay council tax has every reason to expect to have some say in helping to choose his representatives.

However, I find regulation 3 very disturbing. Before I explain why, may I discuss two arguments that someone might be tempted to make later that would weaken my case? The first is that the regulations extend the rights of Irish and Commonwealth citizens only to citizens living in the European Union. Quite so. I would remove the entitlement of Irish and Commonwealth citizens to stand for election in this country. The second argument that could weaken my case is that the regulations are merely consequential and that we do not therefore have any choice. In one way, I accept that that is true, but, in practice, the regulations require the approval of the House. If so, by definition we have a say. We could reject the regulations, if we are willing to face the consequences, but I suspect that we are not. One day, I judge that the House will have to face the consequences.

I find regulation 3 disturbing because I am opposed to allowing foreigners to stand for election in this country, however closely allied and however much we like them. Anyone who is not a British citizen is by definition a foreigner, and I do not use the word "foreigner" to belittle anybody in any way. I accept that I am a foreigner in every other country in the world. Elected bodies at whatever level are part of the way that a sovereign state operates its political system and democracy. As such, elected bodies are an integral part of a state's independence and individuality.

I do not accept that councils are merely a way of getting dustbins emptied. They are an expression of who we are and who is foreign. Elected representatives at parliamentary or parish council level all play a key role in upholding the integrity and independence of the sovereign state. In the House, we swear an oath of allegiance as soon as we are elected. The same duties apply in local government, although they go unspoken. I cannot for the life of me see how foreigners can uphold Britishness unless they first become British citizens.

At its most absurd, the regulations could lead to a council on which not one British citizen served. Common sense says that will not happen but if we do not believe that it will happen or do not want it to happen, why pass regulations that allow it to happen?

Mr. Marlow

The logic of the Maastricht treaty, including moves within Europe, is that we cease to have British citizenship and have European citizenship instead. If we are all European citizens, why should it matter who stands in local government elections?

Mr. Wilshire

I would love to go down that track, but it would probably be better not to enter into that debate when considering this measure.

My hon. Friend the Minister will be relived to hear that that is all that I want to say. I simply want to flag up the matters that worry me in principle. I do not want to delay the House. I know that my hon. Friend cannot assist me, so we are stuck with the measure for now. However, I wanted to put my views on record for the avoidance of doubt and so that when more substantial changes are being considered in future by hon. Friends on the Front Bench, they will know exactly the direction from which I am coming.

7.33 pm
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

The speech of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) was astounding and rather worrying—worrying because it reflected a form of xenophobia that the House should not exhibit, and astounding because it was so poorly argued. If there is any understandable argument for opposing the regulations, they should be opposed as a whole. After all, the power to vote is the real power that the regulations are giving away—the power to enable people to do something about their local area. The ability merely to stand leaves the power in the hands of the electorate. If they decide that they do not wish a so-called foreigner to be their councillor, they can choose not to elect him or her.

Mr. Wilshire

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that argument is flawed because once an individual is elected to a council, for the next four years there is no means of recalling his or her mandate?

Mr. Rendel

That does not in any sense argue against my point that the electorate have the right not to choose as their councillor somebody who is not a British citizen. How long a person remains a councillor is irrelevant to what happens at the time of an election.

I welcome the final approval of the regulations by the House. They have been delayed for far too long and that is a shame. It is time that all European Union citizens resident in this country were given the right to participate in our local democracy—just as they already participate in many other areas of British life, including paying their taxes.

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

What does the hon. Gentleman think of people in Macau being given full Portuguese passports and being able to enter Britain and vote, without having contributed to this country or been residents of the European Union?

Mr. Rendel

They will not, under the regulations, be given the right to vote or to stand, unless they have been resident in this country. It is not true to say that former residents of Macau will have the right to vote in Britain even if they have not been resident in the European Union. They must have been resident on the date on which they were entered on the electoral register the year before.

Sir Teddy Taylor

Although the hon. Gentleman is making a good democratic point, as one would expect of a Liberal Democrat, why should a citizen of the United States of America who has been resident in the hon. Gentleman's constituency for five years, with the right to reside and as a taxpayer, not have the right to vote in council elections? Why no to America but yes to the European Union?

Mr. Rendel

Were I given the chance tonight to approve regulations to allow universal voting rights to people properly resident in this country, paying taxes and playing a full part in local affairs, I would do so. Unfortunately, the Government are not giving us that opportunity, but that is not my fault.

That it has taken so long to establish a basic democratic principle for all citizens of the European Union living in Britain is a sad comment on the narrow-mindedness of the British political establishment. The delay cannot simply be blamed on European squabbles about the definition of the word "municipal". The House had the opportunity to approve such regulations at any time of its choosing, regardless of debates proceeding elsewhere on other issues.

It is a fundamental principle of representative government—in this, I agree with the hon. Member for Spelthorne—that all members of a community who are expected to contribute to it on an equal basis should have equal rights to representation. The same even-handed principle applies to other rights and duties. We expect foreign nationals who are permanently resident in British communities to pay their taxes. We expect them to obey our laws. Within the obvious limitations of our archaic legal system, we also uphold the right of foreign nationals to equality under the law. How is it that extending the franchise to active, legitimate members of our community—whether from America or the European Union—has caused so much anguish on the Conservative Benches? Why does the notion of European friends and neighbours being able to take part in the democratic process horrify Conservative Members?

Last week, I spent some time reading the Hansard report of a debate on the subject on 1 February 1993. Predictably—then as apparently tonight—one Conservative Member after the next stood up to wave the flag of xenophobia and to raise all sorts of evils that would result from giving foreigners resident in Britain the slightest taste of democratic power. One speaker in that debate was considerably more heated than the rest. He warned of grave threats to Britain as we know it—even to the monarchy itself. Perhaps he feared that some members of the royal household might be tempted to escape to other countries in the European Union, on the basis that they would then have the vote in those countries' local elections. That outraged speaker was of course the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor)—whom I warned of my reference to him in tonight's debate. I am sorry that he is not present. At that time the hon. Gentleman was a Back Bencher and free to castigate foreign nationals as much as he wished. He has now reached the elevated position of a Foreign Office Minister. What a wonderful and "logical" career progression the Prime Minister has seen fit to give him. The hon. Gentleman berated foreigners—especially the Greeks, for some reason—and he is now a highly paid senior diplomat and Minister in our foreign service.

Not content with mere xenophobia, the hon. Member for Upminster did a grave disservice to local democracy as a whole and to British nationals living abroad. He announced: What advantage does article 8 offer the British people? It gives them rights exercisable in other countries—the right to vote in municipal elections in France, Greece, Italy, Germany, Ireland or Luxembourg. Marvellous. I cannot see any use to the British people in that right."—[Official Report, 1 February 1993; Vol. 218, c. 91.] I can. How can a Member of this place so denigrate the right to vote in local elections? It is an important right and we should all regard it as such. If that is the regard in which local government and local people are held by a senior member of the Conservative party, is it any wonder that year after year the Conservatives are trounced in local elections? The next time that the Conservative party sponges off British expatriates, whether for votes or donations, will it honestly inform them of its Minister who feels that their rights abroad are worthless?

Despite the opposition of so many Conservative Members, at least we have progressed to this point—the regulations are before us. It is a pity though that so many residents of this country were not enfranchised in time for the recent local elections, which were, after all, the largest set in the electoral cycle. Many foreign nationals will now have to wait for nearly four more years before they can put into practice the right that I believe we shall give them tonight to contribute to their local democracy.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

The hon. Gentleman keeps on referring to foreign nationals and thereby goes beyond the subject in question, which is citizens of the European Union. Does he think that Japanese should vote in local government elections or citizens of the United States? Is he not guilty, in a sense, of the same xenophobia that he is trying to cast on others?

Mr. Rendel

I have already answered an intervention in exactly that form. If the hon. Gentleman had been in his place a few minutes ago he might have heard my answer.

For me the issue is simple. The more members of a particular society who take part in the democratic government of that society, the better. We all agree that low electoral turnouts are bad for democracy. Some of us go to extraordinary lengths to persuade people to exercise their democratic rights. Yet some Conservative Members would prefer that thousands of people living in this country and thousands of British people living abroad had no such rights. I say to them, "What price democracy when petty nationalism invades our political agenda?"

7.42 pm
Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

I expected, as usually happens with European issues, that the Chamber would be virtually empty as a result of most Members having a voluntary strike. That is because Members do not want to ask themselves, "What are we doing and why?" Attendance has been a bit better than usual tonight. For example, we heard the brave speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). He said what I think every Member knows in his heart, which is that basically the people of Britain are becoming sick to death with the way in which their independence and liberty are being thrown away without their being advised, told or consulted. That is the issue, and it is not taken up by the petty points of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel).

As the hon. Member for Newbury rightly said, however, if there were a proposal before the House that every national resident in Britain should have the right to vote in local government elections, it would be an issue of principle on which he and I would agree. I feel that anyone who is living in a council area and paying local taxes should have participation in democracy. But that is not the issue this evening. My sole point—I plead it before the Government—is that we should tell the people what is going on.

It is sad that with the EU, as a result of small divisions in the past, which are now growing and of which the people are aware, we have a conspiracy of silence on Government policy. If anyone doubts that, I ask him or her to read a question that I tabled and the answer that I received today from a Treasury Minister. I asked simply about our "net contribution" to the European Union this year and what it was in each of the past 10 years. If that information had been contained in a Government pamphlet, the Government would have replied, "Look up the pamphlet." But it is not. I have been advised that I must turn to Command Paper 2824 to find this year's figure and then to refer to a similar Command Paper for the past 10 years. It is obvious that that absurd bureaucratic nonsense is to avoid stating in Hansard how much the people of Britain pay and how much more they are now paying.

The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) seems to think that this is a laughing matter. It is not. If he thinks that it is funny, let him go to Hong Kong and then Macau and say to the people, "What are our respective rights?" The hon. Gentleman might wave his hands around, but there is the dreadful possibility that Labour might assume power. By the time that that happens, if it does, Labour will find that the country's freedom to decide virtually anything will have gone.

I want the Government to answer a simple and straightforward question: who will be able to stand for our council elections? We know that there is a definition in the treaty of Rome. When our debates took place, all Members were able to be present throughout. The explanation was "citizens of the Union concerned".

What is a citizen of the Union? He is not only a Frenchman, a German, an Italian or a Belgian. Unless I am terribly wrong—I might be stupid—it is my understanding that citizenship of the Union means basically residency in overseas territories of member states. It is not just citizenship of member states themselves. For example, a Portuguese citizen who lives in Macau is a Portuguese citizen. Macau is 40 miles from Hong Kong. As we know, Hong Kong used to have a close relationship with Britain. We understand now that it is to be transferred to China. What will be the position in two or three years of a resident of Hong Kong and a resident of Macau 40 miles away? I understand that one would be able to vote and the other not.

I draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister to annex IV of the Maastricht treaty, which contains a list of overseas territories of member states. It contains places such as Ubangi-Shari, Chad, Gabon, Ruanda-Urundi, French Polynesia, the Netherlands Antilles, Bonaire, Curacao, Saba and Sint Maarten. I understand that French Guinea is an overseas territory of France. Britain, on the other hand, is within a special relationship. Is it true that this consideration applies only to people living on the continent? Does it not apply also, as we well know, to a host of countries throughout the world that happen to be overseas territories of member states? If that is the position, what is the point of giving rights to people living in strange parts of Africa and south-east Asia, for example, unless they are to be given to everyone?

Mr. Cash

My hon. Friend will note that the definition of "citizen of the Union" explicitly excludes Commonwealth citizens. We are conferring a right on those who are citizens of overseas territories as a result of other countries' attachments while our Commonwealth citizens are expressly excluded.

Sir Teddy Taylor

These matters are complex and complicated. I understand that Commonwealth citizens already have the right that we are discussing. What is written in papers that come before us is not usually the whole story. If my hon. Friend were thinking of borrowing money, for example, I would strongly advise him to read the small print of the relevant document. It is so important to take account of the small print.

There is the special question of Gibraltar. Its citizens are going through a nightmare because of the hostility of and pressurising by Spain. Surely the Government are well aware of what is happening. I understand that people in Gibraltar are British citizens. One would expect that as British citizens they would have the right to stand in our council elections. I am told that they do not as citizens of the EU because of a special problem in the treaty. It seems that although Gibraltar is in the Union it is not exactly in it. For example, it is the only part of the Union that has no representation in the European Parliament.

There is always the danger of becoming a Euro-bore and going on and on. I go on only because at almost every debate that involves European issues one more Member attends. My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne was so honest when he said that he has been worried for a long time and is now becoming especially worried.

People should wake up to what the idea of European citizenship really means. This is not a question of voting in council elections in Harrow, for instance; we are talking about the beginning of the disappearance of United Kingdom citizenship. Hon. Members may say that that is not true, but they know in their hearts that it is. Slowly, day by day, our liberty and national identity are disappearing. I would have no objection to that if people were consulted, asked or told.

Let me ask the Minister some basic questions. First, is it true that a substantial number of overseas territories throughout the world classify their citizens as citizens of the European Union—places such as Macau, which I have already mentioned? Secondly, if that is true, does it mean that, if resident in this country, those people can stand in council elections? Thirdly, if all those people in those strange countries all over the world can stand in council elections here, why on earth cannot a citizen of the United States have the same right? I feel that this is not an extension of our franchise or an extension of liberty, but merely a further attempt to nail down the new principle of our citizenship of the European Union rather than of a nation.

May I ask the Minister two more specific questions? Will he tell me—with the help of his splendid Foreign Office advisers who visit the area; I only wish that they would tell us what they are actually doing one of these days—what will be the position of Hong Kong and Macau in the year 2000? Will citizens resident in Hong Kong not have this right, while those in Macau will? What is the position of poor old Gibraltar, about which no one seems to care nowadays and which is going down the plughole with no friends or supporters? No one is prepared to shout for Gibraltar, but I hope that we shall start shouting.

I hope that I have followed the example of my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne, and said what people are really saying out there tonight.

7.51 pm
Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I intend to speak briefly.

Like many of my hon. Friends, I was delighted by the encapsulation of Liberal party foreign policy that we were given by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel). He thought that the main priority of any Foreign Office Minister was the interests of foreigners, as it was totally reprehensible to be the slightest bit interested in those of the United Kingdom. That, certainly, is a summation of his speech.

Mr. Rendel

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Marlow

I did want to be brief.

Mr. Rendel

What I said was that it was important for a Foreign Office Minister to look after the interests of our citizens, and their right to vote in other countries.

Mr. Marlow

As far as I could make out, the hon. Gentleman thought it totally reprehensible for a potential Foreign Office Minister to go on about the interests of the United Kingdom and to treat the United Kingdom as his main priority. The hon. Gentleman used that dreadful word "xenophobic". He said that it was unforgivable to take such views; how could a Foreign Minister possibly look foreigners in the eye if he were interested in the interests of the United Kingdom? I shall let that pass, however.

All this follows from the ghastly notion of European citizenship incorporated in the Maastricht treaty, which was one of the crosses that the Government had to bear as the thing was bulldozed through the House against the wishes of a large number of right hon. and hon. Members, and certainly against the wishes and interests of the population of the United Kingdom. We thought then that talk of EU citizenship was a ghastly nonsense. I am sure that Ministers thought that it was a ghastly nonsense when they were ploughing through the briefs before them, but if they did not think so then they certainly think so now. They know that 80 or 90 per cent. of our constituents are totally against this bizarre concept. No one can be a citizen of the European Union and of the United Kingdom at the same time; one must take precedence and priority over the other.

Having accepted—as I think most people now do—that the concept is misguided, why must we bring this nonsense before the House? I suppose that we must do so because it is in the Maastricht treaty; but what will be the consequences if we proceed with the regulations? What are the potential consequences for parliamentary elections? Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell the House categorically that passing these measures this evening will have no implications for such elections—or is this the thin end of the wedge? Does it mean that at some later stage EU citizens will also be entitled to vote in our parliamentary elections?

Will my hon. Friend tell the House where we come in the pecking order? Are we the first to pass the regulations, or the second? What other countries in Europe have passed them, and, if other countries have not passed them, by when do they intend to do so? We are usually the most reluctant to agree to such measures, but we always seem to be the first to implement them. If that has been the case in the past, why is it the case now? Why do we not wait for the Germans and the French to pass regulations—as has been suggested—before forcing them on a reluctant British people, when we know that their heart is not in the issue?

Finally, what will happen if we do not pass the regulations? Will that mean that EU citizens will be able to vote in our local elections in future? If they cannot do that, will they be able to bring a legal case, with potential compensation, against Her Majesty's Government and the House of Commons? What will happen then? Does the House have real powers, or, if it objects, is it merely a cipher, and will the regulations still have their effect? Will my hon. Friend tell the House that?

This week the House will debate its pensions. There has been discussion in the press today about how we should deal with Prime Minister's questions, and later in the week we shall discuss the regulation of our outside interests. I suppose that all those are important issues, but they are relatively trivial in the context of our democracy, how we control it and the powers of the House. Has the House real powers with regard to Europe, or is it a mere cipher? In comparison with Nero fiddling, the House is in danger of becoming an orchestra.

7.56 pm
Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

This is yet another example of the slippery slope down which we headed when we debated Maastricht in 1992–93. For example, an English citizen is given no right to a business vote in local government elections by virtue of his having a business. That highly contentious but very important question is not dealt with by the regulations.

We know from a recent survey by Sheffield university that more than 60 per cent. of Conservative Back Benchers said that they did not agree with the Maastricht treaty, although they had voted for it in the Lobby. It is also known that, under the rulings of the European Court of Justice, the word "municipal"—which has already been raised—means "national"; it does not necessarily mean "local government". The Minister is having an interesting conversation with the Whip, but, if he would be good enough to listen, may I ask him for an absolute assurance that there is no question of the word "municipal" ever being interpreted by the British Government as implying a right to vote in general elections? In that event, the slippery slope would become a chasm.

Then there is the question of title 2 itself. Title 2 clearly states that the rights and duties of a so-called European citizen are effectively a blank sheet of paper that will be filled in later. May we have an explicit assurance that in no circumstances will those rights be extended to general elections? Will the Minister ensure—will he put it to the Prime Minister—that the question of an extension of those rights in relation to local government will be expressly included in the agenda for the next intergovernmental conference, so that we can have a clear assurance that such developments will be ruled out with respect to general elections?

There is also the question of the connection between citizenship and movement of persons. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) has already pointed out that citizenship of the European Union in respect of other countries includes overseas territories. I stand by the point that I made with regard to Commonwealth citizens, and I think that my hon. Friend was right about Gibraltar; but people using the citizenship of overseas territories that are linked to France, Portugal, Spain and other EU countries have been engaging in illegal immigration. If a member of such an overseas territory has been granted the right to vote in a local government election, it follows that he will be allowed to emigrate to the country in which the election is held. Perhaps the Minister, who is also responsible for immigration, will comment on that. This is not a trivial matter: it is about an invasion of the rights of the people of this country to determine their own identity and make their own decisions in local government elections about those who will represent them.

Sir Teddy Taylor

My hon. Friend should not waste the House's time by seeking assurances from the Government. Article 8E on citizenship makes it abundantly clear that when the powers in the regulations are granted, the Council of Ministers, after consulting the European Parliament, could add to the rights of citizenship without consulting this House. Does he appreciate that under the treaty, which he and I voted against, powers to extend the rights of European citizens have been given to the Council of Ministers who can do that after consulting the European Parliament? Let us not waste time by asking for assurances from the Government or the Opposition, or even from the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Cash

I am always more than glad to take my hon. Friend's advice. However, I ask for assurances because these matters are always open to interpretation, as is the word "municipal". It is important to be crystal clear. No doubt the Minister will want to say that such an extension under the aegis of the Council of Ministers would apply merely to local or regional government or something of that kind. I want an explicit assurance from the Minister that there is no question whatever of further additions or extensions to citizenship in relation to local government being extended to general elections. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on that.

8.2 pm

Mr. Nicholas Baker

We have had a good and wide-ranging debate and I shall do my best to comment, if briefly, on the matters that have been raised.

The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) made a good point when he said that he was anxious to see that the new regulations were fairly applied. We are also concerned about that. We are anxious to see that British nationals are not denied rights to vote in other countries in accordance with the directive.

All member states have to declare to which elections the directive will apply. They have all done that, and the list of elections in each country is included as part of the directive. No member state has failed to declare which elections will be applicable, and at the moment we have no reason to believe that any country is behind in preparing for what we are moving towards in this important debate.

Mr. Marlow

Can my hon. Friend tell me in which EU countries United Kingdom citizens are able to vote in local elections?

Mr. Baker

No, I cannot, but I will write to my hon. Friend about that.

I stress that under the directive the laws of member states apply to their local elections. The basis of voting is residence here. Some hon. Members got a little carried away about that. I accept that whether someone is a citizen of the European Union is relevant, but to qualify to vote here that person must be resident in the same way as anyone else.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) was a little churlish. We have taken our time in debating these matters. We debated the Maastricht treaty and we have considered the regulations on a number of occasions: they have been gone through thoroughly in Committee. That is a measure of the concern of my colleagues on this matter, and I take issue with the hon. Gentleman over his tone. When he had the nerve to attack my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), he went too far. If the hon. Gentleman did anything, he lost the argument that he was trying to advance. My hon. Friends have described their genuine concerns, and anyone who tries to rub those out or pretend that they do not exist does not deserve to be taken seriously.

My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) voiced some concerns. We debated the treaty before signing it. The regulations are consequential and we have debated them: they are a continuation of the process. My hon. Friend seems to want to exclude Irish citizens from voting here. We certainly would not do that. Perhaps my hon. Friend does not appreciate the number of Commonwealth citizens who can vote here as it is and it seems that he does not place much value on the fact that when the directive is implemented, our citizens will be able to vote in EU local elections.

Mr. Wilshire

My hon. Friend the Minister misses the point that I think I made in my speech. It is that I do not have any difficulties with people voting here. The point I made was about the people who offer themselves for election.

Mr. Baker

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. I possibly mistook what he said. However, some comments apply to people who stand for election as well as to those who vote.

I take seriously the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor). He answered his own question about the directive and its application to Gibraltar. He is right to say that Gibraltar is not part of the electoral territory of the United Kingdom although Gibraltarians are British citizens and those of them who live in the UK can vote here. I shall have to write to my hon. Friend about Hong Kong and Macau. Citizens of the European Union are defined in the treaty and that is where one must look for the definition. In that respect, he again answered his own question. I repeat that the right to vote is based on residence here.

Mr. Marlow

My hon. Friend the Minister spoke about a directive. Which directive has given birth to the regulations?

Mr. Baker

I do not have the records to show that, but the directive to which we are party has at the back of it a list of countries and the elections in which, member states have agreed, the right to vote in local elections shall apply. My hon. Friend and other hon. Members were concerned about the implications for parliamentary elections. I make it quite clear that the directive contains no implications for elections to the House and we do not intend to see that franchise extended. That is a quite separate matter. Allied to that is the fact that "municipal" does not mean "national" and the directive cannot be interpreted as applying to general elections here.

The reference that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) seeks is a directive of the Council of the European Community. The reference is 94/80/EC. That is the one I have in mind. We have had a good debate and I regret that time prevents me from debating these matters at greater length.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Local Government Elections (Changes to the Franchise and Qualification of Members) Regulations 1995, which were laid before this House on 26th June, be approved.