HL Deb 25 March 1975 vol 358 cc1091-4

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what arrangements will be made for enabling United Kingdom citizens who are resident abroad to take part in the Referendum on the Common Market.

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Shepherd)

My Lords, the House will appreciate that I cannot anticipate the publication of Referendum Bill, which is expected shortly.


My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. It will of course be disappointing, because does not the noble Lord realise that there are a great many residents abroad who have been seconded from the Civil Service and who are employed by the European Commission in Brussels, all of whom are concerned to have a vote in the Referendum and who, at the moment, do not know whether they will have such a vote? Can the noble Lord say why he is unable to give this information?


Very simply, my Lords. It is because a decision has not yet been taken. This is a matter which we discussed very fully in the referendum debate and I undertook to look at all the points which were made, as well as those made in another place. As I have said to the noble Earl, a decision has not yet been taken, but, clearly, I was correct in saying in my reply that I could not anticipate what will be in the Referendum Bill, which I hope will be published very shortly.


My Lords, if it is a fact that he is still taking into account certain considerations in relation to this matter, will the noble Lord the Leader of the House bear in mind that, in what the Government describe as the " unique" procedure of the referendum, Members of this House will be allowed to vote and will he take account of the strength of feeling that United Kingdom residents abroad should also be entitled to a proxy vote?


Yes, my Lords. However, as the noble Baroness will be aware—for she has herself been involved in the election process—there are practical difficulties in this matter. These we are now considering. I hope that a decision will be taken very shortly.


My Lords, will the noble Lord bear in mind that the Americans have considerable experience of giving their residents abroad a vote, despite the practical difficulties, and will he, if necessary, take advice from them?


My Lords, I do not see that there is any need for us to take advice from the United States. The fact is that we have had certain rules and regulations governing elections, but we recognise that the referendum is in a different class and have therefore been looking at these matters. However, I must stress again that there are severe practical difficulties to be overcome.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether he would agree that the point behind the Question is that we should think in terms of Britain first and that is why we should never have entered the Common Market?


My Lords, I can only say to the noble Lord with the greatest friendliness that his question was completely irrelevant to the Question on the Order Paper.


My Lords, in view of the fact that the decision has not yet been taken, can the noble Lord say whether the newspaper report which said that the Referendum Bill was about to be published is accurate?


My Lords, I said that I hoped that the Bill would be published very shortly.


My Lords, if my noble friend is to reconsider that, can he also reconsider whether people who have decided to leave Britain and settle in the Channel Islands or elsewhere, in order to escape taxation, should be entitled to record a vote on this very important subject?


My Lords, as no decision has yet been taken, it is not a question of reconsidering, but I note the view expressed by my noble friend.

Viscount ST. DAVIDS

My Lords, can the noble Lord the Leader of the House tell me whether there are any figures available as to how many people are involved in this Question, both as residents abroad and as people who will be on holiday at the time of the referendum?


My Lords, one can make only a very rough estimate as to the number of those who might be entitled to take part in an election in this country who reside abroad or who are temporarily overseas. The only figure that I should like to indicate to the House is that for what is called the " Service vote " ; that is, soldiers serving overseas and their wives, those who serve in our Embassies and Consulates and those working for the British Council. I believe this figure to be about 400,000. I should not like to make a guess at the other figure.


My Lords, will my noble friend ensure that no Peer receives a vote in this referendum because the preponderance of Members here are pro-Market?


My Lords, I should not wish to deny the vote in the referendum which has already been given to my noble friend.


My Lords, on this centenary date of the first performance of Gilbert and Sullivan, are we not witnessing a Gilbertian situation in which the Mikado is striving for, His object all sublime … To make each Minister represent A source of innocent merriment!"?


My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his comment. I hope that we can now proceed to the next Question.

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