HL Deb 18 June 1981 vol 421 cc759-61

3.15 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing

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 steps they are taking to correct the anomaly whereby British citizens abroad are, together with Irish citizens abroad, the only EEC citizens unable to vote in European elections.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, the Government are sympathetic to the proposal that United Kingdom citizens resident in other states of the European Community should be able to vote at elections to the European Parliament. We do not, however, think it right to pursue this matter until the European Parliament has put forward its own proposals on this aspect of a uniform electoral system.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that reply, may I ask whether he will bear in mind that sometimes when you wait for co-ordination and for everything to be put right in one massive Bill you may perpetrate an injustice? Would it not perhaps be quicker if this particular injustice were to be put right in a simple, one clause Bill rather than wait for the European Community to come to an omnibus solution?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, this is one of the matters being considered by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary as part of his review of electoral law and procedures. As I am sure my noble friend is well aware, it raises issues of principle and, indeed, practical problems, but my right honourable friend hopes to make a Statement about these matters before long.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, in view of the welcome fact that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, is now to preside over the Foreign Ministers in the EEC, may I ask the Minister whether we can expect him to remove this anomaly where European citizens in this country are allowed to vote and British citizens in other European countries are not allowed to vote?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, my original Answer said that we felt it right to await the deliberations of the European Parliament. When they have been completed they will be put forward to the Council of Ministers. I think we must go through the proper procedures although no doubt, as in many other things, we rely on the good offices of the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary.

Lord Derwent

My Lords, when the noble Lord says "before long" does he mean before the Summer Recess?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, my noble friend is referring to my right honourable friend's hoped-for statement; I cannot be any more specific than I was in the first supplementary answer that I gave to my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, is it not curious how both major parties in this country, who after all invented and developed parliamentary democracy, should so stubbornly oppose or postpone all moves to modernise it?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, f find it "curiouser and curiouser" that the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, should think that the proper consideration which is being given to this and many other matters by the European Parliament for recommendations to the Council of Ministers should be translated into "stubborn resistance" by the Government of this country so far as these particular matters are concerned. I believe that the way which I have outlined in my supplementary answers is the right way to go about these important matters, and I think it is both fair and constitutional generally.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the wording of the original Question implies that all major states except the United Kingdom and Ireland have already made this necessary reform?

Lord Belstead

That is correct, my Lords.

Lord O'Hagan

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister aware that he is concealing the likely truth from the House—not, I am sure, on purpose—and is the Minister aware (as he must be) that it is most unlikely that the European Parliament will come to a view on the whole range of these matters with any degree of unanimity before the next European elections? Is it not therefore the case that in denying them the right to vote in European elections Her Majesty's Government are condemning British citizens not merely to an anomaly but to an injustice?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am concealing nothing. I said quite openly that the Government are awaiting the review which the European Parliament will bring forward and I have said quite openly that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary hopes to make a statement about these matters before long.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, great play has been made of the need for directly elected members of the European Parliament. Therefore, why should not the British be entitled to the pledge that they should have the right, wherever they are, to cast their votes and why should we be left outside on a promise that was given? I believe that it is the responsibility of our Government to see that it is honoured.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, no promise has been given that I am aware of. What I should just like to repeat to the noble Lord is that this important matter raises issues both of principle and of practice. That is why I have been at some pains to say that it is being looked at carefully in Europe and that my right honourable friend hopes to make a statement about this and other matters before long.

The Lord President of the Council (Lord Soames)

My Lords, I think it is in the interests of the House that we should move on to the next business.