HL Deb 07 March 1983 vol 440 cc4-6

2.45 p.m.

Lord Avebury

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 whether they intend to bring forward any proposals that would affect the voting rights of Irish citizens in the United Kingdom.

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

My Lords, we have no plans to do so. The Select Committee on Home Affairs in another place is, however, looking into aspects of the franchise as part of its inquiry into the Representation of the People Acts, and we will, of course, carefully consider any proposals they may make on this matter.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, would it not be preferable if the Government stated plainly, not only that they have no present plans to do so, but that, irrespective of any recommendations that may be made by certain elements in the Tory Party, they will resist any proposal to alter the franchise of Irish citizens in the United Kingdom? Would not the noble Lord agree that in the present state of Anglo-Irish relations—improving steadily, and we all welcome that—it would be an enormous blow to the progress of our dealings with the Irish if there were any suggestion that their franchise in the United Kingdom was to be altered? Ought we not rather to press instead for reciprocal rights to be granted to United Kingdom citizens in Ireland, which was one of the items on the agenda in the joint talks?

Lord Elton

My Lords, we recognise that any proposal to take away the vote from any section of the population is a serious constitutional issue deserving the most thorough consideration. That is why we welcome the Select Committee's inquiry into the matter, and it would be wrong for me to anticipate what they may have to say. The Irish Government announced on 28th January that they intend to introduce legislation at the earliest opportunity to give British citizens resident there the right to vote in Dail elections.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, while appreciating that the Select Committee is looking into this matter, may I ask whether the Minister would not agree that any change would be almost impossible to monitor and enforce? Apart from the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and from the matter of relationships between this country and Southern Ireland, would it not endanger good relationships between the communities in this country as well as in Northern Ireland?

Lord Elton

My Lords, on the face of it, it would be an extremely difficult change to bring about. There are about 500,000 Irish citizens here and, incidentally, about 50,000 of our citizens in the Republic. I do not in any way belittle the difficulties that might arise. Nor am I saying with eager anticipation what may be in the report when it comes. I am merely saying that we should not anticipate and come to a conclusion on anything the Select Committee may eventually publish before we have seen it.

Lord Monson

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether there is any other country in Europe which allows non-citizens to vote in their general elections?

Lord Elton

My Lords, apart from the Republic of Ireland, I am advised that several Commonwealth countries, including Australia, New Zealand, and at some elections Canada, do so.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, will the Government be very careful in considering the recommendations of the Select Committee, in view of the fact that any change in this respect may have a serious effect in the future on any settlement of the Irish problem?

Lord Elton

My Lords, we always consider what the Select Committee has to say with the greatest of care.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, if the Irish Republic does go ahead with the legislation the noble Lord mentioned, which I think we should all welcome, is it not even more unthinkable that there should be any down-grading in the rights of Irish citizens in the United Kingdom? Does not the noble Lord appreciate that the period of uncertainty we now face is not only likely to stir up anti-Irish feeling by discussion of the possibility of legislative changes, but also make the Irish in the United Kingdom less sympathetic to negotiated solutions in the north and more sympathetic to extremists?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I believe that most Irish citizens in this country are well integrated and law-abiding and agreeable fellow citizens of this realm. I do not believe that there is a period of uncertainty. All I have said is that we have no plans to do this, but I cannot tell the noble Lord what the Select Committee will say. If he knows better than I, perhaps he could reassure us.