HL Deb 14 March 1983 vol 440 cc545-62

7.47 p.m.

Lord Bethell

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. In doing so, I hope in all modesty to be able to convince your Lordships that it would he contrary to natural justice were you to decline to give this Bill a Second Reading, or indeed to pass it. A Member of the European Parliament represents not the British institutions vis-á-vis the British Government; he represents the people of his constituency vis-á-vis the institutions of the European Community: specifically the Commission and the Council of Ministers. I would humbly suggest that it is therefore anomalous and illogical that a British subject should be banned from being able to exercise his franchise simply because he lives in another part of the Community outside this country.

It is also a matter of concern that there is an increasing number of British citizens living outside the United Kingdom in other member states. It is estimated that there are 250,000 citizens. Most of them are disenfranchised and will be disenfranchised in June 1984, when European elections take place, unless your Lordships have approved this Bill or some similar Bill so that they can be placed on the electoral roll. Another anomaly is the fact that British servicemen resident in other member states are able to vote in European elections. Why, I ask myself, should not British businessmen resident in Brussels, Paris, or Frankfurt, be able to do the same? A British businessman surely these days is doing his country as much good and is serving his country as faithfully as is a British serviceman. Nevertheless, he is under present legislation disenfranchised if he lives in a different member state from that of his nationality.

I place this matter really in the same category, in terms of national elections, as whether a Londoner should be disenfranchised if he moves to Glasgow, or a person from Manchester if he moves to Cardiff. Such a thing would be wrong, and I hope your Lordships will agree that it is equally wrong for a British subject to be disenfranchised simply because he lives and works in Paris, in Brussels or in Rome.

I would also suggest to your Lordships that the present situation clearly violates the principle that there should be no taxation without representation. All those who reside in Community member states pay value added tax, and it is the 1 per cent. of value added tax which makes up a very large part of the Community budget. In other words, a British subject is a European taxpayer whether he lives in this country or in France or Germany. He still pays VAT, and when he buys something which is subject to VAT the tax that he pays goes into the same Community budget, but if the British subject is resident outside the United Kingdom he has no say in how that taxation money should be spent. He does not have a vote in electing a Member of the European Parliament; and that Parliament, as the joint budgetary authority over the European budget, has to make its decisions without any influence being brought to bear upon it by that very substantial group of British citizens.

I am happy to say—and I am sure that my noble friend Lord Elton will confirm this—that the Government accept the principle that I have just put forward. Indeed, that principle was accepted by my noble friend Lord Trefgarne when speaking for the Government in June 1979. He said that the Government favoured the extension of the franchise for European Assembly elections to include United Kingdom nationals resident in other member states and they would in due course consider the introduction of legislation for this purpose.

My noble friend Lord Trefgarne said "in due course", and I suppose that these words are the nub of the matter, because nearly four years have passed and legislation has not been introduced along the lines suggested by my noble friend. It has been put forward by Government spokesmen that this matter must await a decision on a uniform electoral procedure for European Parliamentary elections. I have to say that I am afraid, if that is the case, that we are not going to find this matter resolved for many years to come, because the question of a uniform electoral procedure is a very long way away from solution at the moment, and certainly it cannot be solved before the elections next year.

However, there are other persons of influence close to the Government's thinking who feel that this matter should be dealt with separately. The Paymaster General, in his capacity as Chairman of the Conservative Party, said in evidence recently before your Lordships' Select Committee that he personally hoped that the Government would consider taking interim action on this point before October 1983, even if agreement on a uniform electoral procedure proved impossible. I believe that is a view which is widely held in circles close to the Government, and I hope that my noble friend will confirm it.

Perhaps most importantly of all, your Lordships' Select Committee itself recommended unanimously that the Government should take action. The noble Baroness, Lady White, I have no doubt will be referring to that point; but I think in these opening remarks I should point out that paragraph 74 of her excellent report suggests clearly and unanimously that the question of enfranchising British subjects living in other member states should be considered a completely separate matter from that of the electoral system. It points out that elections are on the horizon, and it urges the Government to proceed rapidly. I hope that my noble friend Lord Elton will be able to assure us that he takes these quotations—one made on behalf of the Government, another made on behalf of one of the major political parties and another made on behalf of your Lordships' Select Committee—extremely seriously, because I believe there is a majority in this House for such a principle, and not only for the principle of enfranchisement along the lines proposed but for the principle of rapid action. That rapid action should be before October 1983, which probably would be essential if those British citizens abroad are to be able to take part in next year's elections.

I shall be the first to admit that the Bill before your Lordships this evening is incomplete. It is very much a Second Reading draft; but I hope that your Lordships will not castigate me too severely on that account. Indeed, in the course of this evening's debate and in the course of the next few weeks, if your Lordships are kind enough to give it a Second Reading tonight, I hope to receive amendments from noble Lords. I hope also that amendments will come from my noble friend Lord Elton. I also hope, indeed, that my noble friend will be able to indicate to me whether he will be prepared, assuming that there is a Second Reading, to take a constructive attitude towards this Bill, to try to get it into shape and to try to work out its details, to dot the i's and cross the t's.

Clearly, many questions are begged. Who is to be allowed to vote? One would hope that all British citizens of age living in other member states would be allowed to do so; but in practice I suppose they are going to have to prove a connection with a constituency, since that is the electoral system at present prevailing in the United Kingdom. In which constituency would a British subject resident, say, in Frankfurt, be entitled to vote? Would it be in the constitiuency in which he was born, in which he was last resident or in which he was last on the electoral roll? All these points will have to be worked out at the Committee stage, but I hope that your Lordships will look at the matter constructively and helpfully and that you will forgive me for not having tackled these details at this early stage of the Bill's legislative procedure.

Also I should like to point out that this is a matter which I believe should be tackled on its own. It is not an attempt to solve the question of a uniform electoral procedure for the European Parliament, or even to take very much of a step along that path. Certainly it is not a step towards electoral reform, either of the European Parliament or in this country; that must be a separate debate. But I believe that the present situation, where a substantial number of British citizens is disenfranchised, is essentially unjust. It is essentially undemocratic, and being, as we are, part of a European Community which is based on democratic principles—unlike its East European conterparts—I hope that this principle will be the one that overrides all other objections and that your Lordships will be kind enough to consider the Bill and give it a Second Reading. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Bethell.)

7.59 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, has explained the purpose and intention of this Bill in terms which everyone can understand. He has also referred to your Lordships' Select Committee's report on the question of a uniform procedure for elections to the European Assembly. As a member of the Select Committee which made that recommendation, I am naturally in accord with the recommendation made. But as to whether this matter can best be dealt with by a Private Member's Bill, that is open to question and would certainly be dependent upon the suggestion which the noble Lord threw out, that the Government should take over and give assistance in drafting the Bill. Unless that is done many important issues may not be dealt with. I hope that the Government will pay attention to the important issues which are not referred to at all in the Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, freely admits. Therefore, although I have sympathy with the aim, I think there are points which must be considered.

First, the noble Lord himself raised the subject of electoral registration. This matter cannot be treated lightly, because the compilation of a proper electoral register is the key to sound democratic elections in this country. Therefore we must pay careful attention to that aspect. That point, and other matters which will need to be resolved are dealt with in a memorandum submitted by the Home Office, which is in paragraphs 24 to 29 on pages 34 and 35 of your Lordships' Select Committee's report.

The noble Lord said he hoped that this would include all persons resident abroad. I wish to make it clear that although there is sympathy with the aim of the Bill, in no circumstances would the Labour Opposition support extending the franchise to those persons who have been resident abroad for very long periods—20, 30 years or more—or to those persons who, frankly, are tax exiles from this country. Therefore, there are certain qualifications that we shall wish to see.

If there is to be an extension of the franchise we must look at a number of issues. The first, which is dealt with by the Select Committee, is that a person should be given the franchise for European elections only provided that he was resident in this country within a fixed period. The Select Committee threw out the suggestion of 10 years. The question of extending the franchise to British subjects resident abroad is also being considered by the Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs. They have been looking at numerous aspects of the Representation of the People Act and their report has not yet been presented, but a memorandum submitted to that committee by the Home Office states that to avoid the basis of the extension—that is, a previous connection with the United Kingdom—becoming increasingly artificial, a time limit would seem to be essential. A memorandum to your Lordships' committee states that the longer the absence from this country, the less satisfactory registration at an address in a United Kingdom constituency would become. Your Lordships' committee suggested the possibility of a 10-year period and the Home Office suggested a seven-year period, But some have considered that this may be too long, and have suggested a five-year period.

The other important point which will need to be considered is the question of a declaration—which some people feel is essential—that a person who wishes to take advantage of this extension, if it should be agreed, should indicate a definite intention to return to take up residence again in the United Kingdom. As the Home Office evidence points out to your Lordships' Select Committee, there are at present provisions for certain persons resident outside the United Kingdom to be registered in a constituency in this country. There are what we call service voters. They cover persons who are members of the armed forces overseas and their spouses; persons who are employed in the diplomatic service and persons employed by the British Council. The provisions do not cover persons who are temporarily working abroad or British citizens who have taken up residence overseas.

The requirements for these service voters are all listed in the present regulations on the representation of the people, as is the declaration which they have to make. Therefore the declarations of the persons who are at present covered, although resident outside the United Kingdom, can be verified. If the franchise for European elections is to be extended to British subjects resident in member states of the Community, it is essential that a procedure be devised, so that any declaration that such people make can be on a par with that of the present service voters. Unless that is done, it will be trying to give natural justice in one way, but inhibiting the situation as regards the present service voters.

The existing service voters are registered in the constituency in which they were last resident before going abroad, and, unless there is some careful check, it could be possible—there may be legal penalties—that without a proper procedure for verification a person could be registered in more than one United Kingdom constituency. That is why the declaration and verification are so important. As I said, that can be done in the case of service voters, persons in the diplomatic service and persons who are employed by the British Council. Therefore the issues raised are not merely academic; they go to the heart of our electoral registration, which is based on a residential qualification. So, while having some sympathy with the aims, I believe that these points must be dealt with—possibly, in a schedule to the Bill.

The attitude of the Labour Opposition will be dependent upon the answers that are given by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, when he replies for the Government. If the Government are prepared to look into the two important issues that I have raised—and these are points raised by the Home Office evidence as well, both to your Lordships' committee and to the Select Committee on Home Affairs in the other place—and adequately to deal with them, then I think that we shall give general approval to the Bill. But I emphasise, as did the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, that this is a matter which is being dealt with solely on its own, and it does not involve any other electoral procedure. That was a recommendation from your Lordships' own Select Committee and, no doubt, my noble friend Lady White will amplify that. But provided that we get that assurance from the Government, we shall wish the Bill good progress.

8.6 p.m.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, this short Bill does not require a long speech. We on this Bench support it, in principle, and would vote for the Second Reading if there were to be a Division. I am also speaking for our Liberal allies, who have asked me to convey their support as well. The extension of the franchise for elections to the European Parliament to include British subjects resident elsewhere in the Community who would be entitled to vote if they were resident in the United Kingdom is the aim not only of this Bill but also of a recommendation which has been mentioned—in fact, the only recommendation—made in the report of your Lordships' sub-committee on a Uniform Electoral Procedure for the Election of Members of the European Parliament". on which I had the privilege to serve under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady White, together with the noble Lord, Lord Underhill.

Paragraph 3 of that report states that this matter appeared to the Committee not to be dependent upon the choice of a particular electoral system, which may require protracted consideration. It affects a democratic right of citizenship which could and, if necessary, should be determined separately. The report then turns to consideration of the main part of its remit—that is, the question of a uniform electoral procedure—and does not revert to the question raised by the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, until Part VI, paragraphs 67 to 74, where it goes into the matter in more detail and specifically, in paragraph 72, suggests a mechanism for implementation of the extended franchise.

This brings me to the first query raised in my mind by the noble Lord's Bill. His proposed addition of a new category to paragraph 2(1) of Schedule 1 to the European Assembly Elections Act 1978 does not specify how, or where, the group of people whom he very properly seeks to enfranchise would vote. The noble Lord himself admitted the Bill's shortcomings in this respect, and indicated his hope that the Government will help in filling in the missing parts at a later stage. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, will be able to give him that undertaking.

One possible course is registration at a British consulate and vote by proxy. But there are problems in deciding whether under a list system the proxy is to be aggregated at regional or national levels. The committee therefore opted for an interim arrangement, under which those who have within the previous 10 years been registered as electors for parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom would be entitled to vote by post, or by proxy, in the constituency in which they were last registered. This, I think, was in line with the preferred solution in the Home Office memorandum on this subject, which is printed in the subcommittee's report.

The choice of method is of course largely a matter of cost and administrative convenience, but whatever method recommends itself most on these grounds one would hope that the Government would give it their full backing. This at least is what one would have expected after the statements of sympathy for an extension of the franchise made by Lord Trefgarne in June 1979 and Lord Belstead in June 1981, both referred to in Paragraph 69 of this report. But the noble Lord, Lord Elton, was rather less helpful to the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, in November 1982. One therefore awaits with interest the Government's reponse this evening.

But I am afraid I cannot quite let the matter rest there, with a pat on the back for the Bill and hopes for a sympathetic reception by the Government. The subcommittee chose to see this issue as, a completely separate matter from that of the electoral system"— Paragraph 74—and urged the Government to proceed on this basis. I do not dissent from this. It is obviously posssible to right one wrong without righting another, and arguably better to do so than to do nothing. At the same time, though the two issues are not "interdependent"—that is the sub-committee's word—they are obviously not poles apart. If we enfranchise these 300,000 fellow citizens, are we then going to sit back, rub our hands and say, "Well, that was a good day's work" and simply leave it at that? I would submit that this is not good enough. For what shall we have enfranchised them for? I will tell your Lordships. We shall have enfranchised them for an election which, on present policies, is likely to yield as distorting, not to say as farcical, a result as it did the last time round in 1979.

Whatever the merits or demerits of the first-past-the-post system for Westminster, there can be no doubt that it is highly unrepresentative for much larger European constituencies. As a result, the votes that we are proposing to bestow are likely to be largely wasted. In his evidence to the sub-committee, on page 63, Doctor Butler said: I have tried to think through the consequences if at the last European elections we had given the franchise to everyone who wanted it who were British citizens living overseas. I doubt if a single constituency would have gone in a different direction". That is the electoral system the Government appear to want to perpetuate and to which we shall condemn these new electors if the Bill becomes law. I do not think the Government can simply shelter behind the Council of Ministers and say, "Oh, well, they couldn't agree on a uniform method, so that absolves us", for all the other countries of the Community have already adopted a more rational system than our own and there is absolutely no reason why we should not unilaterally put our own house in order—for example, along the lines proposed in the 1977 Bill which is described in paragraphs 33 and 34 of the report.

Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, and the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said, this still would be just possible if the political will were there. If the political will were there, we would still be able to ensure a fairer result in 1984, with a less distorting effect on the whole balance of the European Parliament. As matters stand, we may see similar and equally unwarranted distortion in favour of the Labour party or the Alliance. I have here some simulations using the present electoral method. One of these assumes a switch of just one-third of the 1979 Tory votes and one-third of the 1979 Labour votes to the Alliance. The result gives, in percentage terms, 41 per cent. to the Alliance, 33 per cent. to the Conservatives and 22 per cent. to Labour. In terms of seats, this would yield 75 for the Alliance, two for the Conservatives and one for Labour. This might be a consummation devoutly to be wished, but no one could possibly claim that it would be a fair or proper representation of the state of British opinion.

I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, if I appear to have muddied the limpid waters of his Bill, for which I repeat our support. My quarrel is not with him but with the Government. What I would like to hear from the Government is not only that they will find time for his Bill in another place and help him to fill in its lacunae, but also that they will follow it up with further legislation of their own to ensure that electors to the European Parliament, both existing electors and those whom this Bill is intended to enfranchise, are given a better deal and that the European Parliament gets a more representative cross-section of British opinion than at present. If the Government help to pass this Bill, they will have taken one small step in the right direction, but let them not lie back and think they have finished the job.

8.15 p.m.

Baroness White

My Lords, it falls to me as Chairman of the Select Committee in your Lordships' House which studied this matter in some detail to indicate that in principle we support entirely the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, in promoting the Bill which is before your Lordships' House tonight. Needless to say, it would be much more appropriate if this were a Government Bill because it is a constitutional matter. Sooner or later it would appear to me that if it is to proceed in time for the next European elections it will have to be a Government Bill. I should have thought that propriety demanded that it should be a constitutional Bill sponsored directly by Her Majesty's Government.

I do not know whether it is by accident or design that this matter is being discussed tonight. My suspicious mind suggests it could just conceivably have been by design because this very question is on the agenda for the Foreign Ministers' Council, and they might possibly have reached it today. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Elton, will enlighten us if they have. However, if it is reached at all, this question is more likely to be reached tomorrow. But, unless the despatches have come with haste from Brussels, it means that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, will be in no better position tonight than he has been all along in stonewalling on this question when it has been put before him on previous occasions in your Lordships' House. He has taken a very detached view of the whole matter.

We have it on record—it has been repeated in another place by the Minister of State at the Foreign Office, Mr. Hurd—that it is the Government's wish to extend the franchise; they simply find the technicalities too much for them. When he replied to a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, on 22nd December last, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said: There are many important and difficult considerations, all of which are at present with the European Council, and which Her Majesty's Government will have to consider when the matter comes to us". How detached can one be? From that Answer one would suppose that we had no part in the European Council, that we were utterly aloof from it, that we were simply waiting on some detached body to indicate what proposals they had and that then Her Majesty's Government could at leisure consider the matter.

Similarly, on a more recent occasion, in reply to a Question on a different matter—the Irish citizens' vote—on 9th March when the noble Lord was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, if he could say whether there is any other country in Europe which allows non-citizens to vote in their general elections—a slightly different question but germane—he gracefully sidestepped, did not mention Europe at all but gave the interesting information that several Commonwealth countries, including Australia, New Zealand and, in some elections, Canada, allow non-citizens to vote in their domestic elections.

We are not asking for anything so revolutionary as that. We are asking that for the elections to the European Parliament it should be possible for British citizens who would be entitled to vote in this country, if they were still resident here, but who are resident in some other member state, to be enfranchised. Our Select Committee report makes this quite clear. I must not reiterate what has already been said very comprehensively, particularly by my noble friend Lord Underhill, but that we were at one in this particular matter, though we had differences of view on the desirability or otherwise of various electoral procedures. So far as they were concerned our remit was, as far as we could, to analyse and elucidate the proposals put forward by the European Parliament. But on this matter of justice and the civil rights of British citizens in the Community, we were entirely at one.

There was no division whatever in the committee on the principle. We recognise, of course, that there are problems. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, referred in his speech to the evidence which was given to your Lordships' Select Committee by the Home Office. Further evidence, and, to my mind, more sympathetic evidence, was given some three weeks later in another place to the Home Affairs Committee, who were examining this matter, though not, of course, from a European point of view. The major part of their discussion was concerned with the possibility of some general arrangement for overseas voters—nothing to do with the Community as such—and it was in that context that they discussed the question of registration and the possibility of a period during which the people who had been previously registered could be retained or re-registered in the constituency with which they were formerly connected. It was in that context that the period of seven years was mentioned; not in the context that we are debating tonight.

The context in which we are discussing these matters tonight is a narrow one. It is confined to the European Parliament and confined to persons resident within member states of the Community. We are discussing something that is not necessarily linked with any extension for parliamentary elections to Westminister or for local elections in this country. We should have that point perfectly clear in our minds.

In the evidence given to the committee in another place on 19th January, representations were made, I was interested to observe, by the British Conservative Association in France and the British Conservative Association in Belgium, as well as by the Association for the Rights of Britons Abroad, who also approached your Lordships' Select Committee. We did not have the pleasure of receiving arguments from the British Conservative Association of either France or Belgium but there is no doubt that those two bodies—which are associations of British citizens in those countries who support the present Administration in the United Kingdom—were very much concerned that justice was not being done. When asked by the chairman of the Select Committee in another place, Is it the view of our witnesses"— that is, the representatives of those associations— that Britain places her citizens in a less fair position vis-á-visvoting rights than any other European country? the gentleman from Belgium said, That is absolutely right". The gentleman from the British Conservative Association in France said, This is not only absolutely but blatantly right". He then continued: This causes great surprise abroad because it is not appreciated. When European politicians are told that, in Britain, the Mother of Parliaments disenfranchises her citizens who happen to live outside Britain, they do not understand". I have in my hand one of a number of letters received on this subject. It is addressed to the "Committee on Suffrage" in the EEC Parliament, so I took it that it was possibly intended for myself. It begins, engagingly, My dear Lords: As a British subject"— this is from a gentleman who lives in France, in Liancourt— I live and work in France, yet I have no right to vote for the European Parliament elections. Thus, as a citizen of one EEC country living in another EEC country and so, one presumes, following the policy of the EEC to create greater understanding between the member populations, I cannot vote for the EEC Parliament. This strange situation appears to apply to British subjects; the French, Dutch, German, Italians, et cetera, all vote when living abroad. The Italian Government even pay fares home to Italy for national elections. To this contradictory state of affairs must be added the special position of Ireland". That, I think, we all appreciate, because Irish subjects living in the United Kingdom can vote in British elections and also in European elections. My correspondent continues: I am informed that soon British subjects living in Ireland will be able to vote there too. I fear, my dear Lords, that the basis of this problem is simple laziness on the part of some legislators who cannot take the time to apply the democratic right to vote—the very basis of all we hold so dear. I should like to thank you for all your efforts in making an inquiry into the problems of voting for the European Parliament and hope that your work may result in the application of universal suffrage for that Parliament. I think that puts in a nutshell the emotions of very many Britons who live and work within the Community—not least those who are working for the institutions of the Community; persons who are themselves British subjects and who feel that it is grossly inequitable that they, who have been working for the success of this experiment, are deprived of the vote. They feel not only disadvantaged but in a sense rejected. They believe, as I think our own Select Committee believe—that if the Government really wish us to take steps in this matter, they can and should still do so.

One appreciates that it would be very much better if we could legislate in this country on lines which were compatible, in most details at least, with the arrangements in other member states. The stance of Her Majesty's Government so far has been that unless there is complete agreement of the Council of Ministers on the frachise matter, then they are unable to proceed. We do not accept that argument. As we have said, we recognise that the choice on the main electoral procedures whether one goes in for some measure of proportional representation or not, is a very different matter. It has already been declared by the Council of Ministers that there is no possibility of this being determined in time for the European elections in 1984. This does not apply to the enfranchisement of British citizens, enabling those who would be entitled to vote in this country, and who were previously registered in this country, to vote in the 1984 elections.

It would be possible for Her Majesty's Government, if they really wished to do so, to get the legislation through. It may be that we shall have the happy tidings, at the conclusion of the Council of Ministers' meeting tomorrow, that they have reached agreement. If so, so much the better. But if they have not reached agreement then I would ask the Minister directly, do the Government have any deadline in mind by which they can wait no longer for agreement between the member states and the Council of Ministers? By this is meant a date from which the Government could still obtain legislation in this Parliament to make it possible for those who were previously registered in constituencies in this country to re-register by 10th October 1983. This would enable them to vote by post or proxy, as we have suggested, whichever seems to be the more satisfactory from an administrative point of view.

I am quite certain that, if the Government really made up their minds, the Government could get through in a week the kind of Bill that is necessary! The noble Lord, Lord Elton, looks disbelieving, but we have seen it done when it has had to be done. I am not suggesting that it is in the least desirable, but we do not know what other things may be happening between now and October. What we really want tonight from the Minister in charge is a firm declaration that, having supported this principle in Opposition and in Government, the Government are now prepared to take the necessary steps.

In conclusion, I would call in aid the statements given to us in evidence by Mr. Cecil Parkinson, who is not only Chairman of the Conservative Party but a member of the Cabinet. He made it perfectly clear that in his view it was entirely desirable to take the kind of action which we have outlined. I am quoting from page 125 of the evidence submitted to the committee. I am sure it is engraved upon Lord Elton's heart. Mr. Parkinson said: I fervently hope that room can be found in the legislative programme for a measure to enfranchise the approximately 250,000 Britons who will otherwise find themselves deprived of their right to participate in elections in which they have as much stake as those permanently resident in the United Kingdom constituencies. Nothing could be plainer than that. He went on This is such a serious question that I would personally"— he is not, admittedly, speaking for the Government, but he is speaking as Chairman of the Conservative Party— hope that the Government will consider taking interim action on this point before October 1983, even if agreement proves elusive in the Council. That is as clear and specific a statement as anybody could ask for. It is supported by the Select Committee of your Lordships' House, and we hope, therefore, that the noble Lord tonight will indicate that, whatever is happening in Brussels at the Council of Ministers today or tomorrow, Her Majesty's Government have the will to do justice to these British citizens.

8.31 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I would like to begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Bethell for bringing this important matter before your Lordships' House this evening. It is right that we should address ourselves to elections to the European Parliament in which we ourselves may vote and stand for election. Indeed, four Members of your Lordships' House, including my noble friend himself, are also Members of that Parliament. So this is a matter in which your Lordships' House can express a particular interest.

I would also like to take this opportunity of conveying the Government's thanks to your Lordships' Select Committee on the European Communities, and to the sub-committee chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady White, for their recent report on the European Parliament's proposals for a uniform electoral procedure. Much of the ground covered in that report lies outside the scope of today's debate. But the Government have noted that the right to vote in elections to the European Parliament is the subject of the only recommendation in the committee's report. I shall say something about the substance of that recommendation in a moment.

I have listened with very great interest to everything that has been said in today's debate, and in particular to the view which has been expressed that the Government must take steps to ensure that British people living in other member states of the European Community should be able to vote at the next European Parliamentary election on 17th May 1984. Before I go any further I should make it clear that the Government agree that British citizens ought to be able to vote in elections to the European Parliament irrespective of their place of residence in the Community. That was our view in 1978, as I have been several times reminded, and it remains our view today.

As noble Lords will recall, it was agreed in 1976 that for the first direct elections to the European Parliament each member state should run its own election in its own way. So far as the right to vote is concerned, some member states gave the vote to the citizens of other member states resident in their territory, while others gave the vote to some or all of their own citizens resident in other member states or outside the Community. The result was that some Community nationals could vote in two member states while others could not vote at all. Although while we were in Opposition we tried to change this, British people resident outside the United Kingdom were among those deprived of a vote.

The initiative for correcting this sorry state of affairs rested with the European Parliament itself, which was required by the Community treaties to draw up proposals for a uniform procedure under which its elections would be held throughout the Community. So far as the right to vote is concerned, the Parliament had, in effect, to choose between what for convenience' sake I refer to as either the residence or the nationality principles. By the residence principle I mean the idea that a person should be given the right to vote by his country of residence. By the nationality principle I mean the idea set out in my noble friend's Bill that a person should be given the right to vote by the country whose nationality he holds. The European Parliament, after toying with the idea of a mixed system, came down in favour of the nationality principle. Under the proposals which the Parliament eventually adopted last March, member states would be required to give the right to vote to their nationals irrespective of their place of residence in the Community.

It then fell to the Council of Ministers to decide whether it could agree to recommend the Parliament's proposals for implementation by individual member states. It is now almost a year since the Council began considering the Parliament's proposals. It soon became clear that agreement on a common franchise was not going to be possible without some amendments to the Parliament's text. Prompted by a desire to reach agreement on this issue in time for member states to pass the necessary legislation by 1984, the Council decided a few months ago to give priority to discussions on a common franchise. Last month, the Council agreed to make a further effort, and the Council is meeting in Brussels today and tomorrow to see whether agreement is possible. I regret I cannot tell the noble Baroness where they have reached on the agenda at this particular time, but I have received no courier hot foot from the meeting.

The Government are aware of a widespread feeling that we should simply ignore what is happening in Brussels and go ahead with out own legislation. This is, for example, the view put forward by your Lordships' Select Committee. In considering the possibility of "interim" legislation the Government have to remember that as a constitutional measure a Bill to extend the franchise at European Parliament elections would have to go through all its stages in another place on the Floor of that House. Experience shows that legislation of this kind is acutely controversial. The Labour Government's European Assembly Elections Act had to be introduced twice and took a whole session to get through. That was, of course, a more wide-ranging measure than my noble friend's Bill, but even so we could expect any Bill to extend the franchise at European Parliament elections to take up a disproportionate amount of parliamentary time.

The noble Baroness would, I think, concede from her experience in Government that, except where there is national unanimity in a national crisis to motor something through both Houses in—I cannot believe she said 48 hours; she may have said a fortnight, it is not within our grasp. The Government simply could not justify asking Parliament to go through the whole procedure in the absence of all-party agreement on the details of the scheme as well as on the principle of the scheme, and in the knowledge that the whole lengthy and acrimonious process would have to be repeated once agreement is reach in the Council.

There are, furthermore, a number of substantial issues which need to be settled before legislation can be introduced. The most important is perhaps the question of who should qualify. The noble Lord has proposed it should be all British citizens, and with commendable precision he refers us to the British Nationality Act 1981 which introduced the term. The noble Baroness and her committee, on the other hand, propose that it should be British subjects. The term "British subject" now refers only to a few residual groups who have no other citizenship under the 1981 Act, and I assume—the noble Baroness will correct me if I am wrong—that the expression is intended to convey the sense it has in the Representation of the People Acts, including not only British citizens but also the citizens of all other Commonwealth countries who can vote if they are resident here. The committee also proposes that the right to vote should be limited—I quote from paragraph 72 of the report, to those who have within a fixed period of, say 10 years, been registered as electors for parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom". That, of course, would exclude any Members of your Lordships House who happened to find themselves in another member state. No doubt the Select Committee had its own good reasons for considering that desirable, though I am not quite clear whether your Lordships would welcome it. What are the Government to do? The two proposals—that is, my noble friend's and the noble Baroness's—are, in fact, mutually exclusive. We cannot have them both. And if we adopt either we know we shall have to think again when agreement is reached in the Council.

That brings me to my next point, which is that the Bill tells us nothing about how these new electors are to be put on the electoral register. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, picked up this point. I know that my noble friend takes the view that this is something which can be left for my right honourable Friend the Home Secretary to sort out in regulations. Would that it were so! What is needed here is a new power for the electoral registration officer. At present he can only register a person who is resident in his local government area. He cannot include the names of people resident in other parts of the United Kingdom let alone in other member states of the Community.

And how are we to decide which constituency a non-resident voter should vote in? If we give the right to all British citizens many, it is true, will have some sort of link with an address or a constituency which would help decide where they should be registered. But many British citizens do not have such an easily identifiable link, and some have never lived here at all. Some new electors would presumably have to be given a more or less absolute choice of constituency. I can tell your Lordships that if I were in that position I should certainly cast my vote in the most marginal constituency I could find.

Finally, my noble friend's Bill needs to make provision for his new electors to cast the votes that they have been accorded. I am sure we can all agree that, if we do give the vote to people who live outside the United Kingdom, we ought to make sure they can exercise it. I doubt that your Lordships would be content with the solution adopted by Luxembourg in 1979, which was to allow those resident abroad to vote provided they came back home to do it.

Perhaps this is a suitable time to pick up the challenge that the noble Baroness I think intended to throw before me—perhaps I ought to say "My dear Baroness White"—on the question of what the provisions are in other countries in the Community. Briefly they are these. In Belgium, eligibility is given to citizens whose main place of residence is Belgium. They vote by proxy. In Denmark, citizens permanently resident in other member states vote by post through diplomatic missions. In Germany, citizens resident in other member states vote by post. In France, all citizens resident abroad, whether in other member states or elsewhere, vote at diplomatic missions or by proxy. In Ireland, eligibility is restricted to service voters, who vote by post. In Italy, all citizens resident abroad, whether in other member states or elsewhere, have the vote and exercise it at consulates in other member states or in person in Italy. In Luxembourg, as I said, citizens resident in other member states can vote in person in Luxembourg. In the Netherlands, citizens ,resident in other member states can vote by proxy. In this country, your Lordships are familiar with the arrangements which extend to service voters.

So we should have to choose between postal voting or proxy voting. Proxy voting is the method traditionally used by service voters and other electors resident abroad. But it is not a popular method, and your Lordships might consider that postal voting would be a better alternative. The objection to allowing electors who are out of the country on polling day to vote by post at a general election has always been that it would require an extension of the parliamentary elections timetable. Your Lordships might consider that for European Parliament elections, when the date is known so long in advance, postal voting would, in fact, be a possibility.

One of the most invidious tasks entrusted to a Minister is to tell one of your Lordships, and more particularly one of his noble friends, that his drafting is defective. I hope that when I tell my noble friend that this is so he will accept that it is not intended as a criticism of him but as a reminder of the immense complexity of legislative drafting. The points I have raised are, however, points of substance as well as points of drafting, and before we can get the drafting right we shall have to have a settled policy.

The Government have no monopoly of wisdom here. In the normal course of events we should expect the issue to be resolved through discussion with the political parties. I should remind your Lordships at this point that the Home Affairs Select Committee in another place is currently examining ways of giving the vote at parliamentary elections to British people resident abroad. Their report is expected in a few months' time.

My noble friend rallied to himself various allies in his desire to get legislation swiftly on to the statute book. In particular he quoted, and was echoed in this with even greater precision by the noble Baroness, Lady White, my right honourable friend the chairman of the Conservative Party. An important contradiction in terms was included in my noble friend's reference and the quotation of the noble Baroness. My noble friend said that my right honourable friend spoke both in his capacity as chairman of the party and personally. The noble Baroness quoted the relevant passage. If my noble friend reads the passage quoted by the noble Baroness, in paragraph 12 of the account of the select Committee's proceedings, he will see that my right honourable friend was indeed speaking personally and not in any other capacity when he excited my noble friend's expectation of legislation before October 1983.

So far as the prospects of the Bill are concerned, the qualifying date for voting at the 1984 elections is 10th October this year, so any Bill altering the franchise would have to reach the statute book before the Summer Recess. I have explained how Bills on this sort of subject have fared in another place in the past. I have also explained that this subject is under active consideration in Brussels. The Government think that it is not appropriate to bring forward our own proposals at this stage. Even without the cogent remarks of the noble Baroness, I should have had to say that the Government's legislative programme is already full enough without trying to force more contentious measures into it than there is time to consider properly. That is why the Government are not, I regret, prepared to help my noble friend with drafting amendments to his Bill. Nevertheless, as an indication of the Government's sympathy with what my noble friend's Bill seeks to achieve, we do not intend to oppose this Second Reading of it.

8.49 p.m.

Lord Bethell

My Lords, I am, of course, grateful to my noble friend for the qualified welcome that he gave to the Second Reading of this Bill, and for the assurance that he and his noble friends on the Front Bench will not oppose it. However, I suspect that I speak for the majority of those present in this House when I express my disappointment that, when it comes to practical measures to put this Bill on the statute book, my noble friend is not prepared to be helpful. However, I hope he will accept that those of us who support the principle of the Bill and who believe that the present draft—however incomplete, although I hope not too defective—contains the basis for a Second Reading and the basis on which a Bill could be built, will be ready to proceed and to produce a piece of legislation that will at least pass your Lordships' House and will be ready if, indeed, it should turn out that time were to become available in another place in this Session or another Session.

I believe that it is preferable to proceed along these lines than to take the perhaps rather slow approach recommended by my noble friend, which is to wait until full agreement has been reached on a uniform procedure by the Ten. If we wait that long I fear we shall wait until the Greek Kalends and very large numbers of British subjects will be disfranchised in the meantime. I suspect that most of your Lordships will consider that such a thing is wrong and undesirable.

A number of points were raised in this debate. One was the question of whether British subjects should have a cut-off point beyond which they should be ineligible for the franchise. It was even suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that some of those whom this Bill hopes to enfranchise were tax exiles. I should like simply to state my personal view to him that, due to the wise administration of the present Government, there are few tax exiles left. Indeed, the incentive to become a tax exile has very largely vanished. Great benefits have accrued to the Exchequer as a result of this wise provision.

Several noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Bethell

I am glad at last to be getting one or two cheers from my Front Bench. Perhaps the third will follow at some later date.

The question of proxy or post is important, but that is a Committee point and one which I hope will come out in the later stages of this Bill. I very much agree with those who put forward the view—I think everyone who spoke, except my noble friend Lord Elton—that it would be more appropriate if this Bill were a Government Bill. Given the length of period during which the Government have expressed themselves in favour of such a principle, it seems a pity, to put it mildly, that they have not taken any action at all in nearly four years and seem unwilling to take any action now, or indeed to be helpful over action taken by a private Member and supported by a large number of your Lordships. However, we will proceed as best we can nevertheless. I am grateful for the neutrality of my noble friend, benevolent or whatever it may be.

I would like in conclusion to thank my noble friends who have worked hard for this provision, and in particular my noble friends and colleagues Lord O'Hagan and Baroness Elles. I would also thank my colleagues the Marquess of Duoro and Mr. Adam Ferguson who put forward cogent evidence to your Lordhips' Select Committee in support of this provision.

It is true, as my noble friend Lord Elton pointed out, that this matter is controversial. It is true that it could take up parliamentary time, but I hope that having put forward these practical observations, my noble friend will not lose sight of the fact that this is a provision which is essentially just and that it should not be left for too long. The vote is a basic right of anyone who pays tax. Partially in response to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, I point out that all British subjects on the Continent pay Community tax. I would suggest to your Lordships that all of them should have the right to vote and should be entitled to have an influence over how the tax that they pay through value added tax is spent. It only remains for me therefore to commend this Bill to your Lordships and to ask you to be kind enough to give it a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.