HL Deb 28 March 1985 vol 461 cc1178-234

5.25 p.m.

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

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House to now resolve itself into Corn mittee.—(Lord Glenarthur.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD JACQUES in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Extension of parliamentary franchise]:

Baroness Elles moved Amendment No. 1: Page 2, line 6, after ("satisfies") insert ("one of the").

The noble Baroness said: My first task, and of course pleasure, is to' congratulate my noble friend Lord Glenarthur on his new job in the Home Office and to wish him well, knowing that he will discharge these responsibilities with the courtesy and ability with which he has discharged his former responsibilities.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Baroness Elles

In addressing myself to Amendment No. 1, I should like the leave of the House to take Amendments Nos. 2 to 4 which are paving amendments for Amendment No. 8 to Clause 1 of the Bill.

Amendment No. 2: Page 2, line 6, after ("following") insert ("set of").

Amendment No. 3: Page 2, line 7, leave out ("Those conditions are") and insert ("The first set of conditions is").

Amendment No. 4: Page 2, line 13, at end insert ("and").

Amendment No. 8: Page 2, line 21, at end insert— ("( ) The second set of conditions is that—

  1. (a) he has been included in a register of parliamentary electors in respect of an address at a place that is situated within the constituency concerned;
  2. (b) on the date by reference to which that register was prepared he was resident or treated for the purposes of registration as resident at that address;
  3. (c) he has not been included in any other register of parliamentary electors prepared by reference to any later date in respect of an address at a place situated in any other constituency;
  4. (d) throughout the period commencing not later than twelve months after the date referred to in paragraph (b) above and ending on the qualifying date, he has been a British citizen and has been serving outside the United Kingdom in service under a Community institution.").

Amendment No. 8 refers to the position of British officials working in the European Community institutions. They number about 1,500 altogether, taking into account those who work in the Council of Ministers, in the European Parliament, in the European Commission and the Court of Auditors. As the Bill stands at present, any of these officials who left the country before October 1983 would not be entitled to vote either at the European elections, which are due to take place in June 1989, or possibly in a general election should it not be called before June 1988.

Perhaps I may give an indication of the number of people who would be deprived of the vote. In the Council of Ministers' secretariat there are at the moment 133 officials. The latest information I have, which was given to me last week, is that of those 133 officials, 126 were appointed to the secretariat before October 1983. So in effect this Bill would give the right to seven British officials working in the secretariat to take part in European parliamentary elections, or indeed national elections.

Although these British officials are of course in a European institution, and thus it cannot be said that they look entirely, only and exclusively after British interests, it would be difficult, surely, for your Lordships' Committee to imagine that they do not concern themselves with British interests. If one were to imagine French officials, or German officials, or Italian officials in the Community institutions who took no interest whatsoever in the concerns of their own countries, then one would be applying the same yardstick to British officials.

But those of us in our roles as Members of the European Parliament or in businesses dealing with the European Commission, who are after all dealing with matters of interest to this country, understand British officials. They discharge their functions admirably and with objectivity, but nevertheless it is of course one of their roles at least to keep an eye on British interests as much as on those of other countries—to say nothing of the fact that we can speak to them in our own language.

They are responsible for a considerable number of funds which concern this country. They know the conditions in this country. We get, for example, 32 per cent. of the European Social Fund with which we have to deal through British officials. They know the situation in the United Kingdom and where that money is needed. Yet under this Bill it is considered right and proper that these officials should be considered to have been ex-patriots fleeing from these shores to avoid taxes, and that their tenuous links have disappeared after their being away from these shores for five years. In the case of the officials, whatever the case may be about some other people who live outside the United Kingdom, it is simply not true.

5.30 p.m.

They are coming backwards and forwards to this country. The vast majority, if not all, have homes in this country. They send their children to be educated in this country, and, if I may say so—I am sure that it was not intended to mislead either this House or another place—of course, they pay tax in this country. Any savings they have are in this country, and the vast majority of their investments are taxed at source and they cannot reclaim the tax. Most of them who have second homes here let their homes for certain periods, and tax is deducted at source on the rents of those lettings. Even if they do not wish to make any profit, it is prudent and wise to have their homes occupied. So it is not correct to say that either officials or many other British citizens living abroad do not pay tax here.

It is true to say that many of the officials are seconded from Government departments in this country. They go willingly, and go often from a Government department, they stay for some considerable time in the Community, and some return to this country and serve here once again with distinction in Government departments. Without naming the persons individually, I happen to know two or three people who have returned to posts of distinction in this country within the Cabinet Office, having served five, six or seven years in Brussels. So the tenuous link arguments so far as our officials are concerned is, quite frankly, a non-argument.

The point is even more true of those who serve in the political groups of the European Parliament, whether it be the Labour Party or the Conservative Party. Officials have to be based in Luxembourg because it is called for under the Treaty that they have to reside in Luxembourg, but they also spend much time coming to this country and they serve political groups and are directly interested in the policies of this Government or any other Government that might be in office. So as far as the Parliamentary secretariats are concerned, the tenuous link argument is a non-argument.

If the argument is put forward—it has been, so it is not a new argument—that the Government do not wish to make any distinction between the public and private sectors, again I am afraid that is a complete non-argument. Already there is a distinction between the public and private sectors, in that servants of the Crown serving this country abroad, whether in the form of diplomatic or consular service or in the Armed Forces, do have the right to vote already, and that is a fairly sizeable number of people. I am speaking for just about 1,500 people.

I must tell your Lordships that I have had the pleasure and honour to work very closely with those people and can assure your Lordships that the feeling would be very bitter indeed if their voting right were turned down today. They would be the only officials in the Community apart from the Irish who still would not have the right to vote at national or European elections. There would be gross discrimination as far as they are concerned vis-a-vis their colleagues within European institutions. I beg to move.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I wonder whether I may rise immediately to make the position of the Opposition quite clear. On Second Reading I ventured to say we had to be very careful before the franchise was given in any way to those who had deliberately left our shores in order to avoid taxation and those who had also left our shores in order to avoid coming before our criminal courts. It appeared to me and to my noble friends that it would be very wrong to give a vote to people who came within those categories. If it were possible to limit in specific terms in this Bill—and I believe the amendment has succeeded in doing that; certainly the amendments we are talking about at this stage—to see that the franchise was given without limitation in regard to years to those officials of the institutions of the European Community, the Opposition would listen to such a case with the greatest of sympathy.

I have had the privilege when visiting various institutions of the European Community and its Parliament of meeting some of our officials in Europe who have brought great distinction to the Community itself and its service, and if I may say so, to this country. The more British people we can send to be officials in this institution while we continue to belong to it—and many of us are in favour of continuing our membership, while some of us are not quite so fervent—the better.

I am only going to say that, having been in the service of the Community for the number of years they have, to deprive them of a vote seems to me to be completely and absolutely wrong. I would put them in line, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, with the members of the Armed Forces and the Diplomatic Corps. This is an amendment to which the Opposition would give favourable consideration.

Lord Morris

My Lords, if I may intervene briefly, the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, referred to the deliberate avoidance of taxation, but I am sure he meant the deliberate evasion of taxation. It will not be lost upon the noble Lord of all people that years ago a learned judge said that the avoidance of tax was a personal duty to one's family, but the evasion of tax was a crime.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, may I make my position abundantly clear? In my view, anyone who goes abroad in order to avoid paying tax in this country does not deserve the franchise. I am not casting any moral aspersions nor referring to any judgment of any learned judge. It is my considered view that someone who gives up residence in this country to avoid paying tax here, whatever else he may deserve does not deserve a vote.

Lord Somers

My Lords, what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon is very convincing, but on the other hand it is a little difficult to judge between those who go to live, say, in the Channel Islands for the purpose of avoiding taxation, and those who go there because they love the place and wish to live there. How are you going to distinguish between them?

Lord Reay

My Lords, we are straying a little from the point of this particular amendment moved by my noble friend Lady Elles, which I should like to support, although I preface my support by adding my congratulations to those already expressed to my noble friend Lord Glenarthur on his new appointment.

However, I must refer to the position of supporting the amendment and ask if the Government would agree to look at this question again. As my noble friend pointed out, we are dealing only with a small number of people, British citizens, living in the Community and working in the Community institutions as a direct result of our having joined the Community, working either directly for our interests or for the interests of the Community, which, of course, are also our interests. Almost alone of all their colleagues they are being deprived of the right to vote not only in national but also in European elections as a result of that change in their career. It seems to me really very perverse that this first generation of those officials who went out there from this country to work in the Community should continue to be so disfranchised.

For some years I was a Member of the old European Parliament and I know many of these officials well. I know what a good job they do for the most part, and how much they mind being deprived of the right to vote. Moreover, I think this Bill provides a good opportunity to install this right. This is not an issue that will go away. It will reappear when the next European election comes up, and if they do not act now, the Government will find themselves under pressure to introduce legislation then when it may not suit them to do so. I think the case for enfranchising this small number of officials working for the interests of the Community is unanswerable. I hope that the Government at least will agree to re-examine this matter, even if they cannot accept this amendment without further consideration.

Lord Bethell

I rise to support the amendment of my noble friend Lady Elles and to say how pleased I am to learn that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, speaking for the Opposition, also has sympathy with it. It will be clear to the entire Committee that when referring to this small group of 1,500 people we are in no way referring to ex-patriots, let alone tax-dodgers, fugitives from justice or anyone else in those nefarious categories. On the contrary, we are referring to people who are at the sharp end: pioneers in defending British interests in a very important part of our endeavours to sow the seeds. These are people who will do great good for this country, and I believe that they should not be disfranchised. Most of these men and women live in Brussels. Like other noble Lords who have spoken, I have seen their way of life. I should like to demonstrate one or two points in order to dispel any idea that they have tenuous links with this country.

Brussels is now very closely linked with the United Kingdom. Indeed, one can be forgiven for thinking from time to time that Brussels is linked directly rather than just being not very far away. The average British official or businessman in Brussels will eat his English breakfast listening to Radio 4 or watching BBC breakfast television. He will pick up his English newspaper on the way to work, and perhaps his wife will drop off their children at an English school. If they can afford the air fare they may come home for weekends as often as once a month. As my noble friend pointed out, many of these people have second homes or cottages in the United Kingdom, indicating their willingness and desire to return to this country as soon as their tour abroad is finished.

On the question of taxation, it needs to be made absolutely clear that in some ways these officials are disadvantaged. Although they receive their salaries according to Community tax, which is lower than our own, they do not receive personal allowances or marriage allowances with regard to their investment income in this country. Nor do they receive an allowance for capital gains tax if they should sell their residence in this country. So it is as broad as it is long, and I believe that these people should be given special consideration.

The fact that these individuals are so politically motivated should also be borne in mind. My noble friend and I, and others, have received passionate correspondence from the associations representing these men and women. They are deeply concerned at the prospect of such people not having the franchise. My noble friend Lady Elles has, in particular, taken up the cause of associations for British citizens in France, Belgium and other Community countries.

I hope very much that the Government will examine this matter again. I am sure they will be the last to feel, as some people in this country do, that working abroad is some perpetual holiday. It is not that. On the contrary, in Community institutions the working hours are considerably longer than those in Whitehall, starting as they do, very often, at 8 o'clock in the morning and ending at 8 o'clock in the evening. Their salaries may be larger, but I believe we get our money's worth. I heartily endorse the amendment proposed by my noble friend and hope that your Lordships will support it.

Lord Tordoff

I join in the congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, again, as yesterday, coupled with sadness at the occasion of his coming to his new seat. We, like other Members of the Committee, hope that the noble Earl, Lord Avon, will be back in action before very long. But we are glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur—and, like the chairmen of tribunals in the past, he could well declare an amnesty on these amendments and let them go through as his first act in his new capacity at the Dispatch Box.

5.45 p.m.

If I have a criticism of these amendments it is that they do not go wide enough. In that I will probably be at odds with the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, when we come to debate subsequent amendments. I am slightly confused because I understood the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, to say that she was speaking to Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 8. In fact, I believe we are discussing also Amendment No. 11.

Baroness Elles

If I may intervene with the leave of the Committee, we are concerned at the moment with the right of British officials serving in Community institutions, which is covered by Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 8. Amendments Nos. 5, 9, 10 and 11 are separate.

Lord Tordoff

I apologise to the noble Baroness. The suggested groupings I have been given include all the amendments I mentioned.

The case has been well made that these people working in the Community are as entitled to vote as anybody else resident in the United Kingdom. They are doing a fundamentally good job for this country as well as for the Community, and it is an insult to deny them the franchise, particularly in European elections. I hope that the Minister will be able to give way, or at least will give some indication that the Government are prepared to propose their own wording if, as usual, the drafting of this amendment is not to their liking.

Lord Broxbourne

I rise very briefly to re-affirm my support for the proposition contained in this amendment. I say "re-affirm" because on Second Reading of this Bill I made a brief intervention in support of my noble friend Lady Elles following representations I had received—in particular, from officials of the European Parliament.

It is not necessary for me to enter into the merits of this case, which has been so ably deployed by noble Lords who have already spoken. Indeed, it seems to be a case of omnium consensual, because no noble Lord seems prepared to speak against the principle underlying these amendments, and Amendment No. 8 in particular.

When I made my very brief intervention on Second Reading my noble friend Lord Elton said he would return to this matter in Committee or would write to me, or probably both. He has not written to me, nor, of course, has my noble friend Lord Glenarthur, on whom the mantle has now fallen (and I join with the congratulations to him in that respect). So I hope I may infer that Ministers propose to accept this amendment. In that confident and happy expectation, I will resume my seat without further ado.

Baroness White

As the immediate past-chairman of your Lordships' Select Committee on the European Communities, I strongly support the amendments we are now discussing. They refer only to a specified group of persons of British nationality who would be properly accredited as electors if they were residents in this country. They are serving us, as well as the Community. I have received many representations from them over the past few years in respect of this matter, and it would be a very shabby way of dealing with them if the Government were not to accept these amendments.

Lord Mishcon

I rise again only to remove what might be a misunderstanding in view of the congratulations which have so properly been given to the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur. In case it should be thought that the Opposition did not share very warmly in making them, I will point out that I had the opportunity on behalf of my noble friends of saying all those nice things yesterday. If I were to repeat them today, the noble Lord might think that I was overdoing it a little.

Lord Glenarthur

I first thank My noble friend Lady Elles and others, including the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, for their kind remarks about my new appointment. I fear, however, that I shall not be able to satisfy them as much as they would like on this particular occasion.

My noble friend Lady Elles is concerned with a special exemption for British officials of the Community institutions: the Council, the Commission, Parliament, the courts of justice and the European Investment Bank. I would be the first to acknowledge, as others have done, the important work that they do, their feelings and, of course, the feelings also that lie behind those who support my noble friend in her amendment. My noble friend suggested that Community officials should be given the same rights as Crown servants and other service voters to whom the five-year qualification period does not apply.

There are two points to make in this respect. First, members of the armed forces and the Diplomatic Service tend to go abroad for comparatively short periods and, in any event, would have the vote under the Bill. The mechanics of service voters' registrations seem to work quite well, so far as I am aware, and there seems no reason to replace them with the mechanics we have devised for overseas electors. The other point is that the purpose of the Bill is to give people the vote and not to take it away. If we attempted to repeal the present provisions for service registration, we would find ourselves with an even more controversial Bill than we have at the moment.

I shall now pick up some of the points which both my noble friend Lord Broxbourne and my noble friend Lady Elles raised concerning taxation. I know that my noble friend raised this point at Second Reading. The suggestion is that officials are treated as being ordinarily resident for tax purposes and does that not make it important for them to have the right to vote? That is a point which is relevant not only to officials of the European Parliament but also to the many other people living and working abroad who are ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom for tax purposes. However, one does not have to look as far as the other side of the Channel to find people who pay taxes but who do not have the right to vote; for example, foreign nationals may be liable to income tax on earnings accrued here. It is a sad fact that there has never been an exact equation between the right to vote and liability for taxes. The Bill makes no change in that respect.

I noted with interest the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, concerning the enfranchisement of Community officials. I have to tell the noble Lord that it was mainly because of the vigorous opposition of his party that the Government had to reduce the seven-year period to five years. At no stage of the proceedings in another place was there the least suggestion that the noble Lord's party, or the other parties, supported special arrangements for Community officials.

Lord Mishcon

I must ask the noble Lord the Minister, in courtesy, to give way. First, this has nothing to do with reducing the period from seven years to five years in regard to anyone else. Secondly, so far as I know, there was no specific occasion on which the view of my party could be given in another place. Thirdly, when the noble Lord notices such independence of view on this Front Bench may I ask him to try to copy it on his Front Bench?

Lord Glenarthur

If the noble Lord dissents from what was said in another place—

Lord Mishcon

I do not.

Lord Glenarthur

The noble Lord says that he does not. If I have misconstrued what was said, I apologise, but I should like to think that what was said was perfectly correct. The point here is that we do not intend any slur on the work of British officials in the Community institutions. As I said, they make a valued contribution to the success of the Community and to our membership of it. But the same is true of British citizens working in the Community in the private sector—perhaps even more so because officials are prevented by their contracts from promoting British interests while that is exactly what exporting companies and other British firms are in the Community to do.

The Bill proposes a very modest extension of the franchise for a period of only five years while the elector is resident abroad. The Government would have preferred a longer period, as I hope to explain in reply to other amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, but having accepted the five-year period, it must be applied equitably, across the board. Having reduced the period for some, we really cannot drop it altogether for others, as has been suggested.

I fear that I have little more to add. I recognise the concern that has been expressed and the strength of feeling that lies behind it. I also recognise the concern that has obviously been expressed to your Lordships House by those officials who work abroad. However, I hope that, bearing in mind the last point I made, my noble friend will understand and recognise the significance of what I have put forward and will not feel forced to press this amendment.

Baroness Elles

I should like to thank all those who have discussed this amendment and I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, for having said what he did. I recognise it may be his own independence of mind, and that is even more to be welcomed than if he had official party backing—and I do not know whether he has or not. However, I very warmly welcome what he said.

Lord Mishcon

I interrupt the noble Baroness so that there may be no misunderstanding. I do not think that I will find myself out of line with my party's mind on this subject in anything I have said.

Baroness Elles

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, even more than I have already thanked him.

Perhaps I may say to my noble and good friend, if I may call him that, the Minister how very much I regret the answer he has had to give to the Committee today. I understand very well his position in that he has been thrown into this Bill today for the first time without having had the opportunity of going through its background. However, I must say to him objectively that there was not one valid point in his reply—not one. He said that those who work for business and for British interests in the European Community are perhaps even more worthy of the vote—I think he was implying that—than British officials. Why, then, are they being denied the vote? Surely he has strengthened the argument for giving them as well as British officials the vote. We were told that, regrettably, the Government had reduced the length of time from seven years to five years; but that is not an issue in this matter. We are referring to officials who are working for British interests, for the British Government, for the United Kingdom, and for the Community as a whole, on which the whole of our prosperity depends. Regrettably, therefore, I feel obliged, with the agreement of the two noble Lords who also have tabled this amendment, to press it to a Division.

5.57 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Amendment (No. 1) be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 85; Not-Contents. 58.

Airedale, L. Jeger, B.
Ardwick, L. John-Mackie, L.
Auckland, L. Kilmarnock, L.
Aylestone, L. Lane-Fox, B.
Bethell, L. Lindsey of Abingdon, E.
Birdwood, L. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.
Birk, B. Lloyd of Kilgerran, L.
Boston of Faversham, L. Lockwood, B.
Broadbridge, L. McGregor of Durris, L.
Brockway, L. Marley, L.
Broxbourne, L. Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon, L.
Bruce of Donington, L.
Caccia, L. Mayhew, L.
Caradon, L. Meston, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Milverton, L.
Chelwood, L. Mishcon, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Molloy, L.
Collison, L. Morris, L.
Cork and Orrery, E. Nicol, B.
Craigavon, V. Ogmore, L.
Davidson, V. Oram, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. Orr-Ewing, L.
Elles, B. [Teller.] Phillips, B.
Elwyn-Jones, L. Reay, L.
Ennals, L. Robson of Kiddington, B.
Ewart-Biggs, B. Rochester, L.
Ezra, L. St. Davids, V.
Falkland, V. Sandford, L.
Gainford, L. Seear, B.
Gaitskell, B. Shannon, E.
Gallacher, L. Shepherd, L.
George-Brown, L. Shinwell, L.
Gisborough, L. Somers, L.
Glanusk, L. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Gray, L. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Gregson, L. Terrington, L.
Grimond, L. Thurlow, L.
Hanworth, V. Tordoff, L. [Teller.]
Hatch of Lusby, L. Walston, L.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. White, B.
Hylton-Foster, B. Wigoder, L.
Jacques, L. Wilberforce, L.
Ampthill, L, Mancroft, L.
Bauer, L. Margadale, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Massereene and Ferrard, V.
Belstead, L. Merrivale, L.
Blake, L. Mersey, V.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Molson, L.
Caithness, E. Monson, L.
Cameron of Lochbroom, L. Mottistone, L.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Mountevans, L.
Coleraine, L. Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Colwyn, L. Nugent of Guildford, L.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Orkney, E.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Plummer of St. Marylebone, L.
Drumalbyn, L.
Ellenborough, L. Reigate, L.
Elton, L. Rodney, L.
Faithfull, B. Romney, E.
Ferrier, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Strathcona and Mount Royal, L.
Glenarthur, L.
Gowrie, E. Swansea, L.
Gray of Contin, L. Swinton, E. [Teller.]
Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L. Teynham, L.
Trenchard, V.
Hardinge of Penshurst, L. Trumpington, B.
HenleY, L. Vickers, B.
Hood, V. Vivian, L.
Hornsby-Smith, B. Ward of Witley, V.
Lauderdale, E. Whitelaw, V.
Long, V. Young, B.
Lyell, L.

Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.

6.7 p.m.

Baroness Elles moved amendments Nos. 2 to 4:

[Printed earlier: col. 1178.]

The noble Baroness said: With the leave of the Committee, and with the understanding of my noble friend on the Front Bench, I believe that as Amendment No. 1 has been adopted, the Government will accept, anyway for the time being, also Amendments Nos. 2 to 4 and Amendment No. 8. Is my noble friend prepared to agree to that? I beg to move.

Lord Glenarthur

I fully accept that Amendments Nos. 1 to 4 are paving amendments for Amendment No. 8, which is the substantive amendment.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Baroness Elles moved Amendment No. 5: Page 2, line 14, leave out sub-paragraph (c).

The noble Baroness said: This amendment seeks to remove the five-year restriction on the right to vote for citizens who are living outside this country. We welcome the fact that the principle has been established in the Bill that those who are living abroad should be given the right to vote in national elections in this country. But, as we found on closer examination when we went through all this on Second Reading, the principle is honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Assuming that there is an election in June 1988, only those who have left this country after October 1983 would have the right to vote. The number is minimal. The vast majority of those who are already living abroad and who have been hoping to get the right to vote will be deprived.

I do not wish to go into all the arguments. We went through them pretty fully on Second Reading. I just wish to point out to your Lordships' Committee that British citizens living abroad are affected by United Kingdom legislation. Whether it concerns property rights, tax, social security, matrimonial law or nationality law, all these matters affect the rights and direct personal status of many British citizens not living in this country. Thanks to the amendments put into the Bill in another place, people who intend to return to this country have certain rights. I accept, as will most of your Lordships, that some people go abroad to avoid paying United Kingdom taxes and others are on the run from justice. But, as my noble friend Lord Elton pointed out, those people would be unlikely to sign a declaration that they intend to come back and live in this country, which is, after all, one of the conditions under which they would be entitled to vote.

But, as far as I can recall, there was another point which was not raised at Second Reading. To whom do those citizens turn when they want their interests looked after or their rights looked to? I remember when the British Nationality Bill was before your Lordships' House that I was inundated with correspondence from British citizens abroad, as, indeed, were many of your Lordships. People turn to this House for their rights to be protected because they have nobody else to turn to.

Let me take an example which does not relate to the European Community about which people may be particularly concerned. How many of us have received letters from British citizens living in Canada, whose social security pensions have not been increased because we do not have a bilateral agreement with Canada? That is one small example of the ways in which the direct rights of British citizens who have their foundations and their interests in this country go by the board because there is no one to speak on their behalf. As I say, it is very often left to noble Lords in this House to seek to speak on their behalf.

A further point which I think should be made clear is this. I very much regret that some organisations which are concerned with civil rights, civil liberties and human rights, such as the National Council for Civil Liberties, as far as I know have not seen fit to intervene in a matter which is fundamental to the right of every citizen, wherever they may live—the right to vote in a democratic society. It is to be noted that countries like the United States, who after all took their democracy from us 200 years ago, give the right to vote to all their citizens living abroad. Indeed, this morning I checked with the United States Embassy the formalities and the grounds on which their citizens abroad are given that right. There is no restriction apart from the fact that they must have a residence in the United States and have a valid passport.

The French, too, give to their citizens abroad the right to vote. As they pointed out very clearly in their brief, whereas before—and it was accepted—people went abroad and lived abroad for good, in the last 20 years, and more and more nowadays, people have been going abroad for perhaps ten years for business or employment reasons and then returning to this country. After all, as we all know, we do not live in the time of the Empire. We come back to our own native land very much more frequently than was ever the case before the second world war.

So I should like to put to the Committee that the five-year restrictive limit is an anachronism in the way British citizens now go abroad. It is no longer relevant. To see them deprived of this right to vote is a travesty of our democracy. I beg to move.

Lord Mishcon

I wonder whether I may again make the position of my noble friends perfectly clear? One of the great attractions of a democratic assembly dealing with the right to vote is that there should be some kind of consensus between the democratic parties involved. The proceedings in another place, which started off with some amount of controversy at Second Reading, ended in certain compromises being reached between the main opposition party and the Government. Although the main opposition party in another place made it clear that they had certain views, and they were expressed, a compromise period of five years, as set out in the Bill, was decided upon.

I therefore hope that noble Lords will understand my position perfectly clearly when I say that I regard myself and my noble friends as being bound by that compromise arrangement. I make that position abundantly clear at this stage so that the views of the Opposition on any amendments dealing with this period may be quite clearly understood.

Lord Tordoff

I am sorry to see the independence of the noble Lord disappear so quickly. However, in response to that I have to say that of course it was only a carve-up between two parties in another place, and therefore I do not feel myself inhibited in any way by arrangements that were made. I support this amendment heartily. I myself have certain other compromises down at a later stage if we do not make any headway on this.

There are an awful lot of people working abroad for this country in all kinds of ways who, as the noble Baroness has said, really have a stake in this country. They have every intention of returning to this country when they retire, or even before then. I can think of many of my old colleagues in a large, international company who have contributed greatly to the wealth and wellbeing of this country while living abroad but who nevertheless are British citizens whose roots are here and who feel that they have a right to have a say in the government of this country.

As the noble Baroness rightly says, there are so many issues that affect them. There is the whole question of pension rights. There are the questions of defence and of foreign affairs—many of the things that we discussed at Second Reading. As I said then, the crucial fact is that these people are citizens of this country and it should be on the basis of their citizenship that their right to vote is maintained.

As some noble Lords will have seen from the diary column of The Times this morning, my honourable friend the Liberal Chief Whip in another place has been receiving some correspondence from, for him, unusual sources. I have a quotation here which I should like to offer to the Committee, where these people say: We consider ourselves no less worthy British citizens because we happen to have been in many cases flying our country's flag in foreign parts. Naturally we rejoice in the fact that the Government has acknowledged the principle that we had a right to vote but we deplore the fact that this right has been limited to those who have only been abroad for less than five years", which rules out many of the people for whom this gentleman is acting as representative. I should say that he is the chairman of the British Conservative Association in France (whose president, I see, is the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, but that is not a matter which need detain us).

The fact is that there are many people in all parts of the world who regard themselves as British citizens and who we from these Benches, regardless of what arrangements may have been made in another place, feel should have the right to vote in elections in this country.

6.15 p.m.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

May I have some clarification here from my noble friend Lord Glenarthur? Am I to understand that if a British couple are working abroad all their lives and wish to retire here they have to sign a paper or something to say that they will retire here, or does one take their word? I presume that one can take their word. If they are going to retire here, then I think they should have the right to vote in our elections. Therefore, perhaps I voted the wrong way last time. I should say certainly that they should have the right to vote if they are going to retire here.

Lord Glenarthur

I am not quite sure which way my noble friend voted last time, but I take it from what he said that he voted the wrong way. However, we are talking about people who are abroad and not about people who are coming back here, as I understand it. I do not know whether I am more muddled than my noble friend. However, I think he may be under a misapprehension.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

No. I am saying that if British citizens who are working abroad are going to retire here after they have finished their work, even if it is after 15 or 20 years, then surely they should have the right to vote in our elections.

Lord Tordoff

Perhaps I may assist the noble Viscount. He may not have noticed, in his reading of the Bill, that under Clause 2(2) as it stands they have to make a declaration that they will return to this country. That declaration having been made, then I think this answers his point.

Lord Bethell

Before the Minister winds up, may I add a couple of remarks to what has been said by the movers of this amendment? I think the trouble with the Bill at the moment is that it does not sufficiently distinguish between those people who emigrate from the United Kingdom and those who go abroad for a period intending to return. There have always been people who have left our shores for perfectly valid reasons in order to seek their fortunes overseas, in the New World in particular. Those who have gone to Canada and taken Canadian citizenship of course retain the right to vote in this country. Those who have gone to the United States, if they take American citizenship, usually do not retain that right.

But I believe there must be a provision for those who go abroad for a period, which will usually be more than five years, intending to return here. After all, they are people who are leading this country out of the difficult economic phase through which we have gone and into what we hope will be a period of economic expansion. Surely no one here doubts that that economic expansion, if it takes place, will be export-led. It will be based on the capacity of this country to export, visibly and invisibly.

This is why British communities abroad, particularly in European community countries—although this is not the point of this amendment—have expanded. For instance, I am told that in Belgium alone there is a British community of 50,000 people. These, overwhelmingly, are people who are dealing with British interests and British exports. They are working for British companies or English-speaking companies, trying to make sure that we improve our economic potential. These are the people who wish to retain the vote.

As my noble friend Lady Elles pointed out, those who emigrate and who lose contact with this country are extremely unlikely to sign the declaration that they wish to retain the vote. If they have gone to live in another country, that is their privilege and they have done so. They have lost the right to vote in Britain. But the people who have gone for short periods, those who have written to my noble friend Lady Elles, to myself, to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, and to others, are passionately anxious to retain their links with this country. They are lobbying us and begging to be allowed to vote. Surely it would be wrong for us to deny them this.

Lord Glenarthur

I note the remarks made by all those who have spoken on the question of extending the franchise to all British citizens throughout the world, no matter how long they have been away. This would be a much greater change, I have to say, than was proposed either by the Home Affairs Committee of another place or by your Lordships' European Committee which looked at the matter in the context of European Parliament elections under the distinguished chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady White, who was here earlier.

The Home Affairs Committee, as I am sure your Lordships will remember, recommended an extension at parliamentary elections only to British citizens in the European Community. The committee of your Lordships' House recommended an extension without any geographical limit, but only for a period of 10 years after the elector leaves the United Kingdom. The Government agree with these two committees that some limitation has to be placed on the voting rights of British citizens resident outside the United Kingdom. It is thought that there are as many as 3 million British citizens living abroad. Giving all of them the right to vote would mean that overseas electors would account for up to one in 15 of the electorate, a significant proportion. As the Home Affairs Committee pointed out, it would create a ten-fold increase in the amount of postal and proxy voting. That, I think, can readily be seen to alter the whole character of our elections.

The Government believe that it would be wrong to give the vote to all British citizens throughout the world, no matter how long they have been away. The fact that a person intends to retire here does not give him the vote. Under the Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, explained to my noble friend Lord Massereene, a person will get the vote if he is abroad, but only for five years after he leaves. I hope that this clears my noble friend's mind. Some more limited qualification has to be found than the fact that a person is a British citizen. The Home Affairs Committee recommended a geographical limitation because demand for an extension of the franchise had mainly arisen from British citizens in the European Community. The European Committee of your Lordships' House, like the Government, chose to think in terms of a qualification that lasted a certain number of years.

As my noble friend Lord Elton explained at Second Reading, the importance of this Bill is that it establishes the principle that British citizens who are resident abroad on the qualifying date should not be disfranchised for that reason. It is to that extent a step in the right direction. It is perhaps not as great a step as the Government would have liked. Nevertheless, it is a significant step. Once the new provisions are in force and have been seen to be working, as I am sure they will, the extension of the five-year period should be a comparatively straightforward matter.

I have listened with care to all the remarks. I am afraid that I cannot go along with my noble friend Lady Elles when she says that there are difficulties for people; and she quoted those living in Canada, principally, in not having anyone to speak on their behalf. I can tell my noble friend that over the last couple of years I have noticed no difficulty at all among those who live in Canada making perfectly plain their views on one or two issues, particularly the uprating of pensions. They did so to me about every week as a matter of considerable regularity.

Baroness Elles

I thank my noble friend for giving way. That is exactly the point I made. They have to write to the House of Lords to get representation. If they had representation in the Commons, it would be dealt with in the Commons, which is, after all, the normal place in a democracy where elected representatives speak on behalf of their electors.

Lord Glenarthur

That is one of the difficulties when we, in an unelected Chamber, are dealing with this issue. The point is that this is a step in the right direction. We do not see necessarily that there may not be some extension in the future, as I tried to indicate. I hope that this is some encouragement to my noble friend, but I am afraid that I can go no further than I have done. I hope that my noble friend will not press the amendment.

Baroness Elles

I should like to thank all those who have discussed this amendment. It is a very different situation to that covered by the previous amendment and by amendments yet to come. None of those was discussed in another place. We, in this House, have to pay careful concern and due regard to the decisions that were actually taken in another place. Whether or not one approves of the arrangement, there was an agreement between the Government and the Opposition. I, as a member of the party in Government, feel that I would not be in a position to force the Government to dishonour an agreement that they came to with the Opposition in another place.

I am encouraged, when my noble friend says that it might be possible later on to look at this again; that, if the five-year restriction works, the Government, in continuing to view the situation and to monitor it with care and consideration and a certain amount of compassion, might extend it at a later stage in their period of office. In view of the agreement in another place and the fact that, because of that, if this Committee was to approve the amendment, there would be grave difficulties in another place, it would not be right, I believe, for your Lordships to take such a decision. Regretfully, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Tordoff had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 6: Page 2, line 14, leave out ("five") and insert ("ten").

The noble Lord said: This amendment is associated with Amendment No. 12:

Amendment No. 12: Clause 3, page 4, line 32, leave out ("five") and insert ("ten").

In view of the debate on the last amendment dealing with the principles, and for the same reasons as those given by the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, it is not my intention to move either of these amendments.

[Amendment No. 6 not moved.]

Lord Glenarthur moved Amendment No. 7: Page 2, line 21, at end insert— ("( ) The reference in subsection (1) above to a person being subject to a legal incapacity to vote on the qualifying date does not include a reference to his being below the age of 18 on that date.").

The noble Lord said: It might be convenient if I take with this amendment Amendment No. 13:

Amendment No. 13: Clause 3, page 5, line 28, at end insert— ("but the reference in subsection (2)(b) above to a person being subject to a legal incapacity to vote on the qualifying date does not include a reference to his being below the age of 18 on that date").

These amendments rectify a small error in the Bill as introduced in your Lordships' House. During the Report stage in another place the Government moved a series of amendments as a consequence of the decision to allow British citizens to qualify as overseas electors only if they had previously been registered electors. These amendments inadvertently disfranchised a person who is resident abroad on the qualifying date and is correctly included in the register then in force but who has not yet reached his 18th birthday. The amendments now before your Lordships' Committee enable such a person, who will by definition have reached voting age by the time the next year's register comes into force, to qualify as an overseas elector. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Elles moved Amendment No. 8:

[Printed earlier: col. 1179.]

The noble Baroness said: This amendment has in effect been agreed, having been voted upon and accepted with paving Amendments Nos. 1 to 4. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Extension of franchise for European Assembly elections]:

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Elles moved Amendment No. 9: Page 4, line 9, at end insert— (" (1A) For the purposes of this section, a person qualifies as an overseas elector in respect of a constituency on the qualifying date if

  1. (a) on that date he is resident outside the United Kingdom,
  2. (b) he is resident in any one of the other member states of the European Community, and
  3. (c) he satisfies one of the following sets of conditions.").

The noble Baroness said: I should like to take Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 together.

Amendment No. 10: Page 4, line 9, at end insert— (" (1B) The first set of conditions is that—

  1. (a) he was included in a register of parliamentary electors in respect of an address at a place which is situated within the constituency concerned,
  2. (b) on the date by reference to which the register was prepared, he was resident or treated for the purposes of registration as resident at that address and
  3. (c) if he was included in any register of parliamentary electors prepared by reference to a date later than the date referred to in paragraph (b) above, he was not resident or treated for the purposes of registration as resident at an address in the United Kingdom on that later date.").

Amendment No. 9 introduces the basic substance of what is contained in Amendment No. 10. The purpose of these two amendments is to entitle British citizens who are resident within the European Community to take part in elections to the European Assembly in June 1989 and later years, and to ensure that they are not bound by the restriction of the five-year limit which is contained in Clause 1. I would draw the Committee's attention to the fact that these two amendments were not voted on or discussed at length in another place; so there has been no decision on them in another place. Of course the matter was raised at Second Reading by both my right honourable and learned friend the Home Secretary and the honourable Member speaking on behalf of the Opposition.

The purpose of these two amendments is to enable all British citizens resident in other member states of the European Community to vote in these European parliamentary elections. As matters stand at present, only the United Kingdom does not allow its citizens resident within the European Community to vote in European elections. There is one other exception; that is, the Republic of Ireland. I should point out that, of the Republic of Ireland citizens who live abroad, within the European Community, 400,000 live in this country and they have a right to vote; so that the number of Irish citizens living within the European Community who are not entitled to vote at European parliamentary elections is very limited indeed. But it is estimated that the number of British citizens living within the European Community but outside the United Kingdom who are so affected is around 250,000.

Many people perhaps do not know what goes on in the European Parliament, and it is very often misrepresented in the British press. I can assure your Lordships' Committee that the matters that are decided and the activities of the Members of the European Parliament are directly concerned with the interests and rights of citizens living within the European Community. Who is there to look after the interests of British citizens other than British Members of the European Parliament, regardless of party? It was shameful, I am afraid, that at the last European parliamentary election in 1984 Belgium and the Netherlands saw fit to give the right to vote to those poor citizens of another member state who were not allowed to vote back home. They of course were British citizens.

British citizens living in Brussels—I say this with no disrespect to the political system in Belgium—find it very difficult to decide whether they should speak Flemish in one street and French in another, which is the main basis and argument of Belgian local politics. This is the kind of decision they would have to make before coming to vote in an election in Belgium. They are concerned with being represented in the European Parliament by British representatives concerned with British matters, with British jobs, with British investment, with British employment, with British legislation, and, above all, with legislation which comes through the European Community's institutions, particularly the council, where Britain is represented by a British Minister.

I can see no reason whatsoever why British citizens who are being discriminated against in the Community should not vote at European parliamentary elections. This is not asking for the right in regard to national elections; we have gone through that argument. This is solely for European parliamentary elections. As matters stand, under this Bill very few citizens will be entitled to vote in 1989. It will be only those who have left this country since October 1983.

I should like to make two more points. First of all, my right honourable and learned friend said in another place that further primary legislation on European elections only will probably be needed if agreement is reached in the council. That might have given the opportunity to extend the franchise. But it is pretty clear from the work that is going on at the moment in the European Parliament that there will be the same impasse as there was before the 1984 elections; that the council will not come to an agreement, and once again the Government will decide that in the circumstances there is no need for legislation. This means that once again British citizens will be the only ones who will not be able to vote in 1989.

Another curious thing is that when my noble friend Lord Elton replied at Second Reading he said the Government were taking the view that they would prefer the principle of voting in the place of residence. That is not a view shared by eight of the member states, because eight of the member states give their citizens living in another part of the Community the right to vote. Indeed, your Lordships may recall that booths were set up for Italian citizens and French citizens in this country to vote on the Sunday in order to comply with their own national legislation. I know of no discussion anywhere as to whether this is the principle the Government are deciding to carry on in the council. They have said that they are prepared to give the vote to foreign citizens living in this country. That is the other side of the coin. If they are expecting other countries to give British citizens the vote in other member States, that automatically implies that we shall be giving Italians, French, Germans, Greeks and Danes in our country the right to vote in European parliamentary elections. If that did not cause disequilibrium in a consituency, I do not know what would, because we all know perfectly well that for very understandable reasons—this is no criticism—nationality and ethnic groups tend to live together in the same areas. That can make a massive difference to a vote in any particular Euro constituency.

If the Government are going to insist on the principle that British citizens should vote in the country of residence, let us remember that there will be an equal obligation on the Government to open the discussion and the debate on the point that foreign citizens in this country will be given the right to vote. I do not think that is a principle which many of us, either in your Lordships' House or in another place, would accept.

I should like to point out that recently in the Political Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, of which my noble friend Lord Bethell is also a member, we almost unanimously passed a provision. I referred to it at Second Reading on 13th March, in column 203 of Hansard. I shall not read it all out, but this proposal of the Political Affairs Committee will go forward to the plenary session. It is that nationals of member states shall be entitled to vote in the country of which they are nationals. That is what the Political Affairs Committee of the European Parliament will be proposing with regard to the right to vote. Of course it will be a mandatory vote from the plenary session of the European Parliament on the point that no citizens of the European Community should be deprived of the right to vote. It is a fundamental right. I would hope that in a grouping of 10 democratic countries that democratic right should be recognised by this Government as well as all the other nine.

Lord Bethell

I should like to make a couple of additional points. The first refers to taxation. Any British citizen, wherever he lives in the 10 countries of the European Community, pays European Community taxation. That applies to a proportion of the value added tax on any goods on which VAT is levied, whether he is resident in this country or in any of the other nine. This is the major part of the income of the European Community and it is paid by us whether we reside here or there. On the principle that there should be no taxation without representation, I would suggest that all British citizens resident anywhere in the Community are entitled to representation.

The second point I should like to make is really in the form of a question to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, who I dare say will be intervening shortly. I wonder whether he can tell us, or confirm for us, that the agreement on voting and the five-year period made between the two major parties applies only to Westminster elections. I would assume that the agreement reached between the two parties for a five-year period does not apply to European Parliament elections. If it does, with the greatest respect, I do not think that your Lordships should feel inhibited by this because, after all, we are not talking about elections to another place; we are talking about elections to another Parliament entirely, about which many of us outside another place have strong feelings. However, I hope that perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, can clear up that point.

Thirdly and finally, I want to underline a point made by my noble friend about the unlikelihood of this matter being resolved by agreement in the Council of Ministers before the next European elections. I listened carefully to the speech of my noble friend Lord Elton on Second Reading in which he made it clear that any system of voting for European Parliament elections which was based on proportional representation would not be agreed to by Her Majesty's Government. I have to tell your Lordships that every other country wants a system that contains an element of proportional representation.

I am not a supporter of proportional representation, but the fact remains that if the Government are absolutely clear on this line, that there will be no compromise on PR in the Council, then there cannot be agreement before the next European elections, and so the carrot that is held out to us that this whole matter may be nicely solved by the Ten without your Lordships needing to bother with it is a mirage—if a carrot can be a mirage. Therefore, I invite your Lordships to support the amendment- of my noble friend, which seems to me to be thoroughly just.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

I should like to raise an issue which is somewhat peripheral to this particular amendment, although it arises from what my noble friend Lady Elles said. I do not know whether I can tempt my noble friend, in his reply, to trespass onto perhaps somewhat dangerous ground, but I should like to do so if I can. It seems to me that the issues raised in Clauses 1 and 2 of this Bill are perhaps not those on which this Committee should take dramatic views. If I had been a Member of the other place I should have been inclined to take very considerable exception to a number of the changes suggested in Clauses 1 and 2. But here, as my noble friends have pointed out, we are dealing with the methods of election to the European Parliament.

My noble friend Lord Bethell appropriately drew attention to the fact that we were talking about citizens who paid taxation and who would, without the benefit of this particular amendment, be denied representation, whereas previously we were talking about endowing representation on those who were not paying taxation, which I must say I think is a dubious proposition. However, my noble friend Lady Elles drew attention to the particularly anomalous position of citizens of the Irish Republic. She said—I think rightly—that considerable exception might be taken to aliens being enabled to vote in elections in this country. Here we have a group of aliens who have the right to do precisely that.

There are two ways in which to change an anomaly. One is to extend the privilege which is enjoyed by a few to the rest, and the other is to withdraw the privilege from those who exclusively have it at present. I wonder whether I can tempt my noble friend the Minister, when replying to the amendment of my noble friend Lady Elles, also to comment on that suggestion.

Lord Mishcon

I can never resist a challenge, however embarrassing it may be to answer it. I regard any pledge which may have been made by way of compromise as one that ought to be examined very carefully. If there is any doubt about it, one keeps to the spirit of the pledge. I accept immediately that, so far as I can ascertain, the understanding that was reached between the Government and the official Opposition did not specifically cover EEC elections. The matter is in doubt. I therefore think that if there is any doubt about it, I should err on the side of thinking that there is a consistency between the question of agreeing time limits on elections in this country and those in the EEC. If I am found to be wrong, then my honourable friends elsewhere will obviously deal with the matter when it goes back to another place, if it does return to another place.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My noble friend Lady Elles has made it clear how she feels: that for European elections only the Bill should be amended to give the right to vote to all British citizens resident in the European Community. During the Second Reading debate my noble friend Lady Elles asked for an undertaking that, even if this could not be achieved by this Bill now before your Lordships' Committee, the Government would consider the introduction of further legislation in time for the 1989 European elections.

The Government are firmly of the view that all British citizens resident in the Community should have the right to vote at European Parliament elections. Indeed, the Council of Ministers has formally resolved to take the necessary measures to establish a uniform Community franchise. As my noble friend Lord Elton said on Second Reading, there is a difference of view between the member states on what a uniform franchise should be. Some member states believe that the franchise should be extended to nationals of other member states who are resident in their territory. This is already the case in Belgium, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland. Other member states would prefer to give the vote to all their nationals resident abroad, as France, Italy and Greece already do.

While recognising the experience of my noble friend Lord Bethell in being a member of the European Parliament, I think that he may have been incorrect when he said, as I think he did, that nothing can be done in the Council on the franchise without agreement on proportional representation. I believe I got the drift of his argument right. As I understand it, the Council agreed to look at the franchise before it turned to proportional representation. But there would be no insuperable practical difficulties either in extending the franchise to nationals of other member states resident here or in enfranchising those British citizens in other member states who are not enfranchised by the Bill.

If agreement is reached—and agreement is all-important in this—we shall of course introduce the necessary legislation.

Lord Bethell

If my noble friend will allow me to interrupt him, does he recall that some two or three years ago several of us raised this point and at that time we were informed that nothing could be done with regard to a common electoral system except as a package? Indeed, Private Members' Bills were introduced on this point. However, we were, so to speak, delayed with the excuse that only by a package agreement on the franchise and on the method of election could agreement be reached in the Council, and no agreement was reached on the franchise.

Lord Glenarthur

As I understand it, that was not in fact the case. I confess that I am not familiar with that particular argument, but I shall certainly look into it. However, I understand that that was not the case. I am saying that by no means do we rule out further legislation if no agreement is reached in time for the 1989 elections. I am happy to give an undertaking that we shall consider it, and I hope that that will meet some of the concerns of my noble friends Lord Bethell and Lady Elles. However, when the matter was discussed in another place there was no suggestion from any quarter that separate, more generous arrangements should be introduced at this stage for European elections. I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, agrees with me on that.

I am afraid that I do not have an answer to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Bruce-Gardyne, and I hope that he will forgive me. I shall certainly look at the point that he raised, and if I can help in any way I shall contact him about it.

However, on the main thrust of this particular issue, with the assurance that I have given my noble friend that we shall consider whether further legislation would be appropriate if no agreement is reached in time for the 1989 elections, I hope that my noble friend will feel somewhat reassured and will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Lord Tordoff

I think the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, needs to be reinforced, that this is not entirely a matter for the other place. We in this Chamber are all voters. We can all be candidates in the European Parliament. There is a distinction between this clause and the other clauses relating to elections to another place. In the light of that members on all sides should not really feel themselves bound by some deal which was put together by the usual channels in another place. I hope that the House will express its independence on this matter.

Baroness Elles

I am sorry to say that in this case I did not find the reply from my noble friend the Minister very satisfactory. I accept that this is a new situation to be discussed, but I must remind my noble friend that my noble friend Lord Bethell and I were intimately involved in the matters concernng the July 1984 election. We were both on the Political Affairs Committee and both took part in the voting on the proposals on uniform electoral procedure. In that document which came before the European Parliament. an article—I believe, Article 5—dealt with the right of EEC nationals to vote in the European elections. The Council of Ministers deliberately refused to agree—after repeated requests from my noble friend Lord Bethell, myself and other Members of the European Parliament—that the question of the votes of nationals should be isolated and dealt with separately from the issue of procedure. We accept that there was a difficulty. Some wanted proportional representation and others did not. Her Majesty's Government made it perfectly clear what their view was and I must confess that I share it, but the fact was that neither they nor the Council of Ministers would consider isolating the question of voting rights for nationals to be considered separately from uniform electoral procedure. There is no evidence so far from the Council of Ministers and no statement has been made that that procedure will not apply again in 1989. I do not wish to take up the time of the House, but I have already informed your Lordships that at the moment the document going before the plenary session of the European Parliament once again provides for a whole series of different types of proportional representation for the different Member States, which is something Her Majesty's Government have made clear they will not accept.

There is no evidence so far and there is nothing that my noble friend has said, nor my right honourable friend in another place, nor anybody else, to suggest that the question of rights for British citizens within the European Community will be dealt with separately. I accept the question of the five years so far as Clause 1 is concerned because we recognise that there was an agreement. It is fair to say, concerning the European parliamentary elections, that I do not consider that this House should be bound by this agreement. It may be for the benefit of your Lordships' Committee to know that there are three members of the European Parliament in this House whereas there is only one elected MEP in another place. I feel we have as much right to vote and discuss this issue in this Committee as anyone in the other place. Therefore, regrettably, I shall ask for a Division on this amendment.

6.54 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Amendment (No. 9) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 46; Not-Contents, 54.

Airedale, L. Buckmaster, V.
Aylestone, L. Caccia, L.
Bethell, L. Carnegy of Lour, B.
Birdwood, L. Craigavon, V.
Boothby, L. Davidson, V.
Broxbourne, L. Elles, B. [Teller.]
Elliot of Harwood, B. Milverton, L.
Ezra, L. Molson, L.
Falkland, V. Morris, L.
Ferrier, L. Ogmore, L.
George-Brown, L. Reay, L.
Gisborough, L. Robson of Kiddington, B.
Gray, L. Seear, B.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Shannon, E.
Hylton-Foster. B. Shepherd, L.
Kilmarnock, L. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Kissin, L. Swinfen, L.
Lawrence, L. Tordoff, L. [Teller.]
Lindsey and Abingdon, E. Tweeddale, M.
Lloyd of Kilgerran, L. Walston, L.
Lock wood, B. Wigoder, L.
Marley, L. Wilberforce, L.
Massereene and Ferrard, V.
Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon, L.
Airey of Abingdon, B. Hood, V.
Bauer, L. Hornsby-Smith, B.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Kinnoull, E.
Belstead, L. Long, V.
Blake, L. Lyell, L.
Boardman, L. Mancroft, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Margadale, L.
Bruce-Gardyne, L. Merrivale, L.
Buckinghamshire, E. Mersey, V.
Caithness, E. Montgomery of Alamein, V.
Cameron of Lochbroom, L. Mottistone, L.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Mountevans, L.
Clitheroe, L. Napier and Ettrick, L.
Coleraine, L. Nugent of Guildford, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. Orkney, E.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Rankeillour, L.
Dilhorne, V. Rodney, L.
Eden of Winton, L. Romney, E.
Elton, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Faithfull, B. Strathcona and Mount Royal, L.
Glanusk, L.
Glenarthur, L. Swinton, E. [Teller.]
Gowrie, E. Trumpington, B.
Gray of Contin, L. Vickers, B.
Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L. Vivian, L.
Ward of Witley, V.
Hardinge of Penshurst, L. Whitelaw, V.
Henley, L. Young, B.

Resolved in the negative and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

7 p.m.

[Amendment No. 10 not moved.]

Baroness Elles moved Amendment No. 11: Page 4, line 9, at end insert— ("(1C) The second set of conditions is that—

  1. (a) he has been included in a register of parliamentary electors in respect of an address at a place that is situated within the constituency concerned;
  2. (b) on the date by reference to which that register was prepared he was resident or treated for the purposes of registration as resident at that address;
  3. (c) he has not been included in any other register of parliamentary electors prepared by reference to any later date in respect of an address at a place situated in any other constituency;
  4. (d) throughout the period commencing not later than twelve months after the date referred to in paragraph (b) above and ending on the qualifying date, he has been a British citizen and has been serving outside the United Kingdom in service under a Community institution.").

The noble Baroness said: With the leave of the Committee, I understand that Amendment No. 11 is covered by the adoption by your Lordships of Amendment No. 8, which gives officials working in Community institutions the right to vote in national elections. As the Bill is drafted, I think that would include also the European elections in view of the way that Clause 2 is drafted, together with Clause 3(1). Perhaps I might ask my noble friend the Minister whether he would be prepared to accept Amendment No. 11 in view of the possibility that Amendment No. 8 might be lost in another place, whereas if Amendment No. 11 were adopted and put into the Bill and if it were to be adopted by the other place it would give British officials working in European institutions the right at least to vote in European parliamentary elections without the five-year restriction. I understand that this is slightly irregular but it is very difficult, from the way the Bill is drafted, to make sure that we are covering the rights and interests of British citizens.

It was shown by a vote of your Lordships that there was a majority in favour of allowing British officials to have the vote in national and European elections, but of course it may be that in another place this would not be agreed. This is a drafting matter rather than a substantive matter because I assume that your Lordships would not deprive British officials of the chance of voting in European parliamentary elections when already they have been given the right, earlier this evening, to vote in national as well as in European parliamentary elections. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister might be prepared to state what his view would be. I of course accept that the drafting is probably inaccurate and I would hope to have assistance in putting the wording into proper form at a later stage of the Bill.

There is one point that I should have raised earlier and I apologise to your Lordships for not mentioning it. This is a matter which perhaps could be considered at Report stage. It concerns spouses who are British citizens, spouses of officials who are working in institutions of the European Community. As at present drafted, the Bill makes no provision for such spouses. I should be grateful if my noble friend, when he comes to reply, could say whether he is prepared to accept Amendment No. 11, on the understanding that it would have to be properly drafted. If he would accept it in principle, I would of course be prepared to withdraw it at this stage.

Lord Mishcon

The noble Baroness was referring to drafting points when she raised the question of the spouse. I wonder whether, in general consideration of the drafting, I might mention a point—and I am indebted for it to a noble and learned Lord. Since I did not specifically seek his permission to mention his name, I will not do so, but he raised with me the point as to whether or not a judge serving upon the European Court was in fact in service under a Community institution. He doubted whether that was so, and naturally we would not want, in my view and I believe in the view of the Committee, to deprive a judge serving on that court of the benefit of this provision. I mention it merely so that the point can be looked at in concert with the other points that have been mentioned.

Lord Glenarthur

I would certainly have to look at the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, because I do not know the answer and I could not find it out immediately. In answer to my noble friend, Lady Elles, I understand her concern but I really have to tell her that the effect of this amendment is already achieved by Amendment No. 8 and therefore there is no need for this one to be moved. Her amendment is effectively redundant and its effect is achieved by the amendment that we dealt with earlier. It would be quite wrong for me to accept something which is redundant in that way. What I would suggest is that my noble friend should withdraw her amendment now and in the meantime one will be able to look more closely at the drafting. If she insists, it is up to her to come back on Report. But the effect of her amendment is already achieved, so I am not quite sure what she would gain by thinking far ahead now to the point that it might be lost in another place at a later stage. I would hope she would agree that this would be the best course to adopt.

Baroness Elles

I should be delighted to take that course if my noble friend assures me that Amendment No. 8 will be carried in another place. I think that is the point, because as the Bill stands at the moment, Amendment No. 8 entitles British officials to vote in both European and national elections; but it may be that at some stage in another place it may not be agreed that British officials should vote in national elections. However, in the circumstances, I am prepared to withdraw Amendment No. 11 and perhaps we could take a closer look at this, taking into account the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, concerning the position of a British judge serving on the European Court. I think the court is covered as coming within the European Community institutions, because I believe the issue came up during the course of our discussions on the British Nationality Bill. Perhaps we could look at this point with my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, before a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 12 not moved.]

Lord Glenarthur: I beg to move Amendment No. 13.

[Printed earlier: col. 1194.]

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 3, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 4 agreed to.

Lord Bethell moved Amendment No. 14:

After Clause 4, insert the following new clause:

(Parliamentary franchise.

. A Peer is entitled to vote at elections to the House of Commons.")

The noble Lord said: An hour or so ago your Lordships decided by a substantial majority that a small group of British subjects, some 1,500 strong, should be allowed to vote in House of Commons elections. I am concerned with a group of British citizens not much smaller than that—indeed around about 1,000—who are at present debarred from taking part in House of Commons elections. I refer, of course, to your Lordships, the Peers of Parliament. I believe that I should raise this amendment now, not as a constitutional issue or as a great issue of history (which it undoubtedly is) but as a matter of common sense. We can all, I am sure, discuss for many hours why it is that over hundreds of years the doctrine was held that your Lordships were not permitted to take part in the election of Members of another place. It goes back for centuries, but I am at a loss to understand why it should be the case now in 1985.

I should be the first to admit that we are a privileged group—or, at least, those of us who are here by hereditary accident. We have the right, and indeed the very great privilege, of being able to take part in parliamentary debates, to take part in passing legislation, to amend legislation—as, indeed, some of us did a few moments ago—and to influence the Government of the day. But we do not, any of us, have the right to choose the Government of the day or to play a part in choosing the Government of the day. We are debarred from any voice in deciding who should be the Government, who should be the Prime Minister and who should be the Members of the more powerful of the two Houses of Parliament. I suggest that in 1985 this is indeed anomalous. We can look at all sorts of national Parliaments in the democratic world and we shall not find one where Members of the upper house are debarred from voting in the lower house.

I should like to recall what I think was the most recent occasion when this matter was seriously considered by the main political parties. That was in the run-up to the consideration of the reform of your Lordships' House and the introduction of the Parliament (No. 2) Bill, which did not become law, but which produced a number of conclusions and agreements between the main political parties. I am sorry that the Social Democrats were not then in existence. But the parties were consulted and were generally in agreement on certain proposals.

In the White Paper which was published in 1968, it was stated—and I should like to quote, because this most clearly sets out my own view on this point: The Government does not consider that in the context of the reformed House it would any longer be appropriate to maintain a Peer's disqualification from voting in parliamentary elections, whether or not he is entitled to sit in the House of Lords. Such a disqualification is an anachronism in a modern democracy where the right to take part in the process of choosing the Members of the elected chamber should be fundamental and universal and no such bar applies to members of a second chamber in other democratic countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States of America". I should be interested to know whether that remains the view of the parties who conferred in 1967 and 1968 and who came up with these ideas. I hope that this can be clarified in the course of this debate.

I should mention that I myself am in favour of a reform of your Lordships' House; so I hope that I shall not be accused of any inconsistency here. I believe only that it is not necessary to wait for such a great constitutional change as reform of the House of Lords before bringing about this more modest, fundamentally just change in the power of your Lordships to vote in House of Commons elections. Therefore, I beg to move.

7.15 p.m.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

I should like to say a few words on this amendment. From time immemorial, Peers have been what might be described as permanent Peers of Parliament and through being that they have great powers. Therefore, I certainly think that in this Bill it would be highly irregular to suggest that Peers should vote for candidates to the House of Commons. I could not support such an amendment as this and I sincerely hope that my noble friend Lord Glenarthur will shoot it down.

Lord Mishcon

I do not think I am letting the Committee into any secrets when I say that this question was not discussed in the other place in the course of the deliberations on this Bill, and that certainly no member of the official Opposition put forward any suggestion to this effect during the passage of the Bill. In those circumstances—and I mean this latter sentence quite seriously—I am not putting forward any official view of the Opposition and I have no entitlement to do so. I am merely expressing—which is all I am entitled to do—a personal opinion.

The very air which we breathe in this place as Members of this House is based upon tradition and not upon logic. Therefore, to upset an age-old tradition is to cast into issue the whole question of the existence of this House, its privileges and its membership—and I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, will not think I am being personal if I refer to the question of membership. I imagine that your Lordships would not think this course very sensible at this moment.

Furthermore, any sort of comparison with second chambers or upper chambers in any other country is hardly seemly, since I can think of no country in the world that has either the privilege, if you put it in one way, or the illogicality, if you put it in another way, of the constitution of your Lordships' House. In those circumstances, but putting a purely personal view, I should have thought that if your Lordships wished to put upon record a vote to strengthen the hand of those who wish to abolish this House, you would do so by voting for this amendment.

Lord Tordoff

Perhaps I, too, speaking personally, because this is clearly not a party issue, may say that I would have some sympathy with this amendment were it to be part of a package of reform of your Lordships' House. To go ahead with it in any other circumstances would be seen to be a piece of grave self-indulgence on the part of your Lordships' House. I am sure that we would not do it, but it would be very self-indulgent to go ahead with it.

The fact is that the right to vote in parliamentary elections to another place carries with it the right to be represented in Parliament. We are over-privileged to be able to represent ourselves in Parliament and the cost of being denied a vote in elections to another place is far outweighed by what might be thought in some places as the ludicrous degree of privilege that we have to be here at all, being able to speak in Parliament and to put forward our views, as well as those of other people, and it would be a grave mistake to go down this path.

Lord Mottistone

If we are to have a hand in choosing the people in another place, surely the logic of that is that they should have a hand in choosing us. We are not going to do that, and my noble friend said that this is a preliminary to any other change that might come about in the constitution of this House. Without such a change, they do not have a hand in choosing us—certainly, not those of us who are hereditary. That is done by a good God, once the thing has started. As to the noble Lords who are appointed for life, I do not think it can be said that the majority of the persons in another place have any hand in their selection. I think it is illogical to advance on this matter at this stage unless one is going to look at the whole structure of the House. I am not against that—but it must come first. I think that my noble friend is premature in putting forward his proposal.

Lord Monson

I should like to take a contrary view. I support this amendment. It has always seemed to me that the archaic restrictions on the voting rights of Peers have absolutely no basis in logic or morality. At a more pragmatic level, I would guess that if you took a public opinion poll across the country you would find that at least 90 per cent. of the public would have no objection whatsoever to voting rights at General Elections being extended to Peers.

May I remind the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene, that Members of the House of Commons possess many powers which we do not—for instance, we cannot approach the ombudsman ourselves; we have to go through our own Members of Parliament whom we are not entitled to select. So I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, will persist with this amendment; if not this evening, then perhaps at a later stage.

Lord Glenarthur

My noble friend Lord Bethell has certainly touched upon a very fundamental point. Yes, it is said that Members of your Lordships' House do not have the right to vote. It is true of course that your Lordships do not have the right to vote at Parliamentary elections, but instead, as we have heard from several who have spoken this evening, your Lordships have the very great privilege of sitting and voting in your Lordships' House; often playing a part and producing results which later go back to another place for further consideration.

But I do not feel that we need to elect representatives to another place because we can speak here. We can make our feelings known and we often do. That is what the Constitution is for. If my noble friend Lord Bethell says that he is not trying to make a constitutional point, I really cannot think of anything that is more constitutional than this particular issue. Long may the Constitution last as it is, and I hope that it is not necessary to vote on this issue.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

I am tempted to intervene only very briefly in view of what I regard as a very brilliant speech by—I almost called him my noble friend—the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. There is nothing personal in what I say. It was a speech, I thought, full of positive conservatism. Therefore, when the noble Lord. Lord Mottistone, refers to logic, I am tempted to say to the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, that if you adhere to logic in any matters dealing with the Community, you will not get very far.

Therefore my only real reason for intervening is to ask the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, why he raised this matter on this Bill. He is a very distinguished Member of the European Parliament. He is a great admirer of the EEC as such, and everything we consider these days seems to have some European community context. My simple question is this: is there any reason in an EEC context for the noble Lord to think it necessary to raise this matter tonight?

Lord Bethell

I can reply to the noble Lord who has just resumed his seat by saying that there is no European Community dimension to this matter so far as I am aware. It simply seems to me a matter of common sense and common justice. I spoke in the spirit of a quotation from a White Paper, issued in 1968 with the agreement of the Labour Party—then in Government—of the Conservative Party and of the Liberal Party. I hoped that my noble friend the Minister in his remarks would be able to answer the specific question I put to him as to whether the Government are still in favour of that clause in the White Paper and the clause in the Parliament (No. 2) Bill of which our party was in favour back in 1968. Perhaps we could hear from him on that before this matter is left.

In reply to some of those who have spoken, I of course accept that we are a very privileged group. I would add only that two wrongs do not make a right. If you criticise this House for its privileges, it surely does not mitigate the wrong if you deny the basic right to vote to Members of this House. I have emphasised that I am not myself in favour of maintaining the status quo—indeed, I would be one of those—I think there are many on all sides—who would favour not abolition, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, suggested, but reform of the Upper House.

Lord Mishcon

Before I am misunderstood, I have never suggested the abolition of this House in a personal capacity—and I was speaking in a personal capacity. I only made it clear that if this amendment were in fact passed I thought that it would be pushing along the line the abolition of this House.

Lord Bethell

Well. I am very glad to hear that the noble Lord is not in favour of abolition. No more am I. I am one of those who is in favour of reform.

However, I have noted very carefully those who have spoken in favour of moving in tandem on this point. There is no immediate prospect so far as I understand it of any reform of this House being brought into law in the foreseeable future. However, I should like to believe that there probably is a majority both for reform of the Upper House and for granting the franchise to Members of your Lordships' House.

In view of the fact that a number of noble Lords who have spoken in the debate made the point that the two reforms should go in tandem and should happen simultaneously if they are to happen at all, I will not pursue the matter at this stage but will beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Glenarthur

My noble friend asked me a particular question about the 1968 White Paper. That White Paper, as I understand it, had to do with reform of your Lordships' House. I really honestly do not believe that this is an appropriate Bill in any sense to embark upon the sort of discussion that we are having on this issue. I think that my noble friend Lord Massereene and the noble Lord. Lord Mishcon, in his wisdom—and indeed my noble friend Lord Mottistone, very much put the finger on the point, that what is good for one might be good for the other and we should end up in a totally different situation—lead us all to believe that what my noble friend is proposing tonight is not a matter that should be discussed in this Bill. I note the points he makes but, my Lords, I think the sense of feeling of the Committee is that others might agree with me on this point.

Lord Bethell

I hesitate to debate with my noble friend but I had in fact just withdrawn the amendment. I very much take on board some of the points he made but I do not take the point that this is not a suitable matter to be discussed on this Bill. We have discussed the whole realm of extensions of the franchise to many groups of people. We have discussed the extension of voting in the House of Commons to servants of the European Community in Brussels and Luxembourg. Who are we to think that we are so special that we can be denied the vote, or that this matter cannot even be discussed?

I accept the verdict of what I think is the majority here that we should not proceed with the matter at this stage, but I hope that my noble friend will not chastise me for having raised it in the first place. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Tordoff moved Amendment No. 15:

Before Clause 5, insert the following new clause:

("Abolition of multiple registration of parliamentary electors

. A person shall not be entitled to be registered as a parliamentary elector for more than one constituency in any one year.").

The noble Lord said: We now move on to a different subject—the question of multiple registration for Parliamentary elections. I stress "for Parliamentary elections" because it seems to me that there are perfectly valid reasons why people should be able to he registered in a number of places for local government elections in certain instances—where they have a number of interests relating to the locality. I would not in any way seek to remove that right.

But when it comes to Parliamentary elections it is a different matter. There are a number of places in this country where people are registered because they have a holiday home. It happens in Wales, in the Lake District, in the South-West of England and in parts of Scotland. It is capable of abuse, and at its wildest extreme it would be possible for people to vote twice in a parliamentary election on the same day—in the case where there was a by-election in two places on the same day, and the person happened to be registered in both places. As the law stands, it is proper for them to vote in each of those by-elections on the same day, which is clearly an absurd situation but rare enough not to be really part of the argument I am putting forward today.

7.30 p.m.

The basis argument is that although it is legal to be registered in two places, it is wrong. It is liable to abuse because people do tend to shift their vote to the point at which they feel it is likely to have the best effect for the party they want to support, which means some have votes not of the same value as other people's votes in the country.

My honourable friend the Member for Truro in another place remarked in the debate there that when he first came to Parliament in 1974 he had a majority of some 460-odd votes. In one or two villages, between 1974 and 1979 the electorate went up by as much as 50 per cent. Now that his majority is in the thousands, those electors seem to have disappeared. The truth is that certain forces were at work to encourage people to use their vote in his constituency rather than in the places where they normally lived. Then, it was pointed out in another place that in Anglesey the number of people voting from holiday homes there at the last election outweighed the actual majority. The system is open to abuse, and certainly it ought to be changed.

I have support for this view from the Conference on Electoral Law dated 20th June 1973 in a letter from Mr. Speaker to the Prime Minister of that time, which said, on the subject of multiple registration: The Conference agreed unanimously that multiple registration should be prohibited. An elector should be registered in respect of his home address. If he has more than one home address he should be entitled to choose which one to claim (there is a qualification for registration), provided there is a considerable degree of permanence in his residence at that address. It should be an offence for anyone to cause or knowingly allow himself, or knowingly cause someone else, to be registered in respect of more than one address". I cannot myself put the argument more cogently than it is put in those words, and I beg to move.

Lord Mishcon

I am opposing this amendment for two short reasons. The first is that I think it would prevent students at colleges or at universities who at present have the right to choose where they will vote, from doing so; and, secondly. I cannot see how this can be properly enforced.

Lord Glenarthur

It may be true to say that no feature of electoral law has given rise to greater misunderstanding than the right of an elector to be registered in respect of more than one constituency. The Speaker's Conference of 1973–74 recommended a ban on multiple registration; all three of the major parties which gave evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee in 1982—the Conservative, Labour and Liberal parties—said they supported a ban; the Select Committee backed them up; and the Government came under pressure in another place to do something about it. Yet neither the present Government nor the previous Labour Government, to which the Speaker's Conference reported, have been able to respond. I shall endeavour first to set out the factual position and then to explain why it is impossible to prevent multiple registration without making fundamental changes in the electoral system—and I believe those changes would be ones which your Lordships' House would not welcome.

The Representation of the People Acts give a person the right to vote at parliamentary elections in a particular constituency if he is resident there on the qualifying date. Just what is meant by residence is explained in Section 5 of the 1983 Act. Section 5 is a rather complicated provision, but the essential point is that a person can be resident at an address on the qualifying date for registration purposes even if he is not physically present there, provided that he is going to return in less than six months. On the other hand, he cannot be registered as an elector for an address at which he is resident unless his residence has, as the courts have held, "a substantial degree of permanence", which means that a person may legitimately be registered for more than one address provided his residence at each has a substantial degree of permanence.

During the debates on this point in another place some fairly extraordinary suggestions were made, and perhaps I may be forgiven for putting the record straight. It was suggested that mere ownership of property in a constituency conferred the right to vote there. Ownership of property has not given a person the right to vote since 1918, and does not do so now. It was suggested that people who spend two weeks a year in time-shared accommodation have the right to be registered. Nothing could be further from the truth. The people we are talking about, the people who are entitled to be registered for more than one constituency, are the people who spend a substantial part of the year in each constituency: students who live half the year at the college or university and half at their parents' home, people who divide their time between two residences—but not those with a second home which they use only a few weeks of the year.

Nobody knows how many electors are registered more than once. The Select Committee have estimated 100,000, but it is not clear how this estimate could have been arrived at. Does it matter that an elector is registered more than once? Only an elector who is registered more than once can commit an offence of double voting. It is sometimes maintained that electors who are registered twice often vote twice as well, but prosecutions are rare, and the facts would be easy to prove by inspecting the copies of the register which are marked with the names of the electors who have voted.

The Government have no wish to be unhelpful, either to the noble Lord or to the many others who are concerned about this issue. We think their concerns are a little exaggerated, but we would help them if we could. The problem is that over all the years when these issues have been discussed nobody has put forward a workable solution. I am afraid that I must also make this criticism of the noble Lord's amendment. It states that in future no elector shall be entitled to be registered more than once, but it does not say how practical steps are to be taken to ensure that the same person's name does not appear on more than one register.

The noble Lord was brief in introducing his amendment, and the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, spoke more briefly still. He particularly put the point about practicality, which is essential. With that, I hope the noble Lord will understand the difficulties and not press the amendment.

Lord Tordoff

Is the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, aware that many of the suggestions he has put forward were not put forward by me as arguments? I do slightly resent having arguments put up and knocked down which I have not actually put before your Lordships' Committee.

Lord Glenarthur

I said that I was trying to put the record straight because wild allegations had been made elsewhere. I was not saying for a minute that the noble Lord. Lord Tordoff, would suggest anything quite so wild.

Lord Tordoff

Not today, anyway. May I deal with one point that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, raised? I understand what he is saying about students, but in fact I do not think that it would debar students from having the choice of where they should be registered. Quite clearly, at this time on a Thursday evening, dealing once again with matters relating to elections to another place, we have to be extremely careful, and I do not intend to press this any further. It is clearly a matter that at some stage the Government must grapple with, and I think the noble Lord has accepted that there is a degree of impropriety in it. I am not suggesting that it is abused by people voting more than once in an election. There may be cases of that kind, but I do not believe that such abuse is widespread.

However, I do believe that there are constituencies in this country where there is a degree of unfairness because people who are not genuinely resident, other than in a technical sense, are taking part in an election. This is particularly true of remote communities where people have holiday homes and where there is genuine concern that local feeling is being swamped by "corners in", as they say. This is not something we can ignore, but I recognise that we should not proceed any further with this matter this evening. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 [Manner of voting at parliamentary and local government elections]:

Lord Mishcon moved Amendment No. 16: Page 7, line 32, at end insert (", provided that no ballot paper may be sent outside of the United Kingdom.").

The noble Lord said: We are dealing here with a section which covers the manner of voting at parliamentary and local government elections. My amendment seeks to make it clear that in that manner of voting ballot papers cannot be sent outside the United Kingdom. We operate on a basic principle that we have a secret ballot. It implies that, as a rule, an elector should attend at a polling station and there mark his or her ballot paper in seclusion. That provision has to be breached in the case of the postal vote. But to permit ballot papers to be sent out of the country opens up the possibility of corruption, of undue influence, of personation, and of there being forged ballot papers. I submit that this is a proper amendment, providing that overseas electors should be limited to voting by proxy, which is of course the present position.

Lord Glenarthur

I can give the noble Lord the reassurance he seeks. At Report stage in another place the Government tabled a series of amendments which, among other things, had the effect of preventing postal ballot papers from being sent outside the United Kingdom. If the noble Lord looks at Clause 6(6), Clause 7(5) and Clause 9(12) he will see that an elector or a proxy who applies to vote by post may do so only if the address to which his ballot paper is sent is in the United Kingdom.

Thus, an elector who is abroad on polling day has to vote by proxy unless there is time for a postal ballot paper to be sent to an address in this country before he leaves. I believe therefore that the Bill already has the effect desired by the noble Lord and that his amendment is unnecessary.

Lord Mishcon

I am delighted to have that assurance from the noble Lord the Minister. If I may have an opportunity of referring to exactly what it was that he said, I can consider the position. I am most grateful for his remarks and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 agreed to.

Clause 6 agreed to.

Clause 7 [Absent vote at a particular election and absent voters list]:

Lord Tordoff moved Amendment No. 17: Page 9, line 24, at end insert ("and, in respect of a Parliamentary general election, that he cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at the polling station allotted or likely to be allotted to him under the appropriate rules in any other Parliamentary constituency in which he is eligible to vote in Parliamentary elections.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment relates, to a certain degree, to Amendment No. 15 concerning the question of multiple registration. If we accept that multiple registration is to be a continuing part of our lives, then it is our conviction that we should do our best to restrict the misuse of that practice and that people should not be granted postal votes in order to vote in deepest Wales when they are in fact living at the moment in London, Manchester, Birmingham or wherever.

This amendment represents an attempt to place some slight restriction on the distribution of postal votes. As I said at Second Reading—and as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon hinted in his comments on Amendment No. 16—the secrecy of a postal ballot is not as powerful as the secrecy of the ballot box. It is therefore an area which we must look upon with considerable care.

I do not rely on that reason alone for moving this amendment; it is merely that I believe that if people choose to have their multiple registration in two places which are a considerable distance apart and then choose to vote in the distant one, then they should go there to vote and not abuse the postal ballot in order to make life easier for themselves. It is with that in mind that I beg to move.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

The Bill entitles an elector to vote by post or proxy if, in effect, he cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at the polling station. This means that if an elector is registered for two constituencies he may legitimately apply to vote by post or proxy in the one, even if he is perfectly capable of voting in person at the other.

That is why at an earlier stage we considered including in the Bill a provision which would have made it an offence for an elector to apply to vote by post or proxy in one constituency if he knew that he could vote in the usual way in the other. As I understand the noble Lord's amendment, it seeks the same objective although the particular way he has chosen to do that would create technical problems which I do not need to elaborate upon now The noble Lord's argument is that the new absent voting arrangements aggravate the effects of multiple registration by making it easier for the elector who is registered more than once to choose the constituency in which his vote is to be cast. In other words, his amendment is about removing the elector's choice. The Government's perception is rather different. Our view is that there is no reason to suppose that the element of choice given to an elector who has two residences will lead to any harm. Unless there is evidence, it seems to us that there is no ground for restriction.

Even if one accepts as the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, would have us do that choice presents a problem, then it is one that arises under the present law; the Bill in itself is unlikely to aggravate it. I could elaborate further but do not wish to make a great issue of this particular matter. On balance we remain of the view that little would be achieved by introducing the kind of provision which the noble Lord has in mind. I hope that he will on reflection agree, and may see fit to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Tordoff

I am grateful to the Minister but I am interested by his remark that the Government themselves sought to deal with this problem at a earlier state of the Bill. I believe we must disagree with each other on the question of whether or not there is evidence that abuse takes place. It is certainly my firm belief, from knowledge of the experience of a number of my honourable friends in remote constituencies; they have been under pressure because of multiple voting. It is for that reason, and that reason alone, that I seek to impose some limitation on that practice.

I accept that there are undoubtedly technical problems with the amendment as it stands. I should like to consider this matter again, to see whether we can approach this problem from a different angle at a later stage of the Bill. I believe that abuses are taking place and that they should be prevented if at all possible. Meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 agreed to.

Clauses 8, 9 and 10 agreed to.

Schedule 1 [Special polling stations in Northern Ireland]:

Lord Glenarthur moved Amendment No. 18: Page 26, line 5, after ("The") insert ("following").

The noble Lord said: With this it may be convenient to refer to Amendments Nos. 19, 20, 22, 23, 30, 33, 34, 36, and 41.

Amendment No. 19: Page 30, line 7, after ("The") insert ("second").

Amendment No. 20: Schedule 2, page 31, line 15, at end insert— ("4A. In Schedule 1 in rule 24 (postal ballot papers) for the words "provided by them for the pupose" there shall be substituted the words "shown in the absent voters list".").

Amendment No. 22: Page 33, line 33, leave out ("subsection (4)") and insert ("section 8(4)").

Amendment No. 23: Page 33, line 37, leave out ("subsection (5)") and insert ("section 8(5)").

Amendment No. 30: Clause 19, page 20, line 27, at end insert ("and "as the case may be" ").

Amendment No. 33: Clause 20, page 21, line 36, after second ("or") insert ("before").

Amendment No. 34: Schedule 4, page 37, line 29, at end insert ("and for the words "those subsections" there shall be substitued the words "that subsection" ").

Amendment No. 36: Page 40, line 22, after ("(b)") insert ("in subsection (2)").

Amendment No. 41: Schedule 5, page 52, line 14, at end insert ("and the words "as the case may be" ").

These are all minor drafting amendments. I beg to move.

Lord Tordoff

It seems to me that this is tautological. On page 26, in Part II of the schedule, headed: Rules relating to Special Polling Stations", paragraph 2 states: The paragraphs in this Part of this Schedule shall have effect for all purposes". The Minister then wishes to insert the word "following" so that it will read: The following paragraphs in this Part of this Schedule", but all the paragraphs in this part of the schedule are "following." Why, then, is it necessary to insert the word? I feel that in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, I have a duty to raise this matter.

Lord Glenarthur

On examination I see the point which the noble Lord makes. I shall have to consult on this as there may be some good reason why the word is to be added. If I find that the word can be left out I shall do that, but I can offer no encouragement at the moment.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

I wonder whether I may intervene with the suggestion that that paragraph, of itself, would not be an additional rule. It is all the other paragraphs.

Lord Glenarthur

I apologise to the noble Lord, I was consulting my colleagues on this point and did not hear what he said. I wonder whether he would be so kind as to repeat it.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

I was merely suggesting that the purpose of the amendment, as I read it, is that paragraph 2, of itself, is not an additional rule; it is the following paragraphs.

Lord Glenarthur

That is exactly the point I was discussing. I think the noble Lord is right and I hope that satisfies the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Glenarthur moved Amendment No. 19:

[Printed above.]

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 1, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 11 agreed to.

Schedule 2 [Manner of voting]:

Lord Glenarthur moved Amendment No. 20:

[Printed earlier.]

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Mishcon moved Amendment No. 21: Page 31, leave out lines 26 to 29.

The noble Lord said: Again, happily I can deal with this very briefly. Some applications for absent voting need to be attested, but others do not. Persons claiming that they cannot vote in person because of the nature of their work, or the wife of a serviceman claiming a service vote, do not need to have their signature attested. Now under the Bill we have a new category of persons who will claim that they cannot vote in person at the polling station allotted to them at an election: and they will include persons on holiday. Surely they ought to be in the same category that I have just mentioned. They might not be able to find a person who could honestly attest a signature saying that he was satisfied the elector met the prescribed conditions. In those circumstances I hope that the noble Lord the Minister will think that this is a sensible amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Glenarthur

The Bill makes a major change in our absent voting arrangements by extending the right to vote by post or proxy to all those who, in the words of the Bill, cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at the polling station. However, in order to obtain an absent vote the elector has to satisfy the electoral registration officer that he is eligible. We think it would be quite unfair to expect the registration officer to decide whether an application is in order on the basis of a simple statement, perhaps uncorroborated by any evidence, from the elector himself. During the period of an election the registration officer has little time on his hands and he needs a way of deciding quickly whether or not to grant the application.

In the White Paper which preceded the Bill we accordingly proposed that applications in respect of a particular election—applications from holidaymakers and such like—should be attested or countersigned by another elector who is known to the applicant, but who is not a member of his immediate family, who would certify that to the best of his knowledge and belief circumstances described in the application were true and that the applicant was entitled to vote by post or proxy.

We also proposed that the number of applications which might be countersigned by any one elector should be limited. The purpose of this was to prevent party agents from defeating the object of the exercise by countersigning large numbers of applications from the supporters of a particular candidate. Power to make regulations on these lines is conferred by subparagraph (1) of the new paragraph 5A which the Bill adds to Schedule 2 to the 1983 Act and which the noble Lord's amendment seeks to remove.

I have to tell the noble Lord that the Government detected little support for the proposition that my right honourable friend should have no power to make these regulations at all. There has been some concern that in the process of making postal and proxy votes available to all who need them we are also widening the scope for abuse of the system. It seems essential that the Bill should provide adequate safeguards against abuse, and this regulation-making power is one of them. The need to have applications and declarations countersigned is in some cases a familiar part of our electoral procedure. Electors who apply for a postal vote on grounds of blindness or physical incapacity, for example, already have to produce a medical certificate, preferably one signed by a registered medical practitioner; and those who apply on grounds of religious observance need a certificate from a minister of their religious denomination.

All the Bill seeks to do is to extend the principle of these safeguards, which Parliament has agreed are appropriate for certain types of application under the present procedure, to the new wider category of applications under the Bill. I can give the noble Lord an assurance that his party, along with the other parties, will be consulted again before the power is exercised. But I do not think your Lordships would want me to agree that these potentially important safeguards should be left out of the Bill altogether, and with the assurance that consultation will take place I hope the noble Lord will see fit to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Mishcon

I am grateful for that assurance, and I know the noble Lord will allow me an opportunity to consider what he has said with those advising me. In the present circumstances, I ask leave of the Committee to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Glenarthur moved Amendment No. 22:

[Printed earlier: col. 1215.]

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Glenarthur moved Amendment No. 23:

[Printed earlier: col. 1215.]

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 2, as amended, agreed to.

Lord Tordoff moved Amendment No. 24:

After Clause 11, insert the following new clause:

("Corrupt and illegal practices.

.—(1) In section 120 of the principal Act, after subsection (2) there shall be inserted— (3) A Parliamentary election or return to Parliament may not be questioned by petition on the grounds that corrupt or illegal practices have occurred.".

(2) In section 127 of the principal Act, the words "or on the ground that the election was avoided by corrupt or illegal practices" and the words "section 164 or" shall cease to have effect.

(3) Section 164 of the principal Act shall cease to have effect.").

The noble Lord said: The objective of this new clause is to remove the right of election petitioners to question a parliamentary or council election on the grounds that corrupt or illegal practices have occurred. The law in relation to these matters grew up in the 19th century when cases of personation were prevalent. The ability to challenge an election on those grounds was clearly an important remedy in those circumstances.

However, it seems inappropriate in today's elections where many complex issues are raised in election petition cases. Most allegations of corrupt or illegal practices turn on questions of permissible expenditure. Frequently these matters can be the source of semi-frivolous references to court. Clearly there are penalties against that when it comes to the criminal law.

8 p.m.

The major problem, to which I referred on Second Reading, is, because of the arbitrary nature of this, on purely technical matters successful candidates—and it is usually, perhaps always, successful candidates who are challenged on these things—can find themselves facing enormous costs, totally out of proportion to any error that was made.

It is our belief that these matters should be dealt with criminally. I want to stress that the new clause in no way condones corrupt or illegal practices. The power in existing legislation for prosecution and disqualification following criminal prosecution still remains. But the point of the clause is to remove the question of corrupt or illegal practices from election petitions and the civil law, where, as I say, undue penalties in the shape of costs can accrue to people who have been found in error on pure technicalities. However, if criminal cases are the sole route, there are two preliminary sieves. There is first of all the DPP who will almost always be involved, and in serious cases there are committal proceedings, so there are checks on malicious litigation if one simply goes down the criminal route. I beg to move.

Lord Mishcon

I am wondering whether this amendment is not a very dangerous one, although the noble Lord has moved it in a way which could be very persuasive. He dealt with technical points, and of course the amendment does not limit itself to technical points. He talked of the criminal law, and not the civil law, being the correct way to deal with this matter. He said, quite correctly, that at the end of a criminal case there could well be the question of disqualification.

It is the practice of our courts in the civil division, as I understand it, to deal with a petition of this nature as we at present have it with every conceivable speed. That means that anybody who is elected to Parliament will know in a very short time whether indeed he will be disqualified, and those whom he purports to represent—or in the end finds that he does represent if he is successful—know where they stand and fairly quickly further elections can be held.

Of necessity before the Director of Public Prosecutions could initiate a prosecution here, the evidence would have to be very carefully sifted and the matter would then proceed with all the majesty, and, because of the emphasis upon justice, it may very well be all the slowness, with which the criminal law at times has to move. In the meantime somebody who has been guilty of a corrupt practice—and that is the wording—or an illegal practice may purport to represent his constituents and remain a Member of Parliament.

It is because of the danger that I have pointed out that I find myself in difficulty about this amendment, although I well realise there are some cases which are brought upon matters which the noble Lord correctly described as being technical and where the expense can be very large. It is for that reason that later on I shall be suggesting that such petitions should in fact be within the purview of the county court, where they would be much more economically and sometimes even more speedily dealt with. I think that the way to deal with this situation is to give the county court jurisdiction but not involve this matter only within the wheels and machinery of the criminal law.

Lord Glenarthur

I have to say that I agree very largely with what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, said. He made a lot of helpful remarks. I fear that the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, is going to find me rather less sympathetic than he would wish.

The election petition is a long-standing method of questioning the result of a parliamentary or local government election. A petition can be presented by anyone who is affected by the result of an election—by a candidate or an elector or a group of electors—and it can be presented on various grounds, including the grounds that the result was affected by corrupt or illegal practices. Corrupt practices include the most serious election offences—personation, bribery, treating, undue influence, and so on. Illegal practices are more technical but nevertheless serious contraventions of election law, including offences in relation to the statutory controls on election expenses. I am sure your Lordships will agree on the paramount importance of these controls in ensuring that our elections are free and fair.

Parliamentary election petitions are very rare nowadays but local petitions are quite common. The noble Lord suggested that the matter of which he was thinking—and he may have been thinking of a particular case—reveals a number of shortcomings of the election petition procedure. He suggested that it is wrong that a petition should be used as a licence to go on what I think in the technical jargon is called "a fishing expedition" for unsubstantiated illegal practices; and that in future allegations of malpractice should be pursued through the criminal courts and not through the special procedure of an election petition.

First, on the reference to fishing expeditions, your Lordships might be forgiven for having supposed that election petitions are habitually presented merely to embarrass or discomfort the successful candidate, with no regard to whether the allegations can be substantiated. This is very far from being the case. We are talking about proceedings which equate to proceedings before the High Court. The costs of the trial of a petition before an election court are likely to be substantial. In practice, the political parties are unlikely to mount a petition unless they believe they have a serious chance of success. They know that if the decision goes against them they may be ordered to pay the successful candidate's costs. Of course, there have been cases where purely frivolous petitions have been brought by unsuccessful candidates with no means of paying if costs are awarded against them. That is why the Bill increases the maximum security for costs on the trial of an election petition and allows the respondent to be given longer to examine the nature of the proposed surety.

Next, I come to the suggestion that the allegations of malpractice, or particular types of allegation, should be pursued only in the criminal courts. Of course, it should be possible to bring criminal proceedings against a candidate if he is suspected of corrupt or illegal practices, and if the successful candidate is found guilty of corrupt or illegal practices then his election will normally be void. But that is not necessarily the best way of proceeding.

The election petition procedure provides an alternative machinery which is focussed on the election itself. The election court has special powers as befits the seriousness of the proceedings. The guilt or innocence of a particular individual is only part of the issue. It is able to look at the election as a whole and to decide whether or not the result of the election should be upheld. It is able to consider the actions of other people besides the candidate; and if the successful candidate or his agent is found guilty of illegal practices then the court can proceed immediately, if it thinks fit, to relieve him of the consequences of his actions. The election petition provides an important avenue of inquiry. It would not be satisfactory to remove it and leave the criminal courts to provide the only machinery in these cases.

I am aware that I have gone a little wide of the amendment which is before your Lordships in order to explain the whole situation properly, but I suspect that the noble Lord will forgive me for that. The right of an individual to bring a petition questioning the result of an election has a long history. The Government are not arguing that we should not look critically at it and aim to make improvements where we can. Indeed, if your Lordships look at Schedule 4 you will see we have made a number of amendments to Part III of the 1983 Act, which is the part containing the provisions on election petition procedure. But we think it would be ill-advised to make as fundamental a change as that contemplated by the noble Lord's new clause. The way for candidates to avoid being the respondents to an election petition, and the substantial costs that may be incurred, is to stick to the letter of the law. It may involve scrupulous and detailed accounts, and the law may not be easy for the layman to understand, but that is why since the nineteenth century the candidate has been obliged to appoint an election agent whose function it is to ensure that the campaign is conducted in accordance with the law. It is in the public interests that the controls on election spending should be observed and that members of the public should have the right to challenge the result of an election if they seem to have been ignored. So I hope that, with that rather lengthy explanation, the noble Lord will not press this amendment.

Lord Tordoff

I am grateful to both noble Lords who have taken part in the discussion on this amendment. I look forward with interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has to say later on in the discussions. It seems to me that we need to have some way of protecting candidates from being dealt a cruel blow financially. The noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, says that people must stick scrupulously within the law. Yes, of course, I agree. However, without necessarily going on a fishing expedition people can perhaps put forward test cases relating to certain parts of electoral law and, in the midst of a series of charges which are made, it may turn out that some technicality has occurred in the registering of the collection at a meeting which has been held in the course of the election and this is found to have been an illegal practice. No penalty is incurred as a result of this because the judge does not feel that the matter is worthy of any penalty at all, yet the defendant finds himself faced with not only his own costs but also with the plaintiff's costs, which can amount to tens of thousands of pounds. As the noble Lord will be aware, I am referring to a specific case, of which I do not intend to go into any further detail tonight.

I hope that the Government will accept that this is not a single party issue. It is a matter which affects candidates on all sides, of all parties and of none. The undue penalty which attaches to people who, with the best intentions in the world, have found themselves caught on the wrong end of one of these petitions when they have not really committed any serious offence makes us believe that there should be some filtering process to enable people to be protected from this problem. Nevertheless, clearly I do not intend to press this amendment tonight, and I beg leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale moved Amendment No. 25:

After Clause 11, insert the following new clause:

("Residence of mental patients

. In section 7(4)(d)(iv) of the principal Act the words "(other than a mental hospital)" shall be omitted and after the word "resided" there shall be inserted the words "or now resides".").

The noble Lord said: In taking this first opportunity to add my welcome to the Minister in his new role, I cannot help thinking that it may be welcome to him to come to an amendment with a background with which he is not altogether unfamiliar. My amendment concerns the voting rights of long-stay voluntary patients in mental illness and mental handicap hospitals. I am aware that my proposal involves departing from another of those compromises between the parties, reached not on the occasion of the present Bill but not all that long ago. But opportunities for change in this area do not very often arise. That compromise has some slightly strange features to which I think it is right to draw attention.

The present position, in consequence of the provisions in Section 7 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, is, as I understand it, as follows. If a mentally ill or mentally handicapped person is residing in the community or in the psychiatric wing of an ordinary hospital, or in an institution which is not technically a mental hospital, there is nothing to prevent him registering as an elector, giving for that purpose his present address and leaving him subject only to the capacity test to which any voter is subject at the polling station.

However, if he is in a mental illness or a mental handicap hospital, the position is very different. To start with, he has to make an annual declaration and have it attested at the hospital. In that declaration he can use as his address either where he would be living if he were not a voluntary patient or, if he cannot give such an address, an address at which he has resided. What he is forbidden to do is to use as his address the hospital where he is and where he might have been living for 40 years. If he cannot supply another address, he cannot be registered and he gets no vote at all. But the fact that he can be accepted if he supplies an address at which he has lived, even though the house or institution has long since been destroyed, I fear opens the way to artificiality and inventiveness (to use kindly words) of a kind which it might perhaps be better not to encourage.

In general, the present arrangements are designed to ensure that the one constituency where the patient cannot vote is the one where he is living, and the one MP he cannot look to is the local MP. The parallel has been drawn with the arrangements for servicemen, but it seems to me that there are substantial differences. It will be seen that my amendment is not a root and branch amendment. If it is accepted, the preferred course would still be for the patient to give the address where he would be living if he were not a voluntary patient. The hospital could be used as an address only if he could not give such an address.

I am very conscious that this is yet another area where one is treading on particularly delicate ground in seeking to change electoral arrangements in another place. But I can recall that the present arrangements were originally made by way of amendment to a Mental Health Bill, not to a Representation of the People Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, on the Second Reading of the present Bill, was not quite as discouraging as he may perhaps have been tempted to be.

This is an issue of considerable consequence to some of the less fortunate members of the community. I thought it appropriate to raise it today to ascertain in rather greater detail the views of the Government on this proposal. I beg to move.

Lord Mishcon

I want to make one matter clear, if I may. I observe that no Member of the Opposition has put his name to this amendment. I want the movers of this amendment to know that the Opposition are pleased to support it.

Lord Tordoff

A member of the Opposition has put his name to it.

Lord Mishcon

Whenever I refer to the Opposition, I refer to the present Opposition, which I feel may be the present Opposition until the next election.

Lord Broxbourne

I will not be tempted to indulge in the delights of prophecy as to which of the parties of the two noble Lords will be the runner-up in the next election. I shall leave that to fate to decide. Nor would I venture to enter into any kind of dispute between the two noble Lords, who are very eminent representatives of their respective parties. I do not expect to be invited to assume the role of arbitrator, even by my former and most distinguished client, the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon: nor, in the language of the continental lawyers, as an amiable compositor in this dispute.

I have already spoken, perhaps rather irrelevantly, or at any rate peripherally, rather longer than I meant to detain the Committee at this late hour—and what a comfort it is to one so long accustomed to the ardours and rigours of the long hours and laborious nights of the other place to be able to use that phrase at 20 past eight in the evening!

I want, briefly but very sincerely, to testify to my support for the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale. He is the distinguished chairman of MENCAP, with which I have had a much less distinguished association over the years. It is a subject in which I have been keenly interested since the passage at any rate of the Mental Health Act 1959. The noble Lord has put forward his proposals, to which he referred also on Second Reading, with characteristic and commendable clarity. It would, indeed, be gilding the lily for me to seek to add any further matters of either explanation or commendation.

However, I thought it right to say on this occasion that I warmly support the initiative that he has taken. I hope that my noble friend whom, unlike the noble Lord, I had the opportunity of congratulating earlier in the day, will give sympathetic regard to this and urge his right honourable friend to do the same.

Lord Kilmarnock

As a footnote to what the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale said, it is my recollection of our debates when the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill was going through the House that it was the intention to enfranchise the people to whom the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, referred. I hope very much therefore that on this day when the noble Lord the Minister is, so to speak, on the bridge, or perhaps on the tightrope between the two departments, he will take advantage of this occasion to give sympathetic consideration to the noble Lord's amendment.

Lord Glenarthur

As the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, said, it is not much more than two years since my noble friend Lord Elton rose to invite your Lordships to agree with the Commons in amendments to the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill which, for the first time, gave the right to vote to long-stay voluntary patients in mental illness and mental handicap hospitals. Neither I nor, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Allen, were present on that occasion. I may be wrong in the case of the noble Lord, but I was certainly not here. However, several of your Lordships were I think, quite pleased with what the Government had done at that time. The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, who, I believe, first raised the matter in your Lordships' House, said that the Government had taken a very important and courageous step. My noble friend Lord Renton said that he welcomed what had been done and believed that it had been rightly done. MIND, the mental health charity, also wlecomed the new arrangements.

As the noble Lord, Lord Allen says, for the last 22 or so months I have been quite close to all that has gone on in the mental health and mental handicap world. Incidentally, I should like to thank him for his kind remarks about the change that has now taken place.

These arrangements have now been in force for just over a year—since the publication of the 1984–5 register of electors in February 1984. They have two main features. First of all, the patient may be registered as an elector only if he makes a declaration modelled on the declaration made by members of the armed forces and other service voters. The declaration can be made only if the patient can make it without assistance; this is intended as a safeguard against abuse, but it also has the practical effect of giving some indication that the patient has the necessary mental capacity to vote. The second main feature of the system is that the patient is registered not for the address of the hospital itself but for a house or other address outside it.

During the Second Reading debate the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, suggested that the need to register for an address outside the hospital has the effect of disfranchising patients whose only permanent address is the hospital. In fact, considerable care was taken in 1982 to ensure that there is always an address for which the patient may be registered. It can be the address at which the patient would be living if he were not in hospital; for example, the address of parents, family or friends. If the patient cannot provide such an address, he can be registered for an address where he lived before he was admitted to hospital. It does not matter that the address no longer physically exists. The same may be true for service voters, who are registered in exactly the same way. The important point is that the patient has the right to vote for the constituency or local government electoral area in which the address is situated.

Why should not the patient be able to register for the hospital address? That is all that the noble Lord's amendment seeks to achieve. This matter was very thoroughly gone into in 1982. Around the country there are, sadly in my view, still a number of large mental hospitals with approaching 1,000 beds or so in them. By force of circumstance many of the patients in these hospitals can have little to do with the areas in which the hospitals are situated. If I refer to the Epsom cluster, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Allen, will agree that this is one example. It would be quite wrong to allow patients to go on the local register. That would open up the possibility of serious imbalances in electorate figures, particularly for local elections.

I say again that this is a matter of very recent history. I am not quite sure why some of those who have put their names to the amendment—and I am thinking of my noble friend Lord Renton, who is not here—should have had a change of mind quite so soon. It cannot be due to any dissatisfaction on the part of the patients themselves, I believe. The Government have had not a single complaint from mental hospital patients about the operation of the new provisions. A total of 6,009 mental hospital patients were registered through declarations in 1984–5. The total mental hospital population in England and Wales is over 100,000, but many of those are short-stay patients who will be registered for a home address in the usual way. Others are detained patients who, it seems to be agreed, should not have the right to vote and others will be patients who do not have the capacity to make a declaration.

So the true proportion of those who might be eligible to register in the first year of the new arrangements must, I think, be greater than has been estimated. Bearing in mind that this was only the first year's operation of the scheme, the Government cannot accept that figures suggest a need for change. I expect that the noble Lord, Lord Allen, with his experience, will agree. I rather thought, in the remarks that he made, that he was indicating just that.

Your Lordships will be grateful to those who have raised this important matter. As I said previously, I have much sympathy for the people who are in this position, those who are mentally ill and mentally handicapped. I have certainly listened with great care to what has been said. However, the ground was very fully covered during the passage of the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill in 1982. We do not see reason now to change the considered view that we reached then—and that after a great deal of discussion. I hope that the noble Lord will understand that and will not press the amendment.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

I cannot say that the noble Lord's reply gives me complete satisfaction. There are one or two comments I should like to make. I would have taken it a little better if the noble Lord had addressed his remarks to the speech which I made this evening, rather than that which I made on Second Reading; but no matter. Although it is not for me to speak on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, I know from discussions with him that he greatly welcomed the early arrangement as a considerable step forward, but he shares entirely my view that this was only a step on the way and that there is still a good deal more to be done to achieve satisfaction.

I do not think that there is much point in dividing the Committee at this stage, when it is not so heavily attended. I am grateful for the support that I have received from various quarters of the Chamber. I hope that what the noble Lord the Minister has said does not resile from the undertaking that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, gave on Second Reading that the position would be kept under review. I refer to what the noble Lord the Minister said tonight about his resting on the argument that there has not been very much time to appreciate the results of the concessions which have been made so far. When Hansard is available I should like to study with care what the noble Lord has said and consider whether anything should be done at a later stage. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8.30 p.m.

Clause 12 [Offences as to declarations, etc.]:

Lord Mishcon moved Amendment No. 26: Page 15, line 38, leave out ("offence") and insert ("illegal practice").

The noble Lord said: With your Lordships' permission, I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 27 to 29 inclusive.

Amendment No. 27: Page 16, line 2, leave out ("offence") and insert ("illegal practice").

Amendment No. 28: Page 16, line 8, leave out ("offence") and insert ("illegal practice").

Amendment No. 29: Page 16, line 9, leave out subsection (4).

I am somewhat bemused, and I wonder whether I can take your Lordships with me in the course of my failure, it may be, to understand the position. But if I am correct, this is a very necessary amendment. We are considering Clause 12, which deals with offences as to declarations in regard to overseas electors; I can put it as shortly as that. But the noble Lord the Minister said, quite correctly, in reply to an earlier amendment, that what we must do is safeguard the position where we give these rights and make sure they are not taken advantage of in a wrong way. Clause 12 deals with offences in regard to false declarations and serious matters of that kind and ends up with subsection (4), which states: A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale". Anyone reading that clause would therefore take it for granted that the only penalty is the administration of a fine and would not immediately look at the Representation of the People Act 1983, and in particular Section 61 of that Act. Your Lordships will realise in a moment why I have made that remark.

That is not a very satisfactory situation, because of course a fine could hardly be enforced while the elector is overseas. If this were an illegal practice under the Act that I have just mentioned, and not merely an offence for which a fine is the only penalty, that would mean that one of the punishments is a disqualification from voting. That is very important, because if the offender was tried in this country it would be much more of a deterrent, should the elector, if he returned here, face disqualification from voting.

The reason I am bemused is this. This amendment was moved in the other place. My honourable friend Mr. Bermingham moved it with a brevity which is possibly the prerogative and custom of this House but not always the custom of another place; I say that without any disrespect. He moved the amendment in the following words: Amendment No. 79 would bring matters into line with other provisions of the Bill". There he ceased. The Minister, Mr. Mellor, replied as follows: I am grateful to the honourable Gentleman for his brevity. I am happy to tell him that anybody who makes a false declaration in order to become an overseas voter will commit an offence under section 61 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. Section 61 offences are punishable as illegal practices and the penalties would include disqualification from voting. I think that the honourable Gentleman already has what he seeks". My honourable friend in another place, with deep gratitude, I have no doubt, uttered the familiar words: I beg to ask leave to withdraw amendment No. 79".—[Official Report, Commons; 13/2/85; col. 418.]

I took the trouble to look again at this clause. I could only see it described as an offence. A fine was the only sanction I could see. I could not see any definition of an offence under the Act as including an illegal practice under the Representation of the People Act 1983. I decided to complete my research, which may be very inadequate (as the Minister may tell me) by looking at Section 61 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. I have it before me, and I cannot see anything there which relates to the very offence we are talking about. It is not surprising, because of course these declarations are a new factor under the Bill we are now considering.

It may be that I am absolutely wrong in my conclusions, but I am in some quandary as to the answer that was given to the honourable Member in another place by the Minister, Mr. Mellor. If he was correct and I am wrong, and if the noble Lord the Minister can prove that I am wrong, I shall ask for the same leave that Mr. Bermingham did, and in just as short language. But, if I am not wrong in the little bit of research that I have done, it is very obvious, I would suggest to the noble Lord the Minister and to the Members of the Committee, that this is a very desirable amendment; otherwise the sanction means nothing at all in regard to an offence which is quite obviously a very serious one. I beg to move.

Lord Glenarthur

Perhaps I can start by saying that I am sure the noble Lord will be aware that in August last year we consulted the political parties on the new penalties for offences under the Bill, including the offences created by Clause 12. We have a letter from the Labour Party telling us that it had no objections to raise. I should hate to get into another discussion about exactly whom the noble Lord was representing, but I hope he will take that point. None of the political parties in fact raised any objection to the new penalties, and I am delighted to have this opportunity of explaining why they were right not to do so.

Lord Mishcon

Before the noble Lord continues I should like to clear one matter out of the way. The Labour Party obviously had before it the brief discussion which took place at the Committee stage in another place and obviously relied upon the Minister, who said that the offence did constitute an illegal practice and disqualification would follow. If the Minister was wrong, then quite obviously any consenting letter is somewhat vitiated.

Lord Glenarthur

I think that my honourable friend the Minister in another place subsequently corrected what he had said. Apparently he corrected it the next day, and that is why it is not in that particular copy of the Official Report. I think he apologised for having to do so. The Representation of the People Acts create a number of offences relating to misconduct at elections. The most serious offences are corrupt practices, including personation, bribery, treating, and so on. Less serious than corrupt practices but still quite serious offences are the illegal practices, conviction for which results in automatic disqualification from voting and public office for a period of five years. Finally, there are various offences for which the maximum penalties may be as high as those available for illegal practices but which do not result in the additional consequence of disqualification.

The offences which the Bill creates in relation to overseas electors' declarations are modelled on the offences which already exist in relation to service declarations and patients' declarations. These offences do not carry and never have carried a penalty of disqualification. A person who makes a false overseas elector's declaration will have to satisfy the consular officer that he is a British citizen who is resident abroad on the qualifying date by producing a passport and other documentation. The registration officer will then make sure the elector's name was included in one of the registers prepared with reference to a qualifying date in the previous five years. If he succeeds in registering, and then votes in the knowledge that he is not qualified to do so, he commits an offence—and here the noble Lord will recognise the words which he used in quoting to me—under Section 61 of the 1983 Act. Section 61 offences are punishable as illegal practices and the penalties therefore include disqualification from voting.

The noble Lord's amendments would also make disqualification a penalty for the new offences in relation to absent voting applications. We considered the possibility of making these offences illegal practices. But we are inclined to doubt whether the penalty of disqualification would be justified. A person may be qualified to vote in person at the polling station even if not to vote by post or proxy. It seems unfair to punish him with disqualification just because his vote was cast by post or by proxy instead of in person at the polling station.

Perhaps I may just correct the impression which the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, might have and which I think he expressed in his earlier intervention in the first part of my speech. His party was consulted before the Bill was published, and it was consulted in detail and at length. I hope that he will accept that.

However, in deciding what the penalty should be, we have to look not only at the penalty which will effectively deter the potential offender, but also at the relative seriousness of the action which the offence seeks to prevent. If the noble Lord looks at matters in the round, so to speak, I think he will agree that the penalties are about right, particularly bearing in mind that if a vote is actually cast by an overseas elector who does not qualify as such, then an illegal practice will be committed. It has been necessary for me to give a fairly lengthy exposition on what we believe the case to be and I hope that with it the noble Lord will be satisfied.

Lord Mishcon

I am afraid that I am not satisfied, but I am most grateful to the Minister for his courtesy in the way in which he dealt with this amendment. He may take it from me that I consulted before I allowed this amendment to be tabled. Therefore, I hope that there will be no misunderstanding in that connection.

The point which the noble Lord has not answered—and I shall not ask him to answer it tonight—concerns the fact that it is a sanction and it may very well be a serious offence. If it is not a serious offence, there will not be a prosecution. But if it is a serious offence and the only penalty is a fine, it is one that literally cannot be enforced and therefore there is no penalty at all. The person who has done the wrong is abroad and there is no way in which such a fine could be enforced abroad. Therefore, there is a sanction only if the person abroad returns to this country and is charged with the offence; then he would be disqualified. He would know that he would be disqualified if that happened, and that would be the sanction.

The sensible way of dealing with the matter at this hour is for the noble Lord the Minister, with his customary courtesy—even if we have been used to it only in another department, we know that we shall experience it in this department also—to consider, together with those advising him, what has been said tonight. I, too, shall take counsel with those who advise me, and it may very well be that at this stage the sensible thing would be for me to beg leave of the Committee to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 27, 28 and 29 not moved.]

Clause 12 agreed to.

Clause 13 [Deposit by candidates at parliamentary elections]:

On Question, Whether Clause 13 shall stand part of the Bill?

8.45 p.m.

Lord Tordoff

It may be for the convenience of the Committee if, while discussing the Question whether Clause 13 shall stand part, we also discuss Amendments Nos. 38, 39 and 40. Although that grouping was not on the original schedule, it has now been communicated to the noble Lord the Minister. Amendment No. 38: Schedule 4, page 48, line 10, at end insert— (" . In Schedule I in rule 7(1) (number of nominations) for the word "eight" there shall be substituted the words "at least one hundred"."). Amendment No. 39: Page 48, line 10, at end insert— (" . In Schedule 1 rule 7(2) (exclusion of signatures) shall cease to have effect."). Amendment No. 40; Page 48, line 11, leave out paragraph 75 and insert— ("75. In Schedule 1 rule 9 (deposit) shall cease to have effect."). Clause 13 deals with the question of deposits at parliamentary elections and the change from a deposit of £150 to one of £500. It is our belief that, although there has been considerable agreement among the parties—another of these deals that has been struck—it is time to question the whole business of deposits and to put in their place some other criteria.

As I said on Second Reading, the difficulty with deposits is that they do not actually work. The object of deposits is to try to prevent frivolous candidates. However, it is precisely the really frivolous candidates who have the money to pay the deposit; the people who are seeking publicity for themselves or for the particular piece of showbusiness that they represent are precisely the sort of people who are capable of putting up a much larger sum of money than £500.

Those who suffer are, first, the political parties which are fighting all the elections, because, under the new arrangements, for a period of about a month they have to find the sum of £300,000. If the Government paid interest on that money, perhaps we might be more prepared to go along with it. The others who suffer are the smaller political parties which find themselves unable to obtain the 5 per cent. of the total poll which is the cut-off point under the new arrangements.

For instance, for a party in Germany 5 per cent. is not the cut-off for the deposit level; it is the cut-off point for having seats in Parliament. That is a very common cut-off level in those countries that have proportional representation with some kind of hurdle to get over before they achieve representation in Parliament. Therefore, 5 per cent. is quite a significant amount of the electorate to have on one's side.

It is the newly emerging parties which will be penalised the most by this kind of provision. Specifically one thinks of the Ecology Party. As I have said before, I have received representations from the Wessex Regionalists. Neither of those two parties are of any great help to the Liberal Party. If anything, I guess that they draw their support, such as it is, from people who would normally support the Liberal Party. Nevertheless, they have a legitimate right to put up candidates. They are serious within their own terms, and serious political parties of that type should not be discouraged in the way in which this deposit system will discourage them when it is raised to £500. I know that one can say that the value of money has changed over the years and that what was £150 in 1918 ought now to be £5,000, or whatever the figure is today. But it seems to me that if the purpose of the deposit system is to stop frivolous candidates without discouraging serious candidates, as I have sought to show, this does not do the trick.

Amendments Nos. 38, 39 and 40 seem to us to propose a better way of controlling those people who are frivolous candidates, who have no organisation, who turn up with perhaps only one or two friends, and who would find it extremely difficult to get 100 serious nominations. It may be said that it is easy enough to get names on petitions at bus stops, but in talking about assentors and nominations for parliamentary elections one is not in the same league as people signing petitions at bus stops. The names have to be in correct form, with the electoral roll number, otherwise the nominations are not valid.

I believe that the distinction between serious candidates and those who are frivolous is that those who are serious can show a significant amount of support in their constituency during the election period, as opposed to those who can dip into their pockets. On that basis, taking into consideration that if Clause 13 were deleted I would hope to move Amendments Nos. 38, 39 and 40 as a substitution, I beg to move.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

In some ways we in this country appear to be stuck in a rut. We beseech our people to have new ideas, to be responsive to change and to use more imagination and go into the future with bright eyes, in an adventurous spirit. But on many constitutional matters we just do not think of anything new. There surely has been an opportunity in connection with this Bill for a more imaginative approach to the conditions of candidature, but all we have come up with is a suggestion to put the price up and the proportion down. That is supposed to be the solution or the remedy for the frivolous candidature which, for some reason or another, we seem to want to suppress.

What are we trying to do? We are trying to make it more difficult for some people to stand for Parliament. We are to reduce the condition of qualifying for candidature by reducing the number of votes cast in their favour from 12 per cent. to 5 per cent. I do not see what we achieve by this. I know that Members of another place can be said to have a high stake in this matter. They are, after all, the people who stand for Parliament in these conditions. But I think we are agreed in the Committee that we have a responsibility for any aspects of constitutional practice, of tradition and usage.

The Times newspaper I noticed this morning has been saying something on this subject. It suggests that what is contained in Clause 13 is not particularly good, but it is a passable remedy for the time being because no one can think of anything better. When I was chairman of a committee on the finances of political parties we thought of something different; whether it was better or not was a matter of opinion. It was more expensive to the state, but I do not see why the state should not spend more money on true democracy. Deposits and election expenses are all bound up with those who have the money or who could get it.

When I was a parliamentary candidate I was never required to find any money for the deposit. It was always advanced to me by the local Co-operative Bank who were willing to risk their £150, being certain that if I lost my deposit they would receive their money from somebody else. So that was never a trouble. I do not know whether any of the so-called frivolous candidates have any trouble in finding £150 or whether they will have any trouble in finding £500. But I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, that it really does not work and one wonders what it is all about.

My committee proposed that if the system of deposits remained, attached to it should be a reimbursement of some part of the expenses incurred by a candidate if he saved his deposit. We suggested that all candidates who saved their deposits would be allowed to claim reimbursement of the actual expenditure up to one half of the stipulated maximum. It did not go the whole way to reimbursing expenses, but it went a considerable way towards lessening the expense of conducting an election. Nothing of that kind is incorporated in Clause 13. We go back, as I said earlier, to increasing the amount but putting the risk of losing the deposit a little lower. In that sense it seems to me to achieve nothing at all.

What is the trouble about these frivolous candidates that we want to keep out? Are we not seeking to raise barriers against a small minority of candidates? Who decides what a frivolous candidate is? I feel that one has to keep a sense of proportion about eligibility to stand for Parliament that is not distorted by feelings of irritation by what we see sometimes of the so-called frivolous candidature. I think there should be no deposit at all. I do not believe that the area of nomination need be substantially extended either. One should offer the inducement that if they succeed in polling a reasonable proportion of the votes at least part of their expenses should be reimbursed.

I do not go so far as to say that I oppose the question that Clause 13 stand part of the Bill. I do not feel qualified to take that stance, but I feel disappointed that in the other House, and even in this House, no more imaginative remedies for this matter have been put forward.

Lord Mishcon

I shall be very brief. I regard myself in this position at the Dispatch Box as being bound in honour by an agreement reached in another place.

Lord Glenarthur

The Government do not accept that the payment of a cash deposit which is returned in full after the election is wrong in principle, as the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, suggests. Candidates at parliamentary elections benefit from substantial rights and privileges. The right to free postage is worth about £7,000 in an average-sized constituency. Political parties which put up 50 candidates at a general election are given several hundred thousand pounds' worth of broadcasting time, though not all candidates benefit from these rights. However, they receive a guarantee of free publicity on radio, TV and in the newspapers—a free platform on which to air their views, however little they may have to do with the election. Every inch of column space and every minute of broadcasting time which is devoted to these candidates is that much less for the candidates who are actually fighting the election. In these circumstances the Government do not think it unreasonable to ask a candidate who cannot even win 5 per cent., that is one in 20, of the votes cast in the constituency to forfeit a deposit of £500. We readily accept the criticism that our proposals will not prevent certain candidates from standing. We acknowledge that some perhaps add colour in some respects, but it has never been our intention to prevent anyone from standing for election. All we are saying is that if the candidate cannot win enough of the taxpayers' votes, he should not be entitled to taxpayers' money. Standing for election is, or should be, a serious business.

If I may turn now to the objection that an increased deposit would put a serious obstacle in the way of smaller parties and independents, this is an objection which fails to take account of the reduction of the threshold for forfeiture. At present the candidate loses his £150 if he polls less than 12½ per cent., one-eighth of the votes cast. Of course. 12½ per cent. is a significant fraction of the total poll and few candidates outside the major parties can hope to win that many votes. Indeed, even candidates from the major parties occasionally lose their deposits.

The present system penalises candidates who make even quite a good showing at the polls. Under the Bill, the candidate's deposit is returned if he polls only 5 per cent. of the vote—a realistic target for smaller parties and independents to aim for. Nor is it true that we are asking candidates to tie up the sum of £500 for the duration of the campaign. The Bill requires the returning officer to repay the deposit well before the time when the bills for the candidate's election expenses have to be paid.

Perhaps, lastly, I could ask the noble Lord to spare a thought for the returning officer. This really comes into later amendments, as opposed to clause stand part, which the noble Lord is moving. The electoral registration officer for the City of Birmingham acts as returning officer for 12 parliamentary constituencies.

Let us suppose that the noble Lord's amendments do their job and that on average there are only four candidates in each constituency at a parliamentary general election. The noble Lord is asking the returning officer, who is personally responsible for the conduct of the election, to check the validity of at least 4,800 signatures before he can publish the statement of persons nominated and print the ballot papers. It would be more than 4,800 if Rule 7(2) were repealed. In this country we have a very short election timetable, as the noble Lord will be aware. The Bill makes considerable extra work for the returning officer and the Government cannot ask him to take on this wholly pointless new task.

I do not want to be unsympathetic. We looked at the signatures option, and so did the Select Committee. Both found it wanting. We accept the noble Lord's principal opposition to the deposit but we do not accept that signatures are a viable alternative. Your Lordships will, I am sure, be grateful to the noble Lord for the ventilation of this particular issue, but I hope that after what I have said the noble Lord will not press his amendments.

Lord Tordoff

I should like to make just a couple of quick points, because time is pressing and I know that there are other matters to come before your Lordships this evening. The question of the cost of postage is, of course, on the whole irrelevant, in the sense that it is precisely the small candidates who do not use the postage. It is the members of large political parties who use the postage, because they have the organisation to write envelopes and produce the literature to go in them, whereas the individual maverick candidate does not. I do not think that 5 per cent. is really such a pitifully low number of votes for emerging groups of people in the country. If politics are to remain dynamic in this country, and if new political groupings are to come forward, then 5 per cent. is not necessarily an insignificant number of votes to get in parliamentary elections.

However, as to the money, it is of course tied up for three weeks. Even if the bills are not coming in, nevertheless the money has to be found and returning officers do make very strict provisions as to the way the money is laid down. However, as the noble Lord has indicated, I wanted to have this issue ventilated, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. I certainly would not press my opposition at this stage.

Clause 13 agreed to.

Clauses 14 to 18 agreed to.

Lord Denham

This is the time of day that we agreed to finish this part of the Committee stage.

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.