HL Deb 13 July 1989 vol 510 cc500-8

8.22 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

This is a short Bill. It is of narrow scope, and it is confined to just two matters. The first is to extend the existing franchise for British citizens overseas. The second is to set a new limit on candidates' by-election expenses.

The first of these—extending the franchise —affects the right to vote at elections to another place and at elections to what I might describe as the "other Parliament"—the European Parliament. The second—the provision on election expenses—relates only to by-elections for seats in the House of Commons.

Perhaps I may take first the extension of the overseas electors' franchise. The principle that British citizens who are resident abroad may vote was established by the Representation of the People Act 1985. Before then the right to vote from abroad was the prerogative only of members of the Armed Forces and Crown servants. The new franchise had long been desired by British citizens around the globe.

Britons abroad had only a qualified franchise in the 1985 Act, and in the regulations made for them under that Act. The 1985 Act placed a rather niggardly time limit of five years on the period abroad during which an overseas elector could qualify. It also required him to make a special statutory declaration about his residence intentions. The regulations insisted that the applicant must have his initial declaration formally attested by a consular officer abroad.

There was considerable discussion in 1985 both in your Lordships' House and in another place about the merits of restricting the franchise in the way in which I have described. Some argued that the right to vote is a fundamental civic right which all citizens of a country should possess, without let or hindrance, regardless of where they happen to be living. Others argued, doubtless with equal sincerity, that the constituency link weakens the longer that a person is abroad, and that the vote should not be given to people who have made their permanent home abroad.

In the spirit of compromise which I think should guide us in discussions of this nature, we then established the principle of an overseas elector's franchise but we made it subject to the qualifications which I have described. The Government made it clear at the time when these new rights were being discussed that they believed that many of the fears and reservations which had been expressed about them would not in fact materialise once the new franchise was in operation. The Government made a commitment to review the new arrangements once they were in operation, and, in particular, to reconsider the five-year time limit. Clauses 1 to 5 of the Bill are the results of that review.

The Government's aim has been for the Bill to have the widest possible degree of support by all parties. My right honourable friend engaged in consultation with them before the Bill was introduced. As the Bill went through another place there was further consultation and amendments were made. The objective all along has been to secure the most generous extension of the franchise which is nevertheless compatible with a fair measure of all-party agreement.

Clause 1 of the Bill extends the period during which a British citizen who is resident abroad may register to vote from the existing five years to 20 years. Twenty years is a not as long a period as the Government wished, but a fourfold increase is nevertheless a substantial advance on the existing limit. It will enfranchise an estimated 1–6 million British citizens living and working abroad, many of whom are doing so in the United Kingdom's interests. The Government's acceptance of a 20-year cut-off period should not be taken to devalue in any way the work which is still being done for Britain by many of her citizens who have been abroad for longer than 20 years.

No arbitrary period of this kind can be sacrosanct, and it will be open to some future Parliament to reconsider the period and perhaps to abolish it altogether. But 20 years should enfranchise most of our citizens who, encouraged by successive governments, have gone abroad to work for international and world development organisations; to advance British economic interests as entrepreneurs; or to pursue careers in the European Community institutions. Many intend to retire to the United Kingdom. Many have family, friends and other strong links still here.

Clauses 2 and 3 enable a person who attains the age of 18 while abroad to vote at home even though he was not on the electoral register before he went abroad, because he was not then old enough.

Clause 4 abolishes the requirement for an overseas elector to make a statutory declaration in which he denies any intention to reside permanently outside the UK. It was always unpopular and experience has shown that it added nothing but nuisance value to the procedures. The declaration cannot be verified by the person who has to decide the application. Indeed it is difficult to see how a declaration could be proved to be false at the time when it was made, as an intention is something in the mind and is not a provable fact.

Clause 5 enables my right honourable friends to require electoral registration officers to send each registered overseas elector a notice reminding him of the need to register annually.

It is obviously not possible for electoral registration officers to canvass Britons abroad, as they do with people at home. But this simple measure will go some way to putting our citizens abroad on a more equitable footing. Registration as an overseas elector is, and will remain, voluntary but it should be eased by this clause and the preceding four which I have outlined.

The second topic in this short Bill relates to expenses at by-elections for seats in another place and is covered in Clause 6. In announcing the proposed new limit, my right honourable friend made clear his view that a more thoroughgoing review of election expenses is needed. He gave an assurance that the new limit, which is four times that which now applies, is entirely without prejudice to the outcome of the longer term review. It is no more than an interim measure settled following consultation with the main parties involved. It is a realistic response to the reality of the very intensive campaigning which surrounds by-elections nowadays.

This is a short Bill. Nevertheless, I hope that your Lordships will agree that it represents a significant further extension of democracy. I believe that it will be greatly welcomed by many thousands of our citizens abroad. The Government have sought to ensure that the Bill commands wide acceptance. I hope that your Lordships will also wish to give it a swift passage to the statute book in order that its provisions can be implemented to the benefit of our citizens abroad. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

Moved, That the Bill now be read a second time.—(Earl Ferrers.)

8.30 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl for explaining this short but very important Bill. Although he said that there have been consultation and agreement between the parties, I am afraid that I must be critical of certain aspects following some of the points raised by the Opposition Front Bench. As the Division voting record will show, there was not wholehearted support from Opposition Members of Parliament in respect of various of its aspects.

Some may argue why Members of this House should deal with a matter whose main concern is with the House of Commons. There are two reasons. First, the Bill affects not only parliamentary elections but also European parliamentary elections in which we have an entitlement to vote. Secondly, as Members of this House we are denied the right to vote at parliamentary elections but as citizens we are obviously interested in the government who are elected. Therefore we make comments upon the provisions for the election of that government.

The noble Earl emphasised that the 1985 Act which introduced the innovation for overseas electors provided for a period of five years' previous residence in this country or some time within that period. When the Bill was originally presented to the other place a period of 25 years was proposed. An amendment was accepted which reduced the period to 20 years. Perhaps unkindly some people said that there had been collusion in order to achieve that compromise. Now we have a position where someone can be abroad for 20 years an d can register and therefore be entitled to vote in the constituency in which he lived at some time during the previous 20 years.

We have always prided ourselves on the fact that the relationship between a Member of Parliament and his or her constituents is an essential factor of our democratic system. If someone is away for up to 20 years it makes nonsense of the close liaison between an MP and his constituents. Some people may have identified themselves closely with the country in which they reside and have very little knowledge of the political situation in the United Kingdom.

Those factors may have affected the figures given in another place. Of the 500,000 eligible overseas electors only a small number took advantage of the 1985 Act and registered. It is now being stated that as a result of the change made in the Bill, the number of possible overseas electors could be as many as 2 million. My rough accountancy—and accountancy is not my main achievement—suggests that on average there could be 3,000 electors per constituency. There could be a vital effect if a large number of people took advantage of the provision, registered and recorded their votes.

The noble Earl emphasised the position of those who are not on the register in the United Kingdom because of their age—those people under the age of 18. It could be that they go abroad after having been in this country for only a few months. However, if their guardians or parents had had an address in a constituency in this country during the past 20 years they could be entitled to register as overseas electors and vote at the age of 18. Frankly, it is difficult to justify that procedure, whatever might be the justification put forward for the adults who move overseas.

Further, I cannot go along with the proposal in the Bill that the declaration of intention to return is unnecessary. The Minister said that the period provided in the 1985 Act was a niggardly five years. There was a great deal of discussion and persuasion in order to achieve that period. It seems unwise to remove the necessity for people to declare an intention to return to the United Kingdom. It seems that that should be done.

Clause 6 provides for the revision of candidates' election expenses, and I have no opposition to that. I have worked out the figures and they may appear to be high. However, it must be emphasised that they apply only to parliamentary by-elections and to no others, as the noble Earl made clear. They do not apply to general elections.

It is 10 years since at a national level I was in charge of the arrangements for parliamentary by-elections for my party. Even then I realised the difficulties in which many election agents were placed in order to ensure that they kept within the law as regards election expenses at by-elections. Even in those days by-elections were not merely elections but national contests. They have achieved greater importance as the years have passed. The proposals for the increase in by-election expenses can be justified, and I have no objection.

8.37 p.m.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I am also grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the Bill. It has our wholehearted support. I shall not detain the House for more than a second as regards one or two omissions from the Bill. There may be those on the Government Benches who will expect me to introduce an amendment to include proportional representation in the Bill. On this occasion I have no intention of doing so and shall not detain the Committee at that stage, strong as our belief is in the principle. Nor shall I cover the ground which we covered in 1985 in relation to nominations rather than deposits. However, I still believe that having a significant number of nominees rather than a high deposit level is a better way of keeping mavericks off the ballot paper.

A subject that we must tackle ere long is that of limits on national expenditure. I repeat that it is all right to restrict the individual candidate in the individual constituency. However Where parties can so change the mood of the nation through the modern methods of the media by vast expenditure, we must worry to a degree about the ability of smaller groups of people to put their case across in the great razzamatazz which is becoming the electoral scene.

I direct my attention first to Clause 6. Like the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, we are all aware of the degree of "constructive" accountancy—for want of a better word—that has been indulged in by election agents in by-elections for a long time. Having regard to the pressure at by-elections and the limelight which now shines upon them, the increasing cost of paper and the vast amounts now turned out by all parties thanks to modern methods of printing, it is good that the amount has been extended as it has. I have no doubt that a more careful watch will now be kept on the expenses of candidates when finally submitted at the end of the campaign.

I now come back to the question of the rights of overseas citizens to vote in elections for this country and in European Parliament elections. I welcome the provisions. However, I am disappointed that the level is still set at 20 years. As the noble Lord said, I am sure that we shall have to return to that eventually and I hope that at the end of the day we shall not have a time limit at all.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, is treading an interesting tightrope in his remarks to us this evening. Some of the things said by his right honourable and honourable friends in another place and, indeed, by his noble friend Lord Mishcon in 1985 were somewhat more vitriolic, for want of a better word, in relation to British citizens living abroad. For example, there was reference in another place to the Tory Party scrabbling around the world looking for votes from tax dodgers, thieves and wastrels. I remember that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, made some reference to those who had left our shores in order to escape taxation or indeed to escape from the rigours of the law.

We are not talking about those people but about genuine British citizens who are doing a good job for this country in overseas territories, some spending their lives in those areas and most of them coming back at the end of the day to make their homes here.

As I said in 1985, it seems to me that they should have a right to have some say in electing the Government of this country. There are matters which bear on them; for example, this country's foreign policy. I guess that people who lived in the Falklands for a number of years and who have retained British citizenship will have a great interest in the foreign policy of this country and should have some means of expressing their views. Similarly, when it comes to taxation in relation to pensions which may be accruing in this country, there should be some mechanism through which they can express themselves.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that there is a problem from the constituency point of view and the loss of contact with a particular constituency. Perhaps one day we shall have to think in terms of setting up a special constituency for overseas people, people who are abroad for longer than a certain period of time.

It seems to me that the Americans have been able to vote in their elections for many years past, as have the French. All the trends in electoral law are moving towards greater flexibility. As noble Lords will be aware, my right honourable friend Mr. David Steel was on a parliamentary list in Italy this year as were one or two people from France. I believe that that is to be welcomed. We should begin to recognise that certainly as regards European elections, there is a wider canvas on which we should be painting.

I cannot dismiss a slight feeling that we have been here before. I cannot help saying, "I told you so". I remember that in 1985 I said: we should like to see British citizens throughout the world allowed to vote because it is on the basis of citizenship and not necesarily residence that the vote should be granted".—[Official Report, 2/5/85; col. 404.] To that end I sought to move amendments. In particular, I moved an amendment on the same day to widen the franchise to British citizens living in Europe. I had the temerity to divide the House and both the Government and the Opposition voted against me and I lost by 99 votes to 20. However, I was glad to have done that because I felt it was a matter of high principle. Therefore, without being too complacent, it is a matter of some comfort to me that we are moving on.

I believe that we still have some way to go. As I say, I should like to see the 20-year limit removed because many people who go abroad, if they go for a long time, go for slightly more than 20 years. I believe that 25 years would be much better because that tends to be much closer to the overseas period of service of people working for, for example, multinational companies. However, I hope that we shall return to sort out that matter eventually.

I do not agree that we should have retained the requirement to declare an intention to return. I believe that that was meaningless and most difficult to check on. A person might have had the intention to return at the time but then have changed his mind later. There was no way in which that provision could be enforced, and parts of the law which cannot be enforced are better out of the way. Therefore, with the qualification that it does not go far enough in one or two areas, we give this Bill our heartfelt support.

8.46 p.m.

Baroness Elles

My Lords, I should also like to welcome this Bill, and I am grateful to the Minister for having outlined its provisions.

However, many of us have had considerable pressure from organisations of British citizens resident abroad—for example, the British Conservative Association of France, of which I am the president. There are many other organisations which are of all-party membership and of no particular party but consist of British citizens who are serving their country abroad. They very much regret and resent being disenfranchised the moment they step off these shores.

My noble friend and other noble Lords have rightly referred to the 1985 Act. That introduced a five-year time limit. After that, it was very much hoped that the Government would take a wider and rather more liberal view and accede to the idea, as the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, said, that that time limit would be removed.

I certainly welcome the clause in the Bill which removes the declaration of intent because that has clearly not worked. I believe that it was very sensible that that should be dropped.

Turning to the time limit, I should like to give one very brief example of how that will create more anomalies and discrimination, although if there is going to be discrimination, 20 years is better than five. For example, many British citizens joined the European Commission or other European institutions in 1973 when the United Kingdom joined the EC. They will have the right to vote in a general election up to 1992, within which time there will be another general election, and they will have one bite at the cherry, but they will not be eligible to vote in the 1994 European Parliament elections. It is very regrettable that those people should be allowed to vote once and then should have that right taken away because they have lived abroad for over 20 years. They have probably not stayed voluntarily but have been doing a job for this country, whether in a European institution or any other sort of job which links them with the United Kingdom. Therefore, I very much hope that the Government or future Parliament will consider that the removal of the time limit will be of infinite benefit to our citizens working abroad.

Having read very carefully the debates in another place, I sometimes gained the impresssion that when referring to "British citizens abroad", there is a feeling that they have sailed away to the far corners of the Empire and are totally unaware that the means of communication and transport have considerably changed in the past 50 years. They seem to be unaware that practically everybody who lives outside this country comes back at least once or twice a year to see family, to look after property, pay taxes or whatever it may be. Linkage with one's home country is no longer a problem as it was years ago. I suggest that somehow people should widen their vision and recognise how life is lived today and not as it used to be.

Concerning the connection with a constituency, that is true if we think regrettably of the millions of British citizens living in constituencies who do not use their vote because they refuse to vote. Perhaps I may say that that is an infinitely greater crime to me as a responsible democrat: that whose who have the right do not use it rather than those who go abroad and would like to be able to vote and have not been able to do so.

Having read again the Representation of the People Bill debated on 29th June in another place, I refer to the words of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Home Office, Mr. Hogg, when he refers to the fact that the Government are taking a high moral stance that British Citizens, prima facie, should have the right to vote. I hope that slippage from the high moral ground will one day be restored and that British citizens, wherever they may be while they are outside the United Kingdom, will never be deprived of the right to vote in United Kingdom or European Parliament elections.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I said at the beginning that this was a short Bill. Indeed, it is a short Bill and it has also been a short debate but nonetheless important. Changes in electoral law are not matters which wise governments seek to make without careful consideration of other points of view, both within and outside Parliament.

It has been of assistance for the Government to hear your Lordships' views this evening. I am bound to say that I was excited at one moment when the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, assured the House that he was intending to speak for only a second. I thought that that was a modest length of time, but the fact that he extended it to eight minutes was merely a reflection of the interest that he has always shown in electoral matters and with which he stimulated us this evening.

I wondered whether the noble Lord would succeed in bringing proportional representation into the debate and, sure enough, he could not resist referring to it; but he was kind enough to say that he had no intention of tabling an amendment in Committee and I am grateful to him for that.

Not everyone can agree on these matters and the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, understandably said that he did not like the idea of the 20-year extension of the franchise because it made nonsense of close constituency links. That is a perfectly understandable view, but we also heard the other side of the argument. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, and my noble friend Lady Elles expressed the hope that the 20-year limit would be abolished in due course. That is for future governments and future parliaments to consider.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said that he had no opposition to Clause 6. I am most grateful to him. Indeed, I did not think any noble Lord opposed Clause 6. The point is that, although this will enfranchise 1–6 million people, the experience of other countries shows that the opportunity is taken up by very few people. In the United States, France, West Germany, Australia, Spain and Italy only about 10 per cent. of those who have the right to take up the franchise do so; but the fact that it is there is important.

I am grateful to your Lordships for having given what I should like to think is, if not a wholehearted welcome to the Bill, a fairly gracious welcome, with the one or two reservations expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. I hope that it will be possible to expedite the Bill so that in the near future those of our citizens who are working abroad—and let us remember, as my noble friend said, that they are not necessarily all that far away—continue to be able to have the franchise which this Bill will permit.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, he said that I had no objection to Clause 6. I was referring to the raising of election expenses at parliamentary by-elections. It seems that he was confusing that with an earlier clause.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord is entirely correct. His observations refer to the cash limits.

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