HL Deb 21 July 1995 vol 566 cc500-4

12.25 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 26th June be approved [24th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the regulations which we are debating today will give citizens of the European Union resident in this country the right to vote in local elections and to stand as candidates in local elections. This extension of the franchise was part of the Treaty on European Union and the relevant directive was agreed towards the end of last year.

To register to vote in a local election, a Union citizen must meet the same requirements as British, other Commonwealth or Irish citizens. He or she must therefore have been resident in Great Britain on the qualifying date of 10th October, or 15th September for Northern Ireland, and must also meet the age qualification. Citizens of other member states who wish to be candidates in local government elections must conform to the same nomination procedures as other candidates. All this flows from the terms of the relevant article of the treaty which requires that non-national residents in a member state should be treated for electoral purposes in the same way as the nationals of that state.

This is the second recent extension of the franchise. Last year Parliament approved regulations which made all Union citizens resident in this country eligible to participate in the European Parliamentary elections. Parliament approved those regulations in time for Union citizens to participate in the European Parliamentary elections which were held in June 1994.

Your Lordships may be aware that the effect of the directive on European Parliamentary elections was that EU citizens resident here who wished to vote had to make a separate application to do so. Under the directive on local government elections, citizens of the European Union will be registered for local elections as part of the annual registration canvass carried out by electoral registration officers. The relevant form, Form A, has been amended for this purpose and electoral registration officers will be under a duty to register all those Union citizens whom they judge eligible, just as they are at present with British, other Commonwealth and Irish citizens.

The regulations before us are comparatively straightforward. They extend local government electoral rights to resident Union citizens by amending the nationality criteria contained in the Representation of the People Act 1983, which covers England, Wales and Scotland, and to the relevant Act of 1989 which deals with Northern Ireland. Regulation 3 effects the necessary changes with regard to the right to stand as a candidate and Regulation 4 deals with the right to vote. Regulation 5 provides for a number of detailed consequential amendments to our electoral law.

Your Lordships may have noticed that Regulations 3 and 5(1) and Schedule 1 come into force on 1st January 1996. This is the deadline in the directive. The remainder of the regulations come into force on the 14th day after the day on which they are made. This is to enable the registration of Union citizens to take place this Autumn. They will have to be registered in the Autumn canvass if they are to enjoy local election voting rights from 1st January next year.

Under the directive, British citizens living abroad in the Community will enjoy local voting rights. What this means in practice will vary from member state to member state. The directive has attached to it a list of the local government units to which the directive applies. However, systems of local and indeed regional government vary considerably from member state to member state, as does the extent to which member states devolve power to local government, and comparison is no easy matter.

Progress with the directive has been reported to Parliament by means of the usual explanatory memoranda. An explanatory memorandum was submitted by the Home Office on 22nd April last year and supplementary memoranda were submitted on 18th May and 30th November. The matter was debated in Standing Committee in another place on 19th July 1994. As those explanatory memoranda made clear, in negotiating the directive the Government achieved its main policy objectives and the regulations now before us give full effect to our treaty obligations. They do no more and no less than that. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 26th June be approved [24th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Blatch.)

12.30 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I apologise on behalf of the Opposition Chief Whip for the fact that my name does not appear on the list of speakers. My noble friend Lord Carter was rather unnerved to see his name on the list. I shall speak in his place.

The Opposition support the regulations both in principle and in detail. Indeed, we congratulate the Government on finding time to debate them when the Euro-sceptics and xenophobes in this House—I recognise that they are not the same thing but they are too frequently found together—have not woken up to the fact that the regulations are being discussed. Therefore, they have not come into the Chamber to carry out a diatribe against them. The debate on these regulations in another place on Monday was rather unpleasant. A succession of Conservative Back-Bench Euro-sceptics stood up to express not only objections to the regulations but objections to the whole of the Maastricht Treaty process and the movement towards European Union citizenship in addition to UK citizenship. Indeed, they seem to think that the two are alternatives rather than, as we think, necessary and valuable extensions to the right of British citizens.

As a matter of general principle, we support the idea that those who live and pay taxes in an area should have the right to vote in that area. Of course, you cannot advance that principle in support of these regulations because they apply only to citizens of the European Union and not to citizens of other countries who also live here. Those people may live here for many years and pay taxes and they could and, in my view, should have a part to play in our local government.

The only distinction that one can make, apart from the distinction of the requirements of the Single European Act and the subsequent treaties, is that the rights which are being conferred by these regulations are reciprocal. I am not aware that there are any other countries in the world, other than Commonwealth countries and the Republic of Ireland, which give reciprocal rights to British citizens to vote in local elections in their country. To that extent, one can make a distinction and justify the present regulations.

However, we have a practical anxiety about the regulations. I am aware from the debates in another place that all member states have now declared that they will implement comparable regulations from 1st January 1996. In practice, I do not believe that we shall do so until 15th February, which is the date on which the October register comes into force. I understand that member states have placed on record their own definition of what is meant by a local election and what regulations they apply, since these are regulations of individual member states in relation to local elections. I should welcome a renewed assurance from the Minister that there is no cause for concern about progress towards implementation by other countries. The regulations are valuable not only because they extend the franchise in our own local elections but also because they provide that our citizens in other European countries—I understand that there are more than 400,000 of them—may vote in those countries. We have the practical worry I mentioned, but we welcome the regulations and we shall not oppose them.

12.35 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, from these Benches I too welcome warmly the regulations. I am sure that the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, will share my experience of canvassing or simply talking to people during elections. I have been asked by people whose emotions have ranged from puzzlement to great anger, "Why am I not entitled to vote? I live here; I pay taxes here; and my children are British"—a point often made by non-British spouses of British citizens—"and I play my full part in the community." I am delighted as regards the elections which are the subject of the regulations that the European Union will enable those people to vote and, indeed, to stand and play the part they want to.

I am particularly aware of the feelings that exist on this matter because I come from an area which has a number of schools, particularly German and Swedish schools. Inevitably, there are many people whom I know personally who fall into the category I have described.

I am pleased too that the regulations may be a small prompt to increased participation in elections. I know that your Lordships are worried that the turnout at local elections is so low. I am glad to welcome anything which may improve that turnout.

I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to respond to the one point I wish to make. She mentioned the change to Form A, which will be put through our letterboxes very shortly, and the responses to the electoral registration officer. Inevitably, however much one tries to move away from it, those forms contain a great deal of jargon. Notices placed in, for example, libraries tend to use somewhat formal bureaucratic language, as do newspaper notices and so on. They do not necessarily reach the people one wants to reach. I hope that the Minister will assure me that real efforts are being made to put across the message. It may be that something needs to go with the form, although the Minister may say that that is a matter for local officers. However, I believe that some imaginative publicity would be extremely appropriate.

I wonder whether the Home Office is liaising with the consulates of the countries concerned. It is important that it is not left as a matter of regulation. A great deal more is needed to put across this welcome message. We support the regulations.

12.38 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, first, I welcome what is happily a consensus view about the nature of the regulations. Perhaps I may take up the two points that have been raised.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, that we have no reason to believe that all other countries will not honour the date of 1st January 1996. As I said in opening, there will clearly be different procedures. But what is absolutely certain is that all countries have signed to meet the deadline of the directive. They have also agreed to treat European nationals, from whichever country they come, as nationals of their own country. Therefore, whatever the procedures, they cannot differentiate between a visiting European national and a national indigenous to that country. Therefore, all citizens in every country will be treated as a citizen of that country. We have no reason to believe that that will not happen.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to participation. We regard that as extremely important. We have a budget to promote participation in elections and we are trying to be as imaginative as possible. We are resorting to television advertising and carrying out market testing into the quality of the reception of the message. I shall ask my department whether that extends to incorporating also the importance of these new measures. The department certainly considers it important to encourage people where possible to exercise their right, which is an extremely important right. I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.