HL Deb 24 October 2000 vol 618 cc243-54

(" .—(1) In section 2 of the Representation of the People Act 1985 (Registration of British citizens overseas), at the beginning of subsection (1) there is inserted "Subject to subsections (1A) and (1B),".

(2) After subsection (1) there is inserted—

  1. "(1A) A person may not be registered in a register of parliamentary electors for any constituency or part of a constituency in pursuance of an overseas elector's declaration unless he has been so registered within the previous 12 months.
  2. (1B) Subsection (1A) does not apply to a person who qualified as an overseas elector in relation to parliamentary election within the previous 5 year period, and such a person may be registered in accordance with subsection (1) above if—
    1. (a) during that 5 year period they have been registered at least once in a register of parliamentary electors for any constituency or part of a constituency in pursuance of an overseas elector's declaration (whether or not that registration has subsequently lapsed), and
    2. (b) they register within 12 months of the end of that 5 year period."").

The noble Lord said: At the risk of putting down a hostage of fortune, this is the last major amendment in the Committee stage of the Bill. The Ministers are probably delighted; frankly, so am I. Amendment No. 280A deals with the provision for overseas electors. As Members of the Committee know, the Bill, as drafted, seeks to reduce the qualifying period to register as an overseas elector from 20 years to 10 years. I believe that this is the first law since universal franchise which seeks to disenfranchise those who are eligible to vote at present.

My amendment seeks to do something very different. Roughly speaking, it is the "use it or lose it" concept. I believe that I have considerable support for this around the Chamber. Clause 134 proposes to reduce the qualifying period during which British citizens living overseas can vote in UK elections to 10 years. That was not a recommendation of the Neill Committee, nor was it in the Government's White Paper.

There are roughly 3 million British citizens living abroad. I believe that their views in this matter have not been taken into account. Like many noble Lords, I have had a great deal of correspondence in this matter. I shall not bore Members of the Committee with this, but they will recall from other Bills that I have a daughter who lives in Italy, and so on and so forth. I am not principally pursuing their interests, although I am their proxy, so their votes arc pretty safe. It also allows me to go to a polling station and remember the days before I was elevated to this place.

In evidence given to the Home Affairs Select Committee in 1998, the Home Office stated that nearly all the representations it has received on this issue wish to keep and, indeed increase, the qualifying period. When the 20 year limit was introduced in 1989, Alistair Darling, now the Secretary of State for Social Security, speaking on behalf of the then Opposition, said that 20 years was a sensible compromise. He argued that, it is now clear that a number of people will leave this country … but will still maintain a lively interest in the affairs of the country". I believe that remains the case.

In the other place there was cross-party consensus that the Bill, as drafted, was unacceptable and that something should be done which would enable voters to have an enduring connection with the United Kingdom and to continue to have a right to vote for as long as they continue to register each year; that is, the "use it or lose it" part.

My amendment will enable those British citizens living abroad to continue indefinitely to vote and participate in the electoral processes of the United Kingdom. Each overseas elector would need to register during, and at any time during, his or her first five years of living abroad. But to maintain their voting rights they would have to continue to register after the five-year period in each subsequent year. If they failed to register in any year after that, they would lose the right to vote.

I hope that that gives some comfort to those who wish to see the 20-year period remain in place or be extended. I hope that it will also please those who think that giving people 20 years in which they could register—for the first time, I suppose—is far too liberal. I believe that this is a reasonable compromise.

I have consulted widely and been lobbied fairly extensively on this matter. I believe that my amendment has cross-party support. I have had support from surprising quarters. In a fax dated 17th October, Labour International stated: No doubt the letterhead is unexpected but, on behalf of the overseas members of the Labour Party, please let me express our sincere thanks for your stand on the issue of overseas voting. We fully support your amendment and would be pleased to join in a world-wide cross-party lobbying effort in this connection". Indeed, Labour International goes further and states that my amendment is superior to the Government's proposals. I have a number of other letters on the subject. Some are from Brussels. A number of people who work for the Community in various aspects have lifelong connections with this country and feel that they would be disfranchised. I know that some people think that perhaps we should narrow this down to include only people working in Brussels and for official bodies. However, I believe that is unfair and wrong. Many other British citizens may be working for companies abroad, but indirectly they may still be working for Great Britain or the United Kingdom plc. I am not in favour of making any distinction. We should treat all our citizens living abroad in the same way.

I shall not continue at any length. Global economy, increasing travel and the free flow of people around the world suggest that we should not go back 10 years and reduce the period to the first 10 years. We should extend it on the "use it or lose it" principle. Many people from other countries who come to this country can register to vote here and vote. I refer to the Commonwealth, for example. It seems to me to be wrong to treat British citizens who go abroad in such a negative way and not accept that, if they are interested enough to keep registering year on year, they should continue to be allowed to participate in our democratic process. I beg to move.

Lord Goodhart

I shall shortly speak to Amendment No. 280E in this group, tabled in the name of my noble friend Lord McNally and myself. However, before I do so, I should like to speak to Amendment No. 280A. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, pointed out, this matter was not considered by the Neill Committee. Therefore, in this short debate I speak on behalf of my party and do not in any sense wear a Neill Committee hat.

The view of the Liberal Democrats was that we originally put forward a proposal that the vote should be retained for a period of only five years.

We accepted that 10 years was a reasonable compromise. We voted for 10 years in the other place and have not tabled any amendment to propose a reduction in that period. But 20 years is too long. It amounts to nearly half of an average working life. Those who are out of this country for a continuous period of 20 years have generally lost contact with what goes on here to a degree that makes it inappropriate that they should play a part in parliamentary elections.

Many people are employed commercially overseas and a large proportion of them will not be abroad continuously for 20 years or indeed 10 years. They will normally serve a period abroad and then return to this country for a while and perhaps go abroad again if they are working for a multi-national. But that is a commercial decision to make a career overseas with a commercial organisation.

The purpose of Amendments Nos. 280E and the similar Amendment No. 280EA, is to exempt a small group of people from the time limit. At present Section 14 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 allows people to register without time limit if they are serving abroad as members of the Armed Forces, in other positions in the service of the Crown—mostly in the Diplomatic Service—or as employees of the British Council. We believe that that provision should be extended to cover those who are employed by various institutions of the European Union and other international organisations to which the United Kingdom belongs. Some Members of your Lordships' Committee—they were present earlier but are no longer in their places—regard service with a European Union institution as being virtually akin to treachery. We do not; in fact, we regard them as serving the United Kingdom by serving as employees of an organisation to which the United Kingdom belongs.

But this issue goes wider than the European Union. We believe that similar treatment should be given to those who serve the United Nations or any of its various agencies; and those who serve the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the other smaller and less well-known international organisations of which the United Kingdom is a member. On the grounds that those people are in public service to a public which includes the United Kingdom, they should be entitled to maintain their place on the register of electors in the United Kingdom.

Lord Dubs

I should like to comment briefly on the general context in which these amendments are being considered before going on to speak to the specific amendment standing in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Gould, Amendment No. 280EA.

I have some sympathy with the comment "use it or lose it", used by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. It has a certain integrity and ensures that people who are interested in retaining a commitment to voting are able to retain the right to vote. However, at the time when the 20-year period was introduced, I wondered whether that was the right way to go. In that regard I have some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart.

The right to vote is a responsibility and a privilege. It surely ought not to be given to those who have thrown their lot in with another country. Those who are committed to this country and are abroad for reasons of service to this country or as employees of international organisations of which this country is a member, have not actually cut their ties with this country. But I do not know whether an individual who has cut all his ties with this country should continue to have the privilege of being able to vote in our elections. After all, how will those who have no residence in this country and who have been away for 10 years or more know what the election issues are? Presumably they do not pay taxes here and therefore will not be involved in some of the real subject matter of an election. So I worry about giving people who are away for such long periods the right to vote when they no longer have any links with this country beyond originating here. They have thrown their lot in with another country and are no longer part of our political system.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Perhaps I may make two points and ask the noble Lord if he would like to address them. First, if a person has no links and no interest, he will probably not continue to register to vote every year. That was my reason for saying that they must register every year. They cannot suddenly think, "Oh there's an election coming up. I'd better register". If they missed registering last year, then they have missed out forever.

Secondly, the noble Lord obviously has not heard of the Internet where people abroad can now read British newspapers and watch the BBC as quickly and as readily as can we who live here. So I can assure the noble Lord that their interest can be maintained on a day-to-day basis.

Lord Dubs

That is why I said I had some sympathy with the "use it or lose it" point. And it is certainly possible, even if one has not heard of the Internet—I actually use it quite frequently—to obtain newspapers originating in this country. However, that is not the same as playing a part in the political life of this country. Those people do not pay taxes in this country; they have no day-to-day involvement with the issues that affect us, whether it is the health service, public transport or whatever. That is why I ask whether people who have cut their ties with this country should be entitled to the privilege of taking part in our elections? I believe that if they have cut those ties for quite some time they should not.

That brings me to Amendment No. 280EA, which is similar to Amendment No. 280E. They seek to make an exception for those people from this country who work for international organisations of which the United Kingdom is a member. In doing that, they are continuing to retain their links with this country and are therefore entitled to say that they have not thrown their lot in with another country; they are still committed to the political process of this country.

That is why it is anomalous that British subjects who work for the European Commission or the European Parliament and are based in Brussels or Strasbourg should lose their right to vote, when those who work for the Foreign Service or the British Council do not. There is an inconsistency in that and both amendments seek to put that right. I hope the Government will consider them sympathetically.

Lord Williamson of Horton

I rise to support firmly but briefly Amendment No. 280A moved by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.

The only reason that the Government could propose, as they do in this Bill, to change the current situation is that they believe that British citizens living abroad effectively lose their links with the United Kingdom after a shorter period than is provided for under the current rules. My experience, including 19 years working outside the United Kingdom, does not support that view. British citizens abroad generally consider the political situation in the United Kingdom to be either interesting or inspiring, or sometimes otherwise, roughly in the same proportion as British citizens in the United Kingdom.

The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, effectively responds to the Government's concern because if a United Kingdom citizen resident abroad must make the effort to register every year after his first five years abroad, he demonstrates his continued concern as a United Kingdom elector. I like the amendment because it is generally applicable.

I could also support Amendment No. 280E tabled by the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Goodhart, because it seems to me desirable that British citizens working in international, including EU, institutions should continue to feel concerned about national elections. However, I should prefer a rule of general application to all British citizens resident abroad as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. But I do not agree with the text of the Bill as it stands. It is not satisfactory and we must go in a direction which to some degree maintains the position of those who already have rights abroad. I am generally against measures which disfranchise United Kingdom citizens.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Bowness

I support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Mackay and I hope that the Government will reconsider the position. Overseas voters are overseas for a variety of reasons, not necessarily because they have thrown in their lot with another country. People go abroad for employment, to be near their family and for health reasons. The fact that people live in other countries does not mean that they want to cut their ties with the United Kingdom. I do not believe that we should be seeking to withdraw from citizens of the United Kingdom one of their rights; namely, to vote in a parliamentary election.

Indeed, it would be somewhat anomalous for those of our citizens who went to live within the European Union because, if they were deprived of a right to vote in a parliamentary election, they would be deprived of a vote at a particular level of election within the EU. Member states still play an important part within the EU.

When fewer people want to be involved in the democratic process, I do not believe that we should be reining in our citizens' rights. If we do, we shall be joining a minority of countries. I am grateful to the Library for carrying out some research for me. I shall not take up the Committee's time by going through it in detail but perhaps I may examine the provisions of the other members states of the EU. Italy allows its citizens to keep their rights to vote even when living permanently abroad. When looking at the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Spain, Austria and Belgium, which gave the right to vote abroad in 1998, one sees a general acceptance of that provision. I understand that Germany allows its citizens to vote if they are resident within any state of the Council of Europe. Denmark is more limited and, according to the information I was given, France and Portugal make provision for overseas citizens within their parliaments. It seems that only Greece, Ireland and Luxembourg have no provisions.

If we begin to restrict the right in the way suggested by the Government, we shall be moving to the end of the spectrum where countries are less generous towards their citizens rather than to the end where they are more generous. That would be a matter of great regret.

Lord Tomlinson

I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. There is a strange paradox because, at a time when the Home Office is conducting all kinds of experiments in local government elections to try to persuade electors in this country to use their votes in greater abundance, the Home Office is trying to reduce the right to vote of those who are not only working abroad serving their country but who are vigorously fighting to retain their right to vote. It is not a sign that people have cut themselves off from their country, but the noble Lord's evidence from New York illustrates the pressure that is being put on both the public and private sectors.

Many of the 3 million citizens who live abroad choose not to exercise their votes. Those who feel themselves alien from the process do not participate in it now and there is no reason to believe that they will in future. But to reduce the qualifying period from 20 years to 10 is about as retrograde a step as one could imagine a Parliament taking in the name of democracy.

If there is nothing wrong with the present system, do not seek to change it. I should be happy if my noble friend said that he has thought again, that 10 years is a silly provision and that a longer period will suffice. The longer period should be that which we already have and my noble friend must establish a case for changing what exists. But if he is insistent on changing the system, the proposal put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is eminently reasonable. It applies to both the public and private sectors; those who serve their country in the public sector and those who serve the interests of this country by working in British companies abroad. I do not see the distinction; it is entirely artificial.

On that basis, the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is preferable to that which seeks to limit the provision to people working in the public sector. I hope that my noble friend will realise that it is not an issue about which a few people have suddenly become concerned; there has been a long-standing expression of concern. I hope that he recognises that three is disquiet in the Committee that after so much concern being expressed so publicly over such a long period the Home Office has been so slow to react. I hope he will reassure us tonight that serious thought has been given to the matter and that he has proposals which will allay some of the anxiety. If he does not, I shall find the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, vastly preferable to that which is in the Bill.

Lord Howe of Aberavon

I want to speak in support of both amendments. To some extent, each has its own merits, which have been well canvassed.

Perhaps I may start from the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson. The existing provisions have not been used by 3 million people; they have been used by a much smaller number. It is not as though out system is about to be overwhelmed by hoards of quasi-aliens, cut-off Britons, voting in unpredicted numbers. Therefore, any move which restricts those who are entitled to exercise the right is entirely negative.

I can support the Liberal Democrat amendment because it extends provisions which already exist in relation to British Crown servants, British Council people and one other category to other people in public service overseas in all the international organisations. The noble Lord, Lord Williamson, as a creature of that kind, is Exhibit A in tonight's debate. He has done immense service to this country in his work in the European Commission. We had to work very hard to secure people in that position and we did it in the national interest.

Moreover, as regards the European Community, Members of the Committee will know of the European fast stream provisions which are designed to secure long career-running British public servants in the European institutions. It would be foolish not immediately to accept the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, from the Liberal Democrat Benches.

However, one is then left with the discrimination not only between the public service, however widely one defines it, and business but between the public service and worthy, often young, people in nongovernmental, charitable organisations working overseas for long periods of time. I was struck by the somewhat diffident rejection of the case I put to the Home Office prior to the Recess. I expect that other Members of the Committee have received the same response. The letter that I received from Mr Mike O'Brien, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, concluded, rather encouragingly: As you say, the Government has indicated that it is ready to consider amendments to clause 134 if there was a consensus in favour of an alternative proposal. I have yet to see signs of such a consensus emerging". Listening to tonight's debate, the consensus that I support is that both amendments cover the entire field of deserving characters. Mr O'Brien goes on to say: This is particularly so in the case of the proposal that existing arrangements for Crown servants … be extended to cover those employed by international organisations". I believe that the use of the expression "particularly so" means that the Government are anxious to achieve a solution for those in international organisations. He goes on to say: In the Commons there was some sympathy for the view that it would be difficult to argue that similar treatment should not also be afforded to those employed overseas by, for example, British businesses or charities". The letter appears to solve its own problem. The Government say that they seek consensus. They would be happy to have an arrangement for those in the public sector. However, they would be a little hesitant about it because it would discriminate, for example, against those working for British businesses or charities. If I may be allowed to use Latin in this place rather than in the law courts, cadit quaestio: the question falls because it answers itself. If the Minister indicated a willingness to accept both amendments, that would go even further in the direction of common sense than the alternative proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, that there should be a return to square one. I hope that the Committee will demonstrate a massive consensus, sufficient to satisfy the Home Office in its tentative search for such a thing, by accepting both amendments without hesitation. I very much look forward to hearing exactly how the Minister can possibly rebut that clutch of arguments.

8.45 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

I am in such agreement with the noble and learned Lord who has just spoken that I need not repeat many of the points that he made. What we have before us is a package, and both amendments can be seen in that light. Perhaps the fact that they are all grouped together for one debate identifies that fact. I hope my noble friend will say that the Government will go away and look at this as a package and return with relevant amendments.

Electoral registration officers have pointed out to me one or two technical problems about the amendments spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, which I am sure they would want to put right. However, in the other place the Government said that if there was consensus, they would give this matter serious consideration. I have read the debate in the other place, and the objection appeared to be that if one extended the categories as outlined in the amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Dubs, the provision would relate only to Crown servants who now have that facility. That is not true. British Council staff are not Crown staff and yet that extension has been made in their case. It has also been said that the "use it or lose it" argument does not apply to those who work in the commercial field. I believe that it can and should. That argument is also unacceptable. However, I do not believe that in any of the amendments before us we have the ideal. I hope that the Minister will go away and think about this again.

Lord Grenfell

I believe that the proposal to treat this as a package by my noble friend Lady Gould is eminently sensible. My sympathies are with the "use it or lose it" amendment, but even more so with the two Liberal Democrat amendments. Having served for 30 years in an international organisation, those amendments have a special appeal to me. From my experience, the British members of staff never lost interest in what was going on back in their own country. Although some of my noble friends on these Benches may suggest that I should have my head examined, in my 10th year at the World Bank I became a founder member of the supporters group of the New York City Social Democrat Party. We took a very great interest in what went on in United Kingdom politics.

I should not like people to believe that the amount of time spent abroad working for an international institution automatically reduces someone's interest in his home country. I cannot say that I have received any correspondence from Conservatives abroad: all of it has gone to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. However, I have received a great deal of correspondence from Labour supporters abroad who have a very good point. I very much hope that my noble friend will look at this as a package and see whether something can be done to produce a better arrangement than that which is now in the Bill.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

We have the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, a hero of Socialist International, and we have Exhibit A on the Benches behind me. I am confounded by all of the responses. In this matter we responded to the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee on electoral law and administration in October 1998. We said in another place that we sought consensus on this matter. Originally, we believed that 10 years would attract consensus. Clearly, that is not so.

Although I have particular difficulty with the amendments before us, I believe that the "use it or lose it" approach may turn out to be very complex and administratively difficult for electoral registration officers, as my noble friend Lady Gould hinted. If one adopts a class exemption and says that certain categories of UK citizens abroad will have an entitlement to vote but others will not, that leads us into difficulties in terms of discrimination. Where does one draw the boundary as to who should be included in any amendment to what is offered at the moment?

Having made those observations, I am content to go away and contemplate this matter further. My own preference is to continue to have a qualifying period. Having heard the arguments in Committee this evening, I accept that both five years and 10 years are unacceptable periods. However, a qualifying period is at least a clean, neat solution. I am tempted to believe that there should be some kind of compromise. I should like to consult on the possibility of having an extended qualifying period of, say, 15 years. That is perhaps on the generous side of a compromise between 20 years as originally proposed and five years as suggested by the Home Affairs Select Committee.

I do not want to extend the debate any further. I have heard the powerful voices in the Committee on this matter. I am not sure that we can achieve a solution in the form of a package, given some of the complications involved in the various amendments. I should like Members of the Committee to reflect on that. However, we shall return with an amendment which is rather more generous in terms of its qualification than that which is currently before the Committee. With that, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment so that we can give the matter further consideration.

Lord Goodhart

Having opposed the first amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, I have been impressed by the degree of support for it expressed on all other sides of the Committee. We should be prepared to consider a package, provided that it included both something in the form of our amendment, or the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the "use it or lose it" amendment. Obviously, we should like to see the detail of what is proposed before we commit ourselves to supporting it, but in principle we should look favourably on a package.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I thank all Members of the Committee who have taken the trouble to add their voices in support of the principles involved in this issue. The Minister recognises that he has no friends for the position in which he currently finds himself. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, that my amendment would cater for all the people he is concerned about. I am not one of those people who think that working for a European institution is treachery; nor do I think that working for private enterprise in any of its forms abroad as a British citizen is treachery. I should be very reluctant to sign up to anything which differentiated between various classes of British citizens. I have a friend—

Lord Goodhart

Does the noble Lord accept that under Section 14 of the Representation of the People Act there is differentiation between Crown servants and others?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Yes, indeed, the noble Lord is correct. But that probably has a long historical connection back to the days of the Empire, military serving abroad, the diplomatic corps and so on.

I have a friend who has taught English to Italians in Piacenza for the past 40 years or so. His interest in this country is as great as it was the day he left. Indeed, in order to find gossip about our mutual friends I usually have to phone Italy to receive the news about what is happening around me. Usually he is astonishingly accurate. I had better not go into what he tells me about friends. But he certainly keeps me right about who is married to whom or who is still married to whom, which is perhaps more important these days.

I think there is general agreement which the Minister has taken on board. I am content to listen to points and have discussions about the complexities of my amendment. But I am attracted to the two principles: first, you have to establish your interest reasonably soon after you leave this country; and, secondly, you must keep up that interest year on year. There is also a third point, if I may add that. You can actually have your interest for as long as the job takes, because increasingly people are working on these posts for a very long time. I mentioned the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and there are many people who work in Europe and other parts of the world. They work away for quite a long time because it is part of their career. But they never actually lose contact with this country.

I am grateful to the Minister for listening to us attentively and carefully. I am grateful to noble Lords who have taken part. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 134 agreed to.

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 280B: After Clause 134, insert the following new clause—