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Orders of the Day

Representation of the People Bill

2nd Allotted Day

Considered in Committee [Progress, 15 December].

[Mr. Michael Lord in the Chair]

5.17 pm

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): On a point of order, Mr. Lord. There has been some suggestion that the Bill's Report stage may be scheduled for debate in the House as early as next Monday. Although Opposition Members should have no objection if that is so, the Committee would be helped if--at some point, not necessarily now--guidance could be provided on the tabling of further amendments that right. hon. and hon. Members may wish to make to the Bill and on the starring of those amendments.

As the Committee is expected to finish considering the Bill by 7 o'clock tomorrow, and the House will not be sitting on Friday, I am sure that you will appreciate the point, Mr. Lord. The Opposition do not object to scheduling Report stage for Monday, but some guidance on tabling amendments would be very helpful.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Further to that point of order, Mr. Lord. I should like to make a slightly more hardline point than that made by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). We believe that it would be preferable to follow the usual rule--allowing a weekend, or several days, between the end of a Committee's consideration of a Bill and the beginning of Report--not least because there will be colleagues who, for whatever reason, may have assumed that Report would be held at a later date and require time at least to read Hansard and decide what amendments to table.

The normal courtesies--if they are to be followed by Madam Speaker and you, Mr. Lord--preclude moving to a subsequent stage in less than 48 hours. If possible, we should have an indication. Will you, Mr. Lord, confirm at an appropriate time that the normal rule would be that, between the end of the Committee and the beginning of Report, there would be time for hon. Members to read Hansard and to table amendments, with a day in between the tabling and the debate to ensure that everybody had due notice of further stages of the Bill?

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Lord): I was not aware of the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but I imagine that they will be dealt with in the usual way during the business statement tomorrow, or, if not, through the usual channels.

Clause 1

New system of electoral registration.

Amendment moved [15 December]: No. 1, in page 2, line 44, leave out from "elector" to end of line 2 on page 3.--[Mr. Kaufman.]

The Second Deputy Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following: Amendment No. 2, in clause 8, page 10, line 11, leave out ", 2".

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Amendment No. 3, in page 10, line 14, leave out from beginning to "and" in line 15.

Amendment No. 4, in schedule 1, page 19, line 28, leave out from "declarations" to end of line 29.

Amendment No. 5, in page 26, leave out lines 28 to 31.

Amendment No. 47, in schedule 2, page 27, line 33, leave out "20" and insert "5".

Amendment No. 48, in page 27, line 33, leave out "20" and insert "10".

Amendment No. 49, in page 27, line 42, leave out "20" and insert "5".

Amendment No. 50, in page 27, line 42, leave out '20' and insert "10".

Amendment No. 82, in page 28, line 2, at end insert--

"(4A) The third set of conditions is that--
(a) he was included in a register of parliamentary electors in respect of an address at a place that is situated within the constituency concerned,
(b) that entry in the register was made on the basis that he was resident, or to be treated for the purposes of registration as resident, at that address, and
(c) he either, prior to ceasing to be a resident of the United Kingdom, signed a declaration stating an intention to return to the United Kingdom to live within ten years of departure, or, alternatively, he continues to pay income tax annually in the United Kingdom.".

Amendment No. 51, in page 30, line 23, leave out "20" and insert "5".

Amendment No. 52, in page 30, line 23, leave out "20" and insert "10".

Amendment No. 53, in page 30, line 32, leave out "20" and insert "5".

Amendment No. 54, in page 30, line 32, leave out "20" and insert "10".

Schedule 2 stand part.

Amendment No. 7, in schedule 4, page 34, leave out lines 52 and 53.

Amendment No. 8, in page 35, line 19, leave out from "connection" to end of line 20.

New clause 1--British citizens overseas--

".--(1) Sections 1 to 4 and subsections (1) and (2) of section 12 of the Representation of the People Act 1985, as amended by the Representation of the People Act 1989, are hereby repealed.
(2) In section 3C of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978 (as inserted by the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999), in subsection (2), paragraph (b) and the word 'or' at the end of paragraph (a) shall be omitted."

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): When my speech was interrupted on 15 December, I was about to take an intervention from the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant). There has been a more prolonged intervention in my speech--namely the entire Second Reading of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, which the House had on Monday. In that debate, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made an announcement about the content of clause 130 of the Bill, which deals with the subject of this amendment and the others being taken with it. I found both clause 130 and what my right hon. Friend had to say profoundly unsatisfactory. I very much hope that what he said is not the last word. I will come to that in a moment.

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I would like to resume the argument that I was putting to the House when the debate was adjourned just under four weeks ago. When we talk about the overseas vote, Opposition Members seem to indicate that my amendment would remove some major right. In fact, this fancy franchise is a flop. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) has fantasised in this House about possibly 3 million overseas voters being removed if my amendment were accepted.

When the Conservative Government introduced the overseas vote, they did so unilaterally and not as a matter of consensus, as the present Government are seeking with this Bill. They introduced the measure against my opposition, as shadow Home Secretary, and that of the party which I represented.

Mr. Greenway: The intervening period has allowed us the opportunity for further research. When I seek to catch your eye later, Mr. Lord, I will give the right hon. Gentleman the benefit of the consistency that he has shown. However, he cannot say that there was no consensus on that matter. In its report in the 1982-83 Session, the Select Committee on Home Affairs unanimously supported a recommendation that all UK citizens registered in EEC countries should be permitted to vote in British parliamentary elections. The thoroughness of the report indicated that there was cross-party consensus for there to be overseas electors, and the subsequent legislation sought to implement that report.

Mr. Kaufman: That is not what emerged from the 1984 debates. The Home Affairs Committee in that Parliament took the view that there should not be an overseas vote, and did so unanimously. It is as simple as that.

Whether or not that is so, let us look at what the Conservative Government of the day envisaged might happen--and what might happen, let us be clear, on the basis of the seven-year period with which they started. They forecast that there would be 800 overseas votes per constituency in the seven years, representing half a million overseas voters. The latest figure--for last year--was 13,677: 21 per constituency. That is the extent of this huge, allegedly unalienable right, introduced in any case only 16 years ago, that the Conservative party persists in demanding.

The greatest number registered--I mean people registered to vote, not actual votes registered--throughout that period was 34,454 in 1991, which is 53 per constituency or 0.08 per cent. of the electorate. In 1990, the figure fell to 1,836--on the kindest possible calculation, that is 0.00 per cent. of the electorate--and that was after legislation extending the period to 20 years.

The amendment is not designed to stifle an insatiable demand for democracy among expatriates.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): The right hon. Gentleman has explained that few people want to take advantage of the right that they have, but does not the fact that those few people do take advantage of it suggest that they feel strongly that they want to participate in the national life of their mother country, and is not that a good argument for continuing with that right?

Mr. Kaufman: A more direct way of their participating in our national life would be for them to live here rather than trying to affect directly how the country is governed after 20 years abroad.

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The hon. Gentleman has intervened at a felicitous moment, because I was coming to the effect that even that tiny number of people can have. I see in the Chamber my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith), whose return to the House we welcomed in 1997. He was defeated in the 1992 general election by 19 votes, after three counts; 65 overseas votes were registered; 38 were cast by proxy--the majority from South Africa--and the proxies were well-known local Conservative party activists. He was out of the House for five years, not because the people of Vale of Glamorgan did not want him as their Member of Parliament but because a small group of Conservatives in the constituency defeated him on behalf of people who would never have been represented by him one way or the other.

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