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I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for making that point, because it takes me on to the second category that I wanted to discuss, which comprises 2.5 million people who we believe are eligible to vote; the Foreign Office believes this and I accept its figures, although they are still estimates. I am talking about the
British expatriates who have lived abroad for less than 15 years. As he correctly says, a small proportion of that number participate in elections in this country, so I will return to the relevant question that was posed by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire. The reason why very few of those people participate is because we make it almost impossible for their vote to count. At the previous general election, in 2005, 17,000 British expatriates participated; I believe that that was more or less the number who were registered, so the turnout among those who had bothered to register was quite high.
Today-as at the last time of calculation-there are only 14,000 such people, as evidenced by a response to a parliamentary question. Only 14,000 people, out of 2.5 million, are registered. We have to ask ourselves why. The Lord Chancellor and his colleagues will say that it is because they have no interest-they have left the country, they cannot be bothered and they are no longer engaged with the political process in this country. It is possible that a proportion of the 2.5 million feel that way, and that that proportion is similar to the proportion of the domestic population who, regrettably, feel sufficiently apathetic about our election process and politics in this place not to participate in voting.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Does my hon. Friend not agree that if one is living abroad, one feels a sort of disengagement and feels isolated from realpolitik in the UK? Despite the fact that so many people have Sky boxes-they are illegal, I might add-in Spain and elsewhere, they cannot feel involved and do not feel the need to get involved in a general election.
Mr. Dunne: As I was saying earlier-and as my hon. Friend will have heard-I think that there is a case for saying that some of our citizens abroad feel disengaged. However, I am not seeking to address that audience-I am seeking to point out to the Minister that the deficiency of this Bill is that it does not address the practical steps that could be taken by anybody who wants to encourage those who have the right to vote from overseas to do so.
Mr. Wills: The hon. Gentleman has been very generous in giving way, and I appreciate it. He raises an important point, which is difficult and complex. He is probably aware that 3 million to 3.5 million people in this country are eligible to vote but are not on the register. There are all sorts of problems with that, and it is enormously difficult. Most electoral registration officers are very diligent in trying to get everybody who is eligible on to the register. We have laid duties on them and given them new powers, more or less with the support of the whole House. Those duties include sending out regular canvass forms and making house-to-house visits. If we are to believe the Leader of the Opposition, we live in an age of austerity. I hope that the hon. Gentleman-perhaps he can confirm this-is not suggesting house-to-house visits for the 2.5 million expatriates to whom he has referred.
I am certainly not, but I am very glad that the Minister raises that point. One challenge for any Administration, and for any individual electoral registration officer, is identifying where the people who are eligible to vote live. Were we to follow the practice that the
Minister suggested that I might be heading towards, we would have to knock on the doors not just of expatriates but of everybody who happens to live abroad. We do not know where they live. The Foreign Office missions do not keep a full register of British expatriates resident in their country. Every ambassador to whom I have spoken on this subject-I have touched on it with a number of them-says, "If only we could have a system whereby we could identify where expatriates live." They would like to have access to such a system so that they could fulfil some of their statutory duties in the event of an emergency, or whatever.
We require our citizens overseas to register annually. Citizens within the country are, as the Minister has suggested, sent an annual reminder of who is on the register for their property, but those who are resident overseas are not sent a reminder. If they do not bother to register or if they are not prompted to do so by some diary note that tells them that their registration will fall due, they fall off the register. That is a major inhibitor to people remaining on the register. People have to register every year, whereas many other countries have registration that lasts for the duration of their Parliament or for a fixed period of time. Some countries have 10-year registration; I think that that would be innovative and would deal with the problem.
The second practical problem for expatriates is that they have to have their identity confirmed on the registration form by another British citizen who is also on the register. As we know from our earlier discussions, only 14,000 such people live overseas. Many people who might like to vote while living overseas cannot, because they cannot find anybody who meets the criteria and is eligible to certify that they are who they say they are.
The Government put forward a consultation on individual voter registration that was due to be published last June. We have not heard the results yet, so the debate has been moved not one step further. The fact that the Bill says nothing about voter registration is another deficiency, and a missed opportunity.
Expatriates have the benefit of a very clear identifier. I am not allowed to use audiovisual props in the Chamber, but I am holding a British passport in my right hand. It has a single-number identifier, and allowing expatriates to verify that they are British by use of their passport number would overcome the problem of identity confirmation. I accept that there are some data protection issues, but unfortunately the Government have chosen not to go down that route, even though it would make it easier for people to register and therefore to vote.
I have tried the patience of the House and Ministers perhaps a little too long this evening, so I shall end by saying that people abroad who register to vote have to do so remotely. Most do so by post, which works well in the UK. Participation in postal voting by citizens resident here is rising each year, and I welcome that.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): My hon. Friend has not touched on the question of registration by service personnel overseas. At the last election, whole swathes of them were denied the right to vote. Does this Bill do anything to rectify that?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to armed services personnel. The Government, with the Ministry of Defence and service chiefs, have taken steps to increase significantly awareness of voting
among armed forces personnel overseas, but there is no doubt that operational risks are involved. We have all heard the rumours that British Forces Postal Services in theatre are at risk of being closed down for security reasons. That would mean that members of our forces currently serving in Afghanistan might well be denied a vote if a general election were to take place very soon. That would obviously be a tragedy; if possible, our servicemen and women should not be deprived of the opportunity to vote.
My point about postal votes for people overseas has to do with the date by which candidates are able to withdraw their nominations from the ballot. That date is so close to the day of the election that ballot papers cannot be printed-and therefore posted overseas-until 11 days before the ballot. The result is that ballot papers arrive overseas approximately one week before polling. Many people cannot be certain, therefore, that their ballot papers will get back to the relevant constituency in time to be counted, even if they sign them and put them back in the post on the same day that they receive them.
David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman is talking about the alleged difficulties of registration. However, my registration authority is one of many to register voters by text or email, so that is not a problem. Secondly, on the question of returning ballot papers, the fact that expats retain strong links with this country means that they will undoubtedly know people in the constituency where they are registered whom they can trust to cast a proxy vote.
Mr. Dunne: I agree with the first part of what the hon. Gentleman said, in that it would help if expats could register using modern technology. However, they are not allowed to, as they have to complete the form. My understanding is that the Electoral Commission does not allow electoral registration officers to accept registration from overseas by electronic means, because it is not satisfied with the present security arrangements. The technology is there, but it is not yet being used.
On the hon. Gentleman's second point, the evidence suggests that after five or 10 years, many people who move abroad may not have family or friends in the area they left. For instance, 18 or 19-year olds who go abroad to university may decide to stay overseas; although they might have been eligible to vote as teenagers, they no longer have people they can call on to exercise their vote for them.
However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that a proxy vote is the only way that expat citizens overseas can be certain that their vote counts. Asking people to participate only by way of proxy invites them, in effect, to give away their vote. That is a difficult thing to ask people to do remotely.
I conclude by regretting that the Bill does nothing to ease the participation of eligible voters or to facilitate voting for many British citizens who are disfranchised at present. That is a great shortcoming and failure of fairness in the Bill.
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab):
I am pleased to welcome the Bill as a further stage in constitutional reform. This Government have a great record in bringing
about constitutional reform, most notably in respect of devolution. When they came to power in 1997, one of the first things that I as a Welsh Member was involved with was bringing devolution to Scotland and to Wales. I remember feeling that it was an exciting occasion, notable for the fact that the Government were devolving power away from the central state. I was pleased to be here and to be part of that process.
As the Chairman of the Justice Committee said, it was easier to take that process forward in Scotland than in Wales, because in Wales there was less history of different bodies working together. There was strong support for devolution in Scotland, whereas in Wales people had to be convinced before they would agree to it. Since then, there has been much greater acceptance of devolution and a greater feeling that this is the right way for Wales to go.
Devolution has now been accepted in Wales, and a convention is in place and looking at future powers for the Welsh Assembly. There is nothing in the Bill that further extends powers to Wales, but I would like the Government to agree to a referendum on further powers if that is requested by the Assembly in future. The progress of devolution in Wales has been steady and is moving to the point where the people of Wales want more power over their own affairs. Although there is nothing in the Bill to take that further, I see it as a further step in constitutional reform.
Mr. Bone: The hon. Lady is making a powerful point about a missed opportunity. The Bill could have dealt with referendums, including one on increased powers for the Welsh Assembly. Could it not also have included a right to a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, for example, or on the European Union?
I shall deal briefly with two parts of the Bill, the first of which is reform of the House of Lords. Most parties in this Chamber support a wholly or almost entirely elected House of Lords. The measures in the Bill which relate to the House of Lords are another step in that direction. It is good that there will be an opportunity for Members of the House of Lords to resign their seats. Some Members of the House of Lords were called the people's peers. The history of their attendance and their involvement in the House of Lords suggests that some of them do not show a great deal of commitment to that House. They should have the opportunity to resign their seats. There are notable exceptions-in particular, Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, a close neighbour of mine in Cardiff, who has been an outstanding Member of the House of Lords and an outstanding people's peer. Others have also made huge contributions, but recent research shows a huge variation in that group's attendance, and there should be an opportunity for some to leave. Many such peers would probably like to leave, so the provision's inclusion in the Bill is a good thing.
The Prime Minister can appoint someone to the House of Lords to take up a ministerial appointment. It happens frequently and has always happened under all Prime Ministers, but there is an issue if that Minister resigns after a certain period but is left with a peerage
and a seat in the House of Lords indefinitely. That should be looked at. Many people who were appointed in that way were brought in because of their expertise, and they have a lot to contribute, but they may not want to take on the role of a Back-Bench peer, so the opportunity for them to resign will, again, be a very good thing.
Getting rid of the remaining hereditary peers is another step towards a wholly or almost wholly elected House of Lords, and I hope that that measure will be in all parties' manifestos at the next general election. It has taken a long time to reform the House of Lords, but there is one big block on any reform: the legislation has to go through the House of Lords itself. Reform has taken longer than many of us would have wished, but we have moved further down the road.
I turn now to the issue of the Prime Minister's ability to appoint people to the House of Lords as Ministers, and whether those Ministers should have to be Members of either House. Is there a case for the Prime Minister being able to appoint people who do not have to be Members of either House, but who could come to the House of Commons to account for their actions? It is unsatisfactory that Secretaries of State who sit in the House of Lords cannot come here to answer to us in the House of Commons, so certain things need to be looked at and there should be further change.
I made it clear in an intervention that I welcome the Bill's civil service provision. We have been waiting for a stand-alone civil service Act for some time, and the inclusion of the provision is a good thing. I particularly welcome the establishment of the Civil Service Commission and the requirement for appointments to the civil service to be open to competition and made on merit. It has become more customary in the civil service to advertise appointments externally, and more customary for people from the wider community to be able to apply. However, that is certainly not true of all appointments, and it is difficult to obtain a civil service that is representative of the population if many appointments depend on internal civil service recruitment. The range of women and people from black and minority ethnic communities in the civil service has improved in recent years. However, there is no doubt that the requirement that jobs should be openly advertised and open to competition, and specific efforts made to reach groups that are less well represented, is bound to improve the situation in the civil service by making it more representative of the country as a whole.
Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak at the perhaps somewhat premature end of this debate, which has been reassuring to some extent but also slightly depressing. It has been reassuring because debates on Bills of this sort bring out the best in the House, in many ways, and the tone has been reflective, thoughtful and serious in addressing very important issues; but depressing because it has been poorly attended, especially by Labour Members, and because so much of it has been about what is not in the Bill, not what is in it.
That reflects what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said at the outset when he rightly dilated on the grandiloquent claims
made by the Prime Minister at the inception of his premiership about how he was going to bring about a great constitutional renewal: he talked about a new settlement using very fine, splendid and high-sounding phrases. We have been through several iterations of draft Bills, White Papers and Green Papers along the way. As my hon. and learned Friend said, the mountain laboured and brought forth a mouse-not a ridiculous mouse, as the phrase generally has it, but a rag-bag in terms of constitutional reform. To adapt the phrase, it is a modest little Bill with much to be modest about.
We warmly welcome the civil service parts of the Bill, which are my principal concern. This legislation has been talked about for a very long time; I think that the commitment was made by John Major's Government in the late 1990s. It has been a long time in gestation, and here it is, given birth to at long last. We hope that it can come into effect shortly.
It is interesting how much of the debate was not about what is in the Bill, but what is not in it. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), in a typically intelligent, temperate and thoughtful speech-he was very unpartisan in his approach, as we have come to expect-talked persuasively about the need to adopt a holistic approach as regards constitutional reform. He referred to the dangers of making piecemeal changes without giving sufficient thought to the ramifications of change and the interaction of different parts of our mysterious constitution, and the need to be looking at these changes in the round. We would all agree with that. We look forward with keen anticipation to the ex cathedra pronouncements from the Public Administration Committee, which he chairs, on the role of the House of Commons and its relationship with the Government.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) was another who talked about what the Bill lacks. As one would expect, he spoke about the need for electoral reform; we did not agree with him, but he made his case and we listened respectfully. He also talked about the hole in the Bill that might have been filled by provisions on party funding. The need for such provisions persists as strongly today as it did when the Hayden Phillips discussions were embarked upon three and a half years ago, when Tony Blair committed the Labour party to being willing to make the profound changes needed to tackle the abuse of union funding, which has made it difficult to make serious progress on party funding reform in the mean time.
I am sorry that I missed nearly all the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell), but I suspect that he talked about the case he has eloquently been making for recall provisions for Members of Parliament. They may not always be comfortable with such provisions, but he is right to make the case for them.
There has been a certain amount of discussion about the provisions on House of Lords reform. The Lord Chancellor's defence of the proposals was interesting. I do not believe that anyone would claim that the current arrangements are in any way what we would want to start with. No one would design the system to look as it currently does. It is a vestige, a residue, of the unfinished reform of the second Chamber embarked upon by the Government 11 or 12 years ago.
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