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We should also be asking whether we should revisit the whole basis of the franchise that we use in general elections, which is the result of layer upon layer of historical accident. There has never been any real thought or logic applied to it; it is simply a gradual accretion of different rules that affect the franchise. This is of vital importance when it comes to general elections. There
are now tens of thousands of non-British citizens who are able to vote in general elections in this country by virtue of being citizens of Commonwealth countries or the Irish Republic. In some individual cities and towns, the electoral roll contain tens of thousands such people, and the total across the whole country must amount to several hundred thousand. That is certainly sufficient to swing the outcome of a general election and, without doubt, to do the same in a referendum that is likely to have a very low turnout, owing to the small part of the public who are engaged with the issue and likely to participate when we vote on it next year. The outcome of that referendum could be determined by people who are not citizens of the United Kingdom.
I know that the Conservative party is sympathetic to the point raised in my amendment 61, and I hope the coalition Government will be as well. While we allow a number of people who are not British citizens to participate in elections in this country, we also prohibit a large number of expatriate British citizens from participating in our democracy because they have been living overseas for more than 15 years. I hope that the Government will in due course address this question in relation to general elections, but the issue is all the more important when we are discussing a referendum that will change the very constitution of our country. One could argue that people who choose to live outside the United Kingdom have less interest in, and a less direct concern with, what we might loosely describe as the management of the government of the country for the immediate future, but many of those expatriate citizens intend to return to the United Kingdom when their work commitments come to an end. They intend to return to their country of origin, the country that they continue to regard as their home. They still want to participate fully as citizens of this country. To change the rules on which our democracy is based without consulting them about their own country and democracy would be wrong.
Mr Brady: Perhaps my hon. Friend can enlighten me on that. My assumption is that it is possible for such people to vote, albeit with some difficulty, as long as they have not been out of the country for the period of years that would lead to a prohibition.
The mishmash of rules relating to the franchise deserves a moment's attention. Before we address the question of how we vote, it would surely make sense to look at the related issue of who should vote in this country. Broadly speaking, there are three categories of participant in British elections other than that of a full British citizen resident in the United Kingdom. First, there are Irish citizens, who have the same rights to vote here as British citizens, except that those who are living overseas may not vote even if they are on the electoral register here. Also, in contrast to Commonwealth citizens, Irish citizens are not subject to a qualifying period before they can be included on the electoral roll here. Secondly, Commonwealth citizens have a right to vote in Westminster, European, local and devolved elections when they qualify to do so. For this purpose, they qualify if they do not require leave to enter or remain in the country, or if they have
been granted such leave. This right extends to Gibraltar on the same basis. Thirdly, the citizens of European Union member states who are resident here through having exercised their right of freedom of movement around the EU have the right to vote in European, local and devolved elections, although not in general elections. There is therefore a rather complex combination of different participants, and of levels of participation, in the franchise.
Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Is it not remarkable that this country is almost unique in the world in allowing such a large number of citizens of other countries to vote? For example, in the United States, only US citizens are allowed to take part in elections, and that applies to all elections, as well as referendums.
Mr Brady: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If I am not mistaken, his wife is American. In the United States, it is a given that citizenship and the right to vote go together. At the very least, we should expect that when we choose to extend the right to vote to non-British citizens-
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman has started a theme running in my mind now. Please will he tell off the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith)? It is impossible to be "almost unique". It is a bit like pregnancy; something either is or is not unique. In regard to one of the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady), the truth is that we have reciprocal arrangements with the Republic of Ireland.
Mr Brady: Yes, we have reciprocal arrangements, although they are often not entirely symmetrical. For example, I believe that there is a qualifying period of residence for a British citizen in the Republic of Ireland before the reciprocal arrangement comes into effect. As a Brady, I hold no malice whatever towards those of Irish extraction, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows well, we allow an entirely different situation to exist in relation to citizens of Commonwealth countries. We have reciprocal arrangements with some of the smaller countries-typically the Caribbean countries, some of which have provided a significant number of residents in this country. However, the bigger Commonwealth countries such as India, Pakistan, Australia, Canada and New Zealand offer no reciprocal rights to British citizens living in those countries, even though we allow their citizens to vote when they are here.
Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that there is also a distinction to be drawn between voting in general elections, where the rights of residents are important, and voting in a referendum involving constitutional issues that relate less to a right of residence and more to the issues that will affect our children and grandchildren and future generations? In such cases, the country of which a person is a citizen is of more central importance than where they happen to live.
Mr Brady: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has made the point brilliantly. The requirement that one should be a member of this country-that we should extend voting rights only to those who are fully part of our country-would surely seem entirely normal and entirely rational in almost any country of the world. However, as my hon. Friend says, it seems even more so when we are considering the nature of our democracy and the rules on which we base our constitution for the future.
As I make these brief remarks, I stand here in a spirit of enormous optimism-which is my usual state-because I happen to know that the Opposition support my position. At the very least, they supported the position that my amendments encapsulate as recently as 2008, when, in the document "Citizenship: Our Common Bond", Lord Goldsmith said:
"Voting in all elections, along with holding a passport, is the ultimate badge of citizenship."
"I do propose that government gives consideration to making a clear connection between citizenship and the right to vote by limiting in principle the right to vote in Westminster elections to UK citizens. This would recognise that the right to vote is one of the hallmarks of the political status of citizens: it is not a means of expressing closeness between countries."
That deals with the concerns that many of us might feel. We have a real strength of affection and affinity for the Commonwealth and we would not wish by any means to offend Commonwealth partners or their citizens. Citizenship carries some rights, but they are entirely different from those that come from that closeness, friendship and relationship between countries, just as Lord Goldsmith said.
Chris Bryant: Yes, I am pregnant again with this issue. The hon. Gentleman should not confuse the views of a former Minister with the views of the Labour party. It sometimes seems that former Ministers hold all sorts of fascinating views that they did not hold when they were in office- [ Interruption. ] I include myself in this. One day the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), will be a former Minister and he might then have some views. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) should not confuse the views-that was not the Labour party's view at all.
Mr Brady: I have always found the hon. Gentleman to be commendably consistent. I hoped that that would be evidenced this evening, should he be called upon to enter the Division Lobby on these matters. My optimism is not bounded even by the shadow Minister's words of caution, because my hon. Friend the Minister also appears to endorse the sentiments that I have expressed.
"It is perfectly normal in most countries that in order for someone to be able to vote for the national Parliament they have to be a citizen of the country concerned. That is a perfectly normal process and we are not changing it in this Bill. It is the existing system and I feel sure that Mrs Clegg will cope with it perfectly well."-[ Official Report, 6 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 128.]
I am sure that Mrs Clegg will cope with it perfectly well, whatever we do this evening. However, crucially, although my hon. Friend the Minister appears to share my view that it should be perfectly normal for the right to vote in general elections to be reserved for citizens, as it is in most countries around the world-in almost every country around the world-it is not yet perfectly normal in this country. The purpose of these amendments is to begin to lay the ground for that important change in the franchise.
Mr MacNeil: I am reading the hon. Gentleman's amendments with interest. I note that Republic of Ireland citizens would, as I understand it, lose the right to vote in the referendum if his amendments were to go through. However, those who live in Northern Ireland but have Republic of Ireland citizenship, so long as they were ordinarily resident in Northern Ireland, would be allowed to vote. My question is about those from Northern Ireland who might have Republic of Ireland citizenship-not UK subjects-but who subsequently move to Scotland. Would they vote or would they not, and how would we enable that to happen or not to happen?
Mr Brady: I think I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think that for the purposes of this Bill it would be perfectly simple. We are talking about a referendum vote that will take place on a single occasion, so any change we make in the franchise for the referendum would clearly depend on their status at that time.
Mr Brady: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that I tabled amendment 60 in a spirit of compromise with the intention of avoiding re-opening difficult debates that had taken place at the time of the Good Friday agreement. It is of course an inconsistency set against amendment 59, but that is its sole purpose.
Chris Bryant: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being very generous, for giving way. May I clarify something? I realise that the amendments relate only to the referendum, but does he think that the perfect normality to which he has referred should apply to general elections? In other words, does he think that Commonwealth citizens should no longer be allowed to vote in British general elections, too?
Absolutely. Like Lord Goldsmith in the document that I have quoted, I think we should move towards a position in which we treat the right to vote in
a general election in this country as one of the rights and privileges that go hand in hand with full citizenship. I would like to see that happen. Clearly, it goes beyond the scope of this Bill-it is a debate that is yet to happen-but I hope it is a debate that we will have, because I think that most people in this country would be quite surprised even to hear what the franchise is for a general election. I certainly think that the hon. Gentleman and most other Members of this House would be hard pressed to advance a compelling case for the strange mishmash of franchise that I have set out this evening. We should simplify it and we should set out that important principle. I hope that the Opposition will continue with the rational position that was adopted on this subject in the previous Parliament.
Mr Dodds: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way to Northern Ireland, but I do not claim entirely to represent Northern Ireland on this issue. I want to clarify the intention and consequences of amendment 60, if it were passed. I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks and where he is going with this, both as regards the referendum and elections in general. However, would the effect of amendment 60 be to include people who have chosen Irish citizenship in Northern Ireland post-1998 and exclude people who became Irish citizens before the Belfast agreement in 1998?
Mr Brady: I think the amendment as it stands would do that. I am entirely open to the right hon. Gentleman's point and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister, in working hard to accommodate these reasonable concerns, could take steps to deal with that point, too, if he wanted to at a later stage of the Bill. The crucial point-the point of principle-is that it is even more important in a referendum on our constitution than in the franchise for a general election that we should have a rational franchise that we can all defend and explain to citizens of this country and that we should celebrate the importance of the right to vote. We should understand that the right to vote in a British election is a privilege that has been hard fought for over generations and that is fundamental to what it is to be a British citizen. It is time that we limited that right to those who are British citizens.
Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): I rise to speak to amendment 332, which is in my name. The amendment would have the effect of lowering the voting age for the referendum to make sure that all people who are aged 16 on the day of the referendum can have their say on something that will affect them when they are 18 and eligible to vote in the general election. All those who are aged 16 on the day of the referendum, whenever it is, will be 18 or over by the time we get to the general election, if it is in May 2015, so the provisions will absolutely affect them.
Natascha Engel: I was coming to that; that was my joke. [ Interruption. ] All right, I will say it again in a moment. I am a former trustee of the UK Youth Parliament, honorary president of the British Youth Council, a former chair of the all-party group on youth affairs and-are hon. Members ready?-I speak as a former 16-year-old. [ Laughter. ] I thank hon. Members for laughing at that. I could not vote when I was 16, and although it was almost 30 years ago I remember how deeply frustrating it was not to be able to take part in something as important as voting was to me then.
Mr Mark Field: Surely the logic of the hon. Lady's position is to say that everyone who was born before 6 May 1997 should be entitled to vote in the referendum, if that is to be relevant on the day of the now-fixed election in May 2015. Why does she not have that date in mind? Is it the absurdity of people being entitled to vote in the referendum at age 14 years and eight months that dissuades her from going down that route?
Natascha Engel: I think that falls outside the scope of the amendment. It is important to establish that we are arguing that the voting age should not be raised. Referendums are very rare in this country and this referendum is specifically about voting reform and changing the system under which we vote in parliamentary elections, which are open to participation by anyone who is 18 or over on the day of the election in question. My argument is that we should not raise that voting age above the age of 18. Someone whose 18th birthday happens to fall a day after the election might be knocking on 23 before they get a vote, especially if we set in stone the five-year voting period. The almost unique opportunity presented by the referendum will affect people who will be 16 and over on the day of the referendum and it is very important for them to be able to participate in the referendum because it will affect the voting system in which they will be asked to vote on the day of the general election in 2015. We should therefore allow them to participate, as we have already told them that they will be allowed to participate in the election at the age of 18. This is an almost unique opportunity to lower the voting age to 16.
Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): The Liberal Democrats share the hon. Lady's passion for reducing the voting age, but does not her amendment risk looking dangerously isolated against the mission that she wants and we want: a much broader package of votes for everyone at 16? It looks very isolated and perhaps this is not the Bill in which to pursue this issue.
Natascha Engel: I would love the opportunity to table an amendment for, and to debate something much broader on, lowering the voting age to 16. This amendment gives us an opportunity to demonstrate that when 16-year-olds take part in an election, democracy does not crumble and the sky does not cave in; indeed, it might strengthen democracy. This is a good opportunity to demonstrate to the doubters that giving young people the vote at 16 is a good thing to do.
Mr MacNeil: Does the hon. Lady agree that if we can send 16-year-olds into our armed services and demand that they pay tax, they should be allowed to vote at 16? The Scottish National party and, I recall, the Liberal Democrats have been very strong advocates of having the franchise at 16; we are still of that mind and I hope that in the Lobby the Liberal Democrats will be, too. Is she optimistic about that?
Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): I think that the hon. Lady was one of the sponsors of my Bill in the previous Parliament to reduce the voting age to 16, which was defeated by just eight votes. I suspect that there is now a majority in the House to achieve that historic change, but we cannot do that in this Bill. A much wider debate is needed to tease out all the issues. Does she agree that another private Member's Bill is the way forward?
Natascha Engel: Oh no! I am a great fan of private Members' Bills, and I do not want to do them down, but this Bill, rather than just a private Member's Bill, is a really good opportunity to change the law.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): It is obvious that there is a certain degree of wriggling on the Liberal Democrat Benches as they try to find a reason not to support votes at 16 in this context, despite having been very strong advocates of it in another context. I urge my hon. Friend to push the amendment to a Division, because we have not had a vote on this matter since the new Parliament was convened and it is important to test the opinion of the House.
Mr Charles Walker: The hon. Lady will know that the Liberal Democrat Benches are full of independent-minded people and I am sure that some of them will demonstrate an independence of mind and support her in the Division Lobby.
Natascha Engel: I hope so too, and I hope to see the hon. Gentleman there as well. I would be delighted if as many people as possible joined us in the Aye Lobby-I am just getting used to being on the wrong side.
The United Nations convention on the rights of the child, to which the UK is a signatory, is very straightforward: it grants every child and young person the right to express their views "freely" and to have those views "given due weight" in "all matters affecting" them. That goes to the crux of the matter. Our 16-year-olds will be excluded by what we do here tonight unless the amendment is accepted. Their voices will not be given due weight regarding something that will fundamentally affect their democratic rights two years after the referendum. Anybody
who is aged 16 on the day of the referendum will be 18 at the general election and eligible to vote. We need to be careful about contravening people's human rights.
Mr MacNeil: The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) may have been taunting the Liberal Democrats to stick to their principles, but I am again stunned by their spinning, wriggling and movement. Is there anything left? No single transferable vote, no votes for 16-year-olds-what is left for the Lib Dems? May I offer them a cerebral argument? Sixteen-year-olds will be disproportionately affected by virtue of their age-
Mr Harper: If the Government get their way, the referendum will take place on 5 May 2011, so based on the logic of her case surely the hon. Lady should be arguing that people who are 14 next year, who will be entitled to vote at the general election on 7 May 2015, should also be enfranchised. That is the logical conclusion of her argument, so why is that not the amendment she has tabled?
Natascha Engel: I tabled the amendment because the campaign to lower the voting age to 16 is well established. The argument we are making is that 16-year-olds are perfectly able to take responsibility and to have a well thought-out and well argued opinion. We need to focus on that. Personally, I would have no problem with allowing 14-year-olds to have a say, but that is not what we are arguing for today, although I know plenty of 14-year-olds who are very capable of making responsible decisions. The reason we have a limit at 16 is the same as the reason for having a limit at 18-it is arbitrary. I argue that we need to lower the age, because people can take responsibility. As has been said, 16-year-olds are allowed to go to war, and with the consent of their parents they are allowed to get married. They can do any number of things. Although the limit may be arbitrary, the campaign is well established and we need to draw the line somewhere. At present, it is being drawn at 18, but I would like it to be 16.
Mark Durkan: Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend. Currently, registration details are taken from people who are 16 and 17. They are not eligible to vote, but they are eligible to register, subject of course to having achieved that age. The registration details of many people aged 16 and 17 are already available.
Mr Harper: I shall limit myself to this point, or we shall be in danger of not moving on, but I want to nail it because it is driving me round the bend. The hon. Lady correctly said that 16-year-olds could not join the armed forces without their parents' permission, but she also knows that we do not deploy to conflict people aged under 18. If she makes such arguments, she should at least make sure that they are factually accurate.
Natascha Engel: Indeed. At 16, people are allowed to do many things over which they have no say. The argument I am trying to make is that, as we are proposing a fundamental change in the voting system for a parliamentary election, at the referendum-and referendums are rare-that will happen only a few years before the general election at which we propose to change the voting system, it is only right that the people who will be affected by it should have a say in whether they want that system changed.
Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that as well as the principled reasons why the age for taxation and for voter registration is 16, there are also some practical reasons? Sixteen is not just an arbitrary number; it is quite sensible and there is a fundamental principle behind it.
Sammy Wilson: She probably will, because I am a bit confused about the argument for the amendment. It started off as an argument that, as people would be using the system to vote at the next election, they should have some say about it. As has been pointed out, that ought to mean reducing the age to 14, because 14-year-olds will be using the system. Then the argument changed and we heard that we had to choose an arbitrary age, and it was 16. What is the central point that the hon. Lady is making? Is it that people should have a say about the system that will be used when they first have a vote at a general election? If that is the case, why is the age not 14? Why not choose any number at all and put it in the amendment?
The argument, which I shall now try to make without taking too many interventions, is that a limit at 18, 16, 14 or 12 is quite random. Individuals mature at different times-I shall not make personal assumptions-so when we draw the line under any voting age, there will be some people who are more mature and others who are less mature, but there are lots of reasons why 16, and not 18, is a good age at which to draw the line. Although I should love to see votes at 16 for every election-parliamentary, local government and referendums-the Bill offers us our only real opportunity to lower the voting age in a referendum, because referendums come up very rarely. The change could be quite easily made; as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has pointed out, 16-year-olds are already on the electoral register, so the process will not be difficult for local authorities. Sixteen is a good age at which to draw the
line, because it has to be drawn somewhere. All those 16-year-olds will be 18 by the time of the general election, at which point the new voting system will be in place-or not. All I am arguing is that those people need to have a say.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): My hon. Friend is right to say that the proposal offers a good way to test the water for 16-year-olds. If Members on the Government Benches are right and no 16-year-olds are interested and none of them takes part, we can learn from that, perhaps by engaging further with them. The proposal offers a good test-bed for us to engage with younger people, which everyone in the House supports.
Natascha Engel: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Since 2002, and the glorious days of the Labour Government, all secondary schools have given citizenship education. All young people who will be 16 by the time of the referendum will have had some citizenship education, and they will have some knowledge and understanding of participation in the voting process. We talk about engagement, but if we are really serious about engaging young people in democracy we need to allow them to participate.
Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): To expand on that point, a lot of young people's first contact with politics on a serious level comes when they start their A-levels and do politics A-level. There is a huge amount of interest among the A-level politics groups in my constituency. When an election comes, and they are not allowed to vote, it does seem that we are excluding a group of people who have become engaged with the subject for the first time. For reasons that have been pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) and the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), the age of 16 is established as the point at which many of us move into adulthood in a whole raft of ways. A 16-year-old can get married, have sex legally, start paying tax and join the armed forces.
Natascha Engel: I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for that intervention; he is absolutely right. By a happy coincidence of timing, on Friday week-on 29 October-the UK Youth Parliament will, for the second time, have its annual sitting on these Benches. Last year, when the UK Youth Parliament so controversially sat on these Benches, it debated four subjects and had a vote at the end to decide which subject was the most important to it. The subject that came out on top by a long way was lowering the voting age to 16. Those are 11 to 18-year-olds who are democratically elected through their youth services, and who have a lot to say on the issue. A lot of us who were here and who heard them speak were very impressed, but the issue has not gone anywhere.
The Youth Parliament is about to return, and it would speak volumes if we said to them, "We heard what you said last time round. We know that this matters to you, and we have today voted to ensure that 16-year-olds can take part in this unique referendum. We will give people the vote at 16, at least partially, on this one-off occasion." The 16-year-olds can then demonstrate themselves that the move strengthens democracy, rather than undermines it.
To end on a positive note, I really hope that we all vote for the amendment, especially those parties which had votes at 16 written into their manifesto and campaigned on the issue at the general election. I hope that those people, at least, will find their way into the Aye Lobby. I hope that they understand how important the issue is to those who are 16 on the day of the referendum, and who really care about the issue and about having their voices heard on that day, so that when they take part in the general election at the age of 18, they will have voted for the system in which they are taking part.
Ms Primarolo, I hope that you understand how important the issue is. We are in a new Parliament, and we have lots of Members who are much closer to the age of 16 than Members were in the previous Parliament. It would be great to test the mood of the Committee, just to see where people stand on the issue, because it really matters. This is the last act of discrimination that we really need to get rid of. We need to widen the franchise, and this is a fantastic opportunity to do so.
Mr Shepherd: This is an important group of amendments, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) and those who signed up to them. It seems extraordinary to most people when one says, "But you don't have to be a British citizen to vote in a national election in Britain." It is, by and large, a remarkable thing. It may be a post-imperial legacy, or there may be other reasons, but that is what this issue is about.
We are holding this debate on the Floor of the House of Commons because it is a constitutional debate, and it therefore affects our rules and our sense of self-governance. I am particularly grateful for the amendments because in his remarks my hon. Friend mentioned the various criteria that enable people to vote in very important elections in this country.
The status of Commonwealth citizens is interesting. The Bill, as a package, brings together some important issues, among them the registration process to get on the electoral roll. I have had experience in my constituency of a family who were on the electoral roll-they were citizens of the Commonwealth-but who were not here lawfully. There is no duty imposed on a returning officer to ascertain whether those who fill in the form and submit it to the electoral officer are entitled to be on the register. In certain parts of the country, that can affect the outcome of elections, be they constituency or regional elections; it depends on the concentration of those who have got their names on the register in particular areas. That is the first point.
Through this loosely worded approach to a referendum constituency, if I can put it like that, we are giving a vote to people who have no natural association with this country other than through post-colonial arrangements. I do not think that that is appropriate, and most people, if they stood back and thought about it, would think it rather incredible that anyone who has got here unlawfully and has their name on the electoral register-although that is an offence-can vote. In fact, such people have voted, and may have affected the outcome of an election. The referendum is important, because it relates to a
change to our constitution. Should that not be a matter for British subjects or citizens? I think that the right answer is yes.
Mr MacNeil: I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman. I have already given an example to which there has not yet been an answer-of the Irish citizen from Northern Ireland living in Scotland. What about the children of those who have left the islands of Scotland and gone off to Australia or New Zealand? I know some people who have done so. Those children are the children of UK subjects and have the title of British citizen. Are they entitled to vote, although they have never lived in the UK, when those who have come here and are materially affected by what is happening would not be allowed to vote?
Mr Shepherd: I do not want to engage in an exchange across the Chamber of the kind that we have just had. I respect the hon. Gentleman's opinions, but it seems that we are talking about a central, small part of an issue: what constitutes British citizenship? It is not as defined in 1947 any more, and there has been a whole series of extensions to that definition. Now, European-not British-citizens can determine how local taxes are arranged in the borough or elsewhere.
This is a question that would, frankly, have been startling to many people, certainly when I first came to the House. The numbers are huge: 3 million new British citizens have been created since 1997, and I do not see them returned on the electoral register. It has not leapt by that number. I want to assert the essential concepts of citizenship, because the Bill is, in the end, about our citizenship; it is about voting processes and how we elect a Government, and it explores the idea of a five-year mandatory Parliament. However, the essential issue here is who should vote. That is all it is about.
Mr MacNeil: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that somebody who holds British citizenship because of their UK-subject parents-I know that these are funny terms that are kind of inconsistent-and who has never lived in the UK should be able to vote in the referendum and that those who live here should not?
Mr Shepherd: I am using common terms, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for that. I understand British citizenship as a link by birth to a country. I also see it as the sentiment of the individual. As I said, there have been 3 million new British citizens in 13 years, and it is not impossible for them to express that sentiment and qualify for citizenship. I did not want to be distracted down the routes along which the hon. Gentleman was trying to lead me. I feel that we have started on a question and answer session, and that was not my intention.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I totally agree with him. One of the prices for taking part in elections in the United Kingdom ought to be that someone is a citizen of the United Kingdom. Given that principle, with which I agree, does
he consider that amendment 60 sits uneasily with it, in so far as we are making exceptions for people who opt for Irish citizenship and yet would be entitled to take part in the referendum to decide on the kind of voting system that there should be for British elections?
Mr Shepherd: In a sense, there are two parts to that. One is sentiment. Let me illustrate that the other way round. I take the Crossland example. It is not a bad one, and concerns the American wife of a British politician. She lived here for many years, was married to a British citizen and wanted to vote in British general elections, her husband being a leading Labour politician. That was impossible for her under her citizenship of the United States. It was absolutist. The United States has given way on that and recognises that American citizens can retain their American citizenships while voting, in certain circumstances, in a British election. There is their concept of citizenship. Where is ours?
What is the basis of our great universal appeal? It is the formation of our own society and its integrity-the integrity of our view of the rule of law, the constitutional tradition, the way in which we change our laws, and so on, which are mostly unknown to those who come from foreign parts, who are here temporarily, but qualify under the terms of our existing arrangements.
The Government have opened up this great can of worms, in the sense that by putting the Bill on the Order Paper as a constitutional measure, they are inviting people who do not necessarily have any attachment to the concept of the United Kingdom or the integrity of its institutions to vote. Why? If we were to do a poll on this-my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) seems to rely on the stars of polls-most people would be very confused by what my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West said as he listed the various categories which, on the various sections, may vote for this, that and the other.
The amendment is important and I will most certainly vote for it. There should be a duty to ensure that everybody is validly on the electoral register. That is not funded properly. Local authorities maintain that they cannot afford to do it. Mine are already allocating numbers, because they have a small grant, of those who should go out to get people to register. One can look at any electoral register-I see it in my own constituency-and two missing residents jumps to eight, which jumps to 10 or perhaps 14. There are all those missing residents, and not just residents, but citizens.
When constructing the boundaries that will come from the Bill, we do not know what that will mean in terms of equality of boroughs. Some 95% of immigration into the United Kingdom is into England. It is concentrated in cities and in certain areas. Illegal immigration, as we know, is very high. Statistics are adduced for that. Immigrants who come from a Commonwealth country and speak English often apply to go on to an electoral register. They need it for other reasons, to show that they are householders and so on. Under the terms of the Bill, they will vote. It may not be lawful that they should vote, but there is no mechanism by which we can identify whether they are entitled to vote. I shall support the amendment.
Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op):
I shall contribute briefly in support of amendment 332 proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for North
East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel). Like her, I speak as a former 16-year-old, and also as a former chair of the all-party group on youth affairs. It is important that in this debate, hon. Members in all parts of the House are listening to the organisations representing young people who, as she said so eloquently, have been campaigning for many years for the principle of votes at 16.
I was 16 in 1983, and there was a general election that year which some of us remember only too well. I stood in a mock general election in my school and I came fourth as the Labour party candidate, although 14 years later perhaps made up for it by winning in that same constituency in 1997. I cite that because in my experience 15, 16 and 17-year-olds are often extremely interested in politics. The case that has been made for votes at 16 is about recognising the rights of citizenship that include the right to vote in elections.
The referendum gives us a first opportunity to try out the notion of giving votes to 16 and 17-year-olds. As a supporter of that, I am confident that it will work and that many 16 and 17-year-olds will choose to participate, for the reasons that my hon. Friend gave. Those who are more sceptical will have the opportunity to see whether it might not be quite so successful in practice.
My hon. Friend, who was subject to many questions and interventions, made the case clearly as to why it makes sense for 16 to be the age at which the limit is set. Of course, as she said, it is to some extent an arbitrary age, as is any age. An age lower than 16 would be problematic and would raise practical issues about the registration process, as hon. Members have said, whereas we already ask 16 and 17-year-olds to put their names down when placing people on the electoral register each year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, it is a straightforward proposition to suggest that 16 and 17-year-olds should be entitled to vote in the referendum.
Mark Durkan: A further consideration, certainly in the context of registration in Northern Ireland, is that anyone registering must give their national insurance number. Obviously, that would be available only from the age of 16.
I encourage hon. Members in all parts of the House to be brave and to support the excellent case that has been made this evening by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire. I respect the fact that there are some in the House who, in principle, are opposed to any lowering of the voting age from 18. If Members feel that strongly, the onus is on those of us who support a reduction to 16 to persuade them. I am more sceptical of those who fought an election on a manifesto to reduce the age to 16 yet are telling us today that although they support the reduction in principle, this is not the opportunity for us to do that.
We have not had the vote yet. How can I name our Liberal Democrat friends when we have not yet had the vote? I encourage Liberal Democrat Members to consider this. The case has been made, including by the hon. Member for Bristol West
(Stephen Williams) over a number of years, in favour of making the change, on the basis of equality and of democratic reform. I am a strong supporter of the referendum. It is an important opportunity for us to debate how the House is elected, and I would very much like us to give 16 and 17-year-olds the opportunity to be part of that decision when it is made next May.
Chris Bryant: I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) on providing us with the amendment to debate this evening, and on the manner in which she presented her case. It showed that one can make a forceful case with a considerable degree of humour, and I think that we all enjoyed it. Indeed, it was one of the most enjoyable speeches that I have heard in the House for many a long year.
I was going to say that I was once a 16-year-old, but I am not entirely convinced that I ever really was; I think that I am going back to my childhood now. Several hon. Members referred to the issue of 16 and 17-year-olds, and I know that hon. Members in the Liberal Democrat party are trying to find reasons why they do not have to vote against the Whip this evening, but I honestly say to them, "You're either in favour of votes at 16 and 17 or you're not, and if you are you should be voting in favour of votes at 16 and 17 in the next election, which may be held next May."
"Weaselling out of things is important to learn. It's what separates us from the animals-except the weasels."
I know that the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) is not a weasel, and I know that none of the honourable people currently sitting on the Liberal Democrat Benches is either, so I hope that they will stick with their manifesto commitment, which was to vote in favour of votes at 16 and 17. The most recent vote on the matter, held before the general election, was a free vote for Labour Members, and the Labour party will have a free vote again this evening.
I happen to support votes at 16 and 17, simply because we ask young people to do many things in modern society, and they are aged in many ways. We now expect them to take on significant levels of debt, and to consider doing so before they go to university, and I honestly believe that if they can make decisions about whether they can parent, about whether they have children, I think that they should also be able to decide who governs the country. That is not the precise proposal in the amendment before us, because it relates merely to the referendum, but I think that general election votes should also apply to that age group.
I am not over-egging it. Remarkably few people have migrated to my constituency of the Rhondda over the past 80 years, except from Ireland
and England, so this is not an issue about who is and is not able to vote in my constituency. However, I rather like the fact that some elements of our law on citizenship are slightly fudged. I like the fact that we still emphasise the bonds of the Commonwealth sufficiently to be able to say that if an Australian works in this country in a bar as part of their gap year, is resident here, pays their taxes and is working, by virtue of their citizenship of Australia they are allowed to vote.
Let us refer to the Republic of Cyprus. Many north London Conservative MPs would reckon that it was not without the Cypriot vote in the general election that they were elected. In addition, if we were to disfranchise the large number of Greek Cypriots in north London and, for that matter, south Wales, we would be saying to them, "Please don't engage in the British political system," and doing so at a time when their engagement with the British political system enables us to engage better with the problem in Cyprus, which is still a divided island, with a divided capital city and all the problems about which this Committee knows.
Mr Brady: The shadow Minister may be disturbed, and I apologise for that, but, first, those Commonwealth bonds should be reciprocal, and they are not in the instances that he has set out. Secondly, on the Cypriot community in this country, can the hon. Gentleman give us any reason why somebody who chooses to make their home here permanently and wishes to be a part of our political process should not seek British citizenship?
Chris Bryant: Of course I want to encourage people to take up British citizenship, but our legislation is shaped as it is because of Mrs Thatcher. She introduced the British Nationality Act 1981, followed by the Representation of the People Act 1983, which guarantees citizens of Commonwealth countries the right to vote in this country. I very rarely say so, but on that occasion Mrs Thatcher got it right. [Hon. Members: "Resign!"] I think I might have lost the Rhondda there. There are other occasions on which I do not agree with her very much.
Let us take another instance. Papua New Guinea was never a British colony. It was an Australian colony and, therefore, part of the Commonwealth, but I delight in the fact that, because the main sport in Papua New Guinea is rugby league, Papua New Guineans come to the UK. There are some significant and famous Papua New Guineans playing that sport in northern England, and I am delighted that while they are here, they want to take an active part in British politics and are able to vote.
For that matter, I am delighted that Fijians, in significant numbers, want to join the British armed forces. All hon. Members will want to pay tribute to the role that Fijians have played in Iraq, in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Fiji is no longer a Commonwealth country, because of the situation in Suva, the military regime there and the fact it does not seem to have in place a direct course back to democracy, so I ask the Minister, why have we not amended the list under schedule 3 to the 1981 Act? Does he feel it right to leave it precisely as it is?
I say to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West that the bond that I cite in relation to the Commonwealth also applies to Ireland. It is pretty difficult to unpick our entire historical relationship and
the steady process towards peace on the island of Ireland, but through the hon. Gentleman's amendment there would be a real danger of him doing so. I value our relationship with the Republic of Ireland. It is important that British people be able to continue to vote there, and others here.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman may be about to raise the issue of whether the relationship should be directly comparable, and perhaps it should be, but my instinct would be to say that if one wants to move towards greater compatibility or to reciprocal arrangements between different countries, one should do so through a Representation of the People Act, not a referendum Act.
Mr Brady: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I was not going to make that point. I have said that I am an eternal optimist, and as one door closes another door opens, so, given the importance of the bond between people in different countries, which he believes gives rise to a right for them to vote in elections in this country, I assume that he is about to say that British expatriates, who may wish to return to this country in the fullness of time, have at least an equal bond, and that he will therefore endorse amendment 61 later this evening.
Chris Bryant: That is quite interesting, because rather bizarrely I spent a lot of the general election in Spain, trying to help British people get home during the ash cloud problem. Indeed, it was as difficult to get to Spain as it was to get back, so it was a slightly complex mission. I am conscious that about 1 million British people live in Spain, and that about 800,000 live in France, and many exercise a right to vote because they have a second home either in the UK, Spain or wherever. However, when they no longer participate in British society, it is difficult to see why, after 15 years, they should continue to have the right to vote as an overseas voter. In actual fact, the number who use their vote is infinitesimal. That is partly because of the difficulty of voting by post. I suppose that arrangements could be made for voting in embassies, consulates-general and so on around the country, but I am not sure that it is worth the effort. After 15 years, there is a good argument to say that if someone has no direct investment in the future of the United Kingdom, then it does not apply.
Mr Charles Walker: I am trying to follow the Minister's argument. Is he saying that rugby league players from Papua New Guinea playing in the north of England should have a right to vote in a referendum on the future voting system in the United Kingdom?
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is sitting next to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West-a man who just described himself as an eternal optimist. They are both so optimistic that they are still referring to me as a Minister, which is a delight. Of course, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) knows perfectly well that that is not the argument I am making; I know that because he did that little shrivel-up of his nose that he sometimes does when he is about to make a mischievous contribution in debate.
The basis of my argument is that the bonds of the Commonwealth are important, and I have given a couple of instances of that. We have significant numbers of people from these various communities in the UK. Many of them have been resident for some time, pay taxes and contribute to British political life, and I would like them to be able to remain in the same situation. The situation is not broken, and so, to use an old Conservative principle, I do not see the need to fix it. Particularly in relation to the Republic of Ireland, it would be a step completely in the wrong direction to try to unpick the relationship that we have managed to maintain over the past few years.
Another issue that has been touched on only slightly relates to the overseas territories. We should consider, not directly in relation to this referendum, but certainly in relation to the future, how overseas territories are represented in the context of the British Government. There is an degree to which we still decide matters for the overseas territories. For instance, in recent weeks the Government have decided to overturn the decision on borrowing in the Cayman Islands and allowed the Cayman Islands to remain as a tax haven. I believe that that is entirely a mistake, and that the finances of Cayman are unsustainable. It is therefore important that we find some means of ensuring that the overseas territories have some form of representation.
I want to ask the Minister a couple of other questions about why the Government have introduced the clause precisely as it is. I presume that we will not have a clause stand part debate, so I will mention these points now, if that is all right, Ms Primarolo. I do not understand why peers should be allowed to vote in a referendum on elections to the House of Commons. That seems slightly odd, because all the other provisions relate to those who are able to vote in elections to the House of Commons. Perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten us. In particular-this may be down to my personal stupidity and inability to read legislation- [ Interruption. ] Undoubtedly it is, yes. I see that the hon. Member for Worthing West (Peter Bottomley) has swapped sides and decided to join the ranks of the Labour party: he is very welcome.
I asked the Minister about clause 2(2) earlier, so by now he might have had some inspiration from the officials. No, I see that he is not going to get any inspiration from them because they are all shaking their heads furiously. The clause makes provision for peers whose only right to vote will be by virtue of being able to do so through the City of London-for instance, as an alderman-and therefore not by virtue of their residence. Precisely how many people does he think that that catches?
Can the Minister tell us about the position of the bishops? As he will know, some bishops arrive in the House of Lords automatically and some arrive on a sort of episcopal escalator that takes them up there once they are among the longest-standing bishops of the Church of England, as long as they are diocesan, not suffragan or area bishops. What happens to bishops once they are no longer taking their ex officio seat? Will they be allowed to vote? What provisions does he think should be made for the future?
I hope that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West will press his amendment to a vote, and I look forward to pushing lots of leaflets through doors pointing out who he has decided to disfranchise. I hope that the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire is carried. I look forward to putting lots of notes through doors in Liberal Democrat constituencies pointing out who they have chosen to disfranchise because they are not prepared to follow up what they truly believe.
Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): I should like to speak to amendment 332, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel). I am grateful to her for doing so, because this is about something that I passionately believe in. Like other Members, I too was 16 once, so I should like to join that club.
This is a unique and momentous moment, as it could open the door to votes for 16-year-olds in all elections. I would welcome that. We are in danger of marginalising young people, and we have to give considerable thought to which way we vote on this proposal, because we do not want to send out the wrong message to them. When I look around at young people, I see that they are growing up faster, certainly in my area. We have a more diverse economy and young people have different career prospects: they expect to change jobs several times, and they are more interested in the future than they ever have been. A more uncertain future gives them more interest in the changing job situation. In my constituency, 15, 16 and 17-year-olds want to be involved in that debate. We see it in the schools and colleges where all the young people are involved in debating-more so than I can ever remember in my lifetime, and perhaps before that on the basis of what I hear from other people.
Mr Charles Walker: I do not mean to disparage 16 and 17-year-olds, but most of them want to be on the Xbox, not putting the X in the box. Since the hon. Gentleman has been a Member of Parliament, how many 16 and 17-year-olds have written to him demanding the franchise at 16?
Graham Jones: That is a very cynical and jaundiced view to take towards 16 and 17-year-olds. The hon. Gentleman will not get many votes from 16 and 17-year-olds in his constituency, and he is probably in desperate need of some election training. However, I will leave that to his constituency: if he is going to lose it to 16 and 17-year-olds, I am quite happy about that.
Young people in general want to be involved in politics and take more interest in it. With issues such as climate change, politics has jumped a generational gap to 15, 16 and 17-year-olds, who are very interested in that because it is their planet that is being polluted. It is not just about climate change or jobs, but a series of issues that people of an increasingly young age seem to be gravitating towards. For example, there are big issues of teenage pregnancy. Decisions are being made about them in their formative adult years, and they want to be involved.
Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I concur with my hon. Friend's words on this. As a former trade union official, I know of many 16-year-old trade union representatives who represent workers of many different ages in an employment setting. They have much to contribute about employment law in their respective workplaces, and they should also be able to contribute in the wider political setting.
Graham Jones: I enjoyed that intervention. It is good to hear that young people are joining trade unions; Labour Members certainly welcome that. The TV debates encourage us to extend the franchise-I think that we all agree that young people in our constituencies were energised by them. The medium and the mode meant that young people could see politics in a different light, and there was an increase in interest and participation. I went around the polling stations in Hyndburn when I was elected, and many more young people were in the polling booths. I think that that contributed to the higher turnout at the election.
Let me extend the argument about extending the franchise, because I believe that it should apply to all elections. We have a by-election in Baxenden on 18 November, and our candidate, if I can plug him, David Hartley, was 18 only days before nomination. He cannot suddenly have become politically aware; he has built up to that. We should encourage young people into politics, and it is good that a young person has come forward. We must be clear that to be politically aware at 18 requires a build-up of knowledge, and 16 and 17-year-olds should participate.
Although the amendment is about the AV referendum, the principle is clearly broad. It is a watershed moment because if we give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote for the referendum, it opens up the argument for the future. Let us consider tuition fees, which my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned. That assists the argument for extending the franchise. Parliament is discussing the differential charging of students. We could go back to the old debate about taxation without representation, but if we intend to subject young people to differential charging based on background, not ability to pay, we should extend the franchise to them. Today could be the day we start extending it.
Mr Charles Walker: I know that the hon. Gentleman is making a heartfelt plea, and I quite like children-I have three of my own. Why cannot we leave them alone to let them get on with being children? They are not obsessed with getting the franchise. Sixteen and 17-year-olds want to chase girls, drink beer and have a good time. Let us stop accelerating the ageing process.
It is claimed that young people do not have the experience and knowledge to vote. When my grandmother was 95, she had serious Alzheimer's, yet she still held the right to vote. Nearly all young people are far more
informed than my grandma was in her later years, but we never thought about taking the vote from her. Saying that young people are not experienced or knowledgeable enough is not a strong enough argument. It does not reflect real life or how people experience it. Indeed, I believe that 16 and 17-year-olds are often in a better position to make an informed judgment. There is no principled or consistent argument that justifies denying the vote to young people.
The amendments would amend clause 2, which sets out the franchise for voting in the referendum. It might be helpful to tell hon. Members who have tabled amendments that, with one exception about peers, which I shall outline, we have simply applied the franchise for Westminster elections in the Bill. We thought that that was appropriate. We have not used the one-off referendum as an opportunity for experimenting with the franchise.
Amendments 59 and 60 would prevent Commonwealth and Irish citizens from voting. Given that my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) said that he was not only an enormous but an eternal optimist, I hope that he can hold that optimism in reserve for a future date, when we might revert to those matters.
To explain why we are here, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd), who is no longer in his place, put his finger on it when he mentioned the history of our country and how citizenship came about in the first place. I do not often agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), but he made a sensible point when he referred to our history. I also agreed with him when, in speaking about the Commonwealth, he drew attention to the fact that around 10% of our Army is made up of people who would not otherwise be eligible to vote in this country. They serve our country well, and several have been prepared to pay the ultimate price in that service. The point was sensible and well made.
We wanted to stick with the current franchise for the referendum. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West made a wider point, to which it is worth the Committee's reverting. When the House has considered other Bills to reform the electoral arrangements, it has always taken the view that it wanted to stick with the existing position, enabling some qualifying Commonwealth and Irish citizens to vote. Of course, it is open to the House, if asked to consider the matter in future, to disagree and try to make a change. I will think some more about the matter, and consider whether it is appropriate for the Government to make such proposals in future. However, I ask my hon. Friend to stick with the existing, tested franchise for the referendum. Indeed, he said in his opening remarks that he did not want us to legislate in haste. All the proposals to fiddle with the franchise specifically for the referendum constitute legislating in haste. There are perfectly sensible arguments for doing as my hon. Friend suggests and for making other franchise changes, but I think that it is best to stick with what we use for our Westminster elections for the referendum.
Mr Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): Is not the point about the referendum that it will change the rules of the constitutional landscape for ever? Now is therefore the time to focus our attention on who should exercise the franchise on that critical question, which will affect how Members are elected to the House for the next 100 years or more. It is different from an ordinary election.
Mr Harper: Given our tradition of parliamentary sovereignty, my hon. Friend does not set out the position accurately. If we have a referendum next year, as I hope we do, and if the people of the country decide to change the electoral system, as I hope they do not, it is open to a future Parliament to hold another referendum. The referendum will not change the position for ever-nothing is for ever in a parliamentary democracy. I do not buy the argument that, just because we are having the referendum, we are required to change the franchise over and above the one that we use for parliamentary elections. Choosing the Government of the country is a significant matter. Indeed, many-perhaps more on the Government side of the Committee-would argue that Governments who are elected can make significant changes. Governments took us into the European Union and signed treaties that bind us unless we decide specifically to opt out of them. We might not have been entirely happy that Governments did that, but we did not challenge their right to do so. The Government's position is that we have stuck with the franchise. However, I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West said, and this is an issue worth revisiting, but this Bill is not the right place to make the change.
Mr Cox: Is my hon. Friend seriously suggesting that if the country opts to change the voting system to the alternative vote-I do not think that it will and I fervently hope that it will not-a future Parliament could never turn the clock back and restore first past the post?
Mr Harper: Of course it could. If the voting system were changed, the public might reconsider and want to change, either back to the old system or to another one. That has been the experience of other countries that have reformed their electoral systems. It is perfectly sensible to say that that could happen, and my hon. Friend is not really setting out an argument for why we should change in this case.
Mr Brady: The Minister is trying to be helpful, and I get the clear message that there may be more legislation in the not too distant future, at which point this issue may be revisited. Can he help me a little further by saying whether the Government believe, as a matter of principle, that the franchise should be adjusted to have citizenship as its basis?
I do not think that my hon. Friend would expect me to set out that position now. As I said, referring to what my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, we have arrived at this position because of our history and traditions. Parliament can, in the future, consider the extent to which it wishes to
recognise that history and those traditions-how we have got where we are and how this country was created-or whether it wishes to adopt a pure system such as those adopted by countries without that long history. The House can debate and decide that issue at a future date. The Government do not wish to make that change now, but I will listen to what my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West has said, and I will think on it some more.
Mr Brady: The only argument that my hon. Friend has advanced against changing the franchise for the referendum is that it would be legislating in haste and we should give the issue deeper consideration before taking that action. He has not actually argued against the point of principle, and I hope that he will express a view on whether the franchise in elections in this country should be predominantly a matter for citizens, as indeed on 16 September he agreed was perfectly normal and was the case almost everywhere else in the world.
Mr Harper: I did say that it was perfectly normal in other countries, but my hon. Friend knows that this country is special- [ Interruption. ] It has a unique history and we are where we are because of the experiences that we have had in the past. As Conservatives, we should not lightly throw off those historical resonances-
Chris Bryant: I hate to say it, but I agree with that last sentence. In offering solace to Conservative Back Benchers, the Minister seemed to suggest that he is actively considering whether Commonwealth citizens should be removed from the franchise for parliamentary elections. Is that true?
Mr Harper: I chose my words carefully and I said that I would think about it. There may be an opportunity in the future, when the House considers a wider Bill, when it would be appropriate to debate it. Even if the Government did not bring forward such proposals, hon. Members would table amendments-as they have for this Bill-and give us the opportunity to debate the matter.
Mr Harper: Fiji has been suspended from the Commonwealth, and the usual practice is that in such cases we do not take steps to remove the right of qualifying citizens from those countries to vote in our elections.
It is worth saying that the right of Commonwealth citizens to register to vote is restricted in electoral law to qualifying Commonwealth citizens-those who do not require leave to enter or remain under the immigration legislation, or those who do require leave but have it. I say that because my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills suggested that in some constituencies significant numbers of illegal immigrants had managed to get themselves on to the electoral register and that there was no duty on electoral registration officers to do anything about that. But that is not the case. Electoral
registration officers have a duty to maintain an accurate and complete register and to inquire whether people are eligible to be-
Mr Shepherd: Of course, there is no money. The state of the register is as I reported in my speech. There are many people in that situation, and he cannot disprove that-any more than I can prove it-because no efforts are made to identify whether a Commonwealth citizen who applies to go on the register is here lawfully.
Mr Harper: I would say two things to my hon. Friend. First, money is provided to local authorities as part of their normal funding, and it is a matter for the local authority to decide on priorities. In his own case, if he is dissatisfied with how the electoral registration officer is conducting himself, I suggest that he speaks to the chief executive of his local authority and makes those strong representations.
Secondly, given our proposals to move to individual voter registration in 2014, we will be improving the registration system and making it much more difficult for people who are not entitled to be on the register to be on it. I have written to local authority chief executives to ask them to take part in data-matching pilots in which we can, first, identify those who are more likely not to be on the register who should be, enabling authorities to target their resources on them and, secondly, target voters who should not be on the electoral register, to enable authorities to ensure that the register is not just complete but accurate. So there are two avenues there that my hon. Friend can pursue.
I want to address the argument made by the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), whose amendment 332 would extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. As I said, our approach has been that the people voting in the referendum should be those entitled to vote in a Westminster election. She, perfectly reasonably, is continuing her long-running campaign, supported by a number of hon. Members, to lower the voting age. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West, I do not think that experimenting with the franchise in this Bill is the right way to go.
Many hon. Members will know my views on lowering the voting age, but-on a note of agreement-my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) is right. He is a firm advocate of lowering the voting age in elections in general, but he acknowledges that trying to do that in this Bill, for one specific referendum, is not the right thing to do.
Natascha Engel: I do not want to sound rude, but the Minister's general views on lowering the age are neither here nor there. My amendment concerns this one-off referendum. It seeks to change how the voting system will work at the next general election, when those who are 16 at the time of the referendum will be 18. This is a completely different situation from normal elections.
As I said in my intervention on the hon. Lady, she has not thought through her argument. She has tried to make two different arguments for her
amendment, and they do not really make sense. Her argument that people who will be voting at the next general election, on 7 May 2015, should have a say in the referendum would imply logically that people who are 14 next year-four years before the election-should be able to vote in the referendum too. Even she, with her campaign to lower the voting age to 16, has not proposed that, because she knows perfectly well that a proposal to allow 14-year-olds to vote would get laughed out of court, even by those who propose lowering the voting age to 16.
The hon. Lady's argument does not stack up or make any sense. If we take her argument to its logical conclusion-picking up on the point made about a new voting system kicking in in perpetuity-we should enfranchise everybody alive today, because at some point in the future they will be voting in a general election based on the voting system bought in by the referendum next year. That simply does not make any sense. So we have adopted the usual position in this country, which is that to be able to vote in an election, one must be an adult, which in our system means being 18.
Chris Bryant: As far as I can see, the Minister's argument is that we should use the franchise used for parliamentary elections, but he makes one enormous exception, which is for the peers. [Interruption.] It is not a small exception; it is a large exception. These are the people who are least experienced in dealing with parliamentary elections. I say that not because I have any distaste for peers-some of my best friends are peers.
Mr Harper: Let me deal with that point, and then I will finish off on the general point. Very simply, we considered the franchise, but we made one exception because, the usual argument for peers being excluded from voting for Members of this House is that they are Members of this Parliament. However, we did not think that that restriction made sense in a vote on the voting system, and we therefore decided to make that change. That is the only exception that we have made, and it is a very limited change-I think it unlikely that the result of the referendum will be swung by Members of the upper House.
Let me conclude on the point that the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire raised. Her argument is a perfectly reasonable one, albeit one that I happen to disagree with, but just as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West, this is not the place to make it. If we were having a debate about voting in general, she would be perfectly entitled to put that view before the Committee and to test the Committee's opinion. However, for the referendum in question, it does not seem sensible to do that. Her argument-that people who will be affected by the election in 2015 should be entitled to vote in the referendum on the voting system-simply does not make sense, because it would mean giving 14-year-olds the vote in that referendum.
Natascha Engel: I want briefly to correct the Minister on that point. That was not the argument I was making; the only argument I was making was that 16-year-olds on the day of the referendum will be 18 on the day of the election.
Also, the hon. Lady may not like this-I am happy about it, although she might not be-but I should point out that under the coalition Government's proposals, referendums are likely to be more frequent rather than less, as we have proposed bringing them forward under our referendum lock. They might be referendums on European matters, local referendums or mayoral referendums. Therefore, those young people who are not yet 18 who miss out on voting in the referendum next year will find that there will be many referendums in the future on which they can vote, once they are 18.
My final point to the hon. Lady is that this issue is not a small one, because if all 16-year-olds on the date of the referendum were able to vote, that would mean electoral registration officers having to register those who are 15, which is a significant change to the way that they collect data. The hon. Lady said that the change would not cause much trouble, but it would actually cause a significant amount of trouble. I therefore hope that she will not press her amendment 332 to a vote, but if she does, I urge hon. Members on both sides of the Committee-and particularly those on the Government side-to vote against it. I also hope that those who are otherwise in favour of lowering the voting age can be happy that this is not the place to do so, because as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West said, he can bring forward a private Member's Bill on the issue, which would be the place to have that debate. I urge hon. Members not to press their amendments to a vote.
Mr Harper: I am grateful to my hon. Friend: I had indeed omitted to talk about his amendment 61, about overseas voters. He will know that at the moment there is a 15-year time limit, to which he drew attention, for British citizens who live overseas. The Government are considering whether to bring proposals before the House in due course. Again, however, I would say to him that this Bill, on the referendum, is not the place to explore that issue. However, he is an eternal optimist, and he might not have to wait eternally before he can debate the matter in the House-perhaps in the near future. I hope that that will satisfy him and enable him, in all good conscience, not to press his amendments to a vote.
I will be seeking your permission to press my amendment 332 to a vote when the time comes, Ms Primarolo. It is a shame that the Minister
has focused on a technicality, rather than looking at the important point behind the principle of extending the franchise to 16-year-olds. That is a shame; therefore, I shall seek to divide the Committee on my amendment.
Mr Brady: These issues-the size, extent and description of the franchise-are absolutely fundamental and of grave concern. They are issues that can decide the outcome of general elections in this country and, as I said earlier, could decide the outcome of the vote that we are discussing. I know that the Minister has sought to be helpful. He has also sought to encourage my optimism by deferring matters to a future date. I think that this matter is crucial.
I accept that some elements need further debate-we need, for example, to be very careful about how we handle relations with Commonwealth countries. As the Opposition spokesman said, we must ensure that we get things right when it comes to the Republic of Ireland. These are complex matters. Reluctantly, I will take the Minister's advice and defer these issues for another occasion. I shall therefore withdraw amendment 59 and not press amendment 60. However, I view it as a crucial issue of principle that British citizens should be able to vote in British elections, so I shall press amendment 61 to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
(1A) The Minister shall, within one month of the day on which this Act is passed, by Order provide for a system of prior registration of those entitled to vote in the referendum under subsection (1)(d) above, and for mechanisms by which their votes can be cast.'.- (Mr Brady.)
On a point of order, Ms Primarolo. I gave a commitment on Second Reading that I and other Front Benchers would do what we could to ensure that the Committee had an opportunity either to debate or to vote on the significant issues that arose. Given the time, the Committee will wish to know that in the event of our not reaching clause 6 in today's debate, I intend
to allow it to vote, even if that is, sadly, without debate, on the lead amendment in the group selected for debate in relation to that clause, which proposes turnout thresholds for the referendum to be valid. With the permission of the Members concerned, a member of the Government will therefore move amendment 3 so that it can be put to the vote, thereby fulfilling the commitment that I made on Second Reading.
The Second Deputy Chairman: I am sure that the Minister knows that, strictly speaking, that is not a point of order. He has given a point of information to the Committee on how he intends to conduct the business this evening, and I am sure that all Members have taken note of it. I do not wish to have a debate on how the Government might handle this, and I should like to return to the debate because there is still a great deal to cover.
Mr Harper: The amendments make minor and technical drafting changes to the Bill. Amendments 267 and 269 change the deadline for issuing the notice of poll in the rules for the conduct of the referendum from 16 to 15 days before the poll. The change is necessary to ensure that the combination provisions, which we tabled earlier today, work in the right way.
The rest of the amendments contain a series of miscellaneous minor technical amendments and corrections. I am happy to discuss them further if Members are interested in the detail. I commend them to the Committee.
Chris Bryant: I briefly note the Minister's point of information earlier. However, there are several amendments on the Order Paper and if he thinks that we shall not reach them because he has not allowed enough time, that is his problem. To force a vote, rather than hold a debate, is a disgrace.
I am always profoundly disturbed when I see the words "minor and technical amendments", because all too often far too much can be hidden away in the detail. The Minister skirted over the change of the notice of poll from 16 to 15 days. As he rightly says, that is because of the combination of polls, but there is no need to have a combination of polls next year. As we have rehearsed many times already today, and on our previous day in Committee, we do not need to hold the elections on the same day, in which case 16 days could be provided for the notice of poll, which would be more sensible. I should be grateful if the Minister explained why he thinks it is better to have 15 rather than 16 days' notice of poll, in particular because it is more difficult for overseas voters to know when an election is happening. Does he not think that if the elections were on different days, they would have more time? Why is it important to have just 15 days?
"It is the presiding officer's duty to keep order at the officer's polling station...If a person engages in misconduct in a polling station or fails to obey the presiding officer's lawful orders, the person may immediately, by the presiding officer's order, be removed from the polling station."
"A person so removed may, if charged with the commission in the polling station of an offence, be dealt with as a person taken into custody by a constable for an offence without a warrant."
I do not know why the provision was originally included, or for that matter why it is being removed. What has prompted this change of view? I presume it is nothing to do with the technical wording of the statement, in that the person might not have been charged when he was actually in the polling station, but might have been charged with committing an offence in the polling station. However, I should be grateful if the Minister enlightened us. Some of the other amendments indeed seem to be technical.
Mr Harper: Last week during our first day in Committee, we had an extensive debate on the date of the referendum. I know that the hon. Gentleman argued a different point, but the Committee took the view, by a significant minority, that it wished the election to be on 5 May next year. Given that, it absolutely makes sense to ensure that we combine the elections, so that we make the administration more sensible and make significant financial savings. We have had that argument, and it seems to me that he is seeking to reopen it.
Mr Harper: I think it is more the case that we copied across to the Bill a lot of the existing rules. This is a minor, technical change, but on going through the rules more closely, we decided that the provision was no longer necessary. We are simply tidying up the legislation, which I think is perfectly sensible. These are, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House often says, running repairs.
Chris Bryant: The amendments are in my name and that of my right hon. Friend the Leader of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition. Historically, legislation has always provided that the returning officer is able to use polling stations in state-provided schools. For many people up and down the land, when they go to vote, they expect to turn up to a school. Normally it is their local primary school, but provision may be made in their local secondary school. Sometimes, where schools have disappeared, there is a problem with the local returning officer finding a suitable venue. Of course, there is an impact on local state schools: sometimes they have to be closed because there is no other means of providing that the returning officer can use the entrance and make sure that there is security for the children in the school.
"a school which enjoys charitable status",
so that the provisions applied not just to schools provided by the state. We have used that term in relation to the law in England and Wales, because in those areas, independent schools with good facilities that might be made available could be so termed. To provide a similar provision for Scotland, we have tabled amendment 355, which would insert, in schedule 2, page 27, line 38, the phrase
"any school other than those which are run as profit-making enterprises",
I see that none of our Northern Irish colleagues is with us, but amendment 356 relates to Northern Ireland. We would not want to conflict with the provisions relating to Roman Catholic schools run by nunneries and convents, so we have not provided the exact same measure as for England and Wales, where "charitable status" covers the situation. We therefore suggest in the amendment that in schedule 2, page 27, line 41, after "Assembly", we should insert
"or a school which enjoys charitable status".
I recognise that there are those who would say, "Why on earth should independent sector schools be forced to act as polling stations?" I suspect that more independent schools are likely to say that they would quite like the income that might accrue. More importantly, I do not see why state-provided schools should be regularly used and should therefore undergo the upheaval that polling stations cause, but the independent sector which, in the main, enjoys charitable status and is therefore able to have tax benefits, should not be required to provide the same facilities.
The Minister may say, "We think this is an unnecessary measure." Our point is that it should be a matter of fairness. The provision should apply across the board. It should not be state schools alone that are inconvenienced. The inconvenience should be shared by all. In addition,
some preparatory schools or public schools would be able to provide the necessary facilities relatively easily, without any major inconvenience to them.
In recent years we have seen a considerable attempt by schools in the independent sector to open their doors so that they are far more engaged in the local community. This is an opportunity for them to be engaged in the political process. I hope the amendments will be acceptable to the Government. I am sure they would not want to defend the present injustice.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): I am slightly puzzled as to why schools attached to religious establishments in Northern Ireland should be excluded, but not those in England and Wales. I can think of a number of Roman Catholic schools attached to monasteries that it might be wise to exclude in the amendments.
Chris Bryant: I know personally only one public school in England and Wales that is attached to a monastery, which is Ampleforth. There is also Downside. I know of a considerable number of others, and many are attached to Anglican foundations in various ways, such as Charterhouse. The point I was making was specifically in relation to the Northern Ireland settlement. I now have two Northern Ireland colleagues present. I did not want to disturb the complex equilibrium that sometimes exists in relation to these matters in Northern Ireland.
In the case of Ampleforth, for example, which has a large number of pupils over the age of 18 and a large number of teachers who live on a very large campus, I see no reason why there should not be a polling station for Ampleforth itself. That might apply to a number of the larger public schools which, to all intents and purposes, would represent as large a polling district as some other polling districts. The amendment does not require any action to be taken against public schools. I hope they would see it as an enabling measure so that they might be able to encourage more of their students to vote.
Mr Harper: I fear I may disappoint the hon. Gentleman. The amendments would compel independent schools to be used for electoral purposes and for the referendum, should the local authority decide that they are the most suitable place for such a purpose. Electoral legislation at present provides that all publicly funded schools can be used as polling stations, and we are applying those provisions to the referendum. So that there is no doubt, following discussion with the Department for Education we can confirm that academies and free schools will fall within those provisions as well.
Chris Bryant: The Minister hurried on there. Following discussions with the Department for Education, he says that the same arrangements will apply to academies and free schools, but under what Act is that made clear? Is it made clear in the new legislation that was rushed through Parliament earlier this year?
Mr Harper: It is clear that schools that are publicly funded and receive Government grants fall under these provisions. Schools that do not receive Government grants do not. I was setting that out for the benefit of the Committee, in case there was any doubt. I see no need to labour the point.
Under the Bill, as in electoral law generally, independent schools cannot be compelled to act as polling stations for other electoral purposes unless they receive Government grants. But, to pick up the hon. Gentleman's point about how he hoped that his amendment would be an enabling measure, there is nothing in the law to prevent such schools from serving as polling stations voluntarily. So there is nothing in the law to prevent all those schools that he mentioned from acting as and hosting a polling station, particularly if they have lots of students of voting age. They can make that offer to the local authority, and the local authority can take it up; there is nothing at all to stop a school doing so.
On the hon. Gentleman's wish for the amendment to be an enabling measure, I must say that it is simply not necessary. I do not see any need at all to change the arrangements, which work well. There is nothing to stop such schools volunteering their premises, and I see from his examples that there may well be benefits to the schools and to their students, so I urge him to withdraw this unnecessary amendment.
Chris Bryant: I shall not withdraw the amendment, because I do not accept the premise on which the Minister has advanced his argument. I presume that in his definition of a school for the purposes of the provision, he relies on paragraph (9)(3)(a) of schedule 2, which states that it is either
"(i) a school maintained or assisted by a local education authority;"
"(ii) a school in respect of which grants are made out of moneys provided by Parliament to the person or body of persons responsible for the management of the school"-
including, therefore, all the free schools. From the way he was talking, however, it seemed he was suggesting that he had come across some new reason in his conversations with the Department for Education which proved that free schools would be included.
The Minister is right that anybody can apply to provide a polling station. Indeed, some members of the public have said, "In my street, there is no provision," or, "In my little village, there is no provision, so if you would like to use my house feel free to do so." However, I am not aware of any public school or independent school having sought to do so. The Minister did not meet the point that for many state schools there is an inconvenience attached to providing a polling station. The law requires them to do so free of charge, but it does not require anybody else so to do.
The Minister's distinction is based on whether schools are in receipt of moneys or not; my point is that if a school benefits from a favourable tax regime, namely the charitable status that attaches to large parts, although not all, of the independent sector, they should have a concomitant responsibility to provide such facilities. Many public schools are quite happy to provide on a limited basis their sporting facilities-swimming pool, gym or whatever-to the wider community, and such provision might apply to the situation before us, too. I shall therefore press the amendment to a vote.
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