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We take the view that Commonwealth citizens should have that right. Historically, they have always had that right; it has been established before in legislation. I am grateful that noble Lords opposite wish to spell out a difference on this issue. We have reciprocal arrangements with most Commonwealth countries and they work in a similar way. All the countries listed in the correspondence allow voting on much the same basis as we allow Commonwealth citizens to vote.
Although noble Lords opposite may take a different view, we believe that it is right that Commonwealth citizens should exercise the right to vote in the UK. I trust that, in the light of our discussions this afternoon--
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Before the noble Lord finishes, perhaps he can tell the Committee about those countries I mentioned which are not on the list--Canada, Australia, Pakistan and India--which are, dare I say it, the major players in the Commonwealth. Do we have no reciprocal arrangements at all with them?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: As I have set out in the correspondence, as far as I understand it, there are no reciprocal arrangements with the countries to which the noble Lord referred. But there is a fairly extensive list of countries with which we have reciprocal arrangements. I am happy with that; the Government are happy with that; and the party opposite was happy with those arrangements when it was in government: it
Lord Jopling: I am sorry, but, as far as concerns my earlier comments, the Minister's reply is 100 per cent inadequate. I raised a serious point and the Minister gave my comments about as much attention as he did at Second Reading. I insist that he responds to the point I made. If he did not understand it, I shall try to explain it a little more clearly and perhaps a little more slowly.
Let us assume that a meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government was to be held during the autumn--such meetings often occur during the autumn--and that that meeting was to take place after Parliament had been prorogued for a general election. I and other noble Lords will know that the period of prorogation for a general election can often be for up to a month. If, during that month period--when Parliament was not in existence--a somewhat unhappy situation arose whereby the Commonwealth Heads of Government, in their wisdom, decided to exclude the United Kingdom from the Commonwealth, that would mean, as I understand it, that, at a stroke, British citizens would cease to be Commonwealth citizens because Britain was no longer a member of the Commonwealth. That would mean, as I understand it, that the law could not be changed to take account of that new situation because Parliament was not sitting and there would be no Parliament. Perhaps I may complete my argument as I am into the flow of it. As I understand it, that would mean that the only people who would be entitled to vote at a general election would be either non-British Commonwealth citizens or citizens of the Irish Republic.
Can the Committee imagine a more absurd situation than a British general election where the only people able to vote are citizens of the Irish Republic or citizens of all the other countries in the Commonwealth except the United Kingdom? I am happy to give way now.
Lord Borrie: I did not want to interrupt after the noble Lord indicated that he did not wish me to. It seems to me that his premise is incorrect. British law and the British courts would follow the British Nationality Act 1948, whereby Commonwealth citizens are so defined as to include all British subjects and all citizens of the United Kingdom. Therefore, even if the Commonwealth Heads of Government did do what the noble Lord suggested, all citizens of the United Kingdom would be entitled to vote under United Kingdom law at the general election posited by the noble Lord.
Lord Jopling: I am intrigued to hear that. It is a somewhat legalistic situation, of which I was not immediately aware because I am not a great expert on British nationality laws. I am grateful to the noble Lord for that explanation. However, I should like to hear it from the Minister, with the authority of a government stamp behind it. It is a serious problem.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: I entirely support the words of my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish in expressing some surprise at the Minister's surprise. We are at Committee stage and, if I may say so, the noble Lord on the Front Bench is not the first to find these procedures something of an ordeal. I know that this is the first time that he has gone through these kinds of exchanges. On the whole, your Lordships' House is an extremely kindly place, given to mercy and pity on all occasions, but if the Minister cannot do better than his opening defence against these amendments, he will be in some difficulty.
When he rose to reply, the Minister said that the debate had been fascinating and had gone much wider than he expected. I cannot understand why he did not anticipate that or, if he did not personally anticipate it, why his advisers did not anticipate it. I hope that when he gets back to his private office he will address some stern words to his advisers and tell them that he found himself in a very embarrassing position in your Lordships' Committee and that in future he requires better advice and better briefs than he has had today. I am assuming that the words spoken by the Minister came from his brief--in which case he suffers from the appalling misfortune of extremely bad advice.
I should like to make another small point. Just because the matter has been accepted since the year dot, it does not mean to say that when a Bill is being read Members of the Committee may not suddenly be seized with a desire to change something. My noble friend Lord Mackay has tabled some simple, easily intelligible amendments, as one would expect. To quarrel with them, or even to appear to quarrel with them on the basis that they attempt to achieve something new and strange which the Minister's advisers did not expect, is rather meagre.
The Minister is fortunate in having the benefit of the advice of the Government Chief Whip so easily available. We all have profound respect for the Government Chief Whip and we have absolutely no reason to doubt the quality of his advice. The only matter on which I can congratulate the Minister this afternoon is his near proximity to the Government Chief Whip. If he would like to have a quiet word with him now--oh, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, looked as if he were going to depart. That would be an act of gross and gratuitous cruelty to his noble friend in his hour of need.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: I am much obliged to the noble Lord for his explanation. Perhaps he will respond to my invitation and give his noble friend advice about the procedures we go through during Committee stage and what Ministers really must accept from Oppositions. I hope that my noble friend will forgive me and not believe that I am being at all rude to him when I say that this Opposition have so far been distinguished by their kindliness and patience in a way that the previous opposition were not. If the position had been reversed and a Minister had confronted the Committee with the kind of reply that we have had so far to the amendments, there would have been an uproar, not only from the Front Bench but from the gathered legions behind them. Today, I can say only that my noble friend has behaved with his characteristic civility and politeness, as have all other speakers from this side of the Committee.
If proceedings continue in that way, the almost legendary patience and tolerance of this side of the Committee will be tried almost to breaking point. I had not previously believed that there was a breaking point.
Lord Biffen: Before the Minister replies, perhaps I may say in a spirit of relaxed charity that one point has risen in the debate on which I should be grateful for elaboration; that is, the talk of Commonwealth membership being the subject of entitlement to vote and the discussion of reciprocity.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: Perhaps I got off on the wrong foot earlier on the matter. I shall take the admonishments of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, to heart. I am grateful to him for his advice as to how Ministers should conduct themselves at the Dispatch Box. No doubt I shall learn my lessons quickly and, if I do not, he will come back and remind me for not doing so. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, for his kind words of support. These things always come in spades.
I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, for being less than full in my response. I have had some researches undertaken since I sat down. My understanding is that, when, for instance, Nigeria and Fiji were suspended from the Commonwealth, their citizens did not lose their rights to vote as Commonwealth citizens. My understanding of the law in relation to the term "Commonwealth" is as my noble friend Lord Borrie ably explained in his intervention. I am inclined to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, that the situation would be fairly absurd if his interpretation were correct. I am grateful to him for his intervention. It has focused our minds neatly on the range of issues that this set of
However, I have some concern about the amendments. We shall resist them. They would not serve much good purpose, but they would suggest a narrowness on our part. Commonwealth citizens have historically had the right to vote here. Members opposite clearly take a different view, but we hold to that view since the situation has been thus since the post-war settlement. I therefore suggest that it would be right and proper for the amendment to be withdrawn.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: We have certainly had an interesting little debate. I can remember at the beginning of this Parliament arguing against the concept of referendums. I was told by Ministers that I was being old fashioned and that I had to enter the new world--I gather that "new" is the most commonly used word in Mr Blair's speeches--that referendums were part of the new world; and that I had to accept them. Then came Scottish devolution, in which we were to tear up a constitutional arrangement that had been in existence since 1707. But that was not good enough; it had to be questioned and abandoned. I was told I had to get used to the new world. When the Government turned to your Lordships' House, it had to be changed to as near as they could possibly make it to a "quango House".
When we said that we believed that was perhaps not quite the right way to go about it, we were told that we had to get into the new world. Today the Minister tells us that we must accept what has always been the case in the past. We must not even ask why. We must not say that it is time to change, or anything similar. I must say to the Minister that the convincing arguments for change advanced by his noble friends on previous occasions--largely by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn--were rather more compelling than his defence of the status quo.
His defence was made worse by the fact that he failed totally to address the point I made about a possible euro referendum. That is not theory. The Minister may not have been here in the summer of 1997, but we spent a long time then discussing the question of the legitimate register to use on referendum votes. The Government decided on that occasion that overseas electors should not be allowed to vote. Some of us believed that that was wrong, but that was the Government's position. The Government would not have been able to take that position if those people had not been so marked on the register. Indeed, if Members of your Lordships' House had not been so marked on the register, Members such as myself who live in Scotland might not have been able to vote. It was because the register had marks on it regarding people who were not allowed to vote in parliamentary elections, including overseas voters, that the Government were able to limit the franchise for the referendum.
The Minister has failed miserably to explain why I should not be concerned about a referendum on the euro and the possibility that we may want to limit the franchise. We may want to decide that European citizens who have a vote here at local elections should certainly not be allowed to decide whether this country joins the euro. It is an arguable case--I put it no higher than that--that citizens of Commonwealth countries such as Australia or Canada should not be allowed to decide whether we join the euro. They may be absolutely opposed to us joining the euro. When the day comes, the Government may in fact want to knock them out of the register--out of voting--in order to try to ensure they achieve the result they want. It was not good enough for the Minister simply to dismiss a major part of my argument about wanting to make sure that British citizens were included clearly on the register by saying that he did not want to become involved in discussing the euro.
I should have thought that the euro is the most important issue currently before the British people and will be so for some years to come. Whether one is for it or against it, it will be the major issue of the first decade of the 21st century. Who decides will be an important issue for us to address on the day the Government come forward with their referendum Bill on the euro.
We may come back to residential qualifications later. Perhaps I may give the Minister some advance warning. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, says that residential qualifications are necessary. We should like to know what those residential qualifications are. For the moment I shall seek to withdraw the amendment, but I cannot say that I am satisfied with the replies I have had from the Government on the substantive issue of referendums. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.