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Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 19:



("(3) A person registered in a register of electors in pursuance of an application for registration made by virtue of subsection (2) above is entitled to remain so registered until--
(a) the end of the period of 12 months beginning with the date when the entry in the register first takes effect, or
(b) another entry made in respect of him in any register of electors takes effect (whether or not in pursuance of an application made by virtue of subsection (2)),
whichever first occurs.
(3A) Where the entitlement of such a person to remain so registered terminates by virtue of subsection (3) above, the registration officer concerned shall remove that person's entry from the register, unless he is entitled to remain registered in pursuance of a further application made by virtue of subsection (2).").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 20:


    Page 7, line 15, leave out from ("order") to end of line 16 and insert ("under section 70 of the Mental Health (Scotland) Act 1984 or a transfer direction under section 71 of that Act made in respect of a person to whom that section applies by virtue of subsection (2)(c) of that section").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 5, as amended, agreed to.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 21:


    After Clause 5, insert the following new clause--

REGISTRATION AND VOTING RIGHTS OF ASYLUM SEEKERS

(". After section 7A of the 1983 Act (as inserted by section 5 above) there shall be inserted--
"Registration and voting rights of asylum seekers.
7AA. A person who claims political asylum in the United Kingdom but has not been given leave to remain shall not be entitled to register to vote, or vote, until and unless he is granted such leave."").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 21, tabled in my name, seeks to insert a new clause into the Bill. The purpose of the amendment is to try to clarify the position with regard to asylum seekers and whether or not they have the right to vote in this country. Indeed, in some ways this relates back to the first group of amendments debated today. Asylum seekers can be divided into two groups: those from a non-Commonwealth country and those from a Commonwealth country.

I have little doubt that those coming from a non-Commonwealth country do not have the right to vote in this country, nor will any provision in the Bill give them the right so to vote. However, I should like confirmation of that.

I am not so certain of the position as regards asylum seekers from Commonwealth countries. If one refers back to the first debate we had this afternoon, one must assume that such people will have the right to

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vote while they are here claiming asylum and before their cases are decided. As Members of the Committee will know, that can sometimes take a long time.

I imagine that when legislation began on rights to vote, this was not much of a problem. Indeed, in 1983 and 1985 when changes were made to the Representation of the People Acts it was probably not much of a problem either. But the position has worsened, if by that one means the number of people who arrive here asking for asylum and the length of time they wait until that decision is made. The Committee will know from previous exchanges in this Chamber that the position is now much worse than it has probably ever been. My figures date only from 1994, and the situation is certainly worse than it has been in the past decade or so.

The last government, thanks to some measures I piloted through your Lordships' Chamber, got the figures down to 29,640 applicants in 1996 and during the course of 1997 they went up to 32,500. That is probably not terribly significant, but they then went to 46,000 in 1998 and, as we know, in 1999 the figures exceeded 71,000. Many of those people have to stay in this country for a considerable time before a final decision is made on their application, one of the problems being that the appeals procedure is extraordinarily lengthy.

I had experience of the procedure as a Minister and find it hard to believe that Mr Jack Straw will be able to deal expeditiously with the Afghan asylum applicants who arrived at Stansted. While the Home Office may deal with them swiftly--a change from the way it deals with the usual applicant--if they get into the legal system of appeals and counter appeals it will take a considerable time before a final decision is taken. In fact, I wager that most of those people will be here for so long that they will eventually be granted exceptional leave to remain.

But that is beside the point. The number of asylum seekers who come to this country--a measure of the way Britain is perceived thanks to what this Government have said--is a problem. Of course, the Afghan asylum seekers are not eligible to vote while they are asylum seekers. They would be eligible to vote only if they were granted asylum. I am not sure what happens if they are given exceptional leave to remain and perhaps the Minister can help. Is someone from a non-Commonwealth country who is granted exceptional leave to remain allowed to register and vote in this country?

The important point is what happens when asylum seekers come into this country from Commonwealth countries. Are they allowed to vote while they remain asylum seekers? If so, we are literally facing two different ways. We have not come to a conclusion whether they should be allowed to stay in this country, yet we allow them to vote in this country. We must try to bring some logic--I believe it is called "joined-up government"--between one piece of legislation and another.

The other problem is, if asylum seekers are allowed to vote, does it mean that there will be a concentration of them voting, for example, in a constituency like

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Dover, which has been badly hit by the number of asylum seekers who end up there? I cannot quite understand how they get there without going through another member state of the European Union, but we can leave that to one side.

The question is that, if it had not been an Afghan plane at Stansted, but instead, for instance, the Indian hijacked plane of a few weeks ago which ended up on the tarmac at Stansted, and people on that plane had applied for asylum and been removed to Moreton-in-the-Marsh, would they have been allowed to register to vote as Commonwealth citizens? I have to be clear about this and at the risk of being accused by the Liberal Democrats of being hard-hearted, I do not feel that asylum seekers should have the right to vote in this country. That right should come to those who are eventually granted asylum. I am open to argument in relation to exceptional leave to remain and will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say in that regard.

This Bill gives us an opportunity to clarify the situation with regard to the legal positions on the right to register and vote in this country, and if we feel like tidying them up, there is nothing wrong with doing that; after all, the Government will claim--and rightly in the case of the clause on people in mental institutions, on remand prisoners and on the homeless--that that is exactly what they are doing. We are entitled to look at other issues surrounding the right to vote and to ask the questions I have just asked. I look forward to clarification from the Minister, and on that basis, I beg to move.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Goodhart: The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, may be a little surprised that I believe he raises an important issue which certainly needs clarification. I have a good deal of sympathy with what he says.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: We will no doubt be in a happy condition after this discussion. This will be a rarity, if not an unknown situation.

It seems only fair to answer the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, for starters. In relation to asylum seekers, the situation is pretty much as he said. Non-Commonwealth asylum seekers do not have the right to vote and this Bill will not confer any such rights--let us be absolutely clear about that. With regard to those granted exceptional leave to remain, they will not be able to vote unless and until they are granted citizenship. So the answer is clear on that issue also.

I can be brief in responding to the further points made by the noble Lord. I shall not go into endless reams of statistics on the asylum issue; that is not a debate for today, though it would, I am sure, be interesting. We have already discussed the Commonwealth citizens in this country and the fact that they are allowed to vote in our elections. That is just as it should be and we have no plans to change the situation. I accept that the position of people whose

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status is uncertain is rather different and I clarified the two points there. Accordingly, I should like to explore the possibility of drafting an amendment to the Bill which will achieve the same effect as Amendment No. 21 and explore with electoral administrators whether or not it will be enforceable in practice. That is an important question and we will need to consult with them as to how the effect of the amendment may be best achieved.

We have considerable sympathy with the amendment. It is going in the right direction and I hope that, with my undertaking, all corners of the Chamber will be satisfied and the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment this afternoon.


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