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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation, which I understand. Perhaps I may suggest that he does not give me an answer now but that he considers with his officials whether this is legitimate within the Long Title of the Bill. I understand what the Minister is doing but I wonder whether it is legitimate. However, with that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 278 and 279 not moved.]

Clause 133 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 280 not moved.]

8.15 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 280A:


REGISTRATION OF OVERSEAS ELECTORS

(" .--(1) In section 2 of the Representation of the People Act 1985 (Registration of British citizens overseas), at the beginning of subsection (1) there is inserted "Subject to subsections (1A) and (1B),".
(2) After subsection (1) there is inserted--
"(1A) A person may not be registered in a register of parliamentary electors for any constituency or part of a constituency in pursuance of an overseas elector's declaration unless he has been so registered within the previous 12 months.
(1B) Subsection (1A) does not apply to a person who qualified as an overseas elector in relation to parliamentary election within the previous 5 year period, and such a person may be registered in accordance with subsection (1) above if--
(a) during that 5 year period they have been registered at least once in a register of parliamentary electors for any constituency or part of a constituency in pursuance of an overseas elector's declaration (whether or not that registration has subsequently lapsed), and
(b) they register within 12 months of the end of that 5 year period."").

The noble Lord said: At the risk of putting down a hostage of fortune, this is the last major amendment in the Committee stage of the Bill. The Ministers are probably delighted; frankly, so am I. Amendment No. 280A deals with the provision for overseas electors. As Members of the Committee know, the Bill, as drafted, seeks to reduce the qualifying period to register as an overseas elector from 20 years to 10 years. I believe

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that this is the first law since universal franchise which seeks to disenfranchise those who are eligible to vote at present.

My amendment seeks to do something very different. Roughly speaking, it is the "use it or lose it" concept. I believe that I have considerable support for this around the Chamber. Clause 134 proposes to reduce the qualifying period during which British citizens living overseas can vote in UK elections to 10 years. That was not a recommendation of the Neill Committee, nor was it in the Government's White Paper.

There are roughly 3 million British citizens living abroad. I believe that their views in this matter have not been taken into account. Like many noble Lords, I have had a great deal of correspondence in this matter. I shall not bore Members of the Committee with this, but they will recall from other Bills that I have a daughter who lives in Italy, and so on and so forth. I am not principally pursuing their interests, although I am their proxy, so their votes are pretty safe. It also allows me to go to a polling station and remember the days before I was elevated to this place.

In evidence given to the Home Affairs Select Committee in 1998, the Home Office stated that nearly all the representations it has received on this issue wish to keep and, indeed increase, the qualifying period. When the 20 year limit was introduced in 1989, Alistair Darling, now the Secretary of State for Social Security, speaking on behalf of the then Opposition, said that 20 years was a sensible compromise. He argued that,


    "it is now clear that a number of people will leave this country ... but will still maintain a lively interest in the affairs of the country".

I believe that remains the case.

In the other place there was cross-party consensus that the Bill, as drafted, was unacceptable and that something should be done which would enable voters to have an enduring connection with the United Kingdom and to continue to have a right to vote for as long as they continue to register each year; that is, the "use it or lose it" part.

My amendment will enable those British citizens living abroad to continue indefinitely to vote and participate in the electoral processes of the United Kingdom. Each overseas elector would need to register during, and at any time during, his or her first five years of living abroad. But to maintain their voting rights they would have to continue to register after the five-year period in each subsequent year. If they failed to register in any year after that, they would lose the right to vote.

I hope that that gives some comfort to those who wish to see the 20-year period remain in place or be extended. I hope that it will also please those who think that giving people 20 years in which they could register--for the first time, I suppose--is far too liberal. I believe that this is a reasonable compromise.

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I have consulted widely and been lobbied fairly extensively on this matter. I believe that my amendment has cross-party support. I have had support from surprising quarters. In a fax dated 17th October, Labour International stated:


    "No doubt the letterhead is unexpected but, on behalf of the overseas members of the Labour Party, please let me express our sincere thanks for your stand on the issue of overseas voting. We fully support your amendment and would be pleased to join in a world-wide cross-party lobbying effort in this connection".

Indeed, Labour International goes further and states that my amendment is superior to the Government's proposals. I have a number of other letters on the subject. Some are from Brussels. A number of people who work for the Community in various aspects have lifelong connections with this country and feel that they would be disfranchised. I know that some people think that perhaps we should narrow this down to include only people working in Brussels and for official bodies. However, I believe that is unfair and wrong. Many other British citizens may be working for companies abroad, but indirectly they may still be working for Great Britain or the United Kingdom plc. I am not in favour of making any distinction. We should treat all our citizens living abroad in the same way.

I shall not continue at any length. Global economy, increasing travel and the free flow of people around the world suggest that we should not go back 10 years and reduce the period to the first 10 years. We should extend it on the "use it or lose it" principle. Many people from other countries who come to this country can register to vote here and vote. I refer to the Commonwealth, for example. It seems to me to be wrong to treat British citizens who go abroad in such a negative way and not accept that, if they are interested enough to keep registering year on year, they should continue to be allowed to participate in our democratic process. I beg to move.

Lord Goodhart: I shall shortly speak to Amendment No. 280E in this group, tabled in the name of my noble friend Lord McNally and myself. However, before I do so, I should like to speak to Amendment No. 280A. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, pointed out, this matter was not considered by the Neill Committee. Therefore, in this short debate I speak on behalf of my party and do not in any sense wear a Neill Committee hat.

The view of the Liberal Democrats was that we originally put forward a proposal that the vote should be retained for a period of only five years.

We accepted that 10 years was a reasonable compromise. We voted for 10 years in the other place and have not tabled any amendment to propose a reduction in that period. But 20 years is too long. It amounts to nearly half of an average working life. Those who are out of this country for a continuous period of 20 years have generally lost contact with what goes on here to a degree that makes it inappropriate that they should play a part in parliamentary elections.

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Many people are employed commercially overseas and a large proportion of them will not be abroad continuously for 20 years or indeed 10 years. They will normally serve a period abroad and then return to this country for a while and perhaps go abroad again if they are working for a multi-national. But that is a commercial decision to make a career overseas with a commercial organisation.

The purpose of Amendments Nos. 280E and the similar Amendment No. 280EA, is to exempt a small group of people from the time limit. At present Section 14 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 allows people to register without time limit if they are serving abroad as members of the Armed Forces, in other positions in the service of the Crown--mostly in the Diplomatic Service--or as employees of the British Council. We believe that that provision should be extended to cover those who are employed by various institutions of the European Union and other international organisations to which the United Kingdom belongs. Some Members of your Lordships' Committee--they were present earlier but are no longer in their places--regard service with a European Union institution as being virtually akin to treachery. We do not; in fact, we regard them as serving the United Kingdom by serving as employees of an organisation to which the United Kingdom belongs.

But this issue goes wider than the European Union. We believe that similar treatment should be given to those who serve the United Nations or any of its various agencies; and those who serve the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the other smaller and less well-known international organisations of which the United Kingdom is a member. On the grounds that those people are in public service to a public which includes the United Kingdom, they should be entitled to maintain their place on the register of electors in the United Kingdom.


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