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The Deputy Speaker (Lord Lyell): My Lords, I must advise your Lordships that, if Amendment No. 257 is agreed to, I would not be able to call Amendment No. 258.

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 257:

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 258 and 259 not moved.]

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 260:

    Page 102, line 49, leave out ("European Union") and insert ("member States").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 261 not moved.]

Clause 138 [Reduction of qualifying period for overseas electors]:

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 262:

    Page 103, line 41, leave out ("10") and insert ("15").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, as Members of your Lordships' House will recall, when we were discussing this part of the Bill at an earlier stage a wide range of views were expressed. It was difficult to see exactly what sort of consensus we would reach. Obviously, in government we have tried to proceed on the basis of reasonable consensus. We face a difficulty in that we must match some of the aspirations of another place, through the Home Affairs Select Committee and its report and findings on these matters, and a desire to reduce the number of years for which people may continue to claim a vote when they are living overseas.

On the other hand, we must respect the fact that many people who live overseas working for government, industry, business and commerce generally wish to play a full and active part in political life here and certainly wish to retain the right to vote.

So, having initially reduced the period to 10 years in our provisions, we took the view that we might be able to satisfy some of the understandable concerns which were being expressed, not least by the new friend of Socialist International, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, who was extremely persuasive on this matter. We thought that we should move somewhat in his direction and the direction of other Members of your Lordships' House by offering 15 years as a form of compromise. That is our amendment. I hope that the House will feel able to

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support it. It will not satisfy everybody in every respect. I realise that it represents a broad brush approach. However, we think that it is probably the most equitable approach that we can adopt. We hope that it finds favour this evening. I beg to move.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, my Amendment No. 263 is grouped with this amendment. I spoke to it in Committee. It seemed that there was a strong case for treating those in the service of international organisations of which the UK is a member--not only the institutions of the European Union but also organisations such as United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the IMF--as equivalent to being in the public service of the Crown. I have again tabled the amendment on Report because, as a result of the debate in Committee, it seemed that there was a possibility of the Government accepting a package deal which would include the use-it-or-lose-it amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and our own amendment on public service in EU institutions and other international bodies.

However, it appears that this amendment has not found favour with the Government. It is not an amendment that we could force against the wishes of a reluctant Government. Third Reading already looks like being very long. Therefore, with regret, if the Government are not willing to be more helpful than they have so far been, I am afraid that we shall have to say goodbye to this amendment.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots: My Lords, I shall be brief. As midnight approached last night, somewhat to my shame I described the Minister's reaction to an amendment that I had moved as "ungenerous". He may now feel that what I am about to say is ungenerous to him, and I accept that.

Naturally, I welcome the move that he has made. It is a step in the right direction. He has described his wish to find something that is clean and neat. I believe that this is clean and neat. However, it is still artificial. It is artificial against a background of increasing labour mobility. People will spend more and more of their time working outside this country, particularly as the single market in the European Union develops. Companies which hitherto would have seen their operations as entirely confined to the United Kingdom will increasingly have at least a European, and sometimes a world, dimension to them. Members of their staff may work overseas for very long periods. Some of them, of course, will enjoy working overseas. The relative freedom of working in smaller subsidiaries is attractive. In addition, they may wish to take into account the climate, though I am not clear as to why anyone should prefer the sunshine of southern Spain to a British winter! Both categories are made up of people who see themselves as British and intend eventually to return to the UK.

In the meantime, many of them will be paying tax and, therefore, contributing to our economy and to the welfare of this country. I therefore believe that they are entitled to representation here. Confusion has existed

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between residence and domicile. Residence can easily be changed, domicile cannot. Domicile requires a conscious effort on the part of people to demonstrate that they intend to live out their lives abroad. Without this, the Inland Revenue, in its inimitable fashion, can obtain estate duty on assets held in the United Kingdom. The purpose of this is to show that there is no neat and clean solution.

I accept the Minister's amendment. I am grateful to him for the move that he has made. However, I feel that people who pay UK tax and work overseas should have representation and be able to vote in our elections.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, I know of somebody who is in exactly the same position as that described by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I support the amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, perhaps I may say, briefly, that I am rather cynically bagging the noble Lord's compromise. I have listened to the debate. I shall reflect overnight on whether a more wide-ranging amendment should be considered on Monday. However, I am grateful to the Minister for looking for a compromise, as I have been trying to do for most of today.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, as a great compromiser is a good notion. Briefly, perhaps I may refer to a problem with the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. We could include public servants working abroad but, if we do that, what about people who work for BP, AMOCO, or some other corporation, multinational or other part of public service? Where do we start and where do we stop? The list could go on. We think that our amendment is broad-brushed, clean, neat and simple. It almost goes back to what was there before. We feel that that is the best approach.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, for his kind comments: I think they were kind. We think that this is probably as good as we shall get. One must have a sense of proportion about this matter. The noble Lord is right; the labour market will be more flexible and mobile. At the last count, some 14,000 people abroad exercised their right to register and vote in UK elections. We shall try to help all those people with this approach. I am glad that it seems to be finding broader favour in your Lordships' House.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 263 not moved.]

Lord Graham of Edmonton moved Amendment No. 264:

    After Clause 138, insert the following new clause--

("Parish polls

. In sub-paragraph (4) of Schedule 12 to the Local Government Act 1972 for the words "ten, or one third of the local government electors present at the meeting" there is substituted "fifty local government electors present at the meeting or 2 per cent. of the electorate".").

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move Amendment No. 264. Hitherto in discussing referendums in the Bill, we have talked about large scale referendums. I want briefly to concentrate on referendums which are on a small scale.

Amendment No. 264 deals with the threshold for parish polls. I have a very good friend in the Commons, Bill Rammell, who is the MP for Harlow. He told me of a situation in his constituency drawn to his attention by Mr Ed Borton, the parish council chairman of the village of Nazeing. I am told that a local resident, acting independently of the parish council, summoned a formal parish meeting under the Local Government Act 1972.

His purpose was not to discuss key issues of concern, such as local vandalism, changes in rural bus services or the contentious question of whether or not Epping Forest council uses its powers of planning enforcement fairly. He called the meeting to ask for a ballot on the question,

    "Do you want to keep the pound sterling as the currency of the United Kingdom?"

We all have a view on that question. After the next election, this Government may well take steps to provide everybody in the country with the opportunity to answer it. However, the case which I make, as does Mr Borton and the National Association of Local Councils, is that this is an abuse of the use of the Local Government Act and the power of parish councils. To ask that question would have cost the ratepayers of that area £1,587.

The amendment is not about Europe. It does not stray into any other big field. It argues about the sense or nonsense of the trigger which allows parish polls to be carried out. As my amendment shows, if a meeting is called at which half a dozen of the local government electors are present, a third--that is two--can trigger a parish poll. That would involve wasteful expenditure.

In the parish of Frinton and Walton in Essex, which is well known to me and others, a resident threatened to call a parish poll at a cost to the parish of £3,500 unless the council agreed not to spend money on a new badge for its mayor. That cannot be a proper use of a poll. Duston parish in Northampton was recently subjected to a poll on a planning issue. The poll was called by just one person and cost the council and hence the taxpayers well over £5,500.

This amendment says that we should be realistic and sensitive to expenditure which is not necessarily needlessly incurred, but which is incurred through incorrect use of the mechanism. I suggest that there should be at least 50 local electors present and not one third of just six or seven; or, alternatively, 2 per cent of the electorate. That would be a powerful barrier to people fecklessly or recklessly seeking to call for that money to be spent.

The National Association of Local Councils has represented parish and town councils for over 100

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years. Today I received a letter from John Findlay, its chief executive, in which he says,

    "The legislation as it stands does not require such groups to demonstrate any significant public support for the poll, yet the cost to the local community can be as much as £7,000, depending on the size of the electorate".

Therefore, while I am speaking on behalf of my friends Bill Rammell, the MP for Harlow, and Ed Borton, the chairman of the parish council, the amendment also has the backing of the whole of local government at that level. Their views should be heard and I hope that the Minister will recognise that we are taking this opportunity to air them.

This Bill may not be the right vehicle and it may not be the right amendment. But if the Minister indicates sympathy for the principle--that is, to take away the power from people who may have the best of intentions but who needlessly call polls--then those outside the House and myself will be satisfied. I beg to move.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Rennard: My Lords, I should like briefly to support Amendment No. 264. I concur entirely with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton.

I have considerable scepticism of the democratic worth of referendums, but even they can be abused if it is too easy to call a referendum and thus incur considerable local costs. It may be, for example, that there is considerable local controversy as to whether or not to fill in the local duck pond, and that question may well best be settled by the holding of a parish poll. However, when questions are raised of the sort referred to by the noble Lord--indeed, I believe there is a euro-sceptic campaign to try to abuse the parish poll process to air issues which are totally inappropriate for parish polls--it is much more sensible to raise the threshold to perhaps 50 electors attending or 2 per cent of the electorate signing that they would like such a parish poll before their money can be spent on polls of that nature.

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