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Lord Jopling: I very much hope that my noble friend will not reconsider the amendments because they carry with them a great deal of sense. I fully support them. I listened carefully to what the noble Baroness said; that many people illegally occupying squats are already registered. I am indifferent to whether they are or are not, but all we are proposing in the amendments is that they ought not to be.
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Is he saying that it should not be proven that they are illegal before the registration is removed, or that he takes it for granted that they are squatting and that therefore registration should be removed?
I hope that my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish will not mind my saying this, but I believe that my amendment is one of the most important in this group. I hope that the noble Baroness feels that this particular amendment provides a satisfactory way of demonstrating to a registration officer, through the legal advice which is at his disposal, that this situation occurs, that it ought not to occur, and that such registration should be removed.
Lord Goodhart: We on these Benches regard this group of amendments as mean-spirited and, indeed, frankly absurd. As we know, squatting is a trespass but not a crime, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, quite rightly said. Of course, this amendment applies not only to squatters. It applies, for example, to people who have taken possession of property perfectly lawfully, or people whose tenancies have been terminated but who remain in occupation because that gives them a better chance of being rehoused. We all know that that is a very common practice. Until the court makes a possession order and they leave, they are occupying that property unlawfully. Therefore, they, too, will be disfranchised.
However, the main point is that we should not, without good cause, deprive people of their civil rights, including the right to vote, which is one of the most important of those rights. Detention in prison after conviction is plainly a good cause. But why should squatters be deprived of their vote? They have not committed a breach of the criminal law. They are simply trespassing on someone else's property, and that seems to me to fall far short of anything that would justify depriving them of the right to vote.
How does one prove that someone is an unlawful squatter? Of course, many squats now are lawful because they are licensed. Where they are not, there are fast-track powers for removal by court order. With all respect to what the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, said about Amendment No. 34, I believe that most owners will be much too busy getting the squatters out of their property to bother to look at the electoral register and to go to the registration officer to make sure that the
Finally, and worst of all, Amendment No. 93 proposes that everyone who applies for a vote on the basis of a declaration of local connection will be checked by the police. That does not apply to people who register not by virtue of a declaration of local connection but because they are squatters who register as residents. Amendment No. 93 does not apply to them. However, the police will have to check everyone who is homeless and makes a declaration of local connection. What a waste of valuable and short police time. Coming from the party which always claims to be particularly strong on law and order, I must say that I find that completely ridiculous.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: In my view, these amendments confuse two important issues: on the one hand, the unlawful occupation of property; on the other, the right to register and to vote. I believe that those two issues should be kept separate. I have read the amendments and given the matter some thought over the weekend. I have also read some press reports on the issue of squatters and voters. One would imagine that the Government are about to introduce a law which gives squatters the right to vote. It is clear, and has been apparent for a long time, that squatters have always had the right to vote. This amendment seeks simply to take away that right.
However, this is a broader issue. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, made the case perfectly well. These amendments are in danger of leading us into an oppressive situation. Frankly, I believe that noble Lords opposite are in danger of being accused of wasting police time: sending police officers round in the middle of the night to check whether someone is bona fide for electoral purposes seems to me to be somewhat heavy-handed.
Who is to say ultimately whether or not someone occupies property lawfully? In circumstances where someone is licensed to occupy premises, there may be some uncertainty. It may well be the case that someone's tenancy has come to a conclusion and, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said, they are attempting to exercise their rights as a homeless person and seek accommodation from a local authority. Therefore, I believe that these are heavy-handed amendments and, for the reasons which I have given, I believe that they should be rejected.
It is clear that the party opposite is, again, trying to narrow access and the civil right to the franchise. I cannot believe that that is right and proper. In general with this legislation, we are trying to make it easier for people to vote and to exercise their civil rights. That is the system which we have always had. We are trying to open up access and to create a more inclusive society. That is the purpose of this legislation: to bolster, and to give greater confidence to, our electoral system. It seems to me that, in these amendments, Conservative Members are trying to close that down. That cannot be right and it cannot be good for local democracy. We should be encouraging
I believe that in principle we should give people the right to vote and that we should try to extend that wherever possible. This legislation attempts to do that. I believe that noble Lords opposite are trying to create a kind of "squatter shock horror" story where it does not exist. I believe that they should consider most carefully before they move amendments, particularly those such as Amendment No. 93. I suggest to noble Lords opposite that they should reconsider their position and withdraw the amendments.
The Earl of Onslow: I suspect that the noble Lord may be able to help us more than most members of the Government Front Bench on this particular issue. When one receives one's voting paper to fill in, in squatter households how is the head of the household described?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: It is for those who live in that household to determine that issue. I have never had to fill in a form and it is a long time since I have been in that position. However, I believe that we are discussing the important issue of someone's right to vote, and that is the issue on which we should concentrate. I believe that noble Lords opposite are trying to narrow that right and access to it. That is regrettable.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The real issue here is that the clause is headed "Residence ... general". It refers to residence for the purposes of registration. It seems to me perfectly pertinent to ask whether the residence is legal or illegal. In an impassioned defence of the Government's position, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said that, from the point of view of registration, it did not matter if someone trespassed on someone else's property. However, it is precisely because they are trespassing on that property that they are asking for registration to vote. It is not unrelated to the fact that they are there illegally. They are saying, "Here I am. I want the right to vote from here".
Therefore, I do not believe that we have received an entirely satisfactory response. I believe that it is a little exaggerated to conjure up pictures of police being sent round in the middle of the night. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said that it is difficult to evict squatters. That, indeed, seems to be the case, particularly people who are squatters for political reasons as, for example, is the case at Faslane nuclear base in Scotland. It seems amazing that it should be suggested that they are legally entitled to a vote if they are in a squat of that nature.
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