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Lord Dubs: I should like to comment briefly on the general context in which these amendments are being considered before going on to speak to the specific amendment standing in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Gould, Amendment No. 280EA.
I have some sympathy with the comment "use it or lose it", used by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. It has a certain integrity and ensures that people who are interested in retaining a commitment to voting are able to retain the right to vote. However, at the time when the 20-year period was introduced, I wondered whether that was the right way to go. In that regard I have some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart.
The right to vote is a responsibility and a privilege. It surely ought not to be given to those who have thrown their lot in with another country. Those who are committed to this country and are abroad for reasons of service to this country or as employees of international organisations of which this country is a member, have not actually cut their ties with this country. But I do not know whether an individual who has cut all his ties with this country should continue to have the privilege of being able to vote in our elections.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Perhaps I may make two points and ask the noble Lord if he would like to address them. First, if a person has no links and no interest, he will probably not continue to register to vote every year. That was my reason for saying that they must register every year. They cannot suddenly think, "Oh there's an election coming up. I'd better register". If they missed registering last year, then they have missed out forever.
Secondly, the noble Lord obviously has not heard of the Internet where people abroad can now read British newspapers and watch the BBC as quickly and as readily as can we who live here. So I can assure the noble Lord that their interest can be maintained on a day-to-day basis.
Lord Dubs: That is why I said I had some sympathy with the "use it or lose it" point. And it is certainly possible, even if one has not heard of the Internet--I actually use it quite frequently--to obtain newspapers originating in this country. However, that is not the same as playing a part in the political life of this country. Those people do not pay taxes in this country; they have no day-to-day involvement with the issues that affect us, whether it is the health service, public transport or whatever. That is why I ask whether people who have cut their ties with this country should be entitled to the privilege of taking part in our elections? I believe that if they have cut those ties for quite some time they should not.
That brings me to Amendment No. 280EA, which is similar to Amendment No. 280E. They seek to make an exception for those people from this country who work for international organisations of which the United Kingdom is a member. In doing that, they are continuing to retain their links with this country and are therefore entitled to say that they have not thrown their lot in with another country; they are still committed to the political process of this country.
That is why it is anomalous that British subjects who work for the European Commission or the European Parliament and are based in Brussels or Strasbourg should lose their right to vote, when those who work for the Foreign Service or the British Council do not. There is an inconsistency in that and both amendments seek to put that right. I hope the Government will consider them sympathetically.
The only reason that the Government could propose, as they do in this Bill, to change the current situation is that they believe that British citizens living abroad effectively lose their links with the United Kingdom after a shorter period than is provided for under the current rules. My experience, including 19 years working outside the United Kingdom, does not support that view. British citizens abroad generally consider the political situation in the United Kingdom to be either interesting or inspiring, or sometimes otherwise, roughly in the same proportion as British citizens in the United Kingdom.
The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, effectively responds to the Government's concern because if a United Kingdom citizen resident abroad must make the effort to register every year after his first five years abroad, he demonstrates his continued concern as a United Kingdom elector. I like the amendment because it is generally applicable.
I could also support Amendment No. 280E tabled by the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Goodhart, because it seems to me desirable that British citizens working in international, including EU, institutions should continue to feel concerned about national elections. However, I should prefer a rule of general application to all British citizens resident abroad as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. But I do not agree with the text of the Bill as it stands. It is not satisfactory and we must go in a direction which to some degree maintains the position of those who already have rights abroad. I am generally against measures which disfranchise United Kingdom citizens.
Lord Bowness: I support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Mackay and I hope that the Government will reconsider the position. Overseas voters are overseas for a variety of reasons, not necessarily because they have thrown in their lot with another country. People go abroad for employment, to be near their family and for health reasons. The fact that people live in other countries does not mean that they want to cut their ties with the United Kingdom. I do not believe that we should be seeking to withdraw from citizens of the United Kingdom one of their rights; namely, to vote in a parliamentary election.
Indeed, it would be somewhat anomalous for those of our citizens who went to live within the European Union because, if they were deprived of a right to vote in a parliamentary election, they would be deprived of a vote at a particular level of election within the EU. Member states still play an important part within the EU.
When fewer people want to be involved in the democratic process, I do not believe that we should be reining in our citizens' rights. If we do, we shall be joining a minority of countries. I am grateful to the Library for carrying out some research for me. I shall not take up the Committee's time by going through it in detail but perhaps I may examine the provisions of the other members states of the EU. Italy allows its
If we begin to restrict the right in the way suggested by the Government, we shall be moving to the end of the spectrum where countries are less generous towards their citizens rather than to the end where they are more generous. That would be a matter of great regret.
Lord Tomlinson: I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. There is a strange paradox because, at a time when the Home Office is conducting all kinds of experiments in local government elections to try to persuade electors in this country to use their votes in greater abundance, the Home Office is trying to reduce the right to vote of those who are not only working abroad serving their country but who are vigorously fighting to retain their right to vote. It is not a sign that people have cut themselves off from their country, but the noble Lord's evidence from New York illustrates the pressure that is being put on both the public and private sectors.
Many of the 3 million citizens who live abroad choose not to exercise their votes. Those who feel themselves alien from the process do not participate in it now and there is no reason to believe that they will in future. But to reduce the qualifying period from 20 years to 10 is about as retrograde a step as one could imagine a Parliament taking in the name of democracy.
If there is nothing wrong with the present system, do not seek to change it. I should be happy if my noble friend said that he has thought again, that 10 years is a silly provision and that a longer period will suffice. The longer period should be that which we already have and my noble friend must establish a case for changing what exists. But if he is insistent on changing the system, the proposal put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is eminently reasonable. It applies to both the public and private sectors; those who serve their country in the public sector and those who serve the interests of this country by working in British companies abroad. I do not see the distinction; it is entirely artificial.
On that basis, the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is preferable to that which seeks to limit the provision to people working in the public sector. I hope that my noble friend will realise that it is not an issue about which a few people have suddenly become concerned; there has been a long-standing expression of concern. I hope that he recognises that three is disquiet in the Committee that after so much
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