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Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West) : This Representation of the People Bill is short and contains only six clauses. However, it is important. What is the Government's motive in introducing the Bill now? There is a commitment to the Bill in the Conservative party manifesto. In addition, the Bill's title suggests that it is about improving the representation of the people. In part, I believe that that is true. However, I believe that the Government's main purpose is very party political. As I said in an intervention earlier, they want to increase the number of votes cast for the Tory party at the next and subsequent general elections.
In the Bill, the Government extend the franchise for British citizens, many of whom have lived outside the United Kingdom for some considerable time and do not have any intention of returning to live here. Many of them do not pay British taxes and their links with the United Kingdom are minimal. I believe that many of them are out of touch with the political situation in this country.
The Conservative party believes that many of the expatriates intend to vote Conservative instead of Labour. If we accept that assumption, then it is clearly in the interests of the Conservative party to maximise the number of British citizens living overseas who are eligible to vote.
In the Representation of the People Act 1985, arrangements were made for British citizens to vote while
Column 1146they are out of the country on holiday. Again, the thinking conveyed by many Conservatives at that time was that better-off people tend to vote Conservative and better-off people tend to go overseas for their summer holidays. Therefore, a drive to get absent voters to vote in a general election was seen by many people to be a net vote winner for the Conservative party.
I believe that there are two major elements to the Bill. It extends the period that a British citizen may live overseas and qualify as an elector from five years to 25 years. Not only may those citizens have lived out of the country for much of their lives, they will also no longer be expected to demonstrate that they ever intend to return to live in the United Kingdom. Clearly that will embrace a number of people, many of whom will have severed their links with Britain. Many will be married to nationals of the country in which they reside and will perhaps have children who may be receiving education in that country. Their children may be married themselves, and there may be grandchildren. Similarly, those British citizens' children may have careers in the other country. Those citizens will feel locked in for good in the other country and they will never return to Britain. I have friends who are in that position.
Those people have made their choice of life styles. I cannot see why we should extend a franchise, as the Bill suggests, to all those people, without exception, which will enable them possibly to determine the type of Government in this country when to all intents and purposes their lives are unaffected by the type of Government in this country.
I believe in principle that the British citizens who reside in this country and who must put up with the consequences of the policies of a Government-- Labour or Conservative--should determine the political complexion of the Government who are elected as a result of a general election. At the same time, I believe that British citizens who live abroad temporarily--for a limited period--should have the right to vote.
The other main element of the Bill is the extension of the franchise to young people who, when they resided in the United Kingdom, were unable to have their names added to the electoral register because they were too young to vote. A possible consequence of that measure is that many young people who might have resided in the United Kingdom only for a matter of weeks or even days and who can know very little about the United Kingdom will now be entitled to vote and determine the kind of Government that we have in this country. Many young people live in countries in which local newspapers report only what the British Government do and rarely report on Opposition parties in any detail. Such young people would invariably vote in the same way as their parents, and that is what the Tory party is banking on.
We should take account of two criteria when considering political representation for British citizens. First, as a fervent democrat, I believe that we should always do all that we can to encourage people to vote. We have fought for our democratic system for hundreds of years. We must protect it, reform it and nurture it to take account of changes in our society and the world about us. I am sure that all hon. Members would support that objective.
The second criterion is that those who are granted a vote should intend to reside in the United Kingdom after their stay overseas. Why should we do what the Bill seems to propose--which is to give the vote to people who have,
Column 1147perhaps, emigrated for good and are probably out of touch with what is going on, or people who abuse Britain by becoming tax exiles? Why should we spend public money encouraging such people to have their names included on the electoral register? There are
exceptions--perhaps not many--to the general rule laid down in the Bill. I hope that the details will be carefully looked at in Committee.
As a result of the Representation of the People Act 1985, the number of people throughout the world who registered in 1987 reached only about 11,000 or 12,000, as the Home Secretary said. Clearly, that number is not very high, and it certainly fell short of the 500, 000 target for which some Conservatives hoped.
I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us the Government's estimate of the number of people throughout the world who will be enfranchised by the Bill. Will he confirm that his Department is using an estimate based on the international passenger survey of 2 million people who now become eligible to register as a result of the Bill? If the number of people who are enfranchised by the Bill were substantially to increase, it is possible that our general election campaigns will no longer be limited to the British Isles. It has been reported that the Conservative party bought a mailing list as part of a drive to persuade 100,000 people living abroad to register in 1987, in time for the last general election. However, that measure fell flat and only a small number of people registered as a result of the Conservative party's appeal. After 1992, when we can expect many more British people to live in EEC countries, the demand for absentee voting will certainly increase. If the Government increase the number of possible voters further still by extending the franchise, both the Labour and Conservative parties could be supported by their sister political parties on the continent in canvassing political voters. In some ways, that may sound fanciful, but, if the number of registered voters is sufficiently large--perhaps about 2 million--it is possible that campaigning for a general election might have that new emphasis. I am not sure whether that is a desirable trend. Do the Government wish to encourage it? The extended franchise in the Bill could result in new methods of campaigning for votes in a country such as the United States. A large number of British citizens emigrated to the United States of America over a considerable number of years. Many of them have retained their British citizenship and would be able to register to vote in British general elections. One can envisage certain United States or international businesses based in the United States contacting potential voters to encourage them to vote in a certain way. Do we as politicians wish to encourage that kind of external interference in our political and democratic processes? The data bases exist and the mail-shot technology is well-established. Does the Minister agree that such interference could be a consequence of the Bill? I should be interested to know whether the Conservative party wishes to encourage it. Clearly, there are two sides of the coin, and I wonder whether the Conservative party has fully thought them through. As the Home Secretary suggested, clause 1 extends to 25 years the period during which British citizens may be registered as voters under the 1985 Act. Why have the Government introduced such a jump from five to 25 years? What does the Minister regard as the quantitative and qualitative benefits of such changes? Clause 2 extends the
Column 1148franchise to British citizens overseas who could not register in the United Kingdom because they were under age. Clause 2(1) states that a condition for being able to vote is that
"he was last resident in the United Kingdom within the period of twenty- five years"
What does that mean? The Minister is a lawyer and he is well versed in these matters. A woman could come to the United Kingdom, have a baby and then, a few weeks or months later, return overseas. Would the baby have resided here? Would he eventually qualify to vote? In the context of the Bill, what is a resident? The Representation of the People Act 1918 states that a resident should be ordinarily resident. If the parents are on the electoral register, does it mean that the baby could be regarded as ordinarily resident? Electoral law relies on discretion. Therefore, we must tighten up that important part of the Bill so that we make it absolutely clear what residence means. There are no definitions in the Bill. Clearly, that is a matter to which the Standing Committee will give attention. That is especially important as electoral law is rarely tested in the courts.
One question that arises from extending the franchise for overseas people is how the Tory party will stimulate the latent vote. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government will not abuse their position by producing more so-called Government information leaflets to encourage people overseas to vote Conservative. If the Government are so keen on extending the franchise, did the Minister consider giving the vote to certain aliens who are settled in the United Kingdom? At least they know what is going on politically and they can make value judgments before casting a vote.
Clause 4 abolishes the requirement for British citizens overseas to declare that they intend to return to the United Kingdom so that they can register to vote. That means that the vote will be given to people who have left the United Kingdom and, perhaps, intend never to return. When people live overseas for long periods they usually do not pay United Kingdom income tax. Should we take a leaf out of the book of the Americans who, during the war of independence in 1776, said that there should be no taxation without representation? Does the Minister consider that for many of the tax exiles who have given up Britain to live overseas there should be no representation without taxation? If these tax exiles pay tax they should, by right, have a vote. Does not the Minister agree that this is a reasonable criterion for extending the representation of these people?
Clause 5 enables--
Mr. Maclennan : I am listening with growing disbelief to the Labour party spokesman suggesting that there should be some kind of property qualifications for the British citizen. Is that really his intention? Obviously, only those with property worth a certain amount will be in a position to pay taxes.
Mr. Randall : I am saying that the way in which this Bill is worded makes it open ended, with loose definitions. I am suggesting that we should considerably tighten up the Bill's wording. The point which I have just made about residency is one good example of a massive loophole. If we do not tighten it up, it will create great difficulties in this kind of electoral law.
Clause 5 enables annual reminders to be sent to overseas electors. I presume that these would be similar to
Column 1149the forms that we receive in the United Kingdom from our individual returning officers. In principle, we must support that notion, but will the Parliamentary Under-Secretary give the House the cost of doing so?
The Home Secretary did not respond to the intervention of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). Will he give us the cost of implementing this proposal? Will officials chase up people to return their forms as they do in the United Kingdom, and what will be the cost?
Clause 6 increases the limit on candidates' election expenses for by- elections, In principle, we welcome the increased level for three reasons. First, by-elections have tended to become national events, not merely to do with a particular constituency. Clearly, that implies extra costs for political parties. Secondly, the growing sophistication of campaigning in by-elections--for example, the extensive use of computer data banks--means that all parties incur greater costs during the highly competitive by- elections which must be catered for. Thirdly, and perhaps most important, the political parties must remain within the electoral law at all times. We must not create pressures for parties to adopt imaginative accounting methods in order to keep within the strict financial limits. The increase is a stop-gap measure. I hope that the Government will carry out a much more comprehensive review of election expenses at by-elections.
Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West) : I have known the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) for a number of years, and I never expected to hear from him one of the most reactionary and fuddy -duddy speeches I have ever heard in the Chamber. It was quite apparent, even from his comments about it being primarily Conservative voters who take overseas holidays, that he is probably not even in touch with his own constituents who, I bet my bottom dollar, go to Spain, Italy and France for their holidays. Good luck to them.
I was hardly surprised that the new-found internationalism of the Labour party lasted not one minute beyond 15 June. It has suddenly developed an antipathy to people from our country who choose to work overseas to create wealth for this country and jobs for the hon. Gentleman's constituents. I am sure that he has many manufacturing companies in his constituency which are proud of their exports. Those exports could not be successfully competed for abroad if there were no salesmen and technical back-up teams overseas. This, above all, is one of the arguments against the five-year rule.
There is a logical argument which says that once people have retired they may not have the vote. However, anyone who works and lives overseas for five, 25 or 30 years has an important link with the United Kingdom. When talking to many of our citizens overseas, I find that they keep closely in touch with home and many of them subscribe to local papers. Sometimes, they are more informed about events at home than many people in this country.
I certainly welcome the Bill. It also helps to rectify the unjustified distinction that currently exists between Crown servants and people working in the European Commission, the European patent office or private
Column 1150business. It is plainly absurd that someone who has spent a lifetime in the diplomatic service overseas is, under current legislation, regarded as having close links and a permanent vote in the United Kingdom, while someone working in the European patent office is not.
A number of British citizens abroad pay taxes to the United Kingdom. That is particularly true of those who have retired from local government, the police and the Civil Service who have their tax deducted at source. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West seems to make no distinction between the groups, and I find that strange.
Mr. Randall : I accept that those people pay taxes and in my speech I attempted to clarify that. The Bill is worded in such a way as to convey a blanket statement which embraces all people. In Committee we must introduce amendments to make it clear so that those people to whom the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) referred will not be penalised.
Mr. Jones : I do not accept that there should be a link between paying taxes and voting. I simply refute what the hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends said, in apparently disparaging terms, about many of our citizens who live overseas and have various connections with the United Kingdom.
I am conscious that other Members wish to speak so I shall not detain the House too long. I wish to refer to the remarks made by my right hon. Friend about postal votes in the United Kingdom. They are important and the present arrangements are unsatisfactory in a number of regards. I hope that my right hon. Friend will look at ways to make the attestation much simpler. There is no doubt that people have found it difficult to understand and it has imposed an incredible burden on returning officers who, to all intents and purposes, have been unable to make checks. I hope that my right hon. Friend will look at other problems in the postal voting system at the same time. There are far too many acting returning officers and registration officers who insist on absent voters in the elderly or incapacitated category having to declare from exactly which illness or condition they are suffering, rather than simply allowing them to state that they are unable to travel to the polling station because they have difficulty walking. That approach is too intrusive because some people may be suffering from diseases some of which may be terminal and would not want them disclosed on the forms that are available to the political parties and registration officers. It would be to everyone's benefit if we could create a much simpler system of postal vote applications.
We have a unique opportunity to try to bring our citizens in line with those of many of the other European countries and beyond. Socialist Governments in France and elsewhere seem to have no difficulty in allowing such an approach to be taken towards their citizens abroad. It seems extraordinarily insular for some Opposition Members, though not all, to take an entirely different view. 5.58 pm
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) : This debate has certainly given us an extraordinary indication of how far the Labour party has strayed from its original desire to see adult suffrage extended throughout this country. We listened to an appalling
Column 1151statement from the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) which showed not only a total lack of knowledge of the historical roots of the Labour party, but of the present day world in which we live. To suggest that expatriates are ignorant of what is going on in this country shows a lack of awareness of the modern means of communication and is a slur on many of our citizens who are great patriots and live abroad in the service of this country. Many of them take a closer interest in what is happening here than do a number of citizens living closer to home.
The suggestion by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West that it was in some way undesirable to conduct a domestic election abroad, or to inform British citizens about the issues on which a general election was being fought, is surely unworthy of serious support. Labour policy as expressed by the hon. Gentleman seems to be to encourage a tax connection between overseas voters and this country, but many people who live overseas are not particularly well off, and the nexus between tax and voting in parliamentary elections has never had the Labour party's support before. The hon. Gentleman has made an appalling, reactionary statement, which I think would come to public notice were it not for the apparent lack of press interest in the debate, notwithstanding its importance.
That leads me back to a question that I put--perhaps not very clearly--to the Home Secretary in an intervention. How important will the extension of the franchise be? There has been a broad variation in the estimates of the number of people who will be affected, which have ranged from half a million to 2 million.
Mr. Maclennan : That is very significant : it suggests a substantial addition to the electoral roll, and I consider that highly desirable if the voters are citizens of this country. It is bound to have cost implications, however, and the Minister will probably want to mention those when he winds up the debate. The 1985 Act was a cautious Act. The rule requiring citizens to have lived abroad for no longer than five years was particularly restrictive, and did not reflect the fact that many people who work abroad do so in cycles lasting considerably longer than that. The Government were right to extend the period, but any such restriction is bound to be somewhat arbitrary, and the choice of 25 years is clearly that. The Home Secretary said that he had toyed with the idea of imposing no such temporal restriction, and I feel that there is a good case for that, as people who fall on the wrong side of the 25-year boundary may have just as good a claim to be registered as voters as those who fall just on the right side. The drawing of such lines is certain to create anomalies.
The Government's decision to simplify the procedures is sensible, as procedures were partly responsible for
Column 1152defeating the intent of the earlier Bill. The declaration of intention to return to this country strikes me as a particularly pointless requirement, which we do well to dispense with. It would be fairly simple for someone who was sufficiently keen to vote to make such a declaration, and it would be impossible to judge whether it was valid.
I entirely support the Government's proposals relating to those who leave the United Kingdom before they are old enough to vote. The general principle of extending the franchise in this manner is, I believe, right and just. I do not consider most people who live abroad to be parasites ; in my view, they are hard working, and many contribute to the promotion of this country's commercial and diplomatic objectives. Without their work the United Kingdom would be more insular and out of touch with the rest of the world than any of us would wish. There are lotus eaters living on these islands, but no one suggests that they should be subjected to a test of whether they serve the nation. Many of us could nominate categories of such people, but it would be intolerable to do so, and it is equally nonsensical to categorise people living abroad in the same way.
The increase in parliamentary by-election expenses takes account of the considerable pressures faced by all political parties fighting such elections, which have become increasingly national events. The risk of a formal breach of the law is very great, and legislation should take account of that. I hope that this measure will enable the law to be enforced more severely than it has been on occasions in the past.
Broadly speaking, I welcome the Government's proposals.
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : Let me start at the end of the Bill with clause 6, which deals with by-elections. I do not believe that anyone who has been within 100 miles of the organisation of a by- election in the last decade can say with hand on heart that the law has been observed in relation to the expenses of virtually any serious candidate. Raising the limit will not cost the parties a penny more. The money has already been spent, and we all know it. This measure is long overdue.
I am disappointed, however, that the Government have not taken the opportunity to rectify a problem that we thought we had got rid of by raising the deposit for parliamentary candidates. I do not agree with such deposits in any case--I think that signatures should be used instead--but one of the reasons for raising the deposits was to cut out the non-serious candidates. Winning a seat in the House is not a game ; its purpose should not be publicity for stunts and organisations. Raising the deposit, however, has not stopped the nonsense at by-elections, where numerous candidates for different parties simply abuse the system for free national publicity. I think that we could have taken the opportunity to abolish the requirement for a deposit and instead demand a minimum of 500 signatures for the nomination of candidates. Personally, I would go for 1,000 ; 500 is a compromise. I am serious about this. Anybody who claims to be a serious candidate for this place and who cannot find 500 signatures is, frankly, playing games with the electorate. We should cut out the monetary problems facing minor parties that are serious but are bereft of
Column 1153financial support. Although I am due to be in Birmingham on Wednesday evening, I should like to be here to move an amendment to clause 6 to that effect, if I would be in order in doing so. My intervention earlier led the Home Secretary to believe that I was against the Bill. That is not the case, and I made my position clear when we debated the subject previously. I presume that the 25-year period will date from Royal Assent. To the best of my knowledge, electoral registers have not been kept by registration officers for 25 years. That means that the information going back that far will not be available.
Mr. Douglas Hogg : The hon. Gentleman is right in some respects, but the problem to which he refers can be met because most county or district council archives have the information. Where they have not, the registers can be obtained from the British library or from the national library of Scotland.
Mr. Rooker : I am pleased to hear that. I am happy so long as they are available. The local authority in Birmingham does not keep registers that far back, although I am aware that they are available at the central reference library or at the local studies department of the university, but one has to go through a process to obtain them. It is important that the registers are available so that the registrations can be checked. This is a serious matter concerning the right of people to vote in a constituency, and there must be a degree of certainty in the matter.
The electoral register is notoriously inaccurate. We do not debate election law and matters affecting the representation of the people often enough. Indeed, we do so only when we are obliged to do so or when there is a highly partisan issue following a change. That has not prompted this debate, but let us be clear that we are not adequately debating the Bill.
The measure has not yet been published for two clear weekends between its date of printing and Second Reading. It is being rushed through Parliament. Our normal conventions and Standing Orders are not being followed. That is by agreement, so I make no complaint, but it means that the Bill will not be scrutinised line by line and will not have a Standing Committee stage upstairs. We shall not have the chance that we would otherwise have to consider fully the way in which the electoral register works.
The electoral register can be described as a snapshot of one day. As I say, it is highly inaccurate. The poll tax register, on the other hand, is a rolling register ; once one is on it, one stays on it. There is no requirement for an annual re-registration for the poll tax register. It changes only if the person's address changes. I do not understand why our electoral registration system cannot follow the system in other western democracies. Under their system, once registered, a person remains registered until or unless there is a change of address. In Britain, particularly in the inner cities, there are enormous registration difficulties. There is massive under-registration, particularly for that one day, and that causes people to lose their vote.
I appreciate that it is easier nowadays for people to get back on to the register--if, say, somebody failed to fill in the form on the day in question--but administrative hurdles must still be surmounted. That involves getting the
Column 1154necessary form, filling it in and taking it to the electoral registration office. There would be no need for that if we adopted the rolling register so that, once registered, one remained on it. Other countries do it and there is no reason why we should not do the same.
Time permits me to make only a brief reference to the question of stateless persons living in this country. Consider, for example, people who came here from the Baltic states in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Many of them have never taken British nationality. Some of them could not even pass the naturalisation test ; even today their command of the English language is not that good. But they have struggled and managed to survive in this country. They will not take Soviet citizenship because they are not Soviet citizens. So they find it difficult to obtain a passport, although the Home Office goes out of its way to issue such people with special documents.
While I would not think of linking taxes with votes, we should bear in mind that those stateless persons pay their taxes in this country, and they will have to pay the poll tax because they pay rates now. They will be on the rolling register for poll tax purposes. They have lived here perhaps for decades and I do not see why provision cannot be made for them to vote in British parliamentary elections. We in this House--by "we" I mean the two major parties--are so conservative in making electoral arrangements that it beggars belief. Why is there no provision in the Bill to get rid of the necessity for voting to occur on a Thursday? Why not allow voting at weekends? The Thursday rule is a throwback to market days when constituencies were bought and sold.
Why is there no provision in the Bill for compulsory attendance at polling stations? I refer, of course, to compulsory attendance, not to compulsory voting. In recent weeks we have seen pictures of tanks trundling over people who were fighting for the right to have a proper vote and voice in the way their country is run. People in Britian gave their lives for the vote. It is people's civic duty and responsibility at least to get off their backsides and go to the polling station. Even if they do not like the candidates on offer, they should at least register their attendance at the polling station.
If time permitted, I would explain in detail how our system of voting is archiac, unfair and undemocratic. It is long overdue for reform to bring us in line with the more modern and democratic systems that are used in most other countries. We have not exported our voting system to, say, Poland or the Soviet Union. They do not use the first-past-the-post method. By their system, a single candidate can be defeated. In Britain, a single candidate gets elected without even the need for an election.
There should be a provision in the Bill to tidy up the rules applying to the description, the six words, on the ballot paper. I was astonished to discover during the Euro-elections that Members of the European Parliament remain MEPs, in the way local councillors remain in office, up to and beyond the day of the election and are able legally to describe themselves on the ballot paper as, "Member, European Parliament". That gives an unfair advantage to certain candidates, and the rule applying to the words that may be used needs tidying up.
When I inquired into that matter, I was surprised to learn that at the last general election the Prime Minister actually had "Prime Minister" on the ballot paper. The words read, "The Conservative candidate, Prime Minister." In the five general elections that I have fought,
Column 1155and reached this place, the Prime Minister in only one of them described herself as the Conservative party candidate. That was in 1983. In the two elections in 1974 and in the 1979 election she did not even describe herself as "The Conservative candidate". She described herself as the "Finchley and Friern Barnet Conservative candidate"--distancing herself at that time, when she was a member of the Cabinet, from the then Leader of the Conservative party. In those six words, no former Member of Parliament who holds a ministerial office should be entitled to display ministerial office on the ballot paper. I hope that an amendment to that effect will be made to the Bill when it is debated again next Wednesday.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : I agreed with some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), and certainly democracy should be more valued in Britain than it is. My hon. Friend said that everyone should be under a legal obligation to attend a polling station at election time even if they did not wish to vote. I agree, and I confess that I am often disappointed when people tell me, "We never vote." Sometimes they say it almost with pride.
One thinks not only of what happened in China a few weeks ago but of the intense struggle that was fought in Britain by men and women to obtain the vote. Women went to prison and on hunger strike for the elementary right to vote. No wonder we on the Labour Benches take a different view from some people about the need to preserve, defend and value our system of parliamentary democracy. We need no lectures from the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) and the Members of his party about our commitment to parliamentary democracy and civil liberties.
I also agreed with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr about the need for tighter restrictions at by-elections. I see no reason why such elections should become a kind of circus. The restrictions could be tighter without denying anybody the right to stand for election to Parliament. It is well known that a number of people stand at by-elections who would not dream of standing at general elections. They do so because they obtain the publicity that they would never get at a general election.
The Bill devalues democracy. I accept that many people who go abroad on contracts or with the armed services or to the EEC in Brussels have every right to retain their vote. I would be the last person to wish to take away that right to vote in national elections. We have made that clear on a number of occasions, and when the Representation of the People Act 1985 was passing through the House. The basic questions concern the number of years abroad, continued commitment to this country and whether the person intends to return to Britain. Before a Conservative Member mocks that, it should be borne in mind that that was precisely what the Government brought forward and what now exists in law. Before a person who lives abroad can vote, he must sign a declaration that he does not intend to reside permanently outside the country. The Home Secretary did not give any reason that I can accept why that should be abolished. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland gave the impression that everybody who goes abroad, for no matter how many years, does so for the best of reasons, in
Column 1156the interests of Britain, but we know that that is not always so. Some of these people go to escape the law and many others to escape paying tax here. Even now, they believe that it is far better to go abroad where their tax liability will be much less than if they stayed in Britain. Have they gone abroad for the best of reasons? Should we congratulate them on that?
The Bill proposes that people who go abroad can stay for up to 25 years without any evidence of their continuing commitment to the United Kingdom or that they will ever return, and still have the vote. However, the Government argued about local elections that it was necessary to have some kind of financial commitment, through paying rates or the poll tax, before one could have the vote. They laid that down in the law. Even the poorest people, those on income support, have to pay 20 per cent. of the poll tax before they have the right to vote. That was a new commitment that the Government introduced, against which we strongly argued.
The Government now propose that those who go abroad for many years, and therefore pay no tax in the United Kingdom, will still be able to vote in a general election even if they have no intention of returning. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) rightly said, if a child leaves the country with his parents, when he comes of voting age, he will be able to vote even if he has never been back to the United Kingdom. The Minister will no doubt correct me if I am wrong on this.
Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay) : I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the position of expatriate workers who live in a British colony. I am thinking in particular of those in Bermuda. They may have given an undertaking or signed a document saying that they have no intention of coming back to the United Kingdom, but they do not have a vote in that British colony. After they have fulfilled the residential qualifications in Bermuda they may not obtain the Bermudian status that gives them the right to vote. Many expatriates would like to continue their long-term interest in the United Kingdom and vote in United Kingdom elections but cannot do so, and the tax disincentives for them are considerable.
I am convinced that if Conservative central office thought that the Tories would lose as a result of this measure, it would not be before us now. The Tory party has come to the cynical conclusion that it will get votes from the provisions of the Bill. It may be right, and I will not challenge that. To maximise the votes that they can get from abroad, the Government have decided on this measure. The Tories would gain far more votes than the Democrats. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland is being naive if he does not understand why the Bill is before us.
Column 1157points that we have made are far more principled and are far more concerned with preserving our democracy, and with our commitment to this country and its political process. This is a shabby scheme. It is understandable that the Conservative party should introduce it, but those of us who vote against it will do so with every justification.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I do not support the Bill, which smacks of international gerrymandering. The Home Secretary tried to dress it up in the language of the extended franchise, but we know that the instincts and intentions of the Government are base. They think that the Bill will extend the trawl. They will be going out looking for the international redneck vote to supplement the miserable performance that they are fully expected to have at the next general election.
I listened carefully to the Home Secretary, who said that not enough people were voting under the existing system for overseas voters introduced by the Representation of the People Act 1985. Roughly 500,000 people overseas are eligible to vote. Something like 13,000 of them voted in the 1987 election. As I said to the Home Secretary, voting is a voluntary act. I do not know why 500,000 people minus 13,000 did not turn up to vote.
Mr. Banks : The statistic that I saw in the Library a little while ago suggested that the 13,000 voted. Let us not quibble. If 500,000 people were registered, only a small number decided to vote under the existing system. One would have thought that the Home Secretary would try to get the additional people to register and vote instead of saying that he will make it easier for people to register by having fewer restraints. There are no restraints on up to 500,000 voting anyway, so we are now looking for the greater number of up to 2 million who may register as a result of the changes proposed in the Bill, and thus be eligible to vote. We do not know how many will vote.
This is absurd. If we looked at this logically, we would be asking about the franchise here and about the 30 per cent. of people who were eligible to vote at the last general election but did not. Why do we not lower the voting age, or declare a public holiday on polling day? Why do we not try to get through the House compulsory voting? Why do we not change the voting procedures? Why do we not have run-off campaigns between the candidates so that whoever ends up as Member of Parliament speaks for over 50 per cent. of the constituency? Why do we not have postal votes for everybody? One could go on talking about the way to tap into the extra 30 per cent. of people who do not vote in a general election, but no Conservative Member makes that proposal.
I support the proposal that British citizens overseas in the diplomatic service, in the armed services or on short-term contracts should have their right to vote while working overseas because they are showing a continuing long-term commitment to this country. When people have effectively emigrated and have not the slightest intention of coming back, I do not see why I should be expected to
Column 1158support their right to vote for a Government whose economic and social policies will not affect them. We are talking about tax exiles. We are talking about people who have put two fingers up to this country because they do not want to have anything to do with it. They have said, "We are clearing off. We will go abroad and live off our ill-gotten gains." Those are the sort of people who will be in the extended categories.
Taxation is crucial if one is living overseas. It is not crucial here. If someone lives in this country, he is living under the laws that have been passed by the Government. Taxation is not crucial in this country but a person who lives overseas, with no intention of coming back, and who pays no taxes in this country should not have the right to vote for policies which will never cost him anything and which will never affect him economically or socially.
Mr. Allason rose--
The Prime Minister herself has said that, unless people are contributing to local taxes and rates, they will not act responsibly in the way that they vote at local elections. If it is good enough for the Prime Minister to use that argument, to which we are opposed, I do not see how the Government can try to take the reverse position in regard to those who live overseas, who have no intention of coming back to this country and who pay no taxes or rates here.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North. I am no narrow- minded nationalist, but I am damned if I will support the right of tax exiles to vote for policies in this country. The Government see this as a way of trawling round the country looking for the redneck vote. It will not do them any good at the next election. In the meantime, I am opposed root and branch to the proposals in the Bill.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : The importance of the measure was displayed by the Minister who stated that potentially there were 2 million votes involved. That means that over 3,000 votes might be involved per constituency at a time when the electoral register is in collapse because of the poll tax. There are 76 constituencies in England where the electorate has dropped by more than 1,000 in the last year, including a drop of 2,170 in Finchley which, according to the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, is not due to demographic reasons, but must have something to do with registration. In a letter to me the only explanation offered by the Prime Minister for the registration figures not being as high as they should be is the September 1988 postal strike. That is an unfortunate explanation which does not apply to the position in Scotland where there was a similar collapse in registration in the major cities between the general election of 1987 and 1988. Therefore, the poll tax is relevant to the Bill.
I am concerned about the low priority that is being given to this important legislation. It is not just, as the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), the representative of the SLD, said, that the press are not here ; many hon. Members are not here either. The Bill is being rushed through, hopefully for some, in less than two hours. We are not giving it the consideration that major
Column 1159constitutional legislation should have. The Secretary of State, who introduced the Bill, has left the House. With all respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall), we are leading with the reserves. It is an important measure which should be discussed in prime time.
The Representation of the People Act 1985 was discussed at considerable length during 1984 and 1985. It was of wider scope than the present measure but Labour voted against it on Second Reading. Considerable time was spent on it in a Committee of the whole House. Only when certain amendments were introduced was there agreement not to vote against it on Third Reading. All the concessions made at that stage for overseas voters are being overridden. The position is even worse. Clause 1 extends from five years to 25 years the period during which people can pick up electoral registration overseas. The original proposal in 1984 was seven years, but it was amended to five years ; now it is to be 25 years.
Under existing legislation people who were under 18 when they left this country are excluded. That condition is being removed. A person who left the country as a babe in arms may, 18 years later, qualify for registration and may vote in English elections, yet some people in this country will be excluded from their birthright by the operation of the poll tax which deters them from being not just on the poll tax register but on the linked electoral register. The minimal requirement of a declaration that a person did not intend to reside permanently outside the United Kingdom is being abolished. People will not even have to say that they intend to return here at some stage. We should ask who should be on the electoral register and what principles should be involved. People should be involved with the nation and should participate in its affairs. They should be concerned about the services that are provided because they benefit from them.
I do not accept the principle of no representation without taxation which operates in regard to the poll tax. Everybody within a society should be entitled to vote as a birthright, but we have to decide what a society is. Society does not mean that a person leaves the country, settles in another area and devotes himself to that nation where he will develop interests distinct from his interests here. Someone who settles overseas is bound to become more involved with the interests of the country where his children are growing up. The explanatory and financial memorandum refers to the costs of registering overseas electors. If there was a decent principle, I would not quibble about the cost because we cannot put too high a price on democracy. We should be willing to spend any amount to ensure that people have the franchise. It will cost £1.72 to register an overseas elector and 62p each year to maintain registration. That expenditure can be contrasted with the failure of the Government to try to stimulate electoral registration in this country through advertising.
Expenditure on advertising by the Home Office to encourage electoral registration amounted to 0.31 per cent. of total Government advertising expenditure in the past year. We should contrast that with the expenditure of more than £6 million by Abbey National in its campaign to encourage people to exercise their vote on the society becoming a plc. Abbey National was not allowed to ask people to vote yes, but it encouraged full use of the franchise. Should we not encourage full registration of electors? Should we not get rid of poll tax legislation which