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Column 1160for the first time has introduced the principle of no registration without taxation? That principle applies in Chile where, at the recent referendum, in order to register people had to pay an amount equivalent to one month's money on an employment scheme, as a result of which many of the Chilean working class did not have a vote. The vote against Pinochet would have been much greater but for the financial constraints on people.
The poll tax is creating a similar situation in Britain. For the first time since the franchise was extended universally--in 1918 for all men and in 1928 for all women--there will be a tax on those who qualify to vote. A similar situation applied in the 19th century and before 1918 when we had the 40 shilling vote and other fancy franchises.
Those are the types of measures that we should be considering in a Bill such as this. We should be discussing my Re-enfranchisement of the People Bill, which would detach the poll tax register from the electoral register, rather than the nonsense before us today. 6.40 pm
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : I am shocked that we should be debating a Bill such as this which basically shows the Tory party's deep concern for its future. It has to scrabble round the world looking for tax dodgers, crooks, thieves and wastrels, anywhere that it can, in order to get a Tory Government re-elected in two years' time. That is what the Bill is about. It has nothing to do with democracy.
The Home Secretary has given us an eloquent testimony of his commitment to democracy by clearing off the minute that he finished his speech. He may have gone abroad ; I do not know. Perhaps he has gone to see a tax exile. There is something disgraceful and distasteful about the Bill.
If the Government were serious about ensuring that democracy in Britain worked properly, they would not have pushed through the poll tax which has taken thousands of people off the register. The London Central European constituency had 40,000 fewer voters two weeks ago than it had in 1984. That was the result not of the migration of people from central London, but of fear of the poll tax. That was the reason behind the poll tax.
Local authorities are spending less and less money on voter registration and canvassing follow-ups. The voter registration system is less accurate than it used to be. The Housing Act 1988 and the activities of dodgy landlords further discourage people from registering. That has always been a problem and will continue to be one.
The Government's only answer to all the problems of
non-participation in elections is to threaten people with the poll tax and offer the vote to tax dodgers living abroad. A baby born in Britain today and taken out of the country tomorrow would, after its birth had been registered and a passport issued--if that were possible in the time--be eligible to vote in British elections from 2007 until 2014, having played no part in Britain's political or economic life. Thousands of people are denied the right to vote who are legally resident in Britain as asylum- seekers or refugees, or who have another nationality but are legally resident and work in Britain, making their contribution to society. It is not just those who pay tax who should have the vote. Those political exiles are making their
Column 1161contribution to society, but they are denied the right to vote here and in their country of origin. It is monstrously unfair for us to preach democracy while denying such people the right to participate in elections.
About 15 million people across Europe, often the poorest, are suffering the ravages of economic policies pursued by Governments such as ours and are being denied any participation in a democratic process that can influence their lives. That is distasteful, and the Home Office should examine the ways in which the electoral register and the franchise in Britain could be extended to people living and contributing to society here rather than scrabbling round the world looking for tax exiles to vote for them.
The raising of the parliamentary limit on by-election campaigns is nonsense. Parliamentary by-elections have been turned into a circus by the activities of the Front-Bench spokesmen of all parties in the House and by media exposure. There is an increasing antipathy towards all political parties in by-elections because people feel that they are being taken for a ride. They feel that they are spectators in their own electoral process.
Raising the limit to about £14,000 for by-elections, plus the unit cost increase for each vote of 16.4p for every entry on the electoral register, means that by-election campaigns will cost about £20,000 or more per candidate. Multiply that by five or six candidates, and we are talking about £100,000 worth of political publicity being pushed out, often during a two-week by-election campaign. That is not a promotion of democracy, but a way of squashing and squeezing smaller third parties.
I am happy and proud to be a member of one of the two largest parties in Britain, but, as a Member of the House, I have a duty, as others have, to ensure that democracy is fair and that everyone has a right to express their point of view.
The Bill seems to be a bit obsessed with money all round. We heard at the beginning that the Government estimate an expenditure of £1.72 per overseas voter to be registered, but there is no increase for voter registration in Britain. We must consider that.
We must also consider the electoral deposit. There is a general feeling that if we increased the electoral deposit we would reduce the number of candidates and get away from irritants from third, fourth, fifth, sixth, 10th and 12th parties ; that is wrong. We should not prevent people from contesting elections or submitting their name for election as a result of their inability to pay a cash deposit. If there is to be a limit, it should be based on the number of signatures in support of a candidature. At the moment that is only 10, but there is no reason why it should not be substantially increased and the parliamentary election deposit abolished at the same time.
Many hon. Members have put forward different proposals for extending and improving participation in democracy in Britain. The Bill does nothing towards that. It helps not one jot to improve democracy in Britain ; it only enfranchises those who, in effect, have emigrated.
Mr. Tony Banks : Someone said earlier that he did not know where the 25-year rule came from. We know that it comes from the 1964 general election when many people upped and left the country because a Labour Government
Column 1162were elected. The 25-year rule was a way of enfranchising all those who have left Britain since 1964. It is no mere coincidence.
Mr. Corbyn : There were those who, under the previous Labour Government, were paid large sums of money to write articles in the Sunday newspapers saying that they could not afford to live in Britain because of what they considered to be the penal rates of tax. I do not consider that to be a basis for re-enfranchising them. They should show some commitment to Britain by living here and contributing to our society.
I hope that when the Under-Secretary of State replies he will at least show that the Home Office has considered the points that have been made tonight. I hope that the Bill will not go forward and that we shall not extend the franchise in the way that the Government want, but that we shall extend democratic participation in Britain. 6.48 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg) : In the course of the debate a number of hon. Members have outlined their own views about defects that they perceive to exist in our electoral system. I acknowledge that many of the problems they mentioned are not addressed by the Bill, which is narrowly focused and is intended to be so. That is why we have not sought to address the points made, for example, by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) regarding the deposit and eligibility to stand.
In short, we are seeking to extend the franchise to people who hitherto have been deprived of it. The broad principle by which I stand--and I am glad that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) stands by it as well--is that British citizens should, unless there are persuasive reasons to the contrary, have the right to vote. That seems to me to be an admirable principle. We should not deprive British citizens of the right to vote unless there is an obvious and compelling reason why we should do so. That approach is adopted by most developed countries.
We live in a world in which citzens of Britain and of every other country must live abroad, or choose to do so, to work, or for an increasing number of other purposes or reasons.
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) launched an attack on tax exiles. It is possible that among those to whom the franchise will be extended by the Bill will be people whom the hon. Gentleman calls tax exiles. However, the fact that some unworthy people may be caught in the net is not a good reason for denying a franchise to the very many worthy people who are presently denied it. People now go abroad for long periods for a whole variety of reasons. They work in international agencies, commerce and business, and they serve as missionaries or educationists. The list is endless. To describe the people who may be given a franchise by the Bill in the way that the hon. Member for Islington, North described them, as "tax dodgers, crooks, thieves and wastrels",
Column 1163is deeply offensive to the many people who go abroad for wholly legitimate reasons.
Mr. Banks rose --
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland made the important point that the Labour party is, in its attitude to the Bill, departing from the standards that it has set itself for many years. Labour is saying in effect that people should not have the right to vote unless they pay tax. That argument was explicitly deployed by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall)--he nods assent. If that policy were adopted, the huge majority of students who are currently entitled to vote would be denied that right. If we were to adopt the argument of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West, millions of old-age pensioners who do not pay tax would also be denied the right to vote. That would be the consequence of the proposal made by the right hon. Gentleman from the Labour Front Bench.
Mr. Hogg : We heard otherwise from some Opposition Members, and those honourable exceptions included the hon. Member for Perry Barr. Nevertheless, the Opposition's argument against the Bill is that there should be some linkage between the obligation and the fact of paying tax and the franchise, which I do not accept in respect of parliamentary elections.
Mr. Hogg : No, not at this moment. I gave way to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West. I have enjoyed the many interventions of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), but he had ample opportunity to put his point of view.
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland asked a number of questions, which I shall try to answer. We do not know the number of persons who will be eligible to vote. Our best estimate is that the total will be of the order of 2 million. If you, Madam Deputy Speaker, were to ask me how many people we estimate will take up the franchise, I would reply that our broad calculation is 60,000. That is the figure we have in mind. In 1987, 12,000 overseas citizens registered to vote in the general election that year, but we do not know how many did so.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West made a defeatist speech in suggesting that the purpose of the Bill is to increase the number of Conservative votes. I have two comments to make on that point. First, we are taking the high moral ground that British citizens are, prima facie, entitled to vote even when they live abroad. Secondly, it is extraordinary that the Labour party should suggest that its policies are so unattractive that it will not have supporters among those living abroad. That may be right, but such a view tells us something about the Labour party. When I hear the hon. Member for Islington, North describe British citizens overseas as "tax dodgers, crooks, thieves and wastrels"
I am not in the least surprised why he supposes that Labour will not receive many votes from them.
Column 1164The explanatory memorandum gives information about the important aspect of costs. For local government, the cost will be £1.72p per voter initially and thereafter 62p per year. The calculations are set out in the annex to our second consultation paper that is now in the Library. Those figures have been made available to local authorities in good time, and I am pleased to report that there was no particular criticism of them. I do not claim that those figures are 100 per cent. accurate, but the order of the estimate is correct. Hon. Members who attacked our abolition of the declaration fail to grasp what we are about. The declaration in its present form requires people to assert that they do not intend to live permanently outside the United Kingdom. No honest man can put his name to such a declaration, because such a circumstance is unverifiable. More importantly, any honest man considering whether he is capable of making such a declaration truthfully must bear in mind that his intentions may change. There is no reason why a person who is essentially honest and recognises the basic facts of life should be penalised in the way that the Opposition suggest.
The criteria affecting children are clearly set out in the Bill. Young persons will be entitled to apply to register if they were resident in the constituency during the relevant time period--and residency is a matter of fact, meaning a permanent connection--and their parent or guardian was also registered at a relevant address within the appropriate constituency. I see no lacuna in that situation.
I shall bring my remarks to a conclusion. I have not answered every hon. Member who has spoken, but I propose to do so in writing instead. The justification for the Bill is an appropriate extension of the franchise to people who should not be denied it. On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time : The House divided : Ayes 162, Noes 19.
Division No. 268] [6.58 pm
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Bevan, David Gilroy
Boscawen, Hon Robert
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Browne, John (Winchester)
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)
Buck, Sir Antony
Carlisle, John, (Luton N)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Davis, David (Boothferry)
Emery, Sir Peter
Fenner, Dame Peggy
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Fox, Sir Marcus
Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn