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Mr. Linton: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I agree that there is no harm in being accused of making party political points. After all, we are elected to this place as members of political parties. However, I remind the House that the Home Affairs Committee report had unanimous support from members of all three parties in recommending a reduction from 20 years to five. That policy was overturned by the Opposition only when they realised that the implication of that would be to deprive them of the monthly cheque for £83,000 from Mr. Michael Ashcroft. That is a clear case of changing policy for cash.

Mr. Kaufman: The best way to deal with what one might call the Ashcroft issue would be to abolish the overseas vote. The problem would be solved just like that. However, I accept what my hon. Friend says.

Mr. Fabricant: As I said earlier, the right hon. Gentleman has taken an uncharacteristically partisan approach. He said in the last century that he has been consistent--

Mr. Kaufman: Will the hon. Gentleman please stop talking about the last century? We are in the 20th century until midnight on 31 December this year. Let us at least get that right.

Mr. Fabricant: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. In fact, the former Dean of Lichfield, the Very Reverend Dr. Tom Wright, who has now moved to Westminster abbey, pointed this out to me. I had avoided the great cliche of saying the last millennium, but I can certainly refer to the last year.

Mr. Bercow: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Fabricant: I shall certainly give way to my hon. Friend, whom I know to be an expert on dates, among so many other things.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend will recall that the right hon. Gentleman said only a few moments ago that he had displayed either grovelling sycophancy towards the Government or, at any rate, a suitable synonym for such

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grovelling sycophancy. Has he not just demonstrated, by his very sound attitude to the advent of the millennium next year, that he has done no such thing?

5.45 pm

The Temporary Chairman: Order. Interventions must be relevant, and must relate to the matter that we are debating. They should not be about whether we are or are not in the new millennium.

Mr. Fabricant: Thank you for your advice, Mr. Winterton.

Last year, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said that he had been consistent on this matter. He said, in fact, that he had said as early as 27 June 1984 that people who live overseas should not have the right to vote. However, his consistency does not necessarily mean that he is right. In fact, for once, the right hon. Gentleman may be desperately wrong. Those who live abroad--whether or not they pay United Kingdom tax--have an interest in the country whose nationality they choose to keep. If one chooses to live abroad, one may seek to become a citizen of the country where one lives. That does not necessarily bring tax disadvantages--it may bring an advantage--but if someone chooses to remain a citizen of the UK, he or she has an inherent interest in how the country is governed.

People may also have a fiscal interest, no matter whether they pay taxes in the UK. The rules of double taxation mean that someone who does not pay tax in the UK will still pay tax elsewhere. The Government claim--not always correctly--that they levy low taxation, although it is rising. There may be no fiscal advantage to living overseas. One may still have a financial interest in the UK if one is not paying tax here. Many people own property, although, of course, they pay property taxes. Many people have friends and relatives who pay tax. Many people who live overseas have trusts in the UK for the benefit of relatives or others, and those would be subject to UK taxation and affected by the economy and welfare of the nation. The whole point of voting at a general election is to try to decide what is best for our nation on tax, welfare and the economy.

It is fundamentally wrong to argue that those who live overseas should not have the right to vote. Despite the right hon. Gentleman's protestations, I believe that the amendment is politically motivated, and that is quite wrong. Over the years, it has been felt in the House of Commons that issues such as voting rights--whether by first past the post or proportional representation, for example--should be proceeded with by means of consensus. It is for that reason that the Committee stage is being taken on the Floor of the House rather than in Standing Committee.

The right hon. Gentleman's amendment is fundamentally wrong. We decide whether or not people should vote entirely according to their ability to make a choice. Voting is a function of age and ability. I believe

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that it is still illegal for people living in mental institutions to vote. There may be changes in the law, and perhaps the Minister would clarify the point.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien) indicated dissent.

Mr. Fabricant: They are not banned from voting?

Mr. O'Brien indicated assent.

Mr. Fabricant: In the past, there was a principle that those who had been committed could not vote.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): I seek elucidation. Is not new clause 1 discriminatory in the sense that, if I were rich and lived abroad but could afford a home in this country--or owned a house on which I paid rates--I should be entitled to vote? I should be on the electoral register, even though I did not have to pay taxes because I should be in the country for only 12 weeks in a year. Surely, the new clause discriminates in favour of the rich, who can afford to have a second home in Britain. The central point seems to be that of citizenship--perhaps my hon. Friend can help me in this matter.

Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The central point is not whether people are rich or poor, but the perception of whether they are likely to vote Labour or Conservative. My hon. Friend, whose constituency almost abuts my own, is right to state that the whole question is one of citizenship. As I pointed out in my preamble, people who are prepared to remain part of the United Kingdom by retaining British citizenship, despite the fact that to do so might disadvantage them fiscally when they are living abroad, are proving their interest in the welfare of the UK. Is that not right? Surely, if one is a citizen of a democracy, one's most fundamental right is the right to vote.

It is all very well for Labour Members to say from time to time, "No representation without taxation"--a strange reversal of the war cry of the Americans when they sought independence--but that is not the case. Many poor people, who do not pay tax, voted Labour--quite rightly so. Sadly, after two and a half years, more poor people pay tax than was the case before the Government came to power. However, the Labour party does not claim that because people do not pay tax, they should not be allowed to vote. That would be a return to the 19th century.

Mr. Bercow: I do not think that my hon. Friend has entirely done justice to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). Does he agree that this matter is extremely significant for the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman)? It would be a damning indictment of his amendment if its effect--deliberate or inadvertent--were to protect people living abroad who own property in this country, at the expense of people living abroad who do not.

Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct; the measure is discriminatory. We should discriminate on one factor and on one factor only: United Kingdom citizenship. If people choose to remain citizens of the UK,

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whether that advantages or disadvantages them fiscally is irrelevant. If they remain members of the UK, there should be no discrimination against them; they should be allowed to vote.

Mr. Linton: The hon. Gentleman said that his hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) are both right. In fact, they are both wrong. It is not enough to spend the night of 10 October in some residence in Britain in order to qualify for a vote; the qualification depends on where one is resident on that date. To be resident--whether for electoral or income tax purposes--one has normally to reside at a place. People who are normally resident overseas would not qualify for a vote in the UK, even if they owned a house in this country and spent the night of 10 October there. That has not been tested in the courts, but it is the understanding of electoral registration officers.

Mr. Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman is right. Technically, one has to be resident. After all, many Members of Parliament own more than one home, especially if their constituency is beyond commuting distance from Westminster. Technically, people have to be resident not only on the day, but on that very evening. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right on that point. However, we all know that, in practice, that is not the interpretation. Hon. Members or electors may not be at home on that night, so they may not be technically resident. In that case, the electoral returning officer might say, "Perhaps they are away on business or on holiday." The form is not filled in with the idea that one has to be present on that night.

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