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Mr. Greenway: On the hon. Gentleman's point that people who choose not to pay tax in this country should not be allowed to vote, has he considered that many of them choose not to pay tax in this country under double taxation agreements because they have to pay tax in the country where they are working, often for a British company?

Mr. Hughes: I have considered that, and I have discussed the subject with my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), who is much more expert in these matters than me. We have never pulled together in UK law, certainly not in English law, the various entitlements that people can have. They are entitled to certain rights because of their citizenship here; they have other entitlements because of their domicile here--domicile is a complicated area of legal definition--and they are given other entitlements by virtue of their residence here, but if they are well advised and know their way around the system, it is still possible in law for them to play the field and vote in a certain place and be exempt from tax or have their tax liability reduced.

I do not expect a portmanteau answer from the Minister now, and I appreciate that the Bill is concerned with electoral reform, not taxation, but we should try to use the opportunity to make sure that we do not have additional criteria that further complicate the rights and entitlements of people who go abroad and return home. At the moment, the law is complicated in defining people's liabilities to the state and their rights. We should at least ensure that people's entitlement to vote and obligation to pay tax flow as similarly as possible from the status of their residence, and are not made too complicated.

Mr. Grieve: That is simply impossible. A French national living in the United Kingdom, paying UK tax, would have no entitlement to vote. Unless we depart from the basic principle and extend the vote to all residents by making residency, not nationality, the sole criterion, we will never get the clarity that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

Mr. Hughes: Of course I understand that a French national living here may have taxation obligations here but not the right to vote, other than in European Union elections. I was simply saying that when we legislate to provide, in this Bill or the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, a new definition of people's right to vote here, we should make the whole system of rights and entitlements less, not more, complicated than it is now. To pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, we should not end up with

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legislation that discriminates in favour of the well off and well advised. Everybody should have equal opportunity to exercise their franchise.

Mr. Bercow: I fear that the hon. Gentleman might not achieve the equity and simplicity that he seeks. Would not a requirement for a declaration of intent discriminate unfairly against those persons who, through no fault of their own, were not at the time of emigration in a position to know whether, and therefore when, they would return?

Mr. Hughes: I understand that. We are getting into a lot of detail, although in Committee we probably need to do so. All one can ever do is declare that, in so far as it lies within one's power, one intends to return. Some people are posted abroad indefinitely and of course they cannot say how long they will be away. That is the purpose of our probing amendment, No. 82, which would at least allow one to declare one's intention to return within 10 years. The hon. Gentleman could suggest the alternative proposition that one should be able to declare one's intention to return at the earliest date on which one's employment allows.

Mr. Linton: Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that the provision that he is defending is the very one that allows some people, including some who have been mentioned in this debate, apparently to vote in two countries and pay tax in neither?

Mr. Hughes: That is exactly why we need to try to pull together all the different pieces of legislation. The benefit of Committees such as the Home Affairs Committee, on which the hon. Gentleman sits and alludes to often, is that evidence can be taken and conclusions reached about how best we can do that.

The hon. Gentleman rightly reminds us that the Home Affairs Committee expressed the unanimous view that there should be a five-year rule. We argue for a 10-year rule not because we have a fundamental objection to the five-year proposition but because of the pragmatic consideration that in a global economy people move around more often and are away for longer periods. The more that we thought about it, the more we came to that conclusion.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that whichever conclusion we reach--the five or 10-year proposition or anything other than the stipulation that one cannot be absent at all, with which we began the debate--we may need to find a mechanism through which people may declare their intentions, such as a register kept for the purpose. Otherwise, the system will be open to abuse and misinterpretation.

Hon. Members want to deal with the crude abuse of the system by those who leave this country for ever, have no intention of returning and, to use the cliche, live a life of Riley on the Costa del Sol or Brava, or somewhere else, but continue to have a vote and the ability to influence this country. The public certainly regard that as an abuse of the system. If people are definitely returning to this country, and soon, or are planning to do so, that is one thing, but if they have retired or settled elsewhere, there must come an early point at which their interests and right to influence the political system move with them.

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6.30 pm

Mr. Shepherd: I am concerned about the retirement element of the hon. Gentleman's argument. I notice in my constituency--I am sure that it is so for him, too--that, with early retirement, people are spending increasing time abroad. Taxation may be one reason, although for health reasons they may want a sunny climate. Nevertheless, their entire family and interests are still focused on the United Kingdom, they are not often integrated into local societies elsewhere, and, as they become older and often need medical advice, they return to the UK. Their link with the UK is clear, substantial and constant. Should they be deprived of the vote after 10 years?

Mr. Hughes: That is a valid question. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) took the original view that there should be no time limit. That is a perfectly proper alternative view at the other end of the spectrum to that of the right hon. Member for Gorton. To take the example given by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, someone may retire early and live in Spain but never become a Spanish citizen. Their assets, savings, tax liability and family might remain in the UK, and they might always return due to illness or to recover or to die.

We are not rejecting the proposition because it is wrong; it is a matter of struggling, as a Committee, to find a mechanism that prevents abuse of the system by those who intend never to return and who take all their interests elsewhere, but protects those who retain an interest in this country. Our considered view was that the 10-year proposition was about right, but that there may need to be some way of checking its operation. Otherwise, people in such a bracket will have the advantage of a vote here even though they may be as certain on leaving that they will never return as those who have been away for two or 20 years. That is why a simple 10-year rule may not be sufficient.

At the end of the day, the Committee must come to a view. The major point of dissent from the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Gorton is on the basis that one should not lose one's right to vote here just because one is out of the country, especially when for family, commercial or business reasons one has no alternative but to make such a choice. I hope that the Committee will come to a different conclusion from the right hon. Gentleman's.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): This debate has opened up some interesting themes about citizenship, which are complex. Is one a citizen because one's bloodline is of a given nation, as say the Germans; one was born in the nation, as say the Americans; or for other reasons? I was nervous to hear the idea emerging from some quarters that the Inland Revenue should decide who is and who is not a British citizen.

I have some interest in this debate, as will many people who are listening to it or will read it on the net tomorrow. We should have some regard for the 9 million fellow British citizens who will take some interest in the proceedings of this Committee.

Mr. Fabricant: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacShane: May I make a little progress? I am trying to be brief.

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My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) began this excellent debate just before Christmas, but never could we have envisaged that the discoursus interruptus--if I may call it that--would cause such a follow-up, comprising many excellent contributions. He described himself as a grovelling sycophant. I hope that there is no one in the House who has greater admiration for his many talents than me.


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