Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Kaufman: I hope that there is.

Mr. MacShane: It takes one to know one.

Some might feel that my right hon. Friend was adopting a little Englander or anti-internationalist approach, but given his distinguished record as a shadow Foreign Secretary, his many wise writings on many aspects of international affairs and the deft way in which he managed to transport all his wonderful Select Committee to Hollywood for a lovely week of lying around on sun-loungers watching Hollywood films, one sees one of the great internationalists of the House and someone who knows the world intimately. However, it was not always thus.

In my right hon. Friend's wonderful book, "My Life in the Silver Screen", which I recommend to the Committee, he says that, as a boy,

The Temporary Chairman: Order. All this might be extremely interesting and very accurate, but it is not relevant to the debate--unless the hon. Member makes its relevance clear in the next few moments, as I hope he will.

Mr. MacShane: I shall if I may, Mr. Winterton. This debate is about whether our many citizens who live overseas should have the right to vote.

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

Mr. MacShane: No.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton tabled the amendment that will take away such citizens' right to vote. In his book, he says:

He has moved on from those boyhood moments to become a great internationalist, so I am surprised that he is inviting hon. Members, for the first time since I became a Member, to reduce the franchise. I thought that, on the whole, the British Parliament had always increased the franchise.

Mr. Barnes: Labour has not always tried to extend the franchise. Property and university votes were done away with because they were wrong--and it is wrong in connection with overseas votes.

Mr. MacShane: My hon. Friend is talking about people who had two votes in elections to this Parliament, but I am talking about those who have only one. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton and others propose to take away that vote.

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

Mr. MacShane: I am trying to make maximum progress to allow others to make proper speeches.

12 Jan 2000 : Column 327

There are 650,000 British citizens currently living in the European Union who have a very close connection with and an interest in what happens in this country. There are 214,000 service personnel who live overseas sometimes for quite long periods, as we know from other debates.

Mr. Kaufman: They all have proxy rights.

Mr. MacShane: They do not all have property rights.

Mr. Kaufman: Every British service man and service woman abroad has the right to apply for a proxy vote and to exercise it. My amendment would not deprive them of the right to vote.

Mr. MacShane: The point is that all British citizens overseas may at times of high emergency or war be placed under some control by the Government. It seems rather odd that we may theoretically invite them to make sacrifices for the country but not allow them to vote if they so desire.

There are 840,000 people receiving United Kingdom state pensions abroad, and those people are directly connected to this country. That is a valuable network of British citizens, and it does not matter whether or not they are residents in this country. When Palmerston enunciated the great doctrine of civis Britannicus sum, he did not say that it was necessary to reside at 24, Park villas in Gorton to have British citizenship.

The paradox is that we allow more and more people to vote in this country who are not holders of British passports. Every European Union citizen living in this country may vote in European Parliament and local government elections.

Mr. Fabricant: I agree with most of the hon. Gentleman's arguments, but I am rather confused about the motives for them. Are they to be regarded as sycophancy for the Government Front Bench or is he advancing them because he voted in overseas elections when he was living in Switzerland?

Mr. MacShane: I could not vote in Switzerland when I lived there briefly.

I return to the key point. It has been suggested that we take away the right to vote from our own passport holders, but we are extending that right to nationals of foreign countries in this country. Every Irish citizen who comes here has the right to vote and, indeed, to stand for Parliament. I have no problems with that because it is a tribute to the tolerance of this country. It is wrong to reduce the right to vote to our passport holders when we extend that right to so many nationals of foreign countries who are foreign passport holders.

It is all the more perverse to reduce the right to vote of our citizens abroad when other countries are seeking to extend the right to vote of their citizens who are abroad. I expect that later this year we shall all on the Government Benches go to parties organised by Democrats Abroad, as they seek to get support for their candidates in the American election. Conservative Members may go to parties organised by Republicans Abroad. No American citizen has his right to vote taken away from him because he lives abroad. German citizens are allowed to live

12 Jan 2000 : Column 328

abroad for 25 years before the right to vote is taken away from them. Spain allows all its citizens abroad to vote. Italy and Switzerland have recently changed their constitutions to allow their citizens abroad to vote. Many more citizens of all countries, including the United Kingdom, are living in the European Union or further abroad. It must be recognised that we now live in a more global economy and society.

A day or two ago my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton told me that the man who makes excellent salt beef sandwiches in St. John's Wood flies home to Israel to vote. I presume that he is an Israeli citizen and that he does not lose the right to vote because he provides excellent salt beef sandwiches in St. John's Wood.

India allows all of its citizens who are abroad to vote. The many Indian passport holders who live in this country can vote in their elections back home.

There are two more brief arguments with which I must deal. There is the question of residence and whether only one address should count. That would certainly present problems to Members of this place. When I was the local Labour party secretary in the Birmingham, Selly Oak constituency, I was encouraged to get all the students on to the electoral roll. Labour won that seat with the help of the students' votes in 1974. We lost it in 1979 because the students momentarily, or for another 18 years, swung back to the right.

Plumping is important and it needs to be dealt with by regulation. That is plumping in the sense of, for example, people putting all their votes into Vale of Glamorgan or any other particular place.

I do not know whether the amendment will be pressed to a Division. If it is, I ask the House of Commons not to send the message contained within it to our citizens who are working overseas. They might do so for a few years or for much longer. They are British citizens and we are proud of them. We shall not take from them the fundamental expression of citizenship in the modern world, which is the right to participate in the democratic process.

6.45 pm

Mr. Grieve: I do not always agree with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), but on this occasion I agree wholeheartedly with his remarks. I apologise to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) because although I was present for the start of his speech before Christmas, I missed part of the middle and end of it this afternoon.

We have dwelt on citizenship, which is a key factor in whether someone should be allowed to vote. Some surprising arguments have been advanced because they seem to denigrate citizenship and to suggest that it is only a series of privileges to be abused. As Lord Haw Haw discovered to his cost, the abuse of his privilege of obtaining a British passport in 1940 before he zipped off to Germany to make his broadcasts cost him rather dear. He abused his citizenship rights and paid the penalty.

Citizenship carries rights and obligations. Someone who installs himself for 40 years in a foreign country but chooses to keep his British citizenship is retaining a privilege and a right that may be useful to him in terms of consular access if he has difficulties, but one that

12 Jan 2000 : Column 329

places him under obligations. When someone is under obligations to a state, surely that gives him a right and an entitlement to have a voice in the way in which that country is run. It is a fundamental issue. The argument that is advanced by the right hon. Member for Gorton and others who wish to get rid of this right surprises me.

In part, I have a French background. I contrast the approach that appears to be adopted by France and the attitudes that seem to be advanced by the right hon. Gentleman. If a French citizen is overseas, that is seen as a great plus. He is out in the wider world and perhaps representing the interests of France for as long as he may be able to promote them. The French invite such people to their embassies every 14 July. They send newsletters to keep in touch with them and they encourage them to vote. They try to involve them as much as possible in the life of their country, with which they may have only the remotest contact.

Curiously, we have before us another form of Frenchness. I do not think that I have ever heard a greater series of Poujadiste arguments than those that have been put forward this afternoon in favour of getting rid of the overseas electoral register. They are all about people who are supposed to be milking the milch cow. It is alleged that they are abroad because they cannot pay tax. It is suggested that they are enjoying privileges while not fulfilling their obligations. Such a mean-minded set of reasons for getting rid of the overseas right to vote has rarely been heard.

Next Section

IndexHome Page