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Mr. Fabricant: I could not help but intervene on my hon. Friend when he mentioned that he is half French, given my surname, which is of French origin.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the French encourage their nationals to visit their embassies when abroad because although they may not be paying French tax, when they are working for French companies they are earning money for the French economy for the benefit of that nation? British embassies and commissions abroad do the same for our nationals who are working abroad. Although such people are not paying tax, they are still contributing to the welfare of the United Kingdom and therefore should be entitled to the vote.

Mr. Grieve: I agree with my hon. Friend, but this issue goes wider than that. Someone living abroad may feel sufficiently connected with the United Kingdom to retain his citizenship. He may be a dual national, and dual nationals may vote in elections in two countries at once. If such a person feels sufficiently connected to be prepared to maintain the obligations of citizenship, it appears to me fundamental that that should give him an entitlement to be heard on how the country is run. It is as simple as that.

Mr. Barnes: For how many years?

Mr. Grieve: I would not have quibbled with the 20-year rule, but I note with interest that the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) has suggested that it should be for as long as citizenship is maintained. As an issue of principle, I do not disagree with that one iota, although I would not necessarily interfere with the present system.

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There is a degree of mean-mindedness in the whole approach. As the hon. Member for Rotherham rightly said, it is profoundly ironic that, at a time when we have extended the franchise to large numbers of residents who have, for one reason or another, chosen not to take up the obligations of nationality and British citizenship, the amendment would deprive people who usually feel intimately connected with this country, loyal to it and interested in its well-being, of the right to vote. It would amount to kicking them out. I am wholly against it. The amendments are ill-considered, and I hope that the Committee rejects them.

Mr. Greenway: Arguments on the rights of United Kingdom citizens overseas to vote in parliamentary elections in this country have been well rehearsed and documented over a long period. This debate, like previous debates on the Bill, has been characterised by references to the history of the past 15 years or so on this and other electoral issues.

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who proposed this amendment, made his position clear on Second Reading and in the debates on both sides of the Christmas recess. A study of the official record shows that he has, as he has always maintained, never been enthusiastic about this measure, and was unhappy about it in 1984. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) and a former Member, Mr. Dave Nellist, whom we all miss, have been absolutely consistent throughout all the debates.

The right hon. Member for Gorton has two difficulties. First, although he may say that he has always opposed this measure, he was a senior member of the shadow Cabinet in 1989 when, at the instigation of the then Opposition, the current 20-year rule was introduced by an amendment. Reference has been made to the fact that he was the shadow Foreign Secretary at that time, so he cannot walk away from joint responsibility for the decision that was taken.

I suspect that in years to come, we will learn what views he expressed to Lord Hattersley, who as shadow Home Secretary sanctioned the tabling of the 20-year rule amendment by his junior colleague, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling). It is worth reminding the Committee of what he said in 1989. He said:

He went on to say that it was right that they should retain the right to vote and added:

    "I believe 20 years is a sensible compromise".--[Official Report, 5 July 1989; Vol. 156, c. 411.]

That has been the settled position ever since.

The right hon. Member for Gorton has a second, more contemporary difficulty. As he admitted, his party does not agree with him. The excellent contribution from the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) shows that there is some good sense on this issue among Labour Back Benchers. I greatly applaud what he said. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, he makes a gesture that seems to show that, rather than being sycophantic, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) suggested, he may have done himself some damage. As a fellow Yorkshire Member, he has not

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done himself any damage as far as I am concerned. It is always good for us to have a supporting contribution from Labour Members.

I also want to comment on the Liberal Democrat view. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) spoke to the Liberal Democrat amendments. We know what the right hon. Member for Gorton thinks, and it looks like we know what the Government think, but we are less clear about the Liberal Democrat position. In 1989, the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) argued that there should be no limit on overseas voting rights. I shall not detain the House with direct quotations, but anyone who studies Hansard will see that his position was unequivocal.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey accepted that, but seemed to suggest that there was now evidence of abuse and that that was why the Liberal Democrat position should change. In this debate, and when we touched on this issue on Second Reading on 30 November, no one has produced a shred of evidence of abuse. It has all been general innuendo. People have taken the opportunity to air their dislike of overseas voters having any rights.

Mr. Bercow: Does my hon. Friend agree that the implicit suggestion of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) that Britons living abroad are ordinarily ignorant about what is taking place in this country was never true, and is likely to be even less true now with the development of technology in general and the internet in particular? Such people are often very well informed about the affairs of this country.

Mr. Greenway: As always, my hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I shall come on to the changed circumstances of the world as it is now, because I agree with him that, if anything, it should encourage us to be more generous to British citizens living overseas and not less, as the amendment asks us to be.

Mr. Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman knows that I understand the argument for an indefinite right. If he is arguing for that, does he accept that it should at least be qualified by a requirement to establish whether persons who have left these shores want to retain their link with this country and intend or hope to come back one day?

Mr. Greenway: I have not argued for an indefinite right. I reminded the House that that is what the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross argued for in 1989. I am arguing that the settled position that was reached by the House in 1989 should remain. I shall come on to other aspects of the debate, which may answer some of the hon. Gentleman's other points.

I want the hon. Gentleman to concentrate a little more on his own position. The Liberal Democrats support a 10-year limit in the amendments to which they have put their names. Their then home affairs spokesman, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), said as recently as September that it should be seven years. On Second Reading, when this matter came up, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey advocated caution and further consultation. He said:

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    Yet here we are, less than five working weeks later, being asked to accept a high-falutin amendment that suggests that people should sign a declaration before going abroad, and reintroduces the argument about taxation.

7 pm

That is another issue on which the Liberal Democrat view has changed dramatically. In the 1989 debates, the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross was scathing about the suggestion of a Labour Back Bencher that there should be a taxpaying requirement. I consider the proposal of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey to be as nonsensical and impractical now as it was then. United Kingdom citizens move to live abroad--in many cases, because of their work. They may or may not pay tax, depending on their circumstances. Double taxation agreements are there to protect citizens of all countries, and to ensure that they need not pay tax twice. They choose to pay tax in the third country rather than here to avoid double taxation, not so that they can walk away from any obligations that they may have to the United Kingdom. Many expatriates working abroad would be both disadvantaged and disfranchised by the Liberal Democrats' proposal.

United Kingdom citizens who go abroad because of their work, often at short notice, experience a huge amount of disruption in their personal and domestic lives. It is doubtful whether they will give much thought to their voting rights, and they are unlikely to give priority to signing the declaration proposed in amendment No. 82.

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