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Mr. Fabricant: Will my hon. Friend give way briefly?

Mr. Greenway: I will give way one last time.

Mr. Fabricant: Would not the signing of such a declaration be a pointless exercise in any event? People who wanted to retain the vote, and to make a declaration, could do so, even if they intended to remain abroad for any length of time. This is woolly thinking, which, if I may say so, is typical of the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Greenway: I am glad that I allowed my hon. Friend to intervene.

We live at a time of increased globalisation. More and more people in all walks of life--and, I dare say, in all classes--are moving to live and work abroad; and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) reminded us, the internet has led to additional globalisation, and allowed people who still have British passports and British citizenship to be fully informed about what is happening in their country of origin.

People who leave to work abroad often do so on a temporary basis, not knowing whether and in what circumstances the move may become permanent. We strongly believe that those people, as United Kingdom citizens, have a right to expect the House of Commons to protect their interests, which include their right to vote in parliamentary elections. The hon. Member for Rotherham made that point forcefully. What Parliament and the Committee must decide is for how long that voting right should remain. Until recently, the status quo of 20 years was regarded as a settled position, and we see no real case for change. The Government have argued that there should be no change to the franchise in the Bill, because

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it implements the recommendations of the working party. We hope that the Minister will confirm that that is still the Government's view.

There were no discussions, and consequently there was no consensus in favour of the change, in the working party, but the Government have decided to include an amendment to 10 years in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, which will implement the recommendations of the Neill committee. That committee, however, did not consider the issue either. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) made that point forcefully during Monday's Second Reading debate, but neither the Home Secretary nor the Under-Secretary of State chose to respond to it.

The report of the Select Committee, of which both the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield are members, will show that Mr. Gardner, who gave evidence on behalf of the Labour party on overseas voting rights, told the Committee that a reduction in the 20-year entitlement was not a priority for Labour. We consider the argument that the franchise issue is closely linked with the funding issue, which the Home Secretary advanced on Second Reading of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill on Monday, to be both spurious and insulting. Those issues should be considered separately.

This week, the Government promoted a Bill that suggested that voting rights should continue for 10 years. Now, we are about to hear the Minister argue that the right should be retained for 20 years. The Minister has admitted to me in written answers that the Government have made no estimate of the number of people who will be affected by the change. We think that it is around 3 million; the hon. Member for Rotherham said that it could be as many as 9 million. Surely that alone is an argument for thinking again before lowering the limit. I apologise for singling out the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, but anyone who heard his speech will realise that the proposals that we are being asked to accept have not been thought through.

The right hon. Member for Gorton and the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire were consistent to an extent, but there are fundamental disagreements between us. Given the confusion, argument, counter-argument and profound concern about the political motivation for any proposed change, the Government should have consulted before proposing 10 years in the Bill that was debated on Monday. We have said that we will support the Neill Bill, but support for that Bill should not be seen as support for the argument in favour of 10 years. Today's debate has shown that more thought is needed.

If the 20-year rule is reduced or, worst of all, abolished, Parliament will disfranchise British citizens for the first time since 1832. This is a shameful, spiteful, mean- minded and ill-judged proposal that the Committee should reject.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) on his robust and eloquent speech, but I would have expected nothing else. My right hon. Friend is known to be a doughty campaigner for the causes that

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he champions, and he has considerable knowledge and experience of electoral law--as, indeed, does my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). I also listened with interest to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who put his case very well. Some of the issues that he raised are worthy of further consideration.

Having said that, however, I must add that I have been reminded somewhat of Sherlock Holmes's "dog that did not bark in the night" in the case of Silver Blaze. We have spent a good deal of time, before Christmas and this afternoon, discussing an issue that does not currently feature in the Bill--and, in my view, should not feature in it.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made it clear on Second Reading that he believed that the rights of overseas voters and, in particular, the time that they should be allowed to remain on an electoral register after leaving the United Kingdom were serious issues that needed discussion. They are contentious issues, as has been shown by today's debate. He said that the Government hoped that, if possible, any changes in the period should be made on the basis of consensus. Most important, he suggested that such discussions should take place in the context of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. That Bill contains a provision that would reduce the period for overseas voters to 10 years, as we discussed during its Second Reading on Monday.

As today's discussions have demonstrated, the right to be on the electoral register is in many ways closely tied to the issue of who may make donations to political parties. That is one good reason why it would be better to leave discussion of the 20-year rule to the other Bill. I have no doubt that we can expect a lively debate on the issue at that time.

Another reason is that the Representation of the People Bill is intended to give effect to the recommendations of the working party on electoral procedures, which, I remind the Committee, was an all-party group that proceeded on the basis of consensus. With the small exception of the new false particulars offence in schedule 5, we have deliberately avoided going beyond the recommendations of the working party. The amendments would breach that principle.

The Government hope that the Bill will receive a fair wind in its passage through both this House and another place. That will enable the first innovative pilot schemes to be run at next May's local government elections. That timetable would be jeopardised if we embarked on consideration of a potentially controversial issue such as the time during which overseas voters may claim the right to vote. In the light of what I have said and in the knowledge that there will be an opportunity for full discussion of those issues, I invite my right hon. and hon. Friends and other hon. Members not to press the amendments to a vote.

I do not want to advance all the arguments. We have had much discussion today and I know that the Committee wishes to move to other important issues, but we take the view that 20 years is probably too long. People who have been away for effectively a generation may have little or no knowledge of contemporary issues in the constituency in which they vote. It is difficult to argue that a person should vote in an election for a Government of whom he has not been a subject for 20 years. However, as the

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period away decreases to 10 years, the argument for reducing the period loses some of its strength. Although it may have some force, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton said, it has less force than that for reducing the 20-year period.

Mr. Brady: Has the Minister considered the position of pensioners who may have contributed taxes and national insurance throughout their working lives, who then go to live overseas--but depend on pensions, the level of which might be fixed by the House and by the British Government? Surely those people have a right to be enfranchised and to have a say, given that they have contributed not to a fully paid fund, but to something that will have variable benefits to be paid by decision of the Government. Those people should have some say in the matter.

Mr. O'Brien: There are strong arguments on both sides. Some people say, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton did, that people should live in the country in which they vote for the Government. Others say that people may live outside the UK; be retired outside the UK, having contributed during their working lives; be abroad on business; or work for the United Nations, the European Union, charities overseas or commercial organisations, important as those are.

7.15 pm

Many of those people may retain homes in this country. Their children may go to school here. Many may have a clear intention to remain permanently here in future. Many may retain, as has been said in previous debates on the issue, a lively interest in affairs here. There is an argument that we should not deny them a vote. However, others who are resident abroad, perhaps for tax or other reasons, have no intention of ever returning here, yet for 20 years they are entitled to vote. There is arguably some unfairness in that.

It is difficult to create complex criteria that would be fair to everyone. People are so multifaceted and live in such a multitude of circumstances that any test that tries to apply to all of them would be so unnecessarily complicated that it would end up being arbitrary. We have concluded that although 20 years is too long, 10 years is a compromise that we hope the House will eventually be able to accept. There is an argument for ensuring that such debates do not cause unnecessary dispute. It is right that they be lively, but it is also right that the franchise and elections should not be the subject of substantial unnecessary dispute, with Governments chopping and changing after every election the way in which the franchise operates.

There are strongly held views and we need to look for a balance. The proposed reduction of the qualifying period for registration as an overseas voter from 20 to 10 years is a balanced and equitable response to the recommendations of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. As the Committee unanimously recognised, the existing 20-year qualifying period is excessive. It recommended restoring the original five-year qualifying period, but that may go too far in the other direction. As I have said, many people who work abroad for international organisations may reside abroad for more than five years, but have every intention of returning permanently. A reduction to 10 years strikes a balance.

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I want to make it clear that it is not a question of making it difficult for particular individuals to make donations. The Government have reached a view on the matter on the basis of principle and of trying to achieve consensus.

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