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Mr. Grieve: There is no consensus.

Mr. O'Brien: We are trying to bring about some sort of consensus. I accept that, as has been demonstrated in the debate, a consensus does not exist at the moment, but, as we progress, I hope that we will be able to come at least to a compromise, if not a consensus.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton has asked whether clause 130 is set in stone or whether the Government will continue to think about it. We have always listened with great care to his views. I urge him to withdraw his amendment now and we will listen with care to his views during consideration of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. We have a considered view, but we will continue to listen. Perhaps our view is not set in stone, but it is a considered view. We will continue to listen to the debate. I hope that, on that basis, he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Barnes: I hope that one of the groups that will not be greatly listened to in connection with overseas votes is the Conservative party and the Conservative Front-Bench team. When a measure was introduced in 1989 to extend the period to 25 years, and it was set at 20, the Conservative party tried to destroy electoral registration in this country through the linking of the poll tax to the electoral register. That led to 1 million people not being enfranchised.

Mr. O'Brien: I must make it clear that we listen to all views if they are properly put forward. We will listen to them with proper care. If they are put forward in a less than considered way, we will give them the credit that is due.

The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) asked about people in mental hospitals. People who are detained in mental hospitals are not, and never have been, banned from voting. However, they have been effectively disfranchised as they have not been able to register in respect of the hospital where they reside. The Bill would remedy that anomaly.

The hon. Gentleman raised citizenship issues, as did the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). However, although citizenship issues are important, they are not the only issues. In parliamentary elections, people who may be able to vote include British citizens, some Commonwealth citizens, Irish citizens and some overseas electors--who may also, of course, be citizens of other countries. In European parliamentary elections, British, Commonwealth and European Union voters--including Irish voters--may be able to vote. Different rules apply in local government elections. The issues are, therefore, neither simple nor attached only to citizenship. Moreover, there are restrictions on who is able to vote, based on age and various other factors.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey asked whether overseas voters would be able to pick and choose their constituency. People must be registered at the last address at which they were registered

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in the usual way. People who were too young to be on the register when they lived in the United Kingdom must be registered at an address where they previously lived and where a parent or guardian was registered.

Therefore, to some extent, there is already a requirement for a constituency link--which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is seeking to strengthen--and that is one of the issues that we shall be able to address in our consideration of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. The hon. Gentleman will be able to make his arguments then. There may well be ways of strengthening and making clearer the role of that link. Although I am currently not convinced that using the Inland Revenue is the best means of accomplishing that goal, we shall continue to listen with great care to the arguments being made.

The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) urged us not to legislate in haste on the issue and repent at leisure. However, we have a little more leisure time to consider the matter--at least until we again consider the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. Strong arguments have been made on both sides of the franchise issue, and we shall have to try to reach if not a consensus, at least--to take the points made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield--a compromise, so that we are able to go forward with some sense that we have achieved fairness.

On that basis, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton will withdraw his amendment, and that the hon. Members who tabled the other amendments will not press them.

Mr. Kaufman: The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) and some other Conservative Members have said that the franchise should be based on citizenship, and that, if that happens, there should be no terminal period for that franchise. However, the Conservative party--which those hon. Members have voted for and supported at every level--has imposed such limits. Therefore, the principle that those hon. Members support--I respect their right as individuals to support it--has not been supported by the Conservative party in government.

The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) mentioned confusion on the issue, and said that he is opposed to chopping and changing policy. However, the Government whom he supported consistently chopped and changed on the issue. At various times, the previous Government offered the House four different time limits on the overseas vote: five years, seven years, 20 years and 25 years. It is therefore perfectly clear that Conservative Members do not regard time limits as a matter of principle; if they did, they would have decided on a figure and stuck to it. They seem to regard time limits as a convenience, or as something that they can get away with.

Some hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), described overseas voting as a cherished right and the obligations of citizenship. However, overseas voting is not an obligation but an option. Moreover, it is an option that barely anyone takes up--although the results of people taking it up may be extremely invidious.

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With deep affection, I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) that he still needs to learn a lesson or two in sycophancy.

Mr. Grieve: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kaufman: No, I shall not give way; the Committee wishes to conclude this debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham described 9 million people and 840,000 pensioners who potentially could be overseas voters. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) also mentioned pensioners' interests. If 840,000 pensioners are concerned about their pensions--the hon. Gentleman did not seem to be aware that those people's pensions are frozen when they move residence from the United Kingdom--and feel strongly about the issue, they could register to vote. We could have 840,000 overseas voters who are pensioners.

Mr. Brady: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kaufman: No. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I should like to wind up.

In fact, of the 9 million potential overseas voters mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham, and of the 3 million people mentioned by the hon. Member for Ryedale, 13,000 people are registered. We are speaking, therefore, not about an inalienable right, but of an option that only a handful of people decide to exercise, with possibly highly invidious results--including, as we know, the defeat of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith).

I can therefore tell my hon. Friend the Minister that, in response to his request, I shall withdraw my amendment. He said that he wants a consensus--which is fine--but I should be very grateful if he took into account the fact that consensus does not simply mean agreement between Ministers and Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members, but also agreement between Ministers and Labour Back Benchers. Provided that Ministers realise that 350 Labour Back Benchers have at least as great a vote as 160 Conservative Members--their number seems to be decreasing--and 46 Liberal Democrat Members, and that we have at least twice as much right as Opposition Members to participate in a consensus, I believe that the Minister's promise to listen might result in something that is acceptable to all of us.

On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clauses 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 and 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

Residence: patients in mental hospitals who are not detained offenders or on remand

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Clause 4 is the result of work done by the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his colleagues on the working party, seeking to correct clear civil disadvantages that have quite wrongly

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been imposed on some of our fellow citizens. As mentioned earlier in the debate, the provision will enable those who are in mental hospitals, but who are not detained as offenders or on remand, to vote.

One of the last scandals of the old mental institutions--asylums--is that those who were physically ill and in hospital could vote, provided that they arranged to do so through a postal or proxy vote, whereas those who were in a mental hospital were not able to do so. That was disgraceful.

I should like simply to acknowledge that clause 4 will ensure that we remove some of the remaining stigmas attached to mental illness, and that it will make it absolutely clear that the distinction should be between those who have committed offences and are locked up because they are offenders, and those who may have temporarily lost their liberty or who are unable fully to exercise their liberty simply because they are mentally ill. It is a bit of enlightenment that should have occurred before the first year of the new millennium--if that is what it is--but it has come, and we welcome it.

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