Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Evans: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I hear what the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) says about seeking a consensual approach and about the possibility of deals being done. We look to the Minister. I complimented the Labour party on taking some steps on the journey that we wish it to make, and feel that it could go a little further in this regard: the Government have to take a few more steps.

Our amendment and new clause would correct the ignorance, prejudice and lack of consultation that have shrouded the whole overseas voter issue, and I hope that overseas voters will achieve some justice in an otherwise squalid measure. It would be far better if the Government dropped all this nonsense now, undertook a comprehensive consultation on their proposals and introduced sensible and fully thought through measures. That would be the best option on overseas voters. [Interruption.] Is the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) trying to intervene? There has been no consultation. I am bemused as to why speed is a necessity and why the consultation could not have taken place before measures were introduced. Why it all has to be so hurried, I simply do not know.

As the Minister knows, my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary wrote to the Home Secretary on 25 November 1999 to say that she opposed these measures because there had been no full consultation. Let us bring some sense to what the Government are attempting to do. We have tabled new clause 8 and amendment No. 176. The Government have in mind the picture of a number of people who fled Britain and have little interest in this country--except that they have the ability to vote in our general elections every five years or so. That is an old-fashioned idea, and certainly one that cannot sit easily with new Labour. I do not want glibly to pass over the fact that the Bill takes the right to vote in British elections away from a number of people. We are trying to temper that, as the vote will otherwise be removed without consultation.

We have heard all the arguments about whether there should be a cut-off of five, 10 or 20 years, or no limit at all. Some were rehearsed in Committee. If the Government are intent on introducing a Bill that would deny the vote to people who are currently able to vote, that is completely wrong. I hope that they will listen to what we have to say. I listened to the hon. Member for Battersea, and believe that his new clauses go some way in the right direction. People may have to go abroad for all sorts of reasons--I shall come to that later--and I see merit in dropping the figure to perhaps five years and allowing them to keep their vote provided that they show sufficient and continuous interest in what is going on in this country to go out of their way to register every year. However, I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman's new clauses are sufficient to meet the demands that we make in new clause 8--nor is the job description wide enough. We could go a little further.

13 Mar 2000 : Column 70

The 10-year argument baffles me. We hear that 10 years is the compromise figure, but it is not a compromise between what we want, what the right hon. Member for Gorton wants and what the people who will lose the vote want. I hope that the Government can cut through the political agenda on this issue and introduce a more sensible measure. The new clauses tabled by the hon. Member for Battersea are insufficient because this country operates globally. The hon. Gentleman listed a number of organisations with which we are involved. We have also signed up to a number of international obligations and, moreover, British people work throughout the world. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the European Union and European institutions. Like other Members of the House, we received a letter from an individual, who also sent a copy to The Guardian. It would be completely wrong if people working on behalf of this country fell foul of the Bill. We must consider the fact that people who work in a global economy and who may be sent abroad suddenly, for whatever reason, to work in the commercial sector on behalf of their companies will run the risk of losing their vote after 10 years.

6.30 pm

The way things are going, people may go abroad and work for a company for five years and then be moved to another part of the world without coming back to the United Kingdom. They may have every intention of returning to the UK at some point, and may do so at a later stage when their company decides that it is right for them to come back. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) has Vauxhall in his constituency, which is a global company and has plants throughout the world. Some of his constituents may be sent abroad.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): No.

Mr. Evans: Employees of companies like Vauxhall may be sent abroad for some years. I believe that the five-year limit for public institutions or organisations with which we have signed treaty obligations is not sufficient. We must extend the provision to the commercial sector. It would be a big advance if the Minister considered that proposal.

New clause 8 deals with youngsters who go abroad with their parents and then fall foul of this legislation. This matter was dealt with in Committee.

Mr. Miller: We wrote it.

Mr. Evans: Indeed, so Labour Members should support it. Many of our suggestions are common-sense measures which Back Benchers have proposed, so I hope that the Government will consider them. We want people aged 16 or 17 who are taken abroad and turn 18 while they are there to be able to register, and to vote in elections. We are trying to encourage as many young people as possible to vote. The thrust of the Representation of the People Act 2000, which was passed last week, was to encourage people to vote. It would help if the Government considered that anomaly more closely.

Amendment No. 176 deals with the retrospective element.

Mr. Bercow: Has it occurred to my hon. Friend that there is a curious tension in the thinking of a number of

13 Mar 2000 : Column 71

right hon. and hon. Members on the Labour Benches? They seem anxious to do absolutely everything they can to assist certain persons, some of whom are too lazy to make any significant effort to vote and should apparently be assisted by the facility of pressing a button. However, they regard with hostility the people who have the sheer audacity, in pursuit of their commercial obligations, to go abroad to work when requested to do so. Is that not a curious--one might even say, troglodyte--view of the world?

Mr. Evans: My hon. Friend speaks far better than I. He is better educated and able to come up with words like troglodyte, which I shall ensure is included in many of my speeches in future. He is absolutely right. It is ironical that the Representation of the People Act gives the vote to some people in mental institutions, which we agreed with and supported, and to remand prisoners, who may be on remand for various crimes. We thought that it was right to give them the vote as they have not gone before the courts, sentence has not been passed and they have not been convicted of any crime.

My hon. Friend has encouraged me to consider amendment No. 139 tabled by the right hon. Member for Gorton. We are considering the proposal to take away the vote after five years: that is when the cruel guillotine will fall on those people, irrespective of the fact that they are in parts of the world earning money, possibly earning profits for this country, and paying tax in this country. I look forward to hearing what the right hon. Member for Gorton has to say as he tries to twist the knife even further into that group of people, who are doing this country a great service. That is wholly wrong. My only hope is that the right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench treat his suggestions with as much disdain as I do, and as would the vast majority of people in this country.

I have studied the Liberal Democrat amendments and amendment No. 180. Although we have some sympathy with them, they do not go far enough on the job descriptions. The hon. Member for Battersea wants a consensual approach. I hope that the Minister can give us some hope and assurance that some ground can be made on the issue of overseas voters. I do not believe that we should proceed with a measure out of spite and vindictiveness. It will remove the vote from many people who would wish to contribute to democracy in this country. We shall listen carefully to the Minister's comments before we decide whether to press our amendments to a vote.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): I intended to be rather gentle with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) until he accused me of disdain and heightened the temperature of this gentle and good-natured debate. Like his party, the hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten the historical perspective of the franchise. He talks about taking votes away from people as though that was utterly unprecedented. The Attlee Government of 1945 rightly abolished the business vote and the university vote. They were perfectly right to abolish fancy franchises. We got on quite well with the extension of the franchise--the Wilson Government extended it to 18-year-olds--until the Conservative Government introduced a new fancy franchise.

13 Mar 2000 : Column 72

The hon. Gentleman talks about lack of consultation and squalor, but he should look back to what happened when this franchise was introduced. I have reminded the House on a number of occasions that I was there. The very idea that there was consultation is an extraordinary sick joke. There was no consultation whatever. We had a serious disagreement when Leon Brittan decided to invent this franchise to benefit his own party. There was no attempt at consensus. It was a unilateral act by the Conservative party.

The Conservatives wanted to increase the period to 25 years when my right honourable and noble Friend Lord Hattersley was in charge of these matters for the Labour party. They now say that there was consensus because the present Secretary of State for Social Security had been ready to settle for 20 years rather than 25. There was not: we were making the best of a bad job on a franchise that ought never to have been introduced. It was introduced against the wishes of the then principal Opposition party--which was a lot bigger than the present one--to suit the interests of the Conservative Government. We should be clear about the historical context in which this franchise was arranged.

The hon. Gentleman talks about a political agenda. Unfortunately, the Government have less of a political agenda than I would like them to have. The Conservative party has the agenda. Having read the report of the Committee stage, I understand that the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) are supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller). I would go along with them without any difficulty. To provide the right to a franchise for servants of this country overseas is an act of justice. It is a principle that servants of this country overseas are given a vote, whether they are diplomats or members of the armed forces. My hon. Friend's proposal fits in with that.

Next Section

IndexHome Page