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Mr. Miller: Would that not be an abuse of the Government's power, as the outcome of such research might confer a party political advantage? Another Government--not this one--might be tempted to make decisions based on that outcome. Should we not be dealing with the principle?

Mr. Wilshire: I do not see that objection at all. There is no need to ask people how they are going to vote. The questions will concern their reasons for living abroad, why they chose to register, and how long they propose to be abroad. That is the sort of fundamental research that any Government should undertake before bringing such proposals before the House.

I would also be interested to know how many of the small number who register actually use their votes. That should not be too difficult to find out, as the marked register is available from every constituency. It would be relatively simple to go back as far as the previous two general elections, say, and find out how many overseas votes were exercised.

My third worry is that the Government appear not to have consulted the people affected. If they have, I hope that the Minister will describe how the people who currently have votes were approached.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): There have been many representations from, and discussions with, the people affected.

Mr. Wilshire: I am grateful to the Minister, but according to Home Office evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs in 1998, the overwhelming majority of the representations being received at the time were requests for an extension to the period.

Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend may be interested to know that those who were consulted this time rather appreciated being able to keep the franchise.

Mr. Wilshire: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who reinforces my point by reporting that that view is still held. I hope that the Government will give details of any research that has been carried out. How many people have

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been contacted, how many have asked for a shorter period, and how many have asked for longer? That information would be useful.

The Government have not explained why they have changed their mind since 1989, when the then Labour Opposition backed the 20-year proposal. I have heard it said in the debate that that was some sort of compromise but, even if the Government were not wedded to the principle, something must have happened to bring about a change of heart. Governments dislike having their U-turns exposed and having to justify them. However, that is another example of a U-turn by this Government. They are always doing it, and it would be nice to know why they have torn up their previous beliefs in favour of a new set.

The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) offered a sensible and understandable way to adopt an approach based on the "use it or lose it" principle. I have no difficulty in accepting that people should have some link with the United Kingdom, but the hon. Gentleman's proposal is not the best way forward. However, it is not so dissimilar to new clause 8, for which I hope the hon. Gentleman's conviction about the importance of the "use it or lose it" principle will lead him to vote if the Government do not accept his new clause 5. He has argued strongly in favour of new clause 8, and I look forward to welcoming him into the Lobby in support of that new clause when the time comes.

7.15 pm

I commend new clause 8 to the hon. Member for Battersea on the basis that requiring people to register every year is quite a good way to ensure that links with the United Kingdom are kept up. Given the spirit of compromise and consensus in the debate, it is reasonable to accept the case for such links, but I am worried that the absence of a mechanism for continuing the present arrangements for as long as people had expected will be an impediment to those who feel strongly about their home country but who want to accept a posting overseas. It would not be in the interests of the United Kingdom if people were prevented from going abroad and doing a good job on our behalf because they would be disfranchised as a result.

When he spoke about new clause 7, the hon. Member for Battersea referred to international organisations. I was not clear whether he was talking about formal organisations only, or whether he also meant non- governmental bodies. He referred to the European Union and NATO, and I agree that the people involved with those organisations constitute an important group. Similarly, however, there are people who work for non-governmental organisations such as charities who do not come within the definitions proposed for those working for the official organisations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider that.

A group of people not exempted by new clause 7 are those who work for British businesses. Big multinationals send some of their key employees abroad to run branches of the main business but, whereas diplomats come and go--and in any case return to London after a four-year posting--some business men and women are sent abroad for very long periods.

However, because they work for British firms, they come back to head office regularly. Their companies are seriously affected by British legislation and the nature of

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the British Government. Their futures and prospects are tied up with the fate of their companies in this country. If anyone is to be exempted, it should be those people.

I hope that we do not go down the route of having two classes of people. The right hon. Member for Gorton argued that it was wrong to put voluntary franchises and compulsory franchises in opposition. In the same way, it would be wrong and an affront to democracy to divide British citizens abroad into two classes--those who are allowed to vote and those who are not. All British citizens abroad should have the right to vote.

Mr. Stunell: Is there not an incongruity in the hon. Gentleman's view, given the different qualifications that apply to people in the diplomatic and military services, and to people working for the British Council? Does not the situation that he describes exist already?

Mr. Wilshire: Yes, it does. However, the arrangements that I would prefer would render those distinctions unnecessary. The House must never try to create a democracy with two types of people in it. That would be very dangerous for the principle underlying how we run our country.

Finally, I turn to amendment No. 176. Even if my arguments are ignored and the Government do not accept the proposals from my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench, the legislation should not be made retrospective. People who live and work abroad on the understanding that they will have a vote for a particular length of time should not be penalised. It could be that they would not have gone abroad if they had known that they could not vote. Moreover, such people might find that, even though they wanted to keep their votes, they could not return home to make sure that they did.

I really hate retrospective legislation, and I make a strong plea to the Minister to assure the House--even if he will accept no other argument--that, in the spirit of compromise, he will not go down the route of retrospective legislation.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) has left the Chamber, because I wanted to tell him that, when I entered the House six years ago, I would have found two things inconceivable--first, that I could disagree with him on any subject under the sun; secondly, that I would be invited to reduce the franchise--to reduce the rights of British people to vote. There we are, however: alas, things move on.

I shall be brief, but I want to tell the House about all the e-mails, letters, faxes and telephone calls that I have received from profoundly patriotic British citizens, and all the meetings that I have had with them--[Interruption.] I shall come to the Conservatives later. Anyway, those who have been to see me, or have contacted me in other ways, have said that they want to keep their right to vote. We are not the French Parliament, in which Members can represent far-flung sunny climes of the former empire and colonies; but I feel that it would be wrong not to record those people's dismay about what is being proposed tonight.

I have three reasons for concern. First, it is a good principle of democracy for us to extend any franchise, rather than reduce it. Secondly, we should be proud of all

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our citizens living and working overseas. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) mentioned the business community, but British citizens make a huge contribution to many voluntary and non-profit-making organisations, such as the World Council of Churches, trade union international organisations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and various non- governmental organisations.

When I was travelling in on the tube today, I saw a moving advertisement for Voluntary Service Overseas, asking people to work for £400 a year and to risk malaria to fly the flag for Britain. Many VSO members subsequently remain in the international community because of a love of their country, and I do not think that their vote should be taken away.

Thirdly, I feel that, in a global economy in which democracy needs to be preserved and extended, we should fly our flag for the democratic process and practice, rather than saying that people can exercise their democratic rights only if they reside in the United Kingdom. Conservative Members have made interesting and enjoyable speeches: I am delighted to observe that they seem to be discovering many hidden virtues in Europe that I do not recall their praying in aid before.

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