Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Wilshire: Where? Where?

Mr. MacShane: I am glad to note that the xenophobic beast is rising up again after his generous internationalist speech, but the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) spoke glowingly of Italy and of France. I hope that we shall observe the same at Prime Minister's Question Time and other events. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. It appears that, as we expected, the Tories' love of Europe was instrumental only in so far as it might embarrass the Government.

I have another reason for being unconvinced of the generosity of spirit involved in the Conservatives' arguments. Theirs is the party--a party for which hon. Members here may have voted--that introduced the poll tax, which removed between 1 million and 4 million British citizens from the electoral roll, deliberately, cynically and cold-bloodedly, to fix and rig elections.

Furthermore--this will for ever place a mark of shame on the Conservatives' period of office--the Conservatives changed the terms of the Immigration Act 1971 in the British Nationality Act 1981. They did so not in order to take away the right to vote--although that would have been a serious measure--but in order to take away the right to citizenship of the descendants of British citizens who lived overseas.

There are many British citizens, to whom the hon. Member for Spelthorne referred, whose children are born overseas. If they marry foreigners and have their children overseas, that generation--the grandchildren of the people whom we have been discussing, who are living and working overseas--will lose the right to be British, save on the fiat, or at the discretion, of the Home Secretary. That was a shaming alteration of our nationality laws, which took away citizenship and has caused great hurt and concern to many British people overseas.

However, I do not want to be polemical tonight. I think that the new clauses and amendments are sensible, and go in the right direction. The "use it or lose it" proposition that has emerged since the Bill was tabled reflects the

13 Mar 2000 : Column 83

wishes of British citizens who actively wish to maintain a participatory voting link. My hon. Friend the Under- Secretary, who is not here now, and other Ministers have spent a great deal of time--perhaps, given that this is only a small part of a complicated Bill, more than we might have expected--meeting and talking to concerned citizens. I have attended those meetings, and I salute them for their generosity in finding time to do that. I do not know how, given the number of Home Office Bills, a Home Office Minister finds time to do anything other than keep us here all night.

Mr. Grieve: It seems that we may be building on the chrysalis of consensus that emerged in Committee.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the merits of the "use it or lose it" approach is that it removes the frequent complaint from some of his hon. Friends that people suddenly intervene in domestic politics, having shown no interest for some time?

Mr. MacShane: I think that it offers a sense of continuity, rather than the ability to be "bought in"--not necessarily in a financial sense--to participate in an election.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) has done remarkable and assiduous work, which has been warmly welcomed by many British citizens overseas--all of whom seem to vote Labour nowadays. I cannot bring myself massively to disagree with the Conservatives' new clause 8 either. In any event, I do not want to press this to a Division in order to record a vote. Perhaps when the Bill goes to another place, Ministers can examine the problems, because there is time for that to happen before it is enacted. Perhaps we can arrive at a conclusion that will deal with the many protests that I have received, and will honour the tradition that the House always seeks to extend rather than reduce the franchise.

Mr. Tipping: It seems that clause 132 has become one of the most contentious parts of the Bill. I congratulate hon. Members in all parts of the House who have tabled ingenious and well-thought-out amendments, which deserve serious consideration and which I will consider and, indeed, already have considered.

In the light of all those good ideas--shells, as they were called by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell)--the Government are inclined to look for a consensus. Such a consensus appears to be growing, and I reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman)--who is not present now, but who will be back--and the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who argued for consensus but whose language at times took us away from it, that we will consider what might be done.

Clause 132 takes forward the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) is an influential member. He has changed his mind on the issue since the Select Committee report, but I do not criticise him for that. He has argued that we need to move away from the present 20-year period to the Home Affairs Committee's proposed five-year period--a view that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton retains.

13 Mar 2000 : Column 84

The hon. Member for Spelthorne asked me a number of questions; let me deal with two. First, he asked about the principle behind the proposal. I think that the argument is fairly clear and straightforward. If a person chooses to live overseas for a long period, at some point--there is an argument about when that point is--they are distanced from the current political climate. They are, in a sense, fighting old battles with old ideas. We live in a period of modernisation in which we move forward and ideas develop.

7.30 pm

Mr. Wilshire: I am pleased that the Minister is viewing the new clauses in a consensual way. Could he give a little more thought to his use of the word "choose"? Some people, including voluntary workers and business people, could say that they will not be posted overseas. Their contract or their beliefs, however, lead them to live overseas, and I do not think that they should be caught.

Mr. Tipping: The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point, and I will come to it in more detail in a few minutes. People in the voluntary sector and in the commercial sector, to which he referred in his speech, generally do not live abroad for 20 years, but come and go. However, we should acknowledge the importance of people in both the voluntary and commercial sectors, as well as public servants, who work overseas.

The hon. Gentleman asked about consultation. The Select Committee on Home Affairs did some work on it. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), in his normal, generous way, pointed out that there had been a series of meetings on this issue. Perhaps there were more meetings about this than about any other part of the Bill. That is rather surprising, in the light of the fact that, at present, slightly more than 13,000 overseas voters are registered here. We do not have information about how many of those voted in the last election, or what kind of people they are.

The central issue is how long someone needs to be overseas to become detached from the political process. It may be 20 years or it may, as the Home Affairs Committee recommended, be five years. There may be a middle way. The Government's preferred option is for a 10-year period. It is a compromise that will work in many ways. It allows people to be overseas for quite a long time--perhaps enough for two postings--yet remain on the register.

A couple of other ways forward have been proposed. The one that seems to have captured the imagination of hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber during this debate has been the "use it or lose it" option. That is a subtle way of countering the argument that, if people have been away from home for some time, they are out of touch. Registering within five years and continuing to register on a yearly basis shows a commitment to remaining in touch with the real issues.

Mr. Evans: Will the Minister concede that, with new technology, the internet and satellite television, people who live abroad can keep up to date with current affairs in their countries of origin? Recurring registration seems to leave the way open for us all to agree.

Mr. Tipping: New technology, information technology and the use of digital television certainly enable people to

13 Mar 2000 : Column 85

keep in touch better. The question before the House is how long it is necessary for someone to have been away to lose touch. The hon. Gentleman makes the fair point that it is increasingly easy to remain in touch. I remember reading that, in the old days, it took 174 days for a letter to come from India reporting whether a battle had been lost or won. Today, such an event would be reported almost simultaneously.

Mr. Evans: It is on CNN.

Mr. Tipping: Absolutely.

The question is whether we are right about how long people should live abroad--should it be for five, 10 or 20 years? Or is it better to support the "use it or lose it" option?

A third option which has been discussed tonight is to extend the service conditions to make allowance for people who work for British organisations abroad. The telling point was made by the hon. Members for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and for Spelthorne. What is the difference between a civil servant working in Brussels or for NATO, and someone working for an aid agency in Mozambique? What about the employee of Vauxhall Motors UK who works abroad but is still interested in British issues?

The final issue concerns amendment No. 176 which, in a sense, maintains existing rights. There is a logic to that. The counter-argument is that, if the amendment were accepted, at the beginning of this year--before the legislation came into operation--people would be safeguarded for 20 years, but after these provisions were implemented, they would be safeguarded only for as long as we decided. Different classes of voters have been mentioned, and amendment No. 176 might not be the best way forward.

The Government's preferred option is to have a simple rule and explanation that everyone can understand, and for that to command consensus across the political parties. There seems to have been a growing consensus in Committee and in the Chamber tonight, apart from the occasional burst of shelling. I believe that the "use it or lose it" option meets everybody's needs. It deals with all the points that have been discussed.

Next Section

IndexHome Page