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4.31 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): There are occasions in the House when I am reminded of Richter's words to the third flute:

My right hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) have demonstrated that poachers can certainly make good gamekeepers and gamekeepers can make even better poachers, because they have been usual channels in the past. They have performed a valuable service to the House this afternoon, because they have given the Government a timely warning. One can have no objection to the measure that we are debating, but the Government should be careful about trying to slip things through too quickly.

4.32 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): I apologise to the House for being a poor substitute for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I shall pass on the good wishes that have been expressed to her. Hon. Members will recognise that she is a regular, courteous and punctilious Member of the House.

The motion was debated for a limited period last night and for a slightly extended period today. The phrase "teased out" has been used several times. Some of my hon. Friends will feel that some teasing has gone on.

Let me try to set the record straight. The motion allows the Speaker not to adjourn the House tomorrow until any messages have been received from the Lords. The matter was referred to in last week's business statement, when no objections were raised.

There is nothing new in the procedure that we are advocating. There is a long-established practice of facilitating the quick and easy passage of the Consolidated Fund Bill, which will be before the House tomorrow. I anticipate that we may receive messages from the Lords by the end of the day.

Mr. Hogg rose--

Mr. Tipping: I am keen to make progress. There has been plenty of teasing.

With that explanation, I hope that we can move on to the Representation of the People Bill and making sure that this Parliament is for the people.

Question put and agreed to.


15 Dec 1999 : Column 293

Representation of the People Bill

Considered in Committee.

[Mr. Michael Lord in the Chair]


4.34 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): I beg to move amendment No. 29, in page 1, line 17, leave out from beginning to "and" in line 18.

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Lord): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 31, in page 2, line 6, leave out from beginning to "and" in line 7.

No. 34, in page 2, line 23, leave out from beginning to "and" in line 24.

No. 36, in page 2, line 38, leave out from beginning to "and" in line 39.

Mr. Barnes: The Bill extends the scope of the franchise to homeless persons through a declaration of local connection, to those remanded in custody and not yet convicted and to patients resident in mental hospitals who are not detained offenders. I support all those measures. However, if the franchise can be extended to those categories, are there not some other categories that we might consider for such an extension? My amendments would extend the franchise to overseas citizens resident in this country, in addition to the Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens who already qualify if they reside here. I understand that it would amount to about 850,000 people.

The franchise should not go to people of voting age unless they live in a society that is making legislation that affects them. There might be a limited number of exceptions to that, such as people in such a condition that they cannot exercise a vote. Later in the Bill, we will be discussing the opposition to registration of overseas electors, and the same principle will apply. I am talking about enfranchising people of qualifying age who are members of a society with a parliamentary governmental structure that makes decisions affecting their lives. That should include people from overseas who are resident in this country but are not citizens of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland, but exclude people from this country who go overseas and who should be subject to the same principle in the country in which they settle.

I seek to enfranchise people who are dependent on decisions made by elected representatives on laws, basic services, environmental protection, health and safety provision, taxation and economic prosperity. Those are all things dealt with by the House. They affect the lives of anyone who has settled in this country from overseas but not taken British citizenship.

Welcome though these measures are, I want the Minister to explain why the Bill goes only part of the way to overcoming the current disenfranchisement problems.

15 Dec 1999 : Column 294

Perhaps we should consider enfranchising other groups, such as prisoners. After all, the powers of the law affect them closely. Why are citizens of the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland enfranchised in this country when other overseas residents are not?

The Commonwealth has been expanding recently. In 1990, Namibia joined the Commonwealth; in 1994, South Africa re-entered; in 1995, Mozambique and the Cameroons joined; and Fiji rejoined in 1997. Therefore, people from those countries who have settled in the United Kingdom are now entitled to be enfranchised here.

If a country should leave the Commonwealth, people from that country who are settled in the United Kingdom will lose their entitlement to enfranchisement here. No great feat of logic is necessary to appreciate that consequence of a country leaving the Commonwealth.

As the Commonwealth expands, ever more people who settle in the United Kingdom will acquire the right to vote here. However, the Commonwealth will not expand indefinitely, until it comprises every country on earth. Furthermore, such a peculiar development should not be necessary to ensure that people living here receive what should be an entitlement.

I therefore ask the Committee to accept that everyone who is affected by the laws passed by this place should be able to have their say in elections, as those elections will affect their lives.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, but concede that there is some intellectual force in his argument. However, is he suggesting that the right to vote should be extended to overseas persons who have been here but for a very short time, or is he saying that there should be an extended requirement of residence in the United Kingdom as a precondition to enjoying the franchise?

Mr. Barnes: The arrangements for residents from places other than the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland should--as my amendments propose--be the same as those for Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman feels that the current arrangements for Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens are too easy, perhaps an appropriate amendment should be tabled.

My aim is a simple one: to clarify the principle by which the franchise is granted.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): One approaches any amendment moved by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) with respect, for he has a long history of being concerned with the franchise and has given considerable thought to these matters. However, I am not entirely persuaded that, on this occasion, he is on the right lines.

In supporting his suggestion that we should extend the franchise to all United Kingdom residents, the hon. Gentleman seemed to be citing anomalous arrangements--in some respects, they are anomalous--that allow the franchise to be exercised by citizens of the Republic of Ireland and of Commonwealth countries, and suggesting that we should extend the franchise to the point at which the link between the citizen and the state ceases in any real sense to be the reason for entitlement to exercise the franchise.

15 Dec 1999 : Column 295

Although I do not think that, in the ambit of amendment No. 29, it is necessary to consider the appropriateness of permitting Commonwealth citizens to vote here, in his reply to the debate, the Minister may want to say at least something on the issue.

The link between the citizen and the state is a reciprocal one: the state has the duty to look after its citizens, and the citizen must exercise his or her duty to be interested in how that service is provided. The notion of citizenship would be under challenge, perhaps even under threat, if that very considerable right were partly diminished by being no longer a characteristic of citizenship, but simply the happenstance of residence.

4.45 pm

The basis of the hon. Gentleman's case is that those who are affected by government should have a right to choose the Government. That is not the basis of the duty and the right to vote as I see it. Many people affected by the Government may not be resident within the United Kingdom. Many people who are not resident but who are citizens may be affected in so far as, for example, tax and inheritance laws and the ownership of property here are concerned. Their entitlement to vote rests upon their link with this state as citizens. I wish that position to be preserved.

We shall return to the subject of foreign entitlement to vote. However, the hon. Gentleman has raised an important question about the somewhat anomalous situation of those who are entitled to vote but who are not citizens. We should consider whether we should tackle that matter. It is perhaps strange that, as he put it, citizens of Namibia should be entitled to vote but not citizens of France. After all, the latter belong to a polity, if not a state, with which we have close--almost constant--exchanges and it is conceivable that, if the offer that Mr. Winston Churchill made to the French Government in 1940 had been picked up by the then Prime Minister, we would have enjoyed common citizenship. I do not know what the Conservative party feels with the benefit of hindsight about relations with France--

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