Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is particularly important as we debate the Bill that no one either deliberately or inadvertently misrepresents the greatest Englishman of the 20th century? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the late Sir Winston Churchill said of Europe and Britain's relationship with it:

Mr. Maclennan: I merely repeat my reminder that Mr. Churchill, as he then was, made that bold, imaginative and historically percipient offer of common citizenship to the French, which they did not choose to accept. In his view of what it was to be British, he was not exclusive, as some members of the Conservative party are today.

The question of the entitlement of European Union citizens to participate in votes in each other's countries is growing in importance. That question has already been tackled for local government elections, where somewhat different conclusions have been arrived at, and it is time that we tackled it for national elections.

15 Dec 1999 : Column 296

The amendment weakens the significance of citizenship and would, to some extent, sever an important link in the minds of British people to what it means to be British--the duty of voting for the Government or against is something that they should value and see as a duty that stems from the fact that they enjoy the privileges associated with British citizenship. Without more argument, I could not find it within myself to support the amendment.

Mr. Hogg: I support what the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) has said. I respect the view of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes)--there is an intellectual case to be made for it. However, his proposal is quite a serious mistake, and I have three points on which he might like to reflect.

First, if we were starting from scratch, we probably would not extend the franchise to citizens of the Commonwealth or Ireland. Their right to vote has happened for historical reasons, but it is quite difficult, if one sets about defining why people should have the vote, to say with any great confidence that citizens of Ireland or the Commonwealth should have it. Therefore, I do not start with that fact as the working assumption of what is right and proper.

That takes me to my second point, where I am, rather unusually, largely in agreement with the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. I think that the right of voting--the duty to vote--runs with citizenship. It is part of that relationship with society that involves affinity and allegiance; it is part of being a member of a society. I do not think that the right to vote should go beyond that. I certainly do not think that it should arise simply from the fact that a person is affected by the consequences of legislation.

One has only to reflect on this fact to see the force of what I have just said: anybody who passes through the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, for even the shortest time, is affected by our criminal law. It would be absurd to say that, because anybody who passes through the jurisdiction is touched by the criminal law, such a person should, if he or she happens to be here at an appointed time, have the right to vote.

That takes me to my third point--I am putting my argument very briefly. I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire when I say that his proposed qualification for the franchise is met by casual residents only. He would have a much stronger case if he argued that the overseas citizen who had been here for an extended qualifying period--we can discuss what that should be--should have a right to vote. That person then has some of the characteristics of being part of the society, although such status falls short of being a citizen.

For those three reasons, I cannot support the hon. Gentleman's amendment, although I do not say that his case is wholly without intellectual force.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I support the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), and I have a few questions for the Minister.

First, given the improving relationships between the people in Ireland, north and south of the border, do the Government have any plans, and is there any work in

15 Dec 1999 : Column 297

train, to give to United Kingdom citizens living in the Irish Republic the voting rights that Irish citizens have when they live in the United Kingdom?

When the Minister was on the working party, he must have received more papers on reciprocal voting rights than on anything else. How many other Commonwealth countries, if any, give resident United Kingdom citizens the right to vote? Do the Government have any plans for that to be rationalised? Has it been taken up in the Commonwealth conference or by the Commonwealth Secretariat?

The linked question touches on points raised by my right hon. Friend and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). Do the Government believe that, no matter which other new countries might join the Commonwealth--for example, two recent new members have not been part of the usual Commonwealth tradition--the right of those citizens to vote here will be retained?

Finally, I have many Irish citizens and Commonwealth non-UK citizens in my constituency. When they reside here and go on the electoral register for the first time or when, as Commonwealth citizens, they come into the country to settle, does anyone ever tell them that they have a right to vote? When they appear for the first time on the electoral register, is any effort made to tell them their right, what the process and the methodology is, and what the implications are? Some of the people on my electoral roll who vote least are those who are entitled to do so, but are not United Kingdom citizens. That includes Irish and Commonwealth citizens--especially Commonwealth citizens--who probably do not know that they are entitled to be on the register, but who would put themselves on if they were encouraged more clearly to do so.

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea): The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question can be seen from the surprised look on the faces of Australians and many others when one tells them that, if they were registered, they could vote in this country. No one ever tells them that, and it comes to all of them as a complete surprise.

Mr. Hughes: That is the impression that I get. I know that we all get the form through the letter box and that the small print says, "UK, Irish or Commonwealth citizen," but, as an honest seeker after truth, I suggest to the Minister that we ought to have a system that works and that the people who have entitlements under it understand.

Mr. Bercow: While I understand the force of what the hon. Gentleman says about informing people of their entitlement, I am less clear why he believes that that category of persons should be informed of, as he put it, the implications of their vote. Is it really necessary to create a different category of electors? That would be the result of the logic of what he is saying.

Mr. Hughes: The hon. Gentleman misinterprets my logic. UK citizens who are born and grow up here, if our system works, should have been taught, by the time that they leave school and are entitled to vote, about voting and citizenship, and the implications of them. If people

15 Dec 1999 : Column 298

are brought up in another country and come later in life to this country, they may not have been taught about the implications of citizenship in the UK. My suggestion is not meant to be heavier than that. It seems that, when people of certain nationalities cross the border, nothing automatically tells them what coming to settle here entitles them to.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I intend to keep my comments brief, but I am bound to say that I share the view of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) that the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) is one with which I cannot agree. However, the hon. Gentleman is certainly right to point out the anomaly in relation to the existing law on Commonwealth citizens and citizens of the Irish Republic.

Before I looked at the totality of the hon. Gentleman's amendments on the amendment paper, I wondered whether he was proposing to delete the right of Commonwealth and Irish citizens to the franchise. That is a view with which I would have been unable to agree. It is perhaps worth bearing it in mind that, certainly in my constituency, the issue tends to be raised frequently. People ask why Commonwealth and Irish citizens should have the vote.

What appears to have happened--I shall be interested if the Minister will confirm this--is that, at one time, Commonwealth or Irish citizenship virtually entitled a person as of right to a British passport once he or she was resident here. It is certainly not the case for Commonwealth citizens today although, curiously, it still applies to citizens of the Irish Republic. To all intents and purposes, Irish citizens are treated, if they so elect, as if they were British citizens. They can apply for a passport and obtain one without any difficulty. For Commonwealth citizens, the anomaly remains solely in terms of electoral law.

Next Section

IndexHome Page