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Mr. Linton: If the hon. Gentleman describes the right as an anomaly, is he suggesting that it should be withdrawn?

Mr. Grieve: It is one with which I am perfectly happy to live, especially in relation to citizens of the Irish Republic, curiously enough, because close links exist between our two countries. They are links of both proximity and interchangeability in terms of travelling back and forth across the Irish sea. In relation to Commonwealth citizens, justification of the anomaly is much more tenuous. Nevertheless, the anomaly has been around for a long time. I am always open to persuasion on the issue from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and from my constituents, but I am happy to live with the anomaly.

5 pm

The amendment proposed by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire would widen the issue much further. I share all the reservations that have been expressed by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan). The amendment would take matters too far; it would allow casual residents to have the vote. We are happy to welcome all sorts of people to our shores, to live in this

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country for greater or lesser periods. However, that does not make them citizens of the United Kingdom, any more than we would be citizens of a foreign country if we chose to reside there without obtaining citizenship. Those rights should not be extended. Although, with a caveat to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, I am prepared to live with the existing anomaly, I am certainly not prepared to have it extended further.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Amendments Nos. 29, 31, 34 and 36 affect the rights of people to vote and to register to vote at parliamentary and localelections. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) seems to be alone in proposing the amendments and may be alone in supporting them.

The issue was discussed by the Select Committee on Home Affairs during 1997 and 1998; the Government responded to the Committee on 26 October 1999. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) put the matter into its historical and intellectual context. Paragraph 118 of the Select Committee's report noted that the Committee did not believe that there was a compelling argument for extending the right to vote. The Government agreed.

The matter was considered by the Home Affairs Committee in the 1982-83 Session, and the then Government accepted the Committee's recommendation that there should be no change. Indeed the then Opposition spokesman on Home Affairs, a Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk--where is he now?--said:

That statement holds good today.

The amendments are an attempt to widen by about 850,000 the number of people eligible to register to vote, although the working group did not consider that matter. Anyone with a main, or sole, residence in the UK would be eligible to register to vote. The legislation allows for Commonwealth and Irish citizens living here to vote; the amendment would mean that anyone from any part of the world who was living here would get a vote.

I realise that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire has given the matter considerable attention, but he has not fully thought it through. The amendment would mean that the citizenship test would be replaced by a residency test. That could be jeopardised, or further widened, by other measures in the Bill, such as the declaration of local interest. Taken with some of the hon. Gentleman's other amendments, the measure would disenfranchise British citizens who had moved abroad for a period, while enfranchising any Tom, Dick or Harry--I intend no offence to the hon. Gentleman--who had just entered the country.

The hon. Gentleman is not interested in how long such people might have been in the country. Indeed, he even offered amendments to his amendments to try to deal with the problem. At least he realises that there is a problem. However, he is not interested in the length of time that people have lived in the UK. He pays scant regard to the rights of those who were born in this country, lived most of their lives here and paid their taxes here. His later amendments would deny the vote to Mr. Ashcroft, for example, but the first amendment would give the vote to Mr. Fayed, who is not a British citizen.

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What about asylum seekers--60,000 of them it is estimated this year? Under the hon. Gentleman's amendment, they would be able to vote. As we know, they tend to congregate in certain parts of the country, so they could determine the results in some key seats. They would also have power disproportionate to the time that they have been in this country. They might be bogus asylum seekers, but they could argue that they are fleeing their homes and that their main residence is in the United Kingdom. To all intents and purposes, they would be correct and they would be given the right to vote as well.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect further on his amendment. If he does not withdraw it and it goes to a vote, I hope that the Government will be consistent and stick to their original intentions.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth): I should explain my presence at the Dispatch Box. I am on a no-fee, one-day transfer from the Northern Ireland Office to the Home Office. Whether that transfer is extended may well depend on my performance today.

I am well aware, as is the whole House, of the interest that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) takes in electoral matters. Members have listened--some slightly more critically than others--to his arguments for his amendment, but when he speaks on electoral matters he does so with sincerity and from a background of considerable knowledge.

I wish to deal with some of the issues raised in the debate before I deal with the substance of my hon. Friend's argument. When he moved the amendment, he implied that, if a country leaves the Commonwealth, its citizens automatically lose the right to vote. Strictly speaking, that is not so. When South Africa, Fiji and Nigeria were suspended from the Commonwealth, their citizens still enjoyed that right. My hon. Friend's assertion does not stand up in those limited circumstances.

My hon. Friend will understand that I am correcting him for the sake of accuracy and not to make clever debating points. However, he suggested that the Bill will extend the franchise to remand prisoners and to mental patients. Again, that is not, strictly speaking, correct. Homeless people, remand prisoners and, for that matter, mental patients already have the right to vote. The Bill's provisions will simply make it easier for them to register and thereby gain access to the vote. I am not making a pedantic point, but it is necessary to make that distinction.

My hon. Friend may not so much have been making an argument as flying a kite when he suggested that it might be possible, or perhaps even right, to consider extending the franchise to convicted prisoners. He may not have meant that as a firm proposal, but as a suggestion it should be considered. However, there is a distinct difference between a remand prisoner and a convicted prisoner. The absence of rights, including the right to vote, is part of the punishment of a convicted prisoner. I can confirm, if any confirmation is necessary, that the Government have no intention of taking up my hon. Friend's proposal. We still believe--and I would be happy to justify this--that it should be part of a convicted prisoner's punishment that he loses rights, and one of them is the right to vote.

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) made a characteristically interesting speech about the link between duties and rights

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and between citizenship and the vote. That was a useful point to make. Alongside rights--including the right to vote--always go obligations, duties and responsibilities and it is right to consider them.

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) made an important point: whatever the historical reasons for their existence, the arrangements with the Commonwealth should not necessarily be taken as a precedent for arrangements with other countries that currently do not apply. That was a good point and we should bear it in mind.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) asked several specific questions. I should like to take a little time responding to them. United Kingdom citizens already enjoy full voting rights in the Republic of Ireland, so the reciprocal arrangement to which he referred already exists.

I am not aware of any Commonwealth country that gives UK citizens voting rights in its national elections. Equally, I am not aware that we have ever pushed for any such arrangement. For reasons of history, the positionin this country is different from that in former Commonwealth countries; the reverse situation does not apply. Any country that joins the Commonwealth will enjoy all the benefits of membership, including the right to vote in elections.

The hon. Gentleman asked about providing information to people to enable them to understand their specific rights. He will be familiar with the electoral registration form--it goes to every household and makes it clear who is entitled to be registered to vote. In addition, the Home Office conducts general election campaigns, on a non-party political basis, to raise people's awareness of their rights in respect of elections.

I recognise, however, that often not only citizens from the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland, but people who have an automatic and clear right to vote by virtue of being born and resident here, do not understand what their rights are in relation to voting. That is part of the reason why the Bill exists and was felt to be necessary. I hope that much more information will be available on who is eligible to vote and, where appropriate, information for those who have difficulty reading English to help them to understand their rights.

As regards the substance of the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire, I want to deal with some of the important points that apply. Under the Representation of the People Act 1983, those entitled to vote in parliamentary and local government elections are British citizens, other Commonwealth citizens and those from the Republic of Ireland, as we have discussed. In addition, European Union citizens are allowed to vote in local elections.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, the amendment would remove all such nationality requirements. Anyone of any nationality would be able to register and to vote in both parliamentary and local elections, provided that they were resident, over 18 and not otherwise disqualified. It would not matter how remote their ties with this country were, or for how long or short a time they intended to stay here. That is neither a sensible nor satisfactory position. I do not think that anyone who has spoken in the debate has put forward the proposition that that is a sensible arrangement for us to consider.

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I am bound to point out, as others have, that we are not alone in that view. The Select Committee on Home Affairs considered the issue in its report on electoral law and administration, which was published last year. Its conclusion was both wise and unambiguous:

It could not have been clearer. That report was the product of an all-party consensus and it would be folly if the House were to depart from that consensus tonight.

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