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5.15 pm

Mr. Bercow: Unless I have misinterpreted his remarks, the Minister appears to be relatively sympathetic to the view expressed by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) that more information should be provided to electors--especially those who are exercising their right to vote for the first time--about the elections in which they are thinking of voting. Does the Minister believe that, in due course, for the benefit of electors, detailed information should be provided explaining exactly the powers available to the respective bodies to which elections are to be held, so that voters know what are the powers of the European Parliament, the House of Commons, district councils, borough councils, county councils and so on?

Mr. Howarth: The general principle is reasonable. The hon. Gentleman might recall that, immediately prior to the most recent elections to the European Parliament, the Home Office published a leaflet, available in several languages, giving those sorts of facts about the European Parliament. It is important that people have access to such information. As one who stands at the Dispatch Box on a temporary, no-fee transfer, I do not want to commit the Home Office to taking specific action in future--and even though the prospect is tempting, I shall resist doing so. However, the hon. Gentleman's general proposition should always be part of our considerations.

The working party that I chaired, which enjoyed a cross-party consensus and on whose work the Bill is based, bore in mind our responsibility, through legislation and other means, to make it as easy as possible, without compromising the integrity of the ballot, for as many people as possible to vote. Part of that requires people to understand why and for what they are being asked to vote, and the powers of the body involved. Therefore, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's plea to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will not fall on deaf ears.

There are good and historic reasons why Commonwealth and Irish citizens may vote in our elections. The Maastricht treaty, which the House endorsed, gave all European Union citizens reciprocal voting rights in local elections in EU member states. I inadvertently omitted to mention the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who referred to the voting rights of citizens of the Commonwealth and of the Republic of Ireland. During his speech, it struck me that his most illustrious predecessor is Disraeli, who incorporated in the 1867 Reform Bill the so-called fancy franchises. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was not suggesting that we are creating the modern equivalent of the fancy franchises, but it is appropriate that a Member representing Beaconsfield should participate in this debate.

There is no reason--good, compelling or otherwise--to extend voting facilities to those who come from countries with which we have no historical ties and who

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might have no affinity with Britain. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire for giving us the opportunity to debate the subject. However, I hope that, having had our debate, he will feel able to withdraw his amendment, because we do not believe that it would be appropriate to incorporate in the Bill the principle expressed therein.

Mr. Barnes: It is a privilege to have the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), on the Treasury Bench today. When he was at the Home Office, he carried out a great deal of work chairing the working party that helped to develop the Bill and the valuable measures it contains. My hon. Friend has always responded to me courteously and taken on board the various arguments and points that I have advanced.

A valuable feature of my hon. Friend's contribution was that I learned that at least the amendment was technically correct. Someone mentioned that when he saw it initially he thought that I was trying to get rid of enfranchisement for Commonwealth and Irish citizens resident in this country. When it was put to me that the amendment was the means by which I could achieve that objective, I was rather worried that that was the case.

My hon. Friend said that I was not quite correct in some instances about measures to extend the franchise to homeless people and people on remand. However, for homeless people it is just about impossible to become registered, although there are some who have been able to do so. Until the Bill was put before us, it was necessary to have a residence to get on to the electoral register. By definition, that virtually ruled out a homeless person, although there were often ways and means that enabled such people to find their way around the requirement. There was often a difficult set of circumstances and some registration decisions were made by magistrates courts, for example. Those decisions did not have any wider knock-on effect. That being so, the clarity of the Bill is welcome. I used some shorthand when I mentioned these points earlier. As I have introduced Bills on these matters in the past, my hon. Friend will realise that I am involved, to some extent, in these considerations.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench, pointed out that I was alone in presenting the amendments. I was alone in 1988, and for a considerable period thereafter, in propounding the notion of a rolling register. We are now dealing with a Bill that contains proposals for such a register. I might be alone in presenting the idea that lies behind the amendments, but in 10 or 11 years' time others might recognise the wisdom of my arguments.

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) stressed points about citizenship. Citizenship is relevant to our citizens who are overseas, and the rights that they are given by the British Government that are designed to protect them in the nations in which they find themselves. Whether those rights should be extended to the franchise is another matter.

The world has changed considerably since some notions were fashioned. We now have a cosmopolitan world in which people move in and out of different areas.

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It is not always clear to people what their nation is. However, it is clear where they are, and the Government and administration responsible for making decisions that immediately affect their lives at that time can be clearly identified. We should develop electoral registration that is based on those circumstances, while recognising that there is sense in terms of citizenship.

As we are moving towards a rolling register, it would be possible for people to spend a period overseas and, if the Government adopted the principles that I am suggesting, be registered in the other country. As soon as they returned home to the United Kingdom, they would be placed on electoral registers under the procedures that are contained within the Bill. There are alternative principles to that of citizenship, although I accept that there is significance and importance to be attached to it. Much depends on the weight that is put upon these arguments.

Mr. Hogg: Will the hon. Gentleman deal with the following bizarre situation? The citizens of some countries, such as the United States, Australia and, indeed, the UK, can vote for their domestic Parliaments even when they are overseas. If the hon. Gentleman's proposal were accepted, an American citizen would be entitled to vote both in American elections and in elections for the Westminster Parliament. That is not self-evidently sensible.

Mr. Barnes: It is not self-evidently sensible, but if the House adopted the principles with respect to the United Kingdom, we would have good grounds for arguing that America and other nations should operate according to the same principles. Then we would have an arrangement that allowed people to vote where they were at different times of their lives.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman was using the same technique with regard to my contribution as he used in his speech. He posed the problem of people who were just passing through. He was pushing my principle to the nth degree, in order to test it. I grant that any principle pushed to the limit will seem to create peculiar and problematic situations. It is highly unlikely that anyone would pass through just to be registered on an electoral register in order to vote in an election.

The notion that registration could be so temporary as not to matter may be correct, but it should not be allowed to destroy my general argument. There are always exceptions to principles. In general, people who are resident or who can obtain a declaration of local connection should be on registers, but I recognise that there may be some who do not qualify. The case of prisoners, which I raised, may be one of the exceptions. There are qualifications to the general principle, and awkward cases can be discovered, but that should not lead to its destruction.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) pointed out that many citizens of the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland who are resident in this country have no idea that they are entitled to vote. I have been in touch with constituents from the Commonwealth who have been in the country for 20 years and are not on the electoral register. If my proposal were adopted, it would make it more easily understood that people could register once they were UK residents. That would apply to Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens, as well as to others.

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It is obvious that I am a lone voice pursuing the argument. I believe that everything that I have said is correct and needs to be pushed, even I failed to put evidence about it to the Home Affairs Committee during its investigations, although I put many other points, which will be covered later.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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