Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Goodhart: In our view it is wholly appropriate that anyone who is on the register and entitled to vote and who can, therefore, vote in a parliamentary or local government election should be entitled to vote in a referendum in that part of the United Kingdom where he or she lives. Otherwise, the situation would be seriously discriminatory. I should add that the indication of Commonwealth voters on the register, however well intentioned, is something that could lead to an increased level of racism.

Lord Jopling: There is another issue which my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish did not quite cover. Those of us who have lived a political life in the years since the Second World War can remember occasions when, to put it mildly, the countries of the

14 Feb 2000 : Column 922

Commonwealth were not best pleased with the policies of the British Government. Indeed, like many noble Lords, I recall times when it was not an impossible thought that the countries of the Commonwealth might have voted to exclude Britain from the Commonwealth. It is to be hoped that those awkward days are behind us. I certainly hope so. However, if it was not impossible in the past, one is entitled to say that it is not impossible in the future.

Perhaps I may put to the Minister the following possibility. With an election pending, if it were a decision of the nations of the Commonwealth to expel the United Kingdom, it seems to me on reading part of Clause 1 of the Bill that that would at a stroke make it impossible for British citizens to vote in a parliamentary election. I say that because if British citizens were no longer Commonwealth citizens, they would be automatically excluded. Surely it would be wise for us to insert these words into the legislation so that, if such an unthinkable and awful prospect were to arise, a whole lot of changes in the law would not need to be made to ensure that British people could vote in a British election. Can the Committee think of a more absurd situation? However, this seems to me to be an implication which we ought to think about. I hope that the noble Lord will take this point on board and will accept the amendment, or at least tell us that he will think carefully about it.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: I think that this is something, with respect, that one has to think about. One has to distinguish on the one hand quite clearly between the allegiance of Commonwealth countries--which is sometimes in question--and Commonwealth citizenship. I begin to wonder whether in the context of the purpose of this Bill, Commonwealth citizenship is well conceived as a qualification to register.

Lord Naseby: My noble friend Lord Jopling is right to put his finger on this matter. When I was first in the other place a Motion was, I believe, tabled by Rajiv Gandhi to the effect that Britain should be excluded from the Commonwealth. Sadly, that gentleman--I say this sincerely--is no longer with us. However, it is conceivable that that situation could arise. Therefore, it seems to me that the Minister will need to take the point seriously. I support my noble friend's amendment.

I refer to the sensitive subject of asylum seekers. I travel to Sri Lanka later this week and I am conscious of the number of Sri Lankans who seek asylum at this time. As I understand the Bill, we are moving towards a rolling register. Presumably someone who is in this country seeking asylum would qualify to go on the register almost from the date on which he or she arrived. I imagine that the Minister will be able to reassure us that that is not the case. However, that situation may not have been foreseen.

Lord Biffen: I support my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish in the caution that has been expressed with regard to the nomenclature of the Commonwealth embracing the United Kingdom and

14 Feb 2000 : Column 923

all other countries within the Commonwealth. We are, after all, talking about a sensitive designation; namely, the electoral roll. It implies an underlying community and shared commitment which is rather strained. The reality of the Commonwealth is of a diverse collection of countries and of historical coincidences largely related to a phase of British imperialism which has now passed away. What is left behind is potentially dangerous if it is invested with a potency and a collective identity that it clearly does not possess. It may be a gesture of good will or of convenience to use the term "Commonwealth" as proposed in the legislation. However, we are perfectly entitled to utter a word of caution in that regard. I welcome the debate.

Lord Stallard: One simple question puzzles me; namely, why we are so keen to advocate representation from Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa when we flatly refuse to introduce reciprocal agreements for Commonwealth pensioners. Any British citizens who live in Commonwealth countries receive only the pension to which they were entitled when they left Britain. The sad fact is that many such pensioners are in dire straits as they have never received the increases in their pensions to which they are entitled. Therefore, I am puzzled as to why the British Government are so keen to spend thousands of pounds on producing leaflets to canvass them on election matters. Will the Minister comment on the possible introduction of a reciprocal agreement for the pensioners I have mentioned?

Lord Dholakia: I am fascinated by this discussion. If I recall correctly--I stand open to correction--the British Nationality Act 1948 conferred certain rights on Commonwealth citizens and British subjects. Those who came to this country after that date are entitled to participate fully in the government of this country. When Iain Macleod was colonial secretary, he confirmed that he intended to enable Commonwealth citizens to come to this country and to participate fully in the government of it. I hope that we shall not create two tiers of citizenship which discriminate between those who are here permanently and those who have come here to settle on a permanent basis. There is a residential qualification in this regard. No one flies from Ceylon, India, Pakistan or any other country and automatically goes on the register. They have to satisfy certain residential qualifications in this country to go on the register. Some of the arguments that have been advanced as regards the rights of people who come to this country are far fetched.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: This has been a rather more fascinating debate than I thought it would be. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, has spoken to his amendments with his customary vigour and entertainment value. I believe that we all enjoy that. However, the debate has strayed rather wider than I thought would be the case. Reference has been made to the euro referendum--I do not think it would be entirely appropriate for me to be drawn into that

14 Feb 2000 : Column 924

discussion this afternoon--and to reciprocal arrangements for Commonwealth pensioners. However, we are discussing the Representation of the People Bill. I shall attempt to address my remarks to that Bill.

When I consider some of the amendments that we shall discuss later, and what the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, has said, I believe that he takes a rather narrower view of the Bill than he did at Second Reading, and than was taken by his colleagues in another place and, indeed, his party when considering the Bill and the proposals that have emerged from the all-party working party on which there was fairly unanimous agreement on most of those measures. As a consequence, we seem to have rather a large set of amendments before us this afternoon and I believe that the debate will range rather more widely than we had all anticipated.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Perhaps I can help him in this regard. Parliamentary scrutiny means scrutiny. There may be many amendments on the Marshalled List, but many of them are designed to tease out exactly what the Government mean by a measure. The noble Lord will have to get used to that if he is to continue to be a Minister and to present Home Office legislation.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am grateful to the noble Lord for that reminder. I have no problems with scrutiny; the Government have no problems with scrutiny. However, I am concerned that some of the matters we are likely to discuss today go rather wider than that point.

The provisions in Clause 1 of the Bill, setting out who is entitled to vote in parliamentary and local government elections, simply replicate the existing rules. However, a necessary change is being made to reflect the fact that, with the introduction of rolling electoral registration, there will no longer be a single annual qualifying date. Among those entitled to vote in both parliamentary and local elections are Commonwealth citizens. Let us be quite clear that that includes British citizens. Indeed, given our key role in the Commonwealth, I do not believe that there could be any doubt on that point.

Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 7, 23, 63, 77, 121 and 122 seek to add the words "British citizen" before all references to Commonwealth citizens. That would imply that British citizens were not citizens of the Commonwealth. Apart from casting doubt on any other enactment, the use of the term "Commonwealth citizen" would also, I suggest, send a negative and unwelcome message to our Commonwealth partners. The term "Commonwealth citizen" has served us well for many years. Indeed, it has found its way into legislation brought before Parliament by both of the major parties in government. I urge the noble Lord to consider that there is no reason to depart from that term today.

Finally, Amendment No. 38 would require all non-British citizens to be identified on the electoral register with a special mark. I simply ask: why? Given that

14 Feb 2000 : Column 925

these people have the right to vote, they should be treated in the same way as everyone else. A special mark on the register would serve no purpose except to single them out. Worse, I suspect, certain far Right groups may find considerable use for lists which specifically identify non-British citizens. Do we really want to introduce that? The noble Lord opposite should think long and hard before he presses that particular point.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, raised questions about the countries with which we have reciprocal arrangements. As he quite rightly acknowledged, I have written to him extensively on that matter. As I set out in some of the correspondence, most of them do not--

3.30 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: I am grateful to the noble Lord. With the utmost respect, the Minister is not addressing his mind to the question. He is saying "as they have the right to vote" but, for the reasons that have been given, it is very much in question whether they should have the right to vote. The Minister referred to the existing rule; is not our function to examine the existing rule? He appears to assume that we have to accept that "what is, shall be".

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page