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If the Minister says, "Oh no, we must not change anything", I ask him this question. Can he tell me who might be likely to qualify as "a citizen of the Republic of Ireland" but not as "a relevant citizen of the Union"? I beg to move.
The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham): I must point out to the Committee that, as Amendment No. 8 is being spoken to with this amendment, there is a misprint in Amendment No. 8 as it appears on the Marshalled List. The word "the" has been missed out. It should read,
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am sorry, but the Minister really must listen to my argument. I asked him this question. Can he name a citizen of the Republic of Ireland who is not a relevant citizen of the Union and therefore entitled to vote as a relevant citizen of the Union? That is what I asked.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am grateful to the noble Lord for that clarification. The term "relevant citizen of the Union" may help us. That is defined in Section 202 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 and refers to the citizens of all EU member states apart from Britain and Ireland. The right of nationals of other EU member states to vote in the local elections of the country where they reside is enshrined in the Treaty of Maastricht, so this amendment would put us in breach of our treaty obligations. Just as important, there are good historical reasons for the voting rights that Irish citizens enjoy, which I stress are fully reciprocated. I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Swinfen: Before the Minister sits down, he says that the voting rights of citizens of the Republic of Ireland are fully reciprocated. I was not aware that subjects of Her Majesty from the United Kingdom had voting rights of any kind in the Republic of Ireland.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: If, by the deletion of these words, citizens of the Republic of Ireland would be denied the reciprocity which they have enjoyed over the years, I shall withdraw the amendment. But I am still puzzled to know why "relevant citizen of the Union" does not cover a citizen of the Irish Republic. After all, the Irish Republic is a member of the European Union. It is almost as daft as the situation of students from England who go to Scottish universities. This will give the Minister time to find a reply that may satisfy the Committee. Those students have to pay £4,000 when citizens of every other European Union country will be able to defer payment. They will have to pay £2,000 once they graduate. The answer from
Lord Goodhart: Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask him this question. Whereas Irish citizens now have the right to vote in parliamentary elections, the effect of removing the specific reference to Irish citizens would be that they would only have the same right as other European citizens; namely, to vote in local and European elections.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The noble Lord is trying, as do all noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches, to help the Government. If the noble Lord looks at where we are in the Bill he will see that new Section 2(1) begins:
Lord Bassam of Brighton: That is actually the case. That is why at the outset I made the point that if we were to pursue the line taken in the amendment, we could end up denying citizens of the Republic of Ireland the right to vote in local government elections.
The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, asked about reciprocation with Ireland. That is the case. We have reciprocal rights to vote in Ireland's general elections and local elections. That has been the case for a long time. To pursue the line taken by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, could have a most confusing effect. On that ground I urge him to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord has failed to explain--perhaps I have misunderstood him--how a citizen of the Irish Republic would not qualify for a local government vote here if he lived here as "a relevant citizen of the Union". If I can have that explanation, I shall be quite happy. If I do not have that explanation, what I might call "the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, mood" will come over me with regard to having unnecessary words in the legislation, words which make me wonder why we have them. It is a simple question. Perhaps I may have a simple answer at the third time of asking.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: "A relevant citizen of the Union" is defined, as I said, as a citizen of one the 13 EU countries apart from Ireland, which is why it is necessary to refer specifically to Irish citizens. That is the explanation.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: I am obliged to the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. Is it the same argument-- because it is, it has to remain? No reason is given. Will the noble Lord make it plain why the reference has to remain?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I think the Minister is telling me that the Maastricht Treaty makes the Republic of Ireland different from the other EU member states. I shall take advice on whether that is the case. It seems an odd situation to have got ourselves into at the time, but perhaps there was some good reason for it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, although, frankly, once I have checked the Maastricht Treaty I may decide to return to the point.
The noble Lord said: I hope that in this debate we shall be able to avoid the unhappy discomfort through which the Minister appears to be going. I hope that these amendments will give him the opportunity to be helpful to the Committee and to accept them.
Before going into detail, perhaps I may repeat the comments I made at Second Reading. I said that we must always remember, when changing the law relating to electoral procedures in order to encourage more people to vote--which I think everyone wants--that it is essential that we do so without significantly opening the door to electoral abuse in one form or another.
New Section 4(2) adds to the Bill a provision dealing with potential abuse in Northern Ireland. The subsection states that people cannot be placed on the register in Northern Ireland until they have been resident for the whole of the three-month period prior to the relevant date. As I understand it, the provision is included to avoid a situation in which people could pop over the border from the Irish Republic in considerable numbers and attempt to register as voters in Northern Ireland and declare either a temporary address or local connection under the guise of being homeless.
I hope that I have got the right end of the stick and that this is the main reason why the Bill includes special rules for Northern Ireland. I hope that, in responding, the noble Lord will tell us why the special provision has been included. Following the remarks of my noble friend Lord Peyton, I imagine that the Minister's brief will contain a full explanation.
Given that background, and assuming that I can start from that point, my amendments are intended to extend the special provision of three months' residence to the whole of the United Kingdom. Surely there is merit in that. It is right to attempt to treat the whole United Kingdom as one. My amendment seeks to apply the provision to new registrations within the United Kingdom. It applies only to people who have never previously been on the electoral register.
There are a good many reasons for tabling the amendments. First, while providing for those who tend to wander from one place to another, possibly sleeping rough or occupying squatter properties, the extension of the register to homeless people clearly gives rise to potential opportunities for abuse, and electoral abuse in particular. The second reason is that, in recent times, as the Government know only too well, there has been a huge increase in those coming to this country seeking political asylum. Therefore, the possibility of potential abuse arises.
I began by saying that I hoped the Minister would be able to accept these amendments. Since the Bill was printed and, indeed, since it came to this House from another place, two events have occurred which should make the noble Lord considerably keener to see my amendments incorporated. The first is the experience of the past few days; namely, the emergence of hijacking as a means of seeking political asylum. We must be aware, having followed the events of the past week, that there is a real danger of the United Kingdom becoming a target for considerable numbers of asylum seekers--economic and political refugees coming to this country, using the newly found device of hijacking aircraft as a means of doing so. My amendment attempts to go some way to delay those entering the United Kingdom illegally in that way from obtaining the right to vote without at least a three-month pause.
I make this point following the Minister's attack last week in response to my noble friend Lord Rotherwick. I have still heard no explanation from the Minister or any justification for the attack on my noble friend, saying that his points were fictitious. I hope that the
Now that the Minister has had time better to understand the problem, I would have thought that the Government would welcome the extension of the provisions relating to Northern Ireland to the whole of the United Kingdom and insist that somebody cannot register unless he has been resident in the United Kingdom during the whole period of three months ending on the relevant date, provided only that it is a new registration within the United Kingdom. I beg to move.
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