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Perhaps I may start from the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson. The existing provisions have not been used by 3 million people; they have been used by a much smaller number. It is not as though out system is about to be overwhelmed by hoards of quasi-aliens, cut-off Britons, voting in unpredicted numbers. Therefore, any move which restricts those who are entitled to exercise the right is entirely negative.
I can support the Liberal Democrat amendment because it extends provisions which already exist in relation to British Crown servants, British Council people and one other category to other people in public service overseas in all the international organisations. The noble Lord, Lord Williamson, as a creature of that kind, is Exhibit A in tonight's debate. He has done immense service to this country in his work in the European Commission. We had to work very hard to secure people in that position and we did it in the national interest.
Moreover, as regards the European Community, Members of the Committee will know of the European fast stream provisions which are designed to secure long career-running British public servants in the European institutions. It would be foolish not immediately to accept the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, from the Liberal Democrat Benches.
However, one is then left with the discrimination not only between the public service, however widely one defines it, and business but between the public service and worthy, often young, people in non-governmental, charitable organisations working overseas for long periods of time. I was struck by the somewhat diffident rejection of the case I put to the Home Office prior to the Recess. I expect that other Members of the Committee have received the same response. The letter that I received from Mr Mike O'Brien, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, concluded, rather encouragingly:
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I am in such agreement with the noble and learned Lord who has just spoken that I need not repeat many of the points that he made. What we have before us is a package, and both amendments can be seen in that light. Perhaps the fact that they are all grouped together for one debate identifies that fact. I hope my noble friend will say that the Government will go away and look at this as a package and return with relevant amendments.
Electoral registration officers have pointed out to me one or two technical problems about the amendments spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, which I am sure they would want to put right. However, in the other place the Government said that if there was consensus, they would give this matter serious consideration. I have read the debate in the other place, and the objection appeared to be that if one extended the categories as outlined in the amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Dubs, the provision would relate only to Crown servants who now have that facility. That is not true. British Council staff are not Crown staff and yet that extension has been made in their case. It has also been said that the "use it or lose it" argument does not apply to those who work in the commercial field. I believe that it can and should. That argument is also unacceptable. However, I do not believe that in any of the amendments before us we have the ideal. I hope that the Minister will go away and think about this again.
I should not like people to believe that the amount of time spent abroad working for an international institution automatically reduces someone's interest in his home country. I cannot say that I have received any correspondence from Conservatives abroad: all of it has gone to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. However, I have received a great deal of correspondence from Labour supporters abroad who have a very good point. I very much hope that my noble friend will look at this as a package and see whether something can be done to produce a better arrangement than that which is now in the Bill.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: We have the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, a hero of Socialist International, and we have Exhibit A on the Benches behind me. I am confounded by all of the responses. In this matter we responded to the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee on electoral law and administration in October 1998. We said in another place that we sought consensus on this matter. Originally, we believed that 10 years would attract consensus. Clearly, that is not so.
Although I have particular difficulty with the amendments before us, I believe that the "use it or lose it" approach may turn out to be very complex and administratively difficult for electoral registration officers, as my noble friend Lady Gould hinted. If one adopts a class exemption and says that certain categories of UK citizens abroad will have an entitlement to vote but others will not, that leads us into difficulties in terms of discrimination. Where does one draw the boundary as to who should be included in any amendment to what is offered at the moment?
Having made those observations, I am content to go away and contemplate this matter further. My own preference is to continue to have a qualifying period. Having heard the arguments in Committee this evening, I accept that both five years and 10 years are unacceptable periods. However, a qualifying period is at least a clean, neat solution. I am tempted to believe that there should be some kind of compromise. I should like to consult on the possibility of having an extended qualifying period of, say, 15 years. That is perhaps on the generous side of a compromise between 20 years as originally proposed and five years as suggested by the Home Affairs Select Committee.
I do not want to extend the debate any further. I have heard the powerful voices in the Committee on this matter. I am not sure that we can achieve a solution in the form of a package, given some of the complications involved in the various amendments. I should like Members of the Committee to reflect on that. However, we shall return with an amendment which is rather more generous in terms of its qualification than that which is currently before the Committee. With that, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment so that we can give the matter further consideration.
Lord Goodhart: Having opposed the first amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, I have been impressed by the degree of support for it expressed on all other sides of the Committee. We should be prepared to consider a package, provided that it included both something in the form of our amendment, or the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the "use it or lose it" amendment. Obviously, we should like to see the detail of what is proposed before we commit ourselves to supporting it, but in principle we should look favourably on a package.
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