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In addition, accepting Amendment 124 may give the impression that the outcome of the consultation has already been determined in favour of Recommendation 19, when that is certainly not the case. Accepting Amendment 122 would also introduce changes that may not necessarily reflect the views of those who respond to the consultation. I hope that noble Lords will agree and will withdraw the amendments.

Lord Norton of Louth: I might agree to do the latter, but I do not agree with the former observation. I am very grateful for the support from all parts of the Committee for the amendments. I am gratified that the weight of opinion was in favour of getting rid of the register. I take the point made by the noble Baroness,

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Lady Gould, to the logical conclusion that, in principle, opting in is necessary, just for the protection of data. The principle is compelling, but then you run up against the practical problem, which the noble Baroness has identified, that probably very few people will register, in which case what is the point of having the register at all? I think that that leads logically to getting rid of it. I am very grateful for the weight of opinion in the Committee on that, and very much take the point that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made about the burden on electoral registration officers. It is already considerable; we shall be placing an even more significant burden on them for the purpose of individual registration, which is necessary because of the principle underpinning that particular change. Let us get rid of a burden that they should not be fulfilling anyway, because it has no relevance to their role as electoral registration officers.

That brings me to the Minister’s response—not so much what he said but what he never said. At no point did he address the fundamental issue of principle. His argument was addressed solely in terms of practical benefit to junk mail companies and others, which might derive some sort of economic benefit. I am sorry, but there are two responses to that. If it is wrong to have the edited version of the register, it is simply wrong on principle, and the fact that it may benefit some of us out there does not get round that fundamental point. The actual practical point was touched on by my noble friend Lord Bates; there are other bodies that can go out and compile these datasets that will be useful to junk mail companies and others. The Minister has not addressed that point at all.

I mentioned a recommendation from the Thomas-Walport report, which was not that there should be consultation on the issue, but was to get rid of the edited version. It is wrong to have the consultation and I am not sure how it will generate some of the data that the Minister thinks it will. I am not persuaded at all by that. If the Government were that keen on consultation, it should have been completed by now, considering when the report was published. The Government are dragging their heels. If we are going to act, this is the time. We may well come to this matter on Report. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 122 withdrawn.

Amendment 123

Moved by Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

123: After Clause 17, insert the following new Clause—

“Qualifying period for overseas electors

(1) The Representation of the People Act 1985 (as amended by the Representation of the People Act 2000) shall be amended as follows.

(2) In section 1(3) and(4) (conditions to be satisfied by British citizen in order to qualify as overseas elector in relation to parliamentary election) for “15 years” there is substituted “20 years”.

(3) In section 3(3) and (4) (conditions to be satisfed by peer in order to qualify as overseas elector in relation to European Parliamentary election), for “15 years” there is substituted “20 years”.”

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Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: The amendment has a simple objective: to extend from 15 to 20 years the period during which individuals living overseas can remain on the electoral register. This period was reduced from 20 to 15 years in the PPER Act 2000, and I seek to reverse that on three grounds. The first is that we live in an era of increasing globalisation and internationalisation of economic activity, a process which has gathered pace since the reduction of the qualifying period in 2000. Secondly, we need to reflect the different nature of modern society and the mobility of populations. Thirdly, I seek to reflect the fact of Britain’s membership of the European Union.

More than 3 million British citizens live overseas and a number of them are being, and increasingly will be, disenfranchised by the present limit of 15 years. Who are they? First, they are people who work overseas for UK companies or for subsidiaries of US or foreign companies operating in this country. Some people may say that that represents a limited number of people. I am not sure that that is right. One of my greatest friends at university worked for an American company based in London, but he worked overseas for his entire career. He did that because he enjoyed working for smaller subsidiaries, away from head-office politics. He worked in Lisbon, Moscow and Nairobi. He knew of many other people who effectively spent all of their careers overseas, which would have taken them over the current 15-year limit.

Secondly, there are those who work for NGOs, including Oxfam and others, who will spend many years overseas in the pursuance of their careers. Within that there are, of course, governmental organisations. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth is addressing this issue in Amendment 125 and I will therefore say no more about that, other than to draw the Committee’s attention to that category of people.

Thirdly, there are those who retire overseas after a lifetime of endeavour and of paying tax to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Why the sunshine of Spain should be better than the challenging conditions of the British weather, I simply cannot understand. There it is—they simply go overseas for the rest of their lives.

All these people continue to contribute to our life and many of them have paid a great deal of tax along the way. In 1989, Mr Alistair Darling, then the opposition spokesman, said that 20 years was a sensible compromise. He said:

It is important to maintain that lively interest. My university friend who worked overseas for a US company all his life has maintained such a lively interest, because he is back in the United Kingdom and is involved in politics, although, sadly, with the party of the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard, not my party; but there we are, he maintains his lively interest.

We touched on this in the debate nine years ago when my late friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish suggested that we could have a “use it or lose it” provision. People would have to register during an initial period—in that case, in the first five years—and thereafter had to register every year to show that they

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were in touch with what was going on in the UK and that any failure in that chain would result in the loss of the right to vote. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, who spoke in that debate, will remember all the machinations that went on. That just shows that if you wait long enough, it all comes round again. If the Government were inclined towards a “use it or lose it” provision, I would be perfectly happy with that. At the moment, I want to reflect modern society, modern economic conditions and modern ways of living. As through the Bill we want to extend democratic participation and involvement, I want to do so to those who live abroad who show an interest in the United Kingdom, and I therefore beg to move.

6.30 pm

Lord Norton of Louth: I rise to speak to Amendment 125, which is grouped. As my noble friend said, the Representation of the People Act 1983 provides that all British citizens who reside abroad lose their right to vote in British elections after 15 years and, as he has explained, his amendment would extend that period to 20 years.

My amendment is not concerned with the period specified but, rather, those who are or should be exempt from its provisions. Under Section 14 of the 1983 Act, certain British citizens who live abroad who do not fulfil the normal residence requirements for voting are entitled to make a declaration that enables them to continue to vote. They comprise members of the Armed Forces, others employed in the service of the Crown in a post outside the UK, British Council employees working outside the UK and the spouses of the people in those categories. The reasons for the exemptions are rational. They are not people who have chosen to live abroad permanently but, rather, are people who work abroad or are married to people who work abroad where that service may be seen from the perspective of the United Kingdom as a public good.

My amendment would extend the provisions of Section 14 to encompass British citizens working abroad for international organisations. As the law stands, they are not exempt and lose the right to vote after 15 years but, in general, are not able to apply for the right to vote in national parliamentary elections in their country of residence. International civil servants are not regarded as taking up residence in the country where they serve. Those recruited to EU institutions from the UK remain domiciled in the UK for tax purposes, although they are physically resident in Belgium or Luxembourg. Their tax liabilities are to the employing organisation for their salary, and to the United Kingdom in respect of investment and miscellaneous income. Furthermore, in general, as international civil servants enjoy certain quasi-diplomatic immunities, they are not permitted to naturalise as citizens of their country of residence. It seems anomalous to leave them in what, after 15 years, amounts to a vacuum in the democratic process.

My amendment would bring them into line with Crown servants and their spouses and thus bring them within the provisions of Section 14. I add that the unusual situation of British citizens working for international organisations is already recognised in statute. Under the British Nationality Act 1981 and

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the British Citizenship (Designated Service) Order 2006, the Secretary of State may waive the normal residence requirement for the spouse of a British civil servant working abroad who wishes to apply for British nationality through naturalisation. Section 2 of the Act also recognises the particular position of UK citizens working for international organisations in respect of acquisition of British nationality by descent. The Act allows British citizens by descent working for international organisations to transmit British nationality to their children born outside the United Kingdom.

UK citizens working outside the United Kingdom for international organisations are in a special position. That is already recognised in statute. They are, I contend, in a position analogous to Crown servants working abroad, rather than to those British citizens who leave these shores to live in sunnier climes and who may well have no intention of returning. Given that, it is right that we should extend the provision of Section 14 of the 1983 Act to encompass them; hence my amendment, which I commend to the Committee.

Lord Tyler: It is important to distinguish between these two amendments, although they are grouped together. I am less than convinced by the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, than by that of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for a number of reasons.

6.35 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

6.45 pm

Lord Tyler: I was rudely interrupted, but nevertheless I shall be extremely brief. I said that I have less sympathy with Amendment 123 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, because I believe that the issues of mobility to which he properly referred mean that it is in fact quite rare for people to go abroad for such long periods on the sort of job he was referring to. Indeed, it is now much more common to go to other parts of the world for shorter periods. There might be a better case if we linked the issue of qualifying for elections to whether the individual had a tax—paying responsibility in this country, on the principle the Americans used to such good effect: no taxation without representation. I am also anxious that we should not be distracted by the issue of European Union citizenship. The Minister may be able to confirm that EU citizens can vote in EU parliamentary elections wherever they are in the Union, so it is important that that issue should be taken out of this discussion because it is completely separate.

I turn to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. There is an anomaly here which needs to be addressed. It is rather extraordinary that we single out employees of the British Council, and yet someone serving this country in a specific official capacity in a number of important international organisations should not be considered. While I am a great fan of the British Council, this is a genuine anomaly and there is considerable justification for Amendment 125. With that, I have said enough.

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Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I am sorry to have missed the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, who was sitting in her usual place. I said as a harbinger yesterday that the promotion of the amendment of my noble friend Lord Hodgson would bring us back to the circumstances in July 1989, that brief and honeyed month, when consensualists all around the country were hoping that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and I, in whose hands lay all the decision-making about electoral reform, would reach agreement before the Summer Recess. It was the noble Baroness and I who reached agreement on the original figure of 20 years as the period within which people could live abroad in order to secure the vote.

In advance of the 2000 Bill, the then Home Secretary Mr Straw made a statement on the Government’s intentions and indicated that they were proposing in legislation to change the 20-year figure. Mr Chris Mullin MP—at this point I paraphrase—said how glad he was to hear that the Home Secretary would change the ruthless way in which the Conservative Government had pushed through the period of 20 years in a gesture worthy of Tory Visigoths. I intervened to recount what had happened in 1989 between the noble Baroness and myself in securing the consensus, and either by telepathy or by that invisible thread by which the noble Baroness controls the Home Office, the Home Secretary confirmed at the Dispatch Box that every word I had uttered was entirely correct and that the 20-year period had been reached by consensus between the noble Baroness and myself.

So far as I am concerned, anything that the noble Baroness and I can agree is the optimal figure with which to proceed, and the fact that someone intervened initially with a more destructive amendment and then, by the happy compromise that governs affairs in this nation, came up with a figure halfway between 20 years and the Government’s original intention, makes me happy to speak in support of my noble friend. As I say, anything decided by the noble Baroness and me is likely, in my view, to stand the test of time.

Lord Bates: I add my support from the Front Bench on this side for the amendments tabled in the names of my noble friends Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots and Lord Norton of Louth. The points made have been clear and comments have been made about people who retire overseas. I want to make one point and I have a couple of questions for the Minister. What is the Government’s principal position in their argument as regards a time limit on a British citizen living overseas having a right to vote in UK elections? What is the basis of that argument? The amendment refers to substituting 20 years for 15 years.

Here I declare an interest: my son has been studying overseas for five years. Having seemed to enjoy draining his father of a grant and fees, which I have happily provided, he has been encouraged to go on still further. I am reminded that many young people now travel and begin their working lives overseas. Access for people to travel to international universities and colleges to study and perhaps begin their careers is a wholly beneficial aspect of globalisation. From the perspective of someone retiring to Spain, which is a traditional argument, 15 years may seem an appropriate length of

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time actuarially. However, from the perspective of a student who is studying and resident overseas for the beginning of their career, clearly the limit is wholly inadequate. It is entirely possible that decisions which may affect that person or their parents, or in which they may have a particular interest, could be taken or proposed by a Government. Quite rightly, the person would wish to express their vote in an election. That is my only additional point. I absolutely support the amendments in the names of my noble friends.

Lord Tunnicliffe: Amendment 123 makes amendments to the Representation of the People Act 1985 which sets out the time limitation placed on those British electors wishing to register as overseas electors. Subsection (2) of the proposed new clause under Amendment 123 would amend Section 1(3)(c) and subsection (4)(a) of the Act to substitute the time limitation for relying on a previous entry in the electoral register from 15 years to 20 years. Subsection (3) of the proposed new clause replicates this arrangement for peers residing overseas by also substituting the time limitation of 15 years to 20 years in Section 3(3)(c) and subsection (4)(a) of the Act.

Noble Lords may be aware that the 1985 Act provided for the first time for British citizens living overseas to be able to vote in general and European elections in the UK. Initially, electors could register as overseas electors at the last place they were registered in the UK for a period of five years. However, this period increased to 20 years under the Representation of the People Act 1989 and was decreased to 15 years during the passage of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The matter was debated in both Houses and the conclusion set out in the Act was that 15 years was a more appropriate length of time. The new 15-year limit has applied since 1 April 2002.

I appreciate that some may view a time limit for UK citizens overseas as harsh, particularly for those who may not have a vote in the national elections of their country of residence. However, I think noble Lords will agree that it would be inappropriate to allow the voting rights of UK citizens overseas to continue beyond 15 years given that generally, over time, their connection to the UK is likely to diminish. The latest amendment seeks to increase the period again, but as far as the Government are concerned, the current 15-year limitation is a sufficient period for a person to retain links with the United Kingdom. We are not aware of any compelling argument or evidence that would justify such a move at this time. Rather than tinkering with the time limitation again, more focus should be placed on raising registration rates among those residing overseas, such as expatriates and British citizens working abroad. This is because the number of registered overseas electors is extremely low. Fewer than 13,000 were registered in England and Wales as of 1 December 2008.

The good news is that the Electoral Commission, which is responsible for promoting electoral registration, has over the past few years been working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to promote registration for overseas electors. During autumn 2008 the commission undertook extensive activity comprising

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a wide-ranging campaign of online and press advertisements in newspapers and magazines aimed at British expatriates in the countries with the highest British populations. In November 2008 the commission also chaired a round-table discussion to explore ways of encouraging British citizens living abroad to register to vote, and of improving the provision of electoral information to overseas voters. In attendance were a range of stakeholders, including interested politicians, relevant government departments, electoral administrators, embassy staff and the Royal Mail. The commission has not yet provided any details of the outcome of those discussions but plans to do so in due course. Our view is that the 15-year time limitation is a sufficient period for a person to retain links with the UK, and thus we do not see any merit in accepting this amendment.

Amendment 125 introduces a clause that would add a new category of person to be enfranchised under Section 14(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1983. We hypothesise that this amendment is as a result of correspondence between officials in my department and a group of British international civil servants working for the European Commission in Brussels. They have argued that it is unfair that they lose their right to vote after 15 years and that they should have the same rights as Crown servants working overseas. We are sympathetic to their position. The effect of the amendment would be to allow British international civil servants to make a service declaration when registering to vote overseas in the same way as Crown servants. This would exempt them from the requirement that, to register to vote as an overseas voter, they must demonstrate that they have appeared on the UK electoral register within 15 years of the time at which they wish to register.

Before any changes can be implemented, the Government must thoroughly examine the proposal. We need to be particularly careful not to make premature decisions in this area, even if the arguments currently presented are persuasive. There is a risk that by simply accepting the amendment in this form without thoroughly researching the position of comparable workers, there could be effects that we have not yet considered, some of which may be negative if they are not properly thought through. In examining this issue, the Government need to be sure about the number of British international civil servants and the number of potential categories of electors that it may be appropriate to provide with this right. Equally, we need to research whether there are other categories of person who would seek enfranchisement as a result of any loosening of the rules for these individuals.

In particular, we would need to consider whether we should expand the wider categories currently covered by Section 14 of the 1983 Act to include those categories of workers given special treatment by way of their status as UK civil servants working abroad in other comparable contexts. For example, the British Nationality Act 1981 has special rules in relation to the descendants of UK public servants working abroad. These rules apply, for example, to those who work for international organisations of which the UK is a member, which is the category that this amendment deals with. They also apply to wider categories of UK public servants who work for other comparable entities, particularly

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foreign Governments. As a result, there may or may not be a case for applying the effect of Section 14 to these wider categories rather than the more limited category identified by the amendment.

In dealing with the democratic rights of our subjects, we must ensure that we examine the matter in the round and not just make piecemeal changes of the sort before us today. I regret to say that the exercise needs more time than this Bill allows. By allowing the Government a proper amount of time to consider the issue, it will enable us to build a firmer evidence base about the advantages and disadvantages of permitting any extensions of franchise and then to consider the way forward on the basis of the responses received. I therefore suggest that the Ministry of Justice undertakes a project to look into these issues, which will be conducted over the summer. In the mean time, noble Lords may take comfort in the fact that the Government will keep the British international Civil Service updated on our progress. In view of our intention to research the issue properly, it would be more sensible to examine the results at the end of that piece of work before making any changes to the current regulations. I hope the noble Lord will agree to withdraw the amendment.

7.05 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

7.10 pm

Lord Norton of Louth: I have a question before the noble Lord responds to the debate. The Minister mentioned that the international Civil Service has been making representations. One of them happens to be one of my graduates, which is why I am familiar with the case. The Minister has indicated sympathy and said that there will be a study of the merits of the case and whether it should be extended; I am very grateful for that. What will happen if the Government find that there is merit in the case? The timescale means that it will not be in the Bill; what will the Government do?

Lord Tunnicliffe: If we conclude that it is appropriate to change, we will obviously bring something forward at the earliest available opportunity.

Lord Norton of Louth: As I mentioned earlier, Bills to do with election law come few and far between, so the Government may need to think in a somewhat different way to deal with this, otherwise we may be waiting eight or 10 years for legislation.

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