'In section 1(1)(b)(ii) of the principal Act, leave out from "is" to end and insert the words "a British citizen".'. — [Mr. Stanbrook.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
§ The Second Deputy Chairman
With this it will be convenient to take new clause 26—Local government electors to be British citizens:'In section 2(1)(b)(ii) of the principal Act, leave out from "is" to end and insert the words "a British citizen".'.
§ Mr. Stanbrook
I recognise that this matter—the definition of the electorate, and elegibility to vote in this country—has been studied by the Government in the light of the Select Committee's report, but the Committee should consider it because we do not often have an opportunity to deal with matters concerning the electorate and voting rights in this country, and another opportunity may not come for some time.
The question deserves consideration by the House of Commons because, if asked, a majority of the British people would not agree with what the Government have decided. I feel certain that, if there were a poll of British citizens, they would overwhelmingly reject the present law. In simple terms, what is at issue is whether the citizens of foreign countries, not being British citizens, who happen to be living here should be entitled to vote in British elections. Most people do not even know that this is the present law, but in fact British citizens are not entitled to vote in this country because they are British citizens.
Those who are qualified to vote are defined in section 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 as Commonwealth citizens—citizens of every state in the Commonwealth, independent, including the United Kingdom, as well as colonies — a definition which embraces some 1,000 million people around the world, plus citizens of the Irish Republic. British citizens as such are not mentioned in our electoral law. The electoral registration form requires that a householder shall declare that the people on it are Commonwealth citizens or citizens of the Irish Republic. It must be puzzling to the average British citizen that he is not mentioned as such.
Why on earth do we perpetuate that old-fashioned outdated, eccentric, romantic, extravagant anomaly? Why do we persist in living in the past? The anomaly is the result of a wet, sloppy sentimentalism about the old empire which sits uneasily upon a reforming Conservative Administration.
In the days when the British monarch ruled over a quarter of the globe—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—everyone born within the British empire was a British subject and owed allegiance to the British crown. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] There were no problems about jurisdiction or voting and the King's writ ran over the whole empire. Any British subject could come and live in the United Kingdom and if he were here on 10 October in any one year he could vote in ensuing elections during the forthcoming year. I hope that hon. Members will not applaud too loudly; they may miss some of the wisdom on which I am about to embark.
607 The change that has come over the scene is fundamental.
§ Mr. Stanbrook
We must not waste time, and I am sure that time would be wasted if the hon. Gentleman were to intervene.
The change that has come over the electoral legal scene in Britain is fundamental. Almost all the countries of the Commonwealth are now independent states, indistinguishable in law from foreign states. Their citizens owe no loyalty to this country or to our Queen.
More ironic is what has happened to the people who live in the Republic of Ireland. They have shown many times over the past few centuries that they want to be independent of Britain. They reject the attempts of successive British Governments to make them, or treat them as being, British in any way. They rejected the idea that they were still part of the Commonwealth. They are not part of the Commonwealth. Yet successive British Governments have sought to foist a British connection on them.
Even as late as 1960 a British Government made an extradition treaty with West Germany which exempted from its provisions the nationals of each party and citizens of the Irish Republic. Could anything be more absurd?
Those citizens of the Irish Republic who live in the United Kingdom, like citizens of Commonwealth countries living here, obtain British citizenship on preferential terms, usually by the mere act of registration. Would it then be an act of injustice to remove from the register those who refused to take advantage of that facility? Of course it would not. On the contrary, it is a great injustice at present to the people of this country who are British citizens and give Britain their loyalty to allow certain foreigners who owe no loyalty to Britain to help choose our Government. We do not allow the same right to good, like-minded friends like the French or the Germans living in our midst. Why should we give it, then, to the Indians, the Nigerians and the Republican Irish?
I beg the Government, even at this late stage, to stop this nonsense and to say that the electoral register is for British citizens and British citizens alone.
§ Mr. Bermingham
I listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) and sought to intervene for a very personal and particular reason. I happen to be Irish. What the hon. Gentleman has said tonight will cause grave offence to many hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens.
§ Mr. Bermingham
The hon. Gentleman says "Rubbish". Let him look at the facts. Throughout the northern part of this land of ours there are hundreds of thousands of people who were either born prior to 1916 in Ireland, or in the period 1922 to 1948 when Ireland was part of the British Empire, or who may well be the sons or daughters of people born in those periods, or may have been born post-1948, some of whom were born in the United Kingdom, and who, because of their Irish parentage, find themselves in the interesting position where they are either British citizens or, if born before 1948 and have lived all their lives in the United Kingdom, found themselves suddenly not British citizens any more but British subjects, who, of course, this new clause would exempt.
608 It is all right the hon. Gentleman taking that attitude, but in this land there are many millions of us who pay taxes. I am now a British citizen because I paid £70 to become one. I understand that the figure has now been reduced. [Interruption.] I listen to what the hon. Gentleman with his castles in Crawley has to say, and I take as much notice as is normal.
I say to the hon. Member for Orpington that time after time this crack is made at the Irish as if we were second class citizens of the world who have no rights. Yet many of us and many of our families have for centuries fought for this land and we are as loyal as any other citizen in this land to this land. And that is the way it will continue.
§ Mr. Forth
In the course of making his remarks, will the hon. Member address himself to the possibility that if individuals feel they owe loyalty to the United Kingdom they might seek citizenship of the United Kingdom in order to exercise both the full rights and privileges and the loyalty that he has just mentioned?
§ Mr. Bermingham
I thought loyalty came with oaths, not with the payment of money. Many of my family and many of the Irish in this land fought in the British Army and the Navy in the wars. We are the children of those who fought. They took an oath of loyalty. Their children were brought up in this country. When one enters certain professions and jobs, one sometimes takes an oath of loyalty. No one has ever questioned our loyalty to this land, and no one has ever questioned the loyalty of many hundreds of thousands of people to this land—loyalty which the clause seeks to deny.
The point that I make is a very simple one. If we reach a time when those of us who have lived all our lives effectively in this country are called upon to pay a sum of money for the right to vote in a land to which we have always been loyal, it says nothing for this land.
I am sure that the Government have got it right on this occasion, where they have continued to support the rights of the resident indigenous Irish in this land and of other Commonwealth citizens who take exactly the same stand, who come to this country, work in this country, pay their taxes and are immensely loyal to this country. It would be an insult suddenly to tell all those people that if they do not pay £70 here on £110 there they will not have the vote because they are second class citizens.
I sincerely hope that the House will not go down that path, because if it did it would do a grave disservice to community harmony in this land. People will begin to think that there are two classes of citizen. That has never been the case. I hope that the hon. Member for Orpington will seek leave to withdraw the new clause.
§ Mr. William Powell
The hour is late and I do not propose to make a long speech. I am certain that the principle that my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) has sought to advance is a sound one. The right to vote in this country should reside in citizens of Great Britain who are registered to vote.
§ Mr. Powell
I shall not go into the arguments again, but if my hon. Friend is minded to press the matter to a Division I encourage him to do so and I will support him in the Lobby.
§ Mr. Dubs
The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) said that there were very few opportunities for the House to discuss this matter. In fact, he took full advantage of the many opportunities to discuss it in the debates in Committee and on the Floor of the House on the British Nationality Bill and the House rejected his arguments. The Select Committee also unanimously rejected the argument that he has put forward.
If by some mischance the hon. Gentleman's proposal became law electoral registration officers would be in a very difficult situation. They would have to go through the voting lists and get rid of several hundred thousand people of Irish origin and more than a million people of Commonwealth origin who would not longer be eligible to vote. Few things could be more damaging to the position of Irish and Commonwealth people in this country than the hon. Gentleman's proposal.
§ Mr. Winnick
The attitude of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) is very much in line with the comments of the Minister of State, Department of Employment, about Bongo Bongo land. It shows the same kind of racialism, which runs pretty deep in the Conservative party.
§ Mr. Stanbrook
The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) referred to the difficulties of registration officers in deciding whether a person was entitled to vote as a British citizen, but there would be no more difficulty than there is now when the form states that the person concerned may be a Commonwealth citizen or a citizen of the Irish Republic. Indeed, that entitlement is so vague and so badly understood by the average Briton that it is even more difficult for the registration officer to know who is entitled to vote. The result is that the registration officer does not make inquiries and provided that the householder has signed the form apparently in good faith the names are registered. That would even apply to aliens at present. There would be no extra difficulty if the form stated that the persons registered must be British citizens.
§ Mr. Dubs
I cannot possibly agree with that argument. There would be a great deal of difficulty if we had to devise a method whereby people of Irish origin had to identify themselves or be identified and to distinguish between those born here and those not born here so as to discover whether they were of British or Irish citizenship. It is no use the hon. Member for Orpington shaking his head. He knows perfectly well that until the British Nationality Act came along children born here to parents of Irish origin became British. There has been no attempt to date to distinguish between those of Irish origin who are now British and those who are not. Even if we could overcome the administrative procedures that have been put before us—it is said that they are simple, but I find them rather complicated—we would be faced with the invidious task of telling those who have had rights in this country for many years that they are to be taken away from them. That task would be all the more invidious as the Conservative Government made the solemn commitment during the passage of the British Nationality Bill that the existing rights of those already here would not be tampered with following the Bill's enactment. Is it being suggested that the Government should renege on that commitment? We would be following a sorry path if the Government 610 sought to breach a commitment which was made so solemnly in response to questions from both sides of the House of Commons.
§ Mr. Stanbrook
Does the hon. Gentleman know of any other country which grants the right to vote in its elections to foreigners resident within?
§ Mr. Dubs
There are many features of Britain which are unique and I am happy about many of them. If other countries do things differently, we should not decide to copy them automatically. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not subscribe to the argument that he has just advanced, because he takes pride in the fact that there are features of the United Kingdom which are unique. He is employing a bogus argument which is not worthy of him.
If the provision in question were to become law, those from Ireland and the Commonwealth would see it as an affront. The Irish Government are in the process of providing reciprocal arrangements so that British people living in the Republic will have the right to vote. The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) has questioned the loyalty of Commonwealth citizens to Britain. There is a problem for many of them because they want to become British citizens but find that wish difficult to realise because of Home Office difficulties that I do not wish to dwell upon now. For the hon. Gentleman to say that Commonwealth people have no loyalty to Britain —many of them are living and settled here—is casting an unpleasant aspersion on those who in many instances have thrown in their lot with this country. Some of them served in the British forces irrespective of whether they were of Irish or Commonwealth origin. The hon. Gentleman makes an unpleasant insinuation when he suggests that they are not behaving as loyal citizens.
We would be following a dangerous path if we followed the proposal that is urged upon us. It would be damaging to community relationships and I am confident that the Committee will say that it will have none of it.
§ Mr. Mellor
The voting rights of Irish and Commonwealth citizens were considered by the Select Committee; and the Committee recommended unanimously that civic rights arising out of the status established by the British Nationality Act 1948 and the Ireland Act 1949 should not be disturbed. The Government agree with the Select Committee on that point and nothing that has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) has caused me to reconsider the wisdom of the Government's position. I hope that my hon. Friend will not press the new clause to a Division. If he does, I shall advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against the motion.
§ Mr. Stanbrook
I intend to press the new clause to a Division.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—
§ The Committee divided: Ayes 18, Noes 100.611
|Division No. 107]||[12.53 am|
|Beggs, Roy||Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)|
|Bruinvels, Peter||Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)|
|Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)||Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine|
|du Cann, Rt Hon Sir Edward||Nicholson, J.|
|Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim)||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Gregory, Conal||Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S)|
|Ground, Patrick||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Taylor, R Hon John David|
|Walker, Cecil (Belfast N)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Winterton, Mrs Ann||William Ross and|
|Winterton, Nicholas||Mr. K. Harvey.|
|Ancram, Michael||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Barron, Kevin||Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)|
|Beith, A. J.||Lord, Michael|
|Bermingham, Gerald||McCurley, Mrs Anna|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Maclean, David John|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Major, John|
|Butcher, John||Malins, Humfrey|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Mather, Carol|
|Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y)||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin|
|Cash, William||Mayhew, Sir Patrick|
|Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)||Meadowcroft, Michael|
|Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.)||Mellor, David|
|Coombs, Simon||Merchant, Piers|
|Cope, John||Mills, Iain (Meriden)|
|Corbett, Robin||Moynihan, Hon C.|
|Couchman, James||Needham, Richard|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Nellist, David|
|Dewar, Donald||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Dubs, Alfred||Page, Richard (Herts SW)|
|Durant, Tony||Patten, Christopher (Bath)|
|Fallon, Michael||Penhaligon, David|
|Favell, Anthony||Powley, John|
|Fenner, Mrs Peggy||Raffan, Keith|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)|
|Freeman, Roger||Roe, Mrs Marion|
|Galley, Roy||Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)|
|Garel-Jones, Tristan||Soames, Hon Nicholas|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)||Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)|
|Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)||Stern, Michael|
|Hancock, Mr. Michael||Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)|
|Hanley, Jeremy||Stevens, Martin (Fulham)|
|Hargreaves, Kenneth||Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)|
|Harris, David||Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)|
|Harvey, Robert||Stradling Thomas, J.|
|Hawkins, C. (High Peak)||Sumberg, David|
|Hayes, J.||Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)|
|Hayward, Robert||Thurnham, Peter|
|Hind, Kenneth||Tracey, Richard|
|Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Holt, Richard||Walden, George|
|Home Robertson, John||Ward, John|
|Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)||Wardle, C. (Bexhill)|
|Hughes, Simon (Southward)||Watts, John|
|Hunt, David (Wirral)||Wheeler, John|
|Hunter, Andrew||Winnick, David|
|Jones, Robert (W Herts)||Wolfson, Mark|
|Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald||Wood, Timothy|
|Key, Robert||Yeo, Tim|
|King, Roger (B'ham N'field)|
|Knight, Gregory (Derby N)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Knowles, Michael||Mr. Michael Neubert and|
|Lang, Ian||Mr. Tim Sainsbury.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.