HC Deb 15 December 1999 vol 341 cc293-369 4.34 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I beg to move amendment No. 29, in page 1, line 17, leave out from beginning to "and" in line 18.

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 31, in page 2, line 6, leave out from beginning to "and" in line 7.

No. 34, in page 2, line 23, leave out from beginning to "and" in line 24.

No. 36, in page 2, line 38, leave out from beginning to "and" in line 39.

Mr. Barnes

The Bill extends the scope of the franchise to homeless persons through a declaration of local connection, to those remanded in custody and not yet convicted and to patients resident in mental hospitals who are not detained offenders. I support all those measures. However, if the franchise can be extended to those categories, are there not some other categories that we might consider for such an extension? My amendments would extend the franchise to overseas citizens resident in this country, in addition to the Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens who already qualify if they reside here. I understand that it would amount to about 850,000 people.

The franchise should not go to people of voting age unless they live in a society that is making legislation that affects them. There might be a limited number of exceptions to that, such as people in such a condition that they cannot exercise a vote. Later in the Bill, we will be discussing the opposition to registration of overseas electors, and the same principle will apply. I am talking about enfranchising people of qualifying age who are members of a society with a parliamentary governmental structure that makes decisions affecting their lives. That should include people from overseas who are resident in this country but are not citizens of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland, but exclude people from this country who go overseas and who should be subject to the same principle in the country in which they settle.

I seek to enfranchise people who are dependent on decisions made by elected representatives on laws, basic services, environmental protection, health and safety provision, taxation and economic prosperity. Those are all things dealt with by the House. They affect the lives of anyone who has settled in this country from overseas but not taken British citizenship.

Welcome though these measures are, I want the Minister to explain why the Bill goes only part of the way to overcoming the current disenfranchisement problems. Perhaps we should consider enfranchising other groups, such as prisoners. After all, the powers of the law affect them closely. Why are citizens of the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland enfranchised in this country when other overseas residents are not?

The Commonwealth has been expanding recently. In 1990, Namibia joined the Commonwealth; in 1994, South Africa re-entered; in 1995, Mozambique and the Cameroons joined; and Fiji rejoined in 1997. Therefore, people from those countries who have settled in the United Kingdom are now entitled to be enfranchised here.

If a country should leave the Commonwealth, people from that country who are settled in the United Kingdom will lose their entitlement to enfranchisement here. No great feat of logic is necessary to appreciate that consequence of a country leaving the Commonwealth.

As the Commonwealth expands, ever more people who settle in the United Kingdom will acquire the right to vote here. However, the Commonwealth will not expand indefinitely, until it comprises every country on earth. Furthermore, such a peculiar development should not be necessary to ensure that people living here receive what should be an entitlement.

I therefore ask the Committee to accept that everyone who is affected by the laws passed by this place should be able to have their say in elections, as those elections will affect their lives.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, but concede that there is some intellectual force in his argument. However, is he suggesting that the right to vote should be extended to overseas persons who have been here but for a very short time, or is he saying that there should be an extended requirement of residence in the United Kingdom as a precondition to enjoying the franchise?

Mr. Barnes

The arrangements for residents from places other than the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland should—as my amendments propose—be the same as those for Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman feels that the current arrangements for Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens are too easy, perhaps an appropriate amendment should be tabled.

My aim is a simple one: to clarify the principle by which the franchise is granted.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

One approaches any amendment moved by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) with respect, for he has a long history of being concerned with the franchise and has given considerable thought to these matters. However, I am not entirely persuaded that, on this occasion, he is on the right lines.

In supporting his suggestion that we should extend the franchise to all United Kingdom residents, the hon. Gentleman seemed to be citing anomalous arrangements—in some respects, they are anomalous—that allow the franchise to be exercised by citizens of the Republic of Ireland and of Commonwealth countries, and suggesting that we should extend the franchise to the point at which the link between the citizen and the state ceases in any real sense to be the reason for entitlement to exercise the franchise.

Although I do not think that, in the ambit of amendment No. 29, it is necessary to consider the appropriateness of permitting Commonwealth citizens to vote here, in his reply to the debate, the Minister may want to say at least something on the issue.

The link between the citizen and the state is a reciprocal one: the state has the duty to look after its citizens, and the citizen must exercise his or her duty to be interested in how that service is provided. The notion of citizenship would be under challenge, perhaps even under threat, if that very considerable right were partly diminished by being no longer a characteristic of citizenship, but simply the happenstance of residence.

4.45 pm

The basis of the hon. Gentleman's case is that those who are affected by government should have a right to choose the Government. That is not the basis of the duty and the right to vote as I see it. Many people affected by the Government may not be resident within the United Kingdom. Many people who are not resident but who are citizens may be affected in so far as, for example, tax and inheritance laws and the ownership of property here are concerned. Their entitlement to vote rests upon their link with this state as citizens. I wish that position to be preserved.

We shall return to the subject of foreign entitlement to vote. However, the hon. Gentleman has raised an important question about the somewhat anomalous situation of those who are entitled to vote but who are not citizens. We should consider whether we should tackle that matter. It is perhaps strange that, as he put it, citizens of Namibia should be entitled to vote but not citizens of France. After all, the latter belong to a polity, if not a state, with which we have close—almost constant—exchanges and it is conceivable that, if the offer that Mr. Winston Churchill made to the French Government in 1940 had been picked up by the then Prime Minister, we would have enjoyed common citizenship. I do not know what the Conservative party feels with the benefit of hindsight about relations with France—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is particularly important as we debate the Bill that no one either deliberately or inadvertently misrepresents the greatest Englishman of the 20th century? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the late Sir Winston Churchill said of Europe and Britain's relationship with it: We are with Europe but not of it. We are linked, but not comprised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed.

Mr. Maclennan

I merely repeat my reminder that Mr. Churchill, as he then was, made that bold, imaginative and historically percipient offer of common citizenship to the French, which they did not choose to accept. In his view of what it was to be British, he was not exclusive, as some members of the Conservative party are today.

The question of the entitlement of European Union citizens to participate in votes in each other's countries is growing in importance. That question has already been tackled for local government elections, where somewhat different conclusions have been arrived at, and it is time that we tackled it for national elections.

The amendment weakens the significance of citizenship and would, to some extent, sever an important link in the minds of British people to what it means to be British—the duty of voting for the Government or against is something that they should value and see as a duty that stems from the fact that they enjoy the privileges associated with British citizenship. Without more argument, I could not find it within myself to support the amendment.

Mr. Hogg

I support what the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) has said. I respect the view of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes)—there is an intellectual case to be made for it. However, his proposal is quite a serious mistake, and I have three points on which he might like to reflect.

First, if we were starting from scratch, we probably would not extend the franchise to citizens of the Commonwealth or Ireland. Their right to vote has happened for historical reasons, but it is quite difficult, if one sets about defining why people should have the vote, to say with any great confidence that citizens of Ireland or the Commonwealth should have it. Therefore, I do not start with that fact as the working assumption of what is right and proper.

That takes me to my second point, where I am, rather unusually, largely in agreement with the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. I think that the right of voting—the duty to vote—runs with citizenship. It is part of that relationship with society that involves affinity and allegiance; it is part of being a member of a society. I do not think that the right to vote should go beyond that. I certainly do not think that it should arise simply from the fact that a person is affected by the consequences of legislation.

One has only to reflect on this fact to see the force of what I have just said: anybody who passes through the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, for even the shortest time, is affected by our criminal law. It would be absurd to say that, because anybody who passes through the jurisdiction is touched by the criminal law, such a person should, if he or she happens to be here at an appointed time, have the right to vote.

That takes me to my third point—I am putting my argument very briefly. I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire when I say that his proposed qualification for the franchise is met by casual residents only. He would have a much stronger case if he argued that the overseas citizen who had been here for an extended qualifying period—we can discuss what that should be—should have a right to vote. That person then has some of the characteristics of being part of the society, although such status falls short of being a citizen.

For those three reasons, I cannot support the hon. Gentleman's amendment, although I do not say that his case is wholly without intellectual force.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I support the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), and I have a few questions for the Minister.

First, given the improving relationships between the people in Ireland, north and south of the border, do the Government have any plans, and is there any work in train, to give to United Kingdom citizens living in the Irish Republic the voting rights that Irish citizens have when they live in the United Kingdom?

When the Minister was on the working party, he must have received more papers on reciprocal voting rights than on anything else. How many other Commonwealth countries, if any, give resident United Kingdom citizens the right to vote? Do the Government have any plans for that to be rationalised? Has it been taken up in the Commonwealth conference or by the Commonwealth Secretariat?

The linked question touches on points raised by my right hon. Friend and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). Do the Government believe that, no matter which other new countries might join the Commonwealth—for example, two recent new members have not been part of the usual Commonwealth tradition—the right of those citizens to vote here will be retained?

Finally, I have many Irish citizens and Commonwealth non-UK citizens in my constituency. When they reside here and go on the electoral register for the first time or when, as Commonwealth citizens, they come into the country to settle, does anyone ever tell them that they have a right to vote? When they appear for the first time on the electoral register, is any effort made to tell them their right, what the process and the methodology is, and what the implications are? Some of the people on my electoral roll who vote least are those who are entitled to do so, but are not United Kingdom citizens. That includes Irish and Commonwealth citizens—especially Commonwealth citizens—who probably do not know that they are entitled to be on the register, but who would put themselves on if they were encouraged more clearly to do so.

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question can be seen from the surprised look on the faces of Australians and many others when one tells them that, if they were registered, they could vote in this country. No one ever tells them that, and it comes to all of them as a complete surprise.

Mr. Hughes

That is the impression that I get. I know that we all get the form through the letter box and that the small print says, "UK, Irish or Commonwealth citizen," but, as an honest seeker after truth, I suggest to the Minister that we ought to have a system that works and that the people who have entitlements under it understand.

Mr. Bercow

While I understand the force of what the hon. Gentleman says about informing people of their entitlement, I am less clear why he believes that that category of persons should be informed of, as he put it, the implications of their vote. Is it really necessary to create a different category of electors? That would be the result of the logic of what he is saying.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman misinterprets my logic. UK citizens who are born and grow up here, if our system works, should have been taught, by the time that they leave school and are entitled to vote, about voting and citizenship, and the implications of them. If people are brought up in another country and come later in life to this country, they may not have been taught about the implications of citizenship in the UK. My suggestion is not meant to be heavier than that. It seems that, when people of certain nationalities cross the border, nothing automatically tells them what coming to settle here entitles them to.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I intend to keep my comments brief, but I am bound to say that I share the view of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) that the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) is one with which I cannot agree. However, the hon. Gentleman is certainly right to point out the anomaly in relation to the existing law on Commonwealth citizens and citizens of the Irish Republic.

Before I looked at the totality of the hon. Gentleman's amendments on the amendment paper, I wondered whether he was proposing to delete the right of Commonwealth and Irish citizens to the franchise. That is a view with which I would have been unable to agree. It is perhaps worth bearing it in mind that, certainly in my constituency, the issue tends to be raised frequently. People ask why Commonwealth and Irish citizens should have the vote.

What appears to have happened—I shall be interested if the Minister will confirm this—is that, at one time, Commonwealth or Irish citizenship virtually entitled a person as of right to a British passport once he or she was resident here. It is certainly not the case for Commonwealth citizens today although, curiously, it still applies to citizens of the Irish Republic. To all intents and purposes, Irish citizens are treated, if they so elect, as if they were British citizens. They can apply for a passport and obtain one without any difficulty. For Commonwealth citizens, the anomaly remains solely in terms of electoral law.

Mr. Linton

If the hon. Gentleman describes the right as an anomaly, is he suggesting that it should be withdrawn?

Mr. Grieve

It is one with which I am perfectly happy to live, especially in relation to citizens of the Irish Republic, curiously enough, because close links exist between our two countries. They are links of both proximity and interchangeability in terms of travelling back and forth across the Irish sea. In relation to Commonwealth citizens, justification of the anomaly is much more tenuous. Nevertheless, the anomaly has been around for a long time. I am always open to persuasion on the issue from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and from my constituents, but I am happy to live with the anomaly.

5 pm

The amendment proposed by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire would widen the issue much further. I share all the reservations that have been expressed by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan). The amendment would take matters too far; it would allow casual residents to have the vote. We are happy to welcome all sorts of people to our shores, to live in this country for greater or lesser periods. However, that does not make them citizens of the United Kingdom, any more than we would be citizens of a foreign country if we chose to reside there without obtaining citizenship. Those rights should not be extended. Although, with a caveat to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, I am prepared to live with the existing anomaly, I am certainly not prepared to have it extended further.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Amendments Nos. 29, 31, 34 and 36 affect the rights of people to vote and to register to vote at parliamentary and local elections. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) seems to be alone in proposing the amendments and may be alone in supporting them.

The issue was discussed by the Select Committee on Home Affairs during 1997 and 1998; the Government responded to the Committee on 26 October 1999. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) put the matter into its historical and intellectual context. Paragraph 118 of the Select Committee's report noted that the Committee did not believe that there was a compelling argument for extending the right to vote. The Government agreed.

The matter was considered by the Home Affairs Committee in the 1982–83 Session, and the then Government accepted the Committee's recommendation that there should be no change. Indeed the then Opposition spokesman on Home Affairs, a Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk—where is he now?—said: We agree with both the recommendation of the Select Committee and the proposal in the White Paper that there shall be no disturbing of the right held by Irish and Commonwealth citizens."—[Official Report, 27 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 1075.] That statement holds good today.

The amendments are an attempt to widen by about 850,000 the number of people eligible to register to vote, although the working group did not consider that matter. Anyone with a main, or sole, residence in the UK would be eligible to register to vote. The legislation allows for Commonwealth and Irish citizens living here to vote; the amendment would mean that anyone from any part of the world who was living here would get a vote.

I realise that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire has given the matter considerable attention, but he has not fully thought it through. The amendment would mean that the citizenship test would be replaced by a residency test. That could be jeopardised, or further widened, by other measures in the Bill, such as the declaration of local interest. Taken with some of the hon. Gentleman's other amendments, the measure would disenfranchise British citizens who had moved abroad for a period, while enfranchising any Tom, Dick or Harry—I intend no offence to the hon. Gentleman—who had just entered the country.

The hon. Gentleman is not interested in how long such people might have been in the country. Indeed, he even offered amendments to his amendments to try to deal with the problem. At least he realises that there is a problem. However, he is not interested in the length of time that people have lived in the UK. He pays scant regard to the rights of those who were born in this country, lived most of their lives here and paid their taxes here. His later amendments would deny the vote to Mr. Ashcroft, for example, but the first amendment would give the vote to Mr. Fayed, who is not a British citizen.

What about asylum seekers—60,000 of them it is estimated this year? Under the hon. Gentleman's amendment, they would be able to vote. As we know, they tend to congregate in certain parts of the country, so they could determine the results in some key seats. They would also have power disproportionate to the time that they have been in this country. They might be bogus asylum seekers, but they could argue that they are fleeing their homes and that their main residence is in the United Kingdom. To all intents and purposes, they would be correct and they would be given the right to vote as well.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect further on his amendment. If he does not withdraw it and it goes to a vote, I hope that the Government will be consistent and stick to their original intentions.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth)

I should explain my presence at the Dispatch Box. I am on a no-fee, one-day transfer from the Northern Ireland Office to the Home Office. Whether that transfer is extended may well depend on my performance today.

I am well aware, as is the whole House, of the interest that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) takes in electoral matters. Members have listened—some slightly more critically than others—to his arguments for his amendment, but when he speaks on electoral matters he does so with sincerity and from a background of considerable knowledge.

I wish to deal with some of the issues raised in the debate before I deal with the substance of my hon. Friend's argument. When he moved the amendment, he implied that, if a country leaves the Commonwealth, its citizens automatically lose the right to vote. Strictly speaking, that is not so. When South Africa, Fiji and Nigeria were suspended from the Commonwealth, their citizens still enjoyed that right. My hon. Friend's assertion does not stand up in those limited circumstances.

My hon. Friend will understand that I am correcting him for the sake of accuracy and not to make clever debating points. However, he suggested that the Bill will extend the franchise to remand prisoners and to mental patients. Again, that is not, strictly speaking, correct. Homeless people, remand prisoners and, for that matter, mental patients already have the right to vote. The Bill's provisions will simply make it easier for them to register and thereby gain access to the vote. I am not making a pedantic point, but it is necessary to make that distinction.

My hon. Friend may not so much have been making an argument as flying a kite when he suggested that it might be possible, or perhaps even right, to consider extending the franchise to convicted prisoners. He may not have meant that as a firm proposal, but as a suggestion it should be considered. However, there is a distinct difference between a remand prisoner and a convicted prisoner. The absence of rights, including the right to vote, is part of the punishment of a convicted prisoner. I can confirm, if any confirmation is necessary, that the Government have no intention of taking up my hon. Friend's proposal. We still believe—and I would be happy to justify this—that it should be part of a convicted prisoner's punishment that he loses rights, and one of them is the right to vote.

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) made a characteristically interesting speech about the link between duties and rights and between citizenship and the vote. That was a useful point to make. Alongside rights—including the right to vote—always go obligations, duties and responsibilities and it is right to consider them.

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) made an important point: whatever the historical reasons for their existence, the arrangements with the Commonwealth should not necessarily be taken as a precedent for arrangements with other countries that currently do not apply. That was a good point and we should bear it in mind.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) asked several specific questions. I should like to take a little time responding to them. United Kingdom citizens already enjoy full voting rights in the Republic of Ireland, so the reciprocal arrangement to which he referred already exists.

I am not aware of any Commonwealth country that gives UK citizens voting rights in its national elections. Equally, I am not aware that we have ever pushed for any such arrangement. For reasons of history, the position in this country is different from that in former Commonwealth countries; the reverse situation does not apply. Any country that joins the Commonwealth will enjoy all the benefits of membership, including the right to vote in elections.

The hon. Gentleman asked about providing information to people to enable them to understand their specific rights. He will be familiar with the electoral registration form—it goes to every household and makes it clear who is entitled to be registered to vote. In addition, the Home Office conducts general election campaigns, on a non-party political basis, to raise people's awareness of their rights in respect of elections.

I recognise, however, that often not only citizens from the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland, but people who have an automatic and clear right to vote by virtue of being born and resident here, do not understand what their rights are in relation to voting. That is part of the reason why the Bill exists and was felt to be necessary. I hope that much more information will be available on who is eligible to vote and, where appropriate, information for those who have difficulty reading English to help them to understand their rights.

As regards the substance of the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for North—East Derbyshire, I want to deal with some of the important points that apply. Under the Representation of the People Act 1983, those entitled to vote in parliamentary and local government elections are British citizens, other Commonwealth citizens and those from the Republic of Ireland, as we have discussed. In addition, European Union citizens are allowed to vote in local elections.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, the amendment would remove all such nationality requirements. Anyone of any nationality would be able to register and to vote in both parliamentary and local elections, provided that they were resident, over 18 and not otherwise disqualified. It would not matter how remote their ties with this country were, or for how long or short a time they intended to stay here. That is neither a sensible nor satisfactory position. I do not think that anyone who has spoken in the debate has put forward the proposition that that is a sensible arrangement for us to consider.

I am bound to point out, as others have, that we are not alone in that view. The Select Committee on Home Affairs considered the issue in its report on electoral law and administration, which was published last year. Its conclusion was both wise and unambiguous: We do not think the present voting entitlements for non-UK citizens need extension". It could not have been clearer. That report was the product of an all-party consensus and it would be folly if the House were to depart from that consensus tonight.

5.15 pm
Mr. Bercow

Unless I have misinterpreted his remarks, the Minister appears to be relatively sympathetic to the view expressed by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) that more information should be provided to electors—especially those who are exercising their right to vote for the first time—about the elections in which they are thinking of voting. Does the Minister believe that, in due course, for the benefit of electors, detailed information should be provided explaining exactly the powers available to the respective bodies to which elections are to be held, so that voters know what are the powers of the European Parliament, the House of Commons, district councils, borough councils, county councils and so on?

Mr. Howarth

The general principle is reasonable. The hon. Gentleman might recall that, immediately prior to the most recent elections to the European Parliament, the Home Office published a leaflet, available in several languages, giving those sorts of facts about the European Parliament. It is important that people have access to such information. As one who stands at the Dispatch Box on a temporary, no-fee transfer, I do not want to commit the Home Office to taking specific action in future—and even though the prospect is tempting, I shall resist doing so. However, the hon. Gentleman's general proposition should always be part of our considerations.

The working party that I chaired, which enjoyed a cross-party consensus and on whose work the Bill is based, bore in mind our responsibility, through legislation and other means, to make it as easy as possible, without compromising the integrity of the ballot, for as many people as possible to vote. Part of that requires people to understand why and for what they are being asked to vote, and the powers of the body involved. Therefore, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's plea to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will not fall on deaf ears.

There are good and historic reasons why Commonwealth and Irish citizens may vote in our elections. The Maastricht treaty, which the House endorsed, gave all European Union citizens reciprocal voting rights in local elections in EU member states. I inadvertently omitted to mention the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who referred to the voting rights of citizens of the Commonwealth and of the Republic of Ireland. During his speech, it struck me that his most illustrious predecessor is Disraeli, who incorporated in the 1867 Reform Bill the so-called fancy franchises. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was not suggesting that we are creating the modern equivalent of the fancy franchises, but it is appropriate that a Member representing Beaconsfield should participate in this debate.

There is no reason—good, compelling or otherwise—to extend voting facilities to those who come from countries with which we have no historical ties and who might have no affinity with Britain. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire for giving us the opportunity to debate the subject. However, I hope that, having had our debate, he will feel able to withdraw his amendment, because we do not believe that it would be appropriate to incorporate in the Bill the principle expressed therein.

Mr. Barnes

It is a privilege to have the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), on the Treasury Bench today. When he was at the Home Office, he carried out a great deal of work chairing the working party that helped to develop the Bill and the valuable measures it contains. My hon. Friend has always responded to me courteously and taken on board the various arguments and points that I have advanced.

A valuable feature of my hon. Friend's contribution was that I learned that at least the amendment was technically correct. Someone mentioned that when he saw it initially he thought that I was trying to get rid of enfranchisement for Commonwealth and Irish citizens resident in this country. When it was put to me that the amendment was the means by which I could achieve that objective, I was rather worried that that was the case.

My hon. Friend said that I was not quite correct in some instances about measures to extend the franchise to homeless people and people on remand. However, for homeless people it is just about impossible to become registered, although there are some who have been able to do so. Until the Bill was put before us, it was necessary to have a residence to get on to the electoral register. By definition, that virtually ruled out a homeless person, although there were often ways and means that enabled such people to find their way around the requirement. There was often a difficult set of circumstances and some registration decisions were made by magistrates courts, for example. Those decisions did not have any wider knock-on effect. That being so, the clarity of the Bill is welcome. I used some shorthand when I mentioned these points earlier. As I have introduced Bills on these matters in the past, my hon. Friend will realise that I am involved, to some extent, in these considerations.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench, pointed out that I was alone in presenting the amendments. I was alone in 1988, and for a considerable period thereafter, in propounding the notion of a rolling register. We are now dealing with a Bill that contains proposals for such a register. I might be alone in presenting the idea that lies behind the amendments, but in 10 or 11 years' time others might recognise the wisdom of my arguments.

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) stressed points about citizenship. Citizenship is relevant to our citizens who are overseas, and the rights that they are given by the British Government that are designed to protect them in the nations in which they find themselves. Whether those rights should be extended to the franchise is another matter.

The world has changed considerably since some notions were fashioned. We now have a cosmopolitan world in which people move in and out of different areas. It is not always clear to people what their nation is. However, it is clear where they are, and the Government and administration responsible for making decisions that immediately affect their lives at that time can be clearly identified. We should develop electoral registration that is based on those circumstances, while recognising that there is sense in terms of citizenship.

As we are moving towards a rolling register, it would be possible for people to spend a period overseas and, if the Government adopted the principles that I am suggesting, be registered in the other country. As soon as they returned home to the United Kingdom, they would be placed on electoral registers under the procedures that are contained within the Bill. There are alternative principles to that of citizenship, although I accept that there is significance and importance to be attached to it. Much depends on the weight that is put upon these arguments.

Mr. Hogg

Will the hon. Gentleman deal with the following bizarre situation? The citizens of some countries, such as the United States, Australia and, indeed, the UK, can vote for their domestic Parliaments even when they are overseas. If the hon. Gentleman's proposal were accepted, an American citizen would be entitled to vote both in American elections and in elections for the Westminster Parliament. That is not self-evidently sensible.

Mr. Barnes

It is not self-evidently sensible, but if the House adopted the principles with respect to the United Kingdom, we would have good grounds for arguing that America and other nations should operate according to the same principles. Then we would have an arrangement that allowed people to vote where they were at different times of their lives.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman was using the same technique with regard to my contribution as he used in his speech. He posed the problem of people who were just passing through. He was pushing my principle to the nth degree, in order to test it. I grant that any principle pushed to the limit will seem to create peculiar and problematic situations. It is highly unlikely that anyone would pass through just to be registered on an electoral register in order to vote in an election.

The notion that registration could be so temporary as not to matter may be correct, but it should not be allowed to destroy my general argument. There are always exceptions to principles. In general, people who are resident or who can obtain a declaration of local connection should be on registers, but I recognise that there may be some who do not qualify. The case of prisoners, which I raised, may be one of the exceptions. There are qualifications to the general principle, and awkward cases can be discovered, but that should not lead to its destruction.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) pointed out that many citizens of the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland who are resident in this country have no idea that they are entitled to vote. I have been in touch with constituents from the Commonwealth who have been in the country for 20 years and are not on the electoral register. If my proposal were adopted, it would make it more easily understood that people could register once they were UK residents. That would apply to Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens, as well as to others.

It is obvious that I am a lone voice pursuing the argument. I believe that everything that I have said is correct and needs to be pushed, even I failed to put evidence about it to the Home Affairs Committee during its investigations, although I put many other points, which will be covered later.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.30 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes

I beg to move amendment No. 69, in page 1, line 19, leave out "18" and insert "16".

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 70, in page 2, line 8, leave out "18" and insert "16".

No. 71, in clause 6, page 8, line 22, leave out "18" and insert "16".

No. 83, in schedule 2, page 28, line 5, leave out "18" and insert "16".

Mr. Hughes

The amendment is important and would change the voting age from 18 to 16, and alter the substantive Act—currently the Representation of the People Act 1983—to effect that.

I was between 18 and 21 when the law that reduced the voting age from 21 to 18 was passed in 1969. I became entitled to vote on 1 January 1970, and it was lucky that a general election took place in that year, when I could exercise my right to vote.

Mr. Bercow


Mr. Hughes

In Tanygrisiau in Meirionnydd. However, that is not terribly relevant to the debate. I remember the occasion well. We had moved away by then, but my dad and I made the long journey back and ensured that we voted.

Having the right to vote was important to me. [Interruption.] How did I vote? I voted Liberal. I do not believe that more of my biography is required for the purpose of the argument. However, it shows a consistency that is greater than that displayed by some other hon. Members in Committee. One last bit of biography: in those days, we did not win the seats in which I voted, but now we often do. That is progress.

Reconsideration of whether 18 is the right age for people to be entitled to vote has been undertaken on several occasions. In January 1985—International Youth Year—my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) introduced the Youth Charter Bill under the ten-minute rule. One of its provisions was the reduction of the voting age to 16 and a reduction of the age for eligibility to stand for election to 18. Although the Bill did not make progress because it fell under the usual ten-minute rule procedure, it was quite widely supported.

Since then, the proposal to reduce the voting age to 16 has appeared on the Order Paper several times. It was tabled as an amendment to the Representation of the People Bill in 1985; it was a provision in private Members' Bills in 1991, 1992 and earlier this year. It has also appeared in several general election manifestos. The policy was included in our 1992 general election manifesto and the Scottish National party included it in its 1997 manifesto. When the Liberal Democrats were created, we adopted that policy. It has remained our policy ever since.

I was a relatively belated convert to reducing the voting age to 16. I got into trouble with some of my colleagues and some people outside the House when, a few years ago, I argued for the lowering not only of the age of consent but the age of majority to 17. There is a need to simplify the law on when people become entitled to specific rights. However, for several reasons, I have been persuaded that, just as a majority believes that the right age of homosexual consent should be 16 to bring it into line with the age of heterosexual consent, there is a growing body of opinion in favour of reducing the voting age to 16.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes

Of course I will give way to my erstwhile opponent.

Mr. Heald

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the considerations that apply to the age at which people have sexual relations are similar to those that apply to the age at which people can vote? They are rather different activities.

Mr. Hughes

We could discuss for how long people think before doing each and the pre-planning involved; I shall have to be careful not to get into linguistic difficulties as I nearly said "foreplanning". Of course those activities are different, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will travel this road with me. In this country an enormous number of entitlements are given at 16 and some, although not many, are given at 17. Another batch is given at 18 and some are given at 21. I say to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who has almost silently substituted for the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), that I hope that the Home Office will consider the legislation as a whole and review the age of majority—or the age at which people gain rights—because it is muddled.

That brings us back to the point that I made in response to the intervention from the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow): if the people of this country are to learn about their rights, it is better for the legislation to be simple and for there to be as few ages of entitlement as possible, not as many as there are at present. The law changes every year in this respect, but the most recent briefing I have is last year's from the Children's Legal Centre, based at Essex university.

Mr. Bercow

It is a great university.

Mr. Hughes

Indeed it is. The briefing sets out 33 different entitlements or types of entitlement given at 16, eight entitlements or types of entitlement given at 17, and 34 entitlements or types of entitlement given at 18. To deal with the intervention of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), I shall say in a moment why my colleagues and I believe that, on balance, it is right to consider changing the voting age to 16, although I should like that to happen as part of a wider consideration of the age of entitlement for young people. I hope that the Government have that on their agenda, too.

Mr. Heald

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Is he saying that the age of majority should be 16 for most purposes? Some of us might feel that, because of certain aspects of legal responsibility concerning majority, 18 may be a better age. I should be grateful for his thoughts on that.

Mr. Hughes

It is proper for the Committee to consider exactly such issues and there is no theology or absolutism involved here. Other countries have different views: some use a voting age that is under 18, although the majority use 18, and I understand that it is above 18 in some countries. We should have this debate periodically.

Mr. Hogg


Mr. Hughes

I shall give way in a moment, but before I do so I shall list the entitlements currently given at 16 to provide the backdrop for my comments. People can leave school or stay in full-time education, which is free; they can work full-time, but not in betting shops or bars, which are exceptions; they can receive a national insurance number; they can receive income support; and they must pay prescription charges unless they are in an exempt category.

The list provided by the Children's Legal Centre carries a slightly odd description, saying: You can probably leave home without the consent of your parents or anyone else with parental responsibility. I think that 16-year-olds "probably" can leave home and that word is probably otiose. They can also enter into a contract for housing—we all have constituents who are tenants from the age of 16 onwards—and are entitled to be housed on their own if they come within one of the priority categories outlined in the Housing Act 1985. Girls aged 16 can consent to heterosexual intercourse and 16-year-olds can marry, although that requires parental consent.

Furthermore, 16-year-olds can join trade unions; consent to surgical, medical or dental treatment; agree to donate organs, which was discussed yesterday in Westminster Hall; and agree to give blood. They can make the most far-reaching decisions about their medical treatment, and they are entitled to have access to their records. They can apply for a passport and get legal aid and assistance, and they have a right to an offer of training under the Government's training schemes.

Under criminal law, 16-year-olds move into a new category in respect of what they can be convicted of and the sentences that they can receive. Importantly, they can sign up for the armed services and serve our country—there is a debate about the international conventions and where they can serve. They can hold a driving licence for certain purposes, although not yet to drive a motor car on the roads. They can buy cigarettes and tobacco, and have beer, cider or perry with a meal in a restaurant. They can buy liqueur chocolates— not a law I knew about.

Mr. Bercow

That is useful at Christmas.

Mr. Hughes

That is true—and a reminder to 16-year-olds to do their Christmas shopping. They can buy fireworks, they have to pay full fare on trains, and they can buy premium bonds; they may take part in public performances without a local authority licence, become a street trader, sell scrap metal, be used by another person in order to beg in the street, act as a pilot in command of a glider, purchase a knife, blade, razor or axe, and, lastly and somewhat bizarrely, they are allowed to enter or live in a brothel.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

That is a relief.

Mr. Hughes

You may look perturbed, Mr. Winterton, but the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) said that that is a relief. The opportunity for biographical descriptions may come to him at any moment in a Committee, and we look forward to what may be sufficiently later in his life for it not to cause him any trouble now.

It seems to me that the law would benefit from a bit of revision in this area. On occasions we may not have realised the consequences of the legislation that we have introduced. Whether we like it or not, many rights come at 16, and I shall explain why I think that 16-year-olds should be given one of the most important rights.

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Gentleman is making a scintillating speech. Knowing him, I feel sure that the amendment is motivated by high principle and not by any grubby popularism. Given that he is a fervent admirer of the European Union, can he tell the Committee in which member state, if any, people are entitled to vote at the age of 16?

Hon. Members


Mr. Hughes

As far as I know, the answer is none—not even in Norway, unless Norway legislated yesterday. My speech has not been heard there—I shall remember to take it to the folketing when I next visit.

This country was one of the first to allow people to vote at 18. We do not necessarily have to wait for others to do something, or to be the last to do it. An increasing number of other countries allow voting at 16, although they are not European Union countries.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

This is not intended as a light-hearted point, but the hon. Gentleman is making an interesting argument for the right to vote at 16 and I wondered whether he recalls the 1960s song "Eve of Destruction" by Barry Maguire, which came out during the Vietnam war and contained the line: Young enough to fight, but not for voting".

Mr. Hughes

There is the rub. Some very important rights come at the age of 16: 16-year-olds can marry, have children, fight, work and pay taxes. They are old enough to kill and to pay tax. Colleagues may anticipate my next point, because the argument about no taxation without representation is the obvious consequence of that.

5.45 pm

Despite the Government's intention to retain them in education or training, many young people want to go out and work. I think that when young people are faced with choices between education and work, and between work and joining the armed services, they should be allowed to influence the policies that determine those choices and affect their citizenship.

There is another supremely important point, as well as the taxation and representation point. If we as a Parliament are involved in decisions to commit our armed services to going to war—although that may not require parliamentary approval—there is a strong case for allowing those whom we are committing a say in those decisions.

Mr. Evans

The hon. Gentleman says that he wants to "clean up" the legislation. People are allowed to view R-rated films at the age of 18; does the hon. Gentleman wish to lower that to 16? As for no taxation without representation—or no taxation without the ability to vote—a seven-year-old buying sweets will pay value added tax. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the payment of tax by seven-year-olds should therefore be the rule?

Mr. Hughes

Everything that is sold is subject to indirect tax.

Mr. Evans

It is still tax.

Mr. Hughes

It is, but it is not a personal tax in the sense in which income tax is a personal tax.

I have not given much thought to the question of films, but in a way the hon. Gentleman has made my point for me. There is a range of legislation relating to the age of consent which the Home Office should consider.

Attitudes change; society changes. In earlier centuries, people—monarchs as well as subjects—married at 11, 12 or 13 and had children. That was considered entirely legitimate and normal. Things have moved on, however: subjects have become citizens, and we have more democracy. We should continually re-examine issues such as this. Liberal Democrats, with the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House, have concluded that it is time for us to think of making progress.

Mr. Grieve

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes

I will give way once more; then I want to make some final substantive points.

Mr. Grieve

The hon. Gentleman said that he did not think taxation on expenditure was in the same category as personal taxation. If someone is fortunate enough to be left money by a grandfather at the age of seven and it is put in trust, it will be liable to tax. The person concerned will be directly affected by that tax in exactly the same way as someone over the age of 18 but will have no voting rights. I do not think the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that voting rights should be extended to people of that age.

Mr. Hughes

No, I am not, but a number of serious issues are involved. Matters that the House has considered before should be put on the agenda again. The Government are taking a sensible and positive attitude; I compliment them on that, and hope that the Committee will join me, but there are wider issues to be considered.

In my constituency, we are currently trying to involve the community in part of Rotherhithe in deciding the location of new play and sports facilities for young people. There is considerable local debate about whether voting rights should be given to those over 18, those who are householders or those who are over 11—who will be using the football pitch and the play areas. There are similar issues involving communities elsewhere in the country.

Here, we are discussing the national Parliament, local government, Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the European Parliament. I believe that we should lower the voting age from 18 to 16, not lightly, ill advisedly or wantonly—to use a phrase from elsewhere—but because we feel that the time has come to do so. If the Minister says that the Government are willing to put the issue on the agenda even more formally, that will be a step forward.

Mr. Bercow

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes

I will give way one more time; then I really must finished my speech.

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Gentleman seems to consider the fact that many 16-year-olds work and pay taxes to be a good reason for giving them the vote. Does he accept the logical corollary, which is that as an increasing proportion of 16-year-olds are not in work but are in full-time education or training, the strength of his argument correspondingly decreases?

Mr. Hughes

No, I do not accept that. This is a topical time to raise that point. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that one of the issues that was important for us at the election was a commitment against tuition fees. That is a huge issue among the student community. It is controversial in Scotland, where it is being debated at the moment. Young people, whether in work or education, are directly affected by our decisions. For those in education, policies on who should pay for education, whether they have grants or loans, whether the money is repayable, whether there is a graduate tax and whether there are tuition fees are all important matters. Those young people do not pay tax in the same way as those who are in work, although they are liable—increasing numbers of students do weekend or holiday jobs to pull in the money to keep them through their time as students—but that does not mean that they are less likely to be interested in and affected by decisions of Parliament.

I have given some important reasons, but the key reason why the Government should consider my proposition is that we are trying to engage young people in the political process. The Government have said that they want to do that. The people of this country are apathetic when it comes to voting. Young people vote less than any other category; older people vote more. Many young people say that they do not think that we represent them. The hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward) is currently the youngest Member of Parliament.

Ms Claire Ward (Watford)

No; it is my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie).

Mr. Hughes

I beg the hon. Lady's pardon and that of the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), who is the youngest Member of Parliament. The hon. Lady is the youngest woman. They have on their shoulders the responsibility of trying to represent all those younger than themselves—a responsibility that various Liberal Democrats have had before, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) and David Steel. Young people ask them to put their views because they are the youngest people in Parliament. The youngest ever Member of Parliament was 21. I know from my constituency experience that lots of young people feel that we do not represent them. We do not sound like them or look like them. When they start being interested when they do civics, politics, social studies or citizenship at school, they cannot engage.

On new year's eve last year, Paul Waugh wrote an interesting and informed piece in The Independent entitled "Vote at 16 to be considered by ministers". He started: Radical proposals to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 are to be considered by the Government in a fresh attempt to keep politicians in touch with the youth of the day. Under plans to be put before ministers next year"— which, for another two weeks, is this year— a Representation of Young People Bill would allow the UK's 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in general and local elections. He went on to say: The cross-party move follows a new study that shows teenagers are much more interested in politics than commonly assumed, even though many are disillusioned with the main parties. On an important party political issue, the article carries on: Labour backers of the idea believe it could restore much-needed idealism to the Government's battered image and confirm Tony Blair's reputation as a ground-breaking premier. Further on, the article says: A Home Office working party on electoral law will be presented with the proposals next summer"— that is this summer— once it has concluded its current consultation on electronic voting and polling stations in supermarkets. It continues: Although Labour stands most to gain from an expanded youth vote"— my colleagues and I disagree with that, but it is what the article says— the Tories and Liberal Democrats believe under-18s could reap them electoral dividends. Policies such as the lower minimum wage rate and benefit restrictions for the under-1 8s…could lead to a backlash against Labour, they say. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) is quoted as saying: The simple fact is that people under 18 feel that they are prejudiced against in grounds of age. They pay tax, can have sex and die for their country, but they can't vote. I should be interested to hear from the Minister whether the issue is still on the Government's agenda, whether a Home Office working party will be presented with a proposal, as the article said, and whether, even if the Government cannot agree to it today, they are willing to put it on the agenda for early all-party consideration with the support of Ministers and civil servants.

We strongly support the proposal. Young people would respond positively. It would deal with apathy in this country and would engage many people who feel alienated. We hope that the Committee thinks that it is a good idea, that the Government will give a warm response and that it will be supported by all parties.

Ms Ward

I agree with a lot of what the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has said. He was right to refer to the anomalies of young people gaining different rights at different ages. I have always thought that it was a strange way to bring children and young people into the world of adulthood. There should be one point at which we tell a young person, "You are now an adult. You take hold of your responsibility." Young people are expected to take responsibility at 16, then again at 18, then again at 21, rather than at one common age. I have always believed that the common age should be 16. That view is supported by the British Youth Council and, as the hon. Gentleman said, by many others, including Members of Parliament and other youth organisations. The issue has been raised in the House before and I have great sympathy with the arguments.

I have always found it strange that people are old enough at 16 to get married with their parents' consent, but not to vote. They are old enough to pay their taxes if they work and to contribute to society in a significant and adult way, but they are not old enough to vote for the politicians who determine what happens to those taxes and what they pay for.

Perhaps one of the most significant issues is the right to join the armed forces and fight for the country. A couple of months ago, I visited the Royal Marines training centre at Lymston and talked to 17-year-old men who will represent this country admirably. We will put our faith in those young men and they will go abroad to represent us and serve the country, but they cannot vote for the politicians who can put them in the firing line. It is a great sorrow for this country that we have been unable to make progress on that issue.

Young people of 16 can buy cigarettes and lottery tickets, but have to wait until they are 18 to buy alcohol. I am sure that many hon. Members would be concerned about the prospect of 16 or 17-year-olds buying alcohol, but we have to set that against the current legislation, which enables them to buy cigarettes and lottery tickets. Those of us who occasionally like a drop of alcohol but do not particularly like cigarettes might say that cigarettes are far more harmful to health than alcohol. The House should address that important issue. Young people of 16 who leave school are expected to pay full prescription charges. They are expected to pay the full price for entry to public services and must pay full fare on public transport. It is a strange way to run our country and engage young people.

6 pm

Mr. Heald

I do not know what it is like in the hon. Lady's part of Hertfordshire because the roads are so bad that it is difficult to get there. However, in the schools that she visits, does she find that there is any real demand for voting at 16? In the schools that I have visited—I recently held a youth surgery in Royston as part of the celebration of the convention on the rights of the child— there was no great demand for votes at 16. The young people were looking forward to voting at 18, but nobody said that that was too old.

Ms Ward

Like the hon. Gentleman, I held a young persons' surgery in a local school and we discussed this issue. There was a mix of views. I have spoken to many young people in schools and youth organisations, and there has been a mix of views. I believe that more young people would like the right to vote at 16 mainly because they do not understand why they attain rights at different ages. They would like a simpler system so that they can vote, pay taxes and have all the other rights that have been mentioned at one particular age.

There is more to the issue, and it involves engaging young people in politics. I am sure that many hon. Members have had discussions with sixth formers in schools in their constituencies, and have brought young people to the House of Commons. They know that, among those who study citizenship issues or politics, there is a desire to learn more. Once young people are excited about an issue, there should be an opportunity for them to engage in it in more depth.

Mr. Evans

The hon. Lady has been a happy Member of this House for two and a half years, in which time she will have received many letters. How many has she received on this subject?

Ms Ward

I should be most surprised if that were thought to be the only yardstick. I have discussed this issue with a number of other people and with youth organisations. We must remember that it is not just about the number of letters that we receive. Letters often come as a result of a debate or an issue being raised. The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will doubtless hear more about the matter as a result of this debate.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I am grateful to my young colleague—[Interruption.] I have to concede the point.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) talked about the number of letters being a yardstick. I was a Member of the House when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1969, and I did not receive a single letter on the subject. I doubt whether any hon. Member received many, if any, letters on the subject. Despite that, even Conservative Members would not argue that the voting age should be 21.

Ms Ward

I thank my older colleague and friend. I agree that, sometimes, issues are discussed and agreed in the House and that, as time moves on, there is no great desire for change. That is part of the issue. Time moves on and it is important that we look to change the current system.

Mr. Bercow

The fact that the hon. Lady has discussed this issue with youth organisations is a necessary but not sufficient condition for her to make her case. Can she tell the Committee what study she has made of the continental experience? Also, in view of her preference for one age of majority, has she discussed with road safety organisations the implications of issuing a full driving licence at 16?

Ms Ward

I shall come to driving a little later. The hon. Gentleman talks about youth organisations and youth rights on the continent. I know that he shows a keen interest in Europe and matters European, although perhaps from an angle different from mine. I am aware of no country with a voting age of 16, but in many European countries there is, at the very least, a common age at which most rights are attained. I believe that most rights should be attained at one age and my preference is for that to be 16.

In addition to the rights attained at 16 and 18, we also attain rights at other ages. At 21, one can stand for Parliament or for a council and at 25, one is entitled to additional income through the social security benefit system. It is wrong to have different ages for different rights. Surely if one is entitled to vote for a Member of Parliament or a member of a local authority, one should also be entitled to stand as a representative. At an appropriate time, I shall want to see a change in the legislation on that.

We must look carefully at the amendment. I hope that I have made it clear that I am a keen supporter of the issue, but, with due respect to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, this is not really the way to seek change. There must be a broader debate on the issue of rights for young people and the age at which they are attained. I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman and he seemed to agree with that point.

Mr. Heald

Are not the considerations different for different things? The age at which somebody might drive safely on the roads might well be different from the age at which he or she holds a sensible view on issues to do with society. There may be different ages for different things. Does the hon. Lady not think that to have one age for sexual relations, voting and so on is rather foolish and that each of those issues should be considered on their merits, as they are now?

Ms Ward

I believe that there are genuine reasons for having different ages for some aspects of legal rights. For example, 10 is an important age in criminal law and children are considered differently at various ages before the courts. That is right for the criminal law. However, I do not believe that it is right to have different ages for voting, standing as a Member of Parliament, serving in the armed forces, buying lottery tickets, smoking or having sexual relations, whether those be heterosexual or homosexual.

Mr. Heald

Is it not inconsistent that many Liberal Democrats argue that we should sign up to the European convention on human rights as it applies to the age at which people can join the armed forces, which is 18, while arguing that the voting age should be reduced to 16? Where is the sense in that?

Ms Ward

As I hope the hon. Gentleman is aware, I am not a Liberal Democrat and it is not for me to answer that point. I am sure, however, that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey will have the opportunity to do so.

I should not like to sign up to any clauses proposing to stop young men serving in the armed forces from the age of 16. They make a valuable and admirable contribution to the United Kingdom.

Mr. Simon Hughes

May I tell the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) that I very much support people being allowed to join the armed forces at 16 and that, on the wider point, there is not much between us. As I told the Minister, the time has come for the Government to examine the issue in the round. It is difficult to argue that one should not have civic responsibilities—such as the duty to vote and to perform jury service —at 16, whereas the state allows one to assume family and parental responsibility at 16. I am not sure that the right and duty to vote require more care, consideration and attention than the decision to have children.

Ms Ward

Unfortunately, as we know from recent cases—there have been tragic cases in which children bear or father children—the right to have children is a much more biological issue. Although we can legislate on such issues, it is much more difficult to enforce that legislation.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said that there should be a broader review of age issues, and I certainly agree with him. However, that is precisely why we should not pass amendment No. 69.

As I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree, various anomalies already exist. If amendment No. 69 were to be passed and implemented, we would be creating another anomaly that is as great as, if not greater than, current ones. Although young people would be entitled to vote at 16, they would not attain other rights. They would not be entitled to stand for Parliament until they were 21—thereby creating an even worse, five-year gap between the ages at which they could vote and stand for Parliament.

Mr. Hughes

Although I understand the hon. Lady's point, sometimes—as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) said in the previous debate—one simply has to flag up a point and put down a marker. I have been an hon. Member somewhat longer than the hon. Lady, and my experience has been that one must push the Government to make them move. My hon. Friends and I intend to press the amendment to a vote to make the point that people feel strongly about the issue and to help bring forward the day when the Government act, rather than simply leave the matter to be resolved in the indefinite future.

Ms Ward

The hon. Gentleman has a great interest in young people, and I hope that, if he has a real regard for their views on the matter, he will not press the amendment. If he does so, the Government, using their large majority, will defeat it. Consequently, rather than leaving the door slightly ajar so that hon. Members, organisations and the Government can re-examine the issue, the House will deliver a firm no, which might be misunderstood by young people. That is not how we should proceed.

If the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey were to press the amendment, he could damage the case for voting at 16. As hon. Members know, I am a strong supporter of reducing the age of majority to 16 and of allowing young people to vote at 16. However, I do not believe that amendment No. 69 is the way to achieve those goals.

We must consider the issue much more widely. Now that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has placed the issue on the House's agenda—and, I hope, on the broader political agenda—we should make progress much more consensually to ensure that we have greater knowledge and understanding of the issues and are able to iron out some of the issues raised by Conservative Members. If the amendment were passed, many more issues would doubtless be raised in another place.

Mr. Bercow

I have been listening intently to the hon. Lady's speech and found it most intriguing, but I find her latest comments quite extraordinary. It is not for me to defend the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, but it is extraordinary for the hon. Lady, who is vigorously articulating the case for wider democracy, suddenly to denounce the hon. Gentleman for retarding—should he press his amendment to a vote—the cause of allowing people to vote at 16.

6.15 pm
Ms Ward

The hon. Gentleman misses the point. We have to consider the issue more deeply and not in isolation. We should not change one part of one Bill, to give 16-year-olds the right to vote, as that would create other anomalies. We should examine the broader issue of young people attaining rights and the age at which those rights should be conferred. I would certainly support such an approach.

Changing one small—but important—Bill is not the right way to address the issue, as that would not deal with all the anomalies. I should prefer a Government Bill or a private Member's Bill to seek to change the age of majority, as the passage of such a Bill would have a ripple effect, changing all legislation affecting young people.

Mr. Hughes

I am not sure that the hon. Lady had planned on making that argument. However, as she has, she will have great difficulty in supporting the Government's Bill on equalising the age of consent. That legislation deals with precisely the same principles as those in this Bill: the age at which people gain rights. It would be very difficult for her to support that legislation, but not to vote with us today.

Ms Ward

I shall have no difficulty in doing just that. The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill will address an issue of equality and end a very clear anomaly by ensuring that the age of consent is equalised between heterosexuals and homosexuals. That Bill will end an anomaly without consequently affecting other legislation applying to 16-year-olds. Subsequently, the House should consider a more comprehensive package on changing legislation on young people.

As I said, by pressing the amendment, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey might damage the argument. The damage would not be to the principle that people should be able to vote at 16, but young people might start to feel that change is unlikely. Change is possible, but only if we work on the broader issues and discuss them more widely.

I urge the hon. Member not to press the matter, but to seek conciliation and consultation with other hon. Members and with various organisations. Perhaps we shall even be able to enlist the support of some Conservative Members.

Mr. Evans

In the numerous and lengthy discussions on the issue that the hon. Lady has had with young people—she has received no mail on the issue—has she told them, "I want the voting age to be lowered to 16, which is why I shall vote against it at the first opportunity to do so in the House?"

Ms Ward

The hon. Gentleman made that point; I did not.

Mr. Bercow

What is the answer?

Ms Ward

I shall explain to young people that, at some point, we should introduce legislation—which may have the support even of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and other Conservative Members—that makes changes to young people's rights and does not seek, in isolation, to make only one change that will create other anomalies.

Mr. Bercow

Can we clarify the position for 16-year-olds who read the broadsheet or tabloid newspapers tomorrow and reflect on the hon. Lady's sage words? Do I understand her aright when I say that, by pressing the amendment to allow people to vote at 16, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is an inveterate opponent of equality, whereas the hon. Lady, who will go eagerly into the Lobby with the approval of the Patronage Secretary to vote against the amendment, is an enthusiastic champion of that equality?

Ms Ward

As usual, the hon. Gentleman seeks to make mischief and he is not going to make mischief with me.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey believes strongly and wholeheartedly in the rights of young people—I do not doubt that for a moment. I want to be helpful. We may have more success if the matter is given more thought and there is more understanding of it among a broader section of the community and of the House than if it is pushed to a vote tonight.

Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

Even if one accepts the hon. Lady's argument that we should consider all the issues that surround the age of majority together—I do not—does she agree that it would be helpful if there were a strong vote in favour tonight, in that it would guide the Government in the right direction?

Ms Ward

The hon. Lady knows well that it is also important for the issues to be raised in the House. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and others have raised some important points. It would be useful if we could discuss the issue at a more appropriate time, perhaps with better legislation, to ensure that the changes that I am sure we all want can take place across the board.

Young people need to be engaged in, and excited by, politics and the issues that they face every day, and about who makes decisions for them. I certainly hope that the generation that is going through our schools will be the beneficiaries of the Government's changes in the national curriculum, which will result in more emphasis being put on citizenship studies. Hopefully, more young people will be interested in playing their part as citizens and being engaged in politics and the issues surrounding political life, as well as the most important matters that determine how they live their lives.

I have made my views clear. I hope that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey will not push the amendment to a vote. I trust that the House will discuss the issue at some other time, as a Bill or an amendment to a Bill that would change all legislation affecting young people and change the age of majority to 16 would give young people the right that they richly deserve.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

It is a pleasure to be in a Committee with you in the Chair, Mr. Winterton.

I listened to, and enjoyed, the contribution of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). The House is at its best when it debates first principles. It gives people a clear view of the constitution.

This has been a century of change. There have been many changes in the electorate under Liberal, Labour and, indeed, Conservative Governments. In 1929, the first election in which both men and women voted on an equal basis took place. That was a milestone and it was introduced, with reservations, by Stanley Baldwin's Government and the Conservative party. By and large, it has stood the test of time.

Mr. Heald

Does my hon. Friend agree that Stanley Baldwin's excellent initiative was one reason why the Conservatives won the Bermondsey seat in 1931?

Mr. Syms

I do not think that we would have won it in 1929. If we won it in 1931, a few other factors probably helped.

Mr. Simon Hughes

For the record, my researches revealed that that election was won for two reasons. The candidate was relatively wealthy and dispensed some of her wealth, and certainly the things that she acquired with it, to the electorate in ways that had not been known before, and have not been known since.

Mr. Syms

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said that he was a Member of this House when it reduced the voting age to 18. The 1969 by-election in Bridgwater was the first occasion on which 18-year-olds could vote and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) was the first beneficiary of such votes. However, I am not persuaded about the argument for voting at 16. I would not say that I have ruled it out for ever, but it needs consideration. At this point, I would not vote for it. I and those of my colleagues who are at present on the Conservative Benches are perhaps the modernising wing of the Conservative party and I am sure that we would like to give the matter further consideration. However, 18 is probably the best age, as is reflected throughout the European Union.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey read out a long list of responsibilities that one has at 16. It is not good to use one argument to justify that age for all the issues. It cuts both ways. Sixteen might be a sensible age of majority for one issue, but it might not be a sensible age for others. That might result in people arguing that the age should be pushed up for a range of other matters. Basically, 18 is a good age. Age limits vary because the House has judged on a number of occasions and in a number of Committees that different age limits are sensible, particularly with regard to the benefits system.

If one says, "That is the age of majority," and everything follows on from it, it will produce as many anomalies and concerns as the present system. We have heard the argument about people driving at 16. We all know that there are problems with young drivers—they tend to have more accidents. I am not convinced that 16 is the right age—certainly not yet. I support the argument for 18. That age of majority has worked well since the 1970 general election, when it was first generally introduced.

Many countries have a variable age of majority. In this country, one can vote at 18, but one has to be 21 to stand for Parliament. In the United States, one can vote at 18 but cannot stand for some forms of public office until one is much older. I cannot remember whether one has to be 30 or 32 to stand for the Senate—there certainly is an age limit. There is also an age limit for standing for President. That was written into the constitution because it was felt that standing for public office was important.

I am never persuaded by the argument about taxation without representation—the fetish that, because people pay taxes, they should have more of a say in the affairs of our nation. What about people who do not pay tax? Are they any less worthy? Are their views and values and their contribution to society worth less? I do not believe that to be the case. We heard about taxation on inheritance, value added tax and the tax on sweets. One cannot establish exactly when someone has started to pay tax and so should be able to vote. Frankly, the moment that someone is born, the state will take something off them. Therefore, I am not oversold on the tax link.

There is no great public demand for reducing the age of majority to 16. I have received no letters on the subject. Like most hon. Members, I have spoken in schools. Young people ask about many things, but I have not got the impression that they want the voting age to be reduced from 18 to 16.

6.30 pm
Mr. Fabricant

My hon. Friend points out, quite rightly, that there is no demonstrable demand for such a lowering of the voting age. Is he aware that one of the great problems facing democracy in the United Kingdom is getting those in the 18 to 30 age group to vote, let alone those who are between 16 and 18?

Mr. Syms

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I have always felt that our education system does not do enough to educate people about their rights and responsibilities, the British constitution and the importance of participating in democratic elections. That is a different issue from lowering the voting age from 18 to 16, but we could do much more to get young people interested.

Of course, youngsters have other interests. As people get older, they tend to participate more in the electoral process. We have to hope that some of the young people who abstain today vote tomorrow. All political parties should be concerned about this. Public participation is very important for the democratic legitimacy of this House and the whole body politic.

Apart from education, perhaps political parties should try to tune in a bit more to young people and make them more interested and excited. The hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward) made that point. I have no doubt that, over the next 18 months, all the political parties will be trying to tune in to young voters and their interests.

Jackie Ballard

Drop out.

Mr. Syms

Not drop out, but tune in.

I am not persuaded by the amendment. I have not totally closed my mind to it; this has been an interesting debate, and I would like to reflect further on the views expressed. If there is a Division on the amendment, I will not be in the same Lobby as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, in spite of his wonderful contribution. However, I will reflect on what he has said, and perhaps I will change my view. I do not know.

Ms Ward

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as he has not closed his mind to the issue, he would feel uncomfortable at being forced to make a decision here tonight? Surely it would be better if the issue were brought back another time.

Mr. Syms

I think that the hon. Lady makes that point more for her defence than for mine.

I will reflect on the issue, and ask my constituents and the classes that I address what they think. It has not been debated much in the newspapers—it is not a great popular topic —but perhaps after this debate tonight, The Sun and other newspapers will have an opinion, and we will start to read more about it.

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend must be as open-minded a Conservative Member of the House as I know.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The only one.

Mr. Bercow

There are many open-minded Conservative Members. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) agree that if he accepted the inviting logic of the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward), that would probably entail him in arguing for the abolition of most, if not all, votes in this House on the grounds that there were very few issues upon which he would not entertain the possibility, in the long career ahead of him, of changing his opinion?

Mr. Syms

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are here to vote and to make decisions. I would not criticise any hon. Member for pressing the amendment to a Division because that is their perfect right, but then they have to accept the consequences of that vote. This may not be the right time to vote; the Committee may not be persuaded to support amendment No. 69. The hon. Member for Watford may be right, and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey may have wasted an opportunity. Nevertheless, he has a perfect right to press the amendment to a Division, and the fact that the issue is voted on will no doubt be in reported in Liberal Democrat News and in the popular press, and may even help persuade people of his argument.

I do not intend to prolong the proceedings. This is a good debate, and I look forward to hearing more of it.

Mr. Winnick

I shall be brief. I am not in the same age group as my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Ms Ward). However, as Bridgwater was mentioned, I remember that, some time before the by-election in 1969, I went into a bank in Somerset. Identification was required, and I gave my occupation. I remember the clerk behind the counter saying, "Surely you're too young to be a Member of Parliament." Years have passed, and I am in a different age group, but I remember those words.

This topic should certainly be discussed. I do not in any way criticise the Liberal Democrat party for tabling the amendment. They will undoubtedly put it in Focus, in my constituency as well as others, and show how we voted. We shall have to bear up to the consequences and see what can be done.

This is an important topic. I am reminded, as I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Watford, that there was opposition to lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. I must be quite honest—not having checked Hansard, I am not sure whether the Conservatives opposed it, but there were certainly Conservative Members who opposed the change. It was argued that 21 was young enough to vote and that it would be unfortunate and irresponsible to allow the vote to people who did not have much experience of adult life. Those arguments should certainly have been heard, although I am glad that they were rejected. Ultimately, the decision was taken to lower the voting age to 18. As I said earlier, no one, including the strongest opponents of lowering the age further, would now argue that the voting age should be increased to 21 again.

I am not certain about allowing voting at 16; I have received no letters on the subject. However, I agree that we should keep an open mind. In fact, mine is not so open on this subject—I am more inclined to lower the age to 16. There are strong arguments for doing so—I shall not repeat them because of lack of time and because they have already been made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). They are valid arguments, which the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), will have to address seriously.

I am concerned about the alienation of young people. Only this week, an opinion poll showed young people's lack of interest in politics. That is a matter of serious concern. It is not the end of democracy; it does not mean that such people will not take a greater interest in politics when they get older, and decide to vote. The fact that there is a gap between older people and youngsters under 21, some of whom are indifferent to politics for all kinds of reasons, is serious. It cannot simply be dismissed out of hand, because the future of our democracy depends on future generations. It means that any democratic society must involve the interests and participation of the majority when it comes to voting.

Mr. Bercow

The widespread apathy and even hostility towards the political process is a legitimate preoccupation for all hon. Members. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is conceivable that people are antipathetic to the political process when they are very young not because they are denied the right to vote but because more and more decisions that affect the totality of the people of this country are taken outside the United Kingdom by institutions that are not accountable to the United Kingdom?

Mr. Winnick

Never let it be said that any Conservative Member loses an opportunity of taking an anti-European stand. I do not want to try your patience, Mr. Winterton, but, as someone who has for many years been something of a Eurosceptic in my party, I shall say only that Conservative xenophobia makes me more inclined to take the European viewpoint.

I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) that young people's apathy and indifference is certainly not because they lack the right to vote. Even the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and his colleagues would not wish to give the impression that large numbers of 16 and 17-year-olds are ready to demonstrate at any opportunity, rather like the suffragettes of old, for the right to vote. That would be a misunderstanding and an exaggeration, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman who moved the amendment would not suggest that it was not but, if we conclude that there is a case for lowering the voting age, as we did in 1969, we should seriously consider it.

No words of mine or of my hon. Friend the Member for Watford will dissuade those who want to press the amendment to a Division from doing so. Of course they want to have a Division. They have made their point and they will test it in the Committee. I will not vote with the Liberal Democrats on this. There are occasions, as the Whips know, when I abstain or vote against the Government, but I do so rarely. Liberal Democrat Members would do the same if they formed a Government.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not be dismissive—I am sure that he will not—of the amendment that has been moved tonight. There is a strongly held view that a lower voting age would be valid. I doubt that this point will be accepted, but it would be better if there were cross-party support for such a move and more consultation between the parties. That is always better. If the Government of the day want to take a decision on constitutional matters, they can do so of course, but it is far better to achieve cross-party support on matters of voting, qualifications and so on. A unanimous House of Commons has greater credibility on these matters.

The Liberal Democrats will lose the Division, but I hope that further consideration will be given to the matter by the Government, the parliamentary Labour party and the Labour movement, as well as perhaps the Conservative party, following what the hon. Member for Poole said. We should not have a closed mind. It is an important subject. It is worthy of debate and I look forward to the Minister's response.

Mr. Maclennan

I share with the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) memories of the passage of the Bill that reduced the voting age to 18. In the context of the extremely interesting debate tonight, it is worth recalling two or three historical incidents which have some lessons for us today.

The then Labour Government did not choose to wrap up the question of the voting age with that of the age of majority. Contrary to the view expressed by the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward), the then Labour Government set up a Committee on the age of majority chaired by Mr. Justice Latey. I had the honour to be invited to serve on that Committee. Its remit covered civil rights, but not civic duties or rights such as voting. It reported in favour of reducing the age of majority from 21 to 18. It covered a large range of matters, including the right to marry without parental consent, which was a matter of some controversy at that time.

The Latey committee recognised that the process of maturation was not the same for all people; some people became older more quickly than others. For some, it was possible that as legislators we should at least have in mind the importance of protecting young people from legal obligations that could become burdensome. So the argument for the big bang, with everything happening at once at the age of 16, is not one that I necessarily accept. One should recognise that people have to grow into maturity and that to become an adult for all purposes overnight is not necessarily in the interests of young people.

6.45 pm

Certain anomalies about the current age of majority legislation are worth considering. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) was correct to say that as legislators we had considered the merits and appropriateness of certain ages for certain purposes discretely. I strongly suspect that that is the right way to approach the subject. I hope that the suggestion that my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) made to the Minister will be taken up. It is time for a review of the law on the age of majority. It is more than 30 years since the Latey committee considered the issue in the round. Another such study has not been done. We would have been assisted in considering the discrete arguments about ages of majority if such an overview had been taken. I invite the Government to consider that and come back to the issue. However, it would not be appropriate to wrap up in a review of the age of majority the question of voting age, or to make it dependent on the outcome of such a review.

It was interesting that in 1969 the Labour Government decided to separate the issues clearly. They referred the age of majority to a Speaker's Conference. They firmly expected that the conference would recommend that the age of majority should be reduced for voting purposes to 18, in line with the view taken by the Latey committee on the wider aspects. That was not what the Speaker's Conference recommended. To the surprise of the then Lord Chancellor Gardiner, the Speaker's Conference recommended that the age of majority for voting purposes should be 20. That was a surprising recommendation. I remember being hauled before the late Lord Gardiner to explain my vote on that issue, because he expected me, as a member of his party, although not of his Government, to follow the party line. Others have subsequently been disabused of any hope that I would always follow the party line.

The reason why the Speaker's Conference took place when it did was that the then Government accepted the view expressed tonight by the hon. Member for Poole that for different purposes it was perfectly rational to consider different ages. The Labour Government paid no attention to the view of the Speaker's Conference and introduced legislation, commended it to the House and carried it, to reduce the age of voting to 18. They did so without my partisan support; they did so with some support from the Conservative party, but not bipartisan support. A decisive move was taken; it was taken not following an exercise such as that recommended by the hon. Member for Watford—of wrapping the question up and seeking consensus across the House. It was done on the basis of a Government initiative that enjoyed broad support, but it was not the result of any kind of consensus, desirable though consensus is in constitutional matters.

The lessons of 1969 are that we are right to raise the issue here in the context of the reform of our franchise and our voting systems, and of making the vote more accessible. I take that view because all who have spoken in this interesting debate have realised that alienation of the young from the political process is a problem. By means of the Bill, we want to make the process easier so that people can have a greater involvement in it.

We are all aware that there is no simple answer to the problem. In an intervention, the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) asked why we should want to lower the voting age to 16, as it was difficult enough to persuade people aged between 18 and 30 to vote. One of the reasons that we should consider lowering the age is that it will help to focus the minds of the young on certain issues if, as adults, they have to make decisions at an earlier age. They may choose not to exercise their right to vote at the age of 16. However, even if they dislike the outcome of an election in which they did not vote, they will feel some responsibility for that outcome.

Mr. Fabricant

What evidence does the right hon. Gentleman have for that statement? What makes him believe that the right to vote at the age of 16 will focus people's minds such that they might vote on a future occasion, if those who could vote at 18 still do not vote when they are 30? That is the current practice.

Mr. Maclennan

I am not sure what evidence would be needed to convince the hon. Gentleman. Such evidence as I have is only anecdotal; it would not be conclusive. However, that is the nature of the debate on this subject. During the past 30 years, I have given much thought to the age of majority, but the evidence presented to the Latey committee and the Speaker's Conference mainly took the form of anecdotal accounts of people's views. I suspect that the views that I have received on the subject are not dissimilar to those received by the hon. Gentleman.

It is probably true that there is no great demand to vote among 16-year-olds. However, in schools in my constituency I have heard 16-year-olds forcibly express the view that they want the vote. That view is not universally held, but it is strongly held by some young people.

Jackie Ballard

Has my right hon. Friend considered that most—although not all— people entitled to vote at the age of 16 would still be at school? Most secondary schools hold mock elections at the time of a general election campaign. One could thus argue that young people have a more heightened awareness of the political process, and of the fact that voting is taking place, than people who are older and are out at work.


That is certainly true. I well remember that, during the last general election, I spoke at a school where several young people aged just under 18 expressed considerable frustration that they did not have the vote. I had some sympathy with them.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

May I trouble the right hon. Gentleman with another piece of anecdotal evidence? When I was 17, I was interested in politics; I looked forward to being able to vote, and regarded it as a privilege. If we reduce the age at which people can vote, might we not reduce their appreciation of the privilege of living in a democracy where they have the vote?

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. Gentleman's point reminds me that, throughout the debate, I have felt strongly that I wanted to alter the emphasis of our approach to this matter. There has been much talk of the entitlement to vote—the right to vote. It is time we acknowledged that we are talking about more than that: to vote is an important duty of citizenship. It is a sign of maturation that that duty has arrived. Sixteen is not too young to assume the duty of considering the impact of one's political views on the shaping of the decisions of public authorities. I would like to think that, from the age of 16, an informed interest would begin to develop and that that process would be assisted by the knowledge that, if an election were to take place, people would have the right to use their judgment as to how to influence society.

Mr. Fabricant

I was fascinated by the right hon. Gentleman's use of the word "duty". What is his view of the system in Australia and in other countries, where voting is compulsory? If voting is a duty, should people be compelled to vote? And if people are compelled to vote, does the right hon. Gentleman think that they will think about the political and voting processes?

Mr. Maclennan

Duty, and legal obligation, are not identical. I do not favour making the duty to vote a legal obligation. None the less, voting remains a duty of citizenship. I hope that serious consideration will be given to the possibility that the duty to vote would stimulate discussion among young people—many of whom would still be at school—about participation in democracy. They would not have to wait until they left school to participate.

However, if not all 16-year-olds voted, I should not regard that as calamitous; it would not be a good reason for not allowing them to have the vote. To reduce the voting age would bring forward the process of political maturation through political awareness and discussion. Young people would discuss among themselves the fact not only that they are affected by the decisions of Government, but that they are able to influence those decisions.

I do not find wholly persuasive the argument that there is no public demand. The hon. Member for Walsall, North pointed out that, in one sense, there was no public demand when the voting age and the age for the exercise of other legal obligations were reduced to 18. That was to be expected. Few constitutional issues give rise to express public demand until there is the most pressing hardship. There was no massive public demand for a Bill of Rights; however, it was wise to include that matter in the election manifesto and to introduce legislation.

I hope that the Government will agree not only that the debate has been interesting and persuasive, but that the House would be glad to have their support on the matter. Even if the Government are not ready to support the amendment, I hope that some Members are persuaded of the merits of the argument and will not consider it a sin against the Patronage Secretary, or anyone else, to express their view and to vote accordingly.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

The debate has been interesting. It is important that we are holding it. We have heard some good contributions; they have led me to consider matters that I had not previously thought about. In essence, the amendment makes us think about how we modernise our democracy—what sort of democracy we want and how it can fit into the modern times in which we live.

It is crucial that the Bill and other measures contribute to dealing with the alienation that appals all of us. An important aspect of that is the age at which we consider it appropriate that people should exercise the right to vote. The lowering of the voting age deserves serious consideration. If I were making laws on my own, I would accept that the age should be reduced to 16. People should be able to exercise their democratic right at that age.

I shall set out some of the arguments that persuaded me that the age of the franchise should be changed. Over the past few weeks and years, many of us have visited schools and talked to students. I taught in schools and, for 20 years, I tried to enthuse young people with the democratic process. Although we could not often enthuse them about the party-political process, students were not unwilling to discuss the issues of the day.

7 pm

Young people in schools and youth clubs have talked to us about the issues of fundamental importance to them. They have challenged us about the environment, law and order, third world debt, unemployment, pollution and issues in their local communities. I do not know the experience of other Members, but when I am challenged in a school sixth form, I do not find that the students show a lack of maturity or understanding of the issues that confront them. In many respects, it is particularly difficult to argue with them. They often say politely, "We're not going to take any rubbish from you," although they sometimes put it another way.

One argument that is often used against lowering the age at which people can vote is that young people lack maturity. I have experience of young people and have listened to the views that they have expressed in schools and youth clubs. Their maturity and understanding of many of the fundamental issues that affect us all are quite refreshing.

Mr. Fabricant

The hon. Gentleman's experiences are similar to my own. When I speak in schools in my constituency, I meet people who are mature and have strong views on a range of issues. The hon. Gentleman has enunciated some of them. However, have any of the students that he has met told him that they want to vote at the age of 16?

Mr. Coaker

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is the whole purpose of the debate and of the amendment. He is saying that, because no one has ever raised the issue with me, we should not discuss it. However, we should discuss the issue and when we go to schools and youth clubs or speak to young people in employment, we should ask them whether they think it appropriate for us to discuss the age at which they can vote. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's argument. The fact that the subject has never been raised does not mean that we should not consider what we should do. Young people bring to the issues an idealism and lack of cynicism that it is important for us as a democracy to capture. If we can harness that enthusiasm, dynamism and youthful vigour, we will be able to improve our democracy.

In answer to the question of why we should extend the franchise, I say that that is the logical extension of the Government's drive—and the desire of us all—to build on citizenship education in our schools. If we believe that the curriculum should do more to encourage young people to understand and be involved in the political process and to discuss the issues, the logical extension of that is to consider the appropriate age at which they should be able to have the franchise. I think that we should certainly consider the age of 16.

Reducing the age at which people can vote would encourage participation in the political process and lead to improved participation rates. It is not a party- political argument. Real issues are involved. The House of Commons research paper on the Bill estimates that

"about 40 per cent. of 18 to 24 year olds in Britain did not vote in 1997."

That is in none of our interests. I do not want to be pious or holier than thou about this —I would prefer them to vote Labour—but it is important that they vote. It undermines our whole democracy if nearly half the people in that age group do not vote. We need to discuss why they do not vote, and there is a powerful argument to say that we can tackle that issue by extending the franchise.

The vote is symbolic. In extensions of the franchise in the past, it was not just the physical act of voting that was important. Being able to vote is symbolic of the fact that one is part of the democracy in which one lives. Extending that dramatic symbolism to 16-year-olds would enable us to start to say something to them about the importance of the political process and of their being involved in their democracy.

I acknowledge the points made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). As a Parliament, we need to discuss the related age issues. There are no easy answers and we can make good debating points about the age at which we should be able to do certain things. At present, we can marry, pay taxes and national insurance, drive and determine our sexuality before we are allowed to play a full part in civil and political society. At the very least, we should consider whether that is right.

We allow young people of 16 to join the armed forces and we allow 17-year-olds to enter hostilities. I have examined the figures. In the Royal Navy, there are 816 17-year-olds; in the Royal Air Force, there are 403; and in the Army, there are 4,105. This issue transcends party politics. If 17-year-olds are considered old enough to enter hostilities on behalf of this country, we should at least ask whether they should be given the right to vote.

The amendment has given the House the opportunity to debate the hugely important issue of extending the franchise. Alongside that debate are other questions about what we consider to be the appropriate ages for a whole range of other activities. However, the core of this debate is how we reinvigorate and regenerate our democracy, which is creaking in certain areas. Extending the franchise can build on the improvement to citizenship education in schools and it is a fundamental question for us. We should consider it and look for the proper way forward.

Mr. Fabricant

I listened with considerable interest to the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker). He made what I thought was a very impassioned argument in favour of voting at the age of 16, so I shall be curious to see whether he joins the Liberal Democrats in the Lobby if they force the amendment to a vote.

The hon. Gentleman completely misunderstood the purpose of my intervention. I agree with him that the question of whether young people are demanding the right to vote at 16 is irrelevant to our debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) on tabling the amendment. Consideration of the Bill should enable us to re-examine the age at which people are allowed to vote. That is an important issue.

I am not convinced that 16 is the appropriate age. I was interested in the argument of the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward), who pointed out rather well that it is a strange anomaly that one can vote at the age of 18, but that one has to be 21 before one can become a Member of Parliament. I suggest to the Minister that that matter needs to be dealt with in the near future. If people are old enough to vote, they should be old enough to be elected to the Chamber, or at least to put themselves up for election. That is a reasonable argument.

I am not as convinced by the argument of the hon. Member for Watford on not forcing the matter to a vote. She said that she had had lengthy discussions on the issue with young people in her constituency. I suspect that she has also had lengthy discussions with the Whips on it, and will be uncomfortable if there is a vote.

I quoted earlier the famous song "Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire: Old enough to kill, but not for voting, And even the Jordan river has bodies floating, And you tell me, we're not on the Eve of Destruction". The hon. Member for Gedling made a good point when he said that people were old enough at 17 to be involved in conflict. There are 17-year-olds in the conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia, but they are not old enough to vote. That is a strange anomaly.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

Is not the real answer that 17-year-olds should not be in conflict, rather than the other way around?

Mr. Fabricant

The hon. Gentleman raises a fascinating point. Unfortunately, there are problems in recruitment. I suspect that a recruitment age of 17 has been forced on the armed forces. However, if there were no problems with recruitment, I would agree with him. Anyway, is anyone old enough to kill and be killed? The answer is probably not. Where do we draw the line? The hon. Gentleman raises a valid point.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but, unless I am mistaken—perhaps it has been dealt with before; I have not been able to attend the whole debate because I have been at a Select Committee—there are no 17-year-old British soldiers in Kosovo, or serving in areas of conflict. They are certainly not allowed to go to Northern Ireland until they are 18. I think that that applies to other operational areas as well.

Mr. Fabricant

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is an expert on such matters. It is interesting that there is at least synchronicity between voting and going into conflict —both can be done at 18—although if, God forbid, this country were ever involved in a fullscale war, I suspect that 17-year-olds would be engaged. I invite him to intervene if I have it wrong. I believe that the current regulations within the armed forces are that people are ready and able to go into conflict from the age of 17 onwards.

Mr. Robathan

indicated assent.

Mr. Fabricant

My hon. Friend confirms that that is right, so there is that inconsistency.

I was fascinated by the speech of the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), who talked about maturation being uneven. He is right. Some people are very mature at 16; others are immature. Although I would not wish to stray from the issue at hand, I often felt that one of the failings of the 11-plus was that it was held at 11, although I took it at the age of 10. Just for the record, I passed.

Mr. Pound

Under what name?

Mr. Fabricant

The hon. Gentleman makes a sarcastic remark from a sedentary position, but, as he helped me earlier with the quote from Barry McGuire, I shall not pursue that issue. However, the system of entry into public schools at the age of 13, when there is greater commonality of maturity, is sensible. It is a great shame that we did not have a 13-plus instead of an 11-plus.

Should 16 be universally adopted—the point was raised by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross? I do not know; I am not sure. Although I like to think of myself as a very young, energetic and fit person, I was reminded by someone only this lunchtime that I will suffer my 50th birthday next year. I will not be holding a party as I hope the whole thing will be forgotten very rapidly.

7.15 pm

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross raised an interesting point in passing; I wonder whether it was in the notes of his speech. He felt that young and, indeed, old people have a duty to vote. He rightly pointed out that there is a difference between a duty and a legal obligation. I might be tempted to table an amendment, if there is not one already, so that we can debate —whether we force the matter to a vote, I do not know—whether there should be a legal obligation to vote.

A number of hon. Members, both Labour and Conservative, have said that young people are not voting. I wonder whether a legal obligation to vote, or at least to turn up to a voting station—as exists in Australia and, I think, Switzerland—would force many more people to vote than simply giving 16-year-olds the opportunity to vote.

Therefore, I believe that 16 is probably too young. I do not think that one can have a commonality of age for different things. After all, people have to be 18, I believe, to drive.

Ms Ward


Mr. Fabricant

It is 17; I thank the hon. Lady. People have to be 18 to drink—I know that—but 16 to go into a pub; that seems rather perverse. As she has said, people have to be 21 to be a Member of Parliament.

I will not support the amendment in the Lobby, but, as I have said, I welcome the fact that the amendment has been tabled. It has provided a useful opportunity to discuss the matter. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, the matter should be revisited regularly and discussed in the House of Commons.

Mr. Evans

It has been an important and enjoyable debate, but the amendment should be resisted. Sixteen-year-olds are obviously more intelligent than the average Liberal Democrat, but I do not believe that that is a sufficiently compelling reason to give them the vote.

I have mentioned that, in my seven and a bit years as a Member of Parliament, I have not received one letter on the issue. I accept that, just because people are not writing to us on various issues, it does not mean that we should not lead the way. There again, even in my discussions with youngsters, none of them said that the voting age should be reduced.

Mr. Barnes

Hon. Members have said generally that they have never received any representations on the matter, but I have just conducted a United Nations Children's Fund "Meet the MPs" surgery and it was raised there. I brought away a number of unanswered questions for written answers. Today, I answered someone in connection with the point.

Mr. Evans

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being perhaps the only Member of Parliament to have the matter raised.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

The point has also been raised with me at my advice surgery. Will the hon. Gentleman apply the same test to all the amendments that he has tabled for discussion during consideration of the Bill—the test of whether he has received letters on the subject?

Mr. Evans

Clearly not. Obviously, hon. Members have received some representations on the matter in some way, shape or form—but I suspect not many. That does not mean that the debate should not have taken place. In many ways, I am glad that it has. Perhaps it will not only increase the interest of 16 to 18-year-olds in getting the vote, but encourage more 18 to 24-year-olds who already have the vote to use it. As the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) pointed out, many do not. It must disturb all of us that 40 per cent. of them did not vote at the last general election.

We have heard many arguments. The taxation argument has been used. I do not believe that, if people pay tax, they should get the vote. The reverse is also true: if they do not pay tax, that should not mean that they do not get the vote. It is nonsense. The taxation argument is weak.

The hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward) utilised the multi-age argument. She felt that we should have one age and it should be 16. She felt that the age for voting should be 16, but she would not support that this evening because we were not reducing the age for everything else to 16. From now on, that sort of thing will be known as the Watford gap. If the hon. Lady sincerely believes in her arguments, she should go into the Lobby with the Liberal Democrats to support the amendment, perhaps accompanied by the hon. Member for Gedling and one or two other hon. Members.

I have read all about the laws governing the European Parliament elections—a ripping read, no doubt available in all good bookshops. In all EU states, the age at which one is allowed to vote in European Parliament elections—and, I imagine, all others—is 18. I am not sure what Norway's voting age is, but I suspect that it is probably 18 as well —Norway is so good on all things European. In some of our neighbouring countries, one is able to do all sorts of weird and wonderful things at widely differing ages. A research paper on the age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual acts reveals that it varies widely throughout the EU: it is 14 in Austria, 12 in Spain and 16 in Luxembourg; and in the UK, the age of consent for homosexual acts is 18. Therefore, a multiplicity of ages is used throughout the EU.

I agree that there is an anomaly about the age at which one can stand for election. That one can vote at 18, but not stand for election to Parliament until one is 21, is certainly anomalous. The Home Affairs Committee examined that issue and decided that matters should remain as they are. However, it is interesting to note that in seven EU countries, one may stand for election at 18; one may stand at 19 in Austria, at 21 in five other EU countries, at 23 in France and at 25 in Italy—despite the fact that in all those countries, the voting age is 18.

Our opposition to the amendment should not be regarded as a slight by 16 and 17-year-olds. The hon. Member for Gedling mentioned that, although under-16s are not as interested in joining political parties as they once were, they often show strong interest in political issues that affect them and the world in general. My discussions with young people have ranged over many issues, including the environment, both domestic and global. I find it heartening that they are concerned about such matters, not only for their own sakes, but for the sake of future generations. Young people also take an interest in animal welfare and many other serious issues. Therefore, just because they do not have the vote, we should not think that everyone under the age of 18 is uninterested in political issues.

The line has to be drawn somewhere and, in matters of age restriction, a balance has to be struck and a judgment made. All of us have knocked on doors when canvassing for votes and been told by someone, "I turn 18 the day after the general election." It almost seems as though that one day has cheated them of the opportunity to vote. I do not believe that an additional 24 hours on this earth gives anyone the wisdom needed to participate in elections, but the fact is that the line has been drawn. The Liberal Democrats say that the voting age should be 16, but why stop there? Why not make it 15, 14 or even seven? The Liberal Democrats have chosen to draw the line at 16, but that is just as artificial as drawing it at 18. Our view is that 18 is an appropriate age: for many people, education ends and citizenship is extended at that age.

We have often discussed the problem of 18 to 24-year-olds not voting. Before the general election, I did my bit by getting involved with the "Rock the Vote" campaign to get young people interested in voting. I went to the launch of the campaign at the Ministry of Sound —I am not sure whether any of my hon. Friends have been there recently, but I suspect that they have not. The issue concerns all parties and we all got involved in the campaign to get young people to register and to vote. Unfortunately, the statistics in the Library paper reveal that the campaign was not as successful as we had hoped it would be, so we have to consider other ways of encouraging more young people to vote.

That has to be achieved by educating young people in schools about citizenship and voting. At the time of general elections, many of my local schools hold mock polls, in which young people stand as candidates and participate in the election process. In the late 1960s, when I was at school, I participated in such elections—indeed, I stood as a Conservative candidate in one of them. I lost that election, which prepared me well for the many other elections that I have subsequently lost.

Mr. Robathan

My hon. Friend will be aware that, at a similar age, the Prime Minister also declared his allegiance by standing as a Conservative candidate. Now, he hides that allegiance behind new Labour.

Mr. Evans

We remember it well, but, in the spirit of understanding and reconciliation, I shall not pursue that point.

We have to use education to get across to young people the message about voting. We should also exploit facilities such as the internet. The House of Commons has excellent pages where young people can look up what has been said and what documents are available. All the political parties have an internet site, as do many individual Members of Parliament— mine is www.nigelmp.com, and I am sure that many hon. Members will now rush off to have a look at it. In addition, we all encourage young people to join youth organisations.

Mr. Fabricant

I remind my hon. Friend that, here at the House of Commons, there is an incredibly good education unit which will visit schools in various constituencies with its travelling roadshow. Sadly, far too few Members of Parliament—

The Temporary Chairman (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody)

Order. I am sure that the Library will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the advertisement, but we should return to consideration of the amendment.

Mr. Evans

I urge all Members of Parliament to speak to young people who visit the House of Commons in the summer. For the past six years, I have spoken to them about the work of a Member of Parliament, which helps to prepare them for the time when they are able to vote.

Today's debate will not end with the Division; it will continue well into the future. We all have a duty and an obligation to our constituents to encourage as many as possible to show an interest in politics, to get involved and, not least, to use the vote that was so hard fought for in general elections, local elections and European elections.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

This has been a worthwhile, interesting and, at times, lively debate. We have heard high-quality speeches from, among others, my hon. Friends the Members for Watford (Ms Ward), for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) and the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms). No one can dismiss the issues raised in the debate and no one would try to do so. The Government take them seriously and I hope to persuade the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) to do so as well.

It might help the House if I briefly set out the history of the issues. The age of majority was reviewed in the mid-1960s by the Latey committee, which in 1967 recommended that the age of majority be lowered. For most purposes, that was achieved by the Family Law Reform Act 1969; but, for electoral purposes, as a result of a similar recommendation, it was reduced from 21 to 18 by the Representation of the People Act 1969. That remains the position.

7.30 pm

Obviously it would not be wise to give the right to vote to all people, no matter what their age. So an age must be chosen at which it can be accepted that most people are sufficiently politically aware, mature and independent to make up their minds and choose between the various election candidates. A balance must be struck in deciding that age. Doubtless all of us know people under 18 who exhibit wisdom and responsibility and could be trusted to exercise the franchise sensibly. Equally, we can probably all think of people over 18 who lack the necessary maturity to make responsible decisions.

That brings me back to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, who says that there is no absolutism about these matters. I agree with him. It is also a truism that there is more likely to be a higher percentage of people aged 18 who are able to exercise judgment properly with maturity and independence than of those aged 16. Eighteen is the most common voting age throughout the world, and we believe that it is still the most appropriate minimum age.

These are serious issues that deserve to be debated. However, it is important that changes are brought forward with a degree of consensus. The Bill is the result of an all-party working group and a significant degree of cross-party support and agreement about the way forward. We may disagree about some of the details but there is a broad consensus that many of the ideas set out in the Bill are good ones that can command broad support. Indeed, representatives of each of the major political parties were on the working party that recommended the proposals that we are discussing in considering the Bill.

The Liberal Democrats' proposal to reduce the voting age to 16 has not had the same degree of broad-based support. It is regrettable that in bringing forward this idea they have not sought the support of Conservative Members, Labour Members and others by securing their agreement to put their names to the amendment.

As I have said, the issue deserves to be treated seriously and discussed in an all-party context. I suggest that the Select Committee on Home Affairs might be the appropriate venue. An appropriate cross-party group, of which there are several, might properly consider it.

It was interesting that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said that he did not want piecemeal legislation on the age of majority. If he were to press the amendment to a vote, that is precisely what he would be urging upon the Committee.

As the hon. Member for Poole said, there are arguments for different ages of majority. Perhaps these need to be considered, but I suggest that they are not matters for the Government to examine internally. Perhaps the Select Committee on Home Affairs or another all-party group might be appropriate bodies to consider them and to decide whether it is right to have a certain age or a number of different ages.

It is important to get young people involved in political issues. However, I am not convinced that lowering the age of voting will do very much to bring about a significant change in the interest that young people take in political issues.

Interestingly, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey did not refer to the anomaly—it was taken up by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford and by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant)—that people can vote at 18 but are unable to stand for Parliament or even a local council. They have to wait until they are 21. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have taken up the argument. It is much more difficult to justify because in many ways there is an anomaly. There are arguments in favour of a voting age of 21, but I will not outline them now.

The hon. Gentleman's proposal would increase the disparity between the voting age, if it were to be 16, and the age of 21 at which people could stand for election to Parliament or a local council. He has put forward no solution that would deal with that issue. These are complex matters that need to be debated in a cross-party and consensual way, not within Government but in another forum. The working party has ended its deliberations. I have not read the article to which the hon. Gentleman referred but, as I understand it, the working party did not consider the issue. Perhaps he should not believe all that he reads in the newspapers, no matter how reputable some of the journalists no doubt are. I think that the issue should be taken forward in a non-governmental way. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider that approach rather than pressing the matter to a Division.

I appreciate the strength of feeling that Members on both sides of the Chamber have expressed. I do not dismiss the idea because it is one worthy of debate. However, I am not convinced by the argument that people should be able to vote at 16. There are routes other than pushing the amendment to a Division. The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said that the Latey committee sought to bring forward these matters in a consensual way, and I think that that is the appropriate approach. I hope that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey will see fit to withdraw the amendment. If the issue is to be taken seriously, it needs to be pursued in an all-party manner.

My hon. Friend the Member for Watford was right to say that if the hon. Gentleman presses the amendment to a vote, I shall charge the Liberal Democrats with not being serious. I charge them with grandstanding and indulging in political gestures. The hon. Gentleman has been given advice on how to take the matter forward. We shall now see if the Liberal Democrats have the maturity to exercise judgment. In many ways, the issue is a test of their maturity. Are they scoring party political points or are they serious? I say seriously that they should not demean the seriousness of the argument. Let them take it forward in a consensual way, seek a cross-party approach and treat young people with the seriousness that they deserve. They should not divide the Committee.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Until two minutes ago, this had been a good-natured and non-party political debate. I am sad that the Minister spoiled it in the past two minutes.

We have had a good debate with Members from the north, the midlands, the south of England and Scotland taking part, the majority of whom were in favour of the proposition that I and my hon. Friends have put forward. If the Minister heard my original remarks, he would have heard me saying that my party is both committed to reducing the age of voting to 16 and to reducing the age at which people can stand for elections to 18. Therefore, widening the gap between the two ages is not our position—the gap would be narrower if the two ages were reduced.

The Minister sought to say, and I had argued, that everything should be looked at in the round. I put two propositions to the Committee. First, we should accept that now is the time to move to voting at 16. Secondly, we should consider in the round the age of majority and all the other issues. I was hoping for an indication from the Minister that the Home Office was willing to do that. Sadly, that was not given. My right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) reminds me and the Committee that when the Latey committee did its work—he was there at the time—that was the subject of general consideration. The Labour Government's proposal, produced by the late Harold Wilson, reduced the voting age from 21 to 18, but that was not the result of a consensual agreement. It was a proposition that could be taken on its own.

Two questions have been asked. First, is there a commitment to a reduction in the voting age to 16? In Westminster Hall, where there have been great gatherings of young people in recent years, there has been a demand. There have been letters, and many young people raise the issue. I organised a Youth Parliament in a Committee Room some weeks ago, and the issue was raised then. I believe that there is a demand, and there is academic support for that in studies from Loughborough and Nottingham universities, which make it clear that only 5 per cent. of those under 19—a much younger group was also polled— thought that voting was a waste of time.

I shall put one final argument to the Committee after a good debate. It justifies constitutional matters being dealt with on the Floor of the House. At 16, young people go from being under authority to being free from authority. They are free to make their own choices, by and large. They have just come out of the period of compulsory education, when citizenship, voting and the electoral system are taught. They are usually settled in their homes and have not started to be mobile.

It is much more likely that 16 to 18-year-olds would vote than people who are slightly older. They are more settled and their education would be more relevant if it taught them that a chance to vote was about to come, than if it taught them about some vote a long time in the future.

We will not misinterpret colleagues who say that they cannot vote with us because the time is not right. This is a historic vote for Parliament and the Committee. It is the first time that young people under 18 will see it put to a Committee of Parliament that they should have the opportunity to vote. We ask colleagues in all parts of the House to support us. We have made the point and flagged up the proposition. If the Government defeat us tonight, we will go on to work with the Government and others. It is not one or the other: it is vote tonight and collaborate to make sure that we debate the issue across parties and in other places in the days ahead.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 36, Noes 434.

Division No. 20] [7.41 pm
Allan, Richard Kennedy, Rt Hon Charles
Beith, Rt Hon A J (Ross Skye & Inverness W)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield) Kirkwood, Archy
Brake, Tom Livsey, Richard
Burstow, Paul Llwyd, Elfyn
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies McDonnell, John
(NE Fife) Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Chidgey, David Moore, Michael
Corbyn, Jeremy Öpik, Lembit
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Rendel, David
Fearn, Ronnie Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Foster, Don (Bath) Sanders, Adrian
George, Andrew (St Ives) Stunell, Andrew
Grogan, John Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Harris, Dr Evan Tonge, Dr Jenny
Harvey, Nick Tyler, Paul
Webb, Steve
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Willis, Phil
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Jones, Ms Jenny Tellers for the Ayes:
(Wolverh'ton SW) Sir Robert Smith and
Keetch, Paul Jackie Ballard.
Abbott, Ms Diane Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)
Ainger, Nick Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James
Alexander, Douglas Ashton, Joe
Allen, Graham Atherton, Ms Candy
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Cormack, Sir Patrick
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Corston, Jean
Barnes, Harry Cousins, Jim
Barron, Kevin Cran, James
Battle, John Cranston, Ross
Bayley, Hugh Crausby, David
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Beggs, Roy Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Cummings, John
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) (Copeland)
Bennett, Andrew F Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Benton, Joe Curry, Rt Hon David
Bercow, John Dalyell, Tam
Beresford, Sir Paul Darvill, Keith
Best, Harold Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Betts, Clive Davidson, Ian
Blackman, Liz Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Blears, Ms Hazel Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Blizzard, Bob Davies, Quentin (Grantham)
Blunt, Crispin Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice
Body, Sir Richard & Howden)
Borrow, David Dawson, Hilton
Boswell, Tim Day, Stephen
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Dean, Mrs Janet
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Denham, John
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Dismore, Andrew
Bradshaw, Ben Dobbin, Jim
Brady, Graham Donohoe, Brian H
Brazier, Julian Doran, Frank
Brinton, Mrs Helen Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Drew, David
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Duncan, Alan
Browne, Desmond Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Browning, Mrs Angela Edwards, Huw
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Effort, Clive
Burden, Richard Ellman, Mrs Louise
Burgon, Colin Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Butler, Mrs Christine Etherington, Bill
Butterfill, John Evans, Nigel
Byers, Rt Hon Stephen Faber, David
Caborn, Rt Hon Richard Fabricant, Michael
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Fallon, Michael
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Field, Rt Hon Frank
Cann, Jamie Fisher, Mark
Caplin, Ivor Fitzsimons, Lorna
Casale, Roger Flint, Caroline
Cash, William Flynn, Paul
Caton, Martin Follett, Barbara
Cawsey, Ian Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Chaytor, David Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Chope, Christopher Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Clapham, Michael Fraser, Christopher
Clappison, James Fyfe, Maria
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Gale, Roger
Clark, Dr Lynda Galloway, George
(Edinburgh Pentlands) Gardiner, Barry
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Gerrard, Neil
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Gibb, Nick
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Gibson, Dr Ian
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Gill, Christopher
Clelland, David Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Clifton—Brown, Geoffrey Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Clwyd, Ann Godman, Dr Norman A
Coaker, Vernon Godsiff, Roger
Coffey, Ms Ann Goggins, Paul
Cohen, Harry Golding, Mrs Llin
Coleman, Iain Grant, Bernie
Collins, Tim Gray, James
Colman, Tony Green, Damian
Connarty, Michael Greenway, John
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Grieve, Dominic
Cooper, Yvette Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Corbett, Robin Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Grocott, Bruce Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Grogan, John Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen
Gummer, Rt Hon John Lidington, David
Hague, Rt Hon William Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) Linton, Martin
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Lock, David
Hammond, Philip Loughton, Tim
Hanson, David Love, Andrew
Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet Luff, Peter
Hawkins, Nick Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Hayes, John McAvoy, Thomas
Heal, Mrs Sylvia McCafferty, Ms Chris
Heald, Oliver McDonagh, Siobhain
Healey, John Macdonald, Calum
Heathcoat—Amory, Rt Hon David McFall, John
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) McGuire, Mrs Anne
Hepburn, Stephen McIntosh, Miss Anne
Heppell, John McIsaac, Shona
Hesford, Stephen MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew
Hill, Keith McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Hodge, Ms Margaret Mackinlay, Andrew
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas Maclean, Rt Hon David
Hood, Jimmy McLoughlin, Patrick
Hope, Phil McNamara, Kevin
Hopkins, Kelvin McNulty, Tony
Horam, John MacShane, Denis
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Mactaggart, Fiona
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) McWalter, Tony
Howells, Dr Kim McWilliam, John
Hoyle, Lindsay Madel, Sir David
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Mahon, Mrs Alice
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Major, Rt Hon John
Humble, Mrs Joan Malins, Humfrey
Hunter, Andrew Mallaber, Judy
Hurst, Alan Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Hutton, John Marshall,David (Shettleston)
Iddon, Dr Brian Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Illsley, Eric Marshall—Andrews, Robert
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Martlew, Eric
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Jamieson, David Maxton, John
Jenkin, Bernard May, Mrs Theresa
Jenkins, Brian Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Johnson, Miss Melanie Merron, Gillian
(Welwyn Hatfield) Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Jones, Ms Jenny Miller, Andrew
(Wolverh'ton SW) Moffatt, Laura
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Moran, Ms Margaret
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald (B'ham Yardley)
Keeble, Ms Sally Moss, Malcolm
Kelly, Ms Ruth Mountford, Kali
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Mudie, George
Key, Robert Mullin, Chris
Khabra, Piara S Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Kidney, David Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Kilfoyle, Peter Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Naysmith, Dr Doug
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green) Norris, Dan
Kirkbride, Miss Julie O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Kumar, Dr Ashok O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Ladyman, Dr Stephen O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Lait, Mrs Jacqui O'Hara, Eddie
Lansley, Andrew Olner, Bill
Lawrence, Mrs Jackie O'Neill, Martin
Laxton, Bob Osborne, Ms Sandra
Leslie, Christopher Paice, James
Letwin, Oliver Palmer, Dr Nick
Levitt, Tom Paterson, Owen
Pearson, Ian Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Pickles, Eric Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Pickthall, Colin Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Pike, Peter L Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Plaskitt, James Streeter, Gary
Pond, Chris Stringer, Graham
Pope, Greg Stuart, Ms Gisela
Pound, Stephen Sutcliffe, Gerry
Powell, Sir Raymond Swayne, Desmond
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Syms, Robert
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann
Primarolo, Dawn (Dewsbury)
Prior, David Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Prosser, Gwyn Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Purchase, Ken Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Quinn, Lawrie Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strangford)
Rammell, Bill Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Randall, John Taylor, Sir Teddy
Rapson, Syd Temple-Morris, Peter
Raynsford, Nick Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Redwood, Rt Hon John Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough) Tipping, Paddy
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N) Touhig, Don
Robathan, Andrew Tredinnick, David
Robertson, Laurence Trend, Michael
Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW) Trickett, Jon
Roche, Mrs Barbara Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Rogers, Allan Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Rooney, Terry Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Tynan, Bill
Rowe, Andrew (Faversham) Tyrie, Andrew
Roy, Frank Viggers, Peter
Ruane, Chris Vis, Dr Rudi
Ruddock, Joan Walley, Ms Joan
Ruffley, David Wareing, Robert N
Ryan, Ms Joan Waterson, Nigel
St Aubyn, Nick Watts, David
Salter, Martin White, Brian
Sarwar, Mohammad Whitehead, Dr Alan
Savidge, Malcolm Whitney, Sir Raymond
Sawford, Phil Whittingdale, John
Sayeed, Jonathan Wicks, Malcolm
Sedgemore, Brian Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Shaw, Jonathan Wilkinson, John
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Willetts, David
Shipley, Ms Debra Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) (Swansea W)
Singh, Marsha Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E) Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Wilson, Brian
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Winnick, David
Smith, John (Glamorgan) Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Snape, Peter Woodward, Shaun
Soames, Nicholas Woolas, Phil
Southworth, Ms Helen Worthington, Tony
Spelman, Mrs Caroline Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Spicer, Sir Michael Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Spring, Richard Wyatt, Derek
Squire, Ms Rachel Yeo, Tim
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Steen, Anthony Tellers for the Noes:
Steinberg, Gerry Mr. Robert Ainsworth and
Stevenson, George Mr. Jim Dowd.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Barnes

I beg to move amendment No. 30, in page 1, leave out lines 20 to 23.

The Temporary Chairman

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 32, in page 2, leave out lines 9 to 14.

No. 33, in page 2, line 20, leave out "is resident" and insert has his sole or main residence".

No. 9, in page 2, line 24, leave out "and".

No. 10, in page 2, line 25, at end insert ;and (e) in making his application for registration or his declaration of local connection or his service declaration, states all other addresses in respect of which he had at any time within the period of twelve months preceding the relevant date been registered in the register of parliamentary electors for any constituency or part of a constituency.".

No. 35, in page 2, line 35, leave out "is resident" and insert has his sole or main residence".

No. 11, in page 2, line 39, leave out "and".

No. 12, in page 2, line 40, at end insert ; and (e) in making his application for registration or his declaration of local connection or his service declaration, states all other addresses in respect of which he had at any time within the period of twelve months preceding the relevant date been registered in the register of local government electors for any electoral area.".

No. 14, in clause 6, page 8, line 23, at end insert— (g) whether the declarant is registered in the register of parliamentary electors for any other constituency or for any other part of a constituency and, if so, the name of that constituency or part of a constituency".

Mr. Barnes

Earlier, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) pointed out that an amendment appeared only in my name. That applies to amendments Nos. 30, 32, 33 and 35. However, as I said earlier, some amendments on rolling registers that stood only in my name in the past were accepted, and their proposals have become common practice for the Government.

The purpose of the amendment is to end double or multiple electoral registrations. A person who has more than one residence currently qualifies to appear on more than one register. However, it is illegal to use more than one vote on the same day, although there is no means of checking whether people have been dishonest and have fraudulently voted more than once.

A fully fledged rolling register should ensure that double registration does not take place. I have tabled amendments—some have cross-party support—that try to extend the provision for a rolling register and build on the Government's proposals. We shall discuss some of those matters later. We want the rolling register to be fully fledged so that, as soon as people move from one part of the country to another, their names are put on the new area's register and deleted from that of the previous area. Such a system removes the need for double registration and its attendant problems.

If we want to know the exact number of electors in the country, double registration does not help us. The Government are tackling some problems: for example, they intend to make arrangements to remove from registers the names of people who have died. Their presence on registers renders current figures inaccurate when calculating turnout.

The amendment would provide clarity and ensure that someone was registered in one place for voting and could transfer registration only on moving.

8 pm

Mr. Grieve

I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman's argument. I listened carefully to his earlier argument about votes for foreign visitors to this country, although I fail to see the logic of the position that he is adopting on this matter. People are much more mobile, often have homes in different locations and have multiple residences. If they wish to vote only once, why should they be deprived of the opportunity to choose where in the United Kingdom they cast that vote?

Mr. Barnes

We need a modern, up-to-date electoral registration system precisely because we have a mobile, rootless society in which people move around a great deal or leave bedsitter land to become homeless or live in another area. The rolling register is intended to produce such a system. I believe that the Government version of it is a shadow of what we could have, but, given modern technology, it should be possible for one place to be considered a person's sole or main place of residence. That is where he would register.

Mr. Robathan

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Barnes

In a moment.

Amendment No. 35 allows for such provision to be made. The notion of a sole or main place of residence was introduced by the Conservative Government in the Local Government Finance Act 1988, which introduced the poll tax. People had to register for their main poll tax payments at their sole or main place of residence and, although they paid poll tax for their other residences, arrangements to change the sole or main place of residence could be made quickly when they moved. If that principle could be used for an anti-social measure that cleared masses of people off the electoral register and destroyed electoral registration— attainers, who appeared on the register for the first time, hid from it because their household would have had to make multiple payments—it is only justice to introduce a measure that will help to restore full electoral registration.

The principle of a person having a sole or main place of residence can be used in such a connection. Even if a person has multiple residences, he will be associated mostly with one place and must decide which will appear on the register. If his life style changes and he wants to call another of his homes his sole or main place of residence, the rolling register will make that possible.

Mr. Hogg


Mr. Robathan


Mr. Barnes

I said that I would give way to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan).

Mr. Robathan

The hon. Gentleman has raised so many points that I must prevent myself from making a speech, although I must ask why a person who has to pay council tax on each home should not also have a vote. I want to pick up a point that was referred to on Second Reading. He is trying to prevent people from voting more than once. Is it not about time that the Government—I am not referring in particular to the Labour Government or the previous Conservative Government—checked up to ensure that people have not voted more than once? I do not think that we have heard any promise on that yet.

Mr. Barnes

People cannot purchase the vote because they pay a certain amount of tax or council tax. Technically, people are allowed to vote only once. A system that checked the current arrangements to make sure that nobody was abusing them would be useful, but, if the method that I propose were adopted, that would become terribly unnecessary. People would be on one register at any time, it would be illegal to be on another register and there would be nothing to prevent a central system—a link between different electoral registers —from making sure of that. That can be done in connection with the purchase of lottery tickets, so we must be able to do it with franchise rights, which are far more important.

Mr. Hogg

May I take the hon. Gentleman back to our first debate, in which we both participated? He made a point that had certain intellectual logic, asking why overseas voters resident in the United Kingdom and affected by laws were not entitled to vote. He has tabled an amendment that would prevent a person from registering in more than one local government area. If a person has a number of properties, he is affected by local government tax— the council tax—wherever he registers. Is it not right that, as he is affected by the level of council tax in respect of all his properties, he should have a local government vote in respect of each local government area?

Mr. Barnes

Certainly not. Every person should have the franchise; every person should count merely as one and should therefore be able to vote only in the area that he chooses. If someone is wealthy enough to have properties all over the place, lucky for him, but why should he have a say in how local government works in umpteen places? One person, one vote is what we should have.

Mr. Robathan


Mr. Hogg


The Temporary Chairman

Order. Will the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) say to whom he is giving way?

Mr. Barnes

I am giving way to the hon. Member for Blaby.

Mr. Robathan

I am grateful to you, Mrs. Dunwoody, and to the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) will add his remarks later. Does the hon. Gentleman remember the great cry, "No taxation without representation"? Local taxation concerns local issues, such as what is spent on the road outside my house. If I owned two houses—I regret to say that I do not—surely I should be able to influence rubbish collection, road maintenance and what is done in schools. I pay two council taxes because I rent a house by my constituency. As I pay council tax, surely I should be allowed to vote in local council elections.

Mr. Barnes

It is entirely inappropriate that people should be able to choose several main areas and main concerns. If they are lucky enough to own all sorts of property, good for them, but why should they have all sorts of influence over what the authorities do in those areas? Remember, they have a vote in general elections, which determine what the law of the land will be. That includes decisions on local government finance, the standard spending assessment and other measures, so they are in the system and they are in it on the same basis as the poorest person in society, who should—at least on election day—have the same right as the mightiest in the land.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is not there an argument converse to that put by the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan)? If there is no taxation without representation, there ought to be no representation without taxation. There are consequences to people having a right to influence the area in which they live simply because they live there; people who do not live in that area should not have a right to such influence. That being so, the hon. Gentleman will no doubt vote with me on my amendment to abolish the overseas vote.

Mr. Barnes

I am certainly with my right hon. Friend in connection with the overseas vote. In respect of our earlier debate, I tabled amendments concerning people from overseas who have settled in this country having the right to vote on the same basis as Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens. I used exactly the same argument and it should apply to who we decide to enfranchise in this country. It should also operate in relation to people who go overseas. We should argue for them to be enfranchised overseas, but once they return they should be put back on the register.

Mr. Hogg

I want the position to be made absolutely clear. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that, although it is right that no one can have more than one vote in a general election, he is proposing to take away existing rights in respect of local government elections in which local government electors can vote more than once if they have a number of properties in different local government areas.

Mr. Barnes

On this issue, I am in the tradition of the Chartists and the suffragettes and people who believe in one person, one vote. That arrangement should have been entered into years ago. The system that operates in general elections should apply to local government elections. There should not be privileged people who, because of their wealth, have more votes than other people. Members of Parliament with residencies in London and in their constituencies where they mainly reside should not be able to vote in two places. That would be open to abuse. There should be one person, one vote in any election.

Mr. Kaufman

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) forgets what took place not under the Chartists but under the Attlee Government, when people had two votes in local elections: they had the residential vote and the business vote. They were able to vote twice in the same area or in two different areas. The Conservative party has always supported fancy franchises.

Mr. Barnes

The points made by Conservative Members have a resonance in the past. People also had two votes for the university seats, which were abolished in 1948. We should not allow a system in which people have two votes. In a democracy, everyone in the country who is covered by its laws and operations should have a say in elections on the basis of equality. Equality means one person, one vote.

Mr. Grieve

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his forbearance. Earlier, we discussed the issue of foreign residents. The hon. Gentleman must know that one of the consequences of our tolerance of dual nationalities is that many people can vote in this country and in another country at general elections. Under the principles enunciated by the hon. Gentleman, they also have an unfair advantage, one which he was previously prepared to promote and extend, but is now seeking to restrict. I do not follow the logic of his argument.

Mr. Barnes

Perhaps in time we will put that right. I believe that people should have the vote in the place in which they are resident. If people have dual nationality, that should make no difference. They may reside in a country of which they are not a national, and that is where they should vote. There is nothing inconsistent about the principle that I was propounding.

There may be a problem with students. Under single registration, where should a student register? The Bill improves the operation of postal voting. If students register in the place where they study, that should present no great difficulty when they go back to their home residence during the long summer break. However, if we had a modern, rolling electoral registration system, students could decide that while they are settled in the area where they are studying that is their sole and main place of residence, but during the long summer vacation their home is their sole and main place of residence, and their voting rights could be transferred accordingly. The system should allow us to handle that.

The problem that I have with the other amendments is that, unless some of the later amendments that I have tabled are carried, they will detract from the principle that I am trying to establish. It is important that we consider whether double registration should be allowed, or whether we should have rolling registers to prevent that. Difficulties may arise if people can vote in different areas for local government elections and for parliamentary elections and by-elections.

8.15 pm
Mr. Hogg

The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) should cast his mind back to what he said, very eloquently, in the first debate. He made the point that if people are in the United Kingdom, even if they are residents and citizens of an overseas country, they should be entitled to vote in UK elections. He justified that by arguing that they are affected by the consequences of Government policy in the

United Kingdom, so they should have a say in the choice of that Government. That was a respectable argument—he knows that I disagree, but no matter, because it had a certain amount of force.

Let us consider his argument in the context of what he is now proposing. I have no great difficulty with amendment No. 30 with regard to the general election. We have long accepted that people should have only one vote in a general election. It could be on the basis of a main or sole residence. That is not something that I would particularly recommend, because the present law has caused no problems, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) about the right of choice. However, that is not a fundamental difficulty.

What is a fundamental difficulty is when we come to local government elections. The point that I was trying to make in my intervention on the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire was that, if people have more than one property in more than one local government area, they inevitably pay more than one set of local authority taxes. It would be quite wrong if they were under an obligation to pay taxes but had no say over the composition of the local authority that levied those taxes. The proposition that those who pay taxes must have a say in the choice of the authority that levies them is essential to democracy within the society of which we have been speaking.

Mr. David Heath

Under the present system of council tax, if people have multiple residences they establish one place as their principle residence and pay an abated council tax for the others. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman think that they should pay the full council tax for each residence and have equal democratic rights?

Mr. Hogg

In a mobile society, some people inevitably have to have more than one residence. They may not necessarily have ownership: they may be tenants. Many hon. Members, because of the nature of our work, have to have two residences. That is not confined to Members of Parliament. Many people in society have to have two residences, and some of them are not on particularly large incomes. We should consider the propriety of levying two full sets of council tax on two or more properties. Those people would face too large a burden if we were to decide to do that. I would not go along that road, because it would have an inequitable result for people on modest incomes.

Mr. Barnes

What cuts me to the quick is the criticism that I am inconsistent. People have often said that I am consistent—consistently wrong. I like to be logically correct in these matters. I have not argued that the payment of taxes should be the basis for registration; I have said that if people live in a society and are affected by the decisions made on a whole host of issues—health and safety, the environment and others— they should have a say in its operation. It is more difficult to use that argument against me on the local government franchise, because people have one vote according to their sole or main place of residence.

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman is right. In the first debate, he used the term "affected". He, of course, had in mind taxation, but I am perfectly willing to accept that he was also referring to the other consequences of living in a society, such as the impact of the criminal law on people's activities. That is also true, albeit to a lesser extent, in local government areas.

Local authorities have the power—albeit a much lesser power—to regulate life in their communities. It is not just a question of their levying tax; they do many other things that impact on the citizen. The argument is not confined to taxation: it relates to the power of regulation vested in local authorities.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

Do we not encounter certain logical difficulties and contradictions when departing from the principle of one person, one vote, to which my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) has referred? Must not the logic applying to the making of financial contributions in more than one area also apply to those making contributions under the Child Support Act 1991? Such people might legitimately argue that the same principle of buying votes should apply to them, in the same measure.

The Temporary Chairman

Order. I feel that some interventions are almost becoming speeches.

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman has made a fair point, which I shall try to answer.

When we are dealing with Parliament, we are talking about the composition of one body. Giving the individual citizen a right to cast more than one vote means giving him or her a disproportionate weight in terms of the composition of, say, the House of Commons. That is why we argue for only one vote in parliamentary elections. The same principle would apply to the granting of more than one vote to an individual elector in regard to the composition of one local government area: undue influence would be conferred. That is probably why we did away with the business vote, as well as what would then have been the ratepayer's vote. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) made a valid point about that. In this instance, however, we are dealing with another issue—the composition of different local authorities. The local government elector can have only one vote in respect of each authority; he therefore does not have a disproportionate say in the composition of that authority.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

In a sense, I am reluctant to prolong this discussion, but has it occurred to my right hon. and learned Friend that a disadvantage of the arrangement proposed by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) in respect of local government is the fact that local elections take place in different ways in different years in different parts of the country? It is highly likely that someone with two or three residences could change his main residence to ensure that it was in the right place for the purpose of the current local election.

Mr. Hogg

I am sure that that is factually correct. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the ingenuity of his conclusion, which had not occurred to me.

I must end my speech, which has only been prolonged by interventions—although I do not grumble about interventions that were entirely serious. Let me finally say that it is wrong to deprive an individual of a vote in respect of the composition of an authority that taxes him and regulates his activities. I hope that we shall not change the present law in so far as it relates to local government elections.

Mr. Linton

I urge the Government to support amendment No. 33, which suggests that a person should be able to register to vote in parliamentary elections in the constituency that contains his or her sole or main residence. I cannot speak to the amendment that I tabled, because it is starred, but it is couched in similar terms, suggesting that a person should be registered to vote in parliamentary elections only in the constituency that contains his or her principal residence. It bears no relation to what the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said about local government, and does not impinge on the amendment relating to registration for local elections.

I am speaking in pursuance of a recommendation by the Home Affairs Committee, and also because I feel that the perfect amendment to a Representation of the People Bill, from the Government's point of view, would have cross-party support, and would deal with an anomaly in the law that was not created by the present legislature, but has appeared for other reasons. This amendment falls into that category. Certainly, it deals with an anomaly in the law.

People speak as though dual registration had always existed. In a few cases that may be true, but it has existed to any real extent only since the 1970s. Very few students voted until the 1970 general election—although I seem to remember voting in the 1966 election, which happened to occur during a university vacation. At that time, however, few students tried to "double register", because few were of what was then voting age. Only in 1970 was the issue tested—in a case called Fox v. Stirk, the outcome of which confirmed that people could register to vote in parliamentary elections in two constituencies. Before that, the position was uncertain.

As a result, it had to be spelt out in the Representation of the People Act 1983 that it was illegal to vote in two constituencies in parliamentary elections. It was not that anyone had believed before that it was legal; the situation simply had not arisen, because it was assumed that people registered their principal residence in any one constituency. The matter really became an issue because of the lowering of the voting age.

When he made his ruling, Lord Denning said: The first principle is that a man can have two residences. He can have a flat in London and a house in the country. I think that Lord Denning was thinking mainly of people like the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, who was used to having two residences even before the lowering of the voting age. There may have been cases before the 1970s of people who registered in their London house and their country house, but the main reason why the provision was spelled out in the law was that it was regarded as a new phenomenon and the law had to make it explicit that double voting was illegal.

It is an anomaly that people can register in two constituencies. It was never intended by Parliament and has never been passed in a Representation of the People Bill. The anomaly emerged because people started to do it and the law held that it was not illegal.

At the same time, a case in Scotland—the name escapes me; I think that it was called Phillips—came to the opposite conclusion that a voter should register only in the constituency of his or her principal residence. Many Scots are under the impression to this day that they are not allowed to double register. In fact, that is probably not true, because Fox v. Stirk was heard in a higher court and therefore takes precedence. The Scottish law's answer was that people could not be double registered and the English law's was that they could. Both legal rulings had nothing to do with the intention of Parliament.

There is cross-party support on the issue. The Home Affairs Committee heard evidence from representatives of the three main parties, all of whom made it clear that they would like an end to dual registration. Chief among those giving evidence was the then chairman of the Conservative party, Lord Parkinson, who said that students and second-home owners should nominate their principal place of residence. He clearly opposed the two main kinds of dual registration.

8.30 pm
Mr. Robathan

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with interest. I had understood that the purpose of the Bill was to make it easier to vote. That seems to be the idea behind the rolling register and other proposals. The Minister is nodding. If I were a university student and had nominated the university as my place of residence but was at home when the election was called, I would have to get a postal vote. We all know that postal votes are not the easiest way of voting, and that the Government want to make it easier to vote. How will people be encouraged to vote if they cannot register in both the places where they live during part of the year?

Mr. Linton

This is a good time to correct the anomaly because the Bill's main proposals, which I applaud, are a rolling register and postal voting on demand. Those provisions will make it much easier for students who live in two places to vote in elections. It is difficult at the moment. Students who are registered in only one constituency do not have much time after an election is called to apply for a postal vote. They cannot apply for a permanent postal vote. They have to apply at each election. In 1974, for example, students had only a few days to apply for a postal vote to ensure that they could register their vote in the other constituency.

The Bill will introduce postal voting on demand. It will be possible to have a permanent postal vote for any reason. Students who live in two places will find it the easiest thing in the world to get a postal vote in the other constituency. It will be open to students to decide which constituency to register in, because they will still have a claim of residence in both. The amendment would merely force them to choose which should be their principal residence where they want to be on the parliamentary register. In the current circumstances, the amendment might lead to more difficulty, but, given the other proposals in the Bill, voting would not be more difficult.

Mr. Robathan

Voting will be easy in theory. The hon. Gentleman came to the House in 1997. In my limited experience, postal votes are not a panacea, because the whole business is very complicated. Postal votes sometimes do not arrive. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that it would be easier for students to vote. I think that fewer people would vote, not more. We are trying to encourage more people to vote.

Mr. Linton

Yes indeed, but the Bill will make it much easier for people to get postal votes. There will also be pilots in other voting systems, which could allow students, or anybody else, to vote in any post office, library or town hall anywhere in the country and have their vote registered in their home constituency. Distant voting will no longer be difficult. I cannot predict how successful the pilots will be or how soon they will be rolled out across the country, but I have every confidence that the Bill will ensure that it is no longer difficult to vote from another part of the country. On Second Reading, I cited the example of Sweden, where it is possible to vote at any post office in the country until 5 pm on election day and have the vote transferred to one's local polling station by the close of the polls at 8 pm. There is no reason why we cannot introduce such a system under the Bill, taking all the pain out of postal voting.

The Liberal Democrat representative told the Select Committee: I can see why they"— students— should be able to vote in either place in local elections"— and that takes up the point made by Conservative Members. He continued: I do not think they should have a right to choose though which of those two giving them the entitlement to vote in Parliamentary elections. In other words, in parliamentary elections, there should not be dual registration even if it is permitted for local elections.

The Labour party representative said: Certainly in Parliamentary and European elections it would be better if people when they sign their declaration say this is their main or principal residence". Whatever may be the case with local elections, at parliamentary level, all three parties support an end to dual registration.

The Home Affairs Committee recommended that there should be an end to dual registration in parliamentary elections and said that people should be required to specify their main residence. That recommendation was misinterpreted by the Home Office working party on election procedure, which studied all these issues before they were put in the Bill. That working party read it as a requirement for people to make a declaration about the constituency of their principal residence, as if they had to sign a form when registering to vote. The working group concluded that it would be complex to administer and would discourage, rather than encourage, voting.

That is making far more of the proposal than was intended. Without dual registration, it would be perfectly simple for people to register only once for parliamentary elections but to register twice for local elections. That is perfectly possible now. European nationals and Members of the House of Lords can register for local and European elections. Their electoral number is usually appended with a G, a K or an L in the electoral register. It is an accepted device now, and this change in the law would mean that, as a parliamentary elector, one could register only once while continuing to register twice for local elections.

The next test of the amendment is whether the law as it stands creates any mischief. 1 argue that it does. There is a clear advantage to people who have the option of dual registration in that they can cast their vote in the more marginal seat. That point was made strongly in evidence to the Home Affairs Committee by one of the academics. He said: persons registered in two or more constituencies may prefer to cast their vote in the constituency which is more marginal and therefore where their vote is more likely to prove of political impact to the result. We know from experience that those who are dual registered cast their votes in a tactical way, giving them an advantage possessed by nobody else. The academic continued that a choice of constituency in general elections applies most commonly to our more affluent citizens by virtue of their ownership of two or more houses and said: It would be preferable to remove this element of electoral chicanery which has systematically favoured the better-off. I do not know how true it is that double registration helps the more affluent, but I am sure that we all agree that it does confer an unfair advantage on some people who can choose to vote in the constituency in which their vote makes more difference.

The Home Affairs Committee identified two groups who benefit from dual registration and said that constituencies that can be influenced by dual registration are those with large student populations and a large number of second homes. The Committee's report said that in probably very few constituencies was the result influenced by the votes of double-registered voters. However, I am not sure that we were right on that. The student vote is substantial in many constituencies, and the election date is essentially a lottery for candidates in those constituencies, many of whom wait to discover whether students will be able to vote at university or, in the vacation, at home. Under the new system, although students will still have the choice of registering at their university or home address, they will have to make that choice in advance, rather than tactically at the election.

I urge the Government to accept this group of amendments. There is cross-party support for change in the law. The anomaly was never intended by Parliament; it has simply developed, and is unfair electorally.

Mr. Simon Hughes

There are several propositions: the first is on choosing representation at parliamentary elections; the second is on choosing representation at local government elections; and the third is on registration for both types of elections.

On the first proposition, and for reasons that have already been elucidated, Liberal Democrat Members are minded to support amendment No. 30. In parliamentary elections, everyone should have one vote, and everyone's vote should have equal worth. The Government are to be congratulated for ensuring that "everybody" now encompasses more people—including those without permanent places of residence, such as those who are homeless, in mental hospitals or on remand.

Everyone has one place to which they are more closely tied. If people have more than one place of residence, they are entitled to choose where to vote. Therefore, some people have the advantage of deciding where their vote might be more useful. As long as we have a constituency-based system—regardless of whether it is first past the post or multi-member—those people will have an additional advantage.

The advantage is as available to students—it was when I was a student—as it is to hon. Members. Some hon. Members live in my constituency. Until recently, the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) lived there; I do not know whether he still does. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) lives in my constituency, as does the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). If they thought that they had a safe seat and decided not to vote in their constituency, they could vote in the constituency in which their parliamentary residence is located, perhaps affecting the outcome in a less-safe seat. It is terribly wrong—[Interruption.] I shall not embarrass the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham by saying how he voted.

Mr. Hogg

I vote for my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh).

Mr. Hughes

It is terribly wrong to give people an additional advantage. Moreover, as the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) said, that advantage is the result of an anomaly. When I was a student, I remember being aware that I had the choice of where to vote, and I exercised that choice by being on the register in the place where I could most intelligently use my vote.

Current electoral law is the aspect that baffles us all. The most recent electoral form, and previous ones, sent to me asked me to state where I resided on the relevant date, which was 10 October. One certainly cannot reside at more than one place on one date. Does the Minister think that it should be possible for people to register in more than one place?

Both the electoral form and the law state that, by signing a form in one place, one is declaring that that place is one's normal or regular place of residence. It is probably not proper for people to fill in forms in two places—although it is commonly accepted that, if one has two homes, one probably is able to fill in two forms.

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Thirdly, there are different arguments about local elections. Although they are not conclusive, there are arguments to suggest that, because one is electing the administration for local government services for that area, one should have a vote in more than one area if one can register. The elections are at different times. Theoretically, they are different elections. Also, one is contributing in each area. That argument is difficult to sustain because it was the argument for the old business rate—one contributed and, therefore, one got a business vote. Although that parallel exists, it cannot be put in the same frame as local government and parliamentary elections.

There is a strong case for saying that, if my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), for example, has a London and a Somerset residence, is entitled to fill in the form for both—he has simply to fill in a form to say that he is resident in both, not that he has a principal, main or sole residence—and has a council tax obligation in both, as one would have if one had two homes but no more than, he should be entitled to vote in both places.

Mr. David Heath

I do not register both for my address in the east end and for that in Somerton and Frome because I read the form and I understand the wording of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which states that one is required to be resident on the qualifying date. I take it that the normal meaning of those words is that I can be living only at one place on that date. That is why I am mystified by the state of the present law.

Mr. Hughes

Clearly, the rolling register would allow people to move their vote. The easier that that is, the better, but it is not the complete answer. Will a student who is based at the family home in the holiday and at college or university in term time think about changing the vote from one place to the other? I realise that people could do so and that the theory of the system is that they will, but I am not persuaded that it will necessarily follow that people will think, "There is an election. I am on the list in Caithness and I want to transfer to London," and that they will re-register.

We should be clear about the first principle on parliamentary elections and sort out the law, as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire suggests. However, we should be more careful about the second, because local government elections raise different issues. As a precondition to our conclusions, the Minister will help us all if he can confirm—as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome prompted him to do—what the law is at present. If it is meant to be that one can register only in one place, the sooner that that happens, the better.

Mr. Grieve

I do not want to take up much time and I endorse the comments of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), in particular those on local government elections and the consequences of the amendments on people's ability to vote in those elections when they have a clear interest in the outcome. Those arguments were also endorsed by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

The problem goes further, and I shall concentrate on the way in which it concerns parliamentary elections. The hon. Gentleman hit the nail on the head. He was the first person to introduce into the debate the notion of parliamentary representation and what it is about. That is where the dividing line appears between the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), myself and, I suspect, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham.

To have a first-past-the-post system and, above all, to ensure community representation, we have to tolerate a substantial number of anomalies that derogate from the principle that everyone's vote is equal. It is apparent that constituency sizes vary. One person's vote in a constituency with a small electorate carries proportionately more weight than that of a person in a constituency with a larger electorate. We accept that for two reasons. The first is because we want the first-past-the-post system. I know that views differ, but I think that the majority of hon. Members believe that that is essential. Secondly, we believe that people should be involved in their local communities and should elect their local community representative. I know that, in reality, it is often a question of choosing between parties, but the link between the Member of Parliament and his constituency is considered important. The link between the elector and his involvement in the local community is also considered important.

With those principles in mind, I do not find the idea of someone being entitled to choose where he casts his vote, because he happens to have an involvement in two locations, at all difficult. I accept that he should not be able to exercise a vote in two places at once, but, provided that he makes his choice, I cannot see the problem. Indeed, there is much to be commended.

University students often get as involved in their local communities as in studying. They should be encouraged to choose whether they vote where their university is, or at home. Those who have two residences, whether for pleasure or business, are often involved in both communities. They, too, should be entitled to that choice, and I do not follow the arguments of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire that it is in the interests of parliamentary democracy for that choice to be removed.

Mr. Barnes

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that my proposals would in no way limit the choice to decide where someone should be registered? People with a number of residences can choose which they consider to be their sole or main place of residence. There would be no problem about choice under my proposed system. People would put down one place and, if they decided to move because the influence in their life had changed, they could register elsewhere and have their name deleted.

Mr. Grieve

I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I disagree with him. First, I do not believe that the rolling register would be able to cope with the number of variables that would be introduced if people constantly announced to the electoral registration office that they were changing location.

Secondly, I do not see why people should not be entitled to make their choice at a by-election and say, "It is my good fortune that I happen to have business interests in another part of the country and I have a residence there. I will be able to contribute to the election of the local candidate, even though at the general election I would prefer to vote at another location where I have another residence."

Finally, I have never understood residence to be a sole or exclusive concept. It is perfectly possible to reside in two places at once. After all, on the electoral registration day, people may be in one of their homes in the morning and somewhere else in the afternoon, or in a hotel that is outside either place. I see no difficulty in that, but I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments.

I would leave well alone. The arrangements contribute to the variety of participation. An issue that has been raised time and again in this House recently is the diminution of participation in the electoral process. This proposal would be another nail in the coffin of participation. I do not think that what we have causes distortions that should create anxiety for individuals.

Mr. Linton

The hon. Gentleman asked why students should not have a choice in where they cast their vote. Lord Parkinson, when chairman of the Conservative party, said to the Select Committee on Home Affairs: Students should nominate their principle place of residence in particular because they are birds of passage and they can elect the Member and not be there for more than a few months after he has been elected. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Mr. Grieve

No, I do not agree, and I will tell the hon. Gentleman why. In Kensington and Chelsea, where there has recently been a by-election, I think that some 30 per cent. of the electorate changes annually. It is an enormous percentage, but I cannot remember the precise figure. Is it to be said that people are to be deprived of the vote because it so happens that they will be moving house subsequently?

Mr. Linton

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grieve

No. I must bring my speech to an end.

I disagree with the reasoning of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire. I would leave the matter well alone. It helps our democratic process.

Mr. Greenway

The comment of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) provokes me to say that at general elections I vote for myself. I dare say that most right hon. and hon. Members do the same. At the 1992 general election, a good personal friend of mine who is a member of my party confessed to me at the count that he had not voted for me. It was a practical joke. When I went a whiter shade of pale he added, "Because I voted for Mr. Dudley Fishburn in Kensington."

It has become an accepted part of our electoral arrangements for parliamentary elections that people can be registered to vote in two different places, but that they must vote only in one of those places. If there is an issue for the Committee in tonight's debate, it is whether we should strengthen the Bill or clarify its provisions to ensure that the law that states that one can vote only once in a parliamentary election is more strictly monitored and enforced. I hope that the Minister will give some thought to that.

If I may be provocative myself, I suggest that it is really time, after almost five hours of debate, for us to get down to debating some of the issues pertaining to what is in the Bill rather than to what right hon. and hon. Members think ought to have been put in the Bill in the first place.

By way of a preface to the way in which we shall approach this Committee stage, I want to say that all the amendments that have been tabled in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends have the express purpose of improving, clarifying or strengthening the provisions in the Bill on which there is consensus. We had our partisan arguments on Second Reading and I dare say that when we come to Report there may be some further partisan arguments, but our purpose in the Committee is to promote ideas that we believe will clarify, improve or strengthen the Bill.

There is an important double registration issue for the Committee. We will deal with it chiefly when we consider clause 6, but the structure of the Bill means that we need to consider whether changes are appropriate to clause 1. Five amendments in the group—amendments Nos. 9, 10, 11, 12 and 14—deal with the double registration issue. We are pleased to see that the Government have clarified their position, especially on the declaration of local connection.

The Bill does not make it clear whether a person can have more than one current local connection declaration at any one time, but I see that the Government have tabled amendments Nos. 56 and 57 to clause 6 to clarify the issue and make it abundantly clear that there can be only one local declaration at any one time.

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More important than that, I understand that if a person whose name is included on an electoral register through a local declaration is subsequently registered in the normal way, the Government's intention is that the local declaration registration should be void. In other words, if the person acquires a permanent residence—within that, or another, constituency—the local declaration would fall, as he would now be properly registered because he had a residence and a permanent address. I realise that I am straying somewhat from clause 1 by making that point, but it has an important bearing on the Conservative amendments in the group—amendment No. 14 also relates to clause 6.

The Government amendments seem to offer only a halfway house. If I have correctly understood the matter, once a person is properly registered, a local declaration registration would fall. However, it is not clear whether someone who is already on a register, by virtue of having a permanent address, can subsequently make a local declaration. That is why we have tabled amendments Nos. 9, 10, 11, 12 and 14. They would ensure that people who make a local connection declaration must inform the electoral registration officer if they are already registered elsewhere. In such cases, it would be sensible not only to remove people from one of the registers, but to ensure that there is effective cross-reference between electoral registration officers.

Although the wording of our amendments might be improved, I ask the Minister to give some thought to the matter in his winding-up speech. We need to clarify the position of a person who is on the electoral register in a part of the country from which he has moved. An example might be a person in his late teens or early 20s who lives at home with his parents and is included on the electoral register because his dad filled in the form. The person might then leave home to go into digs—perhaps as a student. He might fall on hard times, become homeless and live in some local hostel. He could thus take advantage of the local declaration so as to register in the constituency where he is living—albeit as, in effect, a homeless person.

It would be inappropriate for people to be disfranchised, with no prospect of voting in the area in which they live, simply because their names were on an electoral register somewhere else. However, if people are already registered, they should declare it, so that the earlier registration can be nullified.

Mr. Linton

Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that, under amendment No. 10, people who have to make a local declaration of residence because they are homeless—because they sleep in a shop doorway—should be removed from the register in the place where they lived previously, while people who have a flat in town and a house in the country should continue to enjoy the benefit of double registration? I am rather alarmed that he should hold those apparently contradictory views, especially since the Conservative party and Conservative members of the Home Affairs Committee were in favour of an end to dual—

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is far too long.

Mr. Greenway

My views are not contradictory. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—through nods and winks—clearly acknowledges that the Government's intention is that there should be only one declaration of local connection and that, if someone is added to an electoral register, any such declaration would be nullified. I am sure that the House would recognise that that is a realistic and reasonable position.

The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) asked about people who have more than one residence, but he will see from amendments Nos. 10 and 12 that we also suggest that anyone who makes an application for registration, when he is going on the register in the normal way, should specify and declare whether he is on another register. We agree with the Select Committee on Home Affairs—I have read its views with care—that there is a problem with double registration. We do not want to prohibit the prospect of double registration, but we want electoral registration officers to be aware of those individuals who are on an electoral register in another constituency or who may be—this is unlikely, but technically possible—on the register twice in the same constituency in respect of the same address.

The Home Affairs Committee concluded that there is no way of checking whether the law is being properly upheld; it is clearly not being enforced. I am registered to vote in Ryedale in north Yorkshire and in Vauxhall by virtue of my home in Kennington. I am a public figure, so I suppose that it is not unreasonable to think that electoral registration officers may have twigged that I may be registered in both places—heaven forfend that any Member of the House would seek to vote twice in a parliamentary election. However, in the case of many thousands of others, it may not be obvious to an electoral registration officer that someone is on another register. Although we cannot in any way accept the suggestion of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) that people should be on only one parliamentary register, the Government should consider whether electoral registration officers should be aware of dual registration so that people are more confident that the registers are secure.

I wish to make two final points. First, we shall have a rolling register and not the annual register that we have been used to until now. We are happy to support the proposal for a rolling register, but it would be utterly chaotic—this prospect has been suggested in the debate—if people with two or three residences because of their work came on and off the register each time they moved from one part of the country to another. I am sure that the Minister would agree that, even with the best will in the world, we are a long way from having the information technology in place to enable such procedures to be encouraged or to be secure.

My second point relates to the introduction of the concept of local declaration. I assume that we shall debate this issue again on the next day the Committee sits, but it is vital that the new declaration procedure be secure and that any potential abuse be closed off. I take it from the fact that the Government have tabled amendments No. 56 and 57 that they recognise that that issue must be dealt with.

I suggest, however, that the Minister has only half answered the question. The way we read it is that people who are on a register by virtue of a local declaration will automatically have that registration nullified if they then come on to the register by normal means. However, other people will already be on the register by normal means and they should be required to declare that—whether they are on the register or not—when they apply for a declaration of local connection. Our amendments, or something similar, would help to deal with that issue. We hope that the Minister will take that on board.

Mr. George Howarth

As the Committee would have expected, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who has—I repeat the point—an honourable and long tradition of raising concerns about the electoral system, has again raised an important issue. I am grateful to him for doing so. The issue is, I am sure, close to the hearts of many right hon. and hon. Members because many of us, as has been conceded, appear on the electoral register in our constituencies and in respect of our midweek residences in London.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) mentioned several hon. Members who lived in his constituency for a brief period. When I was first elected in 1986, I lived in that constituency, but I assure him that he did not get my support on any of the occasions when I was eligible to vote.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire has led us to have a reasonable debate. However, there are reasons why I cannot, on this occasion, support him.

Perhaps I should at this stage deal with one query that was raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey: whether, because of the wording of the form, people were allowed to be resident in more than one place.

Mr. Simon Hughes

On a particular day.

Mr. Howarth

On a particular day. The form asks whether the person is a resident on the relevant date, rather than if that person is physically present. The courts have ruled—the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) made the point—that it is possible to have more than one residence at the same time. On the basis of the courts' interpretation, on this occasion we have to accept that that is the case. The point that was raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has thus been covered.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield gave a good example. One could wake up in the morning in one residence and go to bed in the evening in another. In my case, not that I intend to register there, this morning I woke up in the Belfast, East constituency and will go to bed, I hope at a reasonable hour, in the Cities of London and Westminster constituency. It would not be my intention, come a general election, to vote in either place.

Mr. Greenway

You will vote for yourself?

Mr. Howarth

Unfortunately, the Boundary Commission will deprive me of that opportunity, but I will, when the next election comes, God willing, vote for my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara).

Mr. David Heath

I am grateful to the Minister for explaining, but he has confused me still further. What he has described is specifically referred to in the Representation of the People Act 1983, which deals with people who work away from their principal residence. I have to ask him the question that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) raised with me: if he and I are resident in both places, are we committing an offence by not completing the register of electors for a flat in London—which so far I have not completed?

Mr. Howarth

The courts have made it clear that the hon. Gentleman is entitled, if he so wishes, to register in both places, but it does not necessarily follow that, by not registering in both, he is committing an offence.

Mr. Hogg

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth

I will, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman will let me finish my point.

I stand to be corrected, but I am not aware of any case law that supports the point that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is making—that, by not registering in both residences, he would be in breach of the law. The courts have made it clear that he would be eligible to register in both places of residence.

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Mr. Hogg

Although it is possible that the Minister's response to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is correct, is it not true that the hon. Gentleman, as occupier, is under an obligation to complete the form that is delivered to him, if only because other people may live in the residence occupied by him and because, if he did not complete the form, those third parties would be deprived of their rights? Although the hon. Gentleman must fill out the form, whether or not he puts himself on it is a more debatable matter.

Mr. Linton

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Howarth

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall let him intervene later, after I have responded to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg).

The right hon. and learned Gentleman tempts me into areas into which I would be unwise to stray. His point that there is an obligation to fill in the form is a good one, but I fear that, if I were to go into the detail of the domestic arrangements enjoyed by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome in his constituency and in London, the Chairman would say that I was straying from the point. I shall therefore not develop those arguments further.

Double registration, which the amendment would outlaw, is a sensitive issue. On the one hand, the principle of one person, one vote, which lies at the heart of our democratic system, suggests that no one should appear on the electoral register more than once. Therein lies the strength of the arguments advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire in support of his amendment. However, on the other hand, there are many people—notably but not exclusively students—who genuinely divide their time between two places.

Perhaps because the issue is so sensitive, it has been thoroughly discussed and considered more than once in recent years. In its report "Electoral Law and Administration", published last year and mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), the Home Affairs Committee considered the question of double registration. Although it made one practical suggestion relating to those who have dual registrations, it deliberately did not recommend that the practice of double registration should be prohibited.

The working party on electoral procedures, which I chaired, went further. After considering the issue, we concluded that it would be unreasonable to deprive people properly registered in two places of the right to have a voice in electing a candidate to represent their interests on each of the local councils where they live. So the choice is theirs. Even though I have lived in two local authority areas for 13 years, I have made it my practice to vote only in my own constituency. However, that is my choice. I do not believe that I, as a legislator, should deprive anyone else of the ability to make that choice.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I understand the Minister's argument. Will he tell the Committee his working party's conclusions in respect of parliamentary elections? That is more clearly an issue, and his working party's guidance would be welcome.

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman draws my attention to an issue on which I intend to comment later.

The working party restated the principle that nobody should be able to vote twice in the same election. We recommended the retention of the prohibitions on double voting that amendments Nos. 30 and 32 would remove. Both the Home Affairs Committee, whose work my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea prayed in aid, and the working party proceeded on the basis of all-party consensus, and it would be wrong if we were to depart from that important principle.

It has been argued that legislators—Members of Parliament—should be extremely cautious about changing the basis on which people are eligible to vote, for the simple and proper reason that we might be the beneficiaries of such changes, depending on the way in which we make them. That is why as often as is possible it is important that we proceed on the basis of consensus. I worked hard as chairman of the working party to preserve that consensus and to make it an integral part of the proposals that we brought forward. For that main reason, I cannot invite the Committee to support the amendments.

I mentioned that the Home Affairs Committee had made one practical recommendation. It suggested that all those who appear on more than one electoral register should be required to specify at the time of registration which their main residence was and, accordingly, where they intended to vote in a general election.

I should perhaps explain why we have decided on balance not to go down that route. In large part—

Mr. Linton

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Howarth

I promised to give way to my hon. Friend, but I would like to finish my sentence before I do so.

The working party considered the suggestion carefully. Its conclusion was that a requirement for people to make an advance of declaration as to which constituency they intended to vote in would be complex to administer and could serve to discourage rather than encourage voting unless introduced flexibly to allow for late changes to the declared intended voting location. Such flexibility would of course largely negate any intended restraint on block tactical voting. We do not therefore consider it practical or desirable to introduce such a requirement. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea quoted precisely that passage. Obviously it is incumbent upon me to hear how he wants briefly to develop that argument.

Mr. Linton

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is an issue on which there was cross-party consensus, in that the representatives of all three major parties gave evidence precisely to the same effect to the Home Affairs Committee, and that all members of the Select Committee, of all three parties, came to the conclusion that there should be an end to dual registration? I know that the smaller parties that are represented in the House of Commons concurred with that view. I do not understand why at the last minute of the final hurdle the Opposition should have departed from the consensus. However, the consensus was already established both at the level of chairmen and general secretaries of parties—

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. That is far too long an intervention.

Mr. Howarth

When I gave way to my hon. Friend, for whom I harbour great affection, I said that I would do so briefly. I should have realised that my hon. Friend's definition of brevity is probably different from mine. However, he makes the point that I am arguing in favour of maximum consensus. He says that when the Home Affairs Committee considered this matter there was consensus. He referred to the then chairman of the Conservative party, Lord Parkinson, in that context. Subsequently, there was no such consensus on the working party which I chaired, and there is no such consensus in the Chamber tonight.

If my hon. Friend accepts the point that I made earlier, it would be wrong of the House of Commons to legislate on that basis. It would call our motives into question. Surely the last thing that we want is for the general public to view the proposed changes, which after all are designed to make voting easier, with suspicion. I know that my hon. Friend and others hold their views in a strong and

principled way, but I hope that it will be recognised that there is a counter-balancing principle, which is that we should proceed with the maximum possible consensus.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Was the Minister's working party given evidence as to roughly the number of people who are registered in two places for parliamentary elections? What is the procedure for random checking or any other process to ensure that there is no abuse of that system?

Mr. Howarth

I cannot recall whether the detailed statistics that the hon. Gentleman requests were made available to us, but the principle was considered. As I understand it, no systematic checks are carried out to establish the incidence of double voting. The responsibility lies with each returning officer and electoral registration officer to make such checks as they consider appropriate. In practice, I imagine that such checks are carried out only when there is reason for suspicion. That is probably appropriate.

I do not believe that there is evidence of widespread systematic abuse. We would not want to suggest that the integrity of our electoral system was such that random checks were warranted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea said, with the introduction of further technology, such checks may become simple to perform, but at present they are not.

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

Was the registration of university students considered? I have a university in my constituency. The 6,000 or 7,000 students there do not register individually. There is a mass registration—as they come in, they are registered. That could be another stumbling block to the measure.

Mr. Howarth

I shall cover that point when I deal with amendments tabled by the Opposition, so if my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall deal with her question later.

If we accepted the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire, it would run counter to the views of the working party on electoral procedures. On the basis of the consensus achieved there, I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw his amendments.

I shall deal now with the amendments to which the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) spoke on behalf of the official Opposition. I am a little surprised by them. I do not mean that in an unhelpful way, but I assumed that the hon. Gentleman and his party, being familiar with electoral procedures, were of the same view as I am—that our procedures were in some ways cumbersome and old-fashioned, and that we should endeavour to make it easier for people to vote. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman said as much.

However, it is clear, although perhaps unintended, that the Opposition amendments would make it harder for people to put their names on the register. The amendments would place an additional burden on people registering as electors, whether they were registering in the usual way, or by means of a service declaration or a declaration of local connection.

Amendments Nos. 9 to 12 would create a requirement to provide details of all previous registration in the past 12 months. That would place a particular burden on the most mobile members of our society, who are already among those least likely to register. It would also be a particular nuisance for students who, as the House knows, may move several times during a year.

The electoral registration form would need to be redesigned and made much larger to contain all that information. I remember Opposition Members protesting vigorously about the size of the ballot paper when we discussed the European Parliamentary Elections Bill. I am sure that they would not want an unwieldy document for registration purposes.

On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) in an intervention, the House would have to consider how large a form would be necessary, for example, to cater for a house shared by six students, let alone an entire student hostel where mass registration takes place. It would be a difficult process.

9.30 pm

Although the amendments are well intentioned, they do not serve a useful purpose. The introduction of a rolling electoral register would enable people to change their registration during the course of a year. The form will require people to give details of their previous registration to prevent dual registration. Why is anything more required? Why does a registration officer need details of earlier registrations? What would the electoral registration officer be required to do with that information?

Mr. Greenway

I do not understand the Minister's point. In one breath, he claims that it is too cumbersome to ask people who apply to go on a register—it could now be a rolling register—to give details of other places where they are registered, yet he accepts that there will have to be a mechanism to enable a registered person to be put on a new register and removed from a previous register. How will that be done other than through a request for details of other current registrations?

Mr. Howarth

Individuals would simply make a declaration of where they intended to cast their vote in, for example, parliamentary elections. That does not require information about other places where they may be registered. The difference between the amount of information that the Opposition and the Government would require is considerable.

Mr. Greenway

I am sorry to intervene again, but can we agree on two points? First, does the Minister accept that rolling registration will create a greater prospect of people being on more than one register? We need a mechanism whereby their names are removed from previous registers. Secondly, will he deal with the issue of people who are already registered somewhere, but who seek to make a local declaration registration?

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman makes a theoretical suggestion. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department will consider his point. Without prejudging my hon. Friend's consideration, I suspect that the hon. Gentleman's fears are unfounded. I am in a good position; as a visiting Minister, I can make commitments on behalf of hon. Friends without necessarily having to follow them up. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend has now helpfully handed me a note, which states that he will write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth

I shall give way for the last time; I need to make progress.

Mr. Hughes

I am prompted to intervene by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor), who asks another question to be passed to the Minister's left. Will the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department take evidence from places such as Cornwall, where the second home issue has caused problems over the years and where there is a widespread view that associated abuses have distorted the system? I do not expect the Under-Secretary to reply tonight, but I ask the Home Office to consider the problem and to invite Cornwall electoral registration officers to submit evidence.

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend suggested offstage that he would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that issue. After every general election, the Home Office undertakes a review of any anomalies or difficulties in election procedures. Electoral registration officers in Cornwall and elsewhere can make use of that. I do not know whether they did that after the last general election, but methods of raising problems exist.

I hope that those who are not yet fully convinced of the force of my arguments will not believe it necessary to divide the Committee. Doubtless my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire, who is a doughty campaigner, will continue to raise registration matters, and, in due course, he may even persuade us of the merits of his argument. I fear, however, that we are not far along that road tonight.

Mr. Barnes

I had support in the debate for certain amendments, especially for ending double registration for parliamentary elections. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) supported those provisions, but—unfortunately for me—my suggestions for changes to local government elections are part and parcel of the whole package of arguments that I am making. I have yet to convince those hon. Members who gave me partial support that they need to go somewhat further.

I am a bit disturbed by the response of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) to my arguments. He claimed that I am in some way attempting to restrict electoral registration rights, but I have argued for years in the House about the need to advance electoral registration provisions. In the next debate, he may think that I want to restrict those rights further by eliminating overseas votes. The Bill goes part way to starting to place the missing millions on the electoral registers and I assure him that if he looks at the balance of numbers, the arguments and the evidence—for instance, that which I gave to the Home Affairs Committee when it was producing its report—he will see that there are good, solid arguments for my amendments, which would considerably improve electoral registration in this country. We need a modern, up-to-date rolling register rather than the limited version suggested by the Government.

The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) claimed that my amendments were in some way improper compared with his own, which he said related to the Bill, but that is obviously not the case. My amendments would not have been selected if they had anything improper about them and they are highly germane to the provisions before the Committee. He is concerned about the problem of double registration of homeless people. I am concerned generally about the problem of double registration, which I referred to in connection with people's residences. He was in danger of supporting double registration for toffs, but objecting to it for down and outs. That position is not viable. My position is that I am against double registration across the board. His amendments would be much more appropriate if they were combined with my package of amendments. I should perhaps have given further thought to the people he is concerned about, but he stands alone on the platform in respect of his position on registration of the homeless.

Mr. Greenway

The hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends, including the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), are missing the point completely. The argument for making a declaration of local connection is to enable people to vote who otherwise would have no right to do so because they have no permanent residence. It must follow that if they make such a declaration to enable them to vote they should not be on any other register.

Mr. Barnes

That point is reasonable, especially if it is related generally to the overall problem of double registration. It would have been possible, therefore, to table different amendments that relied on the same principle, but tied my position to the declaration of local connection and the knock-on consequences.

Many other amendments form part of my argument for getting the missing millions on to the electoral registers and the measure before the Committee is part of that process. It is not appropriate for me to go into the detail of later amendments at this stage. The problem with Committee procedures is that amendments must be considered in relation to specific clauses. My arguments about the issuing of polling cards and the need for publicity tie in with the general structure that I am advocating.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said that he used to have a flat in the constituency of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. It was above my flat. The difference between us was that he placed himself on the electoral register and I did not. I took the attitude that was expressed earlier. Am I legally obliged to put myself on the electoral register, or is it sufficient to fill in a form as the sole occupant pointing out that I am not entitled to registration? Would I face a £1,000 fine for not registering?

The Under-Secretary claimed that the system was established with all-party consensus. That consensus was broken because the Liberal Democrats were willing to support my amendments Nos. 30 and 33 on parliamentary elections. This is an on-going argument. The Government will introduce legislation later that will establish an electoral commission, which will make recommendations to the House. I am happy that the arguments put in this debate will continue. We may come back to the issue, especially if other Government measures involve greater expenditure on electoral registration than those in the Bill. The Bill makes provision for expenditure by local authorities, but does little about the operation of a central roll, which will have to be addressed by an electoral commission. Some of these measures may become more appropriate at that stage.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Kaufman

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 44, leave out from "elector" to end of line 2 on page 3.

The First Deputy Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 2, in clause 8, page 10, line 11, leave out ", 2".

No. 3, in page 10, line 14, leave out from beginning to "and" in line 15.

No. 4, in schedule 1, page 19, line 28, leave out from "declarations" to end of line 29.

No. 5, in page 26, leave out lines 28 to 31.

No. 47, in schedule 2, page 27, line 33, leave out "20" and insert "5".

No. 48, in page 27, line 33, leave out "20" and insert "10".

No. 49, in page 27, line 42, leave out "20" and insert "5".

No. 50, in page 27, line 42, leave out "20" and insert "10".

No. 82, in page 28, line 2, at end insert— (4A) The third set of conditions is that—

  1. (a) he was included in a register of parliamentary electors in respect of an address at a place that is situated within the constituency concerned,
  2. (b) that entry in the register was made on the basis that he was resident, or to be treated for the purposes of registration as resident, at that address, and
  3. (c) he either, prior to ceasing to be a resident of the United Kingdom, signed a declaration stating an intention to return to the United Kingdom to live within ten years of departure, or, alternatively, he continues to pay income tax annually in the United Kingdom.".

No. 51, in page 30, line 23, leave out "20" and insert "5".

No. 52, in page 30, line 23, leave out "20" and insert "10".

No. 53, in page 30, line 32, leave out "20" and insert"5"

No. 54, in page 30, line 32, leave out "20" and insert "10".

Schedule 2 stand part.

No. 7, in schedule 4, page 34, leave out lines 52 and 53.

No. 8, in page 35, line 19, leave out from "connection" to end of line 20.

New clause 1—British citizens overseas— —(1) Sections 1 to 4 and subsections (1) and (2) of section 12 of the Representation of the People Act 1985, as amended by the Representation of the People Act 1989, are hereby repealed. (2) In section 3C of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978 (as inserted by the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999), in subsection (2), paragraph (b) and the word 'or' at the end of paragraph (a) shall be omitted.

Mr. Kaufman

Listening to the debate on the previous group of amendments, it occurred to me that if the Opposition's requirement of a declaration of local connection were put into law there would be no need for me to move this amendment. It is an interesting fact that the Conservative party wants to place every obstacle in the way of homeless people being able to vote, whereas people living abroad as tax exiles who vote for a Government who create homelessness are not asked to provide any declaration of local connection.

The amendment would abolish the overseas vote in its entirety. The aim is to return the position to what it was before the Representation of the People Act 1985. It is an interesting coincidence that the Representation of the People Bill that became the Act of 1985 had its Second Reading on 10 December 1984, almost exactly 15 years ago tonight.

9.45 pm

On Second Reading, the Conservative party seemed to believe that those of us who were opposed to the overseas vote were using this provision to launch an attack on Michael Ashcroft. Mr. Ashcroft has simply hitch-hiked on to the provision in order to make donations to the Conservative party, and he can be left to his own devices, whatever they may be. I, however, have opposed the overseas vote since it was first mooted in the House. I argued against it in discussions with Leon Brittan when I was shadow Home Secretary; I opposed it in the debate on the White Paper in June 1984; I opposed it on Second Reading of the Bill in December 1984; and I opposed it in Committee in January 1985.

I have opposed the overseas vote for the same reasons that Conservative Members have adduced against the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). They say that there must be a local connection, that people must be part of the community, and that if they are part of the community they must have the right to vote. Yet they dragged through the House, opposed by the Labour party, a provision granting the vote to someone who for many years had had no connection with this country or any specific locality. What is more, the child of such a person, who had never even lived in this country, would be entitled to vote as an attainer. I have opposed this measure from the beginning, on the simple basis of no representation without taxation.

As I have said, my opposition dates back to the time when the overseas vote was first mooted. On 27 June 1984, the House debated the response of the then Conservative Government, in a White Paper, to a report from the Select Committee on Home Affairs. The Committee—it contained a substantial Conservative majority, because the Conservatives had a majority of 100 in the House—opposed the introduction of an overseas vote outright and unanimously. It said that such a vote could have far-reaching consequences, and ruled it out on practical grounds. It said that it might alter the whole character of British elections. It said: Such an increase in the overseas vote would to some extent alter the traditional relationship between candidates at general or local elections and the voters whose support they are seeking to enlist. Hitherto, in the great majority of cases, the candidate has been able both to speak directly to the elector either on the doorstep or in a public place and personally to ensure that his election literature is delivered to every household. Problems of communication could arise both between candidates and overseas voters at election time and, indeed, between Members and their constituents thereafter. The Committee—a Conservative-dominated Select Committee—also said, in its unanimous report, that those who would be given this franchise forfeited their claim to participate in the country's affairs.

When I spoke from the then Opposition Front Bench, I supported the report of that Conservative-dominated Select Committee. I may as well quote from what I said in the House then, because it will save time and because—as I was better at these things then—it will be more eloquent. I said: These people to whom the Home Secretary proposes that the vote shall be given will not be living in the constituency where they will be able to claim the right to vote. They may never have voted in that constituency. While they lived there—they may have lived there for a short time only—they will have been a self-selected electorate. The vote will be exercisable not by a defined and finite group, as happens now, but by people who decide that they feel like having the vote". It is an optional franchise. It is a criminal offence for those who live in this country not to fill in the form, but those who do not live in this country and qualify for the overseas vote can choose whether they want it. That is a strange attitude to the franchise.

I went on: Their use of the right will be a farce. They will not be able to meet their candidate, to question the candidate or be canvassed by someone calling on behalf of the candidate. They may not receive any election literature, and they may therefore know nothing of the candidate except his or her name and party. I went on to point out that the proposals could make it possible for tax exiles to decide the taxes that are paid by people living and working in this country. Property speculators living abroad could decide what pension should be paid to people who have worked all their lives in this country."—[0fficial Report, 27 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 1029–31.]

That was the situation when the Conservative Government proposed an overseas vote for people who had been out of the country for seven years. It applies in spades to the current 20-year limit and would have applied to the 25 years that they wanted to introduce before those on our Front Bench persuaded them to reduce that a little.

On Second Reading of the 1984 Bill, I advanced further reasons. I said: Under the Government's dotty proposals, not only former electors get the vote but former non-electors too. Children who left Britain at the age of 11 and have had no contact with this country since then will have the right to vote and to help to decide this country's future, which they may never return to share. There are people who came on the register this year who have not been living in this country since 1978, yet they are able to participate in deciding who should govern the country.

I further argued: For citizens who live in the United Kingdom, registration for the franchise is obligatory and failure to register is an offence. For expatriates, registration is optional…. It is quite unacceptable that the votes of people who are sunning themselves in tropical climes should decide the heating allowances of pensioners shivering in Britain in the cold of winter."—[Official Report, 10 December 1984; Vol. 69, c. 766–68.]

Our party's record has been clear from the start. It has assented to the idea only through force majeure and done its best on both Bills—the first introduced the overseas vote and the second expanded it—to limit the provision.

In Committee, I said that under our constituency system a person votes not for a Government but for a Member of Parliament to represent him or her. An overseas voter who has not lived in the constituency in which he or she has a right to vote will not be in direct contact with the issues and problems of the constituency. As a parent, he will not have experienced the education system or been able to campaign about school closures. As a sick person he will not have used the National Health Service, been in hospital or been able to form an opinion about health provision. As a driver, he will not have used the roads or public transport and, therefore, cannot know about those issues. He will not have been a householder who has paid rates and, therefore cannot have an opinion about local government finance policy". Some hon. Members want people to have several votes in local election for those reasons.

I went on: Such a person will not have been able to play a direct part in the affairs of the constituency, even so limited a part as signing a petition, or the major part of being active in a political party, residents association, ratepayers association, the women's voluntary service, the scouts, ex-service men's associations, or any of the organisations that make up the web of community that exists in Britain and in which those who live outside the country cannot participate. I went on further: What makes this franchise fancier than any other fancy franchise that we have had for a long time—certainly since the abolition of the university vote—is that it is based not on residence but on option."—[Official Report, 29 January 1985; Vol. 72, c. 191–93.] Every argument that Conservative Members advanced against my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire because of the local connection is totally traduced by the measure they introduced. I concluded that the Opposition were totally opposed to the measure. That is how the Labour party stood 15 years ago and that is what I am advocating that the Labour party should return to now that it is, happily, back in government.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I understand the logic of the right hon. Gentleman's argument and I do not want to associate myself with the arguments deployed against it by the previous Conservative Government. However, what would he say to my older brother—this is a real example—who was living in Herefordshire and given a job by Barclays International, for which he worked, which required him to go abroad for an uncertain period? He is married to a woman working for the British services in Cyprus. He always intended to come home and did so as soon as he was able. He retained as many links with, and interests in, the British political process as was possible during his time abroad, which was fewer than 10 years but more than none. Surely he should have been allowed to continue to take part in decisions affecting the country in which he had paid taxes, in which he continued to have a financial interest and to which he has returned to pay taxes and contribute fully.

Mr. Kaufman

The franchise in this country is based purely and simply on residential qualification. We have debated this in our consideration of amendments moved by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire. I am sorry about the misfortune that might afflict the hon. Gentleman's brother, but when he

comes back, he can resume his vote. It is as simple as that. I do not see why anybody living for whatever reason in Kuwait, Nepal or Peru should be able to decide who governs the country in which they are not present at the time of a general election. Before this Bill there were all sorts of problems for those living in this country. There were problems with qualifying for a postal vote or a proxy vote. Hard decisions may be made, but the decision is much harder on a man living in Stanley grove who misses his vote because he falls ill after the closure of the postal vote than it is for the hon. Gentleman's brother, nice though I am sure he is.

Mr. Fabricant

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kaufman

I will proceed for a little longer. I am waiting to see how the Government intend to handle the timing. I am an obedient and subservient Back Bencher. If the Government continue the debate, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. If they do not, I will be caught short in my prime and will have to resume on another day.?

My position on this is unequivocal and of long standing. Moreover, this fancy franchise is a flop. On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who has sensibly made himself scarce, fantasised about a possible 3 million overseas voters. When the Conservative Government introduced the legislation in 1984, they forecast 800 overseas voters per constituency. That would have meant more than 500,000 people. The figure for this year is not 3 million or 500,000 but 13,677. That is an average of 21 overseas voters per constituency. The highest number of overseas votes in 1991 was 34,454, or 0.08 per cent. of the electorate. In 1990 it was 1,836. That figure was so small that the statistics counted it as 0.00 per cent. of the electorate.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Kaufman

If I am to give way to my hon. Friend, which I am happy to do, I must give way first to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant).

Mr. Fabricant

The right hon. Gentleman is ever gracious. I want to refer to the question raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). Surely, when someone is paying United Kingdom tax, as the hon. Gentleman described, and lives abroad—

It being Ten o'clock, THE CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report progress and ask leave to sit again.

To report progress and ask leave to sit again.—[Mr. Mike Hall.]

Committee report progress; to sit again tomorrow.

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