Rights, Freedoms and Responsibilities

Part of Orders of the Day — Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 8:10 pm on 12th November 1990.

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Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes , North East Derbyshire 8:10 pm, 12th November 1990

According to the evidence that I have obtained from the Library, the loss of voting rights is most serious among "attainers"—those coming up to the age of 18. If people are missing from the electoral register, it is theoretically possible to refer to the previous register to find them, but attainers will not be on any previous register. The figures show that in England, Scotland and Wales the loss of names is far greater in that age group.

In Northern Ireland, which does not have the poll tax, more attainers than ever are now registered. The Northern Ireland franchise is highly efficient and democratic. Of course, the problem in Northern Ireland is that the population has nothing much on which to vote. They do not have the right major political parties about which to make a choice. They do not have a Bill of Rights and they do not have the right provisions to ensure that a democracy is properly run. But at least they are on the starting block, whereas in England, Scotland and Wales the starting block is being chopped from under the population.

I strongly opposed the extension of the vote to expatriates, some of whom left this country up to 20 years ago. Some of them were only babes in arms—yet they will have a vote that will give them a say in the running of this country. Those votes will be distributed to different areas under a system that will be wide open to abuse. Instructions have been sent to electoral returning officers by the Home Office. Luckily, despite all the efforts of "Conservatives Abroad" trying to persuade people to register, not many have yet done so. Nevertheless, the position must be closely monitored as potentially some 3 million people could be included on electoral registers under that system.

Parliament should wake up to that fraud. It is a "grab-what-you-can" attitude, with none of the usual principles of democracy. If Parliament accepts that, we can only appeal beyond the Chamber to the public to take action, be vigilant and put matters right. They must protest and pressurise about the decline in the franchise. When they have the opportunity to vote, even with a shrinking electorate, they must use that vote to change the system and restore the franchise. Conservative Members, whose Government have introduced these measures, have a special responsibility to examine their consciences. They were elected on a full franchise, and they should stand again on a full franchise.

The fact that, currently, only 1·5 to 2·5 per cent. are affected does not alter the position, because in the British electoral system that could have a significant impact on the results. Is it not true that the Prime Minister's main hope for holding on to Finchley is that the franchise has been shifted and fiddled so much that she might just be re-elected? It is disgraceful.

The long march to democracy, which we thought had gone much of the way, has now been halted and, in some ways, put into reverse. When I was elected in 1987, I did not dream that I would have to stand up in this Chamber, time and again, and press for one person, one vote. This is the first time that I have done so in the presence of the Home Secretary, but I have done it many times in the presence of his junior Ministers. There are those who believe in one person, one vote, one value, and they argue for proportional representation. Not many of them are here tonight—indeed, there is no one on the Liberal-Democrat Benches. If they believe in one person, one vote, one value, they should argue for a full return to the franchise. We cannot have one value if everybody does not have the right to exercise his vote.

The loss of 1·5 per cent. of the electorate is much more damaging under a first-past-the-post system than it would be under a proportional representation system. One reason why I am becoming more sympathetic to proportional representation is that the fiddling that could occur under that system would have less significance. However, I remain opposed to certain aspects of proportional representation, such as the single transferable vote in a multi-member constituency. We must stand up for democracy. I hope that the Home Secretary listens carefully to what we say and responds to it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) referred to the Gulf crisis. I did not manage to speak in our previous debates on that matter, even though I have a great interest in what happens in Iraq. Some considerable time ago, between 1954 and 1956, I did my national service in Iraq. I worked with the Iraq state railway. I was stationed in Basra in the south of Iraq, an area which has been prominent in the moves against Kuwait. Certain aspects of Iraq today are similar to those prevalent in 1954 to 1956. I wish to relate two incidents that had a major impact on my political opinions and views on the current position in the Gulf.

Shortly after arriving in Iraq, I was moved by train from my camp at Habbaniyah to Basra. I travelled on the old Berlin to Baghdad railway, which had been extended to Basra. The train travelled slowly, and on the outskirts of Baghdad I saw the mud huts, the mud streets, the open sewers, the flies and the general deprivation. It was quite a shock to an 18-year-old; the reality is far different from the pictures one sees on television. It appeared to be mediaeval and biblical.

After a bloody coup in Iraq involving the then President Kassem and the death of King Faisal, there was an improvement in the suburbs. Brick houses were built and electricity and proper sewers were installed. Despite all the problems with Kassem's regime, he at least did something about providing housing for the working class and the peasantry of Iraq. I understand that fresh suburbs with mud huts and all that goes with them have now re-emerged around Baghdad because Saddam Hussein has used his financial resources only to extend his military hardware and to develop his empire. The Iraqi people and the people of the middle east generally, with the exception of the favoured few, need decent social provisions and the democracy that should go with it.

I left Iraq in the middle of the Suez crisis. I wondered whether I would be drawn into it. I remember listening to the BBC overseas network on the camp radio. It said that there were no British troops in Iraq, only a handful of military advisers. In fact, there were 3,000 troops as well as some modern aeroplanes. Obviously, there was a danger that we would be drawn into the Suez conflict. That conflict involved collusion between the United Kingdom, France and Israel and showed me the incorrectness of our imperialist interference in that area. During King Faisal's period, Crown territory at Shaiber, Habbaniyah and Basra was returned to the Iraqi Government. It appeared that we were finally pulling out.

However, we are now fully involved. The lessons from those two experiences are that it would be disastrous if American, British and French troops were to move into Kuwait, even if it were a quick strike like the six-day war by the Israelis and there were a quick military victory. The consequences would be horrendous for the middle east. Governments would collapse left, right and centre. The Jordanian Government would fall into the arms of Saddam Hussein, war would break out with Israel and the middle east would be open to more undemocratic forces, as the Muslim brotherhood and others would bound forth.

We must seek to stop that. If action is to be taken in the middle east, it must be with the agreement of the international community and under United Nations control. I recognise that the presence of troops can aid the process of economic sanctions, but they can have the terrible consequence of leading to bloody conflict.