.--(1) In section 69 (office of election agent and sub-agent)--
(a) in subsection (1), for "writs, summonses and" substitute "legal process and other"; and
(b) in subsection (3), for "writ, summons or" substitute "legal process or other".
(2) In section 85(4) (penalty for sitting or voting where no return and declarations transmitted), for--
(a) "the writ or other process" (in both places), and
(b) "a writ or other process",
substitute "legal process".
(3) In section 121(5) (presentation and service of parliamentary election petition), for the words from "as nearly" to "such other" substitute "in such".
(4) In section 136(2) (security for costs), in paragraphs (a) and (b), for "on summons, directs" substitute "directs on an application made by the petitioner".
(5) In section 184(1) (service of notices), for "summons, notice or" substitute "notice, legal process or other".
(6) In section 202(1) (general provisions as to interpretation), after the definition of "legal incapacity" insert--
""legal process" means a claim form, application notice, writ, summons or other process;".
(7) In Schedule 4 (election expenses at certain local elections in England and Wales), in paragraph 4(3) (penalty for sitting or voting where no return and declarations transmitted), for "a writ or other process" substitute "legal process".").
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Schedule 17, as amended, agreed to.
Clause 132 agreed to.
Schedule 18 [Control of political donations by companies: new Part XA of Companies Act 1985]:
moved Amendment No. 260:
Page 165, line 8, at end insert ("qualifying cash donations and qualifying non-cash donations made by companies to registered parties and to other EU political parties").
Perhaps I may indicate that we are prepared to take away the fourth of the amendments relating to the de minimis threshold and bring back our own similar amendment. Perhaps the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his first three amendments.
That is a good try by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. I shall try to be brief in exchange for that but I have two or three points that I want to make. In fact, I shall be content if they are answered by letter but I believe that the points should be answered.
With this series of amendments, I am looking at Schedule 18. It is essential that it is clear and transparent as to which donations constitute political donations and which do not. The scope of the meaning of an EU political organisation is, I suggest, too wide and too uncertain. For example, does that include the Industry Forum of the Labour Party, the Enterprise Forum of the Conservative Party, think tanks like the IPPR or the Institute of Economic Affairs? Similarly, what is the standing of NGOs like Friends of the Earth?
I take that back, but I am making a point about think tanks and the donations from companies to think tanks. If the noble Lord waits for a few seconds, he will see the point that I am coming to.
If the scope of the new regime is not clear, there is every likelihood that there may be problems with the donations to those bodies. Companies may not wish to fall foul of the legislation because they have failed to receive prior shareholder approval for a donation to a body which they do not believe is a political organisation but they are concerned about it. So we are seeking clarification on that. In fact, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, has underlined the need for clarification on the subject.
That is the first point. My second point relates to Amendment No. 264. I am sorry that my noble and learned friend Lord Fraser of Carmyllie cannot be here but this issue has arisen in particular with regard to the Parliamentary Group for Energy Studies. The chairman of the group, Mr Ashok Kumar, the MP, wrote to Mr Paddy Tipping on 4th February seeking clarification as to whether those all-party groups would be treated as political organisations. Some all-party groups receive donations from companies and so on. Of course, if they are considered to be political groups, they would fall within the provisions of the Bill and would require prior shareholder approval.
In his reply on 24th March, Mr Tipping confirmed that, as the Bill was worded, all-party groups would be affected and the definition would be looked at afresh. My information is that that decision was taken last Easter, and that would exclude all-party groups from the Bill. My noble friend was told by the Minister that the Government intended to clarify the scope of Schedule 18 so that all-party groups would not be considered. But nothing much has happened and here we are, in Committee, and no amendment seems to be forthcoming.
I hope that I have made my points as quickly as possible. Schedule 18 needs a little thought and some clarification. I beg to move.
I thought that this might be simpler than it has turned out to be. The amendments would narrow the definitions used in Part IX to exclude from the provisions of the Bill donations to political organisations other than political parties and company expenditure on advertising or promotional material. The second objective is to introduce a de minimis threshold, which we agree with in part.
We need to remind ourselves what this part of the Bill is about. The Neill committee said that it wanted a broad definition of political organisations, because otherwise companies would have undesirable scope to evade the legal requirements on political donations. We cannot support the amendments on that point.
I am not sure that we can deal with the noble Lord's points because of the way in which the amendments have been set out, but we agree that there is a good case for a de minimis threshold. We should like to introduce an amendment on Report to exclude all-party groups from Part IX. That might help. We will deal with the issue in Amendment No. 280 of a de minimis limit for company authorisation, not for disclosure. That probably addresses the issue.
moved Amendment No. 264A:
Page 165, leave out lines 35 and 36 and insert--
("(b) any organisation whose intention is to affect public support for a registered political party or referendum campaign, where intention to affect support is indicated by the criteria set out below--
(i) whether the organisation gives financial support to registered parties or referendum campaigns,
(ii) whether the organisation undertakes activities that are specifically aimed at canvassing support for registered parties or referendum campaigns as opposed to influencing the overall political and policy debate,
(iii) whether the organisation is constrained to support policies endorsed by one political party or is free actively to develop and promote ideas independently of any political party,
(iv) whether membership, subscription or equivalent status is restricted according to political affiliation or is open to all,
(v) whether political parties have any role in appointing officers of the organisation.").
The aim of the amendment is to provide a possible solution to some of the issues that my noble friend Lord Mackay has just raised. I declare an interest as the chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies, which is a think tank that may be affected in some of the ways that my noble friend suggested.
There is still uncertainty about the definition of an "EU political organisation" and what requirements there might be on forward permission from shareholders. The Bill defines an EU political organisation as a registered party or,
"any other organisation which carries on ... activities of any political nature in the United Kingdom or any other member State".
"Activities of any political nature" is a broad definition. As my noble friend suggested, a number of other organisations apart from think tanks could be caught, including pressure groups or trade associations. Indeed, it is difficult to think of many organisations with a role in public life that could not be described as carrying out activities of a political nature in some way.
If the definition is not clear, it will be left to companies and their boards to decide on a case-by-case basis whether they believe that theirs is a political organisation under the terms of the Bill. If they decide on the evidence available that it is not, they lay themselves open to challenge. That creates unhelpful uncertainty and may, on the margins, discourage corporations from giving to organisations to which we might wish them to donate. The onus is on the Government to clarify the issue by setting out their intentions rather than leaving it to other organisations, and ultimately the law, to interpret.
The amendment puts forward one way of drawing the line between political organisations and others. The issue is open to considerable debate. Our intention was to include those organisations that are fronts for registered political parties, by which I mean organisations that seek to persuade people to vote for a party or candidate, but to exclude organisations that are independent of political parties and seek merely to develop policies or pursue political debate. That seems to be a clear possible dividing line. The formulation has been discussed by various think tanks and is broadly supported by, among others, the Centre for Reform, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the New Policy Institute and the Social Market Foundation and it has been discussed in broad terms with officials. The question is whether the amendment, which is meant to be helpful by setting out some criteria to define the amorphous term "political organisation", is an acceptable way of drawing the line and giving greater certainty.
Charities were mentioned earlier. Some organisations are charities and some are not. That would be one way of drawing a line, but the criteria by which the Charity Commissioners decide on charities are not necessarily the right ones in this case, any more than they are necessarily the right people to ask to delineate what is a political organisation. That is a side issue to the Government providing a clearer definition of an EU political organisation. I ask the Government to look at the words that I have used. I hope that they, or some similar form of words, will be acceptable. If the Government do not accept them, I should like to hear that they are prepared to put forward an alternative form of words to meet the same objective. I beg to move.
Before I launch into a formidable speech in support of the amendment, may I ask the Minister whether the Government intend to table an amendment to meet the anxiety that the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, has expressed and which is shared by many people, including by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, and me? I understood the Minister to say that earlier.
Yes, that is our intention. We want to retain the principles of accountability and transparency that Neill has rightly set down on this tricky set of issues. The amendment is very helpful. We cannot sign up to the wording and there are complexities, which the noble Lord has acknowledged, about what is charitable or non-charitable work. I am sure that other noble Lords will also acknowledge those problems. We should like to consider the points that have been made so far and table a government amendment to address them. I am confident that we will provide a working definition of what is "political" in these circumstances.
Given that there are three or four think tanks considering the issue, together we might come up with a workable solution that will give effect to the noble Lord's intentions, although think tanks do not always solve problems, do they?
I hope that they do. I should like to address this issue, first, specifically with regard to think-tanks. The development of think-tanks in the UK has proceeded apace over the past decade. Some venerable think-tanks--for example, the Fabian Society and the Institute of Economic Affairs, with which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, was connected--have existed since the 1950s or even earlier and have made a major contribution to British political life.
Over the past 10 or 20 years a number of other think-tanks have developed and have, I believe, contributed significantly to British political debate. They are a positive element and most are funded by voluntary contributions of one form or another. It would be unfortunate if voluntary contributions to thinking about policy and policy affairs were limited in some way by this Bill.
Therefore, I urge the Government to consider think-tanks, which of course are necessarily political. I refer not only to think-tanks such as the Centre for Policy Studies, which is not a charity, the Institute of Economic Affairs, which, I believe, is, and the IPPR, which I chair and which is a charity. Those are clearly interested in political issues and policy. I think also perhaps of Amnesty International or even the British Red Cross, which occasionally take strong political positions and which might be caught if the Government are not terribly careful in their drafting of the Bill.
The main division which exists in the Bill at present is between charities and non-charities. Of course, a clear divide within the remit of the Charity Commission is that an organisation can be political but it must not be party political. Whether or not that is an appropriate divide, I am not sure. I am clear that think-tanks and other organisations which are not party political should not be included within the restrictions which are imposed on political funding in this Bill. That would be entirely inappropriate and the Charity Commissioners give us a clear solution to that problem.
However, some organisations are, in a way, party political. They develop ideas within a very party political context but can also provide an important spark in political debate in this country. For example, after the Second World War, the allies established think-tanks for each of the main German political parties as an important part of the democratisation process in Germany. Those research organisations, including Stiftung, with which we are all familiar, have played a tremendously important part in the development of German democracy, even though they are party political.
Therefore, I ask the Government to accept that the Charity Commissioners provide us with one step along the road to defining clearly the position of think-tanks as non-party political. I also ask them to be sensitive to the role of more party-political think-tanks, which can play an important role in our democracy today and whose funding may be placed in jeopardy if we take too hard a line on this Bill.
I declare an interest as a trustee at the Centre for Reform, which, like all think-tanks, is engaged in policy development. I believe that it is important to stress that all think-tanks, particularly as they have developed, have shown an increasing willingness and enthusiasm to involve in their work people who are not members of a party, even if they come from a party background.
The Centre for Reform, for example, which not surprisingly is run by and serves to promote principally ideas which Liberal Democrats find acceptable, has recently published a book about EU enlargement. Most of the people who contributed to that publication were academics. So far as I know, they had no particular party allegiance. They were specialists in agricultural policy, foreign policy and so on. We like to think that the book that they produced helps to develop public debate on a major political issue. Therefore, I believe that it is important that think-tanks are given every opportunity to raise funds and to develop without being constrained in the same way as political parties.
The Centre for Reform was established after the last general election. We had to make a choice as to whether or not to become a charity. We decided that we would not do so on the basis that we were not absolutely sure how the Charity Commissioners would view us and that it would be easier not to be because we would be less constrained in what we did. We try very hard to carry out a great deal of work with a small amount of resource. I suspect that in that we have much in common with every think-tank in the land.
Therefore, I am wary of any proposal that will make it less easy for us to raise funds. Often we are talking about relatively small amounts of money. The Centre for Reform often approaches individuals or organisations and asks for small numbers of thousands of pounds to produce a publication, or possibly £10,000 or £20,000 to help to support a little research. In my view, anything that makes that type of fund-raising more difficult diminishes not only our ability but the ability of those who are thinking about public policy in this country to help in the development of public policy.
I, and no doubt other Members of the Committee, were heartened by what the Minister said. We look forward to discussing with him the possibility of another amendment. I believe that this is an important issue. I hope that on Report an amendment will be tabled on which we can all agree. I hope that such an amendment will make it absolutely clear that people who want to give money to think-tanks can do so without the constraints which understandably are placed on the giving of funds to political parties.
I wish to make one comment on behalf of another comparable organisation which next year will have been founded 50 years ago to,
"combat the influence of the Fabian Society"; namely, the Bow Group. It is characteristic of an organisation drawn from every wing of the scattered Conservative Party and makes contributions to a wider debate in exactly the same way as the Fabian Society has done. I do not believe that it has quite the same claim to some of the more high-sounding institutions. I am not even sure if it has the same intellectual distinction as, for example, the Institute of Economic Affairs. However, it is one of many which one should handle with care.
When I spoke months ago on the Second Reading of this Bill, I was deeply apprehensive about the intrusion of this type of legislation into what I might call the "nooks and crannies" of political life and thought in this country. This is a very good example of it. Therefore, I am delighted to know that the Minister is considering all those organisations.
I can be brief. This may well lead back to the previous discussion. I have a question. Here we find charitable donations, in the midst of a Bill whose Long Title does not seem to include anything to do with charitable donations. I wonder why that is here and if it is consistent with the Long Title of the Bill. I beg to move.
The speaking note states that I can quickly settle the issue here. That is always rather a hostage to fortune. At present, Part I of Schedule 7 to the Companies Act, which requires the disclosure of political and charitable donations by a company in the directors' report, is framed as an integral whole dealing with both types of donation. Clause 133 redrafts that part to amend and expand the provisions relating to political donations. In doing so, it was necessary to restate separately the existing provisions relating to charitable donations. No changes of substance have been made.
The effect of the amendment would be to repeal the existing requirements on the disclosure of charitable donations by companies without replacing them. It may be that the noble Lord thought that we were imposing new charitable disclosure requirements; we are not. This is only to make the new part of the Companies Act look as it should.
I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation, which I understand. Perhaps I may suggest that he does not give me an answer now but that he considers with his officials whether this is legitimate within the Long Title of the Bill. I understand what the Minister is doing but I wonder whether it is legitimate. However, with that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 280A:
Before Clause 134, insert the following new clause--
:TITLE3:REGISTRATION OF OVERSEAS ELECTORS
(" .--(1) In section 2 of the Representation of the People Act 1985 (Registration of British citizens overseas), at the beginning of subsection (1) there is inserted "Subject to subsections (1A) and (1B),".
(2) After subsection (1) there is inserted--
"(1A) A person may not be registered in a register of parliamentary electors for any constituency or part of a constituency in pursuance of an overseas elector's declaration unless he has been so registered within the previous 12 months.
(1B) Subsection (1A) does not apply to a person who qualified as an overseas elector in relation to parliamentary election within the previous 5 year period, and such a person may be registered in accordance with subsection (1) above if--
(a) during that 5 year period they have been registered at least once in a register of parliamentary electors for any constituency or part of a constituency in pursuance of an overseas elector's declaration (whether or not that registration has subsequently lapsed), and
(b) they register within 12 months of the end of that 5 year period."").
At the risk of putting down a hostage of fortune, this is the last major amendment in the Committee stage of the Bill. The Ministers are probably delighted; frankly, so am I. Amendment No. 280A deals with the provision for overseas electors. As Members of the Committee know, the Bill, as drafted, seeks to reduce the qualifying period to register as an overseas elector from 20 years to 10 years. I believe that this is the first law since universal franchise which seeks to disenfranchise those who are eligible to vote at present.
My amendment seeks to do something very different. Roughly speaking, it is the "use it or lose it" concept. I believe that I have considerable support for this around the Chamber. Clause 134 proposes to reduce the qualifying period during which British citizens living overseas can vote in UK elections to 10 years. That was not a recommendation of the Neill Committee, nor was it in the Government's White Paper.
There are roughly 3 million British citizens living abroad. I believe that their views in this matter have not been taken into account. Like many noble Lords, I have had a great deal of correspondence in this matter. I shall not bore Members of the Committee with this, but they will recall from other Bills that I have a daughter who lives in Italy, and so on and so forth. I am not principally pursuing their interests, although I am their proxy, so their votes are pretty safe. It also allows me to go to a polling station and remember the days before I was elevated to this place.
In evidence given to the Home Affairs Select Committee in 1998, the Home Office stated that nearly all the representations it has received on this issue wish to keep and, indeed increase, the qualifying period. When the 20 year limit was introduced in 1989, Alistair Darling, now the Secretary of State for Social Security, speaking on behalf of the then Opposition, said that 20 years was a sensible compromise. He argued that,
"it is now clear that a number of people will leave this country ... but will still maintain a lively interest in the affairs of the country".
I believe that remains the case.
In the other place there was cross-party consensus that the Bill, as drafted, was unacceptable and that something should be done which would enable voters to have an enduring connection with the United Kingdom and to continue to have a right to vote for as long as they continue to register each year; that is, the "use it or lose it" part.
My amendment will enable those British citizens living abroad to continue indefinitely to vote and participate in the electoral processes of the United Kingdom. Each overseas elector would need to register during, and at any time during, his or her first five years of living abroad. But to maintain their voting rights they would have to continue to register after the five-year period in each subsequent year. If they failed to register in any year after that, they would lose the right to vote.
I hope that that gives some comfort to those who wish to see the 20-year period remain in place or be extended. I hope that it will also please those who think that giving people 20 years in which they could register--for the first time, I suppose--is far too liberal. I believe that this is a reasonable compromise.
I have consulted widely and been lobbied fairly extensively on this matter. I believe that my amendment has cross-party support. I have had support from surprising quarters. In a fax dated 17th October, Labour International stated:
"No doubt the letterhead is unexpected but, on behalf of the overseas members of the Labour Party, please let me express our sincere thanks for your stand on the issue of overseas voting. We fully support your amendment and would be pleased to join in a world-wide cross-party lobbying effort in this connection".
Indeed, Labour International goes further and states that my amendment is superior to the Government's proposals. I have a number of other letters on the subject. Some are from Brussels. A number of people who work for the Community in various aspects have lifelong connections with this country and feel that they would be disfranchised. I know that some people think that perhaps we should narrow this down to include only people working in Brussels and for official bodies. However, I believe that is unfair and wrong. Many other British citizens may be working for companies abroad, but indirectly they may still be working for Great Britain or the United Kingdom plc. I am not in favour of making any distinction. We should treat all our citizens living abroad in the same way.
I shall not continue at any length. Global economy, increasing travel and the free flow of people around the world suggest that we should not go back 10 years and reduce the period to the first 10 years. We should extend it on the "use it or lose it" principle. Many people from other countries who come to this country can register to vote here and vote. I refer to the Commonwealth, for example. It seems to me to be wrong to treat British citizens who go abroad in such a negative way and not accept that, if they are interested enough to keep registering year on year, they should continue to be allowed to participate in our democratic process. I beg to move.
I shall shortly speak to Amendment No. 280E in this group, tabled in the name of my noble friend Lord McNally and myself. However, before I do so, I should like to speak to Amendment No. 280A. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, pointed out, this matter was not considered by the Neill Committee. Therefore, in this short debate I speak on behalf of my party and do not in any sense wear a Neill Committee hat.
The view of the Liberal Democrats was that we originally put forward a proposal that the vote should be retained for a period of only five years.
We accepted that 10 years was a reasonable compromise. We voted for 10 years in the other place and have not tabled any amendment to propose a reduction in that period. But 20 years is too long. It amounts to nearly half of an average working life. Those who are out of this country for a continuous period of 20 years have generally lost contact with what goes on here to a degree that makes it inappropriate that they should play a part in parliamentary elections.
Many people are employed commercially overseas and a large proportion of them will not be abroad continuously for 20 years or indeed 10 years. They will normally serve a period abroad and then return to this country for a while and perhaps go abroad again if they are working for a multi-national. But that is a commercial decision to make a career overseas with a commercial organisation.
The purpose of Amendments Nos. 280E and the similar Amendment No. 280EA, is to exempt a small group of people from the time limit. At present Section 14 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 allows people to register without time limit if they are serving abroad as members of the Armed Forces, in other positions in the service of the Crown--mostly in the Diplomatic Service--or as employees of the British Council. We believe that that provision should be extended to cover those who are employed by various institutions of the European Union and other international organisations to which the United Kingdom belongs. Some Members of your Lordships' Committee--they were present earlier but are no longer in their places--regard service with a European Union institution as being virtually akin to treachery. We do not; in fact, we regard them as serving the United Kingdom by serving as employees of an organisation to which the United Kingdom belongs.
But this issue goes wider than the European Union. We believe that similar treatment should be given to those who serve the United Nations or any of its various agencies; and those who serve the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the other smaller and less well-known international organisations of which the United Kingdom is a member. On the grounds that those people are in public service to a public which includes the United Kingdom, they should be entitled to maintain their place on the register of electors in the United Kingdom.
I should like to comment briefly on the general context in which these amendments are being considered before going on to speak to the specific amendment standing in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Gould, Amendment No. 280EA.
I have some sympathy with the comment "use it or lose it", used by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. It has a certain integrity and ensures that people who are interested in retaining a commitment to voting are able to retain the right to vote. However, at the time when the 20-year period was introduced, I wondered whether that was the right way to go. In that regard I have some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart.
The right to vote is a responsibility and a privilege. It surely ought not to be given to those who have thrown their lot in with another country. Those who are committed to this country and are abroad for reasons of service to this country or as employees of international organisations of which this country is a member, have not actually cut their ties with this country. But I do not know whether an individual who has cut all his ties with this country should continue to have the privilege of being able to vote in our elections. After all, how will those who have no residence in this country and who have been away for 10 years or more know what the election issues are? Presumably they do not pay taxes here and therefore will not be involved in some of the real subject matter of an election. So I worry about giving people who are away for such long periods the right to vote when they no longer have any links with this country beyond originating here. They have thrown their lot in with another country and are no longer part of our political system.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Perhaps I may make two points and ask the noble Lord if he would like to address them. First, if a person has no links and no interest, he will probably not continue to register to vote every year. That was my reason for saying that they must register every year. They cannot suddenly think, "Oh there's an election coming up. I'd better register". If they missed registering last year, then they have missed out forever.
Secondly, the noble Lord obviously has not heard of the Internet where people abroad can now read British newspapers and watch the BBC as quickly and as readily as can we who live here. So I can assure the noble Lord that their interest can be maintained on a day-to-day basis.
That is why I said I had some sympathy with the "use it or lose it" point. And it is certainly possible, even if one has not heard of the Internet--I actually use it quite frequently--to obtain newspapers originating in this country. However, that is not the same as playing a part in the political life of this country. Those people do not pay taxes in this country; they have no day-to-day involvement with the issues that affect us, whether it is the health service, public transport or whatever. That is why I ask whether people who have cut their ties with this country should be entitled to the privilege of taking part in our elections? I believe that if they have cut those ties for quite some time they should not.
That brings me to Amendment No. 280EA, which is similar to Amendment No. 280E. They seek to make an exception for those people from this country who work for international organisations of which the United Kingdom is a member. In doing that, they are continuing to retain their links with this country and are therefore entitled to say that they have not thrown their lot in with another country; they are still committed to the political process of this country.
That is why it is anomalous that British subjects who work for the European Commission or the European Parliament and are based in Brussels or Strasbourg should lose their right to vote, when those who work for the Foreign Service or the British Council do not. There is an inconsistency in that and both amendments seek to put that right. I hope the Government will consider them sympathetically.
I rise to support firmly but briefly Amendment No. 280A moved by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.
The only reason that the Government could propose, as they do in this Bill, to change the current situation is that they believe that British citizens living abroad effectively lose their links with the United Kingdom after a shorter period than is provided for under the current rules. My experience, including 19 years working outside the United Kingdom, does not support that view. British citizens abroad generally consider the political situation in the United Kingdom to be either interesting or inspiring, or sometimes otherwise, roughly in the same proportion as British citizens in the United Kingdom.
The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, effectively responds to the Government's concern because if a United Kingdom citizen resident abroad must make the effort to register every year after his first five years abroad, he demonstrates his continued concern as a United Kingdom elector. I like the amendment because it is generally applicable.
I could also support Amendment No. 280E tabled by the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Goodhart, because it seems to me desirable that British citizens working in international, including EU, institutions should continue to feel concerned about national elections. However, I should prefer a rule of general application to all British citizens resident abroad as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. But I do not agree with the text of the Bill as it stands. It is not satisfactory and we must go in a direction which to some degree maintains the position of those who already have rights abroad. I am generally against measures which disfranchise United Kingdom citizens.
I support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Mackay and I hope that the Government will reconsider the position. Overseas voters are overseas for a variety of reasons, not necessarily because they have thrown in their lot with another country. People go abroad for employment, to be near their family and for health reasons. The fact that people live in other countries does not mean that they want to cut their ties with the United Kingdom. I do not believe that we should be seeking to withdraw from citizens of the United Kingdom one of their rights; namely, to vote in a parliamentary election.
Indeed, it would be somewhat anomalous for those of our citizens who went to live within the European Union because, if they were deprived of a right to vote in a parliamentary election, they would be deprived of a vote at a particular level of election within the EU. Member states still play an important part within the EU.
When fewer people want to be involved in the democratic process, I do not believe that we should be reining in our citizens' rights. If we do, we shall be joining a minority of countries. I am grateful to the Library for carrying out some research for me. I shall not take up the Committee's time by going through it in detail but perhaps I may examine the provisions of the other members states of the EU. Italy allows its citizens to keep their rights to vote even when living permanently abroad. When looking at the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Spain, Austria and Belgium, which gave the right to vote abroad in 1998, one sees a general acceptance of that provision. I understand that Germany allows its citizens to vote if they are resident within any state of the Council of Europe. Denmark is more limited and, according to the information I was given, France and Portugal make provision for overseas citizens within their parliaments. It seems that only Greece, Ireland and Luxembourg have no provisions.
If we begin to restrict the right in the way suggested by the Government, we shall be moving to the end of the spectrum where countries are less generous towards their citizens rather than to the end where they are more generous. That would be a matter of great regret.
I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. There is a strange paradox because, at a time when the Home Office is conducting all kinds of experiments in local government elections to try to persuade electors in this country to use their votes in greater abundance, the Home Office is trying to reduce the right to vote of those who are not only working abroad serving their country but who are vigorously fighting to retain their right to vote. It is not a sign that people have cut themselves off from their country, but the noble Lord's evidence from New York illustrates the pressure that is being put on both the public and private sectors.
Many of the 3 million citizens who live abroad choose not to exercise their votes. Those who feel themselves alien from the process do not participate in it now and there is no reason to believe that they will in future. But to reduce the qualifying period from 20 years to 10 is about as retrograde a step as one could imagine a Parliament taking in the name of democracy.
If there is nothing wrong with the present system, do not seek to change it. I should be happy if my noble friend said that he has thought again, that 10 years is a silly provision and that a longer period will suffice. The longer period should be that which we already have and my noble friend must establish a case for changing what exists. But if he is insistent on changing the system, the proposal put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is eminently reasonable. It applies to both the public and private sectors; those who serve their country in the public sector and those who serve the interests of this country by working in British companies abroad. I do not see the distinction; it is entirely artificial.
On that basis, the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is preferable to that which seeks to limit the provision to people working in the public sector. I hope that my noble friend will realise that it is not an issue about which a few people have suddenly become concerned; there has been a long-standing expression of concern. I hope that he recognises that three is disquiet in the Committee that after so much concern being expressed so publicly over such a long period the Home Office has been so slow to react. I hope he will reassure us tonight that serious thought has been given to the matter and that he has proposals which will allay some of the anxiety. If he does not, I shall find the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, vastly preferable to that which is in the Bill.
I want to speak in support of both amendments. To some extent, each has its own merits, which have been well canvassed.
Perhaps I may start from the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson. The existing provisions have not been used by 3 million people; they have been used by a much smaller number. It is not as though out system is about to be overwhelmed by hoards of quasi-aliens, cut-off Britons, voting in unpredicted numbers. Therefore, any move which restricts those who are entitled to exercise the right is entirely negative.
I can support the Liberal Democrat amendment because it extends provisions which already exist in relation to British Crown servants, British Council people and one other category to other people in public service overseas in all the international organisations. The noble Lord, Lord Williamson, as a creature of that kind, is Exhibit A in tonight's debate. He has done immense service to this country in his work in the European Commission. We had to work very hard to secure people in that position and we did it in the national interest.
Moreover, as regards the European Community, Members of the Committee will know of the European fast stream provisions which are designed to secure long career-running British public servants in the European institutions. It would be foolish not immediately to accept the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, from the Liberal Democrat Benches.
However, one is then left with the discrimination not only between the public service, however widely one defines it, and business but between the public service and worthy, often young, people in non-governmental, charitable organisations working overseas for long periods of time. I was struck by the somewhat diffident rejection of the case I put to the Home Office prior to the Recess. I expect that other Members of the Committee have received the same response. The letter that I received from Mr Mike O'Brien, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, concluded, rather encouragingly:
"As you say, the Government has indicated that it is ready to consider amendments to clause 134 if there was a consensus in favour of an alternative proposal. I have yet to see signs of such a consensus emerging".
Listening to tonight's debate, the consensus that I support is that both amendments cover the entire field of deserving characters. Mr O'Brien goes on to say:
"This is particularly so in the case of the proposal that existing arrangements for Crown servants ... be extended to cover those employed by international organisations".
I believe that the use of the expression "particularly so" means that the Government are anxious to achieve a solution for those in international organisations. He goes on to say:
"In the Commons there was some sympathy for the view that it would be difficult to argue that similar treatment should not also be afforded to those employed overseas by, for example, British businesses or charities".
The letter appears to solve its own problem. The Government say that they seek consensus. They would be happy to have an arrangement for those in the public sector. However, they would be a little hesitant about it because it would discriminate, for example, against those working for British businesses or charities. If I may be allowed to use Latin in this place rather than in the law courts, cadit quaestio: the question falls because it answers itself. If the Minister indicated a willingness to accept both amendments, that would go even further in the direction of common sense than the alternative proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, that there should be a return to square one. I hope that the Committee will demonstrate a massive consensus, sufficient to satisfy the Home Office in its tentative search for such a thing, by accepting both amendments without hesitation. I very much look forward to hearing exactly how the Minister can possibly rebut that clutch of arguments.
I am in such agreement with the noble and learned Lord who has just spoken that I need not repeat many of the points that he made. What we have before us is a package, and both amendments can be seen in that light. Perhaps the fact that they are all grouped together for one debate identifies that fact. I hope my noble friend will say that the Government will go away and look at this as a package and return with relevant amendments.
Electoral registration officers have pointed out to me one or two technical problems about the amendments spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, which I am sure they would want to put right. However, in the other place the Government said that if there was consensus, they would give this matter serious consideration. I have read the debate in the other place, and the objection appeared to be that if one extended the categories as outlined in the amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Dubs, the provision would relate only to Crown servants who now have that facility. That is not true. British Council staff are not Crown staff and yet that extension has been made in their case. It has also been said that the "use it or lose it" argument does not apply to those who work in the commercial field. I believe that it can and should. That argument is also unacceptable. However, I do not believe that in any of the amendments before us we have the ideal. I hope that the Minister will go away and think about this again.
I believe that the proposal to treat this as a package by my noble friend Lady Gould is eminently sensible. My sympathies are with the "use it or lose it" amendment, but even more so with the two Liberal Democrat amendments. Having served for 30 years in an international organisation, those amendments have a special appeal to me. From my experience, the British members of staff never lost interest in what was going on back in their own country. Although some of my noble friends on these Benches may suggest that I should have my head examined, in my 10th year at the World Bank I became a founder member of the supporters group of the New York City Social Democrat Party. We took a very great interest in what went on in United Kingdom politics.
I should not like people to believe that the amount of time spent abroad working for an international institution automatically reduces someone's interest in his home country. I cannot say that I have received any correspondence from Conservatives abroad: all of it has gone to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. However, I have received a great deal of correspondence from Labour supporters abroad who have a very good point. I very much hope that my noble friend will look at this as a package and see whether something can be done to produce a better arrangement than that which is now in the Bill.
We have the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, a hero of Socialist International, and we have Exhibit A on the Benches behind me. I am confounded by all of the responses. In this matter we responded to the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee on electoral law and administration in October 1998. We said in another place that we sought consensus on this matter. Originally, we believed that 10 years would attract consensus. Clearly, that is not so.
Although I have particular difficulty with the amendments before us, I believe that the "use it or lose it" approach may turn out to be very complex and administratively difficult for electoral registration officers, as my noble friend Lady Gould hinted. If one adopts a class exemption and says that certain categories of UK citizens abroad will have an entitlement to vote but others will not, that leads us into difficulties in terms of discrimination. Where does one draw the boundary as to who should be included in any amendment to what is offered at the moment?
Having made those observations, I am content to go away and contemplate this matter further. My own preference is to continue to have a qualifying period. Having heard the arguments in Committee this evening, I accept that both five years and 10 years are unacceptable periods. However, a qualifying period is at least a clean, neat solution. I am tempted to believe that there should be some kind of compromise. I should like to consult on the possibility of having an extended qualifying period of, say, 15 years. That is perhaps on the generous side of a compromise between 20 years as originally proposed and five years as suggested by the Home Affairs Select Committee.
I do not want to extend the debate any further. I have heard the powerful voices in the Committee on this matter. I am not sure that we can achieve a solution in the form of a package, given some of the complications involved in the various amendments. I should like Members of the Committee to reflect on that. However, we shall return with an amendment which is rather more generous in terms of its qualification than that which is currently before the Committee. With that, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment so that we can give the matter further consideration.
Having opposed the first amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, I have been impressed by the degree of support for it expressed on all other sides of the Committee. We should be prepared to consider a package, provided that it included both something in the form of our amendment, or the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the "use it or lose it" amendment. Obviously, we should like to see the detail of what is proposed before we commit ourselves to supporting it, but in principle we should look favourably on a package.
I thank all Members of the Committee who have taken the trouble to add their voices in support of the principles involved in this issue. The Minister recognises that he has no friends for the position in which he currently finds himself. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, that my amendment would cater for all the people he is concerned about. I am not one of those people who think that working for a European institution is treachery; nor do I think that working for private enterprise in any of its forms abroad as a British citizen is treachery. I should be very reluctant to sign up to anything which differentiated between various classes of British citizens. I have a friend--
Yes, indeed, the noble Lord is correct. But that probably has a long historical connection back to the days of the Empire, military serving abroad, the diplomatic corps and so on.
I have a friend who has taught English to Italians in Piacenza for the past 40 years or so. His interest in this country is as great as it was the day he left. Indeed, in order to find gossip about our mutual friends I usually have to phone Italy to receive the news about what is happening around me. Usually he is astonishingly accurate. I had better not go into what he tells me about friends. But he certainly keeps me right about who is married to whom or who is still married to whom, which is perhaps more important these days.
I think there is general agreement which the Minister has taken on board. I am content to listen to points and have discussions about the complexities of my amendment. But I am attracted to the two principles: first, you have to establish your interest reasonably soon after you leave this country; and, secondly, you must keep up that interest year on year. There is also a third point, if I may add that. You can actually have your interest for as long as the job takes, because increasingly people are working on these posts for a very long time. I mentioned the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and there are many people who work in Europe and other parts of the world. They work away for quite a long time because it is part of their career. But they never actually lose contact with this country.
I am grateful to the Minister for listening to us attentively and carefully. I am grateful to noble Lords who have taken part. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 280B:
After Clause 134, insert the following new clause--
.--(1) Schedule 1 to the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978 (system of election etc.) shall be amended as follows.
(2) In paragraph 5 (disqualification for office of Member of the European Parliament), in sub-paragraphs (4)(a) and (4A)(a), after "section 3" there shall be inserted "or 3A".
(3) In paragraph 6 (judicial proceedings as to disqualification under paragraph 5), in sub-paragraph (1)(b), after "section 3" there shall be inserted "or 3A".").
In moving Amendment No. 280B, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 325. The new clause inserted by Amendment No. 280B makes some technical adjustments to Schedule 1 to the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978. The need for these adjustments has arisen in the process of drafting a Bill to consolidate the European Parliamentary Elections Acts of 1978, 1993 and 1999. That Bill was given a Second Reading in your Lordships' House on 15th June.
Paragraphs 5 and 6 of Schedule 1 to the 1978 Act are concerned with the disqualification of MEPS. In each case they refer to an MEP returned under Section 3 of the 1978 Act. That section is concerned with elections in Great Britain. We need to add a reference to Section 3A, which is concerned with elections in Northern Ireland. This is a small but important defect which it would be timely to correct in advance of the consolidation of the European Parliamentary Elections Acts.
To accommodate the new clause, a change to the Long Title of the Bill is needed, hence Amendment No. 325. I beg to move.