My Lords, our country has before it the prospect of a new system of individual electoral registration. That prospect has been widely welcomed, and rightly so. In one part of our country the new system is already a reality. It has operated for a number of years in Northern Ireland, for which I have a strong and enduring affection.
As a deeply committed supporter of Northern Ireland's union with Great Britain, I hold firmly to the view that, in matters affecting the UK as a whole, the same approach should be followed throughout it. In Northern Ireland, it is a criminal offence not to complete a voter registration form when asked to do so. No such provision is currently being proposed for Great Britain. A thoroughly undesirable distinction will, therefore, be created between the system in Northern Ireland and that elsewhere. Equity demands uniformity. As the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons noted last November in its report on the proposed new system:
"There appears to be no reason why failure to complete and return a registration form should be a criminal offence in Northern Ireland but not in Great Britain. The Government should take steps to remedy this inconsistency".
I hope that when my noble friend the Minister comes to reply to this debate, he will be able to tell us that the necessary steps will be carefully considered.
Action to establish better arrangements for electoral registration will be deficient and incomplete if it does not tackle a problem that has been allowed to continue for far too long. I refer to the position in which the vast majority of our fellow countrymen and women living abroad find themselves. Two simple statistics need to be borne constantly in mind. It is estimated by the Electoral Commission that 5.6 million British citizens are resident in other countries. Just 30,000 of them are registered to vote alongside their fellow citizens in the country to which they belong. Yet today, to a greater extent than ever before, many British expatriates retain close ties with their country and, in doing so, keep a strong feeling of attachment to it, however extensively they may involve themselves in the practical affairs of the communities where they reside. In the age of the internet, our fellow countrymen abroad can follow closely what is happening in their native land and contribute powerfully as online participants to developments taking place here, whether they reside in Berlin, Brisbane or Buenos Aires.
Sadly, however, for many expatriates a feeling of attachment to Britain cannot gain the full expression that it naturally seeks. After 15 years' absence, the right to vote ends. No one has ever argued that a sense of belonging to our country dies after 15 years' absence from it. The withdrawal of voting rights after a decade and a half rests on no clear, settled principle. Their termination could equally well occur after other periods of residence abroad-indeed, it has done so. Participation in our elections was originally closed after five years' absence. Then the qualifying period was quadrupled to 20 years. No rationale was offered for these sudden changes, nor for the decision to slice five years off the total, which has brought us to the present position. Our fellow citizens abroad are surely entitled to a firm, stable set of arrangements. Instead, they have been subject to arbitrary upheavals.
Other advanced democracies have not chopped and changed in this extraordinary fashion. The United States of America, France, Italy and the Netherlands, among others, all provide lifelong voting rights for their nationals living in other countries, as do Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It is true that some countries are more restrictive. Germany, for example, grants lifelong voting rights to its citizens living in other EU countries but voting rights for 25 years to those living outside the EU. However, no other leading democracy takes as restrictive an approach as our country. It is high time that the United Kingdom joined the international consensus.
How is this to be achieved? The forthcoming legislation to introduce the new system of individual registration can provide the perfect vehicle for change, as my friend Mr Christopher Chantrey, chairman of the British Community Committee in France, pointed out in his evidence to the Commons Select Committee. The unjustifiable time limit on the right to vote abroad should be swept away completely, bringing us into line with the United States, France and other countries.
Our fellow countrymen abroad already have individual voter registration but in a particularly cumbersome and inefficient form. The existing complex and time-consuming registration arrangements have deterred many who do meet the existing qualifying conditions from claiming their right to vote. As Mr Chantrey stated in his recent submission, overseas voters, as opposed to UK resident voters, can be positively identified through an official document: the British passport. A simple system, he went on, could easily be established to enable overseas voters to register electronically or by post, providing the basic information needed to confirm their identity. Once a general election or referendum was called, Mr Chantrey concludes, a ballot paper would immediately be electronically generated or printed, and e-mailed or sent by post to the overseas voter.
Great men and women-John Bright, Gladstone, Disraeli, in his idiosyncratic fashion, and the Pankhursts, among others-campaigned with vigour and conviction to make the franchise the birthright of their fellow countrymen and women. Of course it never occurred to them that, in a future age, over five and a half million British people would live and work abroad without the right to vote in the national parliamentary elections of their countries of residence. For far too long, far too many of them have been effectively disenfranchised. Now, a great opportunity has arisen to end their disenfranchisement. We should seize it.