European Union Referendum Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:01 pm on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities, Decentralisation and the Northern Powerhouse) 2:01 pm, 13th October 2015

My Lords, when we debated the Private Member’s Bill in the last Parliament, I made a number of contributions on matters relating to the franchise. It seemed to me that who would be entitled to vote was a very important matter and that simply to use the parliamentary register raised some questions of principle.

Clause 2 of this Bill confirms that the referendum will use the parliamentary franchise, although with some additions, as did that Private Member’s Bill. A vote will go to: British citizens living in the UK; Irish citizens resident in the UK; citizens of Gibraltar; Commonwealth citizens who meet the residency requirement for registration as an elector in the UK; British citizens who are overseas voters using their entitlement to register as overseas voters for up to 15 years after leaving the UK; service voters; and, now, Members of the House of Lords. In addition, Commonwealth and Irish citizens who would be entitled to vote in European elections in Gibraltar are also entitled to vote in this referendum.

This means that citizens of other EU countries resident in the UK who are eligible to vote in local government, devolved legislature elections and European Parliament elections may not vote in this referendum even though they were able to do so in the Scottish referendum last year if resident in Scotland. To add further complexity, EU citizens from Cyprus and Malta resident in the UK can vote as Commonwealth citizens even though they cannot vote as EU citizens. In addition, Irish citizens resident in the UK can have a vote even though they are not in the Commonwealth.

I have come to the conclusion that all UK passport holders living outside the UK and at the very least those now living elsewhere in the EU should have the right to vote in the referendum, however long they have lived outside the UK. At present, a 15-year limit applies. The reasons for that number of years seem arbitrary. Indeed, the Government recognised this and made it clear that they are committed to abolishing the 15-year rule. I welcome that but cannot understand why the votes for life Bill cannot pass the legislative process in time to enable those restricted by the rule to be able to vote. Surprisingly, I read that a Downing Street spokesman confirmed that the 15-year rule will remain in place for this referendum even if the votes for life Bill is passed before the referendum takes place. So the legislation would be in place but would not be implemented for this referendum, which is now likely to take place in 2017—up to two years from now.

I hope that the Minister in replying will be able to explain whether a clear commitment from the Conservative Party manifesto is to be jettisoned for this referendum when there is time to implement it.

There is a further issue of principle. On balance, I think that Scotland was correct to extend the right to vote in last year’s referendum to resident non-UK EU citizens. If I have a criticism of the decision, it is that it excluded all the Scottish voters who lived outside Scotland. That is because the parliamentary electoral register was not used. I should have preferred that both registers were used.

I accept that, in 2013, the European Parliament reported that EU countries did not permit the right to vote to other EU citizens in their national elections. The UK and Ireland were the exception to that, with nationals being able to vote in the other country on a reciprocal basis. The UK was also exceptional given that it permits votes for resident citizens of Cyprus and Malta as Commonwealth citizens. In a further piece of work, the Citizenship Observatory surveyed electoral rights in EU member states, and it seems that other EU member states do not grant foreign nationals a vote in national referendums either. If the UK took the same line, it would of course prevent Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens from voting. As it is not the Government’s intention to do that in the Bill, I find it hard to understand why citizens of some EU countries have special rights. It seems to me a matter of fairness.

Many EU nationals, not just those from the Republic of Ireland, Cyprus and Malta, have settled in the UK. They work here and pay taxes here. They have a real stake in the outcome. We must think very carefully about whether it is fair to exclude them when three EU countries’ citizens are not excluded. The principle that should apply is that those who could be directly and personally affected by the outcome should be entitled to have a say in the decision. The many UK citizens—about 2 million—who live elsewhere in the EU, and the many EU citizens, about 2.4 million, who live in the UK are right to be worried by the possible exit of the UK from the EU. It is no surprise that significant numbers are said to be considering dual nationality. If we left the EU, work permits could return, more people could have to apply for skilled migrant visas, reciprocal health schemes could be reduced, the operation of UK state pensions could be affected and the general ease of mobility for UK citizens across the EU would become much more complicated and uncertain. I wonder whether the Government have calculated the impact if large numbers of UK citizens decided to return to the UK in the event of our exit from the EU.

Finally, the Prime Minister has said that the franchise should remain at 18 for the referendum, but he also said that it was an issue for Parliament to decide. My view is that the Scottish referendum demonstrated convincingly the value of permitting 16 year-olds to vote and, given the implications for 16 year-olds if there was to be a vote to leave, we should lower the voting age. Sixteen year-olds have a right to be involved as their future will be affected.

In conclusion, I hope that it will be possible to explore all these issues in Committee; they matter.

Sitting suspended.