Moved by Baroness Hamwee
33: Clause 4, page 3, line 8, at end insert—“( ) Regulations under subsection (1) may not limit or remove the right to vote in local government elections of persons who lose rights under section 1 unless the Secretary of State has laid before each House of Parliament a draft of the proposed regulations and an assessment of their effect on the right to vote, at least three months before a statutory instrument containing the regulations is to be made.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would require the Government to allow Parliament the opportunity to consider proposals for restricting the right to vote in local elections of EU citizens.
My Lords, currently EU citizens—not citizens of Switzerland or the wider EFTA—may stand and vote in local elections. This is a right under UK law. You would think that they would feel secure for the future in this, knowing that an Act of Parliament would be required if the right were to be withdrawn, coupled with the promise made by the Vote Leave campaign that EU citizens would be treated no less favourably than at present. However, under Clause 4, which we have debated almost into the ground, there could be secondary legislation to amend the primary legislation.
Over the summer, my noble friend Lord Tyler asked a Written Question about the local elections that were postponed from May 2020 to May 2021. When I say “local”, I include police and crime commissioners and the Greater London Authority. The noble Lord, Lord True—the Cabinet Office Minister—confirmed that the right would apply next May; this regards England because the franchise for local elections is devolved. That is logical because the elections should have been last May. In any event, they will take place during a period when applications to the EU settled status scheme are still open.
I understand that the Government are dealing with local voting rights on a country-by-country basis, regarding this as a reciprocal matter. My list may be out of date, but I believe that they have signed bilateral voting rights agreements with Spain, Portugal, Luxemburg and Poland. Scotland and Wales have already passed the necessary legislation for beyond 2021.
The right to vote and stand is important. It is a matter of social cohesion. I will not be the only Member of the House who has had a conversation about this on the doorstep during election campaigns—at all levels of elections—where I have encountered citizens of various countries. Sometimes, I have urged them to campaign and assured them they can vote in a local election; on other occasions, I have listened to their complaints that they cannot vote. Nor will I be the only Member who has stood on a doorstep and talked about the importance of voting as a member of one’s community to have views represented on how services are run, to exercise the right as a taxpayer and service user, and to show one’s priorities for policy and spending. Today, we have talked a good deal about belonging. The right to vote and the right to stand are both issues of belonging. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am glad to support this amendment and to put on record my admiration for the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who is an indefatigable defender of democracy and its character. Elections are crucial to our system in terms of accountability and the representation of people. It is vital that if any changes are considered in this area, there is proper scrutiny by and accountability to Parliament. For no other reason, I find this amendment one that we should all take very seriously.
My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord, not least in his admiration for my noble friend Lady Hamwee, who has indeed undertaken a marathon on this Bill today. By contrast, mine will be a quick sprint. We are anxious to ensure with this amendment that we can get some urgent clarification on an extremely important issue relating to citizenship. There are obvious echoes from the previous debate.
I doubt that any Members here need reminding of the considerable contribution that EU citizens make to the life of this country: to its essential services, its economy and so many local communities, not least in the health services. If I needed any such reminder, I had it most forcibly this afternoon when I paid a visit to the dentist. Many of them, especially if they have worked and lived in the United Kingdom for some time, have made a considerable tax contribution—local as well as national—as my noble friend said. It is a well-respected principle, not least in this House, that there is no taxation without representation.
The Minister may be able to give us an updated figure of those EU citizens who are now regarded as resident here on at least a semi-permanent basis. Those figures are very relevant to this amendment, as they are to a number of other parts of this Bill. I recall that, of all the cities in the world, London has the largest number of French citizens, exceeded only by Paris. These EU friends are employed throughout the UK in some crucial roles. Some are more obvious than others; for example, although most of those who work in agriculture and horticulture are temporary residents, some are employed full time and for longer periods, for example specialist advisers for viniculture in this country. On the day that “Back British Farming” is the slogan that the NFU wishes us to sign up to to demonstrate our commitment to that industry, I should give that a deserved mention.
The significance of the contribution of all these groups caused me to table the Question to which my noble friend referred. I need to reiterate the Answer given to me by the noble Lord, Lord True, on behalf of the Government because it contains some important detail that is relevant to this debate:
“The May local elections were postponed until 2021 due to Covid-19. In that context, the UK Government can confirm that resident EU citizens will remain able to vote and stand in the rescheduled May 2021 local elections in England (including London Assembly elections) and the May 2021 Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales. Those elected to office will be able to serve their full term and this will also apply to those elected before 2021. The franchise for local elections are devolved in Scotland and Wales. The UK Government has been clear that the issue of local voting rights of EU citizens living in the UK needs to be considered alongside the rights and interests of British expats living abroad. The Government has signed bilateral voting rights agreements with Spain, Portugal and Luxembourg in 2019, and with Poland in May 2020. We continue to work on further bilateral voting rights agreements with other EU member states.”
As my noble friend said, there may be an update tonight from the Minister; that was from
It will be obvious to all in your Lordships’ House that there are two significant limitations to that assurance. First, it is limited to May 2021. After that, there is no guarantee that the principle will be maintained for any future local elections for the majority of these residents. Secondly, the Brexit negotiators have succeeded in achieving only four bilateral agreements—with Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland—so much larger numbers originally from France, Germany and Italy, for example, are, as far as we know, excluded. What is being done to get agreements with the remaining 23 member states? I also hope that the Minister will be able to spell out what exactly was agreed with these four Governments.
I turn to the other point in this reply: the mention of the very relevant rights and interests of British expats living abroad. I suspect other Members have heard of the distressing concerns, anxieties and frustrations of our fellow British citizens currently living in the EU. I have had a very full report from a survey of many hundreds of these in France—a detailed report of the current dilemmas they face, not least in relation to healthcare and its costs. Surely the time has come—in their interests, as well as the interests of those to whom this amendment directly relates—for the Government to revert to our traditional attitude in this country. For once, could they not take the lead? Can they not now commit to bringing before Parliament certainty of continuing these civil rights? A more generous and realistic approach to these civic rights here would be likely to stimulate an equally humane and civilised response there. I repeat what my noble friend Lady Smith of Newnham said in the previous debate: they surely should do the right thing. I hope the Minister will be able to expand on the very limited information given to me previously and therefore respond positively to our amendment.
“may not limit or remove the right to vote in local government elections” for EU nationals who have lost free movement rights under this Bill
“unless the Secretary of State has laid … a draft of the … regulations and an assessment of their effect … at least three months before … the regulations” are officially made. Parliament would thus have the opportunity to consider proposals for restricting the right of EU citizens to vote in local elections. Local voting rights are not covered by the withdrawal agreement as they are not an EU competence but a sovereign matter. There is thus an uncertainty about the future voting and candidacy rights in local government elections for many EU citizens as the Government have not gone down the road of giving a firm commitment that all settled EU citizens in this country will continue to have the right to vote in local elections.
All non-citizen residents from Ireland and the Commonwealth can vote in all elections and referendums. This is reciprocal in the case of Ireland, but most Commonwealth countries, including Cyprus and Malta, do not grant resident UK citizens the right to vote. EU citizens from the other 24 member states currently have a partial franchise that allows them to vote and stand as candidates in local government elections. This is guaranteed in UK law and the Government would need to take active steps to remove this right. There is disparity within the UK at present: Scotland and Wales grant voting rights to all migrants, while England and Northern Ireland do not.
As has been said, the Government have been seeking bilateral agreements on local election voting rights with EU member states, with agreements concluded with Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland. As I understand it, UK nationals will also be able to continue to vote, and in some cases stand, in local elections in EU member states where domestic legislation allows this. We are in favour of EU nationals living in the UK having full voting rights in future elections. They are our neighbours, friends, families, important parts of our communities and vital to our economy and healthcare service. We should value them. The Government should protect the local election voting rights that EU citizens living in this country currently have and seek to extend them so that they become full voting rights.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for moving Amendment 33 and the noble Lords, Lord Judd, Lord Tyler and Lord Rosser, for their contributions to this short but important debate. While I understand the sentiment that underpins the noble Baroness’s amendment and some of the speeches we have heard, I do not think it necessary to add this to the Bill.
As noble Lords will be aware, the Government have already shared the draft illustrative regulations proposed under Clause 4(1). As I hope and am sure noble Lords will have seen, they do not include any provisions relating to the voting rights of EU citizens; nor has there been any immediate change to the entitlement of EU citizens resident here to vote in local elections. Indeed—as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said—in an Answer to a Question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and answered by my noble friend Lord True, the Government recently confirmed that EU citizens resident in England
“will remain able to vote” in the elections in England next May. That includes not only elections to a number of local authorities at every level but elections for the Mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly and combined authority mayors in the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, the Tees Valley, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, the West of England and West Yorkshire, as well as for the police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales on the same day. It also applies to the right of EU citizens to stand in those elections, and anyone elected
“will be able to serve their full term”.
I hope that removes the uncertainty the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, mentioned, in the short term at least. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to EU citizens who have served their local community in public office, whatever party or affiliation they have done that under.
I am afraid I have no update for the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, beyond the Answer by my noble friend Lord True, which he read out in full. As that pointed out, we have taken positive steps in our relationship with EU member states and signed bilateral voting agreements with Spain, Portugal and Luxembourg in 2019; the one signed with Poland in May this year remains the most recent.
This is really a debate more about parliamentary scrutiny. On that issue, which the noble Baroness’s amendment considers and which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, also mentioned, the Bill as drafted makes clear that any primary legislation amended by regulations provided for by Clause 4 would be subject to the affirmative procedure and would have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament. I have no doubt that in the course of any such debates, noble Lords—including those who have spoken tonight—as well as Members in another place, will want to give such regulations their fullest scrutiny. As such, we do not think this amendment is needed.
The compliments paid to me made me blush, but I probably was not on screen when I was blushing. Anyway, I thank noble Lords for those.
I live in the constituency of Richmond Park in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. We have Swedish and German schools here and a lot of French citizens. The point about the large number of French people in London is quite right. Those citizens are very much members of the local community. I absolutely agree with my noble friend that the best way to achieve rights for British citizens abroad is for us to be open and generous with rights in the UK. That is not only the proper thing to do but a good way of negotiating.
My noble friend also mentioned limitations set out in the Written Answer from the noble Lord, Lord True, which referred to the London Assembly. I take from the response just now by the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, that it should have been the Greater London Authority, which consists of the mayor and the London Assembly. I think I can see the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, in the Chamber; I thank her for the wave. Like me, she will know that the terminology—the nomenclature, perhaps —of the various parts of the GLA is something that few people get their heads around.
More seriously, perhaps, I think the Minister said that this was not necessarily one for the Bill, and prayed in aid the draft illustrative statutory instrument that has been sent to noble Lords. That seems to me to be a circular argument. Where else should we raise the issue but on this Bill? We are told that we could raise the point when we scrutinise draft regulations that are laid under Clause 4—but we cannot introduce regulations. I really think he has set us an impossible task.
I am sorry that the issue has been dismissed in the way that it has; that is very sad. As I said, I would like us to be open and generous on this point. Clearly there is no more that I can do tonight other than express that. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 33.
Amendment 33 withdrawn.