Amendment 152

Elections Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 28 March 2022.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

Moved by Lord Wallace of Saltaire

152: After Clause 13, insert the following new Clause—“Voting by EU nationals In section 1(1) (entitlement to vote in parliamentary elections) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, for paragraph (c) substitute—“(c) is a Commonwealth citizen, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland or a relevant citizen of the Union; and”.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause would allow EU citizens to vote in UK parliamentary elections.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I regret that the noble Lord, Lord True, is unable to be with us. I gather he is down with Covid, and I send him sympathies. I hope I have not caught it from him—we shall press on. This creates some further difficulties in completing the Bill, on which I hope I may briefly remark. We need to have some discussions between Committee and Report. I hope there will be some—time is short and they need to be fixed up very quickly. As many of us have remarked, the state of the Bill is unsatisfactory. We know that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee said that the Bill was unfit for purpose as presented to the Lords. We have explored many areas already in Committee, such as overseas voting, which we debated late at night in our previous sitting, when it was quite clear that the Government did not have answers to a number of our questions. How that will be implemented if the Bill is passed is, to put it mildly, extremely unclear and probably very messy.

We all regret the missed opportunity of this Bill. It is clear that there will have to be another elections Bill within the next two to three years to achieve what the Law Commission proposed, which is a simplification and rationalisation of our electoral law. This Bill is not that.

This group of amendments deals with the tangle of voting rights left by imperial history and various other things, which the Government appear not to be concerned to rationalise. We have rights for Commonwealth citizens. We have had rights for EU citizens. We have no rights for long-term residents from the United States, which is extraordinary given the Conservative Party’s long feeling that we were closer to the United States than any other country.

My Amendment 152 is a probing one to spark a discussion on how we might think about rationalising the system. EU citizens resident in this country for a very long time—there are 100,000 French citizens in the London area alone, for example—have had the right to vote in British elections. Some would say that they should no longer have the right to vote in British parliamentary elections, but the case for the right to vote in British local elections for those who are resident here, pay council tax and contribute to other British taxes seems to me strong. As far as I am aware, the Government have no particular clear ideas on any of this.

Amendment 155 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, takes us to a recommendation of a number of reports that preceded the Bill: that we should move towards a residency requirement. That seems a rational suggestion. It has a clear principle, unlike the present situation. A residency requirement, at least for voting rights in local elections, would be a very sensible way forward. I am very sorry that it is not in the Bill as drafted.

The rationale for extending rights to overseas voters does not seem to go along with a refusal to recognise that the argument for extending the rights of residents to local voting ought to be considered in the same context, but, sadly, the Bill leaves that as tangled as before. Part of the problem is that the concept of UK citizenship is also a tangle of historical legacies and anomalies.

I find it odd that the Government are happy with this. Do they not consider that a wider reform with a clearer rationale for the changes proposed is now needed? Why is it not in the Bill? The passage of this Bill in its current form will require a successor Bill as soon as possible by this Government or their successor. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Non-affiliated

My Lords, I speak on this amendment because, when I arrived here in 1965, I had an Indian passport and I was surprised when, during the 1966 election, someone said to me, “Have you voted yet?” I said that I did not know I had voting rights in this country. He said, “Get on with it and get yourself registered.” This explained to me that, in the UK, we were subjects, not citizens. It was as subjects of the monarch that we qualified. Since the monarch also ruled over the Empire, all subjects of the Empire were equally qualified to vote in the election.

As far as I remember, the notion of citizenship only came with our membership of the European Union. We began to talk of ourselves as citizens, and we had differently coloured passports and things like that. However, the muddle that the noble Lord referred to in moving his amendment is that we are not clear as to what entitles us to vote. Is it our status as subjects of an empire? Is it our status as local taxpayers, as used to be the case before the universal franchise came in? Is it residency? If there is ever another, better version of this Bill, perhaps the first part of it should clarify the status of an individual under which he or she is qualified to be a voter. Until the muddle is clarified, we will have to proceed with a compromised mish-mash of rights.

Photo of Baroness Suttie Baroness Suttie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

My Lords, I also pass on my best wishes to the noble Lord, Lord True, for a speedy recovery. Having had it myself fairly recently, I can say that it is a horrible illness.

I want to move on to the question of Northern Ireland and speak in favour of Amendment 156 in my name, which the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, has signed. It would ensure that EU citizens lawfully resident in Northern Ireland can continue to stand for election and vote in Northern Ireland district elections after the end of the Brexit transition period. It is primarily a probing amendment, however.

In the EU-UK withdrawal agreement, the UK Government committed, under Article 2.1 of the Northern Ireland protocol, to ensuring that certain equalities and human rights in Northern Ireland would continue to be protected after Brexit. Does the Minister—I appreciate that he is filling in at rather late notice—agree with the assessment of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland that the Bill as it stands risks stepping back from those commitments and may in fact be in breach of the UK’s obligations under Article 2.1 of the protocol? Will he undertake to set out, either in response to this amendment or in writing following this debate, the Government’s assessment of the relevant provisions of the Elections Bill in the context of their conformity with our commitments under Article 2.1 of the Northern Ireland protocol?

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, in support of Amendment 156. I also pass on my good wishes to the noble Lord, Lord True, for a speedy recovery. I agree with the thrust of the amendments in this group; as a democrat, I believe in a fully functioning democracy in which all residents are allowed to register to vote, exercise their mandate at elections and be candidates in elections. That is what a functioning democracy is about. Universal franchise is vital in a liberal democracy and should be one of the hallmarks of the UK—free, fair and unencumbered elections.

Amendment 156, in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, deals with that specific Northern Ireland situation. It is a probing amendment. We seek to delete paragraphs 7 to 9 from Schedule 8, which would ensure that all EU citizens lawfully resident in Northern Ireland continue to be able to stand as candidates and vote in district council elections in Northern Ireland.

I was a councillor in Northern Ireland for many years, as was the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, across the Chamber. We valued our time in local government as a learning curve. Many of those who participated in those elections and many new residents in Northern Ireland would also value that participatory part of democracy, in voting in district council elections and having the ability to be a candidate. I can think of a colleague in Derry and Strabane District Council, who is originally from Kenya, and is now a serving councillor.

This section does not apply to British and Irish citizens; it applies to EU citizens who have arrived to reside in Northern Ireland since January 2021 and whose country does not have a reciprocal agreement with the UK. I remind your Lordships, and particularly the Minister, that this is in some ways reminiscent of the “I” voter situation in Northern Ireland, which was removed by the Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act 1989, when everybody in Northern Ireland was granted universal franchise. I remind the Minister that elections and the right to exercise one’s franchise are very emotive issues in Northern Ireland. Please do not go down this road and create further problems with other EU nationalities and create barriers on the island of Ireland. It is highly important that that does not happen, because this is an emotive and politically charged issue, as it deals with EU citizens and excludes them; it could be perceived as a discriminatory provision.

The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, referred to the equality and human rights commissions in Northern Ireland, which are concerned that this provision of the Elections Bill could contravene Article 2 of the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol, which states that there must be

“no diminution of rights, safeguards or equality of opportunity” provisions, as set out in the Good Friday agreement, resulting from the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. It could be perceived that this provision, within paragraphs 7 to 9 of Schedule 8 to the Bill, could contravene those rights under Article 2 of the protocol. If passed into law, this provision would create two new types of EU citizenship for the purposes of UK elections law—a qualifying EU citizen and an EU citizen with retained rights—in addition to the EU citizens who do not fall into either of these categories.

The right of EU citizens to vote in local district council elections in Northern Ireland was underpinned by EU law until the end of the transition period. I declare an interest as a member of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland Sub-Committee in your Lordships’ House. We have engaged with Minister Burns, a Minister for the Northern Ireland Office in the other place, on this issue and we have received a response. An identical response was received by the equality and human rights commissions.

In my humble view, so far in those responses the Government have still not set out in full their assessment of the relevant provisions of the Bill in terms of compliance with Article 2. Will the Minister do that today? If that is not possible, will he write? It is most important that that is done to satisfy the concerns of both commissions.

Further, will the Minister and his colleagues commit to meet both commissions in Northern Ireland, either via the Cabinet or the Northern Ireland Office, to discuss Article 2 provisions under the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol and how this contravention and these issues can be addressed to ensure that there is a full, participatory democracy that excludes nobody and includes all?

Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat 4:15, 28 March 2022

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 155A in my name, which would give the right to vote in local elections to all those liable to pay council tax to that authority. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, who spoke last week on an amendment concerning the right to vote in parliamentary elections for 16 year-olds who pay income tax. As he pointed out, there is an important principle: there is a connection between a requirement to pay tax and the right to vote. Mine is a probing amendment. Taken as a whole, this group raises the question of whether the key factor for the right to vote should be nationality, residence or liability for taxation—issues which the Bill does little to address.

The Minister will not need to be reminded of the events that took place 3,269 miles to the west of here on 16 December 1773, when a large number of tea chests were thrown into Boston Harbor in protest against the imposition of taxation without representation. Because my aim with Amendment 155A is to secure the right to vote in local elections for all those with an obligation to pay council tax, that would mean taxation with representation. The amendment takes as its starting point the position of those who are required to pay council tax but who cannot vote in the local elections that will decide how the money they pay is spent. There is a principle at stake here: it becomes almost an issue of consumer rights.

In some cases, notably that of EU citizens, a resident here before 31 December 2020 will keep their local vote. However, the right of EU citizens to vote in local elections following our withdrawal from the EU is being denied to those arriving after 31 December 2020, except where reciprocal arrangements or agreements are in place. The implication of this is that citizens of Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, Poland, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta will be able to vote in local elections, but citizens of other EU countries or non-EU countries will not. Except that, if citizens of those other EU countries lived in Wales or Scotland, they would be able to vote in local elections, and indeed for elections to the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments.

Am I alone in finding all these differences very hard to justify? The decisions in Scotland and Wales seem to me to be eminently sensible, although they should go even further and extend the right to vote to non-EU citizens who are paying council tax in those countries.

I want to see the franchise widened and a connection clearly made between taxation and the right to vote. I hope the Minister will be willing to think further about the complications that the Bill will introduce across the United Kingdom. I wish that we were still a United Kingdom, but with so many different rules in different places, with different categories of the right to vote, it is getting far too complicated. My amendment might well solve the problem.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

I shall contribute briefly, following the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, in support of Amendment 155A. I too fully support the principle of “no taxation without representation”. If the Minister is unable to support this amendment, I wonder whether he could explain to the House why the Government do not accept this incredibly reasonable principle. How can they not agree to that? I do not get it.

The complexity and confusion referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, will inevitably be caused by introducing different voting rights for EU citizens who arrived in the UK before 2021 and those who arrived in or after 2021, and for those have arrived from one EU country rather than from another. It seems that Scotland and Wales are extremely sensible, as they have managed to adopt residence-based voting rights. The case for a UK-wide approach on this issue is incredibly strong and the Government will need a powerful argument to deny it. I hope they are able to make a sensible decision and accept the amendment.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Labour

My Lords, I add my name to those who have expressed their regret that the noble Lord, Lord True, is not in his place to respond to today’s debate. All I can say is that I wish him a good recovery. If he is watching us online, I do not know whether that will aid his recovery or delay it.

The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and other Members, including my noble friend Lord Desai, have all identified that this is an important part of the Bill but it is a mess. It is really difficult to encapsulate what we are trying to talk about, but I wanted to intervene to make one point. One of the general principles that we should apply is that if you have the right to vote, however that is defined, then you should also have the right to be a candidate. You may say that that is a rather simple and obvious thing to say, but I shall give the Committee an example: between 1969 and 2006 we had a period where there were people with the right to vote but not to be a candidate. It is remarkable, really, that it was only in 2006 that the law was changed to allow people from the age of 18 to 21 to be a candidate as well as being an elector. I have good personal reasons for being very well aware of that fact. I wanted to introduce the principle that there is a good case for having a system whereby, if you have the right to vote, you can also be a candidate in the election in question.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I also wish to speak in this part of the debate in Committee on these amendments.

I have to be totally honest with the Committee: when I was asked to be part of the team on this Bill, I was not an expert on elections other than that I had been a candidate and I had been the leader of a council and seen election officers’ work close up. As we have progressed through the Bill, some issues have become clearer but some have confused me even more as we have debated them. This is a part of the Bill that really confuses me. What is the basis of the electoral franchise in the UK? What is the platform that is easily understood by a citizen? This is an example of why electoral law needs to be simplified.

I want to deconstruct what that means in the terms of my noble friend Lord Shipley’s Amendment 155A. Let us take it down to ordinary citizens. In a local authority area, you could have someone who owns a holiday home, and so has an address there, but they never live there. They rent that accommodation out for 52 weeks a year, yet they have a right to vote there. They do not use the services and do not contribute other than in council tax. Another person lives there for 365 days a year, works in the local area and pays taxes, volunteers at the local food bank, is an upstanding member of the community and gets involved in litter picks, is an active citizen in the community, uses the bin service, wants to get involved in planning and is affected by planning policy, has friends who use social care, wishes to use the library—and library services are starting to charge—and uses all the local services but, because of either where they came from or when they came to the UK, they do not have a vote. Yet someone in that area who has no connection other than that they can purchase a holiday home can vote.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

I very much agree with the thrust of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Scriven. In the light of that, would he apply a similar argument to the extension of the franchise, contained in a different part of this Bill, to some 2 million overseas electors who have not been in the country for 40, 50 or 60 years and do not pay taxes here? Does he agree that that is an oddity in our electoral system as well?

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

The noble Lord is just slightly ahead of me, because I was going to come on to that. I will answer his question, but I was just pointing out very clearly the inconsistencies in what happens at local level. I will then answer his question on the other issue with what I was going to say, because if the Bill passes in this form, we will have to consider that. Will the Minister explain in very simple terms, to somebody who is not an expert in elections but just an ordinary citizen, how that can be justified? There must be a sense of fairness as the basis for people voting at local elections.

On national issues, if the Bill passes, we could also be in the situation referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. Take somebody who has not been in this country for 50 or 60 years: they have no family here; they do not pay taxes here; they left when they were 18 and have never worked here. They will be able to vote. At the same time, there are some people who have been here for 20 or 30 years, who pay their taxes and work here, but because of their status, they cannot vote. Can the Minister explain how that would be perceived as fair and a good platform for our electoral process? It seems to me that this is an important matter. This is the whole basis on which people not just pay tax and are citizens but actually influence services and taxes that affect their very life by being resident here. But as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, if the Bill passes, people who have not lived here for 50 years will have the right to vote and influence government policy, even though it does not directly affect them.

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, I wish to send my good wishes to my noble friend Lord True. I hope that if he has got Covid at all, he has it very mildly—he might think that preferable to another day on this Elections Bill Committee. I certainly wish him well, as I am sure we all do.

I made common cause with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on various occasions in the past, and I shall do so again when we get to Amendment 197 in group 6 on donations. However, I am afraid that I part company with him on this occasion, and I take a rather different—some might say old-fashioned—view.

I go back again to my Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement and some of the evidence that we got and lessons that we learned while going through that episode. As good citizens, we all have rights, but we have an equal and opposite number of responsibilities. Unless each of us understands the balance between those two things, our society might become fractured.

One of the things that most obsesses me about our modern society is the increasingly widely held view that to compromise is to show yourself as weak. Modern social media shows us with reinforcing messages that we are right—and we all want to be proved right—and has fed that view in a very bad way. But compromise is the oil that makes our society work, and without it, as I said, it will become fractured and tense. I am spending a few seconds on this because it shows what a highly complex matter it is to be involved in the detail of a country—the balance that needs to be struck and for which, for younger people, good citizenship education is really key and important.

Although I will support the Government if they are going to reject the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, I have to say that, after all the work that we have done and all the good words we have heard about citizenship education, today’s White Paper of 60 pages has only one mention of citizenship education in the whole thing. How will we get people to connect with what it means to be a citizen if we do not get that properly taught? I regard this as a very sad and sorry miss by the Government; I hope that something can be done about it as we develop the White Paper and the proposals in it.

I accept that the rights that come with citizenship in this country include a right to vote and, of course, it is absolutely essential that we encourage people to use that right. However, it is also a privilege for which earlier generations have strived, fought and occasionally, unfortunately, died. Having the right to vote is not like getting a driving licence or even a passport. The act of voting goes to the very heart of how our country is run, the philosophy and practices that we follow and the values that we endorse. Put simply, to be entitled to vote, you need to show pretty irrevocably that you intend to make this country your home, by becoming a citizen; then, of course, you are welcome to join the rest of us in deciding how the country is run.

Reading through some papers for this debate, I noticed that this country was described by a US commentator on a final dispatch before she returned to the United States as

“complex, incorrigible, often infuriating, endlessly perplexing, stroppy, ironic and fiercely disputatious”.

We are trying to decide how our Government are to deal with a society that can be described in that way. I am afraid I cannot accept that someone who pops over from, say, France should be able to vote in our elections any more than I should be able to vote if the situation were reversed. In short, the privilege of voting requires a combination of long-term commitment, physical presence and an understanding of current British life and how it is lived therein. I note that Amendment 155 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, seems to be groping towards some further developments in that area and I have some sympathy with what she is trying to achieve, particularly for those resident in a country where there are reciprocal voting arrangements, but I fear that her approach is probably too complex or possibly too open to abuse of this great privilege.

I have two final points to make. First, as I said, I can see the arguments for widening the franchise in cases of reciprocal rights being given by another country. That is an argument to which we shall come in more detail in Amendment 154 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, in support of which I expect to speak. Finally, some noble Lord—probably the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, or the noble Lord, Lord Grocott—will say that my remarks run completely counter to the provisions of Clause 12 extending the right of British citizens anywhere in the world indefinitely to vote in UK elections. Such an accusation would be correct. I think the Government have misjudged this issue, to put it no higher, and that our manifesto commitment was a plain mistake. For someone to be able to emigrate to Australia or retire to Jamaica and have continued participation in UK elections over tens of years seems plain wrong, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said. What can a person know about life in Britain after an absence of 20 or more years? Why should they have an equal say to a person who has lived here and contributed to the life of this country throughout that period? However, the fact that this is an ill-advised policy does not mean that we should add another ill-advised policy to it, and I am afraid that I regard the policy proposed in Amendment 152 as just that.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 4:30, 28 March 2022

My Lords, I offer Green support for the general trend of these amendments. I also join the rest of the House in wishing the noble Lord, Lord True, a quick recovery. I very much agree with the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. If someone is here contributing to society and is a part of this community—maybe that is only for 20 or 30 years and maybe they will eventually go back to the country they came from, to care for their elderly parents or another reason—they should have a say. They have chosen to make this their home and we should recognise that with the vote.

It is really interesting if we look at the overall context of the Bill—and I very much agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, about the general sense of confusion and the lack of a real sense of clear direction—that where there is a sense of direction, it is utterly the wrong direction. As we were talking about with voter ID and offering a positive alternative of automatic voter registration, we have seen a trend over centuries for more and more people to have the right to vote. Yet, what we have done right now with the Brexit situation and with the rules as they currently are with the Bill without these amendments is that fewer and fewer people are having the right to have a say. That is a diminution of what democracy we actually have.

I very much agree with the comment from the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, that if you are able to vote, you should be able to stand. There is a really interesting case study related to that of the kind of tangles that electoral law can get itself into. Between 1918 and 1928, there were certain groups of women who could stand but not vote. The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918—with 27 words, it is the shortest law on the statute book—created a rather strange tangle where women were able to stand, and indeed some women did stand, when they could not vote for themselves. That really is an illustration of how you can get yourself into a mess when things are not properly thought through.

I have some very specific questions. I am aware that the Minister has kind of been landed with this, so I entirely understand if he might wish to write to me later. One of the things that perhaps many of us in your Lordships’ House do not think about very much is that there is another reason to be on the electoral roll beyond voting: being on the electoral roll is good for your credit rating and improves your access to credit. I will confess, it is something I have used many times on the doorstep to encourage people to go on the electoral roll. One of the things we will do with this current change is to make access to credit more difficult for some people, such as EU citizens who do not qualify for the vote. As we are seeing with all these complications, I wonder whether the Government have really looked at this situation and considered whether it is appropriate to allow that to continue when we are randomly taking that right away from people.

We have already heard very clearly laid out from a range of noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, all the complicating factors about whether you are allowed to be on the electoral roll or not. Are the Government confident that they have given full and clear instructions to all the local authorities in the land to ensure that they are able to implement this effectively? Are people on the roll rightly when they should be? With local elections coming up, I am sure all of us, except perhaps the Cross-Benchers, know people who are out now knocking on doors and talking to voters and potential voters. Is there a place where the Government have set this all out very clearly so political campaigners out encouraging people to get involved can find out who is eligible to vote and who is not? That would be a very useful practical resource to have.

This is something that has just occurred to me as we have been going through the debate: I imagine that to vote when you do not have the right to vote is an offence. Are the Government going to provide directions to acknowledge that some people, with the best will in the world and no ill intention, will end up voting in this coming and future elections when they do not have the right? I think people in that situation should be protected, given the complexities that we have all just heard outlined.

I will briefly make two other specific points. On an earlier group, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, I think, noted how Scotland has given refugees the right to vote. Given the situation that we see in a world with more and more refugees, and as we will, I hope, welcome more refugees here, I wonder whether the Government have considered that.

I declare my position as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong. Of course, BNO passport holders have the right to vote, but their children will not—so it could literally be that someone who was born in Hong Kong on a certain day has the right to vote, but a person born there one day later does not. So have the Government considered the situation of the children of BNO passport holders who have come here with their parents now? The Government have said that they are looking to allow, from September, the children of BNO passport holders to come on their own—so might that not be another group to consider?

Since I have just introduced several other layers of complexity, is not the obvious situation to base this right to vote on residence? If people have made themselves part of the community and contributed to it, that should be the basis of the right to vote.

Photo of Lord Dodds of Duncairn Lord Dodds of Duncairn DUP

My Lords, I will speak briefly to Amendment 156 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Suttie and Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. I too extend my best wishes to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, for a speedy recovery.

This amendment is specifically to do with Northern Ireland, and its basis rests on an interpretation of Article 2 of the Northern Ireland protocol to the withdrawal agreement. The ability to stand for election and vote of EU citizens who were resident at the end of the transition period—or the implementation period, as it was called—on 31 December 2020 is clearly preserved. There is no argument about that; it is set out and is the legal position. So we are talking here about EU citizens who arrived in the UK—or Northern Ireland—after that. I understand that this is a probing amendment, but it is worth pointing out that EU citizens who have arrived since 1 January 2021 will move to a position whereby voting and candidacy rights are granted where there is an agreement with the European Union member state that they came from—they are preserved on a bilateral basis. That is the normal accepted position.

There has been a reliance on an interpretation of Article 2 of the protocol, and a lot of claims are made, appealing to not just the letter but the spirit of the Northern Ireland protocol, with all sorts of extravagant positions that would otherwise not be deemed to be rational or even democratic. People talk about taxation with no representation, and laws are now made over vast swathes of the economy of Northern Ireland, despite no Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, for which elections will take place on 5 May, or of this or the other House being able to have any say or vote on them. People are running for election to the Assembly in Northern Ireland to make laws for Northern Ireland, yet, in vast swathes of the economy, they have no powers whatever—those laws are imposed on them by the European Union on a dynamic basis, in over 300 areas of law. In a modern 21st-century democracy, that raises severe problems about the democratic deficit.

I return to this particular amendment. Article 2 of the protocol confers no right on Northern Ireland citizens to have voting rights in an EU member state in which they choose to reside. Therefore, it would seem bizarre to argue that it confers rights on EU citizens to vote in Northern Ireland district elections—that seems totally incongruous and spurious, and it is a wrong-headed argument. For that reason, I would obviously oppose that amendment if it is pressed.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 4:45, 28 March 2022

My Lords, I too wish the noble Lord, Lord True, a speedy recovery and a quick return to duty, hopefully in time for Report. I am sure that the noble Earl would be pleased by that.

This has been a very good debate, because it has focused on broader issues of principle which we need to probe the Government on. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is absolutely right, as we have said at a number of stages, that this Bill represents missed opportunities. It is not so much what is in it as what is not in it that has been a problem. I am sure that the amendments which we have tabled will be considered. If they are not in this legislation, we will return to these broader issues of principle. The one thing that we would have all hoped for in terms of that right to vote is clarity, which we do not get here for all kinds of reasons, not least legacy reasons. Noble Lords have spoken about the complications that we will now face which we had not faced previously, not least that we will have some EU citizens with the right to vote and some without the right to vote, based on when they arrived—an arbitrary date as far as they are concerned.

Of course, the principle that we have sought to highlight in our amendment is what sort of qualification would make sense, would be clear and would be easily understood. We bandy terms such as “no taxation without representation” around, but lots of people who should be perfectly entitled to vote do not pay tax, particularly council tax. Residency is an important principle and perhaps the missed opportunity that this Bill could have addressed more properly, not least because of that legacy. I am not arguing at all for a change in what happened in the Brexit vote. We have left the EU. However, there is a legacy that we must consider there, particularly on people who have made their home here.

I must declare an interest, not least because in my household, with every general election that comes around, we are denied the right to vote. I wish we could vote but we cannot. My husband has lived here for 27 years; he has been a taxpayer, a national insurance payer and a council tax payer. He is a member of the Labour Party, has campaigned for candidates and has voted in every local election that he has been permitted to. The legacy of that will continue. The complication is that it will not apply to other EU citizens who establish the right of residency, who work here and who pay tax here. After a certain date they will not have that right to vote. It causes unnecessary complication.

Throughout this Bill I have readily agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, particularly on citizenship education—and by the way, citizenship education should not be limited to citizens of the United Kingdom. The rights and responsibilities of living in this country should be understood by all who live in this country, and we would create a much safer society if we undertook that responsibility. That is why we should consider a right to vote based on the clear principle of residency. Maybe we will not have the opportunity in this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, said that people who just pop over here should not have the right to vote. However, because of our legacy as an empire and our legacy in terms of the Commonwealth, it is a bit ironic that a student from Australia on an overseas experience visa can land in this country and get the right to vote, but my husband, who has been here for 27 years and paid tax, does not. It does not really make sense.

This is, sadly, a missed opportunity. Amendment 156, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and my noble friend, deals with precisely that issue: instead of clarity we end up with confusion, with some people having the right to vote and others not, but both having the right of residency and to work and pay tax and national insurance. This country will have to consider that at some stage, if not now. I hope the Minister will understand why we have tabled our amendment. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, that this is a missed opportunity. I am sure none of these amendments will be agreed to, but I hope that the principle we are trying to establish will be considered in the future.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I begin by conveying the regret of my noble friend Lord True that he is unable to be in his place today because of illness. As a result of his indisposition, the Committee finds itself with a deputy Minister in the shape of me. That is a privilege for me, but I am only glad that I am so ably supported by my noble friend Lady Scott in this endeavour.

My Lords, this group of amendments deals from various perspectives with the voting franchise in the context of UK national elections. I hope that I can be of help to noble Lords in setting out the Government’s approach to this issue and the logic that lies behind it. I was grateful to my noble friend Lord Hodgson for what he said in connection with Amendment 152, which I shall begin with.

The purpose of Amendment 152 is to require the Government to allow EU citizens to vote in UK parliamentary elections. It may be helpful if I explain our policy position on this. Our policy has always been that after our exit from the EU there should not be a continued automatic right to vote and stand in local elections solely by virtue of being an EU citizen. The provisions in this Bill are based on two main planks: first, to respect the existing rights of those who chose to make their homes in the UK before the end of the implementation period; secondly, to look to retain rights on a bilateral basis where possible.

Amendment 152 would extend the parliamentary franchise to EU citizens where no such rights previously existed. In a similar vein, Amendment 156 seeks to allow EU citizens to continue to vote and stand in local elections in Northern Ireland. Those who are nationals of an EU member state have never been able to vote in UK parliamentary elections by virtue of their EU citizenship. If an EU citizen becomes a British citizen, they will be eligible for the parliamentary franchise from that point.

The Government stand by their commitment to EU citizens resident before EU exit, and the Bill ensures that any EU citizen who was a resident before the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020 and who has retained lawful immigration status will retain their voting and candidacy rights in England and Northern Ireland. This goes beyond our obligations in the withdrawal agreement. EU citizens who arrived after the end of the transition period will move to a position whereby local voting and candidacy rights rest on the principle of a mutual grant of rights through voting and candidacy rights agreements with individual EU member states.

On Amendment 156, the noble Baronesses, Lady Suttie and Lady Ritchie, and the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, referred to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. As was rightly said, both those commissions have sought clarification on EU voting and candidacy rights in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol. The UK Government’s position is very clear and has been explained to both commissions. Removing voting and candidacy rights from EU citizens arriving in Northern Ireland after the implementation date does not run counter to article 2 of the Northern Ireland protocol.

Article 22 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union confers a right to vote and stand as a candidate in municipal elections only in respect of EU nationals who are resident in another member state, having exercised their rights of free movement and residence. As the UK is no longer a member state, EU citizens self-evidently no longer enjoy the right to reside here, so the ancillary article 22 right to vote and participate in municipal elections is no longer applicable to it in this context. This is entirely consistent with part 2 of the withdrawal agreement, “Citizens’ rights”. I hope that is helpful.

I submit to your Lordships that the Government’s approach is a sensible and fair one, whereby established rights are recognised while moving to new bilateral agreements with individual nation states in the EU. I am afraid, therefore, that the Government cannot accept either of these amendments.

Amendment 155 is intended to extend the parliamentary franchise to foreign nationals with certain types of immigration status in the UK. The right to choose the next UK Government is rightly restricted to British citizens and those with the closest historical links to our country. In this respect, the UK is in line with international norms. Citizenship is the normal criterion for participating in national elections in most democracies, including the UK.

Amendment 155A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, proposes to enfranchise all who pay council tax in the relevant local authority area. Taxation has never been the basis for representation in the UK in modern times. There is a long-standing principle in the UK, as originally recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1998, that those who do not pay income tax, such as those earning less than the tax-free personal allowance, rightly remain entitled to vote. Similarly, full-time students are legally exempt from paying council tax but still have the right to vote in local elections. So, I submit that that connection between taxation and voting does not exist. The Government hold to that principle and therefore cannot support Amendment 155A.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, asked me a number of questions. I will arrange for a letter to be sent to her, but I will comment on her point about credit scoring and being on the electoral roll. The noble Baroness is, of course, not wrong in pointing out that credit reference agencies use the electoral roll to enable lenders and other service providers to confirm someone’s identity. However, it is true to say that lenders look at the entirety of the information on a person’s credit side, as well as other factors, to decide whether to lend to somebody. Lenders and other providers of financial services can ask for other forms of identity and confirmation.

The noble Baroness also asked whether we were taking steps to inform local authorities about the measures being taken. The Government are very conscious of the competing priorities that local authorities have and, particularly, electoral registration offices, both in relation to their business as usual activity and in the new activity that will be conferred by the Elections Bill. We are committed to working closely with the electoral community throughout the development of secondary legislation and implementation planning. We will commit to funding all new burdens incurred by EROs as a result of implementing this policy, as is customary.

The noble Lord, Lord Desai, raised an issue from his personal experience. I believe that it is one that we will reach when we come to consider Amendment 154 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, so perhaps we can come to it at that point.

In summary, the Government have no plans to extend the parliamentary franchise in this way, either to EU citizens or to foreign nationals, and in consequence I am afraid that I cannot support these amendments.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench 5:00, 28 March 2022

Before the Minister sits down, he rightly said that taxation has not historically been used as a justification for the right to vote, but have the Government actually looked at it? In the context of a Bill that will supposedly rationalise and make sense out of our electoral system, have the Government looked at the idea that taxation would be a good, sensible rationale for the right to vote—at least at local elections, where it would be a lot more straightforward than national elections?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I understand where the noble Baroness is on this. I think one has to distinguish national elections from local elections, and the rules do so in respect of the various categories of individuals who live in this country. To answer her question directly: the Government have looked at this issue and we do not believe that a change is warranted. As I say, we do not deny the vote to those who happen not to be earning. Equally, we do not grant the vote, in general elections, to foreign nationals who happen to pay council tax. I think there are good reasons for that.

Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat

Before the Minister sits down, can I clarify what he has said about liability for payment? My Amendment 155A relates to the liability to pay council tax. Where people are excused, they might otherwise be liable to pay council tax but, because of government legislation, they have been excused the need to do so. I make the point that although I planned this as a probing amendment, I now realise we have a much bigger issue to address, and we will need to discuss this further on Report.

Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench

My Lords, may I point out one other anomaly? I imagine everyone in this House pays tax, and yet we do not have the vote. I think that is really rather unfair and hope to see that rectified.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, is, of course, quite correct and we will be looking at the question of voting rights for noble Lords in a subsequent group of amendments.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, this has been a very useful debate, which has yet again exposed how unco-ordinated and ill thought through this Bill is. I strongly agree with what the Minister said: local elections are different from national elections. Indeed, in the late-night debate we had last week on overseas voting, it was pointed out that overseas electors are allowed to vote in our national elections but not in our local elections. If there is a good, rational argument for that, then there is an equally strong argument why long-term residents in Britain should be allowed to vote in local elections but not in national elections. If one were to think these things through, and clearly the Government have not, we would be moving in that sort of direction.

Similarly, if we had automatic voter registration, the complexities of residents and non-residents would be clearer. Incidentally, the logic that says overseas electors are not allowed to vote in local elections because they no longer have any connection with the local area goes completely against the logic that they should be allocated to constituencies, which they have lost touch with over the decades since they were in Britain. That is why I put down the amendment on the creation of overseas constituencies, but that has not been thought through either.

We all understand, as someone said to me at the weekend, that the Bill is driven by staff in No. 10 who are above all concerned with increasing the chances that the Conservatives win the next election. One of the strongest arguments for prioritising overseas voter registration over other categories is that they are thought to be more likely to vote Conservative.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I am grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. As I understood it, it was official Liberal Democrat party policy to scrap the 15-year rule that has existed up to now on overseas voters. Can he confirm that that is the case, because that is what the Bill does.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Yes, and to create overseas constituencies. I am looking at the noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, who was deeply shocked to be told by the noble Lord, Lord True, in a meeting a few weeks ago when he recommended the creation of overseas constituencies on the French model that that was Liberal Democrat policy. I hope he has now recovered from the shock.

There are tremendous problems with the Bill and the failure to connect all these dimensions. We will come in the sixth group to one of the other reasons why the Conservatives want to push ahead with extending the rights to overseas voting without thinking through the other dimensions of it, which the Liberal Democrats have thought through—the expectation that, once overseas voters are on register, they will be able to increase the systemic advantages—

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for talking about people thinking through the consequences of legislation, and of amendments. I remain puzzled by the Liberal Democrat policy that these 2.5 million additional people, who have never lived in this country, other than maybe for a very short time when they were very young, and who do not pay taxes into or own property in this country—not that that should be a qualification to vote, of course—must now be given the right to vote, should they choose to do so, in British general elections. There are lots of ramifications that the noble Lord has not thought through.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

There are lots of ramifications that we have discussed extensively. I am happy to discuss them with the noble Lord off the Floor. What I am objecting to is dashing ahead with this without the creation of special constituencies and a number of other things that would begin to match the demand for them to come in.

The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, might be disappointed to hear me say that we do not disagree on very much. I strongly agree with his emphasis on citizenship. The badge of a liberal democracy is active citizenship. One of the things that most concerns me about the drift of politics and legislation in this country is that we are heading towards a much more passive model of citizenship and a much more populist model of democracy. That is another thing to which, in broader terms, we must at some point return.

For the moment, having recognised that the Government have not worked out what they want on all this, and that they have inherited a tangle of historical rights to vote and denials of the right to vote, I am happy to withdraw my amendment. I hope this might just possibly be one of the issues we will discuss between Committee and Report.

Amendment 152 withdrawn.