Amendment 154

Elections Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 28th March 2022.

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Lord Green of Deddington:

Moved by Lord Green of Deddington

154: After Clause 13, insert the following new Clause—“Commonwealth citizens: reciprocal franchise(1) The Representation of the People Act 1983 is amended as follows.(2) In section 1 (parliamentary electors)—(a) in subsection (1)(c), for “a Commonwealth citizen” substitute “a citizen of a Commonwealth country in which British citizens are entitled to vote in general elections”, and(b) at the end insert—“(3) For the purposes of subsection (1)(c), a country is deemed to be “a Commonwealth country in which British citizens are entitled to vote in general elections” if it is specified as such in regulations made by statutory instrument by the Secretary of State. (4) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (3) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”(3) In section 4 (entitlement to be registered as a parliamentary or local government elector), in subsection (1)(c) after “Commonwealth citizen” insert “of a Commonwealth country specified in regulations under section 1(3)”.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment will ensure that the right of Commonwealth citizens to vote in UK general elections will in future be confined to citizens of those Commonwealth countries that grant to British citizens the right to vote in their own general elections. The amendment will not affect Irish citizens with whom the United Kingdom has had reciprocal voting arrangements since 1922.

Photo of Lord Green of Deddington Lord Green of Deddington Crossbench

My Lords, I gave notice at Second Reading that it was my intention to bring forward an amendment on votes for Commonwealth citizens in general elections—and I repeat that. We have had a very good debate on local elections and got into a lot of technicalities, but this is now about general elections.

My suggestion is that, to vote in general elections, the basic requirement should be citizenship of the UK. That is clear, simple and logical, and I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, agrees. In the wider context, however, it would be a pity to take an action that might be perceived as unfriendly to the Commonwealth. We should therefore introduce the principle of reciprocity; I will come back to that point.

At present, all Commonwealth citizens have the right to vote in not only our local elections but our general elections without becoming British citizens. That is the case whether or not their countries of origin permit British citizens to vote in their general elections; as I will explain, most of them do not. In practice, as things stand now, Commonwealth citizens in the UK can simply put their names on the electoral register. Indeed, now that the register is reviewed every month, they could acquire the right to vote very shortly after their arrival. By contrast, foreign nationals in the UK must first obtain British citizenship—a process that takes five years or so.

A word about the background—as I mentioned at Second Reading, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, a Labour former Attorney-General, recommended in 2008 that this virtually automatic right for Commonwealth citizens should be phased out. He made three points, which briefly were that: first, most countries do not permit non-citizens to vote in national or even local elections; secondly, the UK does not have the same clarity around citizenship as other countries do, which is quite important; and thirdly, it is right in principle not to give the vote to citizens of other countries living in the UK until they become citizens of the UK. All that makes perfect sense. It is just a pity that it was not listened to at the time.

I just mentioned reciprocity and I am grateful to the House of Lords Library for its research into this. Only about 10 of the 53 Commonwealth countries grant British citizens the right to vote in their general elections, and nearly all those countries are small Caribbean islands. It would be wrong to remove the vote from nationals of those countries that continue to grant it to British citizens, so my amendment therefore makes that one small group of exceptions.

Sadly, no action was taken on this matter by the Labour Government at the time, nor by subsequent coalition or Conservative Governments. However, this Bill provides an opportunity to deal with it quickly and, I hope, quietly.

The effect of my amendment would be to put virtually all those coming legally to live in Britain on the same footing—namely, they would be entitled to vote when they had achieved British citizenship and not before.

On the numbers potentially involved, according to the Office for National Statistics, the number of Commonwealth citizens has increased by about 100,000 a year in the past five years. At this rate, very generally, about half a million would be able to vote in a general election without having acquired citizenship.

As a further point, and not an unimportant one, the present law is expressed in what one might call Home Office speak. That is picked up by the Electoral Commission, the website of which says:

“Any type of leave to enter or remain is acceptable, whether indefinite, time limited or conditional.”

That is absolutely extraordinary. In practice, it means that any Commonwealth student or work permit holder can register to vote before an approaching general election and so could their adult dependants. This right could even be extended to visitors, as most get six months’ leave when they arrive, as noble Lords know. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned, this makes no sense. I would be grateful if the noble Earl, Lord Howe, would confirm that I have correctly explained the meaning of these words on the Electoral Commission website, which corresponds to the Home Office website. Could he also confirm that British nationals overseas are Commonwealth citizens for the purpose of voting? I believe they are.

Migration Watch, of which I am president, has made a rough estimate of the numbers involved. If one takes just the top 10 Commonwealth nationalities, the number of entry clearances granted in 2021 was about 360,000. If visitor visas are included, the total is over 500,000. If Hong Kong is included, it would add those who are adults among the 100,000 who have already arrived. I realise that may sound a little techie, and these numbers are not exact, but they are certainly not insignificant. I leave it to noble Lords to consider whether election agents in the relevant constituencies would be able to work it out. I suspect that they might.

It is important to be clear that my amendment would not take the vote away from anyone who now has it, only from future arrivals until they became British citizens. I add a final note on Irish citizens in the UK. As most Members know, they have had the right to vote in general elections since 1922, and vice versa. These arrangements would not be affected by my amendment and nor should they be.

To sum up, this amendment is about four matters: first, the simplification and rationalisation of the system, as the Liberal Democrat spokesperson, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, pointed out and which the noble Lord, Lord Desai, called for; secondly, reciprocity and therefore fairness; thirdly, a basic requirement of citizenship; and fourthly and perhaps most importantly, maintaining confidence in the electoral system. There can no longer be any justification for this anomaly. My amendment makes a simple and sensible change, and this Bill is an opportunity to get it done.

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

Before the noble Lord sits down, could I ask a question? He referenced my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith. If he recalls, this issue came up during the debate on voting rights in the referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Green, referenced this as the second issue that my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith raised in his report: what is a British citizen? Does he think that fundamental question has been properly addressed for this purpose?

Photo of Lord Green of Deddington Lord Green of Deddington Crossbench

A lot has changed in 14 years, but the thrust of what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, said is absolutely right. We now have a system that has developed somewhat in defining what a UK citizen is—I accept that—but it is not too difficult, is quite well known and has been discussed recently. I do not think that undermines his recommendation or the logic of saying that the clear thing, if you want to vote in this country, is to become a citizen, and you know how to do that.

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

My Lords, I have great sympathy with the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington; I am sorry he looks so surprised. We need to sort out what we mean by UK citizenship. I cannot now remember which election it was when I was canvassing in Southwark and I came to a block that had a large number of Congolese-born people and a large number of Tanzanian-born people. The latter had the right to vote; the former did not, although I deeply suspected that some of them had got themselves on the register, somehow or other, because the local people were not quite sure who was what. This is at least as much a legacy of empire and our great-grandparents’ day as the sacking and pencils in polling stations, which the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, was talking about. Both need to be modernised and it is high time we did so.

I ask the Minister whether he can tell us when Mozambique joined the Commonwealth and whether that meant that all Mozambiquans in Britain immediately gained the right to vote. I think I am right in saying that Rwanda joined the Commonwealth and that must have given them the vote, as well. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, if he were in his place, would remind us that he has campaigned for Algeria to become a member of the Commonwealth. The hypothetical question of how many voters we would be adding each time a new country became a member of the Commonwealth is interesting.

Of course, we should be sorting out the categories of our voting. We have been saying that all afternoon. The noble Lord, Lord Green, is entirely right on this and I hope that the Government take some notice, but I suspect that they will not act on this unfortunately illogical and messy Bill.

Photo of Lord Horam Lord Horam Conservative

I declare an interest as a former electoral commissioner. First, I agree with the remarks made on the previous amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that this Bill should have included the findings of the Law Commission, which have cleared up a lot of the complexity of language involved in legislation. It sometimes goes back to the Victorian times and is really a wholesale mess, frankly. I was glad that the Law Commission came to such clear conclusions.

Of course, the noble Lord will appreciate that the Law Commission by itself cannot alter anything and does not alter the law as it stands. None the less, I agree with him that it is a missed opportunity that we have an Elections Bill of this kind but are not able to take into account the views of the Law Commission. When I was on the Electoral Commission, it would have wanted the Law Commission’s findings to be taken into account as soon as practically possible, as it certainly would now.

I will speak briefly on Amendment 154. I am sure we are all wondering what my noble friend Lord Howe, who has nobly stepped into the situation, has in his brief. I am afraid to say that he probably has a note from the FCO saying, “No, old chap, don’t agree to this because it might upset the Commonwealth”. That is the sort of line that I suspect he has there; he is nodding, so maybe I have hit the nail on the head. The noble Lord, Lord Green, made the point in his argument about reciprocity that there is a simple point here —if people from particular countries wish to vote, they can have a reciprocal arrangement. A few do, but not many. That deals with the Commonwealth point.

The wider point, which has been made several times during the discussion on this series of amendments, is that citizenship is an important issue. As the noble Lord, Lord Green, said, the Goldsmith report made this point very well in 2008; it is a wonderful report. The issue was also covered by this House, by my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, who is not in his place at the moment, in the report of the committee on citizenship that he chaired in 2017-19. It concluded that

“it strikes us from our research that what is missing is any clear, coherent or ambitious vision of why citizenship should matter in the UK in the 21st century”.

In other words, on two separate occasions, widely spread and backed by different parties, this House has made it clear that it is unhappy with the role of citizenship and the way it is decided in our voting system. Therefore, we need some clarity on this issue, and it is a pity that the Bill does not go into that as much as it should.

To allow people who are not citizens of this country to vote in our elections seems to me to simply devalue the whole idea of citizenship. Why should people who are not citizens vote in our elections? People should qualify for citizenship, as they can in the appropriate way, and then be allowed to vote. That treats citizenship as a valuable thing, which I believe it to be. Therefore, as the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Collins, have argued, we should look at this and give clarity to the whole idea of citizenship, which is what the amendment does. The noble Lord, Lord Green, has therefore performed a public service in moving this amendment, and I hope the Government will listen to what he says.

Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Non-affiliated 6:00 pm, 28th March 2022

My Lords, this is the third occasion on which I have had to say that, given the way our constitution is, it is obviously not an exercise in logic. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is right that the Bill should have been an occasion to sort out in a clear, straightforward, logical way what the qualifications are that give somebody a right to vote in this country. The right to vote in this country has been based on the principle of the Empire. In 1858, Queen Victoria’s declaration for the Indian empire, a very important document, said that she would treat all subjects of her Empire as equal. She meant that the people in this country were the same part of the Empire as people in India. One of the leading Indian nationalists in the 1870s described that as a Magna Carta for India.

Mahatma Gandhi fought in South Africa for the rights of indentured labourers on the grounds that, being Indian subjects of Queen Victoria, they had the same rights as the white settlers in South Africa. He did not get very much, but that was the principle on which he fought.

Photo of Lord Green of Deddington Lord Green of Deddington Crossbench

I assume the noble Lord is aware that British citizens in India are not permitted to vote.

Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Non-affiliated

I shall come to that; this is the beginning of a lecture that will take some time.

When I arrived here, I was the holder of an Indian passport. India had become a republic in 1950. Just as we recently saw in the exercise of persuading the Jamaicans not to become a republic, becoming a republic takes a Commonwealth country out of the reciprocity relationship because the country can then choose whether to give reciprocal rights. That is Jamaica’s choice, not ours.

We have to be aware that our original right to vote was as subjects—we are still subjects—of the Crown, and the whole notion that we are citizens is an entirely European import. We became citizens only when we joined the EU; we ceased to be citizens when we left. The notion of citizenship is not relevant. We are not a democracy: the Crown in Parliament is sovereign; people are not sovereign. That is the constitutional position. Noble Lords can challenge me if they wish.

I am not disputing the principle of what the noble Lord is proposing, because he has explained very clearly and patiently that there ought to be reciprocity or symmetry. The Commonwealth itself is an anomaly because it is not a symmetrical association of equal states. Her Majesty the Queen heads the Commonwealth because of her position as the Crown and she has asked the Commonwealth Heads of Government to agree that His Royal Highness Prince Charles will head the Commonwealth when he succeeds her. So the Head of the Commonwealth will always be the British monarch. The Commonwealth is not a society of equal nations; there is an asymmetry there.

We are not French; we are British. We do not believe in logic; we believe in convention, tradition and evolution, and therefore there is an anomaly. If the Government want to have a logical structure, let them bring a Bill that in the first clause defines who has the right to vote in this country and why, and who does not have the right to vote, despite being a resident, taxpayer or whatever. That exercise has not been carried out, and so we have an anomalous position. That is the beauty of the constitution—it is not a logical construct.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, I was sorry not to be able to speak at Second Reading. It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Desai. Logic, clarity and lack of reciprocity call for Amendment 154, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Green, to be taken seriously and for the questions he has raised to be answered. I look forward to hearing positively from my noble friend the Deputy Leader. I will not delay the House.

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

My Lords, I have some sympathy with the points made, but I wish this amendment could have been debated in the group of amendments we had on the entitlement to vote, because I do not really want to move away from the principle I articulated before. Not everyone wants to lose the status of their nationality. For example, my husband does not want to give up his Spanish citizenship, which he may have to do. A number of European countries have started to change but they did not allow dual nationality. A lot of people could lie about that, but he does not want to give it up. I certainly do not want to give up my nationality.

When we were in the EU, we were in the comfortable position of being, as we used to describe ourselves, EU citizens; we could locate and meet our families in our respective countries with ease. Now that has changed and we accept that, but I do not quite understand why we do not accept that there is a settled status, where someone has lived in the country for 27 years, paid tax, national insurance and everything else—they have taken the responsibility of a citizenship—but for one reason or another do not want to take formal citizenship, and why that should preclude them from having the right to vote.

It is crazy that, as I mentioned, an Australian student who comes over for their OE can immediately apply for the right to vote. I would rather the debate focused on what entitles somebody to vote. We have talked about taxation, we have talked about responsibility, and I say that clear levels of residence should establish some basic rights, so that we treat people who live here equally, and when they contribute to the success of our country we should acknowledge that.

I come back to what the noble Lord, Lord Green, said. One of the issues his amendment ought to probe and cause us to think about is: what is a British citizen? He says that British nationals (overseas) are not included. We can make commitments suddenly; for example, we made a commitment to Hong Kong citizens who are BNOs because of the breach of an international agreement. I have no doubt that in future, as we have done in the past, we will want to protect our legacy. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, spoke about the legacy of British Empire, which of course we cannot ignore, and things have changed.

I welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Green, has tabled this amendment but we need to consider it in the light of all the amendments we have had on the right to vote and what the qualifications are. I do not think we should ignore residency.

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

My Lords, with Amendment 154 we return to the franchise. The purpose of the amendment, as the noble Lord, Lord Green, explained, is to require the Government to confine the voting rights of Commonwealth citizens to citizens of countries that grant British citizens the right to vote in their general elections. The effect of this would be to limit the franchise to Commonwealth citizens from countries where British citizens are entitled to vote in general elections.

I take this amendment seriously but perhaps I could clarify the position as it relates to Commonwealth citizens. First, it is important for me to point out to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, in particular, that there is no blanket voting right in this country for Commonwealth citizens. The right to vote applies only to qualifying Commonwealth citizens: those who have leave to remain in this country or have such status that they do not require such leave. The noble Lord, Lord Green, asked me to expand on that definition. The definition of “Commonwealth citizen” is a broad term and is not limited to citizens from Commonwealth countries listed in Schedule 3 to the British Nationality Act 1981. It applies equally to other types of British nationality defined in Section 37 of that Act. This includes Hong Kong British nationals (overseas), British overseas citizens and British Dependent Territories citizens. It also includes British Overseas Territories citizens.

I acknowledge that the approach adopted in relation to Commonwealth citizens is different from that that we take towards other categories of foreign nationals. However, there are sound and well-rooted reasons for that difference. The rights of Commonwealth citizens to vote are long standing and reflect the historic connections and well-established links with the Commonwealth of this country and Her Majesty the Queen, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, outlined.

How did those rights originate? The Representation of the People Act 1918 provided that only British subjects could register as electors; others, defined in the Act as “aliens”, were excluded from voting. However, the term “British subject” then included any person who owed allegiance to the Crown, regardless of the Crown territory in which he or she was born. In general terms, this included citizens who became Commonwealth citizens under the British Nationality Act 1981, as I mentioned. The Government gave assurances during the passage of that Act that the new definition of “British subject” would not alter the possession of civic rights and privileges, such as the right to vote.

Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Non-affiliated 6:15 pm, 28th March 2022

I just wanted to point out that the 1918 Act was passed especially in recognition of the fact that many people from the Empire had given their lives in the First World War.

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

The noble Lord, Lord Desai, is once again perfectly right.

Successive Governments and Parliaments since 1981 have concluded that the existing voting rights of Commonwealth citizens should not be disturbed, and it is on this basis that the Commonwealth citizens are granted the right to vote in UK elections.

I have enormous personal sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and his husband in the situation he has outlined. The best answer I can give him is to refer back to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Desai. As a country, we have found ourselves at various times in our history as members of different families of nations; for example, the family of EU member states and the family of Commonwealth nations. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the links and historic traditions, and hence entitlements, relating to each such family are different from one another. Our formal ties with the EU have been severed. Our ties with the Commonwealth endure. The weight of history plays a very considerable part in all sorts of aspects of our national life—

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

The noble Earl says that our ties with the Commonwealth endure. I agree with the sentiment but the reality, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, is that the relationship with Commonwealth countries has changed fundamentally, and is continuing to change. As Prince William said yesterday in his press statement—I have forgotten the exact words but it seemed relevant to me—the relations endure but Commonwealth countries change. The fact is that we have not changed what we define. With all these different British nationals as a consequence of our imperial legacy, we find it very difficult to define citizenship in that regard. That is why I come back to this fundamental point. I am not arguing that my husband has a special right as a former EU citizen. I am saying that someone who has lived here for 27 years, and paid tax and national insurance, should have the right to vote. It is residence that I am arguing for, which is what a number of noble Lords have been making the case for.

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

My Lords, I understand that. It is clear that this is an argument that runs very deep. We may or may not return to it on Report but if there is anything else that I can add to the remarks that I have made, I will ensure that a letter is sent to all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate.

In short, it is for reasons of history and because of the well-established ties that we in this country have with the family of nations that we call the Commonwealth that the Government have no plans to change the voting rights of Commonwealth citizens. Therefore, I am afraid we cannot support this amendment.

Photo of Lord Green of Deddington Lord Green of Deddington Crossbench

My Lords, it has been a very interesting debate. I welcome the response of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats and note the careful response from the Labour Front Bench. There are wider issues here, and I hope that both opposition parties will look at this and that the Government will, too.

The point that the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, made is a very important one. This loose end, to call it that, rather devalues the worth of UK/British citizenship. We need to sort it; this Bill is a very simple one, this could be a very simple amendment, and this is an opportunity to support it. I intend to bring it back at Report, and I hope that there will be a different reception to it. Meanwhile, I am happy to withdraw it.

Amendment 154 withdrawn.

Amendments 155 and 155A not moved.

Schedule 8: Voting and candidacy rights of EU citizens

Amendment 156 not moved.