The clause, like all parts of the Bill, is important. The Belfast agreement recognised the birthright of the peoples of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British or both, as they may choose. All overseas electors are required to make a nationality declaration when they apply to vote. The clause will make that nationality declaration compatible with the Belfast agreement, which is an important change to the legislation.
The change is technical, but emotive. The clause does not expand the franchise beyond British citizens. Rather, it involves individuals who are already entitled to vote, but feel unable to exercise that entitlement because of the requirements of identity to identify themselves as Irish.
I accept that the issue is emotive. On paper, the changes are consequential, but the issue is felt much more strongly in Northern Ireland. However, the changes are an important part of ensuring that the Belfast agreement is recognised within the legislation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
The Minister talked about the Government’s acceptance of the nationality of people living in Northern Ireland, whether they determine themselves to be Irish or British. That raises an exceptionally important point, which he knows I have raised on a number of occasions and will keep raising until we arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. Many thousands of people in Northern Ireland—the figure is certainly in the tens of thousands—were born in the Irish Republic after 1949, when the Irish Free State left the Commonwealth. People who were born in the Republic before that date had the right to British citizenship and a British passport, but anyone born in the Republic since 1949 who has moved to Northern Ireland does not.
There are therefore many thousands of people—the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly is but one very prominent and eminent example—who, if they go along, as any other citizen in Northern Ireland does, to their local post office, can apply for an Irish passport and, having paid the required fee, get that passport, as they are deemed to be an Irish citizen. However, if those same people go along to the passport office in Belfast, or write to the one in London, they cannot get a British passport, despite the fact that they are a British resident, a British voter and a British taxpayer here in the UK.
Those people can get a British passport if they go through the complicated and expensive process of naturalisation, but they constantly tell me that, despite the demand for, as the Minister put it, equality of citizenship, whether Irish or British, those who want an Irish passport do not have to naturalise or pay an exorbitant fee. To get an Irish passport, they simply have to apply, and they receive one, because they are deemed to be Irish citizens.
That anomaly must be addressed. I have raised it on the Floor of the House and will raise it again if the Bill does not address it. Several years ago, I introduced a private Member’s Bill on the issue, and it will keep being raised until the anomaly is resolved. That group of people in Northern Ireland, who are proud British residents, voters and UK taxpayers, also want the pride of being British passport holders and British citizens. The Government must deal with that issue. If they do not do so in the Bill, they must address it in the very near future.
The clause centres on a person’s eligibility to be an overseas elector—that is the import. The provisions solve part of the problem, part of the way, but they leave a residual problem. The hon. Member for East Londonderry has spoken of how the issue, as he sees it, affects the people who are resident—quite often have been long resident—in Northern Ireland, but were born in one of the counties of the south, which makes them ineligible for a British passport.
Obviously, I am not here to address the issue of passport eligibility, but the group that the hon. Gentleman referred to will be caught by the clause. If Willie Hay, the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, or Sean Farren or Brid Rodgers, distinguished former Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive—all of them long-standing participants in the democratic process in Northern Ireland—moved abroad for a short period, they would be ineligible to register as overseas electors because none of them was born in Northern Ireland. Therefore, the clause remedies the problem only for people who were born in Northern Ireland.
I want to lay down a marker that we need to consider making a further change to allow people to qualify to be overseas electors in Northern Ireland on the basis of having been on the register in Northern Ireland for a certain number of years. Such a measure would not necessarily have to go so far as to consider the length of time that a passport had been held, but it would at least remedy the problem by allowing people to qualify as a registered elector not only by virtue of their place of birth, but through their tenure as a registered elector in Northern Ireland. Therefore, if a person lived and worked abroad, they could continue to take an active interest in and to have an input to the democratic process in Northern Ireland.
The purpose of having overseas electors is to prevent people from becoming disfranchised and losing their involvement in the democratic affairs of their nation or their locality. Although the clause goes some way to bringing the overseas electorate qualifications in line with the Good Friday agreement, there is still an element of disfranchisement, which can reasonably be addressed by another route. However, I accept that that would require a further amendment, rather than those proposals available to us now.
I do not want to deviate too much from the content of the clause. I believe the hon. Member for East Londonderry tried hard to table an amendment, but it was out of my hands. He raised an important issue, but it is not the responsibility of my Department. I have met the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues about this subject. I have spoken to the Immigration Minister and the Home Secretary, and this is very much a matter for them. I commend the hon. Gentleman on his vigilance and on going on and on about something he is passionate about. I have some sympathy with him, but the issue is not the responsibility of my Department and it is not part of clause 15.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Foyle appreciates where we are going. We have not been able to introduce a clause that addresses all our concerns, but the clause goes some way towards alleviating some of his concerns, particularly about the way in which the Good Friday agreement has been implemented. The clause has been introduced a long time after the Good Friday agreement was implemented, but, as I said, I think it is important. I am pleased we have had a short debate on it, and I hope it will stand part of the Bill.