Skip to main content

Referendum

Volume 890: debated on Monday 14 April 1975

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

31.

asked the Lord President of the Council whether he will place in the Library a record of his discussions with the umbrella organisations concerning the referendum.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Edward Short)

No, Sir. These discussions were confidential.

What representations have been made by the umbrella organisations about those who are being disfranchised by the Lord President's statement that the earliest probable day for the referendum would be 19th June?

Those people took their holidays early so as to be back in the country to vote, but they now find that they will not be able to do so. Surely the right hon. Gentleman must listen to representations from those people if they are not to be disfranchised simply by the Labour Government's haste to get the referendum through before the Labour Party splits on the European issue?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that his hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) has tabled a Question on that subject, which will be answered later today.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, quite apart from the handful of people mentioned by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton), hundreds of thousands in North Staffordshire and Lancashire will benefit from the announcement of the earlier date for the referendum, and they are very grateful to my right hon. Friend?

I am extremely grateful for what my hon. Friend said. That is one of the reasons why we have put on the referendum at the earlier date, if we can manage it on that date. However, I realise that there are different views on this matter and I shall beat in mind all the points put in last week's debate. Indeed, a Conservative Member is coming to see me later today to explain his plans, and I shall listen to him.

33.

asked the Lord President of the Council how soon after the Referendum Bill has received the Royal Assent he proposes to lay the various orders that may be made under the Act.

35.

asked the Lord President of the Council how soon after the Referendum Bill has received the Royal Assent he intends to lay the orders that may be made under the Act.

The orders will be laid immediately the Bill receives Royal Assent.

Will the hon. Gentleman further clarify what his right hon. Friend the Lord President said a moment ago? Will the further discussions which the right hon. Gentleman is to have relate solely to those Britons who live and work overseas, or will they also concern the important issue of the situation of those who will be on holiday, whether at home or abroad, when the vote is held? Is it not the case that these people should be given a postal vote, and is not this issue of sufficient importance to override considerations of administrative convenience?

I am surprised that we do not get the same passion displayed before each General Election. [HON. MEMBERS: "We do."] Then it is rather hard to understand why there is such fervour on the Opposition benches today, since nothing of the kind happened before last February's election. When and if amendments are made to the Bill in its passage through the House, amendments will be made to the order.

Is the Minister aware that his answer just now was just as unsatisfactory as his answers to the debate last week? May I draw his attention again to the problem of Britons residing abroad with the right of abode in the United Kingdom? Last week the hon. Gentleman gave the impression that the problem of registering them was one of time. If so why should not the referendum be put back for a week, until 12th June?

In that case, will not the hon. Gentleman simply put back the whole ludicrous exercise for a month or two? The only reason for not delaying it is the convenience of the Labour Party, not the country at large.

I do not see why Conservative Members are so dedicated to the notion of enfranchising some who are not registered at the cost of effectively disfranchising a large number who will then be on holiday—not all abroad.

34.

asked the Lord President of the Council what is his estimate of the number of citizens of the Republic of Ireland, not being citizens of the United Kingdom also, who will be entitled to vote in the forthcoming referendum, if the Referendum Bill printed on 26th March 1975 shall become law.

How many citizens of the United Kingdom living in the Republic had a right to vote in the referendum held by the Republic about its membership of the Common Market? Will the right hon. Gentleman please carry out research so that he can answer the Question?

It is impossible to answer the Question, because the register does not distinguish voters by nationality, and there are no reliable figures. I can give the hon. Gentleman the figures from the 1971 Census returns. They show that there are about 710,000 people living in England, Wales and Scotland who were born in Ireland, and another 521,000 who had fathers who were born there. That is a total of 1·2 million, of whom 35,000 were aged 14 or under in 1971 and will not yet be old enough to vote.

Is it just that citizens of the Republic living in Britain should have a right to vote but our own United Kingdom citizens, working in Europe for this country, are not allowed to vote, when the Government have told us that this is a unique occasion for the future of the country and everybody in it?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we try to adhere as closely as possible to the normal electoral law—

I wish that Conservative Members would, just once in a while, allow a Minister to answer a question without interrupting from a seated position. We try to adhere to normal electoral law, under which Irish citizens living in this country are entitled to vote if they are on the register, but British citizens in Europe who have not taken the trouble to register are not. But I said a minute ago that I recognised that there were varying points of view about the matter. I have undertaken to consider very carefully all the points of view put in the debate last week, and I shall do that.

37.

asked the Lord President of the Council what steps he has taken to ascertain the difficulties which might be involved in the distribution of ballot papers to United Kingdom embassies, consulates and high commissions for the forthcoming referendum.

I would refer the hon. Member to what my hon. Friend the Minister of State and I said in the debate on 10th April.—[Vol. 889, c. 1424 and 1537.] The Government are, however, urgently considering the matter in the light of points made in that debate.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that answer, and for agreeing to see me this evening. Will he bear in mind that the amendment which has been tabled to the Referendum Bill is not aimed just at trying to enfranchise people living within the EEC area? That is a misconception, and it would be unfortunate if it took hold in people's minds. Will the Lord President tell his hon. Friend that the reason why the referendum is different from a General Election, and therefore why we want to try to enfranchise the people in question, is that no constituencies are involved in the referendum? We are not electing Members of Parliament. In the right hon. Gentleman's own words, this is a unique occasion. Therefore, there is no reason why people who are abroad and who are not registered in a particular constituency should not vote, provided they have the right of abode in the United Kingdom.

I am sure that my hon. Friend realises all that—but I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends who put that point of view will realise the difficulties. Many people who have gone to live abroad have turned their hacks on this country and are living on the Costa Brava, in Malta, and elsewhere. [Interruption.] I am just pointing out one of the problems. Under the hon. Gentleman's proposal they would be allowed to vote, but someone in my constituency who, because he lived in a slum tenement and had been moved during the currency of the register, would not have a vote. There are considerable difficulties. Nevertheless, I have promised to reconsider the whole question. I realise that there is a point of view here, but any scheme which could be worked out would be makeshift, of a Heath Robinson type, and full of holes, and there would be a great risk of bringing our electoral system into disrepute. However, in spite of all the difficulties—it is no good trying to laugh them off, because they are consider- able—I promise to examine the matter again.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we on the Labour benches realise that the quicker the referendum is held the better it will be for the British economy, and that he should not delay holding the referendum in order to give people living overseas the right to vote in it?

That is the other point of view. There are these two points of view. As I have said three or four times already, I promise to review the whole situation again this week.

I think that everybody realises that there are difficulties. We do not minimise them. We are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for saying that he will look into the matter. Is he aware that many individuals who are doing a useful job for this country, in Europe and other countries, badly want to vote about something which affects the future of this country? These are people who are not in a tax-free situation but who are working for this country as our representatives. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not wish to minimise their political rights, although many others do. Does not he think that "Heath Robinson" is not a particularly appropriate term for the referendum?

It is an inappropriate term for the referendum as a whole, but for any scheme for all the people living abroad it would be very appropriate. The vast majority of the people working in Europe could have registered in this country if they had wished. If they have registered, they can vote by proxy.

In view of the tremendous interest being shown by Conservative Members in the need to make elections as fair as possible, does my right hon. Friend agree that we should arrange a debate before the next General Election on how to make General Elections much fairer than they are now, and in particular on the way in which the two major parties are financed?

There is a case for setting up the Speaker's Conference again before the next General Election. I hope that we shall do so, and that we shall refer a number of matters to it.

With regard to my hon. Friend's second point, I hope in the very near future to announce the composition of the committee the setting up of which I announced in the House some time ago.

In view of the comment made by a number of hon. Members that there is a fundamental difference between a General Election and a referendum, in that the referendum results are not on a constituency basis, will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the pressure applied by such hon. Members with regard to people living abroad will not militate against the declaration of the result on a constituency basis if that is the wish of the House at a later stage?

It will not do that. I do not think that the votes need necessarily be sent to a given constituency. But that is one of the problems that would have to be sorted out if we worked out a scheme for people living abroad.

We are glad to hear that the right hon. Gentleman will give consideration to the problem of British subjects living abroad. Will he consider whether, in this unique case, it is necessary to go through all the steps which are rightly considered necessary for a General Election, such as the publication of draft registers, the opportunity for challenge of the registers, transporting the ballot box to the scene of the count, and so on? In a General Election, one vote may make all the difference. Is not the referendum likely to be different?

Everyone will agree that it is in the interests of the country to get the referendum over as quickly as possible and remove the uncertainty about British membership one way or the other. But in view of the time factor it would not be possible to go through all the stages the hon. Gentleman mentioned. We should have to short-circuit many of them.