Report (1st Day) (Continued)
40: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—
“Automatic voter registration
(1) Registration officers must take all reasonable steps to ensure that all persons eligible to register to vote in elections in the United Kingdom are so registered.(2) The Secretary of State must by regulations require public bodies to provide information to registration officers to enable them to fulfil their duty under subsection (1).(3) Regulations under subsection (2) must apply to the following public bodies—(a) HM Revenue and Customs;(b) the Department for Work and Pensions;(c) the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency;(d) the National Health Service, NHS Wales and NHS Scotland;(e) schools and further and higher education institutions; (f) local authorities;(g) HM Passport Office;(h) police forces;(i) the TV Licensing Authority;(j) Job Centre Plus;(k) the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Local Communities;(l) the Department for Transport;(m) the Department for Health and Social Care;(n) the Home Office; and(o) the Ministry of Justice.(4) Regulations under subsection (2) may also apply to other public bodies.(5) Registration officers must—(a) use the information provided by the public bodies listed in regulations under subsection (2) to register otherwise unregistered persons on the appropriate electoral register or registers, or(b) if the information provided does not contain all information necessary to register a person who may be eligible, contact that person for the purpose of obtaining the required information to establish whether they are eligible to register and, if so, register them on the appropriate electoral register or registers.(6) If a registration officer has registered a person under subsection (5), the officer must notify that person within 30 days and give that person an opportunity to correct any incorrect information.(7) Where a person is registered under subsection (5), that person must be omitted from the edited register unless that person notifies the registration officer to the contrary.(8) Nothing in this section affects entitlement to register to vote anonymously.(9) The Secretary of State may issue guidance to registration officers on fulfilling their duties under this section.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would require registration officers to enter eligible voters on the register, and provide for them to receive the necessary information from a number of public bodies.
My Lords, having hurried in here, I am now out of breath. We seem to have caused a bit of a stir with the first round of amendments, but what I liked was that our fiery debate was very respectful. We all have our own opinions, which are very strong from time to time, but I really liked how respectful it was. During the last round of debates, I spent a lot of my time trying to save people from either falling off the register or not voting, if that makes sense. With the amendment I now put to the House, I want to do the opposite.
I want to do something that is so incredible that we will be remembered in history for what we do tonight, if noble Lords agree to my amendment. Rather than lose 2 million voters, which we fought about on the previous amendment, tonight we can send a signal to ensure that 9 million people who are not on the voting register are put on and have a voice. It will be unprecedented and we will make history. We can do it. I hope that noble Lords will seize this opportunity and go and tell friends and family. I have been told to finish, so I beg to move.
My Lords, a couple of minutes after I thought I might have to rise to move the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, and others, I rise to support it. With between 6 million and 9 million people missing from electoral registers or incorrectly registered, something is clearly wrong.
Surveys by the Electoral Commission show that 60% of people think, incorrectly, that the registration process happens automatically and that they do not need to do anything. Registering is not just about the right to vote; it is about making yourself available for jury service and being able to obtain credit. The Government maintain that there should be an opt-in principle to the right to vote, but there is no opt-in principle for healthcare, education or support from the emergency services, nor do the Government expect you to opt in to paying tax, so you should not have to opt in to the right to vote.
Automatic voter registration would cut the cost of existing registration processes and reduce red tape and bureaucracy, all things which the Government would normally say that they want to support. Introducing it would free up resources to focus on those who are still unregistered, which is also something the Government say that they want to do, but are they worried that the wrong people may then be able to vote? That is not a very democratic principle, but it is one trumpeted by Republicans in the United States.
My Lords, I had the pleasure of introducing this amendment in Committee and I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, who has been the proponent of this throughout, was able to be here on Report and provide such a powerful introduction. I raised one practical point previously: how hard it is for people to check if they are on the roll. The Minister said she was going to write to me about that, and I look forward to her letter.
The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, is not in her place now, but in Committee she stressed the way in which automatic voter registration would be helpful to poor and marginalised communities, particularly Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. We should keep that in mind, and also the words in Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, who noted that the impact assessment is to ensure that those who are entitled to vote should always be able to use that right—that is the Government’s stated aim for the Bill.
After those brief words, I will repeat three words said by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, in his introduction: “seize this opportunity”. I think he was speaking then to voters, but that it is a great message to leave with your Lordships’ House: seize this opportunity for democracy.
My Lords, I rise to say three things. First, I am pleased to see the Minister back in his place and I hope he has recovered. Secondly, I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, has made another journey from Cambridge to be with us tonight. Thirdly, I agree with him that we should make history and I urge the House to vote for this amendment.
My Lords, I was struck by the argument from the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that one does not have to opt in for taxation. I think he is arguing for “no taxation without representation”, a slogan which if recognised in the past might have eased some pain which a British Government suffered.
At the end of the debate in Committee, I put it to the Minister that someone should turn up at a voting booth with a British passport and a driving licence and would then be denied the right to vote. She replied, “Of course, that person’s not on the register.” That seemed to illustrate the total folly of the current restrictive register, and the wisdom of the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, which I urge everyone in the House to support and so maximise the number of people who are engaged in the civic process of voting in this country.
I want to support what the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, has said, and perhaps try to pre-empt the Minister in her reply. In Committee, two reasons were given. One was a mitigation that HMRC in fact informs those who receive new national insurance numbers of their right to vote, which started in September last year. That is excellent and if HMRC can inform them, I am sure they could send the form to go with it. The noble Baroness also said:
“Automatic registration would threaten the accuracy of the register and … enable voting and political donations by those who are ineligible”.—[Official Report, 23/3/22; col. 1058.]
There is a measure of disconnect between the Government’s approach to this issue and their approach to overseas voters. Will the Minister consider whether it would not be sensible to go one more step with HMRC and to link their policies for overseas voters with the domestic voting system?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, for tabling this amendment, to which I have added my name, and for his introduction. I also thank noble Lords for their brief comments.
I want to refer back to Committee. The Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, said that the amendments proposed on automatic voter registration
“contradict the principle that underpins individual electoral registration: that individuals should have ownership of, and responsibility for, their own registration … Automatic registration would threaten the accuracy of the register and, in doing so, enable voting and political donations by those who are ineligible.”—[Official Report, 23/3/22; col. 1058.]
However, does she agree with me that there are underlying problems with the status quo, such as millions of eligible citizens being incorrectly registered or missing from the registers entirely, major strains on the system during a last-minute registration rush ahead of election days, and resource problems for electoral officials? A founding principle of democracy is political equality. We therefore need to ensure a level playing field on election day. AVR could boost voter registration rates among under-registered groups to create this more level playing field.
It is already current law that every citizen is registered. People often get letters saying that they will be fined £60 if they do not register. Voter registration is not an opt-in process. AVR is a solution that would help administratively to best realise what appears to be the current goal of full, compulsory registration. AVR is also the norm, not the exception, in countries around the world. Many countries that have historically not had AVR because of the absence of a population register are now increasingly introducing either direct enrolment for specific groups or assisted voter enrolment through other public agencies. Where they have been designed well, these innovations have proven to be able to deliver cost savings and boost voter registration for specific groups.
As the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, said, we can give millions of people not on the electoral register a voice. If he chooses to divide the House on this amendment, we will support him.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford. He, my noble friend Lord True and I have debated this issue a number of times in this House. The intention behind this amendment—to increase the number of people registered to vote—is one that the Government wholeheartedly support. However, the practical difficulties brought about by automatic voter registration are such that the Government cannot support the amendment.
Given the number and range of public bodies listed, as well as the vast amounts of data they hold, the amendment would overwhelm electoral registration officers with data. Data protection legislation rightly prevents the unnecessary sharing of personal data. This amendment would see unparalleled volumes of personal data shared—even that of the majority of people who are already correctly registered. Likewise, it would see people registered without their knowledge or consent.
There would also likely be a large number of security and privacy concerns, such as when it comes to handling the data of minors, those who are escaping domestic violence, those who wish to remain anonymous electors or those who do not want to be on the register—and there are a number of people who do not. I do not know whether it has happened when you have knocked on doors, but people have certainly said to me, “We are not on the register and do not want to be”.
The amendment also takes no account of the coverage, currency or accuracy of the data held by the various public bodies. As they would be listed in primary legislation, these public bodies would be required to share their data, even if it is of no use for electoral registration. Using inaccurate or out-of-date information to register people to vote automatically would seriously undermine the accuracy of the electoral register. That is the crux of the issue: accuracy is just as important as completeness. Having more individuals on a register is not inherently a good thing if those individuals are registered at incorrect or multiple addresses.
When it comes to implementation, a whole host of other issues arise. How would an ERO deal with contradictory evidence from different data sources? If an individual was removed from the register because the ERO determined they were no longer eligible, how would this be picked up by an automated system so that they were not automatically added again? What these questions point to is the fact that there is no true system of automatic voter registration; any trusted system of registration requires the active input of both electors and EROs to determine eligibility. The Government also contend that such active input is important to aid electors’ understanding of the process and their awareness of upcoming electoral events.
Lastly, the Government cannot accept the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, because it is deficient. It leaves untouched all the existing legislation for electoral registration. It would require significant further work, and possibly a whole new Bill, to unpick which elements of current law would need to be amended or repealed to accommodate this amendment. For these reasons, and more I have no time to go into—
I am grateful that the noble Baroness has explained a whole series of practical reasons that she says will make it difficult. I would like to know what the government position in principle on this is. If the practical differences can be overcome, in principle are the Government in favour of all those who have the right to be on the register actually being registered?
Of course we want maximum registration, but not through a flawed system. There are many other ways the Government will continue to work on getting more people on to the electoral register, if they want to be on it.
I urge the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, to withdraw his amendment. Tackling under-registration is an important and complex issue, but this is not the way to address it.
I thank the Minister very much for that answer. The irony of this discussion is that we have spent hours and hours on the Bill, and we are proposing an expenditure of about £200 million on the basis of one fraud: one out of 47 million. What I am suggesting is that we find a way, first in principle, to get 9 million people to have a voice. I know it is difficult; it will not be a walk in the park, but what price is democracy? What price is telling every individual out there eligible to vote that we will use all our powers, all our political will and all our decency to make sure that they can have a voice in these Chambers? The answer should not be, “It’s too difficult”. The question should be “How do we do it?” I am afraid that I want to put the will of this House to a vote.
Amendment 41 not moved.
42: After Clause 14, insert the following new Clause—
“Members of the House of Lords: voting at elections to the House of Commons
(1) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a member of the House of Lords is not disqualified by virtue of that position from voting at elections to the House of Commons.(2) This section comes into force 24 months after the day on which this Act is passed.(3) This section extends to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.”
My Lords, I will not claim that this is the most important amendment we have discussed. We debated it quite thoroughly in Committee, so I do not want to take up the time of the House more than very briefly indeed. As I recall, when we discussed this in Committee, there were two arguments against the amendment. One argument was that we can exercise an influence on politics and therefore we should not have the right to vote in elections, and the second argument was that because Members of the House of Lords are not here for a finite period of time, it is not right if we vote, and that allows the Bishops to be the exception. I remind your Lordships that of some 140-plus countries that are members of the IPU, we are the only one that does not allow Members of the second Chamber to vote in general elections.
Of course we have an influence when we are here, but it seems to me that the argument for voting is to give us a chance to influence the Government. Quite a few of us spend our time canvassing in elections. We work pretty hard; in the last election, I canvassed, working in seven or eight constituencies all the way from Yorkshire to south London. Then I find, on the day of the election, I cannot vote. It is frustrating, but it also seems to me to be wrong in principle. The right to vote is fundamental in a democracy. Arguments against our being able to vote are, frankly, based much more on long-standing traditions than on substantive arguments and logic.
The last thing I would say is this. During the passage of this Bill, I have asked everybody I know outside whether they know we are not allowed to vote. There is not a person I have met outside this House who is aware we are not allowed to vote. It really is a bit odd. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, for having signed the amendment as well. I urge the Government to accept it. The world will not come to an end and Boris Johnson will not resign—just do it. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support my noble friend on the Opposition Benches. I did indeed have my own Bill: the Extension of Franchise (House of Lords) Bill. It had its First Reading on 5 July 2017, its Second Reading on 19 July 2019 and then it ran out of time. I am not going to repeat the speech I made then, but I have done a bit of research, otherwise it is all assertion.
I was born 85 years ago and, in that year, in this very Chamber, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede moved an amendment that is almost identical to the one we are debating today. He referred to the fact that in days gone by
“Peers were regarded as powerful potentates and had a number of special privileges accord to them.”
He said that if noble Lords were to do any research, they would find out that, in 1642, The Privileges of the Baronage of England declared no end of privileges. Indeed, you could have your own chaplain and, if you were married, there were special provisions for your wives and children. Since those days, there have been a few changes. Lord Ponsonby went on to point out:
“Practically all the privileges I can think of have been dropped. It now remains for the restrictions and disabilities to be dropped too. We must recognise that we live in a democratic age”—
this was in 1936—
“and just as we desire no advantages for ourselves personally or for our positions we, at the same time, do not wish that there should be any restrictions or disabilities placed upon us. I want to make it perfectly clear, my Lords, that I do not want to raise the question of the reform of the House of Lords.”—[Official Report, 12/2/1936; col. 537.]
Nor does my noble friend opposite and nor do I. It is pretty clear that almost as long ago as a century, those disabilities and interests that were once there no longer applied.
It is also true that the vast majority of us work hard for those in our constituencies when there is a general election. We live in a constituency, we look after the local people in those constituencies, and all of us are involved in all sorts of clubs and followings in our constituencies, so nobody can say that we do not take part in elections. We take part in local elections and any other elections, but for some extraordinary reason, because of this ball and chain that is left over from the 17th century, we cannot take part in general elections. Here we are now, with us in this House, prisoners and lunatics all in one bag. I do not think that is acceptable.
I conclude with these thoughts. First, we do not vote on the Budget. We do not have the power to vote on taxation. To me, that is crucial. Secondly, there have been precedents. In 1909, Irish Peers were given the right to vote. Today, the Lords spiritual have the right to vote in general elections. They sit on their Bench in your Lordships’ House and they vote. What is the difference?
People say that one Lord voting will make no difference, but have a look at the register, as I have done. I remind your Lordships that in 1997 Winchester was won by the Liberal Democrats, and by how many votes?
Two votes. The noble Lord is quite right. I do not know whether any noble Lords from the Welsh Benches are here, but in 1974 Carmarthen was won by Labour by three votes. My dear friend Harmar Nicholls—a man who had more tight elections than anybody else—again won by three votes. If you are lucky enough to have three Lords in a constituency, that could make a huge difference. The Liberal Democrats probably would not have won Winchester if two Lords had lived there.
I repeat that this has nothing at all to do with reform of the House of Lords. It is just about individual liberty and responsibility. We all support our local communities, as I mentioned. In return, I wish to go with my wife to vote at the polling station. I do not want to stand outside while she goes in; I want to vote alongside her. I believe it is my democratic right, which I was given to implement and which I exercised from the age of 18 until 1997. It is vital, and I hope very much that other noble Lords will take us over this final fence. After all, if the Irish Peers were made an exception, why do we not join the Irish community as well?
My Lords, I have been disfranchised twice. I was disfranchised in 1972, when I first entered the House and was disfranchised with lunatics and criminals. The second time I was disfranchised was in December last year, when I had the opportunity to come back to the House following a hereditary Peers’ by-election. Now I am no longer in the company of criminals and those in prison—I am not quite sure about lunatics—because, as I recall, when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Clarke, was Lord Chancellor, a provision from the European Court of Human Rights restored, or at least gave, the right to vote to those in prison. I think I have therefore lost the criminality side of my company, but I am not sure whether I have also lost the lunatics.
This is, as my noble friend Lord Dubs said, not the most important amendment being considered in the House, but it is an anomaly that is unjustified. In Committee, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, argued for the Government that we should not have two bites of the cherry—this is my language, rather than his—because we are directly involved in legislation; if we had the vote, we would have a different way of expressing our views. Then the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, argued that, since the House of Commons rises after a Dissolution—not after a Prorogation—the Lords are treated differently from Members of the House of Commons. The truth is that we are treated in very much the same way following a Dissolution, because once Parliament has been dissolved, we are not entitled to come back to the House until we have received a Writ of Summons and get sworn in. We are therefore not in a different position from the House of Commons. This is an anomaly and should be changed, but it is not one of the most important amendments being considered by the Minister, who is sitting back on his Bench with his arms folded, looking at me with a patient look.
My Lords, I find myself in a difficult position over my noble friend’s amendment. At an earlier stage in Committee, I said in the course of some remarks that I thought it was a good principle to follow that, if you have the right to vote, you should also have the right to be a candidate. In relation to my noble friend’s amendment, by definition, were this amendment to be passed and we were given the right to vote, we would still not, of course, have the right to be a candidate, by virtue of the fact that we have two Houses in Parliament and, at the moment, one is elected and one is not.
The right to vote is a very important thing and I, like other noble Lords, perhaps, noticed, psychologically, the very big difference in coming here and, at the same time, knowing that if a general election were called tomorrow, I would not be able to go and cast my vote in a polling station, which I have done all my life. Nevertheless, it may be that in the future, the solution is that this House may—who knows?—become an elected Chamber, in which case I would be very happy to have the right to vote, and I would be happy to be a candidate for this House. Time will tell whether either arises.
My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, of course has a very interesting family history on this subject. I might perhaps suggest that his view is not quite correct. I think that if he was granted the right to vote, he would still have the right to resign from this House and stand as a candidate. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Thurso was once a Member of this House, then left this House, stood for election to Parliament and was elected as an MP. Then he lost his seat as an MP and came back to this House after a by-election of hereditary Peers. So the issue is not quite so simple.
We are talking about 800 people being added to an electoral register of 47 million, so I say to the Government that they should not have too much to fear from those 800 people being added, especially as quite a few of the 800 might vote for their party. I also say to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that there are only a number of issues which we can really send back to the elected MPs. I personally think that issues such as the 6 million to 9 million people not on the register or incorrectly registered are much more important than 800 Peers and we may subject ourselves to some ridicule in the other place if we are seen to be prioritising our votes as Peers in a general election. If it happens and the Government accede, I will not be unhappy—I would quite like to have a say in electing somebody who will have a vote on budgetary matters and on who might become the Prime Minister—but it is not an issue that I would personally want to press to a vote on this occasion, because I think there are more important priorities, particularly for this House at this stage of the Bill.
My Lords, I shall speak very briefly to Amendment 42. First, I have huge admiration for my noble friend Lord Dubs and the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, and I recognise the history of campaigning on these issues. A lot of interesting points have been made this evening, but given the hour, I just want to say that I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Stansgate for providing his context and family experience. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, says. This is a very interesting debate and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, the Government’s position on this matter remains one of principle: namely, that it is not right for any one citizen to have the privilege of being represented twice. Enfranchising noble Lords to vote in UK parliamentary elections would give us two ways of being represented in Parliament: through our permanent membership here and ability to vote on legislation as we are today, and through our elected MP.
As we discussed in Committee, this is not the case for those currently sitting in the House of Commons. Once an election is called and Parliament is dissolved, an MP ceases to be an elected official and must seek re-election before returning to their place in the House of Commons. It is therefore right that they are able to vote in parliamentary elections, as not allowing them to do so would mean denying them a say in the democratic process.
We, however, do not cease to be Peers at the time of an election, and to allow us to vote would give us twice the representation of other citizens. In our roles in this Chamber, we are privileged to have an active role in the scrutiny of legislation and active participation in the democratic process of this country. To extend this participation further would undermine the principle that all citizens are equally represented in politics. I urge that this amendment be withdrawn.
My Lords, to take just the last phrase or two of the Minister’s comments, all citizens should be treated equally. All I am asking is that we are treated equally and have the right to vote. In nearly every democracy except this one, Members of the second Chamber have the right to vote. The world will not come to an end. It is a very simple democratic proposition. I beg to move.
43: After Clause 14, insert the following new Clause—
“Commonwealth citizens: reciprocal franchise
Within 12 months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must consult governments of Commonwealth countries and report to Parliament on a proposal to restrict the right of Commonwealth citizens to vote in UK general elections to citizens of Commonwealth countries that grant to British citizens a reciprocal right to vote in their own general elections.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment will ensure that Commonwealth countries are consulted about a proposal to restrict the right of Commonwealth citizens to vote in UK general elections to citizens of those Commonwealth countries that grant to British citizens the right to vote in their own general elections.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Green, has Covid. He emailed me this afternoon and asked if I could do this. I think he is fairly groggy, and I am sure noble Lords would wish to join me in wishing him a speedy recovery. I recognise, as the Deputy Speaker has just told us, that this is the last group. The horse is heading for the stable—or, more likely, the people are heading for the plane—so I will not detain the House too long. I will leave the other amendments for the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, to speak to. I will just deal with Amendment 43.
I will deal first with a couple of points the noble Lord, Lord Green, left for me. The amendment he tabled, which I put my name to in Committee, has been slimmed down, because he had a meeting, I understand, with the Minister, which I did not attend, in which it was made perfectly clear that we cannot make these sorts of changes on the fly. It will require a period of consultation with Commonwealth Governments to see what the situation is and to make sure that we do not take their friendship and their links to this country for granted.
So the proposal in the revised amendment is that there should be a period of consultation and then a report to Parliament about the results of that consultation, with a view to implementing a process that was first recommended by a Labour former Attorney-General, now the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, in 2008. As the noble Lord, Lord Green, points out, it would encourage more Commonwealth citizens to become British citizens and generally, therefore, strengthen the status of citizenship in the UK. Of course, it would do so without creating an unlevel playing field, because it is proposed in the amendment that, where other countries offer reciprocal rights, their citizens will continue to be able to vote in our elections—a two-way street.
Those are essentially the points which the noble Lord, Lord Green, would have wished to make. I will now add a few words of my own. I support this proposal for two reasons. First, I absolutely accept that the right to vote is a right—a right which we want everyone to exercise, for the reasons we were discussing earlier—but it is also a privilege. The right to vote is not the same as the right to get a driving licence, a point I made earlier, because it is far more important. It gives each one of us a say on how our country is governed, the sort of society we want to be and the values we wish to follow and adopt. Therefore, it is a very precious right, and precious rights should not be spread around too easily.
I take issue with any proposal which extends the franchise to anyone who does not have close, persistent and recent links to the United Kingdom. That is why I could not support the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, in his proposal to extend the franchise to EU citizens. It is also why I do not believe my party was right to extend the franchise to British citizens who have gone to live overseas, allowing them to vote in UK general elections without a time limit. That is a bad thing with which I do not agree. Nevertheless, I recognise the issue of reciprocity and, as I say, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Green, reflects that.
Secondly, I support this amendment because it recognises the changing nature of this country’s relationships with other Commonwealth countries. As sovereign nations, many quite rightly and understandably wish to develop a constitutional position entirely independent of the United Kingdom, while maintaining close links of friendship, through family and friends, and the other things which tie us all together. We saw the manifestation of this in recent developments in the Bahamas and on the recent royal tour of the West Indies, so the time has come for a reset. This reset can be achieved—in the terms of the noble Lord’s amendment—by having a period of consultation to ensure that the friendships of the Commonwealth are not endangered or damaged, while understanding that it is likely to lead to a proposal to confine the right to vote in UK elections to those Commonwealth countries where “reciprocal” rights are available to UK citizens. In that way, we all respect the dignity and independence of each other as sovereign nations. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 44 is in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. The question of the franchise and of entitlement has surfaced in the course of these debates. It is clearly an important matter which could do with elaboration. However, rather than launching out on that at this time, I just make one point to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. The right to vote is certainly entirely different from the right to have a driving licence; for one thing, you do not have a right to a driving licence, as you must sit and pass a test. If you, as a foreign national, want to be a British citizen you must sit and pass another test. However, most of the 47 million on the current electoral roll have not had to sit and pass any test. It is their entitlement to be on the register, as it is the entitlement of other UK citizens not on the register.
Amendment 44 is looking at those who in fact have a right of permanent residence in this country, but do not have the right to vote because they are not British citizens. Therefore, this is about enfranchisement of those who are not British citizens. They are people with
“the right of abode … settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme … indefinite leave to enter … or … indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom”.
These people will be in receipt of local government services during the whole of their time in the United Kingdom. If they are property owners, these are people who will contribute to council tax their whole time in the United Kingdom and to taxation of all sorts, some of which—not enough—filters its way back to local government as well.
It is entirely appropriate for them to have the opportunity to play an active part in the distribution and provision of services and in the application of local government taxation. On this simple basis, those with a lifelong residence in this country, who are both receiving and contributing to the payment of local government services, should have the opportunity to participate. They should be able to contribute significantly to the way in which these resources are used and applied.
This is a straightforward, self-contained amendment which I hope is, to a large extent, self-explanatory. Unfortunately, in the light of the debate so far, I cannot believe that the Minister will be terribly sympathetic to it. It is part of a much wider discussion that we in this country need to have about the nature of citizenship and participation. We need to discuss the way in which we see the evolution of our democracy as we become, over future years, an ever more diverse nation with an ever more diverse population.
My Lords, Amendment 44A, in my name and the name of my noble friend Lord Murphy, deals specifically with the Northern Ireland situation. The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, raised this in Committee, eight or nine days ago.
The basic purpose of this amendment is to seek to delete paragraphs 7 to 9 of Schedule 8. This would ensure that all EU citizens lawfully resident in Northern Ireland can continue to stand as candidates and vote in district council elections there. Obviously, this does not apply to British and Irish citizens; however, it does apply to other 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.
This is reminiscent of the “I” voter situation in Northern Ireland which was removed by the Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act 1989 when universal franchise was granted in Northern Ireland. This particular set of amendments deals with this important democratic issue of the extension of the franchise to all and ensures that this important principle is adhered to.
I would gently say to the Minister that elections and the right to exercise one’s franchise in Northern Ireland are emotive issues. The Government should not go down the road of creating problems with other EU nationals. In many ways, this would recreate a border again on the island of Ireland. It is highly emotive and politically charged, as it deals with EU citizens and excludes them from the right that they had to vote and to stand in council elections.
As a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office in 1998, my noble friend Lord Murphy was one of the principal negotiators in ensuring that both the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission were set up under the Good Friday agreement. Under the Northern Ireland protocol as negotiated by the UK Government with the EU, both commissions were given responsibility for—shall we say—managing Article 2 of the protocol, which deals with the rights of individuals. Article 2 states that there must be no diminution of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity provisions, as set out in the Good Friday agreement, resulting from the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
If passed into law, this provision in the Bill will create two new types of EU citizenship for the purposes of UK election law—a qualifying EU citizen and an EU citizen with retained rights—in addition to a category of EU citizens who do not fall into either of these categories.
The rights of EU citizens to vote in local council elections in Northern Ireland were underpinned by EU law up to the end of the transition period. Both commissions and the protocol committee of your Lordships’ House, of which I am a member, wrote separate letters to Northern Ireland Office Minister Conor Burns, who replied in identical form to both. He did not set out the Government’s full assessment of the relevant provisions of the Bill in the context of their conformity with the Government’s commitments under Article 2.1 of the protocol.
I urge the Minister to do whatever he can to ensure that the UK Government, via the Northern Ireland Office or the Cabinet Office, meet the Human Rights Commission and that the Northern Ireland Executive, who have responsibility and to whom the Equality Commission is accountable, meet them on a joint basis to discuss this issue and the requirements under Article 2.1 dealing with rights. I also urge that these provisions are withdrawn to prevent any further discrimination in relation to those issues. My two asks are ministerial meetings with the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission; and the withdrawal of these provisions as they are simply discriminatory, anti-franchise and anti-democratic.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and to agree with the case she has so clearly outlined for Amendment 44A. However, I will speak briefly to Amendment 44 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, to which I have attached my name. He has already presented this very clearly; I just want to stress that it is talking about local government elections. It is talking about decisions about how your bins are collected and by whom; what happens with the local social care that you or your relatives might need to use; a local library that you and your children might rely on; or, where you are still lucky enough to have local democratic control, a local school. Surely if you have made yourself part of that community and you are relying on those services and contributing to that community, you should have a say over it. That is the case here.
There is also a practical case at this time. There will be a huge level of difficulty and confusion for voters, canvassers and people campaigning for local officials with the cut-off date of the end of the transition period, settled status and different situations for different EU member countries. It will all get very complicated and messy.
I have one final observation for tonight, while expressing my opposition to Amendment 43 moved by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington. If you look at the debates as we have progressed through Report today, it is really striking that there is a clear division in this House that runs around the Government Benches, with everyone else, including the Cross-Benchers, on the other side. Every measure defended or promoted from the Government Benches, whether by Front-Benchers or Back-Benchers, seeks to see or will have the impact of fewer people voting. All the amendments moved from this side try to get more people involved and voting. That is a really interesting division to see in your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I rise extremely briefly to support my noble friend Lady Ritchie’s amendment, to which I have added my name.
Constitutional issues are never easy in Northern Ireland—nothing is ever simple—and this lies in that category too. We live, as it happens, in very troubled times in Northern Ireland. We are but weeks away from a complicated and difficult election for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Issues which might to us seem relatively unimportant are magnified a dozen times when we cross the Irish Sea.
I add my plea to the Minister: can he persuade his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office, or himself—whoever decides to go—to meet the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission? They have jointly put forward a submission. Both those bodies were set up 25 years ago at the time of the Good Friday agreement—for obvious reasons, because they were major planks in that agreement. Therefore, if they say that this is going to cause a problem, there is a very strong case for the Government to meet them.
In Scotland and in Wales, local government elections are devolved, so they take their own decisions on this. I am not quite sure why this has not been devolved in Northern Ireland, but it is not, and it lies in the purview of the United Kingdom Government. As it happens, of course—given that this relates to European Union citizens—the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union. But that is not the main issue.
The main issue is that there is a problem with regard to the Good Friday agreement and Article 2.1 of the protocol—all difficult issues. But I think that a meeting would be absolutely final, in the sense that it would mean being able to talk to the two commissions about the issues which my noble friend has raised—at least, I hope it would be final. We will know in a second what the Minister will say, and whether he will go ahead with this proposal or could delay it a little until he has met with the two commissions. But I repeat: this is a difficult issue in difficult times. We look forward to what he has to say.
My Lords, I shall make a brief comment in support of Amendment 44. In Committee I proposed an amendment to give those liable to pay council tax the right to vote in local elections. The Government said no, but I still believe that to be right in principle. I see it in part as an issue of consumer right—in other words, the principle is, “No taxation without representation”.
We are now in a position, it seems, where the Government have decided to extend the franchise to long-term emigrants from the UK, so that they can vote in parliamentary elections, but they have so far denied the right to vote to those nationals of other countries who live and pay tax here. I think that is a very serious anomaly. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, referred to
“the tangle of voting rights left by imperial history”,—[Official Report, 28/3/22; col. 1284.]
which gives the franchise to some but not others. I find it regrettable that the opportunity has not been taken by the Bill to correct the many anomalies that still exist. I hope the Minister and the Government will be prepared to reflect on that.
My Lords, I made quite a lengthy contribution in Committee and I have no intention of repeating it—although I think there are some points that are worth emphasising.
This is not a matter of principle. In fact, the Government and Opposition are agreed that people under the settled status scheme should retain the vote they had under the EU membership we had previously. It is just that new entry to the country will stop on 1 January 2022. That is the real issue. What we have been arguing about is the fact that those who put down their roots in this country and have lived here for 25 years—or even 15 years, to use the comparison with others who are going to get the vote—have made their home here, pay their tax here, and in the main pay their council tax here are not going to have the vote if they come here and achieve settled status.
Of course, one of the things about settled status, ILR and ILE is that they all require five years of continuous residence in the UK. Is that not a good basis for offering the vote? Is that not the connection that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, mentioned? I am hesitant to quote him, because he says that I sometimes get it wrong, but I heard him say “close connection”. We should surely afford someone who has lived here continuously, made their home here and paid their tax here the right to vote and be part of the local community they live in.
I can hear the Minister say, “They can become British citizens” but, as I said in Committee, there are people who make their home here who may not wish, for many reasons, to take out British citizenship. For some, like my husband, it is because they do not want to give up their Spanish citizenship, for example, where other countries do not afford the right to dual nationality. This country does, but there are many others that do not. These people do not want to break that relationship, particularly if they have family or parents there.
This is not a matter of principle that divides us. It is something that I fear this Government have done on many occasions, which is to say, “We’re not going to give the vote to people who make their home here unless the Governments from the countries they came from give our nationals the vote”. It becomes a bargaining issue. Again, I do not think that is right. It should be a matter of principle, which we have already conceded; under the agreements that we have, EU nationals with settled status will continue to have the vote. If the Government can agree to that, why can they not agree to this amendment?
My Lords, I regret that we will not be able to agree to these amendments, but I preface my remarks by sending my very best wishes to the noble Lord, Lord Green. He ploughs sometimes a lonely furrow in this Chamber, but he is somebody of the most outstanding integrity and is greatly respected in your Lordships’ House. I very much hope that my good wishes are passed on to him. The engagement meeting I had with him when I had Covid was over Zoom, so I do not claim responsibility—but I offer the profoundest sympathy to him.
Amendment 43 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Green, would require the Government to consult each Commonwealth country and produce a report on how we might confine the voting rights of Commonwealth citizens to citizens of those countries that grant British citizens the right to vote. Each country has the right to determine its own franchise, and the United Kingdom has done this. Qualifying Commonwealth citizens—that is, those persons who have leave to remain in this country or who have status such that they do not require such leave—are entitled to the parliamentary franchise. The rights of Commonwealth citizens are long-standing, and they reflect our unique historic ties to the family of Commonwealth nations and with Her Majesty the Queen.
Historically, while the Commonwealth countries were part of the British Empire, their nationals were subjects of the British Crown, and they were governed directly by the British Parliament. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act provided that only British subjects could register as electors. 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. This recognised in part the contribution of servicemen of so many nations who fought in the Great War.
Under the British Nationality Act 1981, those who had previously been British subjects became, in general terms, Commonwealth citizens. During the passage of that Act, the Government gave assurances that the new definition of “British subject” would not alter the possession of civic rights and privileges, such as the right to vote. Successive Governments and Parliaments since 1981 have concluded that the existing voting rights of Commonwealth citizens should not be disturbed. This Government echo that. In our judgment, conducting this consultation in the short period proposed would therefore be unnecessary and may seek to undermine our relationship with the Commonwealth at this delicate time. As such, we cannot support this amendment.
Amendment 44 would extend the local franchise in England to all persons aged 18 and over with a form of indefinite leave to enter or remain, as noble Lords have expounded. Amendment 44A would retain the automatic grant of voting and candidacy rights for all European citizens in Northern Ireland. With the exception of those rights that were granted to EU citizens under EU law, the criteria by which the local franchise in England is determined mirrors the parliamentary franchise criteria. On this matter, the Bill will update the franchise to reflect our new relationship with the European Union more appropriately.
Now that the United Kingdom has left the European Union—I recognise the regret that many noble Lords still have about that—the Government take the view that the right to vote and stand in local elections should no longer be conferred automatically by virtue of European citizenship. Hence, the provisions on European voting and candidacy rights in the Bill will remove the automatic right of European citizens to vote in all UK elections that use the local election franchise and are reserved to the UK Government.
However, the Government also recognise that such rights are already in existence. On this basis, we wish to preserve them for UK citizens in EU countries and, correspondingly, for EU citizens in the United Kingdom where this can be achieved on a reciprocal basis. The Government are also committed to respecting the existing rights of those EU citizens who made their home in the UK before EU exit. Many people doubted that this Government would do that but this Bill makes provision for these twin planks of policy on European voting rights. With specific reference to the proposal to extend the local franchise to all foreign nationals—this is not just EU citizens; they might be Russian nationals, for example—with permanent leave to enter or remain, the Government are clear that they have no plans to create new franchise rights where no such rights existed before, so we will not support this amendment.
I turn specifically to Amendment 44A and the measures in it as they apply to Northern Ireland. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, expressed her concerns that these measures may breach the agreement of Article 2 of the Northern Ireland protocol. I listened to her with care and great respect, as I obviously always do to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. I take this further opportunity to assure the noble Baroness that, in our judgment, it is not the case that these measures breach the article.
As the noble Baroness told your Lordships, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland have sought clarification on EU voting and candidacy rights in relation to the NI protocol. The United Kingdom’s position is 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. However, I can assure the noble Baroness that officials have, and will continue to have, regular engagement with both commissions. I will pass on to appropriate colleagues in government the comments and requests from her and the noble Lord, Lord Murphy.
The removal of voting and candidacy rights for EU citizens arriving after the end of the implementation period is a direct result of the reality of our changed relationship with the European Union. We have left the European Union but we have not left the Commonwealth. As such, the Government cannot support these amendments.
Before the Minister sits down, will he take on board the request I made that an appropriate Minister—I see a Minister in the margins of the Chamber from the Northern Ireland Office—from either the Cabinet Office or the Northern Ireland Office meet both commissions to deal with their specific issues? The written correspondence has not resolved the issues for them. A meeting either via Zoom or face-to-face would assist in this particular process because of the delicate issues to do with Article 2.1 of the Northern Ireland protocol, which puts them and this particular issue into a different category.
My Lords, I said that officials had and will continue to have engagement. I also said that I would make sure the noble Baroness’s comments and the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, were referred to colleagues. I hope the noble Baroness will understand that, as I am not a departmental Minister with direct responsibility for the Northern Ireland protocol, I cannot make a specific commitment beyond that which I gave in my speech and I repeat in response to her intervention. I assure her that her comments will be relayed to my appropriate colleagues.
My Lords, before I thank my noble friend, I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that to characterise the work of Members of my party on these Benches as seeking only to restrict the right of people to vote is an outrageous accusation. All we wish to do—all I wish to do—is to ensure we get the maximum participation in a framework that gives our fellow citizens confidence that the system is well organised, properly disciplined and free from corruption and misdemeanour. That is all.
That having been said, I thank my noble friend. I am disappointed, but I am not surprised either. The takeaway I have from this short debate is that there are quite a lot of loose ends. The noble Lords, Lord Stunell, Lord Shipley, Lord Collins and Lord Green, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, all have loose ends. My noble friend can say, “Well, yes, it’s too difficult; let’s put it in a drawer, lock it and come back to it in 10 years when we go around this track again” or he could take it away, think about it and say, “Let’s have —outside this Bill—a proper debate about the nature of British citizenship and the rights and responsibilities as they pertain to 2022.” I hope he can find time in his department to do that. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 43 withdrawn.
Amendment 44 not moved.
Schedule 8: Voting and candidacy rights of EU citizens
Amendment 44A not moved.
Consideration on Report adjourned.
House adjourned at 10.09 pm.