Overseas Electors Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-BrownMain Page: Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Conservative) - The Cotswolds)
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I am sure that the Minister will clarify that point because not only have I invited her to do so, but my hon. Friend has too.
May I make just one brief point?
I just want to emphasise how many people—people unknown to me—who have written to me from overseas just to thank me for this Bill. Their level of appreciation is huge, as is the importance they attach to being able to vote in a British election because they are British citizens; it really is overwhelming. I am sure that other hon. Members have had exactly the same communications.
I agree. In fact, I will later make reference to that very point.
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I will reach that point in my speech at some stage—I have got through only one paragraph so far. I wish to make a large number of points, and I cannot make them all instantaneously. I can address them in a random order depending on when Conservative Members want to raise them, or I can address them in the order in which I have written them down. It is entirely up to them which way they want me to take them.
I will be delighted to address the points about pensions and people who do not currently pay taxes later on in my speech. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He has mentioned some very sensible points that I assure him I will address.
I return to “no representation without taxation”. I do not know who said that taxes are how we pay for a civilised society, but it is certainly as true today as it was when it was said. None of us can imagine a society with no police force, no health service, no education, no courts, no transport systems, no mechanism for adjudication between those of different views—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) want me to give way, or is he just chuntering?
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I do not quite understand. If Ian wanted to affect his life in Canada, he would be able to find ways of doing so there. I also think he would very much be able to affect some decisions made at this level of politics. I do not think that this provision should necessarily be extended to local elections and issues, such as bin collections in Oxford West and Abingdon. However, the recent general elections have been about major issues such as the direction of this country and the flavour that this country puts out to the rest of the world. It is entirely right that people who feel British, are British and are born into a British family have the right to vote on such matters.
I am half Palestinian and I regret that I am not at all able to engage with the country in which my mother grew up—she was actually born in Tripoli, but grew up in Jerusalem. I very keenly feel that just because I have never lived in Palestine does not make me any less Palestinian. Equally, those who have spent a lot of their life abroad have a lot to say about being British. Being British is more than just being on this land. It is loving this land and feeling that we are from this land.
I will soon draw my remarks to a close because I am keen to hear the next Bill, of which I am a sponsor. I just want to ask why we have not really considered having a constituency of overseas electors in the way that France does. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether the Government will look into that. One reason that people do not register to vote from abroad is that it is incredibly bureaucratic and hard, and they might well live in countries where the postal system does not work very well. I therefore wholeheartedly agree with finding a way to make it much easier. As the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) mentioned, it would be an excellent idea to give people the ability to return their vote to the embassy or the consulate, rather than having to get it back to the local authority.
It is an extraordinary privilege to be British. As a new Member of Parliament, it strikes me how much Members across the House all love this country. This Bill demonstrates—as is also shown by the numerous constituents who I am sure have contacted us all from abroad—that people do not have to be on this land to love it. The Liberal Democrats and I wholeheartedly back this Bill. I sincerely hope that the House votes in favour of it today.
What makes a 16-year-old woman in this country any less valuable than a 70-year-old woman living in Spain who is a British national? That woman has a vote, but the 16-year-old woman does not.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. I have a real interest in what happens in Scotland, India and Spain—I was watching the news from Barcelona very closely—but that does not give me the right to vote for people in those countries or for how they raise their taxes and deliver their services.
I will try to be brief, because I want this Bill to get through.
I believe that there is an injustice in the arbitrary 15-year rule, but there are also many other injustices in the way many British citizens living overseas are treated. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) was right to highlight some of them. What is not right, however, is whataboutery and the best being the enemy of the good. What is not right is using false hares and arguments in order to discredit this Bill and imply that all the people supporting it are against, for example, votes at 16. I voted for the private Member’s Bill that proposed that, and it will come. Within our parliamentary procedure, we cannot have an all-encompassing electoral reform Bill. Our only opportunity to deal with this injustice is to support the Second Reading of this Bill to allow it to make progress. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) has done an excellent job in bringing it forward.
For some months, I have been pressing the Government, on behalf of Labour International and in response to communications I have had with Harry Shindler, who has already been mentioned, on why they were not bringing forward the commitment they made in their manifesto. When I asked questions about that last October, I was referred to answers given in September to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who had also been raising this issue from the Labour Benches. There is a bipartisan interest—in fact, a cross-Parliament, all-party interest—in these matters. All of us, even those who have only a few constituents who have gone to live in other countries, will have had communications about them from people in Spain, France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada or wherever.
There are international organisations within the political parties that represent our party members living abroad. I have the honour of being the honorary president of Labour International, and I want to convey a few words from an email from Lorraine Hardy. She was not registered to vote in Oxford or Westminster, but was a Labour party activist in Leeds before she went to live in Alicante with her husband many years ago. She says:
“‘Votes for Life’ will be even more important post Brexit, as we will have no opportunity to vote for a national representative in the UK nor in our country of residence as there will no longer be an option to vote for an MEP.”
Frankly, it is an outrage that a large number of British people whose future in Europe was affected by the referendum were not able to vote in that referendum because they had been living abroad in a European Union country for more than 15 years. That democratic outrage was not manufactured; it was a fact. This is an opportunity to make sure that we remedy that outrage and take a small step towards allowing those people to express their views at the next general election on whether their parliamentary representatives were right to damage their position in Europe. I think that many of them might have some things to say about that. I will not get into that, but the view that this is one-sided is completely and utterly wrong. None of us knows what the views are of people living in other countries who have not expressed positions and are not registered to vote. That idea is just made up and manufactured.
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Given the overstretched nature of elections offices up and down the country, I suspect there would not be the capacity for such a check. Given that the Government are this May planning to trial requiring ID at polling stations, it seems that the requirements to prove the identity of an elector living in the UK are far greater than—
I will, unusually, delay for a moment to see whether the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who was in the Chamber until just a few minutes ago, is in the vicinity. I make it clear to the House that I am not creating a precedent in so doing, but I am aware that the hon. Gentleman was in a wheelchair and it might therefore take him a little longer to reach the Chamber.