European Union Referendum Bill

I am a strong supporter of British membership of the European Union. I am also a strong supporter of our representative Parliamentary democracy. I do not believe that politics can or should be reduced to simplistic yes or no questions.

I therefore decided to ensure that the private members European Union (referendum) Bill put forward by Conservative MP James Wharton and supported by the Conservative part of the coalition government received proper Parliamentary scrutiny and debate.  

As a result of publicity about my various amendments I have received a number of abusive messages by email or on twitter from individuals and groups who apparently believe that we should simply say there will be an in / out referendum without carefully considering the timing, electorate, question or arrangements for any such referendum.  

Dozens  of emails have come from UKIP and Conservative supporters elsewhere in the country who object to proper Parliamentary scrutiny of this Bill. Interestingly so far as I can ascertain only two constituents have so far contacted me on this matter.  By comparison I received over 1400 cards, letters or emails from constituents on the issue of Equal Marriage.  

Here is what I said in my main contribution to the debate on Friday 8 November.

Mike Gapes: First, I thank you, Mr Speaker, for selecting a large number of amendments that I tabled and for your ruling that they are entirely valid and not frivolous. It is important that this parliamentary democracy asserts the primacy of Parliament and its democratic processes. I have received a large number of tweets over the past few days from people who seem to believe that we should move to a plebiscitary form of decision making in this country.

I do not want to diverge from the substance of the debate, so I will concentrate on the new clause and amendments in the group. It is important to understand why there are so many amendments on the franchise to be used in a referendum: because this short Bill is woefully inadequate. It would create a referendum held on the basis of the franchise for parliamentary elections, not European elections, even though it would have enormous implications for the 1.4 million British people living in other European Union countries. It would also affect British people who live elsewhere in the world, perhaps working for companies based in the UK, with families still living in the UK. Their prosperity depends on our membership of the EU.

There would also be enormous implications for the 14 British overseas territories and their populations. New clause 1 rightly addresses the question of Gibraltar, and I am pleased that the Government have clarified their position on that in recent weeks. However, it is not sufficient, because people in other overseas territories, such as the Falkland Islands, would be affected. Our relationship with the EU also has implications for the future of people such as the Chagossians who were expelled from Diego Garcia.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill also excludes citizens of other EU countries who may have been resident in this country for many years and have made a huge contribution to its economy?

Mike Gapes: That is absolutely correct, and I will address that point as I talk in detail about each of my amendments.

Thomas Docherty: I do not fully follow my hon. Friend’s logic; I hope that he will explain it better. We do not allow the people of the Falkland Islands to vote in a Westminster general election even though, as he rightly says, it has a big implication for their future. Will he explain in a little more detail why he thinks they should have a vote in the referendum when they do not participate in a Westminster general election?

Mike Gapes: I will talk about overseas territories’ relationship with the European Union later. Along with the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), I served on European Committee B when we discussed at great length a series of documents about the new relationship between the overseas territories and the EU—I have them with me and may well quote from them. Some overseas territories have become what is called in the jargon “outer areas” of the European Union. For example, the French have overseas territories that not only have the right to be represented in the French Senate, but are defined as territories of the EU. However, the British overseas territories, apart from Gibraltar, are not.

Thomas Docherty: I wrote to the overseas territories a few months ago to inquire about that point, and I know that the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and others have been making a case about it in the Foreign Affairs Committee for some time. There is no great appetite for the UK overseas territories to have representation in the UK Parliament. Will my hon. Friend give us his thoughts on why that is the case?

Mike Gapes: I am a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. In the previous Parliament, we carried out a major inquiry on the overseas territories. They are all different. Some of them are completely depopulated, some have few people, such as the Pitcairn Islands, which I think have 56 or 57 people, and others, such as the Falkland Islands, have a long-standing British population. The people of the Falkland Islands have expressed their self-determination in a vote, but they still suffer serious threats from Argentina.

Gibraltar still has a problem with regard to Spain, which is why new clause 1 is important. The point made by the hon. Member for Cheltenham is valid, because if the United Kingdom were to leave the EU, what would happen to the efforts of the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary to get the European Commission President to intervene when Spain puts pressure on Gibraltar? If we were on an exit path or had already left the EU, presumably the Commission would not try to help the citizens of Gibraltar when they were suffering blockades, huge queues and all the other problems that have arisen in recent months. I have not yet mentioned the dispute that has arisen over territorial waters, concrete blocks and fishing access.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank my hon. Friend for setting out his lucid argument. Although I support new clause 1 and many of the amendments in the group, we must consider territories that rely not only on the UK’s voice but, in a diverse and asymmetric way, on the EU’s  voice. I am thinking of my area of expertise, which is fisheries, maritime issues and so on. Those territories’ voices will not be heard, and none of the amendments will enable that to happen. We must consider how their voice can be heard in any future vote to leave the EU.

Mike Gapes: I agree, which was why I tabled a series of amendments relating to the overseas territories. We must also consider Crown dependencies such as Guernsey and Jersey.

Steve McCabe: I am curious about what would happen if the people of Gibraltar voted to remain part of the EU, but the rest of the UK voted to opt out. If Gibraltar then found itself in conflict with Spain, where would we appeal for international support for Gibraltar? What would be the EU’s position?

Mike Gapes: My guess is that if we had left the EU, the rest of the EU would not necessarily regard us as a country to which it owed any favours, to put it mildly. Presumably we could appeal to the United Nations, but given the problems we have had in the so-called Special Committee on Decolonisation in the UN over the years, and the way in which countries such as Argentina have behaved with regard to other British overseas territories, we would be in a difficult position. The people of Gibraltar would be in a very difficult position, because if they wished to stay in the European Union, they would presumably have to find some way of getting Spain to sponsor their membership of the EU. Britain would have deserted and betrayed them.

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes an excellent point that applies to other British overseas territories that have associate status with the EU and that benefit from trade, sustainable development and regional co-operation. Is he aware, for example, that the Falkland Islands receive €4 million a year directly through such arrangements? How will their people’s wishes or intentions be considered in this process if they are not included in the franchise?

Mr Kevan Jones: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I know that we are considering a private Member’s Bill, but is it in order for its promoter, the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), to be taking advice from Foreign Office civil servants in the Box?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is normal for Ministers to approach the Box, and only Ministers. I did not see anyone approach the Box.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): He’s there!

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I know where the hon. Gentleman is now thank you, Ms McCarthy, but I am saying that I did not see him approach the Box and I am sure he will not do that. It is supposed to be for Ministers. Having eyes in the back of my head is not a skill I have yet developed, but I am sure the protocol will be observed.

Mr Jones rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. There cannot be anything further to that point of order. I have said that Ministers may approach the Box and nobody else should. I am sure that from now on nobody else will, apart from Ministers or their Parliamentary Private Secretaries. Where were we?

Mike Gapes: I was halfway through giving way, Madam Deputy Speaker. Has my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) concluded his intervention?

Mr Bain indicated assent.

Mike Gapes: My hon. Friend has concluded. As an aside, perhaps the solution for the Government would be to appoint the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) as a PPS for today so that such difficulties could be avoided. Perhaps that could be conveyed rapidly to the powers that be.

Steve McCabe: I want to return one last time to the point that my hon. Friend raised about Gibraltar and the situation involving Spain. He said that if the people of Gibraltar wanted to be in the EU but the rest of Britain did not, we might have to appeal to Spain, with whom we would also have some difficulties. He suggested that we would be driven into the arms of Spain. Has he had an opportunity to talk about that to the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who moved new clause 1, because he has clearly not foreseen that as one of the consequences of his proposal?

10.45 am

Mike Gapes: The hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and I have had many discussions, and we were both at the United Nations in Washington last week with the Foreign Affairs Committee. He is my near neighbour; my constituency, like his, is in Greater London and in Essex. I am afraid that we have not discussed the details, but no doubt we will at some point over the next few days or weeks.

Let me return to the reasons behind the many amendments that I have tabled. There is a major problem with the Bill. For example, because the choice has been made to have a franchise based on parliamentary elections, people who would be able to vote in a European election in this country will not be able to participate in the referendum. That means we are in the absurd situation whereby the citizens of some European Union countries will be able to vote in our referendum, but others will not.

For example, a French person living in the UK who is married to a British person and has children at school, growing up, or at university in this country, will not be able to vote in the referendum. Someone from the Republic of Ireland, Malta or Cyprus will be able to vote, however, because Malta and Cyprus are in the Commonwealth, and Commonwealth citizens, along with British citizens, are able to vote in parliamentary elections. Because of our long-standing arrangements with the Irish Republic, even though it is not in the Commonwealth, citizens of the Republic of Ireland are able to vote in parliamentary elections and to stand for Parliament in this country. The measures in the Bill mean that we will exclude people who are settled with families in the UK, and who have a long-standing relationship with this country, from voting on whether to wrench apart the UK from their European country, yet we will be allowing other people who are not British to vote in our referendum.

Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman’s interesting point raises an intriguing prospect. If the referendum were to be as finely balanced as other referendums around the world have been, it might be the votes of Irish citizens, Scots who may have voted to leave the United Kingdom, Commonwealth citizens and others that actually change the result.

Mike Gapes: Absolutely. A large number of my constituents come from many parts of the world. There are British Pakistanis, British Indians, British Bangladeshis, British Somalis—all kinds of people. When they get British citizenship they can, of course, vote in our elections, but some choose to retain citizenship of another state. I have a close friend who is a local councillor in my constituency. He has a British passport, but his wife has kept an Indian passport, even though they have sons who are in their 30s and they have been living in this country for decades. Because his wife is an Indian citizen, that facilitates them when they go back to India, rather than meaning that there are problems with visas. She is able to vote in British elections and, as a Commonwealth citizen, she will be able to vote in this referendum. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that a constituent is married to someone from a non-Commonwealth country, such as Somalia or the United States. They are not allowed to vote in our parliamentary elections, so they will not be able to vote in the referendum. The Government are increasing the number of anomalies. European Union rules allow citizens of any EU country to vote in European elections; indeed, they allow people to stand for the European Parliament in any EU state, whatever their nationality.

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making an excellent contribution and referring to matters that relate specifically to my family, given that my husband has dual citizenship, as does my mother-in-law. Does he agree that the right of European citizens living in the UK to participate in the referendum is a particular issue for those of us with London constituencies that are home to huge numbers of French, German and Spanish citizens, who perhaps know best about the importance of relationships between countries in the European Union?

Mike Gapes: I might be wrong, but I understand that London is the fifth largest French city. We live in a globalised world. People come to London to give to our country and contribute to our prosperity. One reason for the dynamism and growth in the London economy is that we have attracted the brightest and best people from many European countries, and yet we will not allow them to vote on the future of the place where they have their families and connections, and to which they have made a contribution.

Mr Kevan Jones: It is not just London. An individual in Durham who is an American citizen has lived here for 34 years. He runs a very successful business and his 

wife is English. Clearly, the Bill will affect his business, but he will not be allowed to have a say on whether the UK is part of the EU.

Mike Gapes: I agree with my hon. Friend. There are huge implications for the economy and our people should we leave the EU. However, the debate is on the Bill and not the wider issues, so I will not be drawn down that path.

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend tickled me when he described London as the fifth largest French city—he must not forget the London Welsh contingent. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) has turned around from the Front Bench to express sympathy. On a serious point, the forensic analysis that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) applies and the anomalies he exposes make me wonder whether introducing a referendum in the shape of a private Member’s Bill—hon. Members have proposed right-minded amendments—has given the Electoral Commission sufficient time to look at the Bill in detail and raise similar concerns.

Mike Gapes: We will discuss the Electoral Commission’s report on the wording of the question when we speak to another group of amendments. The commission clearly takes a different view from the Government on the question, but that issue is not for this group of amendments. I do not know about the commission’s detailed views on the issues I am discussing, so I will not comment on them.

Thomas Docherty: My hon. Friend misspoke very slightly earlier when he referred to the general election franchise, but that is not quite true, because Members of the other place would have a vote. On a more substantive point, in the referendum that we in Scotland have next year on whether we should leave the EU, European Union citizens will be granted the vote. I did not support that, but given that the Government supported EU citizens having the right to vote on that precedent on that occasion, should they not be given the right to vote on whether the whole of the UK leaves the EU?

Mike Gapes: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and that is why I have tabled amendments that would apply either the local government franchise or the European Parliament franchise. That would meet his point about Scotland.

I was going to come to the question of prisoners later—not prisoners, Members of the House of Lords. [Interruption.] I said prisoners because, under our present law, Members of the House of Lords, lunatics and prisoners are excluded from voting in elections to the House of Commons. The Government propose to modify that to allow peers to vote in the referendum, but not lunatics or prisoners. I have tabled an amendment on prisoners—I was unable to get an amendment on lunatics on the amendment paper. My point is that the Government are making a constitutional change in the relationship between the Houses of Parliament and in the role of Members in the other place. Are the Government proposing that Members of the other place should vote in the referendum? I referred to the Government—I must apologise; I meant the part of the Government that is putting forward the proposal. They need to clarify why they think that it is appropriate to change that long-standing relationship.

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): My hon. Friend is expertly disentangling all the anomalies and contradictions in the Bill and the franchise, but does he agree that in respect of Gibraltar there is another one which has wider implications? A quarter of a million or so British citizens live in Spain. Some may have served this country with distinction fighting in our armed forces; others may have been in receipt of an honour from Her Majesty the Queen; and others may be working for Britain in companies in countries such as Spain. A quarter of a million people living just across the water from Gibraltar will not have a vote, but Gibraltarians will have one. What is the logic of that?

Mike Gapes: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no logic to the proposal; it is absurd. As I said in my introductory remarks, 1.4 million British citizens live elsewhere in the EU. Only those who have registered as overseas voters may vote in the referendum. The law says that one must have been away from the UK for no more than 15 years and specifically register as an overseas voter. The figures I have seen show that there were fewer than 20,000 registered overseas voters in December 2012. The future of the 1.4 million British people living elsewhere in the EU could be seriously and adversely affected by the consequences of a referendum that leads to withdrawal, but they will not be given a say.

Some might register, but many may have been living abroad for longer than 15 years. Since I tabled my proposal, I received, on 5 November, an e-mail from Mr Brian Cave, who lives in France. He states:

“I, myself, have lived in France for over 15 years and thereby am disenfranchised. That of course is wrong. To further not be permitted to vote in any IN/OUT referendum is an appalling double insult for any British Citizen in Europe. We, who would be most closely affected, must have a vote in this.”

Millions of people could be damaged. More than 1 million British citizens live elsewhere in the EU—in Spain, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) has said, in Portugal, in France or elsewhere. Many are pensioners, but some live in France and work in London. Some have their families in France but contribute regularly to British companies and businesses. It is rumoured—I do not know whether this is true—that even Members of this House sometimes live in France. It is therefore important that we understand that the Government are not allowing a large number of British citizens to have a vote in the referendum. One of my amendments would make it possible for British people living in all EU countries to have a vote in it.

Mr Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that many people will have sold their houses here and retired to Spain, for example? I am sure a lot of people from Romford have retired to Spain to a better life and winter sunshine. Disfranchising those people is anomalous in the sense that they are the ones who will be directly affected if we withdraw from the EU.

Mike Gapes: That is absolutely true. The Government—[Interruption.] I am sorry; I meant to say the Minister. Given the earlier ruling, I assume he will speak for the Government. He will need to clarify why we are not allowing those British citizens to vote in the referendum. After all, the devolution referendums held by the previous Government in 1999 were conducted under the local government franchise, which allowed EU citizens to vote. My proposal would widen that so that British citizens everywhere could vote.

11 am

Steve McCabe: May I take my hon. Friend back to the point he made about the Members of the other place having the right to vote? That raises the concern that several of us have had from the outset about the wisdom of addressing such a constitutionally far-reaching measure in a private Member’s Bill. In particular, has he sought any advice on the implications of the Bill’s consideration in the other place? Will Members there have to declare an interest or say how they intend to vote in such a referendum? Will they have to disbar themselves from taking part in the debate? As far as I can see, this is new constitutional territory.

Mike Gapes: It is difficult enough for me to contemplate the implications of rulings from the Chair in this Chamber without tying myself in knots over how the Lord Speaker would deal with such issues should they be raised with her in the other place. It would be best to put that issue on the agenda for the other place if it comes to consider this Bill. It will have to deal with that issue at that point. I do not have a view on or any detailed knowledge of how it would be dealt with at that time.

I want to be clear about the important differences between the amendments I have tabled. Amendment 43 would allow people with the right of abode in the United Kingdom to vote in this referendum, because it would affect them. Would they be expelled from the European Union? Would they no longer have the right to travel freely to the 27 other member states?

As I have already said, amendment 45 concerns those who are entitled to vote as electors in a European Parliament election, such as all the residents of the UK who are citizens of Austria, Latvia, Estonia, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic or Slovakia—I will not list all the other 27 member states, but there are a lot of them. Some of those people gain the full benefit of our education system and contribute to our society in many ways, just as British people living in other European countries benefit from their systems. We have seen recent reports that say that more British people are on welfare benefits in other EU countries than people from other EU countries living in the UK on benefits. If we were to leave the European Union, what would happen to those British people’s right to reside in those other European countries and benefit from the facilities, social security systems and other amenities of those countries? These are issues of great importance, but British people living in other countries would not be allowed to vote in the referendum, and nor would European Union citizens living in this country. That would be wrong, because the decision would have profound, long-term implications for them. That is why we need proper parliamentary scrutiny of it, which we are beginning here today. I hope that we will be able to continue it over the coming weeks and months.

Amendment 46 relates to the local government franchise, which is the basis for the Scottish referendum. In my opinion, there are no strong arguments against that. I have already covered amendment 47, which addresses the issue of those British citizens resident in any of the member states of the European Union.

Amendment 48 refers to the rights of prisoners to vote. Interesting statements have been made recently by the Government’s senior law officers, but the position is confused on whether some—if not all—prisoners will be given the right to vote. The Bill is silent on that issue, but if the Government’s position changes in the next few months—despite the clear vote of this House against giving votes to prisoners—we would need to discuss it in some detail. There would be implications if the European Court maintains its judgment that some prisoners should be given the right to vote, not just for parliamentary elections but for the franchise for any referendum on leaving the European Union. That is why I have tabled the amendment.

Amendment 8 would clarify the basis on which people would be able to vote. At present, overseas voters can register under the 15-year rule using the address of the local authority area in which they had lived previously. The amendment would allow people to register to vote at a British embassy or high commission. It is deplorable that only 20,000 people living elsewhere in the European Union have the entitlement to vote under the 15-year rule. Some 1.4 million British people live in other European Union countries and we should be trying to find ways to encourage them to register. To reduce the bureaucratic hurdles, the easiest way to do that would be to allow people in Spain, say, to contact the British embassy in Madrid; people in Portugal to go to Lisbon; people in France to go to Paris; and so on. Similarly, if we were to change the franchise to allow British citizens living anywhere in the world to take part in the referendum, we should allow them to go to the British high commissions in Delhi or other countries of the Commonwealth.

I have touched on amendment 44 and I know that other hon. Members will wish to speak on it. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) mentioned the age at which people can vote in the Scottish separatist referendum, and the UK referendum should be held on the same basis. Young people have a great interest in the future of the European Union. I would hope, therefore, that they would be able to take part.

Thomas Docherty: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mike Gapes: No, I am afraid I want to conclude my remarks, because other Members wish to speak.

The Crown dependencies, including their very important financial institutions, would also be affected, so should be allowed to vote. We have discussed British overseas territories, so I will not spend any longer on that point, and we have also talked about Gibraltar at length. The important point is this: my amendments expose the Bill’s inadequacy and need for proper consideration and scrutiny. I hope the House will provide that and support at least some of my amendments.


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