Mike Gapes proposed amendments to the European Union referendum Bill which would have extended the franchise when the Bill was debated in Committee on Thursday 18 June. Here is his speech
Thursday 18 June 2015
Mike Gapes: I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on her speech, and I absolutely agree with what she said. I will support votes for 16 and 17-year-olds and the position put forward by my Front-Bench team. I want to speak to my amendments 51 and 52. Amendment 51 relates to a serious anomaly in the current position regarding European Union citizens living in the United Kingdom, while amendment 52 relates to a further anomaly regarding British citizens living elsewhere in the EU.
Let me deal first with amendment 51. As things stand, a citizen of Malta, Cyprus or the Republic of Ireland, which are all European Union countries, can vote in the proposed referendum on the future of the UK in the EU. Those citizens can do so because, in the case of Malta and Cyprus, they are also in the Commonwealth. In the case of the Republic of Ireland, they can do so because it was once a British colony and there would be complications with regard to Northern Ireland if they could not vote. These are historical reasons. Under our parliamentary franchise, we allow citizens of those three countries and all other Commonwealth citizens in the UK to vote in the election.
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of those countries fought and spilt blood in defence of the freedoms we enjoy, which gives them a unique entitlement to vote?
Mike Gapes: I will not be diverted into a long argument, but I have constituents and friends who are Poles, whose parents and grandparents fought with the British. I also have constituents whose relatives fought with the resistance, with the left in Italy and in France against fascism and Nazism. I have friends from other European countries who acted similarly, so I am afraid the hon. Gentleman cannot use that argument.
Stephen Gethins: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. In Scotland, we have an excellent Polish community, for example. We have a huge Polish community who fought incredibly bravely during the war, and a newer Polish community who are making a significant contribution to Scottish life.
On the question of EU citizens, there is a very good organisation called New Europeans. I was privileged to be involved when it launched exactly two years ago on 18 June 2013 in the Boothroyd Room. I spoke at the launch. It brings together EU citizens living in the UK. New Europeans has just sent to the Prime Minister a letter signed by a large number of people. I will not list them all, but Nishan Dzhingozyan from Bulgaria, Monika Tlacyt from Poland, Anastasios Vourexakis from Greece and Dean Domitrovic from Croatia were the four main signatories. It was signed by a representative of each of the other EU countries resident in the UK. These are people who are paying taxes, studying, working and living here. Many of them have children born here.
In my recent general election campaign, I met a couple on the street: he was British, she was French. She has been living in this country for many years, and they have children at a school in my constituency. In the referendum, however, one of them will have a vote and the other will not. We have the interesting scenario whereby Commonwealth citizens can vote. A person from Jamaica can vote in the referendum. A person from India or Bangladesh can vote in it. However, someone from Italy or Spain who may have lived in the United Kingdom for longer than people from those other European countries that I mentioned cannot vote.
During the general election campaign, a man stopped me in the street and said, “I am not sure whether I can vote.” I asked, “What is your nationality?” He said, “I am an Italian citizen.” I said, “In that case, you will not be able to vote in this election.” He then said, “I am originally from Bangladesh, and I have dual citizenship.” I told him, “Well, in that case you can vote.” But if that man had been a Somali with Italian citizenship, he would not have been able to vote. Someone in a similar position who had come to this country in similar circumstances, as a migrant or an asylum seeker, with the nationality of another European Union state such as Sweden or the Netherlands, could not vote, but if that person had come from a Commonwealth country in such circumstances, he could vote. It is an absurdity.
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In her brilliant speech, the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) spoke of sending a message. I hope that the Committee will accept my hon. Friend’s amendment, which I have signed and which I support—I also support the amendment tabled by the Scottish National party—because it sends the message that those who come to this country and pay their taxes ought to have the same franchise as everyone else, and to be able to vote in the same way.
Mike Gapes: I take that point entirely. The letter that the New Europeans sent to the Prime Minister points out that it is unfair to discriminate against some EU citizens by not allowing “so many of us” to vote.
Antoinette Sandbach: The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) read out a powerful list of other European countries that apply exactly the same criteria. I speak as the child of an EU citizen—my mother—who does not vote. She chooses to retain her nationality and her citizenship in the Netherlands, where she was born, although she has lived in this country for many years. Ultimately, it is for such individuals to decide what their citizenship is. If they wish to become British citizens, they can exercise the franchise here.
Mike Gapes: That is true, but there remains an anomaly which is not dealt with by what has been said by either the hon. Lady or my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East. We allow some EU citizens to vote in our elections; there is not a blanket ban. A Cypriot can vote, a Greek Cypriot can vote, but a Greek cannot vote.
Mike Gapes: I will let my Front-Bench colleagues speak for themselves. I will not put words into their mouths. I am presenting a case that is linked with my other amendment, which relates to British citizens living in other EU countries.
Mr Dodds: The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case for his amendment in arguing against differentiation between people of different nationalities who are resident here and pay taxes, but why stop at EU citizens? Why does he not apply the same argument to citizens of the wider world who are also resident here and pay taxes, and who will also be affected by the decision?
Mike Gapes: I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but the referendum is about the European Union. I agree that people in the United States and other parts of the world are affected, but we already allow a great many people from other countries who live here to vote in our parliamentary elections, because of the Commonwealth. A large number of British people living in other countries and a large number of Commonwealth citizens living in the United Kingdom—many of whom have not taken British citizenship, whether they have come from Pakistan, India, Australia or Canada—can vote in those elections.
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Chris Skidmore: I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman’s argument relates to the complexities of our current system of eligibility to vote in either the potential European referendum or a general election, but may I take up the point made earlier by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who mentioned tax? How long does the hon. Gentleman think the period of contribution should be? Should it be five years or 10 years, or should taxpayers be eligible immediately?
Mike Gapes: That is not a question that I can answer at this stage. We have residence rules with regard to people’s eligibility to vote. The essence of my argument is that there should be no discrimination against European Union citizens who are not from Commonwealth countries that are in the European Union. My amendment would end discrimination against EU citizens who may have lived in the United Kingdom for many years—perhaps with children who are at school or university—and may have been making a contribution during that time, whether they are directors of companies, accountants, traders in the City of London, or taxi drivers. Yesterday, I was taken to the climate change event on the South Bank and Lambeth Bridge in a rickshaw pedalled by a Polish guy who had been living in London for many years, working as a rickshaw driver.
The future of many people who are making a contribution to British society could be seriously affected by the referendum. If we leave the European Union, what will happen to the right of those people—many of whom have children who were born here—to stay in our country? The referendum has enormous implications for them and their families, and it also has huge implications for the 2.2 million British people who live elsewhere in the European Union. That is what amendment 52 is about.
The two amendments are balanced, in a sense. There are 2.3 million EU citizens living in the UK, and 2.2 million British citizens living in the other 27 EU countries. However, the demography is a bit different. The people who are living here are younger, they are paying taxes, and they are working. Many, although not all, of those British citizens are living in countries such as Spain and France. Today, I received e-mails from people in, for instance, Crete and Germany who believe that their voices should be heard.
It is possible for people who live abroad to register to vote in UK elections, although there is a restriction. A person who has lived in any other country as a British citizen for up to 15 years has a right to register as an overseas voter, although, despite the efforts of political parties, very few many people do. However, a person who has lived in another country for more than 15 years is not eligible to register.
“We will complete the electoral register, by working to include more of the five million Britons who live abroad. We will introduce votes for life, scrapping the rule that bars British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years from voting.”
That is in the Conservative manifesto and was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech, yet the Government propose a referendum that is not consistent with their own policy on which they were elected. I am perplexed by that, so perhaps the Minister when he responds will he explain
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why they want to change the law and allow people in future general elections, presumably, and local elections, probably, to have a vote irrespective of how long they have lived abroad. They are not, however, going to allow those people—the 2.2 million—living in the EU, of whom a significant number have lived in Spain, France or elsewhere for more than 15 years, to have a vote in a referendum that is vital to their future.
There is an organisation that represents Labour party supporters who live in other countries. It is called Labour International. It is affiliated to the Labour party and sends people to our annual conference. Other parties have similar organisations; there is an equivalent Conservative one. Labour International this week sent an email to the general secretary of the Labour party. It quoted one of its members, who says:
The In/Out Referendum has the very real and very frightening possibility of making me an illegal immigrant overnight. How are you going to get the Government to protect me, my family and friends should the electorate turn their back on Europe. What will happen to my rights under the Freedom of Movement clause? What about my job, my pension, my health-care, my property? Will I be able to/forced to claim political asylum? Will I be compensated for losses? Who is making our voice heard in the UK? The list of questions just grows and grows along with my insomnia.
There are people, who perhaps went to Spain 25 or 30 years ago, who are extremely nervous about their future. They are apprehensive, because a decision will be taken in as little as two years’ time that will have an enormous impact on their status, their future and their life. They thought they were settled in another European country, yet they will have no say over that decision, because the British Government—the Conservative Government—believe that their future can be put at risk through this referendum, while they as British citizens living in other European countries have no democratic voice because they have lived there for more than 15 years.
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case, as does that email, but first, may I gently remind him that it was the previous Labour Government, whom he supported, who introduced the 15-year limit; and secondly, may I assume from everything he has said that he will support the proposal he read out from the Conservative manifesto to extend the limit for life, beyond 15 years, when it comes before the House?
The Temporary Chair (Mr George Howarth): Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds, I must say that interventions are supposed to be on a single point. When I hear the words “and secondly”, I begin to get a bit concerned. Please keep interventions as brief as possible.
Mike Gapes: There is no proposal from the Government, and that is why my amendment explores exactly what their position is. It is unclear to me why they believe that British citizens living in a European Union country for 15 years and one month should not have a democratic right, while those living there for 14 years and 11 months do. That is an argument for all parties; I am just raising the democratic principles. A referendum is going to happen that will have a profound impact on British citizens and their families living in other European countries, on British-born children, on people in this
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country with European Union backgrounds and on people from other countries who are married to, working with or employing British citizens in this country. Yet, none of those people has a voice in this debate. These are serious democratic anomalies which need to be dealt with, if not today, then by another place when it considers these matters.
Chris Skidmore: Is the hon. Gentleman therefore restating his opposition in principle to a referendum and to allowing the British people to have their say? I thought the Labour party had finally done a U-turn and walked through the Lobby with us the other week.
Mike Gapes: It is a pity the hon. Gentleman was not here on Tuesday to hear my response to another intervention from one of his colleagues. I will not repeat it now. My views on a referendum are well known—they are the same as Margaret Thatcher’s and Clement Attlee’s—and if he reads Tuesday’s Hansard he will see the whole quotation.
Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman consider the fact that some people who miss out during elections are impacted when such votes occur? Government Members are seeking to ensure that the rules are completely consistent and that those who vote in general elections—indeed, those who voted for this referendum—are the same people who vote to decide whether to stay in the European Union.
Mike Gapes: The problem with that argument is that the hon. Gentleman’s party agreed to a local government and European Union-model franchise for the Scottish referendum. European Union citizens living in Glasgow or Edinburgh were allowed to vote in the referendum that took place in 2014, yet European Union citizens living in London, although they will be able to vote in the mayoral election next year, will not be allowed to do so in the referendum in 2016 or 2017, on membership of the European Union, which will have a profound impact on whether they can continue to live in London and whether their families stay here afterwards. There is an anomaly, and the Government need to get real about the problem and the damage it could cause to the presence of people who are a benefit to our country and to our own citizens in European Union countries.
The situation is clear: hon. Members on both sides of the House need to look carefully at the implications of this referendum for the future of our country, our citizens and those who are resident here. It is going to happen, and it needs to be seen to be fair—and to be seen to be in the interests of our country—so that we get the best possible result.
Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con): Surely, the hon. Gentleman recognises that one way to guarantee that the referendum will not be seen to be fair is to change the rules of the franchise from those which applied when he was elected—when all of us were elected—just a few weeks ago.
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Mike Gapes: The choice is clear: we could have the local government franchise, which would allow European Union citizens to vote, as they did in the Scottish referendum and in the Mayor of London and local council elections; or we could have the restrictive franchise that the hon. Gentleman proposes. On the wider question, I quoted the Conservative party’s manifesto, which stated that they would extend the franchise period for British citizens living abroad, yet mysteriously—perhaps the Minister will explain why—that proposal is not in the Bill.
Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman think that the Bill is a local or a national matter? If he thinks that it is a local matter, will he not seek to apply a local franchise? If he thinks that it is a national matter, will he not seek to apply the franchise that is traditional in this country at national elections?
Mike Gapes: This Bill is more than a local or national matter; it has wide-ranging international implications. Before the hon. Gentleman puts his hands up in the air, he should note that EU citizens living in the UK can vote for MEPs in this country. Given the wide ramifications for our relations with our partners in other European countries, and the mingling and movement of peoples and investments, which is an inevitable consequence of a European Union with a population of 500 million, there are enormous interests for many British people and their families in having a say on this proposal. That is not being allowed to many of them at the moment.
Hywel Williams: Conservative Members liken this argument to arguments about local government, but the Scottish referendum was based on a franchise of 16-year-olds and European citizens voting, and it could be scarcely have been on a more profound matter: the very Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Mike Gapes: I absolutely agree with that. I will conclude my remarks with the hope that both Front-Bench teams are listening to the points I have made, because the voice of the European Union citizens living in the UK and of British people living elsewhere in the EU needs to be heard in this debate.