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VOTES FOR LIFE: The Way Ahead

 

Introduction:

The 2019 Conservative Manifesto said:

“We will make it easier for British expats to vote in Parliamentary elections and get rid of the arbitrary 15-year limit on their voting rights.”

However, the manifesto also said:

“We will protect the integrity of our democracy, by introducing identification to vote at polling stations, stopping postal vote harvesting and measures to prevent any foreign interference in elections.”

We therefore now expect the Queen’s Speech on 11 May to refer to a ‘voter integrity bill’ which will include a clause to remove the 15-year limit on overseas voters but which will also include a raft of other measures: in particular, the requirement to show photo ID at a polling station in order to vote.

This is not ideal because the bill would simultaneously restore the right for overseas UK nationals to vote with provisions that could make it more difficult for lower income or disadvantaged UK resident citizens to vote. This is because the latter may be less likely to have passports/driving licenses.  At the same time, it is a strong possibility that overseas Brits will also face barriers when they actually try to use their votes.

'Stop the government’s expensive plans that could lock millions out of the polling station' - please sign this petition published by the Electoral Reform Society if you wish to protest against the introduction of Voter ID.

The BiE Position

The British in Europe Steering Team contains members who have long campaigned for the 15-year rule to be removed and for all overseas voters to have the right to vote in UK general elections and any referenda.

It has become clear over the years that there is little interest in the UK in whether we, the British diaspora living abroad, have a vote or not. Indeed, there are a number of Conservative MPs who believe that we should lose the right to vote in UK elections as soon as we take up residence in a ‘foreign country’. Meanwhile Labour, the main opposition party, tends to think that a 15 year period is about right.

A Brief History

The right to vote

The right to vote in parliamentary elections in the UK was first given back to overseas voters in 1985 for a five-year period; was later extended to 20 years by the Representation of the People Act 1989 and was then reduced to 15 years by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

 

Registration numbers and barriers to registration

The numbers of those registering each year were generally no more than 30-35,000 until 2010 but reached highs of 285,000 in June 2017 and, in 2019, of 230,000 of the estimated 1.4 million eligible to vote. It is estimated overall that there are 4.3 million overseas UK Citizens, with around 67.4% (nearly 3 million) being ineligible to register to vote under the current rules.

One of the limiting factors for those who are still eligible to register to vote is the need for annual re-registration. If there is no general election round the corner, there is no great incentive to re-register, and this is exacerbated by the fact that not all local authorities send out annual re-registration reminders.

 

Attempts to remove the 15 year rule

There have been a number of attempts to introduce legislation to remove the 15-year rule.  The Conservative Party has also pledged to remove it in three manifestos - in 2015, 2017 and 2019.

There were several attempts in the years before 2015 and the EU Referendum but the most recent attempt was by Glynn Davies (then an MP Con: Montgomeryshire), who introduced his private member’s Overseas Electors Bill 2019-2020, which was ‘talked out’ at the report stage by Phillip Davies (Con: Shipley). This particular Bill had Government backing (following successive manifesto pledges), and so the actions of Phillip Davies came as a surprise at the time.

 

Legal challenges and Harry Shindler

There have also been a number of legal challenges, most notably undertaken by veteran campaigner Harry Shindler in Italy. Harry has tried on many occasions to persuade the Court of Justice of the EU, the European Court of Human Rights, and even the UN to rule that our citizenship rights are being trampled on by us not being allowed to vote in the country of our birth. Shindler has also lobbied the EU Commission on voting rights.  In contrast, Italy and France, for example, both allow their citizens to vote in national elections and to electing their own deputies to serve in their national parliaments.

Harry Shindler will celebrate his 100th birthday in July and has been a ceaseless campaigner for our rights. One of his crowning moments was to lead a delegation to meet with and persuade EU Commissioner Viviane Reding to back his call for our rights to be restored. More recently, Harry was the recipient of a letter from Boris Johnson which confirmed that the manifesto pledge of ‘Votes for Life’ would lead to legislation.

What Should We Do?

Inevitably, chances of a significant number of Conservative MPs being influenced by letters and emails from UKinEU citizens are low, although this can be attempted. However, we believe that it would be more effective to try to persuade family and friends in all Conservative-held seats to write, email, telephone and even lobby surgeries of those Conservative MPs. The arguments in our favour remain strong, and we need family and friends to come to our aid.

Despite the Government's majority, there is the possibility that a number of Conservative MPs may be inclined to vote against the measure and we will need to re-enforce the case for Votes for Life. Most Conservative MPs will find it hard to ignore any letters from constituents, even if they disagree with the sentiments. Given the nature of a virtual Parliament, where some MPs are not travelling to London, then mailing or delivering such letters to the Conservative HQ in the Constituency, where MP may be working online.

Frequently Asked Questions

(1) Why should we have a vote if we haven’t lived in the UK for over 15 years?

  • The UK’s 4.3mn overseas nationals have a huge and unique contribution to make. We live all around the world, many of us in global centres of power. The Government has itself stressed in its recently published Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy report the people-to-people links that the UK’s global diaspora establish as one of the UK’s soft power strengths: 
  • Restoring our votes for life would be the first step towards recognising the pivotal role that we can play - and it should be done now, as the levels of goodwill that UK citizens abroad have towards the UK government are at an all time low.
  • We’re behind the trend in UK - the US, Canada and 22 EU countries have votes for life (and, in addition, Germany effectively has votes for life), while some countries such as France and Italy even have overseas constituencies.

 

(2) We need a vote because what happens in the UK affects us, for example:

  • The last four national votes affected us directly, as our rights are being removed without us being allowed a say. No government should remove rights without giving the affected citizens a say.
  • Most of us pay or have paid UK tax and national insurance, so changes in pensions and the tax system will directly affect us.
  • Our elderly parents depend on social security and healthcare in the UK - and that affects us too. Moreover, rule changes in recent years concerning the residence rights of our non-British partners have made it increasingly difficult for us to return to the UK to care for them.
  • Our kids return to the UK for higher education but their rights to pay home fees as British citizens are gradually being removed.

 

(3) But you just need to get integrated in the country you live in and get citizenship there so you can vote…

  • Integration and citizenship are two different things.
  • Citizenship is not a walk in the park - the time periods and conditions for acquiring it vary from country to country e.g. Spain 10 years, Germany average 8 years, Italy average 10 years for TCNs with a 3-year time processing period once you've applied.
  • This might possibly work for those who stay put in one country - but many, particularly millennials and Gen Z, live in a series of countries due their study or work and cannot change citizenship every time they change country.

 

(4) But you are all rich tax exiles, pensioners or tax dodgers…

  • Nearly 80% of British citizens in the EU are working age and younger. The largest group has always been those under 45.
  • If we had wanted to pay less tax, generally we would have been better off staying in the UK.
  • If you make voting rights dependent on paying tax, what about the 43% in the UK who do not earn enough to pay tax? Should they be disenfranchised too?


(5) Why should you get to vote in a constituency where you don’t live anymore.

  • This is a difficult point, and it is not ideal that those abroad don’t have a representative for their specific issues, as constituency MPs are unlikely to take up or be responsive to the problems of UK citizens abroad. The answer would be overseas constituencies. A number of countries have these for their overseas citizens, including France, Italy and Romania.
  • However, many Brits living abroad do in fact have family members, including elderly parents, living in their previous constituency. Through them, they are still impacted by local decisions about housing, health and social care.

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