Geoffrey Clifton-Brown calls for removal of 15-year cut-off date for registration of overseas voters
27th June 2012
Speaking in a debate on the Electoral Registration Bill, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown moves a motion to remove the arbitrary 15-year cut-off date for British citizens to qualify as overseas voters in UK elections thereby enabling all British citizens to qualify regardless of when they were last resident in the UK.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: At present, under sections 1 and 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1989, as amended by section 141 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, British citizens can qualify as overseas voters only if they have been resident in the UK in the previous 15 years. The new clause would remove this qualifying period altogether, so that all British citizens could qualify as overseas voters, regardless of when they were last resident in the UK.
According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, 5.6 million British citizens currently live abroad. The shocking truth is that although, as of last December, about 4.4 million of them were of voting age, only 23,388 were registered for an overseas vote, according to the Office for National Statistics’ electoral statistics. Out of 4.4 million potential overseas voters, only 23,000-odd are actually registered! Half the problem is the difficulties of the registration process, which I brought before the House during the clause 1 stand part debate on 18 June, but the other half of the problem is the cut-off limit or qualifying period.
Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): A number of Members have major overseas firms based in their constituencies—I have Toyota, Rolls-Royce and Bombardier—and have constituents who go and work abroad for these firms for many years. It is outrageous that they might be working for firms based in our constituencies and not have a vote. What does my hon. Friend think about that?
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend has read my mind. I shall happily address her issue a little later, but she makes an extremely good point.
The House and the British people should take no pride in the fact that so few citizens living abroad are registered to vote. At a time of decreasing voter turnout, the overseas vote represents a potentially large pool into which we could tap, if the House was minded to accept my new clause. This issue will not go away, and today is a timely opportunity to tackle it. Each year, more and more British citizens, for one reason or another, choose to move abroad, as my hon. Friend said. The ONS international passenger statistics show that an estimated 130,000 British citizens left the UK in the year to March 2011—up from 119,000 in the year to March 2010. In 2008, according to the IPPR, of those who moved abroad, 55% did so for work-related reasons, as my hon. Friend said, 25% for study and only 20% for retirement. With an ageing population and particularly with the increased opportunities to work and study abroad, people are bound to continue to leave the UK.
In most other countries, both developed and emerging, voting rights for parliamentary elections depend solely on nationality, not on an arbitrary time limit. For example, US nationals can vote in presidential, congressional and state elections, regardless of where they reside in the world. Similarly, Australian nationals can vote in the equivalent elections there, no matter where they live. However, the most startling example comes from our nearest neighbour. French citizens in the UK have just elected a new President and taken part in parliamentary elections for one of the 11 Members of Parliament whose job it is solely to represent French people abroad. They include the French MP for the newly created constituency of North Europe, who is in the French Assembly to represent French people living in the UK, Ireland, Scandinavia and the Baltic states.
The right of Spaniards abroad to vote is enshrined in article 68 of the Spanish constitution. Likewise, the Portuguese constitution states explicitly that the single Chamber, the Assembly of the Republic, is
“the representative assembly of all Portuguese citizens”.
As a result, all Portuguese citizens living abroad have the same right to vote in Assembly elections as fellow citizens living in their home country. The simple fact is that the citizens of the US, Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and all these other countries have better voting rights for their citizens abroad than we do for British citizens living abroad.
For a democracy as ancient as ours, it is not an exaggeration to say that it is a stain on our democratic principles that our citizens are placed at such a disadvantage when they have moved abroad compared with citizens from those other countries. Her Majesty’s Government is very happy to collect tax from most of the enormous number of people involved, but denies them the vote.
British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years are completely disfranchised from voting in the UK. There is certainly no lack of interest among British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years. Whenever I have addressed branches of Conservatives Abroad, this has been a contentious and profound issue. I understand that the Labour party has a similar organisation and that the Liberal Democrats have recently established their own version, so I have no doubt that this issue will have been raised by other parties’ organisations as well.
The states in which these British citizens reside do not allow them to vote as residents, because voting rights are based on nationality and not residence, and they cannot vote in the UK on the basis of the current rule, for which there is no obvious rationale. I challenge the Deputy Leader of the House to state where there would be any disadvantage in abolishing the rule. The consequence of the rule is that many British citizens living abroad are in a state of electoral limbo, unable to participate in any election whatsoever. That seems to be a very unsatisfactory state of affairs.
It is not just me saying this, as a number of learned Lords agree. Let me quote them. Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrat Minister of State for Justice, said:
“I do not think there is a rationale…for the figure of 15 years, five years or 20 years”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 March 2011; Vol. 725, c. 1133.]
The noble and learned Lord Lester of Herne Hill said on the same day:
“I am not aware of any rationale for how these periods have been chosen. They seem to be entirely arbitrary”—
the point I was making—
“and, I dare say, discriminatory in a way that violates Article 14 of the European convention read with Article 3 of the first protocol.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 March 2011; Vol. 725, c. 1024.]
A number of learned people clearly think that this rule is unfair.
Kelvin Hopkins: I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and it sounds like a good case, but I wonder if he is going to touch on the practicalities of enabling people to vote, particularly in countries that are not in western Europe.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: This is all about one group of people who live overseas and last registered here less than 15 years ago, who currently have the absolute right to register as overseas voters, compared with another class of overseas voters living abroad for more than 15 years since they last registered here. One has the absolute right to register; the other lot do not. It seemed to me to be an arbitrary cut-off date; as the noble and learned Lords I cited said, that seems quite wrong.
Mr Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): My hon. Friend mentioned a category of British citizens who could not vote at all. Membership of the European Union clearly gives them rights to vote in local government elections—in Spain, France or wherever. They have the right to do so here. Another point arises from the debate about whether 15, 20 years or whatever is the appropriate period of time. We have arrangements that deny people the vote and deny them membership of the House of Lords, for example, if they are not resident here or do not pay taxes here. There comes a point at which a tax equation is relevant, along with the duties and responsibilities of being a British citizen. That is different from where someone has lost connection in many ways over a long period with his nationality, responsibilities, duties and allegiance to the Crown.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend raises two issues. The first is whether British citizens are entitled to vote in EU local elections and European elections, as is the case in most European countries. The fact of the matter is that British citizens living overseas for more than 15 years since they last registered are not able to register here in order to vote in our general elections. Secondly, he says that these people have lost allegiance to the UK. I think that that is a slur on many of them. I think many people living abroad have a huge interest in what goes on in this country. I suspect that most of the voters who are unable to register still pay their taxes, or at least some part of them, to the UK. It seems to me that if the UK is prepared to take their taxes, why should they be denied a vote? I just cannot see the case for that.
Sir Peter Bottomley: My hon. Friend has clearly explained this arbitrary cut-off of 15 years. That is understood. Does he agree that the electoral registration officer is obliged to register people who are entitled to vote here and, if so, who should have the responsibility to register those overseas who are entitled to vote, irrespective of whether they have lived abroad 15 years or more since they last registered here?
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is up to the electoral registration officer to consider the application on the basis of the individual involved and the facts of the case. He would no doubt be entitled to make further inquiries—the Minister will put me right if I am wrong—if there were any doubt or confusion about whether the person had been registered here within the 15-year period, outside it or indeed about whether the person was entitled to vote at all.
Sir Peter Bottomley: I understand that, but I was asking a slightly different question. Should someone have the responsibility for trying to recruit these people to register in the same way that domestically resident people like myself are if they are entitled to vote?
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: That is a very fair point. I think that Her Majesty’s Government should have an interest in their citizens abroad. Just as it makes publicity available for British citizens to register on British electoral rolls, it should do the same thing for British citizens abroad. That would not be difficult in the age of the internet.
Fundamentally abolishing this arbitrary and unjust time limit is mainly about giving those people who have spent their lives abroad, often working, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) said, for British companies, for international organisations and for UK Government Departments and agencies, and who are actively pursuing and often promoting British interests, the right to have their say in the future government of this country. Universal suffrage is in the universal declaration of human rights, to which this country is a signatory. This arbitrary cut-off time limit is totally contrary to that principle and the declaration. This is an opportunity for my hon. Friend the Minister to rectify this wrong. If he will not accede to my suggestion today, I request that he take this matter away and carefully consult on it, as I am absolutely certain that the other place will be interested in this matter.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: Surely the fact that somebody would want to register their overseas vote to take part in a general election in this country is sufficient evidence in itself that they have sufficient interest about what is going on in this country to merit being allowed a vote, rather than being denied it.
Mr Heath: The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point. I am simply reporting the fact that when Parliament debated this matter in the past, it has always taken the view that there should be a limit.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: With the leave of the House, may I comment briefly on what the Deputy Leader of the House said in response to my new clause? He said clearly that the Government were keen to look at the issue. He rose to my challenge and raised a few minor problems with extending the franchise beyond 15 years for overseas voters, and he responded to some of my hon. Friends, whom I thank for supporting me in the debate, about some of the difficulties of the registration process.
Of course everybody wants the integrity of the electoral register to be maintained to the utmost degree. Only those who are eligible to register should register. We all understand that. The Deputy Leader of the House asked how an electoral registration officer would promote who is entitled to register as an overseas voter, which in the Bill is a positive duty. May I suggest that for overseas voters, that would be only a reactive duty? The electoral registration officer would have to react only to a valid application that was made to him.
May I suggest to the Deputy Leader of the House and to the Committee a practical way of dealing with the issue? The hon. Gentleman should table an amendment on Report or an amendment should be tabled in another place to take powers to extend but not reduce the 15-year period at a time when the Government are satisfied that the registration process is robust and maintains the integrity of the electoral register. He would be able to do that in tandem with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, his hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who told the House last week that he would look at the measures for the registration process that I suggested to him—namely, using the passport as an identity document, abolishing the annual requirement to register, perhaps introducing a permanent opt-in for people who had registered validly once, and the possibility of using British embassies so that people could register and, even better, vote there. The Cabinet Office Minister undertook to look carefully at those measures, which could be introduced under the Bill and under the existing legislation and secondary legislation. I suggest that the Deputy Leader of the House table an amendment to take a power to extend the 15 years when the Government are satisfied that those measures are in place. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw my new clause.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn
EARLIER SPEAKING TO A DIFFERENT MOTION IN THE SAME DEBATE
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): Has the hon. Gentleman thought that his suggestion of installing a camera in every polling station might create a whole new raft of electoral fraud—namely, one party making a spurious complaint against a known supporter of another party in order to deter that party’s voters from voting later on or in another election?
John Hemming: First, I do not think that that is true; and, secondly the new clause is not necessarily the best way to deal with the issue, because it is an important one that needs consideration in primary legislation. Experiments—pilot schemes—might be undertaken to see how the proposal worked in certain areas, but it is an important issue that in primary legislation would attract far more Members than are currently in the Chamber to look at it. So we cannot say now what the exact solution would be, but at the moment Richard Mawrey is still right: there is no system for controlling personation.