Geoffrey Clifton-Brown backs Overseas Electors Bill

23rd February 2018

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown backs a Private Member's Bill to extend the right to vote to all British citizens who live overseas.

I am grateful to have caught your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. I start by paying a sincere tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) for bringing forward the Bill. He did not say it, but, contrary to what the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) insinuated, it was entirely his wish to bring it forward, because he, like me and my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), believes that it is the right thing to do. This should not be considered a political issue. In the centenary of Emmeline Pankhurst’s campaign to get women the vote in this country, fought often in difficult and violence circumstances, it is a disgrace for certain Labour Members to try to deny the vote to women who have lived overseas for longer than 15 years.

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 entirely respect the sincerity with which the hon. Lady holds the view that 16-year-olds should have the vote. It is a legitimate debate, but it has nothing to do with the Bill. If she wishes to introduce a private Member’s Bill, a ten-minute rule Bill or a Bill through any other procedure, she is more than able to do so and speak in support of it, but that has nothing to do with this Bill.

One or two falsehoods have been peddled in this debate. It has been said several times that children of those living overseas for more than 15 years will be eligible to vote. I have read the Bill and can see nothing in it that would make those children eligible to vote. Indeed, the Bill is very specific as to the qualifications somebody would have to meet to be eligible.

I gave the House some figures in a debate in 2012. At that time, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, 5.6 million British citizens were living abroad, but the shocking truth was that although as of December 2011 about 4.4 million were of voting age, only about 23,000 had registered to vote. I am delighted to say that that number had increased to a huge 285,000 by the time of the 2017 general election—as the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) indicated, it might have had something to do with the EU referendum. If we believe that British citizens have the right to vote for up to 15 years, it must be right to remove the arbitrary limit whereby the day after 15 years they have no right to vote. It is right on every ground, especially that of extending the franchise, that we do that.

Totally contrary to what the hon. Member for Ipswich said in his overly long remarks, most overseas citizens have a real interest in how this country is governed. They watch BBC World, they listen to the BBC World Service, and they often get British newspapers in the countries in which they reside.

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I will give way once and briefly to the hon. Gentleman, and that is it.

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.

The hon. Gentleman’s argument is totally wrong. British citizens have every right to British taxpayer-provided services, as I said in an intervention on him earlier, yet, if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years, they have no right to vote for how those services are provided. How can that be correct? His whole argument was totally fallacious. Some 1.8 million students do not pay council tax, but nobody would ever suggest that they should be denied the vote on the grounds that they do not pay council tax. That would be a nonsensical argument.

Moving on from the hon. Gentleman, let us look at some international comparisons. According to my research, the only countries that have stricter rules on overseas voting are Ireland, Greece and Malta: paragons, I would say, of democratic values—or not. The countries that have real democratic values—the US, France, Japan, South Africa, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Italy—all have no limits on when their citizens living overseas can vote. As the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon said, with the advent of Brexit and the UK leaving the European Union, it is surely more imperative than ever that we embrace all our citizens living overseas, wherever they are, but particularly within the European Union, so that they feel part of this country, and surely the way to do that is to give them the vote.

I suggest to the hon. Member for Ipswich and the House that the expat vote has never been more important. It is our combined duty to further consolidate the British influence over those citizens and make them feel part of the British family. Despite what the hon. Gentleman says, they are soft power for this country—ambassadors for this country around the world. They gain this country a lot of influence, whether it be cultural, diplomatic, or purely in terms of imports, exports and inward investment into this country.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire gets this Bill through today. It is absolutely the right thing to do, and it is not a political issue. A number of us have campaigned very hard on it for a number of years. I hope that Labour Members will find it in their hearts, just as they anted women to get the vote and just as they want votes at 16, to give our expats the same rights so that they can vote in our elections and have a say on how politics in this country is run.

Earlier interventions in the same debate

I offer my sincere congratulations to my hon. Friend on bringing this Bill forward. I have had a long involvement with the matter. Does he agree with me that in this centenary year of Emmeline Pankhurst’s efforts to get women the vote in this country, the same thing most apply to voters of over 15 years’ longevity abroad? This could open up the franchise to another 1 million people. It must be the correct thing to do.

I agree. In fact, I will later make reference to that very point.

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Would he care to comment on the several million UK citizens who pay no tax in this country yet have a perfect right to vote? Would he also care to comment on people who are overseas for more than 15 years and have no right to vote on how their pension, their health service and a number of other UK taxpayer services are provided?

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.

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