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Overseas Voters Bill

Volume 591: debated on Friday 23 January 2015

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is another Bill relating to the forthcoming general election. It would ensure higher participation among those who would be entitled to vote if they registered, notwithstanding the fact that they are overseas. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, on which I have the privilege of serving, has been considering voter participation. Although the focus at the beginning was mainly on the situation within the United Kingdom, during the course of our inquiry a lot more emphasis has been given to the situation of British citizens who are resident overseas and would otherwise be entitled to vote.

It is estimated that there may be as many as 5 million such people. How many of them are currently registered? The latest figure is about 16,000 of a potential 5 million or more. That is scandalous, and I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), whom I am pleased to see on the Front Bench, agrees that there needs to be much greater participation among electors who are resident overseas.

Clause 1 should, therefore, commend itself to the Government. It would impose a

“duty on the Electoral Commission so far as is reasonably practicable to…identify the names and addresses of British citizens resident overseas who would be able to participate in United Kingdom Parliamentary elections if they were registered to vote, and…facilitate the registration of those identified”.

Clause 2 of this simple Bill states:

“There shall be no restriction placed on the eligibility of a British citizen resident overseas to register to vote or vote in UK Parliamentary elections based solely upon the length of time that such voter has been resident overseas.”

That would remove the current 15-year restriction, a subject on which my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) has a ten-minute rule Bill. The proposal has the support of the Conservative party and I understand that it will be a definite part of its manifesto—a pledge to remove the 15-year restriction on an overseas voter’s eligibility to vote if they are a British citizen who would otherwise be eligible to do so.

Clause 3 deals with internet voting. I am always keen to embrace new technology, as my wife and family will testify, so why should we not embrace new technology in the voting system? Anyone who is resident in the United Kingdom in the run-up to an election can obtain a proxy or a postal vote, or can vote in person at the polling station. That is much more difficult for those who are resident overseas. Obviously, they cannot physically vote at a polling station because we, unlike a lot of other countries, do not set up polling stations in our embassies or in other buildings in foreign countries. People who are resident overseas therefore have to rely on a proxy or a postal vote.

It is possible to organise a proxy vote if it is planned in advance and if the person who is overseas knows somebody in this country who can exercise it. However, with postal voting, it is difficult to ensure that the ballot paper is sent to the person who is resident overseas in sufficient time to enable them to put the ballot paper back in the post and return it to the United Kingdom so that it can be included in the count. That situation has been eased to an extent, because the Government have said that there will be a longer period between the close of nominations and printing of ballot papers and the date of the election. However, we know that a relatively small proportion of those overseas who are registered to vote actually do vote. One reason for that is the difficulty of registering their vote.

If we are to go down the road of internet voting—I know that some colleagues are sceptical about it—surely we should allow it for those who are overseas. Just as people can now Skype their friends and relatives who are overseas at practically zero cost, I see no reason why we should not facilitate, through the internet, increased participation among United Kingdom citizens who are resident overseas and who rightly take a close interest in what we do in this legislature.

I have said to a number of people who have written to me on this subject that if more British citizens who are resident overseas participated in our elections, it would strengthen the case for reforming things such as the rights of British pensioners overseas to pension increases and there would be a lot more pressure on Parliament to give those overseas pensioners justice. People would realise that we are not talking about just a handful of potential voters in a constituency, but about hundreds or thousands of people who could influence the outcome of an election.

This is a Bill with three straightforward clauses. It provides Ministers with the opportunity, under clause 3, to bring forward regulations to deal with internet voting. I have to admit that my drafting skills did not enable me to produce a detailed regime for overseas internet voting, so I am relying on somebody else to do the donkey work on that. However, it is important that the Bill states, as it does in clause 3(2), that any regulations must

“include provisions to prevent identity fraud and to ensure that only those eligible to vote can vote.”

It strikes me that if we start looking at internet voting for people who are resident abroad, that will prepare us for new provisions that may eventually be introduced in this country for the whole electorate. Those provisions will necessarily be complicated, so this proposal would be a good exercise to ensure that we were up to speed. We could register a discrete group of people for internet voting, in preparation for what I think will ultimately be introduced across the country.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend because there are two schools of thought. The first, which she articulated, is that this proposal would be a good test bed for internet voting. Others say that it would set a dangerous precedent, and that before we realise it we will have internet voting without control for the whole United Kingdom electorate, which will facilitate a lot of fraud. I think that internet voting for those who are resident overseas is a discrete matter, and we could develop a regime for that, and see how it works and whether we are able to introduce systems that prevent identity fraud and ensure that only those who are eligible vote. Based on that knowledge and experience, the House could consider rationally whether we wish to extend the system more widely.

I suspect there is an inevitability about voting online and that one day it will come, although we do not know what will happen. My hon. Friend mentions someone voting online when they are abroad, and if they are resident abroad that is easy to determine. What about if someone was on holiday or having a gap year or whatever—I do not mean a week in the sun, but a longer period of time? Would they qualify for online voting abroad as opposed to a proxy or postal vote? I can foresee difficulties in quantifying who would qualify.

Clause 3 would apply only to British citizens who were ordinarily resident overseas, not those who happened to be on holiday. The latter group would be brought in only in the event of our extending internet or online voting to the United Kingdom electorate, and it is important to distinguish between those two groups. It is much more complicated to deal with people voting while on holiday than with those who are resident overseas.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s Bill because, as he would say himself, this is about the rights of British residents to vote in a general election. Has he made any comparison with other countries—perhaps, although not exclusively, in other parts of the European Union—that have similar arrangements? Should the Bill apply not only to parliamentary elections but, for example, to a referendum on the EU?

I understand that the franchise for an EU referendum includes all those who are eligible to participate in a parliamentary election, and I would stick to that. If we encouraged more people from overseas to register, they would be able to participate in a national referendum that had been extended to all registered voters.

I sometimes monitor elections on behalf of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and almost all its 47 countries have more extensive systems for facilitating voting by their diaspora, as it is described, than we do. Many countries extend voting arrangements to providing facilities in embassies, consulates and other places, in addition to postal or proxy votes. Those countries believe—quite rightly—that their diaspora is an important part of that country, and that people should be encouraged to participate in its affairs. That can best be done by participating in elections. We are probably well behind the curve by comparison with the 47 member countries of the Council of Europe. That is another reason why the Bill needs immediate attention rather than putting on the back burner.

It is a pleasure to address another intriguing legislative proposal from the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope).

The Bill contains three main provisions: the first is to require the Electoral Commission to register overseas voters; the second is to remove the limit on how long Brits can live overseas before they lose the right to vote; and the third is to allow internet voting for overseas voters. I applaud the hon. Gentleman’s interest in extending the franchise and participation, and in modernising the electoral system. I am also somewhat perplexed by that interest, because the Conservative party has been doing everything it can to exclude voters by rushing the implementation of individual electoral registration and opposing votes for 16 and 17-year-olds. It has done little to encourage new ways of voting in this country.

I would not want to saddle the hon. Gentleman with the burdens of his party—he takes an independent line in many of these matters—but I note that the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) and other Conservative Back Benchers were recently alleged to be asking for Irish citizens in the UK to lose their right to vote. They have denied it, but the right hon. Gentleman is on record as saying:

“It is ridiculous that the government of a country like ours could be decided by those who are not British citizens. It is high time we brought this law up to date.”

The Conservative party’s view on the right of Commonwealth citizens to vote remains unclear and I hope the Minister clarifies it. I am referring to the disgraceful report from Migration Watch UK that says that 1 million Commonwealth citizens who could be allowed to vote in a general election despite not having qualified for British citizenship should not be allowed to do so. The Cabinet Office response to that states:

“Excluding Commonwealth citizens would be a significant step and would require careful consideration.”

I hope that that consideration has taken place and that the Cabinet Office has no view to withhold the franchise from Irish, Commonwealth or other citizens who are currently entitled to vote in the UK. The Minister might want to make that clear.

Members who wish to leave the EU altogether—I do not know whether the hon. Member for Christchurch is one of them, but I might have picked up that nuance from time to time—would presumably want reciprocal voting rights between EU countries to be curtailed. I admire the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), if I understood him correctly. He said that he would wish UK residents overseas to have the maximum franchise in an EU referendum. I would have thought that they would overwhelmingly be in favour of EU membership, but that remains to be seen.

I mention those points because of clause 2, the central clause. Interesting alternatives to that are proposed, such as extending the franchise for UK residents overseas, perhaps by allowing reciprocal voting in national elections, which is to say that they vote in Italian, French or Spanish elections, and Italian, French or Spanish nationals living in the UK vote in our elections. Another option is allowing overseas voters to elect their own MPs in the French manner. I fear that the hon. Member for Christchurch has only scratched the surface, and that he is being somewhat selective, and perhaps even a little recherché, in his choice of clauses.

An estimated 7.5 million people are missing from the register in the UK, and 1 million more, particularly young voters, are at risk of dropping off during the process of individual electoral registration. The Opposition have promised that the next Labour Government will “overhaul our democracy”, no less, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), the shadow Lord Chancellor. He said that we plan to

“make it as easy as possible for people to vote. Transforming elections so that voting is in tune with the busy lives people lead.”

Plans could include: holding elections at weekends to raise turnout; polling stations opened days in advance to allow early voting access; trialling electronic and online voting, ensuring the system is accessible, affordable and secure; and opening up the franchise to young people. Seeing 16 and 17-year-olds vote in their thousands in the Scottish referendum last year was inspiring. Votes for 16 and 17-year-olds is an idea whose time has come. That is why Labour is committed to lowering the voting age. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), who are zealots for ensuring that registration and the maximisation of the franchise take place.

On the specific proposals in the Bill, given the pressures on the Electoral Commission I am somewhat sceptical about whether its priority should be the registration of overseas voters. More than that, I wonder whether even the strongest supporters of extending voting for UK residents overseas will see that as a priority. I think I am right to say that only about 20,000 of about 5 million UK citizens overseas are registered to vote. As I understand it, the principal argument for those who would wish to see the 15-year term extended is not so much that those individuals are not free, able or willing to register, but that they lack the right to vote after the 15-year period has expired. It is the duty of the commission, for democratic reasons, to maximise registration in the UK. However, it affects not only the result in individual elections but boundary reviews, the disposition of constituencies and the resourcing of local authority areas. Registration can distort social and economic, as well as political, factors.

Surely the shadow Minister agrees that it is the duty of a democratically elected Government to ensure that everyone who is eligible and has a right to vote is on the register and is able to exercise that right.

I think that is exactly what I was saying. If there is a priority, it must be to ensure that prospective voters in the UK are registered, because the outcome of elections can be distorted. The points I made in relation to individual electoral registration are exactly those.

On the question of priorities, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that all voters should be treated fairly and equally, and that it is not for the Government to prioritise any one group of voters over another?

Yes, I do agree with that. If the Minister is saying that he wishes to increase the resources going to the Electoral Commission, then so be it.

Notwithstanding what the hon. Member for Christchurch said, what I see from the Government’s most recent statements on this matter is that they are not minded to change the law at present. Therefore, the earliest that the current Government, or perhaps the Conservative part of the current Government, would wish to see any change would be the 2020 election. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong on that, but I think I am right. With the difficulties the Electoral Commission has been through and the pressures that have been put on it, particularly by the rushed introduction of IER, it is perhaps a pious hope to think that it will finally go out and prioritise the registration of millions of voters overseas.

On clause 3, we support the piloting of online voting—I do not think that the Government do, although I am sure the Minister will enlighten me if I am wrong. It would be curious, however, to begin that process by permitting overseas voters to vote online. Notwithstanding the reference in the clause to fraud prevention, I am concerned that the detection and prevention of fraud might be more difficult if people are voting from overseas. If concerns have been raised about electoral fraud through postal voting and other means in this country, how much more difficult will that be to deal with when those voting are both abroad and voting online? As has been said, we will eventually move towards online voting, and if that can be done securely and safely, that must be a good thing as it makes the process easier. To begin a pilot with something as atypical as overseas voting seems to me to be wrong and I wonder again about the cost.

Clause 2 is at the heart of the Bill, and I have no objection to reviewing the time limits. There is nothing sacred about 15 years, and the limit has previously been five and 20 years, and, as the hon. Member for Christchurch says, there are different rules in different countries, but I object to the idea that one can pluck this issue out from the many others I have mentioned. There is no reason, however, why this should not be considered as part of a package of questions about how the franchise works.

If anyone is going to be persuasive about this matter, I fear that it will not be the hon. Gentleman but a gentleman he might know called Harry Shindler. Harry Shindler, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in his club in London about three years ago, is the champion of this proposal. He is a remarkable man. He is now 93, he landed at Anzio, he fought at Monte Cassino and during the Italian campaign he met his wife. When they married, they settled in Italy and that is where he has resided since, although he is a regular visitor to London, mainly to lobby Parliament on this issue.

Last year, I am delighted to say, Harry Shindler was awarded the MBE for his services to British-Italian relations. That includes not only having a plaque put up to mark the liberation of Rome but the painstaking work that he has done over many years to help British service families and Italian citizens to track down missing relatives who were lost in the terrible conflict in Italy in the latter stages of the war. He is, as I say, a remarkable man. He has also championed this issue and he knows what he is doing, as he is also a former Labour party agent of many years’ standing. Although he works on an entirely non-political basis, I am sure that that training has served him well.

The case of Shindler v. the UK went to the European Court of Human Rights—perhaps the hon. Gentleman will make an exception in this case and say that that was an admirable use of that judicial body—but sadly for him he was unsuccessful. He was then in his late 80s, and the fact that he took that case, pursued that matter and diligently followed it through shows that the courage and tenacity that he has shown throughout his both military and civilian life continue. If anybody is going to persuade this House and the constituent parties to adopt the proposal to allow unlimited voting for UK residents overseas, it will be Harry.

I cannot say that we will support the Bill today, for some of the reasons that I have given. I am sceptical about some of the clauses and about the priority that ought to be given to them, given all the other concerns that we have about electoral matters. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue, and I think that we can return to it, but I wish that we could stop being so selective—and, perhaps, so partisan—about such issues. I wish that we could all genuinely try, across parties, to secure the maximum franchise.

I hope that we can look with an open mind at issues such as votes for younger people. I also hope that we can consider reforming some of our more arcane voting practices, and ensure—not just to be equitable, but to guarantee the continuing success of our democracy—that when people go to vote, they feel that they are participating in a genuinely open and fair process.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for bringing this issue to our attention. I believe that this is his second Bill so far today, and his 10th private Member’s Bill in the current Session. I am sure that his constituents will be pleased that he has embraced this fixed-term Parliament, and is using all the time available to him. I understand that the next Bill of his to be debated—if we reach it—concerns the working time directive. I hope that he has provided exemptions for the overtime that he has been putting in today.

Before I deal with the substance of the Bill, I shall respond to a few of the points made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), particularly those relating to individual electoral registration. He said that its implementation had been rushed, and suggested that it had not been successful. As he knows, however, it has cross-party support. The legislation was initiated by the Labour Government and taken forward by the current Government, and online registration was introduced as part of that transition.

It is not often possible to say positive things about a Government IT project, but the move to online registration has involved more than 360 local authorities, and has involved matching individuals’ data and the data held by the Department for Work and Pensions. Nine out of 10 electors were successfully transferred. We are in the middle of a two-year programme, and in February the Electoral Commission will publish its assessment of its progress so far. I think it a bit premature for Opposition Members to bandy it about that 1 million students are missing from the register.

I will in a moment.

The hon. Gentleman also said that 7 million voters were missing from the register. We must all recognise and accept—as I hope he will when he intervenes—that, according to the Electoral Commission, a significant number of people were missing from the register before the introduction of individual electoral registration. The fact that people are not on the register cannot be blamed on the fact that we are in transition to a new electoral system whereby individuals can register themselves rather than being registered by the head of the household.

I believe that the register is 100,000 down in London alone, so I do not think that what I said was at all premature. It would be helpful if, rather than patting himself on the back, the Minister told us what steps he intends to take over the next few months to ensure that the register recovers lost ground. There is no problem with the principle of individual electoral registration, but there is a problem with the Government’s execution of that principle, which excludes a significant number of people and groups. That is a separate issue from under-registration. Under-registration needs to be dealt with in any event, and the Government have done precious little about it.

Individual electoral registration is about making the register both as complete and as accurate as possible. We should expect that people who are on the register but who should not be will fall off as result of the transition, and as one in 10 were not automatically transferred, we should also accept that more needs to be done about people who should be on the register and are not. The Government are investing £14 million in targeting under-registered groups including students, minority ethnic groups and forces personnel. A significant amount of the funding has gone to local authorities, who have the responsibility for ensuring that the register is as accurate as possible. I therefore hope the hon. Gentleman is reassured that the Government are committed to making sure that the register is as complete and accurate as possible.

The Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch seeks to achieve three things: first, place a duty on the Electoral Commission to identify British citizens overseas eligible to vote in UK parliamentary elections and facilitate their registration; secondly, scrap the current 15-year time limit on overseas voting rights; and, thirdly, enable overseas voters to cast their votes via the internet. I welcome the good work done by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in this area, and I will seek to address each of these aims in turn, but it may be helpful if I first provide some of the wider context to the issue.

The recognition of the right of overseas electors to vote was first acknowledged in 1985. The Representation of the People Act 1985 provided for the first time for British citizens resident overseas to vote in elections to the House of Commons. That right was time-limited to a maximum of five years from the point when they were last registered to vote in the UK. The time limit has changed on two occasions since then, extending to 20 years in 1989, before settling on 15 years in 2002. I therefore agree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith that the time limit is an arbitrary number; that is clear from the fact that it has changed over time. I will return to the question of the time limit later.

Only 35,000 overseas electors were registered to vote in 1991, and since then the number has decreased. That is a tiny proportion of those eligible. There are perhaps around 5.5 million British citizens resident overseas. We have no reliable information on the number who have been overseas for less than 15 years and so would be eligible under current rules to register to vote, but we can be sure that the number is substantial. It is certainly more than the 23,000 overseas voters who are currently registered. By contrast with what the hon. Gentleman asserted, I think it is right for my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch to focus on this. If there are about 5.5 million British residents overseas and only 23,000 are registered, that should be a matter of concern to this House. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) is chuntering from a sedentary position, but before he arrived in the Chamber we did discuss what the Government are doing for people in this country who are not registered.

The big difference between local voters and overseas voters is that for those resident in the UK, registering to vote is primarily a matter of responding to local electoral registration officers when prompted to do so, typically during the annual canvass. Relatively few proactively take steps to ensure they are correctly registered. For British expatriates spread across the globe, a canvass of households is obviously not feasible. It therefore falls to the individual voters to take the appropriate steps to register. That is always likely to mean that a much smaller proportion of expats are registered. Of course, that does not mean that we should be complacent. It is worth putting it on record that, to date, the Government have done no research into the drivers of registration for overseas voters, and that needs to be looked at. At the moment, we are looking at the matter in the context of raising awareness of the registration process.

Changes that have been introduced by this Government have already done much to make it easier for British expats to register and to vote. The introduction of online registration last June in England and Wales, and last September in Scotland, has made electoral registration more accessible and convenient for all groups of voters. Indeed, people can register to vote in as little as three minutes using a smartphone. Online registration will particularly help overseas voters, as well as those groups about which the hon. Member for Hammersmith expressed concern, including transient voters, students and tenants. They should all benefit from the fact that they can register online.

This is fantastical stuff. The initial matching for individual electoral registration in my constituency showed that the percentages in some wards were in the low to mid-40s. Thanks to the good work of the local electoral registration officers, the percentages have been pushed up into the 70s and 80s, but that is still very poor compared with the previous register. The Minister should not be complacent about the detrimental effect that IER is having on the register, and he has not yet addressed any of the issues relating to under-registration. This just shows that the Government’s priorities are completely wrong.

This Government’s priorities on individual electoral registration are exactly the same as those of the previous Government. Significant resources have been invested to ensure that the register is as complete and accurate as possible. The hon. Gentleman has just said that the original matching in his constituency resulted in figures of around 40% and that subsequent work pushed the percentage up to the mid-70s. Surely that shows that the system is working, because when matching does not reveal a higher figure, resources are put in. The electoral registration officers are working extremely hard to push the numbers up and to make the register as complete and accurate as possible.

As I was saying, online registration makes registering to vote easier. Further steps that we have taken to improve registration for overseas voters include the removal of the requirement that a person’s initial application as an overseas elector be attested by another British citizen who is resident abroad. Many expats found this a considerable obstacle, and I am pleased that this Government have been able to remove it. A further change in the law now requires electoral registration officers, when necessary, to send a second reminder to overseas voters, and others such as service voters who are registered by virtue of a declaration, to inform them that their declaration is about to expire. I hope that this will further prompt people to re-register, especially those who are overseas.

The Electoral Commission provides information on its website about how to register and vote overseas, and it is working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to target UK citizens living overseas as part of its online advertising campaign ahead of the general election, particularly in countries with high populations of UK citizens, such as Australia, Canada, France, Spain and the USA. That campaign includes advertising on Facebook and other websites commonly used by UK citizens overseas.

As hon. Members will be aware, on 9 January the Government announced that almost £10 million will be given to local authorities. This is in addition to the £4 million of maximising registration funding provided last year. We are exploring how best to use the money to reach British citizens overseas and encourage them to use online registration to ensure that they have their say at the next election.

In regard to placing a duty on the Electoral Commission, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will know that the responsibility for compiling the electoral register lies with the electoral registration officer for each local area. The Electoral Commission’s role is to provide guidance to the EROs, to monitor their performance, to undertake research and analysis, and to promote registration. It has no remit or powers to compile data on British citizens overseas, and that would be an additional enormous burden, as the Electoral Commission is not equipped to undertake this role. That said, I am very conscious that the forces have a unit registration officer, and there is perhaps some scope to examine the role that embassies can play, bearing in mind, however, that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office considers its first and most important duty to support British citizens in difficulty.

As we have said, the current 15-year limit is arbitrary, and I hope the comments made by the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), would reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that the Conservative party takes this seriously. My right hon. Friend said at our party conference:

“It’s extraordinary that millions of British people have been deprived of their right to vote by bureaucratic rules and complex red tape…The next Tory government will abolish unfair rules excluding millions from voting.”

So although there is no consensus in the Government at the moment, I hope my hon. Friend takes that quote as reassurance that the next Conservative Government would seek to abolish the 15-year-rule.

Finally, let me deal with the thorny issue of electronic voting. I started off by talking about the big piece of modernisation that has been introduced in this Parliament, which is not only the move to individual electoral registration, but the introduction of online registration. It has been apparent that this is a huge task, and moving to electronic voting would be a huge task for any Government. We cannot be under any illusion that it would be easy to achieve. The fact that electronic voting is incredibly rare across the globe is testament to some of the problems in delivering it. The online registration and move to the IER project has cost the taxpayer about £100 million, and if we were to move to electronic voting, we would have to ensure that we had very robust and secure systems. Given that we do not even have same-day registration for people to vote, that would be a big step for the Government to take. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) suggested the way forward could be having electronic voting for overseas voters as a test bed. Given how important general elections are, we should not be using electronic voting as a test bed when it could be decisive in the election outcome.

In conclusion, a lot has been done to modernise the system to register to vote in this country. Overseas voters should indeed be valued the same as voters resident in the UK. Anyone who has a right to vote in the UK should be valued, and any democratic Government have a duty to ensure that such people are on the register and can exercise their right to vote. Clearly, there is a discrepancy in respect of the number of overseas voters who on the register and the number who can exercise their right to vote. Although I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch to withdraw the motion, the Government should examine this issue in more detail in future.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response and for his repetition of the position that the Conservatives would support removing the 15-year restriction on the eligibility of British citizens resident overseas to vote. The only question he did not really answer was why the coalition minority partners are against such a change. Obviously, had they not been, my Bill would have been able to make progress today.

It is also interesting to note some of the points made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) on issues associated with individual voter registration. It is essential that we do not compromise on that principle. It is well established within the Council of Europe that every person who goes to vote should be individually registered, but our country has been a bit late in getting on that bandwagon. Some of the body language from Opposition Members suggests that they think that there should be flexibility on that, but I think that we should be resolute in saying that only those people who are duly registered and present themselves to vote should be able to vote. Having that said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.