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Electoral Registration: EU Citizens

Volume 658: debated on Thursday 25 April 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will please make a statement on the electoral registration process for EU citizens for the 2019 European elections.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue. It is important that we ensure that everyone is aware of what they can do to ensure they are able to exercise their right to vote, should that opportunity arise. We have been clear on our intention as a Government that we want to leave the EU as soon as possible and not have to hold these elections.

Electoral registration officers have a statutory duty to ensure that people who are eligible to vote in relevant elections have the opportunity to do so. With regard to the potential European parliamentary elections, that includes ensuring that EU citizens from other member states who are resident in the UK and registered to vote are aware that they need to complete a declaration, commonly referred to as a UC1 or EC6 form, in order to do so. I will place a copy of that form in the Library of the House today. To vote in the UK, citizens of other EU member states need to be registered to vote, and to complete the declaration form stating their wish to vote in the UK, by Tuesday 7 May 2019. This form is accessible on the Electoral Commission website and on local authority websites. This is to ensure that EU citizens do not vote twice—here and in their member state of origin—because it is obviously illegal to vote twice in the same election.

The Electoral Commission has issued advice on what action to take on this, and it was circulated to all local authority electoral officers on 4 April. The Electoral Commission’s guidance advises that, while the law does not require electoral registration officers to send the form out to all EU citizens, it has in previous years advised that EROs should identify those local government electors who are EU citizens and send them a UC1 form, to help to ensure that they understand their options and are able to exercise their right to vote, should they wish to do so. It further advises that, if the date of the poll is confirmed, electoral registration officers be encouraged to take other steps to raise awareness, such as through social media channels and elsewhere. The Electoral Commission said that it was also looking to support EROs in this and to work with partners to spread the message more widely. The commission’s advice is that EROs

“should think about how you can make EU citizens clear of the options available to them: the information on the UC1 form should help you to do this”.

While the Government support the work to encourage electoral registration, the legal process of registration is obviously the responsibility of electoral registration officers rather than the Government. Prior to the extension of article 50, we had already encouraged EU citizens to vote in their home countries in the 2019 European parliamentary elections. We expect that most EU citizens in the UK will have followed previous advice to ensure that they can vote in their member state of citizenship.

I am concerned that EU citizens living in the UK have to undergo a two-stage process to vote in the European elections. Even if they are already registered to vote in the local elections next Thursday, they are separately required, unlike UK nationals, to complete an additional form to vote in the European elections three weeks later. That added layer of administration is rightly designed to prevent EU citizens from voting twice. However, the Cabinet Office has also inferred that preferential status must not be conferred to EU citizens in the process. That scenario only really applies when the EU registers are open, but there is no uniformity among EU member states. Indeed, the majority of EU registers have now closed.

Under normal circumstances, had the Brexit shambles not taken over, councils would have written to EU citizens in January, when all EU registers were open, to confirm the UK register in good time. They would have sent out reminders and issued polling cards to electors who are already on the register for the local elections, but we are not in normal circumstances. Our participation in the European elections was confirmed by the Prime Minister very late in the day, and the additional EC6 process is largely superfluous given that the majority of EU registers have already closed.

Far from giving preference to EU citizens, these unusual circumstances and the Government’s lack of action have helped to create an artificial barrier to the enfranchisement of EU citizens. Indeed, we are already hearing reports of a formal legal challenge to the Government. This is yet another Brexit mistake. In July 2018, the integrity of our democracy was questioned when Vote Leave was found guilty of breaking electoral law. Today, our democracy faces another threat: Government- sanctioned barriers that could prevent EU citizens from registering to vote.

There are now 13 days until the voter registration deadline. Given the shortness of time, and the late hour at which local authorities were informed of this major U-turn in Government policy on participation in the European elections, can the Minister answer one clear question? Will he confirm that local authorities will be permitted to register automatically EU citizens who are already registered to vote in next week’s local elections, on 2 May, so that they can participate in the European elections a mere 21 days later?

I have a couple of things to say to the hon. Lady. First, we obviously would not be in this position if she and more of her colleagues had voted for the deal on 29 March, because we would not be holding these elections, and there still may be an opportunity not to hold them. Secondly, local elections are different, because residents can vote more than once, in different places where they pay council tax. The structure is very different—[Interruption.] I can see the hon. Lady gesticulating, but people can vote more than once in local elections, as Members of Parliament often do. Things are different in European elections, and it is right that we do what we can to ensure that people vote only once.

As for the process, if colleagues look at the UC1 form—as I said, I will lay a copy in the Library today for colleagues who have not seen it—they will see that it probably takes 30 seconds to a minute to complete. The same process was used in the 2014 European elections, and it dates back to the European Parliamentary Elections (Franchise of Relevant Citizens of the Union) Regulations 2001, so some Labour Members will have supported it when they were in government.

Given that today marks the nomination deadline for the European elections and that many local authorities will be considering sending out postal votes early in the process, will my right hon. Friend confirm what guidance has been given to electoral registration officers about postal votes, particularly for European citizens who choose to vote in these elections?

The advice from the Electoral Commission to EROs is that they should follow the same processes. Everything will be exactly the same as it was in 2014, so there will be no difference in how postal vote notices go out. This is about ensuring that European residents who want to vote here and have not already registered to vote in their home member state, which we have been recommending for a year that they do, are able to register should they wish to do so.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for bringing this important question to the House.

It has never been the desire of the Labour party to take part in the upcoming European parliamentary elections. However, it is now becoming a reality following the Government’s failure to reach a satisfactory Brexit deal. The uncertainty caused by the Government’s shambolic Brexit negotiations is causing havoc in this country, particularly for electoral administrators who are now tasked with delivering a national poll at extremely short notice.

Some 2 million EU citizens who are already registered to vote in this country have until 7 May to complete and return a declaration form to take part in the European elections. In normal circumstances, returning officers would have started writing to registered EU citizens in January to ensure that they have completed the necessary paperwork, which cannot be done electronically. Prior to the 2016 EU referendum, the Electoral Commission began the process of identifying proposals for streamlining this administrative two-step process. However, because this Government repeatedly stated that European elections would not take place, the Electoral Commission decided not to continue working out this area of reform.

Because the Government maintained their positon on EU elections at the eleventh hour, even when it was clear that their botched Brexit deal would not pass, returning officers have only just started the process of contacting registered European citizens. There are now only 13 days left until the deadline and, so far, fewer than 300 forms have been returned, which equates to 0.015% of registered EU citizens.

Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) raised our concerns that thousands of EU citizens will be casting their vote in local elections but will be denied that same right in the European elections, and that many are considering legal action. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), failed to provide proper assurances that this issue is being taken seriously.

Given the shortness of time and the late hour at which local authorities were informed of this major U-turn, we have four demands of the Government. Will they give EU citizens more time to return their declaration forms by extending the deadline from 7 May to 15 May? Will they provide EU citizens with more chances to be aware of their options by ensuring electors are handed a copy of the declaration form when they vote in local elections? Will they pay for all costs associated with maximising participation in the European elections by EU citizens, given the short notice and therefore the higher cost of getting people to sign up? And will they make the registration process easier by confirming that scanned or photographed forms are acceptable?

It is unacceptable that European citizens living here risk being denied their right to vote because of the Government’s incompetent approach to Brexit. This chaos must end.

On one of the hon. Lady’s last points—I invite her to look at the form later in the Library—I am not sure how the form could be simplified any further. It literally takes 30 seconds to fill it in; it is a very simple, direct form. On the wider issues, the Electoral Commission is the body responsible for ensuring that these processes are followed through legally, and I am sure it will be listening and looking at what she has outlined.

We have been very clear about advising EU citizens over the last year to make sure that, for the European elections, those who wish to vote are registered in their home member state. As I said in my opening remarks, we expect that many will have done that, but there is the opportunity, if they wish to vote in the UK should we hold these potential elections, for them to do so by filling in a UC1 form.

The hon. Lady spoke about the deal, and I gently remind her that we are potentially fighting these elections because, when Labour Members had the chance to vote for a withdrawal agreement that fits their own party policy, they decided to play politics rather than deliver on the referendum.

I declare my interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council.

When voters in Kettering voted 61% to leave the European Union in the referendum three years ago, they did not expect to be asked to vote in European elections this year, and they find it ridiculous that they are being asked to do so. Fortunately, we have an excellent electoral services team at Kettering Borough Council. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will reimburse all the extra costs that councils will bear in arranging these elections?

Obviously, I share my hon. Friend’s view that nobody who voted in 2016, on either side of the debate, ever expected to vote in a European election again once they saw that result. I still hope there is an opportunity for them not to have to do so. As I say, I am disappointed that we are in this position at all, but these elections will follow the process that has been used previously—as they did in 2014; all the same processes will apply.

I am delighted to confirm that the Scottish National party is looking forward to the upcoming European elections, as an opportunity to demonstrate Scotland’s opposition to Brexit and our commitment to the visions and ideals of the European Union, particularly the protection of the rights of its citizens. It is therefore concerning to hear that a lack of Government planning means that many EU citizens may be unable to register to vote in these elections.

Of course there was quite a mix-up back in 2014 in this regard, meaning that up to half a million EU citizens were prevented from voting, and the Electoral Commission was supposed to have had that sorted out in advance of any further European elections. Given what EU citizens have been put through in the past few years, it is particularly concerning that their voice may not be heard in these elections. It is all very well for the Minister to suggest that they should go home to vote, but, as has been pointed by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), whom I congratulate on securing this urgent question, many of the registers are already closed in other European Union countries, because, unlike ours, their Governments were organised.

May I therefore echo some of the requests made by others and ask, in particular, that the deadline for registration be extended? May I also ask the Minister not to shuffle responsibility off on to the Electoral Commission, but to take Government responsibility for what has happened here and to make sure that the Electoral Commission is indeed writing to all local electoral registration officers and monitoring their compliance with the reminder to send out these forms?

Finally, given that we are in this mess because of the way the Government have handled the Brexit process, will the Minister take some Government responsibility for an information campaign aimed at EU citizens to make sure that they are registered to vote—or are the Government afraid of what these people will vote for if they are registered?

I must say to the hon. and learned Lady that I do not accept the premise of some of her points—in fact, I think they are based on an entirely false premise. First, what she said I said is not what I said. In answer to her final point, which links to that, let me say that over the past year the Government, and indeed the Electoral Commission, have been advising EU residents to register in their member state. That is not the same thing as saying, “Go home and vote.” However, it does fulfil her last request, as we have been advising EU citizens—understandably, as we did not expect to be fighting these elections—that if they wish to exercise their vote, they should register in their home member state, because that is where there would be a European election.

Of course, if the honourable looks back in Hansard later, she will see that in my opening remarks I outlined that the Electoral Commission is in contact, and has been in consistent contact, with electoral registration officers about the processes to make sure that things are in place.

There is of course a really easy solution to all this, isn’t there, Minister? Let’s just stop mucking about and call the whole thing off.

As my hon. Friend knows well, I often agree with and enjoy his direct, cutting-through remarks, which he has just demonstrated again on the Floor of the House, getting to the core point in such a simple way. I entirely agree with what he said, and I hope that we have a chance for this House to express the will it should have expressed on 29 March, which is to approve the withdrawal agreement, leave the EU and deliver on the referendum result.

The Government have a responsibility to encourage the widest possible participation in the European Parliament elections, but the impression they are giving to EU citizens, “Please do not vote here, vote back home.” is doing the opposite and is, frankly, insulting to many of them who regard the UK as their home. The Minister will be aware that some electoral registration officers have sent out reminder letters and UC1 forms to EU citizens. Is it the Government’s policy that all EROs should do so, and should do so immediately?

Let me correct something that the right hon. Gentleman said. I have huge respect for him and for his role. The point I have been making about EU citizens voting in their home member states is that because we were not looking to fight European elections as we wanted to leave the EU, the Government’s advice over the past year for people who wished to use their vote had been to register in their home state, because that would be the only place where there would be a European election in which they could vote. There is obviously now the potential that we will fight European elections, which is why, as I outlined in my opening remarks, the Electoral Commission has advised the electoral registration officers to identify all EU citizens who have the right to vote and notify them that they can vote in this country. If they complete a UC1, they will be able to register to vote and then vote in the European elections, should we hold them, although obviously as a Government we would rather not hold them.

I am fortunate to represent a constituency with at least 7,000 EU citizens, so this issue is particularly important for me. We should continue to communicate on the process. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the registration process is exactly the same as it was last time and that to suggest that there has been some kind of change is more likely to cause confusion than clarity?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I give credit to Opposition Members and am absolutely sure that they are not trying purposely to confuse people, but the processes are exactly the same as they were in 2014 and, as I said, go back to the 2001 regulations.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on securing this urgent question.

I am bound to place on the record the fact that I have profound concerns about the elections, which I hope do take place, and suspect strongly that there will be many legal challenges. I say gently to the Minister that the reason why we are holding them is that the Government have failed to deliver on the referendum result, and I remind him that it is a good job the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) is not present, because if he were here, he might want to remind the Minister about his elderly parents, who were born in Italy and have lived and contributed here, like many hundreds of thousands of EU citizens. This is their home, and the idea that to exercise their democratic right they should go back to Italy is absolutely outrageous.

I am worried about the rights of European citizens to vote, but I am also worried about their rights to stand. I was going to raise this issue as a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, on the day that the nominations closed in the south-west and Gibraltar—for the rest of the United Kingdom the deadline is 4 o’clock today—I discovered that the Electoral Commission had failed to supply to the returning officers the necessary information for them to provide to an EU citizen who wishes to stand, as they lawfully can, as a candidate in the elections. I am grateful to the returning officers in Kettering, who were so helpful; to the Spanish and Romanian ambassadors, who intervened directly; and to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who intervened directly to provide the material, guidance and advice to the returning officers directly from the Cabinet Office, because the Electoral Commission had failed to do it.

As I stand here today, I cannot say whether two Change UK candidates, one Spanish born and one Romanian born, will be able to stand in the elections, through no fault of their own. Will the Minister please assure the House that any EU citizen who wishes to stand and who satisfies the legal requirements will not be and has not been prevented from standing in the elections?

Let me deal with a couple of the points raised by the right hon. Lady. I reiterate that I personally believe in democracy and think that everybody who is in this country at any election, be it local, European or parliamentary, should look to exercise their right to vote. Many people have given a great deal over decades to have that right to vote, which is why it is important that we are clear with people that, should they complete that UC1 form, they will be able to vote, exactly as in 2014 and previous European elections. My point about people voting in their home member state is that that is what many EU citizens will have already arranged to do, on the understanding that there were not going to be elections in this country.

Where I disagree with the right hon. Lady quite dramatically is that I think this House should be supporting the decision made in the 2016 referendum, voting for the withdrawal agreement and not holding the elections—

I am answering the right hon. Lady’s questions. She asked several and I have just covered some of them.

On her final question about EU citizens who wish to stand as candidates in the elections, the rules concerning EU citizens who wish to stand in this country in the European elections in May are the same as they were for the previous election in 2014. There are no changes. The Electoral Commission has provided guidance for candidates on this matter—

My understanding from the Electoral Commission is that it has. I hear the right hon. Lady saying that it has not; I will look into that straight after this urgent question and make sure that somebody in the Cabinet Office, or myself, comes back to her directly during the course of today.

My constituency is home to thousands of EU citizens. They deserve the right to vote here and every effort should be made to ensure that they can do so. Given the Government’s Brexit shambles, will the Minister now commit to doing one of several things: extending the deadline, but also ensuring that photocopied or scanned documentation will be accepted when people register?

As I have said at the Dispatch Box a few times, I agree that everybody who is entitled to vote should be encouraged to exercise their vote, which is a treasured and valued thing. I have put a copy of the UC1 form in the Library today, as I have outlined, so Members can see it. It is a very short and simple form to fill in, people have plenty of time to do just that, and I am sure that the Electoral Commission will look at the options that the hon. Lady has outlined.

The Minister’s answers this morning can hardly be seen as a reassurance that the Government value EU citizens living in this country or respect their rights. The Government should do their utmost to make good on their promises to respect EU citizens’ rights, so will the Minister please confirm that, for every EU citizen registered to vote in UK local elections, the obligation to send out the additional form for EU elections rests with the Government? This mess lies clearly at the Government’s door, not that of local government officials.

As I said earlier, the UC1 form is there for anybody to complete and send in. It is on the website, it takes about 30 seconds to complete—or maybe a minute, for anybody whose handwriting is as slow as mine—and I hope that as many EU citizens as possible who are able to vote in this country take advantage of that opportunity and use their vote, if we have the elections.

European Union citizens make a huge contribution to our public services, our economy, our communities and our country, and to my city of Newcastle. I hope that the Minister recognises that and recognises that they have suffered immensely through the Brexit process, not being able to vote in the first place and facing a rise in hate crime and continued uncertainty about their status and that of loved ones. Does he not think that he should go the extra mile to facilitate their voting and that not doing so adds insult to injury and reflects a lack of flexibility of responsiveness, which is the reason why we are in this mess in the first place?

The reason we are in this position is that on 29 March too many Members of Parliament did not vote to leave the European Union. However, I agree with the hon. Lady that EU citizens play a hugely important part in our economy, culture and society. That is why it is important that the Government and the Prime Minister have been clear from the very beginning that we want to protect and secure the rights of EU citizens in the UK. They are a hugely important part of our economy and I hope that as many as possible who wish to do so take advantage of the opportunity to vote in the elections, should we hold them. However, I still hold to the point that my main aim is to ensure that we do not have those elections in the first place and that we honour the referendum result.

It is deeply depressing to have to reassure EU nationals who come to my surgeries that they are welcome here and that we want to keep them here. It should not be my job to do that, and it is really depressing that people feel so unwelcome, having lived here, worked here and contributed so much for years. The rhetoric sounds reassuring, but the bureaucratic restrictions that the Minister is imposing on EU nationals paint a different picture, so why do we not dispense with this trifling inconvenience and just reassure people that they can vote through the normal process that other British citizens use?

The hon. Gentleman talks about the normal process. I would point out again that the process is exactly the same as in 2014 and flows from the 2001 regulations. That is how European elections are run, as I outlined in my opening remarks. I hope that European citizens will take the opportunity to look at a UC1 form and, if we hold these elections, register to vote.

The SNP has an EU citizen standing for the European Parliament, Christian Allard, who I am pretty sure considers this place to be his home. He will be voting in the elections, I will be voting for him and I look forward to him taking his seat in the European Parliament. The Minister keeps saying that if this House had voted for the withdrawal agreement, the elections would not be taking place. If EU nationals had had a vote in a referendum, perhaps they would still be taking place. In the contingency planning that the Cabinet ought to be doing for a second EU referendum, will the Government be considering extending the right to vote to EU nationals?

The Government’s focus is on doing all we can to ensure that we deliver on and respect the EU referendum—the referendum that we have already had. Parliamentarians should respect and deliver on that before they start talking about any others.

Will the Minister actually answer the question posed by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone)—that is, if local authorities have to spend more money because of the late notice of the elections going ahead due to the shambles on the Conservative side of this Parliament, will they receive that money back from central Government?

I thought that I had answered the question by making the point that local elections, European elections and general elections follow the same process of financing. Of course, at this stage, we do not actually even know what the full cost of those elections will be; we will not know until afterwards. At this stage, we do not even know exactly how many nominations there will be. We will be liaising with electoral returning officers through the Electoral Commission, as we always do with elections. Given the hon. Lady’s remarks, let me say again that we are in this place because on 29 March she and too many colleagues did not vote to leave the EU and avoid these elections.

Telling EU citizens to go home and vote is an absolute insult. This is their home and none of this shambles is any of their making. Will the Minister give an assurance that no EU citizens who turns up to vote will be turned away as a result of this shambles? Why can these forms and paperwork not be available at the point where they vote?

Nobody is saying to EU citizens what the hon. Lady has just said we are saying. What we are saying is that EU citizens, as per 2014, should follow the process to register to vote so that they can use their vote if we hold these elections. It is about ensuring that people vote once in the European parliamentary elections, if they are held.

Will the Minister ensure that non-digital platforms are also utilised as part of any publicity drive, which he referred to in his opening remarks, to ensure that voters who do not have access to the internet or adequate broadband are fully informed of the process they need to complete ahead of the deadline?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The Electoral Commission looks at all these things, but I will ensure that it is specifically aware of that matter.