In June 2016, the British people voted to leave the European Union, and this Government were elected in December 2019 on a mandate to get Brexit done.
Now that the UK has left the EU, and with the ending of free movement and introduction of the new points-based immigration system in last year’s Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Act, there should not be a continued, automatic right to vote and stand in local elections solely by virtue of being an EU citizen.
As I have previously explained to this House (for example, in response to PQ 66206 and PQ 175803 on 8 October 2018), the issue of local voting rights of EU citizens living in the UK needs to be considered alongside the rights and interests of British expatriates living abroad. This did not form part of the withdrawal agreement, as such matters are not within the competence of the European Union and local voting rights are a matter for individual member states. I noted how the Government intended to adopt reciprocal agreements with individual countries within the EU.
The Government propose that EU citizens who have been living in the UK prior to the end of the implementation period will maintain their local voting and candidacy rights in England and Northern Ireland, provided they retain lawful immigration status, which goes beyond our obligations in the withdrawal agreement. It also mirrors the stance taken on the EU settlement scheme, which protects the rights of EU citizens who were resident here by the end of the implementation period and provides them with the UK immigration status they need to continue to live, work and access benefits and services here. To 31 May 2021, over 5 million grants of status have been made under the scheme.
EU citizens, who have arrived since 1 January 2021, will move to a position whereby future local voting and candidacy rights are granted where there is an agreement with individual European Union member states to preserve these on a bilateral basis.
This will apply to local elections in England and Northern Ireland, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales. These measures also cover the polls in which EU citizens have been eligible to vote as part of the local franchise: local authority governance referendums, local council tax referendums, neighbourhood planning referendums and parish polls. Other local and devolved elections in Scotland and Wales are within the remit of the devolved Administrations.
The Government have already confirmed that resident EU citizens elected in the May 2021 local elections in England, and the police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales will be able to serve their full term, and this will also apply to those elected before 2021. An EU citizen elected before these measures come into force, and who otherwise remains eligible, will be able to serve their full term.
Citizens of the Republic of Ireland will not be affected by these changes, as the voting rights of Irish citizens in the UK long predate EU membership. The rights of qualifying Commonwealth citizens will also not be changed by these measures. As such, citizens of Malta and Cyprus—which are both EU member states and Commonwealth countries—will continue to hold voting and candidacy rights in local and national elections.
Voting and candidacy rights agreements
Local voting and candidacy rights for EU citizens who arrived in the UK after 31 December 2020 will therefore rest on the principle of a mutual grant of rights, through agreements with EU member states. We have already secured such agreements with Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland.
The UK will continue to invite EU member states which are interested in entering into such agreements the opportunity to negotiate treaties.
These measures therefore ensure that British nationals living overseas in the EU benefit from the Government’s approach.
The Government intend to legislate to deliver this policy through the forthcoming Elections Bill. This approach will reflect the fact that we have left the European Union, reflect the settlement arrangements for existing EU citizens resident in the UK, and maximise opportunities for British nationals living overseas.
The Elections Bill will also enfranchise more British citizens living overseas by abolishing the “15 year rule”, supporting our vision for a truly global Britain.
The right to vote in parliamentary elections and choose the next UK Government is already rightly restricted to British citizens and those with the closest historic links to our country. Should any EU citizen wish to gain full rights to participate in local and national elections, they may apply for British citizenship, depending on their circumstances.