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Volume 708: debated on Thursday 3 February 2022

The Elections Bill brings forward changes to our electoral system which are vital to ensure our democracy remains secure, fair, modern and transparent, and I am pleased to update Parliament today with further information on the implementation of two key changes, the extension of the franchise for British citizens living overseas, and the introduction of an online application service and identity verification for absent votes. In addition, today the Government are providing their response to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s report on the Elections Bill to the Committee.

Overseas electors policy statement

The Government’s 2019 manifesto included a commitment to “make it easier for British expats to vote in [UK] parliamentary elections, and get rid of the arbitrary 15-year limit on their voting rights”.

Through the Elections Bill, the Government are extending the franchise for UK parliamentary elections to all British citizens living overseas who have been previously registered to vote or previously resident in the UK. In addition to extending the franchise, the changes will facilitate participation by making it easier for overseas electors to remain on the register with an absent vote arrangement in place ahead of elections.

The Bill, and the secondary legislation which will flow from it, will also deliver improvements and consequential amendments to the registration process for overseas electors, including the processes by which applicants have their identity and connection to their relevant previous UK address verified.

To provide further information on these proposals, I am today publishing a policy statement setting out the key changes in the Elections Bill, as well as the Government’s intention for associated secondary legislation, which will set out further requirements regarding how those changes will work in practice.

The approach we are proposing to take is subject to ongoing engagement with stakeholders and, ultimately, will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny.

Identity verification for absent vote applications and an online application service policy statement

As set out in my statement to the House on 6 January (HCWS525), a measure to introduce an identity verification for absent vote applications and an online application service was introduced to the Bill via Government amendment at Report stage of the House of Commons. I am therefore pleased to be also publishing a policy statement on these measures to outline further information on the Government’s plans for how the policy will operate in practice.

Digitising the absent vote application process will also benefit overseas electors who typically vote by post or proxy, and will complement the Bill measures that remove the current 15 year limit on the voting rights of overseas electors.

It is our expectation that all the measures in the Elections Bill will be in place within the lifetime of this Parliament and implementation will be staged over a sensible and pragmatic timetable; it is imperative that this is done properly and with sufficient time for the elections sector and for voters to prepare for the new requirements. It is our ambition for rollout of the changes for overseas electors and the new online application service for absent votes to take place in parallel, alongside changes to the arrangements for renewals of absent vote applications, thereby improving efficiency of the system for both electors and administrators.

PACAC response

On Monday 13 December, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) released a report on the Elections Bill. Today the Government are providing its response to the report.

The associated policy statements have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.