Section 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1985 provided for the first time that British citizens living overseas should be able to register to vote in parliamentary elections in the UK. That Act established the principle that a British citizen living abroad can only be registered within a fixed period of time. That period currently expires 15 years from the date on which the citizen in question was last resident in a parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom and was included in the register for that constituency as a result.
Parliament decided to impose a time limit on the eligibility of overseas electors to vote in parliamentary elections, as it was thought that, during a lengthy period of absence from the UK, their connection with the UK is likely to diminish. Accordingly, it was considered that the ability of those electors to have a direct influence on our democratic processes by voting should also diminish.
The length of the period after which the right to vote lapses was initially set at five years but has subsequently been increased by statute to 20 years then, from 1 April 2002, reduced to 15 years. Each time a change has been has been made, Parliament has approved that change and confirmed its view that the basic principle of time-limiting overseas voting rights remains appropriate.
However, despite the general time limit described above, there are certain categories of person living abroad for a period longer than 15 years who are still entitled to vote. The categories of person are members of the Armed Forces; persons in Crown service posts; and persons working for the British Council. This exception also covers the spouses and civil partners of members of each of those categories. In the case of the Armed Forces, the right recognises the need for special arrangements that reflect the important nature of their service to the United Kingdom. Crown Servants are given this right because their service and loyalty to the Crown and State are considered to be directly comparable to that of a civil servant who lives and works in the United Kingdom.