Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important but largely neglected subject. My starting point is that a high voter turnout is the sign of a healthy democracy. One cannot achieve a high turnout unless those eligible to register as voters actually do register. Many nations recognise and treat their citizens overseas as a major asset and actively solicit their engagement. In contrast, UK citizens living abroad are an untapped asset. Indeed, they are a largely ignored asset.
There are believed to be something in the region of 5.5 million Britons living abroad, and of those about 3 million are estimated to be eligible to be on the electoral register; that is, aged 18 and over and having lived abroad for no more than 15 years. It is very much an estimate as there are no official statistics, but the number is clearly substantial. How many are actually registered? The figure is believed to be between 20,000 and 30,000, well under 1% of the total estimated to be eligible. Even if the estimate of those eligible to register is substantially out—even if it is 2 million rather than 3 million—it is clear that an appallingly low percentage is registered to vote. Although a great deal of concern is expressed about low registration rates in the UK, this concern does not appear to extend to UK nationals living abroad. They are in many respects neglected voters, or rather, non-voters.
This neglect may stem from various myths that exist about British nationals living abroad. Contrary to how they are sometimes portrayed, most of those eligible to register are working abroad. Nor are Britons living abroad a drain on United Kingdom resources, but a major resource for the UK. Working abroad for UK firms means that many contribute significantly to the UK economy. There is clearly a case to encourage British expatriates to participate in the electoral process. It will strengthen their ties with the country and they will bring a valuable international perspective to our elections. Their active interest will be passed on to the next generation and beyond, and help to retain the latter’s ties with Britain. Furthermore, Britons living abroad are a major source of soft power for the UK. Encouraging their active participation can be a means of getting them to influence attitudes towards the UK in their country of settlement.
The most compelling case for action, though, is one of principle. British citizens who live abroad, and have done so for less than 15 years, are entitled under UK law to vote. They should therefore be encouraged in the same way as are citizens resident in the UK to ensure that they are registered and exercise their right to vote. As I said in opening, a high turnout rate is the sign of a healthy democracy. UK citizens living abroad should be seen as intrinsic to ensuring such a democracy.
Recognising the nature of the problem, a cross-party group of parliamentarians was formed last year to address the issue, and I had the honour of chairing the group. The other members were my noble friends Lord Lexden and Lord Tyler, who are present today, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, and the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, is speaking at a conference today and cannot be with us. He had hoped to be here to explain the efforts being made by the Indian Government to engage with the Indian diaspora. We were joined by Geoffrey Clifton-Brown from the Commons. Our report, entitled Making Votes Count, was published in March of this year. Our task was to identify the obstacles to achieving a high registration rate and what could be done to tackle them.
We identified seven problems. First, there is the difficulty of identifying UK nationals living abroad who are eligible to vote. Their whereabouts are often not known. Data on citizens living abroad are held by public bodies, but the data are limited or not necessarily current, and the bodies concerned are usually precluded from releasing personal data to other bodies. Secondly, there is poor communication. Limited efforts have been made to reach citizens living abroad. One study of British nationals living in New Zealand found that those who were registered had discovered their right to register only through word-of-mouth rather than by receiving any official communication.
Thirdly, there are practical difficulties in registering and voting. British citizens resident overseas are to a much greater extent responsible for their own registration than citizens living in the UK. The current process of issuing and returning ballot papers also creates problems. That was highlighted by a number of UK expatriates in evidence to us. The extension of the election timetable will go some way to reducing this problem, as will the move to online application in respect of registration, but the problem of ensuring that those eligible to vote actually register to do so remains.
Fourthly, there are separate responsibilities within Government. It was clear from our inquiry that there is an absence of joined-up government. Responsibility for overseas voters is spread among a number of bodies.
Fifthly, there are different approaches taken by embassies and consulates. The willingness to encourage registration appears to vary considerably.
Sixthly, there is an absence of incentives. The absence of joined-up government means that there is no one body that sees it as its responsibility to give a lead or has an obvious reason to do so. The only body with a clear remit is the Electoral Commission, but its role is to encourage. There is no clear incentive within departments to devote money and resources to enhancing voter registration by UK citizens living abroad.
Lastly, at the root of the problem, from which the foregoing stems, is an absence of political will to ensure that British citizens living abroad are taken seriously as citizens eligible to register and hence to vote in elections in the United Kingdom. They are, as we noted in the report, forgotten citizens for the purposes of implementing effectively UK electoral law.
Tackling the problem has at its starting point recognition of the merits of encouraging British nationals to exercise their statutory rights. Once the political will is there, many of the practical problems that we have adumbrated can be overcome or at least tackled. Identifying the problems forms the basis of the solutions. We recommend joined-up government, with responsibility for British nationals abroad and driving up voter registration, vested in one Minister; incentives for different bodies responsible for enhancing voter registration; data sharing, so that citizens living abroad can be identified; greater dissemination of information, not least through social media; exhortation—citizens living abroad should be seen to be valued and voting encouraged as a civic duty; and, finally, enabling ballot papers to be downloaded electronically.
It is clear that a great deal can be done to encourage British nationals living abroad to register and exercise their right to vote and we believe that there is an overwhelming case for it to be done. My noble friend the Minister is, I know, very much seized of the issue—he was among the witnesses to give evidence to the group—and I look forward to hearing from him about what the Government are doing to address what is a very serious issue.
My Lords, I am delighted to support my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, not just on this occasion but also in recognition of his very successful chairmanship in bringing all of us in his informal group to a successful decision. As a regular adviser of the Electoral Commission on the cross-party informal group, I obviously cannot speak on behalf of the Electoral Commission, but I think that my noble friend will agree that the commission is beginning to address some of the issues, not least because of the very effective pressure made possible by my noble friend. In particular, I think that the commission now recognises that with online registration and the extension of the electoral timetable, some of the problems that we identified in our group are being addressed.
To supplement my noble friend’s masterly summary of our group’s recommendations, I will make a short contribution on the basis of my 14 years’ service as a constituency MP. I had 87,000 constituents in North Cornwall. They deserved, and I hope that they largely received, the best individual and collective representation that I could realistically provide. I hope that was demonstrated by the fact that my small majority did get bigger.
In those circumstances it is important to put on record that the average constituency Member of Parliament, even if they have a substantial number of overseas residents, will never see them as a high priority in terms of representation. If at any point during those 14 years I had had regular communication with overseas residents who had previously lived in the constituency, I think that I would have remembered them, but it did not happen. I am afraid that it was very often a case of out of sight, out of mind. Even if the current level of registration of such potential electors was increased dramatically—I think that it is less than 20,000 at present—I fear that their special interests would not receive the attention they deserved and simply extending the opportunity to vote in a specific constituency beyond the current 15 years would, I suggest, not improve their chances of being heard.
In a previous debate I suggested that, as soon as registration levels justified it, we should look very carefully at the suggestion that there should be a specific constituency for overseas electors. The clinching argument for me is the fact that we pride ourselves in this country on the strong connection between a Member of Parliament and the residents of the geographical area that he or she seeks to represent. As a Cornish MP with a long Cornish ancestry and a mother who claimed ancestry going back to 1066—although the ancestors were probably immigrants at that stage—I had a personal commitment to that area. While we have the first past the post electoral system, which continues this close one-to-one relationship, which is always claimed to be such a strong advantage that it outweighs its disadvantages, that is all the more the case. Indeed, members of all parties have claimed it to be a reason to prefer the alternative vote to other preferential systems. So in those circumstances it would be illogical to boast of this crucial connection and then advance the case for unlimited electoral connection for those who have long since left the area. For those reasons, I think that the 15-year limit is not the crucial limit. Hence, when we in the group examined the options, I argued that we should examine the case for a specific constituency or constituencies for overseas voters, as mentioned in our report, as happens in France, Italy, Portugal, Croatia and, indeed, one or two other democracies in the wider world. As soon as the registration levels justify this, which I think would be something in the region of 75,000 under the current arrangements, I believe that we should review those arguments.
That brings us back to the report of the Cross-Party Group on Overseas Voters. The recommendations of the group bear repetition. I wish to put them on record as I think they are extremely important. We said that,
“we do not address the existing 15-year rule, but rather work within it. For those who wish to get rid of the limit, what we recommend will be necessary but not sufficient. For those who are opposed to, or see little point in, extending the limit, what we recommend will be necessary and sufficient. The unifying feature is that there is agreement on the existence of a principled case for encouraging all those who under our current law are entitled to register to exercise that right”.
I wholeheartedly endorse what my noble friend has just said on that point. The report went on to say that,
“contemplating having an MP for overseas UK nationals is not presently feasible given the small number of overseas voters who are registered to vote. They constitute the equivalent of about one-third of a constituency electorate. Were the number of voters registered to reach a six-figure number then there would be a case for reviewing the proposal. We recognise that there is a chicken and egg element to this debate. UK nationals may not register to vote because they lack any clear connection to those who they are entitled to vote for. Were they accorded a dedicated MP then they might be more inclined to register and vote. However, as there is no evidence to demonstrate that registration rates would shoot up sufficiently were a dedicated seat to be allocated, the case for introducing such a seat at this stage is not compelling”.
It is a case of registration, registration, registration.
I welcome the moves that the Government and the Electoral Commission have taken, partly as a result of my noble friend’s group and the occasions on which he, and others, have raised the issue in your Lordships’ House. However, there are a huge number of opportunities to improve on that and I hope we will hear of a few more this afternoon.
My Lords, since I last took part in a debate on this issue in March 2001, there has been modest progress. The Electoral Registration Act, introduced last year, extended the timetable for postal votes from 15 to 25 days. This a small change but helpful as, at the last general election, many postal votes arrived too late to be counted. However, the Government’s record of increasing voting by those who live abroad is still pretty dismal. As we know, just over 30,000 voted at the last election, out of a possible turnout of somewhere between 3 million and 5 million. We know that 40,000 downloaded registration forms but a third of these were unable to complete them or vote. The form was too complicated and difficult.
It is a sad record. For example, if all the British citizens who live in Belgium had voted it would have doubled the number of overseas voters. They can register online, which is an improvement, but it is not easy and most living abroad still do not know how to do it. What is the Foreign Office doing to help promote voting? It seems unfair to expect the Electoral Commission to undertake this role when the Foreign Office has the best contacts and best system for getting in touch with possible voters who live overseas.
I welcome the report of the group chaired by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, but one issue which it does not cover is voting and the armed services. The most disappointing thing at the last general election was the inability of our Armed Forces to register and vote when serving overseas. Many, if not most, of those serving abroad were unable to get their ballot papers back in time. The extension to 25 days will obviously help at the next election. However, it was particularly ironic that those who were fighting in Afghanistan to improve democracy were themselves denied their own democratic right to vote. What is being done to rectify this problem? At the next election, we hope there will be rather fewer serving abroad but they will be spread around the world in smaller numbers and in odd places. This will present a greater logistical problem than it did last time.
I agree with the conclusions of my noble friend Lord Norton’s report and hope that the Minister will respond positively. I hope that after the next election, the Conservative Government, unfettered by a coalition, will look again at the 15-year rule, introduced by the last Labour Government. It is unfair because those who live abroad have contributed to Britain. Many have always paid their taxes and still do. It is unfair and discriminatory. Even the EU Justice Commissioner thinks the law should be changed. Every other country in the European Union has a better system and most can vote at their consulate or embassy, something that is denied to our citizens. Let us have no more excuses about voting by proxy: it does not work. Voters want to cast their own individual ballot. They do not trust even their very best friend to tick the right box on the ballot paper.
The challenge is to get the word across the globe that it should be easier to register and vote and that everybody should vote. Unfortunately, as the report points out, they cannot yet do so electronically. Because electronic voting will perhaps come in after the next general election, the question in the short term is: who will lead the campaign to increase voter registration? This issue has often fallen down the gap between departments. As is also recommended in the report, which department and which Minister will be held accountable for improving voter registration?
Perhaps I should end by saying that I have never voted. I took my seat in this House 41 years ago, aged 21, so I have never been able to vote. There have been various attempts by various political parties to give me the chance, but they have all been thwarted, either here or in another place. I am not sure whether I should be looking forward to the day when I can vote. Only time will tell.
My Lords, a watching and eager world has my noble friend Lord Wallace to thank for this debate. We are considering the outcome of the all-party inquiry, which my noble friend kindly recommended to me in the closing stages of our debates on what is now the Electoral Reform and Administration Act 2013. My noble friend said on 23 January last year:
“I would suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, should pursue the question of an all-party inquiry into this rather neglected area, not leaving everything to the Government here”.—[Official Report, 23/1/13; col. 1130.]
Governments the world over tend to hold exclusively to themselves those matters from which glory or credit can be extracted; other matters can happily be placed in other hands. So perhaps it was, to some extent, in this case.
I took the sensible course in response to my noble friend’s suggestion. I passed the baton immediately to the skilful, learned and scholarly hands of my noble friend Lord Norton. Having done that, I enlisted as a humble foot soldier in the impressive little platoon which he assembled to undertake the all-party inquiry so generously suggested by my noble friend Lord Wallace. I turn to the summary of the recommendations of the inquiry, with which the short and incisive report—thanks to my noble friend Lord Norton—concludes. The first of them states:
“A Cabinet Office Minister should be given specific responsibility for co-ordinating all Government Departments to increase radically the take-up of overseas voting”.
Who is the individual referred to here? The fuller version of this, our first recommendation, reads:
“At the moment, Lord Wallace of Saltaire answers in the House of Lords for the Cabinet Office and also does so for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That appears to us to be a pertinent combination in terms of departmental responsibilities”.
As to the duties that my noble friend will acquire by accepting this recommendation, as I hope he will, our report makes it clear that he would have,
“responsibility for British nationals living overseas and for ensuring a co-ordinated approach within Government. This should also encompass ensuring effective communication between the Electoral Commission and the FCO”.
No good deed should go unrewarded or, as some say, unpunished. The all-party inquiry, which my noble friend set in train, has found unanimously in favour of vesting in him the crucial task of bringing together the disparate strands of responsibility within government so that a really effective campaign can be undertaken—driven with the energy for which my noble friend is renowned—to establish arrangements for the first time under which our fellow country men and women living abroad for fewer than 15 years are, in the words of the report,
“encouraged, in the same way as citizens resident in the UK, to ensure that they are registered and exercise their right to vote”.
How glad my noble friend will be that he initiated the all-party inquiry.
The creation of a powerful co-ordinator within Government is our first recommendation because so much turns upon it. Our report states:
“British citizens living abroad are effective agents in spreading British influence. Many nations recognise and treat their citizens overseas as a major asset. The United Kingdom is not among them”.
A recent report in the Economist revealed that of the 193 UN member states, 110 have formal programmes to build links with their citizens abroad. The UK is not one of them; it should be. Attitudes will not change without the consistent and determined pressure that a co-ordinating Minister would bring. Our embassies and consulates have always been left to decide how—indeed, whether—to encourage British nationals in their countries to register to vote. Our report notes:
“We found little evidence of a notable effort by them to engage in a voter registration drive or to make efforts to mark elections in the United Kingdom. Whereas the embassies of some nations appear to have a tradition of hosting receptions on their national election days, there appears to be no such tradition on the part of UK embassies”.
We propose that the co-ordinating Minister should instil a proper sense of duty in our posts throughout the world. In the words of our report, we recommended,
“following the practice of some other countries in emphasising the importance of the nation’s citizens overseas and stressing the value of their votes and commitment to the United Kingdom … Our citizens living overseas should be made to feel valued. That is an essential prerequisite for encouraging them to vote”.
The need for a co-ordinating Minister grows ever stronger as the problem of underregistration gets worse. The latest figure of registered overseas voters available to us when we finalised our report in March was 23,366. That is alarming enough, out of a potential total of around 3 million, but by June, the figure had dropped to 15,848. The Electoral Commission has set itself a target of 100,000 new registrations by the time of the election next May, in accordance with one of the recommendations of our report. The briefing that the commission has provided for this debate suggests that it is seeking assistance from a wide range of organisations, including universities, pension providers and financial advisors, as well as the FCO. This is surely to be welcomed. The existence of a co-ordinating Minister would surely be invaluable to the Electoral Commission in this endeavour.
Our neglected and forgotten voters abroad should be given the means of becoming full participants in our democratic life. That is what so many of them want and we should feel proud that they do.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I place on record my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for securing this debate today in the Moses Room. I am pleased to be speaking in this debate, as I am always pleased to speak in any debate about how important it is for citizens to be registered to vote and participate in our democracy, no matter where they live.
I am the chair of the All-Party Group on Voter Registration, so it was good to hear the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who is a very active member of our group. We have had some interesting discussions in recent meetings about what we need to do to increase the number of people on the register. I confess that I did not know that there was a group on overseas voters, and I have today asked the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, if I could be involved in any future work. I think the report by the cross-party group, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, is a very good one and provides a welcome opportunity to focus on this issue.
It is important for any democracy to have simple and easy processes in place to ensure that its citizens can register to vote and cast their vote at elections. The number of people presently registered to vote who live overseas is only a few thousand, and even in 2010—the year of the previous general election—the figure peaked at 32,739. Since the introduction of overseas voting, the all-time high was in 1991, when 34,454 people were registered to vote. We shall see whether that figure is bettered in the forthcoming general election. However, these are small numbers when you consider, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and the noble Viscount told us, that there are more than 5 million British citizens living abroad at present; of those, probably 3 million have lived in the UK in the past 15 years, so under the current system are eligible to vote.
British citizens living abroad have had the right to vote in UK parliamentary elections since 1985. The eligible period was initially five years, but that was extended to 20 years following the introduction of the 1989 Act, and subsequently it was brought back down to 15 years on the introduction of the 2000 Act. That was brought about by a huge amount of change in the political and electoral make-up of the UK. The process to register as an overseas elector is relatively straightforward, with probably the biggest barrier being that people do not realise that they have the right to vote, while getting another British citizen to attest to the application may be another one. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, made an important point about service men and women and their right to vote. I fully endorse all his remarks.
The introduction of individual electoral registration would remove the latter requirement for attestation. It will be interesting to see whether that was in reality a barrier if voter registration improves as a result of that one change. As I have said previously, I used to be a member of the Electoral Commission, which certainly took the issue very seriously. We sought to improve on the number of people living abroad who are registered to vote. I would also like to inform noble Lords that my own parents are both British citizens and citizens of the Irish Republic. They have been living in the Republic of Ireland since 2002, but they have never chosen to vote in a UK election because they participate in elections in the Irish Republic. They feel that that is right for them. However, they certainly have the right to vote here, although they will lose it in 2017. I might have one more go at trying to persuade them to register to vote so that they can cast their votes in the 2015 general election.
The problems in getting people to register to vote are well identified in the report. Perhaps the biggest barrier is actually being able to locate expatriate Britons because of the very poor communications that can exist when people are living abroad. As I say, I expect that many expatriate Britons have no idea that they have the right to vote in UK general elections, and that that right lasts for 15 years after leaving the country. The report also identifies that they have a problem with the many organisations that are involved. These include the Electoral Commission, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the local electoral registration office and others. It should also be noted as a matter of regret that in some local authorities, the whole electoral registration service can be seen as one that is not given quite the priority it deserves. That has an effect in getting citizens registered to vote, both those living in the UK and those living abroad. That needs to change.
I thought that the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, about our embassies and consulates around the world taking no real lead in marking UK elections as part of their work was a very good one. It is a big omission on the part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We are aware of how many embassies and high commissions in the UK mark elections in their respective countries with events, receptions and voting along with their own citizens who are living here. That is a very good thing.
The recommendations are all positive, but I would say that a lot more needs to be done in the UK to locate the 6 million people living here who are not on the register. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said, appointing a specific Minister to co-ordinate all government departments to radically increase the take-up of overseas voting seems a good idea. Perhaps we should broaden that requirement to making one Minister responsible for getting more people in general on to the electoral register, both those at home and abroad.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, will have heard me say many times before that if we end up with fewer people on the electoral register at the end of the IER process than we had at the start, that will be a matter of much regret. That the Electoral Commission is devoting more time and resources to these issues is a good thing, although I think that we should also look at other organisations and how can they help in registering people. Here in the UK, the Bite the Ballot campaign is able to get people on to the register for a few pence. If the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, was here, I am sure that he would be able to tell us the exact amount. However, it is literally a few pence. Only last week I made a point in Grand Committee about data sharing. Much more work needs to be done on this. Experian and similar organisations know where we all live and hold a great deal of data about us all. I am sure that they could help locate voters both here in the UK and abroad and get them on to the electoral register. I also very much like the idea of our embassies and consulates abroad taking a much more proactive interest in our elections here and working with the expatriate communities.
I am not so sure about the electronic voting recommendation because I want to know a bit more about it. I am worried about trying to run before we can actually walk. I note that the group did not address the issue of the 15-year limit on being able to vote. I am also aware of the case of Shindler v the United Kingdom in the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that the limit was not a breach of Article 3 of Protocol 1. I think that the 15-year limit is about right and there is not going to be any change this side of the general election. After the election it is of course a matter for the Government of the day to keep under review and to propose changes to Parliament in due course.
I would like to raise one final matter that was also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that he may want to get his cross-party group to look at the idea of having a Member or Members elected to represent UK voters living abroad. The French National Assembly has elected Members who represent the expatriate community across the whole world. It would be good to see how that is done, and how they have increased participation rates. The Member for Northern Europe actually lives in London. She used to work in the House of Commons until her election to the National Assembly in France a couple of years ago. I am sure that she will be delighted to come to the group and talk about what happened there. We could also get people from France to talk to us because they are one example of a near neighbour that has gone down this route.
In conclusion, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for allowing us to debate this topic. I am sure that we will return to it again and again.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for this debate. I am not sure that I would accept as much of the responsibility for initiating the debate as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, has suggested. I do remember our conversations and I very much welcomed them because I said that if we are going to take this further we need a better information base of evidence on which to take it, and this report provides that.
I declare an interest in that my son is an overseas voter. He has a proxy vote, which his mother exercises—he trusts his mother more than his father. Of course, there are a number of proxy voters who are overseas voters; at the moment we have some 15,000 to 20,000 people who we think are on the registers. A fundamental issue here is that our system of electoral registration and our system of constituencies are based on locality and not on any national study. In the first three months of 2015, as at the end of 2009 and in early 2010, we expect to see a surge in overseas registration for very obvious reasons, and we do not know how far that will go.
I welcome the steps that the Electoral Commission is taking to provide as much information as possible. I hope that those taking part in this debate and others welcome the efforts that the Government have taken to make electronic registration easier. As noble Lords will know, the proportion of voters now registering online is much higher than we originally anticipated, so things are getting easier. We may well get a surge that takes us well above 30,000 next year. We very much hope so.
I will, however, make a number of cautionary remarks. In the parallel debates on whether we should lower the voting age to 16, including overseas voters, I recognise some undercover thoughts from different parties about whom these extra bits of constituencies might be most likely to vote for. I need not say any more than that; we all understand where we are. As we take the debate about extending the franchise further, I think that it would be advantageous if we were perhaps to pull these two together. Both are ways of extending the opportunity to vote. If we were talking about the two together, it would not necessarily imply advantages for both sides or for one side against the other, and they are both about extending the level of franchise. Of course, we do not know who our overseas voters will vote for in large numbers. At this point, I think I should stop.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, there are nine minutes remaining in this debate.
My Lords, I was about to say that there are some fundamental differences between the way we approach and citizenship and the way that other countries, including France, do so. The attitude to those who are overseas is very different there. The assumption is that the French state wants them to remain French citizens closely allied to France. That means that consulates and embassies are staffed more generously where there are strong communities of citizens and French schools are subsidised. Those are not things which this country has done. This country has not had such a strong sense of the state and of the need for the state to hold on to its citizens overseas. It is a national duty, in a sense, for a French citizen to take part in democratic life. We have not thought that the local basis for political engagement was quite the same, so we are talking about some quite wide changes in our attitude to government. I wonder whether we would see ourselves having candidates campaigning in Dubai or Hong Kong to appeal to their overseas voters in the way that French presidential candidates now campaign in London because London is a significant base for French citizens abroad.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, talked about the need to consider special constituencies. That would be a large departure and again would require some philosophical thinking about the nature of British citizenship. At present, the Government have not begun to think about the possibility of overseas constituencies because the basis of our system is the single-member constituency, local voting and local registration. That is also part of the reason for the 15-year limit because after 15 years someone who lives overseas will have begun to lose a sense of identification with the place in which they last lived and the local representative for whom they would be voting. We are beginning to get into a quite large discussion about the nature of representation and citizenship within the United Kingdom if we go as far down the road as some are suggesting.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, said that British citizens go abroad to work. I agree that is true for some. Some go abroad to retire. Some go abroad to avoid tax. The five largest countries for British citizens living abroad are Australia, Spain, the USA, Canada and France. They are quite different. In Spain and France, a quite substantial number have gone there to retire. In the USA and Canada, I suspect—particularly in Canada—a number of people have gone there thinking that they are leaving the UK behind and emigrating to live, as in New Zealand and Australia. In other places such as the UAE, where we have now 160,000 citizens, very clearly people have gone there to work.
If I were in opposition, I do not know whether I would want to exclude those who live in the Cayman Islands and Monaco from the right to vote in Britain because of the issue of whether or not they have gone abroad to avoid the citizen’s duty of paying tax. Noble Lords will be aware of the American attitude to citizens abroad and taxation, which is very different from our own, and, indeed, has attracted some publicity recently with regard to the Mayor of London.
The Government are actively engaged in this and we readily accept that the Electoral Commission’s expanded efforts are partly in response to what the group has done. Turning to the question of the responsible Minister, it is a Cabinet Office responsibility—Greg Clark, Sam Gyimah and, in the Lords, myself. I am very grateful for the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, that I should shoulder the entire responsibility. I have to say, my wife rather hopes that I might retire over the next six months and then there may not be someone who has this bridging responsibility between the Foreign Office and the Cabinet Office.
I will say something about the Foreign Office involvement in all this. Unlike the French, we do not keep records of citizens living abroad, nor do we expect and require citizens to register. After the 30% cut that the Foreign Office took in its budget between 2010 and 2013, we are thinly staffed in a number of countries. We have reduced the number of consulates within the European Union, which is where nearly half our overseas citizens live. It would be a very major and expensive effort to ask embassies to expand into this new area. There are some limited efforts that can be made. Of course, one of the problems of having voting in embassies and consulates-general is that if you are upcountry, so to speak, it is much harder to vote than if you are in the capital. At present, it would require a very substantial shift and expansion of FCO resources to be able to provide the sorts of resources that are required.
The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, talked about electronic voting. The Government are not yet convinced that electronic voting is secure. The question about electronic registration—downloading the forms and then sending them back, as in New Zealand—is an interesting one, which I will take back and which the Government could certainly consider.
I hope that I have covered most of the questions that I was asked. I return to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, with whom, in the course of discussing a number of SIs over the past 18 months, I have had many exchanges. We are still extremely happy with the response to individual electoral registration and with the very high proportion who have registered online. We are not content with the number of people who have registered from abroad. We welcome the efforts the Electoral Commission is undertaking to raise awareness of this and we hope that the numbers will therefore increase. But I say again that this is not for government alone—it is also for private bodies, the media and political parties. I will make one small remark on this. I was recently in Andalucia and looked at the English-language newspaper there. It seemed to me that if one were to have a Spanish constituency of overseas voters, none of the conventional parties would necessarily win, if you understand me. Some citizens who live overseas are discontented with the state of Britain, the European Union and many other things as well.
I apologise for that and I thank the noble Viscount for reminding me. On the question of the Armed Forces, we are exercised with that. It has become easier, partly because the basing structure of our armed forces is changing. It is intended that most major units will stay within one place as their home: Catterick or Aldershot or wherever it may be. This will make future Armed Forces voting easier than it has been. I will take this back and if there is anything more that I can say to the noble Viscount to reassure him, I will write to him.
I will finish by saying that I very much welcome this report. I hope that the group who produced it will continue its efforts. We should all be concerned with maximising, first, registration and, secondly voting from all those entitled to do so. There are some much wider issues about the future of representation in Britain which we should also engage in before and after the election. I look forward to further debates on this broad issue.