My Lords, the Government are committed to making a permanent change to remove the 15-year time limit on the parliamentary voting rights of British citizens living overseas. The Government are currently considering the timetable for doing so and will set out more detail in due course. At this stage I am afraid that I can make no commitment that it will be possible to make this permanent change in time for the referendum, the date for which is yet to be set.
I have long supported the extension of voting rights to all our fellow countrymen and women living outside this realm. As it happens, I have also long supported my noble friend, whom I welcomed to the Conservative research department 23 years ago. This is my first opportunity to welcome him here. I thank him for his comments about the importance of this issue, which, as he knows, stirs very strong feelings indeed, not least among the estimated 2 million who live in other EU countries. Will he do all he can to expedite the Bill to give them votes for life, which was promised in the Conservative manifesto?
My Lords, my noble friend is quite right; he marked my work some 23 years ago. It was quite a daunting experience then, so I do not look forward to his marking of this answer. I cannot go much further than the Answer that I gave. All I will say is that I entirely share his sentiment that Britons abroad do, indeed, retain strong links with this country through family and friends. Many others remain fully up-to-date on British affairs thanks to today’s modern communications. I pay tribute to the work that my noble friend has done, along with many other noble Lords such as my noble friend Lord Norton and the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. The Government remain committed to fulfilling their commitment.
Would the noble Lord accept that there is something particularly wrong when people serving this country overseas—particularly the many Britons who serve in European Union institutions and have developed their career there—are denied a vote? It is particularly obscene that they should be denied a vote in a referendum on our future membership of the European Union. Will he ensure that something is done as speedily as possible about that particular category?
My Lords, will the commitment to extend voting rights to UK citizens living overseas also include their right to make donations to political parties in the UK? Does the noble Lord think that it is right that, when an individual has been living overseas for 20, 25, 30, maybe even more than 40 years, donations can be made from income that has neither been earned in this country nor had UK tax paid on it?
My Lords, will my noble friend give further consideration to the desirability of compulsory registration? I apologise for making this point yet again, but if we are to have a referendum that gives an opportunity to all our citizens to vote, should we not place a certain obligation on them so to do?
My Lords, I believe that this is a matter that your Lordships and many others have discussed many times and will continue to do so, but, as I have said, we have set out our view on the European referendum. It will be based on the parliamentary franchise. However, I am sure that we will continue to have the debate that my noble friend wishes to have.
My Lords, do we have any idea how many British citizens there are overseas and how many of them are dual citizens of the United Kingdom and other countries? When I was in government I tried to find out figures on this and got estimates that varied between about 4.5 million and 6 million. Could the Government possibly aid us all by trying to get some accurate estimates, including of where they live and how many of them are dual citizens?
My Lords, I hardly dare say that my efforts will be greater than those of the noble Lord. What I will say, reading from my brief, which I am sure the noble Lord remembers, is that there are 5.2 million British-born migrants living overseas. I do not have a breakdown but I will certainly ask. I would stress that more than 105,000 British citizens resident overseas were registered to vote in the election—more than three times the previous highest number.
My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on his enthusiasm for ensuring that British citizens abroad get their rightful democratic part in the process. But before he gets to abroad, could he just consider at home, where 800,000 people born and bred in Scotland did not have a vote, though resident in the United Kingdom, in something that affected Scotland and the United Kingdom? Would he bear in mind, when he is looking at those abroad, that just as charity and various other things start at home, the franchise should start at home as well?
The noble Lord makes a very interesting and good point. I would draw his attention to the fact that important steps have already been taken to increase levels of voter registration. For example, over £14 million has been invested over the past two financial years to support the cost of activities aimed at increasing the levels of voter registration.