Skip to main content

Franchise: British Citizens Abroad

Volume 774: debated on Thursday 20 October 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to extend voting rights in parliamentary elections to British citizens who have been living abroad for 15 years or more.

My Lords, I have good news. I am pleased to confirm that the Government have published details of their approach to removing the current 15-year rule on British citizens living overseas voting in parliamentary elections. I informed this House of that by means of a Written Statement on 10 October. The policy statement sets out in detail how we plan to remove the current rule that means British citizens overseas can vote only for 15 years from the point they were last registered to vote in the UK. The Government intend to give the right to vote to all British citizens overseas who were previously resident or registered to vote in the UK. The Government welcome feedback on these proposals from any interested party.

My Lords, the policy document to which my noble friend made reference is most welcome but do the Government understand the deep concern that has arisen among British citizens living overseas given that the legislation so clearly promised in the Conservative election manifesto has not yet been introduced? When will it see the light of day? Can the Government give an absolute commitment that all our fellow countrymen and women living abroad will be able to vote in the next general election?

I thank my noble friend for that. Introducing votes for life will require primary legislation to amend the Representation of the People Act 1985 and associated secondary legislation. There is no current timetable for introducing the Bill but the intention is to have the new arrangements in place ahead of the next scheduled general election in 2020.

Has the Minister heard the ugly rumour that the reason the Government are proposing to extend the franchise to people who have not lived, worked or paid taxes here for decades is not because of an important constitutional principle but because they think they are more likely to vote Tory? In order to dispel that ugly rumour, will the Minister tell the House from the Dispatch Box that no such consideration has ever entered her or any other Minister’s head?

I certainly cannot speak for anybody else but it had not entered my head. This will allow everybody who was resident in the UK and is now living abroad, but has been living there for more than 15 years, to vote in UK elections. It does not matter what party they vote for; we welcome them all.

My Lords, will the Government examine all the options when they prepare this legislation? For example, will they examine the case for distinct, separate constituencies for our fellow citizens who now live abroad? Does the Minister recognise that there are Members on all sides of the House who have served as MPs and will know the advantages of being able to really speak for those people? As it stands, the average Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat—or whatever—MP will undoubtedly find it difficult to represent the voices and views of a small number of overseas electors when they have thousands of others who still live in their constituency. After 15, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years it would be very difficult to represent them.

We have set up consultations and are hoping to get responses from everybody who might be involved in this. That will no doubt be one of the things that comes up.

My Lords, as Irish citizens in the United Kingdom have exactly the same electoral rights as British citizens, will the removal of the 15-year ban apply to Irish citizens abroad as well as British citizens?

My Lords, has it occurred to my noble friend that, had we given due priority to this manifesto commitment, British history might be a little different?

This has nothing to do with the EU referendum. That was run under the Westminster franchise. This is a completely different set of rules, and the idea is to bring it in with primary and secondary legislation.

My Lords, I have twice asked the Minister’s predecessor—or perhaps three times—whether this means that such people will then become permitted donors. This is serious: it means that non-doms, who may not have lived here for 50 years, who may not have paid income tax for 50 years and who have no real interest in this country, would be able to be permitted donors, and foreign money could pour into our political parties.

All those things are under consideration. I think that what the noble Baroness says is unlikely to be the case, but I will get back to her to make sure that that is correct.

My Lords, what is the possible justification for allowing people who have no contact other than past contact with this country and who pay no taxes in this country to have votes? Will my noble friend tell me which other countries in the world have such a system?

I think that quite a lot of people who live abroad still have houses and relatives here, and come here quite a lot. They still have a lot of connection with this country. There is no reason why they should not be allowed to have a view on the elections.

Following the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, if British citizens who have gone abroad to avoid paying British tax are allowed to vote, but EU citizens living and working in Britain, who pay tax, are not allowed to vote, what has happened to the principle of no taxation without representation?

These people have not necessarily gone abroad to avoid taxes: they might be working. I have a son who has lived abroad for 13 years; he will soon be coming up to 15 years. He is there because of his job, but he still has a lot of interest in the UK. It is not only about taxes.