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General Election: Voting Rights

Volume 782: debated on Tuesday 25 April 2017

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to allow British citizens who have lived outside the United Kingdom for more than 15 years to vote in the forthcoming General Election.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and I declare an interest as the mother of an expat of more than 15 years.

My Lords, legislation scrapping the 15-year rule will not now be introduced in this Parliament. I understand the disappointment of those affected. However, it is my hope that this will be delivered in the next Parliament, so that those who have lived abroad for more than 15 years will be able to participate in future elections.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but I do not think that hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised British expats will thank him. The Government have been in place for two years now. Why have they not fulfilled their promise in the 2015 manifesto to give votes for life to these people? Is it not because the Government are afraid of how they might vote, given that the Government have ruined the lives of many of them who live in other parts of the EU by choosing a hard Brexit?

My Lords, when Members of Parliament, including Liberal Democrat Members, voted overwhelmingly last week that this Parliament should come to a premature close, it was inevitable that certain measures would not be introduced in this Parliament. However, I hope that if this measure is introduced in the next Parliament, it will have the full support of the Liberal Democrats, in view of the interest that the noble Baroness has just shown.

My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my entry in the Register of Lords’ Interests. Can the noble Lord tell the House what additional resources the Government are providing to enable local government to register more citizens to vote? What representations are they making to the Residential Landlords Association and the Association of Residential Letting Agents to encourage them to bring it to the attention of their tenants that they could be eligible to vote—because tenants in the private sector are one of the most underrepresented groups at elections?

The noble Lord is quite right that a number of groups are unregistered in the current regime. Over recent years, the Government have devoted resources to trying to increase registration of those groups, particularly students. We have also made it much easier for people to register to vote: you can vote online in about three minutes. A number of initiatives are also being taken by the Electoral Commission, focused on some of the groups that the noble Lord rightly mentioned, to encourage them to vote. Over forthcoming weeks, the Electoral Commission will of course have an additional campaign as part of its responsibility of informing people how and where to register to vote.

I have asked the Government on many occasions to expedite this important matter, and the disappointment will be widespread and great among our fellow country men and women living abroad. When will the Government reach decisions on the issues set out in their policy statement relating to this area, which was published last October?

My noble friend is quite right to draw the attention of the House to the progress that we have made in this Parliament by publishing the Ministerial Statement on 10 October. That Statement made it clear that our plan was to have the policy implemented before the next scheduled parliamentary election. Discussion is now taking place on how to register and who will be eligible to register. I hope that Ministers, if they are indeed returned after the next election, will be able to take this initiative forward.

My Lords, the Government will recall that in the referendum campaign a number of voters living abroad did not receive their postal vote in time to vote. There was much discontent over that. Can the Government make sure that on this occasion, those who wish to vote while living abroad and who are registered are provided with the opportunity to vote in good time?

My Lords, I understand that I said earlier that people could vote online; I should have said that they could register online. I am happy to put the record straight.

When people tried to register before the last referendum, there were times when the system could not cope. Since then, steps have been taken not only to increase the capacity of the system but to build in extra safeguards against any attempt at sabotage.

My Lords, would it not be more important to give the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds, whose future is in this country, than to people who have left this country, do not pay taxes and seem to have no interest in us?

Since the last election, the issue has been discussed on several occasions in the other place. Each time that it was put to a vote, the proposition that the noble Lord has just referred to was voted down. We are in line with most mature democracies in having a voting age of 18, which is aligned with the age for jury service. I do not detect a huge public demand to lower it.

My Lords, what efforts are being made by different agencies and government to ensure not only that there is participation in terms of registration to vote but that those people who will be on holiday on general election day can vote?

My noble friend takes a keen interest in matters psephological. He is quite right that a large number of people who have retired will be taking their holiday in June. The Electoral Commission is aware of this propensity and, as part of its campaign to encourage people to register to vote, it will be taking on board the necessity to remind people who are going to be away that they should vote by post. I suspect that the political parties will be taking similar initiatives.

Will the Minister explain what principle he is defending? He seems to be saying that someone who has lived and worked abroad and has not paid taxes or lived in the United Kingdom for, let us say, 50 years, and has not even been on an electoral register in the United Kingdom to tie him or her to a particular part of the United Kingdom should have exactly the same rights in determining who the Government of the United Kingdom should be as a lifetime resident of this country.

British citizens living abroad have been entitled to vote ever since I have been a Member of Parliament. Initially, it was 20 years, which was then reduced to 15 years. So the principle that the noble Lord seems to object to has already been conceded; the debate is where you draw the line. At the moment, it is 15 years. My party stood on a manifesto to increase it. Those who have lived abroad for more than 15 years quite often have families in this country and connections in this country, and in many cases they may want to return to this country, so it is perfectly right that they should be enfranchised for future elections.