I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I wish to say at the start, as an organ donation activist for more than 25 years, how excellent I thought the first debate today was. Although I did not agree with everything that was said, I thought it showed the UK Parliament excelling and at its very best, as the Bill’s promoter told us.
My Bill is about extending the capacity of UK citizens to participate in British democracy, of which we have seen such a wonderful example today. Let me begin by setting the scene by providing what I see as the most relevant statistics. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are 4.9 million British citizens of voting age who have lived in the UK at some point in their lives but are now overseas.
I want to thank my hon. Friend—I have been calling him that for many years now—for the support he has given to a Bill that we could be debating after this one. My appeal to him is on the basis of the powerful reasons why this House should pass the Legalisation of Cannabis (Medicinal Purposes) Bill: the absurdity of the current law and the suffering that has resulted. I know he will not speak for very long, as his speeches are always brief but potent. I ask him to encourage his fellow supporters of his Bill to allow time for the cannabis Bill to be debated.
I have always so admired my hon. Friend’s brass neck that I am probably going to accede to his request. I was intending to do this, so while pointing out to the Chamber why I am intending to keep my comments brief, let me say that giving him the opportunity to put his Bill forward later this afternoon is something I rather approve of.
Now then, where did I get to? I was starting off with the relevant statistics. Only an estimated 1.4 million of the 4.9 million British citizens of voting age who live overseas are eligible to vote in UK elections, because a British citizen who has lived overseas for more than 15 years is not allowed to vote in British elections. As at June 2017, only 285,000 of those 1.4 million were actually registered to vote. That is another important issue that will probably need to be addressed, but it is outside the scope of my Bill.
I thank colleagues from the Government and Opposition Benches who have contacted me in support of the Bill. I have had good advice from the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who has been a big help, and my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) has also been a great help. Several other Members have written to me to offer their support.
This debate touches on so many issues that I could speak for a long time, but there are a number of reasons why I shall not. I want to give as many Members the chance to contribute as possible and I want the debate to reach its conclusion today, if at all possible, so I shall speak probably for no more than five minutes. Of course, I also want to accede to the request that the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) just made.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. I hope that, despite the protestations of the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), he will not cut short his remarks, because this is an important matter. Does he agree that as the United Kingdom is now leaving the European Union, it is even more important that we re-establish and firm up our relationships with British citizens, wherever they may live around the world? That is what makes the Bill so important.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention on a point to which I shall come later.
Of the three points on which I shall concentrate, the first is fairness to UK citizens who live abroad and who have moved around for various reasons but want to remain part of our democratic process and not have their involvement cut short after 15 years.
Secondly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) just said, a benefit flows to the UK through the soft power of British citizens around the world retaining a close involvement in what happens in this country and promoting our interests in the country to which they have moved. The last thing we need is to make their involvement in this country less relevant.
That is another issue to which I shall refer later. As I build the three points I wish to make, that will be very much part of the first.
My third point is about why it is right to revisit an issue—the restriction of overseas UK citizens’ ability to vote—that Parliament has considered previously. What has changed?
On my first point, fairness, many British citizens who have moved overseas have a legitimate ongoing interest in the UK’s public affairs and politics. Many spent all their working lives in the UK, paying their taxes and national insurance, and continue to have a direct interest in their pension rights and particularly in the future of their families in the UK. Many moved to work and did not have much choice, but will eventually return home to the UK on their retirement. Many have family connections that they wish to retain, and many want to retain those communications through these unseen processes that maintain British influence all over the world.
Our ambition, I think, is to extend the franchise to everybody who has a legitimate interest and are desperately keen to be part of our democracy.
I will give way after I have made one point.
This is something that was quite dramatic for me. About three weeks ago, a gentleman named Harry Shindler—some Members here may have met him—came all the way from Italy to Britain to talk to me about this Bill. Harry Shindler is an incredible man. He is 97 years old and the longest-serving member of the Labour party. He is still an activist—in fact, he left the deputy leader of the Labour party unable to speak for about half an hour in the Tea Room, which is quite an achievement. He came all the way to talk to me because the one thing that he wants to do before he dies is to vote again in a British election. That is how important it is to some UK citizens living overseas to be able to vote in our elections.
I am very sorry that I was slightly late for this debate. I was in the Library and did not notice the screen, showing that the previous debate had finished. My friend—I can call him that for various reasons—mentioned Harry Shindler. He knows that I was also at the meeting with Harry Shindler. I have known Harry Shindler for many years. He has taken legal action against the Government, taken the issue to the European Court and has resolutely done so because he represents not just people in the Labour party, but the whole community of people with British heritage who are living all over the world.
On a purely practical point, obviously some of our people are scattered far and wide in remote areas without access to a reliable postal service. Is there provision in the Bill—by the way, I congratulate my hon. Friend on presenting it—to use our consulates and embassies as polling stations to collect ballot papers and return them in diplomatic pouches to the UK?
A lot of detail will be involved in this Bill. That matter will probably be dealt with in Committee —I just hope that it will go through to Committee so that we can deal with that then. The Minister who is responding later will have picked up on that point.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I wholly support this measure. Does he agree that, actually, many people were very hurt when this Parliament reduced the period from 20 to 15 years, quite gratuitously, giving overseas voters the impression that they were not valued? There is a marked contrast between the way we deal with this matter in this country and how it is dealt with in many other countries, such as France, which embraces its overseas voters, wishes them to maintain the link, sees them as valued, and makes every effort to ensure that they can participate in the national political life of the country.
That is another intervention that I greatly welcome and that accords totally with my thinking. It is damaging, yes. We have moved away from the principle of having any restriction at all, which is sensible. I want to come on to that point, but, first, I will take another intervention.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and echo the congratulations of many in this Chamber to him on bringing forward this very, very important Bill. I just wanted to respond to his reply to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) about how the voting might happen. As one of the original co-authors of this Bill when it was being done by the Government in the Cabinet Office, I can say that we looked at it very closely and concluded that if we have a multi-constituency election, it is incredibly complicated to have different ballot papers for every single constituency in the local post in whichever country it might be. Superficially, it is possibly an attractive idea, but at the time, we felt that it was very, very difficult. Perhaps the Minister can clarify whether opinions have changed.
May I make just one brief point?
I just want to emphasise how many people—people unknown to me—who have written to me from overseas just to thank me for this Bill. Their level of appreciation is huge, as is the importance they attach to being able to vote in a British election because they are British citizens; it really is overwhelming. I am sure that other hon. Members have had exactly the same communications.
I offer my sincere congratulations to my hon. Friend on bringing this Bill forward. I have had a long involvement with the matter. Does he agree with me that in this centenary year of Emmeline Pankhurst’s efforts to get women the vote in this country, the same thing must apply to voters of over 15 years’ longevity abroad? This could open up the franchise to another 1 million people. It must be the correct thing to do.
I am struggling to understand why there is such support from the Government Benches for extending the franchise, with mention of 1 million more being able to vote, yet 16 and 17-year-olds are being denied the vote in elections here at the very same time. Will the hon. Gentleman deal with that point?
That is a perfectly valid point, but it is not a part of this Bill. It could easily be part of another Bill and there could then be a debate about it. The hon. Lady will know that the Welsh Government plan to have such a debate, which is fair enough; I think that there will be different views on that Bill within the governing party. The subject is not, however, included in this Bill. If it were, it would distract from the intention of the measures that I am proposing.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing forward this Bill. Many areas of our constitution are controversial and partisan, but when I was a Minister in the Cabinet Office I was struck by the fact that Members of Parliament from all parties, particularly the Labour party, wrote to me on behalf of their constituents every single week to ask when the Government would deliver on this manifesto commitment. This is a non-partisan Bill that the House would be wise to take forward in a non-partisan approach. My hon. Friend mentioned the example of 97-year-old Labour voter and activist Harry Shindler, who fought in the Battle of Anzio in 1944. People like him gave so much for this country; we should pass this Bill and give them back their vote in return.
It is important—certainly to me—that this is a non-partisan Bill. I have brought it forward because it will deliver justice to UK citizens living abroad. There are supporters on the Conservative Benches because I have asked them all to come. I am overwhelmed by their personal support, but I know they also think this is an important issue.
My second general point is on the importance of the Bill to British soft power across the world. We live in an increasingly interdependent world. The success and influence of British citizens overseas become ever more important, particularly as we leave the European Union. In Europe and across the wider world, our British interests are well served by the presence of UK citizens who are actively involved in civic society, businesses and diplomatic activity in the countries in which they now live. It is a hugely important way in which the British voice can use its presence overseas to the great benefit and interest of Britain. The absolutely last thing we should do in promoting the interests of Britain across the world is to discriminate against our own citizens who have moved overseas by taking away their right to vote after 15 years. It is a huge mistake.
Indeed I do. Britain’s soft power—that important exercise of British influence throughout the world—is greatly benefited by British citizens in British businesses overseas being active in British politics through voting for Members of this House, who then develop their views, opinions and influence.
My third point concerns what has changed. We have heard reference already to changing the 20-year limit to a 15-year limit. There used to be a five-year limit, so there is legislative uncertainty. In addition, what has changed is the advent of the internet and the ability to keep in touch. The rationale for having any limit is that after a while people lose their connections. It is thought that after 15 years they will have lost touch with what is happening in Britain and will no longer have that connection with family and so on, but the internet has completely changed that. People have not just that ease of connection —through Facebook, Skype and everything else—but access to much cheaper flights and travel. The ability to connect across the world now is such that it no longer makes sense to have any limit at all. It is no longer relevant. It might have been 15 years ago, but it certainly is not now.
The Bill would extend the franchise, whenever it was reasonable to do so, to British citizens. We have already had reference to 100 years ago, and that is what we have been doing for the last 100 years, step by step. This is the centenary of one of the biggest extensions of the franchise in our history. I genuinely believe that it is right to extend the franchise by removing the limit on residency abroad. If they are British citizens, they should be able to vote in a UK parliamentary election. This is a wonderful Parliament—the debate earlier made me realise just how wonderful—and we are all privileged to serve in it. I hope that through the Bill we can ensure that UK citizens abroad who still care deeply about Britain and feel deeply British, as Harry Shindler does, can participate in our parliamentary democracy.
I am extremely interested in what the hon. Gentleman has to say. I am intrigued by proposed new section 1A, which refers to the constituency linkage. The Bill proposes that if somebody lived in a property that has subsequently been demolished—it might be a hole in the ground or a sheep farm in north Wales, for all I know—they should still have a vote in respect of that constituency. This sounds a little like rotten boroughs. Is he absolutely confident and secure about a property that no longer exists remaining the basis for someone having a vote—and, if the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) is correct, for their grandchildren, great grandchildren and so on, in perpetuity, also having a vote?
If someone is a UK citizen, they should, in my view, have a right to vote in a UK general election. It is as simple as that. An arbitrary time limit, be it 15, 20 or five years, is no longer appropriate and only means that it will have to come back to us in the future for further debate. Let us get rid of it altogether and make it straightforward: UK citizens can vote in UK elections—and let that be it.
The 13 North American colonies south of the Great Lakes fought a bloody war of independence from the jurisdiction of this place largely on the basis of the slogan, “No taxation without representation”. That was a very good point—a fundamental constitutional point. It was wrong that they should have been forced to pay taxes but have absolutely no say in what those taxes should be. Perhaps, if the voices of reason in Britain at the time had been listened to, the Americans might not have felt the need to leave British jurisdiction. Perhaps, if the American colonists—and, by extension, as our political and social awareness progressed in the 20th century, the native Americans as well—had been allowed to vote for parliamentary representatives and send them to this place, and that pattern had been followed in other British colonies around the world, our country might have been able to found a worldwide commonwealth of nations based on democracy and equality, and work steadily away from a world based on warfare between nations and racial resentments.
Leaving aside the thought that the world might have been a very much better place if that war of independence had never been fought, I would like to suggest that the slogan, “No taxation without representation”, works perfectly well the other way round: “No representation without taxation”.
Is my hon. Friend saying that somebody who has worked and contributed taxation in this country for 20, 30 or 40 years, and who then retires abroad and lives there for the next 20 or 30 years, is somehow disenfranchised even though they have paid taxes here?
I am saying something fairly similar, yes. If someone is living, paying taxes and working in a country, they are also accruing pension rights and contributing to the society in which they live, and that society then has some obligations towards them if they decide to move abroad. That is a very good point, and I will come on to it later. However, I am not prepared to accept that somebody living in a country other than the country that they are making decisions for can set a level of taxation in the country that they are not living in.
I am interpreting the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to mean that far from seeking to remove the restriction on the duration within which people can vote, he is seeking to tighten it, and arguing that there should be no right to vote for any British citizens living abroad. Is that really what he is saying?
I will reach that point in my speech at some stage—I have got through only one paragraph so far. I wish to make a large number of points, and I cannot make them all instantaneously. I can address them in a random order depending on when Conservative Members want to raise them, or I can address them in the order in which I have written them down. It is entirely up to them which way they want me to take them.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Would he care to comment on the several million UK citizens who pay no tax in this country yet have a perfect right to vote? Would he also care to comment on people who are overseas for more than 15 years and have no right to vote on how their pension, their health service and a number of other UK taxpayer services are provided?
I will be delighted to address the points about pensions and people who do not currently pay taxes later on in my speech. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He has mentioned some very sensible points that I assure him I will address.
I return to “no representation without taxation”. I do not know who said that taxes are how we pay for a civilised society, but it is certainly as true today as it was when it was said. None of us can imagine a society with no police force, no health service, no education, no courts, no transport systems, no mechanism for adjudication between those of different views—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) want me to give way, or is he just chuntering?
Thank you very much for your adjudication, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wholeheartedly concur.
None of us can imagine a society where none of the services that we currently pay taxes for operate. Those services would not be available if we did not have a taxation system that enables us to pay for them. The country would not be governable, and it would not be governed in any meaningful sense of the word. In fact, there would be complete anarchy.
When we vote, we are voting for a system of government that enables us to play a part in decisions about how much tax to levy, who and what to levy taxes on, what to spend those taxes on and how to make sure that no person in our society is ignored, and in which we all have a say on the taxes and expenditure that will have a direct impact on our lives.
We go to some lengths in this House to ensure that hon. Members from Scotland do not vote on decisions that affect only England and Wales, including how the taxes raised from people in England and Wales are spent on services in England and Wales. It is not relevant whether a Member for a Scottish seat happens to have been born in England. If an issue before us affects only people living in England, it is wrong for a Member from Scotland or any of their constituents to make decisions that affect a polity that is inhabited by others and do not affect their own polity.
The hon. Gentleman is raising quite an important point; there is a big difference between elected representatives and their constituents, but there will be roughly 3 million British expats watching this debate on their news channels across the world. Is he really saying that the Labour party is now telling all those British expats that they have made and are making no contribution to British life and to our British state?
First, I remind the hon. Gentleman that, as my hon. Friend says from a sedentary position, this is a private Member’s Bill. It is not about the Labour party position. Secondly, I am not in any way seeking to remove the right to vote from people who already have it. There is a sensible cut-off point, but, as I will say later, I do not believe that extending that cut-off point ad infinitum is necessarily a sensible way forward. Thirdly, as I will also come to, not all people who have lived in this country and contributed to the economy of this country have the means or, in many cases, the right to vote.
I have the great pleasure of sitting on two Select Committees with my hon. Friend, and I greatly enjoy his contributions, but may I urge him to limit his contribution today in the light of the important Bill that is coming next, so that we have a chance to deal with it?
I hear my hon. Friend, but unfortunately I do not agree—I think that whether or not this Bill proceeds is more important than whether we get to the next Bill. I am sorry.
When someone in this country votes to elect an MP who will share their views on taxes and services in this country, and who will seek to put into practice an overarching political philosophy with which they agree, the issue is not whether any particular tax is levied on a voter or whether an individual will benefit from any particular public service. It is whether the voter lives within the jurisdiction in which those decisions on tax and spending hold sway.
When I was unemployed and in receipt of benefits, I was legitimately able to vote for a political party that sought to levy a proper level of taxation on those who earned well above the average, on the understanding that I was living within the polity affected. I held perfectly legitimate views about how wealth should be distributed within that polity, and knew it was entirely possible that I would eventually become a taxpayer myself. I have not changed my views on benefit or taxation rates now that I earn significantly more in a single year—even after taxation, national insurance, pension contributions and so on—than I received in benefits in all the time that I claimed.
I believe that I ought to be paying considerably more in taxation—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) intervenes from a sedentary position, so I will take the liberty of answering him. I did not want to make this part of my speech, because I do not want to blow my own trumpet, but I have made a conscious and public decision to donate part of my income to good causes in Ipswich, simply because I do not believe that I am paying as much tax as I ought to pay. I am sure that other hon. Members do exactly the same.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that if he wants to pay more tax he is perfectly entitled to. People can make arrangements with HMRC to pay more tax, and if he believes that he is not paying enough, he should by all means go ahead and pay more.
I am slightly concerned that we seem to be meandering down some sort of byway, rather than concentrating specifically on the Bill. As a passionate pro-European remainer, I wish that more people who live overseas had been able to vote, as I am sure they would have voted to do the sensible, right and logical thing and remain in the European Union. This may seem a philosophical point, although it is a practical one, but if someone lives in another country, should they not integrate within the polity of that country? By all means they should have 15 years to continue to vote for the motherland, but after that should they not become involved and concerned with the politics of the country in which they live? If they want to live in another country, should they not concentrate their vote there, rather than in the country in which they used to live at least 15 years ago?
I sit on the same Select Committee as the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). I detect that there may be some length to the remarks that the hon. Member for Ipswich is making, which will hold up our reaching the very important Bill promoted by his hon. Friend.
What about skilled engineers and other skilled people who go to work abroad, leaving their families in this country? After 15 years of working abroad, does the hon. Gentleman think they should have no right to vote in this country if they come home only to visit? Should they be excluded? If people spread the skills and expertise of British workmanship, science and so on, should we remove their right to vote?
I think the right hon. Lady is mistaken. I hesitate to say that, because I know she has been a Member of the House for much longer than I, and she has a wealth of experience that I do not have. However, I believe that if somebody has family in this country and is resident here but travels abroad for the majority of the year, they remain a voter and resident in this country.
I am giving the example of where somebody might be a resident in another country because of a long-term contract. Effectively, the hon. Gentleman is saying that such a person would have the right removed after 15 years—if he is even happy to leave it at 15 years.
If somebody has entered into a contract that lasts for more than 15 years, involving them taking their family with them and living in another country for all that period, it is overwhelmingly likely that they are going to stay in that other country. Even if they were not going to stay in that other country, it would be quite difficult to make a meaningful distinction between moving to another country with the family for more than 15 years and emigration. I cannot see that there is a significant difference between the two. Clearly, British citizens who lived in another country for more than 15 years and, after 17 years, decided to move back to this country, would regain their voting rights once they had moved back to this country.
The hon. Gentleman’s speech is confusing for the ex-pat community, because it is factually incorrect. For instance, in 2006, Spain signed a double taxation treaty with the UK, which means that residents can choose whether they pay their taxes to the UK or to Spain. A great number of ex-pats pay their tax to the UK, which makes the core of his argument null and void. I suggest that he allow the rest of the Members in the Chamber to discuss the merits of this very important Bill, which will enfranchise thousands, if not millions, of potential voters around the world.
I doubt there are 3 million British expatriates living in Spain who pay taxes to the British Treasury. The vast majority of people who would be affected by the Bill are not those who pay taxes to Britain while living in Spain. If there were a particular statutory instrument or a move to change the situation for people living in Spain, that would be a different matter.
The hon. Gentleman is oversimplifying the issue. Those people might have pensions that are still being taxed at source in the UK. In fact, the majority are of pensionable age and do just that, so the argument is completely oversimplified. He is trying to base his argument on linking voting to taxation, which is impossible to do.
That is an interesting point and I am sure we could have a very long discussion about it across a table. I would be very interested to be educated in all those matters by the hon. Lady, but the Bill is itself extremely simple. It would extend the franchise to every British citizen everywhere in the world for ever. I think that that is fairly simplified and certainly not particularly nuanced towards the individual cases she is talking about.
Does my hon. Friend not find it a strange paradox that a party that has made registration in this country as difficult as it can make it, and which is against votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, is in favour of extending the franchise to everyone throughout the world?
Further to that point, does my hon. Friend not think it rather strange that we still do not give the vote to EU citizens who have might have lived here for many, many years? The Conservative party seems to have no inclination to want to help people who live here, pay taxes here and contribute to this country to be able to vote. They should be our first priority, rather than trying to reach out to people who do not necessarily contribute to this country anymore.
There is a very important and powerful point here. As part of the European Union, we have had a very good arrangement with other EU countries in that, where people are voting in local elections, they vote in the local election where they live. Clearly, if someone lives in and votes in a particular borough or district, they are receiving services from that borough or district and are paying the council tax level that they have voted for. I think that arrangement works extremely well.
I have always found it a little odd that French or Italian citizens who have been living in this country for years should vote in French or Italian elections—for example, if they have been living here for 20 years and are clearly not taking part in French or Italian society. A sensible move would be towards people voting, at every level, for the polity in which they live.
A central part of what I am trying to get to is that when we vote, we are voting on things that affect us. When we vote as MPs in this place, we vote on things that affect our constituents. We should not be voting for things that do not affect our constituents, and in general, people should not be voting for things that will never affect them and will not affect the shape of the society in which they live.
I had legitimate views about how wealth should be distributed where I was living, even when I was unpaid, and I have not changed those views. As I was about to say before the various interventions were made, my view that I should be paying more taxation is not my party’s policy. I am being a bit more radical than my party leadership, because our taxation proposals in the manifesto that we put to British voters last year did not increase personal taxation for anyone on an income under £80,000. Be that as it may, I live in this polity. I voted for representatives in the past; I am now able to take my place and represent others who wish me to secure a well-regulated country that pays its taxes and provides its services, and which I am intimately and personally involved in.
The issue of 15 years is clearly crucial. If, as she intimated, the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) were to travel to another country for two years on sabbatical to show them, for instance, how it would be sensible for them to set up a bicameral parliamentary system, I am sure they would be extremely grateful for her expertise in that area, and as citizens of the world who want to see other countries being properly governed and regulated, I am sure that we would all be delighted that she had gone to show them that expertise. It would be entirely unreasonable, if a general election were to happen during those two years, for her not to be allowed to vote in that general election—unless she happened to have been elevated to the other House in the meantime. As long as she is a Member of this House, she, like the rest of us, will be able to vote in the next general election, whether she is in this country or abroad.
However, there is a point at which we have to ask whether people are living in this country. If someone is going abroad for more than 15 years and has family, I venture to suppose that they would want to take their immediate family with them. Anybody who decides that they are going to live permanently and completely abroad for 15 years and does not take their family with them obviously does not want to stay with their family anyway.
The idea that someone should be able to vote for a Government they think would be better for their family, although they do not want their family with them, is a bit bizarre. Clearly, if somebody lives abroad for more than 15 years and takes their family with them, the overwhelming assumption—the clear picture that gives to people out there who are looking at what others are doing—is that they have decided to live in another country and that they have emigrated. This country has a proud history of emigration. People have emigrated to Canada, South America, South Africa and Australia, and they have helped to build thriving societies in all parts of the globe. All of them—or almost all—vote for the Governments of those countries, and rightly so.
When Canada, Australia and South Africa were dominions of this country, they voted for the Governments of those dominions, and rightly so. That was a sensible approach to representative and electoral rights, because they were voting for people who had power to make decisions about the lives that they were leading in those countries.
If this Bill had been passed in 1850, and we had given people who moved abroad the right to vote in the last constituency in which they had happened to be before emigrating for the rest of their lives, how could we have set up thriving and independent political bodies in those other parts of the world? How could we possibly have expected the people of this country, who were still living in this country, to be happy with circumstances in which every time there was a general election, all the people who had decided to move to Canada, Australia or South Africa, and their descendants, had more of an electoral say over how this country was governed than those who had stayed here and lived here?
If we gave the right to vote in British general elections to British citizens for the rest of their lives, irrespective of whether they were living in this country, that would presumably extend to their children, if their children were British citizens, although the children were not living in this country. If we did the same for the children of those children, where would it end? If Ireland had gone down that route, there might well have been far more people in New York voting in Irish general elections than in Ireland. The clear point is that if people are going to vote in an election, they need to be affected by that vote.
Is it not bizarre when, in other countries, the right to vote in elections is extended to generation after generation, and a large proportion of the electorate are outside the country where the election is taking place? When I was in Buenos Aires the other year, the campaign that was taking place on the streets concerned not an Argentinian but an Italian election. There were posters in the streets, and politicians were flying over from Italy. It is bizarre that the Italians should have to start fighting elections in other countries to win them in Italy. Surely the Bill would undermine the concept of ruling Britain for the sake of the British, and ultimately there would be foreign influences in this Parliament. Would that not be a rather bizarre situation?
I entirely agree. In 2016, we had a vote—it did not go in exactly the direction that I would have supported, but it was a vote none the less—on taking back control of our own country. I do not think that when people were voting to take back control of their own country, they were voting to allow someone who had lived in the Caribbean, Australia or South Africa, and who intended to continue to live there, and who had been there for more than 15 years, to take back control of this country. I think that the majority of the population of this country would not believe that people who clearly would not be living in this country in the future should vote in elections in this country.
As I said earlier, if a British citizen moves abroad for two, three or four years and will then be coming back, it makes perfect sense to allow that person to vote in elections for a national Government who will affect their lives when they do come back. There has to be a cut-off point, and I note that the cut-off point is currently 15 years. That is not necessarily the cut-off point that I would choose, but given that all these arguments were gone through at the time when it was set, it would probably make sense to keep it that way.
There is a clear sense among those on the Conservative Benches that the Bill is designed to deal with an injustice, so let me now address the idea of injustice and, in particular, the idea of injustice in respect of pensions. This relates to part of what was said earlier by my hon. Friend sitting behind me, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). If somebody has worked for the majority of their life in this country and has contributed to our economy and society and in particular has contributed through the national insurance system, it is perfectly legitimate and right that they should collect the same pension irrespective of whether they happen to be living in this country or another country.
We have a deeply unjust situation about the level of pensions people can collect across the world. Most people, apart from the people who live in those countries, do not realise how unjust the situation is. I am sure that Conservative Members will accuse me of simplifying or being simplistic about this, but it basically boils down to the fact that if people have retired to a Commonwealth country, the value of their pension diminishes away to almost nothing, whereas if they have retired to the United States or several other non-Commonwealth countries, their pension continues to be upgraded to match what it would have been if they had stayed in this country.
I will repeat that for those who did not hear it the first time or think I might have got it the wrong way around, because it is so counterintuitive and so clearly and manifestly unjust that it deserves repetition. If somebody moves to a Commonwealth country, the value of their pension diminishes away to nothing, whereas if they move to the US or some other non-Commonwealth countries, the value of the pension continues to grow alongside the value of pensions in this country. That is manifestly unjust; it is clearly discriminatory against other members of the Commonwealth. It is a bizarre situation, and I have no idea how it arose. It should have been dealt with years ago, and it is time that it is dealt with now. Why is that not the issue being addressed by this Bill? Why is this Bill addressing a manufactured injustice about voting rights, when it should be addressing an injustice about the pensions people ought to receive when they live in other countries?
May I say as honorary president of Labour International that Labour party members all over the world will be outraged that my hon. Friend is referring to this as a manufactured injustice? It is an injustice, and there might well be other injustices, many of which he is referring to, but it is wrong to say this is a manufactured issue.
I apologise if I have upset my hon. Friend, who has done a lot of work with Labour voters and potential Labour voters in other countries. Clearly, if people are living in other countries for limited periods, it makes perfect sense to enable those who are allowed to vote up to the time limit—at present, we have a 15-year cut-off—to vote for the party they want to vote for, and I honour and applaud the work my hon. Friend has done in encouraging those who are eligible to vote within that 15-year period to vote.
However, there must be a cut-off point. It does not make sense—it would not do so if there was a Labour or Conservative Government or a Labour or Conservative voter, and if they were living in Spain or South Africa—for us to assume that once somebody has moved abroad and it appears likely that they will live in another country for the rest of their lives, they should continue to vote in this country until the end of their life.
For example, a doctor who might have come to this country from Jamaica and has worked all her life and put an enormous amount of money into her pension who then decides on retiring to move back to be with her family in Jamaica will see the value of her pension dwindling into nothing, whereas someone who retires to Florida with a large sum of money of their own will see the value of their pension uprated year on year in line with pensions in this country. If there were any injustice that needed to be addressed, this is surely one that should be addressed first.
We also need to consider the security of the poll. The Government want people to show security ID when they go to vote, and that makes a lot of sense, although I would like them to do more to ensure that everyone who goes to vote is enabled, encouraged and shown how to carry that ID. We want to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote is able to do so. However, I fail to see how we can ensure that anyone living in another country does not register or vote more than once. Also, how can we ensure that they show their ID if they are not actually in this country? If we are to ensure security of the poll, we need to ensure that all the polling districts and electoral authorities are joined together on a central register, to ensure that there is no double voting by overseas voters.
On the security of the register and ensuring that everyone who is eligible is on the register and leaving aside the 15-year rule for overseas voters, there will be an opportunity for the Government to support my Automatic Electoral Registration (No. 2) Bill when it comes before the House on 27 April. Does my hon. Friend agree that that might address some of his concerns?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to pursue all possible means of ensuring not only that the poll is safe but that everyone feels comfortable and able to use it. Her proposals have a great deal of merit.
Let us look at where these British citizens living abroad actually vote. Those still eligible to vote here have all lived abroad for less than 15 years, but if the Bill were to go through, they would be eligible to vote here for the rest of their lives. The City of London has 6,000 overseas electors; that is nearly 3% of the voters in that area. In Kensington and Chelsea, 2.5% of the voters live overseas, and in Oxford, the figure is 2.1%. In Westminster, it is 2.2%. Those figures represent a substantial number of people. For instance, there are 2,600 overseas voters registered in Westminster, and 3,300 in Camden, which is 2.37% of the electorate there. That is enough to make a difference on who is elected as Member of Parliament in those constituencies.
Let us look, however, at a constituency with fewer voters who live in other countries. Rotherham has 474 registered overseas voters, which is just 0.24% of the electorate in that constituency. I am not an expert on the demographics of Rotherham, but I believe I am right in saying that a large number of people from British Commonwealth nations have chosen to make their lives there, and I would be surprised if a large number of them had not decided to move back to the countries where their families came from or, in some cases, where they came from. However, those people are not registered as overseas voters. If we look at this, we can see that the people who choose to register as overseas voters tend to be people who are capable, professional, accomplished and, in many cases, encouraged to do so by the Conservative party.
I do not think the demographic of people living abroad is at all reflected by the people who are actually registered as overseas voters. Again, I applaud and encourage the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South to try to get people who have lived abroad for less than 15 years and who would be likely to vote Labour to register, but that does not alter the fact that the vast majority of people registered as overseas voters are not from Rotherham, Middlesbrough, Stoke-on-Trent or any of these other places with substantial new Commonwealth populations and where we would expect larger numbers of people to register to vote when they move back to the country in which the rest of their family live.
This is not a politically equivalent or politically balanced measure. It is not a measure that will treat voters, or potential voters, who might want to support one party similarly to voters who might want to vote for another party. I suggest that some people decide to move to another country precisely because taxation in this country is higher than elsewhere. If someone decides to move to Bermuda because they would pay less tax in Bermuda than they do in this country, the overwhelming likelihood is that they have a significant amount of money, otherwise they would not be able to afford to move to Bermuda in the first place.
My hon. Friend makes the point that we are not just talking about people moving to other countries. We are talking about significant amounts of wealth moving to other countries, too, and mostly moving to countries where taxation is paid at very low rates or, indeed, not at all.
Why should people who have decided to move to another country so that they do not pay taxes in this country, so that they do not support services in this country, have a say not only on tax and services in this country but on whether the Government of this country do something through our relationship with those countries and overseas territories to ensure that such people do pay their taxes? We have a situation where people who are deliberately avoiding paying taxes in this country—I think “avoiding” is parliamentary and the other one is non-parliamentary—are making decisions about who will represent them, who will govern our country and who will make decisions about how easy it is for them to avoid those taxes.
Conservative Members have also raised the issue of voting on behalf of our children. When people move abroad, their children often do not move with them—their adult children may well have families of their own, and they may well be making lives of their own in this country. It is a point, but not a very good one. If I had a child living in Scotland, I would not expect to be able to vote in a Scottish election in the constituency in which my child lives, as well as voting in my own constituency. I would not expect my vote to count towards the polity in which my child lives, and I see no good reason why people who have decided to live in another country should expect to be able to vote in elections in this country to reinforce the value of the votes of their adult children. When people vote, they should be voting for themselves, they should be voting for the services that they get, they should be voting for the taxes that they pay and they should be voting for the society in which they live—the society that levies those taxes and delivers those services.
I understand that the substance of this Bill, although it is a private Member’s Bill, was indicated by a promise made by the Conservative party in its 2017 general election manifesto. I surmise that there are people within the leadership of the Government who do not particularly want this to be a Government Bill, because it might be a little embarrassing to show that they are giving the vote to people who have chosen not to pay their taxes in this country, so they have decided that it should be a private Member’s Bill instead.
Quite a lot of other issues addressed in that manifesto last year have also not come up and show no indication of coming up in the next year or two, such as the dementia tax, the vote on foxhunting and reintroducing grammar schools. It is a little disingenuous of the Government to urge their Back Benchers to introduce Back-Bench Bills that they have previously promised in their manifesto but which they have now decided are too embarrassing to introduce themselves. I hope we do not get more of these embarrassment Bills. I have not looked through the list of all private Members’ Bills, so I do not know whether it contains one on bringing back foxhunting, on reintroducing grammar schools or on introducing the dementia tax. I suspect it does not, but this would not be beyond the bounds of possibility. I hope that any such Bill would be dealt with by a House that has already shown and an electorate who have already shown this House that they did not have any truck with such proposals.
The Bill’s promoter said in summing up that he wanted British citizens who had made a decision to live abroad and had been living abroad for more than 15 years and their children to be able to continue to vote until “whenever it is reasonable to do so”. I suggest to him that there has to be a cut-off point and that “reasonable to do so” is, to a certain extent, a qualitative decision, whereas 15 years is a very reasonable amount of time. I cannot believe there are many places where it makes sense for somebody to not do something for more than 15 years and still have the same rights over that thing as the people who have been doing it constantly. If I were to walk out of this House for 15 years and not come back, I would not expect to be able to speak in such a debate in the way that I have. I would dearly love to be able to go on for 15 years, but, unfortunately, I have pretty much run out of things to say.
In conclusion, I do not believe there is any justification for a Bill that encourages people to move to other countries, to stop paying taxes in this country and no longer to have any interest in whether or not services are delivered in this country and that yet allows them to vote for the Government who levy those taxes and deliver those services. Any reasonable person looking at it from that point of view—from the point of view of practicality and the argument of what a vote is for, which is to create a Government and a polity that govern taxes and services—would say, “Yes, it doesn’t make sense.” I can only guess that certain powerful and wealthy people desperately want the Government to give them the right to vote forever more—we should resist it.
This morning, we heard a dignified debate about organ donation and Bill that was named “Max’s Bill” This Bill could be “Shindler’s Bill”. I hope the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), having spoken for three quarters of an hour, will find the time to meet Harry Shindler. I am very proud to be allowed to call Harry Shindler a friend. He is 97 years old. He fought at Anzio. He returned to the United Kingdom, raised his family and worked here. He retired to Italy, where some of his family were living. He has deliberately avoided taking Italian citizenship, although he could most certainly have done so, because he regards himself, proudly and until his last breath, as British. He could have fraudulently registered in the United Kingdom—he has enough family and friends here to pull out an address and vote—but he is honest, and he is honestly British. He has fought tooth and nail, as the oldest living member of the Labour party, for his right to vote in Britain.
Just for the record, while Harry Shindler has been doing that, he has also spent his energy and his waking hours searching for the remains of British servicemen and women who fell in Italy, identifying them, and making sure that they are properly remembered and recorded. I do not think we could find anybody more British or with more right to vote than Harry Shindler. I hope that the hon. Member for Ipswich will have the courage to look Harry in the eye and tell him why he wants to deny that old man the right to vote again in Britain before he dies.
Harry will have heard that and, to take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), so will the millions of expat United Kingdom citizens living around the world who are not tax exiles. Many of them do pay taxes in the United Kingdom—many have taxed pensions and other taxed incomes in the United Kingdom—but after 15 years they are denied the right to vote. That is taxation without representation. Had the hon. Member for Ipswich read the Bill, he would have discovered that, notwithstanding the fact that the Bill will go to Committee—if we are allowed to get there—it already contains provisions to make sure that those who have not been resident in the United Kingdom cannot vote.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) left the Chamber some time ago. He mentioned bombed or demolished buildings and asked how an address might be used. The Bill is clear that the address has to be the last known address in the United Kingdom, wherever that was. The idea that the hon. Member for Ipswich put forward—that somehow that will load the balance of power and deliver Members of Parliament in relatively few clustered constituencies—is complete nonsense. Frankly, it is a discourtesy to the millions of people who live overseas and want the right to vote and to his own colleagues on the Opposition Benches—
No. The hon. Gentleman spoke for far too long; I shall not give way an inch. The idea that he put forward is a discourtesy to many of his colleagues who support this cause, including the hon. Member for Ilford North, whose constituency he apparently could not remember.
I beg the pardon of the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes)—I could not remember, either. We are all fallible.
The hon. Member for Ipswich referred to the fact that people who live in Commonwealth countries did not have their pensions uprated. I happen to be the chairman of the all-party group on frozen British pensions. I do not recall the hon. Gentleman attending any one of the meetings we have held to try to redress the injustice to which he referred—and yes, it is an injustice. Had he attended, he would have got his facts right, because there are Commonwealth countries—of which Jamaica is one, to pluck an example out of the sky—in which pensions are uprated. We want to see them uprated across the board. I mention that not to score points but to demonstrate how very wrong the hon. Gentleman was in virtually everything that he said.
I do not need to say any more. I want Harry Shindler, and the millions of expats like him who are proudly British, who take a keen interest in this country and regard it as their mother country, who have children and grandchildren living here, and who may well want to return to vote but wish to vote while they are overseas as well, to have that right. I do not believe that any part of this House will find any favour, not only with those people but with their very many UK-resident family members, by disagreeing with that. I hope the House will remember that, if and when we get the chance to vote on the Bill. It is a good measure that redresses an injustice and its time has come. We should let it pass.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) on this Bill, which I wholeheartedly support. The core of it is not just about enfranchisement but about identity, and that, I am afraid, is the point that the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) has not entirely appreciated.
I am an example of someone who comes from a family that has been affected by the 15-year limit. My father went to work for the European Commission when I was one. We left this country at that point, as proud Brits, at a time when, if one wanted to change the world, one went to work for one of these great organisations—that is what one did. Over the years, we were lucky enough to be able to come back so that my father could proudly vote for me to become a Member of Parliament. However, for so many of his colleagues in Brussels and across the world, whom we have met as expats moving from country to country while my father pursued his role as an ambassador, they are every bit as British as the people in this Chamber. They have made incredible contributions as Brits across the world, and so many of them have lost their voice because they have lost their vote as a result of this outdated notion that we need to be sitting on a piece of land in order to love it. We know full well that that is not what it means to be British, and, at its heart, that is what this Bill is about.
Let me take a moment to give voice to some of my electors and constituents who are abroad, but also to a few who are about to not be abroad and who, hopefully, will once again become electors in Oxford West and Abingdon, which, incidentally, is probably one of the constituencies with tiny majorities that the hon. Member for Ipswich was talking about where these people do make a difference—and boy, were they happy to be able to do so.
Ruth in Spain says:
“I have lived in Spain for 14 years and so am lucky enough to still (just!) be entitled to vote in the UK.”
Here she makes an important point, and highlights where I think this Bill could have gone further. I understand—I am happy to accept an intervention if I am wrong—that this Bill would not extend the franchise to referendums. It is clear that many have registered to vote from abroad as a result of the Brexit turmoil. Every single email that I have had from constituents has been about this point. I would be interested to know from the Minister today whether that is part of the plan.
Having briefly been a Minister for the constitution with responsibility for the franchise, I would like to enlighten the hon. Lady. When it comes to referendums, the franchise is set individually by a referendum Act. Each referendum is described and detailed by its own separate piece of legislation. Even if my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) wanted to add this to his Bill, he would not be able to because referendums are discretely contained in how they define the franchise, which is why the franchise was slightly different for the Scottish referendum in 2014.
I am grateful for that intervention. As the hon. Gentleman is probably aware, the Liberal Democrats would have supported that, because we believe that European citizens, as this affected them, should have had a say in that referendum.
Ruth in Spain goes on to say:
“Recent events obviously highlighted the injustice of the current situation, in that many were denied a vote in the EU referendum—and also last year’s general election (an election largely based around Brexit)—the outcome having life-changing ramifications for British citizens who had chosen to move from one part of the EU to another on the basis that their rights to freedom of movement and all that this entailed were guaranteed.”
That was the basis of so many emails, but it is not just that.
Julian, who is a foreign correspondent, has lived in many countries as a Brit, and the soft power mentioned by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire is very clear in his career. Julian contacted me some months ago, saying:
“Expatriates are not all pensioners sipping cocktails on the Costa del Sol. Many of them are useful contributors to the British economy and to the image of Britain abroad. Only this month, for example, a French food magazine chose a rural bistro in the Auvergne owned and run by a British chef as its cafe of the year. Britons abroad are often popular and useful members of their adopted communities.”
I agree that expatriates should be allowed to vote in some elections in their current countries of residence, just as it is right for us to continue to allow EU citizens to vote in local elections here.
We live in an increasingly globalised world. It is ridiculous to suggest that some families even have a choice to move back. House prices in some parts of the UK are expensive not just for the UK, but compared with house prices across the world. Ian in Canada says:
“Sadly, I’m retraining as an MD after a career as a neuroscientist, and have been out of the UK since 2004. I say ‘sadly’, because as you’ll be aware, that means the period under which I’m able to cast votes in UK elections is drawing to a close under the current 15 year rule…I may not have been able to afford to continue living in the UK on a post-doctoral scientist’s salary”—
that is why he had to move—
“but I haven’t given up on the old country yet, and would like to continue trying to shape things for the better.”
Does the hon. Lady accept that, although the case she mentions is clearly of somebody who has contributed immensely—not only to this country, but to the world—it must be quite difficult for her to be able to make decisions in Oxford West and Abingdon that affect his life in Canada?
I do not quite understand. If Ian wanted to affect his life in Canada, he would be able to find ways of doing so there. I also think he would very much be able to affect some decisions made at this level of politics. I do not think that this provision should necessarily be extended to local elections and issues, such as bin collections in Oxford West and Abingdon. However, the recent general elections have been about major issues such as the direction of this country and the flavour that this country puts out to the rest of the world. It is entirely right that people who feel British, are British and are born into a British family have the right to vote on such matters.
I am half Palestinian and I regret that I am not at all able to engage with the country in which my mother grew up—she was actually born in Tripoli, but grew up in Jerusalem. I very keenly feel that just because I have never lived in Palestine does not make me any less Palestinian. Equally, those who have spent a lot of their life abroad have a lot to say about being British. Being British is more than just being on this land. It is loving this land and feeling that we are from this land.
I will soon draw my remarks to a close because I am keen to hear the next Bill, of which I am a sponsor. I just want to ask why we have not really considered having a constituency of overseas electors in the way that France does. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether the Government will look into that. One reason that people do not register to vote from abroad is that it is incredibly bureaucratic and hard, and they might well live in countries where the postal system does not work very well. I therefore wholeheartedly agree with finding a way to make it much easier. As the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) mentioned, it would be an excellent idea to give people the ability to return their vote to the embassy or the consulate, rather than having to get it back to the local authority.
It is an extraordinary privilege to be British. As a new Member of Parliament, it strikes me how much Members across the House all love this country. This Bill demonstrates—as is also shown by the numerous constituents who I am sure have contacted us all from abroad—that people do not have to be on this land to love it. The Liberal Democrats and I wholeheartedly back this Bill. I sincerely hope that the House votes in favour of it today.
I am grateful to have caught your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. I start by paying a sincere tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) for bringing forward the Bill. He did not say it, but, contrary to what the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) insinuated, it was entirely his wish to bring it forward, because he, like me and my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), believes that it is the right thing to do. This should not be considered a political issue. In the centenary of Emmeline Pankhurst’s campaign to get women the vote in this country, fought often in difficult and violent circumstances, it is a disgrace for certain Labour Members to try to deny the vote to women who have lived overseas for longer than 15 years.
I entirely respect the sincerity with which the hon. Lady holds the view that 16-year-olds should have the vote. It is a legitimate debate, but it has nothing to do with the Bill. If she wishes to introduce a private Member’s Bill, a ten-minute rule Bill or a Bill through any other procedure, she is more than able to do so and speak in support of it, but that has nothing to do with this Bill.
One or two falsehoods have been peddled in this debate. It has been said several times that children of those living overseas for more than 15 years will be eligible to vote. I have read the Bill and can see nothing in it that would make those children eligible to vote. Indeed, the Bill is very specific as to the qualifications somebody would have to meet to be eligible.
I gave the House some figures in a debate in 2012. At that time, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, 5.6 million British citizens were living abroad, but the shocking truth was that although as of December 2011 about 4.4 million were of voting age, only about 23,000 had registered to vote. I am delighted to say that that number had increased to a huge 285,000 by the time of the 2017 general election—as the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) indicated, it might have had something to do with the EU referendum. If we believe that British citizens have the right to vote for up to 15 years, it must be right to remove the arbitrary limit whereby the day after 15 years they have no right to vote. It is right on every ground, especially that of extending the franchise, that we do that.
Totally contrary to what the hon. Member for Ipswich said in his overly long remarks, most overseas citizens have a real interest in how this country is governed. They watch BBC World, they listen to the BBC World Service, and they often get British newspapers in the countries in which they reside.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. I have a real interest in what happens in Scotland, India and Spain—I was watching the news from Barcelona very closely—but that does not give me the right to vote for people in those countries or for how they raise their taxes and deliver their services.
The hon. Gentleman’s argument is totally wrong. British citizens have every right to British taxpayer-provided services, as I said in an intervention on him earlier, yet, if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years, they have no right to vote for how those services are provided. How can that be correct? His whole argument was totally fallacious. Some 1.8 million students do not pay council tax, but nobody would ever suggest that they should be denied the vote on the grounds that they do not pay council tax. That would be a nonsensical argument.
Moving on from the hon. Gentleman, let us look at some international comparisons. According to my research, the only countries that have stricter rules on overseas voting are Ireland, Greece and Malta: paragons, I would say, of democratic values—or not. The countries that have real democratic values—the US, France, Japan, South Africa, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Italy—all have no limits on when their citizens living overseas can vote. As the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon said, with the advent of Brexit and the UK leaving the European Union, it is surely more imperative than ever that we embrace all our citizens living overseas, wherever they are, but particularly within the European Union, so that they feel part of this country, and surely the way to do that is to give them the vote.
I suggest to the hon. Member for Ipswich and the House that the expat vote has never been more important. It is our combined duty to further consolidate the British influence over those citizens and make them feel part of the British family. Despite what the hon. Gentleman says, they are soft power for this country—ambassadors for this country around the world. They gain this country a lot of influence, whether it be cultural, diplomatic, or purely in terms of imports, exports and inward investment into this country.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire gets this Bill through today. It is absolutely the right thing to do, and it is not a political issue. A number of us have campaigned very hard on it for a number of years. I hope that Labour Members will find it in their hearts, just as they wanted women to get the vote and just as they want votes at 16, to give our expats the same rights so that they can vote in our elections and have a say on how politics in this country is run.
I will try to be brief, because I want this Bill to get through.
I believe that there is an injustice in the arbitrary 15-year rule, but there are also many other injustices in the way many British citizens living overseas are treated. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) was right to highlight some of them. What is not right, however, is whataboutery and the best being the enemy of the good. What is not right is using false hares and arguments in order to discredit this Bill and imply that all the people supporting it are against, for example, votes at 16. I voted for the private Member’s Bill that proposed that, and it will come. Within our parliamentary procedure, we cannot have an all-encompassing electoral reform Bill. Our only opportunity to deal with this injustice is to support the Second Reading of this Bill to allow it to make progress. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) has done an excellent job in bringing it forward.
For some months, I have been pressing the Government, on behalf of Labour International and in response to communications I have had with Harry Shindler, who has already been mentioned, on why they were not bringing forward the commitment they made in their manifesto. When I asked questions about that last October, I was referred to answers given in September to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who had also been raising this issue from the Labour Benches. There is a bipartisan interest—in fact, a cross-Parliament, all-party interest—in these matters. All of us, even those who have only a few constituents who have gone to live in other countries, will have had communications about them from people in Spain, France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada or wherever.
There are international organisations within the political parties that represent our party members living abroad. I have the honour of being the honorary president of Labour International, and I want to convey a few words from an email from Lorraine Hardy. She was not registered to vote in Oxford or Westminster, but was a Labour party activist in Leeds before she went to live in Alicante with her husband many years ago. She says:
“‘Votes for Life’ will be even more important post Brexit, as we will have no opportunity to vote for a national representative in the UK nor in our country of residence as there will no longer be an option to vote for an MEP.”
Frankly, it is an outrage that a large number of British people whose future in Europe was affected by the referendum were not able to vote in that referendum because they had been living abroad in a European Union country for more than 15 years. That democratic outrage was not manufactured; it was a fact. This is an opportunity to make sure that we remedy that outrage and take a small step towards allowing those people to express their views at the next general election on whether their parliamentary representatives were right to damage their position in Europe. I think that many of them might have some things to say about that. I will not get into that, but the view that this is one-sided is completely and utterly wrong. None of us knows what the views are of people living in other countries who have not expressed positions and are not registered to vote. That idea is just made up and manufactured.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the opinions of people in a country such as Canada or America could inform our political discourse? Those countries have service animal protection—something I am calling for—and people there could inform our debate, so that we can see how well it works there.
Given that we have Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook and all the other means of communication, those people already inform the debate in many ways.
There is a democratic principle here. We should recognise what the Labour International co-ordinating committee said in the motion that it passed, which it asked me to bring to the attention of the House:
“Many of the concerns about voting are related to fears and anger about the loss of rights normally associated with citizenship such as pensions, health care and the right to family life. This should be dealt with by the government allocating these issues to…a…minister and by establishing a forum for the concerns of overseas UK citizens.”
Reference has been made to France. There are Senators in the French system who represent overseas French territories, and there are Members of the Assemblée Nationale who represent French citizens living in other countries in Europe. We need to address that issue as part of the wider question of the reform of our second Chamber, but that is not for today. Today is to remedy problems, to right an injustice and to say to British people, wherever they are in the world: you have equal rights in our democracy.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) on introducing the Bill and doing so much work to bring it to this point. I hope that it will command the cross-party support that it deserves, alongside the firm support of the Government for my hon. Friend and his work.
I will not. I need to continue helping the Bill on its path, and a very important Bill is coming next, which I wish to have the respect that it deserves.
In brief, British citizens who live overseas can find themselves abruptly disenfranchised after they have lived abroad for 15 years. That happens even when they still feel closely connected to our country and should have every right to take part in elections that can affect them like they affect any other citizen. To many, that is a terrible injustice.
The changes have the Government’s support and are part of a wider ambition to strengthen our democracy by ensuring that every voice within it can be heard. Under existing laws, British expats are estimated to have among the lowest levels of voter registration of any group—only about 20% of eligible expats registered to vote for the June 2017 general election. We think that figure is too low, and we hope that more people will be encouraged to register by our proceedings today.
We have already introduced online electoral registration, which, contrary to some negative points raised during the debate, makes it easier for people overseas—and indeed, in this country—to register to vote. We are interested in making it easier for people to vote and encouraging them to do so. Participation in our democracy is a fundamental part of being British, no matter how far someone has travelled from the UK. Since the House last discussed this topic it has become easier for someone to stay in touch with their home country, whether through cheap flights, the internet, or the soft power that my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire began the debate by talking about.
Soft power is important to this country, and we should be welcoming to our citizens around the world. Mr Harry Shindler is foremost among them, and I am delighted to have heard his case put so eloquently in the Chamber today. Over the years Mr Shindler, and others like him, have asked with dignity and passion for this rule to be changed, and today we have the opportunity to deliver that change for them.
I will not give way; it is important that we finish our discussions on this Bill and move on to the Bill that follows it.
I am proud to do my small part on behalf of the Government to welcome the Bill and give it our support. It will allow campaigners who feel an abrupt sense of injustice when they are disenfranchised after 15 years to continue to contribute, not only in their interests, as represented by the Government of the country that they love—that point was put well by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran)—but to help promote Britain, this great country, around the world.
I thank the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) for promoting this Bill so that we can debate the extension of voting rights to overseas electors. As a modern, progressive, socialist party, we are committed to building a truly global Britain, and to championing our core values of equality, social justice and opportunity for all. Globalisation has led to a broad section of British citizens living around the world, and despite settling in all corners of the globe, overseas electors make a contribution to British society.
As the hon. Gentleman said, under the current system, British citizens who have moved abroad can register to vote as an overseas elector in the last constituency in which they were entered on an electoral register. British citizens who have lived overseas for more than 15 years cannot register to become an overseas voter. The Opposition are committed to taking radical steps to ensure that all eligible voters are registered and able to use their vote. The issue of extending voting rights for overseas electors is important and must be considered properly.
There has been a significant rise in the number of overseas electors registered to vote, and that number now stands at a record high of 285,000. As has been said, this is the centenary of the start of suffrage for women and many working-class men. That has encouraged many Members across the House to reflect on that journey towards equal and wider suffrage.
The extension of overseas voting rights has come a long way since 1985, when British citizens living outside the UK were unable to register to vote in any elections. The Representation of the People Act 1985 introduced new provisions to allow British citizens living overseas to qualify as electors in the constituency where they were last registered to vote before moving, with a time limit in 1985 of just five years. In 1989, that was extended to 20 years before being reduced again to 15 years in 2002. In the 2015 and 2017 general elections, the Conservative party made a manifesto commitment to abolish the 15-year rule and allow British citizens a “vote for life” in parliamentary elections.
I do not understand why, if it was in the Conservative party manifesto to introduce this legislation, we are here today debating a private Member’s Bill. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government could have taken the opportunityto have an all-encompassing electoral reform Bill to include automatic voter registration, votes at 16 and online voting, as well as extending the lifetime of ex-pat voting?
I fully support my hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill. I hope that Members across the House who want a more inclusive democracy where every eligible voter is on the electoral roll will continue to support her Bill. She raises an interesting point about why this matter is before us on a Friday as a private Member’s Bill. It is deeply concerning that this measure has been put into a private Member’s Bill, introduced by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, that is being used to push Government business.
Private Members’ Bills serve an important function in our parliamentary process by enabling Back-Bench Members of Parliament, rather than the Government of the day, to initiate legislation. Indeed, private Members’ Bills have made significant changes to the law over the years—for example, the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act 1965 and the Abortion Act 1967. However, with limited time available for consideration of private Members’ Bills, we cannot allow the Government to disrespect an important part of the parliamentary process and an important power that our Back Benchers have.
The Opposition are committed to building a political franchise that works for the many, not the few. However, it is also vital that we maintain the integrity of the electoral process. Unfortunately, it has been undermined by the Government, who have pushed local authority election teams to the absolute limit, damaging their ability to deliver elections effectively. The introduction of individual electoral registration added significant cost pressures by making it more expensive to compile the register. Election administrators have criticised the Government for massively underestimating the scale of the task at hand.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. That is the context of local government funding being reduced significantly over the years, which has forced local authorities to review their electoral services. That has led to significant reductions in core service funding and staffing levels, with a growing number of skilled professionals leaving local authority elections teams.
The impact of austerity was recently evidenced by the University of East Anglia, which found that 43% of local authorities experienced real-terms funding cuts to their budget for running elections from 2010-11 to 2015-16. According to survey responses from 254 local electoral authorities administrating the EU referendum, only a quarter of electoral officials said they had enough funding to support their work on the electoral register.
The Electoral Commission’s report on the 2017 general election warns of risks to the administration of well-run elections, which are becoming increasingly apparent due to reduced resources and a growing number of skilled professionals leaving local authority election teams. Does my hon. Friend agree that cuts to local government will affect this service?
The report that my hon. Friend raises is very worrying and should be of concern to Members across the House. When 43% of local authorities agree that they do not have sufficient funds to administer a poll, we should all be worried about the integrity of our electoral system. The Government fail to understand that cuts to public services can have devastating consequences.
Last year, the Electoral Commission report on the general election warned of
“wider risks to the administration of well-run elections,”
which it stated were “becoming increasingly apparent.” Problems in some places have caused some voters to receive an inadequate service. That was evidenced most recently in Newcastle-under-Lyme, where two council officials were suspended after almost 1,500 people were unable to vote in last year’s general election.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend’s intervention was particularly about the capacity of local elections offices. Were the Bill to be successful, the impact on local elections offices in councils up and down the country would be huge, because the process of registering an overseas elector can take around two hours. If those offices were to see a huge increase in the number of overseas electors registering at a time when local councils have had huge funding cuts, the pressure would be absolutely huge.
There was further evidence in June about how under-resourced election staff are. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) described the issues on polling day as “a shambles”. Significant issues also occurred in Plymouth, with hundreds of voters unable to cast their votes in the June general election. An independent investigation found that 35,000 postal vote holders had received two polling cards—a postal vote polling card and a polling station card. In addition, 331 people who received a polling card that was issued on 5 May were removed from the register after that point.
These failings clearly illustrate that more action must be taken now to deal with the increasing challenges that returning officers face in delivering elections effectively. Those concerns have been raised on multiple occasions by the Association of Electoral Administrators, which has called on the Government for a
“full and thorough review of the funding of the delivery of electoral services…as a matter of urgency”.
Not only is that impacting on voters, but it might also be having a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of electoral administrators and the public servants who work in local elections offices. Following the 2017 general election, the Association of Electoral Administrators wrote that
“we have collectively been concerned for the health and well-being of…our members”.
As a result, the AEA contracted the Hospital and Medical Care Association to provide members with free-of-charge access to confidential counselling services. That is not an indication of healthy elections offices up and down the country.
In the context of austerity, we cannot allow the Government to dismantle our electoral system any further. The existing provision of checking registration against electoral registration officer records within 15 years is already a challenging and resource-intensive process. Some applications contain vague or incorrect previous addresses, which can cause problems in checking the register—so much so that the Association of Electoral Administrators has estimated that it takes roughly two hours to register one overseas elector. Because overseas electors fall off the register after 12 months, the vast majority of registration applications occur immediately ahead of a general election, when the pressure on electoral administrators is at its most intense.
Abolishing the 15-year rule, and therefore presumably increasing the number of British citizens overseas who can register to vote, would completely overstretch electoral administrators, who are already being pushed to the limit. In addition, the requirement to keep copies of previous revisions of registers for more than 15 years, whether in data or in paper format, will have a resource implication in the form of increased ICT server capacity or physical storage area.
In the light of those concerns—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As we appear to have passed the point at which it would have been possible to consider the next Bill, I want the House to know that there will be a public demonstration outside in which democracy will work, and we will have a debate on the cruel effects of the present law on young children and those in serious health difficulties, including a young boy who is suffering, and whose parents are suffering, in a terrible way. What has happened here today has been a filibuster organised by one party, and I am ashamed to say that I am a member of that party—
Order. I allowed the hon. Gentleman to make a point of order about his Bill—although he knows that it was not a point of order—because I appreciated that he had a point to make, and I allowed him to make it. However, I will not take from him criticism of the Chair through the use of the word “filibuster”.
Let me return to the Bill. I want to ask the Government three questions. Have they any indication of how many of the estimated 5 million Britons living abroad would apply to be overseas electors in the run-up to a UK parliamentary election or national referendum if the 15-year rule were removed? How do they intend to fund EROs for the additional costs incurred by these proposals? What steps will they take to ensure that election teams have the resources and the capacity to manage the increased volume of electors?
The devil is also in the detail, which the Government have failed to provide. According to the Bill, an overseas voter will qualify as a resident if
“the person has at some time in the past been entered in an electoral register in respect of an address at a place that is situated within the constituency”.
However, many questions remain unanswered.
If an overseas elector was registered at a previous address but then moved to a different address before leaving the UK where they did not register, at which address should they register to vote? As time goes by, potentially over several decades, it could be very difficult for EROs to check previous revisions of registers owing to ever-changing localities. Problems include local government reorganisation, polling district and ward boundary reviews, the demolition or redevelopment of properties, street renaming, house renumbering, and limited availability of local authority records. Can we seriously expect someone who has not lived in this country for 40 years to remember the exact date on which they were last registered to vote, and the precise address at which they lived? I think not.
I also question whether the current deadline to apply to register as an overseas elector and make absent voting arrangements is sufficient, in the context of abolition of the 15-year rule. The Association of Electoral Administrators has urged the Government to consider bringing forward the voter registration deadline for overseas electors to allow sufficient time to process and check previous revisions of registers. What steps will the Government take to address those concerns?
Not only is the likelihood of error extremely high, but we are leaving our democracy wide open to potential fraudulent activity. In response to the Cabinet Office policy statement about overseas voters, the Association of Electoral Administrators warned that scrapping the 15-year rule would increase the potential for electoral fraud. Under the Government’s proposals, applicants who cannot provide a national insurance number or UK passport could have their identity verified by another registered overseas elector using an attestation. That would be a signed written statement from another British citizen who was registered to vote in the UK. Can we honestly expect this to be sufficient security to prevent fraudulent applications? When the attester as well as the applicant live abroad, what is the likelihood of a false declaration resulting in prosecution proceedings? My guess is, very low.
There is also no way of checking whether an overseas voter is living at the stated address abroad. Overseas voters who owned and lived in more than one home could register more than once and we would have no way of knowing whether people were registered multiple times.
Given the overstretched nature of elections offices up and down the country, I suspect there would not be the capacity for such a check. Given that the Government are this May planning to trial requiring ID at polling stations, it seems that the requirements to prove the identity of an elector living in the UK are far greater than—
claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36)
A Division was called; Dame Cheryl Gillan and Geoffrey Clifton-Brown were appointed Tellers for the Ayes, but no Members being appointed Tellers for the Noes, the Deputy Speaker declared that the Ayes had it.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).
I will, unusually, delay for a moment to see whether the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who was in the Chamber until just a few minutes ago, is in the vicinity. I make it clear to the House that I am not creating a precedent in so doing, but I am aware that the hon. Gentleman was in a wheelchair and it might therefore take him a little longer to reach the Chamber.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I ask your advice? It is obvious that there was an enormous weight of opinion in favour of the Bill that has just gone through on Second Reading, but some Members—particularly those on the other side—sought to shout against the Bill but then failed to put in Tellers. Will you advise me on whether that is good practice in this House? Surely, when a body of people shouts no, Tellers would normally be put in position by those Members shouting no.
I understand the point that the right hon. Lady makes, but it is perfectly proper for those who oppose a Bill not to put in tellers and not to see the matter through to a Division. It is not a question of whether that is bad or good practice; the practice is in order, and that is my consideration.