Update on House of Lords debate on electoral reform

Extracts from THE HANSARD REPORT 24th July 2012

Lord Norton of Louth:

My other concerns cover what is not in the Bill. There are two omissions. First, the Bill does not address the 15-year rule for those British nationals who live overseas. In the last Parliament, I raised the issue of British nationals working for international organisations. Here my concern is more general. It is an issue that was raised in the other place during the passage of the Bill by Geoffrey Clifton-Brown. As he noted, although there are 4.4 million British citizens of voting age living abroad, only just over 23,000 are registered as overseas voters. In response the Minister, David Heath, said that the Government would give the issue “serious consideration”. I appreciate the reasons for not wishing to rush to judgement. There are practical issues as well as the issue of principle raised by the Minister—the two come together in terms of ensuring the integrity of the ballot. However, there is a countervailing principle in respect of the rights of those who, while they may live abroad, retain British citizenship. It will be helpful if my noble friend gives some indication of the Government’s thinking in the light of the discussions in the other place.

Lord Lexden:

Finally, I urge strongly that the scope of the Bill be extended, as my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth argued, by adding to it provision to enable all our fellow subjects of Her Majesty who live abroad to vote in our parliamentary elections. This would end the existing 15-year limit, for which no clear rationale has ever been offered. There are some, such as Mr Clegg, who are inclined to say that our fellow country men and women abroad should take the nationality of the country in which they reside, even though I understand that Mrs Clegg, who retains Spanish nationality, has a lifetime’s right to vote in Spain’s elections. There are others who say that because they pay no taxes here they should not vote here, but many do pay taxes. In any case, other countries do not admit taxation as a principle for access to their franchises. Others say that our fellow citizens abroad cannot feel a strong attachment to the United Kingdom after some years away from it. However, in the age of the internet, they can follow closely what is happening in their native land and, as online participants, contribute powerfully to developments taking place here whether they live in Perugia, Portugal or Pennsylvania.

I set out the case for change more fully in a debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, in January and I propose to return to it in Committee. The Government have this great issue under active consideration, as the Minister confirmed in a Written Answer to me on 25 June. There could be no better time for action than in this Diamond Jubilee year. Some 5.6 million subjects of Her Majesty live abroad. Many of them today stand hopefully at the bar of British democracy. Let all those who wish to join us be allowed to enter.

Lord Bates:

I have two ideas to increase the number of people on the register. One has already been referred to, so I shall not spend a great deal of time on it, other than to say that the fact that we have only about 25,000 or 30,000 overseas voters on the register is a real weakness of our current system.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Sponsor of the Bill for the Government) in his comments in summing up spoke as follows:---

The question of overseas electors will be raised. I had a conversation off the Floor of the House with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, in which we agreed that we are both being lobbied heavily by our local party organisations from Brussels and Luxembourg on this issue. The Government do not have any plans at the present moment to lengthen the period from leaving the country beyond 15 years, nor do we have any really ambitious plans to do what is done in some other countries, which is to allow voting in embassies and consulates. However, the longer electoral period will help.

Chairman of Conservatives Abroad, Heather Harper held discussions with Lord Lexden at the House of Lords on the day of the debate. Lord Lexden said: "the committee stage of the Bill in the autumn will be crucial. There will need to be full consultation with Conservatives Abroad. I will want to be sure that all the points they want to be made are included in the comments that I make on the amendments I will be moving which will propose formally that the 15-year limit should be abolished"