There is significant under-registration of eligible British voters living abroad. Lord Lexden, outlines the findings of a new cross-party report on the problem.
Authoritative estimates put the number of British citizens living overseas at 5.6 million. Since 1985 some of them have had the right to vote in our Parliamentary and European elections. As the law stands at present, that right now belongs to those over 18 who have lived abroad for up to fifteen years; thereafter they are disenfranchised.
The time limit is wholly arbitrary. Originally it stood at five years; then it was increased to twenty years; since 2000 a period of fifteen years has been the maximum. Since no rationale has ever been offered, this state of affairs causes huge resentment among our fellow countrymen and women in other countries. Most of them have gone abroad to work and to advance British interests; they represent an immensely important source of soft power for the United Kingdom. They are not indifferent to, or ignorant of, what is happening in their own country. Modern technology enables them to follow closely what is going on. Most major democracies do not discriminate against large sections of their own people living in other countries in the way that we do.
Last year, during debates in the Lords on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act, which introduced individual electoral registration, I called for the complete removal of the arbitrary time limit. The case for change is now firmly on the political agenda. There is growing support for it in both Houses — and pressure will be considerable in the next Parliament, particularly since manifesto commitments could well be given.
There is one important task that needs to be tackled without delay — which is to make it as easy and straightforward as possible for those who are currently eligible under the deeply flawed fifteen-year rule to get on to the electoral register and to cast their votes when elections come. They deserve all the help and encouragement we can give them.
There is no official figure, but it is thought that around 3 million people fall within the fifteen-year rule. The number actually registered stands at 23,366, less than one per cent of those believed to be eligible. In the UK such a dismal level of enfranchisement would be regarded as totally unacceptable.
After last year’s debates in Parliament which highlighted the extent of this problem of gross under-registration, an informal cross-party group was set up with ministerial approval to find out why so few are registered and what could be done about it. Action now will enable all those overseas to exercise their rights more readily if and when the fifteen-year bar is removed.
Apart from me, the members of this informal group of parliamentarians are: Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP, Baroness Greengross, Professor Lord Parekh, Lord Tyler and Professor Lord Norton, our distinguished Chairman.
After a series of meetings at which evidence was heard from a number of experts (complemented by written representations from others), we have now issued our report.
We have identified a number of problems which have contributed to the extraordinary paucity of registered overseas voters.
Since the fundamental problem (see 5 above) is a lack of political will in Whitehall, it must be replaced by a positive and lasting commitment to British citizens overseas. That is the prerequisite of progress. Those who have lived abroad for less than fifteen years have a statutory entitlement to be on the electoral register. To that end, we propose that:
Through this six-point plan, our forgotten voters abroad could start to become full participants in our democratic life — which so many of them want — something of which those of us who live in the United Kingdom itself should feel proud.
Lord Lexden, a Conservative peer and historian, is a Trustee of the Hansard Society. His speeches in the Lords on justice for overseas voters can be found via his website at www.alistairlexden.org.uk. Or you can download the full report by the Cross-Party Group on Overseas Voters here, published on March 19.
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