Parliament at night

Our forgotten voters: British citizens abroad

Ballot PaperThere is significant under-registration of eligible British voters living abroad. Lord Lexden, outlines the findings of a new cross-party report on the problem.

Introduction: An Arbitrary Time Limit

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.

Improving the Status Quo

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.

The Norton Committee

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.

Confronting the Issues

We have identified a number of problems which have contributed to the extraordinary paucity of registered overseas voters.

  1. It is difficult to locate eligible British citizens living abroad. Their whereabouts are not known since they are not required to inform the UK electoral authorities where they intend to live when they leave. Some data is held by a number of public bodies, but they are generally precluded from sharing it.
  2. No systematic effort is made to reach those overseas. A recent study carried out in New Zealand found that those who were registered had discovered that they were eligible through word of mouth and the local media, not through official British information.
  3. British citizens overseas are left largely to make their own arrangements. Only after they have been through a protracted registration process will they hear from electoral registration officers who will then ask them to verify their details annually. Postal votes can be subject to undue delay. It is often hard to find people to cast votes on behalf of overseas electors in UK constituencies by proxy. We were told by two frustrated would-be voters in France that “the system seemed to have been designed to discourage expatriate voters”.
  4. Responsibility for overseas voters is divided between a number of government departments and public authorities which do not work effectively together. This division of responsibility means that it is not seen as a priority to provide resources in order to boost the registration of overseas voters.
  5. Most importantly, there is a lack of political will to safeguard and promote the interests of British citizens overseas. They are the forgotten voters.

Our Recommendations

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:

  1. A campaign to get eligible British citizens overseas on to the electoral register in large numbers should be made the specific responsibility of an individual Minister in the Cabinet Office.
  2. The Electoral Commission should increase the resources it devotes to encouraging overseas citizens to register — and those resources should be ring-fenced. The Commission should also be given the specific target of achieving the registration of at least 100,000 overseas voters by the time of next year’s general election.
  3. Public bodies should share data much more extensively in order to identify British citizens overseas and supply them with information encouraging them to register and vote.
  4. Social media should be used much more fully to disseminate information.
  5. Our Foreign Office, Embassies and Consulates should follow the example of those of other countries by stressing the importance of the enduring connection between our citizens overseas and their country, symbolised by participation in its elections.
  6. A feasibility study of electronic voting should be carried out, the trial being undertaken in parts of the world with a high concentration of British expatriates.

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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