With Brexit dominating Britain’s news agenda, one could be forgiven for thinking that the UK’s MPs have had no time to consider any other business. However, on March 22, a bill which came to the House of Commons for its report stage and third reading is likely to affect all British nationals living in other countries.
Such ex-pats are presently entitled to continue to vote in UK Parliamentary elections for up to 15 years in the constituency in which they were registered before leaving the UK. In 2015, the British Government committed to abolish the time limit and introduce “votes for life.”
A Private Member’s Bill, sponsored by Glyn Davies MP, is seeking to achieve this and was presented and given its first reading in Parliament on July 19, 2017, followed by a Second Reading on February 23, 2018. The Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 completed its committee stage on November 14, 2018, while its report stage and third reading was scheduled for January, but postponed until March 22. Its excruciatingly slow progress is a result of private members’ bills having limited opportunities for debate.
Before 1985, British citizens resident living permanently outside the United Kingdom were unable to register to vote in UK Parliamentary elections. When the franchise was extended to British nationals resident overseas for the first time, a maximum of five years from the time they left the UK was introduced.
This was changed to a 20-year limit in 1990 and then lowered to the current 15-year limit in 2002. This rule also applied to voting in the referendum on EU membership held in the UK and Gibraltar in June 2016.
At the UK General Election of 2017 there were a record 285,000 British nationals abroad able to vote, but there is no official estimate of how many are presently disenfranchised by 15-year rule and have no voting rights. The total number of Britons resident in other EU countries was estimated at 1.3 million in 2017 by the United Nations.
The Overseas Electors Bill will remove the time limit and will allow eligible British citizens resident overseas to register to vote in UK Parliamentary elections permanently, subject to an annual renewal.
The debate on March 22 was adjourned and was expected to return to the Commons a week later. Assuming it is passed by MPs, the bill will then be considered by the House of Lords, after which it will be given the Royal Assent and become available to be implemented by the government. It is not without its critics, however; the Electoral Reform Society has warned there could be “unintended consequences” in paving the way for unscrupulous agents to influence UK politics.
Meanwhile, the Spanish government says it expects to issue residency permits to around 400,000 British nationals if the UK crashes out of the EU. It says all residents will have to apply for the so-called alien identification card before 31 December 2020, a process which will be “almost automatic” for over 300,000 Britons already registered in Spain. Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said the main purpose was to ensure that no-one, British or Spanish, would be left unprotected.