Below is an update on Conservative MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown’s progress in Parliament on 19th June and the important Clause 3 which seeks to remove the 15 year time limit on British overseas voters, to be debated 27th June, 2012.
Highlighting the major difficulties with the current system of overseas voting, a remarkable statistic quoted during the Parliamentary exchange below is that “only 564 votes were received from British military personnel in Afghanistan, even though nearly 10,000 were able to vote. Many people regard that as a national scandal.”
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an aspect of overseas voter registration. I also draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that I have tabled a new clause 3 on an associated matter—to eliminate the cut-off for overseas voting. On this matter, I urge the Minister to bring forward secondary legislation, under clause 1(3), relating to regulations to introduce improvements to the registration system, which could result in a far higher number of participants in our elections at a time when the number of registered voters is falling. At present, some 5.6 million British subjects live abroad, of which it is estimated that some 4.3 million are of voting age. But in December 2011 a mere 23,388 overseas voters were registered to vote, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give those figures again? Did he say 23,000 out of 4 million?
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend heard me correctly, but for the sake of clarity and emphasis, I shall repeat the figures: there are estimated to be about 4.3 million overseas citizens of voting age, a mere 23,388 of whom, in December 2011, were registered to vote, according to the ONS electoral statistics.
Mr Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): What a contrast that is with the French, who have created a parliamentary constituency covering London and northern Europe because of all the thousands of French voters in London. They can now vote for a Member of the French Assembly.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, but actually it is more dramatic than that. The French gave away two Members of Parliament, in Paris of all places, who are now specifically responsible for all French overseas voters. I am not going anything like as far as that, but I want my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the regulations in the way I will set out. It is certainly not that British people living overseas have no interest in taking part in our elections, so the figures I have now quoted twice surely suggest that the system for registering overseas voters actively deters voters from registering. Otherwise, would not more of them want to register? If I explain to the House the rather protracted process for becoming an overseas voter, perhaps my point will become clear. To apply to become an overseas voter, a person must obtain and complete a registration form, and send it to the electoral registration office for the area in which they were last registered to vote. So they have to find out where they were last registered to vote and precisely which district council and registration officer to send their form to. To confirm that the person is a British citizen and that they are not living in the UK when they apply, the application must be witnessed by another British citizen living abroad, who can be hard to find, particularly if the person lives in a rural area. Here, then, is the first of my sensible suggestions to the Minister: an alternative would be to use a person’s passport number as proof of identity. The current system is potentially time consuming and undoubtedly puts people off registering to vote in the United Kingdom. Instead, a simple system for overseas voters involving the help of, and co-operation with, the Home Office and Foreign Office could be implemented. All potential overseas voters hold a British passport, details of which are held by the Identity and Passport Service, which is part of the Home Office. Passports do not contain addresses, although the IPS holds a delivery address for the passport when last issued. Where these people live is immaterial, however; what counts is their known UK address before moving abroad, because that determines the constituency in which they are entitled to be registered.
Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): Does my hon. Friend recognise the stark difference between the situation in the UK and that in the United States of America, where they have the principle of “forever an American and forever an interest in the country of your birth”? Both the Democrats and Republicans run successful outreach schemes that get a huge uptake in the UK and across the world.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend anticipates me and makes a sound point. As hon. Members have mentioned, the USA, France and Germany have much better systems for their overseas voters. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office encourages British citizens living overseas to register with its LOCATE database. Even more should be done, however. Although the database’s primary objective is to facilitate the identification of and contact with British citizens living overseas in the event of a natural, political or other disaster, LOCATE’s resources could also be used to harness the cause of overseas voter registration. One could imagine a simple, streamlined overseas voter registration system based on data-matching and functioning in the following manner: when giving a non-UK address in applying for a passport, British citizens living overseas could be asked on their application form to state whether they wish their application to be treated simultaneously as an application for overseas electoral registration and, if so, to give the address of their last UK residence. Questions could then be added to the LOCATE online questionnaire to ascertain whether applicants wish their application to be treated as an application for overseas electoral registration and, if so, to ascertain their last UK residence.
Frank Dobson (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman think it would be a good idea to add to the form a declaration of when the person concerned last paid any United Kingdom tax?
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I hesitated before giving way to the right hon. Gentleman. I thought it would be a frivolous intervention, and indeed it was. When it comes to registering to vote each year, a security- protected e-mail could be sent to each voter containing their registration forms—perhaps bar-coded—which would then be returned by post in the normal way. Were this or a similar system implemented, I have no doubt that we would significantly increase the participation of overseas voters in our elections. According to research by the Institute for Public Policy Research, 55% of British emigrants who left the country in 2008 did so for professional reasons. Many of those who left the UK to work abroad—for British businesses, international organisations, and UK Departments and agencies—play an important and active part, bolstering the UK’s position internationally. Many others retire abroad, but nevertheless have a close interest in UK political matters.
Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): Perhaps my hon. Friend would consider adding to the list those who work for charities or churches and missionaries? Many cannot necessarily afford to retain a property back here in the UK or even have a proxy vote. They are completely disfranchised by the current system, so we must urge the Government to have a simpler registration process for them.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend is right. Again, if there are categories of people who live abroad but do not qualify to vote in this country, they, too, should be included in the system. In answer to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) asked, when people fill in their voter registration form, they should be asked whether they want their details kept on the database, thereby opting in for permanent overseas voting until they opt out of it. That is the way of dealing with the system that he mentioned. I think we should recognise the loyalty of many of these subjects who live abroad—bearing in mind that there may be 4.3 million of them—and ensure that they are not disfranchised by the voting system, but are able to take an active part in our democratic elections. It was the complication of the system for voters in the armed forces that led to the situation in the 2010 election whereby—these figures are also startling—only 564 votes were received from British military personnel in Afghanistan, even though nearly 10,000 were able to vote. Many people regard that as a national scandal. These brave people risk their lives on a daily basis in Afghanistan and elsewhere to protect this country’s interest and the international norms of behaviour. Surely the least we can do in this Parliament is ensure that they are able to participate in our elections in the United Kingdom.
Mrs Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that many of us asked the last Government over and over again whether they would take steps to ensure that our armed forces, especially those serving in Afghanistan, could be given the opportunity to vote in the 2010 election? However, the last Government took no action until late 2009, by which time it was too late. Indeed, the figures that he has just quoted prove that they let down our armed forces in a very serious way.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not want to alienate Opposition Members, because I want their support on this matter, but she raises a serious issue. Indeed, it is, I would say, frankly a moral issue that we should do something to amend the system, so that what I have described can never happen again. I know that the Minister is aware of this issue, and, in light of what I have said today, I hope that he will consider bringing forward regulations under proposed new section 10ZC(3) of the 1983 Act to improve the system of registering overseas voters. There was method in my madness when I intervened on the Minister, in response to an intervention from the Opposition spokesman, to urge him to bring forward regulations and to praise him for doing so swiftly under this Bill. I know that my hon. Friend perspicaciously knew what I was going to say today, so I will close by urging him to publish the secondary legislation as soon as possible.
Mr Harper: The right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) and a number of others raised a point about service personnel. About 75% of our service personnel are registered to vote. I will not be quite as harsh to Labour Members as one or two of my hon. Friends were, because, admittedly, their Government made some progress, on that as on many other issues involved in the Bill. Some of my hon. Friends took every opportunity to harry Labour Members, but they did make progress, although, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who has now left the Chamber, they did so only at the last possible moment. At the time of the most recent general election, they made specific arrangements to enable our service personnel stationed in Afghanistan to vote. One of the problems involves the electoral timetable, which, for general elections, is quite tight. I will not go into that in detail now, because we will deal with it when we reach clause 13, but one of our reasons for wanting to extend the timetable is our wish to ensure that overseas voters, both service personnel and others, have a much more realistic chance of casting a vote themselves, by post, rather than having to rely on appointing a proxy. I think that if they could vote by post and had an opportunity to make their votes count, more of them would feel incentivised to do so. When our troops are deployed overseas in significant locations, we will repeat the exercise that the Labour Government organised for the general election and we organised for the referendum on the alternative vote, and take specific steps to enable our service personnel to participate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), I am very pleased that we are retaining the first-past-the-post system for the foreseeable future.
Mr Syms: Is not one of the good by-products of five-year fixed Parliaments the fact that everyone will know the most likely date of a general election well in advance? That will make electoral registration for central and local government, and the build-up to it, much easier to deal with.
Mr Harper: Yes, that will make a difference. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) gave some statistics. In the December 2010 register, which followed the most recent general election, 32,000 electors were registered to vote overseas—which, admittedly, is not a huge number in comparison with the 4.3 million cited by my hon. Friend—but by the following year, the figure had fallen to 23,000. It appears that the incentive of the general election is a spur to registration, as it is for domestically residing voters. I think that knowing when an election will take place will help both registration officers and people living overseas. My hon. Friend referred to the attestation requirements involved in the registration process. I know that they can pose difficulties, especially in countries where there are not many other British citizens. We are trying to establish whether there is anything that we could do. If we need to alter the requirements, we can do so by changing secondary legislation. We are also considering a trial of online registration, which I think could help not just voters living in the United Kingdom, but those living overseas. That brings me to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall about communication. The Government are currently trialling—without universal approbation from Members on both sides of the House—a website featuring statements from all the candidates for the police and crime commissioner elections, which will then be promoted by the Electoral Commission and in the material that goes to voters. We may consider a similar procedure for a general election, with an eye on overseas voters. I should also say to my hon. Friend that overseas voters can vote only in parliamentary elections. That makes their relationship with their local councillors slightly less consequential, but it also means that their votes are not just about who their Member of Parliament will be but about what flows from that, namely who will govern their country—and they are, of course interested in that.My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds made the important point that most British citizens overseas are working there, winning orders for Britain and working for British companies that bring wealth into this country. It is important for them to have an opportunity to contribute to the decision on who will govern the country.
Mark Menzies: The Minister is absolutely right. I have several hundred BAE Systems constituents who are out in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and I want to ensure that they are not disfranchised.
Mr Harper: That is a good point. One of the ways in which we can grow our economy is to win orders abroad. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke of those who work hard for many of our companies overseas. That means basing British citizens abroad, sometimes temporarily but often permanently, so that they can work with companies to win orders and install and support equipment, and it is very important for them not to be disfranchised.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend has heard the fairly strong opinions held by, at least, Conservative Members. He has said, adeptly, that the attestation requirements could be changed by means of secondary legislation, but he has not said whether they would be changed by that means. Will he give us some idea of the action that he will take following the debate?
Mr Harper: My hon. Friend has anticipated my closing remark. As he knows, we have been considering the matter. Along with my officials, I am continuing to think about ways in which we could replace the attestation process with a process involving appropriate levels of security—my hon. Friend’s thoughtful proposals touched on that—and also making it much easier for people to register. I will add my hon. Friend’s well thought through model to my current thinking. I have listened carefully to the thoughts that have been expressed in the House. If we decide to make changes, which I hope to be able to do, the House will have to vote on them in the usual way. I hope that that reassures him.