The New Clause 3 brought up and read a second time before being subsequently withdrawn by Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con), during the 27th June Commons debate on the Electoral Registration & Administration Bill, would have removed the 15 year qualifying period for British citizens overseas altogether, so that all British citizens could qualify as overseas voters, regardless of when they were last resident in the UK.
The main problem identified and leading to withdrawal of the New Clause 3, was in requiring Electoral Registration Officers to maintain the same integrity of information on qualified overseas voters in the electoral register, as the Electoral Registration & Administration Bill requires for qualified domestic voters. Currently there is no requirement to keep electoral records of overseas voters once they have exceeded their 15 year qualifying period. It would, therefore, be difficult for an electoral registration officer to “promote who is entitled to register as an overseas voter, which in the Bill is a positive duty.”
However, there was no mention in this debate of the role and responsibility of the Electoral Commission, which has in the past been the focus of efforts to reach out to unregistered but qualified overseas voters via www.aboutmyvote.co.uk and associated promotional activities around election time.
The difficulties facing Electoral Registration Officers as required by the Electoral Registration & Administration Bill still have to be resolved for overseas voters , even with the current 15 year qualifying period remaining as it is. Since other countries seem to manage this process very well, what makes it so difficult for the UK?
Mr Clifton-Brown had previously argued well that:
“The House and the British people should take no pride in the fact that so few citizens living abroad are registered to vote.”
“In most other countries, both developed and emerging, voting rights for parliamentary elections depend solely on nationality, not on an arbitrary time limit.”
“For a democracy as ancient as ours, it is not an exaggeration to say that it is a stain on our democratic principles that our citizens are placed at such a disadvantage when they have moved abroad compared with citizens from those other countries.”
“There is certainly no lack of interest among British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years.”
He was ably supported in his arguments by Mr Streeter (Devon South West) (Con), Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con), Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con), Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con) and Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con), although it was Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con) who first raised the important question:
“Should someone have the responsibility for trying to recruit these people to register in the same way that domestically resident people like myself are if they are entitled to vote?”
This latter intervention provided the opportunity for Mr Heath (Somerton & Frome) (Lib Dem) to respond on behalf of the government in identifying problems:
“For instance, there is no current requirement for registration officers to keep copies of previous registers, except in so far as they need them to check registrations for the 15 years provided for under the current legislation. So under the current terms of checking we would not have the material to check whether someone ever had been an elector—a properly registered person—in this country.”
“What we have done in the Bill is improve the overseas voting process. One significant part of that is the proposal to extend the electoral timetable for UK parliamentary elections from 17 to 25 days, which will make a significant difference to those who are registered in terms of enabling them to vote.”
“The hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), who is not in his place, raised a cogent question: what are registration officers to do to identify all those abroad who might be qualified to vote? Putting an onus on them similar to the responsibility we are placing on them in this Bill to seek out everyone who could possibly be qualified to vote would provide an insuperable problem for them if applied to overseas electors.”
Mr Clifton-Brown responded:
“Of course everybody wants the integrity of the electoral register to be maintained to the utmost degree. Only those who are eligible to register should register. We all understand that. The Deputy Leader of the House asked how an electoral registration officer would promote who is entitled to register as an overseas voter, which in the Bill is a positive duty.”
“May I suggest to the Deputy Leader of the House and to the Committee a practical way of dealing with the issue? The hon. Gentleman should table an amendment on Report or an amendment should be tabled in another place to take powers to extend but not reduce the 15-year period at a time when the Government are satisfied that the registration process is robust and maintains the integrity of the electoral register.”
“I suggest that the Deputy Leader of the House table an amendment to take a power to extend the 15 years when the Government are satisfied that those measures are in place. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw my new clause.”
For more convenience, further details of the above debate have been extracted here: New Clause 3_Representation_of_the_People_Act_1985_(Amendment)