Prospect of ‘votes for life’ for Brits living overseas recedes due to discarding of old electoral registers
The destruction of voting data is holding up a promise to give millions of British expatriates the right to vote in general elections.
Almost two years ago, the Conservatives promised to introduce “votes for life”, by scrapping the rule striking out British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years.
Legislation was included in the Queen’s Speech after last year’s election victory, but no bill emerged before the parliamentary session ended in May.
The measure has now been shelved, although ministers insist they are still committed to acting before the next planned general election in 2020.
The delay has already cost long term expats the chance to vote in last month’s EU referendum, despite a court battle fought by 95-year-old World War Two veteran Harry Shindler, who lives in Italy. And it means the 15-year rule will still be in place if, as many expect, new Prime Minister Theresa May calls a snap election within the next year.
Now a former Foreign Office minister has admitted the change is proving more complex than imagined when the pledge was made in September 2014.
David Lidington, now the Commons Leader, said the issue was how expats could prove they used to live in a particular constituency, when voting registers no longer existed from that period.
Without that verification, critics say, political parties could be tempted to allocate a large number of expats to marginal seats – where their votes could be crucial in determining the winner.
Lidington said: “It is a complex matter, because we would have to not just extend the franchise but establish a new system of voter registration - which is not straightforward given that voter registers no longer exist for periods that go back earlier than 15 years.
“We have to find some way of allocating those individuals to constituencies and verifying a previous place of residence.”
A further stumbling block is the promise that any change will also “make it easier for overseas electors to cast their votes in time to be counted”.
Some observers have argued this would require electronic voting in countries with slow postal systems – but ministers have previously rejected the idea as unsafe.
Expats were first given the right to vote in 1985, but only those who had lived abroad for no longer than five years. Later, this was extended to 20 years, before being reduced to 15 years by Tony Blair’s Government.
Lidington’s comments came when he was questioned in the Commons by Conservative MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a long time campaigner on the issue.
He said: “The manifesto commitment ought to now be honoured, on the 15-year rule for overseas voters.
“It is reckoned that 1 million people are disfranchised by this exemption, and it is a particularly sore subject among those living in the EU at the moment who were denied a vote in the referendum.”