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Britons Voting Abroad

The Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19

The Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 (the dates refer to the parliamentary session in which it is tabled) is sponsored by the Welsh Conservative MP for Montgomeryshire Glyn Davies. Although he was not previously one of the most well-known advocates of the principle of extending the franchise for overseas citizens, he supported a similar bill in December 2014, when Conservative MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown introduced the ‘Overseas Voters (15 Year Rule) Bill’.  This bill did not progress because the 2015 election was called, closing the parliamentary session. You can read his  intervention here.

The aim of the current bill is to remove what is known as the ’15 year rule’ which limits the voting rights of UK citizens resident abroad to the first 15 years after leaving the UK. Eligibility of newly enfranchised citizens will no longer be conditional on previous registration in the UK if this cannot be proven: previous residence will suffice. Although the bill has a simple aim, it has complex implications with regard to electoral registration procedures, so the text of the bill is very technical; you can read it here.

If you want to understand the detail better, you can read the Explanatory Notes here.

This bill is not a Public Bill but a Private Member’s Bill.

What is a Private Member’s Bill?
Private Member’s Bills - or Backbench Bills - are introduced by individual MPs or members of the Lords rather than by the Government. As with other Public Bills their purpose is to introduce legislation, but in reality very few Private Member's Bills become law without Government or cross-party support for reasons outlined below. However, by creating publicity and awareness around an issue, they may affect legislation indirectly.

You can read in more depth about them here.

Or here.

Since the aim of granting ‘Votes For Life’ has been Conservative Party policy since its Manifesto of September 2014, why hasn’t the Government put it forward as a Public Bill? 

Without having access to ‘inside information’ it is hard to give a clear answer to this question, and there has been criticism of the Government’s use of a Private Member’s Bill to introduce government policy on such an important issue as the extension of the franchise.  However, this practice is not uncommon. The Government may have felt that the constraints of the Brexit related legislation prevented it from tabling a bill on this question at this stage but also felt under pressure from ex-pat campaigners to show that it was committed to its manifesto pledge.

Introducing a Private Member’s Bill

There are three ways of introducing Private Members' Bills in the House of Commons: the Ballot, the Ten Minute Rule and Presentation. This is a ‘Ballot Bill’: meaning that Glyn Davies was successful in the ballot (literally like a tombola) held on 29th June 2017 that you can watch taking place here

Private Member’s Bills don’t always even get as far as a 2nd Reading, or if they do, they go no further, for complex procedural reasons which have been the subject of several parliamentary reports.

They can also be very easily delayed or ‘killed off’ by the objection of a single MP when time for debate has run out and the Bill has been put forward for reading without debate: at 2.30 pm on a sitting Friday the Clerk reads out the titles of bills which are on the Order Paper, in the order in which they have been put down for that day. If any Member shouts object when the title of a bill is read then no further progress is made. It is, therefore, only non-controversial bills that are likely to get through without debate. If the bill is objected to, the Member in charge of the bill, or another member on their behalf, may nominate another Friday and seek to persuade those who objected not to repeat their action. It is, however, often a Government Whip who will shout object. If this is the case, unless the sponsoring Member can reach an accommodation with the Government, it is unlikely the bill will make further progress.

This rule has been criticised in the media lately, notably in the context of the ‘upskirting’ bill to which MP Christopher Chope ‘objected’ (but in this case it was good for the bill because it was then taken up by the Government as a Public Bill).

  • The 1st Reading Debate:  17th July 2017

The bill was given its 1st Reading on 17th July 2017. This is just a formality and a date was set for the 2nd Reading, on 23rd February 2018.

If you would like to know more about the way a bill normally progresses through Parliament you can read about it here.

In the case of this bill, it became clear in February, shortly after the appointment of Chloe Smith as Minister for the Constitution, that the Government was backing the bill, and that the Cabinet Office had been working on its preparation. This meant that it stood a much better chance of success. On 8th February it published its response to the Cabinet Office Policy Statement and consultation that had been launched in October 2016 under the previous minister, Chris Skidmore. This was accompanied by a press release in which the Government restated its commitment to ending the 15 year time limit on overseas registration, putting an end to speculation that under Theresa May the Manifesto pledge was being kicked into the long grass. The text of the bill was published at the same time along with the Explanatory Notes. As this bill was prepared by the Government it is known as a ‘’Handout Bill’.

  • The 2nd Reading Debate:  23rd February 2018

The 2nd Reading of the Overseas Electors Bill was held on 23rd February 2018: a Briefing Paper explaining the background to the bill was published in February 2018 at the time of its 2nd Reading in the House of Commons. You can access it from this page.

You can read the full transcript of the 2nd Reading debate here.

You can also watch it on Parliament TV here (make sure you start at 12.22.02).

You can read a short descriptive summary of the debate here (3 min. read).

You can read a longer analysis and explanation of the debate here (4/5 min. read).

Broadly speaking, it was clear from the debate that Labour opposed the bill and tried to ‘talk it out’. The Liberal Democrats however said they supported it. The Government was able to mobilise enough support from within Conservative ranks to ensure that at the closure of the debate the bill successfully passed the 2nd Reading stage and would progress to a Public Bill Committee for further discussion and amendment, expected to be in the Autumn.

You can read more about the positions of the political parties on the bill here

Impact Assessment

The Government published its Impact Assessment of the bill to coincide with the Money Resolution Debate.

  • This document estimates that there are 4.9m British citizens living abroad who would be eligible to register to vote after implementation of Votes For Life. Of these, 1.5m are thought to have left within the previous 15 years, but only 1.4 are of voting age, so a further 3.5m would be newly enfranchised. 
  • It gives three estimates of the number of additional registrations anticipated after implementation of the bill: Low = 248,000 | Central = 627,000 | High = 1.04m.
  • Estimates of the cost of implementing the bill range from £3.3m to £8.8m over 10 years, or approximately £1m per annum.

You can read the full Assessment document here.

  • The Money Resolution Debate: 16th October 2018

After the 2nd Reading, if a bill will entail expenditure that has not already been approved by another Act of Parliament, it must obtain a Money Resolution in the House of Commons before it can progress to the Committee Stage.

The Money Resolution debate for this bill was scheduled for 16th October. You can read the full debate here

You can watch it on Parliament TV here  (start at 16.14 with Chloe Smith).

You can read a summary of the debate here (3 min. read).

Although the Labour Opposition tabled an amendment which would have limited expenditure on implementation of the bill to £10,000 per annum, it was defeated by the Government and the Bill won its Money Resolution, proceeding the following day to the 1st Sitting of the Committee Stage proceedings.

  • Committee Stage Proceedings: 17th October – 14th November 2018

Public Bill Committees (formerly Standing Committees) examine proposed bills in detail, clause by clause and considering amendments.

Procedure for amendments:

Committee members can table amendments or new clauses to the bill for discussion; they must be submitted three working days before sittings, ie for this bill, the Friday before. Selected amendments are grouped for debate as appropriate by the Chair of the committee. The MP whose name is attached to the leading amendment is called to speak first. Other members must catch the chair’s eye to speak or ‘interrupt’ another member by asking them to ‘give way’.   Sometimes the amendment is put to a vote but sometimes it is withdrawn after debate: this is the decision of the MP who has moved the amendment or new clause. In the case of a vote being a tie, the Chair has a casting vote. 

In the case of this bill, the Opposition tabled a large number of amendments mostly on detailed technical questions which they argued could have significant impact on the implementation of the bill. The full list of amendments can be found here

Committee Members:

There are at least 16 MPs on a Public Bill Committee and the proportion of parties must reflect the political balance in the House of Commons. The sponsor of a Private Member’s Bill is able to select the committee members but they must reflect the balance of opinion on the bill and not just the party proportions.  This means the sponsor is able to choose some individuals who are personally sympathetic to the bill, but they will nevertheless be subject to management by the party Whips.

You can find the full list of Committee Members for the Overseas Electors Bill by clicking on “Attended list” at the beginning of the transcripts of the debates.  There were 8 Conservative MPs, 6 from Labour, 1 from the Liberal Democrats and 1 from Plaid Cymru.  

The Committee Sittings took place on four Wednesday afternoons, starting on 17th October, following the Money Resolution debate the previous day.

1st Sitting: 17th October 2018

You can read the full transcript of the 1st Sitting here.

You can watch it on Parliament TV here.

You can read a summary of the issues debated in the 1st Sitting here (3 min. read).

2nd Sitting: 24th October 2018

You can read the full transcript of the 2nd Sitting here.

You can watch it on Parliament TV here.

You can read a summary of the issues debated in the 2nd Sitting here (3 min. read).

3rd Sitting: 31st October 2018

You can read the full transcript of the 3rd Sitting here.

You can watch it on Parliament TV here.

You can read a summary of the issues debated in the 3rd Sitting here (5 min. read).

4th Sitting: 14th November 2018

You can read the full transcript of the 4th Sitting here.

You can watch it on Parliament TV here.

You can read a summary of the issues debated in the 4th Sitting here (2 min. read).

Summary analysis of the Committee Stage proceedings

At the start of the Committee Stage it looked as if Labour was determined to ‘talk out the bill’ as they had tried to do at the 2nd Reading, by tabling a lot of technical amendments and new clauses. This confirmed the party leadership’s opposition to the Bill, as announced in a letter to veteran campaigner and oldest Labour Party member, Harry Shindler in June 2018.

Given the history of Labour’s reluctance to embrace the enfranchisement of overseas citizens since legislation was first introduced in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, this position was not surprising. But the stated reasons for challenging this Bill were of a very different nature to those used in the past, which had drawn heavily on questions of dis/loyalty of Britons living abroad, payment of taxes and loss of connection to the UK. This time round, the objections were mainly of a less principled nature and were instead more based on problems relating to the practical implementation of the Bill. They highlighted a series of concerns regarding the pressures on the electoral system that have already been well documented by the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA), who have argued that electoral services have been ‘pushed to the limit’ by insufficient Government funding.

But the Opposition had also clearly been piqued by the Government’s refusal to grant a Money Resolution to the Private Member’s Bill on Parliamentary Constituencies sponsored by the Labour MP for Manchester Gorton, Afzal Khan, meaning that this Bill could not progress. This was widely considered to be an abuse of executive power (see summary of Money Resolution Debate for details).

The amendments and new clauses proposed during the four committee sittings were not however solely designed to be obstructive and a number of important issues were raised:

  • Should the Government begin to consider the creation of overseas constituencies for overseas electors? Arguably, this could reduce the burden on EROs of administering overseas electors, and might give them better quality of representation, but it would break the sacrosanct link between the elector and the constituency that is the bedrock of British democracy.
  • The definition of residency remains legally unclear and raises a number of concerns relating to the potential for voting in more than one place. By enfranchising millions of voters who may not be able to prove their last place of residence, the Bill has obvious political implications in terms of where their votes are cast. As Matheson pointed out, there was a strange paradox in combining a major extension of the franchise with a reduction in the number of constituencies.
  • If significant numbers of new voters are to be enfranchised, there is a need for clarity on the question of permissible donors and control of donations to political parties, which is a particularly hot topic at the moment, with several suspected irregularities currently under investigation.
  • A number of amendments relating to practical details of electoral administration such as arrangements for postal voting or the creation of a central register highlighted important problems which will be familiar to all overseas electors: whilst fighting for the right to vote has been at the forefront of demands by campaigners, those who are registered experience a range of difficulties in actually being able to cast their vote.  Whether or not the Bill passes, these are issues that need urgent attention and will only be amplified by the extension of the franchise.

It is hard to know from the outside what is really driving Labour’s opposition to the Bill: the concerns for the overload on electoral administrators are undoubtedly well grounded, but the Government promises to foot the full cost of its implementation. If this was a Public Bill dealing more broadly with the franchise, one might expect to see an attempt to trade off overseas votes against votes for 16-17 year olds, also supported by the Liberal Democrats, SNP and Greens. But as Glyn Davies has repeatedly insisted throughout the debates so far, this is a ‘single issue bill’ with a narrow focus. It is hard to resist the conclusion that with a leader who once famously described Britons abroad as “tax dodgers, crooks, thieves and wastrels” the party’s traditional hostility to enfranchising those who have chosen to live outside UK territory still permeates its thinking on this issue. 

So why did Labour suddenly back off after half an hour of discussion in the 4th Sitting? Only political insiders will know the details of the answer to this question, but it is clear that some kind of deal was struck between the Whips to put the battle off to another place and another day.

The next stages…. going for Goldilocks?

After the 4th Sitting which brought the Committee Stage in the House of Commons to a close, a date was set for the Report Stage to be held on January 25th 2019. At the Report Stage, new amendments can be tabled for discussion, and a Private Member’s Bill can again be ‘talked out’ as at the 2nd Reading. It would then be rescheduled for another sitting Friday (if there are more available in that session) but any bills on 3rd reading or that already have their remaining stages (including Report stage) scheduled for that day would take precedence. Report stage would recommence but could be talked out again and, in theory this could repeat until the end of the session, at which point the bill would fall. A Closure Motion could however also be tabled as in the 2nd Reading debate. 

Given the proceedings so far, it is likely that Labour will table more amendments and attempt again to talk out the bill. If they don’t succeed and it passes the Report Stage successfully, it will then be given a 3rd Reading where no amendments can be presented. It will then move on to go through the same stages in the House of Lords where the bill will normally be ‘taken up’ by a private peer. If there are amendments in the Lords, the bill has to return to the Commons for further consideration. Given the lack of time for Private Member’s Bills this would reduce the Bill’s chances of success: it must be agreed in identical form in both Houses for it to become law.

Given the turmoil in British politics over the Brexit deal, it is hard to see at time of writing how this bill can realistically navigate a safe journey through the stormy seas ahead. But if it should manage to find a way through what one MP has called the ‘rabbit warren of parliamentary procedure’ it will no doubt have to be on the basis of some kind of compromise, or what MP Alex Norris referred to as “a Goldilocks solution somewhere in the middle”. 

This is how all previous debates in the UK on the overseas franchise have been concluded (see page on ‘History of Overseas Voting’ under Resources on this site). But in earlier debates, much of the argument was about how to define that ‘middle’ in terms of the time restriction, somewhere on a spectrum between 5-25 years. The debate has now moved on from accepting an ‘arbitrary’ cut off point and Votes For Life takes it into unchartered waters. But what the proceedings so far have highlighted is that ‘the Goldilocks solution’, if it emerges, will come not from the leading players in this performance but from behind the scenes.

The story of the Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 will resume after 25th January 2019.Please share your comments and questions on the Bill by signing up to the Discussion Forum

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