A briefing paper on the legal issues surrounding a Scottish independence referendum
Documents to download
Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 (567 KB , PDF)
This briefing summarises the provisions and progress of the Bill and gives a brief background to overseas voter registration. More information is also available in Library briefing SN05923, Overseas voters.
The Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 was a Private Member’s Bill, sponsored by Glyn Davies, which sought to end the 15-year time limit currently placed on overseas voters voting in UK Parliamentary elections.
Before 1985 British citizens resident outside the United Kingdom were unable to register to vote in UK Parliamentary elections. When the franchise was extended British citizens resident overseas for the first time a time limit of 5 years was introduced. This was changed to a 20-year limit in 1990 and then lowered to the current 15-year limit in 2002.
Overseas voters cannot vote in local government elections.
The Bill would have removed the time limit and allowed British citizens resident overseas to register to vote in UK Parliamentary elections permanently, subject to a person renewing their registration annually.
The Bill applied to the United Kingdom. The Parliamentary franchise is a reserved measure and no legislative consent is required from devolved legislatures.
Stages of the Bill
The Bill was given a Second Reading on 23 February 2018. There was no cross-party consensus on the Bill with, broadly speaking, Conservative Members supporting the Bill and most Labour Members who spoke opposing the Bill. Second reading was passed without a division.
The Public Bill Committee held four sessions on the Bill. There were nine divisions, but the Bill passed the committee stage without amendment. The main points raised at the committee stage included reducing the voting age and technical amendments on gradually introducing ‘votes for life’ by extending the 15-year limit year on year, defining residence, documentation required for proving eligibility, registration deadlines during an election and donations from overseas voters. There were also amendments that would have required a minister to produce reports and assessments on the impacts of the Bill.
The report stage of the Bill was held on 22 March 2019. The Bill did not make further progress and stood adjourned at the end of the day’s debate.
Provisions of the Bill
Overseas voters are currently able to register to vote in UK Parliamentary elections for up to 15 years after they moved away from the UK. The main purpose of the Bill was to remove the time-limit.
The Bill would have made other important changes. Under the current arrangements, a person can only register at the last address at which they were registered to vote in the UK. Anyone who previously had not registered to vote was unable to register as an overseas voter. The only exception was those who left the UK as children and had never been registered because of their age, who are able to register to vote in respect of their parent or guardian’s previous registration address.
The Bill would have allowed any qualifying British citizen resident overseas to register in respect of an address at which they were last previously resident in the UK, even if they had never previously registered to vote.
The Bill will also made new provisions for a renewal process for overseas registrations and for guidance to be issued by a Minister in respect of registration or renewal of an overseas elector.
The Bill made provisions for a Minister to vary the registration period for an overseas registration period to be valid. Current overseas voters must register every 12 months. A Minister could only propose this change having consulted the Electoral Commission and any change must be made by statutory instrument and approved by Parliament by the affirmative procedure. The electoral community have been critical of this proposal, in particular noting that other ‘special category’ electors, such as those registering anonymously, are registered annually. The Government have responded to criticism of this proposal by stating it does not plan to use the power until there was consensus about the desirability of any change.
Overseas voters are not eligible to vote in local government elections or elections that use the local government franchise (for example devolved legislature elections or police and crime commissioner elections). The Bill would make no changes to the local government franchise.
The Bill also makes no changes to referendums. The main regulatory framework for referendums in the UK is set out by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000. However, each referendum still requires separate legislation to enable the referendum to take place. The separate legislation sets out requirements such as the franchise to be used and the question to be asked.
The Parliament website has a Bill page for each Bill before either House of Parliament. The progress of the Bill can be viewed here: Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19
The Government included a commitment to end the 15-year rule for overseas electoral registration in its manifestos for the 2015 and 2017 General Elections.
In October 2016, the Government published a policy document outlining the current system of electoral registration for overseas voters. The document included how the Government planned to end the 15-year rule and implement ‘votes for life’. The Government said it would welcome feedback from interested parties. The response to the feedback received was published on 8 February 2018.
The history of overseas voter registration is outlined in the Library briefing SN05923, Overseas voters
Help for Members of Parliament and their staff
In addition to writing and updating published papers as bills go through Parliament, the House of Commons Library can assist Members of Parliament and their staff with individual enquiries about bills, particularly on the policy background.
The Public Bill Office (PBO) supports public bill committees. The staff working in the PBO can advise Members of Parliament on tabling amendments to bills and on the drafting of Private Members’ Bills.
Documents to download
Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 (567 KB , PDF)
Parliamentary constituency boundaries are reviewed periodically by independent Boundary Commissions. This House of Commons Library briefing summarises the current rules and procedures for boundary changes and how they have changed over time. It also gives an overview how the number of MPs has reached the current level of 650.
Parliamentary constituency boundaries reviews are undertaken by independent Boundary Commissions. There are four Commissions, one for each of the nations of the UK. The Commissions rely on public feedback to refine their proposals. This briefing summarises the consultation process