British citizens living overseas are currently entitled to be registered to vote in UK Parliamentary elections for up to 15 years in the constituency they were registered in before leaving the UK. The Government has committed to end the 15-year limit and introduce 'votes for life'. This Briefing Paper provides details of the provisions relating to overseas voters in the Representation of the People Act 1985 and the proposals for change. It also summarises earlier attempts to change the 15 year rule.
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Who are overseas voters and what is the 15-year rule?
British citizens living overseas are entitled to be registered to vote in UK Parliamentary elections for up to 15 years in the constituency they were registered in before leaving the UK. They are not entitled to vote in UK local elections or elections to the devolved assemblies.
Until 2015 the number of overseas voters registered to vote had never risen above 35,000. In the annual ONS electoral register figures of December 2016 this had risen to 264,000. This was largely because of an overseas voter registration campaign in the run up to the 2015 General Election and interest in the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.
At the UK General Election of 2017 there were a record 285,000 registered overseas voters. The Government estimated that this was about 20% of eligible expats under the current 15-year limit. As overseas voters must re-register annually, and there were no scheduled elections in which they could participate in 2018, that figure dropped to 125,000 in December 2018. At the December 2019 General Election the nmuber had risen to 233,000.
There are different arrangements for the armed forces and these are covered in Library Standard Note SN/PC/4276, Armed forces voting. There are also separate arrangements for Crown servants and British Council employees working overseas.
The Government’s commitment to remove the 15 year rule
After the 2015 General Election the Government indicated that it would bring forward a Votes for Life Bill in the Queen’s Speech of 27 May 2015. The Government indicated that its provisions would scrap the 15 year rule: make it easier for overseas voters to cast their votes in time for them to be counted and allow for the secure and accessible registration of overseas voters.
During Business questions on 21 July 2016, the Leader of the House, David Lidington, indicated that extending the franchise was 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.”
On 7 October 2016 the Government published a policy statement, A democracy that works for everyone: British citizens overseas, which sets out how the 15 year rule will be removed and how all eligible British citizens who have lived in the UK will be given a lifelong right to vote in Parliamentary elections. British citizens living abroad will have to provide either a verifiable National Insurance number, or a current UK passport, or an identity attestation, in order to be registered as an overseas voter.
Overseas voters would continue to be registered at a previous address in the UK and the Electoral Registration Officer would need to be satisfied of their connection with that address. The registration will last for twelve months and will then have to be renewed.
A commitment to introduce votes for life was also included in the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2017 General Election.
The Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 was a Private Member’s Bill, sponsored by Glyn Davies MP, which sought to end the 15-year time limit and therefore fulfilling the Government’s manifesto commitment. It was drafted with the assistance of the Government.
The Bill was presented and given a first reading on 19 July 2017 and it was given a Second Reading on 23 February 2018. It completed its committee stage without amendment. Report stage was held on Friday 22 March but the Bill made no further progress. The Library briefing, Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 details the provisions of the Bill.
The Government has said that it remains committed to ending the 15-year limit.
Could overseas voters vote in the EU referendum?
The franchise for the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU was the Parliamentary franchise and overseas voters were therefore able to vote in the referendum. The Electoral Commission’s overseas voter day took place on 10 May 2016; this was supported by embassies and consulates around the world and was aimed at encouraging British citizens who are eligible to register as overseas voters to do so before 16 May 2016 so that they could vote in the EU referendum. The Commission also ran a public awareness campaign for overseas voters from 17 March to 9 June 2016. Over 135,000 overseas voters regsitered in this period.
Court cases which have challenged the legality of the 15 year rule
Harry Shindler, a British citizen who has lived in Italy since 1982, and Jacquelyn MacLennan, who has lived in Brussels since 1987, were not able to vote in the EU referendum and took a case to the High Court challenging the legality of the franchise for the referendum which excluded British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years. The High Court’s judgment on 28 April 2016 rejected the claim. Shindler and MacLennan sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court; this application was heard on 9 May 2016 and leave to appeal was refused by the Court in a judgment on 20 May 2016.
On 24 May 2016 the Supreme Court refused Shindler and MacLennan’s application for permission to appeal the Court of Appeal’s judgment which will therefore stand.
Download the full report
- Overseas voters (PDF, 521 KB)