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Who are overseas voters and what is the 15-year rule?

British citizens living overseas are currently entitled to be registered to vote in UK Parliamentary elections for up to 15 years in the constituency in which they were registered before leaving the UK. This category of voter, ‘overseas voters’, are not entitled to vote in UK local elections or elections to the devolved assemblies. There are different arrangements for the armed forces and these are covered in the Library briefing, Armed forces voting.

This Briefing Paper provides background to the provisions relating to overseas voters and on the previous attempts to change the overseas voting time limit. It also summarises the Government’s current commitment to end the 15-year rule.

Information is also given about the procedure for registering to vote as an overseas elector and the means of voting, either by post or by proxy. The briefing also has information on the problems overseas voters face in relation to the election timetable and barriers to the current process.

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. At the time Government estimated that this is about 20% of eligible expats under the current 15-year limit. Since that peak the number dropped back to around 125,000 in December 2018 but rose to 233,000 for the December 2019 General Election.

As overseas voters must re-register annually, there registration levels often fluctuate depending on whether a scheduled general election is expected. Unexpected elections, such as the December 2019 General Election can cause problems with overseas electors unable to participate, as a result of relatively short time scales in which to register and vote, particularly if they leave it to the last deadline to register in advance of the election.

History of overseas voter registration

Before 1985 British citizens resident outside the United Kingdom were unable to register to vote in UK Parliamentary elections. During the 1970s there was pressure to extend the franchise to British citizens living and working abroad and in 1983 the Home Affairs Select Committee recommended that all UK citizens resident in the then European Economic Community (EEC) countries should have the right to vote in British Parliamentary elections.

The Government consulted on extending voting rights to all British citizens living abroad and then brought in a Bill that recommended allowing British residents overseas to register to vote for 7 years after they left. The Representation of the People Act 1985 as passed allowed overseas voters to register for 5 years after they had left the UK.

The Government committed to keeping the new provisions under review but take up was low and the Conservative manifesto for the 1987 general election promised to extend the period of eligibility. The Representation of the People Act 1989 extended the period to 20 years. The Bill, as introduced had recommended a 25-year limit but following debate on a number of different options, an opposition amendment recommending the 20-year limit was adopted.

The Home Affairs Select Committee published a report in 1998 recommended that the 5-year limit should be restored. The Home Office reported that most of the correspondence it had received on the issue was from people resident abroad for more than twenty years arguing for the limit to be increased.

In the end, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill 1999-2000 Bill included a provision to reduce the limit to 10 years. An amendment to create a 15-year limit was subsequently passed unopposed in the House of Lords and it is this time-limit that has remained in place since.

‘Votes for life’

The current Government is committed to removing the 15-year rule. In the March 2021 budget £2.5 million was committed to ending the 15-year limit, with legislation expected later in 2021.

After the general election in 2015, the Government had indicated that it would bring forward a ‘votes for life bill’ which would remove 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. The change would require primary legislation.

During Business Questions on 21 July 2016, the then Leader of the House, David Lidington, explained 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 set 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, the so called ‘votes for life’. The Government re-iterated its commitment to legislation to implement for ‘votes for life’ in the Conservative Party’s 2017 General Election manifesto.

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. The Library briefing, Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 details the provisions and progress of the Bill.

It was given a Second Reading on 23 February 2018 and has completed its committee stages. The report stage of the Bill was held on 22 March 2019. The Bill did not make further progress and fell at the end of the 2017-19 session.

The Government remains committed to the ending of the 15-year rule. It repeated its commitment to ‘votes for life’ in its 2019 election manifesto and has stated it will announce its next steps in due course.

Legal challenges to the 15-year limit

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 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. They 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. Shindler and Maclennan claimed that the 15-year rule, as applied to eligibility to vote in the EU referendum, constituted a restriction on their rights of free movement.

The High Court’s judgment on 28 April 2016 rejected the claim. Shindler and MacLennan sought leave to appeal the judgment in the Court of Appeal; 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 therefore stood.

Harry Shindler had previously taken his case to the European Court of Human Rights. In 2009 he argued that no time limit should be imposed on the right of British citizens living overseas to vote in the UK. In its judgment on 7 May 2013, the European Court ruled that there had been no violation of Article 3 of Protocol No 1 (right to free elections) of the European Convention on Human Rights and determined that the UK had legitimately confined the parliamentary franchise to those citizens who had ‘a close connection to the UK and who would therefore be most directly affected by its laws.’

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