I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is another Bill relating to the forthcoming general election. It would ensure higher participation among those who would be entitled to vote if they registered, notwithstanding the fact that they are overseas. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, on which I have the privilege of serving, has been considering voter participation. Although the focus at the beginning was mainly on the situation within the United Kingdom, during the course of our inquiry a lot more emphasis has been given to the situation of British citizens who are resident overseas and would otherwise be entitled to vote.
It is estimated that there may be as many as 5 million such people. How many of them are currently registered? The latest figure is about 16,000 of a potential 5 million or more. That is scandalous, and I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Mr Gyimah, whom I am pleased to see on the Front Bench, agrees that there needs to be much greater participation among electors who are resident overseas.
Clause 1 should, therefore, commend itself to the Government. It would impose a
“duty on the Electoral Commission so far as is reasonably practicable to…identify the names and addresses of British citizens resident overseas who would be able to participate in United Kingdom Parliamentary elections if they were registered to vote, and…facilitate the registration of those identified”.
Clause 2 of this simple Bill states:
“There shall be no restriction placed on the eligibility of a British citizen resident overseas to register to vote or vote in UK Parliamentary elections based solely upon the length of time that such voter has been resident overseas.”
That would remove the current 15-year restriction, a subject on which my hon. Friend Geoffrey Clifton-Brown has a ten-minute rule Bill. The proposal has the support of the Conservative party and I understand that it will be a definite part of its manifesto—a pledge to remove the 15-year restriction on an overseas voter’s eligibility to vote if they are a British citizen who would otherwise be eligible to do so.
Clause 3 deals with internet voting. I am always keen to embrace new technology, as my wife and family will testify, so why should we not embrace new technology in the voting system? Anyone who is resident in the United Kingdom in the run-up to an election can obtain a proxy or a postal vote, or can vote in person at the polling station. That is much more difficult for those who are resident overseas. Obviously, they cannot physically vote at a polling station because we, unlike a lot of other countries, do not set up polling stations in our embassies or in other buildings in foreign countries. People who are resident overseas therefore have to rely on a proxy or a postal vote.
It is possible to organise a proxy vote if it is planned in advance and if the person who is overseas knows somebody in this country who can exercise it. However, with postal voting, it is difficult to ensure that the ballot paper is sent to the person who is resident overseas in sufficient time to enable them to put the ballot paper back in the post and return it to the United Kingdom so that it can be included in the count. That situation has been eased to an extent, because the Government have said that there will be a longer period between the close of nominations and printing of ballot papers and the date of the election. However, we know that a relatively small proportion of those overseas who are registered to vote actually do vote. One reason for that is the difficulty of registering their vote.
If we are to go down the road of internet voting—I know that some colleagues are sceptical about it—surely we should allow it for those who are overseas. Just as people can now Skype their friends and relatives who are overseas at practically zero cost, I see no reason why we should not facilitate, through the internet, increased participation among United Kingdom citizens who are resident overseas and who rightly take a close interest in what we do in this legislature.
I have said to a number of people who have written to me on this subject that if more British citizens who are resident overseas participated in our elections, it would strengthen the case for reforming things such as the rights of British pensioners overseas to pension increases and there would be a lot more pressure on Parliament to give those overseas pensioners justice. People would realise that we are not talking about just a handful of potential voters in a constituency, but about hundreds or thousands of people who could influence the outcome of an election if we continue not to allow overseas pensioners a fair deal.
This is a Bill with three straightforward clauses. It provides Ministers with the opportunity, under clause 3, to bring forward regulations to deal with internet voting. I have to admit that my drafting skills did not enable me to produce a detailed regime for overseas internet voting, so I am relying on somebody else to do the donkey work on that. However, it is important that the Bill states, as it does in clause 3(2), that any regulations must
“include provisions to prevent identity fraud and to ensure that only those eligible to vote can vote.”