Extent, commencement and short title

Overseas Electors Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 24th October 2018.

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Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 3:15 pm, 24th October 2018

I beg to move amendment 28, in clause 3, page 8, line 11, at end insert—

“(2A) No regulations shall be made under subsection (2) until the report under section [Report on awareness of how to participate in elections as an overseas elector] has been laid before Parliament.”

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 5—Report on awareness of how to participate in elections as an overseas elector—

“(1) The Minister for the Cabinet Office or the Secretary of State must publish a report on levels of awareness of how to participate in parliamentary elections as a UK elector among—

(a) persons entitled to vote as an overseas elector under the provisions of this Act, and

(b) overseas electors in general.

(2) The report shall consider awareness of—

(a) the law governing entitlement to qualify and vote as an overseas elector,

(b) the processes of registering and voting, and

(c) other matters as the Minister for the Cabinet Office or the Secretary of State sees fit.

(3) The report shall set out any steps the Minister for the Cabinet Office or the Secretary of State intends to take to increase awareness of—

(a) how to participate in elections as an overseas elector, and

(b) the provisions of this Act

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Amendment 28 requests a report on the awareness of how to participate in elections as an overseas elector. We heard in the discussion of previous clauses about the dangers of overseas electors piling in as soon as an election is called. We discussed with the Minister the importance of electors participating early by registering as early as possible.

Based on the 2016 survey conducted by the Electoral Commission, it is clear that there remains widespread confusion about what it means to be an overseas voter and the eligibility criteria necessary to vote. This lack of awareness has the potential to create a significant barrier to casting a ballot. The survey found that there was widespread lack of awareness about eligibility requirements, with 31% believing that eligibility required receiving a UK state pension and 22% believing that it required owning a property in the UK.

Knowledge about voting eligibility is surely at the heart of our democratic society. The Government must act to inform British citizens about the eligibility of overseas voters. Indeed, the survey found that, among the overseas citizens eligible to participate in UK elections who responded to this survey, the overriding reason for not registering to vote or participating in UK elections is a lack of awareness of the process of both. Therefore, the amendment calls for a detailed report to be made on how to participate in elections as an overseas elector.

Photo of Glyn Davies Glyn Davies Conservative, Montgomeryshire

The amendment would delay the enfranchisement of many overseas citizens who are calling for the right to vote in our elections. On that basis, the amendment is unjustifiable, and I hope the hon. Gentleman feels able to withdraw it.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I echo what my hon. Friend says. The new clause makes the important point that we should work to raise awareness of voter registration and how people should take part in our democracy. However, it would be wrong to delay the implementation of the Bill while we conduct that assessment, which is what the amendment asks us to do. Too many British citizens overseas have been denied the right to vote for too long and it is not right to say that implementing the Bill must be contingent on a report and an exercise.

The Electoral Commission runs campaigns before elections to ensure that people are aware of when and how to register to vote and anything else they need to know. As part of its public awareness campaigns ahead of elections, it has noted that it will

“run activities overseas and work closely with the FCO and others to ensure that newly eligible British citizens understand what they need to do to register.”

The Government will work with the commission in communicating the new provisions. I hope billions of citizens around the world are following our proceedings from this Chamber as we speak, but if that is not the case, we have also committed to improving messaging on gov.uk, where people can find the information when they need it.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Having not pressed previous amendments to a vote that would provide greater time limits for electoral registration officers or for overseas electors to vote, I am concerned there will still be too much pressure or too little time for overseas voters. As part of the programme, there is a role for the Government and perhaps one of its agencies to promote eligibility, perhaps on gov.uk. I accept that the Minister has confidence in gov.uk, and will have to consider whether to press the amendment to a vote.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

In that case, taking into account the Minister’s response, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I beg to move amendment 29, in clause 3, page 8, line 11, at end insert—

“(2A) No regulations shall be made under subsection (2) until the report under section [Report on effects of extension of the franchise] has been laid before Parliament.”

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 1—Report on the effects on the number of registered electors—

“(1) The Secretary of State must prepare and publish a report on the effects of the provisions of this Act on—

(a) the number of overseas electors registered to vote in Parliamentary elections in each constituency, and

(b) the policy implications of any such changes.

(2) The report must consider—

(a) whether any differential effects on the electorates of constituencies necessitates a review of constituency boundaries, and

(b) the merits of creating one or more overseas constituencies.

(3) The report must be laid before Parliament within 3 years of the provisions of this Act coming into force.”

New clause 6—Report on effects of extension of franchise—

“(1) The Minister for the Cabinet Office or the Secretary of State must publish a report assessing the likely effects of the extension of the franchise in Section 1 of this Act and any measures necessary in response to those effects.

(2) The report must contain assessments of—

(a) how many British citizens currently resident overseas are eligible to register as overseas electors, and how many are likely to be eligible if the 15-year time limits under sections 1(3)(c) and 1(4)(a) of the Representation of the People Act 1985 were removed;

(b) likely demand for online registration services and how this demand should be met;

(c) the effects of removing the 15-year time limits on the workloads of local authorities, including demands on electoral registration officers, and how any consequent resourcing requirements should be met;

(d) any possible increased risk of electoral fraud by those purporting to be overseas electors related to the provisions in this Act;

(e) whether current election timetables are of sufficient duration to enable the full participation of any increased numbers of overseas electors;

(f) how the electorates of existing UK constituencies will be affected;

(g) how the electorates of new constituencies recommended by the most recent reports of the Boundary Commissions for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be affected.”

New clause 11—Evaluation of the effects of the Act—

“(1) The Minister for the Cabinet Office or the Secretary of State must, within 12 months of the provisions of this Act coming into force, lay before Parliament a report evaluating the effects of the Act and the extent to which it has met its objectives.

(2) That report must include assessments of the effects on numbers of overseas electors registered in each parliamentary constituency.”

New clause 15—Report on electoral offences, overseas electors and the extension of the franchise—

“(1) The Minister for the Cabinet Office or Secretary of State must publish a report on electoral offences, overseas electors and the extension of the franchise.

(2) The report must include assessments of—

(a) the effects of the extension of the franchise under the provisions of this Act on the incidence of—

(i) reports of electoral offences under the Representation of the People Act 1983, and

(ii) prosecutions for such offences,

(b) the capacity of appropriate authorities to investigate and prosecute such alleged offences,

(c) the number of reports of electoral offences under the Representation of the People Act 1983 alleged to have been committed by overseas electors—

(i) in the period since the provisions of this Act came into force, and

(ii) in a comparable period before the provisions of this Act came into force,

(d) the number of prosecutions for electoral offences under the Representation of the People Act 1983 alleged to have been committed by overseas electors—

(i) in the period since the provisions of this Act came into force, and

(ii) in a comparable period before the provisions of this Act came into force, and

(e) any steps to be taken to reduce the incidence of such electoral offences.”

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

The amendment is similar to one that has been laid by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, which is about a report on the effects on the number of registered electors. It is essential that there is appropriate evaluation and investigation of the effects of passing the Bill on the number of registered electors in each constituency. We must have a clear idea about the sheer volume of people we are enfranchising in order to establish the necessary procedure to register and deal with the inevitable administrative bedlam that will result from the change.

In my previous contribution, I referred to administrative effects. Furthermore, the potential introduction of millions of new voters will undoubtedly have consequences for constituency boundaries. Indeed, while the Government are attempting to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, attention perhaps needs to be paid to the great swathes of potential new electors requiring representation across constituencies in the UK. How is it logical that the Government plan to reduce the number of MPs while potentially dramatically increasing the number of voters? Has the Minister considered the impact of enfranchising millions of new overseas voters for the current constituency boundary plans?

Under the 15-year rule, the number of registered overseas voters in the June 2017 general election reached just over 285,000, surpassing the December 2016 record. The Government have estimated that that is about 20% of eligible expats under the current 15-year limit, giving a potential electorate of around 1.4 million. Indeed, the figure has the potential to increase fivefold with the passing of the Bill.

The number of overseas voters registering to vote has risen exponentially over the last 10 years and continues to rise. That can be attributed to the general increase in awareness by overseas voters about voter registration. Until 2015, the number of overseas voters registered to vote had never risen above 35,000. The EU referendum in June 2016 surpassed that record, with nearly 264,000 registered overseas voters.

Based on those statistics, there is no question but that overseas voters will have a great interest in casting their ballots once they are made aware of their ability to do so. It is therefore essential that the Government prepare for a scenario in which the majority of the newly enfranchised overseas voters resulting from the Bill register to vote. It is essential that they provide a report investigating the fall-out of that scenario on the volume of new electors required to be registered and the impact that that could have on our constituency boundaries.

Chair, I would appreciate your guidance at this stage. Shall I continue and discuss new clause 6 and beyond?

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

In that case, bearing in mind the time, I will plough on and try to get through it as quickly as possible.

Part of new clause 6 has already been covered. New clause 6 makes it clear that it is essential that a report is provided that details

“how many British citizens currently resident overseas are eligible to register as overseas electors, and how many are likely to be eligible” if the 15-year time limit is removed following the successful passage of the Bill.

Subsection (2)(b) considers the impact of extending the franchise on the

“likely demand for online registration services and how this demand should be met”.

The Minister has touched on online registration briefly before. It currently acts as a central tool for registering overseas voters and takes part of the burden away from EROs. Overseas electors can now register online and no longer require another British passport holder to countersign the registration form, which reduces administrative work at a local level.

Paragraph 10 of the Government’s policy statement says:

“Applicants will continue to be able to make applications using the register to vote service on GOV.UK, as well as by using paper forms or (in some cases) by telephone.”

However, the Association of Electoral Administrators has outlined several practical issues with sustaining the online system after the 15-year rule is removed. The online platform struggles to stay up to date with new addresses as a result of frequent new housing developments. That problem will be exacerbated with the proposed removal of the 15-year restriction on overseas electors, as previous addresses from many years ago may no longer exist. If the proposed removal of the 15-year application restriction for overseas electors is enacted, the gov.uk online registration service will need to be adapted and improved to allow overseas applications to be made online even though the previous property may have been demolished and/or redeveloped.

I will try to canter through the rest, because I am concerned about the time. Subsection 2(c) considers

“the effects of removing the 15-year time limits on the workloads of local authorities, including demands on electoral registration officers, and how any consequent resourcing…should be met”.

I touched on that in the Committee’s meeting last week, especially the wellbeing of electoral registration staff and the integrity of our local system when staff are overburdened and either cannot process applications quickly enough or give scant regard to the credibility or integrity of an application because there are simply so many to deal with.

Electoral registration officers are valuable, skilled members of our civil service at a local level and provide the vital administrative work behind our elections. Increasing the number of British citizens overseas who are eligible to register to vote will add strain to the already stretched resources of electoral administrators. The Minister has previously indicated that additional resources will be given to meet those extra strains, and I hope that that pledge will continue. Before continuing with the Bill, the Government must consider in detail the effects of removing the 15-year time limit on the workloads of local authorities.

Subsection (2)(d) asks that proper consideration be given to the possibility of increased opportunities for electoral fraud as a result of the Bill. The Government have claimed a strict stance on electoral fraud in the UK, as we discussed earlier, by saying that they are committed to boosting confidence in our democratic process and to safeguarding elections against fraud. That is clearly evidenced by their plans to extend the requirement to show ID when voting. Some Opposition Members worry that that is more about voter suppression, but we have already had that discussion. It is a little absurd that the Government are trying to make it harder for people living in this country to vote by requiring them to show ID, while they are creating a system of overseas voters that is potentially wide open to abuse.

We previously discussed attestation rules. A sworn statement is not sufficient security to prevent fraudulent applications when legal proceedings are very unlikely to be taken forward, given that both applicant and attester are living abroad—that is something I discussed earlier with my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North. Considering the strict rules enforced by the Government in UK voter ID programmes, we question how they can take such a hard-line stance on domestic voters but allow more lax rules for overseas voters. That goes back to the point that the Minister made earlier about treating voters equally.

Moving on to paragraph (e), relating to the previous discussion, it is also important that we consider

“whether current election timetables are of sufficient duration to enable the full participation of any increased numbers of overseas electors”.

We have discussed polling day minus 12 being the present registration deadline. We therefore need a proper investigation to see how that works. Forgive me if I am going a little too quickly, but I am keen that we make progress with our consideration.

Paragraph (f) relates to

“how the electorates of existing UK constituencies will be affected”.

That is perhaps the most important part of the new clause. With an estimated 5 million new voters being enfranchised, detailed provision must be put in place regarding how those voters will affect current UK constituencies. As the Minister knows well, the Opposition want a fair boundary system that benefits our democracy, not just the electoral interests of the Conservative party. Cutting the number of MPs by 50 while planning to enfranchise 5 million new voters is beyond illogical. Clearly the political context has changed significantly since the flawed proposals were first floated under the prime ministership of David Cameron, but the spread of new voters across the constituencies, and how they will be allocated, is crucial. There must be detailed consideration to prepare for that.

I would like the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon to be able to speak as well. With your permission, Mr Robertson, I will sit down and return to new clause 11 shortly.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

Thank you, Mr Robertson, for allowing me to speak specifically on new clause 1. Many of the issues that I am trying to raise with it have been well described, not just today but in our session last week.

The new clause would require the Secretary of State to publish a report about the number of electors. We very much hope that many millions, if possible, of electors register. My concern is that we do not know where they will register, although we can guess. Many young people in particular may have last been in London before they got a job that allowed them to go abroad, so there is a chance that some constituencies could be artificially inflated in numbers and then have to be artificially made smaller geographically by the Boundary Commission to sort that out.

My worry about the Boundary Commission is that, as we all know, we should have had boundary changes already. It should have happened three years ago and it has not. The reason for having a report is not to pre-empt what it might say; we have to ensure that the issue of where overseas electors go is looked at promptly after the first possible point at which they are likely to register, which, let us face it, will be at the next general election.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

I have a constituent living overseas who would be completely confused, because in the last nine years she would have had three constituencies. Assuming the boundary review goes through, she will not know where the hell she started from.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

I very much welcome that intervention because that is one of the many reasons the Electoral Commission proposes a solution—a solution that is in the Liberal Democrat manifesto.

The number of people who have registered to vote has inflated since the referendum, as it should. What is happening with the UK and Brexit has galvanised people’s interest in having a say in what it means to be British, and the effect it is going to have on them abroad. In particular, those Britons who live in the EU, such as my parents, now have very specific issues. If Brexit happens, they will continue to have those issues. I hope that the negotiated settlement will sort out all of the issues with British citizens living in the EU and European citizens living here, but let us imagine that there will be things to iron out.

So the proposal is that the Government go away and, at this point, now that the political wind has changed, look at the possibility of overseas constituencies. New clause 1 does not suggest that we say now that that should happen; it simply asks the Government to make sure they come back to this House after the likely date of the next general election, having considered how many overseas electors are registered, where they are and what kinds of issues they have, so that as early as possible, this House has a proper chance to sort out what are likely to be a number of major kinks resulting from this very welcome Bill.

I will finish by raising my other concern, which is about the effect of large numbers of constituents coming into small numbers of constituencies, which then go through a Boundary Commission process that artificially shrinks the geographical size of those constituencies. Let us imagine that 70,000 people enter Oxford West and Abingdon. That is fine—I very much welcome them—but it means that my constituency, geographically, decreases by a third or two thirds. [Interruption.] Or whatever it may be. However, the current boundaries also take into account local authority boundaries and ward boundaries. There is a geographical link that matters to the people who live in the constituency. They have different needs from overseas electors. It is not just about having MPs who can specifically address the issues of those overseas electors, but making sure that MPs who are here can properly serve—in the geographical sense—the constituents who live on this land, in our communities.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

One of my concerns about the Bill as it stands is that there is a lack of clarity as to which constituency an overseas voter might seek to join, and might be added to. That might artificially inflate the number of overseas voters in a particular constituency. Does the hon. Lady share my concerns?

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

I absolutely share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. I also share concerns about increased workloads in certain parts of the country, should it be the case that overseas voters are not evenly distributed. We can probably assume—it is more likely than not—that they will not be evenly distributed.

To reiterate, all that new clause 1 does is ask the Government to ensure that, at the first available opportunity after the next general election, they come back and commit to considering all those points. It is not enough just to allow the Boundary Commission to do that, because these two things must be considered together. The Boundary Commission cannot say whether it wants overseas constituencies; that is a matter for this House to consider, and it should be a matter for the Government to consider, in conjunction with the change to the number of constituencies.

Photo of Glyn Davies Glyn Davies Conservative, Montgomeryshire

I must say that I do not appreciate it when Opposition Members say things that I agree with, as that makes my position a little bit difficult, but I want to emphasise that—as has been a trend today—the points that are being made by Members on the Opposition Benches are all reasonable. Our aim in resisting them is that we want to maintain the credibility of the Bill—it is a Bill that will achieve wide support—and make sure that it goes through.

As with amendment 28, which was tabled by the hon. Member for City of Chester, these provisions would postpone the enfranchisement of many overseas citizens who rightly want to vote in our elections. I stress that the Bill is a single-issue Bill, and I think the amendments are a distraction from that. I hope that hon. Members will not press their proposals.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip 3:45 pm, 24th October 2018

The first point that I want to make in relation to this pair of amendments—which goes more to the arguments made by the hon. Member for City of Chester—is that the Government have already produced an extensive impact assessment on the Bill, as would be expected. That report has, I am sure, been essential bedtime reading for all members of the Committee and many others. It is not necessary to carry out a second assessment of the kind of material that is already in the impact assessment, and I join to that a general point: it would be wrong to delay the enfranchisement of British citizens overseas through the publication of further reports. I see a common thread in a number of amendments, and I am not persuaded that we should hold on that enfranchisement until we have a library shelf full of reports.

Let me address some of the more specific details that have been raised. First, I stress again the Government’s commitment to funding additional costs that arise from the proposed measures—I said that last week and I say it again. I send that message of reassurance out.

The hon. Member for City of Chester addressed the workload and concerns of administrators. We are addressing the costs, and I am very sympathetic to the arguments about their work. I work closely with the Association of Electoral Administrators, as well as other bodies, and I listen to administrators. I will carry on doing that as a matter of course. I do not need a report tied up with a bow to tell me to do it—I will do it week in, week out, because it is my role. None the less, let it be taken that I take that part of the proposal very seriously. I hope that has addressed that point.

On the issue of boundaries, discussed by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, as she and all hon. Members know, boundary reviews are run by the Boundary Commissions and take into account overarching electorate numbers—they make no distinction between overseas voters and domestic voters, and the way that the hon. Lady explained new clause 1 makes it very clear that that is the starting point we are all going from. It is also the case that the legislation that we work to requires that they are taken from a set point in time and that that will happen regularly into the future.

That legislation is absolutely supported by the Government. Whether we are or are not having arguments in other Committee Rooms at other points in our Wednesdays, we support regular reviews in the future that take into account overarching electorate numbers and, therefore, we do not need a further report that checks on those electorate numbers. The Boundary Commissions’ work can properly take into account where overseas electors are and apportion them.

I very much understand the geographical point made by the hon. Lady. Were what she described to happen, I certainly would expect that to be a matter of discussion with the Boundary Commission. Independent as it is, I imagine that it would observe that phenomenon and wish to highlight it. I would be happy to look into the practicalities of that further if that work were to give rise to results that were surprising or undesirable. The Boundary Commissions are scrupulously independent, and quite rightly so, so I do not at all wish it to be heard from me today that I am suggesting that I would change their work—I am absolutely not—but I am saying that their work exists and does the data job that new clause 1 is asking for. I would be very happy to look into any further issues should they arise in the future.

Let me move on to the hon. Lady’s other fundamental question, which was about the creation of overseas constituencies. She and I have discussed the matter before, and we are probably all aware that there are several ways in which it could theoretically be arranged. There is some variation around the world: some countries take the constituency approach, but generally other democracies that allow overseas voting use the connection principle, as we do. Our policy in the Bill is to continue with that principle, which requires electors to have a connection to the part of the country in which they last resided. That is a bedrock of British democracy and it is important to maintain it. I understand and respect the argument for a different configuration of voters, but I am not persuaded by it personally, and nor will the Government support it. Nor is it what my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire advocates in his Bill.

Several points were raised about new clause 6, which would require a report on voter fraud, and new clause 15, which would require a report on issues relating to offences committed as a result of the changes made by the Bill. Again, it is worth stating the general principle: the Government are absolutely committed to strengthening our electoral processes and enhancing public confidence in the rigour of democratic processes. I described earlier how measures in the Bill will help to achieve that, such as the limit on the number of attestations per attestor for overseas electors, which will guard against fraud.

Hon. Members can be confident that I am committed to maintaining and reinforcing our democracy and strengthening electoral integrity. There are certainly other measures now or soon to be before the House that relate to achieving that across our democracy. Do we need an extra report under the Bill to help us to do that? I do not think so. First, the Electoral Commission already publishes annual reports on electoral fraud in UK elections. That is an important safeguard, and it is the Electoral Commission’s role to oversee it, rather than the Government preparing an extra report. Secondly, I do not believe that there is a body of evidence to suggest that fraud is a problem that relates specifically to overseas electors. The hon. Member for Nottingham North touched on that argument earlier today, but at this point I do not think there is an evidence base for pointing the finger at that issue.

There is no question of the Government or the Electoral Commission ceasing to keep voter fraud under review. We are vigilant about it, as indeed are the registration officers and local authority staff who manage these things—it is their role as much as anybody else’s. All parts of the system are vigilant about voter fraud. We will keep all arrangements under consideration and make improvements where we see that they are needed. However, I do not accept that a report is necessary for that, as the new clauses argue. We would seek to do it anyway.

I hope that I have been helpful to the Committee by drawing out themes common to the amendment and new clauses. The key point is that I will continue to observe the practical implications for fraud and for the hard work of administrators, and the effect on our national data sets, of the distribution of voters across the country. I ask the Committee to agree that a report is not necessary.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I do not wish to detain the Committee. I am grateful to the Minister for her detailed response, and I have no problem with finding myself agreeing with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, whom I consider a friend. He is showing great patience as we test and probe the details of his Bill.

I remain concerned about the Bill’s effect on constituencies, which the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon raised, and about the lack of clarity about how voters might join a constituency. However, we have made decent progress today, and I thank hon. Members for their contributions. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Glyn Davies.)

Adjourned till Wednesday 31 October at Two o’clock.