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Extent, commencement and short title

Part of Overseas Electors Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 31st October 2018.

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Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 2:00 pm, 31st October 2018

What a great pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I may be incorrect, but I think this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship in my three and a half years in this place, in which I still consider myself richly privileged to serve.

My amendments and new clauses would require a detailed review of absent voting arrangements. I have some problems with the Bill in principle, including an objection to the idea of people continuing to have a vote when they have lived overseas for many years and have no direct connection with this country. However, these amendments reflect concerns not about the principle of the Bill, but about how its proposals will be administered.

My staff and I have sought the advice of local electoral administrators and the Association of Electoral Administrators to understand the administrative burdens and pressures that the Bill would place on them. Local administrators are charged with upholding our democracy by maintaining the integrity of electoral registrations; they need to ensure that everybody who should be allowed to register can do so, but that those who seek to exploit the register for nefarious reasons are exposed, caught out and dealt with. As with previous amendments, I have sought a response at least from the Minister and from the Member in charge, my good friend the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire.

The amendments would request consideration for the administrative burdens that might fall on local electoral registration officers, often at a time when the pressure on them is at a maximum—we know from past practice in election years that most people seek to register as voters only when an election is called. Given the current state of confusion surrounding absent voting arrangements for overseas voters, the Government need to carry out proper investigations into the reasons for that patchy record. Sufficient time is required for any absent voter arrangements to be put in place, so that overseas electors can cast their vote at the election or referendum in time for it to be counted.

The hon. Member for Kingswood, who is a former Minister, made a very helpful contribution last week, explaining that the timing issue is central to the way the timetable is worked out. It is worked back from polling day, and there are other considerations such as the close of nominations and laying out a suitable period for postal votes. As we already have that timetable in place, reviewing how it might be affected by a large increase in absent voting and postal voting might be a useful exercise to undertake before the Bill becomes law so that electoral registration officers are fully prepared for the arduous task that they may well face.

I am requesting a review to consider whether the current voting arrangements grant sufficient time for overseas electors to participate adequately in parliamentary elections. Furthermore, I share the concerns of the Association of Electoral Administrators that there needs to be greater emphasis on encouraging overseas electors to establish clear absent voting arrangements and to do so in good time. Failure to prepare absent voting arrangements serves to further burden our already overworked and dedicated electoral staff.

Currently the deadline to apply as an overseas elector and for absent voting arrangements is polling day minus 12 —I think this is getting to the point that the hon. Member for Kingswood alluded to last week. Absent voting arrangements refer to any form of voting not carried out at the polling station, with proxy voting and postal voting being the two principal mechanisms. In order to vote, overseas electors have three options; they can vote by post, by proxy or in person if they happen to be in the UK on election day. It is vital that those three options function efficiently in the run-up to elections. A review of the current system of absent voting for overseas voters is necessary before the Government consider enfranchising millions of new overseas voters. Indeed, a number of significant faults have been exposed in recent elections that need to be reviewed and resolved before we are ready to take the next step of expanding the franchise as significantly as is proposed.

At both the EU referendum in 2016 and the UK parliamentary elections in 2015, the processing of absent voting applications for overseas voters was a real challenge for EROs. The AEA has outlined a number of areas of concern relating to absent voting arrangements. It fears that difficulties experienced between 2015 and 2017 will only be exacerbated with the removal of the 15-year rule. One significant issue relates to the failure of many overseas voters to provide absent voting information. In what has become a commonplace occurrence, a significant number of overseas electors did not request absent voting facilities when originally applying to register. That resulted in administrators spending significant time contacting, or attempting to contact, those individuals to seek their instructions, and in numerous situations whereby overseas electors were registered but were unable to participate without returning to their polling station.

I will dwell on that point for a moment. The Association of Electoral Administrators talks about its members making a proactive attempt to contact overseas voters to encourage them to make suitable arrangements. That electoral registration officers will do that speaks not only to their dedication, but to the additional workload that will need to be supported, particularly if we increase the franchise as greatly as is proposed.