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

I have to say that I do not know the answer to that question. The hon. and gallant Gentleman is probably better versed in international affairs than I am. That is precisely the kind of question that could be asked as part of such a review. The Cabinet Office Minister who will be responsible for implementing the Bill could well speak to their counterparts in the Foreign Office to find out what support and information is and, perhaps more importantly, should be available via British embassies and our network of high commissions and, in larger countries, consulates. That is a very interesting suggestion, which deserves deeper consideration. That is the intention behind the amendment.

Following the Bill’s passage, EROs will inevitably be overburdened by the intense administrative cost of registering the influx of new overseas voters. Given that extra workload, it seems only fair to grant EROs more time to process absent vote forms. At the very least, a review of the procedure is required.

At previous elections, there were issues with electors having limited understanding or unrealistic expectations of the process. Many applied for postal votes when they were unlikely to receive and return them in time. The significant spike in applications for postal votes in the lead-up to a general election inevitably places EROs under stress, as they are overburdened with applications in the short period before the election. That is despite the fact, which I have already referred to, that some go out of their way to try to resolve proactively the problems that electors face, in addition to dealing with complaints or queries from domestically resident voters on the register.

Many overseas voters who applied for postal voting expected to be sent a postal vote immediately. That is simply unrealistic and puts too much strain on EROs in the lead-up to a general election. In addition, some overseas voters appointed a proxy who themselves lived a distance from the local authority area in which the overseas elector was registered. Again, that led to many votes remaining uncast, simply because the proxy could not attend the relevant polling station.

Electoral administrators faced unnecessary and unreasonable criticism as a result of those issues. The process of applying for an absentee vote is convoluted and difficult. The AEA has raised that issue on many occasions, especially in view of the Government’s proposal to remove the 15-year registration period for overseas electors. Will the Minister consider whether her Department has responded to the AEA’s concerns? What consideration has it given to those issues?

Have the Government considered reviewing the proxy voting process for newly eligible overseas voters if the Bill passes? It may be difficult for voters who have lived abroad for decades even to find a proxy. They may lack any personal connection to their old constituency. Will regulations be put in place to require the proxy to live in the constituency? I do not believe that is the case at the moment, but I am interested to know whether this is necessary.

The AEA’s position on that matter is unequivocal. It stated:

“In view of this time limit being removed, consideration needs to be given to the deadline being brought forward for overseas electors to register so that it allows sufficient time to process and check previous revisions of registers, followed by documentary evidence or attestations being provided, if necessary. In addition, sufficient time is required to arrange for any absent vote arrangements to be put in place so that the overseas elector can cast their vote at the election or referendum in time for it to be counted.”

In moving other amendments, other hon. Members and I have suggested that people should have a greater responsibility, or be required to provide greater proof, to demonstrate a connection to a particular constituency. That may have seemed onerous, particularly when we were considering previous clauses. However, there is an argument that doing that earlier and making those applications much more robust would mean that less work would need to be done closer to the deadline for people who have already been through the process and registered.

My fear is that, with the removal of the 15-year rule, the fears expressed by the Association of Electoral Administrators will only increase. In its 2016 report, the AEA made the following recommendation:

“The UK Government should consider ways in which overseas electors are encouraged, or indeed required, to make suitable absent vote arrangements at the time they register to vote.”

I also draw the Committee’s attention to the issues experienced by overseas voters in recent elections through online platforms. In the lead-up to the general election, vital information about deadlines for absent voting arrangements was inconsistent across the official websites; key information was lacking. To clarify, two websites—gov.uk and the Electoral Commission’s www. yourvotematters.co.uk—are used to disseminate information about voting registration and to facilitate the registration of overseas voters. In the run-up to the general election, several issues were raised in relation to the messaging on both those websites.

Updating of the messaging on the Government’s website was inconsistent. Although some pages were changed, not all pages were automatically updated in line with deadlines. For example, across numerous Government pages, it was not announced that the deadline to register for absent voting arrangements had passed and it was too late to register. That meant that numerous overseas voters thought that they had registered but in fact had missed the deadline, causing them understandable frustration. And who might people take that frustration out on? It would very possibly be the electoral registration officers, who are simply following the rules, but who then have to deal with queries from abroad, from people who cannot understand why they have missed the deadline when they have not been told about it. That means further work for the already overburdened electoral registration officers.

Let me give a specific example. The gov.uk website directed users to a postal vote application form after the deadline for applications for the general election had passed. There was no message to alert applicants that the deadline had passed. Similar issues were experienced in relation to proxy applications and the need to apply for an emergency proxy after the proxy deadline. Other forms, such as that to enable a proxy to apply to vote by post, were simply not available.

In many cases, updates were made only when errors were brought to the Cabinet Office’s attention by the AEA, but of course electoral administrators are at their busiest in the period that we are discussing. They should not have to worry about alerting the maintainers of the website, or Ministers and officials in that Department, when they are at their point of peak work. I was surprised to discover that the Cabinet Office does not own all such pages and is limited in what it can do to make important changes at short notice. Can the Minister tell the Committee who owns the websites and what can be done to ensure that greater power is given to officials in the Cabinet Office to make vital updates when necessary?

In addition, the Electoral Commission’s page originally stated that 16-year-olds could act as proxies in Scotland, which is not the case for United Kingdom parliamentary general elections. The commission did correct that error immediately it was advised of it, but errors of that sort just add to the cumbersome process of applying to be an overseas voter, and the frustrations at that cumbersome process are taken out on—well, I was going to suggest that the frustrations are taken out on the electoral registration officers, but as I am talking, I have a vision of the frustrations being taken out on a computer, with a keyboard being bashed in horror as someone is unable to register to vote.

The election timetable and rules need to be made universally accessible, across all Government websites, before the provisions of this Bill come into force. We cannot leave it late yet again and overburden local registration officers, or leave them in a situation in which there is a lack of clarity or consistency across different areas as to how the rules might apply. There will be millions more users. These websites need to function with the most up-to-date information. It is rather shocking that better plans were not in place to ensure the automatic updating of all relevant webpages.

The Association of Electoral Administrators makes a sensible and common-sense point on this matter. As a result of the confusion and mixed messaging on this occasion, it queried why information relating to absent voting is duplicated on the two websites. It considers that it would be better for gov.uk to deal solely with applications to register to vote and to redirect those wishing to apply for an absent vote to the Electoral Commission’s website. Has the Minister considered that suggestion?

Given the diversity of issues experienced by overseas voters when attempting to apply for an absent vote, it is necessary for the Government to reconsider these arrangements. They must thoroughly understand and consider the implications of the Bill on absentee voting before it gets on to the statute book and the gates are opened for the many thousands of voters—or potentially more—who will take advantage of its provisions.