Report on the representation of overseas electors

Overseas Electors Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 14th November 2018.

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“(1) The Minister

(2) That report shall include—

(a) consideration of how well overseas electors are represented by their MPs and any related consequences of the provisions of this Act,

(b) an assessment of any additional demands that may be placed on MPs and their resources as a consequence of the provisions of this Act,

(c) any plans the Government has to monitor the representation of overseas electors, and

(d) an assessment of alternative models of representation of overseas electors, including the creation of overseas constituencies.”

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 7 is about the nature of the representation of overseas voters. I understand what the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has said about this being a simple Bill, but this proposal goes to the heart of some of our more serious concerns. Given the issues about the definitions of residence and local connection, there is a lack of clarity about where new overseas voters will register.

The proposed new clause requests a detailed report on the representation of overseas voters, including how they might be “represented by their MPs” and

“any additional demands that may be placed on MPs and their resources as a consequence of the provisions of this Act”.

The current guidance provided to MPs regarding constituency correspondence with expatriates is vague at best, perhaps because there are not many expatriate constituents at the moment. In its unamended form, the Bill does not define the responsibilities of Members of Parliament towards their overseas voters. We assume that the current precedents and position will be maintained.

The code of conduct for Members of Parliament simply states that Members have

“a special duty to their constituents.”

I am pretty sure that each and every one of us holds dear that individual link between ourselves and our constituents, with one Member representing a single constituency. Of course, conventions to preserve that special relationship—one with which other Members do not interfere—have developed over time. However, those precedents are not the subject of formal parliamentary rules, and it is therefore important that the Bill considers how individual Members can best represent the views of overseas voters registered in their constituency.

Given the Minister’s insistence, which I respect, on treating overseas voters with the same importance as UK-based, domestic voters, there needs to be a detailed discussion about how best to achieve democratic representation before we open the floodgates, potentially to millions of new voters. What assessment have the Government made of the representation of overseas voters by Members of this House? This issue is particularly significant as the Government are continuing with their plans to reduce the number of Members by 50, while at the same time increasing the number of voters by several hundred thousand or more. How would such an exponential increase in the number of overseas voters affect the resources given to individual Members of Parliament? I also ask the Minister whether the Government have any plans to monitor the representation of overseas voters by Members to ensure that their voices have equal value to the voices of domestic constituents, which is an aim that I respect.

The Minister has talked about extra resources for electoral registration officers. Have the Government considered whether any extra resources may be required to handle the growth in the number of overseas voters swelling the size of our constituencies, and will any representations be made to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority on that point? Have the Government considered whether, as a consequence of the Bill, they need to clarify if hon. Members are required to act fairly and equally in representing domestic and overseas constituents?

This probing amendment is designed to encourage consideration of the effect that the growth in the franchise will have on how we in this House operate, and whether sufficient resources are available. It is not my intention to delay the Committee too much this afternoon, but I would be grateful to hear other Members’ views.

Photo of Glyn Davies Glyn Davies Conservative, Montgomeryshire

I understand what has led the hon. Member for City of Chester to table the proposed new clause. I have a considerable understanding of why the Opposition have tabled many of their amendments throughout our consideration of the Bill. I have resisted a lot of those amendments because they have sought to extend the Bill into areas that I did not want it extended to. The purpose of the Bill is to extend the franchise, and I want to stick to that. That is my position on this new clause as well. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press it to a vote, because we need to stick to the purpose of the Bill.

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

I have two arguments on the treatment of new clause 7. First, I have a preliminary argument, if Members will bear with me. My comments in response to previous amendments that would have required reports on various matters and delayed the legislation until their publication stand true for new clause 7. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire, whose arguments I endorse, I am sceptical about whether the proposed new clause would add value to the Bill.

I have two additional comments about the substance of the new clause. First, it asks for an assessment of the demands placed on MPs and of their performance in representing their constituents. That is not a matter for the Government in respect of constituents at home or overseas, and I do not accept that it should be. It is not for the Government to monitor or report on MPs’ performance of their duties. This is a clear case of the difference between the Executive and the legislature, and it is important that that difference stands. The code of conduct for Members of Parliament describes their responsibilities as Members of the House, and I think that is how this is best done. The application of the code is a matter for the House of Commons, and particularly for the Committee on Standards and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

I am slightly concerned, but I hope that the Minister will be able to answer my question. In a general election, our electoral communications are sent out by the Post Office. Am I right to assume that they will be sent to all overseas voters? Will the Post Office and the Government pay for every single overseas voter on the electoral roll to receive an electoral communication from all parties campaigning in the general election?

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

My hon. Friend will have to forgive me, because I do not have any detail to hand about how the Bill will change that situation. However, I would be happy to come back to him and to my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire on that point, which is important and well made, although it may not necessarily relate to new clause 7—I suspect it is more general.

Certainly, whether as candidates at an election or as Members of Parliament, with the privilege of being elected, we would all wish to perform that role to the best of our abilities, and to communicate with our constituents whether at home or abroad. My point, in the context of new clause 7, is that that is not a matter for the Government.

The hon. Member for City of Chester said that we should look at how constituencies may be swollen—I think that was his choice of word—by the number of overseas electors. I think he asked that the question of whether more resources may be needed to deal with that be directed to IPSA. I would point out that the Boundary Commission, using the concept of a quota, already serves that function by conducting regular reviews. I do not think that an additional function is needed. The fundamental concept of a quota will not be changed as a result of any of the current debates in the House about boundaries.

I hope that those two points are helpful to the Committee and that the hon. Gentleman accordingly feels able to withdraw his new clause.

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

I thank the Member in charge and the Minister for their responses, in view of which I do not intend to divide the Committee. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 13