Clause 11 - Voting and candidacy rights of EU citizens

Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 21st October 2021.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendments 8 to 20.

That schedule 7 be the Seventh schedule to the Bill.

Government amendment 7.

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister for Equalities, Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (jointly with Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Clause 11 and schedule 7, which is associated with it, amend the voting and candidacy rights of European Union citizens. The law as it stands reflects our old obligations under EU law. It grants local voting and candidacy rights automatically to all EU citizens resident in England and Northern Ireland. That extends to Wales for police and crime commissioner elections. Since those rights were granted under freedom of movement rules, no immigration-based eligibility requirements are attached to them. Now that the UK has left the EU, it is no longer appropriate for there to be a continued automatic right to vote in, and to stand in, local elections solely by virtue of being an EU citizen. The concept of the UK participating in joint EU citizenship has ended.

The clause and the associated schedule will remove the automatic granting of rights to EU citizens to vote, to register to vote, and to stand in all levels of council election and referendums in England, Greater London Assembly and mayoral elections, elections for local authority and combined authority mayors in England, council elections in Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

The Government believe that the voting and candidacy rights of EU citizens living here must be considered alongside those of citizens of the UK living in EU member states. The Government’s approach is a sensible one of recognising established rights, while moving to new bilateral agreements with individual nation states in the EU. That ensures we are protecting the rights of British citizens living in EU countries.

To give effect to that intention, the clause and the associated schedule will grant local voting and candidacy rights only to those EU citizens legally resident in the UK who are from countries with which the UK has a voting and candidacy rights treaty. Such treaties will ensure the preservation of voting and candidacy rights for citizens of the UK living in EU member states with which such a treaty has been agreed. We have four such treaties, and we remain open to negotiating with other EU countries.

Over and above that, provisions are included to honour our commitment to respect the rights of those EU citizens who chose to make their home in the UK before our departure from the EU. The relevant provisions preserve the rights of all EU citizens who were resident in the UK at the end of the implementation period and have lawful immigration status to vote and stand in local elections. In line with Home Office policy, specific and limited exceptions are included in the provisions, which relate to the operation of the grace period regulations and the EU settlement scheme.

I draw Members’ attention to part 4 of the schedule, which gives effect to the Government’s public commitment that persons elected to office before the measures come into effect will be enabled to serve their full term in office. Additionally, the Government have tabled minor and technical amendments that do not change the intended scope or effect of the provisions but ensure that they will operate as intended. The Government therefore urge hon. Members to accept the amendments, and to agree that clause 11 stand part and that schedule 7 be the Seventh schedule to the Bill.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

The Labour party strongly believes that all those who are subject to local laws and politics have a claim to political representation. Essentially, anyone who lives in a local area and uses public services should have a say in how they are run. That fits with our arguments on overseas electors. Anyone who has lived outside a country for a substantial amount of time can no longer claim to have such a close connection.

Although the Labour party welcomes efforts to ensure that some UK residents from the EU will retain their voting rights, we do not think that the provisions go far enough. At present, citizens of European Union member states resident in England and Northern Ireland are automatically granted voting and candidacy rights in local elections, Northern Ireland Assembly elections and police and crime commissioner elections by virtue of being EU citizens. The rights granted to EU citizens in the United Kingdom were reciprocated, so that UK citizens living in EU member states were also granted local voting and candidacy rights in their respective countries.

Now that the UK has left the European Union, and with the ending of free movement, the basis for an automatic grant of voting and candidacy rights to a European citizen of course no longer exists. Correspondingly, individual EU member states are now able to set their own rules for local voting rights with reference to resident UK citizens. I put on record that the Labour party would like to see measures to ensure that citizens from countries that already unilaterally grant local electoral rights to British citizens resident there are granted local electoral rights in England and Northern Ireland, regardless of whether the UK has negotiated a bilateral treaty with that country.

Luxembourg citizens resident in the UK can vote in England and Northern Ireland local elections, whereas Dutch citizens cannot, even though British citizens resident in both Luxembourg and the Netherlands have local electoral rights in those countries. Since the Secretary of State already has the power to remove from the list a country that ceases to be party to the relevant bilateral treaty, they should similarly have the power to remove countries from the list when the local electoral rights of British citizens in that country are unilaterally removed.

Although the Labour party welcomes efforts to ensure that some UK residents from the EU retain their voting rights, we do not think that the provisions go far enough. We emphasise that people who live here, who contribute to society in a broader sense than just through paying taxes, and who stand to be affected by the outcomes of any electoral process, should have the right to vote. That principle is already active in UK electoral law as it relates to overseas voters.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

It is regrettable that the Government have had to table such a substantial number of technical and drafting amendments. It goes back to the point that we made yesterday about what could have been achieved had there been a comprehensive programme of prelegislative scrutiny and a bit more preparation before we launched this parliamentary phase of scrutiny of the Bill, but there we go. I agree with the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson that the Government could have applied a far more generous approach to the franchise here—the approach being taken in Scotland to next year’s local elections. It is in line with the basic principle that was articulated: if someone lives in an area, is affected by the decisions made by the local authority, and is legally resident, by and large they will have a vote.

Some of that is reflected in the new clauses that we have tabled on UK parliamentary elections, but the Scottish National party has not tabled amendments to the provisions we are considering, because we recognise that they affect local elections in England and Northern Ireland. We respect the devolution settlement. Just as we would not expect the UK Parliament to legislate on matters that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, though it increasingly does, we do not seek to amend this part of the Bill, because it affects local elections. We are, however, disappointed that the more generous and wider application of the principle of franchise has not been applied. It will be a loss to democracy in this part of the world, and to residents who will be affected by decisions over which they will have no say.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 11 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.