UK expats who have lived overseas for more than 15 years are soon to get given the right to vote in British general elections. The confirmation was announced in the fine print of the 2021 Budget, with £2.5m put aside to fund the change. Successive governments have promised to change the controversial law, passed in 2002, which removes people living abroad for more than 15 years from the electoral roll, effectively disenfranchising them from their country of birth. But paragraph 2.41 of the Treasury Red Book, which sets out government’s planned spending in detail, says: “Overseas Electors – the government is providing an additional £2.5m to remove the limit preventing British citizens who live overseas from voting after 15 years.” Official estimates say that this will enfranchise more than 3 million British expats, although this figure is likely to be significantly higher as many expats do not register themselves in their new countries of residence with the relevant authorities.
Expat voting campaign
Many individuals, civil rights groups, and other activists have been actively campaigning for the 15-year rule barring UK expats to be scrapped. One of the highest-profile of these has been 99 year-old Second World War veteran Harry Shindler, who took up the battle some 20 years ago. A tireless campaigner for expats’ right to vote, the move by the government represents a moment of joy for Shindler who took his case unsuccessfully to the high court in 2016 and the European court of justice in 2018. In an interview with The Guardian, he revealed he had received a “nice, friendly letter” from Boris Johnson in January telling him he would stick to the pledge made in three Conservative election manifestos. “He said many expats worked very hard for their country and have retired abroad and decided to finish off their days somewhere else but that they had made a contribution to their country. “He said to me: ‘You, among others, fought for your country and to take away your voting rights is a bit much.’ He was really frank and did say the law would be changed and we could all vote in the next election,” Mr Shindler said.
deVere CEO Nigel Green has been another leading voice in the battle for expats’ right to vote. Of the new law change, he noted: Green said: “The vast majority of expats maintain deep ties with the UK – including financial links like UK pensions, taxes and property. As such, the policies that are implemented in Britain affect them and their families. “It is absolutely right that they have their voices heard in parliament regardless of where they choose to live in the world. “This scrapping of the 15-year voting rule is a major win for democracy and will be welcomed by British expats around the world.” In the run-up to the 2019 general election, Green had previously said: “All other G7 countries except the UK allow their citizens voting rights for life. Why is Britain different? It’s especially frustrating that many are still liable for UK inheritance tax, amongst others, but are not allowed to vote in the UK after 15 years. Whatever happened to ‘no taxation without representation’?”
Expats who want to vote will be required to have been previously registered, or have lived in the UK. They’ll be allowed to vote in the constituencies where they lived before leaving the country. Under the new rules, expat voters will only need to renew registration details every three years, rather than annually. This official government page will be updated when the legislation is changed, so check back here.
Some critics of the bill fear the rules could be abused and marginal constituencies could be flooded with overseas voters to twist results. Tom Brake, director of Unlock Democracy and a former Liberal Democrat MP, told Insider: “The Elections Bill mustn’t be used as a Trojan horse to allow overseas votes to distort UK election results. “It is right to grant UK citizens abroad the vote. But they must have a clear and verifiable link to a UK constituency to avoid large numbers of overseas electors flocking to marginal seats.” In addition, The Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) which represents election officials across Britain has said of previous plans to change the law to give expats lifetime voting rights that it has “concerns as to integrity, with the possibility of increased applications via this route in a marginal UK parliamentary constituency.” A Treasury spokesman said legislation would be laid before Parliament later this year to bring about the reform. This is significant progress but now the government must move fast to get this implemented ahead of the next general election.