HC Deb 21 June 1989 vol 155 cc133-5W
Mr. Steel

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he intends to introduce legislation giving full voting rights indefinitely to Britons abroad for both United Kingdom elections and European Parliament elections, in line with the rights accorded to other European nationals.

Mr. Greg Knight

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he has reached any conclusions, in the light of responses to Home Department consultation papers No. 1 Representation of the People: British Citizens Overseas, issued on 29 April 1988, and No. 2 Representation of the People: Absent Voting, issued on 2 March 1989; and if he has any proposals to amend electoral law; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Hurd

The Representation of the People Act 1985 brought the United Kingdom into line with most other western democracies by making provision for British citizens to vote whilst living abroad. This step was greatly welcomed by many British citizens worldwide. The detailed arrangements represented a cautious, evolutionary approach. They had the effect, amongst other things, of limiting in time the right to be registered as an overseas elector to five years from the date for which a British citizen was last registered as a United Kingdom resident; requiring the applicant to make a declaration, including a prescribed statement about residence intentions; requiring the declaration to be attested by a consular official; and requiring the overseas elector to make a fresh declaration annually. These provisions, stricter than in many other countries, considerably restricted the numbers abroad who could have access to the franchise and imposed significant burdens on those who did. The Government made a commitment, at the time the legislation was passing through Parliament, to review the new arrangements once they were in operation, and, in particular, to reconsider the five-year time limit.

It is evident from the under-use of the franchise during its first three years of operation, and from replies to consultation paper No. 1, that the measures introduced in 1985–86 are unduly restrictive. They exclude from the franchise British citizens working on longer-term contracts abroad, often in the United Kingdom's interests, and they exclude completely anyone who left the United Kingdom before he was old enough to have been included in a register of electors. In addition, applicants are discouraged by the procedures for registration, and they are not reminded of the need to be registered annually, as are their counterparts resident in the United Kingdom.

The overseas electors' franchise deprives too many British citizens abroad of the right to vote and the existing application procedures should be simplified. I am presenting today a Representation of the People Bill to amend the law relating to overseas electors. This would extend to 25 years the period abroad during which British citizens may apply to be registered to vote in United Kingdom parliamentary and European Parliament elections. The Bill would extend the overseas franchise to include those not previously registered as electors in the United Kingdom by reason of age; and it would remove from the declaration which overseas electors must now make the statement about residence intentions. Proposals to amend the relevant representation of the people regulations, so as to simplify further the registration procedures for overseas electors, will be brought forward.

The Representation of the People Act 1985 also extended, for the first time, the right to a postal or proxy vote to any United Kingdom resident, registered as an elector, who cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at his allotted polling station at a particular election. This reform meant that holidaymakers, people who had fallen ill, and those whose work took them away from home on polling day could nevertheless exercise their right to vote. Detailed conditions, which applicants for the new absent voting facility must satisfy, are specified in regulations. These include a requirement that applications for an absent vote at a particular election must be attested and, for the most general case, that the attester must not be related to the applicant and shall not have attested any other application in respect of the election for which the application is being made. The general election in 1987 provided the first major test of these new absent voting arrangements, and the attestation requirement gave rise to considerable difficulty with many applications being rejected as a result. We have already greatly simplified the application forms in the light of that experience, but it is clear from the response to consultation paper No. 2 that there should be some easing of the application procedures themselves. Accordingly, proposals to amend the relevant regulations will be brought before this House; it will be convenient to deal with them at the same time as the regulations relating to overseas electors.

The Bill which I am presenting seeks also to deal with a pressing difficulty which has developed over the limits on candidates' expenses at parliamentary by-elections. Electoral law makes no distinction for the purposes of such expenses between a parliamentary general election and a by-election. The character of parliamentary by-elections has changed considerably since the law on which the existing scheme is based was passed, over a century ago. They are, increasingly, national events which focus the attention of political commentators and the media and which, consequently, attract the close involvement of the various party organisations. This trend, which is unlikely to be reversed, has implications for the system of controls on candidates' expenses set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983. I propose to review these implications, in consultation with the representatives of the political parties and the returning officers who have responsibility, under the law, for conducting parliamentary elections. As a first step, I am putting in hand the preparation of a public consultation paper which will set out the background and promote consideration of the issues and options involved. Such a review will take time. In the interim it is important that the limits on candidates' expenses at parliamentary by-elections are realistic and take account of the campaigning activity which takes place. Accordingly, the Bill I am presenting today sets a new limit on candidates' expenses at parliamentary by-elections. The new limit, which is four times the one currently specified (which will continue to apply at general elections), is without prejudice to the outcome of the longer-term review I have described.

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