On Friday I secured a Second Reading for my Overseas Electors Bill. Later this year it will be considered ‘in committee’ when it will be possible to amend it, but only to a limited extent. My job this week is to recommend 18 MPs who will serve on the Committee, probably meeting after the summer recess.
Here is my speech, with most of the interventions not included.
“I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a second time.
I wish to say at the start, as an organ donation ‘activist’ for more than 25 years how excellent I thought the earlier debate today was. Although I did not agree with much that was said, I thought the quality of the debate showed the UK Parliament at its best.
My Bill is about extending the ability of British citizens to participate in British democracy, of which we have seen such an excellent example earlier today.
Let me set the scene by outlining the most relevant statistics. Firstly, according to the Office for National Statistics, there are 4.9 million British citizens of voting age, who have lived in the UK at some point in their lives, but are now living overseas. Secondly, only an estimated 1.4 million of these 4.9 million British citizens of voting age are eligible to vote in UK elections, because a British citizen who has lived overseas for more than 15 years is not allowed to vote in a UK election. And thirdly, as at June 2017, only 285,000 of those 1.4 million British citizens actually registered to vote. The difficulty in registering is an issue in need of addressing, but outside the scope of my bill.
I thank colleagues from both sides of the House, who have contacted me in support of the Bill. I have received good advice from the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) and my hon Friend, the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). Several other hon Members have also written to offer their support.
This debate has so many aspects to it, that I could speak for a very long time, but I want to give as many Members as possible the chance to contribute, and I hope that the debate will reach a conclusion so I will not make a long speech.
The three aspects of the debate I want to concentrate on are firstly, fairness to British citizens who live overseas for a variety of reasons, but want to remain part of our democratic process, and are much offended when their vote is removed after 15 years, as it is currently. Secondly, great benefit flows to the UK through the ‘soft power’ exercised by British citizens across the world, retaining a close involvement in the affairs of this country, and the promotion of British interests in the country to which they have moved. The last thing we should do is reduce their involvement in British democracy. And the third aspect centres around why it is appropriate to revisit an issue - the restriction of overseas UK citizens ability to vote - that Parliament has considered previously. What has changed.
Firstly, fairness. Many British citizens who have moved overseas have a legitimate ongoing interest in the UK’s public affairs and politics. Many spent all of their working lives in the UK, paying their taxes and National Insurance, and continue to have a direct interest in their pension rights, and many other matters - particularly in the future of their families in the UK. Many moved overseas to work. Many of those would not have had much choice. And many will return home to the UK on their retirement. Our ambition should be to extend the franchise to every British citizen who has a legitimate interest in, and an enthusiasm for being part of our democracy.
At this point, I would like to mention a British gentleman named Harry Shindler, who came over from his home in Italy to talk to me about this Bill. Harry Shindler is an incredible man. He is 97 yrs old, and is the longest serving member of the Labour Party. He remains an activist. He came to the UK to discuss my bill with me because the one act he wants to undertake before he dies is to vote again in a British General Election. That is typical of how important it is to some British people who live overseas.
Before I move on I’d like to make one point I think relevant here. I need to emphasise how many people - unknown to me - have written to me from overseas just to thank me for bringing forward this Bill. Their level of appreciation is great, as is the importance they attach to being able to vote in a British election. Because they are British citizens. Other Members will surely have received similar communications.
My second general point is the importance of the Bill in promoting British ‘soft power’ across the world. We live in an increasingly interdependent world. The success and influence of Britishcitizens overseas become ever more important, particularly as we leave the European Union. British citizens who are actively involved in civic society, in business and diplomatic activity in the countries in which they now live