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BREXIT

15-year rule: Long-term Britons in Europe to get right to vote in UK elections

The UK government has announced it plans to scrap the rule that bars British citizens, who have lived abroad for more than 15 years from voting in UK elections, meaning all Brits living in Europe will be able to vote.

15-year rule: Long-term Britons in Europe to get right to vote in UK elections
Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/ AFP)

The new announcement was made in the fine print of the UK government’s Budget that was presented this week.

Paragraph 2.41 of the Treasury Red Book, which sets out the 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.”

Those affected will be allowed to vote in the constituencies where they lived before leaving the country, as eligible voters do currently.

Since 2002 British citizens living abroad for more than 15 years have been barred from voting in UK elections. That ban even included the 2016 Brexit referendum, despite the fact the outcome of the vote directly impacted the lives of UK citizens living in the EU.

In recent years Conservative governments have at various times announced moves to end the so-called 15-year rule but the ban remains in place.

The government has told UK media that new legislation will be put to parliament later this year so the reform can be pushed through.

The British in Europe campaign group said: “We have heard this several times before but it would be very welcome if it was finally scrapped.”

However there the announcement was met with a  certain amount of understandable scepticism from Britons living abroad, after numerous false promises in recent years.

“Believe it when I’m at Embassy casting a vote,” tweeted John Mills a Briton living in Stockholm.

While others understandably lamented the fact they could not vote in the 2016 referendum.

“The most important vote for us was the 2016 referendum. Those of us in this category were not allowed to vote. The outcome has had a huge impact on @BritishInEurope It’s a bit late now,” tweeted Nicola, a Briton living in Brussels.

The campaign to end the 15-year rule has been led by Harry Shindler a 99-year-old WWII veteran who settled in Italy around 40 years ago.

Reacting to the news he tweeted: “It’s very good news that the UK’s 15 year voting rule is ending as part of #Budget2021. We fought to defend our right to vote in WW2 and now we will get to use it. This is an important day for freedom.”

Sue Wilson from Bremain in Spain added: “Naturally, there is still much cynicism about the government’s intentions – after all, we’ve been here before and been disappointed when manifesto promises were broken – but there’s definitely more positivity in the air this time around. Let’s hope his optimism is well placed and that Harry Shindler sees his long-lost voting rights returned in time for his forthcoming 100th birthday. I can’t think of a better birthday present.”

Member comments

  1. A bit late now. We were promised this before the Brexit referendum. It would have been helpful to have had this right for the past two elections too.

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BRITS IN EUROPE

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.

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