Representation of the People (Overseas Electors etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2023

Tuesday 12th December 2023

(4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Motion to Approve
17:20
Moved by
Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 23 October be approved.

Relevant document: 1st Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Baroness Penn Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (Baroness Penn) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, in our manifesto, the Government committed to removing the 15-year limit on voting rights for overseas electors and we are delivering on that promise. Last year, Parliament passed the Elections Act, resolving to extend the franchise to all British citizens, including eligible Irish citizens, living overseas who were either previously registered to vote in the UK or were previously resident in the UK. The two statutory instruments we are debating flow from that Act.

If approved by Parliament, together, these instruments will make necessary changes, as well as improvements, to electoral registration processes across the UK from 16 January 2024 to coincide with the commencement of the franchise change. To ensure the registration processes are workable for applicants and for administrators, we have worked closely with delivery partners and stakeholders across the electoral sector and have engaged with representatives of British citizens overseas on the design of the process. We have created a process that ensures that our democracy remains secure, fair, modern and transparent.

I will start by outlining the changes these instruments make to the registration application process to enable overseas electors to apply, and to enable electoral registration officers in Great Britain and the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland to determine their eligibility under these new criteria. These instruments ensure that there are robust processes to verify an applicant’s identity and establish their eligibility to register at their qualifying UK address.

The Elections Act 2022 established two conditions for registering to vote as an overseas elector. Going forward, an individual can apply under the previous registration condition or, if never registered, the previous residence condition. Applicants who have previously registered to vote in the UK should apply in respect of the address where they were last registered, under the previous registration condition. For the first time, applicants previously resident in the UK, but who never registered to vote, can apply in respect of the address where they were last resident, under the previous residence condition. Applicants will, as now, be required to complete a declaration as part of their application. These instruments update the declaration requirements to reflect the new eligibility criteria. When determining an application, electoral registration officers must check and be satisfied of the applicant’s identity and connection to their qualifying previous UK address.

To check the applicant’s identity, as now, the applicant’s national insurance number will be data-matched by DWP. Digital improvements mean that this process will be quicker than the current identity checks. Where an applicant cannot provide a national insurance number, or this cannot be matched, they will be able to provide documentary evidence. This new step, introduced by the instrument for Great Britain, brings the process into alignment with existing practice, maintains integrity and eases the administrative burden on applicants and administrators by reducing recourse to attestations. As now, an attestation from a qualified elector—that is, a statement from a UK-registered elector who is not a close relative—may be used to verify an applicant’s identity where verification by documentary evidence is not possible. To verify an applicant’s connection to their qualifying address, as now, in most cases, electoral registration officers will be able to rely on checks against previous electoral registers. Registers are typically held for 15 years, and we expect they will be retained for longer in future.

Where register checks are not possible, this instrument enables several ways to verify an applicant’s connection to their qualifying address. This includes a DWP data match, checks against local records where available and the power for a registration officer to request several types of documentary evidence, originating from reputable sources—such as the UK Government, local authorities and banks—from the applicant. We have considered stakeholder feedback on documentary evidence available to overseas applicants and have provided flexibility in these measures while ensuring they retain integrity. An attestation from a qualified elector can also be used for qualifying address verification where documentary evidence is not possible. This is in close alignment with the process for verifying the identity of both overseas and domestic electors.

I turn now to the renewal process and absent voting arrangements. Currently, to stay registered, an overseas elector must reapply every year. This instrument implements a new fixed-point renewal process, which enables overseas electors to remain registered for up to three years. In Great Britain, overseas electors’ absent vote arrangements will also be tied to the registration renewal process, meaning that an overseas elector will be able to renew their registration and their absent vote arrangement at the same time. These changes will benefit the elector. Enabling an elector to maintain their registration and absent vote in this way means that, when a parliamentary election is called, the elector’s absent vote can be issued without delay.

This improved process will also support administrators to maintain the accuracy of registers, minimise time-consuming processes and reduce their workload in the run-up to an election. Registered overseas electors will be able to renew their declaration within the last six months of their current registration period. The instruments will ensure that overseas electors are made aware in good time when they need to renew. Electoral registration officers will be required to send a first renewal reminder after 1 July during the year in which an elector’s current registration period is due to expire, with a second reminder to follow a reasonable time thereafter, enabling registration officers to manage the process alongside their other responsibilities.

The instrument applying to Northern Ireland does not amend absent voting arrangements, as electors registered in Northern Ireland are automatically entitled to use proxy votes as part of the existing process.

These instruments maintain the integrity of registration processes, ensuring that electoral registration officers continue to register applicants only when satisfied as to their eligibility. We are setting strengthened requirements for attestors and applying a new limit to the number of individuals an attestor can attest. Within an electoral year, an attestor may in future provide identity attestations only for a maximum of two individuals and, separately, address attestations for up to two individuals. We believe this to be a necessary and proportionate measure that maintains integrity while ensuring accessibility for overseas applicants who can now be attested by any UK-registered elector, not just an overseas elector.

In addition to the changes I have just outlined, these instruments make further improvements to the registration process, making it easier and quicker for eligible overseas applicants by enabling electronic submission of information, including copies of documentary evidence. In some cases, these can be provided at the point of application to speed up the process. Overseas electors registering in Great Britain are also now able to apply for a postal or proxy vote online, following the introduction of the new online application services on 31 October 2023.

We continue to work closely with the sector, including the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Electoral Commission, in preparation for implementation; we will provide funding for additional costs incurred in line with the new burdens doctrine. We are also working closely with the Electoral Commission, which has the statutory responsibility to promote democratic engagement. The commission is undertaking a targeted communications campaign both to engage with British citizens overseas and to promote awareness through their friends and families. My department will work alongside other government departments, including the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, to facilitate the commission’s plans for awareness raising and to amplify its activity through government communication channels where value can be added.

I will address the regret amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley. The Government strongly disagree with the notion that the draft measures for consideration today will weaken the existing robust system of checks that surrounds all political donations. UK electoral law already sets out a robust regime of donations controls to ensure that only those with a legitimate interest in UK elections can make political donations. The rules are very clear: political parties and other campaigners are required by law to undertake all reasonable steps to verify the permissibility of a donation within 30 days of receiving it, and prior to its acceptance. Donations that do not meet the established permissibility tests must be returned and reported to the Electoral Commission. There are also already provisions that explicitly prohibit money being funnelled through permissible donors on behalf of impermissible donors.

17:30
The Government absolutely recognise that, despite this, there is a risk that some people, whether they live in the UK or overseas, will try to evade the rules. That is why we recently strengthened those rules by creating specific offences for foreign interference in elections in the National Security Act 2023. The Government have given the Electoral Commission more information-sharing powers to access Companies House information, under the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023.
Overseas electors are important participants in our democracy, and it is only right that they should be able to make donations to political parties in Great Britain in the same way as other citizens registered on the electoral roll in Great Britain. The rules are the same for all electors. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
Moved by
Lord Khan of Burnley Portrait Lord Khan of Burnley
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

At end insert “but that this House regrets that the draft Regulations could dangerously weaken the restrictions on overseas political donations and allow foreign money to enter British democracy”.

Lord Khan of Burnley Portrait Lord Khan of Burnley (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction. These regulations implement the provisions of the Elections Act to remove restrictions on overseas electors. Overseas voting provides an important link for British citizens across the world. On these Benches, we are clear that those who have a strong connection to this country and their community should still have a say in how they are run. We do not oppose the principle of overseas voting and giving citizens who still have a strong connection to the UK a voice in our elections. That includes people who still have a strong connection to our local services and communities. But we need to consider this carefully and look at the potential impact on our democracy.

By repealing the 15-year residency limit, former residents who are now living abroad will be able to vote regardless of how long ago they left the UK. I am proud to have represented the community and region I grew up in as a Member of the European Parliament. Like many honourable Members in the other place, I know how important it is that those who live in our area, pay their taxes and are part of the community feel represented. As much as we support the rights of overseas voters, it would be wrong if people with little connection to this country—who may have moved a long time ago and not used any services or paid any taxes in decades—diminished the voices of constituents across the United Kingdom. We must consider how we strike a balance in our rules. There are voters who still feel a connection to the UK despite moving away 30, 40 or more years ago. But the policy of removing the cap on this important principle will undermine the balance between enfranchising those people and maintaining integrity in our democracy.

Although we do not think that there is a moral disagreement about some of the issues with votes for life, I fear that the risk of abuse of the system proposed by the Government is far too great. The registration rules proposed mean that some overseas voters require only the attestation of the identity and past location of another overseas voter. We understand that it may be difficult for legitimate overseas voters to verify their identity, but there seems to be a risk of manipulation of the system to allow those eligible for the scheme to have their pick of which seats they want to vote in.

As Florence Eshalomi MP outlined in the other place, some 30 seats were decided by fewer than 1,000 votes at the last general election. While I am sure that very few will attempt to abuse the system in that way, it could have a large impact on marginal seats when votes are added up around the world. Can the Minister assure me that there will be additional safeguards to prevent fraud? I understand that there is a tight limit on attestation and that those attesting for another voter will need to sign a declaration of their truthfulness, which is right—but those measures may not be enough to prevent people trying to abuse the system in a way that could impact the next general election.

Can the Minister stipulate what robust processes will be in place to verify an applicant’s identity and establish their eligibility to register at their qualifying United Kingdom address? What support are the Government putting in place to enable electoral registration officers in Great Britain and the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland to determine their eligibility under these new criteria? The Government should also be more open about how much this change will cost, given that they confirmed to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee that there will be additional funding to cover the costs of registering new electors.

The new rules create a huge loophole in our donation laws. The current rules on UK donations mean that those who donate more than £500 must be on the electoral register. We must be honest and say that we cannot pretend that the current system is perfect, but it is an important safeguard against money flooding into our political system from foreign and hostile states. The Labour Front Bench first raised these concerns during the passage of the Elections Act, when my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock pointed out that the removal of the 15-year limit could create a loophole in donation law.

Furthermore, during debates on the National Security Bill, my noble friend Lord Coaker called for greater restrictions on political donations from overseas. In our current system, those on the register have a clear and recent link to the UK. We think that opening the electoral register as widely as the Government are doing today goes far beyond what our current donation rules were set up to do. It will allow those with tenuous links to the UK, who have spent most of their lives in states that may even be openly hostile to our aims, the right to massively influence our system. The reality is that it will be impossible to ensure that the huge numbers of potential donors in our system are not vulnerable to manipulation by hostile actors. There is already clear evidence of attempts by these actors to influence UK democracy, as we have seen in recent days. It will also make enforcement of our rules much harder, given the difficulties that we may face in challenging those who fall foul of donation laws while living in another jurisdiction. The Government know the risks that those hostile actors pose to the UK and our allies. Just this year, we saw the attack on Britain’s Electoral Commission. Has the Minister met with it following this incident?

This Government should instead look to proposals made by the Electoral Commission, which recommended introducing new duties on parties to enhance due diligence and the risk assessment of donations. Louise Edwards, a director at the Electoral Commission, recently commented that the current levels of transparency around donations are “not enough”. The Electoral Commission has called for more laws to help protect parties from those who seek to evade the law, as well as more checks on the identity of donors. It is beyond belief that the Government are seeking to risk opening our system at such a critical time for our world. What would a political party do if, for instance, it were offered a donation of £50,000 by somebody who lives and works in Moscow today? Will the Government introduce a new requirement on political parties to do proper checks on the source of funds?

Changes to the Electoral Commission’s powers under the Elections Act 2022 have left the UK without any body responsible for criminal enforcement of election finance laws. I particularly press the Minister on the fact that no one agency now has enforcement powers over electoral law. Do the Government consider it appropriate for the National Crime Agency to take these powers? If so, will they implement that without further delay? If not, is a department fulfilling this role?

I know that there are British citizens who still feel a connection to the UK, and they will welcome this rule change, but it will also be welcomed by those who want to undermine our democracy and funnel money into our politics. We must not allow that to happen. We must strike the right balance to empower voters without enabling undue influence, but I am afraid that these regulations go nowhere near far enough to do that. Unfortunately, the Government have refused to implement any effective safeguards and have instead brought forward these regulations. I further probe the Minister on how the Government propose to monitor the impact of these new rules. Will they publish regular reviews or statements on the number of new overseas voters? If so, will this include how many have used the attestation route to register? How will we get notified of the number and value of donations made by overseas voters?

The ability to make political donations is dependent on the right to vote, so the change would allow substantially more overseas donations, particularly where the attestation of identity is open to more abuse. We express concern that the changes could dangerously weaken the restrictions on overseas political donations and allow foreign money to enter British democracy. We have therefore tabled this amendment to register our concerns, as this entirely unnecessary risk creates problems for our elections and our democracy. At a time of global instability and significant evidence of hostile states seeking to interfere in UK politics, as well as a lack of public confidence in our political institutions, now is the time to enhance our safeguards, not dismantle them. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, and the department will think again, and that all noble Lords will support our amendment to the Motion today. I beg to move.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, there are real concerns about these measures. They include the security of our electoral processes, the risk of undermining confidence in them and, above all, our elections being bought by dark money and illegitimate foreign interference. That is why we support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley.

All parties agree on the principle of UK citizens living overseas being able to vote for representatives in our Parliament, but these statutory instruments do not do much to help them. In the absence of a fixed-term Parliament, there is a very short timescale in our system for conducting a general election. It is really too short to enable many people living overseas to be able to return postal votes. We could have better addressed the issue of UK citizens living overseas through the creation of overseas constituencies, dedicated to representing their interests. They do this in many other countries, including France, Italy and Portugal. Countries such as the US and Australia allow a longer period, of up to a fortnight after polling stations have closed, for postal votes to be returned, enabling many more of their citizens living overseas to participate in their elections. When I raised such issues during the passage of the Elections Bill, the Government lacked interest. This failure means, for example, that members of our Armed Forces serving overseas, or British diplomats working in our embassies, will often remain unable to cast their votes in general elections.

What the Government are interested in is allowing many more donations to come from abroad, without any organisation in this country having any real capacity to verify the original sources of those donations. The absence of any cap on the size of donations will no doubt encourage more donations of, say, £5 million-plus to come from people whose real interests are not in this country. Why should a billionaire tax exile be able to fund a political party in the UK, and who knows where their money really comes from? The Government have clipped the wings of the previously independent Electoral Commission and made criminal enforcement of election finance laws significantly harder. I wonder why. I think perhaps we should be told.

Political parties themselves have very little capacity to scrutinise overseas bank accounts, or to inspect the accounts of companies operating overseas, even if they want to. Earlier this year, the Government rejected an amendment to the then National Security Bill which would have insisted on greater scrutiny of the original sources of donations to parties. I wonder why. The chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Julian Lewis, supported such an amendment, saying that

“the UK has clearly welcomed Russian money, including in the political sphere … We must protect against covert, foreign state-backed financial donations if we are to defend our democratic institutions from harmful interference and influence”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/5/23; col. 132.]

But this Government did not want our democracy to have that protection. I wonder why. I think perhaps we should be told.

17:45
As the organisation Spotlight On Corruption says, we need the involvement of the National Crime Agency, with its broad national-level powers, specialist legal tools for tackling national security risks and money laundering, extensive overseas law enforcement network and close working relationship with MI5. The NCA has the ability to co-ordinate and lead criminal enforcement of the UK’s electoral laws, but it appears to have taken a back seat on the enforcement of electoral law breaches. I wonder why. I think we should be told.
We have to conclude that the overseas electors legislation is more about big donations from abroad than enabling UK citizens living overseas to cast a vote. Last month, the Government suddenly announced an increase in national party spending limits of 80%, allowing a party to spend up to £35 million in a general election year, even though no previous Government have seen the need to increase the national party limit at all, and Boris Johnson’s Government spent just £16 million in 2019. The reason for the new limits must in part be to allow for major new donations from abroad.
The statutory instruments before us expose serious inconsistencies in our approach to elections and to making them fair. They will allow overseas electors to have their identity vouched for by a currently registered voter when they sign up to vote. Voters living here can also register in this way, though the process is very rarely used in the UK. In theory, someone could have lived abroad for 50 years, with little evidence of where they used to vote, and a friend could vouch that they were telling the truth about their eligibility to cast their vote in a marginal seat and to make unlimited donations to a political party.
We are constantly applying double standards in our election laws, as the Government constantly change the rules in their favour. Since May this year, we have required very specific forms of photo ID at polling stations. This is simply a crude form of voter suppression, as Jacob Rees-Mogg recently admitted. In studying the effects of the photo ID rules, the Electoral Commission reported that:
“Around 4% of all non-voters said they didn’t vote because of the voter ID requirement”.
This barrier to voting could have been reduced significantly if, for example, a voter with the requisite photo ID was able to attest that another voter was who they say they are. This system works well in Canada, and the Electoral Commission recommended it here, but this Government will not have it. I wonder why. I think we should be told.
The Government will allow attestation when an overseas elector wants to register to vote, and unlike with people living in the UK, this may become quite common practice. However, such a system is not allowed when UK citizens living in the UK want to cast a vote at a polling station. Perhaps the Minister will explain this inconsistency, and let us know why the Government will not follow the advice of the Electoral Commission on this issue and why they have ruled out the principle of attestation at polling stations if it is good enough to get on the voting register. Democracy requires a level playing field, but this Government do not seem to believe in it.
Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I support the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Khan of Burnley, following his excellent speech. I have just one additional point to add to this discussion. The argument is that these are British citizens and they should be entitled to vote. The thing about the way the rules will work in practice is that they will tend to be older voters, many of whom may even be past retirement age.

The issue I want to raise is frozen pensions. I am particularly pleased to see in his place the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, who is the relevant Minister. We have discussed these issues before. We have a Government who seem to think it appropriate for these people to have a vote, but who do not think it appropriate for them to have the pension increases they have paid for. It is a total lottery. If they live in the US, they get pension increases; if they live in Canada, they do not. If they live in New Zealand, they get increases; if they live in Australia, they do not.

The whole system is irrational—as rational as if the noble Viscount came to this House and tried to persuade us not to pay pension increases to people who live in Yorkshire. They are all British citizens; that is the basis of this proposal. My question for the Minister is, what logic is there in giving many British citizens who live abroad a vote if you are not going to give them their pension increases?

Lord Hayward Portrait Lord Hayward (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, we were, I think, discussing the statutory instruments that relate to overseas voters and their registration, rather than a range of other matters. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, took us down a series of other paths. I will pick up on two or three of them very quickly. On voter ID, a resolution was passed by this House, proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in a previous debate, whereby that process would be reviewed. Equally, the noble Lord made reference to a process that applies in the statutory instrument which is rarely used in this country but is already in law. Therefore, it is not unreasonable that this application should be extended elsewhere.

The noble Lord referred to postal votes in Australia and other parts of the world arriving after the actual polling date. I think I am correct in saying that in many of those domains, such votes have to be date stamped before or on the actual election day, so there is no extension to the election period by that application.

Returning to the SIs themselves, in any process of trying to extend the entitlement to vote, there is a risk that you reduce the level of security of voting. That is inevitable. Whether it is postal votes, an extended period of voting, votes abroad or whatever it may be, there is an increased risk. The question is, how do you find that balance between extension and security of the ballot? These SIs apply the process that was established under the Elections Act a few months ago. Therefore, I do not see a particular issue with them.

On the question of trying to achieve some form of financial largesse, I wish that the noble Lords, Lord Khan and Lord Rennard, had been present—as I think my noble friend Lord Mott and other noble Lords will have been—at meetings of overseas Conservatives, who were certainly not promising vast quantities of money in return for the opportunity to vote. It was just a genuine desire for the opportunity for a vote in a country to which, as the noble Lord, Lord Khan, acknowledged, those people who are most likely to register do still feel committed.

The concentration is naturally on national elections, but we should also be conscious of local elections. As the Pickles report identified, if those have insecure systems, you are far more likely to end up with a corrupt and influenced local authority, many of which have huge budgets, than at a national election, where it would be much more difficult to overturn the result by the levels of registration, which, to be honest, I expect. However, if the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, is taken up—Members of Parliament having constituencies around the world—I am sure that a number of people would be happy to represent Spain, the Canary Islands or France, for example, rather than some of the domains they have in this country. I say that in respect of all sides of the House, not necessarily this side alone.

I will not be supporting the amendment. I approach all these matters with great consideration because they are important, and my reasoning is twofold. First, as I see it, these SIs implement the process that was approved by the Elections Act. They do not result in an undue threat. There are other processes and aspects of election law which are far bigger threats than this. Cyberattacks have been referred to, as has AI in one form or another, along with dubious registration and intimidation.

Two aspects are particularly important. First, as I think Members on all sides of the House agree, electoral law is a complete mess and needs to be consolidated quickly, so that we do not face the problems we do. Secondly, there is the burden imposed on elections administrators, which has also been alluded to. When I was young and an election occurred, you registered and did everything months or years in advance. Now, there is an elections event, which takes place over three weeks, and everything is concentrated into it. We should not underestimate the burden imposed on elections administrators in any number of different ways. If our elections system fails, it will be because our electoral law is inadequately clear—it is a mess—or because the administrators just cannot cope.

It is for those reasons that I will be supporting the Government’s Motion and not the amendment.

Lord Anderson of Swansea Portrait Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, appears to accept that this proposal constitutes a threat to our electoral system, but he says that there are far more severe threats and therefore, among other reasons, he will not support the amendment. I congratulate my noble friend on raising this issue; he is right to do so.

As the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, has done, I would like to point out the danger that this proposal could lead to a vast amount of work for electoral registration officers, as we have seen already. It is certainly quite a weighty SI. I go back in history to the time in the late 1960s when Roy Hattersley first made a concession in this area. Since that time, this thin end of the wedge has been increased and expanded massively.

I would like to hear from the Government whether there has been evidence of fraud as this overseas franchise has developed over the years, and the extent of that fraud. As has been rightly pointed out, the further away you are from the UK geographically, the more likely it is that it is very difficult to verify statements that you make. You can get a friend, perhaps of long standing when you have been abroad for a long time, to do that.

18:00
The slogan of the Boston Tea Party was, “No taxation without representation”. What we have in this case is clearly representation without taxation, as people can have very vestigial links. When I had a place in France, I met many of those people; they were good people, but they had no serious links with the UK. We are talking about a context where there is great concern in the country about foreign interference in our electoral processes, so do these proposals give greater scope for such foreign interference?
I raise again the question of sanctions. For example, it is said that if people living overseas contravene the provisions of the SI by fraud or other means, they will be subject to fines. Surely that is absurd. How can any fines be enforced on someone who lives a good distance abroad? This is just window dressing; it is a spurious suggestion.
We are bound to ask some questions—but I will be brief. What are the pressures behind this proposal? What are the demands and how great are they? Is there evidence of fraud in the past? What is the real motive of the Government in pressing this? My noble friend Lord Khan put his finger on the motive: it is not the advance of democracy; instead, it gives the opportunity for many people to interfere in our elections.
This is surely a partisan proposal; it will benefit the Conservative Party, according to many estimates. What expectations do the Government have about the number of donors, some large, who may suddenly surface as a result of these proposals? In their dying days, this Government have brought forward these proposals. My hope is that an incoming Labour Government will speedily reverse them.
Lord Lexden Portrait Lord Lexden (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Hayward stressed the central point about these regulations: they bring into effect, at long last, the right of our fellow countrymen and countrywomen living overseas to participate in our elections. They were promised votes for life, and at long last that promise will be fully delivered, following the provisions in the Elections Act of last year that these regulations carry forward.

It is an immensely important day for those who have looked forward to it and have campaigned for it. Many of them are in the Conservative Party, as my noble friend referred to, alongside others in this House. I well remember advocating the removal of the arbitrary 15-year limit in my early speeches in this House, 12 years or so ago. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, will recall the legislation that gave rise to those discussions.

It was particularly gratifying last year, when the Elections Act was carried into effect, that among those who were able to note it with approval and rejoice was a quite remarkable figure: Harry Shindler OBE, a long-time Labour supporter resident in Italy following courageous action during the Second World War. He devoted a large part of the peacetime that followed to draw attention to the very unsatisfactory state of affairs and to call for change, year after year in place after place. It was wonderful to celebrate with this great man, aged 101, immediately after the passage of the Act last year.

This measure implementing what was agreed last year brings us in line with so many other countries that give full voting rights to their citizens living in other countries. It has become a mainstream democratic principle, and we are right to incorporate it in our law. The Labour Party, through the noble Lord, Lord Khan, seems to be suggesting that it is au fait with the retention of some restriction in this area. I remind the Labour Party of the view of Labour International, to which it belongs. It said in March 2021 that it urges the PLP and party leadership to support votes for life for British citizens living outside the UK:

“As a democratic party, Labour should acknowledge that many British people living and working abroad still have close connections with the UK and are directly … affected by decisions and actions of the government in the UK”.


I ask the Labour Party to bear that very much in mind.

Lord Harris of Haringey Portrait Lord Harris of Haringey (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the Minister is well respected in this House for the cogent and clear way she presents material to us, so I listened with great care to what she had to say. While she explained in detail the practical—and, in some cases, quite complicated—details of how this will work, I heard very little about the philosophy underpinning what is being done. The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, just gave us an example of the philosophy of why this is appropriate—the principle of votes for life for citizens—but what we have not heard is the underpinning philosophy of why this solution is the appropriate response to that.

If elections mean anything, they are about local people choosing a local representative to represent their interests in a Parliament, a local authority or whatever else. Here, we are talking about people who have lived overseas—maybe for 15 or 20 years or even longer—so where is that local link and line through which local people vote for a local representative to sit on a body representing their interests? It becomes very blurred. As I understand the proposals, you will, in effect, have a choice. If you have lived overseas for many years but, in your youth, you lived in all sorts of places around the UK, you can pick and choose the constituency or area to which you have affinity. Is that an appropriate way of demonstrating that link?

Some have made jokes about one of the issues, saying that we should have an MP representing people living in the Bahamas. But the principle adopted in other countries is quite clear: it recognises that, after 10, 15 or 20 years, you no longer have the same sort of local affiliation, and it is therefore legitimate that your interests are represented in some other way. For somebody who was last resident in this country 20 years ago, there may well have been several changes in the Member of Parliament for their area—I have lost count of how many general elections we have had in the last 20 years, for a variety of reasons—and they may not have very much knowledge about what has gone on their area. The question then arises as to why it is appropriate for that link to a particular constituency to be allowed.

When the Minister responds to my noble friend Lord Khan’s regret amendment, she needs to address why we are doing this. What is the philosophy that underpins it and, secondly, what is the reason for choosing this particular method of delivering the commitment to lifelong electors? Why are we saying that you have this opportunity to pick and choose—to decide which constituency you might want and whether you will participate in local elections about local services? You will, ultimately, decide the amount of expenditure on refuse collection and other matters. That is no doubt fascinating, but if you have lived overseas for many years, it is difficult to see how you have that affinity and that interest. We have to understand why this particular solution has been taken. When the Minister explains why the option of creating a constituency for overseas residents has not been dealt with, perhaps we can then have some explanation as to whether this has created a significant further loophole in respect of bringing money into this country for electoral purposes. It is difficult to understand why there is this sudden move to do it, and to do it in this way.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Portrait Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I will be very brief, because I know your Lordships wish to move to the vote. I will just follow up on some of the points made by my colleague. The real problem we have is that the 2010 coalition abandoned all the work that Labour was doing on establishing a national identity. If that had proceeded, we would have created a national identity for every individual. We would have known where they were located at the time they left the country, and that would then have been used as the point at which they cast their vote. I address my remarks primarily to my Front Bench. As we prepare our manifesto, I hope we will go back to what we were doing then. We see the problems that we are having with immigration, the failure to know how many people we have in this country and so many areas in which we need a national database. We should have a look at the Indian experience and the way in which India has created quite an amazing national digital identity, and look to see whether we should not have one in the UK to bring ourselves up to date. It would answer many of the problems of this kind of legislation.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I have just one very quick point. The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, talked about the fact that I had asked about reviews; when we consider the potential for election fraud, that is really important. The Elections Act was brought in, according to the Government, because they were concerned about shutting the door on fraud. My concern is that this will open the door to more than they will stop.

I will just pick up some of the things the Minister said in her introduction. If there is no national insurance number, there needs to be documentary evidence provided. That will be provided by the applicant. Checks against the electoral register at the moment go only up to 15 years. The Minister said that will be retained for longer in future, but how do we know how accurate it is now? How will we measure that? What analysis will the Government do as this goes forward to check on the potential level of electoral fraud, and how is it going to be reviewed and analysed in future? We need to make sure that the people on the register are those who need to be on the register—especially if that can then lead to donations.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, we on these Benches are in favour of extending the franchise further, but as part of a wider reconsideration of inclusion on and exclusion from the register. I remind the House that we have an estimated 8 million British citizens living in this country who are not on the register—about which something ought also to be done. We are concerned about how this is implemented and some of its unintended consequences. I remind the House that there are 3.5 million British overseas citizens. That is, by my calculation, roughly 5,500 per constituency, if they all registered. If we assume that no more than 50% register, that is still well over 2,000 per constituency. I am sure the Minister will have been briefed that overseas registration in constituencies is not uniform but highly variable. Some London constituencies already have approaching 2,000 overseas electors, whereas a number of constituencies in Wales have fewer than 20. That is to be expected. Next time we redraw the tightened boundaries of our constituencies, do we take into account the number of overseas voters who are registered in various constituencies? If we do, some London constituencies will get quite a bit smaller because the numbers of overseas voters will take them way over the quota.

18:15
A whole range of questions have not been considered. For example, I know of no element in this SI that talks about spending limits for parties when dealing with and searching out overseas voters. This is all part of the reason why overseas constituencies are, for us, a necessary consequence of extending the franchise for a long time. I should have declared an interest, of course: I will skype my two elder sisters just before Christmas. One has lived overseas for more than 50 years and the other for more than 60 years. I shall remind them that now is the time, as dual nationals, to register to vote in British elections as well as the elections in the countries in which they reside.
My noble friend Lord Rennard talked about the inconsistency between the rules for domestic and overseas attestation. The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, talked about the resources of electoral registration officers. I have spoken to electoral registration officers in Yorkshire who say they fear they will be overwhelmed by this, because people will register at the last minute. The SI suggests that you can challenge or check an application. That simply cannot be done during a short election campaign. This will end up as a considerable mess, with complaints afterwards.
There is, as has also been mentioned, no real mechanism for who enforces some of these rules. The Elections Act 2022 weakened the role of the Electoral Commission. It is quite clear that, whatever happens after the election, we are going to have to look at electoral law as such and the role of the Electoral Commission as the guarantor of the integrity of British democracy.
I do not know whether the Minister has been briefed on the story that appeared in the Financial Times on 17 October, very recently, which told us that Penny Mordaunt, as Leader of the House of Commons, wrote to Tom Tugendhat, the Security Minister, in September,
“calling for a new intelligence-sharing framework between the security services and the UK’s main parties”,
and that:
“Some government insiders fear parties have too little access to sensitive information about potential donors … Mordaunt has been working with officials to identify new mechanisms for data sharing between intelligence officials and political parties”.
I tried to discover whether that letter has been placed in the Library of either House or published, and I have been informed by our Library that it has not. It seems to me that it is of relevance to what we are now discussing, which is the question of how on earth we will check. The Electoral Commission does not have powers to investigate either registration or the source of donations in other countries. I remind the Minister that one of the largest donations to the Conservative Party this year, of £5 million, came from someone whose financial interests are centred in Dubai, which, as we well know, is one of the main offshore centres for Russian and Chinese money, not to mention Gulf money itself, which in turn may have particular ways of foreign interference. Another of the largest such donations, of £2 million, came from someone whose financial and commercial interests are in Indonesia and Thailand. It is very difficult to check, and Penny Mordaunt’s letter was suggesting that political parties do not check, whether the person giving the money is really the origin of the money.
So we have a large list of questions that this SI does not answer. Clearly, after the election we need a full and cross-party examination of electoral law, of the role of the Electoral Commission and of the whole question of inclusion and exclusion in voting rights. It may indeed include some of the questions that the noble Lord there was raising. We on these Benches will support this regret amendment if it is pressed, because we are not convinced that the Government have thought this all through. It is quite evident that they have not and we are therefore led to conclude that concern for increasing large foreign donations to the Conservative party from people based in Dubai, Singapore and elsewhere without checks being made is one of the main motivators of pushing this change through so rapidly without thinking through the consequences. We will regret that, because it is a threat to the integrity of our democracy.
Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am grateful for the contribution of all noble Lords to this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Khan, started with some of the principles behind expanding the franchise to overseas electors. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, also asked about that point. The statutory instruments implement changes made in the Elections Act and were debated substantially then—but it is worth touching on those points now.

Currently, around 1 million overseas UK nationals are eligible to register to vote, but only around 230,000 were registered in 2019. By that measure, they could be seen as the least enfranchised electors of any group. In terms of connections to the UK, British expats increasingly retain strong links with the United Kingdom. Many have family here or plan to return here in future. Decisions made by the UK Parliament on foreign policy, defence, immigration, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, on pensions, trade or Brexit affect British citizens who live overseas, and that is why they should have the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

To those who say that it is politically motivated, as we have heard, I believe it is Lib Dem policy to support votes for life, albeit structured in a different way, to establish overseas voters into stand-alone overseas constituencies. It is the view of this Government that it would sever the connection to where the voters previously lived in the UK and create a two-tier system of MPs. So, it is in the interests of UK citizens resident in the UK to be balanced with those living overseas, and distributing electors on the basis of their previous local connection would ensure that.

As my noble friend Lord Lexden pointed out, Labour International also supports votes for life and has addressed some of the questions around this policy in its own words—in particular the point around whether overseas electors are tax exiles or non-doms. Labour International states that

“the vast majority of us are working age or younger and not tax exiles or rich non-doms. Those who are pensioners may have spent a lifetime paying into UK insurance and be dependent on UK pensions and healthcare funding”.

On the connection between paying tax and being eligible to vote, as a matter of principle taxation is not connected to enfranchisement in the UK. If a British citizen can vote for a political party at an election, they should be able to donate to that political party, subject to the transparency requirements on donations. Electoral law already allows registered British expatriates to vote in UK parliamentary elections and make donations. The Elections Act and these statutory instruments make no change to that principle. They merely amend the overseas franchise.

To expand further on the concerns raised by the noble Lords, Lord Khan and Lord Harris, about applicants potentially fraudulently choosing their constituency or registering in more than one location, as now, overseas electors will be entitled to register in respect of only one UK address. The Elections Act 2022 puts in place clear rules regarding where British citizens overseas may register. It must be the address at which they were last registered or, if they were never registered, last resident. As now, their connection to that address must be established before they are added to the register. Individuals applying in contravention of those rules will be providing false information and may have committed an offence. They will be penalised accordingly.

Lord Anderson of Swansea Portrait Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

How will they be penalised? How can a sanction levied in this country be imposed abroad?

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Well, as under the current system, all overseas applicants need to prove their identity and their verifiable connection to a UK address. A broad range of offences and penalties applies to persons seeking to register. If the applicant is not registering in compliance with those rules, an electoral registration officer who suspects fraud, for whatever reason, will ask them for further information and will not register the individual if they are not satisfied. So, there may be different routes to enforcement, but the key point here is whether people would be able to get on to the register using inaccurate or fraudulent data. That is what we have put protections in place to prevent. Registration officers are experienced in assessing evidence and, as I have said, as now, when they suspect fraud, they will have the power to ask for further information.

The noble Lord, Lord Khan, also asked about the process for using—

Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Has the Minister ever visited an electoral registration officer’s office? Does she realise how small the numbers of staff are? The idea that they can take on all these checks, even outside the short election campaign when they are always extremely busy, does seems a little optimistic.

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I will come on to the question of resources and implementation later in my response but, as I said at the start of my speech, the expansion of the franchise does not change the principle of the franchise. People who have been abroad for up to 15 years are able to vote and these measures are expanding that further.

I was going to add more on the process of using attestations to demonstrate the connection to the UK address, as this was asked about by several noble Lords. It is important to make this work, so that an eligible applicant has every opportunity to demonstrate their eligibility. We anticipate that an electoral registration officer will be able to verify most applicants’ connection to their qualifying address using register checks or DWP historic address matching. Where this is not possible, applicants will be able to provide documentary evidence or, failing that, an attestation. This is in alignment with the processes for verifying identity. We have considered feedback from stakeholders on the different types of documentary evidence that an overseas applicant may have available to them and enabled electoral registration officers to consider a wide range of documentary evidence, providing that it contains the applicant’s name and qualifying address. This is a hierarchy of processes that applicants must go through. Attestation can only be used if those other processes have not been able to establish the information needed.

The attestation process is a long-established process for voter registration and, as I said before, used only where other methods of verification have been exhausted. Attestors are subject to certain requirements and must provide information that demonstrates that they meet those requirements. They must declare that all information in an attestation is true and acknowledge that it is an offence to provide false information to an electoral registration officer. The Government believe that these instruments strike a balance between the accessibility and integrity of the attestation process by introducing new limits on the number of individuals an attestor can attest for within an electoral year. The Electoral Commission provides guidance for EROs on verifying attestations and has the power to reject those attestations.

18:30
I now come to the additional costs and resources implied by these changes. As I said in my opening remarks, the Government have already committed to funding the additional costs incurred by electoral administration teams from all changes to electoral administration by the Elections Act; this is covered by the new burdens doctrine. This will include funding the additional costs incurred by local government for the registration of newly enfranchised overseas electors. The administrative cost of extending the franchise for overseas electors has been extensively modelled, with the help of local authorities and other sector stakeholders. New burdens funding will be provided via an upfront grant in spring 2024, with local authorities able to bid for additional funding via a justification-led process, to ensure that local authorities have the resources that they need when they require them. The impact assessment published alongside this statutory instrument set out estimates for how much this would cost. The central estimate put it in the range of £40.8 million over a 10-year period.
Noble Lords asked about the systems that we have in place to ensure the integrity of our donations regime and our broader electoral system. UK electoral law sets out a stringent regime of donations controls to ensure that only those with a legitimate interest in UK elections can make political donations, and that political donations are transparent. The same transparency measures will apply to those who are empowered to vote and donate through this expansion of the franchise, as applies to existing voters. Money from a foreign or unknown source is illegal.
The Elections Act 2022 further tightened the law on political finance, making it harder for foreign influence to take place in elections. The Electoral Commission has been given more powers to access Companies House information through powers under the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023, which will strengthen the application of existing political donation laws. The Government’s Defending Democracy Taskforce ensures that we have a robust and joined-up response to the range of threats facing our democratic institutions. Through the National Security Act 2023, a new foreign influence registration scheme and new foreign interference offences will strengthen the resilience of the UK political system against covert foreign influence. During the passage of the then National Security Bill, the Government further committed to undertake a consultation on enhanced information sharing between relevant bodies to help identify and mitigate foreign interference in political donations. The Government will lay a report on that before Parliament by the end of next year.
The noble Lord, Lord Khan, asked how we will monitor the impact of the changes made under these provisions. As with any legislation initiated by the Government, we are committed to monitoring overseas electors changes. In the Elections Act, the Government committed to undertake post-legislative scrutiny no less than four and no more than five years after Royal Assent.
I turn to my noble friend Lord Hayward’s concerns about the increased burden on administrators. I have addressed funding but let me say that we have sought to minimise as far as possible the new burdens on administrators by working closely with the sector and the Electoral Commission in the policy design. Improvements to the registration process, including enabling the electronic submission of documents and digital improvements to identity verification, will make applications easier to process and reduce the potential for a back-and-forth between electors and administrators. The increase in the registration period for an overseas elector—from one year to up to three years—will ensure that more electors remain registered between elections, which will both benefit the elector and reduce the burden on administrators. We are committed to ensuring that the sector is prepared to implement these measures across the UK from 16 January 2024.
Further, on the security of the Electoral Commission, my honourable friend in the other place, Minister Hoare, who leads on this area for the department, met the Electoral Commission—today, in fact. It was the latest in a series of regular meetings that Ministers have held with the Electoral Commission, so we remain in close contact with it.
I am conscious that I have not addressed a number of further questions, and I commit to doing so in writing, but what I have done is set out the principle behind why these changes are taking place and the safeguards we have put in around them. In the light of that, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Khan, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Khan of Burnley Portrait Lord Khan of Burnley (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, for her response. I also thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate, although I was quite bemused by the frustration of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, at myself and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, having not attended the overseas Conservatives meeting. I did not get an invitation either.

UK politics is already vulnerable to bad actors, including hostile states, seeking to subvert democracy through donations to political parties. I want to highlight the fundamental point in this debate: extending the right to vote to millions of new voters overseas without a related requirement to check the source of donors’ funds will significantly increase the risk of foreign influence in our politics.

We have raised concerns around this issue continuously: my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock raised concerns during the passage of the Elections Bill; my noble friend Lord Coaker raised concerns during the passage of the National Security Bill; and noble Lords from across the House raised the alarm in the interests of national security during the passage of that same Bill. The Electoral Commission has raised concerns in this area. The chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee has expressed concerns and spoken out on this area, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, mentioned. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has also spoken out on this very point.

The Government have resisted in providing the necessary checks and safeguards. Although I appreciate the response from the noble Baroness, Lady Penn— I have the utmost respect for her, especially as we are constantly sharing parenting notes with each other as we both have young children—she has, unfortunately, not provided any assurances on the fundamental issue of foreign and undue influence in our democracy, which ultimately affects our country’s national security. In view of the importance of this issue, I would like to test the opinion of the House and put my amendment to a vote.

18:37

Division 1

Ayes: 164


Labour: 102
Liberal Democrat: 49
Crossbench: 8
Non-affiliated: 4
Democratic Unionist Party: 1

Noes: 133


Conservative: 122
Crossbench: 8
Non-affiliated: 2
Ulster Unionist Party: 1

18:48
Motion, as amended, agreed.