Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown contributions to the Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19

Fri 23rd February 2018 Overseas Electors Bill (Commons Chamber)
2nd reading: House of Commons
23 interactions (1,148 words)

Overseas Electors Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Excerpts
Friday 23rd February 2018

(2 years, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Cabinet Office
Glyn Davies Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 9:30 a.m.

I am sure that the Minister will clarify that point because not only have I invited her to do so, but my hon. Friend has too.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con) - Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 9:30 a.m.

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Glyn Davies Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 9:30 a.m.

May I make just one brief point?

I just want to emphasise how many people—people unknown to me—who have written to me from overseas just to thank me for this Bill. Their level of appreciation is huge, as is the importance they attach to being able to vote in a British election because they are British citizens; it really is overwhelming. I am sure that other hon. Members have had exactly the same communications.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown - Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 9:30 a.m.

I offer my sincere congratulations to my hon. Friend on bringing this Bill forward. I have had a long involvement with the matter. Does he agree with me that in this centenary year of Emmeline Pankhurst’s efforts to get women the vote in this country, the same thing must apply to voters of over 15 years’ longevity abroad? This could open up the franchise to another 1 million people. It must be the correct thing to do.

Glyn Davies Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 9:30 a.m.

I agree. In fact, I will later make reference to that very point.

Break in Debate

Sandy Martin Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 12:48 p.m.

I will reach that point in my speech at some stage—I have got through only one paragraph so far. I wish to make a large number of points, and I cannot make them all instantaneously. I can address them in a random order depending on when Conservative Members want to raise them, or I can address them in the order in which I have written them down. It is entirely up to them which way they want me to take them.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown - Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 11:39 a.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Would he care to comment on the several million UK citizens who pay no tax in this country yet have a perfect right to vote? Would he also care to comment on people who are overseas for more than 15 years and have no right to vote on how their pension, their health service and a number of other UK taxpayer services are provided?

Sandy Martin Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 12:49 p.m.

I will be delighted to address the points about pensions and people who do not currently pay taxes later on in my speech. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He has mentioned some very sensible points that I assure him I will address.

I return to “no representation without taxation”. I do not know who said that taxes are how we pay for a civilised society, but it is certainly as true today as it was when it was said. None of us can imagine a society with no police force, no health service, no education, no courts, no transport systems, no mechanism for adjudication between those of different views—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) want me to give way, or is he just chuntering?

Break in Debate

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran - Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 1:47 p.m.

I do not quite understand. If Ian wanted to affect his life in Canada, he would be able to find ways of doing so there. I also think he would very much be able to affect some decisions made at this level of politics. I do not think that this provision should necessarily be extended to local elections and issues, such as bin collections in Oxford West and Abingdon. However, the recent general elections have been about major issues such as the direction of this country and the flavour that this country puts out to the rest of the world. It is entirely right that people who feel British, are British and are born into a British family have the right to vote on such matters.

I am half Palestinian and I regret that I am not at all able to engage with the country in which my mother grew up—she was actually born in Tripoli, but grew up in Jerusalem. I very keenly feel that just because I have never lived in Palestine does not make me any less Palestinian. Equally, those who have spent a lot of their life abroad have a lot to say about being British. Being British is more than just being on this land. It is loving this land and feeling that we are from this land.

I will soon draw my remarks to a close because I am keen to hear the next Bill, of which I am a sponsor. I just want to ask why we have not really considered having a constituency of overseas electors in the way that France does. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether the Government will look into that. One reason that people do not register to vote from abroad is that it is incredibly bureaucratic and hard, and they might well live in countries where the postal system does not work very well. I therefore wholeheartedly agree with finding a way to make it much easier. As the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) mentioned, it would be an excellent idea to give people the ability to return their vote to the embassy or the consulate, rather than having to get it back to the local authority.

It is an extraordinary privilege to be British. As a new Member of Parliament, it strikes me how much Members across the House all love this country. This Bill demonstrates—as is also shown by the numerous constituents who I am sure have contacted us all from abroad—that people do not have to be on this land to love it. The Liberal Democrats and I wholeheartedly back this Bill. I sincerely hope that the House votes in favour of it today.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con) - Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 12:44 p.m.

I am grateful to have caught your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. I start by paying a sincere tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) for bringing forward the Bill. He did not say it, but, contrary to what the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) insinuated, it was entirely his wish to bring it forward, because he, like me and my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), believes that it is the right thing to do. This should not be considered a political issue. In the centenary of Emmeline Pankhurst’s campaign to get women the vote in this country, fought often in difficult and violent circumstances, it is a disgrace for certain Labour Members to try to deny the vote to women who have lived overseas for longer than 15 years.

Jo Stevens Portrait Jo Stevens - Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 1:50 p.m.

What makes a 16-year-old woman in this country any less valuable than a 70-year-old woman living in Spain who is a British national? That woman has a vote, but the 16-year-old woman does not.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown - Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 1:51 p.m.

I entirely respect the sincerity with which the hon. Lady holds the view that 16-year-olds should have the vote. It is a legitimate debate, but it has nothing to do with the Bill. If she wishes to introduce a private Member’s Bill, a ten-minute rule Bill or a Bill through any other procedure, she is more than able to do so and speak in support of it, but that has nothing to do with this Bill.

One or two falsehoods have been peddled in this debate. It has been said several times that children of those living overseas for more than 15 years will be eligible to vote. I have read the Bill and can see nothing in it that would make those children eligible to vote. Indeed, the Bill is very specific as to the qualifications somebody would have to meet to be eligible.

I gave the House some figures in a debate in 2012. At that time, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, 5.6 million British citizens were living abroad, but the shocking truth was that although as of December 2011 about 4.4 million were of voting age, only about 23,000 had registered to vote. I am delighted to say that that number had increased to a huge 285,000 by the time of the 2017 general election—as the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) indicated, it might have had something to do with the EU referendum. If we believe that British citizens have the right to vote for up to 15 years, it must be right to remove the arbitrary limit whereby the day after 15 years they have no right to vote. It is right on every ground, especially that of extending the franchise, that we do that.

Totally contrary to what the hon. Member for Ipswich said in his overly long remarks, most overseas citizens have a real interest in how this country is governed. They watch BBC World, they listen to the BBC World Service, and they often get British newspapers in the countries in which they reside.

Sandy Martin Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 1:53 p.m.


Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown - Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 1:53 p.m.

I will give way once and briefly to the hon. Gentleman, and that is it.

Sandy Martin Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 1:53 p.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. I have a real interest in what happens in Scotland, India and Spain—I was watching the news from Barcelona very closely—but that does not give me the right to vote for people in those countries or for how they raise their taxes and deliver their services.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown - Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 1:54 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman’s argument is totally wrong. British citizens have every right to British taxpayer-provided services, as I said in an intervention on him earlier, yet, if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years, they have no right to vote for how those services are provided. How can that be correct? His whole argument was totally fallacious. Some 1.8 million students do not pay council tax, but nobody would ever suggest that they should be denied the vote on the grounds that they do not pay council tax. That would be a nonsensical argument.

Moving on from the hon. Gentleman, let us look at some international comparisons. According to my research, the only countries that have stricter rules on overseas voting are Ireland, Greece and Malta: paragons, I would say, of democratic values—or not. The countries that have real democratic values—the US, France, Japan, South Africa, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Italy—all have no limits on when their citizens living overseas can vote. As the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon said, with the advent of Brexit and the UK leaving the European Union, it is surely more imperative than ever that we embrace all our citizens living overseas, wherever they are, but particularly within the European Union, so that they feel part of this country, and surely the way to do that is to give them the vote.

I suggest to the hon. Member for Ipswich and the House that the expat vote has never been more important. It is our combined duty to further consolidate the British influence over those citizens and make them feel part of the British family. Despite what the hon. Gentleman says, they are soft power for this country—ambassadors for this country around the world. They gain this country a lot of influence, whether it be cultural, diplomatic, or purely in terms of imports, exports and inward investment into this country.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire gets this Bill through today. It is absolutely the right thing to do, and it is not a political issue. A number of us have campaigned very hard on it for a number of years. I hope that Labour Members will find it in their hearts, just as they wanted women to get the vote and just as they want votes at 16, to give our expats the same rights so that they can vote in our elections and have a say on how politics in this country is run.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op) Parliament Live - Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 1:56 p.m.

I will try to be brief, because I want this Bill to get through.

I believe that there is an injustice in the arbitrary 15-year rule, but there are also many other injustices in the way many British citizens living overseas are treated. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) was right to highlight some of them. What is not right, however, is whataboutery and the best being the enemy of the good. What is not right is using false hares and arguments in order to discredit this Bill and imply that all the people supporting it are against, for example, votes at 16. I voted for the private Member’s Bill that proposed that, and it will come. Within our parliamentary procedure, we cannot have an all-encompassing electoral reform Bill. Our only opportunity to deal with this injustice is to support the Second Reading of this Bill to allow it to make progress. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) has done an excellent job in bringing it forward.

For some months, I have been pressing the Government, on behalf of Labour International and in response to communications I have had with Harry Shindler, who has already been mentioned, on why they were not bringing forward the commitment they made in their manifesto. When I asked questions about that last October, I was referred to answers given in September to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who had also been raising this issue from the Labour Benches. There is a bipartisan interest—in fact, a cross-Parliament, all-party interest—in these matters. All of us, even those who have only a few constituents who have gone to live in other countries, will have had communications about them from people in Spain, France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada or wherever.

There are international organisations within the political parties that represent our party members living abroad. I have the honour of being the honorary president of Labour International, and I want to convey a few words from an email from Lorraine Hardy. She was not registered to vote in Oxford or Westminster, but was a Labour party activist in Leeds before she went to live in Alicante with her husband many years ago. She says:

“‘Votes for Life’ will be even more important post Brexit, as we will have no opportunity to vote for a national representative in the UK nor in our country of residence as there will no longer be an option to vote for an MEP.”

Frankly, it is an outrage that a large number of British people whose future in Europe was affected by the referendum were not able to vote in that referendum because they had been living abroad in a European Union country for more than 15 years. That democratic outrage was not manufactured; it was a fact. This is an opportunity to make sure that we remedy that outrage and take a small step towards allowing those people to express their views at the next general election on whether their parliamentary representatives were right to damage their position in Europe. I think that many of them might have some things to say about that. I will not get into that, but the view that this is one-sided is completely and utterly wrong. None of us knows what the views are of people living in other countries who have not expressed positions and are not registered to vote. That idea is just made up and manufactured.

Break in Debate

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith - Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 2:25 p.m.

Given the overstretched nature of elections offices up and down the country, I suspect there would not be the capacity for such a check. Given that the Government are this May planning to trial requiring ID at polling stations, it seems that the requirements to prove the identity of an elector living in the UK are far greater than—

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown - Hansard

claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36)

Question put.

A Division was called; Dame Cheryl Gillan and Geoffrey Clifton-Brown were appointed Tellers for the Ayes, but no Members being appointed Tellers for the Noes, the Deputy Speaker declared that the Ayes had it.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing) - Hansard
23 Feb 2018, 2:29 p.m.

I will, unusually, delay for a moment to see whether the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who was in the Chamber until just a few minutes ago, is in the vicinity. I make it clear to the House that I am not creating a precedent in so doing, but I am aware that the hon. Gentleman was in a wheelchair and it might therefore take him a little longer to reach the Chamber.