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

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Tuesday 12th December 2023

(5 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Moved by
Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn
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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)
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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.

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

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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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)
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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)
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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.

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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