End of 15-year rule – a big opportunity for all Lib Dems

In the fine print of the recent budget was an announcement that UK citizens living abroad for more than 15 years were to get the right once again to vote in general elections. Eligible voters would register at the location where they lived prior to moving abroad (although we would like to see the establishment of overseas constituencies).

Legislation should be laid before Parliament later this year to bring about the reform.

It is estimated 5 million British citizens live overseas, and that 3 million have lived overseas for over 15 years.

A brief history of the issue

Before 1985 UK citizens living abroad were not able to vote. The law was then changed allowing them to vote, but only in their first 5 years overseas. This was extended to 20 years in 1989 and reduced to 15 years in 2002. Lib Dems Overseas have strongly campaigned to have the right to vote restored for life to all UK citizens living abroad.

Brits living overseas are composed of citizens from all walks of life. In many ways, they are representative of those who live in the UK – ordinary families with children, pensioners, students, professionals. Many continue to pay taxes to the UK Government, not least on their pensions. There is no reason why they should be treated any differently to those who continue to live in the UK.

Why is it good news for most?

  • Ability to vote in any future general election or referendum. Highlighted by the challenges faced by British citizens living in Europe were unable to vote in the Brexit referendum.
  • Opportunity to influence home constituencies in future elections. There are many Brits overseas who retain a strong emotional and financial connection with their home constituencies.
  • Opportunity to help repair damage caused by Brexit.

Opportunity to highlight poor treatment of Brits abroad in terms of:

  • Frozen pensions issue; half a million Brits have their pensions frozen at the rate they received when they left the UK.
  • Access to NHS (Brits living abroad have fewer rights than prisoners or refugees!)
  • Quality of Foreign Office service to Brits abroad.

LDO is conducting a survey on the rights of Britons abroad. You can find it via the following link: https://www.libdemsoverseas.com/rights_of_britons_abroad

Conclusion

This is a great opportunity for Lib Dems to show we are THE party that best represents the interests of the millions of Brits living overseas. Its global network of representatives on the Lib Dems Overseas Executive provides unique local, on-the-ground support on matters of foreign policy interest to the UK. Our contribution will be considerably strengthened by our long-term overseas members having a say again through the restitution of their voting rights.

While we believe that Brits overseas would be best represented by their own dedicated MP it is likely that they will be represented for some time to come by the MPs of the constituency of their last UK residence. Local parties should take advantage of this to extend their vision beyond their local boundaries and embrace potential new supporters from amongst the millions likely to benefit from the demise of an unjust law and infringement on rights.

* Colin Bloodworth is the Head of Policy for the Lib Dems Overseas Executive .

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31 Comments

  • George Thomas 12th Jun '21 - 11:26am

    “Brits living overseas are composed of citizens from all walks of life. In many ways, they are representative of those who live in the UK – ordinary families with children, pensioners, students, professionals”

    “Access to NHS (Brits living abroad have fewer rights than prisoners or refugees!)”

    I find it hard to believe that people living abroad for more than 15 years are composed from all walks of life and don’t think there is reason to make comparisons to refugees or prisoners living in the UK – certainly not in the way you have – but I am open to the idea that this might be a good thing. LD’s shouldn’t ignore this voting block.

  • Colin,

    This is legislation brought forward by a Conservative party, whose sole aim is to consolidate their hold on power by enfranchising a group who are mainly rather well off and so much more likely to be Conservative supporting.

    I’m not sure where you get your view that ‘Many continue to pay taxes to the UK Government, not least on their pensions. There is no reason why they should be treated any differently to those who continue to live in the UK.’

    However, according to the gov.uk website

    “If you live abroad but are classed as a UK resident for tax purposes, you may have to pay UK tax on your pension. The amount you pay depends on your income. If you’re not a UK resident, you don’t usually pay UK tax on your pension. But you might have to pay tax in the country you live in. There are a few exceptions – for example, UK civil service pensions will always be taxed in the UK.’”

    Let’s be honest with ourselves, It’s a blatant grab for even more power.

    I’m sure it will also help Conservative party donations too.

    All in all, It is a fantasy to pretend that it is a good thing in general from a Lib Dem perspective and to claim it as a great opportunity for the Liberal Democrats is quite simply a joke.

    We should oppose it.

  • Brad Barrows 12th Jun '21 - 12:33pm

    I suspect this is part of the UK government’s plan to attempt to rig a future Scottish independence referendum by making it easier to argue that people born in Scotland who have chosen to leave the country should still be able to vote on its future.

  • Colin Bloodworth 12th Jun '21 - 3:44pm

    Response:
    Brits overseas are not all ‘rather well off’. They are not all rich Tories.
    Ask any of the half a million British retirees abroad with state pensions frozen from the day they left the UK. Who are they likely to vote for, especially as the government has just turned down another appeal by an All Party Parliamentary Group on the issue?
    In general, Brits overseas do not enjoy the same benefits as expats from other western countries. For the many who have been overseas longer than 15 years the opportunity to vote again will give them the chance to bring about change.

  • Hauwa Usman 12th Jun '21 - 4:18pm

    Exactly, ‘Brits overseas are not all rather well off.’ They are not all rich Tories as some unfortunately tend to think.

    Yes it is true that Brits overseas do not enjoy the same benefits as expats from other western countries.

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Jun '21 - 5:03pm

    And apart from the overseas retirees with frozen pensions there may be quite a number of overseas residents distinctly cheesed off over Brexit.

  • David Evans 12th Jun '21 - 5:18pm

    In response to Colin’s Response

    1) Yes not *all* Brits overseas are ‘rather well off’. But a large proportion of them are.
    2) As you say there are “half a million British retirees abroad with state pensions frozen from the day they left the UK”, but presumably most of them are getting by OK or they would have come back, especially if they have been abroad for more than 15 years. The rules were very clear when they moved away and they chose what was presumably a better life for them then, most of them paying taxes in their new country of domicile.
    3) You ask “Who are they likely to vote for, especially as the government has just turned down another appeal by an All Party Parliamentary Group on the issue?” I think it could be Labour. Particularly as we are making such a poor job of getting noticed as a party in the UK, so how will we get noticed abroad?
    4) As you say “For the many who have been overseas longer than 15 years the opportunity to vote again will give them the chance to bring about change.” However based on the examples you have chosen, for most of them, that will be to take more money out of the UK and spend it in their new country of choice.

    I really can think of a great many causes (like poverty in the UK) that I would prioritise much higher than this.

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Jun '21 - 5:27pm

    @David Evans
    “but presumably most of them are getting by OK or they would have come back”
    That presupposes they can afford to come back. Many retired to overseas places with sunnier skies and cheaper housing.

  • Thank you for highlighting this Colin,

    Brits overseas are huge in number (5 million) and from experience they are overseas for many reasons and from many walks of life.

    There is an odd assumption that Brits living overseas are rich Tory supporters. I have never seen the stats to support this assumption, in fact I don’t think that data exists & I doubt even the Tories with their advance analysis are able to know this for sure.

    What we know is that the Brits living in Europe for more than 15 years were unable to vote for Brexit. That people move overseas because they fall in love, because work takes them their, because they are inquisitive about the world, because health or finances prevent them from returning to the UK, and many many more reasons. Tax (as is so often mentioned when discussing overseas voters) is not a driving factor for many people when deciding to live overseas.
    I would also highlight that living overseas does not mean they loose an connection with their British home – and in some cases it makes the financial & emotional connection stronger.

    I’m of the view democracy works best when the vote is opened up to as many people as possible (of course appropriate controls are required). I’m supportive of votes for 16-17 year olds, votes for non-nationals who are living in the UK with national insurance links and Brits living overseas. From my perspective it would seem odd to support votes for one of these groups and not them all.

  • David Evans 12th Jun '21 - 6:53pm

    Nonconformist – I’m afraid you omitted to note one key word in the quote of mine you responded to. I did say “most of them are getting by OK or they would have come back” and the key word is most. I did not say all.

    So your comment isn’t really relevant to the situation the vast majority of retired expats find themselves in.

    Also, as I said, “The rules were very clear when they moved away and they chose what was presumably a better life for them then, most of them paying taxes in their new country of domicile.” Knowing that, they moved away, and benefitted from the cheaper housing you mention.

    Now Colin is implying that giving them a vote which they could use to have a second go at a personal decision that has turned out badly in the longer term is a good idea, and that would effectively move resources that could be used to address real poverty in the UK, to people who, as you put it have benefitted from cheaper housing for over 15 years.

    My position remains that there are a great many causes (like poverty in the UK) that I would prioritise much higher than this.

    Do you think that putting money to address poverty in the UK is so much less important than giving expats a vote so that they can vote to get more money from those of us that have remained in the UK: resources that are not needed by a significant majority of those who are abroad and would benefit?

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Jun '21 - 7:26pm

    @David Evans
    I might also add that those not necessarily well-off people who retire abroad are not going to be taking up much-needed resources in the UK such as medical care and scarce housing.

    I did not put a priority on this extension of voting rights. And I would point out that plenty of other countries allow their overseas citizens to vote at least in national elections and without necessarily having a time limit.

    There’s a list of countries with a variety of overseas voter rights at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_of_expatriates_to_vote_in_their_country_of_origin

  • Caroline Padbury 12th Jun '21 - 7:55pm

    Thank you Colin for this important article.

    5 million British Citizens live overseas – to reiterate an obvious point, this is a huge number. The proposed changes to voting terms are significant.

    There is a perception that Brits living overseas are aristocratic tax-dodging Tories – and this policy change is simply a Tory land-grab. But I struggle to understand why as Lib Dem’s we adopt this stereotype and don’t dig a bit deeper.

    Why do people move overseas? To explore the world and learn, for work/career, for love, for family, to grow as a person … and many more reasons. Why do they stay overseas? For work, for love, for family, because they no longer have the financial or physical ability to return to the UK … and many more reasons. The perception that Brits live overseas to avoid tax & live the high-life is similar to taking Instagram at face value.

    Having said that – I haven’t seen any stats to prove or disprove my views. In fact I doubt the Tories have seen any stats to prove or disprove these views. The UK Gov doesn’t track it’s citizens abroad (other Western countries do), we have limited insight into this population.

    But what do we know? We know Brits living in Europe for over 15 years we’re unable to vote for Brexit. We know the Gov is not supporting the half-million Frozen pensioners living overseas. We know we have an active a strong following in our Lib Dem’s Abroad local parties.

    We are also a liberal Democratic Party. Surely our focus should be on supporting democracy by ensuring as many people as possible can vote (16-17 year olds, non-British citizens in UK, Brits overseas etc) – of course with appropriate security controls.

  • Going to get pelters for this one BUT

    Where did this Ethnic Nationalism come from on a Liberal Democrat supporting site?
    If you live in France, Spain or Iceland (and if they allow it – random examples from the top of my head), then vote in French, Spanish or Icelandic elections. You must live with the consequences.
    If you live in one of these countries and you vote in a United Kingdom election, you DON’T have to live with the consequences and you don’t have to think before you vote.
    Please, let’s have an injection of CIVIC Nationalism. If you live here (regardless of where you’re from) you have to live with the consequences of your vote, so you deserve the vote and you should use it wisely. (Ducks under sandbags, and awaits onslaught)

  • James Fowler 12th Jun '21 - 9:34pm

    The Conservatives have an almost total arm lock on the pensioner vote, and this scheme is clearly intended to utilize that hegemony. Few pensioners abroad are likely to be poor in any meaningful sense, though as we know wealth does not prevent people feeling ‘hard done by’ and no doubt ready to beat the drum for yet more privileges for incumbency. Why any of this is of any benefit/interest to the LDs remains a mystery to me.

  • Denis Mollison 13th Jun '21 - 12:27am

    I agree with Chris

  • Colin Bloodworth 13th Jun '21 - 3:16am

    One final blast in response to the many comments:

    I was glad to read some of the comments because they highlight the misconceptions many have about people who have broadened their horizons by moving overseas.

    Firstly, regarding the issue of ‘frozen pensioners’ (and their potential half a million votes), allow me to quote from last December’s report by an All Party Parliamentary Group on the issue:
    “16% of UK pensioners living in ‘frozen’ countries had served in the armed forces.”
    “1 in 2 ‘frozen’ pensioners are receiving 65 pounds or less per week and over half struggle financially as a result of their frozen pension.”
    “Almost 90% of surveyed UK pensioners living on a ‘frozen’ pension were not aware their state pension would be frozen before they left the UK.”

    Critics will point out that they are free to return to the UK. In theory yes, but many have families overseas and others are too old, infirm or poor to make the journey or have no family or connections in the UK. Many could not afford to buy or rent an acceptable home in the UK.

    True, there are all-party supporters attempting to correct this injustice to people who paid their National Insurance contributions in full, but the Conservative-dominated government has consistently rejected their appeals. This despite the national embarrassment that both the Australian and Canadian governments are subsidizing those pensioners. Those living in developing countries however are not so fortunate and I personally know of many extreme hardship cases.

    One wonders why the government is making the move to abolish the 15-year rule now but did not before the Brexit referendum. I would suggest that it was because the majority of those overseas would have voted against it. And not just those living in Europe. Living overseas gives you a more global perspective and appreciation of the need to work with your neighbors. Leaders like Trump and unfortunately Boris, prefer to be kings of their own castles and reject outside influence. Watch how the US now grows in stature on the world scene under Biden and how the UK loses its national standing since its departure from the EU.

    So while the Tories may believe the extra overseas votes will go to them, they could be in for a rude surprise. This is a great opportunity for the Lib Dems to pick up some much-needed votes which would be distributed around the country.

  • Hauwa Usman 13th Jun '21 - 5:56am

    First of all there are many Lib dem members living outside the UK and Europe, in about 17 different countries; USA, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Singapore, Nigeria, South Africa, United Emirates, Carribeans, Gibralter, Afghanistan, Thailand, and the list goes on . Here’s the website: https://www.libdemsoverseas.com/

    So definitely the end of the 15 years rule is of benefit & an interest for the Lib dems especially in terms of its many members & supporters outside the UK & Europe.

  • David Evans
    The right to vote does not depend on payment of tax. Many retired people, the unemployed, carers do not pay tax and yet they can vote and receive NHS care.
    Many Britons working overseas send back money. The amount of this is considerable.
    Britons living overseas are affected by government incompetence eg the handling of covid and it is right they have their say.

  • Nonconformistradical 13th Jun '21 - 8:22am

    @Chris
    Why is nationalism – be it ethnic or civic, however you want to describe it – apparently so important to you? Which is how I perceived your post at 12th Jun ’21 – 9:03pm – please correct me if I have got this wrong but that’s how it came over to me.

    Human beings don’t have a choice on matters such as the colour of their skin, the country of their birth or the way in which they are brought up (religion etc.). Those are factors with which each human has to put up – in childhood at any rate.

    Mightn’t all members of the human population of Planet Earth have a chance of sustainable survival if there was rather less promotion of nationalism and rather more of co-operation?

  • Hauwa Usman 13th Jun '21 - 8:40am

    @Nonconformistradical, well said, my thoughts exactly, ‘Mightn’t all members of the human population of Planet Earth have a chance of sustainable survival if there was rather less promotion of nationalism and rather more of co-operation?’! Well said.

  • A cynic might assume that if the Tories are proposing it, they see an electoral advantage. They are probably right.

    Having 5 million voters overseas hardly plays to our traditional strengths of door-knocking and leaflet dropping. It’s great if you have most of the press on your side as those ex-pats pick up their overseas editions of the newspapers (or visit their online websites), and also if you can afford to pay for the delivery of lots of international mail. Also great if you are party in power and get to control the narrative without any pesky Lib Dem local councillors presenting an alternative.

  • Colin Bloodworth 13th Jun ’21 – 3:16am:
    One wonders why the government is making the move to abolish the 15-year rule now but did not before the Brexit referendum. I would suggest that it was because the majority of those overseas would have voted against it.

    The 2015 Conservative government campaigned strongly for the UK to remain in the EU (breaking the Council of Europe’s Code of Good Practice on Referendums by using public funds to do so). The number of registered overseas electors increased greatly in the run up to the EU Referendum, but even now is only 192,500 for England and Wales – an average of 336 per constituency…

    ‘Electoral statistics, UK: 2019’:
    https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/elections/electoralregistration/bulletins/electoralstatisticsforuk/2019

    4. Overseas electors

    The total number of overseas electors on the electoral register in December 2019 in England and Wales was 192,500, an increase of 63.8% since December 2018. England had an increase of 63.0% and Wales an increase of 89.5% (Figure 9). The large increase in the number of overseas electors in the year to December 2019 is likely to have been driven by the general election.

    Living overseas gives you a more global perspective and appreciation of the need to work with your neighbors.

    Which might make such people more inclined to look beyond an insular protectionist organisation where the average member country only sells a third of its exports outside the EU.

    Watch how the US now grows in stature on the world scene under Biden and how the UK loses its national standing since its departure from the EU.

    Free of the EU’s shackles, the UK’s stature can only grow as we regain our independent voice on international bodies such as the World Trade Organisation. Already the UK is demonstrating leadership in areas such as free trade, environmental protection, and animal welfare.

  • Denis Mollison 13th Jun '21 - 9:39am

    @Nonconformistradical
    I think you have taken Chris’s comment completely the wrong way round.
    It was against ethnic nationalism. And by civic nationalism he meant simply that the government of a country should be elected by those who live there.
    It’s an important distinction for us in Scotland, where Brad’s comment above suggests a possible motive for the expansion of the ex-pat franchise.

  • Denis
    The intention is to extend taxation to those living overseas.

  • Caroline Padbury 13th Jun '21 - 10:37am

    To provide a bit more insight.

    The Lib Dem’s Abroad local parties (Overseas, Europe, France) produced a policy paper about twi years ago that looked in detail at the impact of the 15 year rule. I have placed an extract below – but in summary the analysis suggests 850,000 votes could come from overseas (if split equally between constituency this would be 1,300 votes per constituency. However, there will be constituencies that will be disproportionately influenced by overseas votes).

    “3.7 Recent estimates used in the OEB Impact Assessment acknowledge that by no means all of those newly enfranchised by removal of the 15-year rule would actually register to vote. Based on contemporary overseas registration of 225,000 the OEB’s mid-range predictions suggest that efforts to simplify registration could result in an additional 110,000 registrations from those overseas for less than 15 years plus around 517,000 registrations from those newly enfranchised by removal of the cap. This scenario would lead to a total of around 852,000 overseas voters.“. Full details: https://www.libdemsoverseas.com/policy_paper

  • @Nonconformistradical
    The Nationalism you’re talking about is absolutely spot on. If you live in Newcastle, why would you have a vote for the London mayor, just because you moved there from London?
    I think you misunderstood my point – and obviously misunderstand me.

  • George Thomas 14th Jun '21 - 8:44am

    “Brits overseas are huge in number (5 million) and from experience they are overseas for many reasons and from many walks of life”

    We all know people who have been living abroad for a year plus and these people do come from all walks of life but we’re not talking about them. How many students (one of the groups referenced) have been living abroad for more than 15 years?

    If we are going to give them a vote should their be a cap on what they’re allowed to vote on? What is the reaction going to be when Brits abroad and the elderly vote in higher tuition fees for those studying in the UK in order to increase their pensions?

    Would they be able to vote fully in their nation of residence and the UK? If yes, it feels as if you’d have to be a special person (perhaps someone financially strong enough to live abroad for such as an extended period of time and not assimilate into local culture?) in order to take up the opportunity.

  • Peter Martin 14th Jun '21 - 10:04am

    “Please, let’s have an injection of CIVIC Nationalism. If you live here (regardless of where you’re from) you have to live with the consequences of your vote, so you deserve the vote and you should use it wisely.”

    Yep. Many countries have this approach. Australia allows, and actively encourages, legally settled residents to become citizens and therefore to be able to vote after just a two year qualification period.

    It is often said that voting isn’t optional there. But this isn’t true. Many Australians don’t like any of the choices on offer and either add their own or write “None of the above” – often using ‘industrial language’ to emphasise the point.

    We could do the same or similar. One modification could be a printed “none of the above” on all ballot papers.

  • Cris
    Newcasle and London are both part of the UK. We are talking national politics here.

  • Peter Martin: We have quite a lot of parties. Anyone who cannot find something that would broadly meet their needs should either stand for election or not vote at all. People who say none of the above have not really given the matter enough thought. It might have been a reasonable excuse in the 1950s when there were often only 2 candidates. How often does that happen now ?

  • Chris Moore 18th Jun '21 - 8:26am

    I have lived in Spain for twenty plus years.

    I pay taxes in the UK, as most of my income comes through the UK.

    I also pay taxes in Spain, as some of my income comes through Spain.

    Since Brexit, I do not have a vote anywhere.

    I used to vote locally (i.e. in Spain) in municipal and Euro-elections.

    I damn well should have the right to vote! I know several fellow immigrants to Spain, in the same position.

    All, like myself, are dismayed by the UK government’s treatment of us, post-Referendum.

    PS I last campaigned for the Lib Dems in 2019.

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