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'Radical look' at UK expat voting

Ministers may decide to increase the 15-year cut-off for voting

THE BRITISH government has promised a "really radical look at voting for overseas residents".

The comment, from Lord McNally, a minister in the Justice Ministry (which is in charge of electoral reform), followed heated debate in the Lords in which several members criticised aspects of expat voting.

These included the rule under which expats lose their vote after 15 years abroad and the inefficiency of postal votes, which are often wasted because ballots arrive too late.

This comes as the European Court of Human Rights has given the UK until the middle of this month to explain its 15-year policy, after a 90-year-old Briton in Italy challenged it.

Lord McNally told the Lords he would make sure Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Mark Harper MP, a junior minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reform, were informed of the debate. He would give his "very strong endorsement" for action "early in this parliament", he said.

Conservative peer Viscount Astor, who opened the debate, said: "This 15-year rule ... is unfair and excludes perhaps half the expatriates living overseas. There is no credible reason for that."

The comments have fuelled hopes that the rule may soon be dropped. Speaking in the Commons late last year, Mr Harper said the government was "considering whether to bring proposals before the house in due course... perhaps in the near future".

During the Lords debate Viscount Astor also criticised other aspects of expat voting, saying it could be hard to register from abroad, postal votes often arrive late and the proxy system, the only alternative, does not suit everyone.

He said this contrasted with France, which he said allowed its expats to vote at consulates or even by internet (in fact, this is at present only possible for the elections to France's special assembly for expats; however it is under consideration for next year's election of dedicated expat MPs).

Because of the "unfair" rules, he said "voter registration has plummeted" among expats. "The rules are different from those of other EU countries, which not only make it easy, but actually encourage their citizens abroad to take part in the democratic process," he said.

A campaigner for expats' rights, Brian Cave, has been urging Britons in France to write to Mr Harper to encourage him. "In my view, pensioners, who retain so many links to the UK, are those most profoundly affected," he said. "The UK is out of step with almost all European countries on this."

This comes as the European Court of Human Rights has taken up a case brought by Harry Shindler, 90, a Briton from Le Marche in Italy.

Mr Shindler said he feared the UK would seek a compromise: to extend the 15 years, not abolish it.

"I am not interested in a compromise. It's not a question of moving the cut-off date; it's a question of principle and the right to vote is in the European Convention on Human Rights. The government says we have broken with the UK, but I have not. I still get my pension from the UK and for someone of my age that is one of the most important aspects of life."

Special MPs to represent expats is also one of the issues Mr Cave has campaigned on, and once again France is in the vanguard; Britain has so far expressed no interest in such a scheme.

Currently, Britons abroad are able to vote, by proxy or post, for the constituency MP in the last place they were registered to vote in. They can also vote in European elections in the UK (also with a 15-year limit), but, if so, must not vote for a French one, too.

What about French expats in UK?

French expats currently have two options. They can:

- Vote in person at their embassy or consulate if they register. This applies to presidential elections or elections for the Assemblée des Français à l'Etranger (AFE).

- Or vote as an elector in a French commune. They can ask to be registered to vote in: their birthplace, last place of residence, or a commune in which one of their relatives is registered, or was registered. If so registered, French people abroad can vote in all French elections. However, this has to be done by proxy or in France.

French expats also vote for 155 councillors, elected for six years, to the Assemblée des Français à l'Etranger, which is headed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who also appoints to it 12 well-known figures with knowledge of expat affairs. The AFE advises the government on matters affect- ing expats and in turn elects 12 of its members to sit as senators for expats. These senators represent all French expats.

As of next year, France will have 11 MPs in the Assemblée Nationale (left) specifically for expats, with the world being divided up into constituencies. It is planned that the MP for Britain will also cover Ireland and Scandinavia.

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