Peers speak up for expats’ rights

Several peers supported all expats in the EU having an EU referendum vote, as an amendment on this issue is prepared

13 October 2015

PEERS spoke out strongly in favour of a referendum vote for all Britons living in EU countries when the UK’s EU Referendum Bill had its first House of Lords debate.

Many members gave their backing to the idea in yesterday’s debate – which the Liberal Democrats have confirmed to Connexion will also be the subject of an amendment which will be lodged before the bill is discussed in detail in a Lords ‘committee stage’. (The date for this has yet to be set, but it will be the next part of the bill’s journey through parliament).

Chairman of Brussels and Europe Liberal Democrats Giles Goodall said it has been agreed that the cross-bench peers [those of no specific party] will table an amendment on this, with Liberal Democrat support. He said the same is planned for an amendment calling for an independent report into the impact of leaving the EU. The Liberal-Democrats will also table amendments on votes for 16-17-year-olds and for EU citizens living in the UK, Mr Goodall said. Readers wishing email peers with support or comments can find contact details here: House of Lords.

During the Lords debate several peers also stressed the importance of detailed reports being made before the referendum as to what the UK’s relationship with the EU would look like, and what the effects would be.

The issue of expats’ voting rights is now urgent as the promised Votes for Life bill, which would extend voting rights (in parliamentary elections and also, therefore, the referendum) to all British citizens for life, has not so far been prioritised by the UK government. It may not become law in time for the referendum, to be held in 2016-17.

The Referendum Bill at present states that people who can vote in parliamentary elections can vote in the referendum, as well as British, Commonwealth and Irish citizens living in Gibraltar; plus peers – including ones who live in other parts of the EU and however long they have been outside the UK. However the wording excludes ordinary British citizens who have been away for more than 15 years, who currently lose their parliamentary election vote.

Opening the debate, Baroness Anelay (Con) said the government remains “firmly convinced that the Westminster franchise should remain the basis for this referendum”. She added – though without clarifying the timeframe – that the government still planned a separate bill to honour its manifesto commitment of ending the 15-year rule.

Labour peer Baroness Morgan of Ely said the government had so far shown “incredible naivety” in providing “no information or plan for what the UK’s relationship with the EU would be if we were to leave... The British people have a right to know what their country would look like and feel like if they vote to leave.”

She added: “What about the rights of UK citizens living in another EU country? We believe that there may be as many as 2 million. Would they be expected to come home? Would they need to uproot themselves from their new lives? Would they have the right to stay and use continental hospitals? Could they continue to have their pensions transferred abroad?... Being a part of the single market will create jobs for our childern and grandchildren. It will give them opportunities to live, work and travel on a broader stage.”

Baroness Smith of Newnham (Lib Dem) highlighed the Conservative manifesto pledge to abolish the voting ban on Britons who have lived outside the UK for more than 15 years, noting that that applies to many Britons working in the EU institutions.

She added: “I believe it also includes some members of the House of Lords who are resident in France or in other countries. They will be enfranchised through the provision that peers who are resident in France will be able to vote, but other British nationals who have been abroad for more than 15 years would not currently have the franchise. Yet surely they are exercising their rights under the EU treaty. Do they not have a right to have a say?

"It is not simply British nationals resident in the United Kingdom who have a profound stake in this referendum; it is also British nationals resident in other EU countries, who are benefiting from the current legislation to which we, the United Kingdom, signed up.”

Lord Teverson (LD) said the government had an opportunity to make sure its manfesto commitment to open votes to all Britons is honoured now.

Lord Harrison (Lab) referred to the “300,000 or so French people in this country, most of whom work successfully in the financial services sector”, saying the impact on them must be considered.

Lord Tyler (LD) said he had “no doubt that the claims of… UK citizens working and living in other EU countries, will be successfully argued in the coming weeks, in your Lordships' House”. Their party conference recently “voted overwhelmingly” to support them, he said.

Another Liberal Democrat, Lord Shipley, said: “I have come to the conclusion that all UK passport holders living outside the UK and at the very least those now living elsewhere in the EU should have the right to vote in the referendum, however long they have lived outside the UK. At present, a 15-year limit applies.

“The reasons for that number of years seem arbitrary. Indeed, the government recognised this and made it clear that they are committed to abolishing the 15-year rule. I welcome that but cannot understand why the Votes for Life bill cannot pass the legislative process in time to enable those restricted by the rule to be able to vote.”

He added: “The many UK citizens—about two million—who live elsewhere in the EU, and the many EU citizens, about 2.4 million, who live in the UK are right to be worried by the possible exit of the UK from the EU. It is no surprise that significant numbers are said to be considering dual nationality.

“If we left the EU, work permits could return, more people could have to apply for skilled migrant visas, reciprocal health schemes could be reduced, the operation of UK state pensions could be affected and the general ease of mobility for UK citizens across the EU would become much more complicated and uncertain. I wonder whether the government have calculated the impact if large numbers of UK citizens decided to return to the UK in the event of our exit from the EU.”

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