EXPATS who have lived out of the UK for more than 15 years will not be able to vote in the country's EU referendum.
An amendment which would have allowed them a one-off chance to take part in the referendum was yesterday defeated in the House of Lords by 116 for and 214 against.
No further moves to allow long-term expats to vote are expected when the bill returns for further consideration in the House of Commons.
As the Conservative Party's promised Votes for Life bill (which would overturn the law that bans those who have lived abroad for longer than 15 years from voting), will not be passed before the referendum, long-term expats living in the EU will be blocked from taking part.
In the same sitting the House of Lords agreed to allow 16-17-year-olds to vote, but did not discuss proposals to include EU citizens who live in the UK.
The bid to include an amendment for long-term expats was led by Baroness Miller (Lib Dem), backed by Lord Hannay (Crossbench), Lord Garrel-Jones (Con) and Baroness Royall (Labour).
They argued that making a one-off exception for long-term expats to vote in the referendum was no different to the one-off exception that exists in the referendum bill for members of the House of Lords to take part (they also cannot vote in General Elections).
Baroness Miller said many long-term expats spent their working lives in the UK and drew government pensions as they had been nurses, civil servants and members of the forces, and therefore paid UK tax.
“Many other people working in the EU are there because they are flying the flag for Britain. They have been encouraged by successive governments of this country to expand their careers and look to the EU,” she said.
“For some this started when they were at university, with the Erasmus scheme getting them to spend time at EU universities, and for others it is because the UK has developed partnerships with firms such as Airbus. So governments have encouraged British citizens to look on the whole of the EU as a place to study, work and live, and they cannot now pull the rug from under their feet. They should at least give them a say in whether that rug is pulled.”
She added: “When I reflected on the government’s response [in earlier debates], I could not understand why they are not keen to enfranchise this group of citizens… If the government believe it is right for British citizens to vote in future general elections, as announced in their manifesto, why is it not right to give these people a vote in a referendum that will have a greater impact on their lives than a general election?”
Lord Hannay said: “The reason to give them the vote is because we are having a referendum which could fundamentally affect a large amount of the way in which they live. It could affect their healthcare arrangements, their ability to travel freely, their social coverage, their jobs and the way their children are treated. This is a huge range of things that could and will be affected if by any chance—mischance, in my view—the electorate votes to withdraw from the European Union.”
He added: “It would be really good if the government could take a deep breath and say: ‘Yes, we agree that these people should have the vote because that is what our manifesto says, and we agree that this referendum vote matters more to them than anything else’.”
Conservative peer Lord Lexden also supported the amendment.
Referring to the delay in introducing the Votes for Life bill, he said that “if our fellow countrymen and women who have lived overseas for more than 15 years are deprived of the vote in this all-important referendum, it will be because of a preventable accident of timing…
“The right thing to do, and this is a government that pride themselves on doing the right thing, is to make provision for them to take part in the referendum through this Bill… How would we like it if we were deprived of the vote in a momentous referendum which will touch our present livelihoods and future prospects so intimately and directly, when we knew that at the next parliamentary election a vote would be ours?”
Lord Howie of Troon (Labour) said if they were left out long-term expats would “quite rightly have a feeling of resentment and undue exclusion”.
Those speaking against the idea included Lord Hamilton (Con) who said: “I smell a rat… It seems to me that this is once again trying to slew the whole playing field, which we have desperately been trying to keep level, in favour of those who want to keep us in the EU”.
These long-term expats in the EU may amount to as many as half a million people, said Lord Green of Deddington (Crossbench) – a ‘significant number’.
Baroness Morgan of Ely (Lab), said one problem was “the practical issue of registering them”. “Who are they? How do we find them?” she said.
She added that even with the increased take-up of registration at the last General Election – more than 100,000 registered – this did not show great interest. However she added “I think every one of those 100,000 has emailed me in the past few weeks to ask for this EU referendum vote”.
Long-term expats should instead be encouraged to “establish roots in their adopted lands” instead, she said.
Lord Faulks (Conservative minister) said while the government was “sympathetic”, the government’s position had not changed – it favours leaving the issue of long-term expats to the Votes for Life bill. He added: “the other part of the 100,000 obviously sent their emails to me”.
“Removing the 15-year rule will be a complex and important constitutional change. It is not something that we suggest should in any way be rushed by way of a single amendment,” he said.
However “without knowing the date of the referendum”, he “cannot guarantee the change will be implemented in time”.
He added he agreed with Lord Hamilton that it was important no “ulterior motive” was suspected, if such a change was seen to have been made “just in time for the referendum”.
In her closing remarks before the vote, Baroness Miller said: “I am afraid that there is no logic to the position laid out by the minister… He says that any change has to be considered and that more time should be taken over adopting it. In that case, the government could have made the Votes for Life bill a priority at the beginning of this session. That is what they should have done if they believe in it. I am afraid that a lot of the EU expats listening to this debate will conclude that it is humbug as they will be disfranchised.
“… It is very unfair that the people we are discussing have been led to understand throughout their lives that being in the EU means being part of a network to which Britain belongs. Now, when Britain may make a choice to leave it, they have no say in that whatever. That position is unfair and, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, said, it is an accident of timing. This is an unfairness that the government could have rectified.”