The Telegraph reports that Britons in Europe are worried that the in/out vote will take place before they become eligible to participate as the Government drags its feet on the issue
Campaigners have responded with concern to a statement which reiterated a government pledge to restore voting rights for all British expats – without indicating whether this will happen in time for the EU referendum.
One pensioner in France speculated that “Eurosceptics are holding this up in the Cabinet Office” amid fears that Britons who live in Europe would be most likely to vote against a Brexit.
In a statement issued to Telegraph Expat, John Penrose, Minister for Constitutional Reform, said: “The 15-year rule has got to go. It’s why we said in our manifesto that we would scrap this outdated law and allow Britons a vote for life wherever they are.”
But he did not say when that will happen. He went on to urge those who currently have the right to vote to join the electoral register as soon as possible.
The so-called '15-year rule’ prevents around a million of the five million Britons overseas from voting in UK parliamentary elections if they have lived out of the country for that amount of time.
A Votes for Life Bill, which will scrap the rule, was announced in the Queen’s Speech last May, but has yet to be tabled in Parliament.
Meanwhile the Referendum Act has already cleared Parliament and been made law as of December 17. It allows those who, on the date of the referendum would be entitled to vote in a parliamentary election in the UK, the right to participate in the in/out vote on the EU. At present, this only includes British expats who have been away less than 15 years.
With the referendum looming by the end of 2017 - and potentially as early as this year - expats in Europe who fall under the 15-year rule are keen to get their voting rights restored beforehand, so they can participate.
A Brexit could impact on their right to live, work and claim benefits in Europe.
Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve has even claimed that an EU exit “would make two million Britons abroad illegal immigrants overnight,” although this claim has been disputed by the Business for Britain group, which supports a Brexit.
In response to inquiries from Telegraph Expat as to the timeline for the Votes for Life Bill, a Cabinet Office spokesman would not supply any details.
Brian Cave, a British pensioner in France who runs the Votes for Expat Brits campaign, said: “It is quite appalling that so many of us who would be the most affected by a Brexit, could be denied a vote in a referendum because the Government has been so dilatory in tabling the Votes for Life Bill.”
He added: “Is it the Eurosceptics who are holding this up in the Cabinet Office? I think it might be. These Eurosceptics will know that if the Votes for Life Bill is passed before the referendum, then it increases greatly the franchise in that referendum and the likelihood of an increase for the ‘stay in’ vote.”
John Penrose has told expats their vote matters - but won't tell them when they'll see full rights restored
Harry Shindler, (pictured below) a 94-year-old British war veteran who lives in Italy, and has campaigned for the 15-year rule to be abolished, said: “The referendum is of some importance to us, so I think it's unsatisfactory they cannot give an answer. The Votes for Life Bill was a Conservative election promise and they won the election, probably with many votes from expats, on this promise.”
In his statement, Mr Penrose noted: “At the general election in May last year the number of expat voters registered was 106,000, tripling the figure at the 2010 election. But with five million of us living abroad, it’s still shockingly low.”
He encouraged expats to register to vote online at gov.uk/register-to-vote, which, he claimed, “takes less time than boiling an egg”.
John Penrose's statement is as follows:
"Millions of Britons welcomed in the New Year at different times and in different ways. These dramatically different times were not due to a heavy night and quickly regretted heavy head but because over 5 million British citizens live abroad in different countries and time zones all over the world.
And, to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, "in spite of all temptations / to belong to other nations", most of them retain deep ties to the United Kingdom. Many still have family here, some will return here, others are drawing a British pension after a lifetime of hard work here, so they have a real stake in the way our country is governed.
Yet at the last general election millions of British citizens living overseas didn't have a chance to vote. This was either because they were barred under the bizarre rule that strips people of their democratic rights after they have been away for more than 15 years, or because they were legally entitled to vote but had not registered on the electoral roll.
We want to make it easier for Britons who have moved abroad to have their say. Our principle is clear: participation in our democracy is a fundamental part of being British, however far you have travelled.
That's why we've strengthened and simplified the registration process, so more overseas voters can take part in elections.
It's now really easy to register to vote online. It takes less time than boiling an egg and you can register throughout the year from wherever you are. In fact you could do it right now, if you want to give it a try. Just visit gov.uk/register-to-vote. Whenever you apply to register, don't leave it to the last minute.
These reforms are already making an impact. At the general election in May last year the number of expat voters registered was 106,000, tripling the figure at the 2010 election. But with 5 million of us living abroad, it's still shockingly low. Clearly, there's a great deal more to do.
For a start, the 15-year rule has got to go. It's why we said in our manifesto that we would scrap this outdated law and allow Britons a vote for life wherever they are.
Next, we need to broaden the voter base; it's an essential part of renewing our democracy. That is why part of my job as a government minister is to maximise the number of people registered to vote. It is my New Year's resolution to get more people registered, especially those from under-registered groups like young people, students, people living in social housing, and – yes – British expats.
It is vital that more Britons who have moved abroad have a voice in our country's future. From the value of your pension, to the public services your relatives rely on, to how well the taxes you've paid here are spent, the outcome of UK elections really matter. So wherever you are in the globe, I hope you make it your New Year's resolution to sign up and have
The writer is Minister for Constitutional Reform