UPDATE ON VOTES FOR LIFE EU PETITION 24 APRIL 2018
Many of you recently helped support Jacqui Cotterrill & her petition. I am happy to report that Jacqui appeared before MEPs in EP yesterday & fed back this report:
“It went well, good interventions from MEPs, strong, emotional stuff, would have liked more there but as it was they used up all the speaking time. Then stronger than I expected resolution from Chair:
1. To send petitions to Brexit steering group,
2. Urgent letter to Uk Govt
3. Letter to Barnier and Presidency to get it included in Withdrawal agreement (!)
4. Personally speak to Barnier, maybe get him to PETI (not usual, doesn’t appear at committees)
5. Put oral question forward to party coordinators, which MEPs after think should get through so hopefully it will go forward to plenary.
More than I hoped for so a good day. Thanks for your support, I gave you a name check in my presentation”.
When proposing better voting rights for expats abroad one of the most common
questions is ‘why?’
The argument follows that if someone has left the UK, there’s absolutely nothing the British government could do to affect them. From the signing of the Schengen Agreement in 1985 to the Brexit vote in 2016, this argument held water. The interim years saw the end of the Cold War, the emergence of globalisation and the advent of cheap flights. The world, they said, was your oyster and UK political happenings were low down the list of expatriate priorities.
The figures back this up. According to the Office for National Statistics the number of registered overseas voters had never risen above 35,000 before 2015. In the run-up to the general election of the same year – which placed an EU referendum front and centre – the number jumped to 285,000. The introduction of online voting registration in 2014 dramatically eased the process of registration, and overseas voting numbers remained consistent ahead of the snap 2017 general election as well.
The 15-year limit on expatriate voting rights was never a dramatic political point until the Brexit vote. Out of 5 million British citizens living abroad, including the 1.2 million in Europe, the UK Cabinet Office confirmed that up to 3 million people would be denied a vote because they’d lived away for longer than 15 years.
In the 2015 and 2017 general elections, abolishing the arbitrary 15-year cap was a manifesto pledge of both major political parties excluding Labour which emphasised lowering the voting age to 16 instead.
After the Conservative Party win in 2015, the pledge was featured in the Queen’s Speech but was never implemented before the EU referendum the following year or before the general election the year after.
The Cabinet Office stated that there was not enough time to change existing legislation before Parliament was dissolved and the situation remains unchanged. ‘Votes for Life’ was again featured in Theresa May’s 207 manifestoes but was not included in the Queen’s Speech of that year. Conservative MP Glyn Davies instead tabled a Private Member’s Bill – the Overseas Voters Bill – on 19 July of the same year. While the Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons on 23 February 2018 with government support, it still has to go into Committee Stage, but the date has not been set.
While the passing of the Bill will likely meet the government’s pledge of legislating on the issue before the 2022 general election, it will most likely not be in place before Brexit on March 29, 2019. On the off chance there was to be another referendum on any final deal, the most populous territories of expats – 308,000 British citizens in Spain, 254,000 in Ireland and 185,000 in France – would again be denied a say on their future.
The situation is not new. Before 1985, British citizens living abroad couldn’t vote in UK Parliamentary elections. From the 1970s there was political pressure to extend the voting franchise to citizens living and working abroad. The debate culminated in the Home Affairs Select Committee recommending in 1983 that all UK citizens resident in the then European Economic Community (EEC) be given voting rights in parliamentary elections.
Margaret Thatcher’s Government introduced a Bill proposing a seven-year limitation to British residents overseas. However the final legislation – the Representation of the People Act (1985) – limited the cap to five years. After the 1987 general election, the Thatcher government reaffirmed its commitment and extended the period of eligibility for overseas electors to 20 years with the 1989 Representation of the People Act (the government had initially recommended a 25-year cap).
By 1998, the Home Affairs Select Committee published a report calling for the reduction in eligibility to five years arguing that UK residents away for so long lose a legitimate connection to home. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill (1999-2000) introduced by Tony Blair’s government included a provision to reduce the limit to 10 years, albeit an amendment for 15 years was passed and remains in place to this day.
Brexit has demonstrated that it’s not enough for expatriates to exclusively rely on their host nation or one of the 80 British embassies and 49 consulates across the world for representation. Votes for Life are part of the solution, but not the concluding reform needed. Although the Overseas Electors Bill (2017-19) has received formal government backing and broad cross-party support, it’s subject to easy politicisation and is by no means a shoe-in.
Support from the government, to the cynic, might be considered assuaging wounds ahead of the as-yet-unknown Brexit terms. As a Private Members’ Bill, as opposed to formal government legislation, the Conservatives are in the position to support with lip service without promoting in practice. The Second Reading was barely attended in Parliament, and Labour MP Sandy Martin made the case that, much like with Scotland, it’s wrong for people not resident and affected by political issues to determine the results of those issues.
Martin’s argued that those who do not pay taxes in the UK should not be entitled to vote after a period of time, and this view will undoubtedly be shared on the government benches. Additionally, Martin’s disagreement with Labour International president and MP Mike Grapes on the proposal is telling and questions the effectiveness of the Labour Opposition to see the legislation through.
This view is not wrong, and will likely gain traction with the public. The solution is the introduction of a package of reforms including Votes for Life, and the establishment of MPs exclusively elected by overseas citizens for global constituencies. The model exists in France, Italy and Macedonia and must, and should, be part of a serious conversation to fix democratic disenfranchisement to restore voting rights.
Until then, there will always be the spectre of the gun over the democratic rights of five million people who have exercised their other right to move, work and settle where they please. Such decisions are not a zero-sum game with British citizenship and shouldn’t be treated as such.
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and teacher between Scotland and Spain. You can learn more and support his petition here for the introduction of MPs to represent British citizens abroad.
The European Citizen’s Prize is an award by the European Parliament for exceptional achievements.
Activities or actions by citizens, groups, associations or organisations having displayed an outstanding commitment to promoting better mutual understanding and closer integration between citizens of the Member States; or to facilitating cross-border or transnational cooperation within the European Union.
Bremain in Spain’s nomination
was made by Spanish MEP
Terésa Giménez Barbat
for our work fighting Brexit
and for our passionate
pro-EU stance and spirit.
Chair of Bremain in Spain, Sue Wilson recently spent a few days in Brussels meeting MEPs, fellow Remainers and attending the Premiere of the documentary Postcards from the 48%. Here’s her story ‘ It’s Tuesday, so it must be Brussels’.
On the evening of Monday 9th April, I arrived in Brussels for the start of a 3 night, action-packed visit. I was staying at the home of Laura Shields, former head of the Brussels & Europe LibDems, now Media Consultant for British in Europe. Laura had invited me to speak at the LibDem conference in 2016, & we marched together in London. Laura was on holiday, but kindly offered me her home, & the company of her adorable cat.
The main reason for my visit was to attend the first ever screening of “Postcards from the 48%” – the film looking at Brexit from the Remain perspective – an event being hosted by Catherine Bearder MEP in the European Parliament.
Whilst in Brussels, I aimed to see as many MEPs as possible, especially those on the EU Citizens Taskforce. My intention with all MEPs was to discuss citizens’ rights issues, then use that as a lead into, “the best way to secure our rights is to Stop Brexit”, so I could move on to discussing our plan A. It seemed that the MEPs had much the same idea, as it became clear very quickly that stopping Brexit was their priority too. On citizens’ rights issues, however, I’m pleased to report that they all seemed very well informed on the issues outstanding & the current state of play.
I met with 3 British MEPs, Seb Dance, Julie Ward & Jean Lambert, as well as with 2 Spanish MEPs, Beatriz Becerra & Terésa Giménez Barbat. I can honestly say that everyone was absolutely charming, very appreciative & knowledgeable about what we do, & very keen to discuss how we can work together. To see so much passion amongst politicians for the European Union is both energising & heart-warming, & it was abundantly clear that they all work extremely hard & are totally committed. If only I could say the same about some of the politicians I have come into contact with in the UK.
The reason for the meeting with Terésa Giménez Barbat was because she has nominated Bremain in Spain for the “European Citizens Prize”. There will a lot of competition of course, as every MEP can nominate a person/group, but to be nominated alone is an honour in itself, & it came from a MEP that I did not know beforehand. I had assumed that the nomination was in relation to our citizens’ rights activities, but no, it’s due to our anti-Brexit pro-EU position & campaigning. To say I’m chuffed would be an understatement!
The screening of David Nicholas Wilkinson’s film took place in the European Parliament on the evening of Tuesday 10th April – a fitting date being the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
The event was attended by Peter French (Reuniting Britain), Jon Danzig (Reasons2Remain), Madeleina Kay (EU Supergirl), Jean Lambert (MEP), Femi (OFOC!), Debbie Williams (Brexpats-HOV), Paul Cartwright (Brex-IN), & Steve Bullock (@GuitarMoog) to name but a few.
Remain campaigners from groups large & small had travelled quite considerable distances to attend, many hoping to get a glimpse of themselves or their friends on screen. The movie itself was excellent, & there were some strong arguments made by Remain campaigners from all walks of life, from well-known faces like Prof. A.C. Grayling & Miriam Margolyes to marchers & campaigners right across the UK. It was a strange experience to see myself on the big screen, but I was pleased to have a couple of quotes included, & also to be spotted at a couple of important events, like the Gina Miller case at the Supreme Court.
Following the screening, I had been invited by Catherine Bearder to speak & answer questions, on a panel that also included Femi & Sir Andrew Cook. We were each given 5 minutes to introduce ourselves, then questions were thrown open to the floor. Catherine went first, followed by Femi, then Andrew, with me speaking last. I had prepared notes, with the intention of speaking for 1 minute about citizens’ rights, then concentrating on our Stop Brexit campaigning, but I went off piste! Sir Andrew Cook, who had spoken very well against Brexit in the movie, started his speech by stating his Tory credentials – he was a friend of David Cameron & a big Tory donor. He then went on to say that he respected the referendum, & that we should be working to get the best deal when we leave. The audience, not to mention the panel, were stunned into silence, & I felt that I couldn’t let that go without comment. I apologised for going off script, & suggested that anyone who wanted to know what I had planned to say asked me afterwards in the pub. Instead I made it very clear that we do not respect the referendum result, we will never accept Brexit & that this is far from over. As you can imagine, that went down rather well, & Madeleina Kay tweeted about it immediately:
The wonderful @Suewilson91 bossing it like a pro in the #europeanparliament 😍 sir Andrew Cook telling us we have to accept the vote, Sue from @BremainInSpain responds by saying “I will never accept #Brexit” 🤗 pic.twitter.com/gY2tVSYdvO
— Madeleina Kay 🇪🇺🇬🇧 #EUsupergirl (@albawhitewolf) April 10, 2018
The evening ended with us all being invited to supper by Catherine Bearder in a local Irish pub, which seemed very appropriate bearing in mind the anniversary.
The next day, apart from my scheduled MEP appointments, was full of surprises. It was Guy Verhofstadt’s 65th birthday, & Madeleina Kay had arranged to meet Guy’s Media Head to deliver presents & a card signed by 1200 people. Madeleina invited me along & we met 3 members of Guy’s team, expecting only to hand over our gifts. As we approached Guy’s office, the famous Union Jack fridge came up in conversation. I commented that getting a photo with the fridge would be almost as good as a photo with the man himself, & the response was that I should tell Guy that. At this point, Madeleina & I were starting to think we might actually get to hand over our presents in person, which is exactly what happened. We even got to sing Happy Birthday to him, & he seemed genuinely pleased with all the gifts & the sentiment – a real & unexpected treat.
I had another unexpected pleasure that evening, having been invited to dinner by Terésa Giménez Barbat, who had also invited A.C. Grayling. He was to appear as a speaker at a convention Terésa had organised the following day, & I had the pleasure of sitting next to him at dinner. The food was amazing, all five courses of it & definitely outside my price range, but the company, which included 2 Spanish journalists, was the icing on the cake. Grayling suggested that I must stay in politics once this whole Brexit nonsense is cancelled, & that there was much work to do to correct all the wrongs in British politics. I told him that, to be honest, I was more interested in future European politics than British politics, so he suggested I become an MEP! Terésa’s ears pricked up at this point, & she said I’d need to be quick as Spain had only allocated 4 extra seats from those the UK would lose due to Brexit. I told her not to bank on gaining any seats, as the UK wasn’t going anywhere!
This was only my second trip to Brussels, but I’m really starting to love the place, especially walking around the European Parliament. It’s like a village, with its own shops, cafes, even a hairdresser, but the wonderful thing for me is the feel of the place – so diverse, so European, so many different voices & accents. It feels like home.
I had an amazing trip & I’m really looking forward to building on those new relationships, & hopefully visiting again soon. I do wonder though if campaigning against Brexit really ought to be this much fun!
Sue Wilson, Chair of Bremain in Spain
BBC Reality Check verdict:
“If there is no deal then it will indeed be harder to take pets to the EU. The pet passport scheme includes countries that are not EU members, but a deal would need to be done. At the moment you can take your pet; dog, cat, or indeed ferret, from the UK to the EU and back again without quarantine provided that certain conditions are met, such as having a pet passport and your pet being microchipped.
Pet passports are issued by EU countries and a short list of other countries such as Greenland, Iceland and Switzerland. The UK could be added to this list, but clearly agreements would be needed to make that happen – it would not be automatic.”
The Government, in response, has pledged that the ‘Passport for Pets’ will be preserved after Britain leaves the EU. Michael Gove’s Environment Department has reassured animal-lovers that there would be no return to the quarantine restrictions.
The UK Government has no authority to say that the Pet Passport will be preserved for travel between the UK and EU countries, particularly in the event of a no deal scenario!
BREMAIN IN SPAIN members know that the only way of protecting their much-loved pets is to #StopBrexit. Below you will find a gallery compiled from a selection of our members’ pets – many of whom have been rescued after being abandoned, or re-homed from an animal sanctuary. These wonderful creatures are their family members and companions. They deserve better!