House of Commons Library

Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19

Published Monday, December 10, 2018

The Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 is a Private Member’s Bill to extend the basis on which British citizens outside the UK qualify to participate in Parliamentary elections. It will remove the '15-year rule' which prevents British citizens living overseas from registering to vote if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years.

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The Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 is a Private Member’s Bill that presented and given a first reading on 19 July 2017.

The Bill was given a Second Reading on 23 February 2018. Second Reading was passed without a division. There were four sessions on the committee stage of the Bill, on 17, 24 and 31 October and 14 November 2018. The Bill was unamended in Committee and is now awaiting its report stage in the House. This is scheduled for Friday 25 January 2019.

The Bill, sponsored by Glyn Davies MP, seeks to end the 15-year time limit currently placed on overseas voters voting in UK Parliamentary elections. Overseas voters are currently able to register to vote in UK Parliamentary elections for up to 15 years after they moved away from the UK.

Overseas voters are not eligible to vote in local government elections or elections that use the local government franchise (for example devolved legislature elections or police and crime commissioner elections). The Bill would make no changes to the local government franchise.

The Bill also makes no changes to the franchise for referendums. Each national referendum in the UK, or in one part of the UK, still requires separate legislation to enable the referendum to take place. The separate legislation sets out requirements such as the franchise to be used and the question to be asked. Overseas voters will be allowed to vote in referendums where the legislation allowing for the referendum to take place makes such a provision.

Before 1985 British citizens resident outside the United Kingdom were unable to register to vote in UK Parliamentary elections. When the franchise was extended British citizens resident overseas for the first time a time limit of 5 years was introduced. This was changed to a 20-year limit in 1990 and then lowered to the current 15-year limit in 2002.

The Bill will remove the time limit and will allow British citizens resident overseas to register to vote in UK Parliamentary elections permanently, subject to a person renewing their registration annually.

The Bill will also make other important changes. Under the current arrangements, a person can only register at the last address at which they were registered to vote in the UK. Anyone who previously had not registered to vote was unable to register as an overseas voter. The only exception was those who left the UK as children and had never been registered because of their age, who are able to register to vote in respect of their parent or guardian’s previous registration address.

The Bill will make changes to allow any qualifying British citizen resident overseas to register in respect of an address at which they were last previously resident in the UK, even if they had never previously registered to vote.

The Bill will also make new provisions for a renewal process for overseas registrations and for guidance to be issued by a Minister in respect of registration or renewal of an overseas elector.

The Bill also makes provisions for a Minister to vary the registration period for an overseas registration period to be valid. Current overseas voters must register every 12 months. A Minister can only propose this change having consulted the Electoral Commission and any change must be made by statutory instrument and approved by Parliament by the affirmative procedure. The electoral community have been critical of this proposal, in particular noting that other ‘special category’ electors, such as those registering anonymously, are registered annually. he Government have responded to criticism of this proposal by stating it does not plan to use the power until such time as there was consensus about the desirability of any change.

Further information 

The Parliament website has a Bill page for each Bill before either House of Parliament. The progress of the Bill can be viewed here: Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19

The Government included a commitment to end the 15-year rule for overseas electoral registration in its manifestos for the 2015 and 2017 General Elections.

In October 2016, the Government published a policy document outlining the current system of electoral registration for overseas voters. The document included how the Government planned to end the 15-year rule and implement ‘votes for life’. The Government said it would welcome feedback from interested parties. The response to the feedback received was published on 8 February 2018.

The history of overseas voter registration is outlined in the Library briefing SN05923, Overseas voters

Help for Members of Parliament and their staff 

In addition to writing and updating published papers as bills go through Parliament, the House of Commons Library can assist Members of Parliament and their staff with individual enquiries about bills, particularly on the policy background.  

The Public Bill Office (PBO) supports public bill committees.  The staff working in the PBO can advise Members of Parliament on tabling amendments to bills and on the drafting of Private Members’ Bills. 


Commons Briefing papers CBP-8223

Author: Neil Johnston

Topic: Elections

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