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MPs back plans to end 15-year time limit on expats voting in British elections

Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith described the time limit as ‘a terrible injustice’.

MPs have backed proposals that would end a time limit on expats taking part in British elections.

A private member’s bill that would abolish the 15-year time limit was given a second reading by MPs amid confusion in the Commons.

The Government had previously indicated it would support the Overseas Electors Bill tabled by Tory backbencher Glyn Davies.

Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith said: “British citizens who live overseas can find themselves abruptly disenfranchised after they have lived abroad for 15 years.

“And that happens even where they feel still closely connected to our country and still have every right to take part in elections that can affect them like every other citizen.

“To many, this is a terrible injustice, so these changes before us today have the Government’s support.”

MPs heard that 4.9 million Britons of voting age live overseas, but only about 1.4 million are eligible to vote in UK elections, because anyone who has lived overseas for more than 15 years is not allowed to vote.

Tory MPs highlighted campaigning on the issue by Harry Shindler who, they said, was the oldest living member of the Labour Party.

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Conservative MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said: “In this centenary year of Emmeline Pankhurst’s efforts to get women the vote in this country, the same thing must apply to voters of over 15 years longevity abroad.

“This would open up the franchise potentially to another million people. It must be the correct thing to do.”

Labour MPs argued over a number of technical aspects of the Bill, and said it would put further pressure on already stretched elections services.

But one of the party’s own MPs accused colleagues of trying to talk the Bill out after Sandy Martin spoke for 49 minutes.

Ilford South MP Mike Gapes, who spoke in support of the Bill, wrote on Twitter: “I am appalled that Labour frontbench are opposing the bill and trying to talk it out.

“Clearly in this case Labour Leadership is for the few not the many.”

Tory backbencher Sir Geoffrey called for a vote on the issue during a speech by shadow Cabinet Office minister Cat Smith, four minutes before time was due to run out in the Commons session.

Initially Sir Geoffrey’s so-called closure motion was contested, so a division was called and MPs went to vote on whether a vote should be taken to give the Bill a second reading.

However, no tellers – those who verify the count when MPs are voting – were put forward by those who rejected Sir Geoffrey’s motion.

As a result, the division was cancelled. The Bill was then given an unopposed second reading.

It will now undergo detailed scrutiny by MPs at committee stage.

It must then clear further stages in the Commons and undergo scrutiny in the House of Lords before becoming law.

Mr Davies said: “If people are a UK citizen, then in my view they should have the right to vote in a UK general election. I think it is as simple as that.

“To introduce some arbitrary timescale of 15 years, or 20 years, or five years, just is no longer appropriate.”

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