Voting rights and wrongs for British expats

As the 2015 UK general election draws near, some expat Britons here remain unhappy with the fact that they still don’t have a national vote anywhere – neither in Britain, if they’d lived overseas for more than 15 years, nor in France where they pay their taxes.

One solution is to take out French nationality, which at least gives the right to vote in France. Another might come with François Hollande’s proposal to give the vote to resident foreigners, but the unpopular president has other priorities at the moment.

The 2015 UK election so far looks like a close race with no party set to win an outright majority. However marginal, an expat vote would carry some weight and the Conservatives – no doubt thinking that most expats are on their side – are talking about abolishing the 15-year expat rule. In September, Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps stated that all British citizens, wherever they live, should be given the right to vote “for life” because even overseas residents have “contributed to Britain”.

This opportunistic turnaround won’t come in time for the May 2015 vote so the party is promising the changes only if they come into power next year; potential coalition partners UKIP and LibDems are keeping mum for now.

As Britain becomes ever more Europhobic, it’s ironic that the European Commission is an influential institution supporting this British expat cause. Denying many of Britain’s 5 million expatriates the right to vote is “punishing” them with “second-class citizenship”, according to the former EU Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding. The French-educated Luxembourger has been outspoken in her praise of 93-year-old Harry Shindler, a British war veteran and expat living in Italy, who, according to Reding, “... has lost his voice in the nation for which he fought. And he is not alone. There are many EU citizens who are disenfranchised simply because they used their right to move to another EU member state.”

Viviane Reding and Harry ShindlerViviane Reding with Harry Shindler, campaigner for the right of British expats to vote.
Photo © European Union, 1995-2014

British Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, however, is unimpressed. He says “interference in national matters” should be off limits to outsiders and not used to circumvent British national choices.

The In-or-Out referendum on EU membership promised by Cameron for 2017 concerns all expats, emphasises Graham Richards, a French-based campaigner whose Votes-For-Expats movement has attracted over 4,000 active supporters from 72 countries, 31% of them in France.

Richards is also active in lobbying against the non-indexation of British pensions in some countries and the abolition of the UK personal tax allowance for expats. Expat couples could one day find themselves £4,000 worse off if non-residents who own rental properties in Britain are deprived of the allowance. Currently, Treasury rules entitle EU nationals and British expats with UK income to offset tax on earnings against the £10,000 personal allowance. In the hope of attracting another £400 million into the Exchequer, Chancellor George Osborne would like to change this – a move that could affect some 400,000 people including some expats drawing a UK pension.

The arbitrary closing of UK savings accounts for Britons living overseas is another area of contention for Richards, who keeps his thumb in many pies. His ire is understandable. The Reporter often receives euro cheques drawn on French accounts held by British citizens with a UK address. These citizens, many of whom have secondary residences in France, can easily open an account with a French bank using their UK address.

This is no longer the case at UK banks for expat principal residents who no longer have such an address. As many UK companies refuse to pay occupational pensions into a foreign account, some OAPs now find themselves with no bank that can receive their pensions.

Retiree Warwick Gibbons lives in Crete and is affected by this. He stresses that he is being refused the equal treatment that should be afforded to all EU citizens wherever they live within the union.

Richards recommends that expats who find themselves in a similar position write to the Competition and Markets Authority, which has opened a consultation on its website.

In an email to the Reporter, Graham Richards states, “It is quite obvious that the UK Government does not think very much of their 5,000,000+ expats now living abroad.” So far we can’t argue with that, but the rising uncertainty of future elections is a force for a salutary change in official attitudes. Expats are finally starting to matter.


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