Government threatened with legal action as expats push for EU referendum vote
By Marcus Chippindale: ITV News
The Government has been threatened with legal action if it does not allow all British expats to vote in the EU referendum.
At present, expats who have lived outside of Britain for more than 15 years cannot vote in UK elections, including the upcoming in/out referendum.
Many are concerned about the impact a "Brexit" could have on their lives and are urging the Government to take action.
The Conservatives pledged to scrap the 15-year rule in their election manifesto – but the Government concedes that is now unlikely to happen before June 23, when the referendum will be held.
According to John Penrose, Minister for Constitutional Reform, there are around two million people living abroad who are eligible to vote, with three to four million on top of that who would be eligible should the 15-year rule be scrapped.
The possibility of missing out of the vote has left many expats concerned, including Harry Shindler MBE, a World War Two veteran now living in Italy.
The 94-year-old has spent years pushing for a change in the law and says the situation with the upcoming referendum is "ridiculous".
He said the Association of British Expats in Italy will "take all steps necessary" to get the vote - including legal action.
Mr Shindler, the association's founder, told ITV News: "The matter is of such importance to us that we will take all steps necessary to ensure we get the vote, including taking the Government to the High Court.
"To deny us the vote, those who are more concerned than many other sections of society, it seems to me a bit thick."
Another concerned expat is Jean Manship, who is originally from Birmingham but now lives on the Greek island of Symi.
The 71-year-old has written to the Prime Minister asking for the right to vote in the referendum, both for herself and her expat friends in Greece.
Mrs Manship, who moved to Greece in 1983, is not expecting a change in the law by then, but is hopeful of getting some form of “special dispensation".
“We should be enabled and encouraged as expat citizens to participate fully in the political process in the country of our birth by giving us unrestricted voting rights in national elections and this impending referendum,” she told ITV News.
“Everybody who lives outside of the UK, I think we should all be given the right to vote because it affects our futures.
“I feel what has happened to me with the 15-year rule is undemocratic.”
Mrs Manship left her home in the Midlands for personal reasons on what was initially planned as an extended holiday.
She ended up staying in Greece, where she ran a bar until she retired at 65.
She says she is passionate about democracy, having voted regularly from a young age and even running for office once.
However, like many expats she is now unable to vote in any elections apart from local races in her country of residence.
She has contacted the European Commission about changing the law but has now turned to David Cameron in the hope of voting this summer.
In her letter to the Prime Minister, she said: “I am requesting permission to vote in the upcoming EU referendum ‘IN or OUT’ on the 23rd June, 2016, and hope that you and your government can organise this on behalf of my friends and I.
“Not only is it undemocratic to deny our voting rights but the outcome of the referendum will directly affect our right to live and work in Europe.”
She told ITV News: “I'm extremely worried that if the UK votes for the out option then I will be left in limbo.”
Other expats who contacted ITV News said they were "totally against" Britain leaving the EU and described the 15-year rule as "very unfair".
The Conservative manifesto for the 2015 general election said they would “introduce votes for life” and scrap the 15-year rule.
The Government has said it is still committed to the pledge but it is unlikely to get legislation through Parliament before the referendum.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "The Government believes expats should retain their right to vote as long as they remain citizens, and we will legislate to scrap the current arbitrary 15-year time limit as soon as parliamentary time allows.
“Many British citizens living overseas are already legally eligible to vote. We would encourage them to register online, where it takes only a few minutes, so they can participate in the upcoming referendum."
On Friday, MPs debated a Private Members Bill, introduced by Tory MP Christopher Chope, designed to scrap the limit.
Mr Chope wants to speed up delivery of the manifesto pledge and introduce internet voting for people living overseas.
He told the Commons: "I think it would actually be desirable for the maximum number of British citizens to be able to participate in the referendum."
However, Mr Penrose, the constitutional reform minister, said he was unable to support the bill on the grounds that "we need to get the details right".