Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain
A photograph taken on October 20, 2022 shows the Palace of Westminster, house of Parliaments and Elizabeth Tower, commonly referred to as Big ben, in central London. (Photo by Niklas HALLE'N / AFP)

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.

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‘I feel exiled’: How Brits in Europe are locked abroad with foreign partners

Britons and their European families are being divided or simply unable to move back to the UK because of strict income requirements, which are now set to rise steeply. Two British nationals in Europe tell The Local how the rules have impacted them.

'I feel exiled': How Brits in Europe are locked abroad with foreign partners

Europe is home to hundreds of thousands of British nationals, many of whom have foreign partners and children. But if they want to move to the UK to live and work it will soon become more difficult.

When it comes to getting a partner visa, the UK has some of the strictest rules in Europe. In addition to hefty fees and a healthcare surcharge, the Home Office requires British citizens and long-term residents who bring their foreign partner to the UK to have a minimum income showing they can support them without relying on the social security system. 

The minimum income up until now was set at £18,600 (€21,700), or £22,400 (€26,100) if the couple had one child, plus another £2,400 (€2,800) for each other child. 

But these income requirements will rise steeply from April 11th 2024.

How it works: What Brits in Europe should know about UK’s new minimum income rules

From this date the minimum a British national or long-term resident will need to earn if they want to return home will increase to £29,000 (€33,800) and up to £38,000 (€44,313) by spring 2025, although there will no longer be an additional amount for accompanying children.

Alternatively, families need to prove they have at least £62,500 (€72,884) in cash, which from 11 April will increase to £88,500 (€103,207).

‘Family life has been destroyed’

To put this in context the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford suggests that around 50 percent of UK employees earn less than the £29,000 threshold and 70 percent less than £38,700. The Observatory also says that while the number of people affected by the policy is small compared to the overall UK immigration (family visas represent 5 percent of all entry visas), the impacts on concerned families can be “very significant”. 

The Migration Observatory notes that other European countries apply income thresholds to sponsor foreign partners. Spain, for instance, requires sponsors to have an annual income equal to the social security salary. In Denmark, sponsors must not have claimed social benefits in the three years before the application. But in Spain and the US, the partner’s foreign income also counts towards the threshold.

So what does this mean for mixed British and international families living in Europe who might want or even need to return to the UK to live?

Campaigners have complained that many Britons with foreign partners have simply been “locked abroad” or families have been separated while they try to meet the minimum income or savings requirement. 

Reunite Families UK, a non-profit organisation supporting people affected by the UK spouse visa rules, says this policy causes distress, especially for children. 

Some 65 percent of respondents in research carried out by the group said that their child received a diagnosis of a mental health condition due to the separation of their parents.

“Since its introduction, this policy has destroyed the family life of countless people and children,” Matteo Besana, Advocacy and Campaigns Manager at Reunite Families UK said.

“Women have been forced to become single parents to their children and live away from their partner and the father of their children only because they didn’t meet the threshold.

“As shown by our research on the mental health impact of the policy, these are scars that, particularly for children, will be carried for the rest of their lives,” Besana said. 

The people most likely to be affected are women, who tend to earn less or not work because they took on caring responsibilities. Also heavily impacted are people under 30 and over 50 years of age, people living outside London and the Southeast of England where wages are higher, and those belonging to specific ethnicities, according to the Migration Observatory. 

The Local spoke to two British women, in Italy and Sweden, struggling to return to the UK with their families because of these rules.

More savings needed

Sarah Douglas, who has been living in Italy since 2007, was planning to return to Scotland with her Italian husband and three children. 

“It was always our long-term goal to move back to the UK after we had our children and once we’d have saved enough to buy a home in the UK,” she said.

“In hindsight, we should have gone after the Brexit referendum, but in the beginning it wasn’t clear what the final deal would be and I naively assumed that situations like mine would be taken into account and we would have the right to return… Once it did become clear, we were in the middle of the pandemic and it wasn’t the time to move,” she said. 

Having stayed home to take care of the children, Sarah will find it hard to land a job near her family in Scotland that meets the minimum income required to sponsor a foreign partner for a UK visa. 

Her husband, a computer programmer, has been trying to get an employment visa, “but most of them state that you must already have permission to work in the UK,” Sarah says. And applying for British citizenship is not an option for a non-UK resident spouse. 

‘People need to be aware’

Sarah and her husband are trying to save as much as they can, an alternative to the income requirement, but the amount they need is rising to almost  £90,000, meaning it may be a long time before they have enough to move home.

While the aim of the UK’s policy is to ensure families moving to the UK are not a burden on the taxpayer, the reality is that people arriving on a family visa are not able to claim any benefits from the UK government. 

“They should judge the overall financial viability of the family unit, rather than just the earning potential of the sponsoring partner,” Sarah says. 

“We could live well with my husband’s salary and he could work remotely. We are stable and financially secure, but because I don’t earn any money, they say we are not able to support ourselves.”

Sarah says that most of the British public are unaware of the minimum income requirement.

“People think if you are married, your husband is allowed to come to the UK, but when I say no, it doesn’t work like that, they are really surprised. A lot of people are not aware of how this could affect them,” she said.

Looking for a job from abroad

Another British women who lives in Sweden with her South African husband and two children and plans to move to the UK told The Local how the minimum income requirement had put them in a “precarious and stressful situation”. 

The woman, who preferred to remain anonymous said: “After having the two children, I was very fortunate to find a research position and do my PhD, which is a salaried position in Scandinavia, and now that I finished, we are looking to leave. 

“But I need a job in the UK to sponsor my husband, and as a new graduate with limited work experience, it is not easy. It is even more difficult when you are not in the country and I missed out on opportunities because they wanted an immediate start. I really don’t want to move without my whole family,” she said. 

She says the UK’s policy is “gendered and geographically discriminatory” because it makes life harder for women and also harder for anyone who is planning to move to a part of the country that isn’t in London, where salaries are higher. 

“I feel exiled from my country and separated from my family there,” she said. 

Her husband, she argues, has his own company and could continue working remotely from the UK, earning well above the requirement. He would also pay taxes and national insurance while having to pay the healthcare surcharge, a form of double taxation, she argues. But that would not entitle him to a visa. 

“Our house is on the market now. We have booked removal companies for the 6th of June. The dog is booked for his transport. I just think this policy is so out of touch with the modern world,” she said. 

Reunite Families UK has called on the government to recognise the right for British or settled citizens to bring their close family members to the UK and scrap the minimum income requirement. Alternatively, the group says the rules should take into consideration the earning potential of both partners and consider “the best interests of children”. 

A petition on the UK parliament website asks the government to reconsider the minimum income policy. If it reaches 100,000 signatures, it will have to be debated in parliament.

This article has been produced by Europe Street news.