BRITS living in Europe have launched legal action to win the right to participate in the referendum after the Government failed to restore their voting rights.
The In/Out vote scheduled for June 23 could be delayed while two million extra names are added to the register of voters if the High Court proceedings are successful.
At present the 15-year rule prevents up to four million expats, around half of whom live in Europe, from participating in UK elections. The so-called ’15-year rule,’ passed while Labour was in power under Tony Blair, means that those out of the country for more than that amount of time are blocked from the electoral register.
In their 2015 manifesto the Conservatives pledged to get rid of the rule, but the promised Votes for Life Bill has yet to materialise, despite pressure from campaigners.
Expats represented by London law firm Leigh Day issued urgent judicial review proceedings in the High Court on Wednesday in a bid to force the Government’s hand over the issue. They argue that the EU Referendum Act – which excludes those who fall under the 15-year rule – breaches their rights under European law.
Lawyer Richard Stein, from Leigh Day, said: “Our clients are being penalised for exercising their EU free movement rights. The EU Referendum Act 2015 is said to be based on legislation for UK parliamentary general elections. But it gives a vote in the referendum to members of the House of Lords, as well as to Irish and Commonwealth citizens who are resident in Gibraltar. None of these are allowed to vote in UK general elections.
“The people it arbitrarily excludes are those UK citizens who are among those most likely to be affected by the decision taken by voters in this referendum.”
Mr Stein said Brexit could affect expats on issues including health care and pension rights.
“Not to allow them to vote on the decision whether the UK remains part of the EU is unlawful and we have asked the court to deal with the issues urgently so that the act can be amended before the June date, to include all UK citizens residing in the EU for however long,” he said.
A judge who examined the papers on Wednesday ordered the Government to file a written response to the expats’ claim by April 1. After that, the court will decide how and if the case should proceed further. Mr Stein said he hoped for a final decision on the claim by the third week of April.
“We will take any steps necessary to get the vote,” said Harry Shindler, 94, a veteran of the Second World War who lives in Italy and is named on the legal action.
“It is quite undemocratic and we have tried everything – I’ve written to the Prime Minister, it’s been raised in the House of Commons, to no avail. The only thing to do now is go to a court of law.”
He argues that the long-term expats should be able to participate in decisions potentially affecting their pensions, health care and freedom of movement, no matter how long they have been out of the country for.
He said of the legal bid: “I think it’s a poor show to have no right to vote in Britain on an issue of such importance. It really is unacceptable.”
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