Jean Urquhart writes to PM over EU referendum franchise rules.

Today Jean Urquhart MSP has written to Prime Minister David Cameron regarding the franchise rules for the upcoming referendum. These rules see the right to vote being given to British citizens living outwith the United Kingdom, even if they have not lived in, or paid taxes in the UK for up to 15 years.  At the same time, EU citizens resident in the United Kingdom and contributing to their communities are being denied the chance to take part in this democratic process.

Jean previously wrote to the Prime Minister in an appeal to reconsider the franchise and to extend the vote to 16 & 17 year olds and EU citizens resident in the United Kingdom, this appeal was rejected with no explanation.  Today’s letter was prompted by contact from numerous constituents asking why they were being denied the right to vote.

The full text of the letter is as follows:

Friday 26th February 2016

Dear Prime Minister,

Since the announcement of the EU referendum, and the confirmation of the franchise for this referendum, I am increasingly contacted by constituents asking if it is true that they will be unable to vote, and why.  These are fellow EU citizens, now resident in the United Kingdom, and I am unable to offer them a reasonable explanation as to why they have been denied the right to take part in this democratic process.

That this government seeks to extend voting privileges to expats, tabling a Votes for Life Bill to abolish the 15 year rule, yet refuses citizens living and working here in the United Kingdom the right to vote, suggests that your values are based purely on ethnicity.  It sends a message that it does not matter if you are no longer contributing to the British economy, even if you haven’t stepped foot in Britain for years, you were born here and that gives you a privilege. And to those who pay millions each year into our economy, those who fill thousands of jobs, our nurses, our teachers, our doctors – even our politicians in the case of my colleague, Christian Allard MSP – are they to be treated as lesser citizens?  Many see this rhetoric as inherently racist and archaic.

Because of our relationship with the European Union there has never been a need for EU citizens to apply for British citizenship, yet they now face discrimination because of their ethnicity.

I have written previously, on behalf of my constituents and as Convenor of the Scottish Parliament Cross-Party Group on Poland, appealing for you to reconsider and amend the European Union Referendum Act.

I understand that it is now too late now to change the franchise for the upcoming referendum, but perhaps, for the sake of all those EU citizens who call the United Kingdom home, you could offer an explanation as to why you seek to alienate them from this process.

Yours faithfully,

Jean Urquhart MSP

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Jean demands referendum votes for EU citizens

Jean Urquhart has written to the Prime Minister to demand that European Union citizens resident in the UK are permitted to vote in the forthcoming referendum on membership of the EU.

Jean was writing on behalf of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Poland, of which she’s the Convenor.

In her letter, Jean says that the proposed voting restrictions were “seen to be discriminatory” by the Cross-Party Group, and were “extraordinary” in the context of recent participation by Polish Scots in the independence referendum. The full text of the letter is below.

She wrote that it was “absurd that … Poles and other EU citizens were able to vote on the biggest constitutional issue facing Scotland and the UK since 1707 but are being denied the right to determine another constitutional question just a matter of months later.”

Jean said:

“We are proud that citizens of every EU nation have chosen to make Scotland their home. A Scot from Warsaw is just as much a part of our community and our country as one from Wishaw, and we all have a right to our say on Scotland’s future in Europe.

“The Conservative government’s plan to deny EU citizens a vote in the referendum smacks of the same kind of xenophobic nationalism that inspired their referendum pledge in the first place.

“It is ironic that the Conservatives used scare stories about EU membership to try to persuade EU Scots to vote No just a few months ago, but now want to prevent the very same voters from having a direct say on the very same issue.

Ms Urquhart also urged the Prime Minister to grant 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote on the issue:

“16- and 17-year-olds proved during the referendum that they can engage with big political issues with intelligence and enthusiasm. Next week, they will finally get the right to vote in Scottish Parliament and local council elections. There’s no longer any excuse for refusing 16- and 17-year-olds full voting rights.

“Our future in Europe is a decision for the whole country. I’m calling on David Cameron to amend the EU Referendum Bill to recognise the right of 16- and 17-year olds and UK-resident EU citizens to be part of that decision.”

Jean’s letter to the Prime Minister:

Dear Mr Cameron,

European Union Membership Referendum

I am writing on behalf of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Poland, which I convene, regarding the recently announced voting criteria for the forthcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

Members of the CPG are dismayed by the decision to restrict voting to only those who would qualify to vote in UK Parliamentary elections. The membership of the group is diverse – it includes not only Polish nationals, but the descendants of Polish nationals and other individuals who have an active interest in Poland – but the proposals have outraged the group.

The proposal to adopt the same rules for voting in the EU Referendum to those used for UK Parliamentary elections are seen to be discriminatory. There are thousands of people who are resident and paying taxes in this country who will be denied their right to determine the future of the country they live in – it’s the worst possible demonstration of ‘taxation without representation’, something which has no place in a modern Britain.

The referendum is, crucially, not the same as a UK Parliamentary election and as such, there is no precedent for restricting voting in this way. It is a unique opportunity for the people who live – and pay tax – in the UK to make a collective and direct decision about the UK’s future in Europe. Why would you deny European Union citizens the right to vote on the future of their country of residence, especially when it has a direct impact on their home country and their own residential status? Especially when one considers that EU citizens can vote in Britain in EU elections, but are now being denied a say on the future of that very institution.

In a Scottish context, the proposal is extraordinary given that EU citizens were able to vote in last year’s referendum. It seems to the group that it is absurd that many of the members – and of course many other Poles and other EU citizens – were able to vote on the biggest constitutional issue facing Scotland and the UK since 1707 but are being denied the right to determine another constitutional question just a matter of months later.

We write to urge you, and the members of your Cabinet, to rethink the voting strategy. Excluding EU citizens from this vote fails to recognise not only the diversity of the British population, but also the contribution EU tax payers make to our economy. It flies in the face of recent precedent on the determination of constitutional issues and ignores the fundamental right of a taxpayer to have a right to be represented within a democracy.

We hope that you will reconsider your position on this matter and look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Jean Urquhart MSP

Record voter registration in Scotland ahead of referendum

You can vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum if you are 16 or over. Make sure you register. Click for more information. The Electoral Commission.Jean has lodged a motion in the Scottish Parliament celebrating the news that voter registration in Scotland is now at its highest ever figure – 4.1 million are now registered, including 92,000 16- and 17-year-olds.

Jean’s motion highlights the great work of Radical Independence, who have been canvassing and registering voters in working-class areas where both registration and turnout have historically been low, especially since 1989 when many removed themselves from voting rolls to avoid the notorious and unjust Poll Tax.

You can join in with RIC’s canvassing at upcoming events including Inverness this Saturday 5 March, East Kilbride on Sunday 6 April, and Castlemilk in Glasgow on Wednesday 16 April.

Jean also congratulates the Electoral Commission on their work to inform those from other EU citizens who are resident in Scotland of their right to vote in the referendum. They have provided Jean, as Convenor of Holyrood’s Cross-Party Group on Poland, with a factsheet on the voting rights of Polish citizens in Scotland – the same rules apply to all EU citizens. The Electoral Commission also provide voting forms in English, Welsh and 14 other languages including French, Polish and Portuguese.

The motion, whose full text is below, has so far been supported by John Finnie (Ind, Highlands and Islands), Alison Johnstone (Green, Lothians), Patrick Harvie (Green, Glasgow), Bill Kidd (SNP, Glasgow Anniesland), John Mason (SNP, Glasgow Shettleston), and Kevin Stewart (SNP, Aberdeen Central). As always, if you’d like your other MSPs to support the motion, you can find and contact them at WriteToThem.com.

Motion Number: S4M-09585
Lodged By: Jean Urquhart
Date Lodged: 02/04/2014

Title: Voter Registration in Scotland

Motion Text:
That the Parliament welcomes the news that the number of voters registered in Scotland is, at 4.1 million, the highest it has ever been; notes that approximately 92,000 of the 120,000 16 and 17-year olds in Scotland have added their names to the electoral roll; reaffirms its support for extending the franchise for the independence referendum to 16 and 17-year olds; believes that a high electoral turnout across all age groups, ethnic backgrounds and social classes is of paramount importance; cautions that there is still progress to be made to ensure that those not currently on the electoral roll, particularly from working class areas, are registered in time to vote in the referendum; welcomes the moves taken by groups such as Radical Independence to register residents of working class areas and to provide legal advice for those who removed themselves from the electoral roll at the time of the “Poll Tax”; further welcomes the Electoral Commission’s work in engaging with citizens of other EU countries who are resident in Scotland to inform them of their voting rights, and encourages everyone, regardless of whether they intend to vote Yes, No or to spoil their ballot, to engage in the independence debate and the vote on 18 September 2014.

Parliamentary Question: Areas of Natural Constraint

EU rules allow governments to grant additional financial support to farmers whose land is in areas that are naturally harder to cultivate, currently called Less Favoured Areas. The same function will be carried out by a new system, called Areas of Natural Constraint, under EU plans for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

At Rural Affairs and Environment Questions, Jean asked the Minister for clarity on when farmers can expect the change to come, and how the new Areas of Natural Constraint will be chosen.

From the Scottish Parliament Official Report:

Areas of Natural Constraint

5. Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind):
To ask the Scottish Government what the timescale will be for the introduction of Areas of Natural Constraint to replace Less Favoured Areas. (S4O-02821)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment (Richard Lochhead):
The European Union rural development regulation states that the new areas facing natural constraint designation is to be implemented by 2018, and we will review the current Less Favoured Areas scheme in line with the regulation. In the meantime I am committed to continuing vital funding at current levels for the current scheme, to ensure that farming and crofting businesses remain sustainable.

Jean Urquhart:
What guidance has the Scottish Government received from Europe regarding the criteria that are to be used to define Areas of Natural Constraint?

Richard Lochhead:
The debate on this matter has been going on for some time, and a set of criteria has been initially debated. However, because there has been a postponement of the decision to move to a new system, there will, no doubt, be further debate over the next couple of years about the exact criteria that will be used to define areas of natural constraint. During the original debate over the past couple of years, we took some comfort from the fact that Scotland met most of the criteria, although there may have been some debate at the edges about whether some parts of Scotland qualified. Clearly, however, we have an opportunity to debate the issues and iron them out over the next couple of years.

Blog: The Real Threat to EU Membership

Scotland’s future within (or outside) the European Union (EU) has once again hit the headlines, with the Scotsman reporting that “the European Commission has written to a House of Lords committee stating that if Scots voters back independence, existing treaties which cover the UK’s EU membership willcease to apply’”. The Scotland Office is quoted in the article as saying that Scots have the right to know the full implications for Scotland if it were to “leave the UK family”.

Before we reach the meat of this topic, it’s rather disingenuous to claim that standing on your own two feet is akin to leaving a family. When our sons and daughters grow up and make decisions for themselves, it’s the mark of a developing, mature relationship, not of abandonment. An internationalist, co-operative Scotland would seek the same relationship, as is already shared with the other nations on the British Isles through the British-Irish Council.

Anyway, pedantry aside, we must remember that the Scotland Office’s argument should cut both ways. It looks likely that, regardless of who wins the next Westminster election, there will be a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.  David Cameron, under fire from the right wing of his party and the growing prominence of UKIP, has all but promised one should the Conservatives emerge victorious; senior Labour MPs have suggested holding one and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats promised one in their 2010 manifesto.

Opinion polls consistently show that, although the small number of Scots in each survey are more evenly divided on EU membership, a strong plurality of UK voters would vote to leave the EU in a referendum.  For example, in the latest YouGov poll, this antipathy towards the EU translates into outright majorities in favour of withdrawal in the North of England and the South of England and 48% in the Midlands and Wales. This ‘cold house’ is hardly surprising, given that the UK press, whose attitudes towards Europe range from critically supportive to spluttering outrage, can hardly be described as being well-disposed towards Europe.

So, given that both major parties at Westminster would hold a referendum on EU membership after the next election and that there’s a consistent public and media majority in the UK in favour of leaving the EU, why do the No campaign continue to show their concern over Scottish EU membership? Surely it’s more at threat as part of the UK than as an independent country?

Of course, an independent Scotland would need to negotiate new terms of membership, as the Scottish Government itself says. However, it would do so from within the UK (and the EU) in the 2 years between the referendum result and the planned first elections for an independent Scottish Parliament in May 2016.

To suggest that the EU would be willing to perform an expensive and elaborate hokey-cokey, where Scotland was in, out and then in again, is ludicrous. Given the human, financial and natural resources that Scotland contributes to the EU at a time of uncertainty and financial instability across Europe, does anybody honestly expect the EU to wilfully eject a long-standing partner of almost 40 years?

Over the next 2 years, there will be attempts to obfuscate the debate by attempting to boil down 50 years of complex European treaties into doom-laden, doubt-ridden claims about Scottish membership of the EU while ignoring the very real threat posed by Westminster sabre-rattling. I hope, and believe, that the people of Scotland can see through the scaremongering and apply the common sense logic that has served us well in the past.