The government has been accused of “shocking complacency” over the European election voting rights controversy as new data revealed that as few as one in 10 EU citizens were able to cast their vote in some areas of Britain.
While Westminster attention was focused on Donald Trump’s state visit on Tuesday, a Cabinet Office minister was facing criticism in the parliament over the election last month.
However, the government refused to heed calls for a public inquiry into why so many EU citizens said they had been denied a vote in an election that turned into a proxy ballot on Brexit.
Kevin Foster, a junior Cabinet Office minister, said the government had taken “all legal steps necessary” to ensure EU citizens were able to exercise their right to vote.
He said the government would wait for the Electoral Commission’s post-election report, but his response is unlikely to quell the outcry.
Figures obtained by the Guardian from local authorities across the country suggest there was a lack of awareness among EU citizens that they needed to notify their councils that they were going to vote in the UK and not in their home country by 7 May. They had to do this using a form known as a UC1.
The Guardian asked more than 50 councils how many UC1 forms had been issued to voters on their register and how many had been returned by the cut-off date.
The return rate for the top 10 local authorities with EU citizens – Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and seven London boroughs – was 21%.
In Birmingham, home to almost 35,000 EU citizens registered to vote, the return of forms was as low as 10.56%.
In Brent in north-west London, which has one of the highest number of EU nationals on the register, only 20.74% of voters who were sent the forms by the council returned them on time.
Kingston upon Thames appears to have had the highest rate of return in the country at 43% but other local authorities were not as successful in getting the message out. Some constituencies outside London had returns as low as 11% and 12%.
Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Brexit, said the government’s refusal to take any blame for the lack of awareness showed “shocking complacency”.
He told Foster the issue had been raised repeatedly by a number of MPs and demanded an inquiry into “this shambles and the government’s role in it”.
Labour also called for a “full and urgent” inquiry. Cat Smith, the party’s voter engagement spokesperson, said the numbers of EU citizens who were able to vote in May should be “a source of shame for this government”.
She described the government’s response to tell people to vote in their own countries as “insulting”. Such a response added “to the sense of anger and sense of exclusion” felt by EU citizens, she said.
Anneliese Dodds, the Labour MP for Oxford East, said Conservative ministers had ignored the Electoral Commission’s warnings after the last EU elections in 2014 that the process needed to be easier for EU citizens.
Some councils in London appeared relatively successful in getting the message out to EU citizens. Islington recorded 30% of forms returned, Wandsworth 36% and Greenwich 35%.
Leeds reported that just 21% of forms had been returned while in Boston in Lincolnshire, where large number of EU nationals work on farms all year round, the return rate was 12%.
Roger Casale, the founder of the New Europeans campaign group , said the failure to get the message and forms out to EU citizens on time was “particularly galling” because the figures repeat a similar failure in the European elections in 2014.
The New Europeans estimates that about 2 million of the 3.8 million EU citizens living in Britain would in principle have been eligible to vote.
It has also called for a public inquiry, with a petition now signed by more than 123,000 people.
Casale pointed out that many Britons living abroad who had registered to vote in the UK had also been disenfranchised because their ballot papers had not arrived in time.
About the author:
Lisa O'Carroll, Brexit correspondent at The Guardian, with additional reporting by Lucie Heath and Sid Bassu
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