Voter Registration

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 7th February 2005.

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Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Conservative, Witney 2:30 pm, 7th February 2005

If he will undertake to send a service voter registration form to every serviceman and woman.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

If he will ensure that every member of the armed forces is provided with a service electoral registration form before the end of February.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence

We have launched an extensive information campaign to raise awareness of the options open to service personnel to register to vote. Forms for those who choose to register as service voters are readily available to units and individuals via a link on the Ministry of Defence website to the Electoral Commission or from electoral registration officers.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Conservative, Witney

I am grateful for that answer, but does the Minister not accept that the Government have shown a degree of complacency on this issue? The fact is that the number of service personnel registered to vote in many areas has plummeted. Is he aware that, until this morning, the MOD website told servicemen and women that they had to register only once during their career? As that advice is absolutely plumb wrong, will he ensure that every serviceman and woman is sent a voter registration form? Is that not the least we can do for them?

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. I have not checked the website, but I know that the Defence Council instruction was sent out on 28 January, as I told the House it would be during the last Defence questions. I sent a copy of that Defence Council instruction to the Opposition parties so that they knew it had been sent out, and to Mr. Tyrie, who was the first Member to raise this matter, before Christmas in Westminster Hall.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Following on from an exchange with the Prime Minister, given that it is an offence with a fine of up to £1,000 for a member of the public not to enrol on the electoral register after being contacted by an electoral registration officer, what action have the Government taken to remind our wonderful service personnel of their duty to re-register?

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence

I have just explained one of the actions that we have taken, which was issuing the Defence Council instruction, but we have also agreed a strategy with the Electoral Commission to increase awareness and ensure registration. As I made clear to the House during the last Defence questions, I am keen for all members of our armed forces to register to vote.

I can list some of the things that we have done. We are using a series of interviews on British Forces Broadcasting, including one with me, to encourage people to ensure that they register. At the suggestion of the hon. Member for Chichester, who raised this issue, we are undertaking to distribute leaflets, and there are articles in our in-house magazines.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

My understanding is that if there is a general election on 5 May, the last date for electoral registration is 11 March. That will produce extra problems for service personnel and others who want to get their registration forms in on time. Can representations be made to the appropriate Department to ensure that the date of final electoral registration is pushed back to 11 April, which is the anticipated date of the issue of the writ?

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence

My hon. Friend knows a lot more about when the election might be than I do, that is for sure. Schedule 1(8) of the Representation of the People Act 2000, which refers to section 15 of that Act, is pretty clear on these matters.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

Will the Minister confirm that the responsibility for registration falls on the electoral registration officers in areas where military personnel live? The second problem, about which many Members are concerned, is that, once registered, many military personnel do not exercise their right to vote because they are not present on polling day, and they do not seem to be advised how best to register for postal or proxy votes.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence

There is an issue of consistency here, and I would encourage—as I did during the Adjournment debate in December—those members of our armed forces who are abroad, in particular, to take a proxy vote. That is a way of ensuring that their franchise is dealt with in this country. It is not the responsibility of electoral registration officers to ensure that people are registered, and the 2000 Act makes each individual responsible for making a proper registration. That is consistent for all groups, not just the armed forces; it also accounts for students and nurses.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Is the Minister concerned that there appears to be a difference of standard in the management of service votes in different parts of the country? One senior serviceman visiting the House this morning told me that he has to reapply proactively every year to get and keep his service vote. In the spirit of non-partisanship—all parties are agreed that as much needs to be done as possible to ensure that all service personnel can vote—does the Minister agree that more can be done to ensure that people do not have to reapply when it is not necessary?

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence

The 2000 Act is very clear that that is what people have to do. As I said to Bob Russell, the Act applies not only to servicemen and women but to nurses, students and all of us. We all have a requirement to register individually.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Shadow Minister (Defence)

But does the Minister understand that when those of us sitting in Westminster or in our constituencies get a note from the local district council saying, "Please register your vote", it is very different from the circumstances for soldiers on the move in Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever it may be? That is the problem with the 2000 Act. On 20 January, the Minister said: "Things are not nearly as bad as they seem." Actually, approximately two thirds, or possibly three quarters of the British armed forces and their spouses are disenfranchised. We have heard that the website is four years out of date and that people are threatened with £1,000 fines. When will the Minister take action to give every potential service voter and their spouse a form to ensure that they are all registered in time for the impending general election?

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence

I have looked carefully at the record of proceedings on the Act as it went through the House in 2000. In the time that I had available this morning, I could not find any suggestion that the issue of service registration was raised by the Conservatives at the time or that they took an opportunity to vote against the terms of the legislation. [Interruption.] Well, the Opposition normally raise such issues when legislation is passing through the House.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of overseas voters in the last Defence questions and at Prime Minister's questions on Wednesday. Let me assure him that I have dealt with the matter. I just made that clear, as I made it clear to Mr. Tyrie in the Adjournment debate. The available forms are clear. We are doing all that we can to promote voter registration, and I hope that every member of our services, just like all the other groups, will participate whenever there is a general election.