Clause 2 — Use of CORE information

Electoral Administration Bill (Programme) (No. 2) – in the House of Commons at 7:45 pm on 13th June 2006.

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Lords amendment: No. 1.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I beg to move, That this House
agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 5, Lords amendment No. 6 and amendments (a) and (b) thereto, and Lords amendments Nos. 78, 82, 83, 87, 94, 105, 107 to 109 and 124.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

The amendments relate to the registration system. Amendments Nos. 1 to 4 relate to the co-ordinated online record of electors. Amendment No. 5 relates to the new duty on registration officers to maximise levels of registration. Given the earlier debate, I do not wish to pursue the arguments on registration further at this stage. The House has reached another consensus on the importance of increasing registration. The amendments will ensure that registration officers do their bit in making sure that the registers are as comprehensive as possible.

Amendment No. 1 was made in response to concerns that the regulations governing the publication and supply of information kept on CORE to bodies such as political parties might differ greatly from those which apply to electoral returning officers at a local level. As Ministers made clear in another place, CORE will not change the information that is held on electoral registers, or the records that EROs are required by law to keep, or the persons and organisations to whom information may be supplied. It simply acts as a central point of access.

Some flexibility is needed, however. For example, the CORE keeper will not be required to keep a copy of the full register available for public inspection. There is also flexibility because the amendment more clearly sets in law the principle that the regulations governing access to information held in CORE will be the same as those that apply to EROs.

Amendments Nos. 2 to 4 were also made in response to the concern in another place that, as originally drafted, some of the security measures included in the CORE provisions might call legitimate acts into question, rather than focusing on fraudulent activity. An example of that is the potential for large households with a number of postal voters, such as student halls, to be flagged up as potentially fraudulent. Amendments Nos. 2 and 4 tighten up the Bill's drafting so that CORE will instead focus on instances where large numbers of postal votes have been redirected to an alternative address, as that is a circumstance in which fraud may be involved.

There was also a concern that the Bill's existing provisions would flag up legitimate instances of a person voting as another elector's proxy—in a sense, the reverse of the earlier concern. Amendment No. 3 responds to that by focusing again on fraudulent acts of double voting.

The new duty on EROs is set out in amendment No. 5. The new duty is to ensure that the electoral register is complete and comprehensive. Clause 9 sets that out as a new duty and includes certain minimum steps that EROs must take to maintain their registers. As drafted, clause 9 includes

"making on more than one occasion house to house inquiries".

Under amendment No. 5, EROs would instead be required to make such inquiries on "one or more occasions". The purpose of the amendment is to clarify that there is no need for electoral officers to make more than one visit if the first visit gives them the comprehensive information that they need.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

On amendment No. 5, the experience of my electoral staff is that because of a shortage of people to knock on doors, they are knocking only once. They then send a letter directly to the address. As a consequence, there is massive under-registration. Should not the Bill recognise the need for more than one call to be made if the officers fail to find anyone in?

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

Amendment No. 5 addresses my hon. Friend's concerns. He is right that one call is often not enough. Giving EROs the duty to ensure that they have a comprehensive register, and taking on board earlier points about the variety of ways in which it is possible to gather that canvass, he is right to say that it may be necessary in some cases for the canvasser to call more than once at a particular household.

Lords amendment No. 6 deals with service registration, which was raised on Second Reading and in subsequent discussions, and we have responded, I hope, to the points that were made in the House and elsewhere. The amendment includes two key provisions. First, it creates an order-making power to allow the Government to extend the duration of registrations made via a service declaration to up to five years. Current rules require declarations to be reconfirmed annually, so the extension would make the registration process more convenient for service personnel, particularly personnel serving overseas. To provide a proper opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny, any order made under the amendment would be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. If the power were used, it would affect only service personnel and their spouses or civil partners. It would not affect other persons eligible to register through a service qualification, such as Crown servants based overseas. Traditionally, it is much easier for Crown servants to register than it is for service personnel to do so, so we want to address the problem experienced by service personnel. In addition, the amendment does not require members of the armed forces to register solely through a service declaration. Servicemen and women can still register as ordinary electors if they choose to do so.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 8:00 pm, 13th June 2006

Everyone in the House knows that order-making powers merely provide the power to make an order. If, as I expect, the amendment is accepted, is the Minister minded to lay the necessary statutory instrument before the House?

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we certainly are minded to lay the appropriate measure before the House.

Secondly, the amendment places a duty on the Ministry of Defence to keep a record of the electoral registration details of service personnel that can be used both as a prompt to the individual to update registration details with the local electoral registration officer, particularly the address to which postal votes should be sent, and as a focus for efforts to encourage service personnel to register. The record will provide statistical information that will allow continuous monitoring, and it will facilitate communication between unit registration officers and the local electoral registration officer about the numbers registered, to assist in future registration campaigns.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

Will the Minister explain the objection in principle to reverting to the system that was used before the Representation of the People Act 2000? The procedure that she has outlined is extremely complicated, but our forces are far more involved in front-line action now than they were then, so it is strange that they cannot be registered once and for all by their units, as used to be the case.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I do not accept the premise that this is a complicated measure—it is a practical and straightforward method of ensuring that service personnel have the opportunity to register. The previous regime was changed because it did not work effectively. The all-party group that looked at the system concluded that it was characterised by low registration. There are concerns in the House about relatively low registration among service personnel, so I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend Mr. Watson, is in the Chamber, as he has worked closely to find a way forward. The all-party group pointed out that it was difficult for EROs to identify and communicate with service personnel. The amendment makes that process much easier and clearer, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes it.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

I thank the Minister for her generosity in giving way. She said that the previous system did not work well, but does she accept that, by comparison, the new system has led to a massive reduction in registration?

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I am not happy with the level of registration among service personnel. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman attended our debate about registration in general, but the vast majority of people who fail to register are young men, who are notoriously poor at registering. We have tried to ensure that they register, and that they are encouraged to do so by their unit registration officers.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

If hon. Members will allow me to complete my explanation of the amendment, they may be reassured that it is a much more progressive and positive way forward. It is part of a package of measures to aid the registration of service personnel that includes closer co-operation between the officer in each unit responsible for electoral registration and the ERO. The MOD will issue every new entrant to the armed forces with an electoral registration form, and it will run campaigns during the annual canvass for service personnel whose service declaration is about to expire. Members of the armed forces will receive reminders in their payslips about the need to register to vote and information such as website addresses and so on. Access to service accommodation will be granted to electoral registration officers. Pilot schemes for on-site polling stations at two separate military establishments took place in this year's local elections in Rushmoor and Westminster. Future campaigns will include a service "Registration Day", which will act as a focal point. Unit registration officers will be proactively using all appropriate measures to remind and inform service personnel and their families both of the requirement to register to vote and of the way in which they can do so.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

Does the hon. Lady accept that the position of a soldier or sailor at a shore base in Britain is very different from the position of a solider on operations in Helmand province or in Basra? [ Interruption. ] She will not receive any solace from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, because he does not know. The situation of the soldier on operations is miles away from what she has discussed. The MOD and the Electoral Commission, which does not know any better, must introduce a system with a mechanism to enable personnel in all three services training at home bases in the United Kingdom and on operations to register. Inevitably, it will be at the back of the queue for personnel who are on operations, but a great deal more work needs to be done so that it works for our gravely diminished armed forces, many of whom are on operations overseas. Unless we do so, the proposal will not make any difference at all.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but the amendments deal with the issue. For the first time, the Ministry of Defence will keep a record of which personnel have registered and which have not done so, so we can see where the gaps are. Of course, he is right that registration is more difficult for service personnel serving overseas, but we have put in place measures that will help to achieve his aim. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary wrote to me saying that he wanted to work with my Department and the Electoral Commission

"to consider what further improvements we can make to the quality of information available to Service personnel."

A number of service personnel elect to register as ordinary voters, and that option will still be available to them.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

A moment ago, the Minister said that the old system of registration was inadequate. Of course that is true. It was inadequate in the sense that people were left on the register after they had left the Army. That was the primary problem—not, as she implied, that service personnel who should have been registered were not registered. As far as I am aware, and I would be grateful if she could confirm this, registration among service personnel under the old scheme was comparable to that among the civilian population. Has she made any estimate of the level of registration that would result from the scheme that she has proposed tonight?

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I do not believe that substantially more service personnel were registered under the old scheme. There were problems of under-registration similar to those that we recognise now among the young men and women in our armed forces. The record that the Ministry of Defence will keep will enable us to target registration gaps.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I am amazed by the Minister's comments. When I looked into the matter in 2004, prior to the last election, I discovered that in the year before the introduction of the new scheme, registration was over 87 per cent. in a ward in my constituency where there were almost exclusively service personnel, and that after the introduction of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 registration had fallen to 42 or 43 per cent. I would be very surprised if that or a similar situation were not replicated right across the United Kingdom, in view of the Government's own survey, which shows a drop and an appallingly low level of service personnel participation in the election.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I want to try to reassure the hon. Gentleman, because I know how concerned he is. He has raised the issue on a number of occasions. Under the old scheme, as he rightly points out, the declaration remained valid for five years. That sometimes had the effect of people being registered at an address that was no longer theirs, which distorted the register. There has historically been under-registration. I am grateful to my friends at the MOD for undertaking to be proactive in registering people wherever it is appropriate for them to be registered. There are service personnel who will continue to register to vote as ordinary electors, if they so wish. We would not wish to prevent them from doing so.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

May I pursue the point made by Mr. Soames? Will we be able to see, year by year, the percentage of people registered in each of the three services, and be able to tell whether those serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, Cyprus and elsewhere are also registering in sufficiently high numbers? Unless we have that information, we will not be able to ensure that those who are the most unlikely to do it have the right that they deserve at least as much as anyone else, if not more than most.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve and I have some sympathy with that. I am not sure that any system would allow us to do that. People move from one posting to another. We might get a snapshot of the situation, but I cannot guarantee that we could get a comprehensive result from studying overseas postings. In the discussions with colleagues in the MOD, we will consider how comprehensive the information is that we can give, in order to reassure the House that as many service personnel as possible are registered.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

It might be helpful to examine one or two specific examples, such as the Marines, who have a base in my patch. If asked, the Marines might agree to do a check. We know how many Marines there are, though of course they move around the world. We could see whether the registration figure was 50 per cent., 80 per cent. or whatever, and that would give us some idea. It is those who are most mobile who should concern us most.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

Yes, I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. To some extent we will be able to do that, to see whether there is an increase or a decrease in registration year on year in each of the services. That might go some way to meeting the point that he makes.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence) 8:15 pm, 13th June 2006

The Minister has been extremely generous in giving way. I am puzzled by the fact that she does not seem to be aware of the survey that was published only last week by the Government's own Defence Analytical Services Agency, which went to the heart of the point raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Soames, that when we are speaking about servicemen based at home it is an entirely different kettle of fish from servicemen based overseas, often on active service. The survey showed that only 34 per cent. of UK personnel serving overseas were registered, compared with 64 per cent. of those based in the UK. That is a massive disparity, and no amount of tinkering with the new system can bridge that gap.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I am indeed aware of that survey. One of the reasons why it was published last week was to inform this very debate. The Ministry of Defence wanted hon. Members to understand the present situation. In its co-operation with me and with my Department on the Bill, the MOD has given a very positive steer on the work that should be done. The figure of 34 per cent., which none of us would say is high enough, does not take account of the fact that some service personnel are registered at home. When we bandy about statistics, we must make sure that we cover all the options. I am not satisfied with the number of service personnel who are registered, and neither are my colleagues in the MOD, which is why we have tabled the amendments. However, I do not believe that the position is much worse than pre-2002.

I hope that I have responded comprehensively on the subject of service personnel registration. We have made huge strides in that regard, and I hope that the House will welcome and endorse the amendments. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for his continuing support.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

The hon. Lady is extremely generous. She is making a magnificent job of a sow's ear. Does she accept that what is so galling is not that the Ministry of Defence is trying to put the situation right, as we know it is? There is considerable merit in some of the points that she makes. Prior to the last election, my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and I, when I was shadow Secretary of State for Defence, and many others pointed out repeatedly that registration was not being properly carried out. We heard that from everywhere. It is galling that it was so dismally badly done. In order to remedy the problem, the hon. Lady will have to deal more specifically with the point that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East made about servicemen serving overseas. It is more important that they know of their right and their chance to vote than it is for people sitting comfortably at home.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I could not agree more about the importance of doing everything we can to help our servicemen and women who are on overseas missions to be registered—

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

Indeed, on operations, and sometimes, as we know, in extremely dangerous life-threatening situations. I am grateful to my colleagues in the MOD for the positive and supportive way in which they have responded to the issue. We will do everything that we can to register those people, because it is not acceptable to send them to represent our country abroad in very dangerous situations without giving them every opportunity to vote in any of our elections.

Amendments Nos. 78, 87, 94, 105, 107 to 109 and 124 were introduced in the House of Lords by Lord Rix and Lord Carter with support from the Government. They deal with the abolition of common law incapacity and relate to assistance for people with disabilities. The other amendments in the group are consequential, and they change the terms "physical cause", "physical incapacity" and "incapacity" to "disability".

Amendment No. 78 abolishes any common law rule that links a person's capacity to vote to their mental state. That is what currently ties the language of "idiots" and "lunatics" to electoral legislation, and it has led to disabled people being denied the right to vote. That link is derived from outmoded concepts and terminology found in 14th-century statute law and 18th-century cases. It has led to election officials making unjustified assumptions about the mental capacity of disabled people, and it has no place in modern law and our modern democracy. Amendment No. 78, which has been developed in conjunction with organisations such as Scope and Sense, will allow disabled people to be subject to exactly the same eligibility criteria as everyone else.

Other amendments in the group clarify the language used about disabled people in election law, replacing the word "incapacity" with the word "disability", which is a much more appropriate term for the purposes of election law, because it encompasses all forms of disability and does not simply imply mental incapacity. I am proud that the Government have eradicated that language and the behaviour that it encourages from electoral law.

Amendments Nos. 82 and 83 relate to anonymous registration and the names of electors allocated to polling stations. As it stands, the returning officer would have no obligation to provide the parts of the register that contain entries relating to those who are anonymously registered. The amendments correct that by substituting "names of" in rule 29(3)(c) for "entries relating to", and similar consequential changes are already included at other points within the Bill.

Amendment No. 83 makes a small change to the provisions relating to anonymously registered electors. Paragraph 15(7) of schedule 1 allows the electoral number of an anonymous entry to be included in the edited version of the register, which is available for general sale. Although an anonymously registered person's name and address will not appear on the edited register, we believe that the inclusion of even the elector's number creates a small potential risk, particularly in registers that cover a small area where undue attention could be drawn to an anonymous entry. The risk is small, but it could be avoided altogether if the edited register were not to include anonymous entries.

Conservative amendments (a) and (b) would create a system in which the relevant Department would have to register service personnel and Crown servants, unless those people chose to opt out, and they would have significant resource implications. Apart from setting up the system, the Department would be obliged to check with the relevant electoral registration officer that the relevant person was actually registered to vote, which would be extremely time-consuming and costly. In addition, the amendments cover all Departments, which seems unnecessary because, with the exception of service personnel, about whom I have already spoken at length, we have no evidence to suggest that there is a problem with electoral registration among employees of other Departments. I therefore ask Mr. Heald to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

My hon. Friend Mr. Tyrie and other Conservative Members have pressed the Government hard to tackle the problems that have arisen for service voters since the 2000 Act. Although the 2000 Act gave service voters various ways to register, the fact that only 46 per cent. of servicemen and women, and just 28 per cent. of those based overseas, voted in the last general election indicates the serious nature of the problem. Those concerns prompted the MOD to conduct the survey, which showed that only 60 per cent. of service personnel were registered to vote at the last general election. The Army had a significantly lower registration rate than either the Navy or the RAF. Furthermore, only 34 per cent. of those serving overseas were registered, compared with 64 per cent. of those based in the UK, which is the point that my hon. Friend Mr. Soames made a moment ago.

Those findings are disappointing and show that urgent action is needed to address the problem. However, the actual registration figures are probably worse than the MOD figures suggest. The overall response rate to the survey was only 45 per cent, but in the key category of other ranks in the Army based overseas only 26 per cent. bothered to return the survey, of whom only one third were registered. The report accepts that personnel who did not respond may well have different voting and registration experiences from those who did. It makes sense that those who returned the survey were a self-selected group and were therefore much more likely to include those who were registered to vote. In my view, those who failed to return the survey will almost certainly be people who tend to fail to return electoral registration forms, and I think that that means that significantly less than 34 per cent. of servicemen and women serving overseas are registered.

The current situation is very concerning. Of those who responded to the survey, 61 per cent. were unaware that they had to re-register every year, and that percentage increased to 71 per cent. among those overseas. The Constitutional Affairs Committee has called on the MOD to look into that issue. Amendment No. 6 does not go very far, because it simply encourages the MOD to register its personnel rather than making it a requirement or duty. One therefore has to ask whether working for the MOD, serving as a soldier in dangerous circumstances, is just like any other job, or whether it imposes some greater duty on the employer compared with the position of a student or other person on civvy street. The Army pamphlet, "Basically fair: equality and diversity in the British Army", says:

"As a soldier you are expected to put the needs of the Service first and to forgo some of the rights enjoyed in civilian life. In return you can at all times expect to be treated fairly, and to be valued and respected as an individual."

In other words, a soldier does not have the full rights of civilian life and is expected to put the needs of the service first. In many cases, as we know, soldiers give much more than others—indeed, they give their lives. In those circumstances, surely the MOD can do as well as a university.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Just for clarification, is the hon. Gentleman asking us to oblige all our service personnel to vote; and if so, could he tell us what other employer obliges its employees to register?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State 8:30 pm, 13th June 2006

Given that we are talking about such a crucial issue as people serving overseas being denied their democratic rights in the last general election, it is sad that the Minister did not even trouble to read our amendment, which makes it perfectly clear that any serviceman would have an absolute right to opt out. The duty would be on the MOD to register a person to vote

"unless under the provision of subsection (3AA) they decline to do so".

Of course it is a matter of personal choice for the person who is serving as to whether they want to be registered. If the Minister had been here earlier, he would have heard our debate about registration generally, with Members giving examples of universities registering their students and households where the father registers the rest of the family. Servicemen are not in that position. They are in places such as Helmand, where the situation is extremely difficult and this will not be the first thing on their minds. Many of my hon. Friends and other Members think it important that our servicemen should always have the right to vote. If that means a little extra trouble for the MOD, so be it.

Photo of Ronnie Campbell Ronnie Campbell Labour, Blyth Valley

My son is in the Royal Marines and has been for many years. He always managed to get a proxy vote and left it to his mother—now to his wife, of course—to vote on his behalf. Is that a better way forward?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

It is certainly a way forward. I just want to ensure that the MOD has a duty placed on it to do something about this. I do not know so much about the Army—we will hear from Members who do—but I would guess that if it is a requirement and a duty, the Army will do it, but if it is a matter of guidance or discretion, it is very much up in the air. The figures suggest that it is not happening at the moment.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Does my hon. Friend think it bizarre that the Government earlier rejected a sensible proposal to introduce the use of national insurance numbers to prevent fraud because it would lead to a drop in registration, yet they will not take this step, which would guarantee increased registration among servicemen? Why do the Government seem not to care about the registration levels of people in our armed forces?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

That is a good question. It is sad that the MOD is not prepared to do this for our servicemen. The special circumstances of the armed forces mean that we should err on the side of preserving their right to vote, and any inertia should operate in favour of democracy.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I refer the hon. Gentleman to subsection (2) of amendment No. 6, which says:

"Arrangements must be made by the appropriate government department".

We are enforcing a duty on the Ministry of Defence in that respect. I should have thought that he would at least recognise that and be slightly more consensual about the way forward.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

As the Under-Secretary knows, I believe that amendment No. 6 is better than nothing and I congratulate all those, including my noble Friend Baroness Hanham, who managed to wring it out of the Ministry of Defence. However, if she reads further, she will realise that the Ministry of Defence is required to secure

"(so far as circumstances permit) an effective opportunity of exercising from time to time as occasion may require the rights" to register and to vote. That is not the same as requiring the Ministry of Defence to effect the registration of servicemen. I want that to happen. There is a difference between us and I hope that I have made the point clearly. We do not agree and I would therefore like to press amendment (a) to a Division, because our servicemen deserve it.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

Before I come on to the substantive debate about service personnel, I emphasise that we support all the other amendments and I am grateful to the Government for accepting them. Some of them were tabled by Opposition Members, including colleagues of mine. Lord Greaves and others pressed some and I am grateful that they have been accepted.

The main debate is about Lords amendment No. 6 and amendment (a), which Mr. Heald tabled. I hope that we are all united in our view that we must deal with a severe problem. The hon. Gentleman read out the figures, which my noble Friend Lord Garden cited in the debate in the Lords. They show that there has been a considerable drop in the number of registered service personnel and the number of service personnel who vote, and a worse drop in the number of service personnel overseas who vote. That is evident from the facts. We are grateful for the figures, but even they may hide the reality.

What should be done? I hope that I do not inappropriately betray confidences when I say that I know that the Department for Constitutional Affairs has been keen for some time to press the Ministry of Defence to make a set of commitments. It has also been keen for the proposal that has now come from the Lords to be agreed. I believe that it is generally known that the Ministry of Defence did not sign up to that until the recent reshuffle. The Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, who is present, made it clear that they shared the view of the Department for Constitutional Affairs. I pay tribute to them for making their views clear and for the fact that, at last, there was an end to the differences between the two Departments.

Lord Garden, who was a Chief of the Defence Staff in a previous life, knows about such matters. He sensed that there was resistance in the Ministry of Defence and said so. He made it clear that the resistance was unacceptable. The Government have now accepted the amendment that my noble Friend originally tabled, which was supported by the Opposition parties and others. It is now before us, with Government support. There is a remaining difference, which is not big, between the Government position, for which we voted in the House of Lords, and amendment (a). My colleagues and I are sympathetic to its objective but, given that Lords amendment No. 6 is the proposal—indeed, the exact words—that we tabled, it would be unfair to say to the Government, "Thank you very much. You've tabled what we were tabling, but we're going to vote against it." In all logic and honesty, we must be consistent about that.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

It is true that that might appear odd but, although Lords amendment No. 6 takes the matter further, it does not contain everything that we wanted. Could not the hon. Gentleman be tempted into the Lobby with us?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I am always willing to be tempted but I shall have to show some discipline to the troops who will emerge at the appropriate moment. [Interruption.] They keep coming to ask me when they will be required and I have told them that it will not be before half-time in the Brazil v. Croatia game.

Let me get back to the serious matter before us. I hope that a combination of the proposal before us, as agreed by the other place, and all the undertakings that the Ministry of Defence has given, will be put in place. Speaking bluntly, it will be a disgrace if they are not. We have had an undertaking that there will be registration campaigns and visits to barracks and service quarters, and that people will be given an opportunity to register when they sign up and regularly thereafter. We have also been assured that they will be able to stay on the register for three, four or five years rather than just one. In that way, they will not have to worry about registering each year if they are deployed away from home, which is clearly an improvement. The MOD will have to ensure that it provides the facilities and regular opportunities for service personnel at home and for those going around the world to be on the list, so that they can exercise their right to vote, whether in person, by post or by proxy.

It is reasonable to stop at that point now, however, because it would change the nature of the relationship if we made the Ministry of Defence unique in being the only employer to have to do this for its personnel. I can see the argument for doing that and I am sympathetic to where the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and his Conservative colleagues are coming from on this matter, but it would be slightly inconsistent to do so. There are diplomatic personnel, civil servants and people in the private sector, as well as other people in public services who are sent out round the world. It would be slightly illogical to place a unique duty on the MOD to do this for its own people if a similar obligation did not exist for, say, a university sending some of its staff abroad, or for the House sending some of our Clerks to a conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union or the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

We will judge the results of these measures by what we see. If numbers are not restored to their former levels or better, we shall have to go further—either in practice or in legislation. But I hope that the message has been sent out loud and clear by Ministers to the Chief of the Defence Staff, and I hope that it will be clear as soon as the provision becomes law that people will be expected to comply with it. I hope that it will be reviewed regularly, not only by the Electoral Commission and the Government, but by all colleagues in all parties in the House.

I end by echoing what has been said by Mr. Soames and others. Like them, I have many constituents who have served abroad. One of my staff has just come back from serving with the Marines in Iraq, and colleagues of mine have family members who have served all over the world. The reality is that, of all people who have an entitlement to vote and who should have the opportunity to do so, those who put their lives on the line for their country deserve that opportunity the most. It should be made as easy for them as possible to achieve that, and this provision represents a good step forward. If it is insufficient, we will go further. Given that we argued for this and that the Government have delivered, we will support them in the Lobby tonight. However, I hope that they and the MOD understand that this time they have to deliver. There must be no fudging; otherwise, they will certainly be hearing a lot more from us.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

Few of us in the House can resist the blandishments of the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Bridget Prentice, except perhaps on fox hunting. She is regarded on this side of the House as being eminently sound. There is no one here tonight who would not applaud what the MOD is trying to do. I accept that, but I rise to support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Heald and by the new shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Dr. Fox.

There are servicemen and women who do not want to vote. My hon. Friend Mr. Simpson, who was an instructor at Sandhurst, will be well aware that many officers, in particular, who wear the Queen's uniform feel that it is improper to vote and do not want to do so. Indeed, that was often the case in my own regiment. However, they amount to a minuscule number.

The reason why the figures were so bad at the last election was that so many of our troops were away on operations. The shaming thing is that the Army is worse than anyone else at arranging for its staff to vote, and that is why the amendment is so important. The Navy has been going away regularly for ever and ever, and the naval family service is much the best of the three services' family organisations, so the Navy will have in place some form of proxy voting, as Simon Hughes suggested. It will be custom-made, and the Navy takes the trouble to make sure that its people can vote. The Royal Air Force is a particularly fluffy service—and rightly—in respect of its personnel and it has always taken more trouble over its people, but historically, the Army has never taken enough trouble. The majority of service personnel working overseas are, of course, soldiers. That is why the figures were particularly bad, which makes it even more important for the Ministry of Defence to get it right.

I welcome the steps that are being taken. I also welcome the Under-Secretary to his new position and wish him the best of luck serving what is without doubt the most fascinating and challenging Department in Whitehall. I particularly want him to understand that getting the Ministry of Defence to do anything is like plucking teeth out of a chicken. It is extremely difficult. It means playing to a number of audiences that have all got to do the same thing.

In order to get these provisions to work in respect of operations overseas, we need to look not to the civilian staff, but to the chain of command and the hierarchy. When it comes to dealing with a divisional or brigade headquarters, we could think of Brigadier Butler of the 16th Air Assault Brigade being given a rocket about voting problems in the middle of trying to sort out Helmand province—a ridiculous thought. There has to be a joined-up, coherent, sensible, grown-up, practical and common-sense system in place to enable soldiers to be told exactly what their rights are before they deploy. They must know that they have the right to vote and that if they wish to exercise it, arrangements will be made for them to do so.

It is very important for the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs to understand that, if she is going to make it work by ensuring that the services make it work, it will require an effort of will from the chain of command in all the services, but particularly in the Army, to get those arrangements made. Not to do so would be inexcusable. The Ministry of Defence did very badly at the last election. We called it to account for what was happening several times in parliamentary questions and the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces was either very badly informed or given less than frank answers by officials. The position in respect of service voting was deplorable and even though it is, as I say, difficult to organise, it should have been done a great deal better than it was. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend Mr. Tyrie, who hung on like a terrier throughout.

I welcome the amendment and commend the Minister for his approach. I applaud the fact that the Ministry of Defence is going to implement this, but it will require an effort of will by the Minister to see it through to fruition.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 8:45 pm, 13th June 2006

I rise to support amendments (a) and (b) and in so doing, I seek to honour a pledge to a group of men and women from whose company I have recently returned. Under the auspices of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, it was my privilege earlier this month to spend a few days on HMS Bulwark in the Gulf. That ship, with its men and women of the Royal Navy, its Royal Marine commandos and naval aviators, will have been on deployment for seven months by the time she returns to home waters. During that time, the most recent elections—the local government elections, gently to correct my hon. Friend Mr. Soames—took place.

Ordinarily, when MPs visit military establishments, whether they be floating or shore-based, they expect to hear complaints about pay and conditions and all sorts of things. However, for the first time ever on my visits to military establishments—I remind the House that I have been Parliamentary Private Secretary to two Ministers of State, so I have visited many—I heard military men and women complain about the right to vote, or, more exactly, being denied it.

Those people discovered during the local government elections that they were effectively disfranchised, and it mattered to them because they also felt that they should not have to pay council tax when they are away for such a long time. That is adding insult to injury, when they not only have to pay the council tax, but are unable to vote in council elections, and it was a cause of considerable irritation to them.

When people are deployed away from home and their families for as long as those men and women have been away, these issues matter. When they are in the teeth of danger—as they were in the Gulf, as they are now in the Red sea and as they will be until they return home safely, we hope, in two or three months' time—they feel very strongly that we, their elected representatives, are letting them down.

To come specifically to amendments (a) and (b), I wish to support them because I believe that they will strengthen the measures contained in Lords amendment No. 6. The Minister said that one of the reasons for resisting those amendments was that there were—I quote exactly—"resource implications". I suggest to the hon. Lady that there are very considerable resource implications for the men and women who are prepared to put their lives on the line for this country. Frankly, if we cannot provide those boys and girls—that is what they are in many cases—with the resources to enable them to take part in the democratic process, we bring shame upon ourselves and do no justice to them.

I hope and believe that the Minister will think again, look at those two modest amendments and recognise that what my hon. Friend Mr. Heald and their other signatories have sought to do is not to undermine the Government's position, but to strengthen that of our armed forces and to send out a very clear message to those men and women who serve in extremely difficult and dangerous places overseas: "We respect you. We admire you. We understand your needs. We recognise your democratic rights." And in the House of Commons, we are prepared to vote for them tonight.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

We heard the best possible justification inadvertently made by the Liberal spokesman for a scheme designed uniquely for servicemen, when Simon Hughes tried to draw a comparison between sending Commons Clerks on an Inter-Parliamentary Union conference and sending servicemen to Helmand province. That seems to be a different order of responsibility and risk. It is clear from that example that there is a case for devising a scheme specifically for servicemen in their unique circumstances.

I am very grateful to hon. Members for referring to the campaign that I ran before the last general election—in fact, it started in 2004—to try to draw attention to the issue. This is one of the great scandals—the other is postal voting—that came out of the 2005 general election, and neither of them have yet been adequately addressed. However, we have made some progress on this issue at least, and I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Ms Harman, who certainly had her heart in the right place on the issue, and I strongly suspect that the Minister does too.

We have made progress in several ways. First, I had to press the Government for a survey, but we managed to get one in the end. Although it is faulty, as my hon. Friend Mr. Heald pointed out a moment ago, it tells us none the less some of the information that we need to know. It tells us that much more work is still to be done and that a lot of servicemen are not registered.

We have also made progress because we have a Government proposal. It is the product of extensive horse-trading and tension between the two Departments represented on the Front Bench now. The Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Bridget Prentice and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Watson look as though they are getting on fine at the moment—I am sure that, as Ministers, they are—but I have been briefed by members of their Departments about the to-ing and fro-ing that has been going on behind the scenes, and it has been substantial at times.

The Government's proposal is to extend registration for up to five years—that is a step forward—but the second part, which is more problematic, is to place a duty on the Ministry of Defence to keep a record of the registration of service personnel. The Minister rather gave the game away when she said that the record would be used to act as a prompt to encourage registration. That is well short of the requirement that we need. The Minister said that she had been encouraged by assurances about the way in which the MOD would run the scheme, and that those assurances would enable the problem to be resolved. We cannot, however, keep relying on assurances from the MOD. The MOD understandably has different priorities. It does not want to act as a registration officer; it never did. It would rather not have such an administrative responsibility, and it was happy to see the back of the old scheme with the introduction of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. That is why I worry that underlying the Government's proposals will be a dependence on a level of will in the MOD to make them work. That may not always be sufficient. That is why I want the provisions bolstered.

I am sorry that the Liberal Democrats will not join us in the Lobby tonight, as they tabled an inadequate amendment in the House of Lords and do not want to vote against their own proposals. We should support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, which will place a duty on the MOD to make sure that all reasonable steps are taken to get service personnel back on the register. On many occasions, I have outlined in the House why that is essential. It is not too much to ask of the MOD, and it is particularly important at this time, when we have service personnel, putting their lives at risk to bring democracy to other countries, who have themselves recently been left disfranchised, and who may yet, even as a result of this measure, find themselves still disfranchised. That will not do.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

I promised my party's business managers that were I fortunate enough to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would make an exceedingly brief speech. Fulfilling that promise has been made much easier by the outstanding contributions of my four hon. Friends who have spoken before me, and by the outstanding generosity of the Minister in allowing me to make many of my points in interventions.

Earlier this afternoon, I listened avidly to that section of the proceedings dealing with the argument about whether simply being required to give a specimen signature, as well as one or two other minor matters, might be a deterrent to people to register. Chris Ruane described how such simple, little hurdles had been enough to reduce registration in those parts of the country where they had been incorporated into electoral law. Mr. Betts, after I intervened on him to point out that the reason for those reductions might be that the names on the list were those of non-existent people rather than of genuine people who felt that they could no longer be troubled to register, replied that even if that might be true in some cases, it was more important to get the genuine people on to the list, even if the price to be paid was that some bogus names were kept on the list.

If having to give a national insurance number or signature, or having to register individually in some way, has such a depressing effect on the numbers of people who register to vote, might not roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades, snipers and all the other threats to life and limb that our servicemen and women face every day on active service conceivably have an effect on their willingness, year after year—no matter how strongly urged by conscientious, democracy-loving MOD civil servants—to sit down and fill in their forms dutifully? We have seen from the survey the massive differential between the numbers who register to vote when overseas and the numbers, even of servicemen and women, who do so when based at home. We have only heard one real argument against the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Heald: that advanced by Simon Hughes. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the idea that civil servants, diplomats and, heaven help us, Members of Parliament will feel aggrieved because when they go abroad they will not be registered automatically, unlike front-line soldiers, sailors and airmen, is something that I would have expected to hear from him on April fools day rather than during a serious debate.

I see no intellectual argument against what my hon. Friend proposes, and I see every moral argument in favour of it. It will be a shame indeed if and when the amendment is defeated by the Government and the Liberal Democrats tonight.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 9:00 pm, 13th June 2006

I declare an interest. For many years I taught the armed forces, and I married a commanding officer, who under the old Army was responsible for the registration of her military personnel.

Unlike Simon Hughes, I support amendments (a) and (b). Many reasons could be given for claiming that members of the emergency services frequently risk their lives and do things that are beyond the norm, but I think that most Members would agree that the armed forces are different, in that they have unlimited liability. They do not work shifts; they can be mobilised literally within an hour, be at Brize Norton and, increasingly, be sent off on overseas operations.

Fifteen years ago, before the collapse of the Warsaw pact, the armed forces were largely stationary. They were based either in this country or in Germany, and the Ministry of Defence had a paternalistic attitude towards them. As my hon. Friend Mr. Soames suggested, many of them may not have wanted to vote for one reason or another. However, I believe that circumstances have changed. I think that our military personnel should be treated differently, first because of the nature and tempo of operations, secondly because many Members in all parties have received complaints not just from military personnel but from their families—there was considerable foot-dragging on the Government's part before the general election—and thirdly because the tempo of elections has speeded up. We are seeing more frequent elections at local, national and European level.

I also feel strongly that the MOD and its personnel should be given an opportunity to have the right to vote. I suggest, particularly to the Minister responsible for the armed forces, that denying them that opportunity will increase the likelihood of an inclination towards some form of military federation. Sadly, as we know, many members of the armed forces have begun to view the chain of command with considerable suspicion. I suggest to the MOD that one way in which Ministers can show that they are in touch with the armed forces is to go the whole hog and support amendments (a) and (b).

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

We have had a very good debate. I noted and understood the passion with which Members made their case. I hope that Members in all parts of the House will recognise that Ministers in both the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Ministry of Defence have tried to deal with the concerns raised here—particularly by Mr. Tyrie—and in the other place. I hope that Opposition Members will read the Lords amendment in detail. It may not go as far as they would like, but it gives the Secretary of State for Defence an obligation to encourage registration. I also hope that they do not continue to make a mistake that has been made in some contributions to the debate, which is to mix up registration with deciding to vote; there is a difference between being on the register and then making the conscious decision to go out and vote.

I remind Members that there are other amendments in this group—affecting people with disabilities, and so on—that I hope they can support. I ask them to support the amendments from the House of Lords, I also ask them to oppose amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 6.

Lords Amendment agreed to.

Lords Amendments Nos. 2 to 5 agreed to.

New Clause

Lords amendment: No. 6, after clause 12, to insert a new clause— Registration in pursuance of service declaration.

Amendment proposed to the Lords amendment: (a)— [Mr. Heald.]

Question put, That the amendment to the Lords amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 138, Noes 322.

Division number 259 Electoral Administration Bill (Programme) (No. 2) — Clause 2 — Use of CORE information

Aye: 138 MPs

No: 322 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

Lords amendment agreed to.