Armed Forces: Electoral Registration

– in the House of Lords at 11:14 am on 24th March 2005.

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Photo of Lord Garden Lord Garden Spokesperson in the Lords, Defence 11:14 am, 24th March 2005

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What measures they have taken to ensure that members of the Armed Forces were registered by 11 March for participation in the elections on 5 May.

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we have been working with the Electoral Commission to raise voting awareness in the services. An information campaign began in January with the publication of a Defence Council instruction, providing full information and practical help on how to register and vote. It was backed up with leaflets, information on the MoD's website, articles in in-house publications, and support from the British Forces Broadcasting Service.

Photo of Lord Garden Lord Garden Spokesperson in the Lords, Defence

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her helpful Answer. I am sure that her brief shows her that the operation was not quite as smooth as she describes.

Given the widespread concerns about the poor levels of registration among service voters, will the Minister ensure that the Ministry of Defence will put in train a survey to find out how many service people are registered and in what way, so that the Electoral Commission, when it comes to carry out its investigation, which it has told me it is going to do after the election, will have proper data to look at?

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence and the Electoral Commission are very enthusiastic about getting as many service people to vote as possible—in the county council elections on 5 May. As to a survey, I can only repeat what my honourable friend Ivor Caplin said in the House of Commons. He said:

"We do not seek information from individuals on whether they are registered to vote and whether they exercise their vote; that would be an unnecessary invasion of privacy by an employer. There is therefore no certain way of determining the number of service personnel registered to vote".—[Hansard, Commons, 8/12/04; col. 124WH.]

Photo of Lord Truscott Lord Truscott Labour

My Lords, will my noble friend explain why changes were made to the way in which service personnel could vote? Can she answer the criticism that the new system is more complicated as a result?

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the old system, which was in place before the Representation of the People Act 2000, which was supported in all parts of the House, was to some extent unreliable. It depended on the individual service person keeping his details up to date. It is likely that many service personnel never met that requirement because there was no annual mechanism in place to remind them to do so. Although registered, they were unable to vote. They now have that reminder.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Spokespersons In the Lords, Defence, Spokespersons In the Lords, Foreign Affairs, Whip, Whips

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the website. Can she confirm that, until very recently, it carried guidance to service voters that was four years out of date? Do the Government mean to disenfranchise the Armed Forces, or was that merely incompetence?

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, of course the Government do not wish to disenfranchise the Armed Forces. I would show the noble Lord the very useful leaflet—a visual aid—that was sent out in January to 100,000 service personnel in all garrisons, units and ships. Yes, there was an inaccurate website in December, and the inaccuracy was rectified within hours of it being brought to the MoD's attention. It was not one of the main websites; it was a small, linked website.

Photo of Lord Redesdale Lord Redesdale Spokesperson in the Lords, Defence

My Lords, if the wonderful leaflet that the Minister has just shown us was sent out at the end of January, why did it not arrive until the first week in March? Is she saying that the Post Office is more inefficient than some Answers in the past have suggested, or is there a real problem with the distribution of the leaflets?

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I was not aware that there was a problem with the distribution of the leaflets. I will certainly take up the noble Lord's point and write to him. As well as the leaflets, there were television and radio broadcasts. My honourable friend Ivor Caplin spoke on services radio about how important it was for service personnel to vote. As well as the leaflets, there were many other means of information.

Photo of Lord Davies of Coity Lord Davies of Coity Labour

My Lords, does the information that has been collated show the proportion of service personnel voting in a general election to be higher or lower than that of the general public?

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I do not know the answer to that, and I do not believe that it is possible to give an answer to that because people voting as service personnel form only a percentage of people in the services along with those who might vote as an ordinary voter, which they have been able to do since 2000, or as an overseas voter. So we cannot break that information down.

Photo of Lord Roberts of Llandudno Lord Roberts of Llandudno Spokesperson in the Lords, International Development, Spokesperson in the Lords, Welsh Affairs

My Lords, is the Minister able to give us an assurance that when ballot papers are distributed they will reach the personnel who are entitled to vote in time for them to be completed, returned and included in the count?

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, every possible effort will be made for that to happen.