My Lords, I would like to concentrate on postal voting, particularly postal voting from overseas, and on the comparisons between the previous general election and the AV referendum. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wills, for giving us the opportunity for this debate. I should declare again that never in my life have I been able to vote in a general election, although I have been able to vote in other elections, so I have no interest to declare in that way.
In the 2010 general election, 6.9 million people-15 per cent of the electorate-were issued with postal votes, and 83 per cent of those issued with a postal vote returned it. That compared with six out of 10 people registered to vote at a polling station exercising their vote. Almost one in five votes at the count was a postal vote, so it is an interesting statistic which shows how successful postal voting is. In the recent referendum, there was an increase in the number of people voting by post to 7.2 million, which is around 16 per cent of the electorate, and 72 per cent of those returned their postal vote. That compared with fewer than four in 10 registered at a polling station actually turning up to vote. We can see that postal voting is increasing in this country and is likely to grow even more. Merely 11 months ago we had a debate on this issue and the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who answered for the Government, said that they would consider the issues of postal voting with urgency. I think that 11 months just about qualifies as "urgency" for any government.
One of the issues we discussed then was the depressing fact that in the 2010 general election, only about 500 soldiers out of 10,000 who were serving abroad, mainly in Afghanistan, actually managed to return a postal vote. The Minister gave assurances to your Lordships that he would try to improve on that before the AV referendum. I wonder whether the Minister who is to respond to the debate has any statistics to show whether he was successful or not. It was bizarre that there we were in Afghanistan trying to encourage the introduction of an electoral system into that country while our brave soldiers serving over there were unable to join in the electoral system in this country. I would be interested to know what the statistics are. The Minister also agreed that we should take a radical look at voting for overseas residents, and I wonder whether the Government have any statistics on how many people resident overseas voted by postal ballot in the AV referendum compared with the previous general election.
The Government have made a welcome proposal to extend the timetable for UK parliamentary elections from 17 to 25 working days from the dissolution of Parliament to polling day, with a longer period between the close of nominations and polling day. However, I am concerned that the full benefits of this extended timetable will not be available to all postal voters. The Government have not indicated that they intend to amend the relevant rules which specify that ballot packs cannot be dispatched until 5 pm on the 11th working day before polling day. We are concerned that they may not arrive in time. Perhaps I may quote a counting officer at the last election who said, "The timescale is too tight to allow sufficient time for overseas electors to complete and return their ballot papers. They are basically being disfranchised every time an election is held. One overseas elector called on polling day as he had just received his postal vote, despite an early turnaround and issue by airmail".
That is the problem, and as my noble friend Lord Lexden said, there were only just over 30,000 overseas voters on the register at the last election out of 5 million British citizens who live abroad, of whom at least 3.5 million are probably eligible to vote. We ought to do something in this country to encourage them to take part in the electoral system. Many people go abroad or work abroad, but that does not mean to say that they have lost interest in this country. They read English newspapers on the internet every morning, and indeed many of them want to return to this country at some point in the future. They should be able to take part in our electoral system.