Clause 12

Political Parties and Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at on 18 November 2008.

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Election falling with canvass period

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice) 10:30, 18 November 2008

I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 10, line 20, leave out from ‘shall’ to end of line 26 and insert

‘amend the electoral register by means only of an additional entry at the end of the appropriate section of the register, until the appropriate publication date of an election.’.

This is a fairly uncontentious part of the Bill. The clause is perfectly reasonable and we do not argue with it but, as I have said several times during our proceedings, the problem is that of clarity. An anomaly in the clause could cause considerable problems and even disfranchise people if an election were held during the latter half of the year during the canvass period. The amendment is therefore intended to clear up the anomaly. It is technical, and I say at the outset that it is of a probing nature and if the Minister can convince the Committee that the anomaly can be dealt with in another way, possibly by a Government amendment, which would deal with matters more efficiently, I would be delighted to withdraw it.

While we welcome the intention to make it easier for people to register to vote, the anomaly arises whereby the voting ability is adversely affected between July and December in respect of people who are new to an area and therefore new to an electoral register because of rolling registration. As I am sure all members of the Committee know, the annual canvass of electors is conducted during the autumn and is compiled on the basis of residents at an address on 15 October in a particular year. The new register must be published by 1 December.

For example, during the autumn of 2007, there was considerable speculation that there might be a general election. It is not for me to commiserate with Ministers that there was no such election. [Interruption.] Some Labour Members seem happy about that, while others seem sad. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wirral, West says from a sedentary position that I have not seen the polls. I am sure that such matters are outwith the scope of the amendment. However, I have seen the polls and I am quite happy with them.

During the early autumn of last year, when making concrete plans for a possible general election, the electoral administrators were faced with the real possibility of an election taking place during the annual canvass period. There was much concern among them about whether a general election held before 1 December 2007 would use the register drawn up in October 2006 with the rolling register additions made during the year, or whether the 2007 canvass information could be used. I hope that I am being clear, but if I am not, it is because the whole situation is not clear, which is the very point that I am making.

The Electoral Commission subsequently, and quite rightly, issued guidance to electoral administrators, which stated that the 11-day rule for registering to vote before an election did not apply to the annual canvass. In other words, electors may have completed canvass forms, but they would not be added to the register until the new one was published in full by 1 December 2007. This meant that any elector not on the old register would have had to register by rolling registration by 17 October 2007 in order to vote at a general election held on 1 November 2007, or he or she would have been disfranchised. I am not concerned about 2007—that has been and gone, with no election—but this could happen in any future year when there might be a general election during the latter half of the year.

Electoral registration offices were advised by the Electoral Commission last year to use the information about new voters on return canvass forms to contact those new voters and ask them to fill in a rolling registration form. As long as this was done by 17 October 2007, they would appear on the register and would have been able to vote at an election on 1 November 2007. I am sure that the Committee will well understand that this is causing a lot of confusion. An electoral system which is not definite and which has any area of doubt in it is not a fair electoral system. In a close election that could cast doubt upon the very legitimacy of a Government. We do not want that in the United Kingdom; we need a system that is absolutely watertight, so that people know that when they have an entitlement to vote, they know how to vote, when to vote and that if they are on the electoral register then they are on the electoral register.

Under the current system, people may or may not be on the electoral register, which also produces an enormous burden upon the administrators who look after the practical workings of a general election. I say general election, because most other elections are on a specific date, when we all know well in advance that there will be an election on 4 June or 3 May. That is not a problem because the former register would have been in force from the previous 1 December and all electoral registration officers and anyone else concerned with elections would know for months that they were heading towards an election. However, with a general election, we sometimes only know for three weeks. To have this scramble to ensure that the right people are registered in the right place during the three weeks of a general election campaign puts the entire process into doubt. It is that doubt in the process that Opposition Members are constantly trying to avoid.

I am not making any party political points in my remarks about clause 12—this is nothing to do with party politics. When other parties look at the problems  that might occur, they will find the same as I have in looking at this. The statistics show that, had there been an election last November, something like 1 million people could have been disfranchised. That is a very worrying situation. Electoral registers are updated by the process of rolling registration, which allows electors to go on or off the register as they actively ask the council to change their details. That is quite right—we have always supported rolling registration because it produces a more up-to-date and, therefore, accurate register. The problem that occurs, specifically for an election in the autumn of any year, is that while residents may be under the impression that their new details are on the register, they will not be if there is an election in November. If they take the additional step of filling out a rolling register update, they will not be able to vote in their previous constituency either, so people will fall between two stools if they try to do the right thing.

The people who will be most adversely affected are those who have recently moved home and students, who frequently move. Almost every year, students move from one address to another. Imagine the upheaval for someone who is in charge of a student house and who therefore has to fill in the details of some 20 or 25 students who move in or out every October. If there was a general election in a November, we might find that the wrong people were registered and that the right people did not get a vote at all. That matters because a few hundred votes here or there in a university town could decide the outcome of an election, and therefore it is a matter of great concern. I can see a particular hon. Gentleman who represents a university town grumbling in the wings, and quite rightly so. If the hon. Member for Cambridge comes up with a better solution than my amendment for getting round the problem, I will gladly support him.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Order. The hon. Member for Cambridge is very much in the Committee; he is not in the wings.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg your pardon, Sir Nicholas. I almost said that the hon. Gentleman was to my left. I meant that geographically. I tried to avoid using the phrase “on my left”, just in case metaphorically and politically he is not, because I am not sure about that.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I think that the hon. Gentleman is confirming that he is on my left, which is quite likely. He is both geographically and politically on my left and not in the wings at all. I do apologise to him.

I return to my concern, which was expressed publicly and vociferously by John Turner, the chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, who warned of the worst logistical challenge in living memory for electoral administrators. In an interview on the BBC’s “Politics Show” on 30 September 2007 he said:

“nobody sitting in my place could guarantee that it will be less than trouble-free, and the real problem is that we could run into uncharted water in terms of these problems that we’ve just been talking about.”

What he had been talking about was the effect of the rolling register. We have also been warned by others who are involved in the running of elections that clause 12 could inadvertently cause an enormous problem.

The last thing that we want in Britain is the hanging chad situation that they had some years ago in the United States. Surely, we want respect for our electoral system, and we do not want challenges to be made to the outcome of elections. We also need certainty. It is perfectly possible that the hon. Gentleman, for example, might win or lose his election in a university town by some 100 or 200 votes.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

It may be unlikely, and I will not upset the hon. Gentleman with possible predictions—in any case, I am not in any position to make such predictions—but it is technically possible. It is also technically possible that the hon. Gentleman might hold the balance of power in this place. There might be equal numbers on either side of the House apart from the hon. Gentleman. What if there was a challenge to the outcome of his election? I use the hon. Gentleman only as an example, because, sitting as he is to my left, he is a winning example. However, there are many such seats throughout the country, which could mean, if the outcome of an election was uncertain, the outcome of the entire general election could be uncertain. We have been warned about that in advance, so we must take that into consideration now.

The problem is in the renumbering of the register. What happens is that electoral registration officers renumber the register, therefore creating uncertainty. Of course they renumber the register when they produce a new register; that is perfectly reasonable, logical, essential and part of a process. However, what if they do that in the last 11 days before polling day? Political parties carrying out canvassing will not be able to match up the numbers on the previous register with the numbers on the register on polling day, but that is a side issue which may concern us as prospective candidates in elections and is not my main concern. My main point is that there is a danger that polling cards, for example, which have been issued prior to the 11 days before the election, will have a different number on them for some electors—those whose numbers have changed because someone has been inserted into the register. Therefore, when polling cards have already been sent out with one number on them, if there is a new register in front of the electoral registration officer or polling clerk on the day of the election, the number might be different. If the Minister tells me that that is not the case, I shall be delighted, but it looks to me as if it is.

Another thing that I am concerned about is the importance of checking where donations are coming from, which we have talked about for many hours during the passage of the Bill. One of the ways of checking whether a candidate can accept a donation from any particular person is by checking whether that person is registered on the electoral roll. A candidate has to be pretty sure when someone wants to give £500. We all have to stop and think whether we can accept the money, and one of the ways of checking is, of course, whether that person is on the electoral register. If the person is, prima facie, a candidate may say, “Right, that’s great, this person is in a legitimate position to give us this money. That is fine, we have checked it.” If there  is any doubt about the electoral roll itself, that puts all of that checking into doubt as well. Once again, all I seek is clarity. The Bill already imposes—quite rightly—considerable duties on candidates, agents and volunteers to check donations, to ensure that everything is absolutely correct with accepting donations. If we start messing about with the electoral register in the last 11 days before an election, it puts all of that into doubt, which is a matter for great concern.

Amendment No. 17 requires the electoral registration officers to amend the register to take account of new voters. We want to make sure that everyone who has a right to vote is given that right in practice, so of course electoral registration officers should go ahead and amend the register to take account of new voters, but those new names should be put at the end of the register.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General 10:45, 18 November 2008

Has my hon. Friend seen anything in the Committee’s documentation on electoral registration officers asking about this issue? Where are they coming from?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. We have received evidence from electoral registration officers that they are worried about the matter and the chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators has warned of the worst logistical challenge in living memory if matters were all to go wrong. We do not want the process to go wrong. The point of amendment No. 17 is to identify a possible loophole in the Bill and to help the Government to overcome the problems. The practical result of the amendment would be that the electoral registration officer would put the new names at the end of the register, thereby avoiding the need to renumber it until the next month, and following a general election.

I have proposed how the problem could be obviated. There could be a much cleverer or more practical way of getting round it. If the Minister and those immersed in the Ministry of Justice who know exactly how the system works can come up with a better solution than the amendment, I shall be delighted because it is merely my quick attempt to highlight the problem and suggest a way in which it might be put right.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice, Shadow Minister (Shadow Solicitor General), Home Affairs

Good morning to you, Sir Nicholas, and to members of the Committee. I wish to put on the record my thanks to the Government for clause 12. It attempts to resolve a problem which, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest said, affects a number of places, especially university towns, by changes in the electoral register in the canvass period in two respects: first-year students might not be on a register, and second and third-year students will have changed address, as a result of which there will be terrible confusion about where their polling card should go.

There is not a problem in the clause but, if there is, I am sure that the Minister will deal with it. However, there is a problem with the amendment, which is that it would remove the words

“shall take effect as from the beginning of that day” from proposed subsection (6). Without those words, there would be a fundamental problem in the Bill.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I welcome you back to the Chair, Sir Nicholas. The hon. Member for Epping Forest rightly drew attention to misuse of the rolling canvass. I congratulate her on  investing the clause with the significance of the highest order that few of us might have guessed before she started her remarks. She has raised real issues, but it is precisely those matters that the clause is designed to address. The hon. Member for Huntingdon asked whether the electoral administrators had been consulted. Yes, they have, and so has the Electoral Commission. All agree with our approach, which is that the provision will reduce its administrative burden in the event of an election being called during the canvass period.

Incidentally, the hon. Lady keeps referring to John Turner and his nightmare. That was hypothetical and would happen only if administrators had to issue rolling register forms. They will not do that, so she will be relieved to hear that nightmares are off the agenda. She asked whether the elector’s number will change when the register is republished in December. Yes, it will at that point, but it will not change when the notice amending the register is published. She made a specific point towards the end of her remarks, which I will address in some detail because it is important. It relates to the concern that clause 12 could result in a mass of new people being added to the electoral register shortly before an election and therefore it would be difficult to scrutinise their applications. That is a valid concern. However, in resisting the amendment, I hope to be able to demonstrate to her, and the Committee, that appropriate procedures are already in place to allow applications for registrations to be scrutinised by the public. I hope that in doing so, I shall bring the clarity that the hon. Lady seeks.

It is important that, in addition to the checks being made by registration officers, members of the public and parties can check a person’s eligibility to register—to help prevent fraud, among other things. At present, the provisions set out in the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 provide a means for an elector’s eligibility to register to be scrutinised. Regulation 27 provides that an elector registered in the area of the local authority may make an objection to a person’s registration, whether before or after that person has been added to the register. Regulation 28 provides that an application for registration, including one made on a canvass form and any objection to a person’s registration, shall be made available for inspection at the registration officer’s premises, until the application has been determined. Regulation 29 sets out the procedure that must be followed by a registration officer when he or she determines applications for registration, or objections to a person’s registration without a hearing. Under this regulation, each registration officer is required to keep a list of all the applications for registration that still have to be determined. While there is no obligation to do so, in practice, each registration officer compiles this list by reference to the street name and the ward of the registrant and allows members of the public, or political parties, to inspect it, together with the registration applications.

Once an application for registration has been determined, clause 12 requires the registration officer to add new electors to the appropriate section of the register by the publication of a notice, which then becomes part of the register. It contains the name, ward, street and house number of each new elector, or person, removed from the register. That notice is published five days before the poll; it is available to political parties to inspect, or they can request that they be supplied with a copy. It is  therefore already possible for members of the public and political parties to scrutinise applications for registration made before the poll.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

Is it not currently the case that political parties are given a copy of the new list? Is the Minister now saying that they will have to request a copy?

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

It is absolutely the case that they will have to request a copy if they so wish, but it is readily available. I am not sure that that is an additional burden on the volunteers with whom we have been so rightly concerned throughout these proceedings.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

No, it will not be at nil cost but it would be at a marginal cost. [Interruption.] I stand corrected, it will be at nil cost to the candidates. In other words, the costs would be borne by the electoral registration officer.

It is possible for these applications already to be scrutinised. It is also possible to see which new entries have been added to the register for the election by looking at the published 13BB notice. As mentioned, this amendment would also delete proposed new section 13BB(7) to the 1983 Act, which serves a useful purpose. It is quite feasible that an election may be called late in the canvass period, where registration officers have completed their annual canvass and wish to bring forward the publication of the register from 1 December to coincide with the poll. Deleting this subsection would leave the effect of the provision unclear and may mean that registration officers will not be able to deal with canvass forms in the usual manner, which is the quickest way of compiling the register.

We need to get the right balance between enabling as many people as possible to register to vote and being able to check that those who register are eligible. We believe that the current arrangement for making a list of applications and objections available for inspection and publishing a list of changes to the register achieves this end. I hope that in the light of that explanation the hon. Lady will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I thank the Minister for his explanation. My reason for tabling the amendment has always been clarity. I am pleased by his explanation to the Committee this morning. We certainly welcome clause 12 in general, but I was concerned about the renumbering issue in particular. I would like him to confirm that I have got the following right: the register will not be renumbered during the month before an election if it falls within the canvass period. Given his undertaking that that is the intent of the clause, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice) 11:00, 18 November 2008

There is another area of considerable concern, to do with the way in which electoral registration takes place. It comes within the scope of clause 12 and concerns service voters—serving members of Her Majesty’s  forces, many of whom are now on active service in dangerous places. Before 2000, members of Her Majesty’s forces could register once in order to exercise their vote and their registration was valid for the whole time that they served in Her Majesty’s forces. Those service voters, and the members of their families who travelled with them, would move around the country and around the world because of the duties they undertook. When I say service voters, I am not speaking of serving people only, but of their families as well. Before 2000, being registered to vote was not an additional concern for someone in Her Majesty’s forces.

In 2000, the Government disfranchised thousands and thousands of people serving in the forces by making it compulsory for them to register every year. Unsurprisingly, as people were taken up with their duties on behalf of Her Majesty’s forces, sometimes they forgot to re-register. If someone is in a combat zone, I do not suppose that it is at the top of their list of concerns to think, “Oh goodness, it’s 15 October, I’d better register again to vote.” As we all know, there are other pressures on serving officers and their families.

In the Electoral Administration Act 2006, after we complained bitterly about the situation, the Government finally conceded that registration should be necessary by members of Her Majesty’s forces every three years only. The way in which clause 12 deals with how the canvass is done and registration is carried out will keep the provision that people have to register every three years. When hundreds of our servicemen and women are risking, and giving, their lives for the freedoms that we enjoy in this country by fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world, putting on them the burden of having to register every three years is wrong. Those people are literally risking, and giving, their lives for the very democracy that we are talking about, but they are often not able to take part in the democratic process, because they are disfranchised by the bureaucracy of having to register again and again. That is wrong, and the Government have an opportunity to put it right.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

This is an issue that I am extremely concerned about, and have been for several years. Clearly, the only issue that we should and can address today is the relationship between clause 12 and the methods that the Government have already put in place to try to ameliorate the problem. However, they have not fully ameliorated it, so I am not convinced. I want to know from the Minister—we shall find out—how much thought has gone into the relationship between clause 12 and the largely consultative, ad hoc measures for addressing the effective disfranchisement of a large proportion of our service voters.

It is important to explain and rehearse how we got into this mess, otherwise we shall not be clear on how or whether clause 12 can get us out of it. The problem all arose because, inadvertently, as a consequence of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, thousands of service voters—probably a third to half of them—and their families were removed from the register. They thought that they had been registered for the whole period of their service, which is what they were told when they joined, but they then discovered—a few of them, much later—that PPERA had disfranchised them. Their enfranchisement no longer applied, without there being any notification or information about how to get back on the register.

As a matter of fact, I was the one who uncovered the situation. At the time, I had two bases in my constituency, and I asked my returning officer in Chichester, casually, about the registration figures. He said, “Well, on Thorney island there has been a drop in registration.” I said, “Oh. By how much?” He said, “Forty-seven per cent.” About half those on the island, who are almost all service voters and their families, had been taken off the register. I raised that with the Government and the Electoral Commission, but I am afraid that I got dilatory responses.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Order. I shall allow the hon. Gentleman to make his point, but it goes rather wider than clause 12, which deals with registration during the canvass period. However, I understand the importance of his point, so I shall use my discretion.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

Thank you very much, Sir Nicholas. It will be of particular concern to a large proportion of our service voters if they can have some assurance that this change will not inadvertently lead to another ill effect, as yet not thought out—I have not thought it out—just as no one thought out the effect of PPERA.

I could not persuade the Government to do anything about service voters before the 2005 election. The Ministry of Defence has to shoulder some responsibility for this, because the Department was aware of the situation but did nothing about it. In the Department’s defence, it was fighting a war, so one might argue that it had more important things on its mind—that is what the Ministry of Defence would argue.

Taking to heart your strictures about ensuring that my remarks are pertinent, Sir Nicholas, this is my last general point. It is particularly ironic that, as a country, we expected members of our military to put their lives at risk to extend democracy in countries such as Iraq while we were neglecting to ensure that they could vote in a general election. Furthermore, in that general election, the biggest single issue was the war in Iraq. That was absolutely extraordinary.

My questions to the Minister come in several parts. First, since he took office, has he examined the schemes that have been put in place to ameliorate the problem? I shall give time for the officials to prepare an answer. I understand the position, and I apologise to him for not telling him in advance what matters I intended to raise with him, as I can see from how he is scribbling that he regards them as important. Is he up to speed with knowing what has been done since I raised the matter previously? A number of us made a lot of noise about it in the House. Is he confident that the existing service register is functioning properly? What estimate does he have of registration as a proportion of the total service vote?

Given what the clause does to the rolling registration period, my second question concerns the effect that it will have on the level of service registration. Has it been taken into account? Have there been any discussions with the Ministry of Defence about it? Are we confident that it will have no ill effects?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, or whatever the phrase is. Everyone thought that PPERA would be all right, but it had the dramatic consequence  of perhaps taking 100,000 service voters off the register. The effect of the clause will not be remotely as bad as that, but I am worried that the suspension of rolling registration embodied in it might inadvertently generate some ill effects for service voters.

Is the Minister ready to answer the questions? It seems as though he is getting near that point, so I shall gladly allow him to respond.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I will come to the points about service voters in a moment because, although they are slightly beyond the scope of the clause, I recognise their importance. The hon. Members for Epping Forest and for Chichester have described graphically the importance of such matters to those to whom we all owe a huge debt of gratitude. I shall do my best to answer the specific questions asked by the hon. Gentleman. Before I do so, however, we must be clear about the overall purpose of the clause. It is designed to address a set of issues, which over the past year have become particularly clear to each member of the Committee.

The annual canvass of electors takes place each year from early summer to late autumn, and the purpose of the clause concerns the circumstances if an election were called during the annual canvass period. That is not common in recent history, but, as the hon. Lady tried to persuade us, we can never be certain of anything in this life. We need to be prepared for all eventualities. If an election were called during that period, a new application for registration recorded on the canvass form would result in eligible voters being added to the register for the poll. At the same time, administrators would be required to remove non-eligible electors from the register.

As the law stands, if an election is held during the annual canvass, the register can be amended in response to applications for registration made on an individual rolling registration form up to 11 days before the election. However, administrators may register only electors who complete and submit a canvass form on the publication of the revised register at the conclusion of the canvass, which may be after an election. An application for registration cannot be accepted even where there is clear evidence that a new elector or electors have moved into the household from which the form has been returned. The Government want to do everything we can to ensure that eligible voters are on the electoral register and have their say at the ballot box. The clause helps to achieve that aim.

On the potential disfranchisement of service voters, our proposed measures should—I say, “should”—help service and other voters who would otherwise be caught by the existing situation. My general response to the concerns raised is that we hope and expect the Bill to be of benefit. No one can rule out unforeseen consequences—the hon. Member for Chichester spelled out the risk—because they are, by their very nature, unforeseen, but we are sensitive to the issues.

The hon. Gentleman’s first question was about whether I have got fully up to speed on the issue since taking office. I took on responsibility for this area about three weeks ago. Am I as up to speed as I would have been had I been in post for a year? Probably not, but I am  reasonably up to speed and I hope that I can give him some reassurance. If, however, there are issues that we cannot address in Committee—

Mr. Tyrierose—

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 11:15, 18 November 2008

I recognise the importance of the issues, so I am happy to address concerns on the margins of the Committee and then write to all members of the Committee. I shall address some of the other concerns in a moment, but I am happy to give way.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

If the Minister is going to come to those issues, I am sorry to have interrupted.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

If I do not fully answer all the hon. Gentleman’s questions now, I will be happy to give way again.

I say straight away that there is a problem in identifying the degree of disfranchisement among service voters. That is partly because some of them are registered at their home address, which is sometimes difficult for electoral registration officers to determine. That is not for a second to query that there is an issue. I have no reason whatever to dispute the evidence given by the hon. Member for Chichester on the level of disfranchisement in his constituency, but I merely point out the fact that it is sometimes difficult to determine.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I hope the Minister will not mind if I interrupt a few times to make suggestions. I put to him the thought that I have been begging to have him place on the issue for some time—a commitment to undertake a regular survey of a proportion of service voters to establish the level of registration in relation to the rest of the population. That should also include the families. If it were done, we would have a yardstick—a measure.

Even if the survey did not provide entirely accurate information, even the level of change would give us a high degree of information about whether the Government’s measures were working and how deep the problem that we have identified since the introduction of PPERA remained.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Before the Minister replies, I must remind the hon. Member for Chichester that I used my discretion earlier. I shall continue to chair proceedings with a light hand, because I know how strongly he feels, but once again, this point, in the general sense in which he is raising it, goes much wider than the clause we are debating.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I accept your strictures, Sir Nicholas, but I hope that you will also extend a similarly light touch for a few sentences during which I shall address the general concern here.

The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible suggestion and I am happy to carry it forward. He may be aware—I hope he is—that Ministry of Justice officials regularly hold round-table discussions with the Ministry of Defence, the Electoral Commission and others about how best to tackle the issue. There are regular drives to try to increase registration among service personnel, encouraging them to register.

I recognise that the hon. Member for Epping Forest made the important point that service personnel are often engaged in arduous, difficult and dangerous circumstances serving our country. In such circumstances, it is perhaps an unnecessary burden on them to have to  remember to register and to feel obliged to do so when they have other things on their mind—that was her expression, I think. I understand that, but it is open to service personnel to appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. That may or may not be considered satisfactory in individual circumstances, but it is available to them. It can continue indefinitely, although there are certain restrictions.

I hope that I have said enough in those few words to reassure hon. Members that we take the issue extremely seriously, as do the Ministry of Defence and the Electoral Commission. That is not to say that there is no room for improvement. I am happy, in my ministerial capacity, outwith the Committee’s remit—

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I will in a moment, but I want to give this assurance before I return to the substance of the clause. I am happy to carry on a dialogue with all hon. Members who are concerned about this issue and who have service personnel in their constituencies to ensure that we get it right. It is an important matter and we want to address it clearly.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I met the Minister before he took office, so I know that he will take the issue seriously and look at it carefully. He has had only a few weeks to start thinking about it, and perhaps asking him to be up to speed was not quite the phrase that I should have used on the spur of the moment. The key issue with respect to the clause is whether there has been any consultation. Has there been any consultation with the Ministry of Defence? Has there been any consultation to try to establish what effect this will have, if any? That is a relevant question for him to look at, and if he said a few words about that I would be grateful.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

As I said in my opening remarks, we expect that the clause will help service personnel and others who will experience problems before it is brought into effect. We expect that to happen. The hon. Gentleman has made valuable suggestions for how we can improve levels of registration and ensure that, subject to the concerns expressed by the hon. Lady, service personnel are not disfranchised. We will do everything we can. We think that the clause will provide a significant improvement in circumstances should an election be held during the annual canvass period and I hope that the Committee will judge that it should be part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.