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Mr. O'Brien: We do not need to include that in the Bill--it would simply be a matter of the returning officer having prescribed forms, which would, no doubt, be dealt with in the normal way under electoral registration procedures. Those forms would simply declare what information was required. We do not need to cover that in the Bill; there are other ways in which to do it. However, it is correct that the form would ask for the provision of that information.

Mr. William Ross: We have held an interesting and quite lengthy debate on the clause and its several amendments. There is one point in the clause that caught my eye and to which I draw the Minister's attention. Subsection (6) states:

How on earth are we to know whether people are making their declaration for that or for some other purpose? If they make a declaration for parliamentary elections, they will be able to vote in local elections anyway.

Mr. O'Brien: The aim is to ensure that people are making a declaration that they have a local connection. They would then be included on the electoral register and would be able to vote in local or national elections, as appropriate, if they were qualified to do so. I do not think that we need to take the matter any further. However, if the hon. Gentleman is not satisfied with that answer, perhaps the best way to proceed would be for me to consider his point in detail and to write to him.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Service declarations

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

The First Deputy Chairman: With this we will discuss amendment No. 105, in schedule 1, page 22, line 37, leave out "12 months" and insert "service".

Mr. William Ross: Over the years that I acted as an election agent, looking after the interests of my party in

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relation to electoral registration, I always had difficulty with people serving in the armed forces and with the service declaration. Sometimes, those involved failed to submit the declaration--they failed to claim their place on the electoral register. Sometimes, they told me that they had difficulty in obtaining the necessary form from their officers. In a small way, that has been a bone of contention for many years--although it is, no doubt, an important enough matter to those who are affected by it.

The amendment would remove the reference to the 12-month period and would replace it with a reference to the end of service in the armed forces. If that were done, it would resolve the difficulties that have been experienced by some soldiers, sailors and airmen over the years. It would then be a simple matter for the military authorities to inform the electoral officer as soon as an individual had left the services. The amendment is an effort to make the matter simpler for all concerned.

Will the Minister consider my proposal? It may well be that other ancillary amendments would be necessary. I have not considered the matter in enough detail to be certain of that. If the Minister would consider my proposal, it would be a step forward; it would certainly make life easier for those serving in the armed forces who want to remain registered at their homes. Will the Minister give me his views on the matter, and tell me whether he will consider the point?

Mr. Simon Hughes: I am sure that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) makes a valid point to which the Minister will respond. My question relates to clause 7 rather than to the amendment. For as long as I can remember, there has always been the service declaration for people in the services who live abroad. I have never been aware that other people who are abroad on Government service--such as civil servants, foreign press officials and diplomatic officials--may have a similar method of registration.

My question to the Minister--I appreciate that it is against the backdrop of overseas voter provision--is whether he will place on the record which categories of Government employees, in addition to members of the armed services, can avail themselves of the declaration possibility, irrespective of the proposed amendment that the Bill will make to current law. It would help if he clarified that.

Mr. Fabricant: I welcome clause 7. It abolishes a discriminatory element that previously existed in the Representation of the People Act 1983.

The service declaration was introduced by the Conservative Government to make it easier for people who had worked in the armed services to vote when they were overseas, but obviously, with the provisions for overseas registration, that is no longer necessary. I note that those with a service declaration will still be able to use it. However, perhaps the Minister will confirm that they will be given the additional option of registering in the same way as other voters.

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Interestingly, had amendment No. 1, tabled by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), passed through the House--in the event, the right hon. Gentleman withdrew it--people serving overseas in the armed forces may well have had their right to vote removed. Although the right hon. Gentleman denied that that was the case, many hon. Members felt that the provisions of his amendment would have disfranchised those people serving the country. That would have been completely wrong.

As the clause removes an element of discrimination, I welcome it.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: Amendment No. 105, tabled by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), would raise some problems. Let me first deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes); that will lead me on to deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for East Londonderry.

There are effectively two groups of people who can make service declarations--members of the armed forces and members of the diplomatic service, together with British Council employees based overseas. Service declarations made by diplomats last 12 months; the Bill does nothing to change that. However, declarations made by members of the armed forces currently last indefinitely and expire only when the person concerned is no longer eligible--the moment when they leave the forces.

Although that may sound a desirable state of affairs that ensures that service personnel remain on the electoral register, it has perverse effects. Members of the armed forces generally make a service declaration when they enlist. As that is often at the age of 18, they usually register in respect of their parents' address, but thereafter no one reminds them as a matter of course that they are registered, or that their service declaration may need to be updated. We do not want to place on the armed forces the extra burdens of working out where people are registered and dealing with all those issues.

Service declarations may be in force for many years after they are made. The service man's parents may long since have died or moved house, but he may still be registered in respect of his former address. Even more absurdly, when he is in this country, he may live, with his spouse and children, in a property that he owns, but because he has forgotten that long ago he made a service declaration, he is still registered in respect of the address that he left when he was 18.

We do not believe that that is right. Nor is it satisfactory that, uniquely among electors, members of the armed forces are not given an annual reminder to renew their registration and ensure that it properly reflects their circumstances. Accordingly, the Bill will bring service personnel's service declarations into line with other service declarations by causing them to last for a year. Registration officers will, of course, remind those registered in this way that their declarations--

It being Ten o'clock, The Chairman left the Chair to report progress and ask leave to sit again.

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Committee report progress.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),

Question agreed to.

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

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I was outlining our procedure for service declarations. We want to ensure that those registered are able to vote, but that that should not be an indefinite right bearing in mind that their circumstances may change. Registration officers will remind those registered that their declarations are about to expire and offer them the opportunity to renew them.

Mr. William Ross: Is the Minister telling us that, from now on, registration officers will write to service personnel at their home addresses where they are registered, so that they will have the opportunity of renewing their place on the electoral register?

Mr. O'Brien: That is indeed the case. Members will want to be reassured that the change has been made with the agreement of the services, whom we consulted on the matter. The reminder that will go to service personnel that they should continue to renew each year their right to vote is worthwhile in citizenship terms and will provide the assurance that we shall not have completely out-of-date registers. That is a worthwhile change that the Committee should support. I therefore invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

I also invite the Committee to agree that clause 7 should stand part of the Bill. One of the Bill's key purposes is to make it easier for people to register as electors. That is true for all electors, but especially for service personnel among whom registration rates have traditionally been low. At present, those with a service qualification--members of the armed forces, diplomats and certain other public servants posted overseas--can register only by means of a service declaration even if they are resident for the time being in this country.

The working party recommended that this restriction should be removed and the clause will achieve that. It will introduce much greater flexibility into the system. Those with service qualifications will still be entitled to register by means of a service declaration, but the clause will give them the additional option of registering in the same way as other voters if they satisfy the residence criteria, or as overseas voters, bearing in mind the discussions that we have had and may well have about such voters. There is no reason why those with a service qualification should be forced to register in a particularly burdensome way when they do not wish to do so. Again, the services support this change.

We hope that by removing that requirement, we will increase registration rates among service people. I hope that the Committee will accept the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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