Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Seventh Report

10 Armed Forces Personnel

117. In a conventional election, service personnel who cannot, or choose not, to attend a polling station can apply for a postal or proxy vote. Under all-postal voting, service personnel can vote by post, or appoint a postal-proxy. As we were told by Martin Fuller, Director of conditions of service of military personnel at the Ministry of Defence, since 2000 it has been the responsibility of the individual to arrange their vote:

"[…] with the introduction of the wider range of registration options under the Representation of the People Act, we then discontinued the Service register and relied on the individual to register and to exercise their rights. We advise them on how they can register and we try and facilitate the registration process by making forms accessible, but we do not take it beyond that." [197]

"We tend to regard voting as a private-life matter, but we do not survey it as part of our regular attitude surveys or questionnaires, so it is left entirely to the individual. From anecdotal evidence, we suspect that registration on voting levels are probably lower than you would wish, which is partly a reflection of the mobility of Service personnel and the fact that we have a large community of quite young people for whom voting perhaps is not a top priority, although we do brief all recruits on voting arrangements and it goes out in unit standing orders and then it is periodically updated. We remind people once a year to re-register, but beyond that we do not check how many of them have registered or voted." [198]

118. As described above, the Services and Ministry of Defence leave it up to the individual to choose and organise their method of voting. However Colonel Don Kent of the British Forces Post Office, told us that if an individual wished to vote by post, it may not always be possible for ballot papers to be dispatched and returned within the polling timeframe, especially for personnel stationed on ships or submarines:

"[…] it is not always going to be possible. I am not sure exactly what the timeframe is. Three weeks has been mentioned as maybe the timeframe. Typically, for most servicemen serving all around the world, we despatch mail five days a week."[199]

Colonel Kent added:

"I should perhaps follow through the journey of the letter to make it easier for everybody to understand the timeframes involved. It is despatched by the local authority, then it is one to two days for Royal Mail to get it into the BFPO system. We do not hang on to it for more than a day, maybe two days, depending on our five-day-a-week despatching process, so we are talking about another two days to get it to most servicemen around the world. Then you have the internal arrangements for that serviceman to handle that ballot paper however he sees fit and in whatever timeframe he personally gives to that. Then we have the return journey which is pretty much the same, two days, say, back to the UK and then two days back through the Royal Mail Group, so we are talking about ten to 14 days, I would suggest, as the absolute minimum. Then there will be, as we were suggesting there, some places around the world where we cannot meet that quite reasonable timeframe. The Falklands Islands would be an example where we only despatch mail twice a week. Currently in Afghanistan we do not use scheduled flights five days a week, but we use the RAF and that is only twice a week, and there are a few other places around the world where we could not operate to twice a week, and ships of course are another story altogether. […]. There is no standard schedule for how ships might decide to be operating at any one time around the world, but typically, and this month, for instance, there are 31 ships, I believe, at sea and six months ago there were more, about 47, and there might only be 17, 18 or 19, so there is not a pattern, which is the first point. When they are at sea, depending on where they are, the calling in at ports is variable. HMS Ironduke last spring and summer was moving around the Caribbean and called into ports at least twice a month. We have advance information on what ports it is calling into, so we know within a five-day window that is going to that port and we despatch mail. Every time it calls into a port, it definitely collects its mail and it almost always returns some mail. Mail comes back from, say, Miami and it takes a couple of days, though from Jamaica it took three weeks, so depending on the local country's mail system, it is varied and would not easily reach the parameters of the election process."[200]

119. Martin Fuller from the Ministry of Defence conceded that given the difficulties of getting postal votes to personnel, it would be more practical for the Services to encourage personnel to opt for proxy votes:

"One of the changes we may introduce when we issue our guidance, which we are due to do shortly, is to encourage people to use the proxy system rather more, and this is partly because of the preparation for this Committee and looking into the system and talking to the defence postal services, that I think we should encourage people to use proxies more. At the moment we leave it pretty neutrally as to whether they rely on postal votes or proxy votes, but clearly for those who are likely to be away from home on deployment or posted overseas at short notice, the proxy system would probably serve them better."[201]

Again it will be up to the individual to arrange this:

"We provide details of all the electoral registration officers and their addresses so that they can approach them, but I do not think we provide them. The forms tend to be different, I think, from one area to another to some extent, so we do not provide forms, but we aim to provide them with contact names and addresses." [202]

120. Although Martin Fuller did promise that the Ministry of Defence would look into whether personnel could apply for proxy votes by e-mail:

"That may be practicable at least for some people. Some people have easier access to e-mail than others, but it certainly is a possibility that we can look into." [203]

121. The Ministry of Defence suspect electoral participation rates among service personnel are low; considering that the Government is trying to increase electoral participation, we are surprised that there appears to be little attempt made to encourage service personnel to vote. Every effort must be made to ensure all who wish to vote are able. We are pleased that the Ministry of Defence, when it issues its guidance, intends to encourage greater use of proxies and we hope to see a copy of this guidance in the response to this report. The Ministry of Defence and Armed Services must offer more help to personnel who wish to apply for a proxy vote; we recommend all new personnel are given forms and guidance during their initial training period. We also recommend that the Government, Ministry of Defence and Electoral Commission consider the results of the electronic voting trial for military personnel in the United States of America.   

197   Q235, HC 400-III [Martin Fuller, Director of conditions of service of military personnel, Ministry of Defence] Back

198   Q234, HC 400-III [Martin Fuller, Director of conditions of service of military personnel, Ministry of Defence] Back

199   Q230, HC 400-III [Colonel Don Kent DCE, British Forces Post Office, Ministry of Defence] Back

200   Q231-2, HC 400-III [Colonel Don Kent DCE, British Forces Post Office, Ministry of Defence] Back

201   Q238, HC 400-III [Martin Fuller, Director of conditions of service of military personnel, Ministry of Defence] Back

202   Q237, HC 400-III [Martin Fuller, Director of conditions of service of military personnel, Ministry of Defence] Back

203   Q238, HC 400-III [Martin Fuller, Director of conditions of service of military personnel, Ministry of Defence] Back

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