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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 8 December 2004

[Mr. John McWilliam in the Chair]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Gillian Merron.]

9.30 am

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—

Electoral Registration (Service Personnel)

10.59 am

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss service registration. I    wanted the debate because, inadvertently, the Government have brought about a real risk of effective disfranchisement of about 250,000 service personnel, or    a large number of them, which is mainly the consequence of the Representation of the People Act 2000. It is a serious situation, and I have been shocked by the complacency of many people, including Ministers and especially the Electoral Commission.

I first came across this problem in my constituency, which has two service bases: Thorney island, where the 47th Regiment Royal Artillery is based, and Roussillon barracks, one of the homes of the Royal Military Police. I discovered that 483 service voters registered in Chichester under the service voter scheme in 2000. Now, only 22 service voters are registered under the scheme. I immediately asked how many voters had registered in the usual way, as civilians would register, and was told that Chichester district council could give me figures for Thorney island because it is almost entirely comprised of service personnel, but not for Roussillon barracks. The returning officer said that less than half had registered on Thorney island, compared with a response rate of more than three quarters from the Chichester district as a whole. That is concerning.

I wish to explain briefly how such a situation has come about. Prior to legislation in 2000, members of the armed services would complete a service registration card, which remained in force either until they were discharged or until they took up registration with another authority. The personnel were registered as service voters. Under the Representation of the People Act, which came into force in February 2001, service personnel no longer have to register as service voters. They may register instead as ordinary electors. However, the key point is that they have to re-register annually like everyone else.

When I discovered that as a consequence service voter registration in my constituency had collapsed, I asked the returning officer how the problem could be resolved and to do whatever was required to increase the numbers. Initially, he wrote to commanding officers and, after further discussions with me, he agreed to
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distribute a leaflet to both barracks, a copy of which I   have with me. A few weeks later, it was still clear that registration was well short of reasonable levels, so I wrote to the commanding officers and distributed leaflets to all houses separately. I have my own leaflet with me, too.

As a consequence of both leaflet distributions, registration has risen sharply. After the second wave, with the combined effects of the two, Chichester district council thinks that registration on Thorney island has increased to about 80 per cent., compared with 93 per cent. for the whole district. There has also been a significant increase in Roussillon barracks, but more action is still required. There should not be a difference between the two rates. I believe that house-to-house checks should be considered, even if they are expensive. The electoral registration officer has the power to implement such a measure.

The problem has not occurred only in Chichester, although the rest of the country can learn many lessons from what is happening there. It is clear that there are similar effects for service registration throughout the country. In 2002, 16,289 service voters were registered in Scotland. The following year, that figure had fallen by more than 13,000, a drop of 81 per cent. In England and Wales, nearly 140,000 service voters had registered, but the following year that figure fell by 65 per cent. to 49,000.

I noted the findings of the survey carried out for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in spring 1999, which said that the armed services provide particular registration problems. I agree, but that is no excuse for sitting on our hands. Urgent action is needed at national level. As Chichester has shown, if action is taken, results can flow.

I have raised the matter with Sam Younger by telephone and correspondence, and with my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who represents the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission. He has made it clear that, like me, he is very concerned about the decline in service voter registration. He told me that the Electoral Commission was at work with the Ministry of Defence to examine the extent of the problem of non-registration and to consider what steps could be taken. I would be grateful if the Minister told me what planned action is in train as a consequence of those discussions.

I have great respect for Sam Younger and for the work that he has done to create the Electoral Commission. However, he has, frankly, been very slow off the mark on this issue. In fact, I regret to say that to describe him as having been asleep on the job would be only a little over the top. I can reflect the tone conveyed by the letters that he sent me—or had drafted by his staff for him to sign. In a bland way, he states in the first letter:

It did not seem to cross his mind that he should conduct that research, which is exactly the job that he has been given. He goes on to say, in a very general way:

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That did not sound too bad, but I wrote to tell him that his letter had not allayed my fears and that I wanted to know what firm and clear action would be taken. His second letter really shook me up:

In other words, that will be after the likely date of the next election. That is wholly unacceptable; we need much more urgent action than that.

I have the impression that the Electoral Commission has become complacent about registration. I noted a recent parliamentary question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) about the amount of money spent by the Electoral Commission on getting Britons overseas and young people to vote. Although nearly £750,000 a year is spent on raising awareness among the 5.5 million people aged 18 to 24, just £9,000 is spent on the 3 million to 4 million people living abroad who are eligible to vote. I would be grateful if the Minister could find out, if he does not know already, how much the Electoral Commission spends on encouraging servicemen and women to register. I suspect and fear that that will also be a nugatory amount.

Frankly, the Electoral Commission is paying far too little attention to the crucial matter of enabling people to register. It is given nearly £26 million a year to do its job— three times the amount spent by the Home Office on election-related services, before the Electoral Commission was created. One of its most basic tasks should surely be to ensure that people are registered, but it is not succeeding on that score.

There has been a great deal of talk about exclusion, some of it deeply concerning. However, this issue is the most flagrant and unacceptable example of voter exclusion: it involves service personnel, who are, at this very moment, risking their lives on our behalf in war zones such as Iraq. They are also in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Sierra Leone. In practice, the changes to the procedures for enabling service personnel to register have removed the opportunity for many of them to exercise their democratic rights. Many will find themselves disfranchised at the next election, and that is totally unacceptable.

I should like the Government to reflect urgently on the problem and act on it quickly, taking into account the experience of the action taken in Chichester, where vigorous action was eventually taken by a number of us to increase registration. As a result, the overwhelming majority of service personnel in my constituency will have an opportunity to vote. If we do not take such vigorous action nationally, we will find ourselves in a totally unacceptable situation; people who have been sent into conflict on our behalf will have no say about the Government who sent them. If we cannot sort this out among ourselves in Parliament, it will reflect badly not only on the Government and the Electoral Commission, but also on us.

11.11 pm

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): We should all be grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) has raised this important matter and given
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it such prominence. He referred to the fact that I speak in the House on behalf of the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission. I emphasise that I do so specifically under instructions from the Electoral Commission, and that on this occasion I am speaking entirely on behalf of myself and my constituents.

In the 1970s, I was heavily involved in the campaign to make it easier for service personnel to vote, because in my first general election I was shaken to discover how many of them were not registered. It was made possible for service personnel to register as service personnel once for their entire service career; it was not necessary for them to re-register every year. The number of registered service personnel increased considerably.

I am convinced that the Representation of the People Act 2000 was intended to make it easier for service personnel to vote; that was certainly the stated intention. When the then Home Secretary, now the Foreign Secretary, introduced the Bill in the House, he said that one of its purposes was to make it easier for various categories to register, including the homeless, mental patients and service personnel. The House then spent some time discussing homeless people's difficulties in registering, but on Second Reading, there was no discussion of the premise that service personnel were to have their registration made easier; that seemed to be taken for granted.

Although the fall in the number of service voters has been unintentional, it has been dramatic in the borough of Gosport, where the number registered to vote has declined from 4,370 in 2000 to 470 this year. We do not know how many of those service personnel have re-registered as ordinary voters on the ordinary register, but my hon. Friend has carried out a valuable service to the House by studying the number of voters in Thorney island, from which it became clear that service personnel had been lost to the register; they have not re-registered.

Where do we go from here? Electoral registration officers, whose duty it is to maintain an accurate register and to ensure that it is as full as possible, should be encouraged to make contact forthwith with all commanding officers of service establishments in their constituencies. Those commanding officers should be encouraged to arrange for a postal voting form and a proxy voting form—a postal vote is of no use to service personnel who are at sea or halfway up a mountain in Afghanistan; proxy votes are very important for those who are out of contact with the normal postal system—to be sent to all service personnel in their establishments. That should be done forthwith and on a rolling basis, and the responsibility for doing it should lie with the Ministry of Defence in conjunction with the Electoral Commission, which I am sure will give advice on specialist matters and assist the MOD in coming to the right conclusions.

The Electoral Commission does excellent work in publishing its documents in seven languages and doing its best to ensure that those who have recently come to this country are able to vote. As my hon. Friend said, it would be absolutely wrong for that excellent work to be compromised by the loss of those who, perhaps, deserve the right to vote more than any other members of our community.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.
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11.14 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) on securing this debate on the electoral registration of service personnel. I agree that it is an important issue, and I have listened carefully to what he and the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) have said.

The Government have introduced a number of measures aimed at making voting easier for all voters, including service personnel. The Representation of the People Act 2000 introduced postal voting on demand; voters are no longer required to give a reason if they wish to apply for a postal vote. The Act also provided for pilot schemes to be set up to test alternative methods of voting. Since 2000, there have been numerous pilots covering a range of new electoral procedures, including all-postal voting, early voting and electronic methods of voting. In the combined European and local election in June, four regions held all-postal ballots and in those regions turnout was 42 per cent.— double the turnout in the previous European elections. I hope that the hon. Members for Chichester and for Gosport will join me in welcoming that increase in turnout. I hope that we can engage even more people in taking part in our elections.

It may be of assistance to hon. Members if I explain the procedures that apply for the electoral registration of service personnel, as they have changed significantly in recent years, following the Act. As the hon. Member for Chichester said, in the past service personnel have not been eligible to register to vote on the annual voting canvass received by households for inclusion on a local register of electors. They were able to vote only if they had made a service declaration, which, unless updated, stayed in force until they left the armed forces. Those in the United Kingdom could vote in person, by post or by proxy, and those overseas could do so by proxy only. There was no requirement for annual re-registration, and in order to exercise their vote, individuals had to keep their details and voting preference up to date.

In a highly mobile work force, which the services obviously have, that was a lot to expect and the number of registered service voters was no indication of those who exercised their vote. The Representation of the People Act 2000 and the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001 presented service personnel and their partners with a wider range of electoral registration options. They may now register to vote at either their private or another qualifying address, which could be service families accommodation or single living accommodation. Alternatively, they can choose to register to vote by means of a service declaration. In all cases, a fresh declaration must now be made every 12 months, and an annual renewal notification is sent out by the electoral registration officer with whom they are registered.

The changes were considered likely to encourage more service personnel to use their votes and to register with an up-to-date address, whether by means of a service declaration or in the standard way, instead of the one at which they had lived when they first joined the
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services. The changes also meant that the names of service declarants did not remain indefinitely on other electoral lists long after the people concerned had left the armed forces.

All service personnel and their partners have the option to register as service voters by completing a   yearly service declaration form, which should be returned to the relevant local council electoral registration office. When registering in that way, a service voter's qualifying address is the address in the United Kingdom at which they would be living if they were not in the services. The advantage of that option is that their registration remains constant even if they are moved from one location to another on a tour of duty.

Since 2000, service personnel and partners have had other options on how to register as electors in line with civilian electors. If they live at a permanent address in the United Kingdom, either at a private or qualifying address, or at service families accommodation or single living accommodation, a serviceman or woman can register as a conventional voter.

For those personnel and their partners who are posted abroad and who do not wish to register as service voters, there is the option of registering as overseas electors. That facility is available to all British citizens who live abroad but have been registered as electors in Britain within the past 15 years. The disadvantage of that option to service personnel is that overseas electors can take part only in United Kingdom parliamentary and European parliamentary elections. They do not qualify to vote in local council elections.

As hon. Members know, all households in the United Kingdom receive an annual form from the local council electoral registration officer each September or October. That is for confirming and updating the following year's register of electors. Those registered as service voters or overseas electors also receive an annual renewal notification from the electoral registration officer with whom they are registered.

In addition to the annual canvass, provision is made for a system of electoral registration that allows individuals to register at any time of year when they move properties within the same electoral registration area, or to another registration area in the United Kingdom. That, together with the requirement for service personnel to register at least once a year, is particularly useful for our highly mobile personnel, because it removes a major reason for members of the armed forces being refused credit, which is not being on the electoral role at their current address.

Before I deal with the two versions of the register, I should like to address one or two points made by the hon. Member for Chichester. He will be aware that it is for the local authority to determine whether it wants electoral registration staff to carry out house-to-house canvassing. Some issues that I will raise in relation to the edited register will affect whether authorities wish to continue canvassing door to door for electoral registration.

The Ministry of Defence is committed to discussions with the Electoral Commission. In fact, my officials have a meeting scheduled for tomorrow with officials from the Electoral Commission—it is not related to today's
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debate; it just happens to be tomorrow—to consider some of the issues raised in parliamentary questions and this debate and to consider some of the concerns.

Mr. Tyrie : We need something deeper than a commitment to discussions. We have a crisis. On the basis of the evidence from Chichester, the best part of half of all service personnel in this country are disfranchised, with an election about to be held. We must do something about that. With great respect to the Minister, although he has elucidated all the means by which people can register under the new rules, we already knew that, and we want to know what the Government are going to do right now to ensure that service personnel can vote in elections if they are held next May.

Mr. Caplin : I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, although I do not know what election he is referring to next May. We do not have local elections then in my city, although West Sussex county council may have them. I am not sure that the statistics and comparison of numbers, which he used in his speech, are relevant. I am not sure whether comparing the number of registered service voters since 2000 with the    number today is comparing like with like. The 2000 figure indicated the number that chose to vote by means of a service declaration. Many others will have made the choice to register as ordinary voters or overseas voters, as I was trying to explain in my earlier remarks.

The simple fact is that there is no way of knowing how many service personnel choose to vote in that way. However, that may indicate that those who have taken positive steps to register as service voters, and whose details are up to date, are more likely to exercise their vote. I am not sure whether there is a "crisis" as the hon. Gentleman says.

Mr. Tyrie : We have clear evidence that there is a crisis. In parts of this country discrete areas, where there are bases, are entirely given over to service personnel. In those areas, until action was taken, registration was less than half—including in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Gosport. We know the answer to the question, although the Minister says that he does not; we do not know down to the very last number, but we   know pretty much what that number is; it is unacceptable, and we have to do something about it. We want to know now, and service personnel do, too, what the Government are going to do to ensure that all service personnel become aware that a high proportion of them have been disfranchised by the 2000 Act.

Mr. Caplin : I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point about disfranchisement by the 2000 Act. Perhaps as I conclude my remarks I can take him through what we in the MOD are doing. First, however, I want to deal with the two versions of the register, because that it is also important. We do not often debate electoral issues in the House, so this is a useful opportunity for me to do so.

The hon. Gentleman is aware that there is a full register and an edited register. By law, only certain people and organisations, including political parties, can have copies of the full register, and it can be used for
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specific purposes, including elections, the prevention and detection of crime, and checking the identity of someone who has applied for credit—a point that I made earlier, and one that is important for service personnel, who are highly mobile. Electoral registration offices also provide an edited version of the register, which is available for sale to, or commercial use by, anyone, and which may be used for any purpose. Those wishing to have their name left off the edited version must mark the appropriate box on the registration application form, and I am sure that many of us do.

Service personnel and their partners who are overseas or away from their United Kingdom residence during an election may choose to vote by post or proxy. Personally, I do not recommend postal voting, because, as the hon. Member for Gosport said, postal ballot papers might not be distributed until a few days before the election. Those overseas who chose to vote by post should bear it in mind that they might not receive and return their ballot papers in time. In the circumstances, the best way for them to vote is to appoint a proxy. Advice to that effect is included in the instructions sent out by the Ministry of Defence.

Registered service voters or overseas voters are automatically entitled to vote by proxy. Nominated proxy voters are not required to live in the area in which the person who appointed them is registered and can apply to cast their proxy vote by post if that is easier. All ships, units and stations are instructed to give personnel and their dependants, especially those who are overseas, every reasonable assistance to register as voters. Defence Council instructions direct that all new entrants to the armed forces be made aware of the procedures and options for registering as voters. I can confirm that our personnel are also notified of all parliamentary elections.

The Ministry of Defence issues annually a Defence Council instruction explaining the procedures for registration. That instruction is sent to 2,300 addresses, which include ships and shore establishments, all major units and independent sub-units. The Defence Council instruction is in the final stages of revision, and will be republished early in the new year. It will also be made available to service personnel via the Department's website. Obviously, our discussions with the Electoral Commission may determine some of what is said in the instruction.

Since the introduction of the new arrangements, the service register of voters has closed, and historical data are not being retained. 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. Nor was there any means of determining, under the old arrangements, what percentage of registered service voters exercised their vote.

Mr. Tyrie : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a third time. Does not he realise that failing to set out a clear plan of action to deal with what has been uncovered will strike many as blistering complacency? We must take action to get service registration numbers up. It is no good relying on the pre-existing arrangements, which he has outlined for almost
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15   minutes and which all hon. Members here knew about already. We need urgent pressure from the Ministry of Defence and the Electoral Commission to get it across to registration officers that they have to get personnel registered. They have to take action, such as has been taken in Chichester. They can and should use Chichester as a beacon for higher registration for the rest of the UK.

Mr. Caplin : I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the initiative that he took in his constituency. I undertake to write to him with further details of how we might pursue the matter after tomorrow's meeting with the Electoral Commission. I am in no way complacent about registering or encouraging people to vote. I feel passionately that people should vote, and I hope that he accepts that I believe in that basic principle, as does the Ministry of Defence.

I believe strongly that our service personnel, wherever they are serving, must be afforded every opportunity and encouragement to exercise their democratic right to register to vote. The Ministry of Defence will continue to facilitate that process as far as it can. It will work with the Electoral Commission to ensure that our service personnel are made fully aware of how to register and are encouraged to participate in the electoral process, just like any other citizen of the United Kingdom.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended till Two o'clock.

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