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The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The extremely high readiness reserve was deployed to support Multi-National Division (South-East) during the election period. It is planned that they will return to Cyprus around the end of this month. I announced to the House on 27 January that a UK battle group will replace the Dutch troops in al Muthanna in March, involving an initial increase of around 220 UK troops in Iraq. The majority of this force will be found by redeploying other UK forces in MND (South-East). We keep the role of our armed forces in Iraq under continuous review. If it is judged that further changes to the UK military contribution in Iraq would be appropriate, the House will be informed.
Bob Spink: I am grateful for that detailed response. We can be proud of our troops in Iraq who have served with professionalism and courage. Now that the elections are successfully secured, will the Secretary of State make it his priority to secure the earliest possible return of those troops to this country, consistent with our international obligations and with security developing in Iraq?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman both for his initial comments and for his constructive observations. British troops should not stay in Iraq for a day longer than is necessary, but equally we must stay there until our job is done. That involves training Iraqi security forces to take over our security responsibilities.
David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab): I, too, share the view of the high levels of professionalism among the British soldiers serving in Iraq, but has my right hon. Friend seen the reported comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) who, when asked about abuse carried out by British soldiers, said that
Mr. Hoon: I am aware of the recent comments made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway). They reveal what appears to be his complete contempt for members of our armed forces, but I do not intend to give him more comfort by giving him the publicity that he obviously seeks.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Secretary of State has been clear about troop numbers in the immediate future. By my reckoning, the British forces will have to cover for the Dutch and at the same time the Royal Highland Fusiliers will withdraw. That means two battle groups gonethe best part of a brigade. Although I understand that the Secretary of State needs to get on with his redundancy programme and his cutting of the infantry, can he assure the House that Multi-National Division (South-East) will have the correct number of reserves?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman does not usually resort to cheap party political point scoring, but on this occasion he is obviously suffering from pre-electionitis. I can assure him that the number of British troops in MND (South-East) will be the result of clear military advice given by the commanding officer. There are currently about 8,150 troops in Iraq. By March we anticipate that the number should fall to around 7,900, taking account of the withdrawal of the extra high readiness reserve and extra enabling forces to cover al Muthanna province. But the numbers of troops at any time are based on the advice given to me by the commanding officer.
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Our continuing troop commitments in Iraq, together with our other international obligations, are a drain on our military resources. There is concern in Northern Ireland about the potential for an upsurge in violence from the IRA. Can the Secretary of State provide reassurance that if extra troops are needed in Northern Ireland, they will be made available?
Mr. Hoon: I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We keep the matter under constant review. We have troops in reserve available for that task, should it be necessary, although I sincerely hope it will not be necessary.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin):
We have launched an
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extensive information campaign to raise awareness of the options open to service personnel to register to vote. Forms for those who choose to register as service voters are readily available to units and individuals via a link on the Ministry of Defence website to the Electoral Commission or from electoral registration officers.
Mr. Cameron: I am grateful for that answer, but does the Minister not accept that the Government have shown a degree of complacency on this issue? The fact is that the number of service personnel registered to vote in many areas has plummeted. Is he aware that, until this morning, the MOD website told servicemen and women that they had to register only once during their career? As that advice is absolutely plumb wrong, will he ensure that every serviceman and woman is sent a voter registration form? Is that not the least we can do for them?
Mr. Caplin: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. I have not checked the website, but I know that the Defence Council instruction was sent out on 28 January, as I told the House it would be during the last Defence questions. I sent a copy of that Defence Council instruction to the Opposition parties so that they knew it had been sent out, and to the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who was the first Member to raise this matter, before Christmas in Westminster Hall.
Mr. Amess: Following on from an exchange with the Prime Minister, given that it is an offence with a fine of up to £1,000 for a member of the public not to enrol on the electoral register after being contacted by an electoral registration officer, what action have the Government taken to remind our wonderful service personnel of their duty to re-register?
Mr. Caplin: I have just explained one of the actions that we have taken, which was issuing the Defence Council instruction, but we have also agreed a strategy with the Electoral Commission to increase awareness and ensure registration. As I made clear to the House during the last Defence questions, I am keen for all members of our armed forces to register to vote.
I can list some of the things that we have done. We are using a series of interviews on British Forces Broadcasting, including one with me, to encourage people to ensure that they register. At the suggestion of the hon. Member for Chichester, who raised this issue, we are undertaking to distribute leaflets, and there are articles in our in-house magazines.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): My understanding is that if there is a general election on 5 May, the last date for electoral registration is 11 March. That will produce extra problems for service personnel and others who want to get their registration forms in on time. Can representations be made to the appropriate Department to ensure that the date of final electoral registration is pushed back to 11 April, which is the anticipated date of the issue of the writ?
My hon. Friend knows a lot more about when the election might be than I do, that is for sure.
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Schedule 1(8) of the Representation of the People Act 2000, which refers to section 15 of that Act, is pretty clear on these matters.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Will the Minister confirm that the responsibility for registration falls on the electoral registration officers in areas where military personnel live? The second problem, about which many Members are concerned, is that, once registered, many military personnel do not exercise their right to vote because they are not present on polling day, and they do not seem to be advised how best to register for postal or proxy votes.
Mr. Caplin: There is an issue of consistency here, and I would encourageas I did during the Adjournment debate in Decemberthose members of our armed forces who are abroad, in particular, to take a proxy vote. That is a way of ensuring that their franchise is dealt with in this country. It is not the responsibility of electoral registration officers to ensure that people are registered, and the 2000 Act makes each individual responsible for making a proper registration. That is consistent for all groups, not just the armed forces; it also accounts for students and nurses.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Is the Minister concerned that there appears to be a difference of standard in the management of service votes in different parts of the country? One senior serviceman visiting the House this morning told me that he has to reapply proactively every year to get and keep his service vote. In the spirit of non-partisanshipall parties are agreed that as much needs to be done as possible to ensure that all service personnel can votedoes the Minister agree that more can be done to ensure that people do not have to reapply when it is not necessary?
Mr. Caplin: The 2000 Act is very clear that that is what people have to do. As I said to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), the Act applies not only to servicemen and women but to nurses, students and all of us. We all have a requirement to register individually.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): But does the Minister understand that when those of us sitting in Westminster or in our constituencies get a note from the local district council saying, "Please register your vote", it is very different from the circumstances for soldiers on the move in Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever it may be? That is the problem with the 2000 Act. On 20 January, the Minister said: "Things are not nearly as bad as they seem." Actually, approximately two thirds, or possibly three quarters of the British armed forces and their spouses are disenfranchised. We have heard that the website is four years out of date and that people are threatened with £1,000 fines. When will the Minister take action to give every potential service voter and their spouse a form to ensure that they are all registered in time for the impending general election?
I have looked carefully at the record of proceedings on the Act as it went through the House in 2000. In the time that I had available this morning, I could not find any suggestion that the issue of service registration was raised by the Conservatives at the time
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or that they took an opportunity to vote against the terms of the legislation. [Interruption.] Well, the Opposition normally raise such issues when legislation is passing through the House.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of overseas voters in the last Defence questions and at Prime Minister's questions on Wednesday. Let me assure him that I have dealt with the matter. I just made that clear, as I made it clear to the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) in the Adjournment debate. The available forms are clear. We are doing all that we can to promote voter registration, and I hope that every member of our services, just like all the other groups, will participate whenever there is a general election.
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