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24. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): What discussions the Electoral Commission has had with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on ensuring that the timetable to register to vote is communicated to overseas voters. 
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) is abroad on NATO Parliamentary Assembly business, and I have been asked to reply in his absence.
The Electoral Commission has been working in close partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to improve the information available to potential overseas voters. To that end, the commission has asked embassies, high commissions and consulates to publicise and make available its new leaflet, "Register to Vote From Overseas". This leaflet, which is also available electronically on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and commission websites, includes a specific reference to the fact that the deadline for registering can be up to two months before an election.
In addition, the commission has paid for advertisements and generated coverage in overseas media to explain the voting timetable. The commission informs me that during the first week of its campaign, 30,000 copies of the leaflet were ordered by overseas post, expatriate organisations and individuals. More
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than 5,000 registration forms were downloaded from the website during the first week, and up to 10,000 by the second.
The Prime Minister says he does not know when the next general election will be, but The Sun says it will be 5 May. That is good enough for me. If it is on 5 May, the cut-off date for registration will be 11 March, so people will have to get their skates on if they have to register from overseas. I am delighted with the leaflet, but it is a little late, quite frankly, and the high commissions and embassies have to order it themselves, rather than having it sent out directly.
Can my hon. Friend give me an assurance that, after the general election when a post mortem takes place, she will consider ways in which the Electoral Commission and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can improve their relationship to spread the message about people's entitlement to vote in general elections, including improving the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website?
Mrs. Browning: Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. On the question of the website, I am a little confused about how easy it will be for people to access such information. I will ask the commission to talk again to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to see whether getting information on overseas voting can be made easier for those accessing that website. As for a post-election wash-up, I am happy to pass that on to the commission as a recommendation.
Mr. Turner: Has the Foreign Office a role in ensuring that overseas service personnel have the opportunity to register easily? In the light of the Government's changes to service personnel registration procedures, it would be sad were our servicemen good enough to fight but not good enough to vote.
Mrs. Browning: I know that my hon. Friend has raised this issue many times and is very concerned about it. The commission, on whose behalf I am answering, is undertaking a range of activities to contact service personnel about voter registration. That includes editorial work in service publications and media broadcasts, an information leaflet to be distributed in partnership with the Ministry of Defence, and a specific on-line information and registration form. I understand that the MOD has issued a Defence Council instruction on this matter.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Does not the hon. Lady agree that at a time when electoral registration in many local authority areas is no better than 90 per cent., and in some inner city areas is probably much worse than that, extra resources for electoral registration should be spent on improving registration among UK residents, particularly among young people, rather than on those people who have chosen to live abroad?
The Electoral Commission has a remit and a duty to ensure voting at all levels and in all places. It has not spent money disproportionately on
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overseas registration. Rightly, however, it has a duty to ensure that people overseas are aware of their right to vote and to facilitate that as much as possible.
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD): Following the hon. Lady's full answer, can she get the Electoral Commission to give one last prompt to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ensure that an e-mail message is sent to all our missions, which can be sent on to all the organisations that they know where there are contacts with British nationals? Of course we need people here to register, but people are entitled to register when they are abroad, and that sort of e-mail prompt might produce much more of a response than lots of leaflets and glossy brochures.
Mrs. Browning: The hon. Gentleman is right in asking, especially as we may be close to an election, that the commission should prompt the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to do as much as it can. He may like to know that at its prompting, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sent out a telegram on 3 February, making sure that as many as possible of our embassies, consulates and high commissions were aware of their duty and the role that we expect them to play.
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): The hon. Gentleman may be referring to the guidance issued by the commission to electoral registration officers in December 2004, on the extent of their power to supply absent voter lists and records. That set out the commission's view of the law as it stands. The Parliamentary Parties Panel and several local councillors made representations that the advice was unhelpful. The commission is of the view, however, that the law should be changed, and has recommended that registered political parties should also be given access to the list of absent voters. The commission hopes that the Government will legislate for this change.
Mr. Mudie: I thank the hon. Lady for that advice. Considering that the greatest problem that all political parties have, however, is persuading people to vote, does she not believe that the Electoral Commission's intervention was unhelpful and counter-productive? Considering that we have had four general elections and 20 annual council elections since the Representation of the People Act 1983, with no problem in relation to absentee voter lists, will she not agree to make representations to the Electoral Commission to ask it to write to electoral registration officers pointing out that the circular contains only advice and is not legally binding, in an effort to produce a change of mind?
As I stated to the hon. Gentleman, I have discussed this matter with the commission. Its advice was based on its interpretation of the law, and it believes that the strengthening that he would like must involve a change in the law. I am sure that he will be
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awareif not, I am sure that the commission will provide it to himof the marked register published by the commission last week, which recommends that the law be changed to introduce that. We understand that the Government are likely to consult on the matter. I am sure that, in order to secure the clarity that he wants, the hon. Gentleman will play his part in persuading them to accept the recommendation that the law be changed.
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that many of us entirely agree with the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie)? The Electoral Commission should be encouraging people to vote, especially when turnout is down, and it should interpret the law more liberally for the purposes of the coming election. Political parties should be allowed to have the absent-vote list; if we do not have it, that will be very damaging to our democracy.
Mrs. Browning: The Electoral Commission based its advice to EROs on its understanding of the law as it stands. That is why it has made a specific recommendation that the law be changed. Many of us would like it to be changed to facilitate what my right hon. Friend wants, and Members in all parts of the House now have an opportunity to lobby the Government, who are able to change it.
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