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House of Commons

Monday 6 June 2005

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Mr. Speaker: I regret to have to report to the House the death of Mrs. Patsy Calton, Member for Cheadle. I am sure that Members in all parts of the House will join in mourning the loss of a colleague and in extending our sympathy to the hon. Member's husband, family and friends.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Voting Arrangements (Service Personnel)

1. Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): What recent representations he has received in relation to the voting arrangements for forces serving abroad. [1916]

3. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): If he will set up an inquiry into the number of service personnel not registered to vote on 5 May. [1918]

The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): Before I answer those questions, may I express my sincere condolences and those of the whole House to the families and friends of the two soldiers who have died since we last reported to the House: Guardsman Wakefield, from the Coldstream Guards and Lance Corporal Brackenbury from 1st Battalion The Kings Royal Hussars, who were both tragically killed while doing their duty last month. The thoughts of the whole House are with their families.

The Government have made unprecedented efforts to encourage and enable service personnel to vote. I have received a very small number of representations in relation to voting arrangements for forces overseas, none of them from serving service personnel.

Alistair Burt: I am sure the whole House would wish to be associated with the Secretary of State's opening words. I offer a warm welcome to the right hon. Gentleman on his first Question Time in his new role as Secretary of State—a phrase with which he is no doubt becoming very familiar as he pursues his not very hidden
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agenda of collecting more souvenir red boxes around Whitehall than any other living Minister. As the right hon. Gentleman will know from his personal experience, there are few more important jobs than being responsible for our service personnel, particularly with so many of them actively engaged abroad. I am sure the whole House will wish him Godspeed in his role and in his work on their behalf.

Bearing in mind the importance and the urgency with which representations were made about the ability of our armed forces to vote in the recent election, can the Secretary of State tell us how many of those who were actively engaged in defending the right of the Iraqi people to vote in their general election were unable to vote in our general election, and whether it is true that 100,000 leaflets printed by the Electoral Commission at the end of January for transmission to the forces were not sent from the Ministry of Defence until late February or early March, very close to the registration period for the general election?

John Reid: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his typically courteous welcome. Gaining familiarity continually with Government posts is a delight that he may not experience for some time. With reference to his question, it is right that servicemen and women who serve their country should have the right to vote on their country's future. We should remember that today perhaps more than any other day, on the anniversary of D-day, when so many people sacrificed their lives for our freedom and democracy. On the specific case, it is no longer a simple matter of tabulating which servicemen and women are registered, because since 2000 servicemen and women have not been required to register only through the services, but have been able to register also through the normal registration course or through overseas registration. It is therefore not possible to give the hon. Gentleman the specific details that he requests. However, notwithstanding the fact that in conjunction with the Electoral Commission we have made unprecedented efforts to make sure that the information and registration are available, we have since met the Electoral Commission again, and I have subsequently written to the commission expressing my desire and that of the House that everything possible be done to make sure that servicemen and women get their opportunity to vote and asking the commission to give us any recommendations it may have to ensure that that is the case.

Tim Loughton: May I also welcome the Secretary of State? I trust that he greeted his appointment with more enthusiasm than he did when he was sent to the Department of Health previously. When so many of our service personnel are promoting and protecting democracy around the world, particularly in Iraq, it is ironic, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) said, and worrying that we received reports that so many of them were disfranchised and prevented from voting in the general election. I am rather alarmed at the complacency that the right hon. Gentleman seems to express, which is at odds with the reports that have come to us from our constituents throughout the country. In view of that and in view of the fact that the comments of the Prime Minister in February, when he said that he personally would look into the matter, seem to have come to nothing, will the Secretary of State now offer to set up
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an inquiry to see how so few service personnel were entitled to vote and what can be done in the future to make sure that many more of them participate?

John Reid: If what the hon. Gentleman says is true—

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): It is true.

John Reid: The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) may shout from a sedentary position, but we have not received one complaint.

Mr. Gray: I have.

John Reid: If the hon. Gentleman has received a complaint, I invite him to let us know its specific nature, because I am as keen as any other hon. Member to make sure that the people who are defending democratic rights are not deprived of their own democratic rights. My officials have informed me that I have not received a single representation on that point from a serving member of the armed forces, although we have heard from politicians. There is no easy way to calculate the number of personnel who have registered—servicemen and women have had extended rights to register either as ordinary citizens or as servicemen and women since 2000—so an inquiry would not fulfil any useful purpose.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): May I disagree with my right hon. Friend's final point? A pattern is starting to emerge—the people who have complained have done so only to the Conservative party.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): And us.

Andrew Miller: And to other Opposition parties. Is the story a Conservative urban myth? If it is an urban myth, it must be scotched once and for all. My right hon. Friend is right that service personnel deserve every possible support to ensure that they can vote. I accept my right hon. Friend's explanation and think that the story should be scotched once and for all.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Where is the question?

John Reid: I think that my hon. Friend whispered, "Does my right hon. Friend agree", beneath his breath as he sat down. [Laughter.] I am not accusing anyone of anything. If a problem exists, I want to tackle it, which is why we have not been complacent. Following the Prime Minister's statement, we launched an unprecedented information campaign in conjunction with the Electoral Commission. Since the election, my officials have met the Electoral Commission, which I have invited to help us make future information campaigns even more informative. If there is anything that we can do, we will do it, because we are not in the least bit complacent about our servicemen and women's rights.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Many Royal Irish Regiment soldiers are based in Northern Ireland and live at civilian addresses in Northern Ireland. Given the security situation, is my
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right hon. Friend satisfied with the arrangements that allow personnel to register at their civilian addresses in order to vote in general elections?

John Reid: Like the hon. Gentleman, we are always aware of the threat to our troops. No one has been forced to register from their own address. It is true that restrictions for servicemen and women on, for example, the wearing of uniform have been relaxed in recent years, which is one of the benefits of the easing of tension in Northern Ireland, but we are constantly vigilant. I stress the point that servicemen and women do not need to register at their own addresses, because they can register through the service scheme.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): May I suggest a solution? I have received many representations from officers who are serving as far afield as the Falklands and who are based in my constituency—the matter also concerns personnel serving in Germany, where spouses have also been affected. Because ballot papers cannot be sent out until they are printed, which cannot occur until the close of nominations, the Royal Mail and the British Forces Post Office are unlikely to be able to deliver ballot papers to those serving in far away places. Will the Secretary of State examine the possibility of a controlled trial of electronic voting for Her Majesty's forces?

John Reid: Notwithstanding any inconsistencies, the hon. Gentleman is genuinely trying to make a useful and constructive suggestion. Despite our efforts, I am aware that some personnel were disappointed by the late arrival of postal ballots. I will consider any means within the democratic process that ensures that servicemen and women have their democratic rights. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to examine his particular suggestion, I will do so along with any other constructive suggestions.

Mr. Robathan: First, I associate my colleagues on this side of the House with the tributes that the Secretary of State paid to the two dead British servicemen, not least because one of them came from my former battalion.

I suggest to the Secretary of State, who is not normally reticent in coming forward, that the next time he visits an Army base, a ship or whatever, he asks some of the young soldiers whether they were registered to vote. He will understand that they are slightly reticent in coming forward with objections about how they are treated because they fear that they may be discriminated against and punished, so why does not he ask them? He says that the Government have made unprecedented efforts, but I quote to him the former Minister, Ivor Caplin, who said on 20 January in this House that

He was quite right—it was much worse, as huge numbers of service personnel were not registered. Will the Secretary of State find out how many were not registered and how many of those serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and on the high seas were able to vote, and change the system to ensure that they are properly registered and have a proper proxy vote if need be when they are abroad?
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John Reid: The hon. Gentleman's decibel level reminds me of the Jesuit who noted on his sermon, next to the bits that he did not believe, "Shout louder." Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that I have raised the issue with servicemen and women, not only here, but on ships, as he says, on aircraft carriers, and in Baghdad and in Basra. He ought to be careful in what he says. He asks, "Why not ask them if they were registered"? Whether a person registers is entirely different from whether a person has the opportunity to register. In this country, it is one's right to register or not to register, depending on the circumstances. [Interruption.] I accept that it is a legal requirement, but it is not a failure on the part of the Government if one chooses not to register; it is a failure on the part of the Government if one is not given the opportunity to register. What Opposition Members have been saying—and I am asking them for information—is that servicemen from all three services were not given the opportunity to register. If there are anecdotes and concrete examples of people saying not only that they did not register but that they were not given the opportunity to register, I have already said that I will look into them.

Mr. Gray : I am able to give the Secretary of State a very precise example. Lieutenant-Colonel Mark Dunn, the commanding officer of 9 Supply Regiment at Buckley barracks in my constituency, tells me that large numbers of his people in 9 Supply Regiment were unable to vote because they were not registered. When they inquired about why they were not registered, they were told that it was because the houses that were inside the wire were not eligible for registration. Lieutenant-Colonel Dunn was told that even had he wished to register he was unable to do so. Will the Secretary of State look into the specific case of Lieutenant-Colonel Mark Dunn and the soldiers of 9 Supply Regiment at Buckley barracks?

John Reid: Yes, I certainly will; I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving us some specific cases to consider.

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