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I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Many of us in this placeI and colleagues on both sides of the Chamberhave argued for modernisation of the
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House. We have not gone far enough. We need completely to reinvent the role of the MP, but that is not the subject of the Bill. Its provisions are important, but they will not change things overnight. However, they are necessary and I commend them to the House.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The Minister makes interesting points about young people. She opened the door a little to the prospect of allowing 16-year-olds to vote. Does she accept that the issue is not that 16 or 17-year-olds are children, but that the law regards them as adults in many different ways, including the right to have children and to get married? Will she explain why the Government are still resistant on bestowing the right to vote to 16 and 17-year-olds who, in many other ways, are already regarded as adults in the eyes of the law?
Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman advances strongly the arguments in favour of changing the voting age and reducing it from 18 to 16. I have said that, as well as pursuing citizenship classes and many other measures, we will try to keep as open a mind as possible. It is not a question of people losing the habit of voting. A generation of people are growing up who have never voted. They have never got into the habit of voting.
We are proposing lowering the age of candidacy from 21 to 18 in line with the change in voting age that has already taken place, opening up the possibility of teenage Members for the first time. Hon. Members have expressed their concern that our system denies some members of our armed forces the right to vote. I acknowledge the representations on this issue of my right hon. Friends the Minister for Industry and the Regions and the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), and the hon. Members for Gosport (Peter Viggers), for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes). Many other right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have also brought the issue to my attention.
As a result of those representations, I have met my right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for the armed forces, and the Electoral Commission has, together with the armed forces, begun a concerted campaign to ensure that every member of the armed forces gets on the register and then gets either a postal vote or a proxy vote. It must be right to make absolutely sure that our servicemen and women, away from their homes on national service, do not thereby lose their right to vote. We shall monitor the situation to ensure that the changes are working, and the first test will be the May 2006 elections.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con):
What estimate have the Government made of the number of service voters who were unable to vote because they did not make it on to the register at the last election? Could the right hon. and learned Lady also explain why, despite the fact that vigorous representations were made a full nine months before the general election, we still went into the election with those who are trying to bring democracy to Iraq unable even to vote in their own country?
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Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman has been to the fore in bringing that to our attention and he is right to express frustration. I understand the strength of feeling about the matter. We are determined to monitor the situation and take forward practical measures. One of the problems was that there was no accepted figure for the amount of under-registration in the armed forces. To some extent, people said that there was no problem, but now that it has been acknowledged, it will be tackled and measured to ensure that our proposals work. I hope that we can make progress on that.
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): The whole House should support the Government's efforts to improve registration, whether for service people or others. In relation to compulsory postal voting, or all-postal voting as opposed to what I gather is now called traditional votingwe all want to maximise the number of people who have the opportunity to vote through being on the register. However, even more important than the poll percentage is the integrity of the ballot and the perception among the mass of the population that the vote is honest and fair. Will my right hon. and learned Friend bear all those points in mind when considering the question of compulsory postal voting, which is, as she knows, extremely controversial?
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): I welcome the Minister's remarks about ensuring that the armed forces have a greater opportunity to vote. However, although I received many complaints from serving soldiers about their inability to vote in the last general election, I received more complaints from serving members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who were unable to vote due to the logistics of election day in Northern Ireland, when a far greater police presence is required. Will she look into that issue and ensure that every serving police officer is allowed to vote and does not have their vote whipped away at the last moment by some change of direction by a senior officer?
Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): At a meeting last week, the Minister told me that there had been considerable discussions between her, her Department, the Ministry of Defence and the Electoral Commission and she undertook to write to me with details. I look forward to receiving that communication and hope that I do so before the Bill goes into Committee, as it would be helpful in deciding whether the Bill requires amendment.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the points that he made in our meeting last week. We all need to work together. We should not be incapable of solving the problemand if the Ministry of Defence, my Department, and the armed forces work together, we really ought to be able to sort it out.
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Mr. Heald : As the Minister will know, originally service personnel filled in a service voter card and were thereafter registered to vote in the constituency they specified, but now an annual update is required to the local registration officer in whichever constituency the person wants to vote, which has caused a problem for the armed forces. What will the Minister do to get around that problem? Can we go back to the old system or have a new one that ensures that our servicemen can vote?
Ms Harman: We need to be sure that the concerted efforts to be made by the MOD, the Electoral Commission and the armed forces to get service personnel on to the register make progress. If they do not, we shall have to look into other ways of dealing with the matter. We are absolutely fixed on the objective of getting members of our armed forces on to the register and enabling them to vote. Quite frankly, whatever means we needwhether primary or secondary legislation, or whateverwe must take those measures to make that happen. If a different system for armed forces personnel from the one for people who are not in the armed forces is necessary, we can take that step.
Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The tendency to sweep names off the register annually, which affects service voters and others, has increased following the changes in service arrangements. Does the right hon. and learned Lady recogniseas we did when the Constitutional Affairs Committee considered the issuethat where the data show that a name should be removed from the register, of course, that should be done, but the automatic removal of names at the year end takes off the register the names of people who have simply failed to get their names on to the form during that year, which leads to under-registration?
Ms Harman: I pay tribute to the Select Committee's work under the right hon. Gentleman's leadership. He raises an important issue in the Committee's work and in the House today. People who have voted all their lives find it exasperating if they go down to the polling station and are told that they cannot vote because they are not on the electoral register. They usually protest and say, "How can the council think that I am not there? They sent me a council tax bill yesterday." We should ensure that we strike off people who have moved and so onit is important that the register is as accurate as possible but whether we can use data sharing to check who is or is not in an area is something that the Electoral Commission's performance standards can address.
Some electoral registration officers feel that they are not allowed to carry out data checking to tackle either any gap in the register or people whose names may have fallen off the register. To clarify that, we will state in secondary legislation that they have the right to check all the data that they have. We will also consider whether we need secondary legislation to give them access to other data beyond what is held by councils for the purpose of completing the electoral register. Under the Bill, we will require them to check the data that they hold to ensure that their register is as complete as possible.
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