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13 Jun 2006 : Column 711

Bridget Prentice: I am not happy with the level of registration among service personnel. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman attended our debate about registration in general, but the vast majority of people who fail to register are young men, who are notoriously poor at registering. We have tried to ensure that they register, and that they are encouraged to do so by their unit registration officers.

Several hon. Members rose—

Bridget Prentice: If hon. Members will allow me to complete my explanation of the amendment, they may be reassured that it is a much more progressive and positive way forward. It is part of a package of measures to aid the registration of service personnel that includes closer co-operation between the officer in each unit responsible for electoral registration and the ERO. The MOD will issue every new entrant to the armed forces with an electoral registration form, and it will run campaigns during the annual canvass for service personnel whose service declaration is about to expire. Members of the armed forces will receive reminders in their payslips about the need to register to vote and information such as website addresses and so on. Access to service accommodation will be granted to electoral registration officers. Pilot schemes for on-site polling stations at two separate military establishments took place in this year’s local elections in Rushmoor and Westminster. Future campaigns will include a service “Registration Day”, which will act as a focal point. Unit registration officers will be proactively using all appropriate measures to remind and inform service personnel and their families both of the requirement to register to vote and of the way in which they can do so.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Does the hon. Lady accept that the position of a soldier or sailor at a shore base in Britain is very different from the position of a solider on operations in Helmand province or in Basra? [ Interruption. ] She will not receive any solace from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, because he does not know. The situation of the soldier on operations is miles away from what she has discussed. The MOD and the Electoral Commission, which does not know any better, must introduce a system with a mechanism to enable personnel in all three services training at home bases in the United Kingdom and on operations to register. Inevitably, it will be at the back of the queue for personnel who are on operations, but a great deal more work needs to be done so that it works for our gravely diminished armed forces, many of whom are on operations overseas. Unless we do so, the proposal will not make any difference at all.

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but the amendments deal with the issue. For the first time, the Ministry of Defence will keep a record of which personnel have registered and which have not done so, so we can see where the gaps are. Of course, he is right that registration is more difficult for service personnel serving overseas, but we have put in place measures that will help to achieve his aim. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary wrote to me
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saying that he wanted to work with my Department and the Electoral Commission

A number of service personnel elect to register as ordinary voters, and that option will still be available to them.

Mr. Tyrie: A moment ago, the Minister said that the old system of registration was inadequate. Of course that is true. It was inadequate in the sense that people were left on the register after they had left the Army. That was the primary problem—not, as she implied, that service personnel who should have been registered were not registered. As far as I am aware, and I would be grateful if she could confirm this, registration among service personnel under the old scheme was comparable to that among the civilian population. Has she made any estimate of the level of registration that would result from the scheme that she has proposed tonight?

Bridget Prentice: I do not believe that substantially more service personnel were registered under the old scheme. There were problems of under-registration similar to those that we recognise now among the young men and women in our armed forces. The record that the Ministry of Defence will keep will enable us to target registration gaps.

Mr. Tyrie: I am amazed by the Minister’s comments. When I looked into the matter in 2004, prior to the last election, I discovered that in the year before the introduction of the new scheme, registration was over 87 per cent. in a ward in my constituency where there were almost exclusively service personnel, and that after the introduction of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 registration had fallen to 42 or 43 per cent. I would be very surprised if that or a similar situation were not replicated right across the United Kingdom, in view of the Government’s own survey, which shows a drop and an appallingly low level of service personnel participation in the election.

Bridget Prentice: I want to try to reassure the hon. Gentleman, because I know how concerned he is. He has raised the issue on a number of occasions. Under the old scheme, as he rightly points out, the declaration remained valid for five years. That sometimes had the effect of people being registered at an address that was no longer theirs, which distorted the register. There has historically been under-registration. I am grateful to my friends at the MOD for undertaking to be proactive in registering people wherever it is appropriate for them to be registered. There are service personnel who will continue to register to vote as ordinary electors, if they so wish. We would not wish to prevent them from doing so.

Simon Hughes: May I pursue the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)? Will we be able to see, year by year, the percentage of people registered in each of the three services, and be able to tell whether those serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, Cyprus and elsewhere are also registering in sufficiently high
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numbers? Unless we have that information, we will not be able to ensure that those who are the most unlikely to do it have the right that they deserve at least as much as anyone else, if not more than most.

Bridget Prentice: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve and I have some sympathy with that. I am not sure that any system would allow us to do that. People move from one posting to another. We might get a snapshot of the situation, but I cannot guarantee that we could get a comprehensive result from studying overseas postings. In the discussions with colleagues in the MOD, we will consider how comprehensive the information is that we can give, in order to reassure the House that as many service personnel as possible are registered.

Simon Hughes: It might be helpful to examine one or two specific examples, such as the Marines, who have a base in my patch. If asked, the Marines might agree to do a check. We know how many Marines there are, though of course they move around the world. We could see whether the registration figure was 50 per cent., 80 per cent. or whatever, and that would give us some idea. It is those who are most mobile who should concern us most.

Bridget Prentice: Yes, I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. To some extent we will be able to do that, to see whether there is an increase or a decrease in registration year on year in each of the services. That might go some way to meeting the point that he makes.

8.15 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis: The Minister has been extremely generous in giving way. I am puzzled by the fact that she does not seem to be aware of the survey that was published only last week by the Government’s own Defence Analytical Services Agency, which went to the heart of the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), that when we are speaking about servicemen based at home it is an entirely different kettle of fish from servicemen based overseas, often on active service. The survey showed that only 34 per cent. of UK personnel serving overseas were registered, compared with 64 per cent. of those based in the UK. That is a massive disparity, and no amount of tinkering with the new system can bridge that gap.

Bridget Prentice: I am indeed aware of that survey. One of the reasons why it was published last week was to inform this very debate. The Ministry of Defence wanted hon. Members to understand the present situation. In its co-operation with me and with my Department on the Bill, the MOD has given a very positive steer on the work that should be done. The figure of 34 per cent., which none of us would say is high enough, does not take account of the fact that some service personnel are registered at home. When we bandy about statistics, we must make sure that we cover all the options. I am not satisfied with the
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number of service personnel who are registered, and neither are my colleagues in the MOD, which is why we have tabled the amendments. However, I do not believe that the position is much worse than pre-2002.

I hope that I have responded comprehensively on the subject of service personnel registration. We have made huge strides in that regard, and I hope that the House will welcome and endorse the amendments. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for his continuing support.

Mr. Soames rose—

Bridget Prentice: I will give way once more, but only because it is the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Soames: The hon. Lady is extremely generous. She is making a magnificent job of a sow’s ear. Does she accept that what is so galling is not that the Ministry of Defence is trying to put the situation right, as we know it is? There is considerable merit in some of the points that she makes. Prior to the last election, my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and I, when I was shadow Secretary of State for Defence, and many others pointed out repeatedly that registration was not being properly carried out. We heard that from everywhere. It is galling that it was so dismally badly done. In order to remedy the problem, the hon. Lady will have to deal more specifically with the point that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East made about servicemen serving overseas. It is more important that they know of their right and their chance to vote than it is for people sitting comfortably at home.

Bridget Prentice: I could not agree more about the importance of doing everything we can to help our servicemen and women who are on overseas missions to be registered—

Mr. Soames: On operations.

Bridget Prentice: Indeed, on operations, and sometimes, as we know, in extremely dangerous life-threatening situations. I am grateful to my colleagues in the MOD for the positive and supportive way in which they have responded to the issue. We will do everything that we can to register those people, because it is not acceptable to send them to represent our country abroad in very dangerous situations without giving them every opportunity to vote in any of our elections.

Amendments Nos. 78, 87, 94, 105, 107 to 109 and 124 were introduced in the House of Lords by Lord Rix and Lord Carter with support from the Government. They deal with the abolition of common law incapacity and relate to assistance for people with disabilities. The other amendments in the group are consequential, and they change the terms “physical cause”, “physical incapacity” and “incapacity” to “disability”.

Amendment No. 78 abolishes any common law rule that links a person’s capacity to vote to their mental state. That is what currently ties the language of
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“idiots” and “lunatics” to electoral legislation, and it has led to disabled people being denied the right to vote. That link is derived from outmoded concepts and terminology found in 14th-century statute law and 18th-century cases. It has led to election officials making unjustified assumptions about the mental capacity of disabled people, and it has no place in modern law and our modern democracy. Amendment No. 78, which has been developed in conjunction with organisations such as Scope and Sense, will allow disabled people to be subject to exactly the same eligibility criteria as everyone else.

Other amendments in the group clarify the language used about disabled people in election law, replacing the word “incapacity” with the word “disability”, which is a much more appropriate term for the purposes of election law, because it encompasses all forms of disability and does not simply imply mental incapacity. I am proud that the Government have eradicated that language and the behaviour that it encourages from electoral law.

Amendments Nos. 82 and 83 relate to anonymous registration and the names of electors allocated to polling stations. As it stands, the returning officer would have no obligation to provide the parts of the register that contain entries relating to those who are anonymously registered. The amendments correct that by substituting “names of” in rule 29(3)(c) for “entries relating to”, and similar consequential changes are already included at other points within the Bill.

Amendment No. 83 makes a small change to the provisions relating to anonymously registered electors. Paragraph 15(7) of schedule 1 allows the electoral number of an anonymous entry to be included in the edited version of the register, which is available for general sale. Although an anonymously registered person’s name and address will not appear on the edited register, we believe that the inclusion of even the elector’s number creates a small potential risk, particularly in registers that cover a small area where undue attention could be drawn to an anonymous entry. The risk is small, but it could be avoided altogether if the edited register were not to include anonymous entries.

Conservative amendments (a) and (b) would create a system in which the relevant Department would have to register service personnel and Crown servants, unless those people chose to opt out, and they would have significant resource implications. Apart from setting up the system, the Department would be obliged to check with the relevant electoral registration officer that the relevant person was actually registered to vote, which would be extremely time-consuming and costly. In addition, the amendments cover all Departments, which seems unnecessary because, with the exception of service personnel, about whom I have already spoken at length, we have no evidence to suggest that there is a problem with electoral registration among employees of other Departments. I therefore ask the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and other Conservative Members have pressed the Government hard to tackle the problems that have arisen for service voters since
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the 2000 Act. Although the 2000 Act gave service voters various ways to register, the fact that only 46 per cent. of servicemen and women, and just 28 per cent. of those based overseas, voted in the last general election indicates the serious nature of the problem. Those concerns prompted the MOD to conduct the survey, which showed that only 60 per cent. of service personnel were registered to vote at the last general election. The Army had a significantly lower registration rate than either the Navy or the RAF. Furthermore, only 34 per cent. of those serving overseas were registered, compared with 64 per cent. of those based in the UK, which is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) made a moment ago.

Those findings are disappointing and show that urgent action is needed to address the problem. However, the actual registration figures are probably worse than the MOD figures suggest. The overall response rate to the survey was only 45 per cent, but in the key category of other ranks in the Army based overseas only 26 per cent. bothered to return the survey, of whom only one third were registered. The report accepts that personnel who did not respond may well have different voting and registration experiences from those who did. It makes sense that those who returned the survey were a self-selected group and were therefore much more likely to include those who were registered to vote. In my view, those who failed to return the survey will almost certainly be people who tend to fail to return electoral registration forms, and I think that that means that significantly less than 34 per cent. of servicemen and women serving overseas are registered.

The current situation is very concerning. Of those who responded to the survey, 61 per cent. were unaware that they had to re-register every year, and that percentage increased to 71 per cent. among those overseas. The Constitutional Affairs Committee has called on the MOD to look into that issue. Amendment No. 6 does not go very far, because it simply encourages the MOD to register its personnel rather than making it a requirement or duty. One therefore has to ask whether working for the MOD, serving as a soldier in dangerous circumstances, is just like any other job, or whether it imposes some greater duty on the employer compared with the position of a student or other person on civvy street. The Army pamphlet, “Basically fair: equality and diversity in the British Army”, says:

In other words, a soldier does not have the full rights of civilian life and is expected to put the needs of the service first. In many cases, as we know, soldiers give much more than others—indeed, they give their lives. In those circumstances, surely the MOD can do as well as a university.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom Watson): Just for clarification, is the hon. Gentleman asking us to oblige all our service personnel to vote; and if so, could he tell us what other employer obliges its employees to register?

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8.30 pm

Mr. Heald: Given that we are talking about such a crucial issue as people serving overseas being denied their democratic rights in the last general election, it is sad that the Minister did not even trouble to read our amendment, which makes it perfectly clear that any serviceman would have an absolute right to opt out. The duty would be on the MOD to register a person to vote

Of course it is a matter of personal choice for the person who is serving as to whether they want to be registered. If the Minister had been here earlier, he would have heard our debate about registration generally, with Members giving examples of universities registering their students and households where the father registers the rest of the family. Servicemen are not in that position. They are in places such as Helmand, where the situation is extremely difficult and this will not be the first thing on their minds. Many of my hon. Friends and other Members think it important that our servicemen should always have the right to vote. If that means a little extra trouble for the MOD, so be it.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell: My son is in the Royal Marines and has been for many years. He always managed to get a proxy vote and left it to his mother—now to his wife, of course—to vote on his behalf. Is that a better way forward?

Mr. Heald: It is certainly a way forward. I just want to ensure that the MOD has a duty placed on it to do something about this. I do not know so much about the Army—we will hear from Members who do—but I would guess that if it is a requirement and a duty, the Army will do it, but if it is a matter of guidance or discretion, it is very much up in the air. The figures suggest that it is not happening at the moment.

Philip Davies: Does my hon. Friend think it bizarre that the Government earlier rejected a sensible proposal to introduce the use of national insurance numbers to prevent fraud because it would lead to a drop in registration, yet they will not take this step, which would guarantee increased registration among servicemen? Why do the Government seem not to care about the registration levels of people in our armed forces?

Mr. Heald: That is a good question. It is sad that the MOD is not prepared to do this for our servicemen. The special circumstances of the armed forces mean that we should err on the side of preserving their right to vote, and any inertia should operate in favour of democracy.

Bridget Prentice: I refer the hon. Gentleman to subsection (2) of amendment No. 6, which says:

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