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13 Jun 2006 : Column 718

We are enforcing a duty on the Ministry of Defence in that respect. I should have thought that he would at least recognise that and be slightly more consensual about the way forward.

Mr. Heald: As the Under-Secretary knows, I believe that amendment No. 6 is better than nothing and I congratulate all those, including my noble Friend Baroness Hanham, who managed to wring it out of the Ministry of Defence. However, if she reads further, she will realise that the Ministry of Defence is required to secure

to register and to vote. That is not the same as requiring the Ministry of Defence to effect the registration of servicemen. I want that to happen. There is a difference between us and I hope that I have made the point clearly. We do not agree and I would therefore like to press amendment (a) to a Division, because our servicemen deserve it.

Simon Hughes: Before I come on to the substantive debate about service personnel, I emphasise that we support all the other amendments and I am grateful to the Government for accepting them. Some of them were tabled by Opposition Members, including colleagues of mine. Lord Greaves and others pressed some and I am grateful that they have been accepted.

The main debate is about Lords amendment No. 6 and amendment (a), which the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) tabled. I hope that we are all united in our view that we must deal with a severe problem. The hon. Gentleman read out the figures, which my noble Friend Lord Garden cited in the debate in the Lords. They show that there has been a considerable drop in the number of registered service personnel and the number of service personnel who vote, and a worse drop in the number of service personnel overseas who vote. That is evident from the facts. We are grateful for the figures, but even they may hide the reality.

What should be done? I hope that I do not inappropriately betray confidences when I say that I know that the Department for Constitutional Affairs has been keen for some time to press the Ministry of Defence to make a set of commitments. It has also been keen for the proposal that has now come from the Lords to be agreed. I believe that it is generally known that the Ministry of Defence did not sign up to that until the recent reshuffle. The Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, who is present, made it clear that they shared the view of the Department for Constitutional Affairs. I pay tribute to them for making their views clear and for the fact that, at last, there was an end to the differences between the two Departments.

Lord Garden, who was a Chief of the Defence Staff in a previous life, knows about such matters. He sensed that there was resistance in the Ministry of Defence and said so. He made it clear that the resistance was unacceptable. The Government have now accepted the amendment that my noble Friend originally tabled, which was supported by the Opposition parties and others. It is now before us, with Government support. There is a remaining difference, which is not big,
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between the Government position, for which we voted in the House of Lords, and amendment (a). My colleagues and I are sympathetic to its objective but, given that Lords amendment No. 6 is the proposal—indeed, the exact words—that we tabled, it would be unfair to say to the Government, “Thank you very much. You’ve tabled what we were tabling, but we’re going to vote against it.” In all logic and honesty, we must be consistent about that.

Mr. Heald: It is true that that might appear odd but, although Lords amendment No. 6 takes the matter further, it does not contain everything that we wanted. Could not the hon. Gentleman be tempted into the Lobby with us?

Simon Hughes: I am always willing to be tempted but I shall have to show some discipline to the troops who will emerge at the appropriate moment. [Interruption.] They keep coming to ask me when they will be required and I have told them that it will not be before half-time in the Brazil v. Croatia game.

Let me get back to the serious matter before us. I hope that a combination of the proposal before us, as agreed by the other place, and all the undertakings that the Ministry of Defence has given, will be put in place. Speaking bluntly, it will be a disgrace if they are not. We have had an undertaking that there will be registration campaigns and visits to barracks and service quarters, and that people will be given an opportunity to register when they sign up and regularly thereafter. We have also been assured that they will be able to stay on the register for three, four or five years rather than just one. In that way, they will not have to worry about registering each year if they are deployed away from home, which is clearly an improvement. The MOD will have to ensure that it provides the facilities and regular opportunities for service personnel at home and for those going around the world to be on the list, so that they can exercise their right to vote, whether in person, by post or by proxy.

It is reasonable to stop at that point now, however, because it would change the nature of the relationship if we made the Ministry of Defence unique in being the only employer to have to do this for its personnel. I can see the argument for doing that and I am sympathetic to where the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and his Conservative colleagues are coming from on this matter, but it would be slightly inconsistent to do so. There are diplomatic personnel, civil servants and people in the private sector, as well as other people in public services who are sent out round the world. It would be slightly illogical to place a unique duty on the MOD to do this for its own people if a similar obligation did not exist for, say, a university sending some of its staff abroad, or for the House sending some of our Clerks to a conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union or the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

We will judge the results of these measures by what we see. If numbers are not restored to their former levels or better, we shall have to go further—either in practice or in legislation. But I hope that the message has been sent out loud and clear by Ministers to the Chief of the Defence Staff, and I hope that it will be clear as soon as the provision becomes law that people
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will be expected to comply with it. I hope that it will be reviewed regularly, not only by the Electoral Commission and the Government, but by all colleagues in all parties in the House.

I end by echoing what has been said by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and others. Like them, I have many constituents who have served abroad. One of my staff has just come back from serving with the Marines in Iraq, and colleagues of mine have family members who have served all over the world. The reality is that, of all people who have an entitlement to vote and who should have the opportunity to do so, those who put their lives on the line for their country deserve that opportunity the most. It should be made as easy for them as possible to achieve that, and this provision represents a good step forward. If it is insufficient, we will go further. Given that we argued for this and that the Government have delivered, we will support them in the Lobby tonight. However, I hope that they and the MOD understand that this time they have to deliver. There must be no fudging; otherwise, they will certainly be hearing a lot more from us.

Mr. Soames: Few of us in the House can resist the blandishments of the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), except perhaps on fox hunting. She is regarded on this side of the House as being eminently sound. There is no one here tonight who would not applaud what the MOD is trying to do. I accept that, but I rise to support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and by the new shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox).

There are servicemen and women who do not want to vote. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who was an instructor at Sandhurst, will be well aware that many officers, in particular, who wear the Queen’s uniform feel that it is improper to vote and do not want to do so. Indeed, that was often the case in my own regiment. However, they amount to a minuscule number.

The reason why the figures were so bad at the last election was that so many of our troops were away on operations. The shaming thing is that the Army is worse than anyone else at arranging for its staff to vote, and that is why the amendment is so important. The Navy has been going away regularly for ever and ever, and the naval family service is much the best of the three services’ family organisations, so the Navy will have in place some form of proxy voting, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) suggested. It will be custom-made, and the Navy takes the trouble to make sure that its people can vote. The Royal Air Force is a particularly fluffy service—and rightly—in respect of its personnel and it has always taken more trouble over its people, but historically, the Army has never taken enough trouble. The majority of service personnel working overseas are, of course, soldiers. That is why the figures were particularly bad, which makes it even more important for the Ministry of Defence to get it right.

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8.45 pm

I welcome the steps that are being taken. I also welcome the Under-Secretary to his new position and wish him the best of luck serving what is without doubt the most fascinating and challenging Department in Whitehall. I particularly want him to understand that getting the Ministry of Defence to do anything is like plucking teeth out of a chicken. It is extremely difficult. It means playing to a number of audiences that have all got to do the same thing.

In order to get these provisions to work in respect of operations overseas, we need to look not to the civilian staff, but to the chain of command and the hierarchy. When it comes to dealing with a divisional or brigade headquarters, we could think of Brigadier Butler of the 16th Air Assault Brigade being given a rocket about voting problems in the middle of trying to sort out Helmand province—a ridiculous thought. There has to be a joined-up, coherent, sensible, grown-up, practical and common-sense system in place to enable soldiers to be told exactly what their rights are before they deploy. They must know that they have the right to vote and that if they wish to exercise it, arrangements will be made for them to do so.

It is very important for the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs to understand that, if she is going to make it work by ensuring that the services make it work, it will require an effort of will from the chain of command in all the services, but particularly in the Army, to get those arrangements made. Not to do so would be inexcusable. The Ministry of Defence did very badly at the last election. We called it to account for what was happening several times in parliamentary questions and the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces was either very badly informed or given less than frank answers by officials. The position in respect of service voting was deplorable and even though it is, as I say, difficult to organise, it should have been done a great deal better than it was. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who hung on like a terrier throughout.

I welcome the amendment and commend the Minister for his approach. I applaud the fact that the Ministry of Defence is going to implement this, but it will require an effort of will by the Minister to see it through to fruition.

Mr. Gale: I rise to support amendments (a) and (b) and in so doing, I seek to honour a pledge to a group of men and women from whose company I have recently returned. Under the auspices of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, it was my privilege earlier this month to spend a few days on HMS Bulwark in the Gulf. That ship, with its men and women of the Royal Navy, its Royal Marine commandos and naval aviators, will have been on deployment for seven months by the time she returns to home waters. During that time, the most recent elections—the local government elections, gently to correct my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)—took place.

Ordinarily, when MPs visit military establishments, whether they be floating or shore-based, they expect to hear complaints about pay and conditions and all sorts of things. However, for the first time ever on my visits
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to military establishments—I remind the House that I have been Parliamentary Private Secretary to two Ministers of State, so I have visited many—I heard military men and women complain about the right to vote, or, more exactly, being denied it.

Those people discovered during the local government elections that they were effectively disfranchised, and it mattered to them because they also felt that they should not have to pay council tax when they are away for such a long time. That is adding insult to injury, when they not only have to pay the council tax, but are unable to vote in council elections, and it was a cause of considerable irritation to them.

When people are deployed away from home and their families for as long as those men and women have been away, these issues matter. When they are in the teeth of danger—as they were in the Gulf, as they are now in the Red sea and as they will be until they return home safely, we hope, in two or three months’ time—they feel very strongly that we, their elected representatives, are letting them down.

To come specifically to amendments (a) and (b), I wish to support them because I believe that they will strengthen the measures contained in Lords amendment No. 6. The Minister said that one of the reasons for resisting those amendments was that there were—I quote exactly—“resource implications”. I suggest to the hon. Lady that there are very considerable resource implications for the men and women who are prepared to put their lives on the line for this country. Frankly, if we cannot provide those boys and girls—that is what they are in many cases—with the resources to enable them to take part in the democratic process, we bring shame upon ourselves and do no justice to them.

I hope and believe that the Minister will think again, look at those two modest amendments and recognise that what my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and their other signatories have sought to do is not to undermine the Government’s position, but to strengthen that of our armed forces and to send out a very clear message to those men and women who serve in extremely difficult and dangerous places overseas: “We respect you. We admire you. We understand your needs. We recognise your democratic rights.” And in the House of Commons, we are prepared to vote for them tonight.

Mr. Tyrie: We heard the best possible justification inadvertently made by the Liberal spokesman for a scheme designed uniquely for servicemen, when the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) tried to draw a comparison between sending Commons Clerks on an Inter-Parliamentary Union conference and sending servicemen to Helmand province. That seems to be a different order of responsibility and risk. It is clear from that example that there is a case for devising a scheme specifically for servicemen in their unique circumstances.

I am very grateful to hon. Members for referring to the campaign that I ran before the last general election—in fact, it started in 2004—to try to draw attention to the issue. This is one of the great scandals—the other is postal voting—that came out of the 2005 general election, and neither of them have yet
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been adequately addressed. However, we have made some progress on this issue at least, and I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who certainly had her heart in the right place on the issue, and I strongly suspect that the Minister does too.

We have made progress in several ways. First, I had to press the Government for a survey, but we managed to get one in the end. Although it is faulty, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) pointed out a moment ago, it tells us none the less some of the information that we need to know. It tells us that much more work is still to be done and that a lot of servicemen are not registered.

We have also made progress because we have a Government proposal. It is the product of extensive horse-trading and tension between the two Departments represented on the Front Bench now. The Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice) and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) look as though they are getting on fine at the moment—I am sure that, as Ministers, they are—but I have been briefed by members of their Departments about the to-ing and fro-ing that has been going on behind the scenes, and it has been substantial at times.

The Government’s proposal is to extend registration for up to five years—that is a step forward—but the second part, which is more problematic, is to place a duty on the Ministry of Defence to keep a record of the registration of service personnel. The Minister rather gave the game away when she said that the record would be used to act as a prompt to encourage registration. That is well short of the requirement that we need. The Minister said that she had been encouraged by assurances about the way in which the MOD would run the scheme, and that those assurances would enable the problem to be resolved. We cannot, however, keep relying on assurances from the MOD. The MOD understandably has different priorities. It does not want to act as a registration officer; it never did. It would rather not have such an administrative responsibility, and it was happy to see the back of the old scheme with the introduction of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. That is why I worry that underlying the Government’s proposals will be a dependence on a level of will in the MOD to make them work. That may not always be sufficient. That is why I want the provisions bolstered.

I am sorry that the Liberal Democrats will not join us in the Lobby tonight, as they tabled an inadequate amendment in the House of Lords and do not want to vote against their own proposals. We should support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, which will place a duty on the MOD to make sure that all reasonable steps are taken to get service personnel back on the register. On many occasions, I have outlined in the House why that is essential. It is not too much to ask of the MOD, and it is particularly important at this time, when we have service personnel, putting their lives at risk to bring democracy to other countries, who have themselves recently been left disfranchised, and who may yet, even
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as a result of this measure, find themselves still disfranchised. That will not do.

Dr. Julian Lewis: I promised my party’s business managers that were I fortunate enough to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would make an exceedingly brief speech. Fulfilling that promise has been made much easier by the outstanding contributions of my four hon. Friends who have spoken before me, and by the outstanding generosity of the Minister in allowing me to make many of my points in interventions.

Earlier this afternoon, I listened avidly to that section of the proceedings dealing with the argument about whether simply being required to give a specimen signature, as well as one or two other minor matters, might be a deterrent to people to register. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) described how such simple, little hurdles had been enough to reduce registration in those parts of the country where they had been incorporated into electoral law. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), after I intervened on him to point out that the reason for those reductions might be that the names on the list were those of non-existent people rather than of genuine people who felt that they could no longer be troubled to register, replied that even if that might be true in some cases, it was more important to get the genuine people on to the list, even if the price to be paid was that some bogus names were kept on the list.

If having to give a national insurance number or signature, or having to register individually in some way, has such a depressing effect on the numbers of people who register to vote, might not roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades, snipers and all the other threats to life and limb that our servicemen and women face every day on active service conceivably have an effect on their willingness, year after year—no matter how strongly urged by conscientious, democracy-loving MOD civil servants—to sit down and fill in their forms dutifully? We have seen from the survey the massive differential between the numbers who register to vote when overseas and the numbers, even of servicemen and women, who do so when based at home. We have only heard one real argument against the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald): that advanced by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the idea that civil servants, diplomats and, heaven help us, Members of Parliament will feel aggrieved because when they go abroad they will not be registered automatically, unlike front-line soldiers, sailors and airmen, is something that I would have expected to hear from him on April fools day rather than during a serious debate.

I see no intellectual argument against what my hon. Friend proposes, and I see every moral argument in favour of it. It will be a shame indeed if and when the amendment is defeated by the Government and the Liberal Democrats tonight.

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