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Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con):
I declare an interest. For many years I taught the armed forces,
and I married a commanding officer, who under the old Army was responsible for the registration of her military personnel.
Unlike the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), I support amendments (a) and (b). Many reasons could be given for claiming that members of the emergency services frequently risk their lives and do things that are beyond the norm, but I think that most Members would agree that the armed forces are different, in that they have unlimited liability. They do not work shifts; they can be mobilised literally within an hour, be at Brize Norton and, increasingly, be sent off on overseas operations.
Fifteen years ago, before the collapse of the Warsaw pact, the armed forces were largely stationary. They were based either in this country or in Germany, and the Ministry of Defence had a paternalistic attitude towards them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) suggested, many of them may not have wanted to vote for one reason or another. However, I believe that circumstances have changed. I think that our military personnel should be treated differently, first because of the nature and tempo of operations, secondly because many Members in all parties have received complaints not just from military personnel but from their familiesthere was considerable foot-dragging on the Governments part before the general electionand thirdly because the tempo of elections has speeded up. We are seeing more frequent elections at local, national and European level.
I also feel strongly that the MOD and its personnel should be given an opportunity to have the right to vote. I suggest, particularly to the Minister responsible for the armed forces, that denying them that opportunity will increase the likelihood of an inclination towards some form of military federation. Sadly, as we know, many members of the armed forces have begun to view the chain of command with considerable suspicion. I suggest to the MOD that one way in which Ministers can show that they are in touch with the armed forces is to go the whole hog and support amendments (a) and (b).
Bridget Prentice: We have had a very good debate. I noted and understood the passion with which Members made their case. I hope that Members in all parts of the House will recognise that Ministers in both the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Ministry of Defence have tried to deal with the concerns raised hereparticularly by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie)and in the other place. I hope that Opposition Members will read the Lords amendment in detail. It may not go as far as they would like, but it gives the Secretary of State for Defence an obligation to encourage registration. I also hope that they do not continue to make a mistake that has been made in some contributions to the debate, which is to mix up registration with deciding to vote; there is a difference between being on the register and then making the conscious decision to go out and vote.
I remind Members that there are other amendments in this groupaffecting people with disabilities, and so onthat I hope they can support. I ask them to
support the amendments from the House of Lords, I also ask them to oppose amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 6.
Amendment No. 16 is a technical amendment that relates to the dividing of electoral wards in Scotland into polling districts. As originally drafted, clause 20 defines an electoral ward in Scotland by reference to section 5 of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994, but the definition in section 5 is to
be repealed and replaced by a definition set out in section 1 of the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004, which will come into force in November this year. The amendment therefore ensures that the Bill refers to the correct statute.
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): On the face of it, it seems that we are simply replacing the reference to the UK statute with a reference to the Scottish Parliament statute. My hon. Friend will know that this Parliament determines the electoral laws for elections to the Scottish Parliament, but the Scottish Parliament determines the electoral laws for elections to local councils in Scotland. There has been a lot of concern about the management of the elections that are to take place in May 2007. Many would argue that the arrangements are a dogs breakfastindeed, it has been suggested that some places will need two polling stations and people will have to go to both to cast their votes in the two elections. I understand that that might not be necessary, but can my hon. Friend assure us that the amendment will not facilitate its happening in future?
Bridget Prentice: I can give my right hon. Friend that assurance. We are simplifying the procedure to make sure that the Bill reflects the definition in the most recent Act of the Scottish Parliament.
Mr. Heald: But concern remains about people having to go to two polling stations if more than one election is taking place. Is the Minister able to give us solace on that point by stating that people will have to go to only one polling station?
Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 relate to false statements at nomination. They are consequential on the removal of what was clause 23 of the Bill. An independent candidate in his consent to nomination would have been required to
state that he has not been selected or authorised to stand in the name or on behalf of any registered party, organisation or other person.
Clause 27(3) makes it an offence to make a false statement to that effect. However, as that statement is no longer required to be made, there is no need to create another offence. I know that Liberal Democrat Members will be particularly pleased that we are not creating any further offences.
Amendments Nos. 19 to 26 and Amendment No. 88 relate to the provision for candidates expenses. Hon. Members might recall that we had a vigorous debate on that issueled by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns)on Report in the Commons. [ Interruption. ] Indeed, it was led very ably. Several issues were raised and the Government took on board the views of hon. Members and resolved to work through them in another place. The key concern that we were trying to address by introducing the four-month period for candidates election expenses was about unregulated spending taking place in advance of
the elections expenses period beginning. We touched on that in an earlier debate this evening. The amendments that we are considering today will return us to the present situation in respect of the length of a candidates elections expenses period. A candidates election expenses will count against his or her statutory expenditure limit from the point at which they become a candidate. In the case of a candidate at a general election, that will be the period between the Dissolution of Parliament and polling day. In local elections, it is the period from the last date of publication of the notice of election up until polling day.
For the record, I should point out that these amendments will not affect the very useful provisions in clauses 29 and 31, which clarify the scope of activity by unauthorised third parties under section 75 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 and what counts as election expenses for candidates. I recognise that the Bill will not now address the problem of unregulated amounts of money being spent by candidates in the months or weeks leading up to the point at which the general election is called. As I am sure that we are all aware, political campaigning techniques are becoming more sophisticated and more time, effort, and money is being invested in campaigning in marginal seats in particular. The issue is about money being spent at a local levelsometimes quite large amountsand not counting as candidates election expenses because it is spent before the Dissolution of Parliament.
Labour Members have already expressed their concerns about the way in which that has affected results, particularly in the last general election, and I am sorry that we have been unable to come up with an early solution to the problem. However, along with working towards a consensus on this issue with the parties and peers in another place, we have talked to Sir Hayden Phillips and asked him whether he will extend his review to look at the issue of expenses of parties and candidates during the election period. This approach will make sense, because it means that all facets of party funding and election spending will be examined across the piece. I am sure that a comprehensive approach can then be achieved. I know that Sir Hayden will welcome any input that hon. Members care to make to that review on this and related matters.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I understand the reasons for the withdrawal of the four-month rule, particularly because of the difficulty of finding out what exactly a four-month rule constitutes as far an election is concerned. However, it is a great pitymy hon. Friend is reflecting on thisthat something like it could not have been included in the Bill. That is particularly the case given that the abusethat is what it isnot only took place before the last election, but is going on now, and was going on as soon as the last election was completed. It seems essential that early action be taken. When my hon. Friend replies to the debate this evening, will she indicate whether, should Sir Hayden Phillips come up with something that passes muster as far as providing a proper end to this abuse is concerned, she will consider
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