Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

I come to the principal evidence causing our concern. A survey carried out by Defence Analytical Services and Advice, published in July 2008, surveyed 8,719 service personnel across the three services. It found that only 69 per cent of personnel were registered to vote. Only 62 per cent of Army respondents reported

17 Jun 2009 : Column 1144

that they were registered. Some 84 per cent of officers were registered but only 66 per cent of the other ranks. Only 43 per cent of overseas personnel were registered to vote, and 31 per cent of personnel who were not registered to vote said that they did not receive an electoral registration form. Of the units, 70 per cent had still not held a service electoral registration day informing personnel about how to register to vote. That evidence, coupled with the massive fall-off in Armed Forces members registering to vote, was the cause of our concern.

Lord Bach: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will not mind giving way. We were very impressed by what he had to say about this in Grand Committee, and he is making the same points tonight. As he says, the Ministry of Defence is making real efforts to ensure that more service personnel are registered. I should point out that the figures, which have come down so much, do not take account of the number of people in the services who have put their own names on the register at their home addresses, as they are entitled to do. The noble Lord is right to say that there has been a decline, but not by that amount.

I will listen very carefully to what the noble Lord said both last time and tonight. He knows that the existing regime allows the period to be varied by up to five years by order, instead of the three years at which it stands at the moment. In respect of members of the Armed Forces and their spouses or civil partners, if the view is reached on consideration of the evidence that a longer or shorter period would be beneficial, we think that it would be important to retain that flexibility. We think that to allow it for ever, as the amendment provides, would automatically make the register inaccurate. Therefore, in response to his comments and his concerns about lower registration rates, we intend to extend the service declaration period from three years to five years. An increase to five years offers the additional benefit of being the same period as the one in which postal voters must provide new identifiers. Indeed, the service voters’ registration form, as issued by the Electoral Commission, includes a postal vote application.

I am sorry to interrupt him. I do so in order to tell him that we are prepared to make that concession because of his advocacy this evening. I hope that may assist him in continuing with his arguments.

Lord Bates: My Lords, I am happy to take such interventions at any time. It is a very welcome intervention and I thank the Minister. He is always extremely courteous and thoughtful and he pays attention to the debates. It is very encouraging that he is making that proposal.

The proposal to have no time limit is essentially an attempt to return to the state that existed before 2001. I recognise that changes have come into place and I recognise the importance of having an up-to-date and accurate electoral register. The Minister’s offer of an increase from three years to five will therefore be widely welcomed not only by service personnel but by their families. It is one way of ensuring that their voices are heard in future elections. I am very grateful for that reassurance.



17 Jun 2009 : Column 1145

Perhaps I may push my luck just a fraction further by mentioning that 70 per cent of units have still not held a service electoral registration day informing personnel how to register to vote. I am sure that service personnel will appreciate that they have to go through this exercise only once every five years as a result of the Minister’s welcome concession. However, perhaps I may press him a little further and ask whether he can encourage his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to make representations—indeed, it would seem appropriate for the Ministry of Defence to issue an order—regarding an electoral registration day so that people know about the changes that have been made and know also that their engagement in the democratic process is of the highest concern to Members on all sides of this House. I am happy to give way at this point or, if other people want to contribute to the debate, perhaps I should sit down and allow that to happen.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, the Minister will recall that in Grand Committee we, too, were concerned about this issue, and we very much welcome the concession that he has made this evening. I cannot remember whether it was him or his colleague but in Grand Committee the Minister who spoke was pretty adamant that he wanted to stick with the three-year period. Therefore, I am glad that on this issue at least the opposition parties seem to have moved the Minister a little.

I want to make a couple of additional points. First, I understand that since 2005, which is after all four years ago, the Electoral Commission has been working with the Ministry of Defence on this issue because it, too, has been very concerned about the underregistration of members of the Armed Forces. Can the Minister say how that initiative is progressing, and can he give us an undertaking that, if further recommendations come forward as a result of that exercise, there will be a method by which he can, if necessary, move further without the need for legislation?

Secondly, if the discrepancy is anything like the one to which the noble Lord, Lord Bates, referred, then is the Minister serious? After all, in recent years we have been asking young men and women to fight on behalf of the nation in the most appallingly difficult circumstances. Following deployment, the very least that they should expect is every possible assistance to enable them to use their civic right to vote. I cannot think of any situation more frustrating than for a young service man or woman coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan not being able to vote on the big issues affecting the nation today. I am sure that the Minister accepts and supports that view. Therefore, if the Electoral Commission and the MoD feel that further improvements can be made, I hope that there will be ways in which that can be achieved outwith this legislation.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, I am obviously very interested in this subject. I should like to be quite clear that it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence to bring to the attention of all service personnel the current situation, whatever it may be, in relation to voting. At the moment, it seems that one talks about the Ministry of Defence doing this or that, but I should like it to be clearly laid out that it is an MoD responsibility.



17 Jun 2009 : Column 1146

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am very grateful to noble Lords. I should have praised, or at least mentioned, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and his colleagues, who also pushed for a change in our line on this. We were always persuaded that there was a problem, even though the numbers have gone up recently, and we always knew that more had to be done. However, as I said, their joint advocacy moved us to believe that we could alter the rules by statutory instrument as soon as practicable in order to change the time limit from three to five years.

As I understand it, getting members of the Armed Forces on to the register is a joint obligation on the Ministry of Defence and my department, the Ministry of Justice, which has responsibility for elections in general terms. That is the answer to the noble and gallant Lord.

The question of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, links with the question of the noble Lord, Lord Bates, asking what more we can do. On the information gained from the survey last year, we have redoubled efforts through the annual information campaign to encourage members of the Armed Forces and their families to register to vote and to update their registration details when they move. The campaign will continue to highlight the options for service personnel and their families to register as an ordinary elector or as a service voter; a choice that they can exercise depending on their circumstance.

Officials at my department will support that work and place particular focus on establishing how the MoD’s joint personnel administration system can help to promote service registration. As noble Lords will be aware, the Electoral Administration Act 2006 placed a duty on the MoD to maintain a record of a service person’s electoral registration record on a voluntary basis. The use of the system is still in its infancy, but responses from service personnel themselves in the 2008 survey suggest that they could be better employed to aid registration. It is clear that more work needs to be done to identify new ways of encouraging service personnel to register. My officials will meet MoD officials to discuss the matters in more detail, and I am happy to write to noble Lords on the outcome of that meeting so that they will be kept informed about progress. I hope that in the light of the offer that I have made to the noble Lord, Lord Bates, he will consider withdrawing his amendment.

Lord Bates: My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister’s comments, as I am for the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, in these matters, and the intervention of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, who sought clarification of exactly where responsibility resides. The Minister’s response was clearly that responsibility is shared between the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence, in which case responsibility clearly needs to lead to action. It is not acceptable that there is such a large fall-off involved. More needs to happen to realise the aspiration put forward by the Electoral Commission about electoral registration awareness days.

There is a special electoral registration form for armed services personnel which is readily available on the internet. However, there is no substitute for having

17 Jun 2009 : Column 1147

those in hard-copy form. When armed services personnel are deployed overseas, that should be part of the checks made under the standard operating procedures. That would seem a sensible way forward. The Minister has undertaken to make representations to the Ministry of Defence. We are encouraged by that and I am grateful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 83 withdrawn.

Amendment 84

Moved by Lord Greaves

84: After Clause 24, insert the following new Clause—

“Rejected postal votes

(1) Schedule 1 to the 1983 Act (parliamentary elections rules) is amended as follows.

(2) After rule 31A (return of postal ballot papers) there is inserted—

“Postal ballot papers not counted

(1) Where a postal vote has been returned but not counted because the personal identifiers—

(a) are absent,

(b) are incomplete, or

(c) do not match the personal identifiers provided with the application for a postal vote,

the returning officer must record this information on a separate list (the list of postal votes returned but not counted) in addition to making the entry on the marked list.

(2) The list of postal votes returned but not counted is a relevant election document for the purposes of section 42 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006.

(3) The returning officer shall write to each elector whose returned postal vote has not been counted for a reason listed in paragraph (1) to inform them of the circumstances in which their vote has not been counted.”.”

Lord Greaves: My Lords, as I am going to refer to some of the local information on Pendle about which the noble Lord, Lord Bates, was asking, I should declare an interest in that I was the Liberal Democrat agent for most of the county council candidates in the recent elections and attended counts on both Friday morning and Sunday evening. The matter raised by the amendment was one I referred to briefly in Committee on a different amendment, but I have now brought it back following the experience in the recent elections as there is a serious problem that needs to be tackled. I am moving the amendment in the hope that it is helpful.

The amendment requires the returning officer to do two things. First, the returning officer must keep a separate list of those postal votes that have been returned, or where envelopes have been returned but where the votes have not been counted owing to a failure of the personal identifier system. In other words, the personal identifiers are absent, incomplete, or do not match the information that the council holds on file as a result of the application for a postal vote. I should say that I am particularly grateful to Gillian Hartley, who is the Pendle Council elections officer, for helping me to understand how the system works and what happens, and for providing me with the information that I shall offer a little later.

Secondly, the amendment requires the returning officer to write individually to each of the electors whose votes have not been counted because of a mismatch in or absence of the personal identifiers. At

17 Jun 2009 : Column 1148

the moment, that does not happen. At the moment, two lists are produced after the election, which are available to candidates and political parties under the approved conditions.

The first is the marked register, which shows the people who have turned up at polling stations and been given a ballot paper—and, presumably voted. The second is the postal voters list, which provides a list of those postal votes which have been returned at that election. The postal voters list includes all the envelopes that have been returned, because the list is compiled from information on the envelopes before they are opened and before the votes are opened, so it includes those which are not subsequently counted. The provision of that list, which did not happen before the passing of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, was partly a result of discussion that took place in your Lordships' House on previous legislation, when it became clear that that list was required. Before then, the only list required was of the postal votes issued, not those returned.

The current system is that if you send a postal vote back, the envelope is returned, received and opened. Inside that envelope, there should be a smaller envelope, sealed up, that includes the ballot paper and the piece of paper that contains the personal identifier. When those personal identifiers are checked—I have to say that Pendle, like most of the councils in the north-west, did a 100 per cent check of postal votes and the returning officer decided to do it last year in view of the controversy over previous postal votes in Pendle—the sheet of personal identifiers comes in, it is fed into the machine that checks them and that computer-type machine checks whether the information about date of birth and signature match the information that the council holds on its records. If the machine thinks that they match, it goes through. If the machine thinks that they do not match, or it is not sure, it is spewed out and on the screen, on the monitor, is displayed the information that the council holds on its records. That is then compared visually and manually by counting staff with the paper that has come in, and they decide whether, yes, they match sufficiently or no, they do not. That is how it actually works.

We discussed this in Grand Committee, I brought evidence from two county council by-elections this spring in Nelson, which is part of Pendle, in one of which the number of rejected votes, because of a mismatch or absence of identifiers, was more than 5 per cent of the total, and in the other, which was a substantially Asian ward, more than 10 per cent. This year, in the six county divisions within Pendle, which make up Pendle and the area that counted for the European elections, 485 returned envelopes were rejected—in other words, the ballot paper was not looked at and not counted—for failure to provide a matching identifier. In some cases, the identifiers were absent; in some cases, only one of them was there; in most cases, they did not match. This was approximately 4.5 per cent of the total, on a return of postal votes of about 70 per cent.

In the most Asian division—I do not have the exact figure, but I think the Asian electorate is about 45 per cent of the total—the return of postal votes was 81.7 per cent, and 11.6 per cent of the envelopes

17 Jun 2009 : Column 1149

returned were rejected. So across the area, about one in 20 was rejected, and in this particular division, it was more than one in 10.

I am interested in the Electoral Commission’s comment on this amendment, and I will read it:

“The Commission has since July 2007 recommended that the Government should enable Returning Officers and Electoral Registration Officers to access and use data that identifies electors whose postal votes were rejected due to a mismatch of identifiers. This information should be used by the Electoral Registration Officer to write to all electors whose postal votes were rejected due to a mismatch of identifiers, inviting them to provide fresh identifiers. The Returning Officer should also write to any elector where they believe that their postal ballot was used in error by someone other than the elector, advising of the correct process and the possible penalties for malpractice”.

Whether these figures show that people are simply making a mess of the system, or whether they show that, in some cases at least, there are attempts at voting fraud which have not succeeded because the postal vote identifier system is working, there is a problem. If one in 20 or one in 10, or something of that order—450 votes across the borough—are being sent in by people expecting them to be counted, and they are not being counted because the personal identifiers are absent or not matching, there is something wrong.

It seems to me that this is information to which candidates and political parties should have access after the election, because it is fairly obvious that, in some cases, there may be prima facie evidence of fraud. One of the reasons why candidates and political parties are allowed access to the marked register and the list of postal votes returned is precisely so that they can be investigated, and if people want to challenge an election or ask the police or the returning officer to get involved, they can do so. This seems to be a piece of information that also ought to be available, but at the very least, the electors concerned should be written to, because otherwise there may well be a lot of people who are sending back their votes in good faith, who are making the same mistake time after time. It may be that they have two signatures, and they are just using the wrong one—they are using their personal signature and not their cheque-book signature or whichever way around it is—and votes are being lost. There is, therefore, a problem here arising from the system of personal identifiers that was very properly introduced in order to make postal voting a bit more secure. There is a problem and it needs to be addressed.

My final point is that I am told by Mrs Hartley that the information on the proportions and numbers of these votes which have been rejected for these reasons are part of the information that is being sent off, she says, to Plymouth. I assume it is the elections centre at the University of Plymouth that is collecting information, as she says, on behalf of the Government. So there ought to be a lot of this information gathered in fairly soon from around the country. It is a serious problem and one that needs to be addressed. This amendment is an attempt to do that. I beg to move.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I shall comment briefly on the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. We obviously have some sympathy with the amendment in that it is designed to help deal with postal voting fraud, which I stress was an important

17 Jun 2009 : Column 1150

issue in an earlier amendment. We have just three caveats that I shall point out before the Minister responds.

First, I worry that the amendment could place an excessive burden on the returning officer, and I am interested to know whether the noble Lord has carried out any assessment of the resource implications of the returning officer writing what might be a rather large number of letters, particularly in an area such as Pendle in which, as the noble Lord told us, some 400 or 500 postal votes were held not to be valid.

Secondly, if the returning officer had to write to each elector setting out why their vote has not been counted, as set out in proposed new sub-paragraph (3) in proposed new subsection (2) in the amendment, and if there was the possibility of a criminal prosecution of this matter later, I worry that anything that the returning officer might say might prejudice the chances of a fair trial. I would need legal advice as to whether that is the case, but no doubt the Minister will respond to that point in due course.

My third point relates to privacy. Proposed new sub-paragraph (2) in proposed new subsection (2) in the amendment tells us that:

“The list of postal votes returned but not counted”,

would be kept and would count as “a relevant election document”. As a relevant election document under Section 42 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, it would be available for inspection by the public. The noble Lord set out his reasons for that, but presumably—again, I welcome comments on this—it could have a detrimental impact on privacy of the ballot. People should not be able to see a list of those who have spoilt their ballot paper, intentionally or otherwise, so there are dangers in going down this route. Although I have expressed a degree of sympathy for the noble Lord’s amendment, I think that there are one or two problems with it.

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, the amendment would require a returning officer to keep information on postal votes that have been rejected because the postal-vote identifiers have not been completed, are incomplete, or do not match the records held on the postal-vote application form. The second part of the amendment would require a returning officer to write to all electors whose postal vote was rejected notifying them of the circumstances in which it was rejected.

I think Members on all sides of the House are concerned to secure every possible improvement that we can to the postal voting system, and the amendment clearly has very good intentions, seeking as it does to ensure that votes cast may be counted and that the integrity of the system is strengthened. These are aims that the Government of course support, but while we may agree on the general intention, I have some concern about the policy prescription set out by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I am not convinced that compelling a returning officer to write to all electors who have had their postal vote ballot rejected due to a mismatch of identifiers is the correct course of action. In some cases, this may well have the effect simply of alerting would-be fraudsters to the failure of their attempt.



17 Jun 2009 : Column 1151


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page