asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he is satisfied with the existing arrangements made for members of Her Majesty's Forces and their spouses to vote at General Elections and referenda by post or by proxy; and if he will make a statement.
Not entirely, but we take steps to ensure that Service families know and can take advantage of the existing facilities for Service registration.
Can the hon. Gentleman say whether those who have joined the Armed Forces since 10th October will be able to vote in the forthcoming referendum, assuming—which may not be the case—that the Government are able to carry through their legislation?
I cannot say that. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is to be a White Paper on the referendum procedure, which will be debated in the House before Easter. That will be the moment to pursue what I accept are very important questions involving Service voters.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that to hon. Members on both sides of the House with constituencies in Dorset and no doubt in other places where there are military installations, this is a matter of very great importance? Can he say, either now or later if I put down a Question, what percentage of persons serving in the Armed Forces entitled to vote did vote at the last or any similar election?
I can tell the hon. Gentelman that the percentage of those eligible who are registering is between 25 and 30, which is low. It has been agreed on both side of the House that the change in procedure in 1969 following the Speaker's Conference resulted in fewer Service people registering than hitherto. For that reason, recommendations were made to the last Speaker's Conference by the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office. Those were largely accepted. But it is not a matter for me to say how soon they will be implemented.
Will my hon. Friend make it clear that it is the desire of many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House that the rights of the Service voter in the referendum should be considered before the publication of the White Paper?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I undertake to draw the attention of my right hon. Friends to this exchange today.
Although we quite understand that the Minister is not himself responsible for this situation, does he accept that the whole House regards the present situation involved in Service voting as little more than a scandal? It is up to the hon. Gentleman to bang the table and to demand that those concerned with these matters ensure that Service personnel get back the right to vote, just like every other citizen.
Only this House, under its own powers, can give back that right. There is no disagreement between the two sides of the House. This is a matter upon which a decision should be reached, and I shall make suitable representations. I am sure that in the coming weeks hon. Members will find further opportunities to make their views known.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory and complacent nature of the Minister's replies, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible moment.