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Service Personnel (Voting)

Volume 508: debated on Tuesday 23 March 2010

5. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that service personnel serving abroad will be able to vote in the forthcoming general election. (323388)

11. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that service personnel serving abroad will be able to vote in the forthcoming general election. (323394)

For registration, we have extended the period for service declarations to five years, and the Electoral Commission is leading a drive to increase registration, including providing bespoke registration forms for service personnel in Afghanistan. Proxy votes are available to all registered service personnel serving overseas, and we are also offering a bespoke scheme to expedite postal voting in Afghanistan. For the longer term, we are consulting on measures to provide a comprehensive solution. I have written to Opposition parties asking them to sign up to that commitment on a cross-party basis.

Sadly, that is too little, too late. Given that the working group was set up in January, why has it not yet reported, and can the Minister confirm that a working group set up in January will have no impact whatever on the next election?

I am sad that the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a great deal of respect, has his facts wrong in almost every particular. The working group was not set up in January; it was set up last autumn. The hon. Gentleman should not take his information from what he reads in the papers; they are not always right. In this case they are wrong, and he was wrong to quote them. I am sorry that he thinks what we have done is too little, too late—and I am trying to recall all the letters he has written to me about this issue in the past, but I am afraid I cannot recall any. In fact, the Opposition were, sadly, silent on the subject until I started work on it. [Interruption.] I am afraid the record speaks for itself, and it is quite clear. I am happy to show it to any hon. Member who wants to approach me afterwards. [Interruption.] As Opposition Members well know, I have tried to approach the matter on a cross-party basis. It is important for all Members of the House to do everything they can to expedite postal voting for those who want to use it, and to ensure that every member of the armed services is registered to vote. That is the work that we are undertaking. The working party has reported, and if the hon. Gentleman knew what his Front-Bench team know, he would know that I wrote to them a few days ago asking them to support the work proposed by the working group.

My constituent, Corporal Stephen Thompson, who, sadly, was killed in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago after having volunteered to serve in 3 Rifles Battle Group, was serving his country and protecting democracy in Afghanistan. It is very important, therefore, that servicemen in such a position are able to vote. The Minister said that he would put in place for this election a bespoke postal voting service. Can he assure the House that all the votes of service personnel serving in Afghanistan who use that will get back to their constituencies to count for this election? At the last election, only 28 per cent. of service personnel were able to vote.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I am sure the whole House wishes to express its appreciation of the sacrifice that his constituent made. It is fundamentally important that we all do everything we can, for exactly the reasons that the hon. Gentleman set out. I can assure the House that we have better arrangements for postal voting in this election than we had in previous elections. It is worth reminding the House that every member of the armed services can vote by proxy, should they so wish, and there is no doubt about that vote being registered. But as the hon. Gentleman will know, there are service personnel operating in extremely difficult and arduous circumstances in Afghanistan, often in remote areas. We are doing everything we can to get the ballot forms out as quickly as possible and back as quickly as possible. There will be a significant improvement. I cannot guarantee that every one will be able to be counted, but we are doing everything we can. For the future—this is important—we are now looking into how we can move to electronic voting for the next general election, and we want to get support for that. It is very complicated and will involve huge changes to electoral law. We want to move together on an all-party basis. This will sort the matter out once and for all, and we hope we will have the hon. Gentleman’s support in doing so.

When I was Under-Secretary of State for Defence, a great deal of effort went in, with the Ministry of Defence, to get as many service personnel abroad registered to vote as possible. What role are the local authorities playing, and what efforts are they putting in to ensure that as many personnel as possible are able to vote?

Registration is the fundamental prerequisite to being able to vote, and I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend did when he was at the Ministry of Defence. Huge effort has gone into that, and it is working. In the past year the number of service declarations has gone up by 15 per cent., and we need to get the figure up higher. I think it will be higher by the election after next, and we will do everything we can. We have invited all hon. Members to contribute to the process, and that invitation is still extant. We want everyone to do everything possible to make sure that everyone serving in our armed services can vote.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on what he has done in achieving such a high return among service personnel. Does that extend to the families of personnel, many of whom are in Germany and elsewhere in the world?

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend is doing with his constituents in the armed services and their families to make sure that they can vote. It is fundamental that families serving overseas should have that facility. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), of course local authorities have a fundamental role to play in this. We all have a role, We should do everything we can, and the Government are doing everything they can.

As the Minister has decided to leave the House at the general election, this might be the last opportunity we have to thank him for his consistent courtesy, and to pay tribute to him for his hard work, and for what I might describe as his good intentions. I am grateful to him for the letter to which he referred a moment ago, which he sent me last Thursday—and yes, I can answer that we will co-operate in a cross-party way. He says in the letter that the Government intend to launch a consultation for the next Parliament because members of the working group all agreed that concrete steps must be taken. That is a clear admission that the Government know that they have not taken sufficient steps to make sure that members of the armed forces serving our country abroad will be able to vote. I accept that the right hon. Gentleman may well have tried his best, but why do Ministers not want to hear the verdict of members of the armed forces on 13 years of Labour Government?

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words, but I am also particularly grateful—this is the really important point—for her agreement to work with us on a cross-party basis. We want service voters to be able to vote. It does not matter who they vote for; it is a fundamental democratic principle that those who are giving their all—and in some cases their lives—in the service of this country should be able, as far as they possibly can, to express their vote, whoever they vote for. It is wrong of her to suggest that anything sinister is going on. These are difficult and complex matters, and I have already said that we have taken a lot of steps to solve these problems. We have made considerable progress, and we are going to go on making progress.

I have said clearly that registration rates are going up—indeed, that they have gone up by 15 per cent. in the last year—and the hon. Lady must agree that that is a significant achievement by local authorities, by the Electoral Commission and by the officers and service personnel themselves, who are driving that increase. We are putting measures in place to ensure that service voters can vote as they want. That is the crucial point. She always overlooks the point that all service voters can vote by proxy, so they are not being denied a stake in the general election in this country. The question—

Order. I must ask the Minister to resume his seat. I have very gently indicated that answers must be shorter.