My Lords, service personnel face unique challenges in electoral participation. The Government are working to ensure that we have in place the most effective measures to support their participation. A registration awareness campaign has engaged every Armed Forces unit, and the Government will extend the service declaration period from three years to five to increase convenience. The Elections Minister met MPs and Armed Forces families’ representatives last week to discuss further steps.
I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. I hope that that will include provision that ballot papers will be delivered in plenty of time to servicemen in, say, Afghanistan—9,000 of whom would appreciate the speeding up of thought that the Government are giving to that question. Can I ask two further questions?
We are all concerned about this. First, could we have the automatic registration of service recruits, so that they are registered to vote when they sign up to the Armed Forces? Secondly, could we have permanent machinery in place so that we do not always have to fight a battle to make sure that service personnel are able to vote in what are vital elections to them, as they are to the rest of us?
My Lords, I will do my best in the limited time to answer the noble Lord’s first question on this occasion. Statutorily, there are only 11 working days from the close of nominations until polling day. This is a very tight timeframe, which presents logistical challenges for Armed Forces personnel serving overseas. However, for this election we are attempting to put a scheme in place, which will work for troops on active service in Afghanistan. We have been looking at the current postal voting system and we believe that it is possible to set up such a scheme, which would deliver ballot papers to and from Afghanistan in time for them to be counted. Why? Because there are a lot of supply flights to that country on a very regular basis. We are working towards that end. I have to emphasise that operational priorities must prevail at all times and we cannot guarantee success, but I hope the House will think that it is worthwhile trying.
The noble Lord puts forward an interesting and ingenious idea, which I will take back. The Elections Minister, my right honourable friend Mr Wills, has set up a working group consisting of officials from the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence and the Electoral Commission, as well as the families federations of the Armed Forces. It is considering a number of proposals, and I will make sure that that is one of them.
I cannot confirm that they are, which is one of the difficulties about automatic registration. The idea is excellent, at least in theory, for service personnel of whatever age either to be told about registration or to be registered when they join the Armed Forces. The Elections Minister has asked officials to explore the idea that has been mentioned here today, along with a range of other suggestions which may improve registration.
Do the Government accept that arrangements for proxy and postal votes for the armed services often prove unworkable because of the tight election timetable to which the Minister has referred? Will the Government look again at the excellent report from the Electoral Commission in 2003, entitled Election Timetables in the United Kingdom, in which the Commission argued that there was no evidence to suggest that the,
“current inconsistencies in election timetables are based on anything other than historical accident, and the prevailing political pressures at the time different legislation was passed”?
Will the Minister assure your Lordships’ House that he will look again at this issue in the light of the discussions that have taken place here today?
I will certainly do that because we are looking for assistance on this important subject from all quarters. The Electoral Commission itself thinks that the best way to guarantee a high turnout from service personnel is through the proxy vote system, which can be put in place well before nominations are closed.