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Service Voters’ Registration Period Order 2010

Volume 718: debated on Monday 8 March 2010

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Service Voters’ Registration Period Order 2010.

Relevant document: 8th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

This order, to be made under Section 15(9) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, relates to the statutory time limit on the period of a service declaration made by those electors who are qualified to do so under Section 14(1) of that Act. The order arises from debate in the House on the Political Parties and Elections Act. I would like to remind noble Lords of this context and explain why the Government believe this is a good way to support the electoral registration of service voters before going on to explain the technical aspects of this order.

As noble Lords will know, members of the Armed Forces, together with their spouses or civil partners, are part of a category referred to for the purposes of electoral administration as “service voters”. This category also includes people employed in the service of the Crown abroad, such as members of the Diplomatic Service. These people may consequently register as an elector under a service declaration. Some will register as ordinary or overseas electors, but the service declaration may offer added convenience. It allows for special arrangements to be made in respect of their likely status serving overseas at any given time. Those electors who have made a service declaration are registered in pursuance of it for a period of 12 months or, if members of the armed services, their spouses or civil partners, for three years. This means that Armed Forces personnel do not have to undertake the process of re-registering every year, which would be burdensome given their circumstances. At the end of the 12-month or three-year period as appropriate, a fresh service declaration and an application for registration as an elector may be made.

As I said on Report on the Political Parties and Elections Bill, the Government believe that a time limit of some length on the period of a service declaration is necessary to maintain the integrity and accuracy of the electoral register. Indeed, existing primary legislation cements that view and enables the service declaration period to be extended to a maximum of five years for members of the Armed Forces and their spouses. Other service voters continue to benefit only from a 12-month period. If there were to be an indefinite declaration period for service voters, that could lead to personnel inadvertently disenfranchising themselves. The nature of their careers is very mobile and they might expect to be automatically re-registered in any new UK constituency in which they may come to be resident. We are moving towards a system of individual registration which requires all electors to take responsibility for their electoral registration. It is important that this principle is retained for service voters.

Registering service personnel to vote in one place for an indefinite period has, in previous decades, created unhealthy inaccuracies in the electoral register, which led to the introduction of a 12-month limitation on service voter registrations in the Representation of the People Act 2000. As an exception, a power was inserted at the same time that allowed secondary legislation to increase the service declaration period to a maximum of five years for members of the Armed Forces and their spouses and, later, their civil partners. The Service Voters’ Registration Period Order 2006 extended the declaration period from one year to three, because three years was seen as a typical length for a military posting overseas. I should add that the Secretary of State has powers under Section 15(9) of the 1983 Act to substitute another period not exceeding five years, as he thinks fit.

The order before us today will amend the provisions that enable members of the Armed Forces and their spouses or civil partners to register to vote under a service declaration. It will extend the statutory time limit on a declaration made by those who are entitled, and who wish to register in this way, from the current limit of three years to the period of five years which, as above, is the maximum extension permitted. We propose that this order, which applies to the United Kingdom as a whole, will come into force on the day after the day on which it is made.

This order will require amendments to current legislation in three respects. First, Section 15(2)(a) of the 1983 Act, which governs service declarations, will now have the effect that service declarations made by members of the armed services and their spouses and civil partners will last for five years after they have been made. Further, the order and Section 15(12) of the 1983 Act will operate together automatically to extend any existing declaration in place when the order comes into force so that it lapses five years from the date on which it was originally made, rather than three years from that date.

Secondly, the following consequential amendments to secondary legislation will be required. Article 3 of this order makes a consequential amendment to Regulation 25(3)(b) of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001. This amendment ensures that a service voter to whom this order applies will receive a letter from their electoral registration officer as a reminder that their service declarations should be renewed, three months before the end of the new five-year period. Articles 4 and 5 make corresponding consequential amendments to other regulations covering Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Thirdly, the Service Voters’ Registration Period Order 2006 and the equivalent Northern Ireland order will be revoked.

Why are the Government taking this action? In addition to considering the views of noble Lords on this matter at Report stage of the PPE Act, many of whom have extensive experience in the Armed Forces, the Government have consulted with representatives of service personnel, their families, the Electoral Commission and honourable Members from another place.

We acknowledge that more needs to be done on the question of registration rates among members of the Armed Forces, and a significant amount is already being done to drive up registration in this important area ahead of the general election. The number of service voters—that is, those who have made a service declaration in the UK on 1 December 2009—increased by 15 per cent from the previous year’s figure, at 25,237 compared with 21,928 the year before. Many personnel and their families choose instead to register as ordinary or overseas electors, but the increase that I have referred to shows that some progress is being made. There is more to be done.

The most recent service voting survey, carried out by MoD’s statistical branch and published in June last year, estimated that 65 per cent of service personnel were registered, and only 48 per cent of service personnel stationed overseas. That is lower than we would like, but it is worth noting that registration rates for younger age groups are generally lower than for older groups, at 44 per cent for 20 to 24 year-olds according to the Electoral Commission, and 30 per cent of the Armed Forces are aged between 18 and 24, compared with 18 per cent of the general population. None the less, it remains an important issue to address. Easing the administrative burden of re-registering to vote will help us to do so.

One aspect that came up time and again in responses by personnel to the MoD survey was the view that registering was important and that it was a personal responsibility to do so. We must retain this individual responsibility, and provide personnel and their families with information and resources to complete their registration. Great progress has been made on this since the last general election, with the introduction of an annual registration campaign run by the Electoral Commission and targeted at every unit around the world. The order would retain the individual responsibility of personnel and their families to register while improving convenience. This is an important part of our work to encourage higher registration rates in the service community, while at the same time maintaining an accurate electoral register. I commend the draft order to the Committee.

My Lords, when I first saw this order and the Explanatory Memorandum, I thought that they were relatively simple and straightforward. However, having listened to the Minister’s explanation, I am not so sure.

I start with the figures that the Minister quoted for service registration. He said that they had got it up to some 65 per cent. We would all accept that that is an improvement but, as he put it, it is not good enough. We would like to see the figure pushed up by whatever means possible in terms of encouraging individual members of the services to register and for their spouses or civil partners to register. However, dare I say that the possible problem might be due to the complexity of matters, and the fact that everything seems to change frequently? Paragraph 7 of the Explanatory Memorandum says—and the Minister made no bones about this:

“Prior to 2000 all service personnel who wished to be registered as electors had to register … which was valid indefinitely”.

For various reasons, that was reduced from indefinitely to annually, which was then changed to three years, which was then changed to five—but not for all the people who are so-called service voters. I may have misunderstood the Minister, but that will apply to the service voters who are members of the Armed Forces, plus spouses or civil partners, but not the other people defined as service voters, presumably including those in the diplomatic corps. So two different sorts of service voters are covered by this, some on a three-year basis and some on a five-year basis. The five years was previously three years, the three years previously annually; and, before that, it was indefinitely.

I am sure that the Government’s intentions are all very good, and I know that the Minister is trying to meet commitments that arose from the Political Parties and Elections Act, but constant chopping and changing of this sort will probably make things harder and discourage people from voting. He might think that a period of stability might be necessary, particularly in the light of the further changes that we will eventually get with individual registration coming in, which will no doubt lead to further orders that he and I will presumably have to discuss. Will the noble Lord consider that?

Finally, perhaps I may turn to one other matter—on which I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, will touch, because he touches on it with great regularity, and he is quite right to do so—namely postal voting, especially postal voting for those who are overseas at the moment. I am particularly thinking of those who are overseas on active, unaccompanied tours, such as those in Afghanistan or wherever. I am not particularly thinking of those who are based in Germany. This is most important for those who are on unaccompanied tours. I should like an assurance from the Minister that the Government are doing all that they can to ensure that not only postal voting forms but all other matters relevant to the election will be got out to those who are serving overseas, so that while they are doing their bit to defend democracy in the most hostile circumstances, they can also participate, as we would all think is right and proper.

I have no particular objection to these orders, but there has been a degree of chopping and changing over the years. A period of stability might be the answer that the noble Lord would wish to address in due course.

My Lords, I should like to express my thanks, and I think the thanks of all Members of the Committee, to the Minister and his team for seeking to fulfil promises given during the passage in this place and in the Chamber of the PPE Bill. He will remember that we had many debates on issues of this sort. I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno who has been a stalwart protagonist for our troops to make sure that they are in the best possible position to take part not only in the forthcoming general election but, of course, in the future.

It is extremely important for us to recognise that our troops in Afghanistan, in particular, have every right to express their views through the ballot box in the coming general election. As the Minister said, it is important at this time when so many of our troops are on active service. Again, the context is important: there needs to be a good flow of information for them so that they know what the election is about. Similarly, it is important for us in this country to know their views on the military action that they are being asked to take on our behalf in defence of democracy and freedom. In that context, the Minister may like to dispel a fear expressed in an extraordinary article in the Daily Telegraph today, under the headline, “Army faces Afghan gag for election”. I do not know whether it was just seeking to deflect attention from the continuing Ashcroft excitements.

It is obviously important that not just the registration arrangements are as expeditious and effective as they possibly can be, but the collection of votes should also be as well organised as possible. I note that on 5 January the Minister’s colleague, Mr Michael Wills, said:

“It is very important that service personnel are registered and that they can exercise their vote. There are logistical problems in some areas of deployment overseas. We are exploring them vigorously and we have set up the working group. We will take every single measure that we can to make sure that service personnel can vote”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/1/10; col. 6.]

The Minister may like to comment briefly on the progress of that working group. After all, it is only about two months until the likely date of the general election.

This order seeks to improve the situation. It may be that it is not going far enough, as was perhaps implied by the noble Lord, Lord Henley. We certainly would have liked to have seen some way in which it would be possible for forces personnel to register through their home base or their unit as they move around, but with the proviso that the electoral registration officer should be notified whenever a member of our Armed Forces is transferred from one unit to another, so that he or she does not by such means get disenfranchised. Whatever we say about the move from three to five years, this is only a small step forward. That is extremely important, and it will still be quite difficult to make sure that registration levels are improved.

I am not quite sure whether the figures that I have seen on this meet exactly those that the Minister has given, but I think it is true that 60,000 members of our Armed Forces are currently not registered to vote. There may have been an improvement, as the Minister suggested, but that is a very high figure—much higher than even in some inner-city areas, where there is considerable concern about low registration levels. I noticed this week that the Electoral Commission has indicated that some 56 per cent of 17 to 24 year-olds are not registered. The Armed Forces disproportionately include a large number of younger men and women. Therefore, if that is the general national figure, it may well be that the large number of Armed Forces personnel who are not registered are of that age group.

The order does not necessarily deal with the issue of the length of the campaign, an issue which the Minister will know we have raised several times in the Chamber in relation to the 2003 Electoral Commission recommendation that there should be consistency in all elections. In that context, I notice that there have been suggestions that the period of 11 days could be extended to 25 days. I know that the argument here is that this means that all the candidates have to be in place in good time. However, this might also be a very useful reform. Last-minute candidacy does not necessarily suggest a very effective form of democracy. It is certainly true that there was a lot of cross-party support for an extension to 25 days when my honourable friend the Member for North Devon, Mr Nick Harvey, brought forward Early Day Motion 862 in the previous Parliament.

The Electoral Commission has again made substantial recommendations on that score, not least to make sure that the electoral registration officers and the returning officers have the best possible chance of avoiding mistakes, avoiding fraud and including as many of the people who should be included in the process of our democracy as possible. I note, incidentally, that those who are currently posted to the Falklands—I think that this has been raised on previous occasions—are certainly anticipating quite a difficult period, given the relatively short gap between the closure and the election day itself, in making sure that postal votes are obtained and used to good effect.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, has already referred to individual electoral registration, which I know that Members on all sides of the Committee have been warmly supporting. The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 laid down a timetable for that, which is out of sync with the timetable for the service voters’ registration order currently before the Committee. The Electoral Commission, in its December 2009 submission, said that,

“under the proposed Service Voters’ Registration Order 2010 it would be possible for a Service voter declaration to be made in May 2015 and expire in May 2020. This would mean that, for three years from 2017, Service voters would not have provided the same personal identifiers as regular voters”.

There may be a case for special treatment, but I should like to hear the Minister spell it out. There might have been an easier way; indeed, the commission pointed out that there could have been an easier way to ensure total synchronisation between the two timescales.

I welcome the order so far as it goes, but I regret the fact that it has come at the fag-end of this Parliament, and that unexplained and unorganised questions still remain—as I fear that we are all going to recognise. It would have been better to have proceeded more speedily after the passage of the PPE Act last year so that we could all have looked at this with more care, and with more certainty that there were not going to be future problems.

My Lords, I join this debate having been knocking on electoral reform doors for many months. I thank the Minister for his generous patience during those months, although he has not answered the questions entirely to my satisfaction.

This is a timid order; we need something far more robust. When I first came here, or a year afterwards, I wondered whether in Christian Aid week we could have various denominations, possibly even based on various faiths, taking Prayers in the Chamber. I went to see one of the Clerks, who said, “Well, the last time we had any real change was in 1979”. I asked what happened then, and he said that before that date the bishops had to choose one of three psalms to read and that in 1979 they were allowed to choose one of 10. That is very slow progress, and so is this. A lot could have been done in the past few months, but it has not been done.

I raised this question before and had quite a helpful reply from the Minister. Could it be made automatic that when someone signs up for the Armed Forces they are automatically included on an electoral register? Automatic registration would mean a 100 per cent response rate instead of the 65 per cent that we have now.

Other things can also be done and we need to look at them. With the election coming in early May, we are told that it is too late to think of any major change in the coming weeks. I am sure that it is. It was not three months ago, but it is now. When we look at major change, we must look at the whole timetable for elections. The Electoral Commission suggests 25 days between nomination and polling day. That is a long time. At present with local elections there are 19 days between nomination day and polling day. For parliamentary elections, it is only 11 days between nomination day and polling day. This year, with the English local authorities that will have elections in May, there will be great confusion, with the 19 days here and the 11 days there. After the election, can we not have a look at the timetable and not be bound entirely by one that does not meet the needs of people today?

In 1997, there were fewer than 1 million postal voters in the whole of the UK. At the European elections, there were 6.1 million, and we could very well reach 8 million at the coming election—an increase of between eight or nine-fold. With that sort of increase, there will be added pressure on election offices throughout the country. Will there be cuts or will they get added staff, and will the staff be trained? When a department is under pressure, it can make mistakes. This does not only relate to the military, but if there are mistakes then results can be challenged in various constituencies. With a very close result, when no one party has a sufficient command of seats to form a Government immediately after an election, as with the hanging chads in the United States there may be disputes and people appealing against results. I am warning noble Lords that that could happen. I hope that it does not, but under stress it could happen. That could apply to the postal votes with the military overseas. We will need to get postal ballots out to them safely in places such as the Falklands and Afghanistan in 19 days and get them returned in time to be included in the count. Is that going to happen? Can it happen, especially as the delivery of mail will not be infallible? Some time ago, I was told that a military aeroplane would be at our disposal to take ballot papers from the UK out to Afghanistan, but only if operationally possible. I do not want to be emotional about this but we may end up with the situation where troops, many of whom are sacrificing their lives every day for the United Kingdom, are not allowed to vote in the United Kingdom.

Today the Minister may only be able to give a timid response, but after the election, whichever party is in power, I hope that we will be able to take a thorough look at this matter to ensure that unnecessary pressure and stress is not felt by the organisers and that people, whether they are overseas or here, are able to exercise their vote, as everyone is supposed to be able to do. I do not know who will be sitting there after the election but I ask the Minister to promise us a thoroughgoing review of this matter once the election is over in order to sort out all the difficulties. The Electoral Commission’s advice has been rejected by the Government but we have to make a thorough start or there will be a repeat of this problem many times in the future.

I thank noble Lords who have joined in the debate on this order. We are grateful to them all and I thank them for their support for it, even if they do not think that it takes matters as far forward as they would like.

I start by reminding noble Lords how personnel can register to vote. They can do so in three different ways. First, service personnel and their spouses or civil partners may choose, as many do, to register as ordinary electors via the household canvass, which has to be renewed annually. Secondly, they can choose to register as an overseas elector, giving an address in the UK. That also has to be renewed annually. The third way, and the one that we are attempting to boost via this order, is to register by way of a service declaration. That has to be renewed every three years and this order would extend that to five years.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Henley: we, too, would like the figures to be pushed up. He is right to say that the declaration of some people who register by way of service declaration lasts for 12 months and for others it lasts longer. For those in the Armed Forces, it lasts for three years and for others it lasts for 12 months. Here, we are increasing the service declaration of those in the Armed Forces to five years.

The noble Lord mentioned a period of stability. That is often a good idea but, if stability is to be achieved, one sometimes has to pay the price of not increasing the number of people who register. I think we all agree that we want to see a higher percentage of those serving in our Armed Forces registering than is the case at present.

I am very grateful for some of the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I know that he is modest about himself but he is a great expert in this field, as is the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, who sits beside him.

So far as concerns individual registration, we will carry out registration campaigns, as we do currently. We have not yet worked out what the detailed processes and procedures will be with respect to service voters when we move to individual registration, but of course we will consider very carefully what should be done.

The noble Lord talked about the 60,000 unregistered Armed Forces personnel. I can only say that the Ministry of Defence carries out an annual survey, to which I referred earlier, of more than 2,000 personnel to investigate voting attitudes. The most recent survey found that 65 per cent of respondents were registered to vote. We cannot give precise annual figures because personnel may register as ordinary electors, service voters or overseas electors, and registration officers do not record the profession of ordinary or overseas electors.

On Afghanistan and information about the elections, I do not think the Daily Telegraph article relates to information going to service personnel. I think that the point it is trying to make, but does not do terribly well, is about information about what is happening in Afghanistan coming back to the electors of the United Kingdom.

I entirely understand the point the Minister is making and have read the article. The two-way flow of information is very important in the context of this general election campaign. If the Minister is, as I think he may be, seeking to dispel some fears about that two-way flow of information, I would be very grateful.

I am attempting to do so in terms of information to personnel in Afghanistan. Personnel can access information about the election out there. There is very good internet access and personnel can visit the websites of political parties and the media in that way. I have to say, as I always do, that that is subject to operational priorities. British newspapers are circulated to personnel, although they may be delayed.

I know the issue very well, and the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, should not apologise for having raised it on a number of occasions. It is a point he feels passionately about. Our view about registration is that for a general election we would like it to be as close to the polling day as possible to allow as many people to register as possible. We cannot start sending postal votes out until we know that nominations are closed. We would like people to be able to nominate or to be nominated as close to the election as possible.

Why is it important to have them as close to the election as possible for a parliamentary election but not for a European election, an Assembly election in Wales, an election for the Scottish Parliament or any other election? It is just this election that has the 11-day scale. Why is it more important for that than for other elections? I might be making a mistake with the timetable for one or two of them, but I know that local government and other elections have much longer to be nominated—another week. Why for one? Is that really a reason not to change that timetable?

For nominations, it is particularly important that at the time of a national general election, people should be allowed to nominate as late as possible. That is true about registration as well. As I understand it, the registration date for elections is the same whatever type of election it is. It is 11 days in order that people can register as late as is practical, yet still get their postal vote and be able to return it in good time.

It cannot be because if nominations close, say, 16 or 17 days before polling day for local elections, you cannot have your registration a week later than that.

As I understand it, and as I am advised, for all elections, the deadline for registration and for new or changed postal vote applications is 11 working days before polling day. Registration is the same. The final date is the same whether it is a Welsh Assembly election, a by-election in the ward in which I live in Leicestershire or a general election. It is the same so that as many people can register as possible because a weakness of our system is that not everyone registers—people in the inner cities or service personnel.

I appreciate the tributes paid to our Armed Forces in Afghanistan. As noble Lords know, we are doing our very best to ensure that a scheme is in place which will work for troops on active service in Afghanistan. As I said, we have been looking at the current postal voting system and we believe that it is possible to set up a scheme which would deliver ballot papers to and from Afghanistan in time for them to be counted. That scheme would work, subject to operational priorities, within the existing electoral timetable, which I know some noble Lords would like changed. Because of the time-saving made by using very regular military supply flights to and from Afghanistan, a registration campaign specifically for personnel is being carried out now. The Electoral Commission has produced bespoke registration forms for personnel in, or due to deploy to, Afghanistan for polling day. They will offer the postal voting scheme and a proxy application form for those who, for operational reasons, might be unable to vote by post.

Our aim, which we hope will be successful, is to expedite the printing, delivery and return of ballot papers, by working with the Ministry of Defence and the electoral administrations. Operational priorities, of course, will prevail. Success cannot be guaranteed. However, it should be quicker and more effective than the current system. I hope that this initiative is supported around the Committee.

I have spoken for long enough. I thank noble Lords for their support and I hope that the Committee supports the order.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 7.26 pm.