My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Guardsman Michael Sweeney of 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards and Rifleman Mark Turner of 3rd Battalion The Rifles, both of whom were killed on operations in Afghanistan recently.
The Ministry of Defence works closely with the Ministry of Justice and the Electoral Commission to enable those service personnel in Afghanistan who choose to vote by post to do so. We are striving to expedite, subject to operational priorities, the delivery of ballot papers to and from Afghanistan for service personnel. We have encouraged all personnel to register to vote and to vote by proxy.
My Lords, our thoughts, too, are with the family and friends of Guardsman Sweeney and Rifleman Turner.
Given the huge mistake made by the Government in the Representation of the People Act 2000, will they give a commitment—as we have—to end the need for service personnel, who are frequently on the move, to keep reregistering? After all, 34,000 full-time members of the Armed Forces are not registered to vote in this election. In light of the comments made by Michael Wills, the Justice Minister, that there is no guarantee that all votes from Afghanistan will reach Britain in time, what measures will the Government take to ensure that all service votes are counted?
My Lords, I do not accept that mistakes were made as regards the 2000 legislation. We continuously have to keep under review the provisions we make. As regards the service register, we have changed the entitlement to three years and my noble friend has said from this Dispatch Box that that will go up to five years. However, it is important that that register is kept up to date.
My right honourable friend in another place, Michael Wills, recognised the potential problem for people voting in Afghanistan. That is why the Electoral Commission has designed a bespoke registration form which is being given to people operating in those difficult circumstances, and special arrangements are being made to dispatch ballot papers and to return them as quickly as possible. All that, of course, is subject to operational requirements.
My Lords, we on these Benches join in the sympathy expressed for the families of those who have lost their lives.
The Minister might be as surprised as I am that, at the last minute, the Conservative Opposition here are aware of this problem. We on these Benches have been tackling it for at least six months.
The Conservative Opposition might not be willing to face the fact that on not one occasion have the Conservatives taken any interest whatever in these problems.
I received an official poll card this morning that says that postal votes will be posted on Friday 23 April and that, in the case of any difficulty, we are to phone the local registration office by 30 April. How will forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere be able to respond to that warning?
My Lords, I recognise the long-term interest that the noble Lord has taken in this issue, but I had hoped that registration and encouraging people to vote would not be an issue of party-political divide at this time. I can think of many other things that will be, but perhaps not that.
Special arrangements have been made for those in Afghanistan, as I said, with a bespoke form. We are in the middle of a roulement—a change of personnel—in Afghanistan and part of the deployment package consists of information about registration, the appropriate form and a recommendation that service personnel in Afghanistan vote by proxy, as that is the surer way of ensuring that their votes are cast. Those new arrangements are an improvement and I hope that the whole House will welcome them.
My Lords, can the Minister consult her ministerial colleague and confirm the fact that an amendment from these opposition Benches was tabled to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill to exactly that effect in February last year, which—correct me if my information is wrong—is more than six months ago?
My Lords, an assurance was given at that time that the change would be made. It is important to record that the service register should be kept up to date. If we keep those names on indefinitely, there would be problems. It is right to have an update every few years. The question was whether that should be every three or five years and there has now been an indication that it should be five years. I remind the House that the vast majority of service personnel are registered in the normal way at their home address and not on the service register.
My Lords, our first thoughts are quite rightly with the soldiers, but the Minister will be aware that there are large numbers of civilians—some of them not working with the Armed Forces but in dangerous situations. Are the special arrangements extended to them, or can the Minister consult her colleagues on that?
My Lords, anybody who is deployed by the Government should have advice about how to vote. Although people can go on an overseas register, or a service register if they are military personnel, we would normally recommend that if they are going to be overseas it is preferable to vote by proxy rather than any other way.
My Lords, on a non-political basis, I point out that a century and a quarter ago in the then Afghan campaign a distant relative of the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, and an even more distant relative of mine was ordered to lead a column of relief from Peshawar to Kandahar in March. He wrote to his wife in County Fermanagh every single day, and when he was killed in August of that year his wife had received all but one of those letters. May I commend that particular index of British army postal efficiency to the Minister as an encouragement at the present time?
My Lords, we should always be willing to learn from the past, especially in this House. I hope that the extra effort that has been undertaken by the Ministry of Justice, by the Electoral Commission and, indeed, by the Ministry of Defence will result in those who are on operations being allowed to vote in this coming election. I am sure that, all through the campaign, all our thoughts will be with those who are serving in such a difficult situation.