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Elections: Voting Arrangements

Volume 725: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2011

Question for Short Debate

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will consider changing the voting arrangements for British citizens residing abroad and members of the Armed Forces serving abroad.

My Lords, I hope you will forgive me for asking a Question on voting arrangements, because of course, as a Conservative hereditary Peer, I have never voted in any general election. However, there is a referendum approaching in which I look forward to voting, and I have, of course, always been able to vote in local elections.

This Government have always seen the merits of enfranchisement of British citizens living abroad. However, in recent years, the take-up of overseas registration has been disappointing. I am afraid that one of the reasons was the change of rules enacted by the previous Labour Government. It is now very difficult for British citizens living abroad to register, and it is even more difficult for them successfully to use their postal vote. As a result, registration has plummeted.

Equally, those serving abroad in the Armed Forces have had severe problems getting their postal votes processed. Does my noble friend have any estimate of how many members of the Armed Forces serving overseas successfully managed to vote at the last election? At present, the only sure way for members of the Armed Forces to vote is by proxy. However, surely those who wish to exercise their vote by secret ballot should be able to do so. It is extraordinary that out of all the troops from NATO countries in Afghanistan, who are there to encourage democracy, ours are often denied it. Can my noble friend give an assurance that for the referendum that is to be held on 5 May, when postal ballots are sent out on 18 April to those in Afghanistan, the Falklands or the many other territories, postal ballots will be able to be returned on time so that the votes count?

We seem to be the only EU country that does not encourage its citizens living abroad to play an active part in their own country. It is difficult to register and it is difficult to vote. You have to register in the constituency where you last lived in the UK, and you have to prove it, so many do not bother—it is a cumbersome procedure.

Through the internet, those living abroad are as close as they have ever been to their home country. It is the same as if they were living here. You can download any national newspaper any morning. You can watch the BBC on a television anywhere in the world. You remain part of your home country and belong to it. However, if you do not register, you lose interest in your home country and do not feel like supporting any political party. As a result, many feel disfranchised, unwanted and irrelevant to what is happening in their home country.

The main groups affected are those who are working abroad, including members of the Armed Forces, and particularly those who have moved or retired abroad. We live in a world where many travel for both short-term and long-term reasons, and their numbers are increasing; but that should not mean that their political rights should not be exercised. The rules are seen to be unfair and totally different from the rules for other EU countries, which not only make it easy but actually encourage their citizens abroad to take part in the democratic process. French citizens abroad can register with their embassy or consulate. Their votes can be cast in person, by mail, by proxy or on the internet. The advantage of that is that the French embassies and consulates know where their citizens live in foreign countries; often in times of crisis or difficulties, those nationals are able to be contacted much more easily than we can contact our nationals who live abroad.

Italy has a somewhat similar system. The Greek constitution provides for voting from abroad by post, but the law required to apply this provision has not yet been passed—although that is intended to happen. In Germany, the restriction on those voting is 25 years compared with 15 years in this country. Noble Lords will remember that the previous Government changed the rules, whereby if you have lived abroad for more than 15 years you are no longer able to vote. That is unfair, and that does not happen in many other European countries that I have looked at, including Belgium, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. All have better arrangements for voting abroad than we do.

There are always exceptions to the rule. For some inexplicable and particularly Irish reason, only diplomats and military personnel serving abroad can vote in elections in Ireland. I do not understand, nor have I been able to discover, why that is the case, but perhaps a noble Lord with more knowledge of that may be able to answer that question.

At the last election, complaints were numerous. For those living abroad, despite getting their requests to register well in advance of the deadline, many did not receive their registration. If they succeeded in registering, the ballot papers often did not arrive in sufficient time for the votes to be cast and to arrive back in the UK in time to count. The system is unworkable and deprives many British citizens of their right to vote.

We saw at the last election that many were disgracefully locked out of the polling booths at the last minute—at a quarter to 10, or just after. The Electoral Commission has a lot to answer for, and one wonders whether it is up to the job.

There is a 15-year rule in this country and I hope that the Government will look again at that, because it is unfair and excludes perhaps half the expatriates living overseas. There is no credible reason for that. When the Conservative Government re-enfranchised expatriates in the late 1980s, they did not imagine a situation when a Labour Government would come along and disfranchise people again by adopting the 15-year rule. That provision should be reversed. This is not a party issue. In the US, the Conservative and Labour groups signed a joint letter complaining about the 15-year rule and disfranchisement. Under the present system, the only way expats can be certain that their vote will arrive in time, especially from outside Europe, is to vote by proxy. However, many do not have an obvious proxy, and many do not want to vote by proxy.

I understand that there are at least 650,000 British citizens living in EU states, and some 800,000 expatriates worldwide who receive UK pensions. When one looks at the figures and evidence provided by the Electoral Commission, one sees that the entry of overseas voters on the UK parliamentary electoral registers had increased to the rather meagre sum of 30,809 in December 2010. By any standard, that is a pathetic amount, compared to the number of our citizens living overseas. It is something that must be addressed. Can the Minister confirm any of the figures that I have given him? Are they correct for how many people are living abroad and how many manage to vote? I am not entirely sure that all my figures are right. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

Finally, under the recent Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, from which your Lordships are only just recovering, overseas voters have the right to vote in the referendum on 5 May. What is being done to inform them of their rights and encourage them to vote in this important referendum, which could change a significant part of our constitution? It is important that the Government undertake to review the system before the next election, as it is unfair and discriminatory in an age when we all ought to be voting online.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, on securing this important debate. I declare my interest in these issues: I was the Minister responsible for them in the previous Government. I will focus my remarks on the voting arrangements for service personnel, although some of the improvements that can be made will also have implications for British citizens living overseas. I want to focus on the armed services because when men and women make such sacrifices for their country, they must be able to have an effective say in their country’s future. The Government must do everything possible to enable them to do so.

There are two elements to ensuring that service men and women can vote. First, they have to be registered. Secondly, when they do vote their vote has to be able to be counted in time. Both pose particular problems for services voters. They are often more peripatetic than other voters, which can cause problems with registration and deployment in remote areas, particularly in conflict zones; and can create serious problems with the timely return of postal votes. Much work has been already been done in both areas. The period for service declarations was extended to five years under the previous Government to help accommodate the volatility of life in the services. There are annual electoral registration campaigns targeted at service personnel and their families, and each unit has a unit registration officer.

We can see the results. During the time of the previous Government, the number of service personnel serving abroad who are registered to vote increased from around 36 per cent in 2005 to 48 per cent in 2008. An MoD survey carried out not long after that estimated that in 2008 65 per cent were registered to vote. This is still far too low and much more must be done to increase registration rates, just as more needs to be done to increase registration among the 3 million or so voters who are eligible to vote but cannot because they are not on the register. I hope the Minister will respond to this debate by telling the House how the Government are building on the work of the previous Government to increase registration rates further.

Once registered, all service personnel serving overseas can make use of proxy votes to ensure that their votes can be counted. They are not disenfranchised. However, when I was the Minister and I consulted representatives of service men and women and their families, they made it clear that many were uncomfortable using proxy votes and wanted to ensure that postal votes could be used. In my view, the Government should do everything possible, consistent with the integrity of the ballot, to enable voters to vote in the way that they wish.

The electoral timetable, for good reasons, means that postal ballots are issued only relatively close to election day, and therefore there can be serious problems with the timely return of postal ballots. The previous Government took action to address this problem. A great deal of excellent work was done by first-rate experienced officials in the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence. A bespoke postal voting scheme was set up for the last general election to expedite postal voting in Afghanistan, and a process was established to produce a long-term solution. Before the last election, I secured agreement from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties that, whatever the outcome of that election, a consultation would be launched in July 2010 on the options for additional voting channels for service personnel and their families. This consultation was to have concluded by the end of November last year. The aim was then to reach conclusions on the way forward in the light of that consultation by spring 2011, and to bring forward legislation in 2012—in good time for the next general election.

I recognise that there is a wide variety of views on how best to proceed. As the Minister I heard, for example, suggestions for automatic registration for service personnel, for counting military votes on a longer timetable after polling day, and for the electronic distribution and remote printing and counting of ballot papers. All of these suggestions had merits and drawbacks but they were all worth exploring further. I became convinced that the answer lay with the internet. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, referred to this as well. Enabling voting by internet would require changes in electoral law—which is enormously complex—and must satisfy, crucially, any concerns about the integrity of the system. However, none of these problems seemed insoluble, not least because the security of the internet is becoming at least as robust as the security surrounding traditional methods of voting. Just as importantly for the credibility of any changes, the security of the internet is increasingly widely accepted. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell the House what progress the Government are making with this consultation and bringing forward the legislation necessary for any changes.

Finally, I want to touch on the referendum, which the noble Viscount referred to. At the moment, I understand that the proposal is to issue postal ballots on 18 April. That, as the Minister will appreciate, leaves very little time for them to reach personnel deployed in remote areas and be returned in time. While there may well be good reasons—and there are—for such a late issue of postal ballots for a general election, I cannot see why that applies to this referendum, where the contents of the ballot are known now. Therefore, I would be grateful if the Minister could outline the measures he is taking to ensure that all voters in the armed services, no matter where they are deployed, will receive postal ballots for the referendum on AV in good time for them to be returned by the due date.

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Viscount for initiating the debate. I agree with what he has said and with what the noble Lord, Lord Wills, has said. I raised this issue last summer in a Written Question, when I asked the Government whether they would introduce legislative proposals so that British citizens who have worked overseas for more than 15 years in international organisations could have the same right to vote in parliamentary elections as members of the Armed Forces, Crown servants and employees of the British Council. My noble friend Lord McNally, in a Written Answer on 10 June, said:

“The Government are aware that representations have been made on behalf of those working in some international organisations abroad that they should continue to be able to vote after a period of 15 years’ continuous residence overseas. The Government have not yet considered the way forward on this issue”.—[Official Report, 10/6/10; col. WA57.]

I quite understand why that should be so for a new Government, but I hope—for the reasons that I will give as well as those that have been given—that the Minister will indicate that this thinking and open-minded Government will further consider these important issues.

I put down that Question for Written Answer because Simon Palmer, a very distinguished senior official in the Council of Europe, who has now been serving abroad for, I think, 27 years, raised the issue with me. He pointed out that in the days of the internet and broadband, British citizens serving abroad in international organisations are at least as well informed about British politics, British social policy and what is happening generally in this country as they would be if they were living in Herne Hill. He pointed out, therefore, that if there was any rationale in the pre-internet age for the 15-year cut-off, to do with knowledge of what is going on in the United Kingdom, it has long since disappeared. I agree with that.

He also pointed out, as has the Electoral Commission in the information that it has provided, that the cut-off point has varied from five to 20 to 15 years. I am not aware of any rationale for how those periods have been chosen. They seem to be entirely arbitrary and, I dare say, discriminatory in a way that violates Article 14 of the European convention read with Article 3 of the first protocol. There seems to be a difference in the treatment of, for example, an employee of the British Council, who is not subject to any cut-off point, a member of the armed services, who is not subject to the same cut-off point, and someone such as Mr Palmer who has been providing service abroad in the wider public interest, who is subject to this cut-off point. I should be very grateful if the Minister could tell us the rationale behind a period of five, 20 or 15 years in relation to such a person.

That is not all. So far, I have concentrated on membership of service in international organisations. However, in a world in which there is a right of establishment and freedom of movement under European Union rules, I ask myself why our concern should not include, for example, business men or women, who under the right of establishment are living, working, earning money and paying taxes in other parts of the European Union. Again, that seems entirely irrational. It might be said that it is somehow administratively difficult to administer the scheme without a cut-off point. However, that cannot be right because, as we know from the exceptions to the 15-year rule and to the overseas voting scheme, it is perfectly possible to manage without it in respect of those exceptions.

Therefore, although I do not expect the Minister to be able to give a definitive answer this evening, I very much hope that these concerns, which have already been raised by the two previous speakers, as well as by me, can now be looked at so that a full and comprehensive answer can be given to the question raised by the noble Viscount, which affects basic civil rights and freedoms, quite apart from any European dimension or any question of Peers voting—although Peers are of course subject to the 15-year rule if they are outside the country for that time—and quite apart from the vexed question of prisoners’ voting rights. We are dealing with something that transcends all that and I very much hope to get a positive answer.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, on securing this debate. He asked whether any Member present this evening could explain the vagaries of the electoral system in the south of Ireland. As an Ulsterman, I am as mystified as he is.

Where there is a will, there is a way. In this modern, sophisticated world of ours, we pride ourselves on the ingenuity of mankind. We contemplate the merits of sending a man to Mars; medical teams have transplanted an entire human face; and we have unlocked the basic building blocks of life itself. Amazing, ingenious—is there nothing beyond our grasp? Apparently, there is. We can send a probe millions of light years into deep space and receive back pictures of worlds previously not even contemplated, but somehow the ability to send ballot papers to serving soldiers and receive them back before the polls close is one small step just too far for mankind—at least, of the British variety.

Patently, it is nonsense that those who serve in the Armed Forces—those whom we dispatch to mortal peril in the name of democracy—cannot be serviced with an adequate voting system in the 21st century. Iraqi and Afghan citizens living in this country have more chance of voting in their national elections—a franchise they enjoy courtesy of the efforts of British and other allied troops—than those very same UK troops have of voting at home. It is an insult that those who serve at the sharp end in the service of our democracy are so impeded in their ability to action that most basic democratic right—the right to vote.

Now, I do not propose that we use the 1945 election as a template. While it is true that that election accommodated the huge numbers of service men and women serving overseas, it did so by postponing the counting of votes by some three weeks. In Northern Ireland we used to postpone the counting of general election votes until the day after the polls closed, while everyone else on the mainland busied themselves with counts during the night. Given the level of irritation which that small delay caused, I do not think that postponement is the solution. Surely the answer lies at the other end of the electoral process, by providing for a slightly longer period between the close of nominations and the day of the election. That should provide enough time for ballot papers to be sent and returned in a timely fashion.

I know it is said that a week is a long time in politics, but just how many budding, potential parliamentarians are going to be debarred from standing for election because they have been asked to submit their nomination papers several days earlier? I suggest that there would not be many. In any case, surely the need to support the right of those in the Armed Forces to vote far outweighs the needs of those who feel compelled to stand for election at the very last moment.

Others have argued that the means for serving soldiers to vote already exist through the use of a proxy. That is to assume, however, that everyone has access to a proxy to whom they can entrust their vote. In any event, the use of a proxy is but a pale imitation of the real thing. Personally placing an X—and I say “X” deliberately, rather than the “1, 2, 3” that some well-intentioned but, I believe, misguided souls aspire to—is the moment of closure.

At a time when our learned friends at the European Court of Human Rights have advised Her Majesty’s Government that they would be well advised to provide voting rights to prisoners, we could well end up with the absurd position of criminals having more access to the voting system than troops in Afghanistan. That makes no sense to me and no sense to the country. When we are asking so much of our troops and when there is much discussion of the position of the services in today’s society and the need to support and enhance that position, ensuring that our service personnel serving abroad can, at the very least, cast their judgment on the Government who equip and direct them seems to me a fairly obvious starting point.

This is a point of principle and, I think, a moral obligation for parliamentarians. I urge the Government to bring forward proposals sooner rather than later.

My Lords, my brief contribution to this evening’s important debate might perhaps be regarded as having a slightly maidenly tinge. I have spoken once before since having the privilege of joining this noble House, but these are the first words since then that I have uttered in this Chamber, which Disraeli had chiefly in mind when he compared this House to the Elysian fields—that paradise in which heroes of the ancient world reposed for all eternity. Disraeli was firmly opposed to the creation of a mass electorate, convinced that the right to vote should be tightly restricted. However, above all, this great hero of the Tories believed that his party should seek to master whatever sets of circumstances might be created by the remorseless process of change to which, as he often pointed out, this progressive country is always subject.

I do not think it can be said that my party has so far done spectacularly well in dealing with the circumstances created by the enfranchisement of certain British citizens living permanently abroad, and nor perhaps have other parties. The most striking feature of the current overseas voting arrangements is how few people have so far taken advantage of them. Of those living overseas who are eligible to take part in our elections, no more than some 31,000 are actually registered today, as my noble friend Lord Astor pointed out. That is exactly the same number as 20 years ago after the Representation of the People Act 1989 had extended to 20 years—up from the initial five—the period during which our fellow citizens abroad can apply to vote in UK parliamentary and European elections. I was greatly struck by the comment of my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill about the lack of any rationale for these different periods. As he has told us, no rationale has ever been offered and it would be very useful to have one because, as other noble Lords have pointed out, it is of serious concern that so few British citizens living abroad have come forward to take up the right to vote here, which was conferred on them in the 1980s.

As far as my party is concerned, this state of affairs does not reflect indifference on the part of our fellow citizens living abroad. There are lively and successful Conservative associations in many overseas countries—some of which I have had the pleasure of visiting—and they form part of a network which is advised and assisted by the highly regarded Conservatives Abroad office in Tory headquarters. As one of our leading overseas members has recently said, “Within their host countries, expatriates meet and celebrate their Britishness in all types of organisations, associations, churches and schools”.

When the Conservative Party's flourishing overseas associations are asked why so few people are actually registered to vote—I think this is true of other parties—they tend to answer with one accord that the process of registration is too complex and cumbersome. There are other factors, but registration is so often the dominant one. The statutory requirements for registration are not easy to fulfil, as the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, explained in his opening speech. Again, as my noble friend Lord Astor pointed out, the time needed to fulfil the requirements makes it virtually impossible to register close to an election. The position would be greatly eased if electronic registration were introduced. Of course, there would be many problems attached to this, not least fraud, but many other countries have overcome them successfully. There might perhaps be merit in asking the Electoral Commission to examine the issues thoroughly and produce a full report which could help to inform close discussion of the ways in which more of our fellow citizens abroad could exercise more easily the important right that they have been given.

Against such a background it might also be timely to reconsider the current rules which disenfranchise all our fellow citizens who have lived overseas for more than 15 years. Subject to the views of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, to whom we are greatly indebted for this debate, I ask the Minister to consider these suggestions.

My Lords, I wish to express my appreciation for the debate secured by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and to say thank you to the noble Lord, Lord Wills, for the effort that he made to enfranchise the Armed Forces when he was Minister in the other place. I have great hopes for the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. I agree with everything he says. I thought that he would turn to the electoral system in the Irish Republic, but he did not. He condemns the system which is so close to my heart—that of proper proportional representation—but I am sure that we shall remain on speaking terms. However, he spoke of the importance of service personnel being able to vote. I battled with this a couple of Sessions of Parliament ago when I tried to get serious consideration of the automatic registration of people when they sign up to the Armed Forces, so that they are included on an electoral register. We have a registration officer for every unit but I think we need more. Automatic registration would meet the criteria quite easily.

Others have already mentioned the very tight general election timetable: between the close of nominations and polling day there are just 11 working days. I suggest that 11 working days is far too short a period for nominations to be verified, for papers to be printed, for them to be dispatched, for them to reach the furthermost parts of our interests in Afghanistan and elsewhere and for them to be filled in and returned. It is nice to speak of doing things online, but I am sure that many of our troops are out of the reach of any sort of computer, so would be unable to take advantage of that method of voting.

This morning, the MoD confirmed that we have 9,500 troops in Afghanistan. How many of them voted? It says that at the time of the general election there were 9,000 or 10,000, so this morning I was astonished to receive figures from the Electoral Commission showing that, in the 2010 UK general election, 294 proxy voting applications were received and forwarded to electoral registration officers and 270 postal votes were successfully returned from Afghanistan to returning officers in about 120 authorities. That is out of 9,000 people who are eligible to vote. That is totally disgraceful and is not acceptable in any modern democracy.

I suggest that one of the reasons for that is the period of 11 days for the whole transaction. That contrasts with other timetabling for elections: for example, for the National Assembly for Wales, where we shall have an election very soon, there is a gap of 19 days; for the Scottish parliamentary elections, 23 days; for the Northern Ireland Assembly, 16 days; for the London Assembly, 24 days; and for the European Parliament and for local elections in England there is a gap of 19 days. When we have such important elections, why is the gap only 11 days? We tried to sort this out with the previous Government but I am so sad that they were not able to proceed to retimetable the gap between the close of nominations and polling day. It is nonsensical.

The situation becomes even more confused. Last year, a general election took place on the same day as local elections in England. Agents, returning officers and their staff were all involved in election campaigns and there was tremendous inconvenience because the different elections had different timetabling, even though they were to take place on the same day. Not only were ballot papers not returned in time because of the 11-day timetable, but candidates and parties were unable to reach the electorate with their messages and manifestos. The Representation of the People Act 1983 states that any candidate can send one item of election literature free of postage to each elector. However, that does not apply to people overseas. You get a ballot paper at the last minute but no information about the candidates and there is nothing to promote them. We need to extend this ridiculous period of 11 days so that there is sufficient time, not only for the ballot papers but also for the material from the various candidates to reach those who are entitled to vote.

Finally, having a consistent workable timetable, say of between 18 and 25 days—I believe that the Electoral Commission wants 25 days—between the close of nominations and polling day would enable those overseas, especially those serving in the forces, to play a much more significant part in our elections in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the issue of the voting rights of those living abroad or serving their country abroad seems to me to have a clear constitutional quality or aspect but also presents equally clear and simple logistical challenges to ensure that votes are deliverable on time, in the right place and in an orderly way.

Tonight we must debate the issues raised so eloquently by my noble friend on the run within our present rather ad hoc arrangements for constitutional change and reform. Within that framework I shall concentrate on the rights of service men and women, important though the feelings of, for example, British civilians living abroad are. We should treat the constitutional and logistical issues of the service vote specifically within the framework of the military covenant, which is central to my remarks. The military covenant should embody, with everything else, the clear voting rights of men and women who serve us abroad. I regard it as ever more important as we necessarily ask in these difficult times fewer to do more when they serve us. This is an urgent task.

The absolute right to vote on time and in secret should be enshrined in the military covenant. A proxy vote is no substitute for being able to vote in secret. I remember the late Lord Garden making that point very strongly some years ago. Why should service personnel not be able to vote in exactly the same way as any other British subject wherever they are in the world? The issue begins with the life of service registration which is now five years. I welcome that. I also applaud the MoD’s efforts to get the service vote registered. Its efforts are excellent, as are those of some local councils, such as North Lincolnshire, which only last month publicised the issue in its area. In the end I would prefer to see registration lasting the life of service if that is the only certain way to ensure the continuing right to vote for service men and women wherever they are.

There are then the sheer logistical problems of getting votes back from bases in, say, Germany, which are compounded to the power in getting votes out of in-theatre areas such as Afghanistan. As the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, and my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno, so rightly said, there is no reason why there should not be a longer period. Why cannot procedures for general and local elections be better aligned? At present the printing and posting of general election ballot papers can begin only after the final publication of those nominated—11 days. In local elections it is 16 days. For a start we could align the 11 days with the 16 days as those extra five days could make all the difference in the logistics of ensuring that those who are risking their lives do not also risk recording their vote when all that is required is a little neo-constitutional date alignment. I have heard the argument that someone should have the right to stand for Parliament at the last minute. I have never thought that that was a very good reason. Among the ranks of my new best friends in the Liberal Democrats, Mr Huhne, the Energy Secretary, took about three years before he tilted at the seat I represented, making it quite clear that he was going to stand. We should take the service vote as something that trumps the need for last-minute, monster loony applications to stand in general elections.

In short order, also, why do we not have special ballot box arrangements administered in theatre by forces with priority postal arrangements to get them back, and in the opposite direction, exactly the same expedited arrangements, as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, said, to get messages of candidates across? What my noble friend Lord Astor and the noble Lord, Lord Wills, said about looking at internet voting is very important but we should not diminish or forget the possibility of cyber attack on internet voting or indeed on any other internet sphere.

I end by recognising the fact that life cannot be perfect. There are a few particularly difficult situations facing those of our excellent submariners on board our deterrent Vanguard class submarines when on patrol on continuous at-sea deterrence for 80 or 100 days submerged, with all the communications involved. It would be pretty difficult, I suspect, to get their votes back. In those cases, proxies by those they trust might be the only answer. They deserve our thanks, as do all our service men and women, which is my reason for stressing that the service vote and its safety is not some little issue for returning officers, constitution freaks and those interested in the wider shores of constitutional reform. It is absolutely central that the military covenant in future should embody the rights of servicemen to vote in exactly the same way as anyone within the kingdom.

I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, for holding this debate tonight. It is a very good topic, of interest to everyone who believes that in a democracy voting should be uncomplicated and that an easy route to casting one’s vote should be found.

To assist British people living abroad and those in our Armed Forces serving overseas, the Electoral Commission runs advertising and media campaigns to encourage voter registration among British citizens living abroad. The campaigns include online advertising targeted at sites which are frequently used by British citizens living overseas. I received some information this morning in which the commission said:

“Our most recent campaign took place in spring 2010 in the run up to the UK Parliamentary General Election. It resulted in more than 40,000 overseas voter registration forms being downloaded from the Commission’s website. The Office for National Statistics publishes annual registration data collected from Electoral Registration Officers in Great Britain and from the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland. In December 2009 there were 14,861 entries of overseas voters on the UK Parliamentary electoral registers, this increased to 30,809 in December 2010”.

The Electoral Commission’s campaign doubled the amount of registrations, but the number is still very low. The commission believes that the current election timetable may not always provide enough time to allow for postal voters to receive the ballot paper, mark it and send it back in time for the close of poll. In its report on the 2010 UK general election the commission restated its recommendation, first made in 2003, that the Government should review the election timetable to ensure that there is sufficient time for voters to receive and return their postal ballot packs for future elections. Would the Minister look at this recommendation?

There are a number of problems for voters abroad, as other noble Lords have said. The closing date for nominations and then the wait of a few days for withdrawals means that, as has been said, the full list of candidates is available only 11 days before polling day. Most people recognise that this is too short a time to get postal votes sent abroad and returned. Fixed-term elections could overcome that problem. Proxy voting can be an answer for some people as it should be a sure way of getting one’s vote cast. However, not everyone is happy with allowing someone else to vote for them and they may not have someone they can trust enough. So that can be only a partial answer.

In America most states send out ballot papers between 20 to 45 days before an election, but there are also back-up systems, including online forms that can be printed and posted back. Canadian forces have a flexible special voting system that enables people to vote wherever they are stationed. Under that system, electors have a six-day window to vote beginning two weeks before civilian election day. Will the Minister look at other countries such as those mentioned to see if their methods could be adopted?

Another way to overcome those difficulties would be to move to electronic voting, as other noble Lords have said. Surely we could have a pilot scheme first. Like other noble Lords, I believe that that is the way forward. I think that we will get there one day, but I wonder how long that will take. Does the Minister think that that is a feasible idea?

My final question to the Minister is: why cannot people from Wales who live abroad vote in the referendum tomorrow in Wales, whereas they can vote in the referendum being held on AV on 5 May? There is a certain irony there. Welsh people abroad will be allowed to vote in the 5 May referendum but not in the Welsh Assembly elections on the same day. If a general election is held in May 2015, Welsh people abroad will be able to vote in the UK general election but not in the Welsh Assembly general election being held on the same day. The same applies to Scotland. I believe that that is an oversight. Because we have had devolution for only 11 years, no one has spotted it. I ask the Minister to have a good look at it and report back to the House.

My Lords, on that last point, perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, should look behind her and ask why the Labour Government did not deal with that apparent anomaly, but I will have a look at it. It seems strange that you can vote in one referendum but not in another. I sincerely hope that the Welsh people will turn out in good numbers and vote yes in tomorrow's referendum.

The key thing about this debate—I congratulate my noble friend Lord Astor on securing it during the first year of a five-year Parliament—is that many of the issues raised are good, should be studied and, I hope, be considered by the Government with urgency. I will deal later with the specific issue of the military vote, although it is significant that more than half the speakers devoted most of their remarks to it. I take on board the priority that the House gives to addressing that matter.

Of an estimated 5.5 million British citizens resident overseas, only about 30,000 vote. We must address that issue. As my noble friend Lord Roberts pointed out, for all the efforts made, only about 500 soldiers in Afghanistan voted, out of about 10,000. That disengagement of the military is not healthy. I take on board the points that have been made and will return to them.

The point about postal voting and the election timetable has been made. I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, that, although proxy voting is an alternative, it is not one that all electors want. Therefore, it is right that we address the issue of the postal vote. My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister said last September that the Government have noted the Electoral Commission’s view, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, and my noble friend Lord Roberts referred, that an extension to the electoral timetable would be an advantage. The Electoral Commission has said that a longer timetable for Westminster elections could be created by bringing the key deadlines into line with those used for the majority of elections currently held in the UK. That would mean that the election timetable would begin 25 working days before polling day.

As I said, the Electoral Commission's views are on the table, and I know that the Government are working on the issue with a sense of urgency—not in time, of course, for the referendum on 5 May. Again, the Electoral Commission is planning guidance to administrators to prioritise postal votes, particularly postal votes going overseas.

Several noble Lords mentioned electronic voting—

Before the Minister leaves the point about the referendum, is he saying that it is impossible for the Government to issue postal ballots for the referendum before 18 April?

No, we will not do so. I will come back to that.

A number of countries have moved to e-voting but some have stepped back from it—in particular, the Netherlands and a number of states in the United States—because of the security issues that were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Patten. One problem is that e-voting is vulnerable to attack and to fraud. On the other hand, I have actually voted electronically in a pilot scheme in local elections seven or eight years ago. I voted in a St Albans local election from my office in London. Although there is not a great deal of enthusiasm for e-voting at present, I think that if we are to have the in-depth study that this debate urges, a study of e-voting would be worth while. Voting in UK embassies is not easy, given the constituency basis of our elections and the need to get ballot papers to cover all parliamentary constituencies.

Let me use the last few minutes on the military vote, because I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Patten, that the military covenant is important and the right to vote on time and in secret should be addressed as part of that covenant. I will certainly take that message back. It is important that we try to encourage our service personnel to vote. The Government are making every effort to encourage participation in the vote on 5 May, not only in Afghanistan but in other British service areas where the British Forces Post Office will make voting in military locations a priority.

As I said, the Government are introducing an initiative for voting on 5 May. The deadline for new postal vote applications and changes to existing votes for the referendum is 5 pm on 14 April. The chief counting officer for the referendum has directed electoral administrators to prioritise postal votes going overseas, to ensure that they are sent out as soon as possible after the deadline for new postal vote applications has passed, with the first issue of postal votes to take place not later than 18 April. That issue will include postal votes for members of the Armed Forces. Why 18 April? Many areas will issue combined ballot packs and so will need to have election papers included with the referendum ballot. Also, 14 April is the last date for registration, and we will need to send out postal votes after that date in case of any change in details—a point raised by the noble Lord.

I say frankly and honestly to the House that on a wide range of the issues raised, such as the 15-year rule which was raised by my noble friends Lord Lexden and Lord Lester, I do not think there is a rationale—I almost feel I am back to why the AV Bill provides that there should be 600 MPs—for the figure of 15 years, five years or 20 years. However, I think that it is certain that, in a world where many more people work abroad, the issue should be properly looked at. I say to my noble friend Lord Lexden that Disraeli’s most famous intervention into voting was to dish the Liberals in 1867 and then bring in a more radical franchise in 1868.

I leave the House with the message that the issues raised tonight are very substantial. They have been raised at the right time in this Parliament by my noble friend Lord Astor and other noble Lords who have spoken. I will make sure that my right honourable friend Nick Clegg and his colleague, my honourable friend Mark Harper, in the Cabinet Office, who have responsibility for these matters, see the Hansard of this debate. It will carry with it my very strong endorsement that we should carry forward the momentum of what the noble Lord, Lord Wills, was trying to do towards the end of the Labour Government and that early in this Parliament we should have a really radical look at voting for our overseas residents and, very importantly, for our military. I hope that will be the lasting value of this debate.