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Elections: Armed Forces

Volume 726: debated on Monday 4 April 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to improve the timeliness of the dispatch and return of postal ballots for voters in the Armed Forces.

My Lords, building on the work done for the elections held in May 2010 by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, the Government have put in place an initiative to support the participation of members of the Armed Forces serving in Afghanistan who wish to vote in the referendum and elections on 5 May.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that response about the referendum vote. I hope he will agree that the many service voters who want to vote by post in all elections should be enabled to do so. However, he will recognise that deployment in remote areas, particularly in conflict zones, can create serious problems with achieving the timely dispatch and return of postal votes. Can the Minister tell the House whether his Government have continued the work set in place by the previous Government and agree, with the Front Benches of both the Conservative and the Liberal Democratic parties when they were in opposition, to consult on options for addressing such problems with a view to bringing in any necessary legislation by 2012? If they have not set up such a consultation, why not and when will they do so? If they have been consulting, when did the consultation start and when will they be publishing the results?

My Lords, we continue to build on the work initiated by the noble Lord. However, as he recognised, there are no simple solutions to the difficulty of servicemen voting in remote areas in battlefield conditions, et cetera, which is why we continue to advise servicemen to use proxy votes where possible as the most efficient way of being able to vote.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that what we really need is a slightly longer timetable for conducting our elections in this country, one that would allow a slightly greater time for people to register to vote, to apply for a postal vote and for postal votes to be dispatched and received? That would significantly benefit members of our Armed Forces serving overseas and enable them to participate to a greater degree in our elections.

My Lords, there is a lot of common sense in what my noble friend says. My honourable friend Mark Harper is considering these issues and the Government will put forward proposals when he has reached conclusions with colleagues. However, as I say, I think there is a lot of sense in allowing more time for elections to be processed.

Does the Minister accept that he did not actually answer the Question put by my noble friend Lord Wills? I know that there were several questions, but will he answer them and put them in the Library? One of the most important ones was whether the Government are consulting and, if so, when the consultation started and when it finished. I think an answer in the Library would be very helpful because it is a very important matter.

I am sure it would be and I look forward to reading it. Whether we have followed exactly the consultations initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, quite frankly I am not sure. Nevertheless, we are following all the initiatives that he brought in during that time and some new ones as well. I do not doubt that we want to see the military participating in elections, as did our predecessors. If that consultation is still going on somewhere, I will report it as the noble Lord requested. I assure the House that the various initiatives are still being pressed forward with due vigour.

My Lords, at the last general election, of the 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, only 500 were able to register a vote either by proxy or postal vote. This is totally unacceptable.

Furthermore, can we have some consistency in the length of time between, say, nine, 10 or 11 days for a nomination for a general election until polling day, and 25 days for others? Can we work very hard in the immediate future to make sure that we have the same length of time between nomination, close of nominations and polling day?

My Lords, the call for consistency, which I think was also made by my noble friend Lord Rennard, is exactly the issue that Mr Mark Harper is looking at at the moment. As I said before, I think that there is a lot of sense in getting that kind of uniformity.

As to the turnout by troops serving in Afghanistan the last time, perhaps there were problems in getting to vote, but there is also a low propensity to vote among servicemen. That is something else that we are trying to address in terms of encouraging initiatives in the services by responsible members of each unit.

My Lords, does the Minister not recall that in the Committee stage of the AV and constituency-gerrymandering Bill, this side tabled amendments that would have extended the time for the distribution and return of ballot papers by servicemen and others? However, those amendments were rejected by the Minister—if he was there; he might have been ill at the time, but they were certainly rejected by the Government—and by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. Is that not the case?

I do not remember us discussing the Bill that he described. A word in the noble Lord’s description was wrong. As I have said twice in response, these matters are being looked at, and the Government will bring forward proposals. As for the AV and constituency boundaries Bill, the noble Lord lost on most issues, as he will remember.

My Lords, I understand that the noble Lord and his department are consulting on these issues. Can he guarantee that a new system will be in place at the time of the next election, be it 2014 or 2015, because on all Benches we naturally wish to ensure that our service men and women have a greater opportunity to vote, if they wish to?

My Lords, this is certainly the Government’s intention. As the noble Baroness will know, we are in the process of carrying through a whole raft of constitutional reforms, and I am quite sure that any proposals on this matter will be as successful as the proposals that have been carried, thus far.