HC Deb 25 April 1975 vol 890 cc1977-86

4.4 p.m.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

This Adjournment debate arises out of a Question which I tabled to the Secretary of State for Defence on 11th February. I then asked whether he was satisfied with the existing arrangements for members of the Armed Forces and spouses to vote in General Elections and referenda by post and by proxy. The right hon. Gentleman said in his reply: Not entirely, but we take steps to ensure that Service families know and can take advantage of the existing facilities for Service registration."—[Official Report, 11th February 1975; Vol. 886, c. 188.] In an answer to a supplementary question on the same occasion, at col. 189, the Minister of State told the House that only between 25 per cent. and 30 per cent. of those eligible to register as Service voters did so. He went on to say that although the recommendations made to the last Speaker's Conference jointly by the Ministry of Defence and by the Home Office had been largely accepted, those recommendations had not yet been implemented.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) then described the present situation in regard to Service voting as little less than a scandal as can be seen from column 189. It is against that background that this debate takes place.

It is common ground that members of the Armed Forces, who have chosen to serve their country in a special way—often overseas, usually away from home. and almost always in conditions of discomfort and sometimes of danger—should, in fact, be able to vote in exactly the same way as any other citizen.

In an important statement on Tuesday the Minister of State for Defence explained that the total number of Service men and women entitled to a Service vote was 340,000 and that the estimated number of spouses was in the region of 55,000, making a total approximate number of those entitled to a Service vote in the region of 400,000.

The Minister of State confirmed—he used the lower figure which he mentioned on 11th February—that out of those 400,000 entitled to be on the register approximately 100,000, or 25 per cent., were on the register. In view of the fact that the Government accepted that most unsatisfactory situation which the Minister of State revealed, they tabled an important amendment to the Referendum Bill, which was given a Third Reading yesterday.

On Tuesday the Minister of State said that it was the intention of the Government to introduce legislation at the earliest possible moment to implement the recommendation of Mr. Speaker's Conference. It would be out of order for me to discuss that legislation, and I shall not do so. In view of that, I should like to ask the Under-Secretary what administrative arrangements the Government will make in the meantime, pending this legislation, to secure what we both want to achieve, which is a substantial increase in the number of Service men and their wives on the Service register. It is within the competence and power of the Secretary of State for Defence to secure that increase.

I should like to quote briefly from the final report of Mr. Speaker's Conference in 1965, which was quoted in a memorandum submitted to the 1973 Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law.

The document says: The present arrangement for continuous registration of members of the forces and their wives should cease. The Service authorities should in future be required to obtain information for the purpose of registration from any member of the forces who appears to be qualified to be registered whenever similar information is required to be given by a civilian householder, and it should be the duty of the commanding officer of each unit to see that this is carried out in time for entries to be made in each ordinary register. The obligation on the Service authorities to obtain such information at such times should extend to wives of servicemen in the United Kingdom who are residing in premises maintained by the Service authorities or by the Ministry of Public Building and Works as well as to wives who are residing outside the United Kingdom to be with their husbands. That recommendation, made in 1965, was implemented in part only by Section 2 of the Representation of the People Act 1969. The Act did not place a direct responsibility on commanding officers to ensure that members serving in the units and the wives of those serving in the units should be on the register. Compulsory registration for Service men would, of course, require legislation, but there is, in a sense, compulsory registration already for everybody else who is not a Service man. By law, in October of each year each one of us is required to fill up a registration form saying who, on that date in October, is resident in his house. At present, there is no such obligation on commanding officers. I suggest to the Under-Secretary that we could achieve a substantial improvement in the number of Service voters by his taking administrative action through the Minister of Defence.

I wish to refer to the Memorandum for the Guidance of Electoral Registration Officers in England and Wales in order to examine in a little detail the administrative steps that the Ministry of Defence could take. Will the Under-Secretary please say exactly what obligations there now are on commanding officers to advise those serving in their units and the spouses of those serving in their units of their right to a Service vote—their right to be put on the Service register?

I have been a soldier, and on the Reserve, which meant going back to a Regular unit until December of last year. I know how easy it is for commanding officers to comply with the letter of any instruction which comes from the Ministry of Defence about posting a notice on a board. I know, too, how frequently that notice board is in some draughty and windy corridor, how the notice is imperfectly duplicated, and, if forms have to be applied for—which they do—how the forms are in the adjutant's office or the office of the chief clerk, where an ordinary soldier goes with great temerity and fear. Sometimes soldiers are told to apply for a form at an inconvenient hour. I am sure that there are administrative ways in which it could be made much simpler for Service men to register, and in which their right and facility to register could be brought home to them much more clearly, simply as a result of administrative instructions issued to commanding officers.

Of course, we know the difficulties. We know the difficulties of those serving at sea, in submarines or the fleet. We know the difficulties of those who are flying, and who are based at stations in Cyprus and are—or, at any rate, will be until the Government succeed in cutting our defences—still serving in Singapore and Hong Kong. We know the rigorous training programme of our forces stationed in West Germany. We know the special difficulties which face our soldiers in Ulster. In spite of all these difficulties, I believe that it would be right for the Ministry of Defence to issue instructions to commanding officers saying that individual notification should be sent to every soldier serving in the unit under their command and that a similar communication should be sent to the spouse.

It is a matter of great regret—I know that the Minister of State, who addressed the Committee on Tuesday, shares this view—that only 100,000 of the 400,000 eligible to be on the Service register are actually on it. I believe the Under-Secretary shares that view.

This debate has been an attempt to try to take a giant stride towards a common objective. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give sympathetic consideration to the suggestions that I have made.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force (Mr. Brynmor John)

As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) said in quoting the Question that he put to the House and to the Minister of State recently, he has, both by that Question and by his speeches in recent months, demonstrated his interest in the subject being debated this afternoon.

Perhaps I might advance the hon. Gentleman's knowledge of the statistics just a little for the sake of interest, because they will not only deal with the question that I want to raise later but give some idea of the problem.

We are, as the hon. Gentleman said, talking about Service voters. The wives of Service men abroad and Service men at home and abroad altogether number 400,000 people. Of those, approximately about 400,000 people. Of those, approximately 105,000 are Service men serving abroad. In addition there are about 142,000 wives of Service men serving in this country who at the moment have to register in the same way as the civil population.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this subject, even at an hour which is normally regarded by most as the bosom of the family hour on a Friday, for two main reasons.

The first reason is to explain in more detail the present position and. secondly, to expound why we feel it to be unsatisfactory.

Prior to 1969, registration was on a once-for-all basis. The Service man registered once and was kept on the register until he left the Service. That led to many anomalies. At that time about 60 per cent. of all eligible Service men were registered for the vote.

In 1969 Mr. Speaker's Conference recommended assimilation with the civil practice—that is, annual registration. When that was recommended the decline in the registered voting population in the Services was not foreseen. As the hon. Gentleman made clear, in the six years which have succeeded that conference, the figure has fallen alarmingly to approximately 25 per cent. of those eligible to be registered at the moment.

It might be supposed by the casual observer of the scene—I know the hon. Gentleman does not suppose it—that this is the result of inadvertence on the part of those members of the Forces who are eligible to vote, and, therefore, they deserve what they get.

There are good reasons why registration is lower than in civilian life and why the Services should be regarded for this purpose as a special case. The first reason is the mobility of Service life—the fact that there are relatively frequent moves both in and out of the United Kingdom, some of which are at fairly short notice. The second reason is that arduous conditions and the remoteness of some of the places in which Service men find themselves inhibit registration.

Thirdly—we must be clear about this—the fact that proxy voting is prescribed is unpopular with many people. It is also difficult in the sense that, as the years go by and as the Service man's connection with a particular district gets more tenuous—perhaps his parents die—it gets more difficult to appoint proxies.

The fourth reason, which is not inconsiderable, is the length and complexity of the form that the Service man has to fill in, nominating not only a first but a second choice proxy, and the fact that it has to be attested by a Service officer. That, too, as much as the adjutant's office syndrome, makes it unpopular with the Service man.

Another point, which should not be made too much of, is that the lack of active involvement in party politics tends to weaken the sense of belonging. It is also true that in some units at some levels there may be a breakdown of the machinery necessary to distribute the forms and to encourage the personnel, but I do not overstate that. As far as we can, we encourage everyone who can take advantage of this to do so, but at times there may be that minor blemish.

Finally, there is a point of principle in that some officers and men whom I have met take the point of conscience that they are, as servants of the Crown, not willing to exercise their vote, but those are relatively few in number.

The proportion of the civil population which is registered is about 96 per cent. of all those eligible. Prior to 1969 about 60 per cent. of the Services were registered. For the many complex reasons which I have adduced and which make the Forces' task much more difficult, I do not believe that we shall ever get the proportion of the Forces who register up to the same proportion as that for the civil population, but I believe that we should aim immediately at reverting to the proportion which registered prior to 1969 and at passing it as soon as possible. It is necessary to make the machinery of registration as easy as possible to encourage that rise.

It was in that sense that my Department and the Home Office put forward their evidence to Mr. Speaker's Conference in 1973 which led to the report which is currently under discussion. Mr. Speaker's Conference recommended a number of changes. The first recommendation was the cessation of annual registration, which is the current position. It recommended a once-for-all registration with an annual declaration of changes.

The second recommendation—I think that this in large measure meets what the hon. Gentleman said—was that an obligation should be placed upon commanding officers to distribute the forms individually to each Service man and to do various other things, which I would categorise in an omnibus way as encouraging Service men to exercise their rights, and to collect the forms and dispatch them once collected. I believe that this would give greater encouragement than Service men have at present. It must be recognised that this recommendation goes beyond even the pre–1969 position.

The third recommendation was that details of a Service man's registration should be entered on his records and should then accompany him to his unit and that the records should be amended when he changes his registration.

The fourth recommendation, which again would go beyond the pre–1969 position, is that the wives of Service men should be registered as Service voters. At present, as I have said, only spouses who accompany their husbands or wives abroad on service—I believe it to be only wives accompanying their husbands—are eligible for the Service vote. The wives of Service men in this country must register in the same way as other electors. Although they are not under the same disadvantage as Service men, they nevertheless suffer the same problems of mobility. This is what I believe led Mr. Speaker's Conference to make the recommendation that in future all wives should be registered as Service voters.

Mr. Gow

Is it not the case that, as the law stands, in the comparatively small number of cases where there are accompanied tours in Ulster, for there are some families in Ulster although most of the soldiers there are not accompanied, even though the wives are on the other side of the Irish Channel they are not entitled to a Service vote? That highlights the point the hon. Gentleman was making about the need for the change.

Mr. John

Certainly. Ulster is recognised as part of the United Kingdom. The arrangements for Service voters do not apply in the United Kingdom.

That is the background which we have to consider in this debate. About one in every four is registered, and in 1973 the Speaker's Conference made the recommendations to which I have referred. For reasons of extreme electoral preoccupation in 1974 as much as anything else, it has not yet been possible to enshrine them in legislation, but, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State said in the debate on 22nd April, it is the Government's intention to introduce legislation at the earliest possible time to remedy that state of affairs.

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the exact form of the legislation has necessarily still to be worked out, and I cannot give details of what will be included or excluded. However, without trespassing upon the normal bounds of an Adjournment debate, I think that I can say that the legislation will be designed along the lines of the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference.

The hon. Gentleman raised with me the question of the administrative arrangements which can be taken in the meantime in an effort to secure a larger registration, and he asked also about the obligations placed upon a commanding officer. The commanding officer is responsible to ensure that all Service men are given a form, and he is responsible to encourage Service men to register, this responsibility extending overseas to Service men and their spouses.

There has been a publicity campaign drawing attention to the need to register. Forms have been exhibited. Perhaps the latter is of little account, but, more pertinently, on the British Forces broadcasting service attention has been drawn to these matters. We try in whatever way we can to draw attention to them because we are neither satisfied with nor complacent about the present position.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that one of the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference in 1973 was that, while an obligation should be placed upon a commanding officer—this has been one of the problems in the past—no military offence should be created as a result of the recommendations, since in such a moving and changing Service to make failure to carry out the recommendations a Service offence would be extremely onerous and, I think, a rather pointless exercise.

I shall go beyond what I have told the hon. Gentleman so far—always assuming that anyone reads the annals of Parliament nowadays—by taking this opportunity to fulfil certain of the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference regarding greater publicity A man joining the Armed Forces has to make many sacrifices on behalf of his country, as we all know, but he does not lose his rights as a citizen, and the most fundamental right of all is the right to cast his vote in an election.

I issue an appeal, therefore, to members of our Armed Forces to heed that fact and to ensure that they register their right to vote. The legislation which the Government will introduce will make it as easy as possible for this registra- tion to be effected. Beyond that, however, it must always in large measure depend upon the willingness and keenness of members of the Forces to effect that registration. Although it will be made easier, there will still be an obligation on the individual. I hope that they will match the willingness which the Government have shown to try to extend the franchise by their efforts in taking advantage of the benefits conferred.

In the meantime, the present arrangements stand, and here again I wish to give as much publicity to this fact as possible. Although legislation is coming, I hope that by all possible means those who are eligible to vote will take advantage of the existing system of registration in order that they may do so. They will be in no way discouraged by any of the members of the Armed Forces who have custody of the forms. I hope that they will be encouraged in every way, and it is the Government's hope that the legal framework which we provide, supplemented by the increased willingness of members of the Armed Forces to take advantage of their rights, will put an end to the present sorry chapter and will restore the Armed Services franchise to something far better than its present ludicrous position.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. It has been a valuable debate, and I hope that he will accept our assurances in that light.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half past Four o'clock.