HL Deb 30 November 1983 vol 445 cc689-90

2.48 p.m.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many British subjects are serving abroad in the armed forces, the diplomatic service, or in other official capacities; what proportion actually cast votes at the last general election; and whether they can in future be enabled to vote by post.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, there are approximately 92,900 members of the United Kingdom armed forces, 3,100 members of Her Majesty's diplomatic service, and 6,040 other officials, including 340 British Council employees, serving or posted outside the United Kingdom. These figures may include some citizens of the Republic of Ireland. The number of service voters who vote at a particular election is not recorded. The Government are seeking the views of the political parties represented in another place about enabling all absent voters, including service voters, to vote by post.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging Answer. Is the noble Lord aware that, due to the inadequacy of the proxy system, a very small proportion of those people serving abroad in fact voted? I hope that he will continue to put forward the idea of postal votes for them.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I do not have an exact figure for those who voted in the last election, but I am aware of the concern expressed by my noble friend and, as I say, it is our intention to take this on board very shortly.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me whether primary legislation will be necessary to achieve this object, or is it purely a matter of administration?

Lord Elton

My Lords, we would expect legislation to be necessary, and, the pressures of parliamentary time permitting, we would hope to legislate in the next Session.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, though obviously I would wish to assist any voters to record their vote, is it not a fact that extension of postal voting for these categories would possibly entail a change in the timetable for the election? Is it not also the fact that since 1945 no postal votes have ever been allowed to any person living overseas? Can the Minister say whether this is a single issue that is being considered, or is it in a general package of amendments to the Representation of the People Acts?

Lord Elton

My Lords, as regards the noble Lord's first supplementary question, we judge that there is time within the existing timetable for the acting returning officer at a parliamentary election to issue a postal ballot paper, and for it to be returned from most parts of western Europe before the close of the poll. Wider issues are, I think, for the discussions that I have already described. As I have told your Lordships, it is intended that this should be part of a piece of legislation which is under review.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, does the noble Lord recollect that in the referendum on the EEC we made arrangements for members of the armed forces serving overseas to vote, quite apart from the postal vote? That worked very well indeed. Will he look at that precedent'?

Lord Elton

My Lords, we will look at all precedents and, in particular, that one.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether this will refer to those working in a business capacity in Europe, and also those working in the Church?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Question relates only to those classes of person referred to by my noble friend, but our review is concerned with enabling all absent voters, including service voters, to vote by post.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, in the light of the information that we have about western Europe, what about the soldiers serving in the Falklands? Will they be able to vote?

Lord Elton

My Lords, our concern extends to all members of Her Majesty's forces and the other categories described by my noble friend. The logistics of this matter will be closely considered in devising what is to be done.