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Lord Garden: My Lords, I support the government amendment and, for the first time during this process, I do not propose an amendment because I am familiar with all the words in the government amendment. If the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, thinks that the amendment is a smokescreen, I must admit to some of it being my smokescreen, because many of the words, thoughts and concepts there are in the amendment that I have been pushing at each previous stage of the Bill.
I am entirely content that the amendment achieves what we were after, which is to facilitate the registration and voting process by getting the MoD to
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consider it but, most importantly, putting a duty on the MoD to keep an index of the annual registration process. I am convinced that that will do what the Conservative amendment is intended to do: force the MoD to go through the process every year. There will then be a co-operative MoD; that has been the difficulty. I know that there has been more difficulty with that aspect than anything else.
The government amendment has one addition, which was not proposed by me, which is the delegated power for the Secretary of State to extend the registration period for up to five years. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee on which I serveI notice that the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, who is its chairman, is in his placehas not, because of the lateness of this amendment, had an opportunity to take a view on it. I can say only personally that, because of the narrowness of the power and its clear intent, I find it entirely appropriate.
However, I hope that it will not be necessary to use that delegated power. If the Ministry of Defence takes up its duty with enthusiasm, we can operate with servicemen and servicewomen on the same basis as the rest of our citizens and will not need to go down the route of special arrangements that may be confusing and have some of the drawbacks that we had with permanent registration before. It is a useful power to have up the sleeve but not necessarily one that will need to be used.
I fear that I must introduce one note of discord; I am sorry. Various noble Lords have talked about the results of the Defence Analytical Services Agency Service Voting Survey 2005, which was undertaken in autumn 2005. I have been pressing for us to see it; it would have informed our discussion because we could have drawn on it to make our amendments as good as possible. Despite the final report being available in March, the Ministry of Defence did not release it to your Lordships until Monday; it arrived to me in the post on Tuesday. In the Written Statement that accompanies it, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, treats the survey results as though they are accurate. He says that it,
In our debate so far, we have been taking those percentages as though they were carved in tablets of stone. In fact, paragraph 1.6 of the report, entitled "Limitations of the research", shows that the overall response rate to the survey was only 45 per cent. In the key area of the Army (other ranks based overseas), only 26 per cent bothered to return the survey. The report draws the following conclusion from that:
In other words, if the people who fail to return survey forms tend also to be the people who fail to return electoral registration formswhich is not an
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unreasonable assumptionthe statistics may be much worse than the already terrible figure of 28 per cent reported for those overseas who managed to vote in the 2005 election. I hope the Ministry of Defence intends to do less spinning of the statistics in the future and a little more working-out of how this legislation can improve voting opportunities for its people. In particular, it will need to address the mechanics of making overseas postal voting possible. We look forward to the update, which is promised every year, to this survey. We will have much better figures on registration because of what is in the Bill, but we will need to have better figures on how much effect we are having on voting as opposed simply to registration.
Finally, I thank the Minister personally for all the effort that she and her staff in the Department for Constitutional Affairs have put into getting where we have got to today. We have also had great support from the Electoral Commission, from the British Forces Broadcasting Service, from parliamentarians across both Houses and all the parties, and from a number of electoral registration officers who, in the light of what the Minister said about the package, will now find their relationships with MoD establishments much easier, which is important.
The real hero, however, has been a retired Army officer called Douglas Young, the author of a report called Silence in the Ranks. He used the power of the internet through the Army Rumour Service network to identify the scale of the problem, and he gave helpful advice to servicemen and servicewomen on that website, so we got a better response in 2005 than we would have done otherwise. He also spotted errors in the official information on MoD and local authority websites, and he mounted the campaign to right what we have all agreed is a wrong. The chain of command has not come out of this with distinction, having shown a reluctance to tackle the problem. It is perhaps scarcely surprising that this week has also seen the launch of the British Armed Forces Federation. I am sure we shall return to that when we consider the Armed Forces Bill in the coming weeks.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank both the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Garden, for what they said. I also thank the Minister for her explanation of the package, which she has described as a package that the MoD is putting together to encourage the registration of service personnel. But it is still only an encouragement; it is not a requirement or a duty. It may all work out perfectly wonderfully, and the noble Lord, Lord Garden, may be correct that everything in the legislation will do what he and I have been trying to achieve in the past few weeks, but I am afraid that I am still not convinced that that is so.
I said in my opening remarks that there is a requirement on a householder. Noble Lords may not see the direct correlation, but a householder is required to register all the people who live in their house. It seems to me that the Ministry of Defence is very much in that position. It is the householder and knows who it has under its roof. It knows where those people are
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at least, I hope it does. It is meant to know where they are, and it is meant to ensure that they have the opportunity and the rights that they should have.
I do not think the Minister will be surprised by my seeking to divide on this; it comes from no sense of animosity, because I do think we have moved an enormously long way, but if I could secure the last bit of this, I think we would have the perfect amendment for the perfect result that we have all been looking for. I seek to test the opinion of the House.
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