REGISTRATION OF SERVICE VOTERS – 13 June 2006

Dr Julian Lewis: I promised my party’s business managers that were I fortunate enough to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would make an exceedingly brief speech. Fulfilling that promise has been made much easier by the outstanding contributions of my four hon. Friends who have spoken before me, and by the outstanding generosity of the Minister in allowing me to make many of my points in interventions.

Earlier this afternoon, I listened avidly to that section of the proceedings dealing with the argument about whether simply being required to give a specimen signature, as well as one or two other minor matters, might be a deterrent to people to register. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) described how such simple, little hurdles had been enough to reduce registration in those parts of the country where they had been incorporated into electoral law. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Clive Betts), after I intervened on him to point out that the reason for those reductions might be that the names on the list were those of non-existent people rather than of genuine people who felt that they could no longer be troubled to register, replied that even if that might be true in some cases, it was more important to get the genuine people onto the list, even if the price to be paid was that some bogus names were kept on the list.

If having to give a national insurance number or signature, or having to register individually in some way, has such a depressing effect on the numbers of people who register to vote, might not roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades, snipers and all the other threats to life and limb that our servicemen and women face every day on active service conceivably have an effect on their willingness, year after year – no matter how strongly urged by conscientious, democracy-loving MOD civil servants – to sit down and fill in their forms dutifully?

We have seen from the survey the massive differential between the numbers who register to vote when overseas and the numbers, even of servicemen and women, who do so when based at home. We have heard only one real argument against the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Oliver Heald): that advanced by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the idea that civil servants, diplomats and, heaven help us, Members of Parliament will feel aggrieved because when they go abroad they will not be registered automatically, unlike front-line soldiers, sailors and airmen, is something that I would have expected to hear from him on April Fool’s Day rather than during a serious debate.

I see no intellectual argument against what my hon. Friend proposes, and I see every moral argument in favour of it. It will be a shame indeed if and when the amendment is defeated by the Government and the Liberal Democrats tonight.