CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS – SERVICE VOTERS – 13 June 2006

Dr Julian Lewis: Everyone agrees with the hon. Gentleman (Clive Betts) and the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that there should be no question of bringing in measures that would result in real people disappearing from a register. Does the hon. Gentleman accept, however, that although the introduction of certain measures to cut out fraud would result in a reduction of the number of people on a register, they would not be real people? They would be bogus people, and bogus people cannot make up for real people who are not registering.

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Dr Lewis: Will the Minister (Bridget Prentice) explain the objection in principle to reverting to the system that was used before the Representation of the People Act 2000? The procedure that she has outlined is extremely complicated, but our forces are far more involved in front-line action now than they were then, so it is strange that they cannot be registered once and for all by their units, as used to be the case.

[Ms Prentice: I do not accept the premise that this is a complicated measure – it is a practical and straightforward method of ensuring that service personnel have the opportunity to register. The previous regime was changed because it did not work effectively. ... The amendment makes that process much easier and clearer, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes it.]

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Dr Lewis: The Minister has been extremely generous in giving way. I am puzzled by the fact that she does not seem to be aware of the survey that was published only last week by the Government's own Defence Analytical Services Agency, which went to the heart of the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Nicholas Soames), that when we are speaking about servicemen based at home it is an entirely different kettle of fish from servicemen based overseas, often on active service. The survey showed that only 34 percent of UK personnel serving overseas were registered, compared with 64 percent of those based in the UK. That is a massive disparity, and no amount of tinkering with the new system can bridge that gap.

[Ms Prentice: ... The figure of 34 percent, which none of us would say is high enough, does not take account of the fact that some service personnel are registered at home. ... However, I do not believe that the position is much worse than pre-2002.]

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Dr Lewis: I thank the Minister for her generosity in giving way. She said that the previous system did not work well, but does she accept that, by comparison, the new system has led to a massive reduction in registration?

[Ms Prentice: I am not happy with the level of registration among service personnel. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman attended our debate about registration in general, but the vast majority of people who fail to register are young men, who are notoriously poor at registering. We have tried to ensure that they register, and that they are encouraged to do so by their unit registration officers.]

[For Julian's speech in this Debate, click here.]