Richard Benyon MP: British servicemen overseas must not be disenfranchised at the general election
At last week’s PMQs I asked the Prime Minister if he would give his assurance that our servicemen and women serving abroad would be able to vote in the coming election. Some people may say that this is a trivial point and that there were many more important matters I should have quizzed him about. The more I think about it the more I am convinced that this is a really important issue because it says so much about how we value our Armed Forces. It would be totally perverse if those fighting abroad for others to be able to vote were themselves denied that same right.
The problem arises out of a simple matter of procedure. Postal ballots sent overseas are unlikely to be returned to UK electoral officials in time to be counted. The printing of postal ballot papers for a General Election can only begin after final publication of those nominated on the 11th day before polling day.
In a recent postal trial by the Army Families Federation, the average time for postal ballots to and from various British Forces Postal Office (BFPO) addresses just across the water in Germany, took between eight to twelve working days for the same day return. Mail sent to BFPO addresses in Afghanistan took between twelve to fifteen working days. Printing of ballot papers takes about a couple of days which leaves just nine working days for postal ballots to be mailed, received and returned.
Other countries make proper provision for voting in-theatre, with ballot boxes being treated as priority mail. Something like that happened for British Forces abroad in the 1945 General Election and for the 1975 Referendum on the European Economic Community. Other countries manage to provide secure means for their Armed Forces serving abroad to vote, so why can’t we?
After I entered the House in 2005 this was a hot topic because of the very few servicemen and women in Iraq and Afghanistan who had voted in that election. Only 46% of all Armed Forces personnel had managed to vote. Assurances were given and it appears nothing was done.
My colleague, Eleanor Laing, the shadow Justice minister, has frequently challenged Ministers on this matter. She achieved the astonishing result of an announcement from the Justice Minister, Michael Wills. He said that a “working party” had been set up “to make sure that our armed services are able to vote”. This working group was set up in, believe this or not, January of this year and has yet to report. Even if it does, what time is left to do anything?
Five years, lots of talk, nothing done. What an indictment of a Government that has put more of our servicemen and women in harm's way than any Government since the Korean War. The Prime Minister gave me further assurances last week that Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, was “making the best arrangements possible” and that he, the Prime Minister, would write to me. I await with interest but without much optimism, to see what will be done in the dying days of this Parliament.
I can help by making a simple suggestion. The date for nominations should close at sixteen days before polling day, as it does for local elections. I am at a loss to know why there is a difference in timescale for the two types of elections. If you don’t know if you are going to stand for election sixteen days before polling day, you could be considered to be taking a rather too relaxed approach to the democratic process. I suggest that those who feel those five days are vital for them to make up their mind whether or not to stand are less important than those serving and, in many cases, fighting for us abroad.