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Clause 2

The election

Mr. William Ross: I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 1, line 25, leave out 'local' and insert 'Parliamentary'. This is a probing amendment. I am curious to know why the Government want to use the local rather than the parliamentary electoral roll for this purpose. I am sure that there is a good reason, but it is not immediately apparent to me. I assume that some people are on one register but not on the other. What is the precise reason for using the register of local electors rather than the electoral register used for parliamentary elections? Will the Minister elucidate that point?

Mr. Paul Murphy: The first reason is that the franchise reflects that which will be used for the Scottish Parliament. The second reason is that nine members of the House of Lords will be able to vote and we should not deny them that opportunity in Northern Ireland. The third

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reason is that it gives European Union citizens the right to vote in these elections. But the main reason is that it puts us on a level playing field with the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Mackinlay: I fully accept what my hon. Friend says, but he or the electoral officer needs to emphasise a note of caution throughout Northern Ireland. Some people on the electoral roll will have votes in a number of places, as indeed some hon. Members have: they have votes in Westminster and in their residential constituencies. We must avoid people--through not malice, but ignorance of the law--foolishly and wrongly exercising their vote on two occasions on the one day. That should be taken on board. Will that not be facilitated by this measure?

Mr. Murphy: I take into account the point that my hon. Friend has made.

Mr. Ross: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. William Ross: I beg to move amendment No. 22, in page 2, leave out lines 12 and 13.

The Second Deputy Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 7, in page 2, leave out lines 15 and 16. No. 8, in page 2, leave out line 17. No. 9, in page 2, line 17, at end insert

'which for the initial election shall be £500.00.'.

Mr. Ross: These are, to some extent, probing amendments. Amendment No. 9 tries to introduce a £500 deposit. The Government may wish to introduce a deposit level in regulations rather than in the Bill. If so, I would be perfectly content with that, but perhaps we could be told what sort of sum the Government are thinking about. On amendment No. 22, the Bill states:

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    Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), the Minister should tell the Committee exactly what is being done to combat electoral fraud and to ensure that the electoral process is honest, because IRA-Sinn Fein are not in the slightest worried about complying with UK electoral law; they are out to break it in every way they can. That being so, we should be told whether the Government are thinking of other means of identification for both the assembly and the referendum. We have not yet been told anything about how people will be identified in either of the electoral turnouts. We need to know, because the parties will want to have a clear idea of what they will be expected to do in the run-up to the assembly elections and, indeed, to the referendum. Therefore, as the Government are taking this very wide power to make provision about the election and

    "any matter relating to it"-- it is not just some matters--perhaps we can be told exactly what is intended. Subsection (6)(a) says that an order may

    "provide for an alteration made after a specified date in a register of local electors to be disregarded". There is a cut-off date whereby a name can be placed on the electoral register. I am one of those folk who have always taken a fairly black-and-white view of the electoral register. As the Minister and the Committee will know, the register is compiled using electors' place of residence on 15 September in Northern Ireland and 10 October in Great Britain. That extra month in Northern Ireland gives the parties, the chief electoral officer and his deputies an opportunity to investigate those claiming the right to cast their ballot in elections in Northern Ireland. I welcome that. I would be happy if the date of 15 September applied to Great Britain as well as to Northern Ireland. A date of 10 October creates a huge problem on this side of the Irish sea, as students return to university and are registered both at home and at university. A 15 September date would probably mean that 90 per cent. of those students would be at home and registered at home. A whole series of problems would then disappear overnight. I have made that point a number of times to the Home Office, but so far--

8.45 pm

Mr. Mallon: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there has been a continuous registration process for a number of years, which allows people to enter their names on the register after 15 September. I assume that that still applies. Does that materially affect the hon. Gentleman's argument?

Mr. Ross: That procedure merely helps those who have been left off the register, perhaps because they did not get the household form. Someone who moves from one district to another cannot be registered in the new district. People are always registered at the address they were at on 15 September. I have a nagging worry about the continuous registration process, but it is the law and I suppose that I can live with it.

The hon. Gentleman and his party will know from personal experience that not many people avail themselves of the process, because not that many people

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check the register to see whether they are registered. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that they have been checking over the past fortnight. A number of my constituents have telephoned me to complain bitterly that they cannot get through to the chief electoral officer, who is handling the postal ballots rather than having them handled at local level. That is wrong. The people at local level are perfectly capable of handling applications for postal or proxy votes.

My constituents have tried to ring Belfast, but the place is snowed under. Indeed, it has been snowed under for days. There is no point in the chief electoral officer saying, "We have taken X number of phone calls." He does not know how many hundreds of other people have tried to get through, without success, because the lines have been jammed solid. It would have been a much easier process if it had been done at local level. However, that matter does not arise under the amendment; I am merely answering the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon).

Even with the continuous registration system, people have to submit their applications at least two months before the date of an election. I cannot remember the exact time scale, but it is quite long. The number of people who are able to vote, who otherwise would not have been able to do so, is tiny as a proportion of the whole. Whenever an election is due, there is a huge rush of people who suddenly discover that they are not on the register, but they want to vote. They scream at the parties and at the electoral officer, but it is too late. Therefore, it is far easier to defend a date of 15 September. In Northern Ireland--as, I am sure, is the case in Great Britain--each year people have an opportunity to correct the register. It might make the parties and the electoral officer do something if there were obviously a number of empty houses from which cards had not been returned. That problem needs to be addressed.

I hope that we can be given a clear explanation of the reason for the inclusion of subsection (6)(a) and why the Secretary of State is being empowered to

We also want to know the position on deposits. I have suggested a figure of £500, but some people may argue for £750 and others for £1,000. I am fairly easy about this, but I want to know the Government's thinking.

Mr. Mallon: I shall deal with one issue touched on by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross)--the allocation and processing of proxy or postal votes by the chief electoral officer.

The chief electoral officer does not seem to have much faith in human nature. The problem with his approach is that it blocks not the people who are abusing the proxy or postal vote system but the genuine applicants. The hon. Member for East Londonderry outlined how one requests a postal vote from the chief electoral officer. The problem has existed for many years. The chief electoral officer is answerable to no one. Election after election, year after year, we have faced an absurd situation. The deputy electoral officers, who in my experience are men of great ability and integrity, have not been allowed to process this important part of the electoral system.

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