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Although there is special provision for the compilation of the register in Northern Ireland, with the requirement that people have to have been resident for three months, will the Minister confirm that the law that applies throughout the kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will not be diluted in any way? The fact that a
To some extent, that point also applies in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister confirm that the three months applies to occupancy and that people will not have to stay at the address night after night? That would be absurd and a large number of people would be disqualified.
Mr. Browne: It is for the very reason that my hon. Friend is, in his own words, that rotter that I was pleased to give way to him and will give way again. No doubt he realises that our time has been properly occupied by the issues raised and my explanation of the situation. Indeed, nothing has been raised so far that did not merit discussion.
My hon. Friend wants an assurance that the Bill will not outlaw multiple registrations. The Government have consistently resisted that proposal, which attracted significant support among Opposition parties, for the reason that my hon. Friend brings to our attention. The Government do not intend to restrict those who qualify to vote in Northern Ireland in ways other than those that apply to the rest of the UK or which go beyond restrictions set out in current law, although residency in Northern Ireland is different in that it has one or two other qualifications.
My hon. Friend rightly recognises that I have exercised the opportunity to be registered as a voter in my constituency in Scotland where I live and in London. That right will also be available to Northern Ireland voters. The Bill will in no way restrict that. However, because of concern about the possible abuse of multiple registration in Northern Ireland, it will help to identify those people who have registered in more than one place. If there is evidence to suggest that that right is being abused, it can be more accurately investigated against a reduced database of people who are registered in more than one place. The requirement to provide that information is reinforced by the fact that it will be an offence to provide false information or not to provide the information requested.
Mr. Swire: Given that an increasing number of people in Northern Ireland travel to and work in the Republic, and in some cases live there for part of the time, what discussions is the Minister having with the Government of the Republic on such matters?
Mr. Browne: None. Discussions with that Government are not relevant to what we are trying to achieve. It is of no interest to me as the Minister with responsibility for electoral law in Northern Ireland whether people qualify to vote elsewhere. Indeed, some European Union residents qualify to vote in certain elections in the UK and in parliamentary elections in other parts of Europe. Citizens of the Republic will be no different. Knowing whether anyone is registered to vote there and in Northern Ireland
Mr. Browne: I respond to that question in the certain knowledge that my answer will encourage a contribution from the hon. Lady that will illuminate the debate. This is not a new provision. It is already a requirement in order to vote in Northern Ireland and has been for some time. I am sure that before the debate has finished I will have the precise reference for the hon. Lady, although I cannot supply it off the top of my head.
In order to register to vote in Northern Ireland, a person has to have that three-month residence. That may partly address the question implied by the previous intervention. We seek not to change the law, but merely to codify it. We intend to codify it in a way and for a reason that I shall discuss in a momentwe want to make it accessible. We are not enacting a new provision.
The question whether the existing provision creates challenges and consequences in relation to compliance with European Union treaties or human rights legislation could be debated at some length. However, perhaps the hon. Lady will allow me to move on. I have been on my feet for more than an hour and it would be helpful if I were to conclude my remarks and give hon. Members the opportunity to make their contributions. At the conclusion of those contributions, I will seek to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and endeavour to respond to them.
By including in the Bill the requirements about residence for three months in Northern Ireland and about registration as an elector at a different address, together with the requirements about the national insurance number, signature and date of birth, all the distinctly Northern Ireland features of the registration process can be found in the same place.
Amendment No. 4 inserts a new subsection (5A) into section 10A of the Representation of the People Act 1983. It adds to the provisions contained in that section regarding the circumstances in which the chief electoral officer is to remove a person's name from the electoral register.
A person's name will be removed from the register in respect of any address if they return an application for registration in respect of that address without any of the information that they are required to provide by the Bill.
Therefore, a person's name will be removed if their application does not contain the signature of the person to whom the application relatessubject to the provision in the Bill for those who are unable to append their signatureor is without the date of birth of such person,
Paragraph (b) provides for the removal of a person's name from the register where the chief electoral officer determines that he is not satisfied with the information providedfor example, because he believes that it is false. All of that is subject to the existing appeal procedure, which allows people to have recourse to the court.
Lady Hermon: That was said so graciously that it invites me to intervene once again. The Minister should reflect for a moment on what he has just said, which was that the applicant would have to make a statement that they have been resident for the preceding three months. Will he again confirm, because the amended Bill is not clear, that the chief electoral officer can dispense with the requirement that the voter has to make the statement in cases of incapacity or inability to read?
Mr. Browne: Yes. The three-month residence requirement has been included in legislation since at least 1949. I shall endeavour before this debate is concluded to try to find out the exact piece that introduced it. I understand that the intention behind the requirement is to prevent any distortion of a genuine poll of Northern Ireland opinion by large numbers of people from outside Northern Ireland registering in anticipation of an election.
Amendment No. 9 amends section 6(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1985, which specifies requirements where an elector applies for an absent vote at elections for an indefinite period. An application can be granted only if it states the applicant's national insurance number or that the applicant does not have one, and if the chief electoral officer is satisfied that the national insurance number or statement on the application corresponds with the number or statement which the applicant gave on application for registration, which is of course subject to the chief electoral officer's checking and may have been checked by other provisions in the Bill.
Amendment No. 11 makes a similar amendment to section 7(1) of the 1985 Act in relation to applications for an absent vote at a particular parliamentary election. So, those two provisions deal with those who have, as it were, standing absent votes, and those who seek to get an absent vote for a particular parliamentary election.
Amendment No. 13 inserts a new clause and amends schedule 2 to the Representation of the People Act 1983, which deals with provisions that may be in regulations on registration. The amendment provides for the disclosure by the authority responsible for national insurance numberscurrently the Department for Work and Pensionsto the chief electoral officer, following a request by him, of the national insurance number recorded in respect of a specified individual, or of the fact that the specified individual is not recorded as having a national insurance number.
The chief electoral officer will also be able to cross-check other information with the Department for Work and Pensions, which will be able to disclose any name or former name of an individual, his or her date of birth, sex and address. We have already debated that in some detail in the context of an intervention. Amendment No. 13 also authorises the authority to which the chief electoral officer makes his requests to charge fees to cover the expenses of complying with such requests. Again in response to an intervention, I have expanded on that.
Amendment No. 14 makes it an offence to provide false information pursuant to any requirement imposed by the amendments to legislation made by the Bill on an application for registration as an elector in Northern Ireland. It will therefore be an offence for a person to provide a false signature, date of birth or national insurance number, or false information on whether he or she has been resident in Northern Ireland for three months prior to registration, or to fail to state any other address in the UK in respect of which he or she is, or intends to be, registered.
Quite simply, that means that false information given in response to the requirements imposed by the Bill are dealt with in an offence created by the Bill. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that, in the confusing world of electoral legislation, such clarity is to be welcomed. A person found guilty of the offence of providing false information on registration shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both. The scale of penalties occupied us periodically in Committee. I argue that these penalties are proportionate to offences that are determined by primary legislation.