Fifth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Thursday 3 April 2003
[Mr. James Cran in the Chair]
Draft Local Elections
(Northern Ireland) (Amendment)
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2003.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cran. I am sure that our deliberations will be focused and concentrated. Making this short contribution feels a bit like ''Groundhog Day''. If it is 8.55 on a Thursday morning, we must be removing non-photographic identification documents as specified from Northern Ireland elections, except that today, unlike last Thursday, we are talking about local elections.
As the Committee knows, the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 introduced measures to minimise opportunities for fraud while protecting the right of individuals to exercise their franchise. The order, which follows on from that Act, removes non-photographic specified documents from use in local elections in Northern Ireland. The next local elections are due in May 2005. The order is compatible with the European convention on human rights and is being made in exercise of the powers conferred by section 84(1) and (3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The order amends paragraph 6 of rule 34, which relates to voting procedures, of the local elections rules in schedule 5 to the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962, as substituted by schedule 1 to the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. I trust that that is clear.
As I stated last week when taking another Committee through similar regulations, the Government have no intention of taking away people's democratic right to vote. If we believed that thousands of voters would not be able to vote because of this measure, we would not have introduced it at this time. However, it is imperative that we do everything in our power to ensure that anyone who requires a card receives one. I stress that the elections are not due until May 2005, but it is appropriate to bring the Committee up to date with exactly what we have been doing in the past week towards that objective.
Lady Hermon (North Down): I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr. Cran. I appreciate the Minister's giving way so early in his speech. He is, as hon. Members will know, under considerable stress, having gone on a diet and back to the gym this week, but we are delighted to see him in such good form.
The Minister said that considerable progress had been made on bringing to the attention of Northern
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Ireland voters the change to the regulations to remove all non-photographic identification. He will be aware that there is considerable criticism in Northern Ireland from a particular party. He may like to comment on the number of voters who have not returned to the electoral register, particularly in Belfast, West, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, West Tyrone and Mid-Ulster.
Mr. Browne: I am grateful for the hon. Lady's concern for my health. In fact, I have never felt better and do not feel under stress, although that is not always the case in this job. The Committee will know that fewer people are registered to vote in Northern Ireland now than were registered this time last year, for a number of reasons. The principal reason is that re-registration always results in a shortfall in the numbers compared with the previous year. Usually, there is a carry-over of people for at least a year, but since Parliament changed the rules for registration in Northern Ireland, there cannot be one, because people must satisfy the criteria set out in the 2002 Act before they can be included on the register. However, there is rolling registration for those people and a continuing campaign in Northern Ireland to explain the registration system to those who are entitled to register but have not yet done so.
There are other explanations for the shortfall in Northern Ireland, at least one of which relates to the effectiveness of the provisions that Parliament introduced to interdict fraud. I do not have the figures in front of me, but my recollection is that there have been reductions in all constituencies—greater in some than in others, although that is marginal.
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): The Minister may be aware that yesterday the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee took evidence from the Electoral Commission on exactly that point. Although there are glaring problems, it is working hard to rectify them. One of the problems is the change from registration of households to individuals. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is right to say that all political parties in Northern Ireland have grave reservations about the new system of registration and the photo-identity pass. There are real problems, particularly if there are going to be elections this year.
Mr. Browne: I would not be aware of evidence given to the Select Committee yesterday unless I had been there, as it would not yet be published. We all want to ensure that the objective that I have set out—the interdiction of fraud—is achieved without accidentally disfranchising honest voters. That has been at the heart of the legislation since its introduction and before that during the long period of consultation. All parties represented in the House supported the legislation. There were debates on the detail, but there was support across the board for the new criteria for registration and for photographic identification.
I have made it clear all along the line that we have a shared responsibility in ensuring that electoral law achieves our twin objectives. I am certainly happy to remind members of the Committee, although most will not need to be reminded, of the lengths to which I and
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my Department have gone to ensure that those objectives are achieved. The changeover does not affect the forthcoming Assembly elections or the parliamentary elections, as it will not come in until May 2005. I wrote to all the Northern Ireland parties represented in the House asking them whether they thought it appropriate to proceed to remove non-photographic identification—this is not strictly relevant, although it pertains to the principle—and all of them supported the change. That was towards the end of February this year, so it is not that long ago. This is radical change; it has always had the potential to disfranchise honest voters accidentally. We have to careful not to do that, but at some stage the change has to be made if the package of measures is to be effective.
Canvassing individual voters rather than households lies at the heart of the process that was introduced by the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act. It would not be possible to achieve the objectives set out in that Act without individual registration because one of the electoral identifiers is a signature. No one could provide all the signatures for the household.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): I welcome this order. When my hon. Friend talks about all parties, does he share my unhappiness that our party, the Labour party, is not actively involved in this process because we do not allow people in Northern Ireland to join?
Mr. Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for what I am sure she meant as a helpful intervention. [Hon. Members: ''Blue on blue.''] Absolutely. The Labour party could not be more actively involved in the process with which we are dealing today. My hon. Friend raises another issue which concerns the Labour party rather than the Labour party in government, and that would be best dealt with in the party context. However, the Labour party could not be more involved in the process of trying to improve the rules on electoral law in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] I shall give way to the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) if he is seeking to intervene.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull) indicated dissent.
Mr. Browne: I have sought to update the Committee on the Government's response to concerns such as those mentioned by the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) when he relayed information to us about the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. As I explained last week, the Government, with the chief electoral officer and the Electoral Commission, are devising a co-ordinated strategy doubly to ensure that those who need the card have every opportunity to get one. That strategy should not only enable anyone who needs a card to get one, but should give us information on why a number of people who indicated at the registration process that they needed a card have not subsequently applied. I shall remind the Committee of some up-to-date facts about that process.
More than 35,000 cards have been dispatched to applicants. To date, more than 61,000 people have applied for a card, which is a significant increase on the number that I gave the Committee last week.
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However, slightly more than 7,000 of those applications have had to be rejected because they were not properly completed.
As I explained to the Committee last week, the chief electoral officer will write individually to the 180,000 people who indicated at registration that they required an electoral ID card, to find out whether they still want to apply for one. The Electoral Commission is undertaking a survey on electoral registration, and will include targeted questions about photographic identification. Next week, mobile application centres for electoral ID cards will visit five shopping centres—in Ards, Buttercrane in Newry, the town centre in Ballymena, Bloomfield in Bangor and the Abbey centre in Belfast. Housing estates in the Greater Belfast area will continue to be targeted, and when the mobile centres are at shopping centres and supermarkets, publicity teams will visit local bingo halls and cinemas and other places of public resort to remind people that they can get their ID cards at the shopping centres nearby.
In addition, the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland will carry out a leaflet drop throughout Northern Ireland to remind voters that they require photographic identification, and what they need to do to obtain it. Staff in the Electoral Office will follow up the 7,000 rejected applications and, if necessary, they will telephone those who fail to respond to their letters or visit them.