Draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2003

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Lady Hermon: I am pleased that mobile units will be visiting shopping centres in general, which has not occurred in the past, and I am particularly pleased that one will be visiting Bloomfield in Bangor. Could the Minister ensure that local newspapers—not only the News Letter and The Irish News, which have been used in the past—such as the County Down Spectator and Ulster Standard and the Newtownards Chronicle are made aware of the visits in advance and that they run that information? Experience has shown that local papers have not appreciated the importance of a mobile unit visiting a nearby venue, and therefore did not run an article to that effect.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that sensible piece of advice. I can hardly advise a newspaper well in advance of something that will happen next week, but I accept the point. We will contact local newspapers to ensure that they know about the visits. I am not responsible for such papers' editorial policy, but I understand that the Electoral Commission will be placing advertisements in the local newspapers that are almost guaranteed to be carried.

This is the final piece of the jigsaw in our fight against electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Committee can agree with me in recognising the importance of the changes to improving confidence in the electoral system in Northern Ireland and in tackling abuse at the polling station.

9.9 am

Mr. Taylor: It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cran. I know that you have a happy day ahead of you for family reasons. You may be pleased to know, and I seek to gain favour with you by saying, that I shall not delay the Committee by

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virtue of the fact that my party broadly and enthusiastically supports the order, subject only to the reservation outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon. The Minister rightly said that none of us, apart from my hon. Friend, is conversant with the record of yesterday's meeting of the Select Committee. However, we will read it carefully in due course.

I was interested to hear the intervention of the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). I stop short of trespassing on the affairs of another political party, but it may interest the hon. Lady to know that my party organises in a modest way in the Province by putting up candidates in Northern Ireland from time to time. That could not possibly be described as a mass movement.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Anywhere.

Mr. Taylor: The hon. Gentleman should try me in Solihull. I am merely a spectator of the way in which the Labour party responds to people in Northern Ireland wanting to become its members. It is a matter of interest for me, but not one on which I should intervene.

I shall not seek responses from the Minister this morning: we had a passage of arms earlier this week when I felt almost as if the Province of Northern Ireland—a part of my country—was being governed like a colony. That is not, however, my feeling this morning. I have no objection to this process for this purpose; indeed, I accept it. It is good if it cleans up the electoral register and enables the rightful to vote for the rightful clearly, fairly, transparently and in a monitored way. It is confidence building in Northern Ireland, which is of the greatest importance for all the reasons that, sadly, we know.

I want the Minister to keep an eye on the cost of the ID card system. Of course there will be a cost, which I do not challenge. He mentioned that there were some 7,000 cases to be pursued. That cannot be done without incurring cost, and because it must be done relatively quickly, I do not seek to be a critic of the cost. Let it be done and done properly.

There is one thing on which I ask the Minister to comment when he replies to the debate, and then I am done. Will he say something about the security of data held by the Northern Ireland electoral registration system? With all the security problems in Northern Ireland, the Committee would be reassured to know that careful efforts will be made to ensure that data held is secure.

With those words, I wish the order well. My party supports it.

9.13 am

Lembit Öpik: I am pleased that you have interesting things to do today, Mr. Cran. I wistfully note that such a start can make one appreciate the rest of the day.

The Liberal Democrats do organise in Northern Ireland, perhaps as a statement of solidarity with the Labour party's desire to do the same. Those who usually support the Labour party may want to join the

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Liberal Democrats in Northern Ireland instead until they can join Labour.

The Minister described in some detail the degree to which the registration process has been rolled out to the public and almost tailored to the individuals as and when they need assistance and guidance. As a Parliament, we have moved further and further towards trying to force-fit people into regulations instead of trying to tailor regulations to personal needs and requirements. There may be useful points from which to learn how to frame legislation as a whole. At a strategic level, I shall watch with interest to see whether the personalisation of the registration process is achieved successfully. If it is, I hope that some of the lessons will be applied more widely to legislation throughout the United Kingdom.

9.14 am

Lady Hermon: I am surprised that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) finished speaking so quickly.

Lembit Öpik: Will the hon. Lady give way? [Laughter.]

Lady Hermon: I am disappointed because I was about to intervene on the hon. Gentleman.

I thought that the Minister might highlight the increasing demand by airline companies for photographic identification. It is a considerable problem that a high proportion of elderly widows have never left Northern Ireland and their husbands traditionally did the driving, so they do not have a passport or a driving licence. However, the low-fare airlines, such as Go and easyJet, require photographic identification even for a flight from Northern Ireland to another part of the UK, such as Glasgow.

In certain cases, money may not have been available to pay for a passport at the last moment. I had a constituent who almost missed her brother's funeral as a result. I have spoken about the matter to the Minister, who I know is aware of airline companies that may choose to accept the electoral ID card as an alternative means of identification. Of course, that is free to the voter and would therefore be of considerable use, particularly to elderly people travelling out of Northern Ireland. Other airline companies such as British Midland intend to make that a requirement.

May I pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for East Devon? Incidentally, I have on rare occasions been described on relevant papers as representing a constituency in Devon, instead of North Down, so I am delighted to see the proper representative of East Devon.

Mr. Swire: We are twinned.

Lady Hermon: Yes.

To be fair, I pay a warm tribute to the Minister. All my teasing aside, he has worked extremely hard to eradicate electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. That was a very serious problem and very serious crime. People would go to vote, but their votes had already been used up and stolen from them, which obviously caused great consternation and annoyance. Towards

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the end of February—the deadline was 28 February—I wrote on behalf of the Ulster Unionist party to confirm that we supported the withdrawal of all non-photographic identification before the forthcoming Assembly elections. As I said, the Minister has striven very hard to ensure that all possible measures are taken to eradicate electoral fraud. That said, I am interested in the evidence that was given to the hon. Member for East Devon and his colleagues yesterday, and I will certainly read the report on that information.

I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) is not present to speak for the Democratic Unionist party. I hope that that trend does not continue. That party represents a significantly smaller proportion of the population than the UUP, but I should like to hear its voice heard in more Committees.

The Minister alluded to the fact that last Thursday morning we debated more or less the same measure. I thought that this was a case of déjà vu. The explanatory memorandum for today's order is identical to that for last week's legislation, although obviously the title has changed.

Mr. Browne: That is an important difference.

Lady Hermon: With that minor intervention by the Minister to defend today's order—

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood): The date is different.

Lady Hermon: There is no date on the explanatory memorandum. The date has not been changed; that is an exaggeration. Only the title and the references to the various pieces of legislation have been changed in the explanatory memorandum. I was therefore tempted to pick up the Hansard for the Committee on Thursday 27 March 2003 and read out the debate word for word, but that would be rather tedious—consistent, yes, but rather tedious. Instead, I shall remind the Minister of what he said in that Committee:

    ''the Electoral Commission . . . intends to hold other public relations events to ensure that the voters of Northern Ireland know what is expected of them.''—[Official Report, Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 27 March 2003; c. 6.]

Will the Minister elaborate? Whatever the public relations events, I urge him to begin them in North Down, which is just down the road from Belfast, and easy to find. Unfortunately, he has not attended one of our recent events, but I am sure that his diary will allow him to be available for a public relations event to promote electoral identity cards in North Down.

As the Minister knows, I was worried that the original A4 electoral identity application form was complicated; it was in small type in shades of grey and black and was difficult to comprehend, especially for those who are not in good health or are elderly. Although the Minister said on 27 March that he did not have a copy of the application form, he took on board all my comments. Will he reflect on which differences he has incorporated into the new application form to be sent out to those who applied but who did not take up their electoral identity cards?

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The hon. Member for Solihull raised a good and significant point about the security of the data supplied to the Electoral Office. In the follow-up raids in west Belfast after the break-in by the Provisional IRA on 17 March 2002, computer equipment and discs were retrieved by members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland from the home of a gentleman who is now facing—

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