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Eighth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Thursday 3 July 2003
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
Draft Representation of the
People (Form of Canvass)
(Northern Ireland) Regulations 2003
Mr. John Spellar: I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2003.
The regulations are compatible with the European convention on human rights and are being made in the exercise of powers conferred by sections 10(4), 53 and 201(1) and (3) of, and by paragraph 10 (2) of schedule 2 to, the Representation of the People Act 1983. The regulations prescribe a new form of words for the annual canvass, which ascertains who is entitled to be, or to remain registered as, a parliamentary or local government elector in Northern Ireland. The new wording takes into account the fact that a further 10 countries are likely to join the European Union in 2004 as a result of the treaty of Athens. The change will allow citizens of those states who are resident in Northern Ireland to be registered as voters in local government elections after 1 May 2004, when the treaty comes into force.
The regulations introduce a new form of words in relation to the full and the edited versions of the register. They also cover the possibility that someone may apply to be excluded from the edited version. That version is available to anyone who asks for a copy. The full version lists everyone who is entitled to vote and it is generally available only for election and referendum purposes, for the prevention and detection of crime and for applications for credit facilities.
Separate regulations are being introduced for England and Wales and for Scotland. Also being introduced separately, as a UK-wide measure, are franchise regulations, which will allow citizens of acceding states to register before 1 May 2004, when those states will formally join the EU. Those people will then be on the register that will be used for the European elections in June 2004.
Lady Hermon (North Down): I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr. Gale. I also welcome the Minister to his new portfolio. I was delighted by his appointment. Will he confirm that citizens of Gibraltar will be able to register if they live in Northern Ireland? As he knows, there is a close connection between Gibraltar and Northern Ireland.
Mr. Spellar: I will get back to the hon. Lady about that. Of course, the regulations apply to the accession states, and a separate decision will be made on where Gibraltar fits into the pattern of European elections. Information on how the issue will be dealt with will no doubt come to me fairly shortly, and I will return to the matter in my winding-up speech.
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We have taken the opportunity to improve the lay-out of the canvass form by including additional guidance notes on how to complete it. I understand that the form has been subject to some criticism. The Committee will note that the schedule contains only sections D and E, and not sections A to C, of the accompanying guidance notes. That is simply because section D is referred to in boxes 5, 7 and 9 of the form. Section E is included because it explains the content of the highlighted box at the top right-hand side of the form. Sections A to C are not included, because the form does not refer to them.
To conclude, I hope that the Committee can accept these positive changes to the canvass form, and I am grateful to the House for allowing us time to consider the regulations.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): It is always a pleasure to sit under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. It is also a pleasure to tell the Committee that I will not detain it.
I welcome the Minister on his debut in the Committee Corridor on a Northern Ireland issue, and I look forward to working with him. Rather more sadly, we will shortly be saying farewell to my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), whose brief in the Opposition Whips office is being moved from Northern Ireland to other important matters. We shall no longer see him dealing with our affairs. Those of us who are enveloped in Northern Ireland matters—we form a little community of hostages on the Committee Corridor—gain one new friend and lose one old friend.
Veterans of Northern Ireland affairs will know that, over time, I have developed a modest personal doctrine. It is known as the Taylor tests, and there are three of them. I apply the tests to Northern Ireland statutory instruments, and if they meet my three tests, my party will not oppose them. By that standard, and on that measure, this is a happy occasion. I shall list the tests.
First, does the measure make the law of Northern Ireland more or less convergent with that in the rest of the United Kingdom? It is desirable that the law of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland should be as near the same as possible, although there will be exceptions in Scotland. The measure makes the law of Northern Ireland convergent at least with the law of England and Wales. It therefore passes the first test.
The second test that I apply to Northern Ireland statutory instruments is whether they create a new commission or ombudsman. There is a proliferation of commissions and ombudsmen in Northern Ireland. Once again, the measure meets the test, because it does not create a new commission or a new ombudsman. I consider that to be benign.
Finally, my third test is whether there is evidence that the people of Northern Ireland want the measure. It does not quite pass that test; there is no great body of evidence that the people of Northern Ireland are clamouring for the regulations, nor are they to be seen with placards in the streets shouting for it. However,
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there is no evidence of dissent, so I regard it as a pass mark.
My party will support the measure.
Lady Hermon: I was about the intervene on the hon. Gentleman, but he resumed his seat a little too quickly for me. I shall therefore make a formal point rather than an intervention.
I pay tribute to the Minister's predecessor. Electoral fraud is a serious crime, and a serious problem in Northern Ireland. The first major piece of legislation introduced after the last general election that dealt with that problem was introduced by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne). He worked extremely hard, despite difficulties with data protection and other legislation, and put in place a good range of measures to combat electoral fraud. Those measures were welcomed by all political parties—although I could not possibly speak for the four hon. Members who have not taken their seats; they are obviously capable of speaking for themselves.
The measure was considered less than a year ago. One of the great privileges of being hostages, as the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) described us, is that we are a happy band when dealing with Northern Ireland legislation. When I read today's regulations, I quickly recalled that we had debated the subject previously—on 17 July 2002. On that occasion, the Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office described the canvass form as striking
''the right balance between public and private interests.''—[Official Report, Eighth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 17 July 2002; c. 5.]
It was with some surprise, to put it mildly, that I saw that we were to consider the canvass form yet again.
In fairness to this Minister—I welcome him; he has an interesting role ahead of him—he kindly explained that one of the main reasons for needing a new canvass form is the accession of the new member states, something that we in the Ulster Unionist party welcome. We are very pro-European—at least, when I have finished with them, my colleagues will be pro-European. [Interruption.] We are expanding all the time.
The reason that I mentioned Gibraltar was not in any way to trick the Minister. It is a little-known fact that during the second world war, a great number of Gibraltarians were evacuated to Northern Ireland. Many second-generation Gibraltarians were born in Northern Ireland. The tallest building in Gibraltar is not known as Trimble house or even Paisley house, it is named Ballymena house after a well-known county Antrim town. There is, therefore, a long-standing connection between Gibraltar and Northern Ireland. It was a bitter disappointment that Northern Ireland was not considered as a region with which to join Gibraltar for elections to the European Parliament. I would like clarification of whether citizens of Gibraltar can register.
I am impressed by the improvements made in the new draft form. I particularly like the fuller explanation of the difference between the edited
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register and the full register. I will explain the reason why, as the Minister is new to the job. He will be aware that, last year, there was a very serious breach of security at Stormont. During follow-up searches in west Belfast, several computers and discs were recovered. The criminal investigation is ongoing, so I will not name names; that would not be proper. However, during the course of investigations, it became obvious that the details of thousands of prison officers across Northern Ireland, including the wards in which they voted, were listed on the computers and the discs. Prison officers in particular are extremely anxious about registering to vote in case their details should fall into the hands of those who should not have them. I have already raised that matter with the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy). People will be disfranchised and discouraged from registering to vote if they think that their details will fall into the hands of paramilitaries. It is a serious problem that I hope that the Minister will address.
I welcome the fact that the word ''Townland'' appears on the front of the electoral registration form. For those of us who are wedded to the concept of townlands, I place on record that I grew up in the townland of Kilnaslee. It is lovely to see that that tradition is preserved in the form. However, I am concerned about the size and format of the form. That is because my dear husband has a problem with his eyesight due to glaucoma. The typeface is very small. I am particularly concerned about those who are unable to sign the form and require the signature of an attestor. Part 1 of the form requires the name and address of the attestor. It is physically impossible—I have tried—to squeeze in an address at the bottom of that part of the form.
I would like the Minister to comment on the original form that was approved in Committee on 17 July 2002. That form stated:
''This form will not be accepted unless all relevant sections are completed fully and the form is signed.''