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Orders of the Day

Electoral Registration (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]

[Relevant documents: The First Report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Session 2004–05, HC 131, and the Minutes of Evidence taken before the Committee on 2nd April 2003, Session 2002–03, HC 619-i, on Electoral Registration in Northern Ireland.]

Order for Second Reading read.

1.42 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I will begin by setting out what this short Bill does and then explain its context and why its introduction is necessary at this time. It gives the chief electoral officer of Northern Ireland the power to re-register former electors on to the Northern Ireland electoral register by 1 April 2005. Former electors are individuals who appeared on the register published on 1 September 2004, but who failed to return that year's annual canvass or failed to complete it accurately, so did not appear on the register published on 1 December 2004.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): I am most grateful to the Minister for taking such an early intervention. The whole purpose of the electoral fraud legislation passed by this House in 2002 was to put in place additional identifiers to stamp out the serious problem of electoral fraud. What is the point of putting back on to the register electors who failed to comply with the requirement to provide the proper identifiers?

Mr. Spellar: People who were previously properly recorded on the electoral register will have been through that verification process. They were on the register running from 2003 to 2004 precisely because they had filled in the forms properly and had been checked. In 2004, they either did not return the forms, for which there are many possible reasons, or they did not fill them in accurately, but those individuals had already been checked. So we are not changing the procedure for properly identifying individuals or the procedures for verifying voters at polling stations. I shall return to that matter.

Lady Hermon: The Minister is being most generous in giving way again. If an elector has changed address, how will the chief electoral officer check the accuracy of the identifiers?

Mr. Spellar: In cases where the officer does not believe that the elector has moved or that someone else resides at the address in question, he already has the identifiers for those voters. He already has their national insurance numbers and dates of birth, which is why they are included on the existing register. The difficulty that we face—it is reinforced by today's report on electoral registration—is that whereas one might have anticipated a one-step drop in the electoral register as a result of its being cleaned up and of the changes introduced in previous legislation, in fact there is year-on-year decline.
 
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That is why there has been considerable and widespread cross-community concern that although the register is now highly accurate, because everyone who is on it is supposed to be on it, it is definitely becoming less comprehensive because not everyone who should be on it is. I will identify some of the differential effects shortly.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree—he has just touched on this issue—that the previous legislation was intended to prevent fraud, rather than to deter people from taking part in a proper democratic process?

Mr. Spellar: As I have said, there are many measures that prevent register and voting fraud. For the latter, photo identity is an example, and we rightly propose to make no change in that regard.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Can the Minister explain the effect of this restoration? He said that the UK average for persons eligible to be on the register was 93 per cent. and that the figure for Northern Ireland is now 85 per cent. What will that percentage be, assuming that the Bill is passed today?

Mr. Spellar: The Bill will certainly improve it—by approximately 81,000 electors—but we should allow for the fact that every week that figure is reduced. For example, the registrar produces a weekly report on the deaths that have occurred and by other means it might become clear to the registrar that certain people have moved. Of course, there might also be a new registration at a different address.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP): I want to follow up the point made by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell). The Minister referred to registration figures of 93 per cent. for Great Britain and of 85 per cent. for Northern Ireland. Although we will eventually have an effective register of citizens as a consequence of the identity card legislation—that is one of the advantages of that legislation—we do not currently have one, so how can the Minister be sure that those figures are accurate?

Mr. Spellar: We work on the most reliable census figures, but there will be a degree of inaccuracy in them, as some of the challenges to the census have made clear to us. However, the census figures for both jurisdictions make it clear that a considerably lower percentage of those recorded in the census are registered as electors in Northern Ireland than are registered in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Bill will increase the registration figure to more than 90 per cent., but we do not regard this as the long-term answer. It is an interim measure to enable us to have a more comprehensive register while we look at the whole question of electoral registration.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) is right, in that an identity card register might completely change the way in which an electoral register is drawn up. In some continental countries, for example, the register is entirely drawn from the residential register because, whether or not one is a citizen in those jurisdictions, it is a requirement, on moving, to register with the local authority. In Holland, that information is gathered together into one national register, which is also used for vehicle licensing and other purposes.
 
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Those are some of the broader issues, but today we are dealing with an interim measure to deal with a recognised problem before May this year.

David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP) rose—

Mr. Spellar: I cannot resist giving way to the hon. Gentleman, after his earlier intervention in which he objected to harmonising arrangements between the United Kingdom—I mean Great Britain—and Northern Ireland.

David Burnside: The Minister's Freudian slip speaks for itself.

Does the Minister accept that lower registration in Northern Ireland stems from the general disillusionment of the citizens of Northern Ireland? We have more elections than any other part of the United Kingdom. Over the last 20 or 30 years, we have constantly had elections, but the democratic mandate—as in the Assembly elections at the end of last year, for example—is not reflected in concrete governmental terms. There is no reaction on the ground. We can elect an Assembly, but it does not operate; we elect local government, but it has very few powers. There is a general disillusionment with political society in Northern Ireland because of the lack of powers to govern the Province and affect its future.

Mr. Spellar: That argument may imply that people decide not to participate in elections by not voting. We want to ensure that every citizen who is eligible to vote has the ability to participate when election day comes and is not prevented from doing so because of non-appearance on the register. Incidentally, what we are proposing is not unusual in a number of countries. In Australia, which has slightly later registration once an election has been announced, about 500,000 electors apply within a few weeks to be on the register. It is indefensible in democratic terms not to ensure that we have the most comprehensive register possible. The Bill is designed to achieve that.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): While the Minister is considering the need to get 81,000 people on the list, will he answer a question that is on many people's minds? Is it not the case that some of those 81,000 may never have existed in the first place and may be bogus voters? The Minister may have a good answer to that question, which I have been asked many times. It would be helpful to have his answer on the record.

Mr. Spellar: That argument could have been made about previous electoral registers, but as a result of the 2002 legislation, there was a major clean-up of the register. Subsequently, all those registered were checked in respect of their personal identifiers, so they have already been verified as individuals on the register. Some of the concerns previously expressed are no longer relevant because the safeguards on voting are stronger. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann has tabled an amendment that we can debate later. I hope to be able to allay some of the concerns about postal or proxy voting, but the great majority of votes are cast at a
 
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polling station and I have pointed out the safeguards that apply in those circumstances, which I hope reassures hon. Members.


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