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Lembit Öpik: A phrase from my time in industry springs to mind: "It is never too late to procrastinate". I am worried because the tone of the Minister's response suggests that he is seeking latitude to procrastinate on a very important matter. In his concluding comments, he considered the possibility of re-enacting the provisions for further periods of time, and I have to say that I find that frustrating.
Mr. Spellar: What I said should not necessarily have led the hon. Gentleman to draw that conclusion. I merely drew attention to the provisions for a one-year extension and the ability to include another year, if necessary, and suggested that the Bill was limited to those circumstances. I thought that I had explained that further primary legislation would be required only if those provisions were not realised.
Lembit Öpik: I am glad that the Minister has sought to clarify the position. I know that tomorrow morning, 1.5 million people in Northern Ireland will tune into the internet and read the proceedings of our debate. From what the Minister said earlier, they would deduce that they could relax, as there would be further opportunities to procrastinate in the filling in of forms. The Minister's intervention did not reveal any visceral determination to avoid finding ourselves again criticising the Government for having allowed this modification of the law to slip through and then be used indefinitely, as has happened so many times in Northern Ireland politics in the past.
I shall not seek to divide the Committee on the amendment, but others may wish to. In anticipation of a nail-biting climax, I refer the Minister to a saying of my father's: sooner or later, even the best strategy must degenerate into action.
The purpose of new clause 2 is simple and we touched on it earlier. We do not know who the 80,000-plus people who have dropped off the register are. Many of them probably did not realise that they had to return the form. Most people probably fall into that category because they are not accustomed to having to register every year and expected that, as in the past, names would be carried forward. It is likely that people did not notice, or did not care about, the form that dropped through the letterbox and did not return it in time. Most of the 80,000 are probably in that category, but some may have moved away, and some are no longer with us.
"to carry forward the names of electors registered in the register in cases where those electors have failed to submit an annual canvass form or have submitted a form which does not include all the personal identifiers."
On Second Reading, the Minister offered reassurance when concern was expressed about the Bill opening the door to electoral abuse, and he referred to the existing identifiers. They included signatures, which can be forged, national insurance numbers, which can be obtained in various ways, and photographic identity, which will not be available for applications for proxy and absent voters. The purpose of the new clause is to ensure that people who are reinstated on the register under the Bill will have to vote in person at the polling station and produce
Mr. Gregory Campbell: If, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, the majority of the 80,000 people who are not on the register were entitled to be on it 12 months ago, would the new clause preclude them in their entirety from applying for a postal or proxy vote, even though many of them may have a legitimate reason for not being able to vote in person?
The electoral reform legislation has introduced a number of safeguards to avoid abuse. It is known that when abuse has occurred it has involved absent and proxy voting. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about that, and I am sure that he would be anxious to ensure that safeguards existed and were operated. We are dealing with people who have had the opportunity to put themselves on the
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register, but have failed to do so. The Bill will give them a second chance, so it is reasonable for us to say that we want to ensure that the full range of safeguards in the 2002 Act will operate in that instance, including the need to have, and to produce on voting, the photographic identity card.
The new clause will not deleteriously affect large numbers of people. As I said earlier, the probability is that most of the 80,000 people in question are still resident at their original address, and the Bill will facilitate their registration. It is true that the Bill departs from the basic principles of the 2002 Act, and that is why it is reasonable to try to ensure that adequate safeguards are in place. The new clause would do that, and I therefore hope that the Minister will take it seriously and decide to accept it.
Lembit Öpik: I have much sympathy with the new clause, for the reasons outlined by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). The touchstone is the need for risk management. However, the inference is that we are more concerned about the 80,000 or so people and their bona fide right to be on the register than about those already on the register. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) rightly pointed out that the new clause would take away a right from those already on the register, but I wonder whether the Minister agrees that the greatest single risk of abuse is in absent or proxy votes. Therefore, with the aim of minimising the risk of electoral fraud, it might be reasonable on this specific occasion to curtail the right to an absent or proxy vote for this specific category of voters, even if that makes it more difficult for them to vote.
Mr. Lidington: I, too, have considerable sympathy with the new clause. The Bill says to those who declined to exercise their responsibility under the law to re-register annually that we will, in the interests of the health of our democracy in Northern Ireland, allow themfor the next year or two yearsto be restored to the register and enjoy their full democratic rights accordingly. Like the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), I wonder whether allowing postal or proxy votes to that category of elector without any check would tilt the balance of risk in the wrong direction. I therefore support the arguments made by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble).
Mr. Dodds: The new clause would have the effectwhether intentionally or as a by-product of the wording, I do not knowof removing those among the 81,000 to be carried forward who are on the permanent list of absent voters. It would deny them the right to be on that list, and therefore it would effectively disfranchise them. That could include elderly people, disabled people and those on the list for other reasons.
Had the new clause said that people would not be able to apply for an absent or proxy vote, it would have affected people who were not on the permanent list, and then that would be the issue. However, effectively, the new clause would deny people who are already on the permanent list the right to a postal vote, which would clearly be unfair. I do not know whether the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) intended that
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effect, but the wording certainly has that effect. Therefore, it would be unwise to press the new clause. It would have a detrimental effect on disabled or elderly people.
Lembit Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that those people who have, on their own initiative, applied for an absent vote in the past will probably have applied by now for the right to vote? So while what the hon. Gentleman says sounds technically correct, the risk is minimised by the fact that the individuals with the absent vote will have shown the initiative to fill in the forms on the previous occasion.
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