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Mr. Dodds: No, I do not accept that. There are people in Northern Ireland who are on the electoral register and the permanent list of absent voters. The effect of the new clause would be to say that, yes, people can be on the electoral register, but they will not be able to have an absent vote—not that they cannot apply for one, but that they cannot have an absent vote at all—even though they are on the permanent list. That should not be the case.

Mr. Trimble: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, and we may need some guidance from the Minister and others as to the position. We are dealing with people who were on the register, did not return their registration form and consequently ceased to be on the register. It may no longer be accurate to describe them as being on the permanent list of absent voters. I do not know whether the situation that the hon. Gentleman has in mind will arise. It is something on which we need advice. If it will, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for having raised it. It is still open to the Committee to take manuscript amendments in the course of these proceedings so if we have the appropriate advice from the Minister or those who may send missives to the Minister, we can certainly deal with the problem.

Mr. Dodds: What the right hon. Gentleman has said carries some weight. When we hear what the Minister has to say in response, we can consider better how to take the matter forward.

Mr. Lidington: I understand the important argument that the hon. Gentleman has put. It is surely also the case that if the new clause was accepted, the Bill would have to go back to the House of Lords for consideration of Commons amendments, and any technical further amendment that the Government wished to make could be considered there.

Mr. Dodds: That is absolutely right. Having made all these points, we await with even keener interest than otherwise what the Minister has to say.

Mr. Spellar: I am advised that, since falling off the register last year, those people will no longer be on the permanent list of absent voters. I recognise that that might create a further anomaly, with the reinstatement of the register. Those people may presume that they do have a vote, and we do not want to deny them that.
 
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The right hon. Member for Upper Bann asked me to consider the matter seriously, and I have done so. I can see the arguments and the difficulties to which he referred. Against that, I have had to balance whether the new clause would create two classes of elector—those who are entitled to an absent or proxy vote and those who are not. I then went back to the more basic principles. The chief electoral officer already has the personal identifiers of those who will be back on the register as a result of the Bill, because they will not have been on the register previously. My understanding is that he will check in some detail any applications for absent or proxy votes that arise from any of those 81,000 individuals.

If, for example, the chief electoral officer discovers that one of the three personal identifiers from the applicant does not match, or that the application comes from a person who is no longer living at his or her registered address—that is important as well—the application will be disallowed, because under the current legislation the chief electoral officer has to be satisfied that any such application is correct before issuing an absent or proxy vote. So, quite apart from the previously mentioned safeguards with regard to other aspects of voting, the fact that he will not be issuing a postal vote to someone who is not resident at the address is a significant further safeguard, which I hope may satisfy the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Trimble: I thank the Minister and I want to repeat the point just to make sure that I have understood. He is saying that if an application comes in for an absent or a proxy vote, and on checking the application it is clear that the applicant is not living at the address on the register, no proxy or absent vote will be issued. Am I correct?

Mr. Spellar: For those who are within the 81,000, yes. That is my understanding from the chief electoral officer, so I hope that that would satisfy some of the difficulties that have been identified.

Mr. Trimble: The Minister says that that is his understanding, and by that I take it he means that this is the policy that the chief electoral officer will follow.

Mr. Spellar indicated assent.

Mr. Trimble: If that policy is followed, it will achieve the same effect as the new clause, which is a considerable reassurance to me, but the Minister must now consider the point consequential on the discussion a few moments ago. I am now bound to think that the advice that he has received confirms what I thought might be the case—that if persons who had been on the permanent list did not re-register they would not automatically be resumed to the permanent list, and I am not quite sure what is the best thing to do in this situation. Obviously, one wants to facilitate people. How that can be achieved I am not sure, because this may be a matter of legislation and the Minister may not now have the time in which to add a necessary amendment to his Bill, but I am afraid I shall leave it to him. In view of the points raised, there is a matter here that should be looked at sympathetically, but it is not clear to me at the moment how that can be done. In any case, that is a side issue.
 
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I thank the hon. Members for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) for their support for the new clause, but in view of the assurances that the Minister has given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.

4.23 pm

Mr. Spellar: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

We have had a useful, interesting and constructive debate. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) for withdrawing the last motion, but I shall consider the administrative consequences, as well as the issues raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds). It may not be necessary to deal with some of those issues in legislation. It may be possible, at the very least, to write to those people who previously had permanent postal votes to get them reinstated. I will certainly have urgent discussions with the chief electoral officer about undertaking that. In many ways, that demonstrates the spirit in which the debate has taken place.

There has been a general recognition of the concern about under-registration and an understanding of the possible pitfalls and dangers, and I hope that we have indicated that we have been alert to them. We have tried not only to mitigate any danger, but to maximise participation in the electoral process. I have also been much encouraged by the contributions from Members on both sides of the House on looking at practical ways in which that can be achieved.

I recognise that this is a staging post in the process. The Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 was a significant improvement in the legislation to deal with not just perceived, but clear abuses of the system. That has enabled the system to be considerably improved, but all changes may bring consequences in their wake and we have talked about some of those. As I readily identified, this is an interim measure designed to ensure that the register is more comprehensive, but we fully acknowledge that there are further improvements to be made, so I take note of the point made by hon. Members that we should try to undertake this process as quickly as possible. We need to consider a more long-standing procedure to deal with registration.

Andrew Mackinlay: When the Minister has his ongoing conversations with the electoral registration officer for Northern Ireland, will he undertake to explore whether there is parity of treatment on the narrow issue of what constitutes residence? I have reason to believe that the electoral registration officer in Northern Ireland is putting a very narrow interpretation on that and one that electoral registration officers in Dudley and Bromley, for example, would take a different view on. There needs to be parity of treatment throughout the United Kingdom on what constitutes
 
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residence, particularly in relation to people who could claim to be legitimately on the electoral register of north Belfast and of Edinburgh at the same time.

Mr. Spellar: I take my hon. Friend's point, although I am not sure what they do in Dudley. I am more interested in Sandwell—all sorts of strange things probably go on in Dudley. He must understand that this process is taking place in parallel with an examination of electoral registration by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. We will obviously seek to be guided by that and by broader international experience. Having said that, I am mindful of hon. Members' co-operation and the weather—not to mention the arrival of my colleague the Minister for Work. As a result, I thank the House and urge it to approve the Bill on Third Reading.

4.28 pm


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