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Mr. Lidington: This has been a good debate and I place on the record my appreciation of the constructive way in which the Minister listened to the various points that have been made during our proceedings and gave reassurances that people have rightly sought that the Bill will not lead to any undermining of the measures taken against fraud through the 2002 Act.
At one stage, when I was listening to two such formidable lawyers as the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) engaging in a courteous disagreement over the detailed content of the Bill, it was like being back as a university student. However, our proceedings this afternoon have been characterised by an understanding that the Bill attempts to address a real wrong and a flaw in our democratic arrangements in Northern Ireland while preserving those safeguards against fraud that are vital to the health of our democracy.
I hope that the Minister will reflect carefully on the points made by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the need for progress on the Government's proposals for a more permanent system of electoral registration to be not only swift, but transparent. We do not want to be in a position again in which Members of whatever party are put under undue pressure to agree to something without sufficient time to consult either outside the House or other Members within Parliament about the likely consequences of the measures on which we are being asked to take decisions. Some lessons could be usefully learned from our experience in dealing with the Bill. I hope that it delivers the successful outcome that the Minister intends.
Lembit Öpik: It is a shame that the Minister for Work came in so late because, at the risk of engendering some jealousy in her, I want to congratulate her colleague, the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, who has been a parliamentary titan of debate, setting out a high watermark for inclusive and constructive discussion for his colleagues to follow. She missed it all.
The debate showed three things. First, the high standard of debate that can occur when the Government proactively consult and operate their legislative processes in an inclusive fashion. I said in the debate on
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allocation of time that my great frustration is the failure of the Northern Ireland Office to do that. Today we saw the rewards of what happens when it does. I enjoyed the interaction between the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds). In effect, they did the Minister's job for him. As such, I am sure he will consider providing them with an honorarium from his ministerial salary.
Secondly, we learned that when we are not shoehorned into an artificially restrictive programme motion with guillotines, we conduct ourselves maturely and concisely, and we will finish almost one and a half hours ahead of schedule. The Government should take serious note of the fact that programme motions sometimes act as a provocation to extend debate and reduce the value of their contents. Once again, I hope that this is a precedent for future debates within the Northern Ireland portfolio and elsewhere.
Thirdly, we learned that Opposition Members share concerns about the danger of the Bill becoming a law that is renewed annually. There is no benefit to the Government in regarding the passing of the Bill as a precedent that they can fall back on. The Minister assured us that he does not regard it as a precedent. I sincerely hope that he and others who may discuss the subject will heed those words and not force us into reconsidering the measure. Although we have acceded to the Government's wish to accept the Bill, it should not be taken as an automatic green light for expecting the same co-operation if they do not use the period that they have been granted to solve the problems permanently.
It has been a pleasure to participate in the debate with the Minister and right hon. and hon. Members. On reflection, I am sure he will agree, as he looks at Members on the Opposition Benches and considers our contributions, that he is lucky to have us.
Mr. Dodds: Yes, this has been a constructive debate. We appreciate the way in which the Minister approached the debate and previous consultations leading up to it. This is a good day for democracy in Northern Ireland and the Bill is a positive move. The Minister has dealt with some of the points raised and allayed some concerns.
Reading clause 1 again, it struck me that we have acted on the assumption that, once the Bill is enacted, the chief electoral officer will immediately get to work ensuring that the 81,000 people are carried forward on to the new register. However, as the explanatory notes state, the Bill gives the electoral officer the power, not the duty, to do so. My concern was reinforced by the fact that clause 1 states that
their names. Having gone through the process of passing the Bill, I hope there is no question of the chief electoral officer saying, "I know I have the power and I may do that, but I am disinclined to proceed along that route." The clear will of Parliament has been expressed, and I hope we will see those 81,000 people being able to vote in the forthcoming elections.
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Mr. Trimble: Like other Members, I express my appreciation to the Minister and others for the manner in which the proceedings have been conducted. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) referred earlier to the 1.5 million people who will log on to the internet in Northern Ireland tomorrow morning to read the debate. It was a nice fancy, but is it not a pity that it will not happen?
Is it not a pity that very few people outside the Chamber will be aware of today's debate and the manner in which it was conducted? It would do an awful lot to improve the standing of Parliament in the eyes of the public, were they aware of that. It is a good thing that we have the internet and the one channel that takes a continuous feed from the House so that people can log on or switch on to that. It helps to some extent to counterbalance the conspicuous absences from the Press Gallery. Let me express appreciation to the persons who are in the Press Gallery and draw attention to the absences.
Having reflected on the quality of the debate, I echo the point that has been made. We have taken just over three hours to deal with the substance of the Bill. It has been dealt with expeditiously and with no attempt to prolong the proceedings. That underlines the point that programmes are not necessary and are in some respects counter-productive. The Committee stage went according to the timing allowed. A number of mini-debates were provided for by the selection of amendments. Some of them were quick and some took longer, because they needed to take longer as points arose. The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) mentioned such a point, and it is a serious one. The Minister will try to address it through administrative action.
Had there been a programme for the Committee stage, those drawing it up would have had no way of anticipating which amendments needed time and which did not. For that reason, particularly for Committee, programmes are wholly inappropriate. I have had the pleasure of serving on quite a few Committees, more in the early and mid-1990s than recently, and I was never conscious in Committee that members were deliberately wasting time. There was the odd bit of self-indulgence and there was a little badinage around the Chamber today, but it did not waste time. The Whips may want to think again about programming. I express appreciation to the Whip for the fact that the programme motion was not as restrictive as such motions have been on other occasions.
I shall make two further points by way of conclusion. I thank the Minister for the assurance that he gave me with regard to safeguards on applications for proxy and absent votes. That is helpful and I am glad that there has been progress in that respect.
I shall end, if I may, on a slightly different note. The way in which things have been done means that we have different classes of votersthose who have applied, those who have been rescued by special legislative means and others who have still not been included, in respect of whom the Minister has an obligation to ensure that equal efforts are made to provide the opportunity to be on the register. I, too, was uneasy about his reply in that regard, which made it sound as though the matter is not
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going to be treated with the urgency that it deserves. Having had a good day here, let us hope that that emboldens the Minister to get stuck into the problems that he knows he still has to deal with.
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