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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I very much agree with the hon. Lady that the use of Orders in Council is being increasingly abused by the Government. Does she agree that our cynicism about that method directly results from the Government's recent behaviour in simply pushing through highly significant and profoundly important legislation after a
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two-hour debate on the Floor of the House? As a result, very few hon. Members have confidence in extending that methodology any further.

Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that contribution, which, of course, makes perfect sense, as always.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): That is going too far.

Lady Hermon: It is a slight exaggeration, I agree, but I am being generous this afternoon.

I wonder whether the Minister will simply address this question: why should similar or corresponding provisions about anonymous registration, as proposed in this rag-bag of a miscellaneous Bill, not be dealt with in a proper way and a proper place—within the Electoral Administration Bill, which is still being considered in the other House? That Bill could be extended to Northern Ireland. It is a curious fact that, as drafted, clause 10 of that Bill does not automatically extend to Northern Ireland. Surely, the people of Northern Ireland deserve that provision to be taken out of this Bill and given the proper scrutiny in another place and then in the House, instead of being dealt with as delegated legislation.

Mr. Peter Robinson rose—

The Chairman: Order. It would be helpful if hon. Members would indicate unambiguously that they wish to catch my eye. I had been looking in the direction of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), as he tabled new clause 1. I imagined, perhaps incorrectly, that the Committee would benefit from hearing from him before wider discussion took place.

Lembit Öpik: On a point of order, Sir Alan. I am currently note-wise compromised. I want to check something that the Minister might say before I make my contribution to cover all my bases, so I apologise for my apparently odd behaviour. I shall be very happy to speak a little later.

The Chairman: We must hope that the debate extends long enough for the hon. Gentleman to be adequately prepared.

Mr. Peter Robinson: I shall attempt to filibuster to assist the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik).

I followed the argument adduced by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and I agree with her absolutely about the way in which Northern Ireland business is dealt with in the House, particularly about how legislation is introduced. There can be no adequate alternative to the House dealing with proper primary legislation, particularly on electoral matters. I certainly join her and other hon. Members who have expressed disquiet about the Order-in-Council procedure. Along with the hon. Lady, I was present at the Committee yesterday, and it is a disgrace that no amendment could be tabled for significant Northern Ireland business. I join her entirely on that matter.
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I also join her entirely about parity, particularly in electoral matters. A very strong case can be made that Northern Ireland should be dealt with in precisely the same manner as the rest of the United Kingdom, particularly in respect of the franchise. I have the same misgivings as the hon. Lady about referring to provisions that have not yet passed all their stages in Parliament. That makes us a little nervous about including this provision.

Again, I join the hon. Lady in saying that anonymous registration has real merits—I shall come to some of those issues in a moment or two—but I am not quite clear why she has moved the amendment by which subsection (1) would be deleted, whereby no provision would be made for anonymous registration. So how would we meet the criteria of parity and be dealt with in the same way as other parts of the United Kingdom? If the hon. Lady had sought to delete subsection (1) and replace it with a substitute, we would probably have been with her all the way, but removing subsection (1) and subsection (2), as she proposed in amendment No. 2, would effectively mean that we had no anonymous registration.

Lady Hermon: Let me clarify the point. In my final remarks, I urged the Minister to ensure that clause 10 of the Electoral Administration Bill, which is currently before another place, extends to Northern Ireland and therefore the same provisions about anonymous registration as those that apply to the rest of Great Britain would extend to Northern Ireland. Therefore, anonymous registration would be covered.

Mr. Robinson: We are dealing with this Bill, and the Committee cannot amend a Bill that is being considered in another House. We must deal with the Bill that is in front of us. Clearly, if the Committee removed subsections (1) and (2), as the hon. Lady asks us to do, we would not have anonymous registration in Northern Ireland. It is particularly important that we have that provision in Northern Ireland, although I endorse the caveats that she mentioned, because I am unhappy about the manner in which the provision is being introduced in the Bill. None the less, I believe that it is essential that that should happen.

I am particularly uncomfortable about approving measures that are subject to provisions that the Secretary of State will produce at some later stage. Anything we say at this stage is subject to the caveat that it depends on whether we approve the later provisions. Clearly, given the different arrangements in Northern Ireland, the provisions will not be identical to those that apply in other parts of the United Kingdom, but they should share the same underlying principles. Establishing a system of anonymous registration for people whose safety could be compromised if their addresses were known is a helpful step forward.

In respect of the consultation responses, I note that Sinn Fein was the only party opposed to anonymous registration, but that is not really surprising. I also found that the Ulster Unionist party put in no response at all, and my party did the same—largely, I assume, because both parties are happy with the Bill. I also note that the Electoral Commission expressed strong support
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for the introduction of anonymous registration. It is particularly relevant to Northern Ireland in view of threats to the security forces and members of the Prison Service.

My right hon. and hon. Friends will be well aware of IRA intelligence-gathering operations, whether it be the raids at Castlereagh police station and Dundonald house or the Stormontgate affair, after which many people—police officers and others—were informed that their details had been compromised. There is good cause for servants of the Crown to have some anonymity. Many of them could be compromised and when it came to deciding whether to exercise their right to vote or protect their families' safety, they would probably choose not to be registered at all. That would be a most unfortunate set of circumstances to have to deal with and I am sure that the House would not want those circumstances to continue.

Apart from the special circumstances of prison and police officers in Northern Ireland, some more general circumstances apply throughout the UK—to victims of domestic violence, for example. That provides further evidence of the benefits to be gained from allowing anonymous registration. It would help the people affected to live free from the fear of attack. Any scheme would have to be devised with the main aim of protecting the vulnerable without allowing anyone to benefit from not being on the register. Such a balance will always be difficult to strike, but that difficulty cannot be allowed to stand as an argument against the principle of anonymous registration.

When the Electoral Administration Bill was passing through the House, the official Opposition sought to table a probing amendment. Its main principle—that access to anonymous registration should be for those who are at risk rather than those who seek privacy—would be generally accepted by the House. It is important to back up the case for being at risk with suitable documentation from the police or other statutory bodies. On that basis, I believe that the House could be content that the right people had access to the anonymous registration list. All such cases are to be regarded as exceptional rather than usual. Adopting the telephone directory analogy, it should not be as easy to get off the register as to go ex-directory. I hope that, in framing the provisions, the Government will take into account the issue of risk rather than convenience or privacy. The electoral register plays an important role and must be as complete as possible: it should not be changed on account of privacy, but only by reference to safety.

Unfortunately, due to the bad drafting of clause 1, it is impossible to make an assessment of how the arrangements will work in practice. We support the principle of anonymous registration, however, so we continue to support the Bill, but we trust that our business will be dealt with in a more appropriate manner in due course.

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