Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con):
I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Members for North Down (Lady Hermon) and for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). I entirely agree with the hon. Lady about Orders in Council, which are indeed a wholly unsatisfactory way of proceeding. We all know why it is done, but it is important for the Government to deal
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with the problem. If the Government's deadlines announced from the Dispatch Box yesterday are not metwe all hope that they will be, but know why they might not bewe will have to make some other provisions. It was most unfortunate that an Order in Council, affecting the whole local governance of Northern Ireland, was made yesterday without any opportunity for amendment, particularly when virtually all the political parties in Northern Ireland had expressed real misgivings about the number of the new local authorities to be constituted. That, however, is by the way. It remains an apposite illustration, but I shall not digress any further, Sir Alan, as you would rebuke me. The matter should be dealt with on the record and I hope that the Minister will say something about it.
The hon. Lady also made a good point about the Electoral Administration Bill and I am particularly concerned about the fact that it will not apply to Northern Ireland. Many hon. Members in their places today will know that the Government were particularly helpful when I sought to amend the Bill to prevent the sort of ridiculous delay that occurred in my constituency last year as a result of the tragic death of one of my opponents. I could not have asked for greater co-operation from any Government, whatever their political complexion, in trying to amend legislation. First, I brought in a ten-minute Bill and the Ministerthe right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman)gave her agreement to what I was trying to achieve, but suggested that it could be tagged on to the Electoral Administration Bill. I readily accepted her suggestion and she and her officials worked closely with me, for which I remain extremely grateful. I am glad to put that on the record again.
However, if the same position arises in Northern Ireland at the next general election and a candidate for any of the Northern Ireland constituencies dies, the hon. Members who represent them would have to go through the long, protracted delay that I had to face. That is absurd, as the problem would not arise anywhere else in the UK. It is therefore essential that the relevant provisions in that legislation come into force for Northern Ireland, at least in that particular.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East was concerned that, if the hon. Lady's amendment were accepted and no proper amendment to the Electoral Administration Bill were made, anonymous registration would be put seriously at risk. Indeed, it would not apply in Northern Ireland. I am unhappy about some of the almost pro-consular powers that go with the Secretary of State's office at the moment, but I would still prefer the anonymous registration promised in the Bill, even with all its imperfections, than run the risk of having no anonymous registration at all. The hon. Member for Belfast, East was entirely right to point that out.
It is good, particularly at the beginning of consideration of a Bill, to see both the Unionist parties singing from virtually the same hymn sheetand long may that continue. I hope that the probing amendmentfor that is what it isso elegantly and eloquently introduced by the hon. Member for North Down will result in some assurances from the Minister, which we would all welcome.
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I want to test your patience for just a little longer, Sir Alan. Earlier today, we heard a most eloquent tribute from the leader of the Democratic Unionist party to Her Majesty the Queen. We all listened and, I am sure, inwardly applauded what he said, as we also applauded the admirable speeches of the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. However, modesty forbade the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) from saying that he had already reached that milestone. He has recently celebrated his 80th birthday. I am in no position to comment on the condition of his soul, but I can certainly say that he is young at heart. I know that I speak for everybody in the Chamber and those who are not here in congratulating him on his 80th birthday and wishing him many long years to come.
Lembit Öpik: Thank you, Sir Alan, for your patience earlier. I have now literally collected my thoughts and have them in my hand. The pressure on my time was created by the ridiculous overburdening of those of us who do Wales and Northern Ireland business at the same time. I do not blame the Minister, but there are those in the usual channels who should be more sensitive than to have Northern Ireland business and a Welsh Grand Committee on the same day. The Secretary of State has evidently chosen a different route by not being here at all. At least I was here in body, if not initially in spirit.
New clause 1 would simplify the process of introducing anonymous registration in Northern Ireland, and anonymous registration is a necessary option for the reasons that have already been outlined. However, the process that the Government are putting forward seems rather complicated. Our new clause would amend clause 73 of the Electoral Administration Bill to allow clause 10 of that Bill, which introduces anonymous registration for England and Wales, to apply also to Northern Ireland. That is a very simple way of achieving what the Government seem to want to achieve. We do not understand why they have taken the approach that they have. First, it is fairly easy to make the change, and I do not understand why they thinkperhaps the Minister can explainthat it is not easier simply to replicate in this Bill clause 10 of the Electoral Administration Bill.
To come to the point that I really wanted to check, I know that the Department for Constitutional Affairs consulted on the anonymous registration provisions of the Electoral Administration Bill, but why was Northern Ireland not included in that consultation? If it was, I certainly have not been informed. The Northern Ireland Office also carried out its own consultation on the issue but, as far as I understand it, that consultation did not finish until January. If that is wrong, perhaps the Minister can make it clear why there were two separate consultations. Why did the NIO not consult at the same time as the DCA?
The Minister can give a more complete answer later, but it is a bit of a moot point anyway. The core question is why create two separate pieces of legislation when one will do.
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As we have said before, we support the provisions in the clause, and it is obvious that the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) are probing amendments. She made clear their purpose. We are simply trying to establish why there was not more joined-up thinking in Departments on how the provision's objectives are to be achieved. If the point behind new clause 1 makes sense to the Government, they can still take it on board. That does not mean a great victory or defeat for anybody, but it would at least ensure consistency. Producing separate legislation always runs the risk of unintended consequences and those consequences could quite simply be avoided by adopting the methodology of new clause 1.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I want to take this opportunity to inform hon. Members that we have a lot of sympathy for the spirit with which these probing amendments were moved by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). We will certainly be careful to listen to what the Government say about how they will handle and take forward the effects of the powers that will be created by the Bill.
We accept that, unfortunately, there is a case for the principle of anonymous registration to protect people from being tracked down by those who have sinister intent, including, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said, protecting those who have fled from domestic violence as well as the more obvious cases that people might think of in relation to Northern Ireland. However, we must be sure that the provision cannot be used and abused by people in a wider way to evade the attention or reach of lawful authorities by staying off the register or for their own convenience and privacy.
We agree with the health warnings that hon. Members have issued about the Government reserving to themselves powers to do things by Orders in Council. No matter what assurances the Government give us, we must all go by form rather than by faith. Recent and current experience shows just how frustrating and, at times, insulting and infuriating the whole business of the conduct of Orders in Council can be.
Although we are sympathetic to the probing amendments, we do not support them to the extent of removing the possibility of anonymous registration. We want to hear what the Government have to say and, in particular, the Minister's strong case against the whole concept of new clause 1.