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Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Perhaps, Sir Alan, you will allow me briefly to add my tributes to Her Majesty the Queen and to the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), who on 6 April reached a similarly great milestone.
I, too, am puzzled by the Government's approach to anonymous registrationa point that was outlined eventually by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). Once he had managed to find his notes, he made a good point in questioning why clause 10 of the Electoral Administration Bill will not apply to Northern Ireland. That is rather puzzling.
I am a little concerned by the way in which legislation is being treated at the moment. I hope that you will not consider it out of order, Sir Alan, if I mention that
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yesterday we had to consider an important order upstairs at the same time as an important statement on Northern Ireland was being made in the Chamber. I raised the issue on a point of order in Committee yesterday, because it does not seem to be a good way of managing what can hardly be described as trivia. The measures that we are discussing are very important, and I ask the Government to consider my point when they introduce legislation and orders in one form or another.
All of us in Committee yesterday questioned why the order was necessary when, at that very time, the Government were saying in the Chamber that they were looking to restore the Assembly. That seems a very odd way of going about business. I will not try your patience any further on that, Sir Alan, but I would like to put it on the record that we cannot give legislation the serious treatment that it deserves when hon. Members are expected to be in two places at the same time.
I will not take much of the Committee's time on this issue other than to say that the official Opposition understand the need for anonymous registration particularly, but not exclusively, in Northern Ireland. Other Members have made points about how people in Great Britain might want to exercise the right to cast their votes, but understandably for one reason or another do not feel safe about their names being on the register. That problem exists in Great Britain, but it exists particularly in Northern Ireland for reasons with which we are all unfortunately very familiar. We therefore support the retention of the clause.
Mr. Hanson: I thank Members for the fair points that they have raised. They demand an answer from the Government. I am pleased that there appears to be a consensus on both sides of the House about anonymous registration, and clause 1 was introduced to make provision for that. I shall try to deal with the concerns that have been raised.
As the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) recognised, it is the Government's intention to introduce an anonymous registration scheme in Northern Ireland that will broadly mirror the one being introduced for the rest of the United Kingdom by the Electoral Administration Bill. That reflects the Government's beliefI hope that hon. Members will agree with thisthat the situation in Northern Ireland demands the support of the same rights as those enjoyed by citizens in the rest of the United Kingdom. For that reason, we will attempt to introduce a set of proposals broadly similar to the provisions in the United Kingdom. However, there is a significant difference in the way in which the Government approach this matter, which is why I want to relate this point to the other points that have been made.
Members from all parties will know that Northern Ireland has a body of electoral legislation different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom, particularly in relation to registration and electoral fraud. For that reason, we cannot apply the scheme proposed in the Electoral Administration Bill currently before another place to Northern Ireland in the form in which it has been put. We need to look at how we can adapt the legislation to work effectively in Northern Ireland.
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That will require detailed and careful technical consideration by the Government. However, the principle is that, for the reasons that have been outlined by hon. Members on both sides of the House, citizens of Northern Ireland should have the same rights as citizens in the rest of the United Kingdom. We need to look at how, technically, we can do that in the context of the other aspects of legislation on these matters in Northern Ireland.
Sir Patrick Cormack: I am grateful to the Minister for his typically courteous response to this brief debate. Will he touch briefly on the point that I raised? It would be most unfortunate if the people of Northern Ireland did not benefit from those provisions in the Electoral Administration Bill.
Mr. Hanson: I understand perfectly well the situation in which the hon. Gentleman found himself last June. It is a situation that any of us could find ourselves in, and I am sure that it was a complete nightmare for him, because he had to fight the election so late. I am looking very carefully at the situation with regard to the Bill from the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which is currently before another place. I understand that it extends to Northern Ireland, but I will seek advice on all the clauses. I would not want to mislead him, so I will write to him. It is my understanding, and certainly my hope, that the provisions relating to his postponed election last June would be applicable to Northern Ireland, but I want to check on the details and report to him in due course, if I may, because it is a Department for Constitutional Affairs Bill, for which I have no direct responsibility.
As I have said to hon. Members generally, the proposals that we want will ensure that the rights of citizens in Northern Ireland are the same as those of citizens in the rest of the United Kingdom. As Members have said, it is important that an elector whose safety would be at risk if he or she were identifiable on an electoral register should be allowed to register anonymously. That will require detailed and careful technical consideration.
In addition, as Members have noticedI pay tribute to their forensic abilitiesthe Electoral Administration Bill is still being considered by another place. As the relevant provisions in that Bill might be amended, we wish to examine in detail the final proposals that come before the House before we look at how to apply them to Northern Ireland. In the light of those considerations, we have concluded that it makes sense to wait until the approach for Great Britain is finalised, in another place, before we seek to define any detail of how any scheme will apply to Northern Ireland.
That is not exactly a new approach. Section 84(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which this clause amends, already allows for provisions to be made by Order in Council in respect of certain matters relating to elections. Let me address the point about Orders in Council. Having been in the job for 11 months, I know that Order-in-Council provisions are unsatisfactory to Members from all parties. Indeed, dare I say it, they are occasionally unsatisfactory to the Government as well. In discussions that I have had upstairs on modification orders, we have already agreed to consider how we can best deal with the question of Orders in Council. Very often, the procedure is unsatisfactory.
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In this case, however, I want to reassure right hon. and hon. Members that although the Government are seeking an Order in Council at a later date, we intend to consult widely on the proposals that will construct the Order in Council relating to anonymous registration. We want to ensure that when we introduce anonymous registration in Northern Ireland, it has the support of the political parties and the electors of Northern Ireland. We want to ensure that we consult fully on how we take that proposal forward. I hope to undertake a consultation very shortly on who should be eligible for anonymous registration, how that registration will apply and what criteria should be brought into play.
As the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) has mentioned, domestic violence might be a criterion. As other hon. Members have mentioned, the issue might be threats of intimidation, or the break-in at Castlereagh, for example. There are a whole range of issues that we want to consider. With due respect to the whole of the United Kingdom, we might want to consult on some matters specific to Northern Ireland. I will certainly bring forward a widespread consultation on that as soon as possible, prior to the introduction of the Order in Council.
Lembit Öpik: The Minister's words are laudable, but does he not see that the Government have created a rod for their own back? We have often been told by Ministers in Northern Ireland debates that they will take full account of what the parties in Northern Ireland and the Opposition parties have to sayand then they ignore the advice. Why should this situation be any different? What assurance, or evidence, can the Minister provide that on this occasion the Government will genuinely take on board ideas, even if they originate from a party other than Labour?
Mr. Hanson: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on the fact that during my tenure in this job, I have tried to listen to what parties have said. On occasions, we cannot always agree and it is not possible to do so. In response to the consultation on some of the matters that we will deal with later, in Committee next week or on the Floor of the House tomorrow, I had four, five or possibly six different views from different parties. It is impossible to reach a consensus on every issue on all occasions, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I intend to consult on who should be eligible and how anonymous registration should be applied to Northern Ireland. That will happen in the light of the ongoing consultation by the DCA on the same matters, which are being considered by this House and another place in the context of the current Bill dealing with electoral matters in the United Kingdom, which was referred to earlier.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that that consultation will take place. There will be an opportunity for parties in Northern Ireland, the official Opposition, the Liberal Democrats and anybody else to comment on those matters. I will produce the Order in Council at a later date for approvalin a manner that I know is unsatisfactory to hon. Membersto ensure that we try to get some consensus on these matters. Having heard what right hon. and hon. Members have said today about anonymous registration, I think that there will be the potential for agreement and consensus on the scope, the criteria and the implementation of the provisions.
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I understand the unhappiness with the Order-in-Council procedure, but I have an open mind on the precise details of the scheme, which is why we are going to consult. We are clear that only genuinely vulnerable individuals should be able to benefit from such a scheme. DCA is currently carrying out its own consultation. I very much hope that Members will support that. I hope that that has given hon. Members some assurances.
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