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Lady Hermon: Will the Minister address one issue that has not come out at all in the debate this afternoon? The subsequent clauses, which we are going to look at in a few minutes, propose an interval of 10 years, instead of an annual canvass. Will the Minister assure us that when there is a registration of anonymity, there will have to be a very good reason for that person or persons remaining anonymous until the canvass comes round after a 10 year interval?
Mr. Hanson: I hope that the hon. Lady will understand that these matters will be part of the consultation. I promised to bring before Members, and the people of Northern Ireland, a proposal on the scope of anonymous registration, the criteria for that and its implementation. That is the intent and purpose of the consultation document.
Sir Patrick Cormack: The Minister has dealt very adequately with this particular prospective Order in Council, but I raised the point that if the deadlines that the Government have set for the Assembly are not met, we have a problem. Will he give an assurance that in that unhappy event there will not be an indefinite continuation of the present Order-in-Council procedure?
Mr. Hanson: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that when we considered the last modification orderindeed, when we considered the first modification order with which I dealt, in July 2005the way in which we deal with Orders in Council was raised by the hon. Members for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), as well as Northern Ireland Members. We gave an undertaking to examine our proposals. The Secretary of State wrote to the spokesmen for the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats and others to ask for their comments. We have received responses and I understand that private discussions are taking place. In the unhappy event of the Northern Ireland Assembly not being restored by the end of November, as proposed, we are considering how we will deal with the situation. I hope that the Assembly will be ultimately restored and that matters that are dealt with by Orders in Council will, rightly and properly, be dealt with by elected Members of the Assembly in Stormont, rather than by hon. Members in the House of Commons.
Mr. Peter Robinson:
The Minister confused me slightly when he responded to the intervention made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). Was his answer related to the canvass that will take place every 10 years under the Bill, rather than the actual registers coming out? Was he saying that there will not
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necessarily be any correlation between the time at which the canvass takes place every 10 years and the length of time for which people may have anonymous registration?
Mr. Hanson: The criteria for anonymous registration and the way in which that will be implemented will be a matter for consultation. A register will be published annually, as is set out in other clauses in the Bill. The proposal in the Bill is that the canvass will be held every 10 years. The two matters are entirely separate, so I am sorry if I confused the hon. Gentleman. The criteria for who should be anonymously registered, the conditions for their registration, the way in which the registration should be applied, and how the scheme will work will be subject to the consultation that I intend to issue as soon as possible, after considering the results of the consultation on the DCA Bill before the Houseand, I hope, with hon. Members' support today for the principle.
Lembit Öpik: I am not sure if the Minister was going to come to this before he finished, but I shall put to him again the question that I asked before. Why did the Government not simply replicate clause 10 of the Electoral Administration Bill to achieve the same purpose? It would be perfectly respectable for him to say, "We didn't think about it," but it would be useful to understand whether that approach was a strategy or an accident.
Mr. Hanson: I hoped that I had dealt with that point earlier, but I will try to assist the hon. Gentleman's recollection. I said that Northern Ireland had a body of electoral law, especially relating to registration and electoral fraud, thatfor reasons of which the hon. Gentleman will be awareis different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom. That means that technical issues that are different from those that apply to the Electoral Administration Bill must be considered. I understand that the hon. Gentleman might have some worries about that. We are broadly trying to replicate in Northern Ireland the situation that exists in my constituency in north Wales, but we have to examine the detailed and technical way in which we can do that when the situation is intermeshed with existing legislation that under current legislation is not amendable.
I hope that I have been able to allay hon. Members' fears and have shown that I recognise their points as fair. Given their fears about Orders in Council, I hope that my proposals on consultation will address their concerns. I ask the hon. Member for North Down to withdraw the amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister for his extensive response to my points. I am not entirely persuaded of the reasons why clause 10 of the Electoral Administration Bill is not being extended to Northern Ireland. We are seeing a repeat performance from the Government: when they introduce primary legislation that is supposed to cover the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland falls behind. Clause 27 of this Bill, which we will debate tomorrow, belatedly extends several provisions of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 to Northern Ireland.
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There is absolutely no reference in clause 10 of the Electoral Administration Bill, as amended in another place, to differences in the body of electoral law in Northern Ireland. Although the Minister has waxed lyrical about the differences in legislation that have been needed to combat electoral fraud in Northern Ireland, and referred to specific difficulties with adapting clause 10 of the Electoral Administration Bill, he has been unable to pinpoint any particular difficulties with simply extending clause 10 in total, or verbatim, to Northern Ireland.
Having said that, I am glad that there is consensus among all parties in the House about the need for anonymous registration. Although there can be an edited register at the moment, no voters can have their names withdrawn from the full register in Northern Ireland. Although the Minister gave an assurance that the people of Northern Ireland will be treated with parity of esteem with those in rest of the United Kingdom, he contradicted himself by referring to the extraordinary body of electoral legislation in Northern Ireland. That legislation should not be an excuse for not treating anonymous registration in Northern Ireland on a par with that in Great Britain, and doing so in primary legislation.
I accept that if I press the amendment to a Division, however, I will lose. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) made the point well that if we were, by good fortune, not to have the Government out in full force to vote against the amendment, we might fall between two stools and not have anonymous registration introduced in Northern Ireland. That would be a serious error to which I would not wish to put my name, so given the Minister's assurances and my hope that he will reflect on the points that have been made, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
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