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Earlier this afternoon, I referred to the pro-consular powers of the Secretary of State. I hope that the talks that the Government are instituting next month will lead to agreement, but one must be an extremely optimistic person to be absolutely confident that agreement will be reached by the due date. If an agreement is not reached, we face the indefinite continuation of direct rule and of the use by the Secretary of State of his current powers, which are very great indeed. This is not a criticism of the present Secretary of State, any of his predecessors or any of his potential successors, but pro-consular powers are dangerous, and they make Northern Ireland very different from the rest of the United Kingdom.
I want to reinforce the point about the 10-year period. The next general election cannot be later than 2010, so if that rule had been in force in 2001, a 10-year period would have encompassed three general elections, which is a telling point. All 10-year cycles include two general elections, and most of them include three, which is too long. I understand why the Government feel obliged to introduce clause 2 and abolish annual registration, and the fact that clause 3 went through without debate, let alone a Division, indicates that there is broad agreement on both sides of the House and among the parties in Northern Ireland that that is a sensible move. One year may be too short, but 10 years is far too long.
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I do not have a particular preference between the amendments moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) on the Front Bench and by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who speaks for the Liberal party, because I would be happy to settle on either four or five years. I have long believed in fixed-term Parliaments, but I do not have a particularly strong view on whether the term should be four years or five years. However, 10 years is far too long and I hope that the Minister will take that point on board. When the Bill is debated in another place, where there will be ample opportunity for further amendment and discussion, I hope that the Government will introduce an amendment to alter the period to four or five years. That would be broadly acceptable, because the system would not be open to the potential problems to which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has referred. I hope that the Minister will accept the good sense of those arguments.
Mark Durkan: As other hon. Members have said, we welcome the move away from the annual canvass. That particular provision was difficult to implement because it placed an undue onus on the chief electoral officer, which led to consequential demands on parties and others.
As other hon. Members have said, we think that running the system on a 10-year basis is a step too far. A 10-year period could cause confusion between the 10-year electoral canvass and the census, which we want to avoid. Although we all accept the various reasons why people want to stay off the electoral register, we all want to ensure maximum participation in the census, not least given that the allocation of moneys for important public services depends on census returns.
We want to ensure that there is no confusion. As the devolved Minister who presided over the last census in Northern Ireland in 2001, I know that there were difficulties and confusions because changes in electoral law were pending. The new form of electoral registration whereby people had to give their signatures led to confusion between the census and the new form of registration, because people thought that having done one, they had done the other.
Equally, we must be careful when we consider how the electoral calendar might fall. Several elections could take place, not just general elections, before there is a general canvass to ensure that the register is clearly and publicly updated. It would be a step too far, and into the unknown, if we were to face the possibility of numerous elections before knowing how well the health of the register is maintained in between general canvasses. I hope that the Minister can colour in the ways in which the electoral office is intended to engage in focused and targeted work in between the dates for the general canvass to tend to areas where there is a strong case for believing that there is marked under-registration or over-registration. Regardless of whether we are talking about four-year, five-year or 10-year canvasses, what work will be done in the intervening period to proof and improve the quality of the annual registers?
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP):
To reinforce the hon. Gentleman's point, figures show that in Northern Ireland people change house every five to eight years on average. It would compound the
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problem if people had moved once or twice during a 10-year period. We need to know what information will be updated between registration periods.
Mark Durkan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for reinforcing the point that 10 years would be too much, particularly depending on how the cycle might fall. Situations could arise whereby information is doubly out of date. Those are the anomaliesindeed, absurditiesthat we want to avoid. With a 10-year period, we could find that the annual canvass is taking place at a time that coincides broadly with Boundary Commission reviews, again adding to confusion and uncertainty. We should be careful, first, about going for 10 years, and secondly, what the cycle would be.
I accept, however, that whether we are talking about four, five or 10 years, some flexibility must be allowed to the chief electoral officer to amend an alteration of the due date, either by taking it forward or moving it back. The electoral cycle could mean that the demands on the electoral office are such that it would be impossible for it to conduct an efficient general canvass by the scheduled dateperhaps due to proximity to the census or to boundary reviews.
We perhaps have a slightly more relaxed view than some other hon. Members of leaving some facility for the chief electoral officer to seek a relaxation or alteration as regards the date. Our primary concern is to ask the Government to think again about the 10-year period. We are agnostic either way as between four or five years. We would probably prefer four years, but we recognise, with all due respect to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), that the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) provides some of the consequential trimmings that would be required elsewhere. The Conservative amendment rhymes better, in technical terms, than the Lib Dem amendment. We are not particularly hot and bothered about whether it is four years or five years, but we have many concerns about 10 years. Irrespective of that, we would like the Minister to clarify what remedial and health checking work will be guaranteed in relation to the annual registers that will be published.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I think that it is accepted throughout this House that it is important to encourage every person who is entitled to be registered to be on the electoral register. That is their democratic entitlement, and every democrat in this House wants to ensure that the register is up to date.
However, we must learn from the lessons of the past. We would be very foolish if we did not recognise the reality that in the past we have needed considered debate about electoral fraud. I remind the House that many people in Northern Ireland believe that in 1997 I personally suffered because of electoral fraud. My constituency was one of several affected. A previous Member for Belfast, WestDr. Hendronendured the same thing in his constituency. Ulster constituencies certainly have a great deal of electoral fraud. Whenever we went to vote, we saw electoral cards being handed
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out from the boot of a certain political party's car. It was not done behind the scenesit was there to be seen. The same applied to benefit books.
Something had to be done to stop fraudulent claims and people taking the votes of other people, whether dead or alive. We were delighted that the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 was brought into being to remove fraudulent voting claims. The general canvass that took place every year was perceived to be going in the opposite direction, because many people who should have been on the electoral register were not. That led to a lot of discontent. It is a question of striking a balance.
My right hon. and hon. Friends and I believe that the general canvass should take place every five years. We have no problem with four years, but we certainly do not believe that it should be every 10th year. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said that that would be a step too far. In fact, it could be a step back into the mire of a register that no longer has the confidence of the community as a register of those who have the right to vote.
Lembit Öpik: I recognise that the SDLP, the DUP and the Conservatives are all ganging up against my four-year proposal. Let me put on the record the rationale for it. In essence, I was suggesting that we have the canvass in the year before the elections for the Assembly, which will be up and running before we know it. [Interruption.] Yes, I realise that I am now digging a grave for the four years. At least that would have the logic of tying it into a known electoral cycle
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