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The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sylvia Heal): Order. I understand the hon. Gentleman's need to explain, but this is rather long for an intervention.

Dr. McCrea: Thank you, Mrs. Heal, and I thank the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) for trying, but perhaps he should stop digging—[Interruption.] Someone says, "While he's ahead", but I am not quite sure what he was ahead of. Nevertheless, I accept that he was trying to take us away from the concept of a 10-year cycle and to propose something more reasonable. I think that most hon. Members accept that proposition in good faith, so the hon. Gentleman did not really need to explain his proposal.

If people are asking when the election is to be held, I think that we will know whether the Assembly is up and running or not. There was a period in Northern Ireland when there was an election every year. We need a good register in which the community can have confidence.

I am very concerned about clause 3(1)(a), which proposes that a canvass must be conducted in 2010,

Why would the Secretary of State want to take such a power into his hands? Whenever I read proposals such as this, they lead me to believe that the Secretary of State could lay himself open to the suspicion that he was
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meddling with the register for political purposes. That would not be a good idea. Will the Minister think again about conferring that power on the Secretary of State?

Sir Patrick Cormack: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that neither the Secretary of State nor the registration officer should be allowed, without accepted criteria being agreed, to determine what is in the public interest?

Dr. McCrea: Yes, I accept that. The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. The Minister should think very hard before pushing that provision.

Mr. Peter Robinson : I suspect that the Minister will tell us that we are not moving from compiling a register based on an annual canvass to compiling one based on a 10-year canvass. Instead, we are moving from annual registration to a completely different system, in which a lot more data are being sucked in to the electoral office so that it can produce a more accurate register. While we accept that, the key issue is that we do not know how well the new system will work. Should we have to wait 10 years to correct it if it does not work well? There is a good case to be made for conducting a canvass more often, especially at the beginning of the new system.

Dr. McCrea: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I wholeheartedly agree with the case that he has made.

In conclusion, I ask the Government to reconsider conferring the power on the Secretary of State in clause 3(1)(a). Furthermore, we support Her Majesty's Opposition in their proposal for a canvass every five years.

Mr. Hanson: I hope that I shall be able to reassure hon. Members on these matters. The integrity of the ballot is the prime objective of the Government in our actions to date and in those proposed in the Bill. The integrity of the ballot means that hon. Members who come to this House or to the Assembly, or who sit on local councils, do so because their peers have put a cross by their name legitimately. I emphasise to the Committee that that is the Government's paramount concern. Electoral fraud will poison the system, and I find it unacceptable to have people voting in elections when they are not entitled to do so, or perpetrating electoral fraud in any way, shape or form. I hope that that statement of the Government's objective will reassure hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) asked why we had decided to conduct a canvass in 2010. Clause 2 abolishes the annual canvass. Clause 3 proposes that the next canvass should be not in 2006—when the next annual canvass would have taken place—but in 2016. For the very reasons that hon. Members have mentioned today, we are proposing that there be the possibility of an interim canvass in 2010 as a backstop, should it prove necessary to conduct one at that stage. That would be four years after 2006, which should meet the objectives of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). The year 2010 was chosen simply because it is between 2006, when the next annual canvass would have taken place had clause 2 not
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been agreed to, and 2016, when the next proposed canvass will take place. The debate now revolves round the 10-year period between 2010 and 2020.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The Minister accepts that it might be necessary to have a canvass in 2010, given that the next one was to have been in 2006. Why should a 10-year period be instituted after 2010? Why not continue to use a four or five-year period throughout?

Mr. Hanson: I am coming to that point. That is the nub of the argument put forward by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee.

Clause 3(2) states:


The chief electoral officer will have the power to recommend a canvass in any year to maintain the integrity of the register, if he or she determines that the integrity of the register requires it. So the power is there, should the need arise for the electoral officer to make that recommendation to the Secretary of State.

Dr. McCrea rose—

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con) rose—

Mr. Hanson: I should like to finish the point.

Clause 4 contains clear registration objectives that place conditions on the chief electoral officer to ensure that every person voting is entitled to vote, that everyone on the register is entitled to be there, and that none of the required information relating to a registered person is false. We have set out clear criteria for the registration officer to look at the integrity of the register, and if they feel that a further canvass is necessary, they will be able to make a recommendation to the Secretary of State.

Dr. McCrea: If the chief electoral officer believed that such a canvass were essential, could the Secretary of State overrule him and say, "No, we will not have a canvass"? Surely the Secretary of State should not be able to overrule a firm recommendation from the chief electoral officer that a canvass were necessary to maintain the integrity of the register.

Mr. Hanson: I appreciate that. Clause 3 provides for the Secretary of State to be satisfied that conducting such a canvass would be in the public interest. In my view, the Secretary of State will need to have the power, as a backstop, to make such a decision in the public interest.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Hanson: I shall just finish the point. It would be a brave Secretary of State who went against the recommendation of the chief electoral officer, but the
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power will exist for him to do so if he judges that it is in the public interest. Later amendments will deal with that point.

Sir Patrick Cormack: That brings us back to the pro-consular point that I made earlier. I am not casting aspersions, but we all know that Great Britain has an Electoral Commission to which the Government refer and which they sometimes ignore. There is absolutely no guarantee that the Secretary of State would accept the recommendation of the chief electoral officer, and there are no criteria as to what constitutes the public interest. I have great personal regard for the Minister, but I find unconvincing his explanations of why we cannot specify 2010 and not leave the matter open, and why there is such a limitation on the power of the electoral registration officer.

2.30 pm

Mr. Hanson: I am happy to pursue this discussion, but the next group of amendments deals with the matter, and it may be more appropriate to discuss it at a later stage.

The First Deputy Chairman: That is absolutely right. It would be more appropriate to deal with the matter under the next group of amendments.

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