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Mr. Hanson: I understand the concern of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and I shall try to address it shortly, but I feel that it would be more appropriate to do so when we come to the next group.
Mr. Laurence Robertson: Going back to the previous point, the Minister said that the Secretary of State could override the decision or recommendation of the chief electoral officer. That worried me a little, because the Secretary of State will appoint the chief electoral officer, unlike the police ombudsman, for example, so the relationship is a little incestuous.
Mr. Hanson: I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman by pointing out that the Secretary of State remains accountable to the House. In the unlikely event of the electoral registration officer recommending a canvass and the Secretary of State saying no, for whatever reason, the Secretary of State will remain accountable to the House for that decision. That accountability will provide for discussion, debate, censure, votes and everything else. The principle is that there may be a range of overriding public interests that mean that the Secretary of State wishes to examine the issues. [Interruption.] I am happy to give examples, but I shall be straying into the next group of amendments. I am happy to do that, but I feel that it might try your patience, Mrs. Heal.
Sammy Wilson: The Minister has indicated that the electoral officer could have an extra canvass as and when he saw fit. I assume that, if the Bill is passed, the electoral officer will be resourced for a 10-year canvass. Where would the resources come from if the electoral officer decided to have an interim canvass?
Again, that may be one of the issues that the Secretary of State determines is in the overriding
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public interest. I am straying again into the next set of amendments; I am being dragged there from hon. Members in all parts of the Committee. I am happy to deal with these matters, but I shall follow your guidance, Mrs. Heal, as they are dealt with in later amendments.
Sir Patrick Cormack: On a point of order, Mrs. Heal. I make the following suggestion as I think that it may help the Committee and you. Having chaired many Standing Committees over the years, I know that it sometimes makes sense to regroup amendments, even during a debate. As the two issues are so closely related to each other, I wonder whether it might be better if we were able to touch on them all now.
The First Deputy Chairman: I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, and I know that he has much experience in Standing Committees. In this instance, however, I feel that it is important that we keep the two matters separate. We will therefore discuss the timing now and, as the Minister indicated, deal with public interest in discussing the subsequent amendments.
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I do not want to repeat the various points that have already been made. Surely, the essence of what is being debated at this moment, irrespective of what will arise under clause 4, is the independence of the chief electoral officer. If his decisions are subject to questioning and agreement or non-agreement by the Secretary of State, he will simply not be independent. If the Minister wishes to pursue the autonomous rule of the Secretary of State in that regard, will he consider introducing some appeal mechanism or forum to determine whether the so-called public interest is of sufficient seriousness to override a considered opinion of the chief electoral officer?
Mr. Hanson: The points that my hon. Friend mentioned are certainly important, but I am again in danger of straying on to the next group of amendments. I say to all hon. Members that the principle before the Committee is the abolition of the canvass in 2006 and, in principle, a 10-year period between canvasses. That would mean that the next canvass would be in 2016. For purposes of the check, we have picked 2010 for a potential canvass to ensure the integrity of the electoral register, but we feel that the Secretary of State could consider a further annual canvass or an interim canvass if the chief electoral officer made a recommendation to that effect.
"that every person who is entitled to be registered in a register is registered in it . . . that no person who is not entitled to be registered in a register is registered in it, and . . . that none of the required information relating to any person registered in a register is false."
Those clear criteria are set for the duties of the electoral officer. If the electoral officer feels that the register in any year from 2006 does not meet those objectives, he will have a duty under the legislation to make proposals to the Secretary of State for an interim canvass.
I understand that hon. Members share my wish for integrity in the electoral registration system in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but if the electoral officer believes on grounds set out in clause 4 that the register is failing, he will have not only the right, but the duty, to go to the Secretary of State and request an annual canvass. It would be a very foolish Secretary of State who would refuse that requestalthough the power is there for him to exercise it if he so wishes.
Sir Patrick Cormack: As there is such disquiet in all parts of the Committeeall the Northern Ireland parties that participate in the House have made the pointwhy cannot we fix the 2010 date instead of making it an option? That would help to engender confidence in what the Government are seeking to do. If we can fix on 2010, we can obviously still look at the matter again before 2010. If it seems desirable to go to 2020that is very unlikelythen fair enough, but let us fix on 2010 and not make it an option.
The Secretary of State will make an order only if the recommendation is forthcoming from the chief electoral officer. I put to hon. Members the fact that the onus and responsibility lie with the chief electoral officer, who has duties under later clauses to ensure the integrity of the register. If he feels that the register is not truly correct and is failing, he has the power and duty to ask the Secretary of state to continue with the canvass. The proposal to fix an interim canvass is unnecessary, because we have 2010 fixed, and we have the potential for an interim canvass if required and for the chief electoral officer to bring it forward.
Sir Patrick Cormack: The fact is that we do not. There is the option, but no fixed 2010 date. If there were such a date, there would be general consensus in Committee. I can see from the nodding heads around me that people would be tolerably satisfied. The fact of the matter is, however, that the Bill as currently drafted does not insist on 2010, which is an option.
The Secretary of State will only do that for two reasons. First, he would act on the recommendation of the chief electoral officer. Secondly, the power is exercisable only by statutory instrument, which would come before the House anyway.
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