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Sir Patrick Cormack: But the point is that the Secretary of State has the overriding power. I hope that this will not be construed as an attack on the current or any future Secretary of State; we just believe that it is wrong to give that power to a Secretary of State. Were there no option, we would all be tolerably satisfied. For goodness' sake, the Minister should at least undertake to consider the matter with a view to introducing a Government amendment in the House of Lords.
Mr. Hanson: Again, I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but I think that there is a disagreement between us. First, the canvass in 2010 can be cancelled only by order of the Secretary of State through a statutory instrument, which will come before the House. Secondly, that will happen only if the chief electoral officer recommends it. That is a double safeguard, which I hope that he and other Members will accept.
Mark Durkan: The Minister has asked us to place some reliance on clause 3(1)(a). If we consider clause 3(3), however, we see that the Secretary of State's powers make it possible that such a canvass might not be conducted before 2015. The Bill asks us to consider that it might not just be a case of the Secretary of State letting it slip for a year. I accept that there might be a case for not proceeding in 2010, because were the 2010 electoral canvass to be done in the autumn, which is the traditional time, that would run close to the public information build-up to the 2011 census. At that stage even the devolved Administrationif there is onemight seek some change.
Mr. Hanson: Again, if the Government had wished to have a 10-year canvass in the first instance, we would not have put the provision in place for a potential canvass in 2010. Under clause 2, we are abolishing the annual canvass; there will be a canvass in 2006 and every 10 years. The Bill provides for the possibility of a canvass in 2010, for the very reasons mentioned by hon. Members, but we retain the right for that canvass not to take place if the Secretary of State is advised by the chief electoral officer that one is not needed.
Again, we are straying into later clauses and amendments, but the Secretary of State has an overriding duty to consider the broad picture, the needs of Northern Ireland and of this House and a range of matters. The Secretary of State has that power, but the circumstances in which the chief electoral officer would recommend the canvass and the Secretary of State would say, "No, thanks, we're not going to have one," would be very limited. It would be a brave Secretary of State who exercised those powers. There might be
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circumstances, however, which we will talk about under later clauses, in which the Secretary of State might want to take those powers.
Lembit Öpik: I might have been digging earlier, but I see a hole developing next to the Minister. There is now an inference that there could be a political motivation for not taking the register. There can be no other possible reason for giving the Secretary of State the opportunity to disregard the advice of the chief electoral officer. I want to press the Minister on this salient point. Can he give us a single example of circumstances in which he imagines the Secretary of State would need the power to overrule the chief electoral officer's guidance?
Mr. Hanson: For whatever reason, the Secretary of State might determine that on financial grounds. [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] It is possible; I am not saying that that would be the case. In 2004, the cost of the canvass was £1.7 million. I am not saying that the Secretary of State would make a determination against the recommendation of the chief electoral officer, but that is a public consideration for this House. The chief electoral officer might make a recommendation that the Secretary of State felt, in the circumstances at the time, was not worth £1.7 million. That will not be a determination, but it is a consideration.
Mr. Lidington: Surely, in those or other circumstances that we cannot foresee, it would be open to a future Secretary of State to come to Parliament and ask for primary legislation to be introduced, and if necessary expedited, as has happened with Northern Ireland legislation in the past and as will happen in the next couple of weeks. That would enable the dispensation to be granted by a parliamentary decision rather than just by the Secretary of State acting on his own account.
Mr. Hanson: Again, should the Secretary of State determine to do that, a statutory instrument, which would come before the House for consideration, would be required to cancel the canvass in 2010. Parliament would therefore be able to monitor the Secretary of State's decision. That statutory instrument would be taken in Committee, and could be referred to and debated on the Floor of the House. It would be voted on by the House. I am simply saying to all Members that the Secretary of State has the ability to override the recommendation should he or she wish to do so. I would not have included in the Bill the ability to have a canvas in 2010 if we did not feel that that was needed. We now envisage that there will be one in 2010, and on a 10-year basis after that, unless the chief electoral officer recommends otherwise, which it is in his power to do; again, I emphasise that that would be difficult for the Secretary of State to overturn.
Sir Patrick Cormack:
The Minister is making a valiant effort, but failing. Can he not understand that the confidence of the people of the Province of Northern Ireland is fundamental to the success of this legislation? We all know very well that it is unlikely that there will be a Secretary of State from Northern Ireland in the
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foreseeable future. We do not complain about that. We all know very well that it is perfectly possible, certainly for the immediate future, that the Government will have a large majority. We have already said that the Order-in-Council procedure is wholly unsatisfactory, as it is determined upstairs by a relatively small number of Members without the opportunity for amendment, so there is a lack of confidence in the system. When we pass primary legislation, surely it is important to ensure the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland. Why can we not get rid of this qualification clause and fix on 2010?
Mr. Hanson: Again, I have tried to explain in detail why the power for the Secretary of State is needed. I will deal with that in more detail under the next set of amendments. The Government are committed to making sure that the electoral register is intact, paramount and legitimate in every way, shape and form. The original purpose of the annual canvass was to ensure that. We have given an assurance that an annual canvass will take place next year, and every 10 years subsequently. As a backstop, we have provided for a canvas in 2010a date picked randomly, I say for the benefit of the hon. Member for Tewkesburyand for an examination of whether a canvass is needed at that stage to maintain the integrity of that register. If it is needed, it will happen. If it is not needed, according to the chief electoral officer, it will not happen. The Secretary of State has the power to examine the wider public interest at the time, but we would not have put that in the legislation if we had not wished to ensure the integrity of the register. At any time, the chief electoral officer can say, based on his or her obligations under clause 4, that the register is not up to standard, and that the canvass needs to be undertaken to refresh it fully. I hope that that assures hon. Members and that they will withdraw their amendments.
Dr. McCrea: Before the Minister finishes, will he deal with the question of a five-year rather than a 10-year period? He has constantly referred to 10 years, but there is a consensus across the Committee that 10 years is much too long for the integrity of the register to be maintained. Why do the Government insist on retaining the 10-year period regardless of what we say? If an amendment providing for a five-year period were tabled in the other place, would the Government not consider that a more sensible option than a stand-up fight?
Mr. Hanson: With due respect to the hon. Gentleman, it is not in my nature to stand up and fight on issues unless they are issues of extreme principle. In my opinion, this is a question of the management of the electoral register. The position is that there will be a canvass every 10 years from 2010or a canvass in 2006 and another in 2016, depending on what happens. If the chief electoral officer chooses to recommend an earlier canvass, after five years, the Secretary of State will have to reflect on that view and agree or not agree; but the onus will always be on the chief electoral officer to examine the legitimacy of the register on the basis of the criteria in clause 4.
It is a simple matter. We expect a canvass to be conducted every 10 years. If the chief electoral officer suggests that the canvass should be conducted earlier, the Secretary of State will have to consider the request and make a case for or against it.
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