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The First Deputy Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 27, in clause 3, page 2, line 37, at end insert—

No. 17, in clause 3, page 3, line 12, at end insert—

Mr. Robertson: These amendments are similar to the ones in the previous group, and it was perhaps unfortunate that we could not consider them all at the same time. I do not want to try your patience, Mrs. Heal, but I suspect that it is to some degree inevitable that we might have revisit some of the arguments presented previously.

We had a long debate on the timing of the canvass. The annual canvass has been abolished: it is now proposed to hold a canvass in 2010, and possibly in intervening years as well, unless the Secretary of States makes an order providing that that requirement does not apply. In intervening years, the chief electoral officer can recommend that a canvass should be conducted, but it will take place only if the Secretary of State is satisfied that the public interest requires it. Indeed, the 2010 canvass can be cancelled if the Secretary of State, having considered the CEO's recommendation, is satisfied that the public interest does not require it.

Hon. Members from all parties have expressed concern about what the term "the public interest" means. That is an important matter in Great Britain, but
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the fact that citizens in Northern Ireland have generally been treated less well in legal terms than their counterparts in Great Britain means that the vagueness of the term arouses even more concern. I have tabled these amendments to tease out from the Minister the circumstances under which the 2010 canvass, or a canvass in an intervening year, might not take place. I accept that the requirement to keep the debate relevant to the amendments under discussion limited his opportunity to expand on that previously, and I hope that he will be able to say more this time.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential to aim for normality, in Northern Ireland even more than in any other part of the UK? Providing for exceptions using a phrase as vague as "the public interest" is, prima facie, rather dangerous. Does he accept that the Government would need a very strong reason for making an exception, especially given that this Bill is in respect of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right. As I tried to explain, using the term "public interest" in respect of Great Britain is unacceptably wide; to use it in terms of Northern Ireland requires some explanation, with good reason to support it.

As I said in an intervention earlier, I am a little concerned about the independence of the chief electoral officer. Perhaps the Committee will forgive me if I fast-forward to clause 8 which states:

Furthermore, he cannot hold office for more than 10 years. By comparison, the police ombudsman is appointed by Her Majesty the Queen, although I accept that it is by recommendation—no doubt from the Secretary of State. Why is the situation different for the chief electoral officer?

Clause 8 does not lead us to believe that the CEO would be independent. As I noted earlier, the relationship between the CEO and the Secretary of State will be somewhat incestuous. The Minister says that the 2010 canvass would be cancelled only if the CEO had made a recommendation against it, but surely in the real world the Secretary of State could put pressure on the CEO if he thought it appropriate.

I am concerned about the situation, although as we explored it in great depth during the previous debate I shall not repeat the arguments, but will the Minister give us some examples of what the public interest would mean under the clause? He gave a financial example to show why the 2010 canvass might not take place. He has just had several minutes to discuss other possible examples with officials and colleagues, so I hope that he can offer some to show why he feels that the Secretary of State would overrule the CEO. In particular, will he give us his interpretation of what "the public interest" would actually mean?

Lady Hermon: I shall address my remarks to my amendment No. 27. I remind the Minister that just over
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a month ago, on Second Reading, the Secretary of State gave us this assurance about measures for the registration of voters:

As the Minister reflects on the words of his esteemed colleague, he may care to try to reconcile the differences between the Electoral Administration Bill and this Bill, especially clause 3, under which the Secretary of State has exclusively been given the power to override a decision of the chief electoral officer in "the public interest"—whatever that will mean. The Minister has of course assured us that it means more than a financial interest, although he mentioned financial interests twice in our earlier debate, so we wait with bated breath to hear what else might amount to public interest.

The Minister may also care to study the Electoral Administration Bill, currently in another place, to which his colleague referred to on 13 March, for a direct comparison in respect of the rights that the people of Northern Ireland should have. There is no provision for a Secretary of State in any other part of the United Kingdom to override the collection of information by an electoral officer. Will the Minister address that inconsistency?

I dislike subsection (2)(b) of clause 3 and the Minister would be well advised to remove it. The inclusion of a reference to the Secretary of State having power to override the decision of the chief electoral officer in the public interest has caused enormous annoyance among Members who have spoken. Only the Government are in favour of the provision. If the Minister does not heed our advice, I urge him to ensure that my amendment No. 27 is adopted, because at least it indicates that where the chief electoral officer is concerned about electoral fraud the presumption will be that a canvass is in the public interest to eradicate that fraud. The matter would be brought to the attention of the Secretary of State by the person most keenly interested in having a valid, proper, up-to-date, modern electoral register—the chief electoral officer.

My amendment reads:

that is an obligation and a duty—

It is inconceivable that the Minister could come to the Dispatch Box and say that the prevention of electoral fraud was not in the public interest. He can make no logical objection to such a sensible amendment.

I would prefer that subsection (2)(b) was withdrawn altogether and deleted from the face of the Bill. However, if the Minister insists on it, I ask him to adopt my amendment to make quite sure that when the chief electoral officer indicates his or her wish to eradicate electoral fraud, it will be in the public interest to hold a canvass.
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Mark Durkan: The Minister will obviously be aware from the previous debate that there is real suspicion and concern that the Bill gives the Secretary of State significant override powers when the concept of "public interest" is not defined. Going on form rather than faith, it would be hard to trust any Secretary of State who had such sweeping powers, especially in circumstances where the Secretary of State was not required to exercise them in a defined and clear context—where there was no clear working premise for the exercise of such powers. If the Minister wants us to believe any of the reassurances, I am sure he will accept the amendments, which would define the public interest.

In his closing contribution on the last group of amendments, the Minister told us that the integrity of the registration process must be paramount, yet he offered as the only specific public interest consideration that would lead the Secretary of State to override the recommendation of the chief electoral officer a financial consideration—that in the circumstances, £1.7 million might too much to uphold the integrity of the registration process, which is said to be paramount.

3.30 pm

The amendments would ensure that the terms used by the Minister are extended to the Bill. If it is good enough for Members to be asked to accept his assurance, it should be good enough for him to include it in the Bill on behalf of Members. That is the point of the amendments, which seek a clear definition of the public interest. We know from so many other occasions that when it is not defined, we are treated to those empty but supposedly magic words, "the public interest".

When parliamentarians demand answers and explanations, the explanation that we are given is "the public interest". Parliament is not allowed proper debate, scrutiny, consideration and exposure of the issues involved. The concept of the public interest is meant to protect the public from stupid decisions, not from proper parliamentary scrutiny. I ask the Minister to accept these reasonable, sensible amendments, which are entirely consistent with the arguments that he made. He cannot ask us to believe those arguments, and then reject the amendments and call on his colleagues to vote against them.

I was trying to be helpful, perhaps in a dangerous way, when I pointed out to the Minister that there are other public interest considerations that might influence the chief electoral officer and perhaps even the Secretary of State when it comes to adjusting dates. The clauses that we have just passed permit a general canvass before 2010, as opposed to just after 2010. A census is due in 2011. I accept that there could be a number of practical issues in relation to 2010 that would give rise to legitimate questions of public interest.

If the chief electoral officer is to undertake a general canvass in the autumn of 2010, he will be trying to marshal many of the same canvass personnel as will be employed in the census in the spring of 2011. That gives rise to issues of comparable remuneration and pay rates. That was an issue when I, as Minister for Finance and Personnel in Northern Ireland, was handling the census in 2001. There are also issues of public communication. In the run-up to the general canvass in 2010, will that be confused with the public information that has been
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issued in the build-up to the census in the spring of 2011? There could well be good reason for bringing the general canvass forward to 2009, for example.

Various public interest questions are involved, but when it comes to decisions about electoral registration, the paramount consideration must be not whether it is for the convenience of people carrying out the canvass, but whether optimum working conditions will be created for the chief electoral officer to ensure that a proper registration canvass is carried out.

If the Secretary of State has powers to overrule the chief electoral officer, possibly for unstated reasons, or to ignore his recommendation, and if those powers are combined with those given later in the Bill for the Secretary of State to take control of the appointment of the chief electoral officer and to dismiss that officer, a potential twilight zone begins to emerge.

One of the things that we are constantly shown on television is the famous Jeremy Paxman interview with the former Home Secretary and former leader of the Conservative party about whether he did or did not threaten to overrule the former head of the prison service, and whether or not there were implications or suggestions about this, that or the other.

We see a twilight zone where all sorts of scenarios that are suggestive and reminiscent of what is implied by those questions might well arise. We might not be dealing with the same the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in a number of years' time. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is also the Secretary of State for Wales. We know from previous proposed departmental reconstructions that the Government have thought about doing something along the lines of the BBC's director of nations and regions, by putting together some of the territorial ministries. We could well find that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be housed in future in some mutation of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which is the Department where overall responsibility for electoral administration resides.

If the precedent is created that a Minister in that Department has powers to appoint, dismiss, override and ignore the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland, hon. Members from my side of the water need to consider the precedent into which they might be sleepwalking if they accept what is being offered. So I ask the Minister, on behalf of the Government, to think again and to think better, not just with eye to the situation that would unfold, but because of the very awkward and dangerous precedent that might be created more widely.

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