Mr. Gummer: There is nothing in the Bill to say that that would have to happen. The Prime Minister refused to answer a question of mine on the bombing of an aspirin factory in Sudan with the simple words that it would not be in the public interest to explain why that happened. The answer was outrageous, but there was no explanation of what the public interest was. The Prime Minister decided and applied the public interest and it stood. If that happens in the House of Commons, it will happen elsewhere, and that is why we are suspicious. The citizens of Northern Ireland cannot accept that the words "public interest" shall be interpreted by the person who will use that interpretation to do what he thinks is in his interest. That is the problem, and unless one divorces the two, the measure will be seen as wrong.
I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes, but simply say to him that a public interest decision is contestable. The defence drawn by the Secretary of State could be contestable in the courts. There would be a possibility of judicial review, andI return to this factit would be a very brave Secretary of State who took such a decision.
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The power is in the Bill because we believe that there might be circumstancesI have outlined some unlikely ones relating to cost, the census, or a situation in which a weak chief electoral officer was in postin which the Secretary of State might wish to exercise it. In normal circumstances, I do not envisage that any Secretary of State would refuse such a request from a chief electoral officer.
Sammy Wilson: The Minister is doing his best to try to find reasons why the Secretary of State may refuse to allow a census. However, his last example concerned the weakness of the chief electoral officer. Is the Secretary of State likely to give such a public explanation, especially as the relevant provision allows him to dismiss the chief electoral officer if he is not fit for office? If he was weak and not fit for the job, the public would ask why he had not been dismissed.
Mr. Hanson: I am trying to be helpful to all hon. Members. The provisions would be used in extremis. In normal circumstances, the chief electoral officer is independent of the Government and will make decisions and recommendations that will be acted on by the Government. However, there may be circumstances, a few of which I have outlinedI accept that hon. Members do not share my analysisin which the Secretary of State does not wish to accept the chief electoral officer's recommendation. If that is the case, it is in the public interest for the Secretary of State to defend the matter to the public at large, because the electoral officer can, if he wishes, make his recommendation public. It is contestable in the courts, and it can be argued in the public domain. The Secretary of State is accountable to the House for his decisions through discussion, debate and questions. Those are accountability issues. There may be circumstances in which the Secretary of State does not wish to accept a recommendation for an annual canvass by the chief electoral officer. If those circumstances arise, I imagine that there will be all hell to pay but, none the less, they could arise.
Mark Durkan: The Minister is talking about the independence of the chief electoral officer, yet there are provisions in the Bill that chip away at that independence, so he is not the final arbiter on any matter that is supposed to be within his competence. The Minister suggested that he could be weak and could undertake a registration exercise after being approached by the parties. The fact is, however, that in the past, Secretaries of State have moved election dates after an approach from parties. They have justified pursuing things that excluded other parties by saying that it was in the public interest. It never worked, and it was not right. Why are the Government trying to do it with this as well?
I am in danger of repeating my arguments. I am simply saying to all right hon. and hon. Members that the electoral officer has the integrity of the register at heart. Under clause 4, he is responsible for maintaining the register and its electoral integrity and, as part of that responsibility, he may wish to make a recommendation to the Secretary of State for an annual canvass. However, there may be circumstances in which
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the Secretary of State does not agree with that recommendation and wishes to override it. In extremis, such decisions may be made on financial grounds, on grounds relating to the census itself and for a range of reasons. I accept that I am pleading with the House in future to trust the Secretary of State, whoever they are, but their reasons for such decisions will undoubtedly be made public. They will be contestable in the courts, and they will be open to judicial review and to question in the House, so there is a safeguard if the provision is used in extremis.
Sir Patrick Cormack: None of those things may happen, although they are possibilities. The Minister may rule out my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and me, but is he not concerned that representatives from all the democratically elected parties who sit in this House and who take up their obligations as Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland are deeply disturbed? Has he not been persuaded to think again by the united voice of the SDLP, the DUP and the Ulster Unionists? He must engender confidence in Northern Ireland, which he manifestly has not got.
Mr. Hanson: I recognise the hon. Gentleman's point. On a number of decisions I have not had the confidence of all the parties in this House, which is sometimes the nature of politics. As I have said, no one raised that concern in the consultation. I accept the concerns raised by hon. Members, and simply say that the power will be used only in extremis.
Mr. Hanson: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. In extremis, the Secretary of State may find reasons to take that action, and I have tried to indicate to the Committee what they might be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle has said, those reasons include a clash with the census, pressure from political parties and matters involving funding. Clause 4 allows, when responsibilities are determined, the chief electoral officer to ask the Secretary of State for an annual canvass. A future Secretary of State would decide not to accede to such a request only in extremis. However, I will not rule out the possibility that a future Secretary of State might make such a decision, in which case they would have to publish the reasons why, and such a decision would be open to both judicial review and the questioning of this House.
The Minister has put it on the record that nobody raised the matter in the consultation, but
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parliamentary debates take place in this House. When did the Minister tell the parties that this power was being given to the Secretary of State? When in discussions did he make that point clear to the political parties and allow them to react to it, because my hon. Friends cannot remember that happening?
Mr. Hanson: In the consultation, we outlined how the electoral officer's role will be undertaken when we discussed the role of the Secretary of State and others. If hon. Members are unhappy with the proposals before the Committee, they can vote against them today and they can be raised in another place. Obviously, we will examine the points that have been made in today's debate. In my view, it is essential that the chief electoral officer has a role in determining when the annual canvass takes place. The chief electoral officer will make those recommendations, but in extremis there may be reasons why a future Secretary of State determines that it is in the public interest not to undertake that canvass and rejects the request from the chief electoral officer.
The professionals in this business are the chief electoral officer and his team. As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury said, they have a duty under clause 4 to meet the objectives of ensuring that the register is accurate and not open to fraud. I believe very strongly that the integrity of the electoral register is paramount, because it is on that basis that I, and other hon. Members, speak in this House today. I understand hon. Members' concerns, but I do not believe that they are founded in the likely actions of any future Secretary of State.