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Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): To sum up the Minister's position, he seems to be saying that if a recommendation from the chief electoral officer were to be rejected, the Secretary of State would have to explain to the public the public interest reason for that. Would not it be far better simply to drop this provision, so that if some extreme circumstances were to arise in future, the Secretary of State could come to the House to explain what they were and could take action at that stage? The Minister has singularly failed to give a good reason why this open-ended provision should be in the Bill.
Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am sure that that is an alternative scenario that could equally well have been undertaken. However, I imagine that were the Secretary of State to do that at some point in the futurein 2011, 2012, 2013 or 2014there would be an almighty row in this House, as there will be if the Secretary of State exercises the power under the Bill.
I understand that I am asking hon. Members to give discretion to a future Secretary of State, but I believe and trust that any such Secretary of State will act with responsibility and will overrule a chief electoral officer only in extremis for reasons that are in the public interest and that he or she will have to defend.
Sir Patrick Cormack:
Having listened to what has been said, particularly by Northern Ireland Members from all parties represented in the House, is not the
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Minister prepared at least to say that he will discuss this with the present Secretary of State and that he will consider introducing amendments or have his colleagues do so in another place?
Mr. Hanson: As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes a good parliamentary point. That type of discussion might well have occurred were we upstairs in Committee.
Of course, I will be happy to look at the debate and reflect on what has been said, but I will continue to argue for the principle that I have put before hon. Members, because I do not believe that their fears about the extent of the role of the Secretary of State in terms of the electoral register and its compilation are justified. I commend the proposals to the Committee and ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to reject the amendment should hon. Members force it to a vote.
Mr. Laurence Robertson: We have had another prolonged debate on an interesting subject and I should like to run through one or two points that have arisen.
As other hon. Members have said, the previous consultations outside the House are not relevant. We are here to consider the Bill as legislators, and we are entitled to raise points that were not necessarily raised before.
It is a recurring theme that Ministersnot this particular Minister, but the Governmentare becoming rather isolated on Northern Ireland business. Given that Sinn Fein Members do not take their seats in this House, the Labour party is frequently the only party putting forward the ideas that appear in the Bill. No other party from either side of the House, including the SDLP, is supporting the Government on any issue. Only yesterday, the Government were isolated when a Northern Ireland order was discussed upstairs. Perhaps the Minister should go away and reflect on a number of issues, including that one.
I was a little concernedalthough perhaps it should not have surprised mewhen the Minister said that if the chief electoral officer's recommendation were to be overridden, he would have the option of going public. Naively, I had assumed that the recommendation would have been made public in the first place. I would be happy for the Minister to intervene on me to clarify that matter. Perhaps I have missed the point, but I had assumed that the recommendation would automatically have been made public. It alarms me that that might not be the case. This will make the incestuous relationship between the Secretary of State and the chief electoral officer, to which I referred earlier, even more dangerous than I had originally assumed. I shall need to reflect on that.
Mr. Hanson: I should like to clarify the matter for the hon. Gentleman. The chief electoral officer may make his recommendation public, but he does not necessarily have to do so. It will be the responsibility of the chief electoral officer. He or she may make it public, or decide not to do so.
I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that the chief electoral officer's recommendation
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need not be made public, and that it could be kept private[Interruption.] I hear the suggestion that there might be, in the Minister's own words, a weak electoral officer. Such an officer would surely be bound to keep his recommendations private.
Mark Durkan: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, when we look at the totality of the Bill, we see that the chief electoral officer will be appointed by the Secretary of State, dismissible by the Secretary of State, and overrideable and ignorable by the Secretary of State? The chief electoral officer will, as never before, be the Secretary of State's chief electoral officer. That is where the real weakness of the chief electoral officer will come from.
Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that observation. I do not want to put words into his mouth, but he seems to be suggesting that this is going to be a pretty low-grade job. I mean no disrespect to anyone who is about to hold the position of chief electoral officer, but they will not have much autonomy or influence.
Sir Patrick Cormack: My hon. Friend has teased out of the Minister an admission that is frankly horrifying. The chief electoral officer could go to the Secretary of State and say, "Secretary of State, we need to do this", the Secretary of State could say, "You go back where you came from. It is in the public interest that we do not do that", and none of us would ever know anything about it.
Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct.
Lembit Öpik: If we are honest, should we not admit that we have got ourselves into this mess because the Minister is trying to defend an indefensible position? The only way in which he could defend it honestly is by saying that he wants to give the Secretary of State the political wriggle room to make decisions about the electoral canvass in the political interests of a negotiation with one party or another. The chief electoral officer's objective guidance could therefore be overruled for reasons of political expediency, and everyone except the Minister feels that that would be very bad for democracy.
Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
I return to the point I made earlier. The chief electoral officer will be able to make a recommendation in favour of a canvass being conducted in a certain year only
Those objectives include ensuring 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."
All those objectives seem reasonable to me. The chief electoral officer can make a recommendation in favour of a canvass being conducted only on the basis of those objectives. It worries me that the Secretary of State will be able to fall back on an overriding principle in order to cancel such a canvass. What could that principle be? My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir
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Patrick Cormack) mentioned that the exercise would cost about the same amount as a modest flat in London. I am not exactly with him on the property league. I think that a more appropriate indicator would be a cost of slightly more than £1 per elector in Northern Ireland, but perhaps I do not live in the same area as him.
Sir Patrick Cormack: I should have referred to a house, and not a flat.
Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): Street.
Mr. Robertson: Where I come from, a street would be more appropriate.
In any club that is owned by its members, the first duty of the secretary is to maintain a list of those members, as they will determine the rules and the way in which the club is run. Surely, the most important criterion of a democracy is an accurate register. The Minister is effectively saying, "Okay, but in certain circumstances there are more important considerations." He now appears to disagree, but in that case, why does he not accept the amendments? They are not very revolutionary. I am not even suggesting that we should remove the phrase "public interest". I am seeking merely to ensure that we relate those words to clause 4, which the Minister himself has proposed.
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