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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this, it will be convenient to discuss new clause 2Maintenance of the registers: Northern Ireland
(1) The Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland must confirm annually the details of every voter registered in every household in Northern Ireland.
(2) The form to be used for the purposes of subsection (1) above shall be prescribed by the Secretary of State by order, but shall include
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): The new clause deals with voter registration. In the absence of an annual canvass, it proposes that the electoral officer should confirm the existing details of everyone on the register on an annual basis. Every 12 months, households would be sent a form containing the details of all members whose names appear on the electoral register, and they would have to sign the form to confirm that their details were correct. Household members who wanted their names removed from the register could request that it be amended accordingly; alternatively, people could tick a box to ask for a registration form to ensure that a new member of the household appeared on the register in future.
Asking people to confirm or amend their details is a simple exercise and would mean that they would not have to reregister every year. In addition, a much more accurate picture of the state of the register could be compiled. Although we are minded to withdraw the new clause so that the Minister has time to reflect on the matter, we give notice that we will resubmit the proposal on Report.
Mr. Laurence Robertson: I shall be very brief. We have looked at the new clause and have some sympathy with it, as we were not able to make progress on the previous two sets of amendments. I do not want to detain the Committee, but we will consider the proposal in greater detail if it is resubmitted at a later stage.
Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) for making it clear that she will withdraw the new clause. I feel that it revisits clause 2, which deals with the annual canvass; in essence, mailing households every year would amount to the same thing.
The new clause would commit the CEO to undertaking an annual mailing to every household in Northern Ireland. Although that would not be an annual canvass of every individual, it would still amount to an annual canvass, by post, of every household. Earlier, the Committee agreed that there was no need to conduct an annual canvass, in part because of the cost implications.
The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland has estimated that it would cost some £300,000 to issue forms to all the households in Northern Ireland. That would cover the cost of the initial postingwhich by itself would cost £171,000 a yearthe reminder posting that is, sadly, always necessary in such cases, and the freepost envelopes that would also have to be provided. There would be no real benefit for electoral officers.
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Later clauses provide that electoral officers will be able to examine a range of other ways to keep the register up to date. For example, they will be able to refer to the utility companies and other sources, and clause 4 also allows them to look at any method of keeping the register up to date.
Lembit Öpik: The Minister said that the provisions in the new clause would provide no real benefit for electoral officers, but the Bill means that there will be no direct connection with voters apart from the canvass to be held once every 10 years. The new clause is a way to prompt him to consider ways to reduce that span of time.
Mr. Hanson: I accept the hon. Gentleman's logic about voter contact, but the Committeewith, for once, the unanimous support of members of the Democratic Unionist party, the Ulster Unionist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and other partiesagreed that the annual canvass should be abolished, as provided by clause 2. There was no debate, and the decision was unanimous.
The new clause proposes that every household be mailed every year, but that would replicate much of what the annual canvass was designed to achieve.
Mr. Robertson: I remind the Minister that we accepted clause 2 only on the basis that our amendments to clause 3 would be accepted. They would have provided the necessary checks and balances, but they were not accepted.
Mr. Hanson: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am not trying to stir up opposition; I am simply making the point that an annual mailing to households would in part replicate the work of the annual canvass. The chief electoral officer will have power to obtain information from public authorities and others to help him to meet the relevant registration objectives under clause 4. That will help him to track changes to the relevant circumstances of individuals, and he or she will be able to identify people who are not on the register but may be entitled to be included. He or she will also be able to track 16 and 17-year-olds.
The new clause would be an additional burden, and I am grateful for the indication that it will be withdrawn, as it would replicate, in part, a provision that we are trying to remove.
Lorely Burt: I am grateful to the Minister for his clear and appropriate response, although I cannot agree that our proposal would equate substantially to an annual canvass. While the electoral officer is trying to contact all the utility companies and to cross-reference and check all the information, I respectfully submit that it would be just as easy, under the new clause, to get a clear and accurate view of who is on the register, for the avoidance of fraud and to deal with important issues on which everyone in the Chamber agrees. The new clause is not untoward in terms of cost or effort in relation to the rewards that it would bring. We shall withdraw it, but we shall resubmit it on Report
Order. The hon. Lady cannot withdraw a new clause that she has not yet moved, and in the light of what she has said, it will not be moved.
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Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Lorely Burt: I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 5, leave out lines 17 to 24.
I shall not withdraw this amendment before I have moved it, and I apologise for any chaos and confusion that I caused my colleagues in the Chamber earlier. Through the amendment, we want to find out why a person who registers close to the date of a poll will be denied the opportunity to have a postal or proxy vote. Although we welcome the extension of the registration deadline, we do not see why a person should be denied that opportunity. There seems to be no real reason why personal identifiers cannot easily be checked and applications verified.
The explanatory notes state that the date for registering will be set out in regulations, but it is likely to be 11 days before the poll. If it is merely a question of sending out ballot papers and having them returned on time, would it make any difference if the late registration deadline was set at, for example, 14 days before the poll? It would be helpful if the Minister could give us a full explanation of the policy decisions behind the clause.
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