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Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the issue. Again, however, I am bowing to the will of the chief electoral officer, who has raised concerns with the Government about the potential for fraud if numbers of people registered in the late window; for example, he would not have time before polling day to verify personal identifiers on applications for postal votes. In that context, he has expressed concern about the risk of fraud in the absent vote process. The provisions to prevent individuals who register in the late window from applying for an absent vote reflect his advice to the Government.
The Government believe that the provisions will protect the integrity of the electoral register, while doing as much as possible to allow individuals to register much nearer the date of an election.I hope that that will reassure the hon. Lady. I am taking advice from the professional officer who is paid to secure the integrity of the electoral register. He has expressed his view that if we accepted the amendments, we would open up the potential for fraud in the postal vote system.
Mr. Dodds: We welcome the extension of the period for late registration. Many people realise that they need to be on the register only when an election is called and canvassing begins. In addition to the existing identifiers and the fact that they will not be allowed an absent vote, what further safeguards will be required of people who seek late registration?
Individuals are allowed to register as normal, with the usual registration qualificationsthe
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three tests, with which the hon. Gentleman is familiar. There will be no change to that, except that they will be able to register up to 11 days before the election. When an election is called and candidates such as the hon. Gentleman or I knock on doors to ask, "Will you vote for us?" people often say that they are not on the register. Now, up to 11 days before the election, they can be on the register. That will assist the process. However, reducing the postal vote deadline from the present 14 days to 11 days would, in the view of the chief electoral officer, allow the potential for fraud. I bow to his advice on the matter. As I said earlier, we are anxious to maintain the integrity of the register. We propose a method of maximising participation while maintaining integrity.
Lorely Burt: I am grateful to the Minister for his comments. However, the proposed modification seems reasonable. If the chief electoral officer is unable to verify someone's identity within 11 days, that is fair enough, but will the Minister consider a move to a 14-day registration deadline? We are minded to withdraw the amendment, although it is beyond us why the Government cannot accept such a common-sense modification.
The Chairman: We now come to clauses 10, 11 and 12. In view of the notice given and the close relationship among these three clauses, I propose, if it is for the convenience of the Committee, to allow debate on clause 10 stand part to go wider over part 3, on the understanding that that will avoid repetitious debates on the other two clauses.
Mr. Hanson: I am grateful, Sir Alan, for that indication. If I may, I shall speak to clauses 10, 11 and 12 as part of the general debate. Unusually for a Minister, I shall in due course move that the clauses do not stand part of the Bill.
As I say, Sir Alan, I find myself in an unusual position. It is not one in which I have found myself on the number of Bills that I have taken through the House as a Minister in different Departments. It is a strange place to find myself, but I hope that I can offer the Committee an explanation of the reasons for that.
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The Committee will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has tabled amendments to delete clauses 10 to 12, and consequential amendments to clause 31 and schedule 5 have also been tabled by the Government and will be considered later in the proceedings. It might be helpful, as I have said, if I set out the reasons why clauses 10 to 12 were included in the Bill on its introduction. They were included because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State considered it possible that an early election might help to facilitate a return to devolution in Northern Ireland. Obviously, the Government are very concerned to ensure that the Assembly returns to its rightful place as soon as possible, and we have considered different methods on a number of occasions to ensure that the Assembly is up and running in due course.
On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend said that there was no specific intention to use the powers in the Bill, but simply a desire to have the power to introduce an early election provision if it became apparent that that was necessary. However, the Committee will be aware that, during the recess, post the debate on Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach of the Irish Republic met in Armagh on 6 Aprilmy right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I were also present on that occasionto announce a possible new way forward to help facilitate the return of devolution. That matter has been well advertised. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a statement yesterday, to outline formally to the House the issues and ideas proposed on 6 April in respect of the potential for the return of devolution to Northern Ireland.
Right hon. and hon. Members will understand that we have not yet published the new Bill that will give effect to the proposals outlined by the Taoiseach and my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State and that the details will not be made available until the Bill is formally introduced shortly. However, in the light of the arrangements proposed by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State about the recall of the Assembly on 15 May and the potential end date for that recall towards the end of Novemberfrom memory, I think that it is 24 Novemberthe procedural arrangements for calling an early election will not now be necessary. Therefore, I am happy that clauses 10 to 12 are no longer required. We want to delete them in due course, because we do not believe that they are necessary, given the new political framework proposed by my right hon. Friends. I also very much hope that the Assembly will return and that a new election, as originally envisaged when the Bill was introduced, will not now be needed, because there is a clearly identified framework.
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I will give the Minister time to read his notes. Will he explain to the Committee in precisely what circumstances the Government envisaged that the date of the elections would need to be brought forward?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. He will know that there is a range of
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reasons why, following discussions with the parties, an early election may have been desirable on previous occasions. Again, I can speculate until the end of the sitting at 7 o'clock this evening about what those reasons might be. The point is that we included in the Bill the ability to hold an early election if one were needed because of the circumstances of political discussions on the attempt to restore the Assembly, which the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) wishes to happen as a matter of urgency. If an early election was needed as part of those discussions, we could have called one if the Bill was passed as drafted.
Following my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's announcement on 6 April, it is clear that the provisions for an early election will not be required, because we have recalled the Assembly for 15 May and set it a deadline of establishing an Executive, if possible, by 24 November, or thereabouts. I forget the exact date, but from memory I think that it is 24 November. We have said that if the Assembly is not restored by that date, there will be no election for the Assembly. So an early election is not necessary. The circumstances for an early election could have been myriad, and I will not speculate on what could have happened in discussions with the DUP, the UUP, the SDLP, or Sinn Fein, which is not present today.
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