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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2007



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Eric Martlew
Burgon, Colin (Elmet) (Lab)
Cooper, Rosie (West Lancashire) (Lab)
Durkan, Mark (Foyle) (SDLP)
Eagle, Maria (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)
Field, Mr. Frank (Birkenhead) (Lab)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Godsiff, Mr. Roger (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab)
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian (Leeds, North-East) (Lab)
Jenkins, Mr. Brian (Tamworth) (Lab)
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab)
Lancaster, Mr. Mark (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con)
Marsden, Mr. Gordon (Blackpool, South) (Lab)
Neill, Robert (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
Newmark, Mr. Brooks (Braintree) (Con)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Salter, Martin (Reading, West) (Lab)
Smith, Geraldine (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab)
Stuart, Mr. Graham (Beverley and Holderness) (Con)
Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP)
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 15 May 2007

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]

Draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2007

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Maria Eagle): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2007.
I am sure that I speak for the whole Committee when I say that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr. Martlew. I hope that wewill be able to deal with this small statutory instrument with appropriate speed, and that I shall be able to answer any questions succinctly. I know that youwill keep us in order should there be any necessity to do so.
The regulations were laid before the House on29 March 2007 and are a small but important part of the efforts of the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland to ensure that the register of electors in Northern Ireland is as up to date and as accurate as possible, that everyone who is entitled to be registered is on the register, that no one who is not entitled to be so registered is on it, and that none of the required information relating to any person who is registered is false. That is a simple and straightforward aim.
The Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 removed the legal obligation on the chief electoral officer to conduct an annual canvass in Northern Ireland, and made provision for a system of more extensive but targeted continuous updating ofthe electoral register. In particular, section 7 enables regulations to be made that give the chief electoral officer the power to obtain information from local and public authorities to help him to meet his registration objectives.
As the registration officer for all constituencies in Northern Ireland with responsibility for maintaining the electoral register there, the chief electoral officer’s objectives, which are set out in section 10ZB of the Representation of the People Act 1983, are to ensure that the register is as accurate as possible and, as I said, that all those who are entitled to be on it are on it, those who are not entitled to be on it are not on it, and that the information that is required to be on it is as accurate as possible and that none of it is false.
To assist the registration officer in meeting those objectives under the new system of continuous updating of the electoral register, the regulations before us will enable him to request information for the purposes of ensuring that the register is accurate and comprehensive. In particular, they will help him to track changes in the circumstances of individuals on the register, such as their name and address, to identify people who are not on the register but entitled to be, and to track the point at which attainers—those lucky people who are only 16 or 17—become eligible to be registered, get them on the register and thereafter hopefully ensure that they vote if they wish to, but certainly encourage them to do so.
These regulations will ensure that the chief electoral officer will be able to preserve the high level of accuracy that has characterised the electoral register in Northern Ireland as a result of the improvements brought about by the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, while increasing its comprehensiveness. They will also enable him to target traditionally under-represented groups to ensure that as many people as possible in Northern Ireland, from all social and economic groups, are registered to vote and have the chance to do so in elections.
This is a modest but important piece of legislation. It does not introduce any new civil or criminal sanctions, but merely extends vires to enable the chief electoral officer to have the power to request information. It is a slight extension of his existing power to inspect. The regulations simply provide a gateway for the sharing of information, and that information is specified and restricted to that which is necessary for his purpose of improving the accuracy of the register.
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): Has any assessment been made of what, if any, money will be saved by replacing the broad annual canvass with this targeted approach?
Maria Eagle: I can tell my hon. Friend that thecost of the annual canvass in Northern Ireland in 2006 was some £1.5 million. The advantage of these arrangements, which enable the chief electoral officer to focus on the accuracy of the register rather than having to go to the people who are on the register every year to ensure that they resubmit their details, is that he can focus on accuracy rather than having to go back time after time to people who have repeatedly shown their willingness to be on the register and are on it. It is about better use of resources. I cannot tell him, because it is not yet known, precisely what the cost of the measure will be. I hope that resources that are expended will be more carefully and properly targeted and that, as a result, the register will be more accurate and more comprehensive. That is certainly the aim. I hope that that assists my hon. Friend. He will no doubt tell me if it does not.
4.36 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): May I repeat the Minister’s welcome to you, Mr. Martlew. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Perhaps you would allow me to say that I have dealt with very many statutory instruments over the past two years, usually with the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), and it has been a pleasure to work with him. He hasalways been very courteous and forwarded me any information that I have required. I wish him well for the future, and I look forward to working with the Ministers who remain in his former Department.
It is also good to know that most legislation will now be undertaken by the Assembly. I wish the Assembly and Assembly Members very well too. A few matters remain for us to deal with here, this being one of them. I remember that when the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act was going through Parliament we expressed a little bit of concern—I would not say that it was huge—about the change from the requirement to carry out a full canvass to this method of checking the register. One of the concerns that we expressed at the time was about the ability or otherwise of the chief electoral officer to call for a full poll should he feel that that was necessary, because the power to do that is quite restricted.
I have had meetings with people in the relevant departments and they assure me that this is a better way of spending money—it will lead to a more accurate record. I suppose that I am able to answer my own question in the sense that I wondered what would be the difference between carrying out a poll in Northern Ireland and carrying one out in Great Britain. Perhaps the Minister would confirm that the circumstances of the past 30 to 40 years are the answer.
There is a slight extension to the chief electoral officer’s powers in that he can obtain information from a few more authorities in order to determine whether somebody should be on the register. This might be difficult to quantify, but does the Minister anticipate that most inquiries will be positive or negative? That is to say, does she expect the bulk of the work to concern people who are on the register but who probably should not be, or people who should be on the register but are not? By and large we have no problem in principle with the statutory instrument as it stands.
4.39 pm
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. I jointhe hon. Member for Tewkesbury in welcoming the Minister’s comments and in acknowledging the very positive way in which the right hon. Member for Delyn has in the past engaged in delegated legislation Committees and, indeed, in others. He always dealt with proceedings in a clear manner and with good grace.
Whenever legislation was proposed on moving from annual to multi-annual registration, the SDLP, like other parties in Northern Ireland, welcomed it. We had seen the difficulties involved in securing an accurate register with the new system of individual registration. Trying to do that on an annual basis meant that some people were falling off the register, others were confused as to whether they were on it or not, and at times there was also confusion with other exercises, such as the census; so the principle of multi-annual registration is to be welcomed.
In particular, we welcome the onus that will be on the chief electoral officer to use the period between the general canvasses to target work to ensure that the register is accurate. He now has the discretion to test the allegations or insinuations that come from parties that the registers in different places are less than accurate. He may also carry out review exercises for the purposes of his own office to test how well different groups or people in different areas are reflected on the register.
The powers in the order obviously will allow the chief electoral officer to make sense of the sort of information that ripples around out there that suggests that more people are living in an area than are registered. So by being able to get information from other authorities, the chief electoral officer will be able to test the accuracy of the register and will be able to try to follow up and invite more people to join it. That is the purpose of the chief electoral officer and the registration exercise.
Will the Minister take the opportunity to clarify a point about the specified authorities that are to provide information to the registration officer under new regulation 35A? We see listed district councils, the registrar general of births and deaths in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Central Services Agency, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Department for Works and Pensions, which is not a Northern Ireland Department or agency. In Northern Ireland we have our own Social Security Agency and it is that agency that will have all the information on people who are claiming various benefits and claiming them at various addresses. Does the Department for Work and Pensions cover the Northern Ireland Social Security Agency in this context? If so, does the chief electoral officer have to exercise his right of access to information from the Social Security Agency via the Department for Work and Pensions in Great Britain, which then passes the query on to the Social Security Agency, or will this regulation allow the chief electoral officer to get access to that directly from the Social Security Agency?
Will the Minister also clarify whether this right to seek information from the Department for Work and Pensions is designed to allow the chief electoral officer to test whether people on the register in Northern Ireland may be resident somewhere else and claiming benefit here in Great Britain? If it is to give the chief electoral officer that power to check whether some people have an address outside his jurisdiction of Northern Ireland, why is there no provision to allow him to see whether people are in another jurisdiction outside Northern Ireland too? In supporting the measure I would appreciate some clarification from the Minister on those points.
4.44 pm
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr. Martlew. I would also like to put on record my appreciation of the work of the right hon. Member for Delyn and the courteous way in which he always responded to inquiries during statutory instrument debates. I welcome the regulations, which will slightly extend the powers available to the chief electoral officer to identify those who are not on the register but who should be on it and vice versa.
I have one query that I want to raise withthe Minister about the wording of the order. Regulation 1(4) states:
“Nothing in these Regulations shall be taken to require a specified authority or person...to disclose information which came into their control before these Regulations came into force.”
Why is that there? Why should specified authorities also not have to give information that is on their books but which they acquired before the regulations came into effect? As a follow on from that, the amended regulation 35 states in paragraph (4) that a
“ recipient of a request for information”—
has three alternative ways in which they can respond:
“(a) provide the information...
(b) inform the registration officer that the information...is not held...
(c) request further time.”
Surely there is also a fourth option, (d), which is to say, “Yes, we do have the information, but we are not giving it to you because it was acquired before the regulations came into effect.” I would certainly appreciate it if the Minister could clarify those points in her summing-up.
4.46 pm
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I welcome this legislation; first, because it is important that there is accuracy in the electoral register, and secondly, because in seeking that accuracy, no impediment should be put in the way of people exercising their right to vote. Unfortunately, the annual collection of names for the register had that effect, as has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Foyle. There is no doubt that a lot of people, because they thought that they had put their names on the register a short period before and were therefore still on the register and did not bother to fill in the next form, found their right to vote was taken from them.
I also welcome the early registration. A lot of young people, because of when their birthday fell, found themselves disfranchised. With the ability to register from 16 onwards, that situation should be avoided.
Even with all the changes that have been made and the inclusion of the national insurance numbers, I am not so sure that we have cracked the tendency towards fraudulent entries in the register in Northern Ireland. I know that there is peace and good will, and that we are all pals and hugging each other, but the one party that has engaged almost in a military way in electoral fraud in Northern Ireland has been Sinn Fein. I know that the hon. Member for Foyle and members of his party have identified such fraud on many occasions, and one of my colleagues on Belfast city council, who is also a member of the hon. Gentleman’s party, identified a bed-sit in west Belfast where 26 people were registered, although the electoral office felt that, since the information had been provided, nothing could be done about it. Now that there is the ability to check such issues when they are drawn to the attention of the electoral office, I seek assurances from the Minister that those powers will be used pro-actively by the electoral office to ensure that the level of fraud, which I believe exists still in Northern Ireland, will be attacked by the electoral officer.
I seek clarification on the inclusion of the Department for Work and Pensions, a point that was raised by the hon. Member for Foyle. In addition, the Minister said that the measure would enable the electoral office to ensure that under-represented groups were better reflected on the register. Can she clarify for us what particular actions the electoral office, under these new powers, will take to ensure that those under-represented groups are included on the register. I know that one under-represented group will be the very young, the first-time voters, and that has been addressed by the inclusion of 16 and 17-year-olds.
Another group is those who are economically inactive, in whatever way. Is the Minister saying that there will be regular contact between social security and benefit officers to try to identify those who are receiving benefit but who have not registered? What will trigger such inquiries by the electoral office to ensure that under-represented groups are included on the register? The electoral office will have a wide range of bodies from which it can request information to ensure a more complete register, but what will trigger such requests?
At the last election, one of our party councillors found out about four days before the election, when cards came through the door for them, that two people were registered at his address whom he did not know. He tells me that he informed the electoral office beforehand, but when he checked he discovered that the votes had been cast early in the morning on election day. How will the electoral office use its powers to check such fraudulent claims?
We thought that national insurance numbers would be used to make quick checks. For example, if a national insurance number appeared twice on a register, it could be quickly identified, but it seems that is not happening, either because the electoral office has not used the information or because that information cannot be used in the way that we were told that it could be. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us on those issues.
4.52 pm
Maria Eagle: We have had a short but sharp set of questions and some fair points have been made by members of the Committee, and I will do my best to respond to them to their satisfaction.
I will be glad to pass on the good will expressed by members of the Committee to my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn. I expect that his ears will be burning in any event, and I am sure that he will look at the Hansard report of our proceedings.
I was glad to hear members of the Committee expressing their support for the aim of the regulations. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury asked whether the inquiries would be mainly positive or negative. He wanted to know whether the chief electoral officer would be concerned mainly with getting people off the register, or on to it, and some of the questions asked by the hon. Member for East Antrim echoed that point.
We hope that the inquiries will be positive and that much time will be spent encouraging those who should be on the register, but are not, to go on to it. I hope that it will not take too much to get them on the register once they are asked individually by the chief electoral officer. The hon. Gentleman also made a very fair point about those who are on the register who should not be there.
The operation of the arrangements will be for Douglas Bain to deal with, but I am certain from what he said that he intends to be proactive in both respects. The fact that he no longer has to carry the dead weight of asking everyone who every year puts themselves back on the register and fills in the forms will free up a lot of his time and resources to ensure that he does a good job.
Hon. Members may recall the wording of the legislation to which I referred in my opening remarks. The aim of the exercise is accuracy; it is about getting on to the register a greater number of people who are entitled to be on it, and removing those who are not entitled to be on it. I imagine that to start with the chief electoral officer will have a look at both ends of the spectrum and try to do his best. No doubt, over time, it will be weighted one way or the other. One hopes that as the register becomes more accurate that would be towards positivity in terms of knocking off people who should not be on it.
In welcoming the general effects of the 2002 Act, the hon. Member for Foyle asked what on earth the DWP was doing in the regulations, and his point was echoed by the hon. Member for East Antrim. I understand why the point was made. The answer is that although, as both hon. Gentlemen mentioned, we have our own Social Security Agency, the information being sought—including the national insurance numbers—is owned, as it were, by the DWP.
The existing regulations allow inspection of such information, which is owned by the DWP. The current law has been aimed at the DWP and it is the right Department for the new regulations to refer to, although I accept that on the face of it that looks strange. It is simply a matter of who owns the information. We have never run into any problem with getting the information. The DWP is the appropriate Department, and I do not anticipate any difficulty with the fact that the SSA is not cited simply because the systems and information are owned by the DWP.
Mark Durkan: Will the Minister clarify whether the information sought from the DWP will be national insurance numbers rather than addresses? Will the CEO rely particularly on the DWP in targeting 16 and 17-year-olds on the basis of their being issued with national insurance numbers? Would not Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which deals with child benefit, be a better way to get the information on when 16 and 17-year-olds become eligible to register?
Maria Eagle: Names, addresses and ages are the most important information sought by the chief electoral officer from any of the public authorities cited in the legislation. No doubt he will be able to decide the best place to obtain the information on the basis of his experience as he starts to request it and it comes through. If he is of the opinion that the regulations are not adequate operationally, are not wide enough or are defective, he will no doubt come back to us and we shall consider what he says. However, on the basis of the experience thus far, it seems that the DWP is the right Department to deal with.
Proving that he has closely read the regulations, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute asked a couple of questions about the detail of the wording. He asked about the restriction in regulation 1(4), which states that the regulations will not apply to information that public authorities had before they came into force. As I suspected when he put it to me earlier, that is merely due to the abhorrence that all of us in the House feel about retrospection. We do not want to start passing powers with retrospective effect unless we really mean it. We do not want to burden authorities to the extent that they have to search all their records for every address that they have ever had for a particular individual, for example. We do not want to require them to go back ad infinitum. The obvious cut-off point is when the regulations come into force.
Sammy Wilson: I am not clear about the Minister’s answer. Suppose, for example, that the CEO wanted to check with the Housing Executive whether someone lived where they claimed to live, and that that person had moved to that address before the regulations came into force. Is the Minister saying that the Housing Executive could not supply that information because it had come into its ownership before the regulations were made?
Maria Eagle: To the extent that it has information that the person is living at an address, perhaps by getting rent every week, then it will provide that information that, as far as it is aware, a person is living at such-and-such an address. The hon. Gentleman is probably technically correct that, if a public authority wishes to be unhelpful, it could say, “Oh well, we had this information from well before the date, so therefore we are not going to provide it to you.” This legislation is about creating a gateway to information sharing, not about wielding sticks. It is about providing vires for the chief electoral officer to ask these questions and to receive the information from public authorities and those cited. It sets up no penalties or any kind of sanction if that information is not forthcoming. It is based on good will.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute rather sharply noticed that new regulation 35(4) ought to have a sub-paragraph (d) saying that if the information was received previously, perhaps one ought to be able to say there was no such information. The point to be made there is that the authority is not required to respond expressly when asked about information that it is not required to provide. In that sense, if it has information that it held before the date that the regulations come into force, it does not have to say, “We have all this information about this person, but we are not going to provide it to you because, having had it that long, we do not have to.” So, we do not need the extra sub-paragraph (d) that the hon. Gentleman was suggesting, although I can see that he might well have a parliamentary draughtsman hiding in him somewhere. He certainly made a fair point, but we do not think it is necessary to have that there.
The hon. Member for East Antrim asked me a number of questions about what actions the chief electoral officer would be taking to try to get under-represented groups on to the register. It is for him to try out various ways of encouraging those who are entitled to be on the register, but who are not, to put themselves there. No doubt, he will at first simply write to them with forms and advice about their entitlement, hoping that they will then fill them in and send them back, but it would be a matter for him to decide precisely how to try to ensure the greater accuracy of the register. If sending letters and advice does not work, he will have to try something more proactive, but that remains to be seen. I understand from Douglas Bain that he intends to be proactive, and one can only hope that he sees some results from that. After a period of that kind of work by him, we will all be able to see how successful he has been. If it has not worked, no doubt we will have ideas about other ways in which to achieve a better success rate.
Sammy Wilson: The Minister may have misunderstood my question. I specifically wanted to know whether the electoral officer, using the powers vested in him or her through this regulation, would actively go out to one of these designated bodies and seek information that would lead to people being included on the register, rather than rely on people who simply answered his letters or calls to them.
Maria Eagle: He certainly could do that. Operationally, it would be for him to decide how he was best going to use the resources saved by not having to do the annual canvass to try both to improve the comprehensive nature of the register and to get those people on to it who are not on it, but should be. No doubt, he will try various strategies there. The precise detail of what he intended to do would be a matter for him, but he could certainly do that. I remind the hon. Gentleman and Members of the Committee that the type of information that he can request and the way in which he can receive it is set out precisely in the regulations. Those are the parameters he would be bound by.
In terms of under-represented groups, he would no doubt be focusing some of his efforts to make sure that he was able to contact the groups that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned—those who are economically inactive, young people, perhaps ethnic minority groups who do not think of themselves of voters—in various ways. This statutory instrument assists him by setting out what information he can get and from where. It is then up to his imagination and the effort of his office to try to make it tell.
The hon. Gentleman asked what would trigger the request for information. It would be the imagination and strategies of the chief electoral officer, who will no doubt have a view, as he is bound to try to improve the comprehensiveness of the register—to get people on who ought to be on but who are not; and get people who should not be on, off. Within that remit, he will come up with strategies to do this. He will try things out. If they work, he will no doubt redouble his efforts; if they do not work, he may try other strategies. He will be bound only by his imagination, resources and of course the legal powers that we are giving him to request that information.
I think that covers most of the points, Mr. Martlew.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I am listening very carefully. When one buys a property in England, as part of the package the solicitor sends out one’s details to the local registration officer and registers the property with the registrar general for the land bank. So, although we are looking at the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, does a similar situation exist in Northern Ireland whereby when someone purchases a property, those details are automatically sent to the registrar’s office?
Maria Eagle: Not as far as I know. These regulations do not bite on private sector solicitors who might be conducting a conveyancing business; we are just dealing with public authorities. I hear what my hon. Friend says, but as far as I am aware, such a tactic for updating the register does not operate in Northern Ireland at this time and nor would these regulations allow that. On that basis, I think I have now dealt with all the points. [Interruption.] Perhaps not.
Mark Durkan: The Minister has dealt with most of the points, but I am not sure that I heard her deal directly with one of the points made by the hon. Member for East Antrim concerning the exact use that will be made of national insurance numbers that people submit on the registration form? When that measure was introduced, people thought that it would be used to test whether there was bogus registration by bogus numbers, or duplicate registration. The Minister has not really addressed how far that will change or improve in the future, and whether the restriction on specified authorities only having to give information that they have obtained after the date means that anybody given a national insurance number might not have that seriously tested or checked by the electoral office.
Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend should recall that the chief electoral officer has had the power to inspect some of this information and while he does not have the power to request it, he is not going from having no powers to having the powers that we are talking about today; he is going from having the power to inspect to having the power to request. The fact that there is a cut-off date of when the regulations come into force does not stop him from comparing information that he has inspected with information that he may then receive. My understanding is that national insurance numbers exist to provide some distinction, to test whether those who have the same names are indeed the same or different people. The national insurance number is one way of doing that. Comparing national insurance numbers will be one way in which the chief electoral officer can try to check for duplication on the register. That is how they have been used in the past and no doubt how we will seek to use some of that information in the future.
I hope that I have been able to satisfy my hon. Friend, although he will no doubt tell me if I have not. I have sought to deal with all the points that were raised, and I hope that the Committee will see fit to approve the regulations.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved,
That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2007.
Committee rose at ten minutes past Five o’clock.
 
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