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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Ann Winterton
Allen, Mr. Graham (Nottingham, North) (Lab)
Baldry, Tony (Banbury) (Con)
Blackman, Liz (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)
Burden, Richard (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)
Creagh, Mary (Wakefield) (Lab)
Fraser, Christopher (South-West Norfolk) (Con)
Goggins, Paul (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Iddon, Dr. Brian (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)
Lepper, David (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op)
McGrady, Mr. Eddie (South Down) (SDLP)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Mitchell, Mr. Austin (Great Grimsby) (Lab)
Moore, Mr. Michael (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD)
Soames, Mr. Nicholas (Mid-Sussex) (Con)
Swire, Mr. Hugo (East Devon) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Hannah Weston, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Dodds, Mr. Nigel (Belfast, North) (DUP)

Seventh Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 25 June 2008

[Ann Winterton in the Chair]

Draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2008

2.30 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2008.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the draft Service Voters’ Registration Period (Northern Ireland) Order 2008.
Paul Goggins: I welcome you to the Chair for our proceedings this afternoon, Lady Winterton.
The regulations set out the detailed procedures for voter registration in Northern Ireland, and cover some technical aspects of the conduct of parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland. The regulations consolidate and replace the existing Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2001, which have already been amended several times. Although the consolidation exercise means that the regulations before us are rather lengthy—the Committee will have seen their considerable length—I am confident that they will assist in simplifying the legislation, making it easier to use for all those involved in the application and interpretation of electoral law in Northern Ireland.
Many of the regulations before us simply replicate, in substance, the 2001 regulations, but there are some changes. For instance, the regulations contain new provisions allowing for the implementation in Northern Ireland of the changes to electoral administration contained in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 and the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006. The regulations will make additional, technical changes, which have been requested by the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland, enabling him to fulfil his registration objectives and assisting him in his duty to manage elections in Northern Ireland efficiently.
I wish to draw the Committee’s attention to a few of the changes. One relates to late registration. Members of the Committee will be aware that, as a result of the anti-fraud measures operating in Northern Ireland, the registration procedures differ from those operating in the rest of the United Kingdom. Although the Electoral Administration Act makes provision for voters to register up to 11 days before polling days, the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act requires those applying to register late in Northern Ireland to provide additional supporting material with their application. The chief electoral officer would simply not have the time at that stage in the electoral cycle to make the necessary checks on applications that he would normally, under the usual application process. Regulation 25 sets out the supporting material that may be requested in order to process an application for late registration. That material will enable the chief electoral officer to verify the applicant’s date of birth, nationality, address and that they have been resident in Northern Ireland for three months prior to the application date.
Another change relates to identification. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, voters in Northern Ireland are required to produce photographic identification when voting in person. At present, the only acceptable documents are a driving licence, passport, Translink senior citizen travel pass or an electoral identity card, which is issued by the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland. The proposals contained in regulation 15 will extend the types of ID that may be used to include a blind person travel pass and a war-disabled travel pass issued by Translink. Both passes meet the same fraud-prevention requirements as the senior citizen travel pass. Regulation 15 also removes the requirement for ID to be current. There have been reports, following previous elections, of a small number of otherwise eligible electors who have been unable to vote because, on arriving at the polling station, they have presented out-of-date photographic ID. I do not believe that a person should be disfranchised simply because his or her ID is not current. In order to maximise voter participation, the regulations will allow electors to vote regardless of whether their ID is current, as long as the presiding officer is satisfied that the ID confirms the voter’s identity.
The regulations also contain provision to encourage more young people to register to vote. At present, young people are particularly under-represented on the electoral register. For that reason, regulation 42 contains changes that will allow the chief electoral officer to request information from secondary schools in Northern Ireland. That information would then be used to invite older pupils to register. It is intended that this provision will build upon the chief electoral officer’s current information-gathering powers and we hope it will offer an innovative solution to increasing the registration rates of young people in Northern Ireland.
I shall now briefly explain the purpose of the draft Service Voters’ Registration Regulations (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. This order extends the period for which members of the armed forces or their partners who have made a service declaration may remain registered as electors before being required to make a further declaration. That period is currently set at one year in Northern Ireland; the order will extend it to three years and will bring Northern Ireland into line with Great Britain.
I appreciate that the draft regulations are technical and lengthy, but the changes made in them and the process of consolidating the existing legislation will, I believe, ensure that the already complex rules governing elections are made easier for all concerned to follow, and underpin the effective administration of elections in Northern Ireland.
2.36 pm
Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): May I first say what a privilege and a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton? I shall speak on both orders together.
The overall purpose of the regulations is to improve the administration of parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland and in doing so, make it easier for people to vote. Although I support the Government’s intention to improve the electoral process, there are concerns that these measures will not achieve that effectively. The order extends some provisions from the Electoral Administration Act 2006 to Northern Ireland, but will differ in some respects from the system in England and Wales. The draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2008 will allow people to register later in an election period, up to 11 days prior to polling day. That will be backed up by safeguards to protect against fraud, as the Minister has pointed out. The measure is broadly supported as it brings Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom. Will the Minister give his assurance that the safeguards that he refers to will be adequate for the purpose?
Extending the forms of identification that can be used when voting in an election should do a lot to increase voter turnout. The memorandum of order gave a striking statistic that 2,400 electors in the May 2007 election were turned away because they did not have what was deemed to be acceptable identification. That should not be the case and it is important that it is made as easy as possible for people to vote. The Government claim that the decline in numbers of electors in Northern Ireland has been in part due to the legal requirement that the electoral register be renewed annually. The order will remove that legal requirement. However, that is the system currently in England in Wales. Will the Minister be more specific about why the annual canvass should be adequate for England and Wales, but not for Northern Ireland?
The regulations extend the power of the chief electoral officer and it seems that it will be left to him to ensure voter registration. Does the Minister not agree that voter registration should be primarily the responsibility of the people themselves, rather than being handled by one single person? My concern is that the chief electoral officer will not be efficiently resourced to undertake the job that he is there to do.
The order also gives power to the chief electoral officer to carry out a full canvass where he believes it is necessary. Will the Minister clarify what would necessitate the CEO calling for a full canvass?
The order also attempts to address an imbalance in the register, whereby young people are under-represented in the way that the Minister has indicated. I do not need to stress how important it is to ensure that young people are registered to vote. Will the Minister confirm in more detail how allowing the chief electoral officer increased access to more information will encourage young people to vote? I am not clear from what he has said that that would achieve the objectives set out in the order. Would that not be more easily achieved through annual registration and a concerted effort by the Government to encourage young people to vote?
The draft Service Voters’ Registration Period (Northern Ireland) Order extends the duration of a service voter’s registration as an elector from one to three years. That was carried out in the rest of the United Kingdom in 2006 and will now be extended to Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that the term “service personnel” could be misleading? The Government are referring—I assume from the documentation that I have received—to the armed services, but “service personnel” could include by definition the police and other services. Could the Minister clarify that the term refers solely to the armed services?
Finally, politicians are too often given the task of urging people to participate in the electoral process, but there may be reasons why people do not want to vote and there is only a certain amount that any of us can do to encourage them. However, we need an efficient Administration to support the electoral system and therefore the democratic process.
2.41 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I think that this is the first time that I have had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton, and I hope to benefit from your leniency. First, I would like to welcome in general terms the first of the draft orders.
2.41 pm
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
2.56 pm
On resuming—
Mr. McGrady: My thoughts have been scattered by the light entertainment that we had during the suspension. I will try to focus again. I was just saying that this is the first time I have served under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton.
We welcome the broad thrust of the regulations and in particular the facilitation of the registration process. We welcome the modernising of procedures in the amending order and in particular the registration through electronic signatures. I put on record my party’s appreciation of the dialogue that we had with the Minister. We were pleased with the reception, the courtesy and the promptness with which he dealt with our queries.
I shall relate one or two minor queries to the Minister. First, regulation 27(7) states that an application for registration can be made
“otherwise than on a form provided by the registration officer”.
Presumably, such a form, correspondence or letter must contain a minimum of information. It is not clear what the minimum requirement is for accepting an application for registration on such non-statutory forms.
Secondly, regulation 62 on the applications of absent voters states that the registration officer must reply to the applicant “where practicable”. I would like clarification on what “practicable” means. I assume that, to be valid, an absent voter’s application should contain sufficient information for the electoral officer to be able to reply. If not, the application would be invalid.
I query that because “practicable” does not have a definition. Perhaps it means that in the several rushed days and weeks before an election, the registration officer might not have the time, staff or facilities to reply. I seek a categorical assurance that that is not what is meant by “practicable”, but that it means that the registration officer might not be able to respond because of the information provided on the application.
Perhaps the Minister will indicate whether any sort of direction, rules or regulations will apply, as I see great friction being caused on the day of the poll, when a voter comes along with an out-of-date, dubious-looking old photograph. The presiding officer should not be put in that position. We argued, unsuccessfully, that a 10-year rule would probably be appropriate. Photographic identity such as passports and licences must be renewed every 10 years or so. This is a point of clarification. I do not think that the order would be amended by it in any way. It is not a criticism but a way of seeking information.
I welcome the extension to the young voter registration facility. I understand that the Department of Education and the education boards in Northern Ireland will be prepared to facilitate the transfer of the appropriate information from them to the Electoral Office, to ensure that all potential new young voters are able to register without too much trouble. There will, of course, not be compulsory registration.
Finally, I refer to the 2010 general canvass, which will be at the instigation or the interpretation of the Electoral Office, subject of course to the Secretary of State’s acceptance of the reasons. Again, I would like to think that those reasons would be narrow and fundamental, and not simply that because of the inconvenience, the cost and the lack of staff the Electoral Office could decide to forgo the general canvass. There have to be more serious or unusual reasons for it not to proceed. Otherwise, subject to the Minister’s answer, I am pleased that the electoral process has in one sense been further tightened up, and in another sense made more available to the public, in particular the young public in Northern Ireland.
3.3 pm
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I thank members of the Committee and the Minister for his opening remarks. I welcome the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk in his role as Opposition spokesman. Even though he is on his own—some members of the Committee are not present—he made a valuable contribution. He takes a keen interest in Northern Ireland and his contribution will no doubt be noted by those of us who represent the Province.
I add my broad welcome to both orders. They are useful improvements. On registration, there are those of us who go out and knock on doors at election time and take the trouble to speak to our electorate and to meet voters face to face. All too often nowadays parties do not do that. They tend to stuff a leaflet in an envelope through the door and run away. Certainly, in my constituency, that is what they tend to do.
As we go from door to door, we know that many people focus on whether they are on the electoral register only when the election is under way. Then they discover to their horror or disappointment—sometimes to their pleasure—that they are not on the register, and by that stage it is too late. The regulations will allow us to correct that. Obviously there must be a cut-off, but the regulations will give people some opportunity once an election is in the offing, or even a short time after it is officially declared, to amend their position and participate in the election. I welcome that. We have supported it before, and we welcome it.
We also welcome the measures on photographic ID. During the last Assembly elections and in the previous parliamentary elections, I met a number of people who were turned away because their photographic ID was just out of date. I take the point made by the hon. Member for South Down about the problems that can arise if photographic ID is considerably out of date, but most people’s is just out of date—a few days or a matter of weeks, particularly if it is a bus pass or something like that—and they are greatly frustrated and angered at being refused their vote. The flexibility and latitude built in is absolutely right. At the end of the day, even if it is a few days or weeks out of date, the point of photographic ID is to corroborate that the person standing in the polling station is who they say they are. It is a technicality, so that measure is welcome as well.
In order to get more people to register and to vote on the day, I urge the Minister to ensure that the measure is advertised as widely as possible. It is important that the chief electoral officer is given the resources to do his job and to ensure that people are aware of continuous registration—the fact that if they register now, they will be on the register for a considerable period—and the fact that they now have greater flexibility in ID, certainly in the period when an election is called.
On the registration of young people, it is welcome that the list of bodies that can be targeted will be extended to include secondary schools. My office has done considerable work with our local electoral officer and the chief electoral officer, with whom we have had a number of meetings recently about increasing the number of people on the electoral register. My constituency, along with other Belfast constituencies, has seen a decline in registration. We are putting in an enormous amount of work, as I know other parties are, to increase the number of people on the electoral roll, but more could be done at an official level, so I welcome the initiative on schools, particularly as we are trying to encourage more young people to take part in the electoral process.
The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk was with me earlier today at a meeting in this place with schoolkids from Wallace high school in Lisburn, who all expressed great interest in the political process that they were here to learn more about, and support for the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. Amazingly, some even expressed an interest in following a political career. It is important that we try to get as many people involved in the political and electoral process as possible.
I welcome the draft Service Voters’ Registration Period (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. Again, it will bring us into line with the rest of the UK. On behalf of my party, I support the regulations and the order, and I urge the Minister to do everything in his power to give the chief electoral officer and his staff all the resources they need to carry out their functions properly.
3.9 pm
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I am intervening to put a couple of questions. We have always had different title regulations in Northern Ireland. What we are doing here is to introduce some of the changes from the Electoral Administration Act 2006, extending them to Northern Ireland. In effect, that will make the procedures more relaxed. My understanding is that the difference is because there was always a higher incidence of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. Could the Minister quantify that, so that we can see the difference between the two systems? That is an important point and worth some more information.
I have a memory, distant now, from when I used to teach people science, preparing practicals, before I came here. I will use an example from David Butler’s British general elections series—I think it was the 1951 book—which gave an account of how the nationalists, because in the previous general election three streets known to be nationalist turned out to have voted before the nationalist scrutineers arrived at the polling booth in the morning, put their scrutineers in straight away. Those streets, when they did vote, voted nationalist. Scrutineers were checking on personation. The result was that that attracted the attention of an angry mob outside. The scrutineers had to be taken away at the end of the day’s polling by armoured car, because of the angry mob of Unionists outside the polling booth. That was 1951—a world away.
It is clear that there are still differences. One of those differences is that there is less provision for postal voting in Northern Ireland than we have conceded in the United Kingdom. Why that difference? Is it because the Government fear more electoral fraud if the system that we have here is extended to Northern Ireland? Or are they now having second thoughts about the extension—liberalisation—of postal voting that took place here in 2006? There has certainly been strenuous criticism, particularly in the Daily Mail, which usually seizes any opportunity to criticise the Government—always unfairly, of course. There has been criticism that those systems are too lax and are leading to personation and electoral fraud problems in this country. What is the Government’s view? Is it using the statutory requirements in Northern Ireland because of electoral fraud, or are they requirements that the Government now think, in the light of experience with previous legislation, should be extended to this country?
3.13 pm
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