Draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2008

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Paul Goggins: I also welcome the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk to his place this afternoon. It is a pleasure to see him. He began by emphasising, rightly in a way, the importance of anti-fraud measures—which is where my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby has just left off. My hon. Friend shared an anecdote from 1951, but amply demonstrated in that story the necessity for the anti-fraud measures in Northern Ireland. I will come back to that later.
Mr. Dodds: Lest the impression be given that somehow the incident referred to by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby is illustrative of how everything worked in Northern Ireland, I am sure that the Minister will agree that fraud worked on both sides. There are many examples of nationalists benefiting at the expense of Unionists. In recent years, the concern—as evidenced by representations from the SDLP and others—has been the extent of electoral fraud on the part of Sinn Fein.
Paul Goggins: I am happy to clarify my remarks. I was not seeking to suggest—nor was my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby—that it was all on one side of the community. However, there was a need to tighten that up. Later I will say one or two things in response to my hon. Friend about why the differences are there.
It is important to have a deadline base at some point in the rolling registration, which is now in place in Northern Ireland. Eleven days seems to be fair. It also seems fair that as that 11-day cut-off point gets closer, it is the responsibility of the individual elector to provide the additional verification that they are indeed who they say they are. Regulation 25 sets out the additional material that can be brought—birth certificate and other forms of identification. That is the kind of information that normally the chief electoral officer would go and find for himself, but because time is short it is incumbent on the voter to bring that information for themselves. All that is laid out in the order. I am clear that the chief electoral officer has an important role and has the resources and support from the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that he can do his job properly and do the verification that he needs to, so that everybody can have confidence in the electoral register.
The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk asked about the need for a canvass. Of course, the need for a canvass in Northern Ireland is now different from the need for a canvass elsewhere in the United Kingdom because with continuous registration, with individual registration, the chief electoral officer can focus his resources on the missing 15 per cent.—the people who we think are not registered to vote. He can use his powers to gather information, to pursue those people and to encourage them to register, although it is not compulsory of course. The need for the annual canvass then recedes. We need it in England and Wales because we still have household registration and it is important to do the canvass in that way. I am not saying that the need for a canvass has been completely eliminated in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the chief electoral officer has the power, if he wishes, to have a canvass from time to time in order to verify the accuracy of the register. The canvass is not ruled out completely; the power is there to have it but we certainly do not need to have it every year. The resources that would otherwise be spent on the canvass can be spent on the other work trying to identify the missing 15 per cent.
I thank the hon. Member for South Down, who in his contribution demonstrated his considerable knowledge and understanding of the intricacies of the electoral system in Northern Ireland. He broadly welcomed what we are bringing forward today, and I welcome that. In relation to regulation 27 and the issues that he raised about absent voters, I shall reply in part now, but I want to write to him to set out a detailed answer to the important questions he raised. Sections 10A and 13A of the 1983 Act and regulation 27 of the regulations before us provide the bare minimum of information that must be provided for an application for registration. That includes the elector’s signature, date of birth, national insurance number, address and previous registered address and a statement that he or she has been resident in Northern Ireland for three months prior to the date of application. Those are considerable information requirements and I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman that whatever the application process, that information will always be required, but I shall write to him with the detailed information that he seeks.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue about time limits, as did the hon. Member for Belfast, North. We considered whether there should be a time limit. Even though ID might be out of date, was there a point at which it was so out of date that it would fall outside the system? The problem is, if we were to go for a cut-off date, what would we choose—six months, a year? What really matters is, can the presiding officer be confident from the document that is given to them at the polling station that that person is who they say they are? There is a clear list of ID that is required. It strikes me as unlikely that someone would be walking around with one of those forms of ID that was 10 to 15 years out of date.
Christopher Fraser: Look at “Dod’s”.
Paul Goggins: I am sorry; I am slightly confused. Was that a reference to the hon. Member for Belfast, North?
The key question is whether the person with the ID is who they say they are. Rather than give an arbitrary cut-off date, we leave it to the presiding officer to make that judgment, knowing that people would be unlikely to be carrying around very specific forms of ID that would be so long out of date. If the presiding officer is not happy, and does not believe that the ID confirms that the person is who they say they are, I am afraid they do not get to vote.
The hon. Member for Belfast, North emphasised a point, which goes way beyond Northern Ireland, about the importance of face-to-face contact with the electorate. That is absolutely crucial, as we all know, not just at election time but throughout the political cycle. Continuous registration is proving very effective in Northern Ireland, but it requires the chief electoral officer to continue with a very proactive approach in trying to get the missing 15 per cent. on to the electoral register. I also welcomed his earlier comments about young people. As I said earlier, that is an important aspect.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby asked me to explain a little about the differences between the system in Northern Ireland and the system in the rest of the United Kingdom. We now have rolling registration in Great Britain, as Northern Ireland has, but there are other differences. The electoral register in Northern Ireland is compiled by individual registration, whereas we still have household registration. That makes it very different. As we have just heard, at the point where the vote is cast the voter also has to provide photographic identification to prove that they are who they say they are, and that they are entitled to vote. Both those aspects are different, but the rolling registration remains the same.
I cannot speak for the whole Government in relation to policy on electoral systems. My hon. Friend asked me about postal voting. Nothing specifically being brought forward here would have ramifications for the electoral process elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I am dealing this afternoon specifically with the system in Northern Ireland, and there are those distinctive differences. I hope that my responses will give the Committee confidence that the measures we are bringing forward this afternoon will improve the system. The fact that we are consolidating all the legislation in one place will help to clarify the position, and I hope the Committee will support my proposal.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2008.


That the Committee has considered the Draft Service Voters’ Registration Period (Northern Ireland) Order 2008.— [Paul Goggins.]
Committee rose at twenty-three minutes past Three o’clock.
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