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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Eric Martlew
Abbott, Ms Diane (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)
Boswell, Mr. Tim (Daventry) (Con)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
Devine, Mr. Jim (Livingston) (Lab)
Donaldson, Mr. Jeffrey M. (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
Gilroy, Linda (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op)
Goggins, Paul (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Goodman, Helen (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)
Heyes, David (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab)
Howarth, Mr. George (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Rennie, Willie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Robinson, Mr. Geoffrey (Coventry, North-West) (Lab)
Truswell, Mr. Paul (Pudsey) (Lab)
Turner, Mr. Andrew (Isle of Wight) (Con)
Jyoti Chandola, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 17 March 2009

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]

Draft European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2009
4.30 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2009.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2009.
Paul Goggins: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Martlew, and I wish you and all members of the Committee a happy St. Patrick’s day, as we meet on the feast day of St. Patrick.
There are two sets of regulations before us. The purpose of the first set, the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2009, is to make sure that the legislative framework governing European elections in Northern Ireland is fully up to date. The Committee will have noticed that it is a long and complex statutory instrument, so it may help if I set out the background to the regulations and the reason why they are needed.
The conduct of European elections in Northern Ireland is currently governed by the European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2004, which apply to European elections similar provisions to those that apply to parliamentary elections, with the modifications necessary to take account of, in particular, the different voting systems. Since 2004, a number of changes have been made to the legislation governing parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom, most of which are provided for in the Electoral Administration Act 2006. In light of those changes, it has been necessary to update the legislation relating to elections to other legislatures.
Some members of the Committee might recall that we updated the law regarding elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly earlier this year. Regulations to update the law governing European elections in Great Britain were also recently approved by the House, and the regulations before us today will make the necessary updates for European elections in Northern Ireland.
When we updated the law relating to Northern Ireland Assembly elections, we took the opportunity to make a number of changes specific to Northern Ireland following a full public consultation last summer. As many of the proposals included in the consultation could also be applied to European elections, I have again consulted the key stakeholders on whether such changes should be brought forward for European elections. It might assist the Committee if I briefly explain the proposed changes.
The first change relates to the suspension of the count. Counting is complex in a single transferable vote system, and it is important, both for the welfare of counting staff and for the integrity of the count itself, that counting be suspended at a reasonable hour if the need arises. Currently, at a European election, the returning officer may suspend the count between 7 pm and 9 am, but only if the election and counting agents agree. Counting rarely finishes before 7 pm, and agreement can usually be reached to suspend the count until the following day if it appears that it will last long into the night.
However, in the 2007 Assembly elections, agreement to suspend could not be reached in a number of constituencies. Parliament recently agreed that there should be an automatic suspension of the count at Assembly elections at 11 pm, unless there is an agreement between the agents and the returning officer that it should continue. The regulations would make the same change for counting at European parliamentary elections.
The second change relates to the current requirement, under the 2004 regulations, that candidates for the European Parliament must have their nomination papers subscribed by two electors as proposer and seconder, and by 28 other electors. During the consultation, there was widespread agreement that that places an undue burden on those seeking to be candidates and on those responsible for verifying that the subscribers are genuine. The Electoral Commission has also concluded that
“the requirement to obtain signatures represents no true test of electoral support”.
The regulations would bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK by removing the requirement that a candidate’s nomination paper at a European election must be subscribed. The deposit of £5,000 ought to be enough to deter frivolous candidates.
Finally, the Committee might wish to note that a new provision is included to regulate the release of information by presiding officers about the number of ballot papers issued on polling day. Although it has been common practice in Northern Ireland for that information to be released by presiding officers on polling day, there is no statutory provision to regulate the practice, which has led to concerns that presiding officers are not taking a consistent approach to releasing the information. It is only fair to say that some presiding officers have faced excessive demands for that information, which are a distraction from their primary duties.
I have concluded that statutory guidance is necessary; the only question is whether we should legislate to prohibit the practice altogether, or to seek to regulate it. None of the respondents to the consultation was in favour of prohibition. For that reason, the draft regulations include provision for the chief electoral officer to direct presiding officers on when and how they may release such information on election day. Presiding officers will be able to release the information only in line with the chief electoral officer’s directions. I believe that will protect presiding officers both from excessive requests and against claims of favouring one party over another, while still allowing parties to continue to pursue as large a turnout as possible, especially in areas where the turnout may be low. I appreciate that this is a new policy, so I will be reviewing its operation with the chief electoral officer and the Electoral Commission shortly after the election. If the new policy is deemed a success, I shall look to extend it to other elections in Northern Ireland. If it is not a success, I shall consider the possibility of prohibiting release of that information entirely.
In summary, the regulations are necessary to ensure that the current law governing European elections in Northern Ireland is fully up to date with legislative developments elsewhere in the UK. The consultation demonstrated that there is widespread support in Northern Ireland for the updates and the other changes in the regulations.
I turn briefly to the second set of regulations, the European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) (No.2) Regulations 2009. They will apply only to Great Britain, and the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) is grateful to the Committee for agreeing to consider them this afternoon.
The regulations are necessary to correct a small number of unintentional errors in the European Parliamentary Elections Regulations 2004, which were made by the European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 2009. The 2009 regulations substituted new schedule 1 to the 2004 regulations, which contains the European parliamentary elections rules. Rule 53(3), as substituted by the 2009 regulations, currently provides that while counting the votes, a local returning officer must keep the ballot papers with their faces upwards and take all proper precautions for preventing any person from seeing them.
The amendment in regulation 2(2) of the draft regulations corrects the wording in accordance with the original policy intention, to provide that a local returning officer must take all proper precautions for preventing any person from seeing
“the numbers or other unique identifying marks printed on the back of the papers.”
Regulation 2(3) of the draft regulations corrects a small number of minor errors in the absent voting provisions contained in schedule 2 to the 2004 regulations, which was substituted by the 2009 regulations. I hope the Committee is reassured that although these are merely technical amendments to correct errors in the Great Britain regulations, they are nevertheless necessary to ensure the smooth running of the European elections in Great Britain in June.
In summary, I strongly believe that both sets of regulations are essential to ensuring that the June elections are administered successfully and I hope that the Committee will agree.
4.38 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Martlew. I shall be extremely brief because, try as I might, I cannot find too much on which to oppose the Minister. It has not always been the case, but today we support both sets of regulations—I was happy to take them both together.
I should like to probe the Minister very gently on the issue of home addresses. I know there is some concern about whether we should be given the option of whether the home address should be published. Has the Minister given thought to that issue, given the greater security problems in Northern Ireland?
Has the Minister considered suspending the count? In view of what happened in 2007, when the Assembly elections did not quite go according to plan, has any thought been given to suspending the count automatically at 11pm regardless of whether there is agreement? Agreement might be difficult to reach in certain circumstances, and the count involves different groups of people—namely, counting agents, those who run it and candidates—so there could be conflicting opinions on what should happen.
I hear what the Minister says about the returning officer authorising the release of information. I was going to press him on that point, but as he is willing to see if and how the process works, and he will review it, I am happy with his comments on that.
I was a little concerned about the removal of the need to provide subscribers. The Minister said that the deposit should concentrate minds—he did not use those words, but I think that is what he was getting at—in relation to nominating people or being nominated. However, in view of the rest of the regulations and the Minister’s words, I am fairly satisfied that the legislation should work well and that there is no need to detain the Committee unnecessarily. With those few comments, I thank you for your attention, Mr. Martlew.
4.41 pm
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I, too, thank you, Mr. Martlew. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon.
I must admit my surprise at the fact that a complicated, 90-page order in small print has come before us so close to the elections, because I understood that it was Government policy not to make legislative changes for elections within the six months running up to a polling day. That was certainly the Government’s view during the Committee stage of the Political Parties and Elections Bill, and it was certainly the view that the Secretary of State for Scotland took when he replied to the Gould report on the shambles of the Scottish elections in 2007. Indeed, it might be important to read from that report, because on page 112, it states:
“Throughout this report, we have pointed to problems that have arisen because the passing of electoral legislation has been unduly delayed. To avoid these problems, we would recommend a practice found in the electoral laws in other countries. These laws provide that electoral legislation cannot be applied to any election held within six months of the new provision coming into force.”
The Government accepted that recommendation, because the Secretary of State for Scotland set out the Government’s formal response to the Gould report in a written ministerial statement on 24 June 2008 in which he said that they accepted
“a six month cut-off for changes in the law governing the conduct of elections”.
Given the shambles of the Scottish elections, and given that one reason for that shambles was the passing of legislation so close to the election itself, I am concerned about the fact that we are passing this complicated legislation less than two months before the publication of the notice of the election. It is 90 pages of small print, and it adds to the complexity of electoral legislation in the United Kingdom. That was another factor that Ron Gould highlighted in his report, which states on page 15 that
“the United Kingdom presents a challenging environment for those who need to find their way around electoral law. This is becoming more difficult as almost yearly changes to electoral legislation must be implemented. Changes are also implemented in an asymmetrical way, some implemented across the UK, some only in Great Britain and some in England and Wales but not in Scotland. This means that source materials such as the legal reference services Parker’s Law and Conduct of Elections and Schofield’s Election Law tend to be complex and not particularly user friendly.”
Ron Gould could have added that some changes apply to Northern Ireland but not to Great Britain.
The Secretary of State for Scotland, in his written statement, accepted another Gould recommendation in relation to Scottish Parliament elections, namely,
“consolidation of the legislation on the conduct of Scottish Parliament elections.”—[Official Report, 24 June 2008; Vol. 478, c. 13WS.]
It is a quarter of a century since we last consolidated electoral law in the United Kingdom, in the Representation of the People Act 1983. If we are adding complex tomes such as the regulations to electoral law, it is high time we had another consolidation.
We have often talked in Northern Ireland delegated legislation Committees about the difficulty of properly scrutinising statutory instruments as long as this one, but we have always been assured that they are only temporary, and that as powers are devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, this process will no longer be necessary. However, electoral law is reserved and there is no intention of devolving it, so the process of revising electoral law will always lie with this House. I hope that in future we will not be discussing 90-page tomes such as the one before us less than two months before the calling of the election.
I draw the Committee’s attention to what the Minister said in his introduction about the other piece of legislation—the Great Britain regulations—which he said was necessary because of “unintentional errors” in the drafting of the original legislation. Again, it was a thick tome discussed only by a delegated legislation Committee. How are we to know that there are not further unintentional errors in the Northern Ireland legislation? Can the Minister assure the Committee that it is has been carefully drafted and that there is no possibility of our having to come to another Committee later on to correct unintentional errors, because that would be far too close to the election? I hope that we do not have to come back another day.
I welcome the principles in the regulations, but I want to ask the Minister a couple of questions about the detail. Regulation 21(2) on page 19 says:
“The official mark”—
on the ballot paper—
“must be kept secret, and an interval of not less than five years must intervene between the use of the same official mark at elections for the same European Parliamentary electoral region.”
We know that European elections only take place every five years, so it would seem that a lazy electoral returning officer could still use the same official mark in successive elections. I do not see the point of including the words
“not less than five years”.
Surely, the rule should be that the same mark cannot be used more than once.
In part 8, “Appendix of Forms”, on page 49, the note says:
“The forms contained in this Appendix may be adapted so far as circumstances require.”
That is a wide, sweeping remark. In the Scottish elections in 2007, returning officers in the Glasgow and Lothian regions authorised a change to the ballot paper. The unusual circumstances that they were relying on were that there were a large number of registered parties on the list. However, the changes made the ballot paper harder to understand and there were more spoiled ballots in that region than in the other six regions. In that case a sweeping power such as the one in the regulations, although used with the best of intentions, made life worse for the voter. I am concerned about the wide, sweeping powers that have apparently been given to returning officers under part 8, because one form that they are allowed to alter is the ballot paper. I hope that the Minister will respond satisfactorily to my questions.
I am in a quandary about whether to support the regulations. On one hand, I support the principles behind them; on the other hand, I am concerned about passing such complicated legislation so close to the election. I will make up my mind about whether to support it when I have heard the Minister’s response.
4.50 pm
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): We support the statutory instruments, and recognise that they are a tidying-up operation with some changes in principle. I shall make a couple of comments.
I support regulation of the process by which presiding officers give information to candidates and their agents on the number of ballot papers that have been issued. That is an important part of the electoral process for political parties that want to increase voter turnout. The decline in turnout at elections throughout the UK, especially at European elections, is a matter of concern to all of us, and it is useful for political parties to be able to ascertain what turnout is like at polling stations at particular times of day, not so that they can drum up support but so that they can encourage people at least to turn out and vote. For a long time, that has traditionally been part of the electoral process, but there has not been proper regulation within the electoral system.
Sometimes, presiding officers suffer undue pressure to provide the information, but we hope that there will now be a proper scheme and that they will have clear information from the chief electoral officer about the basis on which that information should be given. We hope that the scheme works, because we would be concerned if—the Minister alluded to this—presiding officers were prohibited from giving out information. We do not believe that the electoral process loses anything if the information is provided on the day to political parties, candidates and their agents. It does not strike me that it compromises the electoral process or that it represents a risk to the probity of the process and the security of the voting arrangements. The presiding officer is asked to identify not which electors have voted, but simply how many in a particular box at a particular polling station have voted at a specific time of the day. We welcome regulation of the process, and we hope that it will be successful.
I add my voice to that of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, in welcoming the addition to the documents for identification purposes of the provisional driving licence and the 60-plus smart pass. We are fortunate in Northern Ireland that everyone over the age of 60 can travel free on buses and trains anywhere on the island of Ireland. The scheme is unique, and of real benefit to many people. With an ageing population, and with many of our senior citizens not having other forms of identification, the use of smart passes for electoral identification is welcome, and we appreciate the Minister including them in the list of identity documents for the European elections. I assume that provision is already in place for other elections in Northern Ireland.
May I comment on a point made by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury? He mentioned a provision that is not in the legislation: that relating to the replacement of Members of the European Parliament who represent the Northern Ireland constituency—Northern Ireland is a single constituency for the purposes of European elections. What happens, for example, if a Member dies or resigns from the European Parliament? At present, as I understand it, a by-election has to be held on a Northern Ireland-wide basis under the single transferable vote system.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury and I had a different view on previous legislation for dealing with by-elections in the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, I urge the Minister to look carefully at this issue because the problem with STV is that when there is an STV by-election on a single seat for a multi-Member constituency, it leads to a skewed and unrepresentative result because of the intricacies of the STV system. At the moment, two Unionist MEPs and one nationalist MEP represent Northern Ireland, and we could, for example, end up with following situation. If the nationalist—or republican—MEP were to die in office or resign from the European Parliament, it is highly likely in the event of a by-election that a Unionist would win the seat and three Unionists would represent the Northern Ireland constituency. That could be reversed—
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