Mr. Donaldson: I understand that, Mr. Martlew, but I am laying down a marker and we hope that the Government will look
Mr. Donaldson: I hope that the Government will look carefully at the matter and, in the context of what they have already done for the Northern Ireland Assembly, consider what they might do in relation to the European Parliament.
I place on record my partys appreciation of the work of the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland, the chief electoral officer and the progress that we have made. Northern Ireland once had a reputation for having elections that were deemed, let us say, less than wholesome in terms of the integrity of the electoral process. The old saying, Vote early and vote often, was a catchphrase associated with elections in Northern Ireland. We have come a long way from the days whendare I say iteven the deceased managed to cast a vote in elections in some constituencies.
We now have an electoral process that draws the attention of many people across the democratic world. Delegations come from Commonwealth countries to look at the electoral process and consider the work that has been done. Through the Minister, I say both to his officials who do such work and to the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland that we appreciate it. I have seen the merits in the changes that have taken place, and the benefits that they have brought to an electoral process that now has a greater degree of integrity. Such changes have resulted in electoral outcomes that are far more reflective of the will of the people than was the case in the past. The changes proposed in the regulations will enhance the process for European elections and we welcome that.
Paul Goggins: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury for his support. As always, he cuts to the chase and if there is common agreement, he says so. I appreciate that.
I would have offered a lengthy explanation why the issue of filling vacancies in European elections might be rather different from the matter we mentioned in our other exchange, but the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley talked eloquently about thateven though the Chairman remonstrated with him for doing so. The matter will, of course, be dealt with in the context of the Political Parties and Elections Bill. However, if there was a straight by-election as a result of somebody resigning or, sadly, dying, it could result in the scenario that the right hon. Gentleman outlined. I am sure that point will be borne in mind in those debates, which will take place well away from this Committee.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury asked about home addresses. The amendment to which he referred relates to the Political Parties and Elections Bill. It applies only to parliamentary elections and therefore would not apply to the European elections. In any event, the Bill is
On the proposal to suspend the count at 11 oclock unless there is agreement that it should carry on, the only scenario I can foresee in which everybody would agree that it should carry on would be if the count could be concluded in a very short time. Rather than everybody going away and being summoned back the next day, it would be concluded quickly. However, the working assumption is that the count would conclude at 11 oclock and reconvene the next day, thereby safeguarding the welfare of the staff involved. The regulations place beyond doubt that that is what should happen unless there is a narrow window in which the work could be completed.
The hon. Gentleman said that he was slightly cautious about subscribers. We are merely bringing the rules in line with those for the rest of the United Kingdom. We rely on the £5,000 deposit as a deterrent to those who might seek to be frivolous. We think that the system works, and the Electoral Commission agrees with our analysis.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute made a fair point, which is that legislation relating to elections should be made in a timely way, and in an ideal world we would have introduced the regulations before now. He quoted extensively from the experience in Scotland. I merely emphasise that the matters we are considering are not controversial and have been consulted on extensively. In fact, we have introduced only those proposals with which everyone was content. Many of the changes are minor, and some are already in statute for other elections.
I accept that, ideally, such changes would be introduced slightly earlier than this, but I do not foresee the kind of controversial developments that the hon. Gentleman outlined in respect of Scotland, because the regulations are uncontroversial, minor and much consulted on. None the less, he has had the opportunity to make his point, and he made it loud and clear.
To reinforce a point that the hon. Gentleman made, it is true that electoral law for Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and, indeed, the whole of the United Kingdom is not devolved and will therefore always be a matter for this House. We acknowledge that in attempting to make legislation as tidy and consolidated as possible, there will always be differences. For example, for European elections, the single transferable vote system applies in Northern Ireland, whereas in England a list system a different proportional representation systemapplies. That has consequences for how the legislation is drawn up.
To make a point about how complicated the regulations are, the hon. Gentleman asked two specific questions about pages 21 and 49. On the first point, which was about the official mark, the regulations say that the interval before it is used again should be
not less than five years.
That puts Northern Ireland in the same place as the rest of the UKthe same wording applies for European elections elsewhere in the UKand it also means that a mark cannot be used in successive European elections.
Mr. Reid: But obviously elections, although on a Thursday, are not on exactly the same date every time, so if the period were five years and six days, the mark could be used again. Could there not be more sensible wording to provide that the same mark cannot be used twice?
Paul Goggins: My clear expectation is that would not happen, for the reasons that I have given. However, I emphasise the point that the regulation merely brings Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK. The wording and the provision are the same.
On part 8, the hon. Gentleman made the point that the regulations state:
The forms contained in this Appendix may be adapted so far as circumstances require.
Again, he brought to the Committees attention the experience in Scotland. I simply emphasise that the circumstances in which that would happen are rare. Indeed, the chief electoral officer is the returning officer for Northern Ireland in the European elections. The provision is not something that could be changed by an inexperienced member of staff in some local administration; it will be the senior person, who knows precisely what they are doing. It will give flexibilityif that is necessaryand it will be administered in a professional way; I offer the hon. Gentleman that assurance.
I welcome the support of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley. I always appreciate his contribution to Committee discussions about electoral law because he actually fights elections in Northern Ireland, unlike others members of the Committee, and we are always grateful for his advice. I agree wholeheartedly with his comments about voter turnout. We all have an interest in getting voters out to vote at election time. Frankly, whether they vote for us or notwe would prefer that they didwe all want them to turn out and vote, because that is at the heart of the democratic process.
Guidance about the information to be made available to political parties on polling day will be issued by the chief electoral officer, and it will specify certain times when that information can be passed on so that we can get the balance right. The right hon. Gentleman is right that there will not be a requirement to say who has voted or how they have voted, but merely to give the total number of people who have voted at that particular time. I confirm that the additional documentationhe mentioned specifically the 60-plus smartpasswill apply to other elections as a document of identification. I will happily pass on his remarks to those who administer the electoral system in Northern Ireland, particularly the chief electoral officer. What he says is true: the administration of elections in Northern Ireland is of very high quality, and it is essential as an underpinning to the democratic process.
Mr. Reid: The Minister has not responded to one of the points I made. In his opening speech, he talked about the unintentional errors in the Great Britain regulations, which is why they had to come back. Will he assure the Committee that the Northern Ireland
Paul Goggins: I am sure that had the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon been asked the same question, he would have said, Well of course, but subsequently a minor change was required. The officialssome of whom are not far away from us at the momentwho oversee these things in the Northern Ireland Office, do so in an assiduous and professional way. In so far as it is humanly possible, the regulations are absolutely firm and fixed, and they will do the job. I am absolutely confident, as we are here in Committee this afternoon, that the regulations that will underpin the European elections in Northern Ireland this June will do the job, and ensure that the elections are carried out properly. Under the supervision of the chief electoral officer, I am sure that they will be run in a splendid way. I hope that offers some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman.
I hope that the Committee will support the regulations.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2009.
Draft European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2009
That the Committee has considered the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2009.(Paul Goggins.)
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