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Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2003

12.52 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 13th June be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, every year an annual canvass is conducted to ascertain those entitled to vote in Northern Ireland. These regulations, if your Lordships agree, will prescribe a new form of words to the annual canvass form which allows for the addition of prospective electors as a result of the Treaty of Athens introducing the 10 new states into the EU which comes into force on 1st May 2004. That means that citizens of those states who are resident and qualified to vote in Northern Ireland may be registered as voters in local government elections.

The regulations introduce a new form of words relating to the two forms of register—the full and the edited—including the possibility of applying to be excluded from the edited register. The opportunity has been taken to improve the layout of the canvass form; we hope to make it clearer and easier to understand. There had been some criticism of the previous layout. Your Lordships will have seen that, later in today's proceedings, separate regulations are being introduced for England and Wales and Scotland. Also being introduced separately, as a UK-wide measure, are franchise regulations which allow citizens of acceding states to register prior to 1st May when those states, as I said, formally join the EU. They will then be on the register and able to vote in the European elections in 2004. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 13th June be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord President for bringing this order forward. I took a moment or two to read some of the Hansard reports of the consideration of the draft regulations in another place, in the Eighth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation. I am going to be a little naughty, my Lords. I picked up in the report that Lady Hermon, in col. 005, was taking quite a lot of kudos for another place for having improved the legislation as regards electoral fraud. I feel that the noble and learned Lord the Minister and Leader of this House, along with your Lordships, played an equally if not greater part in improving that legislation. I am not very often competitive with another place, but I feel on this occasion that it is perhaps worth while putting a marker down. I hope that your Lordships will agree.

As for Lady Hermon's complaints and suggestions that the electoral registration form was hard to read and so on, I have a copy in front of me—I thank

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officials for giving it to me this morning—and it does seem to me to be a pretty clear document. I have little or no hesitation at all in supporting the order.

Lord Rennard: My Lords, the order is obviously necessary and therefore welcome. We understand the need to make provision for citizens of the European Union accession states to be on the register in anticipation of their membership of the European Union. They will then be entitled to vote in local and European elections. Like the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, I find the form rather simple. I think that it is rather a better form than the one that we used to have and rather better than those which for many years confronted those of us who work in the electoral process. I think that this issue is of considerable importance. The form must be simple if the register is to be accurate.

I also welcome some of the innovations on the form, in particular that there is now to be an opportunity to register to vote without having one's address so widely published. This extra element of discretion is very important in a small number of cases, perhaps where there has been an issue of domestic violence or someone is seeking to avoid an abusive partner. People in such cases will not wish to lose their right to vote but wish to preserve some discretion in the number of those who know where they live. However, I also believe that the form is effective in not encouraging the wholesale withdrawal of names and addresses. I believe that it is phrased just right. It shows that the option exists for those who do not wish to be in the main published register. However, it is still legitimate for many organisations other than political parties to approach people after obtaining their name and address, which they often find in the voting register. From our side, this order is wholly welcome.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am very grateful. In particular, I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. Northern Ireland is a small community and one needs to have the appropriate balance between a safeguard of the individual in some of the circumstances the noble Lord identified and the wider public interest in knowing in a transparent way about how elections are conducted. As for the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, that he was going to be a bit naughty, he and I are, I think, content to look for our reward hereafter if not necessarily in this world. I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (England and Wales) Regulations 2003

12.58 p.m.

Lord Filkin rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 9th June be approved [22nd Report from the Joint Committee].

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, with the permission of the House I shall speak both to this order and to the Scottish order. Such economy may be of assistance to the House.

The purpose of the regulations, as I expect has already been well covered under the Northern Ireland regulations by my noble and learned friend the Lord President, is essentially to prescribe the form which electoral registration officers should use for the annual canvass of electors which takes place each autumn. The regulations are necessary to ensure that we fulfil our obligations in relation to the voting rights of citizens of member states of the EU who are resident here. These directives give nationals of member states of the European Union the right to vote and stand as candidates in elections to the European Parliament and in local elections. As the House knows, 10 new states are expected to join the European Union on 1st May 2004. We need therefore to ensure that citizens of those states who live here are able to benefit from these voting rights provisions.

The regulations we are considering prescribe a new form of canvass for the annual canvass which allows nationals of accession states who live here to be added to the electoral register. Because the accession states do not formally join the EU until 1st May 2004, there would be no time under the current law to enable nationals of those states to be registered as electors between then and the date of the election, on 10th June 2004. Of course, had the timing been different—for instance, if the states had acceded on 1st September this year—then these regulations would not have been needed.

Citizens of accession states would have been entitled, as full EU members, to register in the same way as French and German citizens can do now. As it is, however, given the timing, special provision is needed to permit their names to be included on the register in advance of membership. So should—as we expect—the member states accede by 1st May, those people would then be in a position, if they were resident here and had registered, to vote in the local elections. We have already provided a legal framework to allow for this in regulations that came into force for the whole of the United Kingdom on 9th July 2003, and those regulations modified the current legislation for this purpose.

We believe that the regulations are fully compatible with the ECHR and the canvass form itself is largely based on the existing form and is, I hope, self-explanatory. The regulations ensure that we are fulfilling our obligations to citizens of accession states who live here by allowing them to register so that they can vote after their countries accede on 1st May 2004. I commend the regulations to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 9th June be approved [22nd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Filkin.)

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, as with the previous regulations relating to Northern Ireland, which fall within the same scope, we fully support these proposals.

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A couple of questions arise. Based on previous experience of the registration of European nationals, is there any idea of the percentage of people who sign up for registration? The general experience of those who go round canvassing at elections is that, on the whole, ignorance is sublime for anyone from another state within the European Union. More often than not, such people are not signed up and do not know that they can vote, particularly as regards local elections; and they are dubious as to whether they can vote in European elections.

While the registration form is fine, the promotional material to encourage people to enter their names on the register is very poor. That follows on from the general feeling that the canvass for registration does not always scoop all the problems. I know that most local authorities make big efforts to ensure that people are on the electoral register, but sometimes an even greater effort is required. Does the Minister have an idea of the level of turnout or representation for those from other EU states; and what extra efforts can be made, particularly in regard to some of the accession countries, where people will be new to the European Union and to democracy in the way that we understand it? What efforts will be made to encourage them to put their names on the voting register? Those remarks apply to the regulations for England and Wales and for Scotland. I shall not speak to the Scottish order.

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