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The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has moved an interesting amendment. I have particular interest in and care about young people coming on to the register. I spoke on that subject this morning to one of the Ministers. I believe that every effort should be made by the Government and the powers that be to facilitate at least the first-time entry of young people on to the register. I would go so far as to suggest that consideration be given to some form of mandatory requirement for first-time voters coming on to the register. Therefore, I have some sympathy with the amendment. Whether the noble Lord's amendment helps in that regard, I am not sure.
As the noble Lord says, we have two hours before debate on another amendment on Report. Perhaps the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will have an opportunity to debate again in the corridors with the noble Lord, Lord Shutt. That is probably all that I should say at present.
Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: In my brief comments at Second Reading I indicated that the Bill was less than helpful to the conduct of elections in Northern Ireland and to the integrity of the electoral process. I have some sympathy with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland. I can see that he is endeavouring at least to bring forward proposals to help reduce the lack of registration. However, what he proposes would not succeed.
The reality is that we have an electoral office and a chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland who must have advised the Government in respect of the Billindeed, I have tabled a question on this issueand yet I can see no evidence that the chief electoral officer has embarked on any pilot scheme to try to ascertain exactly why there is a deficit in the number of people who register.
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I indicated yesterday, and I reinforce that view today, that because of the situation in Northern Irelandand we have just heard a Statement from the Lord President about the way in which Sinn Fein abused the electoral process, but I shall not go down that roadyoung people are fed up and are saying, "Until we get something sorted out we are not going to bother. We have no tradition of voting; we are new voters. When we have something worth voting for, we will register. Until then, we will not do so because we are not prepared to allow Sinn Fein and parties like it to steal our votes".
There is still that fear in our society but the electoral office and the chief electoral officer have done nothing to alleviate it. They have had canvassers on the ground who have gone out, returned and done nothing to encourage people to use the system as it was intended to be used when we brought forward the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act in February 2002. So, while I have a great deal of sympathy and respect for the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, I believe that the amendment will not achieve what he hopes it would do.
Lord Fitt: Yesterday, when I first noticed that 83,000 people had failed to register to vote, I thought that was a very high and inflated figure. Northern Ireland has only a small electorate overall and 83,000 people who registered the previous year have refused to register this year.
Did the electoral officer go down any road to ascertain why those 83,000 people did not register or did not want to register? If I had the register of electors in Northern Ireland now, I would be able to tell by looking at it the possible outcome of an inquiry into the absence of those electors from the register.
When the electoral officer sent out his enumerators, as we used to call them in my day when we were fighting elections, did they go around the various homes and speak to the individuals involved? Did they give any information about why they were not prepared to vote or were they left a form? The district in which those people live could tell a story and give the reason why they did not vote.
It used to be that the electoral officersor, at that time, officials of the rates department of the Belfast Corporation so far as concerned the Belfast constituencieswere employed all the year round visiting different households to inquire about the number of people who lived there, their names and whether they were qualified to vote. If those people then gave the wrong information or, in the case of an individual who was absent, did not fill in the requisite form, they would be excluding themselves. Is it possible that a majority of those 83,000 people did not want to vote; that they excluded themselves by not filling in the registration?
Has there now come a time when there will be compulsion in Northern Ireland as there is in Australia and other areas? Are we going to tell those people, "Whether you like it or not, whether you vote or not, you are going on this register"? That is compulsion, but so far in this country we have not gone down that road.
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I still find 83,000 a very high figure. Is it possible, in line with the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, even at this time, that a number of people in Northern Ireland, who can read and write and who are unemployed at the moment, could visit the addresses of those who have excluded themselves from the register? They would not have to go to 83,000 different addresses because many of the people who have excluded themselves live in the same households. Given the knowledge that I have of Belfast, I am quite certain that if the electoral officer was determined to ascertain the reasons for such exclusions and why people want to keep themselves off the register, it could be done within the time limits illustrated today by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt.
Can the Minister indicate to the House why those people excluded themselves? Did they give any reason for doing so? How did the returning officer get the names and addresses of the individuals? I have a feelingagain it is a feeling that I have had over many years of political life in Northern Irelandthat, whether or not they have excluded themselves, many of those 83,000 people will have someone voting for them at the next election purely illegally.
Lord Kilclooney: I can offer the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, a couple of reasons why people have not registered. Among young people there is total dismay and lack of interest in the political process in Northern Ireland because of the Government's continual demand that there must be inclusivity for devolution to be brought about in Northern Ireland. They know that that is no longer possible; they have lost interest in the political process and they are not interested in voting.
The other reason is more serious from a terrorist point of view. In recent years we have introduced what is called the "marked register" in Northern Ireland. This register shows to the terrorist organisations and their political supporters those who did not vote. It used to be that you never knew who did or did not vote; now you know exactly who did not vote in your republican or loyalist area and you become the subject of intimidation. That is another reason why people are dissuaded from putting their names on the electoral register.
Concerns have been expressed about why a number of people have not put themselves forward on to the register. Let me deal with those first and, in particular, with the questions asked by the noble Lords, Lord Maginnis, Lord Fitt and Lord Kilclooney, who referred to the dismay and lack of interest of some people.
I begin by saying that in our view the introduction of individual registration reduced the inflationary factors that had been created by the old household registration system. So there are other factors at work that have led to this further removal of names from the register. We believe that voter apathy is an element of that. The
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Electoral Commission is undertaking research to find out why people are not registering but we should also remember that the chief electoral officer's powers and duties are prescribed by legislation, and the legislation is strict regarding what questions may be asked of electors. However, the chief electoral officer wrote to all those who did not return a completed registration form and encouraged them to do so.
An Electoral Commission report commented that while the register is accurate and robust, individual registration has tended to have an adverse impact on the disadvantaged, the marginalised and those in hard to reach groups, including young people. It has taken action in a number of areas to try to address that, including a wider distribution of registration forms focusing on the young and other under-represented groups and a high level publicity programme. That should have a positive effect and cancel out the negative gap. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, talked about a growth in the register of more than 5 per cent. If these initiatives have the impact we want, we estimate that the register will grow by more than 5 per cent with a carry-forward facility reinstated.
I turn to the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt. The power conferred by subsection (1) states that the individuals to be put back on to the register must be reinstated by 1 April 2005. Therefore, it would be possible to put them back before that date. However, following advice from the chief electoral officer, we believe that the most effective way to complete this task is to ensure that the names are put back in time for the publication of the register on 1 April 2005. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, raised the issue of postal votes. The postal vote deadline of 26 April applies only to those who suddenly become indisposed; it does not apply to ordinary postal votes, as I understand it.
Since the chief electoral officer will so far as possible check that the details remain accurate, shortening the deadline for the task gives less time for the checks. Despite the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, and the valiant effort of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, it is my view that this amendment is not required and I ask the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, to withdraw it.
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