Fourth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Thursday 1 February 2001
[Mrs. Ray Michie in the Chair]
Draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2001
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2001.
Good morning, Mrs. Michie. I welcome you to the Chair. I know from previous experience that you will chair us with charm and firmness.
The regulations were laid before the House on 17 January under the powers conferred by the Representation of the People Act 2000. They put into effect the major part of that Act and deal with detailed arrangements for the registration of electors and the conduct of elections.
The Representation of the People Act is a consequence of the deliberations of the working party on electoral procedures, which I had the good fortune to chair when I was a Home Office Minister. The working party was set up after the last election with a mandate to review our electoral arrangements and to make recommendations on improvements. As a multidisciplinary body, it included representatives from the major political parties, as well as experts such as electoral administrators and Government officials. It reported in October 1999 and a Bill was immediately introduced to put its recommendations into effect. The Bill received Royal Assent in March 2000.
In Committee yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), presented regulations for England and Wales. The regulations before us today implement similar provisions for Northern Ireland and relate to what we now refer to as rolling registration. They allow the registration of homeless people, remand prisoners and mental patients, make better provision for disabled voters and make a number of other changes that are aimed at making it easier to vote.
Provisions in the regulations for England and Wales that ease the requirements for absent voting are not, however, extended to Northern Ireland. The deadline for the majority of absent voting applications in Northern Ireland remains the 14th working day before the poll. It is not appropriate to ease the restrictions on postal voting in Northern Ireland because of concerns about electoral abuse. However, we are working on proposals to deal with those concerns. I hope to be able to make an announcement on that shortly.
The device to assist blind voters is prescribed in regulation 12. That device has been tested by groups of blind and partially sighted voters and has received their support, as well as that of their representative organisations. A device will be available in each polling station for those who want to use it. It will, for the first time, enable blind or partially sighted voters to mark their ballot paper unaided and with the confidence that the mark has gone in the right place and against the candidate of their choice. It also allows voters to remove the ballot paper, fold it and place it in the ballot box, without any assistance from a companion or the presiding officer. From contact with the representative organisations, I know that blind people and people with other disabilities prize the freedom to act like any other voter highly and will welcome the provision.
The regulations deal with the details involved in applying for registration as a service voter or overseas elector and mirror the regulations for England and Wales.
Part III covers the new arrangements for registration. There will no longer be a single qualifying date for registration as an elector, or only one time in the year when the registration can be changed. After the publication of the new register in a few weeks, when the regulations come into force, voters will be able to change their registration at any time of the year. They will no longer have to wait until the annual canvass to get themselves on to a new register in their new area. The regulations set out in detail how registration officers will make the new system work.
The electoral office will have the power to delete names from its register, such as deceased persons or those who have registered elsewhere, as well as powers to seek further information to confirm eligibility. That will result in a more flexible electoral register that will be more accurate and user-friendly. If it is made easy to register, voters will be more inclined to do so.
The regulations do not deal with section 9 of the 2000 Act, which relates to the sale and supply of the register. That section allows voters to opt out of having their names included on the register, which will be available for sale. We have not yet drafted regulations on the sale of the register, but intend to turn our minds to it straightaway.
I hope that the Committee will join me in recognising the importance of these changes to the electoral system and will view them as a step forward in making registering and voting easier for all. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): I endorse the Minister's welcome to you, Mrs. Michie. I do not think that the Committee will be a battleground, as Opposition Members broadly welcome the measure.
On Monday this week, when we were seeking greater clarity of election law, I asked the Minister, and I ask him again, whether we were moving towards electoral uniformity in the United Kingdom. We want legal provision in Northern Ireland to be similar to that in the rest of the United Kingdomwe want uniformity between Northern Ireland and Britain. It is our refrain that we are all one country and should all have one law.
On behalf of the Conservative party, I welcome the measures that make it easier for blind people to vote. I am sure that we all believe that they should be encouraged to do so.
There has been a rather worrying move towards non-registration in the United Kingdom generally. In the 1997 general election, about 5.5 million people could not vote because they were incorrectly registered. Until my researches, I had not realised the scale of the problem. That is a disturbing number. If it had been 300,000, I should probably have said, ``Errors and omissions exceptednothing can be 100 per cent. accurate'', but 5.5 million people is a 10th of the population. Will the Minister comment on that?
I gave the Minister brief notice of another question. He may not have the answer to hand, in which case I accept that he may write to me. I refer to regulation 48, which is entitled ``Sale of register and list of overseas electors''. We are all aware that the politics of Northern Ireland attracts attention from outside the United Kingdom and, in particular, from across the Atlantic in the United States of America. Is the Minister aware of any evidence that the register and the list of overseas electors are regularly purchased across the Atlantic? That is a matter of public interest.
I think that I have reviewed the points that interest Conservative Members and I shall be pleased to hear the Minister's response.
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): I promise to detain the Committee for only a few moments, but I want to add one point to those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor).
The Minister referred to the abuses of electoral law in Northern Ireland. Has he assessed the extent of those abuses and, if so, could he inform the Committee about it? He also said that the Government were, properly, addressing that problem. When does he think the Government will have formed a view about that serious problemI fear that it will not be before 3 Mayand can they bring proposals to the House to tackle it?
Mr. George Howarth: I thank the hon. Member for Solihull for his general support, from which I take it that there is no fundamental division between us on the matter. I am grateful for that.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether we were moving towards greater uniformity in our procedures throughout the United Kingdom. The short answer is yes. The exception is the 14-day principle. As the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) said, the reasons for that will be familiar to the Committee.
The hon. Member for Solihull referred to the worrying trend towards non-registration and quoted some statistics. It is a concern, but it should not be a party political matter. Every party, and democracy in general, suffers from a lack of participation. We worry about the turnout at elections, but the phenomenon of non-registration even precedes not turning out. People exclude themselves from the possibility of voting if they do not register. I would not want to speculate on the causes of non-registration. I believe that, particularly among younger people, there is growing apathy towards politics in general and not necessarily towards one party or another.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) has said for many years that, following the introduction of the poll tax, there was an incentive for people to disappear. That may have contributed to the problem. Indeed, I have heard certain parties in Northern Ireland speculate that the way in which housing benefit was calculated gave people an incentive not to register. However, it is difficult to be certain what the cause is.
As politicians, and certainly as members of the Committee, we can unite in the belief that it is important that everyone participates in democracy and that the basic building block of that participation is to be on the register and eligible to vote.
The hon. Member for Solihull asked me whether there was any evidence that organisations based overseas, particularly in the United States, showed any enthusiasm for purchasing the register. I must be honest: I have no information that there is, but that is not to say that there is not. As the hon. Gentleman asked, I shall do further research into that issue and let him and other Committee members know the result. If there is any evidence that that is taking place, we can examine the relationship between that and voting.
The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet referred to electoral abuse and, in particular, to two aspects of it: whether I had any indication of the scale of the abuse and whether I could say when we intended to bring forward proposals to address it. The scale is difficult to estimate. All the evidence is anecdotal. In a television programme called ``Spotlight'', which was shown towards the end of last year, some people said that certain individuals representing certain parties had voted many times over in one election. There is anecdotal evidence of highly organised attempts at multiple voting in some elections and locations. However, in the absence of arrests and prosecutions, it is difficult to be certain about the scale of the abuse.
We are in contact with the Royal Ulster Constabulary to see whether we can do anything more. For example, we have asked whether it needs more powers to deal with the problem. I suspect that it will say that it does not, but perhaps there should be greater clarity about the way in which the system deals with a suspected offence. Although I cannot give any more information about the scale of the problem, I have no doubt from the volume of anecdotal examples that it exists, which is disturbing. We should not countenance what is, in effect, the theft of people's votes.
As regards timing, the word that I used, as Committee members will recognise, was ``shortly''. I do not want to be drawn into giving a specific date, as the necessary arrangements have not yet been made. However, I hope to be able to make an announcement before the end of the Parliament, whenever that may be, although it may not be possible, for technical reasons, to bring all the proposals into effect between now and a general election. Rather than be drawn further down that road, I hope that the hon. Member for Chipping Burnet realises that we take the issue seriously and that we intend to introduce proposals to deal with it.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2001.
Committee rose at fourteen minutes past Ten o'clock.
The following Members attended the Committee:
Michie, Mrs. Ray (Chairman)
Campbell, Mr. Alan
Chapman, Sir Sydney
Howarth, Mr. George
Stewart, Mr. David
Taylor, Mr. John M.