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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

Standing Committee D

Tuesday 16 October 2001

(Morning)

[Mr. Jimmy Hood in the Chair]

Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland)

10.30 am

The Chairman: Before I call the Minister to move the programme motion, it may be convenient to tell the Committee that I have selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt).

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,

    That—

    (1) during proceedings on the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill the Committee shall, in addition to the first sitting on Tuesday 16th October at half-past Ten o'clock, meet on that day at half-past Four o'clock and on Thursday 18th October at half-past Nine o'clock and half-past Four o'clock;

    (2) the proceedings on the Bill in the Standing Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 18th October at Seven o'clock.

I warmly welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hood, for this short but important Bill. As I am sure you are aware, this is my first experience of a Standing Committee as a Minister. I was reassured to see a fellow Scot in the Chair, as it is possible that the two of us will understand each other during the proceedings. For an unfathomable reason, I was reminded of what may be an apocryphal story—although I hope that it is true—of the Glasgow councillor who was appointed a justice of the peace and to the chair of the borough police court. In his installation speech, he said that he would now have to steer a course between partiality and impartiality.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): That is a disgraceful allegation.

Mr. Browne: I am not suggesting that there was any causal connection between your position in the Chair, Mr. Hood, and my being reminded of that story, but as I could not get it out of my head this morning, I thought that I would share it with the Committee. All Committee members know that you will conduct the proceedings with your customary skill, tact and fairness. For our part, you can trust that we will not stray too far out of order too often, if at all.

The Programming Sub-Committee proposed four sittings, which represents sufficient time to complete our deliberations. Those who were present on Second Reading on 10 July will know that all who wished to contribute were able to do so for as long as they wanted. Indeed, we were left with time to spare. The proposed amendments can be debated fully in the time allotted, and it was the unanimous view of the Programming Sub-Committee that four sittings would be enough. The official Opposition is now under new management, but I suspect that that view has not changed.

Throughout the recess, I have consulted representatives of all opposition parties except one—the offer was made but it was unable to take it up—on the issues of the Bill. No one mentioned that any more time would be required for debate. Accordingly, I expect that the motion, which until today was the product of cross-party discussion, will receive cross-party support.

Mr. Blunt: I beg to move, as an amendment to the motion

    in paragraph (1), to leave out second ``Four'' and insert ``Two''.

Like the Minister, I am a virgin to the Front Bench in such proceedings and it is a great pleasure to have you as Chairman, Mr. Hood. I hope that I will have an advantage over the Minister, because I should be able to communicate with you as neither of us are lawyers. We may not have nationality in common, but the language may be more easily understood.

We want to put on record our principled objection to the timetabling of Bills in this fashion in Committee. The Minister said that there would be sufficient time to debate the Bill, but even with the best will in the world, that is only a guess—perhaps an educated guess shared with members of the Programming Sub-Committee, including my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor). With the welcome addition of two further opposition parties, there are now five such parties to contribute to its proceedings. It is impossible to tell in advance how long it will take, and four sittings is an educated guess.

My amendment is designed to be helpful and I told the Minister's office about it last week. I understand that this is the first time that a sittings motion could be amended in this fashion, and it is perhaps a product of the lapse of time between the Programming Sub-Committee meeting and our proceedings in Committee.

It is customary to start Committee proceedings at 2.30 pm on Thursdays and, in the normal course of events, to rise at 5 pm. That is a more sensible arrangement in view of the overall parliamentary timetable on Thursdays. My amendment is designed to conform to the usual work of Committees in the House.

The other important consideration relates to the demand for concluding our proceedings by 7 pm. If perchance the Programming Sub-Committee has misjudged how long the Committee will need, my amendment would allow an extra couple of hours to ensure that we finish our proceedings properly. I assure the Minister that I do not expect our proceedings to take that long. My expectation is that proceedings will have concluded by 5 pm on Thursday—for the convenience of all concerned. That explains the purpose of the amendment, which I hope that the Minister will accept. It would allow us two extra hours if required.

The Bill was not opposed on Second Reading, but it is important to debate the detail. If we are still debating the Bill on Thursday afternoon, it would be a pity if it fell victim to the unwelcome consequence of programming—many clauses of other Bills have failed to be debated in sufficient detail in Committee. I hope, therefore, that the Government will accept the amendment and that we shall not start our proceedings on a divisive note when this is a Bill that should be discussed consensually.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): As what feels like an old hand on Northern Ireland Standing Committees, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hood. My reason for optimism about mutual communication is based on the fact that I also have a Celtic constituency. I have never lived in Scotland, but have always wanted to.

I suspect that we can cover the business of the Committee in the four available sittings. I am not the world's greatest reformer of House procedures and this is not the place for detailed discussion of that matter, but I have one concern about the unamended sittings motion. The timings exclude an important contingent—hon. Members from Northern Ireland who may have to go back before we conclude our proceedings on Thursday evening. For rather pragmatic reasons I am sympathetic to the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and I lend my support to a 2.30 pm start, even though some hon. Members would still have to leave before the end of our proceedings.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): May I join other hon. Members in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Hood? I am certain that you will carry out that role with absolute fairness. With the Front Bench spokesmen describing themselves as virgins, I am content, coming from the east of Belfast, to describe myself as one of the wise men. However, I have one difficulty in that I agree with the remarks of both and neither spokesmen about the programming of the Bill.

The Bill covers a complex area, which is a good argument for early consolidation of the legislation, which we all support it in principle. However, we all wish to improve it and none of us sets out with any intention to delay the proceedings. I heard nothing in the Minister's remarks to suggest that he would be unwilling to give all the amendments sufficient time, but I heard nothing in the remarks of the hon. Member for Reigate to suggest that if there were time left over when we reached the last amendment he would play for the clock. I am content to tuck under my belt the additional two hours that the amendment would allow, but clearly willing to give them and any other hours up should we be able to end our proceedings early. The general atmosphere in the Committee is one of making progress. On that basis I should have thought that the Government would take the good intentions of the Opposition into account.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Reigate for giving my office advance notice of his intentions and some insight into the reasoning behind this amendment. I am grateful to other hon. Members for their contributions in this short debate and for their supportive comments, which are entirely consistent with the noises that have been made and the clear messages that I have received in informal discussions with all parties about this Bill.

I should say for the record that the Government intend that all the amendments should be debated and that their effects and consequences should be considered in detail for as long as is necessary. We do not intend to stifle debate on any aspect of this. Indeed, I have expressed the clear view that any practical suggestions that would improve the security of the poll in Northern Ireland, without putting unnecessary impediments in the way of ordinary voters, would be looked at carefully. If practicable they would be incorporated into our thinking on this and our actions in relation to the conduct of future elections.

Having listened carefully to the arguments advanced by both the hon. Member for Reigate and others I am not convinced that we need the extra time. There are other reasons why I resist the amendment, which I shall come to in a moment. The effect of the amendment would be twofold. It would add two extra hours but would also allow for an earlier stop on Thursday. I put that simply and I do not do it a disservice. I believe firmly that the extra time would be unnecessary. That was the view of everyone involved in the discussion about how long the Committee would need to consider the Bill until the hon. Member for Reigate came to his recent view. It may turn out that he is right, although I doubt it. I am sure that we can cover all the points that hon. Members need to make in the time already allotted. To add two hours would be taking prudence too far.

In addition, representations have been made to me by other members of the Committee, who arranged their affairs in the confidence that the Committee would agree to the programme motion. It would make little, if any, difference to me if we started earlier on Thursday, but they said that they would be greatly inconvenienced.

10.45 am

Anyone who considers the make-up of the Committee will see that inconveniencing one member could significantly affect it, so for all those reasons we shall vote against the amendment if the hon. Gentleman presses it to a Division. I am grateful for his Blue Peter introduction—the programming speech was prepared earlier, and we get it no matter what the circumstances.

 
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