Draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2002

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Mr. Blunt: Perhaps the hon. Lady shares my puzzlement. We were to consider the draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2002 at the same time as the draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2002. The two orders are obviously significantly different, although the former is more complicated than the latter. All the matters to which she refers are contained in the local elections order. As the legislation surrounding Assembly elections predates the 2002 Act and the introduction of electoral identity cards, it seems peculiar that the Northern Ireland Assembly order does not refer to identity cards.

Lady Hermon: I appreciate that helpful intervention, because I am concerned about the absence of identify cards from the order that we are discussing. During the final stages of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill, the Under-Secretary of State said:

    ''I am satisfied that there is now a timetable for the introduction of identity cards that can meet the deadline that the Government have set themselves''.——[Official Report, 15 April 2002; Vol. 382, c. 383.]

The order before the Committee today deals with Assembly elections, and it would seem to follow naturally from the Under-Secretary's words that the order should refer to cards. I would appreciate it if the Minister would deal with those points when she winds up the debate, and I look forward to her response.

4.51 pm

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley. Perhaps I am one of those to whom reference was made earlier, in that I need the matter to be put simply in order for me to understand it, because I do not have a legal training, although I am eager to learn.

I first want to ask a question, the answer to which I was unable to find in the Library. The order states that

    ''the Secretary of State has consulted the Electoral Commission in accordance with section (7)(1) and (2)(h) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.''

The 2000 Act states:

    ''Before making an instrument to which this section applies, the authority making the instrument shall consult the Commission.''

That is the Electoral Commission. I should be interested to know the nature of that consultation. Is it participatory or is the commission merely informed? I should also like to know what the Electoral Commission said when it was consulted, and whether its response is reported.

Like many hon. Members, I spent much of the weekend working on both orders, and I was not surprised when I saw in the other instrument, which has been withdrawn, that the question ''What is your date of birth?'' might be asked at a polling station. I

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cannot see any reference in the order before the Committee to such a question being posed, so I wonder whether it is covered elsewhere or whether it has been omitted. If it has been omitted, I should like to know why. We are all in favour of eradicating electoral fraud and ensuring that elections are as robust as possible. The presiding officer should be able to ask someone for his date of birth, and I would be happy to hear that a provision to that effect is included elsewhere in legislation.

I, too, am unhappy that electoral identity cards and national insurance numbers are not mentioned in the order. I understand that those measures were included in the legislation as a result of all-party agreement in the House of Lords.

The explanatory note states that the order has no financial implications. Having been a teacher, I am aware that a job can expand to fit however many hours a person has, but if extra checks are to be made, somebody will be paid to carry them out and no doubt it will cost extra money. If postal votes are to be checked for dates of birth and signatures, the process will take considerably longer than it does at the moment. I should like the Minister to provide some analysis of how much extra time that is likely to take.

4.55 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley. I have only a few brief points to put to the Minister, and I shall attempt to be succinct.

First, I have mixed feelings about the fact that we are debating only one order today because the other had to be withdrawn. I understand the Minister's explanation for that, but it remains a fact that this week the Government are attempting to put 13 statutory instruments through the House. We seem to be living, particularly under this Government, in an age of government by statutory instrument. Perhaps it is a mercy that the additional order has been withdrawn, because the Government are trying to ram so many others through the House in such a short time. We will no doubt return to the other order in the autumn.

Secondly, on the issue of national insurance numbers, reference was made to a potential problem with the Data Protection Act 1998. I have come across that Act and am currently promoting a ten-minute Bill relating to it. That might seem tangential, but my Bill is designed to get round the problem of the Data Protection Act being used to prevent Members of Parliament from making inquiries of organisations and public sector bodies on behalf of our constituents.

The Data Protection Act is a classic example of legislation to which the law of unintended consequences has begun to apply. Given that it has caused so many other problems, in several walks of life, I would be concerned if it were also causing a problem in this context. Perhaps that is why national insurance numbers do not appear on the order that we are debating this afternoon. Like other hon. Members, I hope that the Minister will address the issue of why national insurance numbers do not appear in the order. Can she reassure the Committee that their

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omission is not the result of any continuing difficulty with the Data Protection Act 1998?

Having got that personal bugbear out of the way, my final point concerns ID cards. Several Members have pointed out that electoral ID cards do not appear in the order. It may be pure coincidence, but the Government last week made a statement about entitlement cards, which could also be used as ID cards. Is there any interaction between those two facts? Does the fact that electoral ID cards do not appear in the order have anything to do with the Government's statement?

4.58 pm

Jane Kennedy: I came to this Committee with some trepidation, being fully aware of the reputation of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary as an expert on what is acknowledged to be a complex subject, and I am grateful for the generous comments that have been made. My duties require me to immerse myself in many other issues, and I was conscious that members of this Committee had served on the Committee considering the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill as it went through the House and might well be experts on the matter and know more of the detail than I did before I began to study it in preparation for this debate.

However, I am somewhat surprised, because hon. Members seem not really to be seized of the detail of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, as the Bill has since become. If they were, they would not have found it necessary to ask many of the questions that they put. I shall deal with the points raised as quickly as I can.

The first question concerned why the statutory instrument seems so light on detail. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) about the number of statutory instruments being considered. However, those of us who have been Members for a long time and served on Committees dealing with statutory instruments have learned our business from masters, especially when in opposition.

Many hon. Members have suggested that the order is light on detail. That is because the Act automatically applies to Assembly elections all the measures that we debated and the changes that were made to the way in which parliamentary elections are conducted. The statutory instrument need only refer to minor areas. I hope that that allays the fears of the hon. Members for Reigate, for North Down (Lady Hermon) and for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton), who wanted to know why details about matters such as national insurance numbers are not included in the order. The answer is that the amendment which the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 made to the Representation of the People Act 1985 automatically carries through to Assembly elections, so we do not need to include it in the order. The provisions in the 1985 Act were applied by schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001. The effect is that references to the 1985 Act in the 2001 order are automatic.

The matter is not as difficult to understand as Opposition Members would suggest. There is no

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hidden agenda, and the only reason that the references are not contained in the statutory instrument is that they automatically carry through.

Mr. Blunt: I am sure that the Minister's explanation is correct. As with the Schleswig-Holstein question, perhaps only three people understand this stuff, and the one who has not gone mad or died is no doubt sitting beside the Minister and giving her advice.

The Minister tells us that the amendment to the 1985 Act was not included in the text of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 because it was contained in a separate statutory instrument that was passed in July last year. That document did not surface during my initial trawl of the relevant statutory instruments. The Minister chides members of the Committee for failing to understand that the 2002 Act did not contain a reference to Assembly elections, although it contains a reference to parliamentary elections, because the 1985 Act had already been amended by a separate statutory instrument. Plainly, Opposition Members were unaware of that.

None of us are experts on the matter that we are debating—the experts are at the Minister's disposal. The point that arose from her eloquent explanation was that an opportunity for fraud will certainly arise if the legislation is completely impenetrable, not only to hon. Members on this Committee but to the returning officers and chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland who must apply it. There is a crying need for consolidation, so that we can refer to one relevant Act that applies to elections in Northern Ireland to gain some understanding of the matter.

 
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