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

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Jane Kennedy: That intervention proves my point. The detail for which some hon. Members are searching in the order has, I respectfully suggest, already been dealt with in the 2002 Act. If I can do nothing else, I shall try to allay their fears, which are obviously genuine. There is no other agenda behind the depth of detail contained in the order—the detail has simply been dealt with elsewhere.

Through the good offices of the Under-Secretary, the Government have listened carefully to representations that political parties of all persuasions have made on the issue. In fact, a wide consultation exercise took place, and it was not only political parties that were consulted. The Government have listened and responded, although not as quickly as Opposition Members would have liked, especially on the issues that they have raised today, such as the use of national insurance numbers.

Lady Hermon: If the legislation has already carried through to the Northern Ireland Assembly, of the three new identifiers introduced in the 2002 Act—date of birth, signature and national insurance number—why are only date of birth and signature dealt with in the order? Why is the national insurance number not included?

Jane Kennedy: We are considering an order that picks up what was missed in the 2002 Act. That is the purpose of the statutory instrument, which has clearly been drafted because of the need to consider such detail.

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The hon. Lady also asked about the commencement date. Under the 2002 Act, signatures, dates of birth and national insurance numbers will be collected from this year's annual canvass, which is on 15 October. The new register will be published on 1 December, so if there were Assembly elections in the autumn, they would be held on the basis of the August register. The electoral office will not have the additional personal identifiers required by the Act. Therefore, it will be unable to cross check that information should it be required earlier than 1 December. I hope that that answers her concern.

I want to deal with the electoral ID card, which the hon. Lady also mentioned.

Mr. Blunt: Will the Minister give way?

Jane Kennedy: I will give way for a brief intervention.

Mr. Blunt: I simply want to ask the Minister to redirect herself to the question asked by the hon. Member for North Down, which seems rather straightforward. If the order is designed to ensure that signatures and dates of birth are checked, what about national insurance numbers? The 2002 Act dealt with all three, but the order deals with only two. Will the Minister give us an explanation?

Jane Kennedy: Applications for an absent vote at Assembly elections need to include national insurance numbers, because the 2002 Act—many members of the Committee were present for the detailed debates on its provisions—made the relevant amendment to the Representation of the People Act 1985. The provisions on national insurance numbers automatically carry through to the Assembly elections. Having made that point twice, I hope that Opposition Members will accept that there is no hidden agenda. The details of what was agreed during the lengthy discussions on the then Bill will carry through. Hon. Members need have no concern that national insurance numbers cannot be used for Assembly elections following the order.

Mr. Blunt rose—

Jane Kennedy: Perhaps I am missing the point that the hon. Member for North Down is making. I will give way once more.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to the Minister, as it is important that we run the matter to earth. She contends that the provisions on the details of national insurance numbers required by the 2002 Act apply to Assembly elections. However, I do not understand the need for the statutory instrument, as dates of birth and signatures also appear in the 2002 Act. Why do they not apply automatically?

Jane Kennedy: The amendments to article 2 do not refer to national insurance numbers because the corresponding provisions in the 2002 Act did not include national insurance numbers. We are discussing applications for postal votes. The amendments were made under a different section of the Act: section 3(4)(c). We are beginning to labour the point, and making our debate unnecessarily complicated.

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I want to deal with one or two of the other questions raised by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Cheadle asked about the views of the Electoral Commission, and I have a simple response. The commission was consulted. It was sent a draft of the order and it had no comment. The hon. Lady also asked about the date of birth. The amendment made by the 2002 Act to the parliamentary election rules carries through to those rules as they apply to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Therefore, the questions about the date of birth can be asked.

Lady Hermon rose—

Jane Kennedy: I may be a poor substitute for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, but I hope that all hon. Members are satisfied that the Government's sole intention is to improve the conduct of elections in Northern Ireland so that we can tackle the fraud that we know exists. I hope that the Committee will approve the order.

5.10 pm

Mr. Blunt: I am sorry that the Minister was unable to take the hon. Lady's intervention. Nobody is casting aspersions on the Government's intentions. We accept that there is no hidden agenda, and we all have the same objective. I am relying on the Minister's assurance to the Committee that national insurance numbers, a signature and the date of birth will be required in order for people to secure a postal vote in Assembly elections in Northern Ireland after 1 December 2002. I have to rely on her assurance, because I could not follow her explanation as to why the statutory instrument refers to signatures and dates of birth but not to national insurance numbers. Why are all three not required? There is no requirement for national insurance numbers, because there is a reference to them in the Act, but there is also a reference in the Act to signatures and to dates of birth.

If the statutory instrument that was passed by Parliament last July is meant to apply the provisions of the Act to Assembly elections as well as to parliamentary elections, I do not understand why we are considering this statutory instrument. I expect that a technical point, buried in the ghastly forest of detail that is electoral law, has caused the Minister's advisers to suggest that it is required.

I am happy to rely on the Minister's assurance. She has given her undertaking that the order will have the intended effect. However, we are entitled to be sceptical. We are being reasonably generous, given that only last week another draft statutory instrument was withdrawn because it was discovered to be technically deficient. In the space of a week, the Committee has been assembled to consider three statutory instruments, only one of which has made it to the starting gate, so the Department is beginning to gain an unhappy record of preventing us from considering legislation on time.

Nevertheless, I am content to rely on the Minister's assurances. She is plainly a woman of honour—we are all hon. Members here—and I shall not vote against the order. I believe in what she is trying to do, and I have no doubt that there is no hidden agenda. However, we have not heard an adequate technical

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explanation, which may well be difficult and complicated. I dare say that I would eventually master it if her advisers sat me down with a cold towel and went through it five or six times, but at this stage I am content to rely on her judgment.

Mr. Francois: The Minister sat down a little quickly, and, although I may have missed it, I do not think that she referred to the potential interaction with the Data Protection Act. I am also unsure whether she replied on the issue of ID cards, which several hon. Members raised. It would be helpful if she could say something about those issues before we conclude.

Mr. Blunt: I have no idea whether the Minister will require your permission to speak again, Mr. Illsley, but I would be happy for her to deal with those issues.

I will study the Minister's explanation with care to see whether I have simply missed something. On the basis of her assurances, however, the Opposition will not seek to divide the Committee.

5.16 pm

Lady Hermon: I do not regard the Minister of State as a dull substitute for anyone, and I have the greatest respect for her. No criticism is intended of the Under-Secretary, who works hard and takes his responsibilities very seriously.

Some members of the Committee may have found a debate about national insurance numbers and identity cards a little tedious, but electoral fraud is a very serious issue in Northern Ireland, and I say that as someone who has lived there all her life.

My greatest concern is for the SDLP, because we cannot afford to lose the middle ground of the nationalist community. As we approach the Assembly elections, I am exceedingly worried about the way in which Sinn Fein may direct its efforts. I take no pleasure in saying that, because I am a member of a party that sits on the Executive with Sinn Fein, and I wish that to continue. However, electoral fraud is a serious offence, which deprives honest voters of the votes that they cast in the ballot box. I am concerned for what is now the main nationalist party, because I do not want Sinn Fein to steal its votes. It will help none of us if we lose the centre ground of the nationalist community.

I am sorry that I did not catch the Minister's eye earlier, because I wanted to raise a minor point with her. Will she assure us that progress has been made on

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electoral identity cards? We are so looking forward to them, and I hope that she can mention them.

5.18 pm

Jane Kennedy: With permission, Mr. Illsley, I should like to reply to those points. The hon. Member for Rayleigh was right that I missed his question about the Data Protection Act. We do not anticipate any problem. My hon. Friend met the Information Commissioner, who made it clear that the employment of national insurance numbers in the electoral registration process must be put on a clear statutory basis so that it does not breach the requirements of the Data Protection Act, and we acted on that.

On electoral ID cards, we have repeatedly made it clear that the Assembly elections in May 2003 have always been and remain our target for removing all forms of non-photographic ID from the list of specified documents. For the reasons that the hon. Lady gave, an entirely photographic identification system is desirable for the purpose of voting in Northern Ireland. However, we must recognise that a significant proportion of the electorate does not use photographic identification at the polling station. We are committed to providing those who require electoral identity cards with them in time for the Assembly elections in May 2003. As the hon. Lady knows, the card will be voluntary, but it will be in the interests of all political parties to ensure that their voters obtain one if they have no other form of acceptable photographic ID. We are consulting the political parties fully before taking the decision to remove non-photographic ID. The hon. Lady made a very strong point, which we take fully on board, and we are committed to taking the reforms forward as quickly as is practicable.

I hope that you, Mr. Illsley, will forgive me for detaining the Committee one last time, and I hope that hon. Members will approve the order.

The Chairman: Before I put the question, I should inform hon. Members that they have the right to speak as many times as they wish during the Committee and my permission is not required.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2002.

Committee rose at twenty minutes past Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Illsley, Mr. Eric (Chairman)
Blunt, Mr.
Calton, Mrs.
Davey, Valerie
Flynn, Paul
Francois, Mr.
Hermon, Lady
Humble, Mrs.
Kennedy, Jane
McIsaac, Shona
Murphy, Mr. Jim
Purnell, James
Swire, Mr.
Winnick, David

 
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Prepared 8 July 2002