Draft Local Elections Northern Ireland (Amendment) Order 2002

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Mr. Browne: I think—if I am wrong, I shall correct this later—that the provisions in the order relate to certain disabilities that require persons to have other persons to assist them to vote. I shall go into that in some detail, but one point on which the hon. Lady seeks further information, which is also important to me, is accessibility to polling stations. I take it from her reference to the nature of the buildings used that that concern is exercising her. I do not think that legislation on accessibility is required or, if it is, it perhaps already exists, that being generally covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. It is certainly a priority of mine—shared by the chief electoral officer—to ensure that in future all polling stations are fully accessible. I cannot guarantee that that will be the case but I shall do everything in my power to ensure it, and I know that the chief electoral officer is also committed.

I am advised that the chief electoral officer has just completed a new draft of his polling station scheme, and under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, issues such as disabled access will be a concern. I understand that that scheme will be put out for consultation in the new year, so there will be an opportunity for parties to have input. I am sure that the hon. Lady will keep an eye on the scheme and comment on it when it is published. She can rest assured that the concern she raises is a priority—one of several—for the chief electoral officer and me. We have been bending our resources that way since I became responsible for that part of the Northern Ireland Office. I commend the order to the Committee.

4.45 pm

Mr. Taylor: I must deal first with a puzzling issue: according to the list of Committee members, the hon. Member for North Down is shown as the hon.

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Member for North Devon. The time has surely already passed when Members of Parliament who were returned for more than one seat had to say which one they would represent. Perhaps it will result in a bi-election. No doubt the requisite message will be taken to Mr. Speaker.

I rejoice in returning to the Northern Ireland brief, which I always enjoy, even though it does not play for many laughs. I wish to share with those responsible for the supervision of proof of identity the fact that I recently received an interesting new card—a senior travel card, which I commend to anyone who has attained the magic age of 60, because I have found that it does not half save money on rail fares and it might save money on other things as well.

Before you call me to order, Mr. Taylor, I will turn my attention to the statutory instrument. I thank the Minister for the courtesies in his opening remarks, and he is entitled to have them reciprocated. I shall be interested in and may even marginally defer to the views of the hon. Member for North Down, who is much closer to electoral procedures in Northern Ireland than I am; none the less I will offer a few thoughts of my own first.

I start from the general proposition that, in an ideal world, the electoral rules governing how our citizens exercise their franchise should be identical throughout the United Kingdom. They should be the same in Penzance, Belfast, Newcastle, Cardiff and

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): North Devon.

Mr. Taylor: I was going to complete the circuit by saying Glasgow or Edinburgh.

However, we do not live in an ideal world and we know that there are special tensions and pressures in Northern Ireland, so the order has been introduced by the Government in accordance with primary legislation already on the statute book. I suspect that more such statutory instruments will follow. I leave the Minister with four questions. I do not necessarily need to press them this afternoon and, if he would prefer to write to me and other Committee members—and, of course, to you, Mr. Taylor—I shall be well content. Otherwise, as with earlier interventions, the Minister might find inspiration—perhaps even written inspiration—emerging to assist him with his replies.

What information has the Minister received regarding the cost of the identity card system? Secondly, what reassurances can he give us about the security of data held by the Northern Ireland electoral registration system? Which organisation will manage the system? Thirdly, given that elections are expected in May 2003, will the Minister comment on the expected time scales for implementation of the identity card voting system? Finally—a more homespun point, perhaps—is the new system likely to cause delays at polling stations, and if so, has that issue been addressed?

With those inquiries, I conclude my remarks on behalf of my party. I wish the instrument well on its passage into law.

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4.50 pm

Lembit Öpik: First, I welcome you, Mr. Taylor, to this happy band of political activists on Northern Ireland issues. Secondly, I welcome the new broom that has swept the Conservative Benches, and the hon. Member for Solihull. It is nice to have him back. Thirdly, I welcome the hon. Member for North Down—or North Devon, it seems—who is either the first Ulster Unionist party Member of Parliament in south-west England, or the first Liberal Democrat Member in Northern Ireland—either will get her on the ''Question Time'' panel before long, I am sure.

Although the order does not seem especially controversial, I should like to add four questions to those submitted by the hon. Member for Solihull. First, how are the provisions being received in Northern Ireland? If a selling job is needed to make the provisions clear, now is the time to start. Secondly, to what extent is a public awareness campaign being driven forward in order to make the public aware of both their opportunities and their responsibilities in respect of the change in election law?

Thirdly, I should like to raise the issue of the electoral identity card. As the hon. Member for Solihull says, and according to what we have heard in the House as recently as yesterday, there will be elections in May 2003. I have made it clear, both formally in the House and privately, that it is essential that the identity cards are in place for those elections. Obviously, the Committee is discussing local elections, but I understand the same card will be used for all elections. I seek the Minister's assurance that the Government expect the identity cards to be in place by then. Many of us would not take kindly to any delay that meant that they were not available for the May deadline. Fourthly, can the Minister assure us that it remains the Government's intention to remove the non-photographic forms of identification from the list of specified documents?

We had extensive discussion in the House as we drew up the legislation. There are stakeholders in all parties who believe that we need to sort out the problem of electoral fraud in the short term to make sure that people can trust the outcomes of elections. I thank the Minister and the Government for introducing the measure, but I must emphasise that it amounts to very little if the arrangements are not in place for the next round of elections in May 2003.

4.53 pm

Lady Hermon: I join other hon. Members in welcoming you to a very happy Committee, Mr. Taylor. I am delighted that you are our Chairman.

It is a matter of regret that the hon. Member for Reigate is not present. He worked very hard and consistently on all his Committee duties. I should like to place on the record my tribute to him for his hard work. I welcome back the hon. Member for Solihull, who will now represent his party on Northern Ireland matters. It is nice to see him. I assure hon. Members that it was the good judgment of the people of North Down, and not North Devon, that returned me as an Ulster Unionist party Member of Parliament.

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I am greatly relieved that, since the regrettable but inevitable decision to reintroduce direct rule as of midnight, Monday 13 October, the Minister has not been re-routed to another Department, leaving behind responsibility for electoral reform. I was delighted to see that he retains responsibility for that crucial area of reform in Northern Ireland. Vote stealing has been a very significant problem. It is a serious criminal offence and the Minister has tackled it with great energy and full determination. I wish to pay tribute to him for that.

I should like to express the appreciation of my party—and of voters who will now be able to show their interest in the free electoral identity card when they complete the electoral registration form. The original draft for the registration form was discussed during the Committee sitting on the 17 July 2002 to consider the draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2002. I noted that the draft indicated that potential voters could tick a box right at the bottom of the original draft. We were pleased that the Minister and the officials from the chief electoral officer took that criticism on board. The real registration form has placed the relevant paragraph for people to note their interest in electoral identity cards right at the centre. That is a huge improvement, and I thank the Minister warmly for that.

In the order, the electoral identity card is mentioned; the senior smartpass is a very welcome introduction indeed, but will the Minister clarify the position of driving licences? There is always intense aggravation when a voter turns up at a polling station to cast his or her honest vote, and arrives with part of a driving licence. In Northern Ireland, there are two parts to a valid driving licence: the photographic section and the written documentation—I am not going to circulate mine. I would like the Minister to clarify the position, and I would like the electoral office to make it absolutely clear to presiding officers in all polling stations that when a voter turns up to cast their honest vote, they are required only to have the photographic section. I think that that is the current position, but I would like the Minister to confirm it. The issue repeatedly causes aggravation at polling stations.

I would like to digress for one moment to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Solihull. He was keen that the same electoral procedures should be applicable throughout the United Kingdom. I cannot see why the electoral identity card, proven successful in Northern Ireland, should not be extended to other parts of the UK. Perhaps the Minister will reflect on that. His face was not exactly encouraging a moment ago, but I am sure that, on reflection, he will think it appropriate.

 
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Prepared 16 October 2002