Draft Local Elections Northern Ireland (Amendment) Order 2002

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Mr. Browne: I am sure that the hon. Lady will understand that, with my additional responsibilities in Northern Ireland as of midnight on 13 October, I have more than enough on my plate to worry about without concerning myself with the electoral laws in the rest of the UK. However, I take her remarks on board.

Lady Hermon: I am sure that such an energetic Minister, who has now returned to the gym in his

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spare time—at least once—will endeavour to speak with the relevant colleague about extending the use of electoral identity cards, which I think would be very popular throughout the UK.

On the specific point raised by the hon. Member for Solihull, I know, having lived there all my life, that it is a regrettable fact of life in Northern Ireland that vote stealing is a very serious issue, and continues to be so. We do not have the problem that is endured throughout the rest of the UK of a poor electoral turnout. Our difficulty is getting the doors closed at 10 o'clock because there is such an excessive interest in polling. As the Minister rightly pointed out, the Government are obliged to ensure free elections under the European convention on human rights. They must observe their obligation to ensure that special measures are put in place in Northern Ireland, where there is an extensive and grave problem. That accounts for the difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Finally, will the Minister confirm that there has been a good return from voters, who for the first time are returning an individual registration form rather than a communal household return? There has been negative speculation that thousands of voters will be lost from the next elections in Northern Ireland because the registration form, which the Ulster Unionist party supports, is too complicated. We eagerly supported the introduction of signatures and, in particular, national insurance numbers. The Minister worked diligently to ensure that data protection legislation did not prevent the use of national insurance numbers. I should like him to elaborate on the speculation that there has been a significant drop in returns from voters.

5.1 pm

Mr. Browne: I should like to thank those Members who have contributed to this afternoon's debate. All the points raised were pertinent, they all deserve to be answered and I shall endeavour to do that in this short contribution. Where I do not pick up issues that have been raised, I shall avail myself of the offer from the hon. Member for Solihull to check the transcript and write to hon. Members, including you, Mr. Chairman. However, I think that I shall deal with all the issues, by which I have been inspired, and I respect all the points that have been raised.

I thank hon. Members for their supportive comments not only to me in my role as Minister but about this policy. I am grateful to hon. Members and to parties that are not represented in the House for their diligent support in ensuring that the electorate in Northern Ireland understands these important provisions. In that context, I am encouraged by the fact that one of the best leaflets that I have seen drafted and distributed across the doorsteps of Northern Ireland is the Sinn Fein pamphlet for North Antrim, which sets out in a non-contentious fashion—there is one reference that misrepresents Government policy—what the provisions do, what is required of electors and how the system should operate. If that is a sign of the way in which all parties in Northern Ireland are going to approach the

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provisions, it augurs well for the honesty of future polls.

As with many aspects of this policy, the Government, the chief electoral officer and my officials are grateful to hon. Members—in this case the hon. Member for North Down—for suggestions to improve the design of the registration form. We allowed the form to be viewed in draft form to allow comments to be made. Our collective efforts—the chief electoral officer should be congratulated on this—have reduced a quite complicated piece of legislation to a form consisting of one side of an A4 sheet, which is no mean achievement. A good job has been done, and the original draft was improved by the hon. Lady's suggestion that the question on electoral identity cards should be moved into a more prominent position.

The measure of the success of the form and the registration policy will be the extent to which it is accepted by the voters of Northern Ireland. It is probably too early in the process to draw firm conclusions about that. However, as at Monday, the number of returned registration forms that had been properly completed and entered into the IT system was running at exactly the rate that previous canvasses had achieved in that time—that is, around 40 per cent. of those who were previously registered. Bearing in mind that the annual canvas began on 9 September, that suggests that the target of around 10 per cent. a week, which would be necessary to achieve the level of previous canvasses, was being met. I am referring to the returned forms that have been put into the new information technology system—a number of returned forms will be uncounted but ready to be processed and I do not have a figure for that.

The speculation that the forms are proving difficult to complete is not borne out by the chief electoral officer. A number of forms have had to be returned and I am told that the most common reason is that people have put 2002 as their date of birth. That does not suggest a problem with the form, but I am not sure what the problem is. Those of us who are not great form fillers may have sympathy with people who dash off answers on forms and subsequently have to look for Tippex. Some forms have had to be returned, but there is no suggestion that they are proving complicated or difficult to complete. They ask only two additional questions: date of birth and national insurance number. There is nothing complex about that. There may be a difficulty if the national insurance number cannot be found, but there should not be a difficulty with the date of birth.

Lady Hermon: On a small point of information, what is the closing date before which people must return forms if they have completed them incorrectly?

Mr. Browne: That is a helpful question and it will be useful to put the information in the public domain. Completed forms will be accepted until 27 November, in time for the publication date for the new register on 29 November. Having said that, I am not sure that putting that information in the public domain is

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helpful because I do not want to encourage people to wait until the last minute.

I do not have a feeling that there is a campaign to thwart the process. My understanding is that all parties are keen for voters to register and are co-operating with the process. I commend them for doing so. The publication date would have been 1 December, which is a weekend, so it is 29 November. That is two weeks later than any previous canvasses. We are able to extend the period because of the significant investment in information technology and the system that has been installed in the electoral office, which is at the heart of the process.

The point that I have made and reinforced in informal briefings is that parties and politicians in Northern Ireland who have contacted electors should understand that as this is effectively a new register, there will be no carryover from the previous register. To qualify for the new register, the information set out in the 2002 Act must be provided, so it is important that parties understand that the shortfall between what would be expected of a normal canvas and what would be 100 per cent. of the previous register cannot be made up by allowing people to stay on the register. However, we now have rolling registration and if people fail to return their forms by 27 November, they can return them at any time thereafter until 15 March. On the 15th of each month following, a new register will be published with rolling registration. There will be time to correct any shortfall, but that requires co-operation from the electorate.

That leads me to the question of how the new provisions are being received by the people of Northern Ireland? I have already said that it is probably too early to draw any firm conclusions, but it would appear from anecdotal evidence that most see the Act as a sensible measure. There is a general acceptance of the provisions, and people understand why they were introduced.

I was asked several questions about the identification card, which I shall deal with in order. The answer to the question about cost is that £750,000 has been set aside to fund the new electoral identification card. That figure was based on a projection of the likely take-up, but was also informed by work to estimate how many people would need the card. In the context of the Act, I gave the House figures on ownership of passports and driving licences. If I remember correctly, we said that about 30 per cent. of the electorate would not have either of the two.

We must bear in mind that the Translink card—the smartpass card issued by the Department for Regional Development in Northern Ireland in the context of a free travel scheme—has reached 140,000 pensioners. The hon. Member for Solihull can therefore be reassured that many people there are enjoying the great social benefits that a Labour Government have introduced. I look forward to receiving his thanks when he gets help with his energy costs at the beginning of the winter and, no doubt, a free television licence in due course.

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The Translink card has affected a major part of the constituency that we estimated would need electoral identity cards. However, until tenders from the prospective contractors to do the work of issuing the cards have been received, we cannot estimate accurately how much of the £750,000 will need to be spent or, indeed, if the work will be more expensive. The tendering process is on course—tenders are returnable by 4 November—against a time line in which we start issuing cards around the beginning of January. We hope to be able to do that. There was debate about whether we should start before then, but the view was taken that people might have other things on their mind around Christmas.

I have dealt with most issues relating to the identity card, apart from policy, to which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) referred. I am a little sorry that I pursued an undertaking that I gave to keep people informed about this process. My mother has a saying that goes something like, ''Fools and children should not see unfinished work,'' and perhaps I am being a bit of a fool or a child about this process—[Interruption.] Or perhaps I am just a foolish child, as is being suggested, but I recently embarked on a series of informal briefings of parties to explain where we were in the process and to remind them of several undertakings that I had given.

One point was that at some stage, in consultation with parties, I would have to make a decision about whether the electoral identity card had secured the support and confidence of the electorate in Northern Ireland. During the briefing process, I reminded parties of that, and at least one, if not more, has taken the view that somehow there has been a change of policy. I was berated by someone for suggesting that there will need to be such a consultation. They told me that I should just get on and do it—so much for a listening Government.

I want to make it clear that it is still the Government's policy to aim for the changeover to have been made and to have effect for the elections scheduled for 1 May. I do not want to enter into a great debate and I will not speculate on whether those scheduled elections are likely to take place. However, the Government's intention at the heart of this policy is that people who are left off the list accidentally should not be disfranchised. In spite of the money that has been put into the process, as well as the best efforts of the chief electoral officer and the Electoral Commission, who have engaged in a large public awareness campaign, a judgment will need to be made about whether we must re-examine it if the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland is not repaid. That is all that I have said to anyone. Before the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire intervenes again to ask me to expand on that, I caution him that it might not be good for some of those who might read or listen to the debate if we go into this in any more detail.

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