Draft Local Elections Northern Ireland (Amendment) Order 2002

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Lembit Öpik: I fully understand what the Minister is saying, and I thank him for his clarification. He has made the spirit of the Government's intention clear, for which I am grateful. However, there is a pressure on the Government from those people who have faith that the electoral identify card would be a useful tool. I

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just want to ensure that the Government are on track, which the Minister has assured us is his intention.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I assure him, the Committee, the House and those who may read or listen to the debate in Northern Ireland that the Government are on track. The question is whether the people of Northern Ireland are also on track. We can tell whether they are on track only when we reach a point that we can compare with a fixed point in the procedure of previous years. A judgment will then need to be made, and I will make it. I will not shirk the making of that decision, but will make it in consultation with other parties. Parties that do not want to be consulted can, of course, make their own decision.

The security of the data is the responsibility of the chief electoral officer, and all the electoral office staff have gone through security vetting. There was a question whether the new procedure would encourage or cause delays at polling stations. There is no reason to suspect that that will be the case. It should demand no more of voters at the polling stations than do the existing additional provisions that apply in Northern Ireland. One view is that it might be much easier to look at a photograph on an identity card and check it against the person than it would be to check other documents, as there is a strong belief that some documents were being forged. The procedure is unlikely to cause any problems.

I am happy to assure the hon. Member for North Down—although I am sure that the voters of north Devon would have been delighted to have the opportunity to vote for her and would have returned her to the House no matter what party she represented—that in future elections, Northern Ireland electors will be able to use the photocard part of the driving licence for identification for electoral purposes. That will be made clear to the electorate before any future elections.

I believe that I have covered all the issues that were raised. If I have not, I will endeavour to deal with them by correspondence. As I said, the amendments and the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 go a long way to combat fraud at elections in Northern Ireland, while safeguarding the rights of electors to exercise the franchise. I am grateful to the House for giving us time to consider the order this afternoon.

Mr. John Taylor: I am well content with the Minister's reply. I am probably on the threshold of making a fool of myself, but I refer to clause 17A(1) under the heading

    ''Procedure in relation to declarations of identity''.

If one's eye travels down the page to 17A(4), which is about two and a half inches down the text, one reads:

    ''Before placing the declaration in the receptacle, is for rejected votes, the returning officer . . . ''.

I do not understand that statement. Those words may be governed by some preceding words and I may therefore be wasting the Committee's time. However, we are too often accused of not carrying out sufficiently careful scrutiny in the House. It would make sense if it said, ''Before placing the declaration in the receptacle that is for rejected votes'' or ''Before the

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declaration in the receptacle for rejected votes''. But the word ''is'' after the first comma seems redundant.

I will not delay the Committee. I may turn out to be the best joke of the afternoon, which everyone can laugh at when it is explained how I have misunderstood this, but if I am right, I should like the Minister to get his officials to correct it before it goes into the public domain. I will not make an issue out of this. I will not make a roadblock. I should just like to think that by the time the draft becomes the real thing someone could have magically ironed it out. I pause to be humiliated while the proper explanation is delivered to the Committee.

Mr. Browne: To think that I welcomed the hon. Member for Solihull. I congratulate him. His diligence shames the rest of us, particularly me. It would appear that the comma and ''is'' should be deleted. The previous subparagraph in the order refers to

    ''the receptacle for rejected votes''

and I suspect that that is what subparagraph (4) should say too. I do not think that it makes the order invalid, but it would have been better if the typographical error had not been made. I will obviously take the hon. Gentleman's point into account.

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Mr. Taylor: It has been remarked more than once this afternoon that this Committee has been hallmarked by civility, courtesy and a constructive spirit. The hon. Member for North Down said that. In view of the Minister's courtesy and his scrupulousness in trying to answer all our questions, I should like to make it perfectly clear that I will not return to this point. I will abandon it now. I merely seek a reassurance that when it is finally printed, it will be in the correct form. The Committee will hear no more from me on this matter in reciprocation for the way that the Minister has handled it.

Mr. Browne: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his understanding and for his suggestion. I can give him that unequivocal assurance.

The Chairman: Nothing prevents the Committee from approving the order. If any further action is necessary it will be taken.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

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

Committee rose at twenty-four minutes past Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Taylor, Mr. David (Chairman)
Bottomley, Peter
Browne, Mr.
Hermon, Lady
Lazarowicz, Mr.
McIsaac, Shona
Murphy, Mr. Denis
Murphy, Mr. Jim
Öpik, Lembit
Sawford, Phil
Swire, Mr.
Taylor, Mr. John
Tynan, Mr.
Wilshire, Mr.

 
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Prepared 16 October 2002