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Session 2001- 02
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2001

Sixth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 16 July 2001

[Mrs. Irene Adams in the Chair]

Draft Representation of the People (NI) Regulations 2001

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2001.

The regulations were laid before the House on 9 July.

First, may I say how pleased I am to welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Adams?

I shall explain why we are introducing these regulations and not the more comprehensive regulations that we had intended to bring before the House. When my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), brought before the House the regulations that introduced rolling registration, in February 2001, he drew attention to the fact that section 9 of the Representation of the People Act 2000, which concerns the sale and supply of the register, had not been dealt with in those regulations.

However, my hon. Friend said that we would turn our attention to that. He hoped that we would introduce the necessary provisions before the summer recess, in time for this year's autumn canvass. The regulations of which he spoke would have put in place measures to protect the personal data collected from individuals for electoral purposes, while preserving the ability of law enforcers, commerce and the Government to carry on their legitimate business. It was intended that an edited version of the electoral register, which would be available for unrestricted sale, would be produced alongside the full register. A new registration form would have given electors the option not to have their details appear in the edited version and to remain on the full electoral register.

Draft regulations for Northern Ireland and Great Britain were published earlier this year to allow all interested parties to express their views on the drafts. The comments that were received indicated widespread concerns, which led my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government—who is introducing similar regulations for England, for Wales and for Scotland in another Committee Room—to decide not to proceed with the intended regulations at this time. For the sake of consistency, it is important that Northern Ireland remains in step with the rest of the United Kingdom.

It has therefore been decided that further consultations will take place on those regulations with the aim of laying a further draft before Parliament in the autumn. It is regrettable that those regulations have been delayed and will not be in place for this year's annual canvass. However, on balance, it is preferable to try to resolve the difficulties that have been expressed by the people who will be affected by, and responsible for, the system when it is in place.

I hope that when we bring those regulations to the House they can be introduced in a well structured way. The decision not to introduce those regulations means that there is no prescribed form for the annual canvass, and that brings me to the reason for bringing the regulations to the Committee today. The regulations prescribe a form to allow the annual canvass to go ahead in Northern Ireland this year. The regulations, made under section 10(4) and section 201(1) and (3) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, specify a form that can be used for the annual canvass of electors. The chief electoral officer will be able to use that form, or a similar one, to carry out the annual canvass. The specified form will be in the traditional format and, except for one minor modification, will be the same as the one prescribed previously. The date of the canvass will be changed from 15 September to 15 October, and that will bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

As I have said, it is regrettable that we are bringing the emergency regulations to the House only today. However, I hope that hon. Members can agree with the arguments that I have advanced for delaying the intended drafts. Although that is regrettable for Northern Ireland, the regulations will allow us, subject to the House's approval, to introduce the edited register along with other anti-fraud measures that are under discussion in the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill. That means that the electorate will see one change rather than two in the annual canvass form. We are still committed to putting further measures in place, and hope that other regulations will be presented to the House when it returns from the summer break. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

4.34 pm

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): I welcome you to the Committee, Mrs. Adams. I do not intend to delay the Committee today. As I have said on other occasions, our general preference is for consistency between the Province and Great Britain. In practice, however, Northern Ireland must at times receive different treatment for sad reasons known to us all. The measure is only one of a series that the Government will introduce. I urge them to make speed with the other items, which we are anxious to scrutinise.

A betting man might say that Northern Ireland will hold another Assembly election before long. I only say that that might be the case; we would be unprepared if we did not recognise that possibility. It is desirable to have the most comprehensive and reliable electoral system possible in place ready for the contingency. On a lighter note, to test how consistent the Northern Ireland form is with that in Great Britain, I have procured a copy of the comparable canvass form from my constituency borough of Solihull. I also have one from the London borough of Wandsworth. They demonstrate converging practices; I welcome that, and do not want to oppose or delay the measure.

4.37 pm

Lembit Ipik (Montgomeryshire): I shall not detain the Committee; it is common sense to put the measure through. Last week, we discussed the fact that the Electoral Reform (Northern Ireland) Bill will guarantee that the content of the canvass will be included in legislation. I infer from the Minister that the Bill and the delegated legislation will work in unison. My only concern is the timing; it would be a shame if the measure were not carried out by the time of the next general election in Northern Ireland. However, that is partly beyond our control.

4.37 pm

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): The form rightly emphasises residency and occupancy for those who want to register. The owner or occupier who is away on business is only conceded a six-month period of absence, otherwise they need not be registered. Does the Minister not feel that that is too short a time?

4.38 pm

Mr. Browne: I am grateful for the support expressed from all parties. It may be better, for purposes of accuracy, to answer the question raised by the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) in correspondence. I do not intend to detain the Committee.

Mr. Taylor: Perhaps the Minister could, out of courtesy to the Committee, forward the reply not just to the hon. Member for Basingstoke, but to all Committee members.

Mr. Browne: I am prepared to give that undertaking.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2001.

Committee rose at twenty-one minutes to Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Adams, Mrs. Irene (Chairman)
Brown, Mr.
Cran, Mr.
Hunter, Mr.
Kennedy, Jane
Lazarowicz, Mr.
McIsaac, Shona.
Miliband, Mr.
Öpik, Lembit
Stringer, Mr.
Taylor, Mr. John
Wright, David

 
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