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Clause 3, which is on the timing of the canvass, causes me considerable concern. I reflect on the happy time when I became a Member of the House in 2001. The first piece of primary legislation relating to Northern Ireland in that Session was the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. In March 2001not so long agothe Government presented to Parliament a command paper, Cm 5080, entitled "Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland". On the first page, the Government spelled out their responsibility in light of the fact that there was perceivedit certainly existed, so it was not just perceived, but unacceptableelectoral malpractice in Northern Ireland. The Government spelled out their responsibility in paragraph 4 of the Command Paper:
"The responsibility of the Government is two-fold: to protect the democratic exercise of the franchise and to combat abuse at the poll . . . where the threat of fraud is reduced, the credibility of the poll will be enhanced, and . . . this should encourage more people to exercise their right to vote."
We have abolished the annual canvass in clause 2, and clause 3 proposes that a canvass should be held every tenth year. That period can be modifieda subject to which I shall returnbut as the Government have gone to the trouble of publishing a Command Paper and the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, which only went on the statute book four years ago, they should take care to achieve the right balance between preventing or eradicating electoral fraudit is a serious crime to deprive someone of the franchiseand ensuring that people are not discouraged from voting by making it too difficult to register on an annual basis.
The Government have got the balance wrong in clause 3, which extends the period between canvasses to 10 years. However, in exceptional circumstancesand this is what concerns me most in a close reading of clause 3a canvass under section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2003 must be conducted in 2010
and every tenth year following 2010. The chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland is independent of Government. He has a heavy burden of responsibility, and I pay tribute to the work that he undertakes with his team. Clause 3(2) states that he may make a recommendation in favour of a canvass in the interim
which can be summed up as combating electoral fraud or simply ensuring that the register is up to date. However, the Secretary of State can issue a diktatI do not welcome this trend and I do not look forward to the emergency legislation that will be published tomorrowso that, having considered the recommendation, he can notify
Even if the chief electoral officer, who has ultimate responsibility for electoral law and the canvass in Northern Ireland, requests a canvass before 2010, the Secretary of State can maintain that that is not in the public interest. When would it not be in the public interest to act as recommended by the chief electoral officer?
I may have misread clause 3, but it appears that the Secretary of State could, by his own hand, make an order to delay the canvass until as late as 2016. That is completely unacceptable, given the efforts in the 2002 Act, for which I am enormously grateful, to tackle robustly the serious problem of electoral fraud. I urge the Government not to allow electoral fraud to return to the system by delaying the canvass for such a long time. Amendment No. 27 proposes that the annual canvass should be held every fifth year, although some people believe that it should be held every fourth year.
Lady Hermon: I beg your pardon, Sir Alan. My copy of the selection list was obscured. In fact, I wish to speak to amendment No. 15, which is in the group of amendments to clause 3. It proposes that the annual canvass should be conducted every fifth year instead of every 10th year, and certainly not delayed until 2016.
I urge the Minister to get the balance right. The Government have done their very bestI pay tribute to them for tackling the serious problem of electoral fraudbut they should not provide an opportunity for people who wish to exploit the situation by delaying the canvass and holding one every 10th year, as that that could allow fraud to creep back into the system.
Mr. Laurence Robertson:
Briefly, I wish to make two points about the amendments that we have tabled. For the sake of clarification, can the Minister explain why
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the year 2010 was chosen? Does it have something to do with the general census? If not, it may have been a good idea to fall in with the census.
In common with the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), we feel that a 10-year interval is too long. It is in everyone's interest to encourage people to register to vote and to ensure that the register is up to date and accurate. We did not object to clause 2, which abolished the annual canvass, but a 10-year interval is too long, which is why we tabled our amendments. We should therefore like the Minister to explain why he chose 2010 to conduct a canvass and why he chose an interval of 10 years.
Lembit Öpik: There are two issues. The first was raised by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and the second is the length of time between canvasses. I very much agree with the hon. Lady that it is unnecessarily centralist and directive to give the Secretary of State the opportunity simply to cancel the 2010 canvass. I do not wish to repeat her arguments, but I look forward to hearing the Minister's justification for the inclusion of that provision. I counsel him to be careful, because there is an increasing tendency in Northern Ireland legislation to give more and more powers to the Secretary of State simply because we are debating a particular subject and someone says, "Let's give the Secretary of State flexibility to make individual decisions." If one steps back from the body of legislation that we have passed in the past nine years, one can see that there has been a huge centralisation of power for the Secretary of State because the opportunity arose for someone to do so for his convenience. That is not a good reason to do it, and I want to hear what the Minister has to say by way of justification.
The 10-year period between canvasses is also important. A few minutes ago, we passed clause 2, which means that we have abolished the annual canvass in Northern Ireland, and clause 3 replaces the annual canvass with a canvass that will take place every 10 years. Our amendment would shorten that period of time to every four years, while the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) would decrease it to every five yearsI think that the hon. Member for North Down also takes that view. We can argue about one year either way, but the consensual point is that 10 years is way too long.
The Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 introduced individual registration in Northern Ireland, and we remember the pain that Northern Ireland experienced to get an accurate canvass. The good news is that those measures have been successfulthere are currently more than 1.1 million people on the register, which is an estimated 91 per cent. of the voting age population. That is a triumph of data gathering, and credit is due to the Government and to the people who were involved in generating that reliable information.
We understand why the Government want to abolish the annual canvass, and we all agree with them, but we must ensure that the process that replaces it is not so onerous that it discourages people from registering and that it is not so infrequent that it utterly undermines all
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the work to obtain an accurate canvass. That is not only in the interests of individual voters, because it will also help to prevent electoral fraud. It is obvious that there will be an opportunity for things to start going wrong again, if there is an entire decade between the collection of data. Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 propose that a canvass should be held every four years, and if a canvass were conducted in the year before an Assembly election was due to be held, then there would be confidence in the register.
The Minister must answer three questions. First, why should there be such an incredibly long period of time, when all kinds of factors mean that the register will be highly inaccurate by the end of that period? Secondly, why are the Government not concerned that electoral fraud will creep in again as the register becomes inaccurate? Thirdly, human beings are human beings and may not keep up to date if they move house or their circumstances change, so why are the Government not concerned that people will become increasingly disenfranchised, as logic tells us that they will be, in a 10-year period? Ten years is a quarter of my life; it is one eighth of the life of the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley); and, although I do not know how old the Minister is, I suspect that it is about one fifth of his life. [Interruption.] Looking at the Minister's youthful features, it is clear that he has had an easy life.
I ask the Minister to think again. I suspect that there is consensus among Northern Ireland parties that the period is too long, and I can see that SDLP Members agree. The only people who might benefit from the 10-year period are those who seek to find ways back into the fraud game rather than those who seek to have fair elections. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
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