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Mr. Hanson: I again thank hon. Members for their contributions in highlighting the issue before us. However, I have to say that I have the impression that my response will disappoint hon. Members.

Dr. McCrea: Again.

Mr. Hanson: Yes, again. I am very sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) again—[Interruption.]—and the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan), for North Down (Lady Hermon), for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) again—[Interruption.]—and the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and any other Members in the House.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: It may have escaped the Minister's attention, but he has named virtually everyone who has taken part in any debate in the House today.

Mr. Hanson: I am afraid that, again, I will have to disappoint hon. Members.
 
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Points have been raised in the House and we had a full three-month consultation on the document. I met the political parties who wished to see me about the document and, at no stage in the consultation or in the meetings that I had with hon. Members about this topic, did any hon. Member or anyone else raise this point about the Secretary of State. I recognise that the House has primacy and a role in discussing these matters, but I simply put on the record that nobody has raised these points before today.

Mr. Gummer: Does the Minister accept that every person who has spoken on this issue has made the same clear point and that we are dealing with the delicate matter of the normalcy of Northern Ireland? Could he not therefore accept that, on this occasion, the only people who are on his side are not here, not speaking or have no view? Does that not embarrass him?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful for that contribution. If the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) had been present for the debate on the previous group of amendments, he would have heard a full discussion of similar issues.

Dr. McCrea: Surely the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) should also be told that the Benches behind the Minister were empty then and nobody, but nobody, in the House spoke up for his proposal. He was on his own on that occasion, as well.

Mr. Hanson: I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that I was not on my own—I had 290 colleagues in the Lobby with me. They have full confidence in my position in putting forward these proposals on behalf of the Government today.

Serious issues have been raised by hon. Members. I hope that what I am about to say will also address the point that was raised by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal. The purpose of this set of amendments is to remove the Secretary of State from the equation. The Secretary of State will act on a recommendation from the chief electoral officer.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: This set of amendments is intended not to remove the role of the Secretary of State, but to define the words "public interest".

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said, but the previous debate and this debate have essentially been about removing the Secretary of State's role.

Lembit Öpik: I am sorry, but the Minister cannot get away with this. He is living in the recent past, when apparently 290 of his colleagues were all watching the debate on television and, unlike any single person in the Chamber, were convinced by his argument. The difficulty in this case is that we are not seeking to eliminate the Secretary of State from the process; we are seeking to define the conditions that have to be fulfilled, to understand clearly what a breach of public interest means. The Minister cannot hide behind his words. He
 
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needs to address the words used in the amendment and explain why he does not want clearly to define what public interest means in this circumstance.

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who is the only Liberal Democrat Member in the Chamber. He is obviously speaking on behalf of all his colleagues, as I am on behalf of mine.

The debate and the amendments are about the Secretary of State's role in monitoring the process. In the debate on the previous set of amendments, I said that the recommendation from the chief electoral officer will go to the Secretary of State, who can, if he wants, override those wishes on the ground that he is satisfied that that is in the public interest. I have given examples. Potentially—I am simply saying potentially—public interest could relate to cost.

I take the point that the hon. Member for Foyle put to me. I go back to first principles, as I have mentioned. The integrity of the register is paramount. If it is not true and accurate, that taints the quality of the membership of this House and any other elected body. I take the point that he has made. I am simply saying that one aspect of that, potentially, could be for the Secretary of State, at that stage, to consider a cost element. Another aspect of the public interest could be for the Secretary of State to consider the points that were well put by the hon. Member for Foyle in relation to the census and the organisation of that.

Another aspect of the public interest could arise in the event of a weak chief electoral officer being appointed, who could be lobbied by one or more parties to undertake a canvass and could determine to do so. I am not saying that the chief electoral officer is or will be weak, but the potential could be there. I am simply saying that there are potential areas where the responsibility for the integrity of the electoral register rests with the electoral officer. He may recommend that a canvass is undertaken, but, under this power, a future Secretary of State may determine that the circumstances are not right for that canvass to take place.

I am simply saying to all hon. Members that the Secretary of State retains that role. As I have indicated, it would be a brave Secretary of State who turned down a recommendation for a canvass by an electoral officer, but I wish to retain the power for him or her to do so because, potentially, the Secretary of State may, at that stage, determine that to be in the public interest.

Lady Hermon: The Minister laboured the point that political parties did not object during the consultation process, but I would be interested to hear what the chief electoral officer said—I assume that he was consulted. Moreover, I would love to hear the reaction of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to the Secretary of State's attempt to override the chief electoral officer's decision and cut across provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights on the obligation to have free elections under conditions that ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people when voting for the legislature.

Mr. Hanson: I recall that the comments of the chief electoral officer indicated that he was happy with the
 
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package of measures that we brought forward. However, if the view is contrary to that, I will certainly inform the hon. Lady in due course.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Presumably, the chief electoral officer did not see the Bill before the House of Commons, so the consultations were general. We now have a situation in which the Minister is content that the Secretary of State shall have complete power to interpret the words "public interest" as he chooses and does not have to explain to anyone how he reaches that decision. He would not have to say that, in his opinion, public interest was this, that and the other. The amendments are an attempt by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) to give the bones of a definition. The Minister was quite wrong to suggest that we were trying to write the Secretary of State out—we accept, reluctantly, that he is in. All that we want is a clear definition of what the public interest is all about.

Mr. Hanson: I hope that what I say helps the hon. Gentleman because I know that he is trying to be helpful. If the chief electoral officer determined that a canvass should take place, but the Secretary of State determined that it should not, I am sure that the Secretary of State would have to publish his reasons because the chief electoral officer could, if he wished, make public the fact that he had made a recommendation to that effect. The Secretary of State would thus have to argue publicly the reasons why he did not accept the recommendation.

The phrases involving public interest that have caused hon. Members concern are contestable phrases. The concepts are known to the courts and contestable in the courts, and the Secretary of State would, potentially, have to publish his reasons for disagreeing with the chief electoral officer. Additionally, the Secretary of State's decision could be subject to judicial review in the courts if any individual were so minded to contest that view.


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