Previous Section Index Home Page

4.45 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I shall speak to amendments Nos. 17 to 20, aspects of which we discussed at earlier stages.

Accuracy of the register is extremely important. We expressed concerns about the abolition of the annual canvass in previous debates; today, we are discussing the same thing in a different way. We were concerned about the Secretary of State’s ability to override the chief electoral officer and, indeed, the legislation. We are now looking at the matter slightly differently. Our amendments would ensure that a canvass took place in 2015 and every 10 years thereafter, so that even if one canvass was delayed, others would be carried out in those years.

We were a little concerned about the abolition of the annual canvass, but having discussed it with the former CEO, we understood some of the reasons. He felt that it would be better if he could deploy his resources on encouraging people to register rather than carrying out an annual canvass. I can appreciate both sides of the argument, but I am concerned that the Secretary of State could say that a canvass should never be carried out. It is important to hold a canvass every so often, as people move or slip through the net.

17 May 2006 : Column 1065

I commend our amendments; they are innocuous and I am sure that the Government will see them in that way. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Mr. Hanson: I appreciate the way in which the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) and for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) made their proposals.

The Government and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute have a common interest. It is our intention broadly to mirror the provisions on anonymous registration, for the reasons that we discussed in the Committee of the whole House some weeks ago. Anonymous registration is vital to protect individuals who feel threatened and we agree with it. The question is how to do it.

The new clause would replicate the provisions of the Electoral Administration Bill, and the reason I cannot accept the new clause is not that we are not on the same wavelength in respect of anonymous registration but because there are differences in the operation of electoral law in Northern Ireland. There are registration conditions and anti-fraud measures that do not apply to the rest of the United Kingdom, including, for example, proof of identity requirements at the polling station that are not necessary in Great Britain and which make anonymity more difficult to maintain. There is a range of reasons.

We shall introduce an Order in Council to give effect to the same principle that the hon. Gentleman wants to achieve, but in a Northern Ireland context. The proposals will be introduced later so that we can consider their implications for Northern Ireland, but the principle is exactly the same. I want anonymous registration in due course and we shall introduce the order after the consultation process. We hope that that will not be long after the scheme is introduced in Great Britain and that any difference in time scale will be a matter of only a few months. I hope that it will be only a few weeks, and that we can introduce the order quickly.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman does not support the whole idea of Orders in Council. I realise that they are not amendable and that that gives rise to difficulties, but on this occasion there are real reasons, which I have outlined, for an Order in Council. I do not expect that he will disagree with the content of the order because it will achieve his objectives, but in a Northern Ireland context.

I turn to the points made by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). If he looks at clause 3, as I know that he has done, he will see that the Government’s clear intention is that there will be a canvass in 2010. The key point of his amendments is that, if the chief electoral officer believes that the canvass in 2010 is not necessary for him to meet the registration objectives that we have also set out in the legislation—for example, if he feels that a canvass would not improve the comprehensiveness or accuracy—and he believes that, for his own purposes, that the cost of that canvass is not justified, he can recommend to the Secretary of State that the 2010 canvass be cancelled.

17 May 2006 : Column 1066

Only if such a recommendation is made can the Secretary of State make an order to remove the requirement for a canvass to held in 2010. The Secretary of State cannot unilaterally cancel the canvass in 2010; he can only do so if the chief electoral officer makes a recommendation to that effect because the chief electoral officer, not the Secretary of State, believes that the canvass should be cancelled. Even if that were the case and the Secretary of State accepted the chief electoral officer’s recommendation, it would be subject to approval by both the House and another place.

Canvasses are very resource-intensive in terms of both labour and money. It is only right that the chief electoral officer has the power to determine how his resources will be best deployed in determining whether or not a canvass is necessary in 2010. Indeed, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury will know that 2010 is only four years after the final annual canvass, which will take place very shortly. I hope that, with the assurance that the Secretary of State has a power only to accept a recommendation, the hon. Gentleman will not press any of his amendments and that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute will withdraw the motion.

Mr. Reid: I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the Government are committed to the principle of introducing anonymous registration to Northern Ireland, that there would be a consultation process and that the legislation would come into effect either onlya few weeks or, at most, a few months after the legislation for the rest of the United Kingdom. I was pleased about those assurances, in view of which I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 6

Appointment of visitor for a child who is not being visited

‘For Article 31(1) of the Children (Northern Ireland) OrderSI No.755 (N.I. 2) substitute:

“(1) Where it appears to an authority in relation to any child whom the authority is accommodating under Article 21 for a continuous period of more than 3 months that it would be in the child's best interests for an independent person to be appointed to be his visitor for the purposes of this Article, the authority shall appoint such a visitor.

(1A) In ascertaining the child's best interest under 31(1) the authority must take into account the child's age and understanding about the appointment of an independent visitor subject to subsection (5).”.'.— [Lady Hermon.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Lady Hermon: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins) to his new responsibilities in the Northern Ireland Office and pay tribute to his predecessor, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), who worked extremely hard and was very well liked in Northern Ireland. We wish her well, and we also wish his other colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member forSt. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), well in his new post.
17 May 2006 : Column 1067
The new Minister is most welcome to Northern Ireland. I hope that he enjoys it, is extremely successful and delivers all that I request, including accepting the new clause.

Since this is the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, I have an opportunity to introduce, under the heading of miscellaneous, a very important issue that has come to my attention for a certain reason in North Down. The new clause would amend the current wording of article 31 of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. If no next of kin or other family member has visited a child in care within 12 months, the relevant authority should certainly appoint an independent visitor to see to the needs and request of the young person who is in care.

I understand that the system of independent visitors has worked extremely well in Wales, but the practice has been very patchy in Northern Ireland, where some trusts appoint independent visitors, while others choose not to do so or leave doing so until the eleventh hour. The new clause would ensure that, if there had not been a visit to a child in care in a much shorter period of time—three months—an independent visitor would, of necessity, be appointed.

The matter came to my attention in my constituency for a very particular reason. The whole of Northern Ireland is serviced by one juvenile justice centre, which was opened recently. I pay tribute to—sadly—the late Martin Mogg, who led the way in many ways. He was very progressive in his thinking about modernising juvenile justice in Northern Ireland and I had the great good fortune of being first shown around the juvenile justice centre on the Rathgael road in Bangor by him. I knew at the time that he was ill, but I did not realise just how ill. I am sure that other hon. Members who knew him will wish to join me in paying tribute to his efforts to modernise juvenile justice in Northern Ireland.

I first visited the juvenile justice centre on Good Friday 2004. We are talking about young people who, allegedly, have committed serious offences in Northern Ireland, but who are juveniles. During the course of conversations with some of those young people—particularly the young women, who were being taught for the first time to iron clothes and the young men who were being taught how to make scrambled egg, if I remember correctly, and were delighted to have been given skills to cook, wash, iron and look after themselves—many of them expressed reservations about returning to their communities.

Those young people—particularly the young women—also gave me a clear impression of how they felt let down by the care system in Northern Ireland. That has remained with me in my conscience for two years. As I say, we have a vehicle to change things and to try to improve the care system in Northern Ireland for young people. It seems a terribly sad fact of life that young people who have gone into care—particularly young women—have ended up in the juvenile justice centre. We have let them down badly somewhere along the line.

17 May 2006 : Column 1068

I have not drafted the new clause with particular care, but I want to put it on the record that we definitely need a care system that is much more flexible in terms of independent visitors or advocates for young people who go into care for whatever reason—and there are always a variety of reasons. I do not wish those young people to end up in the juvenile justice centre. If the Minister cannot accept the wording of the new clause, I hope that he will give a clear commitment that the issue will be looked at seriously and promptly by the Northern Ireland Office and those who are responsible for juvenile justice in Northern Ireland..

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell: I welcome the opportunity to raise my concern about child welfare. There are many serious issues. Although I welcome the purpose and intent of my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) in proposing the new clause, I have some concerns. I would have preferred the new clause to have been additional to the current legislation, rather than something to be used instead of it. As I understand it—I am subject to correction if I am wrong—article 31(1) of the children order allows independent visitors to be appointed only for children who are in care. Children in care are defined by articles 25(1) and 27(2) as children under care orders. That means that independent visitors cannot be appointed for other children who are very much in need, but who are not fully in care or fully under care orders. Such children may nevertheless need and seek considerable assistance with finding a place to live. They are generally teenage children who are in transition to independent living, but not always. They are known as article 21 children. There is a serious defect because these children are very much in need of support. They are in a halfway house, or no-man’s land, between care and independent living. The new clause would certainly go a long way towards addressing the problem.

5 pm

The new clause would delete article 31(1) and substitute the new wording, but that would create a new problem, because article 31(1) is essential for the protection of children in care. In fact, we need both provisions. We need visitors to be appointed to children in care, but I would claim that we also need visitors appointed to the many children who are not quite in care or under care orders, but at the boundaries. Such children need support as they move from being in care to independent living.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the system fails badly to follow up how those young people are doing after they get out into the community? They are very vulnerable.

Dr. McDonnell: I thank the hon. Lady because I am making exactly the point that there is a transition phase. The follow-up is poor and, in many cases, weak. We have many problems in Northern Ireland with inadequate child care. The inadequacy is often driven by underfunding, which is being compounded at the moment by cuts at the education board level. I do not like to bring this matter to the feet of our new Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe
17 May 2006 : Column 1069
and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), immediately, because I would like to give him the opportunity to get to grips with the situation, but there is a serious problem. I welcome the new clause, but I would have preferred the new provision to be additional to article 31(1)—perhaps that is not possible at this stage—because we need to hold on to the existing article. I am in a dilemma about that, so I would like to hear his comments. We need to retain the old provision as well as adding the wording in the new clause.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I support the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), who moved new clause 6, and the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell), both of whom have a much more detailed knowledge of such matters than I. However, I know from representations that I have received and conversations that I have had in Belfast and elsewhere that there is considerable concern about the inadequacy of child care and supervision in the Province. The hon. Member for Strangford(Mrs. Robinson) outlined that in her intervention, too.

I, too, welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), to his new post. I am sure that his background will give him a real insight into the problems and sympathy with the situation. In his previous incarnation, he had a degree of responsibility for some of the most difficult young people in the United Kingdom, and I met him when he was acting in that capacity on at least one occasion. These young people need not soft treatment, but care and concern. No matter what offences they may have committed, they must have the chance of rehabilitation and hope, and I think that that is what the hon. Member for North Down is trying to achieve.

The hon. Lady indicated that the drafting of the new clause might not be absolutely acceptable at the moment, but she has put down a marker. I hope that the Minister will reply by indicating his concern and willingness to examine the situation. The care of young people in Northern Ireland is a matter that the Select Committee might want to address in a future inquiry because there is concern about it throughout the
17 May 2006 : Column 1070
Province. With those few words of general support for the principle of the amendment, I hope that we will hear a positive response from the Dispatch Box.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I support the idea of having a visitor for young people. I have been involved in youth work for more than 20 years, and I recognise some of what the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) referred to. I remember visiting an organisation in the city of Belfast which dealt with young people from 11 up to 16. I visited one small apartment of a young lady of 15 years of age. She had a young baby in the corner in one of the prams. I was informed that that was her second child. Some of the young people had been used on the streets of Belfast by paramilitary organisations and some of them had got pregnant.

My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford(Mrs. Robinson) mentioned follow-up visits, which are important. Through that organisation, the young people were learning how to take care of basic domestic tasks, from ironing clothes through to handling money, including learning about computers so that they could keep basic accounts. Those were tremendous achievements, but the young people needed to be visited. Many of them had gone through traumatic times, not only because they were used on the streets, but because they were abused in homes by family members. We need to push for such support. Will the Minister give the new clause serious consideration and see whether there is something that he can do?

deferred division

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I am now to announce the result of a Division deferred on the question of a Joint Committee on Conventions.

On the motion on the Joint Committee on Conventions, the Ayes were 416, the Noes were 19, so the motion was agreed to.

[The Division List is published at the end of today’s debates.]

17 May 2006 : Column 1071

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

Question again proposed, That the clause be read a Second time.

Sammy Wilson: I have no hesitation in supporting the new clause. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has identified an important problem. Youngsters who are taken into care in Northern Ireland face many disadvantages, which hon. Members mentioned, both when they leave care and when they are in it. Not least, they face disadvantages in getting an education.

Many youngsters have come from backgrounds in which their families have been disrupted and their lives have been in turmoil in their early years. They come into care with considerable educational disadvantages because they have not attended school regularly—perhaps because they have not been encouraged to attend, because they are persistent truants, or because they come from dysfunctional families. A recent ministerial response to me said that about 90 per cent. of such youngsters leave school without the basic qualifications that one would expect from schools in Northern Ireland.

I understand that the role of the visitor is to befriend youngsters and to act as an advocate on their behalf. I am not clear whether that would extend to the visitor acting as someone who can take up the problems that the youngster may have with school and act as an intermediary, or whether their role would be to identify some of the problems that the youngster faces with education, and then persuade someone else to intervene. The one thing I know is that we can no longer tolerate a situation in which so many youngsters, who already have an accumulation of disadvantages, are put out into the wide world at 17 with little or no support and without the basic educational skills that will enable them to get some stability back into their lives. If the new clause helps at least to move us in that direction, in all social conscience, we must accept it and progress in that direction.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Paul Goggins): I thank the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) for her warm welcome and hon. Members on both sides of the House for the welcome they have offered to me in this debate and elsewhere in the past few days. In a gentle way this afternoon, the hon. Lady finally got her revenge. As a Home Office Minister for the past three years, I have taken a range of criminal justice legislation through the House. On the Floor of the House and in Committee, I have engaged in discussions with her on a range of issues. She often said, “If this is good enough for England and Wales, why is it not good enough for Northern Ireland?”, to which I always replied sympathetically that that was a matter for Northern Ireland Ministers. Well, here we are.

Next Section Index Home Page