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Lord Patten: My Lords, I am glad to follow my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth, if I may, as no one else has risen. She has shot a number of foxes that I would have wished to have a go at myself.

Over many years, I sat at the feet of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, and, in a bipartisan spirit, the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, being given tutorials on electoral practices in the Province. I have learnt a lot from both noble Lords and from other noble Lords in the Chamber. I have three things to say about the rather alarming and possibly anti-democratic measure brought forward by the Lord President today.

First, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, has pointed out, it is hard to interpret the semiotics of the Explanatory Notes. The late Jacques Derrida himself would have found it difficult to disinter exactly what the phrase,

could mean. I am much more concerned about the integrity of the democratic process, not the integrity of the register. The Lord President will have to explain clearly to the House exactly what that phrase means. What is,


 
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Secondly, in any one year, how many people in a group of 87,000 would one expect to have died? How many would one expect to have moved out of the Province—south of the border or to the United Kingdom, seeking to register their name on one or more occasions on this side of the water? That is a critical point. One cannot expect the House just to wish to roll forward more than 80,000 electors without having any indication of how many in any one cohort of 87,000 are living in the Province. I am sure that the officials who wrote the Explanatory Notes will have those facts at their fingertips to inform the noble Baroness the Lord President.

Thirdly, we are being compressed in 48 hours to do something that, I understand, has never been done before in either House at such a rate of knots—that is, to change the way in which people are allowed to be still committed to the electoral register even though they have not sought to place themselves on it. If we are to take the Bill seriously, we have to know what extra measures are in place to ensure that not the integrity of the register but the integrity of the democratic process is being protected and that this will not now be something that will be brought before your Lordships' House on an annual basis, endlessly rolling forward people who in many cases may be dead, moved out, or never existed in the first place.

I do not seek to damage the reputation of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, among his fellow Liberal Democrats, but I found him very persuasive, and I am sure that my noble friend on the Front Bench will equally wish to press the Lord President on those points.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, it is normal courtesy in the House for people who wish to speak in the gap to give notice. It would be helpful if we had an indication in advance because then the subsequent speakers would know when to get up. I remind noble Lords that when the clock says three minutes, the four minutes for gap speeches are over.

3.34 p.m.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: My Lords, if I have infringed the protocols of the House I apologise to your Lordships. The Bill was drawn to our attention only on the day when the House went into recess and was brought to the House the very moment we returned from recess. I suggest that that is not untypical of the way in which Northern Ireland business is handled by this Government. I deeply resent it.

The reality is that not only is the Bill brought to the House in this way, but it is being concertina-ed, in so far as we have to go through the business in this short period plus whatever time is allocated tomorrow. That is not satisfactory. It is not the way in which we should tinker with such a Bill. When I was privileged to be first sent to your Lordships' House in 2001, the first substantive Bill that I participated in was the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill. It came here after due
 
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consideration by the Northern Ireland Select Committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville. It was well considered and, although it came to the House even at that stage in a somewhat dishevelled state, it left as a very tidy Bill. It did what we had been hankering after in conducting the electoral process for the previous 30 years.

Now we get a Bill that corrupts what we achieved in 2002. I use the term "corrupts" advisedly because, sadly, corruption in Northern Ireland is not just about brown envelopes and money. It is about the way in which those who are paid huge salaries fail to carry out their duties as they should. They fail the people of Northern Ireland. I believe that that is what is happening now.

Why are there 83,000 people who have failed to register? The noble Lord, Lord Patten, said that people might have died or left Northern Ireland to come to Great Britain—not to the United Kingdom—and in so doing they reduced the number on the register.

There is another reason and a much more salient point to be made. There are people in Northern Ireland who are simply fed up with the failure of the electoral process. They do not want to be part of it, and they do not want to register. The reason why they do not want to register is simple: they know that, if they do and are not prepared to vote, there are those who will find a way of corrupting the system and voting on their behalf. Sinn Fein/IRA has not for the past almost 40 years wasted its time in streamlining methodology to beat the electoral system. As your Lordships know, you only have to beat the electoral system once—you can try and fail; you can try again and fail; you can try and fail the third time, but once you have succeeded there is no difficulty in being re-elected.

The Bill should not in its present form have been introduced to the House. I am opposed to it. It is unamendable. The best that I can do is to say that I strongly support the Liberal Democrat amendment; it is worth voting for. If time was given to the Bill I would not have to extend what I have to say, but let me finish with one final point—

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I know that I speak from the Opposition Benches, but the rules of the House must be obeyed. I am looking at the Government Whip and the Leader of the House. Four minutes is the gap maximum, and we are already into six.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, for his support. I tried to indicate to noble Lords the time available.

3.39 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness for explaining the requirements of the Bill. However, like previous speakers, I was here when we dealt with the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. The object of that exercise was to clean up the electoral register. It seems to me that the object of this Bill is to make the register less clean. That cannot be right.
 
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Paragraph 18 of the Explanatory Notes presented with the Bill refers to,

chief electoral officer—

We are legislating for an uncertainty and that cannot be right.

I served for 25 years as a local councillor. One of my last experiences in that role was when someone telephoned me to complain that she was not on the electoral register. My first response was to ask, "Were you not able to vote as a result?". She said, "I do not do that". I therefore asked why she was ringing me about the matter. She said, "It is about credit. I cannot get credit because my name is not on the register". It may be that there are people in Northern Ireland who want credit; the register is used for purposes other than elections. It is indeed a strange affair that so many have not sought to be on the register. The indication is that 80,000 or so people are missing from it.

I do not know about the rest of your Lordships, but I have heard that there could be an election for another place on 5 May. We know that there will be elections for local government in England on 5 May. I understand that there is an election on 18 May for local government in Northern Ireland. However, I also understand that there is an idea of having that election on the same day, so that the local government elections are on the same day in England and Northern Ireland. It may of course be helpful for other purposes. But that is what I have been told may take place.

That is concentrating a lot of minds. There are those who, because of the local elections, know absolutely for certain that they will be facing elections on 5 May. There are those in Northern Ireland who may also think that that will be the case for them. As I understand it, residents of Northern Ireland who are not on the register—and who woke up today and said, "Good heavens! I am not on the register"—had 18 days, until 10 March, to contact the returning officer. If everything then proves correct, their names will go on the register as from 1 April.

The mechanics of elections have changed. We have the new idea of a rolling register and the register is far more up to date than it has ever been before. As a youth, I had to wait nearly two years to get the vote. The situation has gradually changed so that people are now put on the register straight away. The rolling register has enabled those who move house to be put on the register straight away.

This Bill is about making the register less clean. I think that there is another way in which these things could be organised. We know that nomination day for the local government elections in England is 11 April. It seems that we are already in the middle of an election campaign. If we have not reached that point by then, there is no doubt but that, by 11 April, electioneering will be well and truly in the ether. The same should be true in local government in any event. If the date of 10 March
 
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were moved on one month to 11 April, it would give everyone who legitimately should be on the register an extra month to get on it. There would still be adequate time to ensure that the register was valid for any elections on 5 May.

It may be thought, "You are compressing all this and it is all very difficult for returning officers". It will be difficult, but returning officers are used to busy periods and to taking on extra staff and so forth. Interestingly, one could wait as late as 26 April to get a postal vote, with all the administration that that entails. Establishing 11 April as the registration date would still allow registration officers another fortnight to clean up and publish their registers. We would then be able to use the existing legislation and amend the Bill to allow another month for those who, for whatever reason, believe that they have been missed off the register to be put on it.

I feel that there is another way forward and that we do not need a Bill that will make the electoral register less clean.

3.46 p.m.


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