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Lord Glentoran: Will Her Majesty's Government come back to Parliament with their proposals after the consultation? Does the Minister agree that this electoral legislation in Northern Ireland would be extremely appropriate for the rest of Great Britain?
Lord Rooker: To be honest, I do not want to be tempted to go into the shenanigans of my birthplace. There clearly have been problems with the current electoral system in Great Britain, but I am dealing with the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. Another group of Ministers is dealing with electoral matters in another Bill. There will be consultation; there will be a government response to it. Based on that response, we will bring forward an order. The government response will be known before we produce the order and it will be up for debate and questioning.
Baroness Harris of Richmond: I am grateful to the Minister for explaining that. I am not terribly clear about the delay. The justification for the delay was the consultation process. Was the Minister saying that the consultation process will not start until the Electoral Registration Bill has been completed? If so, he has not answered my question about why they were not considered together, in the knowledge that it was going to be put in Northern Ireland legislation.
Lord Rooker: That raises a question about papers which I saw flying around earlier this year when I was still in the Northern Ireland Office. Another Bill is going through the House, the Electoral Registration Bill, which is not yet an Act. It has not been finalised. This Bill makes reference to that Bill. Until it becomes an Act, one cannot be absolutely certain. There was a discussion early in the year as to whether the main Billthe Department for Constitutional Affairs Billcovered Northern Ireland. The fact is that generally speaking we have not gone down that route. We have tried to legislate for Northern Ireland with Northern Ireland Bills and Orders in Council. It may be the case, with other pressuresand we shall come to this under another amendment laterthat in the long term we shall have to do it another way and make our legislation do it that way. But the decision was taken, because Northern Ireland is specific in the mechanics of its electoral system and because the electoral voting system is different, to keep it in Northern Ireland legislation, knowing that the other Bill was around.
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Therefore, cross-referencing this Bill with the other Bill seemed the sensible solution, but what it means is that we cannot be certain when or if each Bill will become an Act. It depends on the will of Parliament, and we should not assume things. We hope that each Bill becomes an Act and the cross-referencing will then come into play, but it is only at that point that you can be specific about what is in the Act that this Bill refers to. There is no ulterior motive for doing that; it was simply a question of keeping Northern Ireland legislation in a Northern Ireland Bill.
Baroness Harris of Richmond: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. I know that he will understand me when I say that we may want to reserve our position and come back to this matter at Report.
Lord Rogan: I, too, thank the Minister for his comments and his explanation. I am especially pleased about his commitment, although it may be slightly late, that there will be full consultation. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Under Clause 2, the annual canvass in Northern Ireland is abolished. Clause 3 replaces it with a canvass that is to take place every 10 years. Our amendments shorten that period to every four years. I spoke on this matter at Second Reading.
The Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 introduced individual registration in Northern Ireland. That, along with the annual canvass, has led to a much more accurate and robust electoral register in Northern Ireland than those compiled under the system of household registration. These measures have been successful. There are currently 1,160,492 people on the registerit is very accuratewhich is an estimated 91 per cent of the voting age population. We can understand why the Government want to abolish the annual canvass, although we are disappointed by their decision to do so. We must ensure that processes for registering are not so onerous as to discourage people from doing so. We believe that by extending the
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period of time between canvasses from one year to 10 years, the Government are going too far in the opposite direction.
Our amendments propose that a canvass is held in 2007, and then every four years after that. We chose 2007 on the basis that if the Assembly elects an executive and devolved government is restored before 24 November this year, under the Northern Ireland Act 2006 the next set of Assembly elections will be postponed until May 2008. By proposing that a canvass be carried out in 2007, we would expect the register to be complete and up to date in time for the 2008 elections. We would then continue to have a canvass in the year before the Assembly elections. If the canvasses were conducted in the year before an Assembly election were due to be held, we believe that there would be confidence in that register. It would be much more up to date.
As we said, while we recognised that a yearly canvass was too frequent and placed an onerous burden on voters, we still want canvasses to take place within a fairly short space of time. We are concerned at the ability of the Secretary of State simply to cancel a canvass. It is extremely important to ensure that the register in Northern Ireland maintains its accuracy, following all the fraud measures that were put in place by the 2002 Act. I beg to move.
Lord Glentoran: I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 5, 7 and 9 in the group referring to the timing of the canvass. I believe that the Government were right to introduce an annual canvass at the time, and I support them in their judgment that that annual canvass has done its job. However, I am in line with the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, and the Liberal Democrats in thinking that a canvass every 10 years is too big a gap. It is vital that the canvass is kept accurate. There will always be a group of people working to make it inaccurate and distort it for their own ends. That has been part of electoral processes in Northern Ireland, and always will be, I suspect. It is very important that the powers responsible keep a tight grip on the canvass.
We should also remember that it is a smallish population, and that movements in a small population percentage-wise can have a much bigger impact than in a larger grouping. Today, people are far more likely to move location than they used to be. Students go offshore, either before or after their courses, for quite long periods and then come back again. I am delighted to say that there is a large flow of students who go off in different directions to different parts of the world.
My amendments would ensure that a canvass is taken every two elections. That will strike a balance between the costs and time needed to take a canvass every year, while ensuring that it is accurate and up to date at each election. That is my proposal. A canvass
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should be taken every two elections, which is probably a five or six-year gap, or maybe six or seven years, but certainly fewer than 10 years.
Lord Rogan: I also support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond. The requirement that a canvass be held every four years instead of every 10 years means there would not be an election without a canvass during the preceding Parliament. The amendment hinges on the serious issue of electoral fraud. A delay of 10 years between each canvass would provide the perfect opportunity for fraud to creep back into the Northern Ireland election process.
The electoral register must be kept up to date, and people must be encouraged to submit their names to the register. Electoral registers are difficult enough to manage, and Northern Ireland has taken a great step forward towards achieving effective management with the introduction of individual registration, thanks to the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. If a canvass were conducted every 10 years, several elections could occur before there is an up-to-date canvass. I submit that that is too long. The amendment facilitates a more up-to-date and effective working knowledge in an effort to curb electoral fraud.
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