Second Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Monday 8 July 2002
[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]
Draft Northern Ireland Assembly
(Elections) (Amendment) Order 2002
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2002.
May I say what a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Mr. Illsley? The order was laid before the House on 26 June, and I must start with an apology to the Committee. The Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2002 was also due to be debated this afternoon. Unfortunately, it had to be withdrawn because it was not possible for the order to be debated in both Houses and considered at the last Privy Council meeting before the House rose. Therefore, its commencement date of 1 September would not have taken effect for one of its provisions. That order will now be debated in the autumn in its present form, except with a new commencement date. That is not expected to cause any undue difficulties in its operation. I apologise to hon. Members for the inconvenience. They may have come ready to debate that order only to find that they are considering just this one.
I do not propose to go into too much detail on the order under debate, although I am sure that I will be pressed on the details. The Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, which introduces the measures to minimise the opportunity for fraud and protects the right of individuals to exercise their franchise, has already been subject to extensive consultation and debate involving the House, the political parties in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland electoral office and the electorate. The order merely brings the relevant rules for elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly into line with those made under the Act for parliamentary elections.
The order is understood to be compatible with the European convention on human rights, and is made in exercise of the powers conferred by section 34(4) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The amendments to the rules for elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly will ensure that the returning officer is satisfied that postal votes correspond with the details provided on registration.
I hope that the Committee recognises, as the Northern Ireland parties and I do, the importance of these changes, in conjunction with the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, for combating personation in Northern Ireland. I look forward to hearing hon. Members' comments.
Lady Hermon (North Down): Will the Minister give way?
Column Number: 004
Jane Kennedy: I invite the hon. Lady to make her speech and I shall try to respond to her in my closing comments. I commend the order to the Committee.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I welcome you, Mr. Illsley, as it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I also welcome the Minister. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would usually deal with matters of such enormous detail. The Minister appears to be standing in for him, and I sincerely hope that she will not be exposed under questioning, given her brevity when going into the detail of the order. I hope that she has had the opportunity to make herself familiar with all its detail.
The order relates to our debates on the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. That is the only legislation that I have been involved in since 1997 that went through its parliamentary procedure satisfactorily. A number of important changes were made to that Bill, and its provisions were beefed up considerably. It was to the Under-Secretary's credit that he listened to the debate. The Department eventually responded to our concerns in the other place, although it would have been better if the Government had taken up the suggestions and ideas put to them by the Committee at the time. They should not have left it to the other place to show them the way, particularly on the matter of national insurance numbers. However, it was a successful Bill, and the Lords amendments received the full support of the House.
During proceedings on the 2002 Act, an overwhelming case was made for the consolidation of electoral law in Northern Ireland. It is hideously complicated. Those who have to find their way around the statutes consider them impenetrable, and even professionals need the help of lawyers to understand them. We are dealing with references to a 1983 Act, a 1985 Act and to a number of 2001 statutory instruments. One has merely to consider the enormous number of modifications that have been made to the Representation of the People Act 1983, the fact that the Act applies differently in Northern Ireland compared with the rest of the United Kingdom and the significant number of changes that have been made to the law since then to realise that the subject is crying out for consolidation.
Given the Minister's efforts to become fully briefed on the Assembly elections order, which is short and relatively straightforward compared with the local election order that was withdrawn, she may have taken a neat sidestep—one worthy of the Irish rugby football team—to ensure that the other order landed back in the hands of the Under-Secretary. That more complicated and detailed measure will no doubt need considerable discussion when we return to it in October, as the Minister promised.
The Assembly elections order seems to be fairly straightforward, although I question one element of detail. The order states that the returning officer must satisfy himself not only that the date of birth of the elector is consistent with the relevant section but that
Column Number: 005
''the declaration of identity referred to in paragraph (3) shall be taken not to be duly signed unless the returning officer is satisfied that the signature on the declaration corresponds with the signature supplied as the elector's signature''—
pursuant to the relevant section. I am puzzled by that. The Standing Committee considering the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill went to a great deal of trouble to have included in the Act a requirement to use national insurance numbers. That most significant step would make systemised electoral fraud much more difficult, but it is not included in the order, and I would like a careful explanation from the Minister. My preliminary inquiries suggest that the reasons are somewhat convoluted, and I am not entirely sure that I have understood them so far. I hope that the Minister can explain in terms that we all understand why the order requires the returning officer to satisfy himself about the date of birth and signature of a person who applies to vote by post, but not about their national insurance number. I fear that that may be beyond her, although much may depend on our ability to understand. None the less, I challenge her to explain why national insurance numbers do not appear in the order, so that we may satisfy ourselves—this is the most important point—that the returning officer will be required to check national insurance numbers. Otherwise, there would have been precious little point including them in the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act.
The Assembly elections in May next year will be extremely important, and their outcome will quite possibly decide the fate of the peace process. In parliamentary constituencies, especially in the rural west, where an enormous number of postal and proxy votes were cast, Sinn Fein, by coincidence, did particularly well. In those elections, extensive proxy and postal votes coincided with a strong showing by Sinn Fein, and it was suggested that there may have been some form of organised fraud. That is what the 2002 Act was designed to tackle, and we must ensure that the national insurance numbers of those who apply for postal votes in the Assembly elections are checked, and that the important safeguard against electoral fraud that Parliament put in place takes effect.
I look forward to the Minister giving us a satisfactory reassurance that national insurance numbers will be checked. If she does, she will have the Opposition's support; if she does not, we shall regard the order as inadequate.
Lady Hermon: I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr. Illsley.
I, too, am disappointed that we are not discussing the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2002, the preparations for which took up much of my morning. However, the expectation is that we shall not face local elections for another four or five years.
The Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2002 is crucial. Assembly elections are scheduled to take place in May 2003, and I stress the word ''scheduled''. I do not have a
Column Number: 006
crystal ball, but they may take place earlier than we anticipate—perhaps in the autumn. I would therefore have expected the order to be much more extensive, rather than introducing only minimal changes.
I was reinforced in that view by the Under-Secretary, who spoke on 2 July at a seminar that the Electoral Commission had organised at the Stormont buildings. He said:
''The Government is determined to prevent electoral abuse and to improve confidence in the electoral system . . . The Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 makes radical changes to the registration process by requiring people to sign their canvass or application form and to provide their date of birth and national insurance number.''
The Under-Secretary clearly anticipated that three things would be required. Those three requirements had cross-party support and appeared in the Act. I agree with the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt)we do not always do so that we need an explanation from the Minister about why national insurance numbers are not required under the order.
Hon. Members will notice that the order has been made under section 34(4) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The subsection reads:
''The Secretary of State may by order make provision about elections or any matter relating to them.''
The Secretary of State has a broad power, and I am desperately disappointed that he did not use it to make the much more radical changes that we expected. There is nothing unusual about that expectation. We are disappointed because the Under-Secretary, who is always entertaining and informative when he moves away from his script, worked diligently to secure the use of national insurance numbers despite the Data Protection Act 1998. In the final stages of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill, he stated clearly:
''When I met the Information Commissioner, she made it clear that the employment of the national insurance number in the electoral registration process in Northern Ireland must be put on a clear statutory basis in order for it not to breach the requirements of the Data Protection Act 1998.''
He also said:
''The construct and the architecture of the Bill will realise that the principal purpose of checking national insurance numbers is to prevent fraud in the exercise of absent voting . . . they will be of most use as a further check on the identity of those people who want to exercise an absent vote.''—[Official Report, 15 April 2002; Vol. 382, c. 386–7.]
I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary for ensuring that national insurance numbers are required under the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, and I am disappointed that that requirement is not repeated in the order.
Another change that had cross-party support, and which we were delighted to see included in the Act, was the introduction of an electoral identity card. In replying to a question from the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), the Under-Secretary assured hon. Members that he had been
''privy to a timetable for the introduction that can meet the date for the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland.''
and that a high priority had been placed on the introduction of those identity cards. I would appreciate it if the Minister, as well as addressing the
Column Number: 007
absence of national insurance numbers, would explain why identity cards are not mentioned—not even once—in the order. Having welcomed the changes, including photographic identification and use of national insurance numbers, I am disappointed that the order takes such a minimalist approach.