Fourth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 16 October 2002
[Mr. David Taylor in the Chair]
Draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2002
The Chairman: I hope that hon. Members noticed that we have had the Room redecorated for the Committee.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2002.
Welcome to the Chair of the Committee, Mr. Taylor, and congratulations on your elevation to the Chairmen's Panel. The Committee is to deal with a particular piece of policy, the ownership of which is spread throughout the parties represented in the Room. The ground has been well trodden by them, so the quality of the debate will be high. I think that I can guarantee that Hon. Members will remain in order and that you will not have to intervene.
I also welcome the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) to his position on the Conservative Front Bench—a position he occupies, to my knowledge, for the second time.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): A second coming.
Mr. Browne: Perhaps we should all shudder at that.
I should like to put on record the significant contribution that the hon. Gentleman's predecessor, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) made not only to debates on the subject addressed in the order, but to Northern Ireland matters generally. He will be missed, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Solihull will live up to his hon. Friend's standards of both contribution and co-operation.
As the Committee knows the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, which introduced measures to minimise the opportunity for fraud while protecting the right of individuals to exercise their franchise, has already been subject to extensive consultation and debate involving the House, the Northern Ireland parties, the Northern Ireland Electoral Office, and the electorate. The order brings the relevant rules on local elections into line with those made for parliamentary elections by that Act.
The order is compatible with the European convention on human rights and is being made in exercise of the powers conferred by section 84(1) and (3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The amendments to the rules on local elections will allow staff at the polling stations to request the elector to give their date of birth, and to check that the details are correct. They also add the electoral identity card and the senior smartpass, which is the Translink pass, to the list of
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specified documents that may be presented at a polling station to receive a ballot paper.
Lady Hermon (North Down): I thank the Minister for giving way so early. May I ask him to clarify something for the benefit of Committee members and voters in Northern Ireland? He referred to the electoral identity card and the fact that a voter could be required to give their date of birth. How will it be resolved if the voter gives the wrong date of birth, or if there is an argument about the date of birth?
Mr. Browne: I am grateful for the opportunity that the hon. Lady's question gives me to explain the order. She says that I gave way early, but I have only two and a half paragraphs left, so from her point of view her intervention was opportune.
The provisions of the Act that relate to parliamentary elections, which, through the order, will apply to local government elections, require—or, in certain circumstances, allow—the presiding officer to ask the question about date of birth; however, he must have reasonable cause for doing so. Bear in mind that the new register gives the presiding officer access to that information: he will be able—subject to vagaries of normal life, such as the fact that at some stages of their lives people look younger than they are—to judge whether the person presented appears to match their date of birth; if not, he will be able to ask them to provide it. If the presiding officer receives an unsatisfactory response—that is, a refusal to answer the question, or an answer that does not correspond to the date of birth on the new electoral register—the order empowers him to refuse a ballot paper to that person. He may give the tendered ballot paper to such a person in certain circumstances, which are set out in—
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): Article 7.
Mr. Browne: I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman, although I was aware of that, as I have spent most of today getting to grips with the issue. It is done by amending rule 37 of the rules applying to local government elections.
The purpose of allowing tendered ballot papers in such circumstances is consistent with the policy that has applied in Northern Ireland since additional rules were introduced there, under which there was an acceptance that, because further conditions were being applied to voting in Northern Ireland, people should, in certain circumstances, be allowed the opportunity to have a tendered ballot paper if there was a dispute about the facts. The point is that such a dispute can be resolved and a tendered ballot paper can be used only in circumstances in which tendered ballot papers would be used anyway—that is, in the event of a challenge and scrutiny of the process. A tendered ballot paper would be examined in the context of a court action and the information would be adjudicated on in the course of that. Those are very narrow circumstances. I think that that comprehensively answers the question posed by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), but it does not anticipate the question about to be asked by the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley).
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Peter Bottomley: As the Minister helpfully pointed out, article 7 of the order modifies rule 37(3). Before he continues his peroration, I remind him that in local government and national elections in Northern Ireland, and in the rest of the United Kingdom, it is forbidden for an international observer to be in the polling station. Has he consulted other UK Ministers to determine whether we can extend to international observers the courtesies that we expect when we go to observe elections in other countries?
Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman's point is not lost on me as an individual, because I was privileged to perform that function for the United Nations in the second general election in South Africa. My experience there suggests to me that if the people of this country valued their votes as much as South African citizens value theirs, we would not experience such low turnouts. As always, people do not appreciate the good things in life until they lose them. To be frank, people in this country do not value democracy as much as they should, and they would be well advised to look at how people in some parts of the world long for it.
I shall take advice on the question of whether we should have international observers. I recognise that that matter should be considered by Ministers who, like me, have responsibility for aspects of electoral law. We in the United Kingdom now have the Electoral Commission, part of whose responsibilities is to report on the conduct of elections. We would be well advised to wait for that process to mature and to reflect on the commission's reports before we decide to change electoral law again. However, the hon. Gentleman's point has merit.
Mr. Taylor: I am grateful to the Minister, not least for his opening courtesy. I support his contention that our fellow citizens seem not to value their electoral and democratic rights as much as we might think they should. I put it to the Minister, inviting his agreement, that if we took those rights away from them, there would be fighting in the streets.
Mr. Browne: I am grateful to some extent for the hon. Gentleman's support—I am not sure whether I am grateful for his invitation to agree that disorder in the streets might ensue. The Government have no intention of taking away anyone's right to vote. Indeed, it is our policy to encourage people to vote. However, in the context of Northern Ireland, the duty on all of us, reflected in the legislation that the order will apply to local government elections, is to ensure that the electoral process retains the confidence of the electorate. We have a duty to create in Northern Ireland an infrastructure in which honest voters can have confidence that their vote is not being devalued or stolen. That is the value of the order, which I think is particularly good legislation. I can say that because it has not simply been drafted by the Government, but drafted after a significant amount of consultation and amended during its passage through this House to reflect the strongly held views of all parties. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure that the process works, is understood by the electorate and retains their confidence.
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Moving on to the other provisions of the order, applications for the absent vote will require a signature, date of birth and national insurance number or signed statement saying that the applicant does not have one. The chief electoral officer will need to be satisfied that those details match the registration details before granting the absent vote.
In conclusion, I hope that the Committee can agree with me and the Northern Ireland parties in recognising the importance of the changes, in conjunction with the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, in combating personation in Northern Ireland—
Lady Hermon (North Down) rose—
Mr. Browne: It is always the same—when one writes the phrase, ''In conclusion,'' one knows that it will not be the conclusion. I give way.
Lady Hermon: I appreciate the Minister giving way before he concludes.
Can the Minister elaborate on article 6 of the order, relating to voting by persons with disabilities? As he knows, most polling stations in Northern Ireland are in primary schools, often with steps up to the entrance. Can he elaborate on the provision for facilitating disabled people's casting their vote and using their mandate?