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Lord Fitt: My Lords, I find myself in the unusual position of having to congratulate the Government. I very rarely find myself in that position but, having read the orders, I feel that an attempt has been made to normalise the position in Northern Ireland.
It would not be right to build up our expectations that the regulations will ensure squeaky clean elections in Northern Ireland. That is highly unlikely. I remember my first election in 1951 when I was helping another candidate in West Belfast who won by 25 votes after five recounts. I am certain that those 25 votes were put into the ballot box illegally by some of his more enthusiastic supporters.
A few years later, I won my first election for a council seat by 17 votes. I am almost certain that I saw 17 of my supporters going down to two polling stations in North Belfast to render me their support.
There are two constituencies in Northern Ireland where there is real abuse of the electoral system--in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and in Mid-Ulster. One has only to look at the postal vote returns in those constituencies to see that it would be impossible for those votes to be legally made without massive personation.
I would like to think that the outcome of the coming elections will genuinely reflect what the people of Northern Ireland think. It will not be possible to say that we will have the cleanest election ever, but the Government's attempt to grapple with the problem of personation is to be admired.
The Minister referred to the provisions that will enable blind or disabled people to vote. One has only to hark back to a few months ago and remember the objections that were made about the Florida election. I hope that the regulations will make it possible for legitimate votes to be cast without any later challenge.
Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, I associate my party with the remarks of the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. Anything that can be done to reduce the danger of personation is clearly welcome at this of all times.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, has given us a little insight into one or two heavily fought elections or by-elections. He mentioned personation. I am sure that your Lordships and the Government are well aware of various other malpractices over the years--perhaps over the centuries--in Northern Ireland. They include voting by dead electors, multiple voting and, I am sorry to say, the intimidation of electors before or just after voting.
I hope that the noble and learned Lord will reassure us that the Government are doing their utmost to prevent such behaviour, given that the outcome of the forthcoming general election will be very important and significant for the further implementation of the Belfast agreement.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am grateful for all the support for the regulations from around the House. Of course I assure the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that the Government will take every step to ensure that electoral practices are as proper as possible.
Under the new regulations, once a voter dies, they will be removed from the rolling register almost immediately. That does not happen under the current register. That is one of various examples--it would not be right to go through them all--of how the regulations will considerably improve the position.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 17th January be approved [4th Report from the Joint Committee].
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001. It may be convenient if I speak at the same time to the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001. Both are made under powers conferred by the Representation of the People Act 2000. Although they differ in some points of detail, they will have the same effect in their respective parts of the United Kingdom. They are similar to the regulations moved in respect of Northern Ireland by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton. In fact, he has stolen most of my script!
They put into effect the major parts of the provisions of the 2000 Act and deal with detailed arrangements for the registration of electors and the conduct of elections. The regulations implement the provision in the Act which relates to what we now refer to as "rolling" registration of electors. They ease the requirements for absent voting; they allow the registration of homeless people, remand prisoners and mental patients; they make better provision for disabled voters; and they make a number of other changes in order to make it easier to register to vote. The overall intention is to begin a process not only of modernisation of our electoral arrangements but of greater involvement and participation.
Part 1 of the regulations deals with various interpretational and miscellaneous points, including the provision for communication by electronic means. That means that inquiries can be e-mailed, application forms can be downloaded from the Internet for filling in and returning, and information will be available on websites. The intention is to bring the registration process up to date in order to meet the needs of modern lifestyles.
My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer made comments about Part 1 of the regulations with which he dealt. That part is designed to provide a device to assist blind voters. I shall not go through that again. The provisions for England, Wales and Scotland are exactly the same.
Part 2 of the regulations deals with the details involved in applying for registration as a service voter or as an overseas elector. Again, my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer described those details perfectly well and I do not need to repeat them. Similarly, he covered matters relating to registration.
It is perhaps worth saying that the regulations set out in detail how electoral registration officers will make the system work. Primarily, they give electoral registration officers the power to delete names from the register, such as in relation to deceased persons--this is an important point--or those who have registered elsewhere, as well as powers to seek further information to confirm eligibility. All that will ensure that we have a more accurate and more flexible electoral register and one which is more user-friendly.
In line with the recommendation of the Working Party on Electoral Procedures, no change has been made to the proxy voting arrangements, save in one regard--time limits for applications. For both proxy and postal votes, the time limit for applications to be received by EROs will be up to six days before polling day. That contrasts with the previous limit of 11 days. Again, all those arrangements make the system more accessible and it will be easier and more convenient for people to cast their vote in whichever way suits them best.
We have already said that the regulations are in place because some unfinished business remains in relation to the 2000 Act. My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer made reference to Section 9 of the Act. That section concerns the sale and supply of the register and provides for voters to opt out of having their names included on the register, which will be available for sale. Because we wanted to concentrate on the regulations which have an electoral impact, we have not yet drafted regulations in respect of the sale of the register. Those will be made under Section 9 of the Act. However, we shall turn to them immediately and we hope to have a draft available for consultation before Easter. I commend the regulations to the House.
Lord McNally: My Lords, we welcome the regulations. I want to make one or two small points. The whole thrust of the regulations--as, indeed, was the thrust of the Act--was to make it easier for people to vote. That is most welcome.
One worrying aspect of the Florida election, to which the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, referred, is that it has made new technology--or at least middle-aged technology--in elections fall into some disrepute. That is a pity. Although we want to avoid butterfly ballots and hanging chads, I believe that there is much to be said for using the newest of technologies both in composing the electoral register and in voting. We certainly welcome the idea of using electronic communications for registering votes and for keeping the register up to date.
The question with regard to Section 9 is slightly worrying. As the Minister will recall, when we debated the Bill in this House concerns were expressed about the sale of the register. We are perhaps getting close to a general election. We are told that the new orders will be in place before Easter. However, I hope that Ministers recall the concerns that were expressed in Committee about how widely the register could be used for commercial reasons and about what rights people had to omit themselves from it. I am sure that we shall want to examine the Section 9 orders very carefully. We do not want to deal with them "on the bounce" on the last day before the Easter recess or anything so unworthy as that.
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