Clause 3 — Timing of canvass
Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill
David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who is the only Liberal Democrat Member in the Chamber. He is obviously speaking on behalf of all his colleagues, as I am on behalf of mine.
The debate and the amendments are about the Secretary of State's role in monitoring the process. In the debate on the previous set of amendments, I said that the recommendation from the chief electoral officer will go to the Secretary of State, who can, if he wants, override those wishes on the ground that he is satisfied that that is in the public interest. I have given examples. Potentially—I am simply saying potentially—public interest could relate to cost.
I take the point that the hon. Member for Foyle put to me. I go back to first principles, as I have mentioned. The integrity of the register is paramount. If it is not true and accurate, that taints the quality of the membership of this House and any other elected body. I take the point that he has made. I am simply saying that one aspect of that, potentially, could be for the Secretary of State, at that stage, to consider a cost element. Another aspect of the public interest could be for the Secretary of State to consider the points that were well put by the hon. Member for Foyle in relation to the census and the organisation of that.
Another aspect of the public interest could arise in the event of a weak chief electoral officer being appointed, who could be lobbied by one or more parties to undertake a canvass and could determine to do so. I am not saying that the chief electoral officer is or will be weak, but the potential could be there. I am simply saying that there are potential areas where the responsibility for the integrity of the electoral register rests with the electoral officer. He may recommend that a canvass is undertaken, but, under this power, a future Secretary of State may determine that the circumstances are not right for that canvass to take place.
I am simply saying to all hon. Members that the Secretary of State retains that role. As I have indicated, it would be a brave Secretary of State who turned down a recommendation for a canvass by an electoral officer, but I wish to retain the power for him or her to do so because, potentially, the Secretary of State may, at that stage, determine that to be in the public interest.