Representation of the People

Electronic Devices (Madam Speaker's Statement) – in the House of Commons at 5:34 pm on 12th March 1997.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone 5:34 pm, 12th March 1997

I beg to move, That the draft Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations 1997, which were laid before this House on 13th February, be approved.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

I understand that with this it will be convenient to discuss the following motions: That the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 1997, which were laid before this House on 13th February, be approved.That the draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 1997, which were laid before this House on 13th February, be approved.That the draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 13th February, be approved.That the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 1997, which were laid before this House on 13th February, be approved.That the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 1997, which were laid before this House on 13th February, be approved.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone

In so far as anything relating to voting can be judged uncontroversial at the moment, I believe that the six sets of regulations before the House are uncontroversial. They seek to introduce three improvements into arrangements relating to absent voting at local government, parliamentary and European parliamentary elections.

One set of regulations introduces the changes for local government and parliamentary elections in England and Wales, and a second set extends the arrangements to European parliamentary elections in those countries and Scotland; three separate regulations apply the changes to elections in Northern Ireland and one set deals with parliamentary and local government elections in Scotland.

The most important measure relaxes the deadline by which electors must apply if they wish to vote in elections by post or by proxy. Under the Representation of the People Regulations 1986, the deadline is noon on the 13th working day before polling. That is a very tight timetable for electors to meet, and every election produces complaints from electors who have missed the deadline and so cannot get a postal or proxy vote.

The draft regulations relax the deadline from noon on the 13th working day before polling to 5 pm on the 11th working day, giving electors an extra two and a half days to get their applications in. It is a proposal on which the main political parties were consulted at official level some time ago, and it was welcomed by them.

The relaxation is drafted to come into force seven days after the regulations are made. That means that they will be in force for the general election and I believe the additional flexibility for electors to secure an absent vote where they need one will be widely welcomed by electors and candidates.

The draft regulations also introduce two further changes relating to the attestation of certain applications for an absent vote. First, they increase the number of nurses who can attest applications for an absent vote made on grounds of physical incapacity. At present, any elector wishing to have an absent vote on a continuing basis on grounds of a physical incapacity that prevents his attending the polling station must have his application attested. That also applies to applications made after the normal closing date on grounds of unforeseen health problems. The Representation of the People Regulations 1986 permit doctors, nurses and Christian Science practitioners to make such attestations, but only first-level nurses are currently empowered to attest applications.

We have been advised by the Royal College of Nursing, the NHS executive and the United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing. Midwifery and Health Visiting that the arrangements are now too restrictive. Their unanimous view is that any registered nurse should be able to make such an attestation; registered nurses are professionally competent to do so and accountable for their actions.

The regulations therefore provide for any registered nurse to make the attestation that some electors require. That will make it easier for electors to get their applications attested, and thereby to secure their absent vote with no loss of professional reliability.

Finally, the regulations give effect to another proposal that the main political parties have welcomed at official level. Very occasionally, alleged abuses have come to light of the procedures for obtaining the attestations to which I have just referred. Some applications for absent votes must, as I have said, be attested by doctors, nurses or Christian Science practitioners. One or two cases have been reported of batches of applications for a number of constituents being attested by the same person, who seems to have little or no knowledge of the applicants.

While the Govenment are keen to ensure that everyone who needs an absent vote should get one with the minimum inconvenience, we must also guard against the potential for abuse which inevitably creeps into any absent voting arrangements. The regulations therefore tighten up the procedures by requiring any doctor, nurse or Christian Science practitioner who attests an application for an absent vote to confirm on the application form that he or she is treating or giving care to the applicant for the incapacity which forms the basis of the application. That change is not reflected in the relevant Northern Ireland draft regulations, as the procedure I have described is already in force there and is considered to work well [Interruption] I am sorry that I am boring the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), or perhaps he is just a little tired.

These two measures on attestation are drafted to come into force in Great Britain three months after the regulations are made. That will allow time for a period of notice of the changes to be registered with electoral administrators and for amended forms to be printed centrally and ordered by electoral registration officers who obtain their stocks from the Stationery Office.

In Northern Ireland, where the statement of treatment already applies, the sole change of practice in attestation will come into force after seven days. The three-month delay in implementation in Great Britain will not affect any elector's ability to obtain an absent vote at the general election. Anyone needing one should be able to get one on a one-off basis, and, as I have said, they will have longer to do so than at present.

I have mentioned one small difference between the provisions before the House relating to Northern Ireland and those for the rest of the United Kingdom—the existing provision in Northern Ireland for certain attestors to indicate that they are treating or giving care to the applicant. That is now being applied to the rest of the United Kingdom.

There is another small difference. The Northern Ireland provisions update existing electoral law to take account of changes in the definitions of residential care and nursing homes in Northern Ireland. The current definitions in Northern Ireland electoral law were repealed by the Registered Homes (Northern Ireland) Order 1992 and consequently the electoral law of Northern Ireland needs to be updated. That is done by the regulations and the order affecting Northern Ireland. That technical updating does not apply to the rest of the United Kingdom.

The two sets of European parliamentary regulations before the House merely apply to European parliamentary elections the provisions that I have just described for local government and parliamentary elections. One set of the European parliamentary regulations extends the provisions to England, Wales and Scotland, and the second set extends them to Northern Ireland.

The regulations are uncontroversial. They increase the freedom of electors to obtain a postal or proxy vote in time for the general election. That should increase the total number of electors able to vote, which must be welcome in a democracy. The regulations introduce two sensible and targeted changes in arrangements for continuing absent vote applications to be attested. The first further extends flexibility for electors and the second closes off a possible avenue of abuse. I therefore commend the measures to the House.

Photo of Doug Henderson Doug Henderson , Newcastle upon Tyne North 5:40 pm, 12th March 1997

The right hon. Lady thought that we were bored by her speech. In no way were we bored; we were stunned by her relaxed composure, replacing the fighting harangue that we normally have to deal with. It is most unusual for the right hon. Lady and me to deal with an uncontroversial issue.

I endorse the proposals. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) may wish to say a few words about Northern Ireland when winding up.

We support regulation 4(3) that applies to England and Wales and to Scotland. Following the representations of the medical profession, it is welcome that any registered nurse should be allowed to attest to someone's physical incapacity. We also support regulations 4(4) and 4(5), which require a medical practitioner, a nurse or others who attest, to say that they are treating the patient. Is it the right hon. Lady's intention that, provided one practitioner in a group practice had dealt with the person on a medical basis, any similarly qualified member of that practice would be able to attest? I am happy to give way now, or the right hon. Lady may wish to reflect on that question and deal with it at the end.

Photo of Doug Henderson Doug Henderson , Newcastle upon Tyne North

I am getting an indication that the answer is yes.

I support the aim of regulation 5, to extend our democracy by allowing a greater period for people who are going to be absent to qualify for a postal vote.

The regulations were based on a Home Office working group report on absent voting. It is unfortunate that there has not been time in this Parliament to deal with some of the other issues covered in the report. All hon. Members are concerned about the fact that so many people are disqualified from voting in a general election. The Library has estimated from the 1991 census that about 2 million voters will move during the 23½ weeks between the qualifying date for the electoral register—10 October—and the beginning of May. Many of them will move a short distance, and it will be relatively easy for them to make their way to a polling station, but the Library estimates that around 900,000 of those voters will move to a different local authority district. Very few of them will end up voting in a general election. That is a substantial proportion of our population disfranchised. We need to consider that further in the next Parliament.

There are some worries that a rolling register could be abused if it was not possible to check addresses on it. In the next Session, Parliament should consider whether a rolling register could be added to regularly so that people would not be disqualified. Other checks may also have to be included, in addition to the normal checks to prevent abuse. We would do our democracy a just service by introducing new regulations on that in the next Parliament.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan , Blaby 5:44 pm, 12th March 1997

I should like to raise an amendment that should be made to the regulations but which, I regret, is not being made. I have raised the issue with Home Office Ministers three times during the past five years.

The names Ian Gow, Airey Neave and Robert Bradford will be well known to hon. Members. They have all been murdered by the IRA since 1979. The devices that murdered the first two were planted at their homes. It is unwise of the House to demand that candidates in parliamentary and other elections should give their normal home address on nomination papers and ballot papers. It is said that that furthers democracy, but I do not understand how the death of an hon. Member furthers democracy.

A party other than the Conservatives may be in government at some stage, although I would regret that. That party would then discover the problems. I understand that Lord Mason still has protection against the IRA. I recall Lord Fitt having to hold off a gang of people with a revolver at the top of his stairs. In all those cases, terrorist organisations have attacked hon. Members. Ulster Unionist Members will be only too well aware of the threats that they live with every day.

We should not make a gift to terrorist organisations—the IRA or others. There are other terrorist organisations that might want to kill hon. Members. It is foolish for us to have to give our home addresses. That is a gift to a terrorist who wants to find out where an hon. Member lives. A terrorist will baulk at the idea of having to ferret around for the information. Of course, anybody can find where any of us lives if they try hard enough, but if we make it more difficult, attacks are less likely. I regret that it is likely that there will be further attacks.

Before the last general election, the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) tried to introduce regulations on this subject. The Liberal Democrats—notable on this occasion, as often, for their absence—said that that was unacceptable and would undermine democracy. I say again that I do not understand how the death of any hon. Member from whatever party improves democracy. I very much hope that, in future, we will amend the regulations so that candidates do not have to give their home addresses.

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

I think that the hon. Gentleman has sat down. I was about to make to him a point that I shall make to the House. His comments went beyond the regulations before us. Although I do not mind passing references that go beyond the regulations, the House would be ill advised to dwell on them.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross , East Londonderry 5:47 pm, 12th March 1997

This is the second tranche of these little orders to come before us in the past 10 days. The first few relating to Northern Ireland were considered last week, and dealt with the sums that candidates may spend. I noticed that, in that debate, everybody seemed to miss the fact that, in a proportional representation election in Northern Ireland, a party that puts up five or six candidates has five or six lots of expenses to play around with. Those on the two Front Benches should keep that in mind when they complain about the sums that are sometimes available.

I have also noticed, from last week's regulations and from today's fistful, that we seem to be getting into a complex area, with constant reviews and updatings of electoral law. From what the Minister has said, some of the measures that we are passing will not take effect in time for the general election. I therefore suggest that serious attention should be given in the next Parliament to the consolidation of electoral law in one easily obtained book, which is updated, so that we do not have to plough through one little regulation after another for years back.

In last year's election, it was impossible to obtain certain elements of electoral law, and some people standing in the election did not know what the law was. I see that the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), is on the Government Front Bench. I hope that the Government will take on board the need to consolidate and reprint the regulations quickly after the general election.

The Minister said that the change of time scale for postal vote applications was necessary because the time was tight for electors. We all appreciate that—in view of the number of complaints that every political party must deal with. I do not know whether the general election will be on 1 May, but I understand that there is to be a local election on that day. The local election in Northern Ireland, however, is three weeks later, so we shall have to start electioneering at the beginning of April and be at it for nearly two months. We shall all be rather weary of it by the time it ends. One thing is certain: all those who miss the postal vote the first time round will want to vote at the local election, so we at least have two bites of the cherry. I am therefore grateful for the extra two days.

I hope that the Minister has reflected on the fact that, although we shall make matters easier for electors, we shall make them more difficult for staff of the returning officers. Rather than saving money, the tighter time scale means that we shall have to employ more people in electoral offices.

I listened with interest to what the Minister said about the changes in the attestation. The application forms will clearly be different and the changes with regard to nurses' qualifications will have an effect. One sometimes wonders whether all the changes are beneficial. I hope, therefore, that nurses' names, addresses and qualifications will be put down and be checkable.

On the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order, will the Minister clarify who will be registered? When we are dealing with nursing and residential homes, will the manager of a home where electors are resident have to register, or will the manager of the group of homes—certain firms now run a large number of homes—be considered to be in charge of the home? To whom does the legislation apply? We urgently need that information, which applies throughout the United Kingdom.

The Minister pointed out that one of the changes to the British legislation simply brought this side of the Irish sea into line with legislation in Northern Ireland. Is it not time that electoral law for general elections was exactly the same throughout the kingdom? Could not consolidation of the legislation be done with that in mind? We are sometimes weary of the little differences that appear. We see no good reason for them, and I therefore hope that the Government, or their successors, will take on board what I am saying and do what is necessary to bring legislation in Northern Ireland and Great Britain into line.

The Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations are clearly different from the regulations that apply to England, Wales and Scotland. I wondered why, but the Minister clarified that matter in her opening remarks. Will she confirm that, despite the different wording in the regulations that apply to Northern Ireland, they have exactly the same effect when it comes to the practicalities of elections?

I confess that I read the Great Britain regulations 2(2) and simply could not understand. It seemed to say that there was a delay of three months. Does that allow regulation 4(4) to come into effect immediately? The first part of the paragraphs seemed to say one thing but the second part seemed to say something different. Will the Minister clarify that?

I very much regret that the regulations do not oblige the chief electoral officer of Northern Ireland to keep a record of persons refused a ballot paper because they do not have proper identification. That bone of contention with the electors and political parties in Northern Ireland has run for years. Every time we raise it after an election at which a large number of people have complained, we are told, "Oh, those people might go away and come back." Our experience is that if people are refused a ballot, paper because they do not have the correct piece of paper in their hand, they do not come back. We must therefore look once more at having a single piece of identification—an identity card—that could be used across the board.

May I say to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), who spoke on behalf of the Labour party, that, although a rolling register is an attractive idea at first sight, if he lived in Northern Ireland he might take a distinctly different view because of the activities of Sinn Fein-IRA. I assure him that if one opens the door to frauds that could be perpetrated in one part of the kingdom, the door does not close; it opens right across the kingdom.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes , North East Derbyshire

One of the advantages of the electoral registration system in Northern Ireland is that there is a full canvass for checking that the correct people are on the register. If that were extended to England, Wales and Scotland, the registration figures there would increase considerably. That means that a rolling register would not have the serious implications for Northern Ireland that the hon. Gentleman fears.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross , East Londonderry

I agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman's comments, but not the second. We examined those matters at the meetings some parties attended in the Home Office. I was a representative of my party. The Minister is well aware of those meetings, at which a number of serious objections were thrown up. She might like to expand on them so that the hon. Gentleman is better informed.

I agree with the hon. Member; the registration process in Northern Ireland is much better than that in the rest of the UK. It is carefully done and people are followed up. The electoral officer claims that his register is 98 per cent. accurate. While that is impossible to prove, it is much better now than when he started doing it.

The political parties in Northern Ireland, albeit in a smaller society, seem to be much more effective at getting their people on the register than political parties in Great Britain have ever been, so perhaps we have a lesson or two to teach this side of the water yet.

Photo of Mr Tony Worthington Mr Tony Worthington , Clydebank and Milngavie 5:57 pm, 12th March 1997

I want to speak on similar lines to other hon. Members in welcoming what are basically sound but small, modest reforms. I, too, am disappointed, especially from the Northern Ireland point of view, that the Government have issued no general papers on developments within the electoral process to let us know how they see the electoral system developing. The Labour party believes that the need to safeguard against abuse is considerable.

The regulations do not address the central issue that concerns people—electoral abuse. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) recently accused Sinn Fein of stealing votes. He was following what the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron) has been saying for a long time: that personation in Northern Ireland is a serious problem. It is important to follow that through and give maximum backing to the chief electoral officer, Mr. Bradley, in his constant battle to make the system fairer.

Mr. Bradley hopes that computerisation, linked with the appropriate software, will improve these regulations and others, because the ways of abusing the system in Northern Ireland and elsewhere are numerous. We shall write to each of the parties in Northern Ireland asking for their suggestions on how to safeguard the system. The Government should have been more active on that matter.

As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said, there will be a tension between the desire to ensure that the procedure is the same as in the rest of the United Kingdom and the recognition of the particular tensions in Northern Ireland. He mentioned carrying identification at the polling booth. There is no doubt that the health card is the weak link.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross , East Londonderry

I must disabuse the hon. Gentleman of that idea: the weak link is any document that does not have a photograph on it, which is most of them.

Photo of Mr Tony Worthington Mr Tony Worthington , Clydebank and Milngavie

It so happens that the health card does not have a photograph on it, and I am talking about that weakness and the rumours about the capacity of various organisations to churn out health cards that the polling agents cannot identify as false. The effectiveness of the card would be immensely strengthened even with the addition of a signature. There are complications, however, and any change would cost money.

It is not only a matter of personation. There are weak links at each stage in the system. For example, there are huge disparities in the number of postal votes in different constituencies. At the last general election, one constituency had nearly 4,000 postal votes, or 8.2 per cent. of the votes cast; another had only 335, or 0.8 per cent. of the votes cast. That may reflect geography or levels of political organisation, but in approving the orders we ought to be able to be confident that there are benign explanations of the huge differences. It is extremely important to know that only those who are entitled to vote do so—and only once—especially when results are close.

We welcome the proposals. They seem to be safe and important changes, but they are extremely modest in relation to what is needed to appraise whether the system in Northern Ireland is satisfactory. There has been plenty of practice with elections in Northern Ireland, so we should have had papers before us stating whether the system is working fairly.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone 6:01 pm, 12th March 1997

This has been a short but interesting debate, and there has been a large measure of agreement across the parties. Almost all the points raised were more to do with what was not in the orders than with what was. I shall ensure that all the points are drawn to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, and I am sure that we shall consider whether any further action needs to be taken.

I shall answer one or two of the points that were made. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) spoke about 2 million voters moving between certain dates, and said that many would lose their vote as a result. That is not necessarily so; they can still vote by post or by proxy at their old address. The extension of time will help with that.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said that the extension of time might be good for electors, but would be very difficult for electoral registration officers and those who had to implement the system. We took detailed advice before deciding on the two-and-a-half-day extension; we were advised that that was the maximum extension that it was safe and practicable to make. We believe that we have found a balance between looking after the electors and looking after those who have to put the requirements of the election into effect.

A rolling register would be much more expensive and more bureaucratic, and we have decided that further work on it would not be the highest priority when considering further reforms that might have to be made.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry mentioned consolidation. That took place in 1983, and further detailed regulations have to be made simply to keep pace with and clarify developments since that time. He also asked, quite fairly, whether the Northern Ireland regulations were the same as those for the rest of the United Kingdom. The answer, as I said in my introduction, is yes, except where Northern Ireland already has a slightly different arrangement that cannot easily be accommodated or equalled.

It was suggested that the Northern Ireland method of a complete canvass should be extended to Great Britain to get more people on the register. In fact, many electoral registration officers in Great Britain conduct a canvass of household doors, and it is down to those officers to decide the best method for themselves, so the concept of a complete household canvass is not unique to Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry also spoke about the Northern Ireland electoral offices not keeping a record of people turned away from polling stations because they did not have the right identification. In fact, a leaflet is delivered to every one of Northern Ireland's 600,000 households before an election, detailing the documents that are legally required to be presented in order to obtain a ballot paper. We have no reason to believe that a significant number turn up without the correct documentation.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross , East Londonderry

The right hon. Lady is saying what the electoral officers tell her, but will she not listen to what the political parties say? We have evidence that many people are turned away and do not come back.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone

That is a serious point, and if the hon. Gentleman believes that there is substantial evidence for it, he should let us know. We have to go on the evidence before us, which suggests that that is not the case. It is not that it does not happen, but that the number is not substantial.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) asked about addresses on ballot papers. I understand his point of view, and I have some sympathy with it. I shall ensure that it is drawn to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend, but it is not a matter than I can immediately encompass in the regulations with which we are dealing today.

I hope that I have dealt with the main points that were raised in the debate. I shall of course read Hansard carefully and answer any further points of detail in writing.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the draft Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations 1997, which were laid before this House on 13th February, be approved.

Resolved,

That the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 1997, which were laid before this House on 13th February, be approved.

That the draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 1997, which were laid before this House on 13th February, be approved.

That the draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 13th February, be approved.

That the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 1997, which were laid before this House on 13th February, be approved.

That the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 1997, which were laid before this House on 13th February, be approved.—[Miss Widdecombe.]