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Orders of the Day — Electoral Registration (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]

– in the House of Commons at 1:39 pm on 24th February 2005.

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[Relevant documents: The First Report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Session 2004–05, HC 131, and the Minutes of Evidence taken before the Committee on 2nd April 2003, Session 2002–03, HC 619-i, on Electoral Registration in Northern Ireland.]

Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 1:42 pm, 24th February 2005

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I will begin by setting out what this short Bill does and then explain its context and why its introduction is necessary at this time. It gives the chief electoral officer of Northern Ireland the power to re-register former electors on to the Northern Ireland electoral register by 1 April 2005. Former electors are individuals who appeared on the register published on 1 September 2004, but who failed to return that year's annual canvass or failed to complete it accurately, so did not appear on the register published on 1 December 2004.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am most grateful to the Minister for taking such an early intervention. The whole purpose of the electoral fraud legislation passed by this House in 2002 was to put in place additional identifiers to stamp out the serious problem of electoral fraud. What is the point of putting back on to the register electors who failed to comply with the requirement to provide the proper identifiers?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

People who were previously properly recorded on the electoral register will have been through that verification process. They were on the register running from 2003 to 2004 precisely because they had filled in the forms properly and had been checked. In 2004, they either did not return the forms, for which there are many possible reasons, or they did not fill them in accurately, but those individuals had already been checked. So we are not changing the procedure for properly identifying individuals or the procedures for verifying voters at polling stations. I shall return to that matter.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Minister is being most generous in giving way again. If an elector has changed address, how will the chief electoral officer check the accuracy of the identifiers?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

In cases where the officer does not believe that the elector has moved or that someone else resides at the address in question, he already has the identifiers for those voters. He already has their national insurance numbers and dates of birth, which is why they are included on the existing register. The difficulty that we face—it is reinforced by today's report on electoral registration—is that whereas one might have anticipated a one-step drop in the electoral register as a result of its being cleaned up and of the changes introduced in previous legislation, in fact there is year-on-year decline. That is why there has been considerable and widespread cross-community concern that although the register is now highly accurate, because everyone who is on it is supposed to be on it, it is definitely becoming less comprehensive because not everyone who should be on it is. I will identify some of the differential effects shortly.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami Labour, Alyn and Deeside

Does my right hon. Friend agree—he has just touched on this issue—that the previous legislation was intended to prevent fraud, rather than to deter people from taking part in a proper democratic process?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

As I have said, there are many measures that prevent register and voting fraud. For the latter, photo identity is an example, and we rightly propose to make no change in that regard.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP, East Londonderry

Can the Minister explain the effect of this restoration? He said that the UK average for persons eligible to be on the register was 93 per cent. and that the figure for Northern Ireland is now 85 per cent. What will that percentage be, assuming that the Bill is passed today?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The Bill will certainly improve it—by approximately 81,000 electors—but we should allow for the fact that every week that figure is reduced. For example, the registrar produces a weekly report on the deaths that have occurred and by other means it might become clear to the registrar that certain people have moved. Of course, there might also be a new registration at a different address.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

I want to follow up the point made by Mr. Campbell. The Minister referred to registration figures of 93 per cent. for Great Britain and of 85 per cent. for Northern Ireland. Although we will eventually have an effective register of citizens as a consequence of the identity card legislation—that is one of the advantages of that legislation—we do not currently have one, so how can the Minister be sure that those figures are accurate?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

We work on the most reliable census figures, but there will be a degree of inaccuracy in them, as some of the challenges to the census have made clear to us. However, the census figures for both jurisdictions make it clear that a considerably lower percentage of those recorded in the census are registered as electors in Northern Ireland than are registered in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Bill will increase the registration figure to more than 90 per cent., but we do not regard this as the long-term answer. It is an interim measure to enable us to have a more comprehensive register while we look at the whole question of electoral registration.

Mr. Trimble is right, in that an identity card register might completely change the way in which an electoral register is drawn up. In some continental countries, for example, the register is entirely drawn from the residential register because, whether or not one is a citizen in those jurisdictions, it is a requirement, on moving, to register with the local authority. In Holland, that information is gathered together into one national register, which is also used for vehicle licensing and other purposes.

Those are some of the broader issues, but today we are dealing with an interim measure to deal with a recognised problem before May this year.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I cannot resist giving way to the hon. Gentleman, after his earlier intervention in which he objected to harmonising arrangements between the United Kingdom—I mean Great Britain—and Northern Ireland.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim

The Minister's Freudian slip speaks for itself.

Does the Minister accept that lower registration in Northern Ireland stems from the general disillusionment of the citizens of Northern Ireland? We have more elections than any other part of the United Kingdom. Over the last 20 or 30 years, we have constantly had elections, but the democratic mandate—as in the Assembly elections at the end of last year, for example—is not reflected in concrete governmental terms. There is no reaction on the ground. We can elect an Assembly, but it does not operate; we elect local government, but it has very few powers. There is a general disillusionment with political society in Northern Ireland because of the lack of powers to govern the Province and affect its future.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

That argument may imply that people decide not to participate in elections by not voting. We want to ensure that every citizen who is eligible to vote has the ability to participate when election day comes and is not prevented from doing so because of non-appearance on the register. Incidentally, what we are proposing is not unusual in a number of countries. In Australia, which has slightly later registration once an election has been announced, about 500,000 electors apply within a few weeks to be on the register. It is indefensible in democratic terms not to ensure that we have the most comprehensive register possible. The Bill is designed to achieve that.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

While the Minister is considering the need to get 81,000 people on the list, will he answer a question that is on many people's minds? Is it not the case that some of those 81,000 may never have existed in the first place and may be bogus voters? The Minister may have a good answer to that question, which I have been asked many times. It would be helpful to have his answer on the record.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

That argument could have been made about previous electoral registers, but as a result of the 2002 legislation, there was a major clean-up of the register. Subsequently, all those registered were checked in respect of their personal identifiers, so they have already been verified as individuals on the register. Some of the concerns previously expressed are no longer relevant because the safeguards on voting are stronger. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann has tabled an amendment that we can debate later. I hope to be able to allay some of the concerns about postal or proxy voting, but the great majority of votes are cast at a polling station and I have pointed out the safeguards that apply in those circumstances, which I hope reassures hon. Members.

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

Would it not be difficult for a person who did not exist to secure a photo identity card?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

We are perhaps now touching on some of the broader areas of theology.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons)

While the Minister is in the mood for allaying fears, I want to put another concern to him and I am sure that he will provide a good answer. Could any of the 81,000 electors being carried forward include any who had died in the meantime? That question has been put to me and it would be helpful to have the Minister's answer on the record.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I thought that I had answered that earlier. The carry-over arrangements for the electoral register include the mechanism for the registrar to be notified on a weekly basis of any deaths registered during that period. The list will therefore be cleaned up regularly. That concern applies to the current register in any case, not just to the carry-over register. The same procedures apply in each case. It reminds me of the anecdote about a little Mexican boy crying on the street in south Texas. Asked why he is crying, he says that he is upset because his father did not come to see him. When told, "Your father has been dead for seven years", he replies: "I know, but on Saturday he was in town and voted for Lyndon Johnson, yet he never came to see me". That would no longer be a problem because of the regular clean-up of the register. As I said, it applies to both parts of the register.

It would be as well if I made some progress—

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Minister is gracious in taking so many interventions, which I greatly appreciate. On the question whether any of the 81,000 names go back on the register, will he clarify one particular issue? When the properly registered electors were first included on the register, it was in connection with a particular address. That is part of the identification scheme. If, in the interim, someone moves and subsequently dies at the new address, how can the Minister guarantee that no voting papers will be issued to the original address at which the elector, sadly, no longer resides?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The answer is simply because of the national insurance number identifier. Cross-matches are regularly undertaken. I am a little cautious, because I cannot quite remember whether we have actually carried out the first cross-checks—or are about to do so—between the national insurance register and the electoral register. In any case, that is the clean-up mechanism and there are a range of such mechanisms in place. I return to the point that anyone who wants to vote will have to secure a photo identity card. As the hon. Lady knows, a driving licence or pensioner's bus pass can be used. I stress that these cross-checks do not exist in the rest of the United Kingdom, but I believe that they provide, for Northern Ireland, a considerable degree of assurance as to the integrity of the register and the electoral process.

I want to make some progress, though many of the issues have already been covered in my responses to interventions. The Bill also gives the chief electoral officer the power to carry forward the names of electors who fail to complete the annual canvass form in 2005 on to the register published on 1 December 2005. The provision expires after one year, but may be renewed for a further year by order of the Secretary of State.

On the restoration to the electoral register of names previously removed, clause 1 gives the chief electoral officer the power to put back on the electoral register those electors who were on the register on 15 October 2004 but did not re-register during the autumn canvass in 2004. That takes effect on 1 April 2005. If the chief electoral officer has information suggesting that the former elector has ceased to be resident at the relevant address or that the registration conditions set out in previous legislation—the Representation of the People Act 1983—no longer apply, the chief electoral officer cannot exercise his power in relation to a former elector.

I have already stressed that the personal identifiers that the former electors gave when they originally registered will be kept when they are restored to the register. To respond to another question put to me, an elector's previously expressed preference as to whether they wanted their name to be on the full or the edited version of the register will still be binding.

Clauses 2 and 3 modify the 1983 Act to ensure that the chief electoral officer can retain names on the register after an annual canvass until the publication of the updated register after the next annual canvass. The power does not apply to former electors added to the register under clause 1. An elector's name can be carried over only for 12 months—that is important—and, unless they re-register, they will be removed from the register. It is a one-off exercise for an elector, even in the event of that one renewal by the Secretary of State. That applies only to those whom the chief electoral officer has no reason to believe are no longer at the address given. That power will automatically lapse unless specifically extended by the Secretary of State for a maximum period of one year.

I shall briefly give the background because it is important to put it on the record. In Great Britain, the Representation of the People Act 1983 allows the name of an elector to remain on the register after a canvass until the registration officer determines that they are not entitled to so remain. That is referred to as the carry-forward. In Northern Ireland, names must be removed if no form is submitted or if the form submitted does not include all the information required.

The effect is to prevent a carry-forward of names from year to year unless the chief electoral officer receives a properly completed form. That was introduced by the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. The measures introduced in 2002 have been successful in reducing fraud and increasing the accuracy of the register, but an unfortunate consequence has been that, although there was a one-off fall in the register as we anticipated, there has also been a consistent fall in the number registered year on year. We believe—the belief is widely held in Northern Ireland—that that risks damaging the integrity of the register due to a lack of comprehensiveness.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

The Minister said, correctly, that the introduction of the 2002 Act was expected to result in an initial reduction as it cleaned out false registrations and phantom voters. However, as he also said, there has been a subsequent fall. I may be anticipating what he is about to say, but I hope that he will consider the reasons for that subsequent fall and what the continuing fall is. That would be worth while because the Bill is a one-off measure; we must look to the future and consider how to ensure that people register. We know the cause of the one-off drop, but what is the cause of the continuing drop?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

There are multiple causes, many of which are common to democratic societies. They include increasing social mobility, lower registration by younger people, people becoming more averse to filling in endless forms and so on. All those factors are comprehensible and can be addressed. We must consider a range of measures and we are looking at methods in other countries, such as cross-referencing to driving licences, social security and national insurance records, notification of change of address to the Post Office and other utilities, the sale of houses and new registration of house ownership, housing association properties and so on. Many of those refer to a previous point raised by the right hon. Gentleman about an identity register. However, in the absence of those procedures, we must address the problems. They are not unique to the United Kingdom or to Northern Ireland, but we must consider how to tackle them.

In the meantime, we have the immediate problem of a substantial shortfall—that is generally agreed—between the number of people who are eligible to be registered and the number who are registered. No one would argue that it is undesirable to have the maximum possible registration and no one would argue for attempts, as we have seen in some other jurisdictions, artificially to depress the register by administrative means. That would be unacceptable to all democratically minded people and I know that that argument would not be made today. Therefore, we must consider how to ensure the most comprehensive register possible. We need to consider longer term measures, which I intend to explore with the political parties during the next few months. In the meantime, we must take action—we have received representations from across the community for that—to deal with the particular problem facing us now.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP, East Londonderry

The Minister has said several times that this is a one-off problem, but that the Government must address the ongoing problem. Will there be any research into the 80,000-plus voters who will be restored to the register as a result of the Bill? For example, many people believe that younger voters are predominant among the 80,000. Will there be any research to ensure that the younger age group of voters will be targeted to ensure maximum electoral registration and maximum turnout at elections?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Yes, indeed. We have commissioned work from the Electoral Commission to discover the reasons for the continuing fall and the shortfall. We are also undertaking our own work to consider how other jurisdictions ensure the most comprehensive register possible.

The main Northern Ireland parties have been lobbying Ministers hard to introduce measures to alleviate the falling numbers on the register. There is general concern, particularly about the shortfall among younger people, as the hon. Member for East Londonderry said. Therefore, we have decided to re-introduce the carry-forward temporarily until we can put in place new registration arrangements for Northern Ireland in the longer term.

The Bill is important because the electoral register should be accurate and comprehensive. Putting an additional 83,000 electors back on to the register will strengthen the democratic process in Northern Ireland, particularly with important local elections due in May.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

I hope that the Minister can respond to a matter that he has not yet touched on. He referred to the desirability of having as many people as possible on the register. It is also desirable to have the register available to people, particularly with the prospect of at least one election. Those involved in political activity need to have the register available as soon as possible. The Bill does not take effect until 1 April. Will a new register be published on 1 April, or is that being too optimistic?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

That touches on an amendment that has been tabled by the Liberal Democrats and I shall address the matter when we come to that amendment. We recognise the desire for the comprehensive register to be available as soon as possible and, if it is administratively feasible, I hope that it will be produced before 1 April for that reason. We are considering the possibility of doing that because I recognise the need for political parties to be able to access the electorate as early as possible. I shall deal with the matter in greater detail when we come to the amendment.

I appreciate some of the concerns that were raised during the debate on the programme motion about fast-tracking the Bill and cutting down some of the time available for debate. There has been adequate discussion and consultation since November and we need to implement the Bill because those electors must be able to vote in the forthcoming local elections.

I thank hon. Members for their constructive comments and look forward to responding to any detailed matters that are raised. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 2:09 pm, 24th February 2005

The Opposition accept that the Bill has been introduced to try to remedy a real problem. It was made clear during exchanges in response to interventions from Unionist Members that everyone expected the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 to lead to a fall in the number of registered electors in the Province. It certainly did that, because about 120,000 electors, amounting some 10 per cent. of the entire register, were removed. What was not expected was that that would be followed by a year-on-year decline in the number of people registered to vote.

The Minister has given the Government's assessment that only about 85 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland are now registered to vote compared with about 93 per cent. in the rest of the United Kingdom. Not only the Government but the Electoral Commission and the Select Committee on Northern Ireland have expressed concern about that state of affairs. In its report on the operation of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) 2002 Act, the commission explicitly pointed to the abolition of the ability to allow names to be carried forward for one year as probably the chief reason for the continuing fall in the number of registered electors.

One has to ask, as others have done already in the debate, why those people have not registered. I suppose that for some it was a matter of deliberate choice. For others it was probably, if we are honest, sheer laziness, or due to the mislaying of a form. I am obviously speculating here, but I suspect that the chief reason is that there are plenty of people who are not terribly interested in politics and for whom the task of re-registering annually is one of those things that they do not regard as a particularly high priority.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that one of the significant reasons why people do not register every year is that there is an education problem here. The Electoral Commission and the chief electoral officer need to advertise more clearly especially to older voters who enjoy voting and vote regularly that a change has taken place and they are now expected to register every year. That is the main problem.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Lady makes a perfectly fair point. When I consulted my own party organisation about our approach to this Bill, a comment was made to me by a senior agent that people in Northern Ireland might well have expected that, having once registered with the unique identifier, they had done the job for good and all, and that they would not have to repeat the process annually.

So we have to decide today whether we can make it easier for people who are genuinely entitled to vote to remain on the register without compromising the safeguards against fraud that were built into the 2002 Act. I have a number of questions to ask the Minister which I hope he will be able to answer in due course. Some of the points that I intended to make have already been covered, so I will not labour them at length. Mr. Dodds referred to how deaths influence the composition of the register. The Minister gave us an answer that provided some reassurance that the chief registration officer notifies the chief electoral officer every week of those people in Northern Ireland who have died and provides lists of their unique numbers. I hope that the Minister can confirm exactly the procedure that is followed. It seems a vital safeguard.

Can the Minister be absolutely confident of the reliability of the data set of national insurance numbers? We hear from time to time in the House and in the media about the alleged widespread use of false national insurance numbers and of people who appropriate the national insurance numbers of citizens who have died. I hope that the Minister can give us some assurance that he can be confident that there is no gap in the anti-fraud regime as a consequence of that.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

May I ask the Minister through my hon. Friend what alternatives to national insurance numbers were canvassed? My hon. Friend is right to say that worries about accuracy have been raised on occasions in the House. We carry all kinds of other things. National health numbers are an example, but there are many others. How were any alternatives judged to be inferior to national insurance numbers? What test has been made of that? There is a widespread worry in the House about the impermanence of all this and whether we are proceeding without having done that kind of homework. The Minister may be able to assure us that he has done it, but I would like to ask him through my hon. Friend whether he has.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am sure that the Minister will have taken note of my hon. Friend's comments and that he will respond later.

I move on to questions about people who have changed their address since their original registration. Clause 1(c) makes it unlawful for somebody to be re-registered if the chief electoral officer has information to suggest that that person is no longer resident at the address at which he was previously lawfully registered. What in practice does that safeguard mean? Does the chief electoral officer have the wherewithal to carry out checks on change of residence, or is all we are saying in the Bill that somebody who notifies the officer of a change in address will have his or her electoral registration duly altered? Are there other sources of information to which the chief electoral officer has access that would provide safeguards against the impersonation of somebody who had moved house and as a consequence had not registered at their previous address and had chosen, for whatever reason, not to register at their new address?

I have a particular concern about younger voters. Taking up the point made by Mr. Campbell, I have seen figures that suggest that fewer than a quarter of 17 and 18-year-olds in Northern Ireland are registered to vote. We know that in general young people in their late teens and 20s are likely to be mobile; they may well change address relatively often. So re-registration as proposed in the Bill could put back on the register many people who have moved house but who have not bothered to tell the electoral authorities. If we consider that in the circumstances of Northern Ireland, how likely is it that a paramilitary organisation linked to a political party could work out that at a particular address in Belfast or Londonderry a number of young electors had properly registered in the first instance, subsequently moved away and re-registered under the terms of the new legislation? In such circumstances, will there not be an opportunity for such an organisation to make applications for postal or proxy votes on behalf of those people who have moved away from their original registration address? I know that Mr. Trimble hopes to speak about that issue in later stages of the consideration of the Bill. I hope that the Minister will be able to come forward with some persuasive reassurances at that stage, if not in response to the Second Reading debate. This is one of the most troublesome aspects of the Bill.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about how the votes could be misused. Is it also possible that one of the problems of younger voters dropping off the register is that registration takes place around August or September when some of them are moving away from home to university or other education establishments? In the past, their mother or father would put their name on the register, but no longer is that being done. Is there not a role for education there as well? It seems to me that once students are away sometimes they are forgotten about.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly valid point.

Finally, may I put it to the Minister that there may be a risk of intimidation? I simply ask the question: is it possible that some people have failed to re-register not through idleness but in order to make it impossible for them to be intimidated into voting for a particular candidate in an election in Northern Ireland? It seems to me that if one's name is on the register in Northern Ireland, one knows that the parties linked to the paramilitaries will—admittedly after the election—in due course have access to a marked register showing which electors have voted and which have not; and that knowledge on the part of the individual elector may make him or her more susceptible to intimidation by those paramilitaries into turning out, into casting a vote and into casting a vote in a particular direction. From the elector's point of view, to follow my hypothesis through, the only way to avoid any risk of that happening would be to decide not to go on the register at all. So is there a risk that in bringing this measure forward we shall actually make it easier in some circumstances for paramilitary groups to intimidate people who are very scared and have chosen not to register to vote in order to avoid being put in that predicament?

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that members of the security forces, particularly police officers and those serving with the Royal Irish Regiment, have been advised at times—I am talking about security advice—to remove their names from the electoral register because of the threat of being identified through that mechanism and having their homes targeted? Does he share my concern that they may find themselves back on the electoral register again, and could be identified in the same manner as he has just outlined in terms of others who, for different reasons, would be concerned about intimidation?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly legitimate point. Of course there are a number of electors in Great Britain as well who, for similar reasons, choose to withhold their address details from the published electoral register, and the hon. Gentleman has raised a further point that I hope the Minister will address, and certainly about which I trust that the Government have done some thinking and provided some answers.

In conclusion, this legislation is all about trying to get the balance right. It is clearly wrong for there to be some tens of thousands of people in Northern Ireland who are qualified to vote but who, as a result of inattention or a lack of publicity or for some other reason, will not be able to exercise the most fundamental of rights in a democracy. On the other hand, can we, through this Bill, provide a mechanism to redress that wrong without risking the framework of safeguards against fraud, impersonation and intimidation that the House enacted back in 2002?

I shall await with interest the Minister's responses to the questions that not just I but other Members of all Opposition parties have posed.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs 2:24 pm, 24th February 2005

The Minister will know that of late I have been increasingly unhappy with the lack of consultation regarding various aspects of legislation and initiatives taken by Northern Ireland Office Ministers in regard to the peace process and other matters. I am glad to say, and I give credit to the Minister and his colleagues for this, that the situation seems to be improving, and I am grateful for the proactive approach that the Government seem now to be taking in regard to consultation and inclusion of all parties in pre-legislative discussions of matters such as this one. It has been very helpful to hear and see the Government's perspective on the need for the Bill in advance of today's debate.

It is also clear that we are not discussing the occasional omission or error that appears on electoral registers. We have all seen or heard of examples where somebody's pet or six-month-old child has turned up on the register, but we are now talking about the massive level of electoral fraud that bedevilled politics in Northern Ireland for a very long time, and to that extent it is salient and appropriate that this matter is being discussed in the run-up to the May elections—although, for the reasons that we discussed earlier and which I need not repeat, it does seem a little curious that the Government have left it so close to the last minute to do so.

I remain slightly sceptical, however, and indeed a little uneasy, about the contents of the Bill, and that is because we supported the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 and we are concerned that the Bill might to an extent dilute it. It was obviously sensible to tackle the huge problem of electoral fraud faced particularly by Northern Ireland, where democracy was really being undermined and where in some cases the outcome of elections may have been affected or compromised by fraud. Indeed, it was the Liberal Democrats, together with the other Opposition parties, who proposed the use of national insurance numbers as an additional personal identifier for electors when registering.

Interestingly, in April 2004 the Electoral Commission published a report on the operation of the Assembly election of November 2003. Paragraph 5.63 of the report stated:

"The findings illustrate that suspicions of electoral fraud among presiding officers had reduced dramatically. This view was endorsed by a number of parties and candidates who felt the election was fair and free. One political party said they believed the election held in November 2003 was probably the 'cleanest and fairest' ever held in" the north of Ireland. The Police Service of Northern Ireland

"confirmed that they had received no reports of attempted personation at any of the polling stations during election day. This was in direct contrast to previous elections when a small number of incidents of personation were reported directly to the police."

So it does seem that the 2002 legislation is working.

I have, however, a concern that the methodology designed to include the 83,000 or 81,000 people whom we have discussed might actually dilute the efficacy of the original legislation. The Minister indicated that there was a problem in a written statement published in Hansard on 30 November 2004. During the annual canvass last autumn, officers of the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland had been, and were, calling at electors' houses to deliver and collect registration forms. Electors were written to and encouraged to fill in those forms, and still we ended up with a deficit of 83,000 people at that time.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami Labour, Alyn and Deeside

I accept a lot of the points that the hon. Gentleman is making, but does he accept that there might equally be a problem on the other side? There is a distinct possibility that at the next election some people who think they are still on the register will turn up at the polling station, discover that they cannot vote and then perhaps feel that a fraud has been committed against them.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

That is an interesting point and a fair one, and I fear that such things happen in every election in England, Wales and Scotland as well as in the north of Ireland. The hon. Gentleman is right, but I am not entirely convinced that the move that we are taking today will necessarily alleviate that problem. In response to what the hon. Gentleman says, I would ask the Minister, in his summation, to share his perspective on whether he thinks there will be a significant problem at the next elections in the Province of people who think they are registered but turn out not to be.

It must also be said that there has been an intensive communication process with the citizens of Northern Ireland to encourage them to fill in their forms, and still we have ended up with 80,000 or so people who have not. I am still not clear in my mind why the Government think that this has occurred. It has been mooted to us by officials that perhaps there is just a lot of apathy about, but I am wondering what the chief electoral officer has actually done between the end of the annual canvass and today to establish why there has been a drop in registration. I suggest to the Minister that it would be helpful to have a definitive analysis of the cause. He also spoke about percentages and, although he may not be able to give us the statistic now, I should be grateful to know the figure for the number of people that it is estimated are not registered to vote in England, Wales and Scotland, because that comparison would probably be rather important. I suggest that there probably comes a ceiling beyond which it is extremely difficult to get people to register.

On the legislation itself, electors can still register through the existing process for inclusion in the April register. Since—to use a phrase that has been used before—the dogs in the street now know that the general election is likely to take place on 5 May, there is a particular incentive to do so. Under the rolling registration process, I understand that the last date to register is 10 March. I wonder whether, since the Minister made a statement in November, the officers from the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland have made significant attempts personally to contact the 80,000 or so people who will be affected by the legislation. I accept that that is a very large number, but personal contact may be the single most effective way to overcome the problem. Has anyone attempted to explain to those people that, unless they fill out an electoral registration form, they will not be able to vote? To some extent, that responds to the intervention from Mark Tami a few minutes ago.

Surely it is much better to ensure that electors are registered properly in accordance with the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, rather than through the measures proposed in the Bill. That leads me to my concern: we are setting a precedent that might be rather difficult to get out of in the future. We can discuss the danger of having to re-enact this kind of last minute legislation when we debate the amendments. I seek an assurance from the Minister that he will not use today's debate as a precedent for future debates and say, "Well, back in February 2005, we made this exemption, so it's okay to do it again," because, as far as I am concerned, it is not. This is a one-off occasion when we will rather unhappily pass an exemption that should not be repeated.

A very interesting point was made earlier about the possibility that students will be excluded because, unlike in the past, their parents will not be able to put their names on the register. I am particularly concerned about that, because students are obviously smart and we know that smart people tend to vote for the Alliance party of Northern Ireland. So my sister party stands to lose more than anybody else if students are not on the register. I seek the Minister's perspective on what we can do to ensure that those students do not fall through the net. I feel, therefore, that the Government have not really fully explored some of the alternative measures to those proposed in the Bill. We seek to make some modifications with the amendments that we will be discussing shortly.

Finally, in some correspondence relating directly to the legislation, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has written to me and my colleagues in the Liberal Democrat party asking us to reconsider our sceptical stance on the Bill. In fact, he said:

"in the interests of democracy, it is important that the Northern Ireland register is both accurate and comprehensive. I firmly believe that this Bill will help us to achieve that objective."

The Secretary of State and the Minister are more persuaded of the need for that than the Liberal Democrats; nevertheless, on the basis of the Minister's speech and his helpful responses to a number of interventions, the Liberal Democrats will agree to support the Bill today.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party 2:33 pm, 24th February 2005

I start by commending what was done by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in terms of their approach to the Bill, which has resulted in the Bill before us being somewhat different from the Bill that we might have had originally. I will come back to that, because there are some really important points there.

As has been said, we are operating in a context created by the electoral reform legislation. We regard that legislation as hugely important. There is no doubt but that Northern Ireland elections over the years have been attended by certain local customs, although I have to say that those customs are not unique to Northern Ireland. The extent of electoral abuse that existed in the past in Northern Ireland exists in some localities in Great Britain today, and indeed will be hugely increased by some of the Government's other proposals.

The Minister may be aware of the very considerable concern about recent elections and referendums that exists in some areas in England, where there is increasing evidence of massive abuse through the novel practices that the Government have been introducing. That is not a matter for debate today, but it is so closely connected with this matter that the Government need to think. They have been doing—I hope that they continue to do—the right thing in Northern Ireland, but they are not doing the right thing, in electoral terms, elsewhere. I hope that the practices that operate with regard to Northern Ireland elections are replicated elsewhere in the United Kingdom to deal with the abuse that exists there.

I return to my central point that there were local customs in Northern Ireland, of which at one point, I suppose, there was a grudging acceptance in society. Indeed, in many respects, the practice of what was called personation operated as a sort of informal proxy voting—I may come back to this later. People sometimes took advantage of it. However, in recent years, because of the way in which it has been organised by certain paramilitary-related parties and because of the intimidation that accompanied their actions, there was very real concern that the abuse was getting out of hand in some respects and was becoming something completely one-sided. That had been a concern of ours for a long time. As the Minister knows, we have been pressing for reform on this matter and we were glad to see reform come in the shape of the electoral reform legislation. We think that it is hugely important.

The report quoted by Lembit Öpik expressed the opinion that the November 2003 election was probably the most honest that there had been in Northern Ireland. We share that view, and we are glad of that. We want to see elections that are honest and that have the greatest participation possible, which is why we approach the Bill with a slightly mixed mind. We are concerned that it might weaken the structure of the electoral reform legislation, but at the same time, we do not object in principle to putting people on the register. Indeed, we want to see people go on the register—but they must be people who are entitled to be there.

That brings me to the point that I touched on earlier in an intervention, which is that although we expected there to be a significant drop when the electoral reform legislation took effect, we thought that it would be a one-off. The continuing drop is a matter for concern. As a number of hon. Members said, it is something that ought to be looked into closely. Some work has already been done, but as was suggested in an intervention, it would be a very good idea for more to be done, and in particular, for an effort to be made to identify the 80,000-plus persons whose registration is about to be resumed, and to establish whether we can find out anything about their circumstances.

The Minister referred to some of the reasons why people may allow their names to lapse, or not put themselves on the register, but hon. Members have also touched on three matters already in their interventions. Mr. Donaldson referred to the fact—it is a fact—that many people associated with the security forces do not put their names on the register because they feel that by being on the register, they are making it easier for people to target them. That has been a factor. I do not think that it would be an increased factor at the moment. If anything, it might be a diminished factor, although, in the present uncertainty, who knows? But it certainly has been a factor in the past.

My hon. Friend Lady Hermon referred to a significant factor when she spoke of the quality of the work done by the Electoral Commission, and whether enough was being done to draw people's attention to this fact, particularly with regard to old people. Again, I do not want to stray beyond the terms of the Bill, but we have grave concerns about the quality of the Electoral Commission's work, even on something as basic as why counts in Northern Ireland take so much longer than counts elsewhere. We all have to experience that irritation in Northern Ireland. I dare say that if there is something other than a local government election on 5 May, by the time the first results come out in Northern Ireland, everyone else in Great Britain will have gone home.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

You may hold the balance of power.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

There was a happy occasion when that happened. It caused some confusion on the mainland in February 1973—[Hon. Members: "1974."] I stand corrected. I am grateful to the hon. Members for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) for assisting me.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

But never so felicitous.

Slow counts are one of the many factors that concern us about the work of the Electoral Commission. The Bill deals with the creation of the register and the maintenance of an accurate register. I do not want to be too negative about the Electoral Commission, but the Minister should see whether there are ways to improve the quality of its work, because that is undoubtedly a factor.

My hon. Friend Rev. Martin Smyth made a good point that may explain the low take-up of registration by young people. Previous research mentioned that fact, but did not explain it, other than assuming that young people are more apathetic than others.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Surely one of the great problems is the number of students from Northern Ireland who are studying at university on the United Kingdom mainland who either were not on the original register or are now in their second or third year. Those who are diligent and deem themselves residents of Northern Ireland could be treated unfairly, but there is also the potential for abuse if they are not retuning as frequently to Northern Ireland as they once did. The problem is the grey area of what constitutes a "resident" in respect of Northern Ireland students who are on the mainland.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

The hon. Gentleman makes the valid point that the problem of young people registering may be affected by the large number of people from Northern Ireland who attend university in Great Britain. However, I wonder whether that proportion is any higher than the proportion of people from an English region who are attending universities out of their region, perhaps 50, 100 or 200 miles away. The proportion of Northern Irish students on the mainland may be no higher. The existence of a bit of water does not affect ease of travel.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

This is an important point. There is a cultural difference. People from the mainland are encouraged by the National Union of Students and their families to register, and it is not considered irregular to be registered both at university in, say, Durham, and at home in Surrey. However, I can understand the diligent and responsible citizen of Northern Ireland hesitating, almost nervously, in case he is doing something improper by registering in both places. It is the decent people who will be nervous, because the Electoral Commission has not spelt out with clarity the ground rules in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

Again, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which I would take further. The cultural difference is largely the result of people finding themselves operating in a different political environment when they move from Northern Ireland to GB. Why is that so? No doubt the hon. Gentleman knows that it is because of the failure of the national political parties to be national parties. The fault lies to a large extent with the people who are not in the Chamber; I think we can cheerfully agree on that.

The serious point is that people who have moved from, for example, Surrey to attend Edinburgh university will be approached by those who are involved in political activity to ask them whether they want to register in Edinburgh or to participate in the election at home. People from Northern Ireland might not be approached and targeted in the same way because they are likely to cast their votes at home, to which those involved in politics in Edinburgh or wherever are not motivated to have regard. The problem is underlined by an important fact that is of a more general nature. Again, I do not want to stray too far from the point, but there are political implications for the so-called national parties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South mentioned timing. The months of August and September are not a good time for people to fill in the forms. That is true not only because young people are going to university, but because of the normal tempo and shape of family life. That should be taken on board.

We need to look at the causes. Until we know what they are and find a way to address them, we cannot be sure that the problem will not continue. The one-off drop in registrations when the 2002 Act came into force was followed by a continuing drop, in response to which the Minister has proposed a Bill that is almost of a one-off character. It will operate for 12 months, but if we do not address the underlying problem satisfactorily, then what? Once the Bill ceases to have effect and people are no longer restored or carried forward in the way provided for in the Bill, will the Minister or his successor introduce another one-off measure in three or four years' time? If that happens, will we not permanently change the scheme of electoral reform, and does that not put us in danger of undermining legislation? That is one of the crucial problems with the Bill.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that it would help if the Minister gave a categorical assurance that the Government will not use the Bill as a precedent for the future? The danger is that electors in Northern Ireland will think that there is no need to register early, because they can do it at the last minute.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The crucial issue is whether there will be a change of policy. Is this a one-off or are we setting a precedent? He asks the Minister to give an undertaking. I hope he does because if he fails to do so, the amicable nature of our proceedings might change.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

Does my right hon. Friend agree that people in Northern Ireland are used to annual re-enactments of non-permanent legislation, and we do not want that to be repeated?

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

When my hon. Friend said "annual re-enactments", another thing popped into my mind, but he then made it clear that he was talking about legislation and some of the unfortunate ways in which it is handled. I am happy to agree entirely with him.

The central point is whether we are maintaining the policy of the 2002 Act. I hope that the Minister will give a positive response to the request by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. But even if such a positive response is given, if we do not address the underlying causes there is the danger that in two or three years another Minister will say that we must deal with the changes that have come about as a result of continuing falls. We must find some way of tackling the underlying cause and encouraging people to register. It is a trite point to make, but if politics in Northern Ireland were more successful, and more effectively addressed the whole range of people's interests rather than just constitutional and security matters, and if the whole range of economic issues and activities and parties were available to the people of Northern Ireland, we might see a great change. To that extent, it is important that the issues on which I am sure Andrew Mackinlay and others would agree with me are progressed.

As the Minister knows, I intend to say something about the need for safeguards. That is a matter that we will discuss again, but it is appropriate to advert to it at this point. In response to interventions earlier, when hon. Members were worried about the Bill leading to people being on the register who should not be on it, the Minister referred to the identifiers as safeguards. Each time he spoke about safeguards, he returned to the photo ID as the key one—but people can gain access to insurance numbers, and signatures can be forged. The Minister's sheet-anchor in his response to earlier interventions was photographic ID.

I understand the point that the Minister makes, and the fact that we have such identifiers is hugely important. Without them, our approach to the principle of the Bill would not be the same, but photographic ID is relevant only for those who are physically present at the polling station. It is not relevant to proxy voting and absent voting. The abuse that was taking place on such a large scale by paramilitary-related parties involved proxy and absent voting in particular. It was no longer the old-fashioned impersonation by people who turned up at the polling station and then allegedly went to a caravan where they changed clothes, hats and what not, and came back to vote again, or the sort of circumstances that led Sinn Fein in Foyle to hold a competition, or at least award a prize, to the person who cast the largest number of votes in an election. I dare say the hon. Member for East Londonderry, who is a native of the maiden city, will tell us that on one occasion that prize was won by a person who was subsequently elected herself to a particular place—but that is another matter.

I was about to say that that was in the good old days, but I correct myself—that was in the old days. In modern times the abuse occurs through proxy voting and absent voting. That is why safeguards are hugely important. To take the point a little further, I said that in the past in Northern Ireland, personation was an informal form of proxy voting. To a certain extent an improperly cast vote is organised in families. We have spoken about the intimidation that may take place, but improper voting may be organised in families, which means that information about national insurance numbers, for example, and even about signatures, may be readily available to people who want to ensure that a vote is cast improperly. The point that we will discuss later in the context of my new clauses is hugely important, but I shall reserve my further comments until then.

As I said, we are generally well disposed to the Bill. We obviously want to see as many people on the register as should be there. We are concerned about the underlying problem that needs to be addressed. We are concerned that there should be no change in fundamental policy and that there should be safeguards, but we are content to pursue the matter in Committee, and we do not intend to divide the House on Second Reading.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:54 pm, 24th February 2005

I thank the Minister for the consultations between members of our party and himself and officials. As he knows, the issue has exercised our party considerably and is undoubtedly a major issue right across the Province, particularly in Protestant working-class areas where there is a greater than average fall in the number of people registering. That is of great concern across the Province in all communities. I express the appreciation and gratitude of our party for allowing us to make representations and also for the way in which he responded.

By and large the Bill is a sensible measure. We welcome it and we will support it in its course through the House today. There are points of detail that need to be clarified and matters of concern that need to be dealt with, but as the debate has progressed some of those fears have been allayed already. As the Minister pointed out, the Bill brings the law in relation to the carry-over of registered electors into line with what happens in the rest of the country. As a matter of principle, there is no reason why we should oppose it.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

There is one issue that must be addressed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman—and, certainly, the Minister—will do so. The terms in which the Bill has been drafted will restore only those previously properly registered on the electoral register. That is fine, but there is a key duty on the chief electoral officer and all public authorities to promote equality of opportunity under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. We have just heard my right hon. Friend Mr. Trimble and Lembit Öpik speak of the need for young people to be on the electoral register. They will be discriminated against by the effects of the Bill.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons)

When the Minister replies, I am sure that he will want to address that in terms of the legislation to which the hon. Lady referred. We are dealing with the 81,000-odd people who were previously on the register, who fulfilled all the requirements as to identifiers and so on, and who the chief electoral officer was satisfied met all the criteria under the anti-fraud measures. Those are the only people whom we can legitimately deal with. It would be a matter of grave concern if we tried to do anything else.

The Bill is a sensible measure in line with the recommendations of the Electoral Commission and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. It is right that we should try to increase the number of people registered from the current level of 85 per cent. and bring the figure closer to that in the rest of the country. I am particularly alarmed by the figure mentioned today with regard to young people—that is, 17-year-olds who are registering to vote when they turn 18, and 18-year-olds. As few as 25 per cent. of those people may be registering. That is a cause of grave concern. A number of reasons have been given. Rev. Martin Smyth mentioned the problem of student mobility and the time at which the canvass was carried out—September and October—when many young people may be embarking on courses of study in places other than where they live.

We now have rolling registration, which some might say is allowing many more people to come on to the register at times other than when the annual canvass is done. I think that the figures will show that it is not taken up by as many as should be taking it up. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that not many people are aware of the ability to get on to the register at any time during the year. That raises a point that I want to deal with in a little while—the resources that are given to the chief electoral officer and his proactive approach in searching out people and getting them on to the register, which is an important point.

I agree that the current electoral register for Northern Ireland is much more accurate than previously, as a result of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, but I do not think that it is as comprehensive as it should be. We must acknowledge that. We all accept that the legislation that was passed in 2002, which was supported across the House, has made a significant difference. The Electoral Commission has reported on the significant and positive effect of the 2002 Act. There have been problems and we have raised them with the Minister and his Department over the past two years. There have been concerns about people getting access and getting hold of the electoral identity cards that they need to vote if they do not have a bus pass or other appropriate photographic evidence.

I would be interested to hear from the Minister just what the latest position is in relation to electoral identity cards and what the current uptake is like. I know that things have improved. When I go around polling stations on election day, I find that many people use passports, driving licences, bus passes and so on. The electoral identity card is by no means the main or only means of identification. Nevertheless, it is significant, and we must therefore ensure that people are not only on the register, but provided with the wherewithal to vote on the day. The chief electoral officer needs to be given the resources and funding to be able to make it easy for people who are on the register to get electoral identity cards easily and quickly, and in areas that suit them, such as local libraries or community centres. I know that efforts are being made in that regard, but a lot more could be done.

On the comprehensiveness of the register, there are 150,000 fewer people on it than there were two years ago. Other hon. Members referred to the fact that one would expect a drop in the first year of operation under the 2002 Act, because of the anti-fraud measures. Indeed, I have no doubt about the effects that the anti-fraud measures would have had if they had been in place prior to 2002. I think, for example, of a former colleague, William McCrea in Mid-Ulster. I have no doubt that, if the legislation had been in force at the time, William McCrea would have been returned, rather than Martin McGuinness, in the constituency of Mid-Ulster.

Clearly, the electoral register needed to be cleaned and tidied up, but there is an issue as to why there has been such a massive drop in the first year, with 81,000 people not registering. Other hon. Members have alluded to various reasons and I shall not go through all of them. I have been out and about talking to people in recent months, calling at their doors and asking them about registration. There will always be people who do not want to be registered—it happens here and in Northern Ireland, and in every democratic country because, for various reasons, there are people who do not want to appear on the electoral registration list—but many people simply forget. People get a form through their door or somebody calls and gives them a form, but they put it to one side and forget, or they cannot be bothered to search out their national insurance number or whatever else. They might do it, but forget to get their son or daughter, or another member of the household, to do it. When people are asked about the matter and they realise that they are not on the electoral register, they are willing to get registered. On about 31 January, when the tax deadline comes up for return of income tax forms, we get a reminder in the national newspapers and are told that hundreds of thousands of people let that deadline go by every year. Even with the threat of a monetary penalty, hundreds of thousands of people still do not fill in the forms. There is an aversion to form-filling.

That is why more resources need to be given to the electoral officer to get people to fill in and return the forms. The main reason why we have such a problem is that, because of lack of resources, not enough has been done by the electoral officer to advertise, get out there, make it easier for people to get the forms filled in and make it clear to them that they have to do it and what the procedures are. When an election is called, whether it is a local, general or Assembly election, people are aware that a vote is coming and canvassing starts. Everybody starts to ring our offices and contact party staff to say, "I've just discovered that I'm not on the register. I want to get on to it, and I need to be on it."

One possibility—I know that there are administrative difficulties and all the rest of it—is to provide a longer period for people to register once an election is called. As with postal, proxy or absent votes, the time between the announcement of the election and the time to make an application is very limited. People do not get their applications in on time. The more time we can provide for people, the better. After all, this is a computerised age in which things can be done fairly quickly. We need safeguards and checking, and identification in terms of national insurance numbers and so on can be checked relatively easily. People should be given as much time as possible, especially in the period after an election is called. That is when they start seriously to think, "Am I on the register and can I vote in this election?" That would be positive in getting more people on to the register.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

The hon. Gentleman will be interested to see that new clause 1 attempts to extend the deadline in a similar way to the one that he suggests.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons)

I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says. We will debate the new clause in due course. I would welcome and support anything that gives people a greater opportunity to register.

On the longer-term arrangements, we are dealing with a one-off, as the Minister said, although there could be another one-off next year. The Bill allows for another one-off extension allowing people who will be on this year's register to be carried forward to the 2006 register. It is to be hoped that, by that stage, longer-term arrangements will be in place. Clearly, it is important at this stage to say that there needs to be carry-over of electors from one year to the next. It simply makes no sense for everybody to have to start completely afresh every single year. That is bound to cause problems. Some people have suggested that the carry-over period should be one year, while others say it should be three years. I think that there should be some discussion and debate, but provided that the safeguards are in place in terms of national insurance identifiers, the signature requirements, photographic identity and so on, the problems that could previously have arisen in a long carry-over will not have the same weight. I urge the Minister to consider seriously, as part of the long-term arrangements that must be put in place, a longer carry-over period so that people will not be disfranchised unnecessarily as a result of carelessness or because they have not got round to registering at a time at which they might not be concentrating on elections. We should offer every opportunity to maximise the vote provided that safeguards are in place, as I believe that they are, thanks to the anti-fraud measures in the 2002 Act.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP, East Londonderry 3:10 pm, 24th February 2005

I join other hon. Members in thanking the Minister for the consultation in which he and his colleagues engaged in the lead-up to the Bill.

The Minister said at the outset that more than 80,000 voters who had been removed from the register because of their failure to return a registration form would be restored to it as a result of the Bill. We will have a new register on 1 April. The political parties receive electoral registers from the electoral officers through the normal process of events, so they are in receipt of the present register. They will receive a new register on 1 April, which will include the 80,000-plus additional names. Will the Minister indicate whether the political parties will get the additional names in a separate document in addition to the new register? I fully understand that we will receive the new register, but many political parties are building up towards the local government elections and want to know whether there will be a separate entity to detail the additional entries as well as the new register.

I asked the Minister about the research that is required on those who do not return the forms. It is not in anyone's interests for the register to decline year on year, but that has been the case for the past three years. I and many others believe that a significant number of the 80,000 people whom we are discussing today are younger people, and several hon. Members have made that point. Research is critical to establish whether that is a fact. Many of us suggest that there is a small proportion of elderly and middle-aged people among the 80,000, but a significant number of people in the 18 to 25 age group. We need to establish whether that is true and then, if necessary, establish why it is the case.

Setting aside the one-off basis of the Bill, the Minister must find better ongoing ways of getting young people to fill in electoral forms. We must collectively remove our heads from the sand. Younger people by and large do not rush home on a Thursday night to watch the politics show with Andrew Neil and two of our fellow hon. Members. They are just not interested—[Interruption.] Some people might find that difficult to believe, but it is the case. Many things might be on young people's minds, but that politics show is not one of them. How do we encourage young people to get involved in politics and on to the electoral register?

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP, East Londonderry

I shall come to that later.

We could achieve such progress if the Minister was prepared to examine the wider distribution of electoral registration forms on an ongoing basis. For example, the only time that many young people find out that they are not on the electoral register—apart from at the time of an election, obviously—is when they go to apply for credit in retail outlets for the purchase of a vehicle or other goods. Retail outlets, by and large, use the electoral register to establish the identity and address of a person seeking credit. If electoral registration forms were available at car showrooms and other retail outlets and people applying for credit were told that filling in the forms and subsequently being approved would allow them to get the credit that they wanted, it could be another way to motivate young people to register. Young people would not necessarily be registering for altruistic reasons, but they would get on to the electoral register. I hope that the Minister will consider ways in which we can get young people to fill in electoral registration forms.

By and large, we are in favour of the Bill making progress, although we obviously wish to raise several issues. My hon. Friend Mr. Donaldson raised the question of security forces personnel earlier. I hope that the Minister will address that point because I know that the matter affects a small number of people in my constituency and the same situation might well exist in others. I understand that members of the security forces who had previously been registered but last year decided not to re-register because of security fears due to their location, will automatically be restored to the register under the Bill, despite the fact that they took a conscious decision not to register last year. What will happen to such people? Will they have to apply consciously to have their names removed from the register because they will otherwise be restored to it under the Bill?

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. As a matter of interest, is he aware of whether any representations on that have been made to the chief electoral officer by the Police Federation for Northern Ireland?

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP, East Londonderry

I am not aware of representations made by the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, but I know that the situation applies to a small number of people. It might well be the case that the situation is more widespread than that throughout Northern Ireland, so I hope that the Minister will respond to the point.

Let us consider the wider issue. First, we should try to ensure that we have a more representative and comprehensive electoral register, which is a laudable objective that we should support, and, as a consequence of that, we should ensure that we have higher turnouts in elections. My hon. Friend Mr. Dodds alluded to the fact that there is low turnout, especially, but not exclusively, in Protestant working-class areas. In my constituency, as in others, there might well be a 60 per cent. turnout at an election, but the turnout in places in which there is a high proportion of younger people can be 25 to 30 per cent. In effect, there is a double whammy in that younger people do not register and those who do register do not come out to vote on the day of an election. I accept that that is a separate issue from the Bill, but I have no doubt that we will return to it.

The Bill appears to have achieved a broad consensus among hon. Members who have spoken, although some have had reservations. That is welcome. That is the view of my party and all hon. Members who have spoken. It was thus strange that, when the Bill was considered in the other place earlier this week, Lord Maginnis of the Ulster Unionist party was scathing about the Bill and appeared to be utterly opposed to it. Perhaps other hon. Members will wish to qualify or expand on his comments.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 3:19 pm, 24th February 2005

With the permission of the House, I shall reply to the debate. In response to the last contribution, I would fear for the future of the country if young people were rushing home to watch the politics show rather than pursuing the normal healthy activities that they should be undertaking.

I shall respond to some of the points that were made in the debate, although some will be taken up in Committee. If I do not touch on others, they will probably be covered in discussions with the political parties as we look to the future of registration. I take the point made by Lembit Öpik and I stress that the Bill is not a precedent for further action. I think I made it quite clear that we see it as an interim operation to deal with a particular problem at a particular time. We fully accept that we have to address the underlying problems. By the way, on a slightly different point, the Department for Constitutional Affairs is looking at registration in the broader context across Great Britain.

We need to look at the broader issues, such as many of the social changes that we have discussed today, which have led to lower levels of registration and participation, and we shall explore ways to improve that. In general, colleagues will have to take on board the need for greater data sharing between public and some private bodies, such as utility companies, and electoral registration officers, to provide a much wider range of information streams that will enable registration officers to produce a full and comprehensive register. I make that point merely as a preliminary remark, because I accept that there will need to be much wider discussions, but colleagues should be aware of the consequences of redressing the pattern, on which I think we are all agreed.

That ties in with the question of education, which was mentioned by the hon. Members for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and for North Down (Lady Hermon). I am increasingly convinced that many young people who have not voted at several elections fear that they will be embarrassed if they turn up at a polling station and ask what the procedure is, so yet again they do not vote. Such behaviour then becomes self-reinforcing. We need to look at that.

Some hon. Members dealt with various issues, but did not necessarily address the way in which they interlock. We talked, for example, about the substantial number of young people who are not registered. Although they will not be affected by the Bill, they will be affected by the subsequent arrangements. The Bill is about re-registration; it is by no means a universal panacea. It is a remedy, not a solution. It will improve the register and make it more comprehensive, probably taking registration towards 90 per cent., but it will not take it to 100 per cent.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Will the Minister take this opportunity to address the issue we raised about section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998? How does the Bill promote equality of opportunity between first-time younger voters and older voters who are already on the register?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

It is in the public interest that the register should be as comprehensive as possible, so we are undertaking a number of measures, for example in colleges, to try to increase registration among younger people. In this instance, we are also trying to maintain the strength of the register. In all honesty, no one could argue that it is undesirable to continue to add to the register people who should be included on it. It is open to all to register, and we have to try to facilitate the process wherever we can. As I said, we recognise that the Bill is not a universal solution, but it goes a considerable way towards addressing the problem.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for taking a second intervention on this important point. The Bill includes the imprint that it is compatible with the European convention on human rights—quite right, too; that is what we expect. The Minister will be well aware that under the convention the United Kingdom has an obligation to ensure free elections with no discrimination on any ground whatever. Can the Minister explain to the House how the Bill fulfils that obligation on this country?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

That argument is slightly reminiscent of one that was advanced against me on antisocial behaviour orders, so I paraphrase the words of Mr. Justice Girvan: it is open to all to register. That is the discrimination argument. The public policy argument is that we should facilitate as far as possible the most comprehensive electoral register. The fact that we are unable to achieve 100 per cent. registration is not an argument against trying to improve the percentage from the mid 80s to the low 90s. That is exactly right and it is indeed the burden of the Bill.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

The Minister says that he has dealt with the public policy argument and the discrimination argument. Perhaps he has. What he has not dealt with is the equality of opportunity argument, which is not that he should not undertake the measures in the Bill but that he should be taking equal measures to provide for those classes and individuals that the Bill does not cover. That is the point. Although he can point to some activity in reaching towards or identifying young people who were not previously registered, he will have some difficulty convincing the House that the measures that he is taking in that respect are equal to those he is taking in the Bill. He is not affording equality of opportunity in terms of section 75.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I should probably not have great difficulty in convincing the House, but I may have difficulty in convincing the right hon. Gentleman. I suspect that colleagues will find my arguments fairly convincing in terms of what we are doing to ensure greater participation in elections. As I outlined, we are already working with colleges, through the Department of Education. Indeed, Mr. Dodds outlined some of the improvements that have taken place, with regard to access to forums and so on. That is not yet sufficient and there is more to be done, but we need to hold discussions with the political parties on how we can further develop registration, precisely to address a number of the groups that Mr. Trimble described. Improving that situation will involve us in work on the greater disclosure of data to the electoral registration officer.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Aylesbury on intimidation, the marked register shows only that a person attended a polling station. It does not indicate how they voted. In fact, a higher percentage of people in Northern Ireland vote by going to a polling station, which relates to the question about postal and proxy voting put by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, to which I shall return in due course. The number of people voting by post or proxy has gone down from 41,000 to 27,000, which may have narrowed the scope for possible abuse. However, the marked register merely says that a person has attended the polling station, not whether they actually cast a vote. That is perhaps like the Spanish referendum, where a considerable percentage of voters took the trouble to turn up, but did not record a vote.

I take the compliment from the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and others on the consultation, and I pay tribute to the work undertaken by my officials with parties in this House and in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire mentioned the significant problem, which political parties have raised with me, of those who think that they are registered. For example, people who registered for last June's elections for the European Parliament needed to re-register in August and September under the current provisions. People find that difficult to comprehend, and it undermines the procedure. I take the point made by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann about registration in August and September, which we must address when we examine the future pattern of registration and decide whether we should move towards a system of continuous registration.

In Britain, it is common for students who come from Surrey and who study in Edinburgh to be registered in two different places, whereas people in Northern Ireland must undertake individual registration. A disparity exists, and we are examining how to tackle it in future.

We shall examine the question of safeguards in Committee.

The hon. Member for Belfast, North rightly identified under-registration as a problem that has generated concern across the communities in Northern Ireland. That is an important point to stress.

About 100,000 identity cards have been issued. The elections in June saw a considerable reduction in the number of people who, for one reason or another, were unable to vote, and some such people were able to return to the polling stations later. There will be a further campaign to take the facilities around in order to maximise the number of people who have the necessary identity card.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire raised his concerns about registration once an election is called, and we will deal with that issue when we discuss his amendment in Committee. One way to deal with those concerns would be to introduce UK-wide legislation concerning the relationship between the electoral register, the announcement of the election and the date of the election. Beyond that, I shall refer to a straightforward practical matter that reflects concerns expressed in this debate: if the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland receives a considerable tide of applications in addition to all the other work that it must do before an election, the scope for dubious applications to slip through might be increased, and we must bear that point in mind in striking that balance.

On security personnel, we recognise that members of Her Majesty's armed forces can register at their base for electoral purposes and that that provision does not apply to the police service or, as far as I can recall, to the Prison Service, which is a significant point in particular constituencies, and we must address it.

We must examine the additional list in order to identify more readily those who will be coming on to the register, and I will write to the hon. Member for Belfast, North tomorrow or early next week on that matter.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons)

On the ability of security force personnel to vote, in election after election the issue arises that members of the police service and the Royal Irish Regiment who have registered to vote and who want to vote, but who are on duty at a polling station other than the one at which they are registered, are denied the opportunity to register their vote. That issue comes up at every election. Representations are made, but the problems still occur. As we approach council and other elections, will the Minister undertake to ensure that that issue will not arise again in Northern Ireland?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

They may be eligible for a postal vote on the grounds of undertaking that duty, and I undertake to take the matter up with the chief electoral officer.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

To reinforce the point made by Mr. Dodds, this is a serious problem, and it may be necessary to go beyond the electoral officer. It could be solved by postal voting, but because of the nature of these services and the attitude of those who direct them, policemen and those in the Royal Irish Regiment are not being facilitated in that. That cannot be solved by the chief electoral officer, and the Minister should direct his inquiries to the police and the RIR.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I certainly undertake to consider that matter within a time scale that will enable action to be taken.

I think I have dealt with most of the issues that were raised. I am sure that I have missed some, but we will be able to discuss them at a later stage. I am pleased with the positive way in which the debate has proceeded, which indicates that we are addressing a genuine problem. Of course there will be individual concerns, but I think that the broad thrust of the Bill is accepted. Accordingly, I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the whole House, pursuant to Order [this day].

Bill immediately considered in Committee.

[Mr. Michael Lord in the Chair]