With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 2, in page 2, line 27, leave out 'tenth' and insert 'fourth'.
No. 11, in page 2, line 27, leave out 'tenth' and insert 'fifth'.
No. 12, in page 2, leave out lines 38 and 39.
No. 14, in page 3, line 1, after '2010', insert 'and'.
No. 3, in page 3, line 1, leave out 'tenth' and insert 'fourth'.
No. 15, in page 3, line 1, leave out 'tenth' and insert 'fifth'.
No. 16, in page 3, line 2, leave out from '2010' to end of line 3.
I am delighted that the right hon. Member for North Antrim enjoys such good health and am sure that the sneeze indicates only that there is a little breeze in the Chamber at the moment.
Clause 3, which is on the timing of the canvass, causes me considerable concern. I reflect on the happy time when I became a Member of the House in 2001. The first piece of primary legislation relating to Northern Ireland in that Session was the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. In March 2001—not so long ago—the Government presented to Parliament a command paper, Cm 5080, entitled "Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland". On the first page, the Government spelled out their responsibility in light of the fact that there was perceived—it certainly existed, so it was not just perceived, but unacceptable—electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland. The Government spelled out their responsibility in paragraph 4 of the Command Paper:
"The responsibility of the Government is two-fold: to protect the democratic exercise of the franchise and to combat abuse at the poll . . . where the threat of fraud is reduced, the credibility of the poll will be enhanced, and . . . this should encourage more people to exercise their right to vote."
We have abolished the annual canvass in clause 2, and clause 3 proposes that a canvass should be held every tenth year. That period can be modified—a subject to which I shall return—but as the Government have gone to the trouble of publishing a Command Paper and the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, which only went on the statute book four years ago, they should take care to achieve the right balance between preventing or eradicating electoral fraud—it is a serious crime to deprive someone of the franchise—and ensuring that people are not discouraged from voting by making it too difficult to register on an annual basis.
The Government have got the balance wrong in clause 3, which extends the period between canvasses to 10 years. However, in exceptional circumstances—and this is what concerns me most in a close reading of clause 3—a canvass under section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2003 must be conducted in 2010
"unless the Secretary of State makes an order providing that the requirement in this paragraph does not apply" and every tenth year following 2010. The chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland is independent of Government. He has a heavy burden of responsibility, and I pay tribute to the work that he undertakes with his team. Clause 3(2) states that he may make a recommendation in favour of a canvass in the interim
"for the purpose of meeting the relevant registration objectives", which can be summed up as combating electoral fraud or simply ensuring that the register is up to date. However, the Secretary of State can issue a diktat—I do not welcome this trend and I do not look forward to the emergency legislation that will be published tomorrow—so that, having considered the recommendation, he can notify
"the Chief Electoral Officer that he is satisfied that the public interest requires a canvass to be conducted for that purpose."
Even if the chief electoral officer, who has ultimate responsibility for electoral law and the canvass in Northern Ireland, requests a canvass before 2010, the Secretary of State can maintain that that is not in the public interest. When would it not be in the public interest to act as recommended by the chief electoral officer?
I may have misread clause 3, but it appears that the Secretary of State could, by his own hand, make an order to delay the canvass until as late as 2016. That is completely unacceptable, given the efforts in the 2002 Act, for which I am enormously grateful, to tackle robustly the serious problem of electoral fraud. I urge the Government not to allow electoral fraud to return to the system by delaying the canvass for such a long time. Amendment No. 27 proposes that the annual canvass should be held every fifth year, although some people believe that it should be held every fourth year.
I beg your pardon, Sir Alan. My copy of the selection list was obscured. In fact, I wish to speak to amendment No. 15, which is in the group of amendments to clause 3. It proposes that the annual canvass should be conducted every fifth year instead of every 10th year, and certainly not delayed until 2016.
I am enormously grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that piece of wisdom.
I urge the Minister to get the balance right. The Government have done their very best—I pay tribute to them for tackling the serious problem of electoral fraud—but they should not provide an opportunity for people who wish to exploit the situation by delaying the canvass and holding one every 10th year, as that that could allow fraud to creep back into the system.
Briefly, I wish to make two points about the amendments that we have tabled. For the sake of clarification, can the Minister explain why the year 2010 was chosen? Does it have something to do with the general census? If not, it may have been a good idea to fall in with the census.
In common with Lady Hermon and Lembit Öpik, we feel that a 10-year interval is too long. It is in everyone's interest to encourage people to register to vote and to ensure that the register is up to date and accurate. We did not object to clause 2, which abolished the annual canvass, but a 10-year interval is too long, which is why we tabled our amendments. We should therefore like the Minister to explain why he chose 2010 to conduct a canvass and why he chose an interval of 10 years.
There are two issues. The first was raised by Lady Hermon and the second is the length of time between canvasses. I very much agree with the hon. Lady that it is unnecessarily centralist and directive to give the Secretary of State the opportunity simply to cancel the 2010 canvass. I do not wish to repeat her arguments, but I look forward to hearing the Minister's justification for the inclusion of that provision. I counsel him to be careful, because there is an increasing tendency in Northern Ireland legislation to give more and more powers to the Secretary of State simply because we are debating a particular subject and someone says, "Let's give the Secretary of State flexibility to make individual decisions." If one steps back from the body of legislation that we have passed in the past nine years, one can see that there has been a huge centralisation of power for the Secretary of State because the opportunity arose for someone to do so for his convenience. That is not a good reason to do it, and I want to hear what the Minister has to say by way of justification.
The 10-year period between canvasses is also important. A few minutes ago, we passed clause 2, which means that we have abolished the annual canvass in Northern Ireland, and clause 3 replaces the annual canvass with a canvass that will take place every 10 years. Our amendment would shorten that period of time to every four years, while the amendment tabled by Mr. Robertson would decrease it to every five years—I think that the hon. Member for North Down also takes that view. We can argue about one year either way, but the consensual point is that 10 years is way too long.
The Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 introduced individual registration in Northern Ireland, and we remember the pain that Northern Ireland experienced to get an accurate canvass. The good news is that those measures have been successful—there are currently more than 1.1 million people on the register, which is an estimated 91 per cent. of the voting age population. That is a triumph of data gathering, and credit is due to the Government and to the people who were involved in generating that reliable information.
We understand why the Government want to abolish the annual canvass, and we all agree with them, but we must ensure that the process that replaces it is not so onerous that it discourages people from registering and that it is not so infrequent that it utterly undermines all the work to obtain an accurate canvass. That is not only in the interests of individual voters, because it will also help to prevent electoral fraud. It is obvious that there will be an opportunity for things to start going wrong again, if there is an entire decade between the collection of data. Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 propose that a canvass should be held every four years, and if a canvass were conducted in the year before an Assembly election was due to be held, then there would be confidence in the register.
The Minister must answer three questions. First, why should there be such an incredibly long period of time, when all kinds of factors mean that the register will be highly inaccurate by the end of that period? Secondly, why are the Government not concerned that electoral fraud will creep in again as the register becomes inaccurate? Thirdly, human beings are human beings and may not keep up to date if they move house or their circumstances change, so why are the Government not concerned that people will become increasingly disenfranchised, as logic tells us that they will be, in a 10-year period? Ten years is a quarter of my life; it is one eighth of the life of Rev. Ian Paisley; and, although I do not know how old the Minister is, I suspect that it is about one fifth of his life. [Interruption.] Looking at the Minister's youthful features, it is clear that he has had an easy life.
I ask the Minister to think again. I suspect that there is consensus among Northern Ireland parties that the period is too long, and I can see that SDLP Members agree. The only people who might benefit from the 10-year period are those who seek to find ways back into the fraud game rather than those who seek to have fair elections. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
In a brief contribution, I want to reinforce some of the points made by previous speakers.
Earlier this afternoon, I referred to the pro-consular powers of the Secretary of State. I hope that the talks that the Government are instituting next month will lead to agreement, but one must be an extremely optimistic person to be absolutely confident that agreement will be reached by the due date. If an agreement is not reached, we face the indefinite continuation of direct rule and of the use by the Secretary of State of his current powers, which are very great indeed. This is not a criticism of the present Secretary of State, any of his predecessors or any of his potential successors, but pro-consular powers are dangerous, and they make Northern Ireland very different from the rest of the United Kingdom.
I want to reinforce the point about the 10-year period. The next general election cannot be later than 2010, so if that rule had been in force in 2001, a 10-year period would have encompassed three general elections, which is a telling point. All 10-year cycles include two general elections, and most of them include three, which is too long. I understand why the Government feel obliged to introduce clause 2 and abolish annual registration, and the fact that clause 3 went through without debate, let alone a Division, indicates that there is broad agreement on both sides of the House and among the parties in Northern Ireland that that is a sensible move. One year may be too short, but 10 years is far too long.
I do not have a particular preference between the amendments moved by my hon. Friend Mr. Robertson on the Front Bench and by Lembit Öpik, who speaks for the Liberal party, because I would be happy to settle on either four or five years. I have long believed in fixed-term Parliaments, but I do not have a particularly strong view on whether the term should be four years or five years. However, 10 years is far too long and I hope that the Minister will take that point on board. When the Bill is debated in another place, where there will be ample opportunity for further amendment and discussion, I hope that the Government will introduce an amendment to alter the period to four or five years. That would be broadly acceptable, because the system would not be open to the potential problems to which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has referred. I hope that the Minister will accept the good sense of those arguments.
As other hon. Members have said, we welcome the move away from the annual canvass. That particular provision was difficult to implement because it placed an undue onus on the chief electoral officer, which led to consequential demands on parties and others.
As other hon. Members have said, we think that running the system on a 10-year basis is a step too far. A 10-year period could cause confusion between the 10-year electoral canvass and the census, which we want to avoid. Although we all accept the various reasons why people want to stay off the electoral register, we all want to ensure maximum participation in the census, not least given that the allocation of moneys for important public services depends on census returns.
We want to ensure that there is no confusion. As the devolved Minister who presided over the last census in Northern Ireland in 2001, I know that there were difficulties and confusions because changes in electoral law were pending. The new form of electoral registration whereby people had to give their signatures led to confusion between the census and the new form of registration, because people thought that having done one, they had done the other.
Equally, we must be careful when we consider how the electoral calendar might fall. Several elections could take place, not just general elections, before there is a general canvass to ensure that the register is clearly and publicly updated. It would be a step too far, and into the unknown, if we were to face the possibility of numerous elections before knowing how well the health of the register is maintained in between general canvasses. I hope that the Minister can colour in the ways in which the electoral office is intended to engage in focused and targeted work in between the dates for the general canvass to tend to areas where there is a strong case for believing that there is marked under-registration or over-registration. Regardless of whether we are talking about four-year, five-year or 10-year canvasses, what work will be done in the intervening period to proof and improve the quality of the annual registers?
To reinforce the hon. Gentleman's point, figures show that in Northern Ireland people change house every five to eight years on average. It would compound the problem if people had moved once or twice during a 10-year period. We need to know what information will be updated between registration periods.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for reinforcing the point that 10 years would be too much, particularly depending on how the cycle might fall. Situations could arise whereby information is doubly out of date. Those are the anomalies—indeed, absurdities—that we want to avoid. With a 10-year period, we could find that the annual canvass is taking place at a time that coincides broadly with Boundary Commission reviews, again adding to confusion and uncertainty. We should be careful, first, about going for 10 years, and secondly, what the cycle would be.
I accept, however, that whether we are talking about four, five or 10 years, some flexibility must be allowed to the chief electoral officer to amend an alteration of the due date, either by taking it forward or moving it back. The electoral cycle could mean that the demands on the electoral office are such that it would be impossible for it to conduct an efficient general canvass by the scheduled date—perhaps due to proximity to the census or to boundary reviews.
We perhaps have a slightly more relaxed view than some other hon. Members of leaving some facility for the chief electoral officer to seek a relaxation or alteration as regards the date. Our primary concern is to ask the Government to think again about the 10-year period. We are agnostic either way as between four or five years. We would probably prefer four years, but we recognise, with all due respect to Lembit Öpik, that the amendment tabled by Mr. Robertson provides some of the consequential trimmings that would be required elsewhere. The Conservative amendment rhymes better, in technical terms, than the Lib Dem amendment. We are not particularly hot and bothered about whether it is four years or five years, but we have many concerns about 10 years. Irrespective of that, we would like the Minister to clarify what remedial and health checking work will be guaranteed in relation to the annual registers that will be published.
I think that it is accepted throughout this House that it is important to encourage every person who is entitled to be registered to be on the electoral register. That is their democratic entitlement, and every democrat in this House wants to ensure that the register is up to date.
However, we must learn from the lessons of the past. We would be very foolish if we did not recognise the reality that in the past we have needed considered debate about electoral fraud. I remind the House that many people in Northern Ireland believe that in 1997 I personally suffered because of electoral fraud. My constituency was one of several affected. A previous Member for Belfast, West—Dr. Hendron—endured the same thing in his constituency. Ulster constituencies certainly have a great deal of electoral fraud. Whenever we went to vote, we saw electoral cards being handed out from the boot of a certain political party's car. It was not done behind the scenes—it was there to be seen. The same applied to benefit books.
Something had to be done to stop fraudulent claims and people taking the votes of other people, whether dead or alive. We were delighted that the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 was brought into being to remove fraudulent voting claims. The general canvass that took place every year was perceived to be going in the opposite direction, because many people who should have been on the electoral register were not. That led to a lot of discontent. It is a question of striking a balance.
My right hon. and hon. Friends and I believe that the general canvass should take place every five years. We have no problem with four years, but we certainly do not believe that it should be every 10th year. Mark Durkan said that that would be a step too far. In fact, it could be a step back into the mire of a register that no longer has the confidence of the community as a register of those who have the right to vote.
I recognise that the SDLP, the DUP and the Conservatives are all ganging up against my four-year proposal. Let me put on the record the rationale for it. In essence, I was suggesting that we have the canvass in the year before the elections for the Assembly, which will be up and running before we know it. [Interruption.] Yes, I realise that I am now digging a grave for the four years. At least that would have the logic of tying it into a known electoral cycle—
Thank you, Mrs. Heal, and I thank Lembit Öpik for trying, but perhaps he should stop digging—[Interruption.] Someone says, "While he's ahead", but I am not quite sure what he was ahead of. Nevertheless, I accept that he was trying to take us away from the concept of a 10-year cycle and to propose something more reasonable. I think that most hon. Members accept that proposition in good faith, so the hon. Gentleman did not really need to explain his proposal.
If people are asking when the election is to be held, I think that we will know whether the Assembly is up and running or not. There was a period in Northern Ireland when there was an election every year. We need a good register in which the community can have confidence.
I am very concerned about clause 3(1)(a), which proposes that a canvass must be conducted in 2010,
"unless the Secretary of State makes an order providing that the requirement in this paragraph does not apply".
Why would the Secretary of State want to take such a power into his hands? Whenever I read proposals such as this, they lead me to believe that the Secretary of State could lay himself open to the suspicion that he was meddling with the register for political purposes. That would not be a good idea. Will the Minister think again about conferring that power on the Secretary of State?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that neither the Secretary of State nor the registration officer should be allowed, without accepted criteria being agreed, to determine what is in the public interest?
I suspect that the Minister will tell us that we are not moving from compiling a register based on an annual canvass to compiling one based on a 10-year canvass. Instead, we are moving from annual registration to a completely different system, in which a lot more data are being sucked in to the electoral office so that it can produce a more accurate register. While we accept that, the key issue is that we do not know how well the new system will work. Should we have to wait 10 years to correct it if it does not work well? There is a good case to be made for conducting a canvass more often, especially at the beginning of the new system.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I wholeheartedly agree with the case that he has made.
In conclusion, I ask the Government to reconsider conferring the power on the Secretary of State in clause 3(1)(a). Furthermore, we support Her Majesty's Opposition in their proposal for a canvass every five years.
I hope that I shall be able to reassure hon. Members on these matters. The integrity of the ballot is the prime objective of the Government in our actions to date and in those proposed in the Bill. The integrity of the ballot means that hon. Members who come to this House or to the Assembly, or who sit on local councils, do so because their peers have put a cross by their name legitimately. I emphasise to the Committee that that is the Government's paramount concern. Electoral fraud will poison the system, and I find it unacceptable to have people voting in elections when they are not entitled to do so, or perpetrating electoral fraud in any way, shape or form. I hope that that statement of the Government's objective will reassure hon. Members.
Mr. Robertson asked why we had decided to conduct a canvass in 2010. Clause 2 abolishes the annual canvass. Clause 3 proposes that the next canvass should be not in 2006—when the next annual canvass would have taken place—but in 2016. For the very reasons that hon. Members have mentioned today, we are proposing that there be the possibility of an interim canvass in 2010 as a backstop, should it prove necessary to conduct one at that stage. That would be four years after 2006, which should meet the objectives of Lembit Öpik. The year 2010 was chosen simply because it is between 2006, when the next annual canvass would have taken place had clause 2 not been agreed to, and 2016, when the next proposed canvass will take place. The debate now revolves round the 10-year period between 2010 and 2020.
The Minister accepts that it might be necessary to have a canvass in 2010, given that the next one was to have been in 2006. Why should a 10-year period be instituted after 2010? Why not continue to use a four or five-year period throughout?
I am coming to that point. That is the nub of the argument put forward by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee.
Clause 3(2) states:
"A canvass under section 10(1A) must be conducted in an intervening year if—
(a) on or before 15th April in that year, the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland has made a recommendation in favour of a canvass being conducted in that year for the purpose of meeting the relevant registration objectives".
The chief electoral officer will have the power to recommend a canvass in any year to maintain the integrity of the register, if he or she determines that the integrity of the register requires it. So the power is there, should the need arise for the electoral officer to make that recommendation to the Secretary of State.
I should like to finish the point.
Clause 4 contains clear registration objectives that place conditions on the chief electoral officer to ensure that every person voting is entitled to vote, that everyone on the register is entitled to be there, and that none of the required information relating to a registered person is false. We have set out clear criteria for the registration officer to look at the integrity of the register, and if they feel that a further canvass is necessary, they will be able to make a recommendation to the Secretary of State.
If the chief electoral officer believed that such a canvass were essential, could the Secretary of State overrule him and say, "No, we will not have a canvass"? Surely the Secretary of State should not be able to overrule a firm recommendation from the chief electoral officer that a canvass were necessary to maintain the integrity of the register.
I shall just finish the point. It would be a brave Secretary of State who went against the recommendation of the chief electoral officer, but the power will exist for him to do so if he judges that it is in the public interest. Later amendments will deal with that point.
That brings us back to the pro-consular point that I made earlier. I am not casting aspersions, but we all know that Great Britain has an Electoral Commission to which the Government refer and which they sometimes ignore. There is absolutely no guarantee that the Secretary of State would accept the recommendation of the chief electoral officer, and there are no criteria as to what constitutes the public interest. I have great personal regard for the Minister, but I find unconvincing his explanations of why we cannot specify 2010 and not leave the matter open, and why there is such a limitation on the power of the electoral registration officer.
I am happy to pursue this discussion, but the next group of amendments deals with the matter, and it may be more appropriate to discuss it at a later stage.
I understand the concern of Sir Patrick Cormack and I shall try to address it shortly, but I feel that it would be more appropriate to do so when we come to the next group.
Going back to the previous point, the Minister said that the Secretary of State could override the decision or recommendation of the chief electoral officer. That worried me a little, because the Secretary of State will appoint the chief electoral officer, unlike the police ombudsman, for example, so the relationship is a little incestuous.
I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman by pointing out that the Secretary of State remains accountable to the House. In the unlikely event of the electoral registration officer recommending a canvass and the Secretary of State saying no, for whatever reason, the Secretary of State will remain accountable to the House for that decision. That accountability will provide for discussion, debate, censure, votes and everything else. The principle is that there may be a range of overriding public interests that mean that the Secretary of State wishes to examine the issues. [Interruption.] I am happy to give examples, but I shall be straying into the next group of amendments. I am happy to do that, but I feel that it might try your patience, Mrs. Heal.
The Minister has indicated that the electoral officer could have an extra canvass as and when he saw fit. I assume that, if the Bill is passed, the electoral officer will be resourced for a 10-year canvass. Where would the resources come from if the electoral officer decided to have an interim canvass?
Again, that may be one of the issues that the Secretary of State determines is in the overriding public interest. I am straying again into the next set of amendments; I am being dragged there from hon. Members in all parts of the Committee. I am happy to deal with these matters, but I shall follow your guidance, Mrs. Heal, as they are dealt with in later amendments.
On a point of order, Mrs. Heal. I make the following suggestion as I think that it may help the Committee and you. Having chaired many Standing Committees over the years, I know that it sometimes makes sense to regroup amendments, even during a debate. As the two issues are so closely related to each other, I wonder whether it might be better if we were able to touch on them all now.
The First Deputy Chairman:
I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, and I know that he has much experience in Standing Committees. In this instance, however, I feel that it is important that we keep the two matters separate. We will therefore discuss the timing now and, as the Minister indicated, deal with public interest in discussing the subsequent amendments.
I do not want to repeat the various points that have already been made. Surely, the essence of what is being debated at this moment, irrespective of what will arise under clause 4, is the independence of the chief electoral officer. If his decisions are subject to questioning and agreement or non-agreement by the Secretary of State, he will simply not be independent. If the Minister wishes to pursue the autonomous rule of the Secretary of State in that regard, will he consider introducing some appeal mechanism or forum to determine whether the so-called public interest is of sufficient seriousness to override a considered opinion of the chief electoral officer?
The points that my hon. Friend mentioned are certainly important, but I am again in danger of straying on to the next group of amendments. I say to all hon. Members that the principle before the Committee is the abolition of the canvass in 2006 and, in principle, a 10-year period between canvasses. That would mean that the next canvass would be in 2016. For purposes of the check, we have picked 2010 for a potential canvass to ensure the integrity of the electoral register, but we feel that the Secretary of State could consider a further annual canvass or an interim canvass if the chief electoral officer made a recommendation to that effect.
If you will allow me, Mrs. Heal, I shall again refer to a later clause. In proposed new section 10ZB(1) to the 1983 Act, clause 4 sets objectives for the electoral officer. It refers to ensuring
"that every person who is entitled to be registered in a register is registered in it . . . that no person who is not entitled to be registered in a register is registered in it, and . . . that none of the required information relating to any person registered in a register is false."
Those clear criteria are set for the duties of the electoral officer. If the electoral officer feels that the register in any year from 2006 does not meet those objectives, he will have a duty under the legislation to make proposals to the Secretary of State for an interim canvass.
I understand that hon. Members share my wish for integrity in the electoral registration system in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but if the electoral officer believes on grounds set out in clause 4 that the register is failing, he will have not only the right, but the duty, to go to the Secretary of State and request an annual canvass. It would be a very foolish Secretary of State who would refuse that request—although the power is there for him to exercise it if he so wishes.
As there is such disquiet in all parts of the Committee—all the Northern Ireland parties that participate in the House have made the point—why cannot we fix the 2010 date instead of making it an option? That would help to engender confidence in what the Government are seeking to do. If we can fix on 2010, we can obviously still look at the matter again before 2010. If it seems desirable to go to 2020—that is very unlikely—then fair enough, but let us fix on 2010 and not make it an option.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but I ask him to look again at proposed new subsection (2) in clause 3, which states:
"A canvass under section 10(1A) must"—
I emphasise the word "must"—
"be conducted in an intervening year" if a recommendation has been made by the chief electoral officer. The canvass will be conducted in
"the year 2010, unless the Secretary of State makes an order", and a
"canvass under section 10(1A) must be conducted . . . unless the Secretary of State makes an order".
The Secretary of State will make an order only if the recommendation is forthcoming from the chief electoral officer. I put to hon. Members the fact that the onus and responsibility lie with the chief electoral officer, who has duties under later clauses to ensure the integrity of the register. If he feels that the register is not truly correct and is failing, he has the power and duty to ask the Secretary of state to continue with the canvass. The proposal to fix an interim canvass is unnecessary, because we have 2010 fixed, and we have the potential for an interim canvass if required and for the chief electoral officer to bring it forward.
The fact is that we do not. There is the option, but no fixed 2010 date. If there were such a date, there would be general consensus in Committee. I can see from the nodding heads around me that people would be tolerably satisfied. The fact of the matter is, however, that the Bill as currently drafted does not insist on 2010, which is an option.
There is an honest disagreement between us on this matter. If the hon. Gentleman looks again at clause 3(1)(a), he will see that it says:
"A canvass under section 10(1A) must be conducted in the year 2010, unless the Secretary of State makes an order providing that the requirement . . . does not apply".
The Secretary of State will only do that for two reasons. First, he would act on the recommendation of the chief electoral officer. Secondly, the power is exercisable only by statutory instrument, which would come before the House anyway.
But the point is that the Secretary of State has the overriding power. I hope that this will not be construed as an attack on the current or any future Secretary of State; we just believe that it is wrong to give that power to a Secretary of State. Were there no option, we would all be tolerably satisfied. For goodness' sake, the Minister should at least undertake to consider the matter with a view to introducing a Government amendment in the House of Lords.
Again, I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but I think that there is a disagreement between us. First, the canvass in 2010 can be cancelled only by order of the Secretary of State through a statutory instrument, which will come before the House. Secondly, that will happen only if the chief electoral officer recommends it. That is a double safeguard, which I hope that he and other Members will accept.
The Minister has asked us to place some reliance on clause 3(1)(a). If we consider clause 3(3), however, we see that the Secretary of State's powers make it possible that such a canvass might not be conducted before 2015. The Bill asks us to consider that it might not just be a case of the Secretary of State letting it slip for a year. I accept that there might be a case for not proceeding in 2010, because were the 2010 electoral canvass to be done in the autumn, which is the traditional time, that would run close to the public information build-up to the 2011 census. At that stage even the devolved Administration—if there is one—might seek some change.
Again, if the Government had wished to have a 10-year canvass in the first instance, we would not have put the provision in place for a potential canvass in 2010. Under clause 2, we are abolishing the annual canvass; there will be a canvass in 2006 and every 10 years. The Bill provides for the possibility of a canvass in 2010, for the very reasons mentioned by hon. Members, but we retain the right for that canvass not to take place if the Secretary of State is advised by the chief electoral officer that one is not needed.
Again, we are straying into later clauses and amendments, but the Secretary of State has an overriding duty to consider the broad picture, the needs of Northern Ireland and of this House and a range of matters. The Secretary of State has that power, but the circumstances in which the chief electoral officer would recommend the canvass and the Secretary of State would say, "No, thanks, we're not going to have one," would be very limited. It would be a brave Secretary of State who exercised those powers. There might be circumstances, however, which we will talk about under later clauses, in which the Secretary of State might want to take those powers.
I might have been digging earlier, but I see a hole developing next to the Minister. There is now an inference that there could be a political motivation for not taking the register. There can be no other possible reason for giving the Secretary of State the opportunity to disregard the advice of the chief electoral officer. I want to press the Minister on this salient point. Can he give us a single example of circumstances in which he imagines the Secretary of State would need the power to overrule the chief electoral officer's guidance?
For whatever reason, the Secretary of State might determine that on financial grounds. [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] It is possible; I am not saying that that would be the case. In 2004, the cost of the canvass was £1.7 million. I am not saying that the Secretary of State would make a determination against the recommendation of the chief electoral officer, but that is a public consideration for this House. The chief electoral officer might make a recommendation that the Secretary of State felt, in the circumstances at the time, was not worth £1.7 million. That will not be a determination, but it is a consideration.
Surely, in those or other circumstances that we cannot foresee, it would be open to a future Secretary of State to come to Parliament and ask for primary legislation to be introduced, and if necessary expedited, as has happened with Northern Ireland legislation in the past and as will happen in the next couple of weeks. That would enable the dispensation to be granted by a parliamentary decision rather than just by the Secretary of State acting on his own account.
Again, should the Secretary of State determine to do that, a statutory instrument, which would come before the House for consideration, would be required to cancel the canvass in 2010. Parliament would therefore be able to monitor the Secretary of State's decision. That statutory instrument would be taken in Committee, and could be referred to and debated on the Floor of the House. It would be voted on by the House. I am simply saying to all Members that the Secretary of State has the ability to override the recommendation should he or she wish to do so. I would not have included in the Bill the ability to have a canvas in 2010 if we did not feel that that was needed. We now envisage that there will be one in 2010, and on a 10-year basis after that, unless the chief electoral officer recommends otherwise, which it is in his power to do; again, I emphasise that that would be difficult for the Secretary of State to overturn.
The Minister is making a valiant effort, but failing. Can he not understand that the confidence of the people of the Province of Northern Ireland is fundamental to the success of this legislation? We all know very well that it is unlikely that there will be a Secretary of State from Northern Ireland in the foreseeable future. We do not complain about that. We all know very well that it is perfectly possible, certainly for the immediate future, that the Government will have a large majority. We have already said that the Order-in-Council procedure is wholly unsatisfactory, as it is determined upstairs by a relatively small number of Members without the opportunity for amendment, so there is a lack of confidence in the system. When we pass primary legislation, surely it is important to ensure the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland. Why can we not get rid of this qualification clause and fix on 2010?
Again, I have tried to explain in detail why the power for the Secretary of State is needed. I will deal with that in more detail under the next set of amendments. The Government are committed to making sure that the electoral register is intact, paramount and legitimate in every way, shape and form. The original purpose of the annual canvass was to ensure that. We have given an assurance that an annual canvass will take place next year, and every 10 years subsequently. As a backstop, we have provided for a canvas in 2010—a date picked randomly, I say for the benefit of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury—and for an examination of whether a canvass is needed at that stage to maintain the integrity of that register. If it is needed, it will happen. If it is not needed, according to the chief electoral officer, it will not happen. The Secretary of State has the power to examine the wider public interest at the time, but we would not have put that in the legislation if we had not wished to ensure the integrity of the register. At any time, the chief electoral officer can say, based on his or her obligations under clause 4, that the register is not up to standard, and that the canvass needs to be undertaken to refresh it fully. I hope that that assures hon. Members and that they will withdraw their amendments.
Before the Minister finishes, will he deal with the question of a five-year rather than a 10-year period? He has constantly referred to 10 years, but there is a consensus across the Committee that 10 years is much too long for the integrity of the register to be maintained. Why do the Government insist on retaining the 10-year period regardless of what we say? If an amendment providing for a five-year period were tabled in the other place, would the Government not consider that a more sensible option than a stand-up fight?
With due respect to the hon. Gentleman, it is not in my nature to stand up and fight on issues unless they are issues of extreme principle. In my opinion, this is a question of the management of the electoral register. The position is that there will be a canvass every 10 years from 2010—or a canvass in 2006 and another in 2016, depending on what happens. If the chief electoral officer chooses to recommend an earlier canvass, after five years, the Secretary of State will have to reflect on that view and agree or not agree; but the onus will always be on the chief electoral officer to examine the legitimacy of the register on the basis of the criteria in clause 4.
It is a simple matter. We expect a canvass to be conducted every 10 years. If the chief electoral officer suggests that the canvass should be conducted earlier, the Secretary of State will have to consider the request and make a case for or against it.
The fact that this discussion has continued for nearly half an hour gives a good clue to the fact that there is something amiss. The Minister has given an example of circumstances in which financial expediency might cause the Secretary of State to overrule the guidance of the chief electoral officer, who, after all, must take account of what is reasonable and practicable. The Minister, like me, knows very well that canvass data becomes outdated very quickly, and 10 years would be a ludicrously long time not to update it. May I suggest a way out of the problem? Before the Bill goes to the other place, may we have a chance to discuss and reflect on the issues and try to establish a more consensual approach? It is obvious to me that the Minister is doing his best, but not succeeding in convincing a number of Members who feel that the Government have not quite got it right.
I am always grateful for the hon. Gentleman's help. I know that he has my best interests at heart, and that he is looking after me and supporting me fully. I am sure that even Mr. Robertson has my best interests, and those of the Government, at heart. However, we have made a judgment. We thought about the matter carefully, and we feel that the 10-year period is sufficient. We have taken account of the fact that the chief electoral officer may make the request. I admit that the Bill allows the Secretary of State to refuse that request, under a range of provisions with which we shall deal later, but I believe that the fact of the request being made would weigh heavily on the mind of a Secretary of State.
I return to the original principle. The legitimacy of the electoral register is paramount to the democracy of the United Kingdom and of Northern Ireland, and it is therefore central to what the Government are supporting. I hope that those who tabled the amendments will not press them to a vote, but if they do, I will encourage my hon. Friends to vote against them. There is potential for further discussions later, if that is what hon. Members want.
The Minister was totally unconvincing. It would have helped if he had done a bit of homework, and reflected on what was said by the Secretary of State less than a month ago. Let me refresh his memory. If I recall correctly, he was present when the Secretary of State gave the House the following assurance:
"We want to modernise still further the registration arrangements in Northern Ireland, safeguarding the dramatic improvements in the accuracy of the register . . . In allowing us to do this, the registration clauses of the Bill go to the heart of increasing trust and engagement in the political and democratic process."—[Hansard, 13 March 2006; Vol. 443, c. 1174.]
However, this afternoon the Minister, who was listening carefully, will have noticed that not a single voice—apart from his—was heard in support of clause 3. It is regrettable that, in quoting from the part that refers to the power of the chief electoral officer, he omitted the crucial word "and" between paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (2). It is not just a question of the wish of the chief electoral officer; he must abide by very relevant registration objectives specified in clause 4. For instance, he—or she: we are to appoint a new chief electoral officer—may fear that entries in the register are false. Clause 4 imposes objectives and obligations on the chief electoral officer, and consequently any recommendation for the Secretary of State to arrange an earlier canvass has been made with very good reason.
When pressed by various hon. Members, the Minister used an unfortunate phrase. He said that the public interest might just boil down to financial interests. Democracy does not come cheap. As an elector in Northern Ireland, I am offended—as my constituents will be—that a Minister of the British Government should say in the House of Commons that the public interest might mean that an up-to-date accurate register was too expensive.
I used that as one example, because we are talking about 1.7 million people. There may be many related examples, with which we may deal later. As the hon. Lady will see if she reads Hansard in due course, I did say that it would be a brave Secretary of State who refused the recommendation of the chief electoral officer.
I thank the Minister for that attempt to clarify the issue, but he was able to give only one example of the public interest. On two consecutive occasions, he referred to financial interests. That is most regrettable.
The Minister says that it would be a brave—a courageous—Secretary of State who used the power for which the Bill provides. The Bill empowers the Secretary of State to override the chief electoral officer if the Secretary of State
"is satisfied that the public interest requires a canvass".
That is in clause 3(2)(b). The clause does not state that the Secretary of State must have reasonable grounds for his belief, or that any other considerations should be taken into account. It merely states that the Secretary of State must be satisfied that there is an overriding public interest before setting aside the chief electoral officer's recommendation.
That wording is carefully chosen. As Sir Patrick Cormack pointed out, given the inbuilt Government majority, resistance to any order presented to the House in the form of delegated legislation would have no chance of success. Moreover, having been subjected to the affirmative resolution procedure, it would be beyond challenge in the courts. Only the Secretary of State need be satisfied; there are no reviewable objectives or reasonable grounds to determine what constitutes the public interest in this clause.
For all those reasons, and having been completely unpersuaded by the Government's response to legitimate concerns expressed from every part of the Committee, I intend to press my amendment to a vote.
The First Deputy Chairman:
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 27, in clause 3, page 2, line 37, at end insert—
'(2A) When considering a recommendation from the Chief Electoral Officer under subsection (2)(a) above, the Secretary of State must have particular regard to prevention of electoral fraud with a presumption that prevention of electoral fraud is in the public interest.'.
No. 17, in clause 3, page 3, line 12, at end insert—
'(5A) For the purposes of subsection (5) the "public interest" is the requirement to meet the "relevant registration objectives" as set out in section 4.'.
These amendments are similar to the ones in the previous group, and it was perhaps unfortunate that we could not consider them all at the same time. I do not want to try your patience, Mrs. Heal, but I suspect that it is to some degree inevitable that we might have revisit some of the arguments presented previously.
We had a long debate on the timing of the canvass. The annual canvass has been abolished: it is now proposed to hold a canvass in 2010, and possibly in intervening years as well, unless the Secretary of States makes an order providing that that requirement does not apply. In intervening years, the chief electoral officer can recommend that a canvass should be conducted, but it will take place only if the Secretary of State is satisfied that the public interest requires it. Indeed, the 2010 canvass can be cancelled if the Secretary of State, having considered the CEO's recommendation, is satisfied that the public interest does not require it.
Hon. Members from all parties have expressed concern about what the term "the public interest" means. That is an important matter in Great Britain, but the fact that citizens in Northern Ireland have generally been treated less well in legal terms than their counterparts in Great Britain means that the vagueness of the term arouses even more concern. I have tabled these amendments to tease out from the Minister the circumstances under which the 2010 canvass, or a canvass in an intervening year, might not take place. I accept that the requirement to keep the debate relevant to the amendments under discussion limited his opportunity to expand on that previously, and I hope that he will be able to say more this time.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential to aim for normality, in Northern Ireland even more than in any other part of the UK? Providing for exceptions using a phrase as vague as "the public interest" is, prima facie, rather dangerous. Does he accept that the Government would need a very strong reason for making an exception, especially given that this Bill is in respect of Northern Ireland?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right. As I tried to explain, using the term "public interest" in respect of Great Britain is unacceptably wide; to use it in terms of Northern Ireland requires some explanation, with good reason to support it.
As I said in an intervention earlier, I am a little concerned about the independence of the chief electoral officer. Perhaps the Committee will forgive me if I fast-forward to clause 8 which states:
"The Chief Electoral Officer . . . is appointed by the Secretary of State . . . A person must not be appointed as Chief Electoral Officer for more than 5 years at a time."
Furthermore, he cannot hold office for more than 10 years. By comparison, the police ombudsman is appointed by Her Majesty the Queen, although I accept that it is by recommendation—no doubt from the Secretary of State. Why is the situation different for the chief electoral officer?
Clause 8 does not lead us to believe that the CEO would be independent. As I noted earlier, the relationship between the CEO and the Secretary of State will be somewhat incestuous. The Minister says that the 2010 canvass would be cancelled only if the CEO had made a recommendation against it, but surely in the real world the Secretary of State could put pressure on the CEO if he thought it appropriate.
I am concerned about the situation, although as we explored it in great depth during the previous debate I shall not repeat the arguments, but will the Minister give us some examples of what the public interest would mean under the clause? He gave a financial example to show why the 2010 canvass might not take place. He has just had several minutes to discuss other possible examples with officials and colleagues, so I hope that he can offer some to show why he feels that the Secretary of State would overrule the CEO. In particular, will he give us his interpretation of what "the public interest" would actually mean?
I shall address my remarks to my amendment No. 27. I remind the Minister that just over a month ago, on Second Reading, the Secretary of State gave us this assurance about measures for the registration of voters:
"The measures broadly mirror change being introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom by the Electoral Administration Bill, as the Government believe that it is right that the citizens of Northern Ireland should enjoy the same rights as those of the rest of the UK."—[Hansard, 13 March 2006; Vol. 443, c. 1175.]
As the Minister reflects on the words of his esteemed colleague, he may care to try to reconcile the differences between the Electoral Administration Bill and this Bill, especially clause 3, under which the Secretary of State has exclusively been given the power to override a decision of the chief electoral officer in "the public interest"—whatever that will mean. The Minister has of course assured us that it means more than a financial interest, although he mentioned financial interests twice in our earlier debate, so we wait with bated breath to hear what else might amount to public interest.
The Minister may also care to study the Electoral Administration Bill, currently in another place, to which his colleague referred to on
I dislike subsection (2)(b) of clause 3 and the Minister would be well advised to remove it. The inclusion of a reference to the Secretary of State having power to override the decision of the chief electoral officer in the public interest has caused enormous annoyance among Members who have spoken. Only the Government are in favour of the provision. If the Minister does not heed our advice, I urge him to ensure that my amendment No. 27 is adopted, because at least it indicates that where the chief electoral officer is concerned about electoral fraud the presumption will be that a canvass is in the public interest to eradicate that fraud. The matter would be brought to the attention of the Secretary of State by the person most keenly interested in having a valid, proper, up-to-date, modern electoral register—the chief electoral officer.
My amendment reads:
"When considering a recommendation from the Chief Electoral Officer under subsection (2)(a) above, the Secretary of State must"— that is an obligation and a duty—
"have particular regard to prevention of electoral fraud with a presumption that prevention of electoral fraud is in the public interest."
It is inconceivable that the Minister could come to the Dispatch Box and say that the prevention of electoral fraud was not in the public interest. He can make no logical objection to such a sensible amendment.
I would prefer that subsection (2)(b) was withdrawn altogether and deleted from the face of the Bill. However, if the Minister insists on it, I ask him to adopt my amendment to make quite sure that when the chief electoral officer indicates his or her wish to eradicate electoral fraud, it will be in the public interest to hold a canvass.
The Minister will obviously be aware from the previous debate that there is real suspicion and concern that the Bill gives the Secretary of State significant override powers when the concept of "public interest" is not defined. Going on form rather than faith, it would be hard to trust any Secretary of State who had such sweeping powers, especially in circumstances where the Secretary of State was not required to exercise them in a defined and clear context—where there was no clear working premise for the exercise of such powers. If the Minister wants us to believe any of the reassurances, I am sure he will accept the amendments, which would define the public interest.
In his closing contribution on the last group of amendments, the Minister told us that the integrity of the registration process must be paramount, yet he offered as the only specific public interest consideration that would lead the Secretary of State to override the recommendation of the chief electoral officer a financial consideration—that in the circumstances, £1.7 million might too much to uphold the integrity of the registration process, which is said to be paramount.
The amendments would ensure that the terms used by the Minister are extended to the Bill. If it is good enough for Members to be asked to accept his assurance, it should be good enough for him to include it in the Bill on behalf of Members. That is the point of the amendments, which seek a clear definition of the public interest. We know from so many other occasions that when it is not defined, we are treated to those empty but supposedly magic words, "the public interest".
When parliamentarians demand answers and explanations, the explanation that we are given is "the public interest". Parliament is not allowed proper debate, scrutiny, consideration and exposure of the issues involved. The concept of the public interest is meant to protect the public from stupid decisions, not from proper parliamentary scrutiny. I ask the Minister to accept these reasonable, sensible amendments, which are entirely consistent with the arguments that he made. He cannot ask us to believe those arguments, and then reject the amendments and call on his colleagues to vote against them.
I was trying to be helpful, perhaps in a dangerous way, when I pointed out to the Minister that there are other public interest considerations that might influence the chief electoral officer and perhaps even the Secretary of State when it comes to adjusting dates. The clauses that we have just passed permit a general canvass before 2010, as opposed to just after 2010. A census is due in 2011. I accept that there could be a number of practical issues in relation to 2010 that would give rise to legitimate questions of public interest.
If the chief electoral officer is to undertake a general canvass in the autumn of 2010, he will be trying to marshal many of the same canvass personnel as will be employed in the census in the spring of 2011. That gives rise to issues of comparable remuneration and pay rates. That was an issue when I, as Minister for Finance and Personnel in Northern Ireland, was handling the census in 2001. There are also issues of public communication. In the run-up to the general canvass in 2010, will that be confused with the public information that has been issued in the build-up to the census in the spring of 2011? There could well be good reason for bringing the general canvass forward to 2009, for example.
Various public interest questions are involved, but when it comes to decisions about electoral registration, the paramount consideration must be not whether it is for the convenience of people carrying out the canvass, but whether optimum working conditions will be created for the chief electoral officer to ensure that a proper registration canvass is carried out.
If the Secretary of State has powers to overrule the chief electoral officer, possibly for unstated reasons, or to ignore his recommendation, and if those powers are combined with those given later in the Bill for the Secretary of State to take control of the appointment of the chief electoral officer and to dismiss that officer, a potential twilight zone begins to emerge.
One of the things that we are constantly shown on television is the famous Jeremy Paxman interview with the former Home Secretary and former leader of the Conservative party about whether he did or did not threaten to overrule the former head of the prison service, and whether or not there were implications or suggestions about this, that or the other.
We see a twilight zone where all sorts of scenarios that are suggestive and reminiscent of what is implied by those questions might well arise. We might not be dealing with the same the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in a number of years' time. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is also the Secretary of State for Wales. We know from previous proposed departmental reconstructions that the Government have thought about doing something along the lines of the BBC's director of nations and regions, by putting together some of the territorial ministries. We could well find that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be housed in future in some mutation of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which is the Department where overall responsibility for electoral administration resides.
If the precedent is created that a Minister in that Department has powers to appoint, dismiss, override and ignore the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland, hon. Members from my side of the water need to consider the precedent into which they might be sleepwalking if they accept what is being offered. So I ask the Minister, on behalf of the Government, to think again and to think better, not just with eye to the situation that would unfold, but because of the very awkward and dangerous precedent that might be created more widely.
As Mr. Robertson pointed out, this is something that we have covered to a fairly large extent. The issue is fairly simple. Of course, the Minister has the opportunity to provoke us into a vote if he wants. I hope that he does not take that opportunity. I hope instead that he takes the common-sense position.
Why will the Government not accept these points? They have just won a vote that will give the Secretary of State the power to overrule the chief electoral officer with regard to the 2010 canvass. I am sure that the Minister would not be so brash as to deny the common-sense nature of all three amendments in this string. Either the Minister accepts the principle of the amendments, in which case we can move on quickly to the next clause, or he must explain why he wants to give the Secretary of State the political wriggle room to define public interest.
The Government and the Minister very well know that there is a degree of cynicism among some hon. Members about the manipulation of things such as election dates in Northern Ireland for political reasons. Many of us think that the Government entered an entirely counter-productive pathway, by changing the date of the election to help the Ulster Unionist party, thus delivering to the Democratic Unionist party the exact result that we could all see would happen, to the DUP's great credit. So the Government have some form, in that they have wanted some wriggle room for political advantage.
At the heart of this set of amendments is surely the principle that the Secretary of State must not have political wriggle room in matters of public interest in relation to the avoidance of electoral fraud. Therefore, I echo the question already raised by the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Tewkesbury; will the Minister accept the amendment and, if not, what possible motivation could the Government have to try to build political wriggle room into something as important as the probity of the electoral canvass?
A few years ago, there was a great deal of debate in the House about what were called Henry VIII clauses. This, in effect, is a Henry VIII clause, because it will give the Secretary of State total power to interpret two words that can have the broadest and most general of meanings in a variety of contexts—"public interest". The Secretary of State of the day who will decide what those two words mean.
As Lembit Öpik said a moment or two ago, we have had examples of the political interpretation of those words. Earlier this afternoon, we had a quite absurd example of a financial consideration, when the Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and said that the Government could decide that £1.7 million—the price of modest London flat—is too much to spend on counteracting fraud.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it would not be modest for me, either.
We all know from the property columns of newspapers that £1.7 million does not buy an awful lot these days—[Interruption.] That is absolutely true. One need look only at the rather frightening property columns in almost any newspaper to realise that in all parts of the country, including the Minister's constituency, many properties are selling for that amount. That illustration is certainly less fatuous than the Minister's when he said that £1.7 million might be too much to spend to avoid fraud.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, prima facie, the public interest in the north of Ireland should be the same as in the rest of the United Kingdom, and that making this sort of distinction is basically wrong—not just marginally, but fundamentally wrong?
I agree completely. I have said many times during my time as Chairman of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs that we want Northern Ireland to be a normal part of the UK, in the same way that Wales, Scotland and England are. At the moment, it is manifestly not and what we are debating now is a further illustration of the problem, which perpetuates the position and is fundamentally wrong.
If I have to accept these words about the public interest in the Bill—I would much rather they were taken out and wholly agree with the hon. Member for North Down in saying that—they must be precise, specific and defined. My hon. Friend Mr. Robertson and the hon. Member for North Down have both attempted to provide definitions. I hope that neither of them will take it in bad part if I say that they are imperfect attempts to create the definitions, but at least they are genuine attempts to do so.
The very least that the Minister should do this afternoon, if he cannot undertake to remove the entire provision—I agree absolutely with what my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer said a few moments ago—is to affirm that the Government will take the problem away for further consideration and seek to table amendments in the other place to encapsulate the amendments of both the hon. Member for North Down and my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury. If he wants to satisfy us, he should take it even further and call in the spokesmen for all the major political parties in Northern Ireland, see them either individually or collectively, and properly discuss the business of the public interest to see what can be agreed. After all, the Government set great store on finding consensus at the moment and are embarking on a series of talks. If it is so important to do so, which I fully accept, in respect of the operation of devolution, it is of equal importance to embark on talks that will lead to a consensus in respect of legislation passed by the House.
I hope that the Minister will give us a much more satisfactory reply than he gave us about half an hour ago at the end of the previous group of amendments. I hope that the House will not need to divide again, but if the Minister fails to give us a satisfactory reply I fear that it will probably have to do so.
I have listened with interest to the remarks of Sir Patrick Cormack and I believe that the Minister has been given the necessary room to act in good faith. I have no doubt, from what the Minister has already said, that he is speaking in good faith in so far as he sees the situation. I wish to make it clear that what we are saying is not an attack on the personal integrity of the present Secretary of State or any successor. We are talking about the powers given to the Secretary of State generally.
Clause 3 tells us that the Secretary of State has to be satisfied that conducting a canvass meets the public interest. In other words, the public interest is defined by the Secretary of State, but surely it is the community that has to be satisfied that the public interest is being met and we need an appropriate rather than a political interpretation. Let us remove all ambiguity by having a clear definition and a clear interpretation of what "public interest" really means.
We all know in Northern Ireland of the talks involving a certain gentleman who used to be in the House and the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, the then leader of the SDLP and Sinn Fein. They came out of the talks and said, "Look at what we've got." One said one thing and another said the very opposite. One claimed that the talks had resulted in a securing of the Union and the other said that they were a major step towards a united Ireland. That leaves suspicion. We are talking about removing electoral fraud and about a register that will be involved in the election of representatives to Stormont, Westminster and local government. Therefore, it must have integrity and the community must have confidence in it.
Recently, we heard that prosecutions had been withdrawn because it was not in the public interest to continue with them. What does it all mean? Mark Durkan touched on this a moment ago, because we did try to find out what the words "public interest" meant. We could not have a debate about that here; we were not allowed a debate. Therefore, it is important to get crystal clear what we are talking about. The Secretary of State will be given power and he has to be satisfied that the public interest is met. Surely, on behalf of the electorate of Northern Ireland and through their parliamentarians here, we should nail what the public interest really means.
I ask the Minister not to go to the wire. As was suggested by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, I make an appeal for a relevant change to be brought forward in the other place to satisfy the reasonable demands that have been made. I trust that the Minister accepts that we are also talking in good faith and that the Government could give way on the rational and reasonable demands that we are making.
I again thank hon. Members for their contributions in highlighting the issue before us. However, I have to say that I have the impression that my response will disappoint hon. Members.
Yes, again. I am very sorry to disappoint Dr. McCrea again—[Interruption.]—and the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan), for North Down (Lady Hermon), for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) again—[Interruption.]—and Mr. Dodds and any other Members in the House.
I am afraid that, again, I will have to disappoint hon. Members.
Points have been raised in the House and we had a full three-month consultation on the document. I met the political parties who wished to see me about the document and, at no stage in the consultation or in the meetings that I had with hon. Members about this topic, did any hon. Member or anyone else raise this point about the Secretary of State. I recognise that the House has primacy and a role in discussing these matters, but I simply put on the record that nobody has raised these points before today.
Does the Minister accept that every person who has spoken on this issue has made the same clear point and that we are dealing with the delicate matter of the normalcy of Northern Ireland? Could he not therefore accept that, on this occasion, the only people who are on his side are not here, not speaking or have no view? Does that not embarrass him?
I am grateful for that contribution. If Mr. Gummer had been present for the debate on the previous group of amendments, he would have heard a full discussion of similar issues.
I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that I was not on my own—I had 290 colleagues in the Lobby with me. They have full confidence in my position in putting forward these proposals on behalf of the Government today.
Serious issues have been raised by hon. Members. I hope that what I am about to say will also address the point that was raised by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal. The purpose of this set of amendments is to remove the Secretary of State from the equation. The Secretary of State will act on a recommendation from the chief electoral officer.
I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said, but the previous debate and this debate have essentially been about removing the Secretary of State's role.
I am sorry, but the Minister cannot get away with this. He is living in the recent past, when apparently 290 of his colleagues were all watching the debate on television and, unlike any single person in the Chamber, were convinced by his argument. The difficulty in this case is that we are not seeking to eliminate the Secretary of State from the process; we are seeking to define the conditions that have to be fulfilled, to understand clearly what a breach of public interest means. The Minister cannot hide behind his words. He needs to address the words used in the amendment and explain why he does not want clearly to define what public interest means in this circumstance.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who is the only Liberal Democrat Member in the Chamber. He is obviously speaking on behalf of all his colleagues, as I am on behalf of mine.
The debate and the amendments are about the Secretary of State's role in monitoring the process. In the debate on the previous set of amendments, I said that the recommendation from the chief electoral officer will go to the Secretary of State, who can, if he wants, override those wishes on the ground that he is satisfied that that is in the public interest. I have given examples. Potentially—I am simply saying potentially—public interest could relate to cost.
I take the point that the hon. Member for Foyle put to me. I go back to first principles, as I have mentioned. The integrity of the register is paramount. If it is not true and accurate, that taints the quality of the membership of this House and any other elected body. I take the point that he has made. I am simply saying that one aspect of that, potentially, could be for the Secretary of State, at that stage, to consider a cost element. Another aspect of the public interest could be for the Secretary of State to consider the points that were well put by the hon. Member for Foyle in relation to the census and the organisation of that.
Another aspect of the public interest could arise in the event of a weak chief electoral officer being appointed, who could be lobbied by one or more parties to undertake a canvass and could determine to do so. I am not saying that the chief electoral officer is or will be weak, but the potential could be there. I am simply saying that there are potential areas where the responsibility for the integrity of the electoral register rests with the electoral officer. He may recommend that a canvass is undertaken, but, under this power, a future Secretary of State may determine that the circumstances are not right for that canvass to take place.
I am simply saying to all hon. Members that the Secretary of State retains that role. As I have indicated, it would be a brave Secretary of State who turned down a recommendation for a canvass by an electoral officer, but I wish to retain the power for him or her to do so because, potentially, the Secretary of State may, at that stage, determine that to be in the public interest.
The Minister laboured the point that political parties did not object during the consultation process, but I would be interested to hear what the chief electoral officer said—I assume that he was consulted. Moreover, I would love to hear the reaction of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to the Secretary of State's attempt to override the chief electoral officer's decision and cut across provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights on the obligation to have free elections under conditions that ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people when voting for the legislature.
I recall that the comments of the chief electoral officer indicated that he was happy with the package of measures that we brought forward. However, if the view is contrary to that, I will certainly inform the hon. Lady in due course.
Presumably, the chief electoral officer did not see the Bill before the House of Commons, so the consultations were general. We now have a situation in which the Minister is content that the Secretary of State shall have complete power to interpret the words "public interest" as he chooses and does not have to explain to anyone how he reaches that decision. He would not have to say that, in his opinion, public interest was this, that and the other. The amendments are an attempt by my hon. Friend Mr. Robertson and Lady Hermon to give the bones of a definition. The Minister was quite wrong to suggest that we were trying to write the Secretary of State out—we accept, reluctantly, that he is in. All that we want is a clear definition of what the public interest is all about.
I hope that what I say helps the hon. Gentleman because I know that he is trying to be helpful. If the chief electoral officer determined that a canvass should take place, but the Secretary of State determined that it should not, I am sure that the Secretary of State would have to publish his reasons because the chief electoral officer could, if he wished, make public the fact that he had made a recommendation to that effect. The Secretary of State would thus have to argue publicly the reasons why he did not accept the recommendation.
The phrases involving public interest that have caused hon. Members concern are contestable phrases. The concepts are known to the courts and contestable in the courts, and the Secretary of State would, potentially, have to publish his reasons for disagreeing with the chief electoral officer. Additionally, the Secretary of State's decision could be subject to judicial review in the courts if any individual were so minded to contest that view.
There is nothing in the Bill to say that that would have to happen. The Prime Minister refused to answer a question of mine on the bombing of an aspirin factory in Sudan with the simple words that it would not be in the public interest to explain why that happened. The answer was outrageous, but there was no explanation of what the public interest was. The Prime Minister decided and applied the public interest and it stood. If that happens in the House of Commons, it will happen elsewhere, and that is why we are suspicious. The citizens of Northern Ireland cannot accept that the words "public interest" shall be interpreted by the person who will use that interpretation to do what he thinks is in his interest. That is the problem, and unless one divorces the two, the measure will be seen as wrong.
I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes, but simply say to him that a public interest decision is contestable. The defence drawn by the Secretary of State could be contestable in the courts. There would be a possibility of judicial review, and—I return to this fact—it would be a very brave Secretary of State who took such a decision.
The power is in the Bill because we believe that there might be circumstances—I have outlined some unlikely ones relating to cost, the census, or a situation in which a weak chief electoral officer was in post—in which the Secretary of State might wish to exercise it. In normal circumstances, I do not envisage that any Secretary of State would refuse such a request from a chief electoral officer.
The Minister is doing his best to try to find reasons why the Secretary of State may refuse to allow a census. However, his last example concerned the weakness of the chief electoral officer. Is the Secretary of State likely to give such a public explanation, especially as the relevant provision allows him to dismiss the chief electoral officer if he is not fit for office? If he was weak and not fit for the job, the public would ask why he had not been dismissed.
I am trying to be helpful to all hon. Members. The provisions would be used in extremis. In normal circumstances, the chief electoral officer is independent of the Government and will make decisions and recommendations that will be acted on by the Government. However, there may be circumstances, a few of which I have outlined—I accept that hon. Members do not share my analysis—in which the Secretary of State does not wish to accept the chief electoral officer's recommendation. If that is the case, it is in the public interest for the Secretary of State to defend the matter to the public at large, because the electoral officer can, if he wishes, make his recommendation public. It is contestable in the courts, and it can be argued in the public domain. The Secretary of State is accountable to the House for his decisions through discussion, debate and questions. Those are accountability issues. There may be circumstances in which the Secretary of State does not wish to accept a recommendation for an annual canvass by the chief electoral officer. If those circumstances arise, I imagine that there will be all hell to pay but, none the less, they could arise.
The Minister is talking about the independence of the chief electoral officer, yet there are provisions in the Bill that chip away at that independence, so he is not the final arbiter on any matter that is supposed to be within his competence. The Minister suggested that he could be weak and could undertake a registration exercise after being approached by the parties. The fact is, however, that in the past, Secretaries of State have moved election dates after an approach from parties. They have justified pursuing things that excluded other parties by saying that it was in the public interest. It never worked, and it was not right. Why are the Government trying to do it with this as well?
I am in danger of repeating my arguments. I am simply saying to all right hon. and hon. Members that the electoral officer has the integrity of the register at heart. Under clause 4, he is responsible for maintaining the register and its electoral integrity and, as part of that responsibility, he may wish to make a recommendation to the Secretary of State for an annual canvass. However, there may be circumstances in which the Secretary of State does not agree with that recommendation and wishes to override it. In extremis, such decisions may be made on financial grounds, on grounds relating to the census itself and for a range of reasons. I accept that I am pleading with the House in future to trust the Secretary of State, whoever they are, but their reasons for such decisions will undoubtedly be made public. They will be contestable in the courts, and they will be open to judicial review and to question in the House, so there is a safeguard if the provision is used in extremis.
None of those things may happen, although they are possibilities. The Minister may rule out my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer and me, but is he not concerned that representatives from all the democratically elected parties who sit in this House and who take up their obligations as Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland are deeply disturbed? Has he not been persuaded to think again by the united voice of the SDLP, the DUP and the Ulster Unionists? He must engender confidence in Northern Ireland, which he manifestly has not got.
I recognise the hon. Gentleman's point. On a number of decisions I have not had the confidence of all the parties in this House, which is sometimes the nature of politics. As I have said, no one raised that concern in the consultation. I accept the concerns raised by hon. Members, and simply say that the power will be used only in extremis.
"a recommendation in favour of a canvass being conducted in that year for the purpose of meeting the relevant registration objectives".
Those objectives are listed in clause 4, and one of them is to ensure
"that every person who is entitled to be registered in a register is registered in it".
That is an important reason to request that a canvass should take place, but the Minister is in effect arguing that there may be an overriding reason to prevent that register being accurate.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. In extremis, the Secretary of State may find reasons to take that action, and I have tried to indicate to the Committee what they might be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle has said, those reasons include a clash with the census, pressure from political parties and matters involving funding. Clause 4 allows, when responsibilities are determined, the chief electoral officer to ask the Secretary of State for an annual canvass. A future Secretary of State would decide not to accede to such a request only in extremis. However, I will not rule out the possibility that a future Secretary of State might make such a decision, in which case they would have to publish the reasons why, and such a decision would be open to both judicial review and the questioning of this House.
The Minister has put it on the record that nobody raised the matter in the consultation, but parliamentary debates take place in this House. When did the Minister tell the parties that this power was being given to the Secretary of State? When in discussions did he make that point clear to the political parties and allow them to react to it, because my hon. Friends cannot remember that happening?
In the consultation, we outlined how the electoral officer's role will be undertaken when we discussed the role of the Secretary of State and others. If hon. Members are unhappy with the proposals before the Committee, they can vote against them today and they can be raised in another place. Obviously, we will examine the points that have been made in today's debate. In my view, it is essential that the chief electoral officer has a role in determining when the annual canvass takes place. The chief electoral officer will make those recommendations, but in extremis there may be reasons why a future Secretary of State determines that it is in the public interest not to undertake that canvass and rejects the request from the chief electoral officer.
The professionals in this business are the chief electoral officer and his team. As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury said, they have a duty under clause 4 to meet the objectives of ensuring that the register is accurate and not open to fraud. I believe very strongly that the integrity of the electoral register is paramount, because it is on that basis that I, and other hon. Members, speak in this House today. I understand hon. Members' concerns, but I do not believe that they are founded in the likely actions of any future Secretary of State.
To sum up the Minister's position, he seems to be saying that if a recommendation from the chief electoral officer were to be rejected, the Secretary of State would have to explain to the public the public interest reason for that. Would not it be far better simply to drop this provision, so that if some extreme circumstances were to arise in future, the Secretary of State could come to the House to explain what they were and could take action at that stage? The Minister has singularly failed to give a good reason why this open-ended provision should be in the Bill.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am sure that that is an alternative scenario that could equally well have been undertaken. However, I imagine that were the Secretary of State to do that at some point in the future—in 2011, 2012, 2013 or 2014—there would be an almighty row in this House, as there will be if the Secretary of State exercises the power under the Bill.
I understand that I am asking hon. Members to give discretion to a future Secretary of State, but I believe and trust that any such Secretary of State will act with responsibility and will overrule a chief electoral officer only in extremis for reasons that are in the public interest and that he or she will have to defend.
Having listened to what has been said, particularly by Northern Ireland Members from all parties represented in the House, is not the Minister prepared at least to say that he will discuss this with the present Secretary of State and that he will consider introducing amendments or have his colleagues do so in another place?
As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes a good parliamentary point. That type of discussion might well have occurred were we upstairs in Committee.
Of course, I will be happy to look at the debate and reflect on what has been said, but I will continue to argue for the principle that I have put before hon. Members, because I do not believe that their fears about the extent of the role of the Secretary of State in terms of the electoral register and its compilation are justified. I commend the proposals to the Committee and ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to reject the amendment should hon. Members force it to a vote.
We have had another prolonged debate on an interesting subject and I should like to run through one or two points that have arisen.
As other hon. Members have said, the previous consultations outside the House are not relevant. We are here to consider the Bill as legislators, and we are entitled to raise points that were not necessarily raised before.
It is a recurring theme that Ministers—not this particular Minister, but the Government—are becoming rather isolated on Northern Ireland business. Given that Sinn Fein Members do not take their seats in this House, the Labour party is frequently the only party putting forward the ideas that appear in the Bill. No other party from either side of the House, including the SDLP, is supporting the Government on any issue. Only yesterday, the Government were isolated when a Northern Ireland order was discussed upstairs. Perhaps the Minister should go away and reflect on a number of issues, including that one.
I was a little concerned—although perhaps it should not have surprised me—when the Minister said that if the chief electoral officer's recommendation were to be overridden, he would have the option of going public. Naively, I had assumed that the recommendation would have been made public in the first place. I would be happy for the Minister to intervene on me to clarify that matter. Perhaps I have missed the point, but I had assumed that the recommendation would automatically have been made public. It alarms me that that might not be the case. This will make the incestuous relationship between the Secretary of State and the chief electoral officer, to which I referred earlier, even more dangerous than I had originally assumed. I shall need to reflect on that.
I should like to clarify the matter for the hon. Gentleman. The chief electoral officer may make his recommendation public, but he does not necessarily have to do so. It will be the responsibility of the chief electoral officer. He or she may make it public, or decide not to do so.
I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that the chief electoral officer's recommendation need not be made public, and that it could be kept private—[Interruption.] I hear the suggestion that there might be, in the Minister's own words, a weak electoral officer. Such an officer would surely be bound to keep his recommendations private.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, when we look at the totality of the Bill, we see that the chief electoral officer will be appointed by the Secretary of State, dismissible by the Secretary of State, and overrideable and ignorable by the Secretary of State? The chief electoral officer will, as never before, be the Secretary of State's chief electoral officer. That is where the real weakness of the chief electoral officer will come from.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that observation. I do not want to put words into his mouth, but he seems to be suggesting that this is going to be a pretty low-grade job. I mean no disrespect to anyone who is about to hold the position of chief electoral officer, but they will not have much autonomy or influence.
My hon. Friend has teased out of the Minister an admission that is frankly horrifying. The chief electoral officer could go to the Secretary of State and say, "Secretary of State, we need to do this", the Secretary of State could say, "You go back where you came from. It is in the public interest that we do not do that", and none of us would ever know anything about it.
If we are honest, should we not admit that we have got ourselves into this mess because the Minister is trying to defend an indefensible position? The only way in which he could defend it honestly is by saying that he wants to give the Secretary of State the political wriggle room to make decisions about the electoral canvass in the political interests of a negotiation with one party or another. The chief electoral officer's objective guidance could therefore be overruled for reasons of political expediency, and everyone except the Minister feels that that would be very bad for democracy.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
I return to the point I made earlier. The chief electoral officer will be able to make a recommendation in favour of a canvass being conducted in a certain year only
"for the purpose of meeting the relevant registration objectives".
Those objectives include ensuring that
"every person who is entitled to be registered in a register is registered in it . . . that no person who is not entitled to be registered in a register is registered in it, and . . . that none of the required information relating to any person registered in a register is false."
All those objectives seem reasonable to me. The chief electoral officer can make a recommendation in favour of a canvass being conducted only on the basis of those objectives. It worries me that the Secretary of State will be able to fall back on an overriding principle in order to cancel such a canvass. What could that principle be? My hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack mentioned that the exercise would cost about the same amount as a modest flat in London. I am not exactly with him on the property league. I think that a more appropriate indicator would be a cost of slightly more than £1 per elector in Northern Ireland, but perhaps I do not live in the same area as him.
Where I come from, a street would be more appropriate.
In any club that is owned by its members, the first duty of the secretary is to maintain a list of those members, as they will determine the rules and the way in which the club is run. Surely, the most important criterion of a democracy is an accurate register. The Minister is effectively saying, "Okay, but in certain circumstances there are more important considerations." He now appears to disagree, but in that case, why does he not accept the amendments? They are not very revolutionary. I am not even suggesting that we should remove the phrase "public interest". I am seeking merely to ensure that we relate those words to clause 4, which the Minister himself has proposed.
Before my hon. Friend loses the image of the secretary of a club, may I ask what kind of man would be secretary to a club in which he could be prevented from keeping an accurate register? Do not the Minister's words bring to my hon. Friend's mind the words "monkey" and "organ-grinder"?
Perhaps "monkey" and "peanuts" come to mind; I do not know what the salary will be. Nevertheless, the person who takes on the job will read this debate—I do not suggest that they will be listening to it—and be somewhat alarmed. The Minister may have put off a few potential applicants. The job is going to be a very low-grade job. The officer's recommendation on the canvass need not be made public and can be overridden, and the very important responsibilities that should go with the job will rest with the Secretary of State. This is a very low-grade job.
It is not a low-grade job, but an extremely important job that is vital to the democracy of Northern Ireland and which has at its heart integrity in the political process and the integrity of this House. Today's debate has concentrated on the responsibilities of the Secretary of State in extremis to examine reasons why, in the public interest, recommendations may or may not be made by the chief electoral officer. In the meantime, the job is an extremely professional and high-grade job, and I look forward to the post being filled following the retirement very shortly of Denis Stanley.
It should be a high-grade, responsible job. The objectives of maintaining an accurate register are certainly extremely important. I would find it very surprising if the Secretary of State intervened to prevent a canvass that was recommended by the chief electoral officer. Given the importance, especially in Northern Ireland, of maintaining an accurate register, a vague term such as "public interest" should be defined in the Bill, or at the very least—I mean no discourtesy to the Minister—we should be entitled to a better explanation of what it might mean and of what circumstances might be more important than the criteria listed in clause 4.
It was not necessarily my intention at the beginning of the debate to press the amendment to a vote, but in the absence of an adequate explanation, I feel that we must do so.