Clause 5 - Disabled voters

Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 18th October 2001.

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Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down 4:30 pm, 18th October 2001

Amendment No. 25 is in my name, but with your permission, Mr. Amess, and that of the Committee, I shall not move it, for the reasons that I gave when we discussed amendment No. 18.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I want to make the case for consolidation of the legislation. I am extremely grateful that the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) did not move his amendment, because I did not understand its effect. Having struggled through the amendment and the legislation, I found it simply impossible as a lay reader to work it out. I now have considerable sympathy with the officials of the Northern Ireland Office. I now have considerable sympathy with the officials of the Northern Ireland Office, who have to make their way through the legislation, drawing on many different sources on electoral law in Northern Ireland. It is impossible to understand for whom subsection (3) is meant and to what it applies; the amendments make it even more delphic. I ask the Minister a simple question on consolidation. When can we expect the Government to produce a consolidated Bill that will make the life of the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland and all the officials that work with him, and indeed his own officials, that much simpler?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I support the hon. Member for Reigate on the issue of consolidation. I referred to it earlier in the debate but the hon. Gentleman's point underlines it once more for the Minister. I am sure that members of the Committee sought to provide themselves with all the legislation relating to the amendments and to the subject generally. If they were successful in doing so, they will have piles beside them of the same depth as I do beside me.

The amount of legislation relating to the subject was brought home to me most tellingly when I went to the Public Bill Office, which provides hon. Members with a great service by putting our political thoughts into legal words. When I met the Minister, during the consultation period on the Bill, he told me that one of my first amendments, which had been tabled with the assistance of the legal experts in the Public Bill Office, sought to amend a clause that had been repealed. That indicates the murky depths of the many different pieces of legislation related to the issue—some went through statutory instrument Committees, some went through by Order in Council, some by primary legislation in the House and others by primary legislation in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It was said earlier that the chief electoral officer would find it helpful if there could be some consolidation. I strongly support the view expressed by the hon. Member for Reigate. Although the Minister cannot give us the precise date, I hope that he will give us an indication of the time span he has in mind for providing some consolidation, though I suspect that it will be at United Kingdom level rather than Northern Ireland level.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

For completeness, I should point out that the proposed amendment that the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and I discussed at our meeting amended a piece of legislation that had not only been repealed but which never applied to Northern Ireland in the first place.

I am sure that members of the Committee will understand that I have sympathy for the concerns expressed by the hon. Members for Reigate and for Belfast, East and others. I have endeavoured, with the assistance of my officials—to whom I cannot pay high enough tribute; their expertise and help have made my life considerably easier—to assist members of the Committee. With their help, I have been able to help members of the Committee who asked for help in understanding the Bill, but even then it is a difficult and complex task.

I know from my professional days as an advocate in Scotland that election law throughout the United Kingdom is difficult and complex. On one occasion I was instructed by a London solicitor about an election petition in Scotland. He was the only person I had ever met who had a dog-eared version of the best textbook on the subject. Among the officials who instruct me there may be another person who has a dog-eared version of that textbook, but it is a fairly specialised subject.

I am sorry that I cannot tell the Committee today when I shall be able to turn my mind to the matter. As I am sure hon. Members will understand, in the approximately four months that I have been a Minister with responsibility for electoral law in Northern Ireland I have concentrated on tackling fraud, and we have made significant progress. I cannot say when electoral law will be consolidated, but hon. Members can be assured that I am aware of the issue. That is the best assurance that I can give at this stage.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I fear that ultimately we shall have to rely on the Minister's good intentions. We should have hope, because it is three and a half years since the Select Committee on which he sat presented its recommendations on the subject, and a mere four months into his tenure as a Minister in the Department he has introduced the Bill. We should expect by the end of the parliamentary year to be considering—

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am reminded that it was three weeks before the Bill was introduced, but I cannot take credit for that entirely. My predecessor put considerable effort into the Bill, and we should pay tribute to the work that he did in driving the issue forward.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

The Minister is characteristically generous. I realise that the matter was referred to on Second Reading, but on behalf of the Opposition I acknowledge in Committee the enormous contribution of the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), which enabled the new Minister to introduce the Bill in the blisteringly quick time of three weeks. The matter is important, and the fact has been recorded in Committee. The chief electoral officer made a formal request to the Minister. If the Minister can introduce Bills in three weeks, with a bit of luck the consolidation should be out of the way by Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.