Clause 14 - Registration as an elector: abolition of 3 month residence requirement

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:15 am on 16th July 2013.

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

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Clause 14 is very important. Everybody has the right to vote, should they be within the United Kingdom, but a small group of people are excluded from voting in Northern Ireland, because they have not been resident there for three months before an election. Clause 14 will remove that situation and ensure that nobody loses their right to vote.

The plainly obvious example is people working in different parts of the United Kingdom. It is important that people can work wherever they can. For instance, if someone was working in London and they only went back to Belfast permanently 10 weeks before an election, they would be excluded from voting. This clause removes that issue and ensures that everybody has the right to vote. That is why it is particularly important.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

As the Minister has indicated, there are commendable aspects to this change, which will make it more convenient for people to get themselves properly established on the register, not least in advance of an election. Of course, people want to be on the register, not only so that they have a right to vote, but because a number of other services and issues are determined and influenced by reference to whether or not someone is on the electoral register.

Many people register either when they are coming back home to where they lived before in Northern Ireland, or when they are coming to Northern Ireland for the first time. Sometimes it suits people to get the electoral identity card, for which they are eligible once they are registered, so the ability to get the ID card is something that counts. It certainly counts a lot for young people, who may not otherwise have photographic ID in the form of a driving licence or passport. That is a particular reason for the change.

Another sensible aspect of the change is that we have had a bizarre situation where the electoral officers in Northern Ireland have been telling people who have presented themselves, “Well, we need proof that you have been resident for three months”, and if people are not in a position to produce historical utility bills and so on, they are told, “Sorry, no, we can’t put you on the register without proof.” Then the people say, “Well, how can we get proof?” The officers say, “If your MP writes to us saying that you have been resident for three months, that would be okay.” That puts MPs in the invidious position of basically being the gatekeepers of whether or not some citizens can be registered.

That gives MPs a difficulty. How would an MP satisfy themselves that the requirement had been met? I think that it has happened to Members of the Legislative Assembly as well. How would they satisfy themselves that someone had been duly resident for three months, so that they can give the necessary assurances? They are then in the invidious position of saying, “I can’t give an assurance that you have been resident here for three months.” It is important that that invidious anomaly—that strange position that electoral officers have taken—is removed.

However, there are other issues in relation to removing the three-month requirement. If we quickly come up to an election, and there is a sudden surge of added registration somewhere, that will cause its own issues, and I know that the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland will try to guard against that and show vigilance.

I know questions have arisen, and I certainly know that some of the parties in the south have asked questions about the amount of double registration in border constituencies either side of the border, and that the same people are registered north of the border as are registered south of the border. Obviously, when parties are campaigning on either side of the border, that could well be of particular advantage to them. There would be nothing to prevent people, if they were registered on both sides of the border, from voting on both sides of the border in the European elections next year. That would not be against the law, because they would be voting in separate elections, as with people voting in two by-elections on the same day in two different constituencies. That happened in 1986 in the by-elections called over the Anglo-Irish agreement. I know of a number of people who voted in more than one constituency because they were allowed to be registered in more than one constituency. That was legal, but we need to be alert to any possible abuse or temptation towards abuse. We need to be assured that the added convenience and straightforwardness of the change will not be open to any manipulation that might cause concerns or scandals should it arise.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

With regard to the wise words of the hon. Gentleman, like most MPs, I would be delighted to choose who is allowed on the electoral register. However, we should probably not go down that road.

The hon. Gentleman referred to double registration. Will the Minister confirm whether there is to be a campaign in Northern Ireland when the provision is enacted, as I sincerely hope it will be, to draw attention to double registration? As I understand it, in the rest of the United Kingdom it is perfectly permissible for people to be registered in different constituencies, although obviously not to vote in different constituencies. Will advice be given to those registering under the new rule as to the propriety of being registered in another jurisdiction? Will such information be out there?

The provision will make a major change and the Minister is right to refer to the salience of the clause. We must make sure that everyone understands it thoroughly. No one in this room needs convincing that the potential for mischief in electoral registration is vast and limitless.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I thank the hon. Members for Foyle and for Ealing North for their contributions to the debate. The clause is important. It will not take away the requirement for proof of address, but it will remove the requirement for someone to prove that they have to have been at that address for three months, thereby taking away the gatekeeping role, which I have heard a lot about during my short time as a Minister. Indeed, some of my electorate might find interesting the concept of accepting what a politician says rather than what someone else says.

Matters are moving on more and more, as we gently, gently move to as much normalisation as possible. There are risks, which were alluded to by the shadow Minister. Earlier, I referred to educating the electorate. Northern Ireland has a very sophisticated electorate, but in many ways there are things that they have not been fully informed about over the years. I passionately  believe that the Electoral Commission will take hold of that role and move forward. However, it can do so only with the help of the public and all political parties. Difficult issues are involved, which I do not need to go into, and we must ensure that the electorate receive as much information as possible.

Double registration—and, in some cases, triple registration—has occurred around the United Kingdom for years. It does not seem to be a major problem within Great Britain, and Members of Parliament with two homes have the opportunity to vote for themselves or to vote elsewhere. I always use the word “normalisation”, which was used by Ministers long before my time. Normalisation is enormously important and part of the process, which is why the clause is so important.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 14 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.