The clause addresses a small group of voters who could be disfranchised. I fully understand that the legislation is the way it is because of concerns about fraud in the electoral process. However, I think that it is wrong that someone who falls ill close to an election is disfranchised because they do not have an absent vote opportunity, which they would have in the rest of the United Kingdom. This is therefore an important move forward. I am sure the shadow Minister will agree that we have to be really vigilant, and that the Electoral Commission has to be absolutely vigilant that these provisions are not abused, but in the 21st century, we cannot have people being disfranchised because of their health. I therefore commend the clause to the Committee.
I simply underline the point that the Minister has made: people will want to make sure that this added facility to ensure that people can participate in elections by being able to obtain an absent vote at relatively short notice—more convenient notice than is available now—is not abused, particularly not in combination with the added facility for people to register. Someone will need to watch what sort of linkage there is between the numbers of late registrations overall or in any given area and the number of absent voting applications for those people who registered late.
We also want to ensure consistency of practice across district electoral offices. In relation to absent ballots in the past, people have compared anecdotes that suggested marked differences in practice as to whether volumes of postal vote applications or proxy votes were allowed or approved. There were question marks about the same names appearing as witnesses in different times or different ways—there were all those sorts of issues. It is important that the chief electoral officer keeps a weather eye on that and ensures that the district electoral offices are managing the new facility in a way that works for voters rather than in the organised interest of any one party or candidate, which would be untoward.
People will particularly want to see whether in practice any party tries to ramp up its position via the electoral register by combining a number of new provisions. That is not just something that the chief electoral officer would have to look at; the Electoral Commission, in its wider role, would also want to keep a weather eye on that.
There is something about spending part of a sweet summer’s morning actually doing good and tidying up. I concur with the Minister’s comments about the good sense of these measures. I can think of members of the armed forces in my constituency who have been posted abroad or away from their home base at very short notice, and who have not had the opportunity to vote.
I want to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Foyle about consistency. Inevitably, clause 16 will have consequences for local government organisation. If a large number of people make applications close to polling day, there will be staffing, financial, organisational and structural consequences, and I think that consistency will be an issue. I do not wish to sound overmuch like a broken record, because I have confidence in the Minister, but could this matter at least be reviewed on an annual basis, as I am sure it will be by the inestimable Northern Ireland Office, if not the Assembly? That way, at some stage we can see whether late registration has had extensive consequences. If I may dare to attempt to speak for the whole Committee, I think that every single one of us will support late registration, but we just want to make absolutely sure that it does not engender any problems and proceeds smoothly and with consistency.
I could not agree more with the comments by the shadow Minister. We will monitor the situation very carefully, not least because the Electoral Commission has indicated to me, as the Minister responsible, that the clause will affect a small group of people. If we suddenly find that a large group of people in a particular part of the Province—perhaps even in a particular estate—is registering late, alarm bells will ring. I have insisted that we have the capacity within the agency to make sure that we deal with that.
I completely agree that there were myriad groups that previously fell under this category. The shadow Minister mentioned the armed forces, and 20% of the deployed Territorial Army in Afghanistan come from the Province. I pay tribute to them; I was with 204 Royal Army Medical Corps Territorial Army only the other day to help present their Afghan campaign medals. Members of the TA in particular are posted at short notice and we would not want them to be disfranchised. Ensuring that members of the armed forces could vote was an emotive issue even when I served many years ago.
To respond to points made in the debate, absent votes will not be allowed unless proof of being in the armed forces is provided, but that would be evidential. This is an important measure that needs careful monitoring and we will provide that. We start from a zero base. There is an assumption of the need for this measure, but we and the Electoral Commission will monitor this carefully. Should there be a surge of applications, we will make sure that alarm bells start to ring.