HC Deb 23 June 1986 vol 100 cc147-53 12.17 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Nicholas Scott)

I beg to move, That the draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 1986, which were laid before this House on 19th May, be approved. I should emphasise that the regulations apply only to parliamentary and not to local government or Assembly elections which are covered under separate legislation. The main purpose of these regulations is the same as those which have already been moved and approved by the House, which is to extend the franchise to our citizens overseas and to allow holidaymakers an absent vote.

I do not wish to delay the House by recounting arguments which have already been put forward by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, but I shall, of course, respond to any points that are made about the particular impact of the regulations on Northern Ireland.

Of particular importance to Northern Ireland — the House may think of subsidiary importance to the main thrust of the regulations—is regulation 13, which amends the list of specified documents which have to be produced in order to obtain a ballot paper at elections in Northern Ireland. It is proposed, under regulation 13(a), that for the words "Article 12" we should substitute the words "Articles 8 and 12" to provide for an approved provisional driving licence as well as a full driving licence to be acceptable as a specified document, and under regulation 13(b) that a British seaman's card issued in accordance with regulations made under section 70 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1970, should also be acceptable. Those proposals are made in response to representations that we received in Northern Ireland after we had established the original list of specified documents. They represent a modest move in response to the representations that we received.

I commend the regulations to the House.

12.19 am
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

This is not an occasion for the Ulster litany of complaint against substantive legislation by Order in Council, for this is a statutory instrument made under United Kingdom legislation. Nevertheless, it is appropriate that these Northern Ireland regulations should be considered in their own right, since there are appreciable differences between them and those that apply in the rest of the United Kingdom. Some of the reforms introduced by the principal Act will have a somewhat different impact in Northern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland the functions of registration and returning officer are carried out by the electoral and deputy electoral officers, who are responsible directly to the Secretary of State. Therefore, in Northern Ireland the Secretary of State is in a more direct relationship with what happens on the ground and has, in a sense, a more intimate responsibility. Consequently, there are several points of a policy character to which it would be reasonable to invite the Minister to address himself. Intimation of some of the points that I intended to raise was given at the end of last week, and I hope that it reached the Minister in time for him to be able to consider them.

There is one matter of special concern to Northern Ireland. I am referring to the measures that were included in the principal Act, I think in section 10, in the event of the Secretary of State forming the view that it was necessary to make special arrangements to prevent abuse in the context of absent voting.

Between now and the point at which these regulations come into force and are applied at a parliamentary election we are unlikely to glean any more experience from the working of elections. Therefore, it seems reasonable to suggest that the Secretary of State should be able to make up his mind and say whether he intends to use the powers contained in section 10 to bring schedule 1 into operation. I do not think that anything in the argument that occurred while debating the 1985 Bill or in the experience of the 1985 local government elections and the series of recent parliamentary elections has led to the conclusion that the elaborate precautions provided for in the first schedule will be necessary.

Indeed, that schedule is in a sense the vestigial remains of the original intention—which, fortunately, with the assistance of the House, was aborted — to deprive Northern Ireland of some of the advantages of the extension of absent voting which the principal Act made possible. It would be a pity if that increased facility were restricted by the use of section 10 and schedule 1, and I hope that if not tonight, at least in good time before the likelihood of a parliamentary election, the Secretary of State will say whether he intends — I hope not — to invoke those safeguards.

I come to matters of slightly less importance, which are significant to those concerned with the running and organisation of elections. Reference was made in the previous debate to the availability of forms. Regulation 5(2) does not contain any requirement that the forms used shall be exactly the same as the prescribed forms. They may be forms substantially to the same effect so that in practice, if candidates and their organisations are prepared to reproduce approximately the same forms as those set out in the schedule, there can be no question of candidates or electors being disadvantaged by a shortage of forms or, as in some cases, the unwillingness of electoral officers to provide an adequate number of forms.

Linked with that are the forms in connection with the claiming of absent and proxy votes, which are not prescribed in the regulations as I understand them. It will, therefore, be possible for candidates and their agents to compile forms which include all the particulars prescribed under the regulations and, provided that all those particulars are covered by the applications made on behalf of electors, the applications and claims should be valid.

If I have construed the regulations correctly, we have escaped from what has sometimes seemed to be the unnecessary red tape surrounding electoral forms. Both when they are prescribed, and when they are not prescribed, in schedules to the regulations it should be competent and possible for an efficient electoral organisation to provide for the elector to avail himself of all the facilities which are extended to him under the regulations.

Regulation 8 is headed "Misnomers". There is a slight puzzle about it. We all understand that a register should not be invalid because of an obvious mistake in the register — either because of an obvious mistake in the description of a place such as a town or street, or because of an obvious mistake in the spelling or printing of the name of an elector. I wonder whether that result, that an "obvious mistake" — I am obviously using layman's language—will be ignored and will not invalidate the document or list in question, is achieved by the expression such as to he commonly understood. Often, the consequence of an error of that kind is precisely that it would not be "commonly understood". What we are trying to strike at under this article is that which is an error, and nothing but an error, and which any reasonable person would admit was an error. I wonder whether we have yet got the wording correct in the regulations for the purpose of defining what we understand to be the intention of regulation 8.

An important change for Northern Ireland is made in regulation 31. Hitherto, during the registration season, a draft register of electors, called the list of electors, has been published on distinctively coloured paper and has been the basis of the work on claims and objections and the production of a register as nearly correct as possible to come into force in February.

As I understand the regulations, that practice might be continued, but there is an alternative option to use the same procedure of three lists, A, B and C, which has been normal on the mainland for many years. It would be helpful if at an early stage, if not tonight, an indication were given about the policy which will be pursued in exercising that option in Northern Ireland. Clearly the option should be exercised in the same way by all registration officers. It should be a policy decision taken for the Province as a whole.

I do not think that anyone will disagree with me when I say that I believe that Northern Ireland interests would be served by going over to the Great Britain system of lists A, B and C. With the Great Britain system of A, B and C it is far easier to check whether a name has been inadvertently omitted from the existing register or whether all the names that should be added to the new register are to be so added. This is what the 13 list and the C list do for those who are concerned with elections on the mainland.

It would be an advantage in Northern Ireland if, instead of being confronted every November with a complete list, take it or leave it, as it were, which is the draft of the new register, those concerned with elections had the B list and the C list, as is made available on the mainland. Anecdotally, I would benefit myself from the availability of the B list, as it has been my custom ever since I have been a member of the House to call at every new house whose residents appeared on the new register. There has always been the convenience of having it served up on toast, as it were, on the B list. I do not urge that as the main reason, however, why I hope that that option will be preferred. I hope that the preference of the option will be adopted as a matter of policy for the Province as a whole and that the Secretary of State will, as soon as possible, indicate that that will be so.

Finally, I refer to regulation 66, to which reference has already been made in the context of the corresponding regulations for England and Scotland. Under the new dispensation, we shall no longer distinguish between several grounds of application for an absent vote, which have previously been differentiated. The provision for absent voting at a particular election covers those who are absent on holiday, those who are absent by reason of an exigency of their employment, it not being a normal incident of that employment, and those who are absent for some special personal reason. In addition—this is the matter that I want to emphasise— it covers those who have moved their residence during the currency of the current register. All these positions are picked up by the omnibus provision in the principal Act, which is implemented by regulation 66.

Hitherto in Northern Ireland—we were grateful to the House for preserving the facility for an absent vote due to change of residence — there has been a precise definition of the geographical nature of the movement of residence which would entitle to an absent vote. In most cases, and certainly in the constituencies that I have contested, a move from one ward to another, irrespective of the actual distance involved, qualified for a postal vote. I do not think that that qualification. quite in that form, will apply under the new regulations and the new law, but it is necessary—at any rate it is highly desirable—that electors, candidates and those concerned with elections should have as clear an idea, as possible well in advance, of the sort of distance that will be taken into account by registration officers as rendering unreasonable the requirement to go to the allotted polling station.

This is more than a quibble and it is more than a complaint of the use of "reasonable" in the regulations. There should be a uniformity of standard applied in this respect between one constituency and another. For instance, it would be unreasonable that a registration officer in one area would regard 20 miles as a minimum distance of remove to qualify for a postal vote, whereas another officer might accept a claim where the distance was as little as 15 or 10 miles.

In constituencies such as those in Northern Ireland where considerable geographical difficulties are interposed by change of residence over a relatively short distance, I think that some guidance issued generally to registration officers, and known and settled in advance, for the Province as a whole, would result in greater fairness and would assist candidates and potential candidates in enabling the maximum number of electors to secure an absent vote.

I end on that note, because it is one of the characteristics of electioneering that our business in electioneering is to secure as many votes as possible for those who otherwise might not have the means to exercise them. Great effort will be devoted in the next year or two—certainly in Northern Ireland and, so far as I am concerned, in my constituency—to identify those who qualify at the moment for a standing absent vote and who are potential claimants for an absent vote for a particular election.

If that work is to be done effectively, we must have more definitions than the regulations provide of the interpretation that will be placed upon them by registration officers. That interpretation must he applied throughout the Province and adequate publicity must be given to it. I think that there might be adequate advance consultation on those points with the political parties concerned. I see that I have the Minister's assent on that point. Therefore, I shall conclude by saying something on which I shall also probably have his assent.

The work of the electoral officers and the deputy electoral officers in Northern Ireland over the past 12 or 13 years has produced a progressive improvement in the accuracy of the electoral registers, which are the essential basis of all fair and democratic elections. These officials devote themselves with considerable dedication to the improvement of the quality of the registers for which they are responsible. It must be said that the results that they achieve mark a perceptible improvement from one register to another. In the past 13 years I do not think there has been one new register with which I have been concerned which has not represented an improvement on its predecessors.

We need the regulations. We need the interpretation of the regulations and the guidance for which I have asked if candidates, their agents and all those concerned with electors are to co-operate with the electoral officers in securing not merely an even more accurate register but the maximum list of absent and proxy voters under the new law as it will be when the new regulations come into force.

12.38 am
Mr. Scott

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) for initiating a separate debate because, as he rightly said, there are distinctive characteristics to the regulations which affect Northern Ireland. I echo his warm tribute to the chief electoral officer and other officials concerned with elections in Northern Ireland. They have made successive improvements in the accuracy of the register in Northern Ireland. That work will continue. I hope that we have not yet come to the end of that road of improving the accuracy of the register.

I take issue with the right hon. Gentleman about the chief electoral officer being responsible to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The chief electoral officer is the returning officer in every constituency in Northern Ireland. He is not directly responsible to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. His responsibility, as returning officer and as registration officer, is to the law, as it is in the United Kingdom as a whole. He is responsible only to the law, and not to any Minister, for the way in which he answers for those responsibilities. At the end of the day, it would be for the courts, not Ministers, to decide whether he had discharged his responsibilities properly.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to raise a number of points. I am grateful for the fact that I was given, albeit by a somewhat circuitous route, notice of the points that he was likely to raise. The first point concerned schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1985 which, as he said, empowers the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to provide by order for a special polling station scheme to operate in the Province in certain circumstances. I emphasise that it was envisaged that those powers would be used only if there were evidence of serious abuse of postal voting facilities or if there were a risk of such serious abuse being imminent. If we were ever to move in that direction, the order implementing those provisions would need the prior approval of both Houses of Parliament. I can confirm that the Government have no present intention of activating the provisions of schedule 1.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

The hon. Gentleman will understand that it would be clearly unacceptable if there were to be a snap decision with a relatively short time to run between the order being passed and the election taking place. Obviously, that would be avoided in the light of the general description of the Government's attitude to this matter which the hon. Gentleman has stated.

Mr. Scott

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who will, of course, know the background that convinced the Government that it was necessary to have these powers in reserve. We differ on the need for the specified documents being introduced to counter the possibility of electoral abuse. There was always the danger that those who had hitherto exploited the weaknesses in the law to personate votes in Northern Ireland might move to exploit the absent voting provisions. These are reserve powers. We have no intention at the moment of using these powers. In order to do so, we would need the approval of both Houses of Parliament.

The right hon. Member referred to the forms that are used to register and to provide for absent voting claims. He described the present arrangements as smacking somewhat of red tape. I have had complaints from various sources in Northern Ireland of a shortage of those forms. It is clear that under regulation 5(2) party organisations and others can reproduce their own facsimile forms and pro formas for those purposes.

The only word of advice to parties that I would put on the record is that, if they are to produce their own pro formas for registration or for absent voting purposes, I hope they will liaise with the chief electoral officer and make absolutely sure that the documents are in the proper form and provide all the required statutory information so there can be no question about their validity when presented.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to raise a point about misnomers in regulation 8. In a sense, I have to stand by the fact that this wording is precisely that of section 50 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. Although it is difficult to describe this point exactly, any reasonable man would quickly understand what we are talking about. We are saying that a simple mistake in the course of the preparation of any such list should not invalidate the status of that list for the purposes of electoral registration. That has endured for the past three years without question. These regulations repeat that. If the right hon. Gentleman or any of his colleagues felt that there was a substantial danger of this causing any difficulty in terms of registration and if they were prepared to write to us, we would consider whether there was any real danger of that occurring. At the moment, I perceive none, and certainly no one has raised it since that provision was inserted in the 1983 Act.

The right hon. Gentleman's penultimate point was on the question of draft registers. He said that he preferred that system, which he perceived to be common on this side of the water, of the A, B and C lists. I have to tell him that already on this side of the water the movement is away from those procedures, with which he is even more familiar than I. Certainly it was the system with which I was familiar in my early days in the House. Already in Scotland no provision is made for the old A, B and C lists. It is moving to the system of draft registers which are proposed in these regulations. In England and Wales already well over a half of the constituencies are now covered by the new system of draft registers. The choice is for the chief electoral officer alone. It is his judgment. There is no question that in having the system of draft registers Northern Ireland is being treated any differently from England, Wales or Scotland.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

I wonder whether this is a matter on which it would be helpful for the chief electoral officer to seek views with the aim of arriving, at as early a date as possible, at a system which would be generally acceptable in the Province. There is a real practical difference between the operations which are required in one system and in the other. Clearly, it is desirable that we should know where we stand as soon as possible. Also, where we stand should be of the maximum convenience to as many people as may be. Therefore, if that could be promoted, it would help.

Mr. Scott

At the beginning of this short reply I recognised the independence of the chief electoral officer and his responsibility to the law, not to Ministers. I am sure that if representatives of the political parties in Northern Ireland wished to make representations to him, the chief electoral officer would take them into account in coming to his decisions.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman referred to absent voting. I acknowledge that there is a change in the regulations as they affect Northern Ireland. However, the change is bringing them entirely into line with the practice in Great Britain. It will be for the returning officer to make up his mind as to whether there is a case for an elector not being able to get to his allotted polling station. It is an attempt to say that rather than someone having an automatic entitlement to be moved from one ward to another, the returning officer should be able to take into account a whole range of matters and make up his mind.

If the right hon. Gentleman's point is that there should be some general guidance across the Province as a whole, I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of the chief electoral officer—who is, after all, the registration officer throughout Northern Ireland—to see whether it is possible for him to produce some sort of common guidance. Again I emphasise his independence, but I shall certainly draw that to his attention. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for providing me with the opportunity to clarify some of these points. I commend the regulations to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 1986, which were laid before this House on 19th May, he approved.