HC Deb 22 April 1996 vol 276 cc166-8

'The Secretary of State shall take such measures as he sees fit to maximise the number of people entitled to vote under paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 to this Act by means of a special registration drive before the electoral roll is finalised.'.—[Ms Mowlam.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Ms Mowlam

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Morris)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 79, in page 4, line 28, leave out from 'who' to end of line 33 and insert 'would be entitled to vote at a General Election.'.

Ms Mowlam

The new clause stands not only in my name but in that of the right hon. Member for Berwick—upon—Tweed (Mr. Beith), who cannot be with us at this time. Its subject—increasing the rate of voter registration—has been close to both our hearts since the days when we both taught at the university of Newcastle.

The particular problem in Northern Ireland that we hope that the new clause addresses is the low registration rate, especially the rate among young people, which is lower there than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. We want to support and encourage higher participation in the coming election, just as in any other.

Is it possible for the Secretary of State to take any steps now to allow registration for those who have not yet prepared themselves for the election? If not—it seems from our discussions with the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland that it is not—we are bound to ask why no action on the issue has been taken before now.

Mr. William Ross

Does the hon. Lady understand the measure of surprise caused not only in my party but among the SDLP Members by her allegation about a low level of registration in Northern Ireland? It is my understanding from the chief electoral officer that the quality, standard and rate of registration in Northern Ireland is far higher than in many other parts of the United Kingdom.

That is because of the methods used to ensure that the maximum number of people are on the electoral register there. The chief electoral officer takes great care each year to employ many registration officers and to ensure that the household forms are collected. He also takes care to use the various opportunities under the law to apply for a vote if someone has been missed. There are opportunities to object to names that appear wrongly on the list.

In my own household, one of my sons was left off the register this year, despite the fact that he had formerly had an entry under the household, and I had to attend the registration court myself to have his name placed on the list.

Not only does the chief electoral officer take care to have an accurate register but individuals in Northern Ireland take an interest in the matter. The political parties, too, take a keen interest, and I am astonished—I am sure that this astonishment is shared beyond my party—that the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) should have made such an allegation. In any case, citizens and parties can examine the electoral register and place names on it. I suspect that it is too late to do that for the election on 30 May, but people have known that it has been coming for a considerable time. I am sure that parties, or the individuals concerned, have looked into the cases of people who were missed.

Ms Mowlam

The amendment is no reflection on the work of the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland. That office informed us that voter registration in certain parts of Northern Ireland among young first-time voters was very low, and we wanted every effort to be made to allow the people whose future much of this debate is about have the maximum chance to have their voices heard.

Mr. Ancram

I applaud the spirit in which the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) moved new clause 1, because I know the purpose behind it. Equally, I agree with the hon. Member for East Londonderry. The hon. Lady will be delighted to know that Northern Ireland's electoral registration is the highest in the United Kingdom, routinely running in excess of 90 per cent., according to the chief electoral officer's statistics. That is probably due to postal canvassers collecting registrations from households, but the CEO is also empowered by law to apply a process of continuous registration.

Anyone who wishes to be on the electoral register in Northern Ireland must be resident there for three months from 16 June until the registration date of 15 September.

The draft register is published around 20 November so that claims and objections can be made. The final register is published by 15 February. Throughout that time, additional names may be added.

Every year, the CEO prepares a timetable for the next 12 months that shows the cut-off date each month for the receipt of claims and the later date scheduled for hearing claims. The CEO provides the political parties with copies of that timetable and the continuous process of claim and hearings is widely used. That facility, coupled with the Northern Ireland parties' awareness of the forthcoming election—and, I suspect, the public's awareness of it—renders a special registration drive unnecessary.

Mr. Peter Robinson

What is the last permissible day for registration for the 30 May election?

Mr. Ancram

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman offhand, but if I get the chance, I will try to let him know tomorrow.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I generally agree with the Minister about the registration rate, but at least one person in my constituency was told that he could not be on the register because he was not living there on 28 September. Surely that was wrong in the light of the information that the right hon. Gentleman has given?

Mr. Ancram

Perhaps I could look into that matter. I have been told that the last date for registration was in mid-April, so it has passed.

Ms Mowlam

In view of the reassurances given by the Minister, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

To report progress and ask leave to sit again.—[Mr. McLoughlin.]

Committee report progress; to sit again tomorrow.

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