HC Deb 26 May 2004 vol 421 cc1552-4
2. Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con)

If he will make a statement on the state of the electoral register in Northern Ireland. [174922]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar)

The current electoral register for Northern Ireland published on 4 May contains the names of 1,076,940 individuals.

Mr. Swire

All hon. Members will have welcomed the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, to which Her Majesty's Opposition provided much good input, both here and in the other place. By December 2002, 10 per cent. fewer people were entitled to vote in Northern Ireland. We have just heard how the funding of political parties in Northern Ireland is to be brought into line with the rest of the UK, but is there not something to be said for bringing the rest of the UK into line with Northern Ireland in respect of the amount of evidence needed for registration of voters? In that way, we could achieve unanimity, here and in Northern Ireland, on the ability and entitlement to vote.

Mr. Spellar

With the greatest respect, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I think that that question ought to be addressed to my colleagues in the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South) (Lab)

Surely my right hon. Friend will be as concerned as I am that there are 20,000 fewer people on the electoral register this year than there were last year, and that there are major discrepancies between the Northern Ireland census and the electoral register. Is not it time for us to review the legislation, given that we want more people to vote, not fewer? Should we not try to encourage voters to return?

Mr. Spellar

There are a number of reasons for the change identified by my hon. Friend, and one is the end of carrying forward, which obviously has had an impact. In addition, members of the police and prison services are reluctant to register, as parties with links to paramilitaries have access to the full register. However, I fully acknowledge that that is not the whole story. For example, studies of the demographics show that under-registration is more common in working-class areas. Along with electoral registration officers and officials in my Department, I am considering what measures can be taken to ensure that the register—which is probably the most accurate that we have ever had in Northern Ireland—is as comprehensive as possible. We want every citizen in Northern Ireland to be able to vote and to exercise the franchise, on 10 June and in other elections.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD)

The Electoral Commission published a very authoritative report on the Northern Ireland elections last year, and it included some recommendations. What plans do the Government have to implement those recommendations and the observations made in the report about the electoral register?

Mr. Spellar

I am examining all the representations made to me about the electoral register and voting practice, but the need for an identification card at polling stations is becoming more widely understood by people and political parties, as is the need to register. We need to keep the electoral register honest and up-to-date but, as I said in reply to the previous questioner, I am concerned that we try to use a number of mechanisms to make it more comprehensive.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP)

In ensuring—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. There should not be all this conversation going on. It is unfair to the hon. Gentleman, who is asking a question.

Mr. Dodds

In ensuring that those people who are properly entitled to vote in Northern Ireland are able to do so, will the Minister tell the House in more detail what he is doing to promote the take-up of the electoral identity card, especially in working-class areas, where people may lack other photo ID that would enable them to vote on election day?

Mr. Spellar

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland has provided various facilities. I fully accept that the system could be improved, and we are more than willing to receive recommendations and suggestions in respect of weaknesses and possible improvements. As I said earlier, we want to ensure that all citizens who are eligible to vote are registered in their proper locations.

We want to facilitate voting by those on the register, including people with disabilities. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are undertaking work in that area. We also want to ensure that the person who turns up at the polling station to vote is the individual who is registered. I am sure that hon. Members understand the need for that degree of accuracy. Considerable improvements have been made, but that does not mean that we cannot make further changes that will lead to further improvements.

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