HL Deb 22 July 2002 vol 638 cc126-32

7.56 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 26th June be approved [34th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move. In moving the regulations, I wish to speak also to the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Amendment Order 2002. These two pieces of legislation arise from the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 and the Representation of the People Act 2000. I should like to deal, first, with the Assembly elections Order. This simply brings the relevant rules for elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly into line with those made for parliamentary elections by the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002.

The order is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and is being made in exercise of the powers conferred by Section 34(4) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The amendments to the rules for elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly will ensure that the returning officer will be satisfied that the date of birth and signature on the declaration of identity that is returned with a postal ballot paper matches the details supplied on registration.

There are two parts to the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations. First, they amend the 2001 regulations for Northern Ireland and prescribe the annual canvass form so as to comply with the registration requirements of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. This requires individuals to provide their date of birth, their signature and their national insurance number, or a statement saying that they do not have one.

The remainder of the regulations implement Section 9 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 in respect of the sale of the electoral register. These mirror the regulations for England, Wales and Scotland. There is no difference, in principle or effect, from the remainder of the United Kingdom. They do, however, differ for organisational reasons, such as where it is necessary to refer to the Chief Electoral Officer, a position particular to Northern Ireland.

Noble Lords will be aware that this section provides for two versions of the electoral registers to be compiled. One will be a full register containing, as now, the names and addresses of every elector. The second will be an edited version containing the details only of those electors who have not indicated on their registration form that they object to their details appearing on the version of the register which is available for commercial purposes.

I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to some of the more important provisions in the regulations.

Regulation 4 prescribes the annual canvass form taking into account the requirements of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 and will so provide the Chief Electoral Officer with a database of dates of birth, signatures and national insurance numbers.

Regulation 9 amends the parliamentary elections rules by adding the senior smartpass, issued under the Northern Ireland concessionary fares scheme, to the list of documents that may be presented in order to receive a ballot paper.

Regulation 8 provides for the description of those that may apply for an electoral identity card, and Regulation 11 provides for the disclosure of national insurance numbers to the Chief Electoral Officer by the Department for Work and Pensions.

Regulation 21 inserts new regulations to the 2001 regulations—"Part VI Supply of Register etc.". These new regulations deal with the free supply and sale of the register of electors. As I have mentioned, they mirror provisions made for England, Wales and Scotland.

These regulations are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and are being made in exercise of the powers conferred by the provisions specified in Schedule 1 to these regulations.

In conclusion, I hope that the House can agree that the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order and the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations, in conjunction with the Electoral Fraud Act will play an important part in combating fraud in Northern Ireland and that the provisions on the sale of the register strike the right balance between public and private interest. I commend the order and the regulations to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 26th June be approved [34th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing these two statutory instruments before the House. They largely put in place the Act that we passed some little time ago. I am certain that the regulations and the order will play a considerable part in getting rid of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. I am sure that they will not achieve that completely, but they will certainly improve the situation significantly.

However, there are one or two small areas of concern. I know that Her Majesty's Government probably share with me the concern about security problems, particularly in relation to the publication and availability of the electoral registers. I note that there are to be two different electoral registers: one to be sold and one to be kept for very restricted use—on which I commend the Government.

I note also that Jane Kennedy in another place said that she understood Members' concerns. I understood from reading her words in Hansard that she would keep the use of the registers under some kind of continuous monitoring. Presumably, if the registers are found to be drifting into the wrong hands, the Government will come forward with another order.

Turning to the draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order, I have only one concern. It relates to national insurance numbers. They are clearly covered in the Act. I should merely like to be reassured that the order will in no way weaken their role as it was when the Bill left this House. That was in no small way thanks to the efforts of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal in working with various departments to ensure that we were able to achieve this.

I have no hesitation in supporting these statutory instruments.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the regulations and the order. We are grateful that the Government accepted the use of national insurance numbers as part of an attempt to eliminate or reduce fraud. I endorse much of what the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has said. We broadly welcome these statutory instruments and commend their passage.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, I should like to raise two points on which I hope that the Minister will be able to offer some comfort. First, Part 1 of Schedule 2 to the regulations includes a copy of the proposed electoral registration form.

The Government's recent decision to listen to advice and to introduce an electoral identity card was rightly commended by noble Lords. It was also given a widespread welcome in another place. However, the only reference in the draft registration form to the availability of electoral identity cards is by way of a tiny box beside a statement in even smaller print at the bottom of the document. For the benefit of noble Lords who do not have a copy of the regulations, perhaps I may read out the words in small print: Voters will be required to produce specified photographic ID…from May 2003. If you do not possess the specified photographic ID and will require an elector identity card which will be issued free of charge please tick this box". As a businessman all my life, I have always had to read the small print. However, unfortunately, many people do not always take that trouble. Furthermore, the print is so small that it is likely that many elderly voters and those of us who are now 60 years of age or over—who often make the greatest effort to turn out and vote, but who are possibly least likely to have photographic identification—might find it very difficult to read.

In order to maximise the impact of the decision to introduce photographic ID, the Government should now agree to move this statement to the top of the electoral registration form, to ensure that everyone is aware of its existence. Given the tight schedule to which we are now working, I suggest that the Government should move quickly on this matter and rectify what I hope is simply an oversight.

Secondly, following the break-in at Castlereagh police station and the continuing suspicion that Republicans were involved in that incident, there is obvious unease among officers in the Police Service of Northern Ireland about their own personal identity being made known. Indeed, it has been brought to my attention that a number of officers are keen for the Government to consider whether the new legislation ought to require police officers in Northern Ireland to disclose their names and addresses for the purposes of the electoral register, which will be available for public inspection.

This problem has been with us for some time and has been debated previously in this House and elsewhere. However, given that, following Patten, police officers in Northern Ireland may be required to wear name badges on their uniforms, I suggest that the matter has become more pressing than ever.

I go further, and request that the Government consider granting Police Service of Northern Ireland officers and other members of the security forces living in Northern Ireland an opt-out clause so that their names need not appear on the electoral register if they so desire. At worst, they should be required to register only at a police station. The same should apply to members of the Royal Irish Regiment. I suggest that any other outcome could leave the Government open to the charge of acting irresponsibly.

Lord Kilclooney

My Lords, I should like first to support the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. I am surprised that the reference to the electoral identity card is in such small print at the bottom of the registration form. This electoral card is an innovation, and I am surprised that it is being treated in such a flimsy manner at the bottom of the form.

I have two short questions for the Minister. First, sometimes in Northern Ireland, certain deputy electoral officers are hesitant to hand out electoral registers. It is therefore important to have on the record what should happen on particular occasions. When the register is published each year, will that register be made available freely to each Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly?

Secondly, when there is an election to the Northern Ireland Assembly, will the most recent full electoral register be made available to each candidate in the constituency and not just to each party? Sometimes in Northern Irish politics, parties have candidates who do not entirely agree with each other.

Will the Minister also confirm who will receive these full registers if a referendum in Northern Ireland is held not at the same time as an election either to the Assembly or to Parliament?

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I realise that this order and these regulations arc necessary and I reluctantly support them. I believe that the requirement for photographic evidence of identity will cause great hardship for older people living in Northern Ireland. Older people are not known for rushing out to a photographic studio or for having someone come in to take their photograph. Many people have told me that that is so. Who will take older people's photographs? Will they be forced to have photographic identification? Will there be compulsion in the matter? If they refuse to have their photographs taken, will they be hindered in going to the polling stations?

I only reluctantly accept that such a burden has to be placed on the older members of our population in Northern Ireland. However, I recognise the necessity of the provisions. In Northern Ireland, unlike in any other part of the United Kingdom, the overall constitutional position can be changed by electoral fraud. The first past the post system used for elections to this Parliament does not have the same consequences in terms of fraud as the proportional representation system can give rise to in Northern Ireland. Some 20 or 30 votes cast in a certain way could decide who will be eliminated and who will go forward to the next count.

So it is of the utmost importance that this order and these regulations, and the guarantee that they offer, are implemented as effectively as possible in Northern Ireland. As I said, however, I question the need to force older people to have their photographs taken as a means of identity.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I shall try to answer all of the questions that noble Lords have asked.

I have every sympathy with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. As one who is in the age group to which he referred when talking about small print—and as someone who has to keep a magnifying glass next to the fridge in order to check the sell-by date of the items inside—I do understand the points he raised. I do not know whether it is possible at this stage to consider putting the item at the top of the form. However, I undertake to raise that issue. Nevertheless, the size of the font has been considered and revised and is now as large as the form will allow. The form is, of course, larger than shown in the schedule to the regulations; it is A4 size. If it will help the noble Lord, I can arrange for a copy of the form to be shown to him. Perhaps we could look at it together, with magnifying glasses if necessary.

Noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, raised the issue of the electoral identity document. The guidance notes accompanying the form clearly state the forms of photographic identification that will be acceptable at the polling station. The question has also been moved to a more prominent position further up the page. The Electoral Commission will be running a publicity campaign to ensure that voters are aware of the changes to the registration process and the move to photographic ID.

I understand the point that the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, made about who will have readily available the sort of information that will enable them to take full advantage of the new proposals. However, I would say to him that there is always a slight tension between tightening up to prevent fraud and ready accessibility for ordinary members of the public who are not interested in fraud at all.

I tell the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran, Lord Kilclooney and Lord Rogan, that the essence of the electoral register is that the names of all those entitled to vote should appear on it. There is no opt-out for police officers or members of the security forces. However, I stress that neither the Secretary of State nor the Chief Electoral Officer have been contacted formally by the Police Service of Northern Ireland about the matter. Should the Police Service of Northern Ireland contact the Government or should a police representative organisation want to raise concerns, the Government would be very happy to consider those representations. I do not think that I can go further than that now. However, I hope that that offers reassurance.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked about the detailed implementation of assurances on national insurance provisions. I can assure him that these provisions have not been watered down in any way at all. If he has any remaining concerns and would like, I could write to him with all the details.

In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, I assure the House that all Members of the Assembly are entitled to a copy of the full register, including copies of the updated register as it changes throughout the year due to rolling registration. Permitted participants will be entitled to receive a copy of the register prior to a referendum.

I hope that that answers noble Lords' questions. I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.