HL Deb 04 March 2002 vol 632 cc11-6

3.6 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 3 [Absent votes and declarations of identity]:

Lord Glentoran

moved Amendment No. 1: Page 5, line 9, at end insert— (c) after subsection (6) there is inserted— (6A) If a person presents to the Chief Electoral Officer a completed form for an absent vote on a form other than one issued and uniquely encoded by the Chief Electoral Officer, it shall be considered invalid. (6B) Where the Chief Electoral Officer thinks it is appropriate to do so he shall issue a substitute form." The noble Lord said: My Lords, as a result of some very good discussions that I was able to have last week with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal and the noble Lord, Lord Shutt—in particular, finishing up on Friday when the noble and learned Lord invited officials to join us as well—I believe that with what he will tell us today, we have closed as many loopholes for electoral fraud as are reasonably closable without denying unwittingly the vote to those who should have it. I beg to move.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, I am grateful for what the noble Lord has said. I shall reply in a moment or two. However, contained within the group is Amendment No. 3, standing in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman. So it is probably to the convenience of your Lordships if I wait for that to be spoken to.

Lord Brightman

My Lords, Amendment No. 3 is purely a drafting amendment. It does not change a single word of the intended legislation. Its sole purpose is to make a part of the Bill easier to read. The subject matter is the postal ballot procedure in Northern Ireland. The existing procedure under the 1953 legislation is that the ballot paper must be returned in the proper envelope together with a declaration of identity.

The amendment to this procedure proposed by the Government is that the declaration of identity shall state the date of birth of the elector, and that the returning officer must be satisfied that this corresponds with information already available to him.

Your Lordships will appreciate that there are two ways to amend a section, subsection or paragraph. One is to introduce a patchwork amendment. That is to say, the reader is directed to insert words here and delete words there, so that with scissors and paste the reader can reconstruct the enactment in its amended form. The advantage of a patchwork amendment is that it highlights the precise change that is proposed to the existing law. The only words made use of in a patchwork amendment are those which are to be added to and subtracted from the existing enactment. It is therefore a useful way of drafting before a Bill has been debated. It concentrates the mind.

The alternative method of amendment is to delete the whole section, subsection or paragraph that is sought to be changed and to set out the enactment in its amended form. That is obviously more user-friendly. It avoids the use of scissors and paste. It enables the reader to read the amended enactment immediately in its amended form, without any intervening reconstruction process.

The provision of the Bill that I seek to amend is paragraph (c)(i) on page 6, that is to say lines 5 to 15 of that page. Paragraph (c)(i) is a patchwork amendment. It reads: in paragraph (2), the words from 'it is returned' to the end are to be sub-paragraph (a) of that paragraph, and after 'authenticated' there is inserted ', and (b) in the case of an elector, that declaration of identity states the date of birth", et cetera.

How much simpler to say, as does my amendment, A postal ballot paper shall not, in Northern Ireland, be deemed to be duly returned unless—

  1. (a) it is returned in the proper envelope so as to reach the returning officer before the close of the poll and is accompanied by the declaration of identity duly signed and authenticated, and
  2. (b) in the case of an elector, that declaration of identity states the date of birth",
et cetera? I have not changed a word of the intended legislation. Paragraph (c)(i) is set out in my amendment precisely as it is intended to read. There is no need for scissors and paste.

Does my amendment increase the length of the Bill? Not really. The patchwork amendment in the Bill takes up 11 lines. My amendment would take up 14 lines, so the Bill would be lengthened by only three lines—a small price to pay for instant clarity. There is absolutely no need to retain the government amendment in its existing patchwork form. The argument that it highlights the exact change in the law is spent. The Bill has been through the other place and has finished here. There can be no more debate on paragraph (c)(i).

The returning officer and the elector will not be interested in a patchwork presentation of the amendment. They will want only to read paragraph (c)(i) in its final form. That is what my amendment would enable them to do. The public, in the form of returning officers, other officers and the electors, are our customers. Ought we not to give them what will be easiest for them to read?

If my amendment is accepted, the House will be doing what the Companion says that it should be doing on Third Reading. It states on page 130 at paragraph 6.128: The principal purposes of amendments on third reading are", and I read the second purpose, to improve the drafting". We shall also be in step with the guidelines laid down for Community legislation and adopted in December 1998 under the Treaty of Amsterdam. They state: preference shall be given to replacing whole provisions ߪrather than inserting or deleting individual sentences, phrases or words". To sum up the matter, now that there can be no further debate on paragraph (c)(i), either in the other place or in your Lordships' House, the argument in favour of a patchwork amendment is spent and there is no conceivable reason why we should not provide our customers with the finished article. I emphasise that I am not critical of how the Bill was drafted when introduced. A patchwork form of amendment was useful. I merely say that the time has come when the government amendment can usefully be changed from a patchwork amendment to a rewritten paragraph.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, in speaking to the three amendments before us, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, the Leader of the House, and to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, for our helpful clarifying discussion late last week. I had come to the conclusion that with the double triple lock, we were doing all that was possible to prevent fraud. I speak of the double triple lock because the intention is through the Bill to get a clean register. That is to be done by first having a signature, a national insurance number and a date of birth and, secondly, on an application for a postal vote, the applicant must again provide a signature, a national insurance number and a date of birth. I am inclined to think that Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are not needed, bearing in mind that triple lock.

I must say that I am mystified by Amendment No. 3. It would be helpful to have further clarification of it. I am uncertain that it is a matter of just straightening out some wording. As I read it, it creates a triple triple lock, because the date of birth would be required at the time that the ballot paper was marked. I do not believe that that feature is required. My problem with that is that the double triple lock is most helpful in preventing fraud, but a balance must be struck. When a person marks a ballot paper, he may understand that someone must be there to certify that he is not someone else, but introducing the date of birth at that stage strikes me as something that may well put off the elector and result in more spoilt ballot papers, and so on. I may have got that wrong, but that is how I read Amendment No. 3 in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman.

Lord Brightman

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him whether he has taken his scissors and paste and worked out what the government amendment does? My amendment does not change one single word.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I shall deal with the discrete point about Amendment No. 3. As usual, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, has courteously spoken to me about his concerns, and I recognise that there is a wider point. However, it is much wider than what we are talking about in the context of this Bill.

It is fair to say that electoral legislation is notoriously complicated. I suggest respectfully to your Lordships that, if one wants to put it right, it is better done on a wholesale basis, rather than by simply highlighting a particular element of the Bill, as the noble and learned Lord said that he was doing. I take the noble and learned Lord's point that it might be more user-friendly, although I am not sure that most potential users would immediately look at the amendment and say that it was the answer to their worries, troubles and concerns.

The noble and learned Lord has made a point that redounds for another occasion. I am not, as he knows, able to accept his amendment on this occasion.

In respect of Amendments Nos. 1 and 2, I was grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Shutt of Greetland, for being available last week up until Friday, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said. In particular, I was grateful for the courteous and diligent way in which the officials from the Northern Ireland Office approached the matter and for the other discussions that I have had with several other noble Lords with an interest in it. I know that the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Shutt of Greetland, share that view.

I said that, to clarify matters completely, I would set out, in a few words, what the new situation in Northern Ireland would be. From this year on, all on the electoral register in Northern Ireland will have to supply a specimen signature, a date of birth and a national insurance number or a statement that they do not have one. As your Lordships know, those safeguards, particularly those in respect of the national insurance number, were not present in the original Bill. It seemed to me, as I listened to the arguments here, that the case for inclusion was well made, and I undertook at Second Reading that, if there were improvements that could be accepted, I would accept them. I am grateful to your Lordships for bringing such persuasive powers to bear.

Every registration form will be scanned and all the data installed on the new IT system in the electoral office. All applications for absent votes will have to be accompanied by the applicant's date of birth, national insurance number and signature. All such applications will be scrutinised to ensure that the information supplied on the form corresponds with that already held on the electoral office's database. If the signature, date of birth or national insurance number or the absence of it do not correspond with the information on the databank, the application will not be granted unless the chief electoral officer's queries have been resolved to his satisfaction.

As your Lordships will know, an absent vote can be granted only for a limited number of reasons and must be attested by another person, other than a member of the elector's family. The relevant categories are Service voters; an elector who is blind or has another physical incapacity; an elector who lives overseas or whose general nature of employment prevents attendance at the polling station; an elector who can get to the polling station only by air or sea; or an elector registered as an overseas voter. Such application must be supported by one of the following: a Service declaration; the attestation of a registered doctor, registered nurse or Christian Science practitioner who is treating the applicant; proof that the applicant is claiming the relevant disability allowance; or an employment declaration. An absent vote must be accompanied by a declaration of identity that must be signed and a date of birth, and both must correspond to that held on the electoral office database. Many of those matters will arise from the assurances that I gave about regulatory power and what has so far been done by the chief electoral officer.

I hope that I have discharged my undertaking to the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Shutt of Greetland. I hope that it will be useful to have on public record what the new situation will be. I have said what I wished to say in respect of the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman. In respect of Amendments Nos. 1 and 2, I understand from the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, that he will seek leave to withdraw.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House, in particular for the way in which he has led the House through the Bill. There has had to be a balance between practicality, technology and human rights. He has allowed us to have argument, debate and discussion and has lent his not inconsiderable weight when he believed that we had a point that needed to be made and has had the Bill corrected.

I thank the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for what he has done and for what he has just said and put on the public record. We have a significantly better Bill than we did when it arrived. The Bill will do the job as well as any Bill could be created to do. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

Lord Brightman

My Lords, I can only regret that we are being left in an unnecessary drafting quagmire. I cannot see that there is anything to be gained by retaining an amendment in its patchwork form, if, at no cost, it could be put in its final polished form. We have a duty to the public to send Bills from Parliament, where possible, in such a way that they can be easily read. However, I ought not to divide the House on my amendment.

[Amendment No. 3 not moved.]

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.