HL Deb 11 July 2003 vol 651 cc604-5

12.52 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 13th June be approved [23rd Report from the Joint committee].

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, every year an annual canvass is conducted to ascertain those entitled to vote in Northern Ireland. These regulations, if your Lordships agree, will prescribe a new form of words to the annual canvass form which allows for the addition of prospective electors as a result of the Treaty of Athens introducing the 10 new states into the EU which comes into force on 1st May 2004. That means that citizens of those states who are resident and qualified to vote in Northern Ireland may be registered as voters in local government elections.

The regulations introduce a new form of words relating to the two forms of register—the full and the edited—including the possibility of applying to be excluded from the edited register. The opportunity has been taken to improve the layout of the canvass form: we hope to make it clearer and easier to understand. There had been some criticism of the previous layout. Your Lordships will have seen that, later in today's proceedings, separate regulations are being introduced for England and Wales and Scotland. Also being introduced separately, as a UK-wide measure, are franchise regulations which allow citizens of acceding states to register prior to 1st May when those states, as I said, formally join the EU. They will then be on the register and able to vote in the European elections in 2004. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 13th June be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committed].—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord President for bringing this order forward. I took a moment or two to read some of the Hansard reports of the consideration of the draft regulations in another place, in the Eighth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation. I am going to be a little naughty, my Lords. I picked up in the report that Lady Hermon, in col. 005, was taking quite a lot of kudos for another place for having improved the legislation as regards electoral fraud. I feel that the noble and learned Lord the Minister and Leader of this House, along with your Lordships, played an equally if not greater part in improving that legislation. I am not very often competitive with another place, but I feel on this occasion that it is perhaps worth while putting a marker down. I hope that your Lordships will agree.

As for Lady Hermon's complaints and suggestions that the electoral registration form was hard to read and so on, I have a copy in front of me—I thank officials for giving it to me this morning—and it does seem to me to be a pretty clear document. I have little or no hesitation at all in supporting the order.

Lord Rennard

My Lords, the order is obviously necessary and therefore welcome. We understand the need to make provision for citizens of the European Union accession states to be on the register in anticipation of their membership of the European Union. They will then be entitled to vote in local and European elections. Like the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, I find the form rather simple. I think that it is rather a better form than the one that we used to have and rather better than those which for many years confronted those of us who work in the electoral process. I think that this issue is of considerable importance. The form must be simple if the register is to be accurate.

I also welcome some of the innovations on the form, in particular that there is now to be an opportunity to register to vote without having one's address so widely published. This extra element of discretion is very important in a small number of cases, perhaps where there has been an issue of domestic violence or someone is seeking to avoid an abusive partner. People in such cases will not wish to lose their right to vote but wish to preserve some discretion in the number of those who know where they live. However, I also believe that the form is effective in not encouraging the wholesale withdrawal of names and addresses. I believe that it is phrased just right. It shows that the option exists for those who do not wish to be in the main published register. However, it is still legitimate for many organisations other than political parties to approach people after obtaining their name and address, which they often find in the voting register. From our side, this order is wholly welcome.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am very grateful. In particular, I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. Northern Ireland is a small community and one needs to have the appropriate balance between a safeguard of the individual in some of the circumstances the noble Lord identified and the wider public interest in knowing in a transparent way about how elections are conducted. As for the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, that he was going to be a bit naughty, he and I are, I think, content to look for our reward hereafter if not necessarily in this world. I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.