HL Deb 21 February 2005 vol 669 cc990-1005

3.9 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Before I introduce the Bill, I should like to say a few words about my noble friend Lord Callaghan of Cardiff. On 14 February, my noble friend entered the record books as the longest lived former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom—a record held until then by the late first Earl of Stockton, Harold Macmillan.

My noble friend's career included a period as Home Secretary when he was responsible for Northern Ireland. It is difficult to imagine anyone in the future matching his achievement of having filled at various times the positions of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister. I know that the whole House will wish to salute our longest lived former Prime Minister and to convey to him our warmest good wishes.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I gladly follow the tribute that has just been paid by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House; it must be a quite exceptional tribute to a living Member of the House. The noble Lord, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, carries great affection in this House. He has been much missed these recent months when he has been away from the House. It is worth recalling that he was Prime Minister at a difficult time, but his government were informed, as he was, by a profound love for their country, its history and the proud traditions of a Labour movement with which he always identified himself. Not only I but many of his old opponents behind me, and perhaps even all around me, will wish him well for a long future, many more birthdays, and thank him for the contribution that he has made to this House and to this country.

Lord McNally

My Lords, personally and on behalf of the Liberal Democrat Benches I associate myself with those good wishes. I hope that this is just a doff of the cap in the nineties on the way to a faultless century.

Lord Williamson of Horton

My Lords, I wish to associate the Cross-Bench Peers with these tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, on this milestone in his life. It is clear that his contribution to the national life is very well known. I believe that all Peers, whether of a party or of none, share an appreciation of his work. The noble Lord embodies two special features of this House: high quality and longevity.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the Electoral Registration (Northern Ireland) Bill has four main components.

First, it gives the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland the power to reregister former electors on to the Northern Ireland Electoral Register by 1 April 2005. Former electors are individuals who appeared on the register published on 1 September 2004, but failed to return the annual canvass from that year or failed to complete it accurately, and accordingly did not appear on the register published on 1 December 2004. Those electors will be put back on to the register to be published on 1 April 2005. This will be the register to be used for the Northern Ireland local elections in May.

The personal identifiers that the former electors gave when they originally registered will be kept when they are restored to the register. An elector's previous expressed preference on whether they wanted their name to be on the full or the edited version of the register will still he binding.

Secondly, the Bill ensures that those 83,000 electors who will be reregistered as a result of this Bill will be taken off the register if they do not reregister during this year's annual canvass in the autumn.

Thirdly, the Bill also gives the chief electoral officer power to carry forward names of electors who fail to complete the annual canvass form in 2005 on to the register published on 1 December 2005.

Finally, the chief electoral officer has been given the authority to apply the carry forward only following the annual canvass later this year. However, if necessary, the Secretary of State can extend the chief electoral officer's authority by way of affirmative order to cover the 2006 annual canvass as well. In response to concerns expressed by members of the opposition parties, we have agreed that the Secretary of State's power can be used only once.

Let me now say something about the background and context of the Bill. In respect of Great Britain, the Representation of the People Act 1983 allows the name of an elector to remain on the register after a canvass until the registration officer makes a determination that he or she is not entitled to so remain ("the carry forward"). However, in Northern Ireland, names must be removed by the chief electoral officer if no form is submitted or if the form submitted does not include all the information required. This has the effect of preventing the carry forward of names from the register of electors from year to year in Northern Ireland: unless the chief electoral officer receives a properly completed form for each elector at the annual canvass, that person's name is removed from the register. This measure was introduced by the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 as part of a package of anti-fraud measures.

While the measures introduced in 2002 have been successful in reducing fraud and increasing the accuracy of the register, an unfortunate side-effect has been a consistent fall in the numbers registered year on year. While it was expected that the measures would lead to a reduction in numbers, the continuous fall experienced now risks damaging the integrity of the register due to a lack of comprehensiveness. For example, in Great Britain around 93 per cent of eligible electors are registered whereas the comparable figure in Northern Ireland is about 85 per cent. I am sure that if only 85 per cent of the electorate in Great Britain were registered, all political parties would be pressing the Government to introduce measures to address the problem.

The main Northern Ireland parties have been lobbying Ministers hard to introduce measures to alleviate the falling numbers on the register. As a result we have decided to re-introduce the carry forward on a temporary basis until we can put in place new registration arrangements for Northern Ireland in the longer term that will help us attain a register that is both accurate and comprehensive.

Putting these additional 83,000 electors back on to the register will strengthen the democratic process in Northern Ireland, particularly with important local elections due in May. Strengthening democracy is at the heart of these measures.

I should like to stress that the introduction of these measures in no way diminishes the Government's commitment to fighting electoral fraud. Let me explain why.

The chief electoral officer has checked all the personal identifiers—that is, national insurance numbers and dates of birth—of electors, including the 83,000 individuals to be put back on to the register, against the central database held by the Department for Work and Pensions. Any individual whose identifiers do not match the central database has been, or will be, contacted to clarify the position. It may, of course, be that a simple error has been made, but if the information provided is false, that person will be taken off the register.

Individual registration will remain in place. This is fundamental to our anti-fraud measures. There will be no return to household registration. Photographic identification will continue. This has virtually eliminated attempted fraud in polling stations. The chief electoral officer will be giving special attention to any absent or proxy vote applications from any of the 83,000 individuals put back on the register. I hope that will reassure noble Lords that there will be no easing of the fight against fraud.

When we abolished the carry forward as part of our anti-fraud measures, it was a necessity because we had to start afresh in compiling a new register. Now that we are able to ascertain the identity of each elector, it is no longer necessary to prohibit the carry forward. Much of the abuse that took place was the result of household registration and electors having their identity stolen at polling stations. All we are doing is putting Northern Ireland back into line with the rest of the United Kingdom where every elector has the right to be carried forward for an additional 12 months.

I appreciate that there may be some concern that this Bill is being fast-tracked. Originally we had hoped that the measures would form part of a larger Bill that would have arisen if the political talks before Christmas had been successful. Unfortunately, that was not the case. We have no option now but to get the Bill through quickly because we want to ensure that the 83,000 electors are put back on to the register by 1 April, thereby allowing them to vote at the forthcoming local elections. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Amos.)

3.19 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now read a second time, at end to insert "but this House deplores the attempt in the Bill to weaken the application of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002".

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I thank the Lord President of the Council for introducing the Bill and for attempting to explain the rationale for it. I regret that I found it somewhat unconvincing in certain respects.

My first and main point is that the Bill appears to dilute, if not overturn, the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act, passed as recently as 2002. That Act, as the noble Baroness said, specifically aimed to reduce the amount of personation that has bedevilled political life in Northern Ireland since its inception. "Vote early, vote often" was a practice originally introduced by the Unionists. Later it was adopted and refined by the republicans. The 2002 Act was meant to make it more difficult to perpetrate that kind of fraud. Registration was toughened up by the requirement to produce a national insurance number, which we on the Liberal Democrat Benches and others vigorously promoted and which the Government later accepted. As expected, there was a reduction in the number of registrations on the electoral register. It would have been very surprising if that had not been the case.

Why, then, is it that within two years the Government are now proposing to neuter the provisions of the 2002 Act? The ostensible reason given is that the new register contains some 83,000 voters fewer than the previous year. Someone somewhere has concluded that this is too great a number.

The grounds for that assumption need to be probed fully. It is stated in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill that it is necessary because, the continuous fall experienced now risks damaging the integrity of the register due to a lack of comprehensiveness". One does not have to be a semiologist to deconstruct the import of those words. They are simply rigmarole. How can there be a "continuous fall" after only two years? Also, it could be argued, and with much greater force, that the very reduction in registrations firmly establishes the integrity of the register.

The weakness of the reasoning is further to be seen in the wording of the Bill. It begins: A Bill to make provision about the registration of electors in Northern Ireland in cases where required information is not provided". Again, Clause 1 (1)(c) states that where, the Chief Electoral Officer has no information which suggests that the former elector has ceased to be resident at that address or has otherwise ceased to satisfy the conditions for registration", and so on. To put that in the negative on the face of the Bill is extraordinary. The point is that the chief electoral officer should know about such matters for certain. In Committee I shall move an amendment to that effect.

Out of a total of 83,000, what actuarially would be the prediction of the death rate over two years? Presumably, given natural attrition, to follow the terminology employed in the Bill, the death rate would have been "continuous". Similarly, what percentage of those 83,000 would be reckoned to have moved away from home? It should also he borne in mind that the Electoral Commission is undertaking a large-scale publicity campaign to remind people of the need to register. If that has little effect it will add to the suspicion that a large number of the 83,000 are phantoms.

The inclusion of those names which are not registered as required sets a bad precedent. People might well conclude that it does not matter if you do not register, as a Bill will conveniently be forthcoming to put you back on the register. Negating the 2002 Act and creating a bad precedent are a very poor basis for this Bill. I must also ask the noble Baroness—who has anticipated this question—why it is being rushed through now in the course of two days. Given the Written Statement last November by John Spellar, the junior Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, I cannot understand why the Bill was not introduced much earlier. Why is it being steamrollered now? The noble Baroness said that it was because the peace process has juddered to a halt. I accept that that may have caught people somewhat unawares. Nevertheless, steamrollering the Bill at this time, particularly in the light of the juddering to a halt of the peace process, is difficult to understand.

It would have been much more helpful to have been provided with some information about the new arrangements that the Government hope to propose for the registration of electors. We are being asked to take this matter on trust, without having been given even a hint regarding the nature of the new arrangements.

Finally, and importantly, I have to ask who wants this Bill so desperately to be passed? Personation flourishes the larger the electoral pool there is to manipulate—and that is even more the case if the register incorporates the dead and those who have moved away. This Bill gives quite the wrong signals. That would be the case at any time but particularly so at present. Public perception will be very sceptical. Clean elections are vital if democracy is to be sustained. I find it unbelievable, especially at this very critical time in Northern Ireland, that the Government are apparently hell-bent on promoting the Bill. I ask them to think again. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now read a second time, at end to insert "but this House deplores the attempt in the Bill to weaken the application of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002").—(Lord Smith of Clifton.)

3.20 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I shall be very brief. I understand that the Bill before us is to enable the names of those who were on the Northern Ireland register in September 2004, but who were not so registered again in December, to be carried forward on to this year's register. Presumably, that includes those who opted for a postal vote. If so, that could well strengthen the hand of Sinn Fein, which was riding high in 2004, but must now be regarded as likely, in a growing number of cases, to be rejected in favour of the SDLP, if the voter feels that it is safe to do so.

Today's report of widespread poll fraud in this country in postal voting in local elections augurs ill for a truly free vote in Northern Ireland, and I wish to register my concern now that the Government seem to be more concerned about the fall in voter numbers than about the safety of the process. Will the new, stricter criteria for postal registration operate? Will last year's register he closely scrutinised in the light of this experience, so that there is no automatic transfer from 2004 to 2005 of tainted or false votes? I seem to remember that during a routine raid on IRA premises a year or two ago, sophisticated machinery for creating postal votes was discovered. This Sinn Fein/IRA expertise will not have gone away.

We are seeing, at long last, a perception among the nationalists that the IRA is no longer a force which purports to defend them from the state, including such legitimate organs of government as the police and the courts, but exists to operate and control the community through criminal gangs who are there to make money and retain power for the IRA—and to control the community to that end, rather than represent its interests.

I should be glad to be reassured that the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, published this month, for marked electoral registers to include a register of postal votes, will not hold risks for Northern Ireland, since the commission recommends that while access to marked registers should not be given to political parties, candidates and agents before polling day, they should be supplied for "electoral purposes" after the close of the poll, under the same terms and conditions as polling stations' marked registers. I was reassured to hear that those who wish can still exclude their names from publication. But I should like to be reassured by the Minister that that does not mean it will be possible for Sinn Fein/IRA to use the process for the next election.

We have at last reached the position in Northern Ireland, in the context of the McCartney murder and the widespread money laundering, at which people may be prepared to defy the IRA and vote for the SDLP, or indeed any other party, without fear of reprisals. I thank the Minister for the reassurance that she has given, but are we sure that none of the legislation, whether in this Bill or proposed future legislation, will put such people at risk? That would be tragic, just when people are testing the water to see whether they dare to make free choices. If there are cost implications in devising a procedure which provides necessary records but still protects the privacy of the individual voter, then they must be accepted.

As the fourth report of the monitoring commission rightly says: The leadership and rank and file of Sinn Fein need to make the choice between continued association with and support for IRA criminality and the path of an exclusively democratic political party". We must be sure that, whatever measures we may take, those voters who wish to make such a choice through the election in due course can vote in the certainty that the law has been devised to protect them when they exercise their rights.

3.29 p.m.

Lord Patten

My Lords, I am glad to follow my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth, if I may, as no one else has risen. She has shot a number of foxes that I would have wished to have a go at myself.

Over many years, I sat at the feet of the noble Lord. Lord Molyneaux of Killead, and, in a bipartisan spirit, the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, being given tutorials on electoral practices in the Province. I have learnt a lot from both noble Lords and from other noble Lords in the Chamber. I have three things to say about the rather alarming and possibly anti-democratic measure brought forward by the Lord President today.

First, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, has pointed out, it is hard to interpret the semiotics of the Explanatory Notes. The late Jacques Derrida himself would have found it difficult to disinter exactly what the phrase, the integrity of the register could mean. I am much more concerned about the integrity of the democratic process, not the integrity of the register. The Lord President will have to explain clearly to the House exactly what that phrase means. What is, the integrity of the register"? Secondly, in any one year, how many people in a group of 87,000 would one expect to have died? How many would one expect to have moved out of the Province—south of the border or to the United Kingdom, seeking to register their name on one or more occasions on this side of the water? That is a critical point. One cannot expect the House just to wish to roll forward more than 80,000 electors without having any indication of how many in any one cohort of 87,000 are living in the Province. I am sure that the officials who wrote the Explanatory Notes will have those facts at their fingertips to inform the noble Baroness the Lord President.

Thirdly, we are being compressed in 48 hours to do something that, I understand, has never been done before in either House at such a rate of knots—that is, to change the way in which people are allowed to be still committed to the electoral register even though they have not sought to place themselves on it. If we are to take the Bill seriously, we have to know what extra measures are in place to ensure that not the integrity of the register but the integrity of the democratic process is being protected and that this will not now be something that will be brought before your Lordships' House on an annual basis, endlessly rolling forward people who in many cases may be dead, moved out, or never existed in the first place.

I do not seek to damage the reputation of the noble Lord. Lord Smith of Clifton, among his fellow Liberal Democrats, but I found him very persuasive, and I am sure that my noble friend on the Front Bench will equally wish to press the Lord President on those points.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, it is normal courtesy in the House for people who wish to speak in the gap to give notice. It would be helpful if we had an indication in advance because then the subsequent speakers would know when to get up. I remind noble Lords that when the clock says three minutes, the four minutes for gap speeches are over.

3.34 p.m.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

My Lords, if I have infringed the protocols of the House I apologise to your Lordships. The Bill was drawn to our attention only on the day when the House went into recess and was brought to the House the very moment we returned from recess. I suggest that that is not untypical of the way in which Northern Ireland business is handled by this Government. I deeply resent it.

The reality is that not only is the Bill brought to the House in this way, but it is being concertina-ed, in so far as we have to go through the business in this short period plus whatever time is allocated tomorrow. That is not satisfactory. It is not the way in which we should tinker with such a Bill. When I was privileged to be first sent to your Lordships' House in 2001, the first substantive Bill that I participated in was the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill. It came here after due consideration by the Northern Ireland Select Committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord. Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville. It was well considered and, although it came to the House even at that stage in a somewhat dishevelled state, it left as a very tidy Bill. It did what we had been hankering after in conducting the electoral process for the previous 30 years.

Now we get a Bill that corrupts what we achieved in 2002. I use the term "corrupts" advisedly because, sadly, corruption in Northern Ireland is not just about brown envelopes and money. It is about the way in which those who are paid huge salaries fail to carry out their duties as they should. They fail the people of Northern Ireland. I believe that that is what is happening now.

Why are there 83,000 people who have failed to register? The noble Lord, Lord Patten, said that people might have died or left Northern Ireland to come to Great Britain—not to the United Kingdom—and in so doing they reduced the number on the register.

There is another reason and a much more salient point to be made. There are people in Northern Ireland who are simply fed up with the failure of the electoral process. They do not want to be part of it. and they do not want to register. The reason why they do not want to register is simple: they know that, if they do and are not prepared to vote, there are those who will find a way of corrupting the system and voting on their behalf. Sinn Fein/IRA has not for the past almost 40 years wasted its time in streamlining methodology to beat the electoral system. As your Lordships know, you only have to beat the electoral system once—you can try and fail; you can try again and fail; you can try and fail the third time, but once you have succeeded there is no difficulty in being re-elected.

The Bill should not in its present form have been introduced to the House. I am opposed to it. It is unamendable. The best that I can do is to say that I strongly support the Liberal Democrat amendment; it is worth voting for. If time was given to the Bill I would not have to extend what I have to say, but let me finish with one final point—

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I know that I speak from the Opposition Benches, but the rules of the House must be obeyed. I am looking at the Government Whip and the Leader of the House. Four minutes is the gap maximum, and we are already into six.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, for his support. I tried to indicate to noble Lords the time available.

3.39 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness for explaining the requirements of the Bill. However, like previous speakers, I was here when we dealt with the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. The object of that exercise was to clean up the electoral register. It seems to me that the object of this Bill is to make the register less clean. That cannot be right. Paragraph 18 of the Explanatory Notes presented with the Bill refers to, the name of an elector who was registered in the previous version of that register even though the CEO"— chief electoral officer— cannot be sure—because of the elector's failure to submit the canvass form, or to include on that form all the personal identifiers—that the elector is still resident at the same address". We are legislating for an uncertainty and that cannot be right.

I served for 25 years as a local councillor. One of my last experiences in that role was when someone telephoned me to complain that she was not on the electoral register. My first response was to ask, "Were you not able to vote as a result?". She said, "I do not do that". I therefore asked why she was ringing me about the matter. She said, "It is about credit. I cannot get credit because my name is not on the register". It may be that there are people in Northern Ireland who want credit; the register is used for purposes other than elections. It is indeed a strange affair that so many have not sought to be on the register. The indication is that 80,000 or so people are missing from it.

I do not know about the rest of your Lordships, but I have heard that there could be an election for another place on 5 May. We know that there will be elections for local government in England on 5 May. I understand that there is an election on 18 May for local government in Northern Ireland. However, I also understand that there is an idea of having that election on the same day, so that the local government elections are on the same day in England and Northern Ireland. It may of course be helpful for other purposes. But that is what I have been told may take place.

That is concentrating a lot of minds. There are those who, because of the local elections, know absolutely for certain that they will be facing elections on 5 May. There are those in Northern Ireland who may also think that that will be the case for them. As I understand it, residents of Northern Ireland who are not on the register—and who woke up today and said, "Good heavens! I am not on the register"—had 18 days, until 10 March, to contact the returning officer. If everything then proves correct, their names will go on the register as from 1 April.

The mechanics of elections have changed. We have the new idea of a rolling register and the register is far more up to date than it has ever been before. As a youth, I had to wait nearly two years to get the vote. The situation has gradually changed so that people are now put on the register straight away. The rolling register has enabled those who move house to be put on the register straight away.

This Bill is about making the register less clean. I think that there is another way in which these things could be organised. We know that nomination day for the local government elections in England is 11 April. It seems that we are already in the middle of an election campaign. If we have not reached that point by then, there is no doubt but that. by 11 April, electioneering will be well and truly in the ether. The same should be true in local government in any event. If the date of 10 March were moved on one month to 11 April, it would give everyone who legitimately should be on the register an extra month to get on it. There would still be adequate time to ensure that the register was valid for any elections on 5 May.

It may be thought, "You are compressing all this and it is all very difficult for returning officers". It will be difficult, but returning officers are used to busy periods and to taking on extra staff and so forth. Interestingly, one could wait as late as 26 April to get a postal vote, with all the administration that that entails. Establishing 11 April as the registration date would still allow registration officers another fortnight to clean up and publish their registers. We would then be able to use the existing legislation and amend the Bill to allow another month for those who, for whatever reason, believe that they have been missed off the register to be put on it.

I feel that there is another way forward and that we do not need a Bill that will make the electoral register less clean.

3.46 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords. I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Lord President for explaining the Bill. I also pay my compliments to the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan. The day I came into your Lordships' House for the first time to take the oath, I was sitting where the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, is, rather nervous and shaking, and Jim was sitting on the Privy Council Bench. In three minutes flat, he had me feeling very comfortable and relaxed. He told me about making his maiden speech from next door to where my noble friend Lady Park is sitting. It is a great day for him.

I return to the Bill. Parliament is being asked to pass the Bill, as has been pointed out several times by noble Lords, in a lot of haste. Indeed, it is completing its passage in this House tomorrow, and it is going to the other place and completing there on Thursday. However, the Government tell us that that is dictated by the proximity of the local government elections, on which the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, spoke at length just now. Some of us are a bit cynical about it. It is intriguing that the elections have been moved from 3 May to 5 May—the same day as the local government elections in England and Wales. Perhaps that act might give us a clue to other possibilities that the Prime Minister has in mind for that day. I wonder.

The problem identified by the noble Baroness is straightforward. In 2002, Parliament passed the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act. For the first time anywhere in the United Kingdom, it required individual as opposed to household registration on an annual basis. Thanks to Conservative pressure, supported strongly by my friends the Liberal Democrats, the final legislation also ensured that each individual elector's national insurance number had to be included on the registration form.

In our view, that Act was necessary and remains valid. There was, and is, a clear need to tackle electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. It is a practice that goes back decades, with traditions of "impersonation" and the well known election cry, "Vote early, vote often". Various reports—including the Northern Ireland Select Committee report in 1998 and the Government's White Paper Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland—have highlighted the problem. We rehearsed all of the arguments during passage of the Act in 2002. Without going over them all again, we remain in no doubt that action was needed to tackle the problem.

The electoral fraud Act had an immediate impact—an immediate reduction in the size of the register of about 10 per cent, or some 120,000 potential voters. That was almost certainly a more accurate register than before, and according to the Electoral Commission it probably had a positive impact and increased confidence in the integrity of the electoral process in Northern Ireland. The commission's report on the operation of the Act in its first year noted that a survey had found that 72 per cent of a representative sample of the Northern Ireland electorate believed that the new system should reduce electoral fraud.

Moreover, the evidence suggests that it has been effective in stamping out electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. As the Northern Ireland Select Committee put it in its report on electoral registration in Northern Ireland published in December 2004: On the basis of all the evidence currently available to us, we are satisfied that the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 has been successful in reducing both the perception among the electorate of the prevalence of fraud and the actual level of electoral fraud, so far as it can be measured. The measures introduced in the act have served to increase the level of public confidence in the integrity of the electoral process". That is from paragraph 10 of the report Electoral Registration in Northern Ireland, HC 131, published on 15 December 2004.

Since 2002, however—where we are today—the fall in the number of registered voters has continued. The latest register, published on 1 December 2004, showed a drop of 2.6 per cent on the September register. In total, the register has dropped by almost 150,000 people since anti-fraud measures were introduced two years ago and stands at just 83.9 per cent of eligible voters. There is also a particular problem among younger voters, with less than 25 per cent of 17 and 18 year-olds registered. It was precisely the fear that, as a result of the new arrangements, the decline might become permanent that led PricewaterhouseCoopers to conclude, in research it carried out for the Electoral Commission: Unless the downward trend in the number of registered electors is rectified, it has the potential of embedding itself structurally in the registration process". I am sure we all agree that that would be a small disaster. Added to that is the problem of declining voter turnout. At the European elections, turnout was down to 51 per cent, from 63 per cent at the 2003 Assembly elections.

We accept, therefore, that there is a genuine problem that needs addressing. Much of the blame for the decline in registration has been placed on the requirement in the 2002 Act for voters to re-register on an annual basis, coupled with the abolition of the ability to allow names to be carried forward for one year in circumstances where people had failed to register. That was the view of the Electoral Commission in its report of December 2003: The removal of the 'carry forward' appears to be the one factor that had the most significant impact on the number of people on the register".

The Bill before your Lordships' House today seeks to address that problem by enabling the chief electoral officer to put back on to the register the 80,000 or so people who were properly registered in 2004 but who failed to register at last autumn's annual canvass. I have some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass, about the loss of interest, but it is still a problem we need to address.

In addition, the chief electoral officer is given the power to carry forward names of electors who fail to complete the annual canvass form in 2005 on to the register published on 1 December 2005. As provision for a one-year carry-over exists in Great Britain, it can be argued that the Bill simply brings Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom—not something we on these Benches oppose—while retaining the additional safeguards in the 2002 Act that are vital to tackling voter fraud. In respect of those safeguards, we believe that the rest of the United Kingdom should be brought into line with Northern Ireland—for a change, we are going that way.

There are, however, aspects of the Bill that require clarification. Clause 3(2) enables the Secretary of State, by order, to extend Clauses 2 to 4 on one occasion for a further period of up to 12 months. Will such an order be subject to an affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament, rather than a negative one? Before the power is used, would it not be preferable for it to follow a report and specific recommendation from the chief electoral officer, rather than simply being exercised by the Secretary of State acting on his own?

In his evidence to the Northern Ireland Select Committee, an Electoral Commission commissioner, Mr Karamjit Singh, said: If you simply reintroduce the carry forward facility for a new system of individual registration there is a concern we would have that this might actually muddy the waters and actually perhaps lead to needless duplication". That is from HC 822-i, dated 7 July 2004, at Question 29. Is the noble Baroness satisfied that the Bill will not result in any such muddying of the waters and that the there will be no needless duplication? Giving the chief electoral officer the power to carry over the register for a year is fine for those who are still living at the same address as when they previously registered. Large numbers of people, however, might have moved house. That is particularly the case among students and younger people who, as I said earlier, are already alarmingly underrepresented on the register. What action is being taken by the chief electoral officer to track those people, so that they are not lost from the register altogether? I would be grateful for clarification on those matters. Notwithstanding that, we will support the Second Reading of the Bill in your Lordships' House today.

3.55 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have spoken. I can perhaps deal with some of the wider issues raised at the outset. I repeat what I said in my opening remarks: there has been pressure from the Northern Ireland political parties, who have expressed concern at the alarming number of people who have fallen out of the register. All noble Lords acknowledge that there was an issue of fraud, but having worked so hard to achieve the integrity of the system, we would not now want to put in place anything that undermined it. I am absolutely confident about the integrity of the process and of the register. I will come back to that.

I was somewhat surprised by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass. In the debate held, in government time, on Northern Ireland—the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran had alerted me to the need for such a debate in this House—I gave notice of the fact that this legislation would becoming. The House rose on 10 February, so there was adequate time for Members of the House who wished to speak in this debate to put their name forward. I was also surprised by the noble Lord's comments about the way in which Northern Ireland business is conducted in this House. I recognise the frustration that there is no devolved administration in Northern Ireland and the fact that we are dealing with so much business. However, there has been ample time for informal and formal discussion of Northern Ireland business, including in Grand Committee. I have always made it absolutely clear that I and other members of the Government are available for discussions on Northern Ireland because we understand the importance and sensitivity of the issue. We also recognise the difficulties with direct rule.

I now turn to the specific comments that were made. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, raised the issue of the 83,000 people and who they comprised. There are no dead people included in that figure. The fraud measures that were put in place remain in place. Of course, the Electoral Office is given notice of the register of births, marriages and deaths. It is notified weekly, and the chief executive deletes names from the register weekly. So the register does not include anyone who has died. Young people can register as attainers once they have reached the age of 16.

Other concerns were raised about the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission supports the Bill, and the commission has no problem with bringing Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. Again in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Smith, I say that all of the 83,000 have provided personal identifiers, so there are no phantoms and we are currently consulting the Northern Ireland political parties on options for new registration arrangements.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, was particularly concerned about the safety and integrity of the process. The anti-fraud measures that have been put in place with respect to personal identifiers, individual registration and photographic identification will all continue, so the register has been cleaned up. The antifraud measures put in place have worked, which is why we feel confident that we can now have carry-over.

The noble Lord, Lord Patten, fundamentally misunderstood the nature of what we are trying to do. A process was put in place to move away from household to individual registration in Northern Ireland. Individuals were then required to re-register annually. After two years, it became clear that there was a problem. The anti-fraud measures having worked, the register having being cleaned up, we now feel confident to enable carry-over as we have in Great Britain, but for a one-year period, so that people understand what they need to do and to give us a breathing space to talk to the parties and think about the longer-term process.

The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, was concerned that we were corrupting what had been achieved. I cannot agree, and I think that I have answered that point. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, was also concerned that we would make the register less clean. Again, I cannot accept that, on the basis of the anti-fraud measures that will remain in place. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, who suggested that we should extend those measures to Great Britain. The register has been cleaned up, and we intend that it should stay clean.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked me several questions. I confirm, as I think I did in my opening remarks, that the carry-over for the Secretary of State will be by way of an affirmative Motion. The Secretary of State will of course consult the chief electoral officer about whether he should use that power. The chief electoral officer has cross-checked for any duplication. As far as we are concerned, it will not muddy the waters. The chief electoral officer tried to contact all those who did not re-register last autumn. I think that that addresses the specific questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and other noble Lords.

I finish by reiterating what lies behind the Bill. It is a temporary measure until arrangements are put in place for electoral registration in Northern Ireland that will lead to a registration system that is accurate and comprehensive. The legislation needs to be passed through Parliament quickly so that we can ensure that the 83,000 individuals who did not re-register last year are put back on the register to be published on 1 April. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, asked me a specific question about that. I understand that it must be by 1 April because it must be in the month by which people must put their name down as prospective candidates. Perhaps I could drop the noble Lord a note about that.

Finally, we hope that the Bill will help to alleviate the increasing problem of falling numbers on the electoral register in Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said, it brings the Province into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, but it does so without in any way compromising the successful measures introduced by the Government to combat electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. On that basis, I hope that noble Lords will feel able to give the Bill a Second Reading.

4.5 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council for collaborating on some of the issues of concern to your Lordships. There is some unease about aspects of the Bill, and it was important that we had the principles behind the Bill fully rehearsed, especially at this time. En passant and incidentally, the Bill does nothing to address the problem of young people missing from the register. However, having heard what the noble Baroness the Lord President and other noble Lords said, we need now to look more closely and in detail at the Bill to try to improve it tomorrow. That we will do robustly. In view of that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.