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Northern Ireland (Representation Of The People)

Volume 975: debated on Tuesday 11 December 1979

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12.55 am

I beg to move,

That the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 1979, a copy of which was laid before this House on 27 November, be approved.
Hon. Members will have observed that the provisions in the regulations are substantially the same as in those regulations applying to England and Wales and to Scotland, which, I understand, are to be considered by the House later this week.

In essence, the regulations have two basic purposes. First, they amend the existing regulations so as to remove the requirement that the names of Service voters and merchant seamen should be marked on the register respectively with the letters "S" and "M". The original purpose of such markings was to indicate to party canvassers that such electors would not be voting in person. But party canvassers are now seldom interested in these markings.

As I am sure hon. Members are aware, there has been concern for some time among Service men and their families about the ease with which they can be identified by the marking. There has been a quite understandable fear that the register could be used as one means of locating the whereabouts of Service men or their families by terrorist groups. Whether that fear is justified is not at issue here, although I assure hon. Members that there is no evidence to suggest that terrorists have used the register as a way of helping them to pursue their nefarious ends. But clearly fears that Service men may be putting themselves, and especially their families at risk, discourage electoral registration. It seems entirely right to do away with the practice—hence the regulations.

The second effect of the proposed regulations is to increase the fee chargeable to certain purchasers of the register. We do not propose to change the rate at which those entitled to free copies of the register are able to purchase extra copies. That will remain at a rate of 10p per 1,000 names or part of 1,000 names. However, it is proposed to increase the fee for copies of the register to persons who do not qualify for free or discounted copies—for example, mail order firms and market research organisations—from 50p to £1 for 1,000 names.

The rise is partly to compensate for inflation since the fee was last fixed in January 1978, but the Government do not see why the public sector should be asked to subsidise the private sector in such a way. Production costs have risen sharply in the intervening period. It seems quite reasonable to ask commercial concerns to pay a realistic fee for access to a register which is produced primarily for electoral and not commercial purposes.

In conclusion, I would say that all interested bodies—including the political parties in Northern Ireland—have been consulted about the regulations. I think that it is fair to say that there is general agreement that they make modest, but sensible, improvements in the electoral law of Northern Ireland, as they will in due course in England, Scotland and Wales.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 1979, a copy of which was laid before this House on 27 November, be approved.