Delegated Legislation Committee
Draft Northern Ireland (Elections) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2015
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Mr Gary Streeter
† Allen, Heidi (South Cambridgeshire) (Con)
† Bridgen, Andrew (North West Leicestershire) (Con)
Campbell, Mr Gregory (East Londonderry) (DUP)
Campbell, Mr Ronnie (Blyth Valley) (Lab)
† Cruddas, Jon (Dagenham and Rainham) (Lab)
† Cummins, Judith (Bradford South) (Lab)
† Donelan, Michelle (Chippenham) (Con)
† Elphicke, Charlie (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Fysh, Marcus (Yeovil) (Con)
† Harris, Rebecca (Castle Point) (Con)
Hoey, Kate (Vauxhall) (Lab)
† Jayawardena, Mr Ranil (North East Hampshire) (Con)
† Menzies, Mark (Fylde) (Con)
Parish, Neil (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)
† Smeeth, Ruth (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab)
Smith, Mr Andrew (Oxford East) (Lab)
† Wallace, Mr Ben (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)
Danielle Nash, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee
Tuesday 24 November 2015
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
Draft Northern Ireland (Elections) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2015
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland (Elections) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2015.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I welcome the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent North and for Bradford South to their places for what will hopefully be a concise Committee. This statutory instrument provides for a number of changes to the legislative framework for Northern Ireland elections. Some are minor administrative points, and I will focus on the two most substantive provisions.
The draft order makes provision to allow the retention of certain entries on the Northern Ireland electoral register for a further year. Northern Ireland is unique within the UK in not holding an annual canvass to refresh its register. Since 2006 the register in Northern Ireland has been maintained via not a canvass but a system of continuous registration that relies on cross-checking electoral data against prescribed official data streams.
That approach is possible because all electoral registration in Northern Ireland has been individual registration, rather than household registration, since 2002. Following the last full Northern Ireland canvass in 2013, provision was made to retain some entries on the register where the individuals in question had not returned the canvass form, but where the chief electoral officer had no reason to question the validity of their entry. The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland was able to assess the validity of entries for those “non-respondents” as all the individuals in question were individually registered, and the Electoral Office’s data-checking facility with both the Department for Work and Pensions and health service records allows a high level of assurance on people’s current address and other key information.
Let me be clear that the entries that relate to those non-respondents were all checked after the 2013 canvass and have been continuously checked since then in response to alerts from other Government data sources. The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland receives regular updates of data from a variety of official sources, including the DWP and the Registrar General, as well as from an organisation called Business Services Organisation, which holds all the details of individuals on GP and dentist lists in Northern Ireland.
If there is an inconsistency between the data on the register and those received from the other data sources, the Electoral Office issues chasing letters to the individual and then a final warning. If the individual does not respond, they are removed from the register. Of the 112,000 registered electors who did not respond to the 2013 canvass but had responded in 2006, about 10,000 have been removed from the register, and more than 20,000 have been successfully re-registered. Approximately 82,000 voters are therefore affected by the provision we are considering today.
The original provision made in 2013 to retain those particular entries on the register was for two years and will expire at the beginning of December this year, when the new register is published. However, it was always the intention that the retained entries should not be removed in advance of the next Northern Ireland Assembly elections. Due to the clash of the parliamentary general election and the Assembly election, which was originally scheduled for 2015, the date of the Assembly election was postponed until May 2016. That postponement is the reason we need the extension of these provisions for one further year.
Both the Electoral Commission and the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland share the Government’s view that the retention of these entries for a further year is appropriate in the context of the continuous registration system employed in Northern Ireland. This will be the final provision made to retain non-respondent voters. We propose to introduce digital registration in Northern Ireland in 2016. In the context of easier online registration and the publicity associated with its introduction, non-respondent voters will be given clear notice that they will come off the register in December 2016 if they do not take action. I urge the political parties in Northern Ireland to at least start a process of encouraging people to register, to ensure that if we take people off the register in future, they are fully aware they have had plenty of opportunities to register to vote before any elections are due.
The second substantive provision made by the order is that the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland will not be guilty of an offence if they take steps to fully correct procedural errors made at Assembly elections that would otherwise be a breach of their official duty. Currently, for all Northern Ireland elections with the exception of those for the Assembly, the relevant legislation provides that the chief electoral officer will not be guilty of an offence if they take steps to remedy in full an administrative error or omission. The order will correct that anomaly and bring the provision in respect of Assembly elections into line with the provisions for parliamentary, European and local elections in Northern Ireland. Although that is an electoral matter, and therefore is not devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, it tangentially touches upon criminal justice matters. The Committee will wish to know that I have written to the Northern Ireland Minister for Justice to inform him of our intentions, as a matter of courtesy.
In addition to those provisions, the order will make a number of other minor amendments to ensure consistency of administrative approach at Assembly elections. Electoral law is complex, and as small changes are made to provisions for parliamentary and other types of election, it is important that we keep the legislative framework under review and adjust the regulations as necessary where an inconsistency has crept into the provisions.
I hope that the Committee agrees that the implementation of these changes in advance of the Northern Ireland Assembly election in May 2016 is both logical and reasonable. I assure the Committee that all these changes are fully supported by both the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland and the Electoral Commission.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, for my debut delegated legislation Committee. I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), the shadow Minister for Northern Ireland. This Committee was originally scheduled for yesterday, and my hon. Friend had made arrangements to be present but is unfortunately out of the country today. He asked me to apologise on his behalf and to assure the Committee that no disrespect is intended.
Turning to today’s business, I would like formally to put on the record the Opposition’s support for last week’s agreement and pay credit to the UK and Irish Governments and all the parties for the considerable amount of work undertaken over 10 long weeks to resolve the crisis that was threatening to destabilise the functioning of the Stormont Assembly. I would also like to place on record my party’s thanks to the outgoing First Minister, Peter Robinson, for his considerable service to the people of Northern Ireland.
The order will amend the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001 and the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2008 in order to make necessary changes to rules relating to elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. We consider that the statutory instrument is not contentious and, as such, we will support its implementation. However, I have two questions for the Minister.
First, in view of the changes made last year to anonymous voter registration in Northern Ireland, can the Minister assure the Committee that changes to the timeframe for updating the register, where certain details have not been confirmed, will in no way impact individuals who are registered anonymously? Secondly, will he say what additional funds are being made available by the Treasury and the Cabinet Office for the digital changeover?
In conclusion, I confirm that the Opposition will not object to the order. We pay tribute to all in Westminster, Stormont and Dublin who are working to bring normalcy to Northern Ireland. Their efforts will always be supported by the Opposition, and we wish them every success.
What a fine debut that was. On the issue of anonymous voters, the best answer to the hon. Lady’s question is that I shall write to her with the details. I hope that the Cabinet Office has heard loud and clear that funding is required to ensure that Northern Ireland catches up on digital registration. The Committee can rest assured that the Northern Ireland Office is pressing the case, and hopefully we will hear about that soon. I will be delighted to share that good news with the hon. Lady, if and when we get it.
The main aim of the order is to allow more time for people who have effectively gone missing from the register to get on it. We know that they are there, because we have much deeper and more extensive cross-checking there than we do on the mainland of the United Kingdom, but they have not responded. I reiterate, however, that it is not the Government’s intention to endlessly allow extensions. There is a duty on the bodies in Northern Ireland to ensure that electors avail themselves of their right to vote, but people also have individual responsibility. There are only so many times we can chase people to register to vote. In the end, it is their right that they are giving away if they do not register, and I hope the message comes from today’s Committee that this is the last time we will give such an extension. That gives people plenty of time to start getting engaged and active in electoral politics. I thank the Opposition for their support.
Question put and agreed to.
Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority Electoral Commission Local Government Boundary Commission for England
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Phil Wilson
† Allen, Mr Graham (Nottingham North) (Lab)
† Barwell, Gavin (Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household)
† Coffey, Dr Thérèse (Deputy Leader of the House of Commons)
Coyle, Neil (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab)
† Freer, Mike (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con)
† Hall, Luke (Thornbury and Yate) (Con)
Hopkins, Kelvin (Luton North) (Lab)
Knight, Sir Greg (East Yorkshire) (Con)
† Lilley, Mr Peter (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
Mann, John (Bassetlaw) (Lab)
† Milling, Amanda (Cannock Chase) (Con)
Neill, Robert (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
† Onn, Melanie (Great Grimsby) (Lab)
† Smith, Jeff (Manchester, Withington) (Lab)
† Smith, Royston (Southampton, Itchen) (Con)
† Tolhurst, Kelly (Rochester and Strood) (Con)
Ben Williams, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee
Tuesday 24 November 2015
[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority
[Relevant documents for debate: the Fourth Report 2015 from the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, Appointment of an Electoral Commissioner, HC 580, and the Third Report 2015 from the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, Appointment of the Chair of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England, HC 560.]
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the motion, That in pursuance of paragraph 2A of Schedule 3 of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, as amended, Bronwen Curtis be appointed as lay member of the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, for a period of four years from 26 January 2016.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Motion 2—Electoral Commission—
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Rob Vincent as an Electoral Commissioner with effect from 1 January 2016 for the period ending on 31 December 2019.
Motion 3—Local Government Boundary Commission for England—
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Professor Colin Mellors as Chair of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England with effect from 1 January 2016 for the period ending on 31 December 2020.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Wilson. It is good to see you in your place. I know that you spent many distinguished years serving as an Opposition Whip.
The first motion proposes that Bronwen Curtis be appointed as a lay member of the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority for four years from 26 January 2016. SCIPSA is a statutory committee, created by the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, and is responsible for the oversight of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority through appointing board members to IPSA and by approving the organisation’s estimate. The vacancy has arisen due to the term of Dame Janet Gaymer, one of SCIPSA’s current lay members, coming to an end on 25 January. I am sure that this Committee would like to put on the record its thanks to Dame Janet for her service. SCIPSA produced an explanatory memorandum in relation to the motion, which has been made available to hon. Members in the Vote Office. I have also ensured that members of this Committee have been sent copies of the explanatory memorandum, together with the other reports that relate to our debate today.
The candidate named in the motion, Bronwen Curtis, has been a civil service commissioner, the chairman of the Northampton General Hospital NHS Trust, and a member of various review bodies. The duration of appointments as lay members of SCIPSA are staggered to provide continuity for the Committee. Accordingly, the motion provides that Ms Curtis should be appointed for four years.
The second motion proposes that an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Rob Vincent as an electoral commissioner for four years from 1 January 2016. The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission has produced a report in relation to this motion. The vacancy arose following the decision of Max Caller to resign from the commission when he was appointed the commissioner for Tower Hamlets by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I am sure that this Committee would like to thank Max Caller for his service. This recruitment was conducted, at the request of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, by a board, which recommended Rob Vincent. Mr Vincent served as chief executive of Kirklees Council from 2004 to 2010 and was a non-executive director for the Department for Communities and Local Government from 2008 to 2010. Between 2010 and 2012, Mr Vincent led the intervention into Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, at the request of the then Secretary of State. Most recently, he has acted as an adviser to the Department of Health on the transition of public health from the NHS to local government.
The final motion before the Committee proposes that an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Professor Colin Mellors as the chair of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England for five years from 1 January 2016 to 31 December 2020. Again, the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission has produced a report in relation to this motion. The LGBCE is responsible for reviewing local authority electoral arrangements and can also conduct reviews of the structure of local government and the external boundaries of local authorities.
The vacancy has arisen because the current chair, Max Caller, is approaching the maximum permitted length of service. The recruitment was conducted, at the request of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission by a board, which made this unanimous recommendation. Professor Mellors is the current deputy chair of the LGBCE. His most recent executive role was as the pro-vice-chancellor of the University of York. He has been involved in several economic development activities across Yorkshire and the Humber and is a board member of the York and North Yorkshire local enterprise partnership.
In summary, this Committee is being asked to consider motions to appoint Bronwen Curtis as a lay member of SCIPSA for four years, Rob Vincent as an electoral commissioner for four years, and Professor Colin Mellors as chair of the LGBCE for five years. I hope that the Committee, and ultimately the House, will support the appointments and wish those individuals well as they take up their new posts.
First, I apologise for arriving late and breathless; I was trying to deal with a constituency matter.
The appointments are important, and the Committee should really satisfy itself that the people whom we are putting forward are appropriate for the tasks ahead of them, which are very onerous indeed. One of the roles relates to IPSA, which is a matter of great sensitivity and high importance to members of the public. It is important to get the right person who understands both sides of the House, how Members of Parliament work and the public’s expectations about what we should be doing and how we should do it when using public money. I apologise if I missed this, but I would like to hear a little more from the Minister about whether the proper processes were followed in respect of these appointments, and whether the people, particularly in relation to the IPSA appointment, are well qualified.
Exactly the same applies to the Electoral Commission, because some significant issues are currently affecting our democracy, including the drawing of future constituency boundaries, and every Member of Parliament has a great sensitivity about such issues. We should not consider lightly the question of who should be involved with local government boundaries and the Electoral Commission. If someone has been plucked from a list of the great and the good, they will be okay and they will not rock the boat, but this is perhaps a period when serious scrutiny—more serious than ever—is necessary because of how the Government have politicised the process around the boundary proposals.
The Government still have proposals on the table to reduce the number of Members of Parliament by 50, which will squeeze out those areas that do not have good numbers on the register. That may apply particularly to areas like mine and perhaps yours, Mr Wilson, where high numbers of people are not on the register. The problem applies particularly to inner-city areas like mine and some rural places, which I understand that you represent, Mr Wilson. It is important that we get someone with a view about how to get people on the register, which is an important part of our democracy. If that is not done, it will be a great injustice. This is about the Electoral Commission and getting people registered so that they can play their full part in our democracy. It is not some cosy procedural nicety whereby we put someone on the committee and the job is done. We need people to speak up for the 17 million disfranchised people in this country. They need someone on the Electoral Commission to pipe up for them.
My other concern relating to the Electoral Commission is that the concept has now entered our vocabulary of “voter suppression”, with which Martin Luther King and others would be very familiar. We need someone on the Electoral Commission who will look to voter engagement and go against this tide of voter suppression. I will provide two brief examples. First, in order to register, a person now needs to provide a national insurance number. Many people have it in their head—I do not—but for many others it is a little bar to filling out the forms. [Interruption.] I do not know whether the officials think this is funny, but perhaps they could do me the courtesy of listening to my argument. I know that it is an encumbrance to have elected Members on their feet talking about such matters.
I ask Mr Allen to stick to the appointments. We do not want a wider debate on electoral registration.
The Government will get their way, so they should not object too much to an elected representative squeaking as the steamroller approaches.
Clearly, the person who is appointed and the process of appointment are very important when looking at a trend within the institutions that we are concerned about—particularly the Electoral Commission—to make it more difficult rather than easier for people to vote or register. That is my simple point on registration. We are now hearing from the Electoral Commission—this person will serve with and interact with the Electoral Commission —that passports may be required for individuals to vote on the day. As anyone would say, particularly if they represent a tougher demography, that may well be enough to put a lot of people off. Even one person being put off by that is too many, so we need someone on these bodies to stick up for the non-registered and for voter registration.
With regard to the Electoral Commission, there is substantial representation from the political parties on a quarterly basis, so many of these issues could be raised through that avenue. On the specific appointments, there has been substantial scrutiny and consideration of the individuals who have been put forward, including of their background and the contributions that they can offer. The Deputy Leader of the House has given an extensive briefing on their qualifications, experience and talents that they would lend to the specific roles. The Opposition’s position is that we are satisfied that my hon. Friend’s concerns will be addressed and that the individuals proposed will be open to listening to the political parties’ views through the appropriate channels at the Electoral Commission and other bodies.
I am delighted that the Front Benchers are happy with this process. Using what little experience I have as the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee for the past five years and from holding the Electoral Commission to account on a very regular basis—probably even more often than quarterly—the points I wish to make are on behalf of 17 million people who are not on the register. For those people, the tide is now turning away from the extension of the franchise that we have had for 170 years and towards making it more difficult for people to vote and more difficult for people to register. I just want the Minister to reassure us that the people involved in appointments to IPSA and related bodies are the sort of people who will stand up for the individual voter and elector and not always just for Front-Bench interests.
I found that speech rather insulting. This process has gone through the Speaker’s Committees for each of these bodies. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman—I was going to ask him—has had time to read the reports that were sent to him in advance of today’s meeting, but if he has, he will know the extensive processes that we have gone through. Rob Vincent was chief executive of Kirklees Council—as I said earlier, though the hon. Gentleman was not here for the start of our consideration today—and he was the registration officer for that council, so he certainly has experience of registration issues.
I expect hon. Members to recognise the process that the proposals have gone through. The Speaker follows best practice guidance from the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. We have had panels of independent people and the involvement of Members of Parliament, and the Government have been particularly involved. This has been done through the Speaker’s Committees and considered under the processes of the House. I endorse the opinions of the boards and the Speaker’s Committees in making these recommendations today.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the motion, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Rob Vincent as an Electoral Commissioner with effect from 1 January 2016 for the period ending on 31 December 2019.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT BOUNDARY COMMISSION FOR ENGLAND
That the Committee has considered the motion, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Professor Colin Mellors as Chair of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England with effect from 1 January 2016 for the period ending on 31 December 2020.