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Representation Of The People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2001

Volume 621: debated on Wednesday 7 February 2001

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8.10 p.m.

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 17th January be approved [4th Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, the regulations. made under the powers conferred by the Representation of the People Act 2000, put into effect the major part of the provisions of that Act and deal with the detailed arrangements for the registration of electors and the conduct of elections.

The Representation of the People Act 2000 emerged from the deliberations of the working party on electoral procedures which was set up after the last election with a mandate to review our electoral arrangements and make recommendations on improvements. The working party, chaired by my honourable friend in another place, the Member for Knowsley North and Sefton East, was a multi-disciplinary body that consisted of representatives from the major political parties as well as experts in the field, such as electoral administrators and government officials. In addition, all the smaller political parties and many other interested organisations were consulted on the various proposals. The working party reported in October 1999 and a Bill was immediately introduced to put into effect its recommendations. The Bill received Royal Assent in March 2000.

The regulations implement provisions for Northern Ireland similar to those due to be introduced for England and Wales and for Scotland. They relate to the rolling registration of electors. They also make better provision for disabled voters, allow for the registration of homeless people, remand prisoners and mental patients and implement a number of other changes to make it easier to register to vote.

I should make it clear that the provisions in the regulations for England and Wales easing the requirements for absent voting are not extended to Northern Ireland. It is not considered appropriate to ease the restrictions at present, due to the concerns that remain over electoral abuse.

Another provision that I wish to highlight is the device prescribed in Regulation 12 to assist blind voters. The device has been tested by groups of blind and partially sighted voters and received their support. It will be available in each polling station for those who want to use it. For the first time, a blind or partially sighted voter will be able to mark his or her ballot paper unaided and with the confidence that the mark has gone in the right place and against the candidate of their choice. It also allows the voter to remove the ballot paper, fold it and place it in the ballot box themselves, with no assistance from a companion or from the presiding officer.

The regulations also deal with the details of applying for registration as a service voter or an overseas elector. They mirror the provisions of the regulations for Great Britain.

Part III of the regulations deals with the new arrangements for registration. There will no longer be a single qualifying date for registration as an elector and only one time in the year when that registration can be changed. From the publication of the new register in a few weeks, when the regulations come into force, voters will be able to change their registration at any time of the year. They will no longer have to wait until the next annual canvass to get themselves on to the register in their new area. However, the stipulation that requires anyone registering in Northern Ireland to be resident there for three months before registering remains.

The regulations set out how registration officers will make the provision work. The electoral office will also have the power to delete names from the register, such as those of deceased persons or those who have registered elsewhere, as well as powers to seek further information to confirm eligibility.

All that will make for a more accurate and flexible electoral register, which will also be more user-friendly. We are aware that a large number of people remain unregistered. We hope that making it easier to register will make voters more inclined to do so.

I have one further point to draw to your Lordships' attention. Section 9 of the 2000 Act, concerning the sale and supply of the register, has not been dealt with in the regulations. That section provides for voters to opt out of having their name included on the register that is available for sale. We have not yet drafted regulations on the sale of the register, but we intend to turn our minds to that immediately.

The regulations make a fundamental shift in how we organise our electoral affairs in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. I hope that the House will join me in recognising the important changes that are being made to the electoral system and will view the regulations as a step forward in making registering and voting simpler for all. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 17th January be approved [4th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)

My Lords, we welcome the regulations, which will modernise the polity of Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I find myself in the unusual position of having to congratulate the Government. I very rarely find myself in that position but, having read the orders, I feel that an attempt has been made to normalise the position in Northern Ireland.

It would not be right to build up our expectations that the regulations will ensure squeaky clean elections in Northern Ireland. That is highly unlikely. I remember my first election in 1951 when I was helping another candidate in West Belfast who won by 25 votes after five recounts. I am certain that those 25 votes were put into the ballot box illegally by some of his more enthusiastic supporters.

A few years later, I won my first election for a council seat by 17 votes. I am almost certain that I saw 17 of my supporters going down to two polling stations in North Belfast to render me their support.

There are two constituencies in Northern Ireland where there is real abuse of the electoral system—in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and in Mid-Ulster. One has only to look at the postal vote returns in those constituencies to see that it would be impossible for those votes to be legally made without massive personation.

I would like to think that the outcome of the coming elections will genuinely reflect what the people of Northern Ireland think. It will not be possible to say that we will have the cleanest election ever, but the Government's attempt to grapple with the problem of personation is to be admired.

The Minister referred to the provisions that will enable blind or disabled people to vote. One has only to hark back to a few months ago and remember the objections that were made about the Florida election. I hope that the regulations will make it possible for legitimate votes to be cast without any later challenge.

My Lords, I associate my party with the remarks of the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. Anything that can be done to reduce the danger of personation is clearly welcome at this of all times.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, has given us a little insight into one or two heavily fought elections or by-elections. He mentioned personation. I am sure that your Lordships and the Government are well aware of various other malpractices over the years—perhaps over the centuries—in Northern Ireland. They include voting by dead electors, multiple voting and, I am sorry to say, the intimidation of electors before or just after voting.

I hope that the noble and learned Lord will reassure us that the Government are doing their utmost to prevent such behaviour, given that the outcome of the forthcoming general election will be very important and significant for the further implementation of the Belfast agreement.

My Lords, I am grateful for all the support for the regulations from around the House. Of course I assure the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that the Government will take every step to ensure that electoral practices are as proper as possible.

Under the new regulations, once a voter dies, they will be removed from the rolling register almost immediately. That does not happen under the current register. That is one of various examples—it would not be right to go through them all—of how the regulations will considerably improve the position.

On Question, Motion agreed to.