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Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2010

Volume 716: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2010

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2010.

My Lords, the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2008 make provision relating to elections in Northern Ireland, including electoral registration, absent voting and accessing the electoral register. Last year, the Government conducted a full consultation exercise on improving electoral registration and absent voting procedures in Northern Ireland.

Although many of the changes proposed in the consultation will require primary legislation, other changes can be made by amending the 2008 regulations. Those changes are the subject of the draft regulations before us today. It may assist noble Lords if I summarise the key provisions of the draft regulations. I will first deal with those concerning absent voting procedures at parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland.

Noble Lords may be aware that, due to the perceived increased risk of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland, the law relating to absent voting in Northern Ireland differs from the rest of the United Kingdom. The Government remain committed to both preserving the integrity of the absent vote process in Northern Ireland and bringing legislation before this House where necessary to further protect against the risk of electoral fraud.

Regulation 5 accordingly requires those applying for an absent vote to provide reasons when requesting that their ballot paper be sent to an address other than the one at which they are registered. This will allow the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland to monitor any attempt to divert ballot papers to certain addresses without good reason and for potentially fraudulent purposes.

The chief electoral officer has recently expressed concern that some absent vote applications requiring attestation by healthcare professionals and others may have been falsely attested. For this reason, Regulations 6 and 7 require those attesting absent vote applications to be on the electoral register themselves. This will enable the chief electoral officer to verify whether an absent vote attestation corresponds with information that he already holds.

Protection against potential abuse of the absent voting procedure remains a key priority for the Government. But we will nevertheless also continue to seek ways to maximise the participation of those who rely on absent voting in the electoral process. Regulation 6 extends the list of those able to attest an absent vote application on the grounds of blindness or other disability to include registered social workers. At present, those able to attest such applications are primarily individuals providing medical or residential care. Adding registered social workers to the list allows those providing social care in the community to attest applications. Provision is also made in Regulation 6 to exempt those in receipt of the higher rate of attendance allowance or the highest rate care component of disability living allowance from the attestation requirement. This will further assist those with severe disabilities to exercise their right to vote.

As a means of protecting against electoral fraud, the 2008 regulations provide that an individual may attest only one absent vote application at any election. Regulation 7 of the draft regulations amends this provision to allow individuals to attest up to two applications per election. This will prevent otherwise valid applications being rejected where, for example, one person has attested the applications of a neighbouring couple. I hope that this summary of the absent voting provisions contained in the draft regulations has been helpful.

I turn now to the remaining provisions before us, which deal mainly with electoral registration. The 2008 regulations allow the chief electoral officer summarily to remove individuals from the electoral register when informed of their death by the registrar of births and deaths in Northern Ireland. However, if the chief electoral officer is informed by registrars of births and deaths elsewhere in the UK or Ireland of a person’s death, he must conduct a formal review of their entitlement to be on the register. This, as noble Lords can imagine, can cause distress to the family of the deceased at an already difficult time. Regulation 3 therefore extends the chief electoral officer’s ability summarily to remove a person from the register if he is notified of their death by a registrar of births and deaths in England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland.

Regulation 4 adds further education colleges to the list of authorities from whom the chief electoral officer may request information for the purposes of registration. Noble Lords may be aware that the chief electoral officer currently undertakes a very successful schools initiative, visiting post-primary schools throughout Northern Ireland to encourage young people to register to vote. Allowing the chief electoral officer to access information relating to the number of potential electors at FE colleges will assist him to extend this excellent initiative to students at FE colleges. This will, in turn, help him to further facilitate and encourage the registration of young people in Northern Ireland, which I am sure noble Lords will agree remains an important objective.

On that point, I was very taken with the figures that I was given and which have resulted from the efforts in Northern Ireland to increase the number of young people registering to vote. More than 18,000 young people under the age of 18 were on the register on 4 January 2010. That compares with only 244 following the annual canvass in 2006, which is an extraordinary increase.

The full Northern Ireland register has a high level of accuracy. Medical practitioners believe that it would be very useful to have access to it in certain circumstances—for example, where an incorrect prescription or test result had been issued but the patient cannot be contacted because the address held by the medical authorities is out of date. Regulation 10 therefore extends the list of those able to access information contained in the full electoral register to include registered medical practitioners. They may, however, only receive information from the register that is necessary for medical purposes and in respect of one person.

Regulation 12 amends the parliamentary elections rules and extends the list of documentation which may be used as proof of identity at polling stations in Northern Ireland to include 60-plus SmartPasses, provisional driving licences and European Community driving licences. Both we and the chief electoral officer are satisfied that this extension will make it easier for individuals to meet the necessary identification requirements for voting, without increasing the risk of electoral fraud.

In summary, although the provisions contained in these draft regulations make relatively minor changes, they nevertheless contribute to achieving the Government’s key objectives of minimising electoral fraud and maximising electoral registration and participation in Northern Ireland. I hope that noble Lords will therefore support the changes proposed. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very clear explanation of what the statutory instrument is all about. I support it wholeheartedly. It is another step forward in the process of making the electoral process in Northern Ireland certainly the best in these islands and probably one of the best in the democratic world. We have had many debates in your Lordships’ House as this has progressed; I remember one or two arguments well, but overall we have come out with an excellent result. This is a very good example of the Government looking into the detail of an important process and finding ways to improve it yet further. I support the order wholeheartedly.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the regulations which we, too, support. It is important for the chief electoral officer to know whether anyone has died, and so having a registrar in the UK or Ireland informing that office is very sensible. It is also sensible to allow registered social workers to attest certain applications from people with disabilities to enable them to have an absent vote.

The regulations make improvements to access to the register, particularly for doctors, as the Minister advised us, and widen the provision for polling station identification. We supported the provisions of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, which ensured that any photographic form of identification was recognised at polling stations. When any new forms of identification are issued, I hope that they will also be recognised as legitimate forms of ID for the purpose of voting. Can the noble Baroness assure me on that point?

Finally, the integrity of the register, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said, is vitally important in combating electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. These provisions, as we have heard, strike the right balance between ensuring that the vote is properly secure and assisting those who genuinely need help to vote but are unable to get to a polling station. We wholeheartedly support these recommendations.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these draft regulations which, for the most part, are benign and uncontroversial. I particularly thank her for her clarification of the circumstances in which medical practitioners will have access to the register. We have always been careful on the issue, but the circumstances she has outlined are sufficiently controlled as to give confidence to the general public.

I have two questions for the noble Baroness. The tightening of regulations on absent voting seems to have resulted from issues of fraud in the European elections in June. The Explanatory Memorandum that comes with the draft statutory instrument does not make clear whether we are talking about the European elections in the United Kingdom as a whole or simply in Northern Ireland, and I should like to probe the issue a little further. My colleague, Dr Sydney Elliott, of Queen’s University Belfast, has suggested that the thinking on this subject derives from the Electoral Commission study published in 2010, Analysis of Allegations of Electoral Malpractice at the June 2009 Elections. That study records, but does not include, 10 cases involving 48 allegations reported in Northern Ireland; in Great Britain there were 48 cases involving 107 allegations. A glance at those figures would indicate that the allegations or concerns were significantly higher in Northern Ireland than they were in Great Britain as a whole. My question for the Minister is this: does the concern arise from the UK as a whole, or was there a particular pressing concern in Northern Ireland which led to the tightening of these regulations?

On my second question, in her introduction the noble Baroness said that there were a number of items in the consultation document which require primary legislation but for which we do not have a vehicle at the moment. We live in a context where, even if there is devolution of policing and justice, responsibility for electoral matters will remain at Westminster for some considerable time—indeed, the Minister in the other place, Mr Paul Goggins, said for all time—and it is an issue for this Parliament whether the Government have any intention of bringing forward primary legislation to deal with some of the questions and items which arose in the consultation document. If it is possible for the Minister to give any clue regarding the Government’s future intentions, I should be very grateful.

I join colleagues in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, for the presentation of this order. It is obvious that with the improvement of the electoral and registration systems in Northern Ireland in recent years, Northern Ireland has the best organised elections in the United Kingdom and the old joke about voting early and often in Northern Ireland is no longer topical, although it should apply to electoral practices in some other parts of the United Kingdom. We now set the best standards of electoral practice in the United Kingdom and should not hesitate to say that. Any English colleagues who try to make jokes about Northern Ireland electoral procedures should think twice.

My first question relates to consultation, which I raised a few months ago on a similar subject. The consultation Improving Electoral Registration Procedures in Northern Ireland was advertised and there were responses from political parties and organisations. How many responses were there from individuals? What was their reaction to the document? Secondly, in relation to the registrar of births and deaths in Ireland, under United Kingdom law, the term “Ireland” means the Republic of Ireland. We should not get away from that.

I should like to make that point clearer and support the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. Ireland is the 26 counties and Northern Ireland is the six counties.

The Republic of Ireland is defined in the law of the United Kingdom as the 26 countries, but that is by the way. The authorities in Northern Ireland will get advice from the registrar of births and deaths in the Republic of Ireland. How will that information be made available? Is every birth and death in the Republic of Ireland going to be advised to the Northern Ireland authorities on a daily basis, or will they have to ask Dublin how many people were born or died yesterday? How will it work in practice?

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken for their support for these regulations, for which I am most grateful. They are a step forward in clamping down on the remaining fraud. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, that the anti-fraud system in the electoral system in Northern Ireland is the model for the rest of the United Kingdom to follow. We say that without any reservation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, supported the regulations and asked whether new forms of identification could be used in future. As long as the chief electoral officer is content, that will be the case.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, asked about allegations around the European elections in Northern Ireland and compared two sets of figures about cases. The checking is very strict in Northern Ireland, as he knows, and when we talk about the 49 incidents—I am looking to the Box—those were indeed in Northern Ireland during the European elections. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, also asked about the remaining issues needing primary legislation that are not being dealt with today, and when they would be brought forward. We plan to bring legislation forward as soon as an opportunity arrives.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, asked about individuals responding to the consultation. I am now looking at the list of respondents to the consultation, and the individuals on it are the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland and Margaret Ritchie, MLA, the Minister for Social Development. Those individuals responded, as did Disability Action, the Electoral Commission, the Green Party of Northern Ireland, Include Youth and many organisations.

I am afraid that the Minister’s reply is exactly as I feared and underlines the point that I made several months ago. It is important that the people in Northern Ireland know what is happening in the electoral procedures, and the way in which they are being advertised means that the people generally have no clue what has happened. The Minister has not been able to name or identify any individual who responded; Margaret Ritchie is a politician, but I was talking about ordinary individuals in Northern Ireland. It is astounding that there has not been one response from the general public in Northern Ireland.

I fear that the whole advertising of electoral procedures is disastrous; I declare an interest yet again in being involved in the media in Northern Ireland. Following the last debate in Grand Committee, I got a reply from the chief electoral officer saying that they advertised in the News of the World, the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday World, or some papers like that. Those papers are not widely read in Northern Ireland. He also mentioned the News Letter, which sells 25,000 papers. One paper, the Impartial Reporter—with which I have no connection—sells 14,000 in Fermanagh alone. Likewise, they advertised on classic radio in Northern Ireland, which is not widely listened to, but ignored the Northern Media Group, which has a much larger listenership in Northern Ireland. The advertising of the electoral procedures in Northern Ireland is abysmal at the moment. The people have no idea, and the fact that there has been no response from any individuals makes my point.

I take the noble Lord’s point; I remember that we had quite a discussion on this, well before Christmas, in this very Room. During that meeting of your Lordships, I think that I said it was very important to get as much information out as possible prior to consultations and to get a reflection of the population back in consultations. To be fair, there is the work being done by the chief electoral officer and his team, which I mentioned in the introduction, of going out to schools, FE colleges and universities. There is a lot of outreach work going on in the community, as well as wanting the optimum return to consultations. However, I am aware of the point that the noble Lord makes.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, also asked about the sharing of information on deaths. I had better write to him on that, because I think that he will probably need a little more detail. This is an operational matter for the chief electoral officer; I am not aware of the detail, but of course the chief electoral officer has arrangements with his counterpart in the Republic of Ireland. I am happy to pass on the noble Lord’s request for information.

Motion agreed.