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European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2013

Volume 748: debated on Tuesday 29 October 2013

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2013.

Relevant document: 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2013, which were laid before the House on 18 July, be considered.

These regulations update the administrative framework for European parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland ahead of the poll scheduled for 22 May 2014. The regulations implement an EU Council directive and amend the current rules for European parliamentary elections to make changes which have already been made in respect of parliamentary and local elections in Northern Ireland. We consulted the Electoral Commission and the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, and his office, on the draft regulations.

On the implementation of EU Council Directive 2013/1/EU, these regulations amend the European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2004 to transpose, for Northern Ireland, the changes made by the directive. The Council directive concerns the right to stand as a candidate in elections to the European Parliament for citizens of the Union who live in a member state of which they are not nationals. In the UK, this means an EU citizen who wants to stand for election in the UK but is not a UK, Irish or Commonwealth citizen—in simple terms, an “EU candidate”.

At previous European elections, each EU candidate had themselves to obtain a certificate from their home member state that they had not been disqualified from standing in European parliamentary elections by a decision in that member state. They had to provide that certificate when submitting their nomination. This was perceived to be a barrier preventing EU candidates from standing for election, so the law was changed at EU level. From the 2014 polls, under the new directive the UK Government will be obliged to request information from the candidate’s home member state, instead of the candidate being required to do so. This requirement will be applied across all EU member states. Similar legislation for Great Britain was brought forward by the Cabinet Office and debated in this House on 15 October. However, the use of the single transferable vote system in Northern Ireland means that the implementation of the directive must be slightly different in Northern Ireland. I reassure the Committee that Irish citizens in the UK are treated on the same basis as British citizens for these purposes; the changes apply only to citizens of the Union who are not British, Irish or Commonwealth citizens.

I now turn to the changes being made by these regulations which reflect changes that have already been made for other elections in Northern Ireland. First, as noble Lords will be aware, the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 provides that persons who are inside the polling station, or queuing outside the polling station, at the close of the poll—that is, at 10 pm on polling day—can apply for a ballot paper. These regulations make the same change in respect of European Parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland.

It is also worth noting that no provision is made in these regulations in relation to the delivery of postal ballot papers by persons queuing at polling stations. This is because, in contrast to Great Britain, delivery of postal ballots to polling stations is not permitted. In Northern Ireland postal ballot papers must be delivered directly to the returning officer.

Secondly, as noble Lords will know, voters applying for a ballot paper in Northern Ireland are required to present identification. In 2010, amendments were introduced to include European Community licences within the definition of a “driving licence” in the prescribed documents that can be produced when a voter applies for a ballot paper for parliamentary and local elections. These regulations make the same change in respect of European parliamentary elections.

Thirdly, amendments were made to absent voting provisions in 2010 for parliamentary and local elections. These regulations make the same changes for European parliamentary elections. Applicants for a postal vote are now required to give an explanation when applying for a ballot paper to be sent to a different address from that in the register.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Changes are also made to the requirements in relation to attestation of applications for an absent vote on the grounds of blindness or other disability.

The regulations make two further necessary amendments relating to the conduct of European parliamentary elections. Polling districts and places designated for European parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland were previously the same as those used for parliamentary elections and, in turn, polling places for parliamentary elections were based on those for local elections. As a result of local government reform in Northern Ireland, the local government boundaries will no longer be the same as the parliamentary boundaries and so the polling station schemes for local and parliamentary elections will need to be different.

These regulations provide that polling places for European parliamentary elections will now be the same as those for local elections. However, they also give the chief electoral officer the flexibility to use some different polling districts and places if special circumstances make it desirable to do so. For example, if a parliamentary or Northern Ireland Assembly election poll were combined with a European parliamentary election poll, it might be more appropriate to use the parliamentary polling districts.

The final amendment being made by these regulations is to make it an offence in Northern Ireland for a person to stand as a candidate in a European parliamentary election in more than one electoral region in the United Kingdom. This is already an offence in Great Britain.

I hope that you will agree that this is a sensible set of regulations necessary to facilitate the European parliamentary election in Northern Ireland next year. I commend them to the Committee.

I thank the Minister for her clear exposition of the regulations. Most, if not all, of it has been the subject of a considerable amount of scrutiny in various bodies. They obviously have our full support.

I have a couple of questions and comments, in case any explanations are available. Paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum states that the deadline for a candidate to submit nomination papers remains the 19th day before the poll. It goes on to say that:

“any ‘EU candidate’ wishing to stand will need to submit a declaration that they are not disqualified to the returning officer at the electoral office headquarters … by 4 pm on the 24th day before the polling day (i.e. 5 working days before the close of nominations)”.

It goes on to say that returning officers send a copy of the declaration to the Secretary of State who then contacts the candidate’s home member state to ask for information about the EU candidate’s eligibility to stand for election. The Secretary of State will then send any response back to the returning officer.

Can the Minister give us any indication if there was any background discussion about the tightness of that timetable, because it seems a possible hiccup? The Explanatory Memorandum continues:

“EU candidates who miss the 24th day deadline may themselves obtain confirmation of their eligibility to stand from their home member state. If such information confirms that the candidate is not disqualified, it can be submitted by the candidate together with the specific declaration on another nomination paper by the 19th day before the poll”.

However, what follows is causing me a bit of anxiety:

“In most cases, the information will have been received in relation to an EU candidate’s eligibility by the close of nominations on the 19th day before the poll. If it is not received by then, the EU candidate will nonetheless remain on the ballot paper. In the unlikely event that information is received after the close of nominations from the EU candidate’s home member State indicating that the EU candidate is disqualified, the EU candidate will be excluded from the election at the first stage of the count and his or her votes will be transferred to the next available preference indicated on the ballot paper”.

Were there any discussions about this and was any consideration given to coming up with a better solution that this? When someone casts their vote, for that vote then to be excluded—disqualified—risks calling into question the democratic credentials of the election itself. The Minister might now have an account of the conversations that took place on these two situations and I would be grateful if she could repeat them.

I thank the noble Lord for his comments and for indicating his support in general terms. I also thank him for his questions. I shall address first the issue of the five-day timetable and how tight it is. The timetable is the same as that used in Great Britain and the system will be familiar to other member states. That is because the obligation is on every member state of the EU to behave in a similar manner. All member states will be alert to the need for swift action on this. It is also worth pointing out that in these days of electronic communications, referring back to the previous debate in this Committee, the timetables can be very much tighter than in the past.

I turn to the issue of a disqualified candidate appearing on the ballot paper and the possibility of finding a different way of dealing with it than simply reallocating the votes. Of course, in Great Britain the system of elections is different in that it consists of party lists, so the vote would simply pass on to the next candidate on that list, but with STV in Northern Ireland, obviously that is not possible. However, it is also possible for the chief electoral officer to take any measures he sees fit in order to alert voters to the situation. For example, it would be perfectly reasonable, in those circumstances, to expect the chief electoral officer to put up posters at polling stations to inform voters that one of the candidates appearing on the ballot paper had been disqualified. In terms of the tightness of the timetable all round in these issues, it is worth pointing out that the whole process cannot be put into place until the nomination forms have been received. There is a set of rules to determine how many days are available from nomination to the election. The period cannot be made too long for obvious reasons, and all these procedures have to be fitted in. I hope that the noble Lord will agree that the suggested solutions are a practical way forward.

Before the Minister sits down, has any discussion taken place about the possibility of the system being manipulated? For example, if a candidate with a similar name to someone else on the ballot paper, or a similar party, failed to meet the system but remained on the ballot paper, where would the votes go? Perhaps it is a bit far-fetched but, as an experienced election agent, I can think of ways of confusing the public by the manipulation of names of candidates on the ballot paper, but maybe I am being too paranoid.

I can tell the noble Lord that there have been some very thorough discussions and consultations on this set of regulations. As I indicated in my speech, the Electoral Commission, the chief electoral officer, the chief returning officer and so on have been fully consulted on this. Of course, all these proposals are made against the background of more stringent checks which have taken place over many years in Northern Ireland in order to deal with electoral fraud. These are businesslike and reasonable regulations that will address all foreseeable issues of this nature.

Motion agreed.