Motion to Approve
That the draft Order laid before the House on 2 November be approved.
Relevant document: 8th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments
My Lords, this statutory instrument, the Northern Ireland (Elections) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2015, makes 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 that it does not hold an annual canvass to refresh its register. Since 2006, the register in Northern Ireland has been maintained not via a canvass but through a system of continuous registration which relies on cross-checking electoral data against prescribed official data streams. This 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 these non-respondents, as all the individuals in question were individually registered and the electoral office’s data-checking facility with both DWP 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 these 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, the Registrar-General and Business Services Organisation. BSO 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 that 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, 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 these 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 desirable in the context of the continuous registration system employed in Northern Ireland. We fully intend that this will be the final provision made to retain non-respondent voters. We propose to introduce digital registration in Northern Ireland in 2016, and 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.
The second substantive provision made by this order is to allow the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland not to 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 for the Chief Electoral Officer not to be guilty of an offence if they take steps to remedy in full an administrative error or omission. The order will correct this 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 this is an electoral matter, which is therefore not devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, it tangentially touches on criminal justice matters. Your Lordships will wish to know that my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ben Wallace, has written to the Northern Ireland Minister for Justice to inform him of our intentions in this as a matter of courtesy.
In addition to these two provisions, the draft order makes 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 elections, 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 noble Lords will agree that the implementation of these changes in advance of the Northern Ireland Assembly election in May 2016 is both logical and reasonable. I assure noble Lords that all these changes are fully supported by both the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland and the Electoral Commission. I therefore commend the order to the House.
Amendment to the Motion
At the end to insert “but that this House regrets that the draft Order is inconsistent with the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 (Transitional Provisions) Order 2015.”.
My Lords, on 27 October, on the comparable order for England, Wales and Scotland—to which my amendment also refers this evening—this is what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said:
“I do not understand how shortening the transition period contributes to the accuracy of the register”.—[Official Report, 27/10/15; col. 1129.]
As so often, he summed up the situation admirably, and in so doing completely demolished the Government’s case that evening. Sadly, he did not then follow the logic of his own analysis and did not vote for our amendment to persuade Ministers to think again. Even more disappointing was that a number of Cross-Bench Peers, who rightly pride themselves on being independent of party politics, voted to support a blatant move to distort the electoral register in favour of one particular party—the Conservative Party.
This order, by contrast, follows the logic of the summary of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, but only in relation to Northern Ireland. It would delay the completion of the transition from head-of-household registration to the full implementation of individual electoral registration—IER—in the Province for a further 12 months, as the Minister explained. The Explanatory Memorandum claims:
“In essence, Northern Ireland and Great Britain currently operate very different systems”.
That is true. As the Minister explained, IER was developed in Northern Ireland earlier than on the mainland. So for those of us who have been watching these developments—this evolution—over a number of years, the initial reaction must surely be that it should be further advanced in Northern Ireland. There ought to be a prima facie case for moving on in Northern Ireland because it has had plenty of time to develop the new system. Far from that, of course, the order does the reverse.
The Explanatory Memorandum also reports, as the Minister said, that the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland and the Electoral Commission have both recommended that those electors on the register who have not since confirmed their registration details should be retained on the register until December 2016. Members of your Lordships’ House who attended the debate on 27 October will recall the strong recommendation from the commission that the same should apply to England, Wales and Scotland. Indeed, given that Northern Ireland has had more time to develop the transition, one would think that the case for England, Wales and Scotland was much stronger. On that occasion, the advice from the commission was then ignored by Ministers despite the very special and particular nature of the commission’s statutory responsibility to Parliament.
The Minister referred to the elections to Stormont next May. In the previous debate, we were looking very carefully at the implications for the elections to Holyrood and the Welsh Assembly, where it may be thought that the same arguments apply. What is so different about Northern Ireland elections and electoral registration there?
Noble Lords may also recall that, on that occasion, the Minister constantly justified the Government’s denial of the commission’s recommendation on the grounds that there could be hundreds or thousands of ghost voters—ghost entries on the register—if the transition continued for a further 12 months. I reread Hansard this evening and counted a dozen such references in the Minister’s speech alone, and other government supporters followed suit.
I pointed out in my contribution that if there were so many ghost voters in October 2015, it was highly likely that a fair proportion of them would have been ghosts in May 2015, at the time of the general election. I said then:
“Ministers claim that some or many or most of those 1.9 million entries on the electoral register may be false and potentially fraudulent … This is the register on which the general election was fought. Are Ministers really now saying that the whole election could have been based on a wildly inaccurate, potentially fraudulent register? What is the evidence for that? … Are Ministers now challenging the outcome of the election on those grounds?”—[Official Report; 27/10/15; col. 1098.]
Are the Government now claiming that there is a much greater danger of ghost entries on the mainland register, then and now, than in Northern Ireland? If so, what is the evidence for that? Others in the Chamber have much more experience of elections to the various levels of governance in Northern Ireland, but anyone studying the history of elections in the Province would surely challenge that interpretation and conclusion. Indeed, as the Explanatory Memorandum admirably explains, Northern Ireland does not have an annual canvass, so electors are not required to reregister each year. Noble Lords may be forgiven for thinking that this may mean that the register there is less accurate—less up to date—than that in Great Britain.
In truth, the only real difference between the political circumstances in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the UK is simply this: the Conservative Party has no seats in the Province, no likelihood of contesting constituencies there, and therefore no self-interest in distorting the register. Tonight’s order merely undermines the logic of the previous order and displays for all to see the double standards of Ministers. Our amendment simply reads that the draft order is inconsistent with the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 (Transitional Provisions) Order 2015. I beg to move.
My Lords, I add a certain scepticism to that of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, although from a different angle. I would like to say how much I admire his concern for the proper functioning of electoral institutions in the United Kingdom. My point is different and relates to the future. The Minister has brought the draft instrument to the House and there is no choice. The argumentation on technical details is fine, although it requires a certain degree of trust in the Chief Electoral Officer—although I see no reason why he should be denied that trust. So there is no problem with the legislation as such in that narrow sense and, anyway, we must now proceed.
In his opening statement, the Minister talked about the reason why we are in this situation. It was entirely accurate from the Government’s point of view, but it is not actually why we are. The reason why we moved the date of the election to the Assembly a year later than the people of Northern Ireland had been told it would be was because of a deal between the local parties. There is no compelling, wider logic that said it must be at the same time as the elections in Scotland, and so on. There was no particularly compelling logic, though I can understand that there was a clash with the Northern Ireland general election. Essentially, the local parties themselves, worried that their performance was poor, said, “We need more time to put together a programme of governance”. As noble Lords will be aware, no such programme of governance actually appeared, even given the extra time. I simply make the point that this ruse should not be played again in the next Parliament. It is bad practice to tell any electorate, “This is a Parliament that will be there for four years—no, sorry, five years”. In Ireland 100 years ago, this was disastrous, because for very good reasons the general election that would normally have been held in 1915 was postponed, because of the First World War. That gave the people who lodged the Irish insurrection the great excuse of saying, “We are not revolting against democratic institutions, because they are dead. Do not tell us that the Irishmen in the Parliament that sits at Westminster have different views from us; of course they do, but they do not have a mandate. They were elected in 1910 on a five-year term and now their mandate has run out”.
This was a risky thing to do. What the noble Lord said about why it was done, from the Government’s point of view, is entirely correct, but it is not the underlying politics of Northern Ireland. I simply use this opportunity to say to the Minister that the next time the Government should be very careful about playing around with mandates, timing and duration. In the end, the parties that said, “Give us another year and we will give you a programme of government” delivered nothing.
My Lords, first, I am very pleased that the Government are allowing registered voters to be retained on the register for another year in Northern Ireland. Action taken to improve the accuracy and completeness of the register is always welcome. Like the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, however, I regret the inconsistency of approach in respect of how voters are treated in England, Scotland and Wales and fully support his amendment.
It is in fact astonishing that we have had a system of IER in place in Northern Ireland since 2002 and that the Government felt it necessary on 2 November 2015 to put an order down for consideration in both Houses to allow a further year for voters to be retained. IER has been in force in Northern Ireland for only 13 years, yet this additional year of retaining voters until 1 December 2016 is deemed necessary. I recall the speech on 27 October 2015 from the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who is in his place, telling us how IER had been in force since 2002, how well it was going, and that we needed to get on and complete the job in the rest of the United Kingdom.
In the rest of the United Kingdom we were some years behind: that is correct. However, the process was speeded up with the 2013 Act and then people in England, Scotland and Wales were given until 1 December 2016 to be verified under the new system, or they would be removed. But they have had a year taken away from them in order to complete the verification process, and they now have only until next Tuesday. Therefore an Act in place for two years and a year taken off the transitional period is contrasted with Northern Ireland, which has had IER in place since 2002 and is given an additional year. That does not seem very fair or consistent—it seems grossly unfair and completely inconsistent. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, will say that the canvass arrangements are different, but he cannot get away from the fact that in Northern Ireland these arrangements have been in place for 13 years. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, and, on the Minister’s own Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, were full of enthusiasm for what had gone on there.
Paragraph 4.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum states:
“Amendments to these provisions are required to extend this for one further year to ensure the electors who have not since confirmed their details remain registered for the Assembly elections in May 2016”.
I think that the elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Greater London Assembly, the Mayor of London, the mayor of Bristol, the police and crime commissioners in England and Wales, and thousands of councillors are just as important, and voters deserve the right to be treated in the same way. I do not recall a word being mentioned in the debate on 27 October in this noble House that Northern Ireland might need an extension of a further year. It would be very helpful to the House if the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, could take us through the process that led to this order being put down for consideration on 2 November 2015. Looking at the Explanatory Memorandum, I see that consultation has taken place with the Electoral Commission, the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, the Department of Justice and the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland, who were also advised of an incidental impact of a criminal offence, in terms of change of official duties.
It is important for the House to understand whether all of that, along with the decision to grant the additional year, happened after 27 October when the additional year was removed from voters in England, Scotland and Wales, or whether the decision had already been taken before 27 October and the vote on the fatal Motion and the House was just not told about it. It was completely at odds with what the Government were seeking to do for England, Scotland and Wales, and it would have completely undermined the argument being put forward from the government Front Bench if the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, had made us aware of the proposal. The noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, was in the House on 27 October and voted against both my amendment and the substantive Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. Was he aware at the time that this order was going to be put forward? It is very important for the House to be clear on the timelines and on how and when decisions were taken by the Government.
I am very pleased, as I said at the start, that voters in Northern Ireland are being given an extra year to verify and confirm their details, but it is a matter of much regret that the Government have chosen to do the exact opposite for people living in the rest of the United Kingdom, and that is something that they should be profoundly ashamed of. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for tabling his Motion. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, can answer the questions I have put to him and provide the information that the House needs.
Before the noble Lord sits down, he mentioned some comments that I made. Actually I would have no difficulty if the proposal were to remove the 82,000, but the difference is that the people on the register in Northern Ireland are not ghosts. They had to have their national insurance numbers and so on verified at the time. So there is a significant difference in that these people clearly did and do exist. We have a continuous process of registration going on and other sources are found to verify their existence.
The noble Lord, Lord Bew, said that the parties wanted the extension to 2015 for the election. Two parties did. My party did not, and neither did others; it was a decision between the DUP, Sinn Fein and the Government. When the people went to the polls in 2011, they thought that they were voting candidates in for four years. Although Scotland and Wales had been told that their Administrations would be there for five years, it did not apply in Northern Ireland. I regret that. The point that the noble Lord, Lord Bew, made is also very valid.
I thank the noble Lord for that. I would say that the inconsistency here is staggering. IER has been in place in Northern Ireland since 2002, while we have had only two years in Great Britain. At the same time as we are giving an extra year to Northern Ireland, we are taking a year away from the rest of the United Kingdom. It is staggering.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Tyler, Lord Bew, Lord Kennedy and Lord Empey, for their contributions. The noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Kennedy, have reminded us of the recent debate over the end of transition to individual electoral registration in Great Britain, particularly regarding the concerns that they have over the impact on GB registers of removing the remaining carry-forward entries this December as opposed to in December 2016. However, what we are considering today are provisions for Northern Ireland alone, and I do not propose to rehearse the arguments and merits of what was determined in that case for Great Britain.
The fact is that the framework in place for ensuring the integrity of the Northern Ireland register is entirely different from that for Great Britain. In Great Britain, we are moving away from household registration and have decided not to carry forward entries that are not IER-registered by this December. We are acting to tackle concerns about ghost entries that the system of household registration gave rise to.
In Northern Ireland we have had individual registration for well over a decade. Every elector on the Northern Ireland register is individually registered. Because Northern Ireland does not have an annual canvass but instead checks entries through data streams, we can and do check the validity of non-respondents.
Great Britain and Northern Ireland have different systems for registration. We believe that there is merit in retaining these individuals on the Northern Ireland register, but that it is simply not appropriate in the case of Great Britain to retain non-IER-registered entries that have not been validity-checked and have not responded to the sustained programme of contact that GB councils have carried out. The chief electoral officer has made it clear that he has no reason to think that non-respondents retained on the Northern Ireland register are anything other than eligible voters. Given the framework of individual registration and data checking in place in Northern Ireland and the current expectation of voters and activists alike that non-respondents who have been validity-checked will remain on the register for the Assembly elections, I urge noble Lords to support this order and the range of provisions in it. I therefore commend this order to the House.
Before the Minister sits down, I remind him that I put a number of points to him about when these decisions were taken—whether before or after 27 October—on what he knew when he was voting on 27 October and with regard to timelines. He has not addressed them at all in his response.
I do not have that information, but I am happy to write to the noble Lord.
My Lords, despite the advice of the Companion, on 27 October I was denied the opportunity to reply to the debate on my Motion or even to indicate whether I wished to withdraw the Motion or to test the opinion of the House. It seems to be my fate that this evening when I do not need it, I am getting that opportunity. As I shall explain, I do not intend to press this amendment to a Division.
If in Northern Ireland the process that has been described well by a number of colleagues is so much better and does not need an annual canvass, why do the Government not introduce those improvements instead of creating the entirely phoney spectre of ghost voters, as they did when they were dealing with England, Wales and Scotland? The Government have shown themselves to be adopting double standards on this issue. That does no credit to Ministers or indeed to the House or to the Government themselves.
This particular order is much more helpful than the one that we were addressing last month, and I support it. In those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.