HC Deb 28 November 1984 vol 68 cc1010-7

Ordered, That, at this day's sitting, the Elections (Northern Ireland) Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Sainsbury.]

Again considered in Committee.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Mr. Scott

The first purpose of the amendments is to ensure that whatever list of documents is determined is incorporated in the Bill. The second is to provide an opportunity for hon. Members to explore the list of documents that the Government have in mind. We have said since we embarked upon the Bill that, before it completed its stages through the House, the Government would confirm the list of documents that they have in mind, having listened to discussions in the debate The fact that the list of documents was not incorporated in the Bill did not inhibit discussion, even before we came to these amendments, as to the merits of the documents that the Government propose should be included in an order, which would be debated.

To reiterate a general point, I accept, and have done from the start, that in undertaking this task to protect the integrity of the electoral system in Northern Ireland we are moving into uncharted territory. The Government have tried to produce a list of documents sufficiently wide so as not to disfranchise members of the Northern Ireland electorate, but tight enough to deter and inhibit the widespread vote-stealing that has developed in recent years in Northern Ireland. The present list is not foolproof and we may have to change it, but I am clear that it is the best that can be produced in time for the local government elections in May 1985, and we must stick to it. After careful monitoring of those elections, we can see how it works in practice.

May I respond to some of the points made about the documents? I understand the anxiety of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) about the problem of marriage certificates issued by ministers of religion, but it is right that the Government should stick firmly to the principle that the list of prescribed documents should include only official documents issued by the Government or by Government agencies. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, in taking this view, we are not casting a slur on those ministers of religion who have the power to issue other forms of marriage certificate or, indeed, marriage certificates that originate from the Registrar General. The important aspect is that the document, whether it is the original or a certified copy, should be issued by the Registrar General and should bear his stamp.

The problem is not that ministers of religion would abuse their position and issue false marriage certificates, but that the certificates could fall into unauthorised hands, perhaps through burglaries. We must protect the integrity of the system by restricting it to marriage certificates that have been issued by the Registrar General. I hope that I have made it clear that there is no slur intended on ministers of religion of any faith in Northern Ireland.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I welcome the Minister's assurance, but it seems to me that he has missed one aspect of this that I raised, which is that traditionally when a minister or priest issues such a certificate he is acting as an agent of the Registrar General.

Mr. Scott

I accept that, and the Government considered it carefully because it was drawn attention to by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) earlier in our discussions. But we ended with the result that I have just reported to the Committee, and I hope that the Committee will accept it.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I am amazed that the Government have come to this decision. To get the payment of allowances, benefit and pension books the very certificate that is asked for in some of these cases is a marriage certificate, and a marriage certificate issued by a minister is acceptable, yet a certificate issued by a clergyman or a priest cannot be used as a document which will be accepted at a polling station. It is amazing that it is a proper document to procure another document but that it is not acceptable in these circumstances.

In keeping with what the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) said, when a minister issues a marriage certificate he is acting as an agent for the Registrar General, and it is the Registrar General's certificate.

Mr. Scott

With respect, the hon. Gentleman does not appear to have listened to what I said earlier. There is the possibility of stocks of these certificates held by ministers of religion in Northern Ireland falling into the wrong hands and being used for purposes of personation. It is right to keep this as tightly controlled as we can.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)

Will the hon. Gentleman emphasise that there are many ministers of religion in Northern Ireland who are active elected politicians?

Mr. Scott

I would not impugn the integrity of a minister who was also an active politician, least of all in the company in which I find myself at present.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I welcome that assurance. However, I understood the Minister to say that it was to protect the integrity of ministers of religion. But there is an official stamp on marriage certificates issued by various council officers or by the Registrar General direct, and the others might be stolen. A stamp on such a certificate would not do anything other than protect the integrity of the issuing minister, because he would not be otherwise involved. But will the Minister address his mind a little further to the time lapse? Why do we need such a document? I do not believe that it is necessary if a person appears on the register under her maiden name.

Mr. Scott

It is a long-stop provision for those married women who might have no other way of showing that the change had occurred. It is worth having it there as a long-stop. It is one that we shall want to monitor, as we shall the other documents and their use, as we go through the elections in May 1985.

I understand the point about someone who was married outside the United Kingdom and who is unable to produce a valid marriage certificate. However, there might be other documents that could be produced by that person. What is more, it would be possible for a married woman in those circumstances to apply for a medical card, which could be issued in her maiden name. She would not be committing any offence by making that application.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Why did the Minister persuade his colleagues to vote against amendment No. 22, when the principle contained in that was that the prescribed documents should be those issued with the approval of the Government? The argument that he is now using to advance the case against the document being asked for by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) is that it is not one that has been issued by the Government or a Government agency.

Mr. Scott

I prefer to stick to the amendment that we are discussing, and to defend the balance of judgment to which the Government have come as to the range of documents upon which we have settled. I do not wish to go back over old ground. I know that there is a temptation, and one to which no doubt the Committee will succumb from time to time, either to leap forward to discuss amendments that we have not yet reached or to go back to ones that we have already discussed. I should like to avoid that temptation if it is humanly possible.

A great deal of fun has been had about medical cards but perhaps I should explain for the benefit of the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker) that the medical card that he produced in the House on Second Reading is not the medical card that is being issued in Northern Ireland now. We are in the process of changing over from the sort of medical card that he has kept at the bottom of his drawer for umpteen years to medical cards that are produced on computer stationery. They are perhaps not as durable as one would like, but they bear a computer printout and the details of the bearer, which would make them difficult to forge.

The cards are issued by the Services Agency in Belfast, where the blanks are held in a store protected with restricted access because they are computer stationery. It would be a bold man who ruled out the possibility of the theft of some of that stock, but it should be difficult to obtain cards. It would also be difficult for anybody who tried to personate in an application for a replacement card, because the computer needs the full name and either the date of birth or the National Health number before it will print out a replacement card. Paramilitary groups would have serious difficulty in obtaining stocks of these cards.

Mr. McCusker

As the Minister will recall, I was one of those who said that I did not think that the paramilitaries would try to steal medical cards, or even print a document. Is my medical card a prescribed document or do I require, by 15 May, a new card? In the election next year will one or other of the cards be valid? As that card is the one that does least to identify, in the sense that there is no photograph on it, and it will not be held by a person with the same care as a book that will bring him in funds, but it is most commonly held card, is it not the one document that should have been used as the prescribed document? If the Minister is now telling me that the new document is a better one than the original, does that not make my point? Should we not have said that that is the prescribed document?

Mr. Scott

Either document will do. There will be a progressive changeover to the new card, but not in time for everyone to have one by the local government elections.

Mr. McCusker

The cards will be issued?

Mr. Scott

Yes, they will be issued in due course. In the meantime, anybody who wishes to obtain such a card can apply to the agency, and will be issued with one. There will be no problems about issuing them in good time for the May 1985 elections for anybody who claims one.

I accept, as I have accepted in the past, that the medical card may be the weak link, but in future it will not be quite as weak as has been supposed. because of the character of the new documents being issued. The old document includes on it the date of birth, so a certain amount of organisation will have to go into ensuring that anybody who attempts to personate with the card at least approximates the date of birth on the card. That may not be as good as a photograph, and I do not pretend that it is. However, it is some restriction on the fraudulent use of the card. Therefore, it is less easy to abuse a medical card than has been suggested on occasions.

Passports have a photograph on them. As I said on Second Reading, I have borne in mind that the franchise for this House includes citizens of the Republic of Ireland. This Bill applies to parliamentary elections and it is right that a passport issued by the Republic of Ireland should be accepted.

I do not agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) that seems to equate automatically anyone who chooses to have a passport from the Republic of Ireland and to commit himself to an aspiration which is perfectly legitimate and respected in the House with those who seek to subvert the constitution by the use of the bullet or the bomb. I do not believe that that is a valid point. Many constitutional nationalists would bitterly resent any suggestion that the possession of a Republic of Ireland passport should do that.

10.15 pm

The point about voluntary identity cards, which was raised by the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe), falls against the test that the documents to be produced should be official. As I have said before, going over to a full identity card system raises questions that go far beyond what we are considering in the Bill. In any case, there would be no time to introduce such a system in time for the next election.

We have explored the documents. I have some doubts about the incorporation of the documents in the Bill, but I have listened carefully to the points that have been made. On reflection, I think that it would be right for me to accept the spirit of the amendment moved by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell). I give an undertaking to bring forward on Report an amendment that will incorporate the list in the body of the Bill. I hope that, in those circumstances, the amendment will be withdrawn. If not, I shall have to advise the Committee to reject it.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

I am glad, if I may borrow the metaphor of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), that the bulldozer appears to have switched off its engine. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State will not regret having made a better Bill by carrying on its face an indication of what are the prescribed documents.

I accept that, if the Under-Secretary of State is to write the list into the Bill—I obtained the words from the notes on clauses with which he was good enough to provide hon. Members—the hon. Gentleman will need to look more acidly at the definition of each of the documents. I hope that the opportunity will he taken especially to consider paragraph (e) — the marriage certificate. I thought that valid points were made during the debate. I hope that this action will provide an opportunity for those points to be considered by the Minister during drafting.

In addition, I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will consider whether the restriction since the qualifying date for the register is indispensable, since there could well be cases where a woman, married shortly before the qualifying date, would still appear on the list of electors in her maiden name, and thus have the same reason for wanting to use this document.

I a grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for having made this improvement to the Bill. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Second Deputy Chairman

I remind the Committee that we have had a fairly long debate on clause 1, and it would not be in order to cover ground that has already been covered on the amendments.

Mr. McCusker

I do not intend to do that, Mr. Dean. I do not want to delay the Committee any longer than necessary. The Under-Secretary of State will remember that when we discussed the availability of the prescribed documents to the holding agent he produced some convincing arguments to support the case that the documents should not be made available to the polling agents. I suggested to him that paramilitaries may present what purports to be a prescribed document in such a way that only the presiding officer has the opportunity to decide whether it is a prescribed document. Under pressure the presiding officer may accept that it is, take no further action, and simply deliver the ballot paper.

Secretaries of State in the past have given instructions to presiding officers. During the last election or the one before that, presiding officers were directed to ask a person to state his name and address before the ballot paper was given to him. I do not know whether they all do that, but that was the advice tendered or instruction given. To avoid difficulties for the presiding officer, when he is presented with the prescribed document, could he be permitted to display it to the polling agent? After all, we are now making it law that a document must be produced. He could say, "I have a driving licence, medical certificate or passport in the name of—" and read out the name and address. That does not give away any confidential information, but it would avoid him being put under pressure from the paramilitaries.

If the paramilitary produces a document which he pretends is prescribed—we must remember that at some polling stations there will be no polling agent and the only people in the polling station apart from the staff might be the police—the police will not be alerted to the fact that the abuse is going on. If the presiding officer had to display the document to satisfy everyone in the polling station that a prescribed document had been produced, it would immediately eliminate the probability of any abuse.

Mr. Peter Robinson

There was only one matter that was not directly dealt with by amendment but which was referred to in Committee. Unfortunately, the Minister was not present at the time. It relates to the list of prescribed documents. It was suggested that there are those who may fear to use a British passport or a passport of the Republic of Ireland in certain areas, or who may be embarrassed to use a benefit book in front of those who know them, or who may not have any prescribed document. Will the Minister consider adding to the list of prescribed documents a purpose-made identity card, issued through the electoral office, which the individual may voluntarily produce? Everyone would not be required to have it, but it may be more satisfactory for some people to use a purpose-made document rather than one of the documents that they feel might endanger or embarrass them.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I wish to return to the issue of the registrar's certificate. When the Minister considers the list of documents, I hope that he will understand that the certificates are more available to the public in the local registry offices than they are in a clergyman's house, because the public have access to those offices. I have been in the offices and the certificates have been lying around on the shelves. The Minister should think carefully about that. What is more, the certificates that I have seen do not have a stamp. They have the signature of the person who issued them at the bottom. I should like the Minister to consider this carefully because the marriage law in Ireland—we use the old Irish law—is complex and different from that in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Scott

I am sorry to have to issue at least qualified negatives to each of the three points that have been raised. As I have undertaken to introduce an amendment on Report, we will have an opportunity to consider what the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) said about marriage certificates. I see difficulties, for the reasons that I outlined earlier, with the course that he suggests. I shall certainly consider it, although I am not optimistic that the amendment will incorporate the idea that he has put forward.

I cannot see that it would be possible, in time for the local government elections next year, to go down the road that the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) suggests and have some kind of voluntary identity card. We would want to be sure that anything produced for that purpose, even if one agreed to it in practice, would be uniformly available across the Province. I do not think it would be possible to do that in time for the election.

I also have grave doubts about the presiding officer holding up the document. He is the man who has to make the judgment. We shall be giving advice to the chief electoral officer and he will be giving advice to his staff in due course. I shall look at the point, but I should have thought that it would be a case of taking the matter away from the judgment of the presiding officer, and my initial reaction would be to say that the difficulties would be outweighed by any conceivable advantages.

Mr. McCusker

I am not suggesting that it should interfere in any way with the presiding officer's discretion or judgment. It would be demonstrating to all concerned that a prescribed document was being presented. I do not think that he should be involved in any decision making at that stage. He is just saying that he has been given a prescribed document.

Mr. Scott

I stand by what I said, but I shall look at the matter.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 139, Noes 16.

Division No. 30] [10.25 pm
Alton, David Hickmet, Richard
Amess, David Hicks, Robert
Ancram, Michael Holt, Richard
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Home Robertson, John
Arnold, Tom Hooson, Tom
Ashby, David Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)
Bellingham, Henry Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk)
Benyon, William Howells, Geraint
Bevan, David Gilroy Hubbard-Miles, Peter
Blackburn, John Hume, John
Bottomley, Peter Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Boyson, Dr Rhodes Kennedy, Charles
Brandon-Bravo, Martin King, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Bright, Graham Kirkwood, Archy
Brinton, Tim Knight, Gregory (Derby N)
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Knowles, Michael
Bruce, Malcolm Lang, Ian
Bruinvels, Peter Lawrence, Ivan
Budgen, Nick Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Butterfill, John Lester, Jim
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Lyell, Nicholas
Chapman, Sydney Major, John
Chope, Christopher Mates, Michael
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Clegg, Sir Walter Meadowcroft, Michael
Cockeram, Eric Norris, Steven
Conway, Derek Onslow, Cranley
Coombs, Simon Page, Sir John (Harrow W)
Couchman, James Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Dorrell, Stephen Patten, Christopher (Bath)
Dover, Den Pawsey, James
Duffy, A. E. P. Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Durant, Tony Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Emery, Sir Peter Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Evennett, David Roe, Mrs Marion
Favell, Anthony Rowe, Andrew
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Rumbold, Mrs Angela
Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey Sackville, Hon Thomas
Fletcher, Alexander Scott, Nicholas
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Forth, Eric Shelton, William (Streatham)
Fox, Marcus Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Freeman, Roger Silvester, Fred
Gale, Roger Skeet, T. H. H.
Galley, Roy Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Garel-Jones, Tristan Soames, Hon Nicholas
Gower, Sir Raymond Spence, John
Gregory, Conal Spencer, Derek
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N) Stanbrook, Ivor
Gummer, John Selwyn Stern, Michael
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Stevens, Martin (Fulham)
Hargreaves, Kenneth Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Harris, David Stradling Thomas, J.
Harvey, Robert Taylor, John (Solihull)
Haselhurst, Alan Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk) Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Hawksley, Warren Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Hayward, Robert Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Heathcoat-Amory, David Thurnham, Peter
Heddle, John Tracey, Richard
Twinn, Dr Ian Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
van Straubenzee, Sir W. Whitfield, John
Waddinglon, David Wood, Timothy
Walden, George Woodcock, Michael
Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Wallace, James Tellers for the Ayes:
Waller, Gary Mr. Michael Neubert and
Wardle, C, (Bexhill) Mr. Tim Sainsbury.
Watson, John
Beggs, Roy Paisley, Rev Ian
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Parry, Robert
Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim) Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)
Knowles, Michael Robinson, P. (Batfast E)
Loyden, Edward Skinner, Dennis
McCusker, Harold Smyth, Rev W. M, (Belfast S)
Maginnis, Ken
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James Tellers for the Noes:
Nellist, David Mr. William Ross and
Nicholson, J. Mr. Cecil Walker.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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