HC Deb 28 November 1984 vol 68 cc1017-24
Mr. William Ross

I beg to move amendment No. 12, in page 4, line 5, after 'of', insert 'or the day next preceding' The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that those trying to personate on a massive scale and collecting a large number of documents of one kind or another in advance may be challenged. The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) put down a similar amendment, which was not selected, but I believe that the intention is met rather more neatly in our amendment which refers to "the day next preceding"—in other words, the day before.

There is little point in restricting and making illegal the possession of such documents only on polling day. Past experience has shown that for the documents to be in the possession of the individuals concerned preparations have to be made some time ahead. If people are allowed to go around freely stockpiling documents and making their preparations we shall be ensuring that they are indeed capable of carrying out their intentions on the day. If the amendment is accepted and that is made illegal, the work of the wicked will be very much more difficult. For that reason, we hope that the Government will accept the amendment.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I tabled an amendment similar in effect to the amendment under discussion. This is a very important matter. The day before the election seems likely to be the time when the machinery of personation would be set up. It would therefore be very important that the police should be able to go into the headquarters on that day and deal with the matter. It could even be argued that they should have that right two or three days before the election. How far does one go? The proposition in the amendment is a reasonable one, and I hope that the Minister will be able to accept it.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

There is one further point that the Minister might consider. I believe that it has been established that the early hours of the poll are often the favourite hours for the purposes of vote-stealing, being a time when the polling agents may not be on the job and the vote-stealers may have relative privacy and immunity for doing their fell work. If there is to be vote-stealing at 7 o'clock in the morning, it stands to reason that the materials for perpetrating it must have been accumulated overnight. That is an additional reason for accepting the amendment

Mr. Scott

The Bill as drafted makes it clear that the offence can be committed only on polling day. The intention of the Government in drafting the Bill in that way was to make quite sure that the accumulation of the documents was for the purposes of personation. It was thought that it might be difficult to establish that fact before the court if the offence ran beyond polling day. On polling day, especially if the documents were held in close proximity to a polling station, there would not be much doubt that they had been assembled for the purpose of personation.

Another factor helped to determine the Government's approach to the provision. We wanted to strike the right balance between protecting the liberty of the individual and the need for the community as a whole to be protected against the evil of personation. To suggest that the police should have the powers a fortnight before polling day would have been to go too wide. However, the amendment does not do so. I have listened with great care to the points made—especially the point made by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) about the fact that this work is often done in the early hours of polling day. The amendment could very well be useful to the police and to all those who wish to eradicate the evil of personation from the electoral process in Northern Ireland without unacceptably affecting the rights of the citizen. l urge the Committee to accept it.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. McCusker

I beg to move amendment No. 10, in page 4, line 7, leave out 'to which this section applies'.

The Second Deputy Chairman

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 11, in page 4, line 10, leave out subsection (2).

Mr. McCusker

Subsections (1) and (2) define the new offence which is now to exist, not only on polling day but, thank goodness, on the day before. I believe, however, that the offence is too narrowly defined. Subsection (2) seems to mean that the offence is committed only if the person has in his or her possession one of the five prescribed documents described earlier on. I am sure that that will be sufficient to prove that the person is guilty of or is likely to commit the offence, but there are other documents which will be equally important to anyone trying to organise vote-stealing on a massive scale.

10.45 pm

I have already referred to the importance of the poll card, which could be used more fully in the scheme of things. The clearest sign that massive personation was about to take place would be the apprehension of someone on the day before polling day or on polling day in possession of many polling cards. The advantage of a polling card to the personator is that it is a vote about which he will not be embarrassed. He is fairly sure that the people whose polling cards he has will not be polling that day. It would be much easier for large-scale personators to start the day with as many polling cards as can be accumulated. He will poll as early as possible in place of people whose polling cards he does not have, as they will vote later. The holding of a polling card is as good a sign that the offence will be committed as the holding of one of the prescribed documents.

The Minister will recall that, in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election of two years ago, a van with six or eight citizens of the Irish Republic was stopped. Some came from as far away as County Cork and had a large bundle of polling cards. As they were doing a grand tour of polling stations in that constituency it was clear that they were using those cards. Greater discretion should be given to the police to determine what document is a sign of personation. Polling cards should be included. We are talking of people stealing 10,000 or 20,000 votes.

If the offence is to be committed by both sides of the political divide on a military scale, some records have to be gathered and produced. Polling cards are a fair sign of vote stealing, but so are lists of the dead, lists of those who are training as nurses in the Royal Victoria hospital and lists of people who are on holiday. Someone who is personating systematically is bound to have other documents that indicate a planned campaign. We cannot specify what those documents might be, but they could include polling cards and a well-marked register. Such documentation might not be conclusive proof on its own but, combined with other evidence that might emerge as a result of police investigations, it probably would be. We want to break out of the restrictions of the list of prescribed documents.

Mr. Scott

I must advise the Committee that we are on delicate ground. We have to strike a fine balance between giving powers to the police which might unduly affect the rights of citizens. We have made a conscious decision that the way in which to check personation is to insist on the production of one of a list of documents. If earlier amendments, which would have allowed other documents to be taken into account, had been accepted, this one might have fitted in better. The Committee has rejected that approach and insisted that acquisition of a ballot paper depends on presentation of a prescribed document. In terms of not allowing the powers of the police to go too wide and protecting the rights of the individual and in terms of trying to enhance the chances of successful prosecution, it is best to stick to the narrow list of documents. We shall have to monitor this in the context of the elections in May next year and stick to the list of prescribed documents. We would be on very dangerous ground if we went wider than that for this first attempt, and I advise the Committee to reject the amendment.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

I was glad to hear the Minister say that during the elections in May an eye would be kept on the case put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker). I assure the Minister that the intention of the amendment was in no way to go back on the question of what ought to be the range of prescribed documents. But I equally suggest that he should take seriously the consequences of the institution of the poll card in areas where a serious attempt at vote-stealing on a substantial scale is being made. Even in areas where that is not the case, one often has a shiver down the back on noticing the number of poll cards which are lying about.

It is a common experience of those in an election campaign to be unhappy enough to come across poll cards just lying around, or cards which do not relate to the persons who produced them and who said, "These came through the letter box the other day", or, "My neighbour got these. I do not know what she will do with them. What do you think she ought to do with them?" There is nothing commoner than that experience, and at best the poll card is a two-edged weapon in relation to the integrity of the electoral process.

It was introduced with the intention of superseding the efforts which parties and their organisations could make at an election to alert selected electors to the necessity of going to the poll and how and when to do so. But, as often happens when we attempt to spoon feed and mollycoddle the electors, we find that we have created something to which unsuspected disadvantage is attached. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann was right when he said that those who organised this operation would think themselves exceedingly fortunate and well on the way if they could make a handy collection of poll cards in the relevant ward.

I hope that the Minister will ensure that particular attention is paid to the appearance and role of the poll card in any attempts at personation and vote-stealing which may take place in the forthcoming elections.

Mr. Scott

I can give that undertaking. We must understand that in May we will be in a situation completely different from that which existed in previous elections. Had we not decided to have a list of prescribed documents but had sought to counter personation, we might well have wanted to go down that road. We now have this new scheme, and we are right to test that.

Amendment negatived.

The Second Deputy Chairman

We now come to amendment No. 23.

Mr. Archer

My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) and I tabled this amendment in a spirit of inquiry to probe the matters about which I expressed some anxiety on Second Reading. However, I would not like it to be misunderstood.

Of course we appreciate that the power of arrest is the cutting edge of the Bill, and we have no wish to remove it. I expressed our reservations at an earlier stage today, and the Committee will not be dismayed to hear that I do not propose to move the amendment.

Mr. Peter Robinson

I beg to move amendment No. 21, in page 4, line 30, at end insert— '(d) within the polling station inspect (in addition to presiding officer and clerk) the prescribed document before or after the ballot paper is delivered to the voter.'. Like the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer), I could say that this amendment is tabled in a spirit of inquiry, because I seek clarification from the Minister on whether what appears to be implicit in the Bill is fact.

Subsection (3) states: If a constable has reasonable grounds for suspecting that a person has possession of a document in contravention of subsection (1), the constable may take action within a series of possibilities. It is essential that the constable is able to perform part of the process if the Bill is to have any degree the effect that we all hope for it. However, there are many who suspect that it will not have that effect.

The reality of life in Northern Ireland is that the presiding officer and the clerks in the polling station often live in areas from which the gunmen come and to which they go. The threat of the gun overshadows many a presiding officer and clerk. When a person has presented himself with a document—it may be a prescribed document—and the presiding officer has not been satisfied that that person was on the electoral register, he has often, at least in the past, been afraid to take action. It is suggested that if he, the clerk or the personation agents for the political parties are afraid to involve the police, there should be an automatic right for the constable to require to see the document before or after a ballot paper has been produced.

The police may be alerted to some of the individuals who would be taking part in personation. However, it would be a deterrent factor if personators could be pretty sure that the Royal Ulster Constabulary would not be afraid to challenge them. That might cause them to think twice before entering the polling station to personate, especially with the penalties that are envisaged in the Bill.

I hope that the Minister will clarify the procedure. How much a part of the procedure in the polling station will the constable be? Is he to play a passive role? Will he move only when the presiding officer or personation agents of the parties indicate that he should? Does the Minister envisage that the constable will challenge those whom he believes are not genuine in putting forward a prescribed document in exchange for a ballot paper?

Mr. Scott

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) has expressed the understandable concern that it would be difficult for a constable on duty in a polling station to determine whether someone was a personator unless he had the power to inspect the prescribed document which the voter had produced to a presiding officer to obtain a ballot paper.

The Committee will understand the Government's concern, which is reflected in the careful drafting of clause 3, that the powers given to constables to deal with the new offence should be tightly drawn to avoid the police becoming involved in the electoral process more than is absolutely necessary to prevent personation. I do not believe that the Committee would wish to give the police a general power to inspect prescribed documents whether or not the constable had reasonable grounds for suspicion. Nor would the RUC wish to have such a power, which would be only a step away from insisting that all voters must submit to a police inspection of their prescribed documents before applying for a ballot paper. That would be repressive and alien to the free electoral system that applies in the United Kingdom. It would lead inevitably to allegations of police harassment and partiality.

It is my firm opinion that subsection (3) gives the police sufficient powers to achieve our objectives. It restricts a constable to acting only on reasonable grounds of suspicion. When he acts on those grounds, his powers to inspect the voter's prescribed document is implicit in subsection (3)(c). To include the amendment would cast doubt on whether the power to inspect documents applied outside polling stations. I can assure the hon. Member for Belfast, East that the RUC was closely consulted over the new powers available to it in the Bill, and is satisfied that they are sufficient and that we do not need to cast the net any wider.

I urge the Committee to reject the amendment.

Mr. Peter Robinson

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

11 pm

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Those of us who studied the Bill from the time of its publication were under the impression at first that the teeth were in clause 1 and that clause 3 was, in some sense, subsidiary to clause 1. Further study and debate has disclosed the importance of clause 3 so that we probably regard it as the most important and effective clause of the Bill.

As the Minister has explained on a number of occasions, the device—whatever criticism has been made of it and however we would have wished it to be qualified—of the prescribed document does, for the first time, give the constable on duty in the polling station prima facie reason for suspicion of an offence of personation having been committed or attempted, and the document would form the evidence upon which that suspicion would be based. We are, therefore, if we take it seriously, envisaging that the police powers in the clause are very much the effective back-up to the provisions in the earlier part of the Bill. It is on that assumption that I want to put a proposition to the Minister. It is not one that can be expressed in the terms of the Bill, but it is one to which it would be useful if he could offer some form of assent.

I ask the Minister to envisage the circumstances, not in the early hours of the poll to which we referred earlier, but towards the end of the poll—perhaps between half-past 9 and 10 o'clock at night on the polling day of a general election for this House. Let us suppose that that period has been selected for a substantial operation involving the stealing of votes. What will happen is that during that period, one hopes, a series of documents will be tendered and held by the presiding officer because of a reasonable doubt that they were not tendered by the electors specified on the electoral roll.

If one has understood the meaning and purport of the clause, the fact in itself of a presiding officer rejecting a tendered document creates a prima facie assumption that the person who tendered that document meant no good and was trying to use that document for the purpose of personation or vote-stealing.

When the first such instance occurs, it may well be that the member of the RUC on duty will act on his judgment, and having searched and found the document on the person will proceed as set out in the clause. What happens when that is repeated a second, third and fourth time, perhaps within as many minutes—not in the middle of the day, but when all the pressures are on and with genuine electors belatedly seeking the opportunity to cast what may be the vital votes in their constituencies?

Surely it will be necessary for there to be available a back-up of police so that we shall not fail to utilise this clause for lack of police manpower available in the event of a repetition of a whole series of prima facie offences. We are therefore asking the Government to show that they will put their boot where their voice is, and ensure that in those areas, which are not difficult to define, where such practices are likely to occur, there will be an adequate availability of police, not necessarily in the polling station but readily available, especially during hours of pressure, to make a reality of the powers contained in the clause. It would be encouraging and helpful if the Minister would say something on that subject.

Mr. Scott

I am happy to respond in supporting the motion that the Committee should approve the clause. As the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) said, it provides the teeth for the entire Bill. I have already mentioned that there have been consultations with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which is satisfied that it has sufficient powers. I well understand that there is a second leg to that, which is that on the day it should have sufficient resources to fulfil its obligations. I am sure that in the consultations that the chief electoral officer always has with the RUC before an election, it will be impressed on the RUC, especially since this is the first time that we shall be on this territory, that we look to it to ensure that the new law is rigorously enforced. It is an operational matter, and I shall make sure that it is drawn to the chief constable's attention.

Mr. William Ross

I am grateful to the Minister for those remarks, but we should perhaps consider more carefully what the police will have to do, and how many policemen will be needed to do it.

There will be a large number of polling stations and polling rooms and boxes on election day. The number is not the same for all elections. I am considering primarily the position that would prevail at a parliamentary election. It will not be simple in the May election because there will be proportional representation. There will be an abnormal number of boxes and, therefore, many more policemen will be needed to cover it.

If Sinn Fein and its fellow travellers in the Irish Republican Army set out to cause the maximum trouble on election day, they will not confine their activities to polling stations in areas where they are active, but incidents of a terrorist nature will occur in other parts of the Province. That will draw members of the security forces, which will inevitably include many policemen, to those other duties. That could be done with the intention of reducing the number of men available for polling station duties.

It is apparent to all in Northern Ireland that not all parts of the country will be under threat of personation. It will be restricted to a small number of areas. If the police are to be seen as even-handed, they must have an adequate presence in every polling station. I see difficulties not at small rural polling stations but at large polling stations with large numbers of boxes and rooms. They will need two or three policemen in a room with a back-up force, either in the building or immediately outside it, and somewhere to hold individuals who are arrested. It will not be possible to bung them into a police car and cart them off to a police station. If the IRA and Sinn Fein plan personation on a large scale, they will take other precautions to make the life of the police as difficult as possible. We are not talking about only a few men.

Can the Minister tell us how many boxes will be needed in next May's elections, bearing in mind the fact that they are not only proportional representation elections, but that they will be much slower than usual? The number of boxes may have to be increased, which is why I do not agree with the proposed extra cost. Could he also tell us how many extra policemen will be needed to carry out the job? We shall need many more than most people believe. As we must expect Sinn Fein to try to bypass the legislation in every way possible, we can expect the maximum effort from its representatives, which must be matched with the maximum effort of the police to stop them getting away with it.

Mr. Scott

It is not for me to consider the details of the number of boxes required. That is a matter on which the chief electoral officer assured us that the financial provision made in the Bill is sufficient to implement the legislation. For the first time, the police will have the powers that they need to deal with the blatant personation that has characterised elections in some parts of Northern Ireland. I am sure that the chief constable will make the necessary arrangements to deal with it, but I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are drawn to the attention of the chief constable.

It is slightly difficult to believe that an operation at 9.30 am that led to the arrest of many of those people would be persisted with, bearing in mind the penalties to which those who indulge in personation are liable under the Bill. I do not rule it out, but it is unlikely that they would persist. This is new territory. The police have those powers, and I am sure that they will be determined to use them properly.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 4 to 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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