HC Deb 29 June 1989 vol 155 cc1203-10

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn:—[Mr. Chapman.]

10.28 pm
Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

I welcome the opportunity to introduce an Adjournment debate on the electoral affairs of Northern Ireland. It is especially relevant after today's debate, the district council elections in Northern Ireland and the European elections.

In any society it is essential that the Government and Members of Parliament keep the electoral process constantly under review. We should learn from the experience throughout the world where the majority of people do not have the right to exercise their franchise, and that right should be treasured by those of us who have a working electoral process. We must be careful, especially in a Northern Irish context, to nurture that right, rather than allow it to hang out on a limb. We all know that a solution to the problems there will not come from the bomb or the bullet, and those who advocate and use them, from Government legislation or from international arrangements. It will come through the franchise, with the people of the North of Ireland determining their future.

I believe that especially because, over the past 20 years, I have seen how the electoral process has been attacked. I have fought elections in the face of substantial boycotts, and when men with guns were standing outside the polling stations taking down the names of those who had the audacity to go in and vote. For that reason, we must be ever vigilant to ensure that we have a viable system which gives the best advantage to the people who are the most important in this matter—all those in each constituency who have the right to vote.

At present, the administrative thrust is towards making it more difficult, not easier, for people to exercise their franchise. I do not say that carpingly because I know that there is legislation to constrain everything, especially the electoral process, but I believe that an effort should be made to simplify the way in which the process operates.

A new system for the collection of registration forms has been successful, and I welcome that success. However, the system could be tidied up substantially, especially when one considers the returns and the way in which some of those appointed to handle them fell down on the job. There was a lack of returns in some areas and there was not the necessary follow-up to ensure that we had the substantial registration we all needed.

There is a tremendous gap in the postal voting system. We have inconsistencies time after time, and they derive especially from the pedantic and bureaucratic way in which the forms are framed. It is almost impossible for the ordinary person to fill in either the registration form or the postal vote application with any confidence as a result of their detailed technicalities. Those forms should be substantially simplified.

I found it disturbing in the previous two elections when the chief electoral officer ruled in effect that people with psychiatric illnesses could not vote by post. A worrying decision was made that, in effect, psychiatric illness was sufficient to disfranchise many people. We all know that psychiatric disorders are illnesses just as much as any physical illness. I am talking not about people who were confined either permanently or semi-permanently to psychiatric institutions, but about ordinary people in their houses who were suffering from psychiatric ailments. They were prevented from voting by a decision of the chief electoral officer which I accept was based on legislation. But there must be discretion for him to deal with a substantial form of illness in the community. All Governments argue that the place for people with psychiatric illnesses is within the community where they can share the experiences and the care of the community. It seems a contradiction that they should be excluded from exercising their franchise on a legalistic point.

I apply the same argument to the way in which postal votes were allocated to the elderly. I know of two people, both 103 years old, who were denied postal votes because it was deemed that their postal vote application forms were not properly filled in. What reason had their doctor put down? Old age. I should have thought that in a society like ours a definition of old age would be sufficient to merit a postal vote for someone of 103 and to allow him or her the right to exercise the franchise. This nitpicking approach must stop.

Once postal votes are issued, responsibility should rest with the electoral office. At the moment, once the electoral office issues and hands the postal votes to the post office, its responsibility ends. I have seen at first hand the abuses that creep in. I have seen postmen who have been badgered into handing over postal votes—not one or two, but dozens—and been put into compromising situations with respect to their jobs. The Minister should closely consider a variation on the registered post theme that allows us to end that terrible abuse of the right to exercise the franchise. It is appalling that, in certain parts of the North of Ireland, some people are muscling—I use that word advisedly—elderly people out of their votes.

I am one of those who asked for, and welcomed, personal identification schemes. Given the unique circumstances in the North of Ireland, it was essential to end the wide-scale personation that took place. By and large, the process of identification has done just that, but there is much still to be desired. It is time that we considered this matter again. One of the easiest ways—probably the most effective—of improving the position would be for the Government, through the Department of Health and Social Services in the North of Ireland, to make a blanket issue of medical cards issued by the Central Services Agency. There is an anomaly in that the new medical card, which does not include a photograph or any means of identification, is acceptable, but the old medical card, which is not issued by the CSA, is not adequate. Elderly people are affected most because many do not have the CSA medical card. Such cards should be issued, and it should not be beyond the Department's ingenuity to ensure that forgeries cannot be made.

In at least the past two elections in the North of Ireland there were substantial forgeries of medical cards. They were so good that one could not tell the difference between the real card and the forgery. A doctor colleague of mine who was a candidate saw a medical card that referred to him as the doctor but had a different registration number. Because of anomalies, those who wish to cheat and to steal other people's votes can do so with the expertise at their disposal. Many people, especially the elderly, have been denied their votes because they have not yet been given the new medical cards. It is time that the Department made a blanket issue of new medical cards to everyone over 16. That would reduce the number of people who are disfranchised and cut the potential for abuse of the system.

As long as human nature remains human nature there will be personation at elections. We must ensure that it is cut to the barest minimum. Those who assume the responsibility to stop it in the polling stations—the polling agents appointed by the political parties—are placed in an invidious position. I found myself in that position some time ago. If one challenges someone whom one knows is involved in personation, that person has clear recourse to the law and a right to legal aid. It has become a cause celebre in parts of the North of Ireland, where people who were simply trying to defend the electoral process are having to pay court costs. The political parties and those representing them are loth to make challenges because they are most vulnerable once a challenge is made. We are all aware of how people use the legal system to the detriment of not only the person and political party involved but of the electoral process.

I ask the Minister to consider closely the siting of polling stations and to impress on those responsible that that is not an excuse for a security operation but an exercise of the franchise. During the latest election we had the rather deplorable position at a polling station at St. Joseph's Creggan in Derry, where Army personnel were photographing those who were going to vote. That is a contradiction of the way in which elections should be run. I ask the Minister to ensure that that is not repeated, because it turns polling into a security operation, which stops people voting. People have stopped voting in the North of Ireland in the past for many other reasons. I remember the days of 29 and 30 per cent. turnouts in my constituency. The figure has now increased to 80 per cent., which is healthy, but we must do all that we can to ensure that that healthy position remains.

Old people in urban and rural areas must travel substantial distances across hilly terrain to polling stations. During the previous two elections, several people said to me, "If you take me to the polling station I will vote, but for heaven's sake get me back because I cannot get over the hill." I ask that the town of Newry be considered specifically because it is ridiculous to force elderly people to walk substantial distances across hilly areas, which reduces the possibility of their exercising the franchise. The siting of polling stations is reviewed every four years. I suggest that that period be reduced to one year; it should be an ongoing process rather than a four-year span.

I ask the Minister for the provision of an electoral office in Newry and Armagh. It is the only constituency west of the Bann that does not have an electoral office. We deal with an efficient and excellent electoral office that is responsible for two constituencies. I wonder why Newry and Armagh is unique among constituencies west of the Bann.

I take the opportunity of paying tribute to those involved in the running of electoral affairs in the North of Ireland, especially deputy electoral officers who, in difficult circumstances, do an excellent job. During the past 20 years, I have never experienced anything other than courtesy and co-operation.

A pedantic approach is being adopted from the top, which in many ways is constraining the most effective running of not only elections but the development of the electoral process. I ask the Minister to consider that problem.

Given the unique position in the North of Ireland, the Government should not adopt a passive role. They should adopt an active role because it is in the interests of the Government, the people and the political parties to nurture the tender plant in the North of Ireland and make it strong enough to do what it eventually will do—play a key role in solving our problems.

10.44 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Ian Stewart)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newry and Amargh (Mr. Mallon) on obtaining an opportunity for the House to debate electoral law in Northern Ireland. I join him in his tribute to those who have been responsible for organising the electoral process, which is never an easy one to carry through, particular in the circumstances of Northern Ireland.

I pay a personal tribute to the hon. Gentleman and to other hon. Members who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland. In ways that are not always evident to those of us who represent constituencies in Great Britain, it takes a particular kind of courage and dedication to perform that democratic role. I salute the hon. Gentleman and his parliamentary colleagues from Northern Ireland for their work in maintaining the democratic process, despite the many difficulties that have been placed in its way.

The hon. Gentleman has raised several detailed points. I hope that he will understand if I am unable to respond definitively and in detail to all of them now. I shall reflect on what he has said and I shall also read the Official Report. If I have not covered certain points this evening, I will communicate with the hon. Gentleman about them. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will give careful consideration to what he has said.

Some time before the recent elections, I had a meeting with the chief electoral officer because I wanted to hear at first hand from him about the arrangements being made for the forthcoming elections and to share with him the Government's concern that everything should be done to ensure that the elections were conducted in an orderly fashion without abuse or irregularity. I hope that, before too long, after he has had a chance to collect more information and analyse what has happened in the elections, I will have another opportunity to see him. I shall draw his attention to the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the major legislation governing the conduct of elections in Northern Ireland is contained in the Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Act 1962 and the Representation of the People Acts of 1983 and 1985. There are, of course, differences between Northern Ireland and Great Britain because of the different electoral systems. Despite the mechanical difficulties that the hon. Gentleman has described, it is necessary to have reasonably tightly drawn rules for anything relating to elections, for the obvious reason that, if the mechanics are not well ordered or categorically stated, there are considerable opportunities for abuse. The opportunities for abuse in Northern Ireland, where intimidation and other very undesirable practices have occurred over the years, are greatly increased. The hon. Gentleman referred to a pedantic approach, but it must be set against the difficulties of not having a rather strict approach to the mechanics of the procedure. Nevertheless, I will reflect on his points.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned votes for the mentally disabled. Other hon. Members from Northern Ireland have raised that matter with me. Earlier this year, a number of people who were formerly registered as absent voters and mentally disabled were told that, in future, they would not be able to vote by post. The reason is that, throughout the country, mental disability is not and never has been a ground on which an elector becomes eligible for an absent vote.

It was formerly the case that those who applied for an absent vote on the ground of physical incapacity were not required to state the nature of the incapacity. When the chief electoral officer reviewed the list of absent votes earlier this year, he found that in a number of cases the ground for claiming an absent vote was not physical disability, but a mental one.

That is one of several points that the hon. Gentleman raised which apply equally to Great Britain and to which I will draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. It would not be sensible for us to contemplate differences in matters of that kind between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. There is a logical reason behind that and we would not overturn it lightly. If there has been a change, it has been a change in the interpretation of the rules or a more rigid application of them rather than a change in the rules themselves. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to specified documents for polling purposes. I am aware that there were instances of forged medical cards which were used as documents for the purposes of personation during the elections. I understand that there has been at least one conviction and that someone elese is awaiting trial in another case.

As a result of what took place in the local elections, polling staff were given additional guidance on how to minimise the risks of forgeries before the European elections on 15 June. Although I have not yet received a final report, I gather that the precautions were successful in preventing a repetition of what happened earlier. Obviously that is a matter of great concern to us. We do not want people to circumvent the safeguards introduced in the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will consider whether there are other documents, or ways in which documents can be made less vulnerable to forgery, which might replace the existing medical card or be a variation of it. However, before we make any such changes, we would of course consult the political parties about any proposals for change. We have not yet reached that point. However, I accept the hon. Gentleman's point and assure him that I am as concerned about it as he is.

The hon. Gentleman referred also to the location of polling stations. As he said, the chief electoral officer is required to prepare a scheme every four years. According to the Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Act 1962, he must provide for the designation of such number of polling stations in such situations as to provide for all electors in each polling district such reasonable facilities for voting as are practicable in the circumstances.

The chief electoral officer is also required to publish the scheme in draft. He can cause a local inquiry to be held on any question which arises from it and he must consider any objections or proposals that are made in relation to the draft scheme before he confirms it, either with or without qualifications.

The Polling Stations Scheme (Northern Ireland) Regulations 1972 provide for relevant sections of the draft scheme to be made available for inspection at district council offices and at the chief electoral officer's office. The regulations provide that notice of the approved scheme should be published and say when and where it can be inspected. The chief electoral officer published his scheme this year on 16 February. I gather that to avoid confusion a virtually uniform polling station scheme operated during the recent local elections and in the European elections. Comments can be made about the scheme, but relatively few have been received. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about that. It is unlikely that it would be practicable to organise such a scheme at such frequent intervals as one year. However, I shall consider what the hon. Gentleman has said.

The hon. Gentleman also discussed the suggestion that there should be an electoral office in Newry. He knows that his constituency is covered by the offices in Banbridge and Dungannon, I think satisfactorily. These are matters for the chief electoral officer to determine. He is bound to take account of convenience, efficiency and economy. There are at present 10 electoral offices throughout Northern Ireland covering 17 parliamentary constituencies, so I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's constituency is quite as unusual as he may have suggested.

The number and location of offices was reviewed when the number of parliamentary constituencies was increased some years ago. It was then agreed that the arrangements which now exist ought to enable the chief electoral officer to carry out his responsibilities effectively. I believe that that has generally been the case, but if there are grounds for suggesting otherwise I should be ready to take them up with him. Quite a number of constituencies are served by two or more electoral offices, and they are not necessarily within the constituency. It is not for me or members of the Government to deal with that.

I said at the beginning that I hope to see the chief electoral officer before too long to hear how technical and other matters proceeded during the recent elections. That will be a suitable occasion on which to draw his attention to what the hon. Gentleman has said tonight. I imagine that, like others, the hon. Gentleman would like an electoral office in his constituency, but before such a change could be considered one would have to make out a case that the present system is not working.

Most of what the hon. Gentleman suggested is, in practice, because of the responsibilities that Parliament has delegated to the chief electoral officer, a matter of detail for him rather than me, although, on behalf of the Government, I have responsibility for ensuring that the democratic process is properly conducted in Northern Ireland. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the constructive way in which he has raised these issues. He has done so in a topical way, and soon after two elections which, while they were not without their imperfections—that would be asking quite a lot in the context of Northern Ireland—were conducted in a way which mostly embodied the best of our democratic traditions.

I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about the importance of that democratic process, especially in Northern Ireland, where that process, and that process alone, ought to determine the future of those whom the hon. Gentleman represents and those for whom I and fellow Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office have responsibility on behalf of the Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Eleven o'clock.