HC Deb 30 January 1997 vol 289 cc489-91
1. Mr. Mackinlay

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what representations he has received from (a) political parties and (b) other bodies about the (i) arrangements and (ii) timing of the local government election in Northern Ireland. [11967]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

I have received general representations about personation at elections in Northern Ireland; otherwise none.

Mr. Mackinlay

Does the Secretary of State understand that the good folk of Northern Ireland want, along with the rest of us, a general election so that they can say no to the privatisation of the Post Office and can elect a Government who will reduce the hospital waiting list and get youngsters back to work and on to proper training schemes? Is there not, however, a problem that the local government elections in Northern Ireland are scheduled for 21 May? It would be absurd for the general election to run in tandem with or to overlap those elections. Would it not be far better either to call a general election now, or to pass legislation that brought forward the local government elections in Northern Ireland to 1 May?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

If the people of Northern Ireland feel so strongly about the numerous matters with which the hon. Gentleman began his question, it is interesting that I have not received a single representation about them, which suggests that perhaps his research is not as profound as it usually is. As to moving the election date, it would be better to stay with the legislation that we have, but to do all in our power to make it work properly.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe

Is the Secretary of State aware that many potential candidates are not particularly interested in the local government elections or in any date for them because of the lack of power in local government? Will he take administrative action to keep power away from unelected quangos and give it back to elected representatives?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am always ready, of course, to consider any particulars that are put to me, but part of the purpose of the talks process in which we are so laboriously engaged is to come through to an agreed political settlement that is based on consent, which will undoubtedly find a better way of governing Northern Ireland than exists under direct rule. That applies in particular to local government.

Dr. Hendron

The Secretary of State will confirm that he has had discussions with my party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, with regard to future elections, including the forthcoming local government and general elections. I refer to serious electoral fraud, where proven irregularities with regard to registration and vote stealing are well known, and where thousands of votes are stolen at each election. The biggest problem—the Secretary of State referred to it—is personation. Will he make a statement on the matter, bearing in mind that medical cards and social security documents are in no way proof of identity?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I pay tribute to the assiduity with which the hon. Gentleman has pursued his anxieties with me and with the chief electoral officer about personation and other frauds. It is true that he has seen me on a number of occasions. I have met other representatives of his party, who have also met the chief electoral officer. My officials are considering ways of combating alleged instances of fraud, some of which I am certain do exist. Intimidation plays a big part in them. We can have the legislation, but, for it to work, people have to be free of intimidation, and we all know who is doing the intimidating.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the majority of people throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are concerned most of all about the integrity of that United Kingdom, and that they would be well advised to have regard to that fact when deciding who to vote for in any election, at any time?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

It is true that a large majority of people living in Northern Ireland, let alone throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, strongly support the maintenance of the Union, which, as the Prime Minister has frequently said and as I am glad to endorse, gives added strength to each of the regions comprising the United Kingdom. As far as I can see, there is no prospect of people changing their minds about that in what people are pleased to call the foreseeable future.

Mr. Dowd

May I press the Secretary of State on the question that was asked by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron) in the light of the impending local elections and, in particular, the general election? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that all actions have been taken, not just against personation but to protect the integrity and accuracy of the register? If he is not satisfied will he say what further action the Government intend to take to minimise the opportunities for the profound abuse of the democratic process that has occurred in the recent past?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to the register. Northern Ireland has a peculiar advantage in that, largely, the registration process depends not upon postal returns but upon personal canvassing. As a consequence, it is widely thought that the register is more accurate than registers in many areas of Great Britain. The computer forms are collected by canvassers from each household. Of course, when people move, there are opportunities for personation. I have taken care to see that each and every one of the representations in this regard by hon. Members has been brought to the attention of the chief electoral officer. I repeat what I have said in the past: that intimidation and profoundly undemocratic attitudes on the part of Sinn Fein and particular others are responsible for electoral fraud.