HC Deb 13 May 1998 vol 312 cc335-42 12.30 pm
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

The House has just been discussing an insidious and dangerous material, plutonium. I now bring to the attention of the House a practice that may not be quite as insidious as its perpetrators would wish, but which is as dangerous to the electoral process—and therefore to democracy in this country—as plutonium is to human life and to life in general.

I have seen my fair share of elections in Northern Ireland, not only as a candidate for councils and for this place, but as an Ulster Unionist party worker. I have been well aware of the dangers of electoral fraud taking place. It is not a new phenomenon. The old catch-phrase, "Vote early, vote often," is a testimony to what took place in past years in some elections.

From the time of my earliest forays into politics, I was warned to keep a sharp look-out on election day. I also learned that fraud did not start on polling day; that was the day on which the efforts put in train many months previously bore fruit. However—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must be heard. I am surprised that the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry is conducting a conversation in the Chamber.

Mr. Ross

However, in those days, electoral fraud was not the danger to the validity of the electoral system and to the democratic process that it has become in recent years. Before the present violence began, a far larger percentage of our population in Northern Ireland lived in mixed communities. The party activists—there were many—therefore had a far greater knowledge of the total population than is now possible. In other words, the ghettoisation of Northern Ireland as a consequence of terrorist violence has increased the difficulties of political organisations in the Province.

That means that, whereas in the past the problem was largely confined to very few areas—for example, west Belfast, which was always a cockpit of politics—it is now far more widespread. Moreover, because electoral fraud is almost all carried out now by the Sinn Fein-IRA elements, it has become a carefully planned, sophisticated operation, far removed from the amateurish standards that were the norm when it was organised by individuals, not by an organised body of people.

Labour and Conservative Governments have been aware of the problem for many years, but have been distinctly loth to take action to stop it. I therefore welcome the Secretary of State's review team, set up in October 1997, which was a fulfilment of assurances given by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), now Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on 12 March 1997, to which reference may be found at column 397 of Hansard. I also welcome the action taken by the Northern Ireland forum and the excellent report that its members produced, for which I happened to give evidence, some of which is reproduced on page 105 of the second report of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs for the 1997–98 Session. I very much welcome the Select Committee's investigation and report, which is before the House and is relevant to the debate.

A detailed and useful picture emerges as to how fraud is carried out. It is clear that it is massive and on-going—and that it must be stopped. It is interesting to read the last two paragraphs of the Sinn Fein memorandum on page 75 of the Select Committee report, for it is obviously the only party in Northern Ireland that wants the safeguards relaxed—I believe that we may draw certain conclusions from that.

On page 10 of the Select Committee report, the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland—a man of vast experience in that field—informed the Committee: I am referring to the two 1981 by-elections in Fermanagh-South Tyrone where I travelled round the polling stations and I saw organised personation to such a level that I went to the Secretary of State afterwards and said that in my opinion it was totally unacceptable and some change must be made to enable a code to be obtained over that particular process. Therefore, the problem is not new. There was organised electoral malpractice, personation and vote stealing on a massive scale at that time.

Of course, we should remember the reasons for the 1981 by-elections. There was the death of Frank Maguire, an independent nationalist Member of the House, followed by the election of Mr. Sands, the first hunger striker to die. It was a time of considerable political emotion in Northern Ireland, especially in that area. However, we can see from that statement how much it was capitalised on and used by the terrorist organisation of which Mr. Sands was a member.

On pages 11 and 12 of the Select Committee report, my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) asked many interesting questions and made several interesting points. For instance, he pointed out: During the recent local government elections in May this year 35 applications were received supported and signed by a certain doctor (whose name I will hold for the meantime) who is known to me in the health centre in Omagh. He completed a part 3 declaration in support of each application and part 3 states: 'I further attest that he or she is being treated by me, is receiving care from me in respect of that physical incapacity and that they are likely to continue indefinitely for a period of months.' These applications all related to persons resident in the Mid Tyrone electoral area within the constituency of West Tyrone. They were rejected by your office"— that is, Mr. Bradley's office— as the applicants did not live within the catchment area of the Omagh health centre and on investigation it was found that these people were not registered with that health centre, in other words the doctor who signed these applications attesting that he was treating these people was not treating them. On page 12, my hon. Friend says: You may be aware of a BBC … Spotlight programme which highlighted the problems with multiple registration particularly in the constituency of West Belfast. The reporters in that programme came up with a number of clear examples of multiple registration. One example was where six people claimed to be tenants in a one bedroom flat and in fact none of them was actually resident at that flat. Again, another situation where five residents were registered at another one bedroom flat but could not be traced. Another where six people were sharing a one bedroom flat, three of whom could not be found. And another case of two out of five people registered at another flat who were registered at other addresses within the same constituency as well as two further addresses in a different constituency. Certainly, from my recollection, they are all clear cases of abuse of the registration system. That gives a clear idea of the position from the viewpoint of the Ulster Unionist party, but the most damning words in the report were uttered, not by an Ulster Unionist representative, but by Mr. Alex Attwood, an active and well-known member of the Social Democratic and Labour party on Belfast city council. He tells us on page 50: The evidence the SDLP produced was on the Draft Register of electors and many of their concerns centred on Divis Tower in the Falls Road. Normally around 160 people live here, but according to the draft electoral roll there are 22 extra residents. He mentions various flats, some of which may well be those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley. He continues: According to the draft electoral roll this two-bedroom flat is home to five men, including Terence Clarke"— better known in Belfast as "Cleeky Clarke"— Robert MacMahon and Sean O'Neill. These names, although slightly misspelt, matched those of close associates of Gerry Adams. There is more in the next column, to the effect that those people appear not only at that place but throughout Belfast, and especially in north Belfast. Every one of them is a well-known thug, to be charitable. We simply cannot allow that to continue, and there must be action to stop it. For those who do not want to wade through the 108 pages of evidence, I suggest a reading of the summary of conclusions and recommendations, which are quite damning.

It is plain that the provision of an accurate register of electors is the first essential in stamping out electoral fraud. It is an established fact that the key to the prevention of widespread fraud is a means of accurately identifying each elector at the compilation of the register and in the polling station, or when the person is applying for an absent vote. That is not a new conclusion, because the present requirement that each elector should identify himself before receiving a ballot paper is an effort to prevent fraud.

The system has not worked because the documents that are required do not all have photographs and many of them are easily acquired by the fraudsters. That was acknowledged last year by the present Under-Secretary of State, at column 398 of the Official Report of 12 March 1997. I am not sure that there is a foolproof or easy answer, but the essentials of a better method of identification are easily derived from the mass of evidence that is with the Government. They are an identity card with a photograph of the person who is named on it, which should also contain the date of birth and a number that is unique to the card owner. It should either be the person's national insurance number, although there are difficulties with a large surplus of national insurance numbers, or the medical card number.

It would be a good idea for the card to be a medical card and, of course, that is close to the concept of a national identity card. Perhaps the Government will clarify their position on that issue. Such a card was proposed in the previous Parliament by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who is now the shadow Foreign Secretary. The medical card would also be useful if the holder had an accident. Such a triple check would make it difficult to register more than once, and a computer system would pick that up as it picks up registered debts. The photograph would make visual identification in the polling station of the elector relatively easy, beards aside.

I do not accept all the arguments by the so-called civil libertarians against an identity card. Most other countries in Europe have them, and it is nonsense to think that a totalitarian Government would not rapidly introduce such a system anyway. The issue creates no danger to civil liberties.

The Minister will say that it would be almost impossible to get accurate photographs of everybody in Northern Ireland. I again draw to his attention the good news that I gave him a week or two ago in another debate. Photographs with the correct name attached are already to hand for a large proportion of the electorate. They exist in the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Northern Ireland agency in County hall, Coleraine.

The Minister will recall that, on 3 April, more than 1 million people in Northern Ireland had driving licences. Few of the photographs on them are false, because they would be of no use to the licence holders. About two or three years ago, the agency studied the implementation of a national identity card. The agency holds the date of birth of all licence holders. Some women may have avoided giving that. but that is not a real problem. Each licence has a unique number that could be used if needed. The system uses a card of the same size as a credit card—it is a blank credit card—and production could be carried out in Coleraine at fairly high speed, although it would still take some weeks.

On 3 April there were 1,082,936 licence holders on the computer system, and every licence has a digital photograph attached. After allowing for the number of people who have departed, the photographs of a huge proportion of the people of Northern Ireland over the age of 17 are in a computer in Northern Ireland and could be switched out at any time. That represents 88.7 per cent. of the population of the Province over the age of 17.

The numbers associated with the card should be on the electoral registers that are used by officials in the polling stations, and should be available to the chief electoral officer for cross-referencing to his computer list. However, they should not be on the registers that are available to the public. If that system was implemented, forgery would be extremely difficult, because the fraudsters would not be able to produce cards with the correct numbers. To steal votes, they would need electors' cards and would have to reprint them with different photographs. That would be a much more sophisticated operation than the one in which they currently engage.

Next week, we have a referendum on which the future of Northern Ireland will depend, and the accurate identification of electors is no more possible in that vital election than it was in the two elections last year. Steps should have been taken long ago to deal with electoral fraud. I hope that the Government will say what they intend to do and when, so that we may have honest electoral results in all parts of Northern Ireland, not only in areas where Sinn Fein is weak.

The debate is about electoral fraud, but there are other concerns about elections. People should not be prevented from voting, but if we restricted postal and proxy voting, that right would be curtailed. We must face that delicate and difficult issue, but it must be dealt with properly. There must be a more sensible approach to the use of the driving licence for purposes of identification. At present the whole licence, document card and all, has to be produced. That is obviously nonsense, because the plastic card with the photograph, which most people carry in their wallets, should be sufficient.

People can go into a polling station and say to the presiding officer, "Hello John, how are you? Here is my driving licence." They are told, "It is insufficient, William. You are not allowed to vote. Away you go." Many people walk out in fury and do not come back. That is crazy. I have raised the matter for years and I have been told, "Perhaps they go home and come back." They will not come back if they live five miles away. A proper identity card for this purpose is needed. It would also be useful for other purposes, and a medical card is the one that I favour.

Common sense must be applied to the identification of Northern Ireland people. We know the problem and we know where it is and who is behind it. When will the Government act? All hon. Members and the vast majority of Northern Ireland people want honest election results. All the information is available. When will the Government get on with it?

12.46 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Paul Murphy)

I thank the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) for raising an exceptionally important issue. I encountered the matter almost in the first week of becoming a Minister, because, of course, directly after an election, matters are fresh in politicians' minds. Since that time, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have taken a special interest in electoral malpractice. I pay tribute to the members of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, who produced an interesting and full report. I also pay tribute to those who took part in the forum talks and who met me to present their report and findings. I give the undertaking that the findings of both bodies will be taken into account in the current review. I shall come to that shortly.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Select Committee report. On page 105, he is reported as saying: I agree with the hon. Member; the registration process in Northern Ireland is much better than that in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is carefully done and people are followed up. Because of the problems of malpractice and fraud that have been experienced in Northern Ireland, aspects of the electoral system there are better than in the rest of the country. There is a residency qualification and a declaration against terrorism. Documents are specified and, of course, voting is by proportional representation.

The Government take abuse of the system extremely seriously; we believe, above all, that the right to vote is central to democracy. If the integrity of that process is abused, democracy itself is abused. The importance that we attach to the issue is illustrated by the speed with which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State responded to allegations of malpractice after the elections last year, by establishing the review of electoral procedures. Since July, the review has been analysing every aspect of electoral procedure in Northern Ireland, with a view to enhancing the system generally, but with a particular interest in investigating the incidence of malpractice.

On 31 July last year, I asked voters in Northern Ireland to write in with their concerns or evidence that they might have of electoral abuse, and their suggestions for improvements. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the response was not particularly good. Consequently, some months later, in October, we issued a second press release and I personally sent a letter to every political party that had not yet submitted papers for the review. Even then, I suspect, the response was a little disappointing. Nevertheless, we have worked very hard.

Mr. William Ross

One of the reasons why the Minister may not have got a response from my party and possibly from others was that we knew that the other inquiries were going on, and we assumed that both the forum and the Select Committee would deal with the matter. That has indeed been done very well.

Mr. Murphy

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but his party was not the only one involved. There were smaller, newer parties that could have helped us in our review.

We had a great deal of input, and still do, from the chief electoral officer, Mr. Pat Bradley. The review team has studied and carefully considered all the points made by the forum committee, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs and the parties that have written to us.

The hon. Gentleman referred to specific examples of electoral malpractice. I shall deal with three aspects, starting with electoral registration. Some have alleged that the Northern Ireland electoral register is inaccurate, and that those who wish to abuse the system exploit procedures in order to register themselves or others when they do not fit the eligibility criteria. Our research so far has indicated that such malpractice is possible, but it must be said that no specific, provable cases of deliberate attempts to abuse the system have emerged.

As has been pointed out, the method of registration in Northern Ireland is better than that in the rest of the United Kingdom. A system of door-to-door canvassers is used every September to compile the register. The canvassers offer help and advice to householders on how to fill out their forms, and help to explain the eligibility criteria. Furthermore, in the attempt to collect all registration forms in person, they call at each household three times, before leaving the form to be returned by post. The rate at which forms are completed with a canvasser present is regularly over 90 per cent. In the preparation of the last draft register, 408 canvassers were employed and more than 622,000 residential units were canvassed.

After the registration cycle, the draft register is published to allow for a system of claims and objections operated by the chief electoral officer to take place. As the hon. Gentleman will know, objections are allowed to any name included on the register or claims for names to be added. The point made by Mr. Attwood in his evidence could be covered by that procedure. Names can be added to the register throughout the year, by a monthly claims process. As the hon. Gentleman knows, he and his parliamentary colleagues are sent by the chief electoral officer the annual timetable of dates for the monthly hearings.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

The report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee suggests that a rolling register that would allow people's names to be added and deleted according to area as they moved around would be fruitful in Northern Ireland. It would be particularly fruitful in dealing with the problem of multiple registrations, which are open to abuse, because a system of multiple registrations would not be necessary for people moving from one area to another. I realise that that is tied in with the general review of such matters throughout the United Kingdom.

Mr. Murphy

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He knows that the recommendations of the Select Committee, of which he is a member, are important and will be taken into account. The review has identified various possible improvements, and we are investigating their long-term feasibility.

Personation at polling stations may spring first to people's minds when the issue of electoral malpractice is raised. It caused public concern in the 1970s and 1980s and led to the introduction of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985. The hon. Member for East Londonderry rightly referred to the requirement for a voter to produce one of a number of valid, specified documents at a polling station before being issued with a ballot paper. The list was drawn up with the intention that all registered voters would have access to at least one of those documents.

I am aware of the concern about the use of the medical card as a form of voter identification, which has been expressed by individuals and many parties in Northern Ireland. I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the use of another document, perhaps a registration document. Those are matters that the review is currently considering. Of course, it is important that documentation should be provable and have the confidence of everyone concerned.

We must be careful, however, not to withdraw documents without an adequate replacement being made available. It is not an option to disfranchise genuine electors in order to tighten up voting regulation. The hon. Gentleman referred to the miles that people must travel, especially in rural areas, in order to vote, and the fact that they rarely return after being turned away. Regulations exist that allow for the challenge and arrest of individuals suspected of personation, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, they are rarely used.

From general correspondence and feedback, it has become clear that the greatest source of concern about electoral malpractice is the absent voting system. The procedures that we have inherited do not appear to include the checks that are present for registration and voting at polling stations. There is scope for abuse of the regulations, and the absent voting procedures seem to be the ones most vulnerable to malpractice.

The Government have already taken steps to make the system more secure for the referendum and the possible assembly elections. The electoral office will be allowed a slightly longer period for scrutinising the absent voter applications, which would permit the identification, and therefore the rejection, of fraudulent applications.

In addition—this was dealt with in the Select Committee report—the wording of the medical declaration is being changed to require the witness to declare that he has seen the applicant in connection with the medical condition. That should aid the identification and prosecution of medical practitioners who fraudulently attest forms. The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to the comments on that in the Select Committee report. We shall examine the operation and success of those measures to decide whether they should be implemented for future elections.

The review is looking into the absent voting system. It submitted an interim report on electoral malpractice in November last year. I must repeat that no hard evidence of electoral abuse has been presented, but there can be little doubt that there is a general perception in Northern Ireland that electoral malpractice is being perpetrated on a large scale, that electoral abuse exists and that something must be done. I strongly agree that abuse is unacceptable and that it is essential for people to have confidence in their electoral system.

The chief electoral officer has been very open in his judgment of the system. Although he agrees that no real proof of malpractice exists, he has publicly expressed his concern that certain irregularities strongly suggest that certain areas of the electoral process at the very least arouse a suspicion of foul play. I believe that, once the review has reported, we shall want to carry out full consultations with the parties before introducing changes. That means that it is unlikely that any fundamental changes will be made before the elections to the European Parliament in 1999, but some may well be introduced after that date.

Mr. William Ross

The Minister stated that the chief electoral officer said that there was no evidence of electoral malpractice, but on page 10 of the Select Committee report Mr. Bradley states: I saw … personation to such a level that I went to the Secretary of State". He witnessed it himself.

Mr. Murphy

I was referring to the absent voter aspect. I entirely accept that electoral malpractice exists, and furthermore that the perception of such malpractice leads to a lack of confidence in the electoral system. It is important that the review takes into account all the views that have been expressed by hon. Members, the Select Committee, the forum and political parties. When the review emerges later in the summer, I believe that its recommendations will produce the confidence that is necessary for proper democracy in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We now come to the debate on road traffic accidents.