HC Deb 05 December 2001 vol 376 cc318-20
2. Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West)

What steps are being taken by the Government to tackle electoral fraud; and if he will make a statement. [18093]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne)

The Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill, will provide the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland with additional powers to address the problem of electoral fraud there. The proposed measures will tackle electoral abuse effectively without disadvantaging honest voters.

Stephen Hesford

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. We are considering a key battle in the normalisation of civil society in the Province. Will my hon. Friend say a little more about multiple electoral registrations and what the Government are doing to make progress on that?

Mr. Browne

My hon. Friend is right to acknowledge the importance of combating electoral fraud in Northern Ireland to the stability of the political institutions there. On multiple registration, he will recollect that, on Third Reading, I undertook to consider whether there should be a requirement in Northern Ireland for those seeking to register to advise the chief electoral officer whether they were already registered or had tried to register at another address. I can now confirm that I intend to give the chief electoral officer powers to ask those questions during the canvass, starting in autumn 2002. Any person who knowingly gives a false answer to that question will be liable for a fine of up to £1,000.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Successive Governments have made a meal out of tackling electoral fraud. Has the Minister noticed that the Republic of Ireland is considering electronic voting in three counties to avoid fraud? Is not it time to deal with issues at that level, apart from pre-registration? Will he assure us that the chief electoral officer has full authority to change the method of voting?

Mr. Browne

The hon. Gentleman has made consistent and important contributions to the debate, for which I thank him. He will recollect that, on Second Reading, there was a discussion about our aspiration to move towards electronic voting. However, all parties, including the Ulster Unionist party, agreed that the objective should be to put in place measures that would interdict the sort of fraud that had been identified and suspected. That is my priority, but it does not alter the fact that my long-term objective is to move towards electronic voting, which will help to tackle fraud.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's final point, he can rest assured that the chief electoral officer has all the powers, support and assistance that he needs to address this issue. In addition, I have started holding a series of regular meetings with him to ensure that I am kept up to date with progress on addressing the issue of electoral fraud.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

Does the Minister agree that the improvements contained in the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill will do much to eradicate electoral fraud in Northern Ireland? Does he also agree that the proliferation of electoral fraud could jeopardise the democratic process there? Above all, does he agree that one of the outstanding remaining ways of tackling such fraud would be to introduce proportional representation for elections in Northern Ireland? As the House knows, we use proportional representation for local government elections and European elections, so why not use it for the elections to this House?

Mr. Browne

I agree with two thirds of the hon. Gentleman's observations. First, he is perfectly correct to recognise the importance of the Bill as a measure for tackling electoral fraud. Secondly, it is important to reinforce the view that I expressed earlier that the stability of the political institutions of Northern Ireland is to a large degree dependent on the confidence that people have in their votes. The issue of proportional representation—other than in the circumstances in which it is already exercised in Northern Ireland—is reflected in a recommendation in the draft Bill of Rights by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should direct his contributions on that debate to the commission in the first instance.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon)

How can the Government's commitment to tackling electoral fraud in Northern Ireland be taken seriously when every party in the House but their own has argued for the inclusion of national insurance numbers on the electoral register?

Mr. Browne

I think that the hon. Gentleman was present for the final stages of the Bill, although he might not have been. He will, however, recollect that there was cross-party support for the use of national insurance numbers as an identifier. He will also recollect that I opposed those proposals because I considered that they were disproportionate, that they made unreasonable demands on voters, and that they were opposed by the chief electoral officer.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members are being very noisy. The House must come to order.

Mr. Browne

I also opposed the proposals because data protection implications were involved. The hon. Gentleman will also recollect that I undertook to reflect on the issue, and I have continued to do so. I continue to have discussions with the chief electoral officer, and I have had interesting discussions with the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) on these matters. I am still in reflective mode on them, but as soon as I come out of reflective mode, I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets to know of my decision.