HC Deb 10 July 2001 vol 371 cc688-739

Order for Second Reading read.

5.2 pm

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

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill gives effect to the proposals in our White Paper, "Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland", which was published in March. It provides the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland with additional powers to address the problem of electoral fraud.

The measures build on the excellent work of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, the recommendations of the Northern Ireland Forum committee on electoral malpractice, and an internal Northern Ireland Office review of electoral administration.

Our policy across the United Kingdom is to encourage people to participate more fully in the political process. The turnout at elections has been historically higher in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom. That suggests that the electorate in Northern Ireland are more politically active and more politically conscious than elsewhere in the UK. However, there has been growing concern at the perceived extent of electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull)

The origins of the matter that we are considering lie in a report to the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs on electoral malpractice. It was agreed in March 1998. Why has it taken more than three years to introduce a Bill? It is possible that Assembly elections will take place soon in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Browne

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I am acutely aware of the date of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report, as I was a member of the Committee when it was published. He asked why it had taken so long for the legislation to appear. The answer is that the process of drawing up specific proposals has taken some time, as they have to be broadly acceptable, workable and fair. Arriving at a set of workable proposals involved extensive consultation with the political parties, especially in Northern Ireland, as well as the electoral office and others. Some new measures have already been taken in other legislation and by administrative means.

There has been growing concern about the perceived level of electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland. The Government have a commitment to protecting the right to free and fair elections. Of course, electoral fraud is a crime. Electoral abuse is an affront to democracy and we are determined to combat it wherever it occurs. If there is a high level of abuse, or even if people only fear that that is the case, the democratic process will be under threat. We do not want voters in Northern Ireland to become disillusioned with politics because they fear that elections are unfair.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

Will the Under-Secretary comment on the intimidation felt by the electorate of Fermanagh and South Tyrone at the general election? There was widespread intimidation by Sinn Fein at polling stations, against the democratic process. Is not that the most glaring example of abuse of democracy in Northern Ireland? Although legal action is now being taken on behalf of one of the defeated candidates, will the Minister comment on what happened in Fermanagh and South Tyrone?

Mr. Browne

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand if I do not comment specifically on any matters that may be before the court or subject to police investigations or electoral petitions. I can make it clear, however, that the Government deplore vote stealing and condemn utterly intimidation of any sort, including that which is linked to the electoral process. I am happy to make this call at the Dispatch Box: if anyone suffered such intimidation in the recent elections, they should report the incident to the police or the electoral office, so it can be dealt with with appropriate vigour.

Although we do not want voters in Northern Ireland to become disillusioned with politics because they fear that elections are not fair, and although the perception of abuse must be dealt with, it is nevertheless the Government's view that draconian measures are not the answer. When taking measures to prevent electoral fraud, we must ensure that we do not put obstacles in the path of genuine voters. Only if we strike that balance will the measures that we take be broadly acceptable to the House and the electorate.

My predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), dedicated much of his time at the Northern Ireland Office to considering the nature of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland and what could be done to prevent it. I pay tribute to him for his work. I am sure that the House will agree that his contribution on this issue and also the range of matters with which he dealt as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was significant. It is fair to say that we would not be discussing the Bill without his efforts to find workable solutions to the problems. He met representatives of most of the Northern Ireland parties at the end of last year to discuss the proposals in the Bill. At those meetings, there was broad agreement to the proposals, especially in respect of introducing a photographic electoral identity card.

We have been criticised because the measures in the Bill have not been introduced before now—an issue raised by the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor). I stress that that has happened not because of a lack of commitment to the problem. The time before publication of the White Paper was used for extensive discussion with the parties and others to ensure that our solutions to the problem of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland were workable and broadly acceptable. I regret that it was not possible to introduce legislation before the elections on 7 June.

Even if the changes made by the Bill had been introduced before the elections, however, the procedures could not have been implemented straight away, as they depend on material collected in the autumn canvass. We had to ensure that the electorate and the parties were well informed about the changes that are being made and that the people were not disfranchised as the result of any untimely haste. In discussion with the Northern Ireland parties, we were constantly reminded of the need to proceed in a careful and considered manner, most recently in the round of consultations in November.

The measures proposed have been refined after detailed consultations with the political parties and the chief electoral officer. We have not been idle in implementing other changes that are not covered by the proposed legislation. For instance, new measures already in place are rolling registration and local processing of absent vote applications. The chief electoral officer has powers to examine the records of certain public bodies—for example, the Housing Executive, the district councils and the Rate Collection Agency. The existing IT in the electoral office is shortly to be replaced with updated equipment that will add to the efficiency of the office.

We have given the chief electoral officer extra resources to provide additional staff in both his headquarters and his area electoral offices. We have also recently commissioned research to quantify with more certainty the scale of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. The results of the research should be available in September. They will enable us to be better informed about the level of abuse and the form that it takes.

As I have said, the Bill builds on the recommendations of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. I wish to emphasise the value and importance of those recommendations. As I have told the House, I was a member of the Committee at the relevant time, and I am proud of the work that was done.

I am sure that the House will forgive me for taking a few moments to pay tribute to the work of the former Chairman of the Committee, Peter Brooke, both on the Committee and in making a significant contribution to the search for peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. I am pleased to see so many of my former Committee colleagues in the Chamber. I look forward to them lending their particular knowledge and expertise to the debate.

The Select Committee report was extremely thorough—

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I am pleased to be involved in a debate that is led by my hon. Friend, who played an important role in the Select Committee. He has always been involved in Northern Ireland matters during his time in the House, first as a Parliamentary Private Secretary and now as a Minister, and he is welcome.

Will my hon. Friend recognise the work of the committee of the Northern Ireland Forum, which produced a number of proposals that were later picked up by the Select Committee? The forum often produced valuable reports, often on a cross-party basis, which are not always recognised for their significance in the House.

Mr. Browne

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I hope to live up to the billing that he has given me in the job that I have taken on. I paid particular attention to the forum's report in my introductory remarks. I am at pains to explain that the Bill is a result of a progression of thought. A number of bodies have contributed to that progression, and I hope that the Bill will be all the more welcome to the House because it is the result of a process in which many Members have played a significant part. I have no hesitation in paying tribute to the forum's work in that important process.

The Select Committee report was extremely thorough and it made an important contribution to the thinking behind the Bill, as did the work of other bodies. I do not detract from anything that we said in our report on electoral abuse. However, it should not be a criticism of the Bill, or of myself, that it does not implement all of the Committee's recommendations. As I have said, the Bill had to strike the right balance between limiting the opportunity for abuse and putting obstacles in the path of genuine voters.

On closer examination of the Select Committee's report, not all of the measures recommended by it were feasible, nor would they have been effective in the way proposed. For example, the use of the national insurance number as a personal identifier had certain demerits. We considered carefully the idea of making the national insurance number an identifier, as well as the date of birth and signature, as proposed in the Bill. We are not convinced that the national insurance number would add sufficient value to justify its addition as an identifier. Arguably, it would create new difficulties. For a start, most people do not know, their national insurance number—certainly, many people do not know it. Would a presiding officer be justified in refusing someone a ballot paper if they could not recall theirs? It is possible to have more than one national insurance number. One can have a temporary national insurance number. There is evidence that people who may not legitimately have a national insurance number have more than one.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

The hon. Gentleman will know from his experience on the Select Committee that that was not the reason why the national insurance number was sought as an identifier—it was so that when registration took place, the chief electoral officer would be able to identify multiple registration.

Mr. Browne

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of that. I will in a few moments come to the other problems with using the national insurance number as an identifer and give our view of how multiple registration should be dealt with.

One of the other reasons why we rejected the idea of using the national insurance number as an identifier was the legal constraints of data protection that would have to be overcome. That would require additional legislation. In any event, the national insurance number was never intended to be an identifier for anything other than fiscal or employment purposes.

It is possible to think of any number of personal identifiers: the number of personal identifiers that one could demand of people may be unlimited. In striking the appropriate balance, we think that it is appropriate to introduce into the system only the personal identifiers that are necessary to achieve the checks to ensure that fraud does not take place. We should not include in the electoral process all the identifiers that are available.

The Select Committee recognised that a smart card, a universally issued electronically read card, for electoral purposes would probably be the most effective option for combating electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland". As we said in the White Paper, our ultimate aim is for every voter to be issued with an electoral smart card bearing a unique identifier, but that is an aspiration. The technology available at the moment, especially with regard to biometrics, is still too young. We would be foolish to rush into a radical new system before we could be confident of the practicalities, but we will consider further when to initiate such a secure electoral identity scheme. Such a scheme would not be introduced without further consultation with all interested parties.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

That is a reasonable position to take, but does the Minister nevertheless agree that Northern Ireland would be a good place to pilot such a scheme, even if over time we need to make at least one update to the specific technology in use in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Browne

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Governments of both parties have been prepared to do in Northern Ireland what has not been done in Great Britain, so there is no reluctance to introduce a separate system for Northern Ireland. However, there is reluctance to experiment with such an important part of the electoral system and to introduce impractical measures. I do not believe that the Government should test technology on the electoral system. We certainly do not intend to do that. When we are satisfied that the technology is robust, secure and works properly, that will be the time to consider the introduction of the more advanced biometrically based smart card. That is the aspiration, but we will do it in the way in which we have been urged to do all things in this area—carefully and at the appropriate pace, taking not only the political parties of Northern Ireland, but, I hope, the electorate in Northern Ireland with us.

Many of the Select Committee's other recommendations have already been implemented in the measures that I outlined earlier—for example, rolling registration, which came into effect in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the UK, by means of the Representation of the People Act 2000. The electoral office has been provided with funding for additional staff. The information technology system will be replaced over the next few years, and will be capable of responding to the new measures that we are introducing.

Members are aware that voting procedures in Northern Ireland are different from those in the rest of the UK. They reflect the very different circumstances surrounding elections in Northern Ireland. Most significantly, in Northern Ireland there is a legal 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. A person must also be resident in Northern Ireland for three months before qualifying for entry on the electoral register there. Absent voting rules in Northern Ireland are stricter than those in Great Britain, because there is no automatic right to an absent vote.

All those measures are in place because they are necessary. I am sure that all Members regret the circumstances that make them so, but the issues surrounding elections in Northern Ireland demand them. We want election day to be as normal as possible for the voters in Northern Ireland. We do need different measures, but they must be proportionate if we are to avoid putting barriers in the way of the electorate.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I understand the point that the Minister has been trying to make, but may I ask two questions? First, are we not perhaps living in cloud cuckoo land in assuming that there are no problems in Great Britain? It is increasingly obvious that there is electoral fraud there. Secondly, has the Minister considered amending the regulations concerning, for example, driving licences? If a person presents a plastic card that identifies him, giving his date of birth and so on, it is not accepted unless there is also a paper document. There is a growing tendency for people to carry only the plastic documents in their wallets. Voters have been turned away unnecessarily in Northern Ireland because of a rather strict interpretation of the law by our officials. Should that not be changed?

Mr. Browne

I know how much attention the hon. Gentleman pays to this important issue, and I always listen to what he says with respect and care. However, he will not draw me into commenting on matters that are outside my area of responsibility. It has taken me enough time to get to grips with my present responsibility; I do not want to take on responsibility for the rest of the UK's electoral system as well. I therefore shall not comment on whether there is evidence that a degree of personation or fraud is taking place in the rest of the UK; I leave that responsibility to others.

As for the hon. Gentleman's second point, by law the driving licence is the whole document. Because I mislaid my old green licence, I now have a new licence with my photograph on it. When I have to hire a motor vehicle, for instance, I know that I must produce both the part bearing my personal identity and photograph, and the part containing the other information. There is, I understand, evidence to suggest that not all prospective voters in Northern Ireland know about this, and that people have been turned away after failing to produce the appropriate identifiers—but there is a series of other identifiers that they could produce. It is hoped that, in the climate that the Bill will create, the emphasis will be on the photographic aspect of the identification. It may then be appropriate for us to turn our attention to the part of the document that bears the photograph, as opposed to the other information. I suspect, however, that if the Bill is passed there will be a transitional period leading up to photographic identification, which will have to be managed carefully in any event.

I respect the hon. Gentleman's knowledge and his seniority in the House, but I do not think it would be appropriate for the Government to consider any more changes than are absolutely necessary at this stage. No doubt we shall have an opportunity to discuss these matters in detail in Committee.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) has raised an issue that causes great annoyance at every polling station across Northern Ireland. Surely it is an absolute nonsense that someone who presents paper documentation without a visual identifier is granted permission to vote, whereas someone who presents a part of his driving licence with a photograph clearly identifying him is denied such permission.

Now is the time to take action on the issue. With all due respect, and although I welcome the Minister to his post, I said in last week's business questions that perhaps the Secretary of State should have attended this debate or the debate should have been deferred for a week. If the Secretary of State were here, perhaps he would have been conciliatory on the issue. I repeat the appeal to the Minister to take on board the point and endeavour to make the relevant changes.

Mr. Browne

Given that the hon. Gentleman and I were members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—I believe that he continued to be a member of that Committee throughout the previous Parliament—and that we established a good working relationship and friendship there, I shall not take personally his comments on the absence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I am sure that the House will understand that my right hon. Friend is regrettably unable to attend the debate because of the fluid situation in Northern Ireland. I shall simply say that the political process in Northern Ireland is an important matter.

As it is important to ensure that the electoral system in Northern Ireland is beyond reproach, we judged that it was right to keep the parliamentary slot allotted to the Bill and to consider it today. I am sorry for the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) if he has to put up with me rather than the Secretary of State. However, I shall endeavour to be a little more conciliatory.

The hon. Gentleman's experience seems to reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). There is a focus on the photograph as an identifier because of the significant move from identifiers, albeit not exclusively photographic ones, that the current Government have inherited—although that move was supported on both sides of the House. That may give us an opportunity to consider the importance of photographs in the context of this legislation.

As I said, it would not be right to impose unreasonable burdens on the majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland who merely want to exercise their franchise as entitled. The action that we take must be carefully thought through, and we believe that the Bill strikes the correct balance. It provides for a photographic electoral identity card to be issued free of charge to those who are entitled to vote but might not otherwise have satisfactory proof of identity.

It is proposed in due course to replace all the non-photographic identification on the list of specified documents. Thereafter, the electoral identity card, the passport and the driving licence will be the only identification that are acceptable at polling stations. The Bill requires that a canvass form and an application for voter registration be signed by and include the date of birth of each of those to whom the form or application relates. In certain circumstances, it also gives the presiding officer at a polling station the power to ask the date of birth of an elector applying for a ballot paper.

It has always been intended that the measures will be applied to all elections in Northern Ireland. The Bill extends all the measures to parliamentary elections, although subordinate legislation will be needed to amend the local elections rules and the franchise for European elections.

Before I come to the details of the clauses, I should touch on some important issues that were covered in the reports to which I referred and which we discussed in our subsequent consultations. These are the questions of multiple registration, absent voting and exclusion zones around polling stations.

The Select Committee expressed concern about the level of multiple registration in some parts of Northern Ireland. Some people have a legitimate right to register in more than one place and should, indeed must, be allowed to continue to do so. I am thinking particularly of students and people who have to work away from home. I am registered to vote not only in the city of Westminster, but in my constituency. The Select Committee shared that analysis, recommending that those who were registered more than once should be required to indicate that that was the case and to list all their addresses.

We share the objective of identifying those who are registered more than once, but propose to achieve that in a slightly different way. The collection of additional identifiers—the signature and date of birth—plus enhanced IT capability in the electoral office will mean that the chief electoral officer will be able to identify more effectively where people are registered to vote at more than one address. He will thus be able to ensure that, for parliamentary elections, only one poll card is issued to such an individual and ensure that the privilege of multiple registration is not abused.

On absent voting, the White Paper originally proposed that the date of birth and signature should be required on the application. On reflection, we have decided that a requirement for the signature alone should be sufficient. Throughout the process of developing the proposals, we have been mindful that we must introduce the minimum changes necessary to guarantee effectiveness. That is because any checks—no matter how mundane or minor they may appear—present a potential barrier to the voter. Our guiding principle has been not to set up additional barriers unless we are completely confident that they represent added value.

Of the two identifiers, we believe that the signature is more reliable and easy to use. We appreciate that some people will be unwilling to give their date of birth, but we will already be requiring them to do so—if the House approves these measures—to get on to the electoral register. There is little benefit in requiring them to do so again to receive an absent vote. The signature on the absent vote application will provide a quick and easy visual check for electoral staff. If they have concerns about the authenticity of the application, they may still draw on the date of birth that they have from the register in pursuing their inquiries.

The issue of so-called exclusion zones around polling stations is an important and complex one. We fully acknowledge the seriousness of the issue of intimidation. The Select Committee did so too, and rightly. Like the Government, the Select Committee decided that nevertheless the solution to intimidation, or perceived intimidation, was not an exclusion zone around the polling station. Campaigning around the polling station is a recognised political activity throughout the UK. It is perfectly legitimate, where it is carried out in a fair and proper manner.

We see no reason to end that legitimate practice in Northern Ireland by imposing exclusion zones. We need to be satisfied that we have taken all the necessary steps to ensure that activity around the polling station is not carried out in such a way as to intimidate people into staying away, or coerce them into voting for a particular party. We have examined the existing law carefully and believe that it is sufficient to ensure that, as it stands.

We need to ensure that presiding officers know the law and know their duties and responsibilities and, most importantly, have the confidence to take action where it is necessary, including involving the police. We are committed to ensuring that the chief electoral officer has the necessary resources to achieve that, and we know that he has frequent discussions with the police about the conduct of election day.

As I said earlier, we considered seriously the proposal for an exclusion zone on the lines of the procedures which operate, for example, in the Republic of Ireland. We took advice, including from the police. Their view was that that had the potential to create greater difficulties; it would cause disruption for households inside the zone; it would merely displace the potential confrontation point to outside the polling station; and it would, in fact, create several different points of possible conflict which would all have to be policed. The fact is that no one has said to us that there is a universal problem at polling stations throughout Northern Ireland, but if we went down that route, we would need an exclusion zone around every polling station. Even if we thought an exclusion zone was an effective measure, there clearly would be no reason to impose one in every instance. As I have said, we want election days to be as normal as possible for the voters in Northern Ireland.

Clause 1 enables the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland to collect additional identifying information from registered voters. Electors and those applying for registration will be required to state their date of birth and sign the form for the annual canvass, as well as to state their names and addresses. That information will not appear on the public version of the electoral register, but will be used at the electoral office and at polling stations to make checks against the names of electors when they apply for a postal vote or to vote by proxy, or attend at a polling station to obtain a ballot paper. The chief electoral officer may use his discretion to dispense with the requirement for a voter to supply a signature in certain circumstances, such as physical incapacity or illiteracy.

Clause 2 amends the parliamentary elections rules in relation to Northern Ireland. The changes empower a presiding officer or clerk at a polling station to ask a third statutory question: "What is your date of birth?". If the voter does not answer to the satisfaction of the presiding officer, he can refuse to issue a ballot paper. If the voter does answer to the satisfaction of the presiding officer, the ballot paper must be presented unless a candidate or his election or polling agent accuses the voter of personation.

Clause 3 amends provisions that have effect only in Northern Ireland and relate to absent voting. Applications to vote by post or proxy must be signed and the signature on the application must correspond with the signature provided to the chief electoral officer on registration. The chief electoral officer may refuse to grant an absent vote application if he is not satisfied that the signature on the application corresponds with the signature held on his records. Refusal of an absent vote is not taken lightly. The chief electoral officer may use his discretion, but refusal without good cause would leave his decision subject to judicial review.

Clause 4 enables a person to apply to be issued with an electoral identity card, in accordance with any requirements prescribed by regulations. The chief electoral officer has the function of determining such an application, and if he is satisfied that the information given by an applicant is correct, he is required to issue an electoral identity card free of charge.

The electoral identity card must show the elector's full name and date of birth, his photograph and the card's expiry date. The chief electoral officer can decide, in accordance with any regulations, that the card should include other information in a particular form. The card will be valid for 10 years and will be added to the list of specified documents that voters may use for the purposes of identification at polling stations in Northern Ireland.

Clause 5 introduces a requirement for voters with disabilities to produce a specified document, in the same way as other voters. That requirement had been inadvertently omitted. Since 1985, it has been a requirement that voters in Northern Ireland should produce evidence of identity in the form of a prescribed document.

Before the Representation of the People Act 2000 came into force, the law required that the presiding officer should not grant a blind voter's application to vote with the assistance of another person unless the voter had produced a prescribed document to identify himself. That was inadvertently repealed by a new rule in the 2000 Act, which extended the right to vote with the assistance of a companion to voters with disabilities such as physical incapacity and illiteracy.

The unforeseen consequence of the new rule was that it removed the requirement for blind and disabled voters in Northern Ireland who were voting with the assistance of a companion to produce a prescribed document. Clause 5 repairs the provision for blind voters and extends the requirement to produce a prescribed document to all those entitled by the 2000 Act to vote with the assistance of a companion. A voter with disabilities who attends at a polling station with a companion to assist him may satisfy the requirement to produce a specified document, even if in fact the documents are produced by, and the ballot paper delivered to, the companion rather than the voter himself.

Clause 6 makes it an offence for a person to sign either a canvass form or an application for registration if the person signing is not the person to whom the form or application relates. A person found guilty of either offence is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or a fine, or both.

Clause 7 provides that clauses 1 to 4 and 6 come into force on days to be specified by the Secretary of State, who may specify different commencement dates for different provisions. Clauses 5 and 7 will come into force on Royal Assent.

The Bill counters electoral abuse directly and at every stage of the electoral process: registration, absent voting and polling. We want to ensure that any loopholes that have been exploited in the past are removed. At the same time, we will not prevent genuine voters from making their voices heard. All our proposals have been examined with that in mind. We intend to implement the measures as soon as is practicable, but we will take all necessary steps to ensure that no one is disenfranchised because of them. Calls for the measures have come from within Northern Ireland itself and from parties across the political spectrum.

People who commit electoral fraud are attacking the fundamental principles of democracy. Governments have a duty to protect the right to free and fair elections. The Bill sends a clear signal that electoral fraud is a crime and that we are determined to combat it. I commend the Bill to the House.

5.40 pm
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull)

We are grateful to the Minister for setting out the background and the main provisions of this short Bill, and I congratulate him on his debut at the Dispatch Box.

The Bill has the broad support of the Opposition, and we have no intention of dividing the House this evening. It is intriguing that the Government should have chosen to debate electoral fraud in a part of the United Kingdom on the day that the Conservative party is engaged in its first leadership election ballot. I am sure that that is entirely coincidental.

Mr. Browne

The hon. Gentleman should not read too much into that coincidence, as the parliamentary Labour party is also voting for its chairman today.

Mr. Taylor

There is an even-handedness and implicit fairness about that that may speed us on our way.

I assure the House that my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer) has, in his capacity as our chief electoral officer, put in place strict measures to prevent multiple registration or any form of personation. There have been no reports so far of people voting early and voting often.

Regrettably, that has not always been the case in Northern Ireland. Ever since the franchise was extended in the 19th and early 20th centuries, electoral fraud, the "vote early, vote often" tradition, and problems of personation have been endemic to political life.

It will not surprise the House that I believe that parties representing the republican tradition have been more adept than others at exploiting the system for their electoral advantage. That is certainly true over recent years, although I am told that, in the past, it was not unknown for Unionists to engage in that practice also. Just before the 1987 general election, the distinguished journalist David McKittrick wrote a brilliant article on electoral malpractice, in which he stated: Complicity in these activities went right to the top. One woman campaigner volunteer recalls a former Unionist Prime Minister shaking her by the hand and urging her to 'vote early and vote often'. The same article describes personation as simply the stuff of normal politics". It cites stories of people voting 10, 20 and 30 times, and quotes Lord Fitt, who recalled polling stations at which the turnout "bafflingly exceeded 100 per cent." A polling station without personation agents was known as an open box, and Lord Fitt is quoted in the article as saying that every attempt was made to "riddle the box" by pushing in as many personators as possible.

According to McKittrick, houses and halls were set aside as 'dressing stations' where personators would sometimes go for a change of clothes. It was only when Sinn Fein began contesting elections again in the 1980s that the old convention of "doing your own side" was cast aside, and vote stealing from the other side began to take place.

As a result of all that, elections in Northern Ireland, and in particular the identification of voters at polling stations, are already more tightly controlled than in the rest of the United Kingdom. Most recently, the previous Conservative Government passed the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985, which made it compulsory for electors to present specified identity documents before they were given the ballot paper. Despite that, however, I agree with the Government that the Act has failed to stamp out personation and electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. In particular, stories abound about the ease with which some of the documents specified in the Act can be forged, especially those that do not carry a photograph, such as a medical card or a book for the payment of allowances, benefits or pensions.

The current extent of electoral fraud is, of course, difficult to quantify with precise accuracy. By and large, elections pass off without incident. I have no doubt that in the majority of cases the results reflect the wishes of the electorate. I also express my appreciation for the work carried out by the chief electoral officer, his staff and all those involved in the running of elections in Northern Ireland, who do their jobs, often in difficult circumstances.

That said, however, there is enough anecdotal evidence to make it clear that more needs to be done. As the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee concluded in its 1998 report, there is sufficient evidence of organised voting theft to indicate that the problem of electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland is serious". Indeed, rather than declining, the evidence appears to suggest that the problem has been on the increase in recent years. The result of this year's election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone has already been mentioned. Sinn Fein won by only 59 votes and the result is being challenged in the election court in Belfast because of allegations that a polling station was allowed to stay open for some time after the 10 pm close. Fermanagh and South Tyrone is not, of course, without form in the history of electoral malpractice. Anyone conversant with the result in 1955 or the allegations surrounding the by-elections of 1981 will be able to testify to that. We await the court's judgment with interest.

Nor is the problem confined to Westminster elections—at local government and Assembly elections the existence of multi-member constituencies and the single transferable vote increases the potential for fraud. As the then chief electoral officer, Mr. Bradley, in his report for 1998–99, put it: The local elections are more susceptible to electoral abuse. A small number of voters can have a significant impact on the election of individual councillors and hence, in the case of marginal councils in determining the overall control of the council. Electoral fraud has been the subject of a number of studies and debates in recent years at Westminster and in the Northern Ireland Forum and, recently, in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I, too, pay tribute to the work of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee under the chairmanship of my noble Friend, the former Member for the Cities of London and Westminster, Peter Brooke. Its report in 1998 highlighted a number of areas of concern and formed the backdrop to the Government's White Paper "Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland", which was the basis for the Bill.

That Select Committee drew attention to problems in the following areas: registration, absent voting, political presence at polling stations, and voter identification. Some of the examples that it mentions in its report are staggering.

On the accuracy of the register in Belfast, West the Select Committee noted evidence provided by the Social Democratic and Labour party of some 18,000 names that appeared more than once on the register for the area, compared with 6,000 on a London register for an area with a large Irish community. It is no wonder that the Select Committee concluded: the evidence indicates that there may be a serious level of multiple registration, at least in some parts of Northern Ireland". The Government's review "Administering Elections in Northern Ireland" concluded: there is a level of false registration which is carried out with the express intention of abusing the system". On the abuse of absent voting, we learn that before the 1997 general election the chief electoral officer received 10,000 applications only hours before the deadline. As the Select Committee noted: A large proportion of these were from one political party. There are no prizes for guessing which one it might have been. An investigation by the chief electoral officer into applications for absent voting uncovered one case in which a doctor had attested that an applicant was unable to leave his home, but another application by the same person for a different election included the statement that the person was a long-distance lorry driver.

As the Select Committee noted, the chief electoral officer was satisfied beyond any shadow of a doubt that the problem was extensive". The Select Committee concluded: Absent voting provides a serious threat to the integrity of the electoral system in Northern Ireland. The Government's review stated that the chief electoral officer believed that up to half of all absent vote applications for the 1997 local government elections were fraudulent.

On the problems of voter identification at polling stations, the Select Committee also drew attention to the weakness of the current system, concluding that the present system of relying on party agents to challenge in cases of personation is unrealistic and provides inadequate protection". Clearly there is a need for action, and we are justified in criticising the Government for their delay in putting legislation before the House. Why did it take three years between the publication of the Select Committee report and the White Paper setting out the Government's own proposals to combat electoral fraud? As the Select Committee, in its first special report of 2000–01, put it: When we reported in March 1998, less than a year after the General Election, we had a reasonable expectation that rather more progress might have been made before the next General Election in tackling the serious problem of electoral malpractice than appears likely to be the case". That is rather more diplomatic than the language that I would use to describe the Government's delay in coming up with these proposals. The argument that they lacked parliamentary time is simply unsustainable given that they only got round to publishing their White Paper in March, and given that they regularly make time in the House for much less serious measures than the one before us today.

As a result of the Government's delay, legislation was not in place for the recent general election; nor will it be in place should the Government go down the road of calling fresh Assembly elections if the current impasse continues. That is unacceptable.

Turning briefly to the Bill itself, I do not intend to follow the Minister in describing each of the proposed legislative changes in detail. As far as the changes go, they make practical common sense to the Opposition. We hope that adding the date of birth and a signature, allowing the presiding officer at a polling station to ask for the date of birth of an elector applying for a ballot paper and the introduction of an electoral identity card will have the desired effect in combating what is clearly a problem.

We particularly welcome the move towards phasing out the non-photographic forms of identification at polling stations and the new photographic electoral identity card. We urge the Government to proceed with that as quickly as possible, given that it is estimated that it could take up to 18 months to complete the process after legislation is passed.

Looking to the longer term, the White Paper "Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland" identifies the potential for new technology to combat electoral fraud to ensure that in Northern Ireland we have a comprehensive and secure electoral identity system. The White Paper suggests that the ultimate aim should be for every voter to be issued with an electoral smart card bearing a unique identifier. That would prevent anyone from registering twice without the knowledge of the chief electoral officer, and would make it almost impossible for anyone to vote twice.

That surely must be the way forward in Northern Ireland, so it was disappointing to read in the White Paper that, having set out the advantages of such a scheme, the Government consider them to be only "aspirations for the future". Surely the technology exists to begin working on a secure electoral identity scheme now. That is what the Government should be working towards, and with rather more urgency than they have shown with the measure before us today.

5.55 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

It is good when work with which one has been personally associated eventually makes it through the legislative process. That has not happened often in my experience, so I am glad that the Bill has been introduced.

I gave evidence to the committee of the Northern Ireland Forum which, in 1997, published the valuable report on electoral malpractice that was referred to earlier. Like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and other Members in the Chamber this evening, I served on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs which, in March 1998, issued a report on electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) was involved in the production of both reports. The work of those committees seems to have pushed the Northern Ireland Office into action, because it started work on its own report shortly after the Select Committee began its investigations. The NIO report was published in October 1998.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) cited the Select Committee report published in January 2001 in which concerns were expressed that legislation had not been introduced sooner. Peter Brooke chaired the Select Committee admirably. He had had experience of Northern Ireland as its Secretary of State and enabled us to find a form of words that helped us along the road to the peace process. As one would have expected, his work on the Select Committee always drew on his experience.

The Bill contains a manifest defect, which I shall deal with later. I shall of course support the Bill on Second Reading, but I shall look for opportunities to table amendments at a later stage, especially in relation to the defect that I shall mention.

Although it has been pointed out that the Select Committee report contains many references to problems of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland, the hard quantifiable detail that people might require to demonstrate those problems is not given in the report or elsewhere. It is important to set up investigations such as the one currently under way into marked electoral registers. That investigation will find out which voters in recent elections are not recorded as voting in past elections, and will check whether they really did vote recently or whether their vote had been appropriated by a political party.

As the hon. Member for Solihull noted, there is sufficient evidence in the Select Committee report to support our justified concerns and fears about the operation of elections in Northern Ireland. That is partly because of the strong sectarian attitudes in certain parts of Northern Ireland society. It is felt that the ends justify the means, so the niceties of the electoral game and the commitment of democrats to that game can readily and easily be abused by people for their own ends.

There is a limited commitment to the democratic process in certain areas of party political activity. If Sinn Fein had that commitment, it would certainly take action on issues such as decommissioning, but it does not act according to those principles. The hope is that the more it is involved in the democratic process, the more the process will have an influence on its operations, values and attitudes. However, that is certainly not happening at the moment, and the major electoral fraud that takes place in Northern Ireland is clearly associated with that party.

We are having to make key decisions on the Bill at a time when a clear divide exists in Northern Ireland. Assembly elections, which may be upon us soon, need to take place in the context of our having such legislation tightly in place because, in the nationalist camp, it matters tremendously whether it is Sinn Fein or the Social Democratic and Labour party that achieves the largest number of votes and seats and which of them can rightly claim to speak on behalf of the nationalist community. The same can be said of the Democratic Unionist party and the Ulster Unionist party in relation to that community.

In the case of the DUP, some of us are very worried that the no vote position will hold sway. In the case of the nationalists, if Sinn Fein—a party which had played with the peace process and arranged for people to vote in association with it but clearly did not have the fully fledged commitment to it that should exist—took over, it would be in the driving seat of the nationalist position. Several of us would not like those results; we would like the majorities in favour of the agreement to hold sway politically, but that must happen in the fairest way possible and in accordance with electoral practices.

The methods of vote-stealing are clearly listed in the reports that I have mentioned. The addresses of demolished buildings have been used, although we have heard that action has been taken to ensure that the information is available to returning officers to allow them to determine whether addresses are legitimate. There have been over-subscribed numbers in households. In those cases, a suspiciously unlikely number of people have been registered as living at a house of a certain size.

The high level of multiple registration is also a problem. Rolling registration, which has now been established, reduces the need for multiple registration. Is multiple registration necessary if people can move from one part of the Province to another and relatively quickly establish their new addresses as those from which they will vote? We should be able to operate systems, especially with rolling registration, that get rid of multiple registration, or we should take action to reduce its operation considerably, and I believe that that applies to the whole United Kingdom.

Forged and fraudulently used medical cards, allowance books and so on are another problem. The Select Committee was provided with evidence to show that the Royal Ulster Constabulary had discovered factories that manufactured forged documents, although there had been an attempt to burn those documents. The suggestion that electoral cards, with photographs on them, should be used is partly a response to that problem. That is one avenue that could be used.

The rush of last-minute voter applications has been mentioned, and there has also been abuse of marked registers. The evidence from the electoral returning officer showed that much more common than a vote cast in the name of someone who had died and should no longer appear on the register was a vote cast—clearly by someone who had looked very closely at the marked register—in the name of someone who did not normally exercise their franchise rights.

Intimidation, such as following the postman when postal votes are used, and intimidation involving the electorate more generally are serious matters which might not be dealt with easily by the issue of cards with photographs on them.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

The hon. Gentleman mentions intimidation. People are visited and asked for their medical cards, which are taken from them. That is the highest form of intimidation, but it happens regularly in some areas, where two men go to people's doors saying that they are collecting medical cards, and all those votes are then cast in a clandestine and illegal way.

Mr. Barnes

Of course, that problem will be tackled under the Bill, but a similar problem will remain because people may have other forms of identification and their electoral cards taken away from them. That is why returning officers need to check dates of birth at polling stations. The solution suggested in the Bill is that, except in the case of incapacitated and illiterate people, dates of birth and signatures will be required when registration takes place.

As my hon. Friend the Minister has said, the Select Committee and the forum committee suggested that national insurance numbers should also be used. Such a suggestion is not unique in electoral activities throughout the world. Some countries have identity cards and they use them in their electoral systems. I am increasingly of the opinion that identity cards would be fruitful in achieving full and correct registration in the United Kingdom generally.

In Malta, for example, people's identification numbers appear on the electoral register and their dates of birth can be worked out from those numbers. That system functions well in a small country that prides itself on the fact that more than 90 per cent. of its people turn out at elections. Malta operates a system in which cards with photographs on them are issued at each election. People hand in those cards at the polling stations, so those who are found to have old cards did not vote at previous elections.

Presiding officers can now ask people for additional information—their date of birth—when the vote takes place, but why cannot signatures also be used, as they could also be checked at polling stations? Surely if there is any doubt about whether someone has stolen a card and has had the wit to discover the date of birth of the person from whom it was stolen, the signature would constitute an extra factor. In fact, signatures are only being used to check postal and proxy applications. It is right that signatures should be used for those purposes, and the committee of the Northern Ireland Forum made recommendations along those lines. It said: In addition, the Committee believes that consideration should also be given to implementing procedures whereby each elector should be required to sign the electoral register and a comparison of the signature on the register and the one which was provided on the registration form, made by the polling station officials before a voting paper is handed over. That would provide an extra check, and it is a point that we could pursue in Committee.

The election identity card will replace other documents that do not bear a photograph and it could be used in the same way as a passport or driving licence. However, we must be careful not to create two classes of citizens. Some people already have the passports and driving licences that they obtained for other purposes while others will have to search out the electoral identity card that will be freely supplied. When my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) was a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, he pointed out that considerable efforts would be made to ensure that people had electoral registration cards. He said: We will have to make enormous efforts to ensure that the obtaining of a voter identity card is as easy as possible, even to the extent of having mobile units go round the streets so that people can step outside their door and make the necessary arrangements."—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 29 March 2001; Vol. 366, c. 347WH.] I welcome such an approach, but why will not everyone be obliged to take part in it?

The White Paper suggests that 400,000 to 600,000 electors in Northern Ireland may need electoral identity cards. They are part of an electorate of 1.2 million, so it is possible that one third or 50 per cent. of the electorate may be involved in the new form of registration. To support the view that there should be an electoral registration card, I cite the views of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. In response to evidence given by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Dr. Mowlam, it stated: The Secretary of State, rightly, expressed dislike for a system which provided for different types of documentation, according to whether a voter drove a car or had travelled abroad. She felt that this was divisive and we agree. The question that elicited that response from Dr. Mowlam was asked by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and, in reply, she said: I do not want a two-tier, two-class system whereby you carry an ID voting card because you do not have anything else…I do not want us to have a two-tier system whereby if you do not have a driving licence you have to carry that. That sticks in my throat. Such a system sticks in my throat for practical democratic reasons. The people who do not have driving licences or passports are likely to be more elderly and poorer and it might be more difficult to persuade them to take up the provisions on offer. They will be much less likely to do so if they do not act together with other people.

I hope that the Bill will be amended so that that defect is overcome and that we operate with a card that is used by everyone. That might lead us to consider seriously whether we should use identity cards as the basis for what takes place at the polling station.

6.15 pm
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

I was startled to learn that the first round of the leadership election in the Conservative party coincides with the election of the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party. Surely that is more than a coincidence; or perhaps it is the same election, which would confirm a suspicion that Liberal Democrats have harboured for some time. Let us hope that no electoral fraud is on the go. For the sake of clarification, I point out that I am standing in neither election.

In a way, electoral fraud involves the act of being too eager to vote. Although turnout in the general election overall was down to about 60 per cent., turnout in Northern Ireland can in some circumstances be as high as 200 per cent. The challenge therefore is to get people to vote but to vote only once and without pretending to be someone else.

As we all know, the 1997 general election caused the publication of the several reports that have already been mentioned. Those reports by the Northern Ireland Forum for political dialogue, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons and the Secretary of State's Department make the problem clear. They also make it clear that we need some sort of legislative solution because nothing else has worked so far.

In the Westminster Hall debate on 29 March this year, it became clear that there was considerable consensus in the House on this issue. Liberal Democrats form part of that consensus and we accept the need for a Bill. However, as the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) pointed out, it is a shame that it has taken so long for it to come before the House. Had it been debated before the 2001 general election, it is possible that it would have had a material impact on election outcomes in Northern Ireland. Let us hope that there is no further delay and that the Bill is implemented before the next elections in Northern Ireland.

We all know that vote-stealing is prevalent in the Province and takes place to a much greater extent than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Democracy is very much compromised by such activity. Trying to cheat the system is not only very naughty but actually undermines the system for everybody. I also suspect that it is probably damaging to the organisations implicated in illegal activities, because they lose a great deal of credibility with law-abiding citizens who might otherwise be persuaded to vote for them. After all, it is better to vote for an organisation that we do not fully agree with but that we trust than for an organisation that looks like it is willing to pervert the system of democracy in the interest of achieving its ends.

Although it is difficult to quantify the level of abuse taking place during elections in Northern Ireland, it takes place at significant and, at times, possibly election-deciding levels. The report of the elections review "Administering Elections in Northern Ireland" states: In the case of the absent vote facility, it is clear from the RUC's investigations, instigated by the Chief Electoral Officer, that there is evidence to show a high level of malpractice. Personation at polling stations has, however, been impossible to quantify…However, despite the fact that no-one has come forward with evidence…the experience of the RUC officers on duty at polling stations certainly suggests that abuse is taking place. That quotations makes two things clear. The first is that there is a strong belief within the Royal Ulster Constabulary that such events take place and, secondly, that it is extremely hard under current arrangements to bring about convictions. No one is willing to stand up and face the inevitable intimidation that they would receive for blowing the whistle on these activities. We need legislation to take the responsibility from people who reasonably and understandably do not come forward, and to ensure that the state has the power to impose rightful processes in the place of those that are currently being perverted.

Although it is hard to prove specific cases of electoral fraud, we have a duty to do what we can to stop it. The Bill and the White Paper "Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland" have a good chance of doing that if they are implemented correctly.

The basis for all electoral activity in Northern Ireland is the electoral register. Unless it is accurate, the opportunities for malpractice are great. The White Paper, which was published in March, states that the chief electoral officer believes that the register is 91 per cent. complete and 94 per cent. accurate. Those figures are pretty good, but they still allow opportunities for fraud to occur and that can make a real difference. Of the 18 Northern Ireland seats in the general election, two had majorities of fewer than 130 votes and four had majorities of fewer than 1,200. With such close results, we must be sure that no funny business is going on. Electoral fraud is a clear danger because it can significantly alter the balance of outcomes in the Province.

On the Bill's detail, during the registration process it is right to collect signatures and dates of birth as personal identifiers. Indeed, that has been extensively discussed. It is interesting to know how the information will be gathered and stored. The elections review recommended several ways that could be done—on paper or electronically, each of which has pluses and minuses. Whichever system is used, the electorate must find it user-friendly and it must be accurate. After all, it is vital that the system does not introduce new, unintended inaccuracies because of the methods used to store the information. What thought has been given to storage and gathering techniques? We want to ensure that individuals who are innocent of any wrongdoing and eligible to vote do not fall out of the system because of an error or oversight.

The Bill allows the presiding officer discretionary powers to refuse a ballot paper if he has asked for a voter's date of birth and there is still doubt about the voter's identity, prompted either by the information in the specific document or the apparent age of the voter compared with the date of birth supplied. I welcome that measure. I raised the problem in Westminster Hall on 29 March when I explained that it would be possible for me turn up at a polling station with my grandfather's pension book and say that my date of birth was 1916. I am going grey before my time, but few would believe that I am 85, although some hon. Members might think differently. However, the age gap could be much smaller and the parameters are wide enough to make it possible to vote illegally. So long as the safety measures are watertight before individuals turn up at the polling station, the discretionary powers are a key part of what will make the Bill work.

It has been suggested that the system is most open to abuse through the absent vote procedure. There is a remarkably high rate of absent voting in some areas of Northern Ireland and postal votes are claimed by a larger proportion of people than might be expected given its circumstances. Fraudulent applications are unquestionably made, but we do not know the exact proportion. Getting away with fraud by casting an absent vote in Northern Ireland is probably more straightforward than going to the polling station in person.

Comparing a registered signature with what is on an application for an absent vote will be useful in reducing the chances of fraud, but the White Paper also suggested that forgery could be further reduced by adding a serial number or a bar code to the application form. The Minister also mentioned that. Do the Government intend to redesign the application forms for absent votes in that way? Frankly, I worry that postal vote fraud across the United Kingdom in general is more common than we acknowledge. It is hard to police and if we can find a system that works in Northern Ireland we might want to consider expanding the technique to the rest of the UK. I leave that thought with the Minister.

The Liberal Democrats also welcome the Government's intention to introduce an electoral identity card, although I have some concern about its exact nature. The Minister envisages that in the long term it will be a smart card. By incorporating a computer chip, it will be fairly secure and comprehensive in its content. Although that would be a bit more expensive to produce, it would be much more secure than a plastic or embossed card, which would take us back to square one because it is relatively easy to copy or amend. Someone only has to forge a card with their photograph to put electoral fraud back in business.

Although I welcome what the Minister said about smart cards, we should seriously consider introducing them this time around and accept that we might have to update the technology later. The business sector has extensive experience of smart cards and a model might exist that has been tested in industrial and commercial environments which could be applied to the system in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister will think again about introducing a smart card earlier so that we do not risk using a much more forgeable plastic or embossed card, which I fear will be the interim step.

Although the Bill provides for the electoral identity card to be added to the list of specified documents that are needed to obtain a ballot paper, I am worried that there is no provision to remove other documents on the list which are extremely easy to forge, such as the medical card. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) made an important point about that. No one wants to disfranchise honest voters, but the identity card will be more effective and harder to forge if it is produced properly as a smart card. We need to think seriously about that.

If we are making a concerted effort to highlight the existence of an electoral identity card, especially for the elderly and infirm, it is sensible to think about abandoning some documents so that we remove the most obvious forms of forgery and malpractice from the electoral process. The Minister commented on that, but I hope that we will be clearer on the subject in Committee so that we can be confident that we are taking a radical step by eliminating some of the open goals for opportunists.

I hope that the Minister will answer my questions. I trust that he agrees with the need to balance the maintenance of wide access to voting with protecting the fairness of our democracy. We will not eliminate electoral fraud completely, but we can significantly reduce the theft of votes and increase the chances of detection.

To some extent, the proposals infringe on a person's privacy. They require more information than is asked for in elections elsewhere in the UK. I am concerned that we should not set an open-ended precedent. I do not like the way that the state's interference in personal matters is developing in our society. The reach of the state is encroaching ever further on our freedom and privacy. In that context, the Bill is another move in the wrong direction. It is an evil, but the difficulty is that without it a small number of cheats stand to make a huge difference to other people's freedom to have a fair electoral process. I may not like it, but I am willing to live with it because, on balance, it improves the important electoral process in Northern Ireland.

However, let me put down a marker: there must be a limit to how far we go. The Minister agreed with that. If we do not temper the tendency, one day we will look back and discover that there is no way to return to the relative, although diminishing, freedoms in British society. As other hon. Members said, if we push too far, we will create barriers that disfranchise people who cannot be bothered with the complexities of proving their identity by jumping through the hoops before they are allowed to vote.

That said, it is our role to protect the interests of the vast majority of Northern Ireland citizens who respect democracy. The Bill gives us a chance to challenge the people who prefer to cheat the electoral system than to win elections fair and square. Electoral fraud says more about the people who commit it than it does about what they stand for, because they throw their toys out of the pram. I hope that the House will accept that a consensus on the Bill has evolved in our discussions to date, and the Liberal Democrats will certainly support it this evening.

6.30 pm
Lady Hermon (North Down)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate.

May I congratulate the Minister on his first outing at the Dispatch Box? Ulster Unionist Members also have high expectations that he will make a positive contribution to business in Northern Ireland, so he has a lot to live up to.

I apologise for the absence of several of my colleagues. They too are involved in the talks about the Belfast agreement, so duty calls them elsewhere.

I have listened to anecdotal evidence of electoral fraud. Also, I grew up in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where I frequently heard the words, "Vote early and vote often", so I can tell the House that in those days, which were not long ago, it was easier to identify electoral fraud because the reward for personation was a bottle of Guinness. For those hon. Members who do not understand how powerful a bottle of Guinness is, I should point out that by 10 o'clock in the evening, it was easy to identify those who had benefited from voting early and voting often. I should add that, having been brought up in a strict Presbyterian home, I just voted once.

The Minister has a particular interest in human rights, so I begin my comments on the Bill by reminding him of the Government's obligations to everyone in the United Kingdom, including those of us in Northern Ireland. The Minister will know that under article 3 of the first protocol of the European convention on human rights, which is of course now part and parcel of our domestic law, by virtue of the Human Rights Act 1998, the Government have a clear duty: not only must they hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, but they must do so under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature. The Government have a duty to impose conditions that will ensure—not merely try to ensure—the free expression of the people's wishes.

For too many years we in Northern Ireland have had to endure electoral fraud, rather than enjoy conditions that ensure the free expression of people's voting preferences. The White Paper "Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland" was published in March. The title itself encouraged us to believe that, for a change, the Government were serious about eradicating electoral fraud. Our hopes were high when we read that they pledged to put in place effective measures to prevent electoral abuse wherever it occurs. I regret to report that my hopes have been dashed by the Bill. I am bitterly disappointed because it fails fully to implement the proposals in the White Paper, and not being a patient person at the best of times I thought that three years was a long time to wait for it. Having waited for those three years and for a month after the local elections and the general election, we have before us a weak Bill. My list of its various weaknesses will not be exhaustive because I do not want to keep hon. Members here for a long time.

Although the White Paper rightly focused on intimidation at polling stations, the Bill completely ignores it. We have just had an election in which two RUC officers and a bystander were injured at a polling station. Intimidation is a serious problem, and I would like the Government to pay attention to it in Committee.

The Bill is also silent on multiple registration. The Minister has kindly defended multiple registration on the grounds of convenience for students and people who live in different places. However, people have to identify their main residence for the purposes of taxation, and I see no justification for a difference in electoral law. Multiple registration is far too open to abuse, so it should be made illegal. A person should be asked to register and vote where they reside for the majority of the time, and since no one can reside in two places for the majority of the time everyone must choose one residence.

On the new identifiers of dates of birth and signatures, I feel compelled to remind the Government that electoral fraud in Northern Ireland is orchestrated and widespread, and has a significant impact on election results. It devalues the results and undermines the authority of those who are elected. I regret that the Bill fails to give a statutory basis to increased powers and increased staffing for the electoral office investigation teams, which would enable them to scrutinise thoroughly the accuracy of the signatures and dates of birth on the electoral canvass.

Lembit Öpik

Could we not allow multiple registration to continue with the operation of a smart card, which would be able to register whether people had voted? I ask because many people in the United Kingdom as a whole would be compromised if we required them to choose one place or another for their registration, and a smart card would provide an electronic solution to the problem.

Lady Hermon

We are told that Northern Ireland leads the way in so many things, such as policing reform and human rights legislation, so I hope that smart card technology will be introduced to allow us to lead the way in electoral registration.

To include in the Bill an exception to the rule requiring signatures on the electoral canvass will, I fear, prove to be a gift horse to those who are intent on fraud, and people are intent on it. The gift horse comes in the form of the discretion afforded to the chief electoral officer to dispense with the requirement for a signature if he is satisfied that it is not reasonably practicable for that person to sign … because of any incapacity of his or because he is unable to read. Forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I sound cynical when I predict an increase in the recorded illiteracy rate in Northern Ireland. It would appear logical and sensible that those who are genuinely incapacitated or unable to read should be able to avail themselves of the new identity card proposed in the Bill. That would close a potential loophole for those who are intent on fraud.

Although Ulster Unionist Members welcome the introduction of the new, voluntary identity cards, we very much regret that the Bill does not end the use of non-photographic forms of identity, such as medical cards which, as the Minister knows, have enabled fraudulent activities in Northern Ireland to become a growth industry. The fact that there is no firm timetable for phasing out those forms of ID is a severe failing of the Bill, and I ask the Minister to give it his attention in Committee.

There is no denying that absent votes represent a major source of electoral fraud. It is on record that in the 1997 general election, Northern Ireland constituencies had on average twice as many absent voters as constituencies in Great Britain. That cannot be explained simply by the fact that we have more rural constituencies. There is a huge inconsistency in the distribution of absent votes in Northern Ireland.

The most recent election results show that in West Tyrone, which was won by Sinn Fein, there were 5,443 absent votes, and in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which was also taken by Sinn Fein, there were 5,784 absent votes. Let us compare those figures with the 1,200 absent votes in my constituency of North Down, which has an average number of such votes. In Lagan Valley, we had 1,500. Absent votes allow fraud and should be given much more detailed attention in the Bill.

I therefore repeat my introductory remarks to the Government: they have an obligation under the Human Rights Act to ensure that conditions are put in place guaranteeing people free expression of their choice of legislature. It would be distinctly embarrassing for the Government to be taken to task by a voter who said that, in fact, they were breaching their human rights obligations. As I mentioned, in Northern Ireland we are told regularly that we are leading the way on police reform, human rights and the equality agenda. You name it, we have got it and are leading the way. We should lead the way with smart cards and new technology. The technology is out there; it should not be our future but our present. Having waited impatiently for the Bill for three years, I now urge the Minister to follow it quickly with more substantial reform to eradicate, rather than acquiesce in, electoral fraud.

6.41 pm
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

First, I congratulate the Minister and welcome his debut at the Dispatch Box. For some time he was a colleague of mine on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs where—as I am sure that the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) agrees—he played a constructive role. Unlike many others from the major parties who served on the Select Committee almost as place fillers, he showed a conscientious interest in the matters before him and played a full part in our proceedings. Indeed, I took the trouble to dredge up the Select Committee report on electoral abuse to look at his contribution, and I shall refer later to some of the interesting points that he made. I join him in his tribute to the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), with whom many of us had meetings on this subject in Northern Ireland, and who showed an interest in attempting to do something that would stop the electoral abuse about which we all had a growing concern.

The House, I am sure, will give the Bill a broad welcome—at least in general terms. It would hard for it to do otherwise. It is obscene that anyone's vote should be stolen, and that anyone should take more than one vote in their own name. In Northern Ireland, particularly with proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote, the stealing of one vote by one person can deny the rights of thousands of people, because a fraction of one vote in a PR election can determine a seat. That form of cheating must be brought to an end as far as possible.

The Minister made some remarks about the history of interest in the subject. As the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who came as a witness before the Northern Ireland Forum committee on which I served, said, that committee produced the first recent report on the subject. That report was valuable and drew attention to the type of problem faced in elections in Northern Ireland. However, the forum committee, like the Select Committee, felt the same frustration that the Minister expressed in the Select Committee when attempting to quantify the scale of the problem during the cross-examination—I think it is fair to call it that—of Pat Bradley, who was then chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland. Everybody knew that abuse was taking place on a considerable scale, but there did not seem to be any real attempt by the electoral office to quantify it.

Although the Bill is being introduced now, it is still important for the electoral office to conduct an exercise to quantify the level of electoral abuse. Evidence both to the forum committee and to the Select Committee produced a number of examples of considerable electoral abuse, giving us a flavour of the high level of electoral abuse in Northern Ireland and demonstrating the need to take action.

The Select Committee reported in March 1998, but it had to return to the subject by urging—I was going to say "prodding", but it may not be appropriate to use that word about Northern Ireland matters in the House—the Secretary of State to introduce the legislation that had been promised on the subject. I agree with those who have already drawn attention to foot-dragging by Ministers and by the Northern Ireland Office in introducing the Bill.

It therefore came as something of a surprise when, only a few months before parliamentary and local government elections, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East, told us that he was contemplating rushing the legislation through before the end of the last Parliament. For many of us, that would have been the worst of all worlds; we would have had new legislation without ID cards being distributed, and people would start to be disfranchised because of the loss of the usual identifiers—medical cards and benefit books.

Existing methods of identification are fairly well known; there has already been reference to the driving licence. During his speech, the Minister was twice asked to give way by Members wishing to ask about the driving licence. I do not know about the rest of the House, but he certainly did not convince me that it was necessary to have both parts of the driving licence. Indeed, he went on to explain the attributes of the new card. The explanatory notes to the Bill say that the electoral identity card will show the elector's full name and date of birth, his photograph, the card's expiry date". Consistent with that, the Minister said that those would be the features of the identification card.

I have with me the plastic part of the driving licence used in Northern Ireland, and on it is a name—indeed, it goes further, it has an address as well—a date of birth, an expiry date and a photograph, all of which are features that the Minister says his identity card will have. The driving licence has not only the additional feature of an address, but a signature too, so in many ways it is a better identification card than that proposed by the Minister. However, when I look at the part of the driving licence that the Minister tells us it is essential to have along with the plastic card, I see nothing on it that adds in any way to the information required by the presiding officer in any polling station. Indeed, if any part of the present two-part driving licence is easy to forge it is that piece, which, we think, can be discarded.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Does my hon. Friend agree that the real problem is that the Minister was speaking as a legalist? He was just interpreting the law, whereas I was asking whether there was an attempt to change the law to give flexibility, as presiding officers act strictly in accordance with the law. All I was asking for was an improvement in the law to provide better identification.

Mr. Robinson

The Under-Secretary always speaks as a lawyer. I believe that the law was his profession in Scotland.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

He speaks from the heart.

Mr. Robinson

Of course he does that too. However, I hope that he will explain what is so essential in the additional sheet of the driving licence that it can serve as an identifier at the polling station. Nothing in the additional sheet qualifies it for that. The card from the driving licence is as effective, if not more effective, than the Under-Secretary's proposal, at least in the interim.

Rev. Ian Paisley

It was interesting that at the last election, the chief electoral officer felt that he had to go on television to tell people that it did not matter if their driving licence had the wrong address, because its purpose was to identify the person, not where they lived.

Mr. Robinson

That emphasises the point. I know from speaking to my workers at polling stations, and to those who work for the chief electoral officer on election day, that there is a recurring problem of people turning up with one part of a driving licence and being sent away. Often, they do not return, sometimes simply because of the inconvenience.

Mr. Barnes

Would not the problem be overcome by using only one card—the electoral card—instead of driving licences and passports? Everyone would be subject to the same arrangements, and the difficulty of determining which bit of the driving licence to hand in would be resolved.

Mr. Robinson

It would if everyone had the card. I shall return to that idea later. However, I am worried that we could disfranchise many people simply because they will not go through the rigmarole necessary to get the card.

Of the three most common methods of electoral abuse, the first is multiple entry. I am not convinced that anyone needs to be registered at more than one address, whether in one constituency or in several. There is no advantage to it, and the generosity of the postal vote arrangements means that people can easily choose their main or preferred address and use a postal vote from wherever they are resident at the time of the election.

Lembit Öpik

On the mainland of the United Kingdom, the electoral register and the council tax system are closely connected. Would not a smart card resolve the problem—not the card that the Under-Secretary mentioned, but a smart card that showed whether a person had voted? That would prevent people from voting more than once even if they had multiple addresses.

Mr. Robinson

It would, and the smart card was the Select Committee's preferred option. However, the Under-Secretary is not offering that, at least not immediately. He is undertaking a study in the Northern Ireland Office to determine progress on the advances in appropriate technology, but the card that he is currently offering would not carry out that function.

The BBC "Spotlight" programme suggested that multiple entry was a considerable problem. It itemised several cases of six and more people being registered at one-bedroom flats—and those people were all voting. Indeed, in some cases, the same six people were voting from each flat. They happened to be the so-called bodyguards of the Member who was elected for the constituency of Belfast, West (Mr. Adams).

Mr. Barnes

There would be no problem in ending multiple registration. This did not apply in Northern Ireland, but when we had the poll tax, we got used to a system whereby a person's main or sole place of residence had to be designated. The system—unfortunately, in that case—operated effectively. We could do the same with electoral registration: people could designate their main or sole place of residence, and their vote would be based there. If they moved, there would be a rolling register, and they could be registered at their new residence.

Mr. Robinson

The position as regards the electoral register is improving, and there is no barrier to getting on to the register in Northern Ireland; I believe that people can get on it in a month. That presents no difficulty. However, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said, the best option is a smart card, which tells a story when it is read at the polling station, and shows whether the person has already voted.

Apart from organised fraud through multiple registration, there is home-grown abuse, whereby mothers or fathers register children who have left the house some years ago because they want to give them the opportunity to vote in Northern Ireland even if they do not return to do so. Some also vote elsewhere, and others do not live in the United Kingdom. Those practices have grown over the years.

Multiple registration applies especially with students who come to Belfast. They get a vote there and influence elections, probably more in the constituency of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) than anywhere else. They then return to Fermanagh and South Tyrone, West Tyrone or Mid-Ulster to cast their votes there, too. The electoral office could identify multiple registrations through national insurance numbers, but that will be effective only if the Government are prepared to grasp the nettle and prohibit anyone from being registered at more than one address.

Mr. Browne

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves multiple registration, perhaps he will consider whether someone who is a council tax payer in two areas should have the opportunity of voting in council elections in both areas.

Mr. Robinson

The Under-Secretary forgets the history of the issue in Northern Ireland. He appears to have forgotten the principle of one man, one vote. It was the practice of the Unionist Government to follow what happened in the rest of the United Kingdom, and whoever paid the piper called the tune. People were therefore allowed to vote in an area where they subscribed healthily to the rateable value and contributed to the local council. That meant that in some areas, people had two, three or five votes. That was deemed inappropriate, and the Labour party was most vociferous in its condemnation.

Mr. Browne

I am conscious that I am interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but I suspect that he inadvertently misrepresented my argument. I did not suggest that people who have more than one house in the same council area should be able vote more than once—but when there is no such conflict and people contribute through council tax in separate council areas, how do we overcome the problem of taxation without representation?

Mr. Robinson

It was Labour party policy that what the Under-Secretary describes should not happen in Northern Ireland. There is no great difference between voting more than once in one constituency and influencing the outcome of an election by voting in more than one constituency. It would probably assist Unionism in Northern Ireland if the right outlined by the Under-Secretary existed. However, people in Northern Ireland are currently allowed to vote in only one constituency.

Mr. Browne

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me a third time, but either he misunderstands my point or he is woefully misrepresenting me. I have never suggested that people should be allowed to vote in more than one parliamentary constituency. I merely ask him to consider the simple problem of overcoming the difficulty of taxation without representation for those who pay council tax in two council areas. I do not want to complicate matters by reciting the history of the Northern Ireland electoral system or discussing votes based on houses. I want him to answer my simple point.

Mr. Robinson

The Minister seems to think that there is some great distinction between the ability to vote more than once in a Westminster election and the ability to vote in two council elections. It was in council areas that the main problem in Northern Ireland arose, as it was decided that people should not vote more than once at council level.

Mr. McNamara

The hon. Gentleman is right that the main objection concerned council areas. It was raised not because a person could vote once in a particular area, but because he could have up to eight or nine individual votes.

Mr. Robinson

Perhaps there is some distinction between electoral law in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, one can vote in only one council area in any election.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I take the point that has been made. There was never a distinction in parliamentary or Stormont elections, but the world got the message of one man, one vote. Only council elections were affected. People who were working and paying rates in one place but living in another were entitled to several votes, but the practice was done away with, largely because of agitation from this House. When the last Government sought to introduce the council tax, or the poll charge, it was not extended to Northern Ireland, as they did not want to recognise that it had been right to maintain the ratepayer's franchise.

Mr. Robinson

I live in the council area of Castlereagh and I am entitled to vote there. I have several offices in Belfast, but I am not entitled to vote there.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I am beginning to wonder whether I have failed to understand the franchise system, or whether the Northern Ireland system is completely distinct. Will the hon. Gentleman provide some clarification? Let us forget about his business premises. If he happened to have one home in Belfast and another in a different council area, would not he be entitled to vote in council elections in both places?

Mr. Robinson

No, I would not have such an entitlement, as this House changed the law to ensure that I could not vote in two places. One of the front runners on the issue happened to be the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), who argued that people should have only one vote, no matter what the circumstances in Northern Ireland. To that extent, Northern Ireland differs from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Lembit Öpik

At the core of this debate is the question whether one should be able to register to vote in more than one place. I agree with the Minister that people should be entitled properly to register. Do not his words point to the inescapable fact that the only way forward is to introduce a mechanism such as a smart card to ensure that nobody cheats the system?

Mr. Robinson

The Minister's words showed that he had been taking his decisions on multiple registration on the assumption that people were entitled to vote in more than one constituency at local government level. The basis on which he built his approach has now been taken from beneath him, so he has no argument left regarding multiple registration.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The only benefit that a person gets by registering in two places is that he can nominate someone as a councillor or even a Member of Parliament. He cannot, however, vote in two places.

Mr. Robinson

There are some other advantages in having one's name on an electoral register, such as in respect of mortgages and some commercial aims. None the less, the Minister must face up to the issue of multiple entry in the register. I hope that the Government do not discriminate against my party as they did with the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. If they give us some representation on the Committee that will consider the Bill, we will have the opportunity to scrutinise the matter in more detail.

Multiple registration was only the first of three aspects of electoral abuse about which I wanted to speak. Indeed, it was the smallest of the three, as far as my notes were concerned. I shall now move on to personation, which is a key factor. Hon. Members have referred to the early custom of going to a house where alternative clothes were available and changing in order to vote again. Sometimes, vans would be driving around and people would go into them to change their clothes. I do not want to cause any embarrassment to my colleagues along the Bench, but I point out that the practice was carried out in a fulsome way by the Ulster Unionist party in earlier days. The then Republican Clubs party followed on in West Belfast, and there has been some reference to Lord Fitt's confessions on the matter.

Even in my earliest days in politics, when people who had been in the Ulster Unionist party suggested that we should make such an addition to our campaign tactics, I had to tell them that if they used the same energy in going to houses, pulling people out and getting them to the polling stations, they would probably end up with more votes. Even before the law on identification changed, the truth of that argument was realised and that method of stealing votes seemed to dissipate considerably.

The whole picture was changed by the entry into the political process of what was effectively a paramilitary army that had all the discipline and numbers that were required to organise major vote theft. There can be no doubt that Sinn Fein organised the stealing of votes from those whom it might have deemed to be its supporters. It also arranged, perhaps more enthusiastically, to steal the votes of people whom it knew to be opponents. We were given ample evidence that Sinn Fein did that by using the medical card in particular. For example, there was evidence that the Royal Ulster Constabulary had raided a property—I think that it was in Londonderry—where it found the burnt remains of medical cards that had been printed and were being used for vote stealing.

My colleagues in various parts of the Province told us how medical cards were distributed from car boots outside polling stations to willing people who came along to take the votes of others. It is difficult to quantify the scale of such abuse but it seems to have been a considerable problem, and it still is. The removal of the medical card and benefit books will assist in tackling the abuse only if there is a substitute to ensure that decent people who want to exercise their vote will not be disfranchised because they do not have one of the remaining identification documents. For example, driving licences and passports are not significantly used by senior citizens. Of course, some of them will have one or both of those documents, but our studies have overwhelmingly shown that about 70 per cent. of the people who use identification at the polling stations use either the medical card or benefit books. They do so because those are the most readily available documents.

I want to help the Minister and I hope that he will consider a suggestion. He probably knows that in Northern Ireland, as a result of good, sound Democratic Unionist party policy, free fares have come to fruition. Senior citizens of 65 and above will be able to travel for free in Northern Ireland on the production of a pass. That indicates that a new photographic pass will be produced over the coming months. It will bear a name and all the features that the Minister has identified as necessary for his identification card. One benefit of including the new bus pass as a document suitable for identification may be that there will be an incentive for a large section of the community to obtain the pass.

Many of my colleagues might think the fact that people will be able to vote for them incentive enough to obtain an identification card. They might find that there is an even greater incentive if a section of the community can have free travel throughout Northern Ireland and, if it is wished, into the Irish Republic, on the ground of having an identification card in the name of the Department for Regional Development.

If the Minister is not prepared to recognise such a pass as an acceptable document, he could at least piggy-back his scheme when the passes are being handed out. There is no reason why two passes could not be secured at the same time. I am sure that if his office were to make contact with the Department for Regional Development and Translink, it would be possible for the two documents to be handed out at the one photo session. That would perhaps ensure a greater uptake from the section of the community that I think will be the most difficult to get registered under the new scheme.

I hope that the Minister will consider that. Like the Select Committee, I recognise the validity of his argument that an identity card without a photograph would not be of much value in a polling station. Members of the security forces were outraged that people could enter a polling station with a medical card bearing no photograph and little verification, yet they could produce a police warrant or an Royal Irish Regiment document, which would not be acceptable. The Minister might want to consider in Committee whether a document is acceptable as long as it is a photo-identity card that is issued by government, in whatever form.

The remedy in the Bill for personation is date of birth. It is a help, but it will not be significant in assisting polling station personnel. It is difficult even to come close in determining the ages of some individuals. I am not sure how brave the staff in polling stations will be in questioning people, especially those of the fair gender, about their age, particularly if there has to be an assumption that they are older than they are claiming to be on the register, which contains their date of birth.

I am not sure to what extent the inclusion of date of birth will be a help. With the exception of the financial restrictions that might be applied, I cannot understand why signature was not brought forward as a possible way of confirming the identity of a person in a polling station. I think that the Minister was sold on that idea when he was a member of the Select Committee. The Committee recognised that equipment would he available digitally to compare the signature given at a polling station with that on the special electoral register available to the polling clerks at the station. A significant amount of equipment would have to be purchased for the polling stations, but it would provide a fairly secure mechanism to ensure that personation did not occur.

Mr. Grieve

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's point about signatures. My professional experience as a barrister is that comparing signatures digitally is far-fetched. People's signatures can vary widely depending on whether they write fast or slowly. For example, the signature that one produces as a specimen often bears little relationship to the scrawl that is appended, perfectly legitimately, to the bottom of documents.

Mr. Robinson

I do not want to question the experience that the hon. Gentleman may have. However, the evidence that the Select Committee received was that the equipment available could judge a comparator on many points. The argument was advanced to the Committee that it was possible and reliable to use such equipment. I am sure that the Minister will require such equipment to be used in the electoral office when a signature is being used as a comparator for signatures on postal vote applications. It is the Government's intention that there should be a signature on the registration document for each person who is applying to be entitled to a vote. In the context of absent voting, signatures can be examined to ensure that there is no forgery and that no invalid applications are being made.

It appears that those who are abusing the system concentrate on absent voting, for obvious reasons. It is the area where it is the most difficult for them to be caught. They do not present themselves in front of someone, so they cannot be nabbed. They can abuse the system at a distance in anonymity and hope to get away with it.

Sufficient examples have been given during the debate of the number of postal votes in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) dealt with the extent of absent voting in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and West Tyrone, for example, where almost 10 per cent. of those entitled to vote voted by postal vote or by proxy. That must be an indication of the great need for medical services there or a signal of electoral abuse. It cannot be justified by comparison with any other constituency in the United Kingdom.

In the Select Committee and the forum committee, we heard from the chief electoral officer at the time of examples of abuse of the system. At one election, an individual applied for a postal vote because he was having his legs amputated, but when the next election came round, he was going on a skiing holiday. I am sure that it is possible for someone who has had his legs amputated to go skiing, but it would be sufficient to alert me to the possibility of electoral abuse.

The electoral office receives about 10,000 applications only days before it must distribute postal vote documents. There is little opportunity for it to engage in the necessary scrutiny. The evidence that the Select Committee received showed that the only scrutiny undertaken was to ensure that the forms had been completed properly, with names, addresses and doctors' signatures. When the forms were scrutinised more fully after the election, it was discovered that the same doctors' names appeared over and over again. In some instances they appeared on hundreds of applications, and related to people who were not their patients. The forms indicated that these people had an incapacity and could not attend the polling station.

There must be a penalty for doctors who are prepared to engage in such electoral abuse. They have no knowledge of the patient, yet they are willing to sign that the person is incapable of going to the polling station to register his vote. Given the volume of applications in certain areas of the Province, it is abundantly clear that there is fraudulent use of the absent voter system.

Of course, electoral fraud is committed with more sophistication now. Sinn Fein-IRA purchase copies of the marked register, from which they can determine who has not voted in a series of elections. They know that if they take those votes, it will not come to the attention of the electoral office. They provide themselves with absent voter application forms for those people. They intercept the forms from the Post Office—again, there was evidence of that happening. Alternatively, they go to the house and take the application form before the person who is receiving it ever has the opportunity to vote; in some cases, they do so before that person has had the opportunity even to open the envelope. That is how it is done: it is a sophisticated operation by those who are intent on abusing the electoral system.

The signature will assist only if there is sufficient time to carry out the investigations. If the Minister wants to tackle that issue, the electoral office must be provided with the necessary resources. A significant number of people must be put in during the run-up to an election to ensure that the investigations are carried out and that there is proper scrutiny of all the postal and proxy vote applications that come to the office. There are clear resource implications. The Government cannot simply put the legislation through and hope that everything will work out in the electoral office. I trust that the Government are prepared to fund the necessary increase in staff and support at the office.

I shall describe some of the provisions that the Government should have included in the legislation and that I hope that we can introduce in Committee. To avoid abuse, it is essential that something is done about intimidation. The Minister talked about an exclusion zone, cordon sanitaire, or whatever term the House wishes to use. I agree with him in that I do not believe that that will solve the problem, but unless new powers are given to staff inside the polling station, and to the RUC officers outside it, intimidation will still happen.

It is not always a question of the intimidation of voters. Indeed, it is difficult to intimidate voters because they can have the last laugh: ultimately, they go into the box and very few people will know what they have done there. It is the intimidation of other political parties' staff and workers in the polling station that gives an advantage to one political group. There must be some cognisance of the fact that additional powers need to be given to the police and to the presiding officer and his staff, so that they can tackle that problem.

Attention must be paid to access for the disabled. It is all right saying that we will deal with people who defraud votes, but if one stops people who are entitled to vote getting to the polling station, it has the same effect. In my constituency, people have not been able to gain access to a polling station because of steps or because they could not get their wheelchairs through the gates. I am sure that the same tale could be told in other constituencies. There are many different reasons why disabled people cannot gain access. A number of polling stations are not disability-friendly. That problem must be looked at.

There should not be a hue and cry simply at the time of the election. I hope that the Minister will instruct the electoral officer to ensure access for the disabled at polling stations.

There is one further factor that I hope to be able to raise in Committee, if the amendments are selected: bogus opinion polls, which are a method of bending the minds of voters. I say "bogus" because that is precisely what I mean. It was known that the opinion polls that were printed by the newspapers were bogus; the companies that carried them out must have known. I have seen the detail of how one opinion poll was carried out and I know that it was bogus. I am talking about the main opinion poll that was carried out for the Belfast Telegraph by Ulster Marketing Surveys in the run-up to the two elections on 7 June. UMS deliberately chose areas where my party was not standing as the sampling point.

David Burnside

Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the fact that the opinion poll had no impact on the result in any of the constituencies to which he refers? Although it might have been alarming, it had no impact on the results.

Mr. Robinson

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is saying that he thinks that it had no impact because my party did so well and his so badly, but no one could say that it did not have any impact. I assume that since the election, he has not spoken to everyone who voted to find out whether it had any impact on them. As everyone knows, the reality is that he would not put statements into newspapers in Northern Ireland in the run-up to elections if he did not believe that they had some influence on the people who read them. [Interruption.] I can see that I will be called to order soon, so I shall wrap the subject up quickly. There must be some prohibition on people who knowingly carry out an opinion poll in such a way as to produce a result that is in no way a reflection of the support in the country for the political parties involved.

In general, I welcome the legislation. It can certainly be improved in Committee. I hope that we have the opportunity to do that.

7.26 pm
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North)

I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). It is obvious from his remarks and the thought that he has given to the subject that he has an enormous contribution to make when the Bill goes into Committee.

In general terms, I welcome the thrust of the Bill, although areas of it could be improved and strengthened. Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I believe that it is long overdue. The Select Committee report of March 1998 said that this was an urgent and important issue. Indeed, that report followed the report by the Northern Ireland Forum, which has been referred to by several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). As a member of the Northern Ireland Forum committee, I remember hearing him give evidence. I am delighted that he continues to take a close interest in electoral law and reform in Northern Ireland. Some of his suggestions are constructive and I hope that the Minister will take them on board.

We have had four elections in Northern Ireland since the Select Committee report was published: the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in 1998; the European elections; and the Westminster and the local government elections, which were held on the same day recently. Three elections were held under the proportional representation system, one under the first-past-the-post system. As has been said, with elections held under the proportional representation system, at times only a relatively small number of votes may be needed to determine who stays in and who goes out of a particular contest, and therefore who ultimately gets elected. Therefore, a significant number of fraudulent votes can have a major impact on the outcome of elections, particularly in local government.

We debated that issue in the Northern Ireland Forum in 1997. I do not think that any members of the forum believed that we would have another local government election before legislation was introduced in the House to combat electoral fraud—especially when, as has been pointed out, half the postal votes in the 1997 local government elections were fraudulent. That speaks for itself.

In passing, I make the point that one of the purposes of the legislation is to ensure that those entitled to vote are not disfranchised.

Recently, there were two elections on the same day in Northern Ireland, one for Members of the House of Commons and one for members of local government. I hope that the experiment was a one-off. Many people in Northern Ireland, noting the number of spoiled papers in both elections, concluded that the holding of two elections on one day under two different voting systems—proportional representation in the local government election, and first past the post in the Westminster election—disfranchised more voters than were disfranchised by fraud. I hope the Minister will take that on board.

I support what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East and others about the various bits of documentation that must be produced by those wishing to obtain a ballot paper, especially a driving licence. The issue has already been highlighted so I shall not say much more about it. However, I have often seen voters emerge from polling stations disgusted by the fact that they have not been allowed to vote despite having photographic identification—bus passes or works passes, for example. Meanwhile, they have seen others being given ballot papers following the production of medical cards or benefit books—rightly, under the current legislation—with no photographic identification being required. I am thinking especially of those who produce the part of a driving licence that contains a photograph, but do not produce the part that is necessary for them to obtain a ballot paper. That point should be considered in Committee.

I am glad that in future there will be an identification card with a photograph that will entitle people to vote. That, I think, is widely welcomed. I suggest to the Minister, however, that the phasing out of other identification documents, such as benefit books and medical cards, should not happen too quickly. As has been said, it will take time to persuade people to apply. We do not want people to be disfranchised because they have no passport or no driving licence, but have not been able to apply—or have not got around to applying—for a photo-identification electoral card. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire—or it may have been the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Õpik)—said that the phasing-out should take place speedily, but I think that we should proceed with caution.

Rolling registration has been widely welcomed in Northern Ireland, and it is working reasonably well. It was a major step forward in terms of electoral law in Northern Ireland, greatly reducing the need for multiple registration. There were exchanges between, for instance, my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East and the Minister about whether it should be possible for voters to register in two places, thus being able to choose where to vote in local government elections. It would be relatively easy to make the same choice under the rolling registration system. For example, those who wanted to vote in a particular council area because they owned property there could simply register to do so.

I agree with those who oppose the idea of an exclusion zone. I do not think that it would be practical to place such a cordon sanitaire around polling stations. Effectively, however, there is already an exclusion zone at certain polling stations for some voters on both sides of the Northern Ireland community. I know from my practical experience as a candidate that in some areas, where an overwhelming majority of nationalists and only a tiny proportion of Unionists would vote, Unionists are being forced to cast their votes. They feel intimidated by that: they are so put off by having to walk past all the Sinn Fein workers and polling agents that they do not want to vote at all.

Nationalist voters feel the same. They have to come to an overwhelmingly Unionist polling station in my constituency, in the Ardoyne area, and they may likewise feel intimidated. Some thought should be given to the best way to designate polling stations to allay such fears.

I agree with what has been said about the entitlement of those with disabilities to vote. After the recent elections, constituents told me that they could not vote at, for instance, Currie primary school in Limestone road because it was necessary to negotiate two sets of steps. That puts off elderly people and makes it out of the question for those with disabilities to vote. On a number of occasions the ballot box was taken out to people so that they could vote—under supervision. That should not be tolerated in a civilised society. People should have the right to proper access to polling stations.

It is essential for the chief electoral officer, his staff and local electoral officers to have the funds that will enable them to run their operations efficiently and to combat fraud and abuse. I was amazed to discover that while it was deemed permissible for parties and candidates to have copies of the electoral roll—they could buy it in order to address labels and so on for election purposes—they were told, when they asked whether they could have the information on a computer disk, that that was possible but that no computer in Northern Ireland would be able to read it because the software was so antiquated.

That is the sort of system that the chief electoral officer must tackle and funds are urgently needed to deal with the problems.

Mr. Peter Robinson

I know that the Minister will receive a message telling him that plans are already afoot to spend money on that, but that funding will not be available until 2003. That is no use: the money and the equipment must be made available more readily. Even the computer department at Queen's university could not transfer the data on the chief electoral officer's machine to machines that would be used by any of the rest of us.

Mr. Dodds

I am sure that the Minister heard that and will accept that speedy action is necessary.

The former chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland used to say repeatedly that if we wanted to ensure that people had the right to vote and were not deprived of it by fraudulent means, it would cost money. The House and the Government will have to ensure that that money is made available. There is nothing more precious than the right to vote, and nothing makes people angrier than turning up on election day and finding that their votes have been stolen from them. It is incumbent on us to ensure that whatever resources are necessary to enable the electoral office to operate efficiently are provided.

I welcome the broad thrust of the Bill. We will give it a fair wind, but we hope that a number of points that have been raised will be addressed in Committee. The legislation may not be completed by the end of August or by September, when the next Northern Ireland elections will be held, if the Secretary of State is to be believed—and, indeed, if the law is followed through and there is no fancy footwork in the electoral process—but we hope that it will be enacted at the earliest opportunity.

7.40 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I should first like to apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister, to the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) and to other hon. Members for the fact that I was not here when the debate started. As I explained in a letter to Mr. Speaker, I was asked some time ago to chair a meeting in Portcullis House on the working of the Human Rights Commissions in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, and it was not an obligation that I could get out of. Consequently, I had not planned to seek to speak in this debate.

My hon. Friends in the Social Democratic and Labour party have not been able to attend the debate because they are with the Prime Minister, as are the leaders of the Ulster Unionist party, trying to find a peaceful solution to the problems of Northern Ireland and specifically to address the four issues that are besetting the peace process. The points that I shall make are essentially those that they would have made if they were not with the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and the leaders of the other pro-agreement parties.

The SDLP has identified three main types of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. The first is multiple registration and voting whereby voters are registered at various addresses—perhaps their parents' and friends' addresses—as well as at their own. Currently there is very little that can be done to identify or prevent that practice.

Personation of electors, particularly of those who do not usually use their vote, is the second type of fraud. It is committed with the assistance of forged identification, and medical cards are often used as they are simple in design and carry no photograph. Today, we have heard one anecdote after another about how that type of fraud has been committed. The need very strongly to address that issue is widely recognised.

The third type of fraud is the fraudulent application for postal and proxy votes. It, too, is often committed by using the names of non-voters or by using false registrations for uninhabited houses. However, the list of those in receipt of postal votes is and must remain available to the public. The date of issue of postal votes is also known. Consequently, people are able to go round and collect those postal votes and use them fraudulently.

An equally important sub-category of fraud occurs in cases in which people have properly applied for a postal vote, or have been persuaded to apply for one, after which people visit their house and intimidate them or threaten them and take it from them. We know that that happens on both sides of the community divide.

The worst thing that can possibly happen to a person is that someone take his vote from him and use it wrongly. That is stealing that person's identity, personality and most basic stake in democratic society. That is why we should take the matter very seriously regardless of where it occurs, whether in Northern Ireland or Great Britain. The right to vote is sacred to people and vital to their individuality and dignity. We must always treat seriously cases in which an attempt is made to remove someone's vote by fraud, threat or intimidation.

The SDLP feels that Ministers have gone some way towards achieving proper prevention of some of the fraud. However, like other hon. Members who have spoken in this debate, SDLP Members feel that the measures do not go far enough and that other measures could have been introduced to deal with the problem. We have already heard exchanges on the possible benefits of smart cards, which may be introduced. However, certainly the most depressing feature of the Bill is that it does not contain a timetable on removing the right to use non-photographic evidence. We do not welcome the fact that some forms of identification that are subject to fraud will still be accepted. The Bill could, as an indication of the Government's intention, provide for regulation and statutory instruments to do away with non-positive means of identification.

SDLP Members also believe that it would have been far better to include a requirement for voters to present a national insurance number, as each national insurance number is individual and distinct to every member of society. Everyone over 16 in Northern Ireland has a national insurance number. If those seeking to vote were required to provide their date of birth and national insurance number, it would be quite simple to use computers to check for multiple registrations and the fraudulent use of those numbers. The computer system would know how many national insurance numbers were extant in Northern Ireland at a particular time.

Mr. Grieve

I am very interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's comments on the subject, and we may hear more about it from the Minister. However, my understanding of the issue, is that, unfortunately, there are far more national insurance numbers floating around the United Kingdom than there are heads of population. My experience as prosecuting counsel in benefit fraud cases for the then Department of Social Security was certainly that numbers could be obtained with ease and that some individuals possessed enormous multiples of numbers. I therefore wonder whether national insurance numbers really provide the protection that the hon. Gentleman is seeking.

Mr. McNamara

Northern Ireland's population is much smaller than that of Great Britain and there are specific Northern Ireland national insurance numbers. They could therefore assist in creating a system to deal with the problem.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman is arguing. Even in Northern Ireland, however, it is amazing how people are able to obtain multiple national insurance numbers. One of my constituents was convicted of theft after manufacturing 25 national insurance numbers for 25 ghost customers.

Mr. McNamara

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. It is perhaps unfortunate that his constituent was discovered before he drew his old age pension as he would have had a reasonably large pension.

As I said, SDLP Members believe that national insurance numbers could be used with computers as an effective means of quickly and effectively checking identities. They also believe that we have to have a timetable to stop using non-photographic identity.

SDLP Members also believe that the Bill should contain other provisions. Although some other hon. Members may not agree with them, they believe that there should be a 100-metre limit on canvassing, posting and other party political activity around all polling stations, primarily to allay voters' anxieties and to reassure people that the polling station is a neutral zone. They believe that the withdrawal of partisan posters and active canvassing for 100 yards or so will help people to avoid the intimidation to which the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) referred. They see that as useful in preventing electoral fraud.

My SDLP colleagues believe that we should address the powers of the personnel involved with election-day procedures. They have given the example of one of the few instances in which a police officer can observe a crime being committed but be powerless to take action because he is in a difficult situation. If he proceeded to take action, it would probably lead to a considerable breach of the peace and, perhaps, the closure of the polling station because of a riot ensuing. My hon. Friends would like to see a cordon sanitaire and more powers to prevent crimes such as personation.

Mr. Grieve

What does the hon. Gentleman think about tellers? In Great Britain, parties put tellers into polling stations to note who has voted. Telling is what I might call almost a village fair occupation, with people having pleasant conversations and exchanging information. That is certainly the case in my constituency. If the restrictions that the hon. Gentleman proposes were to be introduced, that would prevent telling from taking place. That might be seen as an infringement of a legitimate right of people to inquire as to who is voting.

Mr. McNamara

As I understand from my visits to polling stations in Northern Ireland, telling agents are inside, rather than outside, the stations. Some presiding officers in the UK insist that the tellers are outside the polling station and, in my constituency, tellers have not been allowed in when the weather has been inclement. The situation is somewhat different in Northern Ireland.

My SDLP colleagues would like the Bill to contain provisions to examine the training and resources given to the electoral officer to ensure that the reforms, when passed by this House, can be implemented quickly and efficiently. It is one thing to vote for a scheme, and another to provide the money and training to enable it to take place. The sooner that that is done, the sooner many of the Government's wishes can be carried through.

My hon. Friends in the SDLP disagree to a limited extent with some of the comments made by members of the DUP concerning multiple constituency representation and proportional representation. My hon. Friends find it anomalous that, of all the elections in Northern Ireland, it is only the election for the UK Parliament that remains first past the post. They believe that there would be far fairer representation under multiple constituency representation—fairer for all the factions present in Northern Ireland.

The SDLP also believes that if such a system of proportional representation were introduced, much of the impetus that is given to some organisations to resort to illegal practices would be gone because they would get fair representation. That would overcome the problem to which the hon. Member for Belfast, North referred when he said that a fraction of fraudulent votes could swing a seat one way or the other. SDLP Members believe that multiple representation within Westminster elections would work the other way from that outlined by the hon. Member for Belfast, North.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The hon. Gentleman might argue on behalf of his friends in the SDLP about how many seats the party would win under proportional representation. However, proportional representation is used throughout Northern Ireland for the European elections and it makes no difference whatever. We were told that proportional representation might lead to the election of Sinn Fein or the SDLP, but it was the DUP which topped the polls, with the Ulster Unionists and the representative of the nationalists. If that was the case then, I do not know how the SDLP can say so confidently that things would fall in their favour if proportional representation were used for Westminster elections.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. Before the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) replies, I should point out that I do not want this to develop into a debate about proportional representation.

Mr. McNamara

Indeed, but the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) has made a big error. The SDLP was arguing not that proportional representation would be for its benefit but that it would be for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. The real problem for the hon. Gentleman is that, much though he represents his party, he does not represent the whole of Northern Ireland. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nor does the SDLP."] Nor does the SDLP; nor does the DUP, the UUP, the PUP or any other acronym one can come up with.

The purpose of the Bill—to get rid of electoral fraud—should unite all parties in this House. The Bill is important and I hope that the Government take on board proposals from all parts of the House that show a unanimity of view that they can go further. Even if the Government feel that they cannot move as many would wish, they could at least include within the Bill a provision to introduce changes without the need to come back to this House in future with primary legislation.

7.56 pm
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) reminded me of a situation years ago, when I was performing a wedding. The bridegroom had a difficulty with his speech and asked me to reply on behalf of the bride, so I was speaking on behalf of the bride, just as the hon. Gentleman was speaking on behalf of the SDLP.

The points made by the hon. Gentleman were useful and helpful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am glad that you brought him back to the centre of the debate, which is how to deal with electoral fraud. I appreciated the Minister's kind words, but I have a sense of revulsion when I listen to people in this House talking as if there were no electoral fraud in Great Britain and it were normal in Northern Ireland. We are beginning to realise that the people of England, Wales and Scotland are no better than the people of Northern Ireland and that electoral fraud is practised elsewhere, including in Lib-Lab deals in some councils.

I regret that the Bill does not apply to the United Kingdom as a whole because, according to European legislation, the same franchise and standards should be applicable throughout the UK. When the Government argue about the seamless robe of government, it would be worthwhile asking for the Bill to apply throughout the UK.

I wish to refer to disability. I welcome the improvements that have been made in terms of access to polling stations. However, it is not enough for the electoral office and the Government in Northern Ireland to provide access to a school via the outside steps when nothing can be done inside, as it is the responsibility of the Education Department or the Education and Library Board. It is time that schools were so equipped that people with disabilities could have a normal education and then grow up to vote in those schools without any hindrances.

I remember an earlier debate when the Government of the day introduced legislation to try to deal with electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. At the end of that debate, Enoch Powell rose in his place to draw the Speaker's attention to the fact that the Minister handling the debate had voted in both Lobbies, to show how easy it was to have multiple votes. We live in a fascinating world. The tragedy was that that Government did not listen to our arguments on that occasion, which is why we have to re-examine the question.

I plead with the Minister to bear in mind in Committee the points of detail that we have made today. All of us would accept the principle of the Bill, but the details of how we apply that principle are important. In proceedings on the earlier legislation, it was even suggested that a rent book would be an acceptable identity document, until we advised the civil servants and Ministers concerned that there were people in Belfast who would be glad to give their rent book to anybody. Civil servants do a remarkably good job, but sometimes streetwise people are needed to guide Ministers and inject some realism into the proceedings.

There is a weakness in the system of rolling registration and postal voting. The new chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland, Mr. Stanley, said that he could not guarantee the integrity of the election because he was dependent on the Post Office delivering the forms correctly. Many people in the last election in Northern Ireland did not get a postal vote even though they had applied in good time. In some cases in my area, the form was sent by return from the electoral office, but was postmarked five days later. Votes do not go missing through fraud alone.

I plead with the Government to listen to us. Sometimes Northern Ireland Members have not been listened to because of the attitude that mother or auntie knows best. It was obvious today that hon. Members did not know what they had inflicted on Northern Ireland in relation to voting patterns. I plead with them to listen to the plea made by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson): until we get proper smart cards, let pensioner IDs be acceptable. It would not be difficult in this new legislation to add them to the list of acceptable documents.

The law says that both parts of a driving licence are needed, but they are not. We should change the law to say that the plastic part is acceptable on its own. The law also says that the driving licence or passport must be current. Some people did not send their driving licence away to be renewed because they wanted it as an ID, but were then told that it was not acceptable as it was not current, even though their faces and even addresses had not changed.

Returning officers do a magnificent job by and large, but they stick strictly to the law. There was an outlandish case in Lagan Valley. A man and wife went to vote. The man had both parts of his driving licence with him, but the lady, like many another, had brought the wrong handbag and discovered that her driving licence was not in it. She was not allowed to vote. The husband said, "But surely a man can recognise his own wife and vouch for her identity." The electoral officer said no, that was not the law. Finally, in exasperation, the woman said, "Sure you know who I am. You had supper in our house last night."

Now it seems that we are in for a gay old time, as human rights legislation will give people a right to sue if they brought identification that they thought was acceptable but were denied the right to vote because of a strict application of the law. That is how barristers make a living—they keep arguing over technicalities. The Government may have some wonderful days ahead. I plead for the removal of some of the strict legalistic interpretation by removing the requirement for passports and driving licences to be current and for the two parts of the licence to be produced.

I happen to believe in the smart card. I believe that it would be better to have a multipurpose smart card. It could be a proper medical card, carrying information about medical problems requiring particular care. The cards would certainly be useful as ID in elections—Northern Ireland is the most elected place going, and people are dizzy with going backwards and forwards to vote—but we are all human, and is there anyone here today who has not put something in a safe place and then forgotten where they left it? If we tie ourselves down to the one smart card for voting, we may face genuine difficulties with people who cannot remember where they left it.

We need to consider the matter not with the view of the civil libertarians who are against anything that might infringe their liberties, no matter who might become a victim whose vote might be stolen, or whether a presiding officer is browbeaten. We are here to provide good legislation for the conduct of our elections in Northern Ireland, and I plead with the Minister to be a little more flexible on the detail, to get the best results for us all.

8.10 pm
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

This has been a fascinating and highly educational debate. I shall listen to the Minister with great interest when he responds on matters such as the extent of the franchise in Northern Ireland for local government elections. It may be that he and I will have learned something this evening of which we were not previously aware.

In my earlier intervention, I pointed out that in local government elections in Great Britain, it is possible to vote in two places on the same day. The Minister seemed to assume that that was also possible in Northern Ireland, so this evening's opportunity to look into such matters has been very educational.

I also join other hon. Members in welcoming the Minister to his Front-Bench post, and to this debate. I know from experience his long-standing interest in Northern Ireland and its problems, so it is a special pleasure to see him holding office as a Northern Ireland Minister.

The debate has been conducted on the important premise that electoral fraud must be eliminated. Some of the manifestations of fraud are humorous and have been the subject for comedy for many years, but fraud is a serious matter. We have heard much about paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland obtaining power by means of the Armalite and the ballot box at the same time. The problem is even worse when we realise that the system being employed is that of the Armalite and the stuffed ballot box.

Like the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), I believe that there is ample evidence that the degree of personation and fraud in elections on the mainland of Great Britain is a growing problem. I suspect that the House will have to tackle that problem in the near future, and I shall be interested to discover what the Electoral Commission has to say about the distribution of postal votes at the last general election. The enormous rise in their use in certain locations may suggest that many people are legitimately taking advantage of a right that they have been given—but a more sinister interpretation may be appropriate.

It is clear that the House is united in its view that electoral fraud is a serious matter, and that it must be stopped. Our aim must be to ensure as far as possible that one person has one vote, and that people who vote do so legitimately.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Õpik) said that he thought that that legitimacy would be in everyone's interest. I wish that that were true, but my impression of the development of politics in Northern Ireland over the past 20 years is that certain parties there do not seem to agree. They appear to have reaped the advantages of participation in the democratic process despite clear evidence that they have abused the system. Moreover, they do not seem to have experienced many downsides as a result.

Lembit Õpik

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and as recently as in the 2001 general election, the parties to which he refers may have derived genuine advantage from playing the system. However, I am sure that mainland voters would not take kindly to the discovery that a major party on the mainland had broken the democratic franchise. Further normalisation in Northern Ireland could mean that those who cheat the system there would suffer the same fate.

Mr. Grieve

I certainly hope so. If the Bill leads to the revelation that more personation is taking place—

Lembit Õpik

Does the hon. Gentleman mean less personation?

Mr. Grieve

No. I mean that the Bill may lead to more personation being detected, and as a result public opinion may come to oppose the practice. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), who said that there was something strange about the fact that different constituencies in Northern Ireland register absent voters in different ways. For example, one wonders where the many absent voters who are registered in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and in West Tyrone come from.

I turn now to some specific points arising from the debate. I do not want to take up too much of the House's time, so I hope that I shall be forgiven if I do not comment on all the speeches that have been made.

The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) proposed the use of national insurance numbers to prevent fraud. That possibility is not provided for in the Bill, but I shall risk repeating myself by pointing out that the usefulness of national insurance numbers for that purpose would be very limited. The Minister mentioned the matter in passing in his opening speech, and I should be interested to hear more.

I do not want my remarks to become too anecdotal, but from my experience of prosecuting people for benefit fraud it became apparent to me that national insurance numbers were two a penny. They are readily obtainable by a variety of means, and anyone who lays hands on a benefit book containing a national insurance number can start exploiting that number. I prosecuted one case in which paramilitary groups were funding themselves through the United Kingdom taxpayer. They had obtained large quantities of new benefit books, and those books carried national insurance numbers. I therefore have serious doubts about the possibility of using national insurance numbers to curtail electoral fraud.

Moreover, as the Minister noted, people could get muddled by a system that depended on national insurance numbers. Most people do not know their number and would be unable to state it to an electoral officer if they did not have it written down.

Another proposal was that signatures could be used as proof of identity. I did not attend the meetings of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, so there may be something about that proposal that I have missed. After all, banks require us to sign cheques, and bank staff make a visual comparison between the signature on the cheque and the specimen signature on the bank card. However, on many occasions it has been doubted that my signature on a cheque is the same as the signature on my card.

The signature is a very old fashioned means of identification, and I wonder how accurate it can be. That is not to say that the Bill is wrong in requiring signatures. I have no difficulty with that, but the hon. Member for Belfast, South suggested that signatures could be used more widely, and I am not sure that that would be as useful as he believes.

The Minister may say that the digital methods that have been floated before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee are now so accurate that a signature's particular characteristics can be detected. None the less, even if similarities can be determined between the very clear example that I might put on a bank card and the scrawl that appears when I sign a document at a funny angle, I am not sure that signatures would be very effective in the role that has been proposed.

That brings us to the nub of the debate, and to the key matters that must be grappled with. One of the key aspects of the Bill is whether we are moving towards smart cards for voting. Clearly, the provision in the Bill for such cards should be an exceptionally powerful deterrent against fraud.

One subject that we have to debate, and frequently do, is reconciling the liberty of the individual, and the tradition of turning our backs on any form of identification card, with the growing pressure for the use of such cards in a wide variety of situations. I do not want to become involved in too wide a discussion this evening, but voting is undoubtedly a right. As the hon. Member for North Down said, it is a right enshrined under the Human Rights Act 1998. At the same time, it is also a privilege. I would not expect to be allowed to vote if there were some doubt as to my identity.

In those circumstances, we are probably moving inexorably, not only in Northern Ireland but in mainland United Kingdom, towards some sort of smart card identification—I hope that it will not be an identity card, with all the connotations that that has—for situations in which one's identity has to be properly established, and voting is one of those.

I hope that the Minister will not take it amiss when I say that I worry a little about the two-tier nature of the system that seems to be creeping in under this legislation. I appreciate the conservatism of the Government on this matter and have no dispute about the principles that underlie it. In an effort to provide a number of ways in which people can identify themselves when they go to the polling station, the Minister is leaving open the possibility that some people will identify themselves with those cards and others will use other methods of identification. It has been pointed out that those at the more deprived end of society may be forced to have the smart cards, as they do not use the other forms of identification. That worries me because such people may feel that a burden and a responsibility are being placed on them, and they will have the legitimate complaint that others are using forms of identification that may be much less accurate. I hope that the Minister will keep that aspect of the matter under review.

Furthermore, if we are moving progressively towards more accurate forms of identification, and as there is widespread agreement in the House on the direction in which we should be going, it is surprising—the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) picked this up—that we are not providing in the Bill for the removal by statutory instrument of certain forms of identification, when they have passed their sell-by date and the new systems have come into operation.

As the Minister will know, I do not usually favour legislation by statutory instrument. Indeed, I have on occasion—probably, indeed, on occasions too numerous to mention—spoken out against it. None the less, this is one area in which we ought to be capable of using the provisions of statutory instruments creatively, without resorting to subsequent complex debates in the Chamber, which take up time. It is precisely because they take time that such matters do not come before the House. To be kind to the Government, I am prepared to accept that one reason why we have waited so long for this Bill is that, notwithstanding the report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, there has not been Government time for it.

The one area that will merit careful consideration in Committee is whether we can streamline and move towards a simplified smart card system. I appreciate that that will not be done overnight, but if Northern Ireland voting is carried out entirely by smart card at the end of the process, our civil liberties will not have been infringed. They certainly will not have been half as infringed as they are by the present system, under which people may legitimately doubt whether the outcome of a particular election in a particular constituency really reflects the principle of one person, one vote.

I do not wish to take any more time. As the Minister knows, the Opposition welcome the measure and will not seek to divide the House. We appreciate what the Government are doing, and they have our support. I hope that the Minister will take on board the matters that we have raised, and also that in his reply he will be able to touch on the anxieties raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House so as to ensure, in due course, that fraud is prevented and Northern Ireland has a much better system.

8.25 pm
Mr. Browne

With the leave of the House, I will reply to this Second Reading debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss electoral fraud in Northern Ireland and for the many well informed contributions. Some of them were better informed than I was, but I will return to that.

In the words of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), I am also grateful to those hon. Members who shared their street wisdom with me. I assure them that it will inform debates in Committee. In any event, I do not think that I am known as someone who is far removed from street wisdom.

The problems of electoral abuse in Northern Ireland have repeatedly exercised Governments. The matter has been raised by the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland and his staff, by party officials across the community and by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs and other committees. Together with those bodies, the Government have examined the problem and the possible solutions with great thoroughness. The Bill makes clear our commitment to finding proposals that will really work, while not imposing unreasonable burdens on the electorate, the chief electoral officer and his staff or the political parties.

I take this opportunity to express the Government's appreciation of the work done by the chief electoral officer and his staff and their dedication in ensuring that elections in Northern Ireland are carried out properly in what we all acknowledge are sometimes difficult circumstances.

The measures must strike a balance between limiting the opportunity for abuse and putting obstacles in the path of genuine voters. I will endeavour to answer as many questions as I can in the time given and I undertake to write to any hon. Members whose questions I do not answer.

I welcome the support for the measure from both sides of the House, even though it is qualified in some instances. I am grateful to the official Opposition, especially the hon. Members for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) and for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), for their support. The hon. Member for Solihull and other hon. Members raised an issue that I endeavoured to address in my opening speech: the timing of the legislation and the reason that it has taken so long for it to appear. I do not propose to repeat myself, but I point out in defence of the Government that the time taken to consider and agree workable proposals was not entirely wasted and that other things were done.

I remind the House that the following new measures are already in place. We now have rolling registration. The chief electoral officer has a statutory right to inspect the records kept by a number of public authorities, some of which I identified. Absent vote applications are being dealt with locally, which has improved their processing. The electoral office has been provided with more funding for additional staff and with new IT systems to facilitate changes. I shall return to that point.

It has always been our intention that the provisions of the Bill would be in place for the Assembly elections scheduled for May 2003. The hon. Members for North Down (Lady Hermon), for Solihull and for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) asked about multiple registration. For some Members, the discussion of that point may have been the most interesting part of the debate. It appears to have generated a request from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that I enlighten the House as to precisely what the franchise is.

If this is the worst mistake that I make as a Minister, it will not be the worst ever made by one, but I do not think that the hon. Member for Belfast, East is correct. Unfortunately, the legal advice available to me at the moment is not precise enough for me to be able to check that point and I do not have access to the documentation, so I shall write to him to set out the position. I shall clearly set out what we propose. On that basis, we can hold an informed debate on multiple registration in the Standing Committee.

Mr. John Taylor

I am grateful to the Minister, not least for his great candour, for which he is to be commended. However, even going along with the analysis part of the way, I would bet far more money than I would care to lose that the position in England is that one may vote only once in a parliamentary election and only once in a European election even if one is multiply registered, and that it is an offence to vote more than once for Westminster or Europe. However, if one is twice registered for local government purposes, with two bona fide residences, one may vote twice in those circumstances. That is my understanding.

Mr. Browne

Given my track record on the subject, I undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman when I have checked whether his contribution is accurate. Several hon. Members commented on my interest in Northern Ireland and on my contribution to Northern Ireland matters when I was a Back Bencher in the previous Parliament. It is true that I have some knowledge of Northern Ireland affairs, but today's debate has taught me what I have already told all my officials: a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I tell them that they should remember that although I know some things, they should tell me regularly when I do not know.

Rev. Martin Smyth

When the Minister investigates local government voting will he check whether in Northern Ireland one is even entitled to register at two distinct places? My understanding is that as it is not always possible to guarantee that people do not register twice, the offence occurs when people vote twice. In Northern Ireland, it is my understanding that one can register only in one place at one time.

Mr. Browne

I am not in the mood to bow to anybody's wisdom at the moment, so I shall undertake to check all those matters. The hon. Members who raised them will be written to with a clear exposition of the legal situation. That will inform the debate in Committee.

The hon. Member for Solihull and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) referred to the pressure put on electoral officers by the last-minute presentation of large numbers of absent vote applications. Measures have already been taken to improve the system for absent vote applications. They are now processed at local electoral offices instead of by the chief electoral officer as was the case when the Select Committee examined the issue.

Absent vote applications are already checked for authenticity and the electoral office devotes much of its resources into clearing the large number of such applications that arrive at the last minute. To be able to compare the signature on the application with the one on the database should assist in the quick identification of suspect applications, despite the reservations expressed by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. However, the eventual introduction of automated absent vote processing will also help in making efficient use of resources.

The hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and for Solihull, among others, asked why we do not move over to smart-card technology right now. As we said in the White Paper, the ultimate aim is for every voter to be issued with an electoral smart card bearing a unique identifier. I have already told the House that that is an aspiration for the future. I have been accused of setting my ambitions too low in that respect, but the fact is that the technology currently available is still young.

As I said in my opening speech, I am concerned that we should not use the electoral system to develop the technology. Such a comprehensive scheme would need to be wholly secure before it could be introduced in such a sensitive and important matter as electoral administration. The cost of introducing and maintaining such a system would be great. In the light of the American experience in Florida, it is worth noting that technology must not be used for the benefit of the electoral office if it is to the cost of the electorate. Our view is that we would be foolish to rush into a radical new scheme before being confident of the practicalities.

Lembit Öpik

I have been holding back congratulating the Minister on his new post until I found out how he performed. Having seen how he has performed, I have unbridled admiration for his honest and humble presentation so far. Does he accept that we have two options: a smart card, which could help us to police the voting process; or a dumb card, which could easily be replicated? Does he accept that in the specific case of Northern Ireland, although the cost per head may be high, the absolute cost will be low because we are not dealing with very many people? Does he also accept that the overwhelming view on both sides of the House and among all parties is that we should trust what the financial industry has already tested for us: the smart-card technology, which must surely be effective if the financial industry trusts it?

Mr. Browne

As usual, I am grateful for all compliments or observations to my credit, but hon. Members will no doubt move well away from making them after this maiden appearance at the Dispatch Box. Perhaps I should make this speech last as long as possible and enjoy it while I can.

I repeat that the contribution of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has been helpful, as have all the contributions; they will inform the Bill's progress. Cost is not the reason why we do not propose to adopt the smart-card technology now. In the meantime, we do not propose to introduce a dumb card; we shall use the best card available to us. We are not introducing the smart card now because we are not satisfied that the biometric technology that underpins it is as yet mature enough to be used at elections.

Mr. Barnes

The House should accept the Minister's arguments for not introducing the smart card, which everyone wants in the end, but if the electoral identity card is the best available, why cannot it be universal, as it would then feed into the smart-card provisions later? If everyone had an electoral identity card, we would move down the road towards the smart card.

Mr. Browne

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for taking us forward; I had intended to address what has been described as the introduction of a two-tier system, involving photographic identity cards for elections and driving licences and passports otherwise. I repeat that a smart card for everyone remains an ultimate goal, but the technological difficulties have to be resolved first.

I believe that no stigma is attached to receiving an electoral ID card. Indeed, for many people, it would be far better than having to show their benefit books as a method of identification. The ID card will be freely and widely available to those who require it. It represents the quickest way to create a situation in which we can remove the medical card and the other non-photographic ID cards from use. Although I constantly caution that we must move steadily and that we must take the parties and the electorate with us, we have to take action as quickly as is reasonable. If introducing the ID card, as a stepping stone towards the smart card, allows us to act more quickly, that is what we should do, and it is what we will do. That is why we shall take advantage of the fact that other people can use forms of identification, such as the driving licence with a photograph and passports, that cannot easily be forged.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East suggested using the travelcards that, I understand, will shortly be issued to all people in Northern Ireland over the age of 65. [HON. MEMBERS: "Over 60."] I may be wrong; it may be 60. In any event, we will not accept a travel pass because such a document is not designed to high enough a security specification for it to be a reliable identifier for electoral purposes. However, he made the sensible suggestion that we should take advantage of the fact that the cards are being issued to piggy-back on them to encourage people to apply for electoral identity cards. Although following that sensible suggestion will require discussion with the devolved authorities, I will explore it further and examine whether it can be pursued.

Several hon. Members sensibly raised the issue of the two parts of the driving licence. In my evolving response to interventions on my opening speech, I suggested that we would consider the possibility of treating that part of the driving licence with a photograph as sufficient for identification purposes. There may be downsides to consider and work through. For example, driving licences can be stolen. However, it is reasonable to suggest that the part with the photograph will not be used by anyone who does not look like the person on the photograph. Therefore, that problem may not be as big as was first thought. I undertake to consider the issue.

Mr. Peter Robinson

I welcome the Minister's willingness to reconsider the issue of driving licences.

On the senior citizens bus pass, the Minister cannot argue that the design does not suit. The only design that he can be aware of is the design of the present concessionary pass, and that is to be changed for a free fares bus pass. The design work has not been done yet, so the pass could incorporate whatever mechanisms he requires for it to be used for electoral identification purposes.

Mr. Browne

I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. However, it is not a question of the design or content of the card, but one of its security specifications and whether it can be produced fraudulently. That is one of the main concerns with the current documents used for identification purposes.

Mr. McNamara

Will my hon. Friend the Minister respond to the point made from both sides of the House that the Bill does not contain provision for getting rid of non-photographic identification documents? To achieve change in that regard, we shall require further primary legislation. If we could deal with that problem by regulation, we could get rid of it when it is opportune to do so.

Mr. Browne

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I was intending to come to it and, if he bears with me, I shall work through some of the issues that have been raised and attempt to conclude the debate within a reasonable time.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire welcomed the research that is taking place into the electoral system in Northern Ireland and he asked for details on it. The preliminary results will be available by August and the final report is due in September, which is quite soon. The research has been commissioned to investigate all aspects of operations at recent elections and includes possible electoral malpractice. It is designed to investigate every stage of the electoral process and will involve the general public, presiding officers and counting staff. Anecdotal evidence suggests that electoral abuse is widespread in Northern Ireland. We hope that the research will better inform us of the extent of abuse and the form that it takes so that we can tackle the problem.

My hon. Friend also referred to signatures. We could ask for voters' signatures at the polling station, but we must implement only essential measures that do not create unnecessary barriers. We believe that the collection of a person's date of birth and signature on registration and the use of the date of birth and photographic identification at the polling station are sufficient. We have no intention of putting more barriers in front of voters than are necessary to tackle the problem.

The support of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire is also welcome. I am acutely aware of the balance that is necessary when we legislate to place restrictions on the electoral process. His speech was a model of how to walk that tightrope; he argued for immediate implementation of a smart card and then exposed the dangers of the creeping introduction of identification cards.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we will redesign the form for absent vote applications. We shall discuss how best to improve it with the chief electoral officer, including the use of bar coding and serial numbers on forms, which we believe are valuable. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the need to improve the register's accuracy and suggested that that should be a priority. The Northern Ireland register is 94 per cent. accurate, which is high, as he acknowledged. Rolling registration, the chief electoral officer's powers to examine other databases and improved information technology in the electoral office will enhance that further.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) asked why we do not legislate to remove the medical card and other non-photographic forms of identification from the list of specified documents. It is clear that we will need to give people a reasonable amount time to obtain a specified form of photographic identification, such as electoral ID, and to get used to using it. We cannot disfranchise voters in our haste to legislate.

We have always intended to get the measures in place in time for the scheduled Assembly elections in 2003 and we propose to remove the non-photographic ID from the list of specified documents by subordinate legislation when we are able to.

Lembit Öpik

Will the Minister at least commit the Government to listening sincerely to our concerns when we raise them in Committee where it will be more appropriate to cover them in detail?

Mr. Browne

That is implicit in my remarks. Today's debate will inform discussions in Committee where we will be able to consider the issues raised.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Down for reminding me of the human rights implications of electoral law. I expected her to do that and was not disappointed. She raised serious concerns that will engage us in Committee. I am sure that she will forgive me for not responding to them now, but they will be addressed.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East made a characteristically analytical speech. He was correct to remind me of my contribution to the Select Committee's work. He and other hon. Members mentioned the important issue of disabled access to polling stations. I am acutely aware of the need for such access, and I am proud of my constituency, which has complete access for disabled persons to all polling stations. I am sure that I am not alone in that. I take very seriously the issue of access for all to polling places.

I know that the chief electoral officer is looking carefully at locations and endeavouring to ensure that there is access for all. Hon. Members mentioned some of the constraints, such as the age of buildings. Many old school buildings, in particular, are inaccessible. I know that the chief electoral officer takes very seriously his obligations to ensure equality of access, and I hope, during my term as Minister, to make significant progress on that.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East emphasised the need for computer systems. The replacement of the IT system at the electoral office is already under way. The new system will come into effect in July 2002 and will have the capacity to cope with changes to the electoral system envisaged by the Bill.

Although we live in a democratic society, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to eradicate electoral fraud, but these proposals will make fundamental changes and give the chief electoral officer significant additional powers to combat fraud. Personation at the polling station will be made much more difficult by the requirement for all voters to provide a specified form of photographic identification. The chief electoral officer will be able to collect the signature and date of birth of every elector in Northern Ireland, and that will facilitate the process of checking absent vote applications and verifying identity at the polling station.

The measures will tackle electoral abuse effectively without disadvantaging honest voters. We intend to implement them as soon as is practicable, but we will take all necessary steps to ensure that no one is disfranchised because of them. The Government alone cannot eradicate electoral fraud. We must continue to work in partnership with the electoral office, the police and political parties to tackle electoral fraud in all its forms. I ask hon. Members who are opposed to electoral fraud, and who want to protect the democratic exercise of the franchise, to take the appropriate action by supporting the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.