HL Deb 18 December 1984 vol 458 cc588-609

6.13 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Lyell)

My Lords, I beg to move that the Elections (Northern Ireland) Bill be now read a second time.

We have before us today a Bill designed to strengthen the existing safeguards against personation at elections in Northern Ireland. Electoral abuse there is not a new problem. This is especially true of personation; and that is a term that we class as voting as some other person. But the magnitude of the problem has changed dramatically in the last few years so that now the whole electoral system is under threat. The purpose of this Bill is to underpin the fundamental principle, long established in the United Kingdom, that it is for each voter to cast his or her vote in the way that he or she wishes.

Before turning to the Bill itself, I should like to say why, after close consideration, the Government believe that a Bill is necessary, and why this particular Bill represents the best way forward. The United Kingdom electoral system is rightly designed to make voting as easy as possible. It is not designed to withstand a campaign of concerted electoral abuse—for that is what we have seen in recent years—particularly when the competing candidates and their agents do not make full use of the present electoral law, not least because of intimidation. A variety of techniques, few of them original, have been used to abuse the democratic process, but personation is now a significant problem in Northen Ireland.

Some indication of electoral malpractice is provided, first, by the number of tendered ballot papers—which are special pink ballot papers—submitted by genuine electors who discover at the polling stations that their votes have already been cast; and, secondly, by the number of arrests for personation. At the 1982 Assembly election and 1983 parliamentary general election the numbers of tendered ballot papers issued were 762 and 949, respectively. The numbers of arrests for personation were 26 and 149 at those two elections. But these figures are likely to he only the tip of the iceberg. Arrests are, in effect, a measure of the diligence of candidates and their agents in calling for the arrest of personators, often in difficult or even threatening circumstances.

The Government are in no doubt that the extent of personation was greatest at the general election last year, at which large teams of personators were used. Some observers believe that around 20 per cent. of the Sinn Fein vote was acquired by malpractice. The precise figure is obviously difficult to establish, given the circumstances of electoral abuse. But that the figure is substantial is, I believe, widely accepted throughout the community in Northern Ireland. This view was endorsed in a report on electoral abuse by the Northern Ireland Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, published on 1st October this year, following a thorough investigation. The commission said (and here I quote): Unofficial estimates vary but even the lowest estimate obtained by the Commission is not insignificant". The commission concluded that although it had reservations, requiring voters to produce some form of identity before being given a ballot paper should be tested.

The Government believe that effective choice lies between requiring voters to produce some kind of special identification document or requiring them to produce one of a number of specified existing documents. Your Lordships may have noticed from the debates on this Bill in another place that the first option is favoured by some, but issuing such identity cards might be seen as the first step towards requiring people to carry and produce them for other purposes, and I am sure that your Lordships would want to think very carefully before going down that path. It would be expensive and administratively cumbersome. Moreover, some electors would refuse or otherwise fail to obtain such a document, however much the parties encouraged them to do so, and the effect of this might be to distort the results. The Government have therefore concluded that the right course is to require voters to produce one of a number of specified documents.

At this point perhaps your Lordships will agree if I turn to the provisions of the Bill. Your Lordships will see that Clause 1 amends the parliamentary elections rules as respects Northern Ireland by providing that a ballot paper will not be issued to a voter unless he has produced one of the specified documents set out in the clause. Production of one of these documents is mandatory: the presiding officer or clerk will have no discretion to permit someone to vote without producing a document.

Clause 1 also provides that a presiding officer will refuse to issue a ballot paper if he decides that a document produced by a voter raises a reasonable doubt as to whether the voter is the person he represents himself to be. A voter who has produced a specified document, but has been refused a ballot paper because the presiding officer has a reasonable doubt, will be able to mark a tendered ballot paper. Clause 1 also makes consequential amendments in respect of incapacitated or blind voters.

Clause 2 provides that a decision that a specified document raises a reasonable doubt about a voter's identity may he reviewed only on an election petition. Otherwise, it is to be final, and not to be questioned in any proceedings.

Clause 3 creates an offence of having a specified document not bearing the possessor's name, or forged specified document, on polling day, or the day before, for purposes of personation. Clause 3 also gives the police the necessary powers in connection with the offence to search vehicles and premises on polling day or the day before. The new offence under Clause 3(1) attracts maximum penalties on conviction on indictment of imprisonment for two years, or a fine, or both: and on summary conviction, three months' imprisonment, or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum of £2,000, or both.

Clause 4 provides that the provisions of the Representation of the People Act on entitlement to vote do not prejudice the operation of Clauses 1 and 2 of this Bill. The Bill does not hear directly on the franchise: no one will lose the right to be on the electoral register. But, as I have said, those who do not have a specified document will not be able to vote. Clause 5 ensures that the provisions corresponding to the main provisions of this Bill may be included in subordinate legislation relating to local government elections in Northern Ireland, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and elections held there to the European Assembly.

Clause 6 deals with expenses and Clause 7 deals with citation, extent and commencement, including a provision whereby, as respects local government elections in Northern Ireland, the Bill shall come into force as soon as it is passed. The reason for this last provision is that the Government believe it is essential for an order including these provisions to be operative in time for the local government elections in Northern Ireland next May.

Your Lordships may wonder about the Notes on Clauses. I can inform your Lordships that they are available for any noble Lord who wishes to collect them at the Printed Paper Office. I have mentioned this in correspondence to several noble Lords. If I have omitted anyone, I apologise; but your Lordships now know that the Notes on Clauses are available for anyone who is interested.

I turn now briefly to the specified documents. The drawing up of a satisfactory list has not been easy. There are two main dangers: on the one hand, making a list so extensive that easily forged or easily obtainable documents are included; and, on the other hand, making it so narrow that some legitimate voters find difficulty in producing any of the documents. I should say a word in particular about the medical card, because of the concern which has been expressed about its inclusion. I think the important point to note is that the advantage of the medical card lies in the fact that every member of the Northern Ireland electorate may obtain one without charge. We believe that to be important.

The Government recognise that personation is but one form of electoral abuse, but we believe that it is the only one which should be tackled in this Bill. It makes good sense to tighten up postal voting rules, but so far as parliamentary elections are concerned we believe that the right legislative vehicle is the Representation of the People Bill, which is already being considered in another place. As regards next year's local government elections, the rules on postal voting can be set out in the order for those elections.

The introduction of a Bill of this kind represents a departure from the traditional British way of holding elections. I regret that, and I regret the necessity to introduce this Bill, but of that necessity the Government have no doubt whatever. The existing arrangements were never designed to withstand the pressures to which they are now subject.

I recognise that what is proposed in this Bill is not fool-proof, but the Government are firmly of the view that it is the best that can be devised, given the undesirability of having identity cards with photographs. The provisions of the Bill need to be seen as a whole, and in particular Clause 1, concerning the specified documents, needs to be considered alongside the new offences created by Clause 3. These two clauses need to be read together. I assure your Lordships that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In all the circumstances, and having weighed the options very carefully, the Government have concluded that the approach set out in the Bill best balances the urgent need to reduce the opportunities for personation against minimum change in the established procedures for voting.

Finally, let me make it absolutely clear that this Bill is not directed against any democratically sustained political view: it seeks to uphold democracy, ensure fairness and impede those who, through their contempt of the democratic process, wish to undermine and destroy it. I commend it to your Lordships.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Lyell.)

6.26 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I first wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, for explaining the Bill and also for sending myself and I think other noble Lords a copy of the Notes on Clauses, which have been extremely helpful. It would be sufficient for me to say that we approve the Bill and just sit down. But as it is rather exceptional for us to welcome a Government Bill, and also as there was a fair amount of criticism in the Second Reading debate in the other place, I think that I should explain why from the Opposition we support the Bill.

By and large, I think that we are proud of Britain's electoral law and hold the view that it enables the maximum number of people to record their votes; and at the end of the day we accept the result of the election as being a fair and democratic decision. The conduct of elections is on the same principles throughout the United Kingdom, with one or two exceptions which I shall come to. This Bill treats Northern Ireland differently. There is criticism because that is so, but I think that we would all accept that conditions in Northern Ireland are different.

In addition, we have had the report of the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland for 1982–83, which sets out the reasons why the Government should make changes along the lines of the provisions in this Bill. To save time I shall not quote them. We criticise the Government for relying too much on Whitehall knowing best, but this is not such a case. As I think that the Minister has explained, advice has also been given by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights which is based in Belfast. I could take a number of quotations from the document to justify bringing in the Bill.

The commission observes that many allegations have been made about the extent of personation but, by its very nature, it is impossible to quantify accurately. The noble Lord gave the number of tendered ballot papers, but the numbers alone are not sufficient to justify the Bill. The commission points out that not all persons who discover that their votes have been stolen ask for tendered ballot papers, and also suggests that not all personators are arrested. Despite widespread allegations of personation, in Northern Ireland election petitions are rarely brought.

As I have stressed already, in Great Britain, and particularly in Northern Ireland, it is vitally important that people are satisfied that within the electoral system the correct result and the one which the people want is achieved. There are two forms of personation. There is voting for someone who is dead or known to be absent. I do not condone that. It is wrong. Those who do it must take the penalty that goes with it. The other form is voting for someone before they get to the polling station. It is called vote stealing.

I picture the position that I or any other person would take—as Lords, we are permitted to vote in certain elections—on being told at the polling station that someone has already voted in your place and that your vote cannot therefore be recorded. Merely giving a tendered ballot paper means that your vote is not recorded unless there is need for scrutiny afterwards. That is what we commonly term vote stealing. It is a matter that the Bill is mainly aimed against.

As the noble Lord the Minister has pointed out, two statutory questions may be put to an elector in all United Kingdom elections. These are set out in the Representation of the People Act. Similar provisions apply to parliamentary elections, the European elections, the Northern Ireland Assembly elections and local government elections. If we accept that there is this abuse, we have to decide how it should be tackled. Consideration needs to be given as to whether we should place further responsibility upon the presiding officer to conduct further interrogations. That, I suggest, would be very dangerous. If, therefore, we are not going to place upon the presiding officer the responsibility for carrying out further interrogations if he is doubtful, there must be proof of identity. That is what I believe the Bill attempts to set out.

The list of documents is included in the Bill. These can be discussed at Committee stage. I am pleased.to note that the Bill makes provision that if at the district elections in 1985 these are found to be inadequate, there will he the opportunity for them to be reconsidered. I am pleased that any variation of the list will be done by affirmative resolution and not by the negative procedure.

One point must be stressed. That is the importance of publicity. I note that in the previous report of the Commission on Human Rights it was suggested that advance publicity of the requirements relating to the documents to be produced might deter electors. I should like to put the contrary view. Unless there is adequate publicity, we shall find some people going to the polling station without one or other of the necessary documents. That would cause bitterness. I am certain that some people would say that if that was the case they were not going back again. Therefore, adequate publicity must be given by whatever authority is responsible.

The Bill makes clear that the presiding officer shall not issue a ballot paper if the officer decides that the particular document raises a reasonable doubt as to whether the voter is the elector or proxy he represents himself to he. Are we prepared to give the presiding officer any additional discretionary power? The Bill does not give that power. The decision is one to be taken only by the presiding officer. No clerk in the polling station can take this decision but must refer it to the presiding officer for decision. That is right. It means, however, that the appointment of presiding officers is very important. In effect, he will be depriving the elector of a vote. If he thinks that there is a satisfactory reason and will not issue a ballot paper, we have the tendered ballot papers. But they are not votes unless there is a challenge on petition and there has to be a scrutiny.

The statutory questions to which I have referred can only be put if the presiding officer thinks that they should be put or if required by a candidate, an election agent or a polling agent. This, again, is one of the important differences of elections in Northern Ireland. I have been election agent many times. I have been responsible for supervising other election agents dozens of times. But the number of occasions on which I have appointed polling agents to be inside the polling station is very few. We believe that they do a far better job knocking up electors who have not voted than sitting in a polling station, because we trust our system.

One Member of Parliament has suggested in the other place that the Bill has been written by people not conversant with running elections in Northern Ireland and who have no idea how personation is carried out. I have no experience of running elections in Northern Ireland. I am, however, prepared to accept what the electoral officer said and what the Commission on Human Rights has said. I recall one occasion when I went over to Northern Ireland to talk to the old Northern Ireland Labour Party on running elections. I was allowed to take every single session over a whole weekend, except the question of polling day activities. One can understand that. It has been common in Northern Ireland for people to vote for those who are dead or not there.

Reference was made in the other place to intimidation of polling agents. These are people who have the legal right to sit in the polling station and to check off, along with the presiding officer, the numbers of those who vote. I am not referring to those who take numbers outside the polling station. I am referring to those inside the polling station. The chief electoral officer said in the report of 1982–83: The special circumstances applying within Northern Ireland do make it difficult for the various candidates to obtain an adequate number of experienced polling agents who are both conversant with the appropriate electorate and willing to carry out this function in difficult circumstances. Polling agents have been physically abused as well as subjected to verbal abuse and intimidation". Obviously, the request by a polling agent, where we have people prepared to do this job, to the presiding officer to put the statutory questions is not sufficient. One needs to go beyond that. We must be satisfied that this is the right course to deal with what is generally agreed to be a serious abuse in Northern Ireland. I said at the outset that Northern Ireland elections are different. First, they follow the procedure of the single transferable vote which is not used in the rest of the United Kingdom. No United Kingdom party contests elections in Northern Ireland. Candidates contest mainly on Northern Ireland issues. Then, we have the effect of paramilitary violence.

The commission points out in paragraph 31 that the Secretary of State put proposals to the commission in 1982 that presiding officers should not issue ballot papers to electors who could not produce evidence of their identity from one of a list of documents. On that occasion the commission disapproved of the proposal. But in its latter report, to which the noble Lord the Minister has referred, published only in October of this year, the commission said that it had changed its view and was now prepared to approve the suggestions incorporated in the Bill.

Therefore, the Bill seems to be acceptable. We support the purpose of the Bill and the principle behind it, emphasising particularly that the Bill in no way interferes with the franchise of any elector. There may be points for us to deal with at Committee stage, but we give the Second Reading our wholehearted support.

6.38 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, always goes so thoroughly into Northern Ireland discussions that he leaves the rest of us with little to say. I shall try not to repeat everything that the noble Lord has said, all of them points that I have in my notes—or, rather, not all the bulk of them. I do disagree, however, with the noble Lord on one point. It seems to me that 949 agreed deceptions in a general election taking place among 1.5 million people is more than enough to justify a very strong Bill indeed. The noble Lord the Minister justified it by saying that it was only the tip of the iceberg. It probably is. But even if it is not, I shall have no difficulty in supporting the Bill as it stands. There are three points, really, that have been discussed in the other place. I am prepared to back the Government on each, as I think is the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, who has just spoken.

The first thing is that we know the unionists dislike legislation which differentiates Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. We always sympathise with them and do not agree to this sort of thing unless there is a very good case. But one cannot possibly justify what is going on at these elections, as revealed by the figures given, and as suspected. Let us not forget that it has been estimated—I think possibly by their enemies—that the Sinn Fein vote was 20 per cent. higher as a result of cheating. This is not a firm figure hut it gives one some idea of what they are up against.

We could not possibly ask the Government to hold their hand in this case; nor could we possibly ask the Government to introduce new restrictions on voting in England, Scotland and Wales, where there is no evidence whatever of the same trouble coming. To suggest that seems to me purely perverse. I will not mention any names, but if anybody reads the debates in the other place he will find a number of people who ought, in my opinion, to be intelligent enough to see that this is purely perverse. That is the first point. I wholly support the Government in stating the fact that this situation is a Northern Ireland one peculiarly. There is no evidence that it happens, except very occasionally—and I have no evidence even of that—on the mainland. Therefore it would be ridiculous to introduce a Bill of this kind here as well.

The second point is whether it is going to work. I think it will work, because simply making it perfectly clear that personation is a crime, with penalties as mentioned, and by putting this extra duty on to the presiding officer to identify people, and making people identify themselves, is half-way to success. The other half of course is proper policing of the polling booths, because if you have a citizen who wants to vote and standing behind him is an IRA hoodlum who is looking very hard at the presiding officer, intimidation can happen in a situation of that kind—if not then at least afterwards. So it is essential that this must be carried out so far as possible under police protection.

The third point is whether these documents are the right ones. We shall discuss that in Committee. Anybody can get a medical card even if they do not want to go to a doctor. If the proper publicity is given when the ballot papers are issued—to the effect that you have to have one of these four or five identifications before you vote—then most people will probably comply; I cannot see why they should not do so.

The last objection—difficulty—is whether having to do this is going to stop anybody from voting. Clearly, if people are not fully warned, and if they walk a long way to a polling station and find that they do not have what they ought to have, then they go away and possibly do not vote. So there is a remote possibility of that happening, and that depends entirely on the publicity which is issued at the beginning. One way and another. I am perfectly satisfied that the three objections I have referred to are not valid. If there is difficulty in people getting the documents it is in the Bill that the list of documents can be added to or altered by affirmative resolution. I am very happy to give the Bill a Second Reading; I think it is very important.

I must now say that I have already told the Minister that in about a quarter of an hour I have an appointment which I cannot possibly break, and if I am uncivil enough to leave my place before both the other two speakers have finished, I hope that they will forgive me. I shall read in the morning with fascination what they have to say.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Dunleath

My Lords, my sole contribution to this debate is to say that I have yet to hear or to read a convincing argument as to why identity cards, with a photograph not more than 10 years old, should not be carried by all citizens of Northern Ireland at all times. The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, has said that your Lordships' House would have to think very carefully about this. I appreciate that, but I have yet to hear a convincing argument.

In regard to the Bill that is before us this evening, it would be a very much simpler way of dealing with the matter than the schedule of approved documents which has been listed. I do not see that the carrying of ID cards would be any more inconvenient than drivers carrying driving licences, which is something that we all accept. If you are stopped at a vehicle checkpoint—an incident which perhaps does not occur so frequently on this side of the water as it does in Northern Ireland—you take it for granted that you produce your driving licence; and, if you have left it at home, you take it for granted that you are expected to produce it at the nearest police station within three days, five days, or whatever it may be. So I can see no objection to that.

There are other advantages that would be associated with the carrying of ID cards. It would make much more effective and simpler security at airports. I cannot see any sense in the embarkation cards or landing cards that one has to fill in at the moment on some of the airlines—not all of them, I think—whereby you could put in any sort of false information; and what proof is there? An ID card with a reasonably up-to-date photograph would be as effective a proof as there could be. Who could object to this? Surely anyone who objects to his identity being proven must he up to no good. I suggest that this would make it very much easier for the police and the security forces to identify those who may be on the run, who have jumped bail, or those who may be seen to be acting under suspicious circumstances.

I agree that there could be a problem with visitors. Overseas visitors would have to have passports, anyway. There could be a problem with visitors from the Republic of Ireland or from Great Britain; but I am sure that it could he overcome. That is not relevant to the Bill we are discussing this evening, whereby every elector would be a resident of Northern Ireland and would have to carry an ID card. Therefore, I support the Bill but I ask Her Majesty's Government to look once again at the possibility of introducing ID cards, which I think would become readily acceptable within a short space of time as soon as people became used to them.

6.48 p.m.

Lord Coleraine

My Lords, because this is the first time that I have spoken in this Chamber about Northern Ireland matters, and because of my family political history in the first quarter of this century affecting Northern Ireland, I would ask your indulgence if for a moment I explain that I speak here purely as an Englishman. My family connection with Northern Ireland and Ireland I view as having terminated, regrettably, many years ago.

It was in 1845 that my Protestant great-grandfather, from the north of County Derry, left his farm and went as a Presbyterian minister to minister to the needs of Scots and Irish in New Brunswick. Three years later, my Catholic great-grandfather was sent by his father, a farmer in a relatively prosperous way of business in the south of County Wexford, to a private school in New York; and three years later, the father, the mother, the brothers, the sisters—the household—emigrated to the United States and took a farm of 500 freehold acres there. So I really can and will claim to speak only as an Englishman here.

It is certainly a truth, which no one can deny, that personation at elections is an intolerable evil. This is so whether the personation is what Ulster Members in the other place refer to as benign—meaning that in a benign personation the registered elector is dead or away and probably would have voted as the personator did—or whether the personation is by way of vote-stealing. Relatively, the former personation is benign: vote-stealing is dreadful. The person whose vote is stolen is very much in the position of a householder who returns home to find that his house has been defiled by thieves. His democratic rights have been violated, and he knows that the personator has used his vote to vote for the candidate of a party to which he himself is strongly opposed. I doubt whether it can be argued that this Bill will deter all vote-stealers or that it will not deprive some registered electors, by an act of benevolent bureaucracy, of the votes to which they would otherwise be entitled.

We are asked to accept that, particularly in the last Westminster elections, vote-stealing assumed unacceptable proportions, and that this Bill will save more votes from vote-stealers than will be taken from legitimate registered electors. I have read or have heard nothing to convince me that that is wrong, and I support the Bill as an effort to stamp out or at least to reduce the amount of personation that goes on in Northern Ireland. Where I have my doubts and where, for example, I would part from the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, is as regards whether the Bill will work. Also, I think that there is some room for improvement.

I cannot pretend to be happy about the way in which the Bill bites against electors who do not have specified documents. It cannot be right, except in the most short-term way, to make proof of identity depend upon the production of documents which, by any standards of logic or otherwise, are not evidence that the possessor of the document is the person named in it, or are not evidence that the possessor of the document is the person named on the electoral roll whom he claims to be, or are not evidence that the person named in the document is the person whose name appears on the electoral roll. I am nevertheless persuaded that this is not such a deficiency in the Bill as to condemn it. After all, as a screen for separating sheep from goats it is a good deal better than no screen at all.

It would perhaps be better, as the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, has suggested, to introduce an electoral identity card or an identity card bearing the signature and photograph of the holder, and to make the possession of such a card the sole prerequisite of the right to vote on election day. This was discussed at length in the other place. I see some merit in the idea, and I would not see the need to extend the idea throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. But I do not for a moment think that this is the Bill in which to introduce arrangements of this type. The subject is too big and too perilous to be taken on except after a large measure of consultation. So I go along with the view that the Bill may well do more good than harm.

It is when I turn to consider the nature of the harm which may be done that I become seriously worried by what seems to lie ahead. The number of personators may be reduced, but elections are not about what the other person does. They are more about what I do. I sometimes wonder why electors bother to vote. Eighty per cent. know that their votes will have no effect and the remaining 20 per cent.—in more marginal constituencies—accept that a vote could have an effect, but they know that their votes will not.

I suggest that to vote at an election is for each one of us a personal declaration of adherence to the democratic values and the system of respresentative government under which we live. It is a right which cannot be measured. It is something which must not be diminished. How much more so in Northern Ireland, where they do not have as much in the way of representative government as we do.

It seems to me that the provisions of this Bill which take away the votes of Northern Ireland electors who fail to have or produce a specified document do contain potential for disaster. A vote taken away by Government action cannot be balanced just like that with the vote taken back from the vote-stealer. At the least a very widespread advertising campaign will be needed to get the message across that specified documents are going to be required. My honourable friend the Minister in the other place, Mr. Scott, has said that this advertising campaign will take place in time for the May local elections next year. I wonder how widespread it will be. The cost of it does not appear to be included in the "Financial effects of the Bill" in the Explanatory Memorandum, but perhaps that is not the place for it.

There will be a nasty backlash if an appreciable number of electors are disenfranchised by the bureaucratic hurdles we ask them to cross. We must have no doubt about it: if this happens, disenchantment will be exploited and manipulated by men of ill will. It seems to me to be at least likely, even, that trouble will be stirred up by some electors coming to the polling stations having intentionally left their specified documents at home.

I should like to suggest one possible safety catch which could be incorporated in the Bill. I am presupposing something which I will call a protected electoral registration. This would give every elector the chance to ensure that his vote at least could not be stolen by a personator. It would also make potential personators think twice before setting out to polling stations. It would work in this way. Every elector would have the right (there would be no compulsion) to go at any time before an appropriate official, and on giving satisfactory evidence of identity he would then be given an electoral identification card, showing his photograph and signature.

The next stage, which I see as a desirable refinement but not central to the argument, is that the presiding officers alone would be entitled to receive lists of protected voters. All the lists would be secret, and anyone who turned up to vote in place of the protected elector who was on the electoral roll would be turned away and possibly arrested. A protected voter would know that he could go to the polling station at any time during polling hours, to be sure of his vote. He would not be told that he had already voted, and left to mark a tendered ballot paper. That is the protective element of the scheme. The other aspect is that potential personators could possibly be deterred.

There is a game which I used to pay as a boy called, in French, "L'Attaque". It used to be between French and English troops; now is it between reds and blues. It is much less fun that way. I do not know whether it now represents civil strife. You play it on a board and your pieces attack your enemy's pieces which are not identified. Among the pieces you attack may be a mine, and if you do so you will be blown up. To personate a voter who has a protected vote would be akin to attacking a mine in L'Attaque—likely to be very damaging indeed to the personator. I hope that my noble friend will consider the suggestion very seriously indeed. With those comments I offer my support to him in pursuing the Bill through this House.

6.58 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I apologise immediately for not having been present to hear the earlier part of the debate. I was unfortunately detained. Let me say at the outset that on one day last week I was given rather surreptitiously a Whip from this House—whether it be from the Government side, the Opposition side or the Cross—Benches, I do not know—and it said that this debate was to take place and would probably last for one hour. I saw that document one day last week and since then I have been reading the record of the debate which took place in another place and I have also been reading the proposed Bill. I think that the remoteness of this place from Northern Ireland is shown by the fact that a debate on such a fundamental issue as a change in the franchise laws would probably have gone through this House within the very short period of one hour. That is totally wrong. Even though I support this Bill—I understand the reasons why it has been promulgated—I think that such a change in the election laws in any part of the United Kingdom is worthy of more than one hour's debate. I realise that I am now standing on my feet and, given my long involvement in Northern Ireland politics, I would certainly do away with the one-hour stricture. However, I have no intention of doing so.

I have read the debates which took place in another place and I think that we are faced with the decision which was taken that, of the 17 seats which are represented in another part of this building, 15 of the Members involved voted against this Bill. It may he that they have their own reasons for taking that stand. They were the Members of the Official Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party. The only person to support this Bill in another place was the SDLP Member, and he did not go into the merits or demerits of the Bill in any great detail. I think that we should take that into account when we discuss this Bill.

However, of all those who represent Northern Ireland seats, some credence should be given to the fact that 15 out of the 17 Members are opposed to the Bill. Some of those Members have given their reasons. Some of the reasons I do not accept; some of them I do accept. But from reading the report of the comments made in another place, one would believe that personation was restricted to the nationalist or Catholic community. That is totally untrue. In all the elections which I have fought—and I have fought 23 elections in Northern Ireland—I have been very well aware that personation or, as they call it in Northern Ireland, impersonation, was not confined to the minority community. I have read those debates; in fact, I have sat in the Gallery of another place and watched some of those Unionist and Members of the DUP standing with their hands on their hearts saying that personations was restricted to West Belfast, to Derry and to other nationalist areas within Northern Ireland. That is totally untrue.

If I were to use the privilege of this House, which I would not do, I could list the names of people who are now in the Official Unionist Party and particularly in the Democratic Unionist Party, who I have seen with my own eyes using minibuses to go from one polling station to another at a time when there was no Democratic Unionist Party or Official Unionist Party; there was the Unionist Party and the Nationalist Party, there were those who were for the Constitution and those who were against it—there were "them" and "us", the Catholics and the Protestants. I could name names. Some of them are now very respectable.

Lord Dunleath

My Lords, my noble friend should not look at me.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, two of them sit with my noble friend Lord Dunleath in the Northern Ireland Assembly; their surnames begin with "M". Personation was not restricted to one section of the community. I apologise if I was not present to hear the Minister's remarks, but again I must put on record that there were two types of impersonation, as they call it, in Northern Ireland. One was benign; one was a Catholic within the Catholic community or a Protestant within the Loyalist community. In my early days in politics people voted in a very tribal fashion. On numerous occasions when I was fighting elections a person would come up to me and tell me "My mother is ill, my father is unavailable because he is working, my brother is outside the constituency; if they were here they would be voting for you". That is what in Northern Ireland they call benign personation. They never gave me the card or, if they did. I would not tell your Lordships' House. They would give the card to someone they chose—perhaps a relation, who was unable to vote at the particular polling station, but who, with their full support, would vote for me. That vote would probably be cast. In those circumstances it was recognised as being benign. In effect, their relative could be dead and the story would have been "If my mother was living, if my father was living, if my brother or sister was living, they would have voted for you anyway". There is a good deal of folklore attached to this. That was understandable to each community, given the polarisation and the emotional fervour that there is at election time.

However. I accept that within the 1979–80 period the situation has changed. As I have always said, the IRA and Sinn Fein are one and the same. I believe that a great divide took place in political abuse, in electoral abuse, in 1980. In 1980 an election took place in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Prior to that we had one side and the other side. But the late Bobby Sands, who was then on hunger strike, was put forward by all sorts of devious means to contest the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election. The SDLP is the party which formerly I had the honour to lead (and I underline the words "I had the honour to lead"); I would not want to be the leader of that party at the present time. In 1980 some months after I had left the SDLP, the by-election took place. The SDLP, in a cowardly way, refused to contest that seat. Bobby Sands, under the auspices of the IRA, was given a free run against the Unionist candidate. In those circumstances the IRA—Sinn Fein—had a very clear field in this electoral contest. I remember very well watching that contest from the obscurity of not being involved in it myself and of having resigned from the SDLP. I remember having stated in another place and in Northern Ireland on numerous occasions that the Catholic population was not in support of the IRA and did not give any support to the men of violence. Yet, when that election took place, all the fervour, and the whole dirty tricks department of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein was mobilised to action.

I remember very well the Protestant population in Northern Ireland sitting and watching their television screens. They saw priests and nuns, doctors and solicitors, the professional classes and the working classes of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland—as it turned out to be, the Catholic majority in that constituency—going into the polls and voting for Bobby Sands; for a person the Protestant community regarded as a terrorist, a murderer, etc. I believe that that was one of the great issues which polarised the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. Leading on from that to the position in which we find ourselves today, the IRA, having scented political victory and having obtained political victory in that election, have gone from what they regard to be strength to strength.

I have already in your Lordships' House been into the question of benign personation. The militaristic personation is a very serious situation in Northern Ireland. It creates a problem. Whether or not this Bill will cope with that problem, whether or not it will stop personation—I do not believe that it will—it is an attempt to cope with that serious problem. I remember in my West Belfast election, when I was fighting in 1983, many young boys were apprehended voting on a number of occasions. They voted in one particular polling booth; a car was waiting on them, and they left to go to another polling station; and then from there they went to another polling station.

I know of one policeman who apprehended one individual when leaving one polling station to go to another polling station, and he said, "You are getting yourself into serious trouble". The young lad said, "I'm not getting myself into serious trouble at all. Noraid is going to pay my fine". As we have already discussed in this House, the levying of a fine on those people really did not matter very much because they were already getting in sufficient funds to pay the fines of those caught personating at that time.

Over a number of years I have put forward the view that if a person is found to be personating there should be a mandatory prison sentence. Whether the sentence is six months or a year—and I recognise that this Bill makes provision for severe penalties—I believe that if people are found to be personating they are stealing votes. Whether that be confined to the Catholic community or the Protestant community, anyone who is found vote stealing, whether he be a member of the Democratic Unionist Party, the Official Unionist Party, Sinn Fein, or the SDLP, is dragging the democratic process as we know it into the gutter.

I am not saying that those people who vote Sinn Fein should be sent to prison. I am saying that if people are found to be vote stealing, doing it deliberately, the greatest penalty should be imposed on them. I have seen personation and benign personation through 30 years of involvement in Northern Ireland politics. That was a disregard of the democratic system as we know it. It now appears that the Government are beginning to recognise the representations that have been made to them over a number of years, and consequently this Bill is before us this evening.

The recommendation in this Bill is that people will have to have documentation when they go to the polls. They will have to have a medical card, or a passport, or some sort of social security identification. Unfortunately, for different reasons there will be many people in Northern Ireland who will have no difficulty at all in having with them some sort of social security recommendation, because many people in Northern Ireland—the vast majority of them—are in the position of having to have recourse to social security.

After having read the report of the debates in the other place, I do not think that this will cause any great confusion. In 1973 changes in the electoral law took place when proportional representation was introduced. We were told then that PR, which introduced the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 system in Northern Ireland, would cause a great deal of confusion. In fact, it did not. I would not say that Northern Ireland and Belfast arc among the great intellectual places of the world, but people were soon able to vote on a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 basis under PR.

I did not hear the opening remarks of the Minister, but the Minister would agree with me that this Bill has been made necessary by the activities of Sinn Fein in recent elections in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein and the IRA are a military organisation. They can recruit young people and not so young people. They can instruct them to go into the polling stations and to steal votes and to vote for the Sinn Fein candidate. They do so on the grounds that they are members, or committed supporters, of Sinn Fein, or that if they do not do it they may be kneecapped or intimidated in some other way. It is a problem. The Northern Ireland Office have said that in the recent Westminster election 20 per cent. of the votes cast for Sinn Fein in West Belfast, in Derry, and in some other areas were cast illegally. Therefore, it is right that some attempt should be made to curb this awful practice.

I remember in 1951—I think it was 22nd October—I was still a merchant seaman and I was home on leave from a merchant ship. I got very much involved in a by-election that was taking place then. The candidate whom I was supporting at that time was a Mr. Jack Beattie. He was the Irish Labour Party candidate. He was fighting a Unionist candidate whose name. I think, was Mr. Tom Teevan. I was a merchant seaman totally committed to Irish Labour, totally committed to the policy of Mr. Jack Beattie, the then Irish Labour candidate in 1951. For weeks upon weeks I went out and worked tenaciously day and night for Mr. Jack Beattie as the Irish Labour candidate. The Unionist supporters were doing exactly the same. There was in those days—I refer to it again—benign personation: the Unionist supporters were voting for their candidate using people who were dead and those who could not come to the polls in person, etc. The Catholic Republican section of the community were doing exactly the same.

I stand to be contradicted, but I am saying this on my feet: I think it was on 22nd October 1951 that the election took place; and on that night after five recounts (I was actually at the count) the candidate for whom I had been working was elected by 25 votes to the House of Commons to represent West Belfast. I remember very well standing there with the tears running down my face; the candidate that I had supported was elected. Little did I know then that the next time there would be an anti-Unionist Member of Parliament elected to represent West Belfast it would be me in 1966. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the 25 votes which secured the election of Jack Beattie were personated votes. In fact, I may have been breaking the law because I was half organising it. The votes of people who were dead or who could not come to the polls were going in for Jack Beattie. The Unionist party were doing exactly the same because if you were from one community it could be taken that you were going to support the candidate who would represent that community. The reason for this Bill is not about that sort of benign personation but because of organised vote stealing. This Bill is an attempt to try to curb that. I do not believe that it will curb it, but it will go a very long way; it will, I believe, curb the benign personation.

By the way, I think that it should be said that benign personation is not totally restricted to constituencies in Northern Ireland; I believe that it goes on in this country as well. I should not like to be a personating agent in Southall where half of the electorate have the surname of Singh, or in another constituency where half of the electorate have the surname of Patel. They either wear turbans or they do not wear turbans; but they are all Indians or Pakistanis. We have our problems in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, I think I could organise a good personating campaign in either of the constituencies to which I refer.

On the question of specified documents, I know of the arguments advanced, particularly by the right honourable Member for South Down, in another place. I think the psychology behind his arguments was that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom and therefore it should not be necessary to produce documents at polling stations there. It has to be said—and most people know Northern Ireland—that Northern Ireland is not Finchley. There is a set of circumstances prevailing in Northern Ireland which does not prevail in any other part of the United Kingdom. I believe that this Bill is an attempt to take into consideration the conditions which prevailed in Northern Ireland during election time.

I know that an amendment was moved in another part of the building requiring that if this Bill was not successful it should be reviewed again within a period of three years, and this was supported by the majority of Members of Parliament who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland. There is some logic in that particular amendment, but the Government Minister explained why the Government could not accept it. If that amendment were to come to this House, I believe that I would feel compelled to support it. I cannot say three years or four years but I can say that this Bill may make it difficult for ordinary people to go to the polling stations. Some form of documentation would be demanded of them and if they did not have it they may be denied their vote; and they may have to go away and bring back to the station the particular document required by this Bill.

In a way I think that this Bill demands less courage of the presiding officers than is expected of other people in Northern Ireland, because it takes a lot of courage to stand up against the threats and intimidation of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. This Bill states that the presiding officer—not the clerks—is in a position to ask some form of documentation of a potential voter. If that documentation is not there the presiding officer can say, "I deny you the right to vote". For example, the presiding officer would have to decide whether a person claiming a vote was trying to steal that vote or whether he was a genuine claimant. I believe that the electoral officers in appointing presiding officers would appoint people who lived in the area, or as near as they could be placed in the area, so that they would know the persons claiming votes. In that situation the presiding officer would certainly be open to intimidation because the people who would be stealing votes in West Belfast would be those who were in support of the IRA candidate; they would undoubtedly intimidate the presiding officer. The presiding officer is not allowed to use his own discretion. This has taken some of the responsibility off him because he would then be able to say, "The law says that I have to ask for these documents".

I ask the noble Lord the Minister to take particular note of the question which I am about to ask because I think that it is a question worth asking and answering. In elections in Northern Ireland in which I have taken part over many years there were statutory questions. There were two questions which were printed and given to the polling clerk or the presiding officer. He normally kept them under his desk. The personating agent who was appointed by one or the other—it is as well that I have a friendly relationship with the noble Baroness on the other side of the House. I assure her that I shall not be deflected from asking this question.

If the polling agent or personating agent saw a person coming to vote and he was suspicious that he was not the person he claimed to be, after the voter had given his name either verbally or by handing in a polling card, the officer would challenge that vote. I have heard it so many thousands of times. The presiding officer would pull out this piece of paper and ask, "Are you John Smith?" The answer would be, "Yes". "Do you live at No. 123 Brown Avenue?" "Yes". If the polling officer who stood there thought that that was wrong, he and he only—not the presiding officer—could call a policeman. He could say, "I charge that person with stealing votes or impersonation". That person would be arrested, taken to the nearest RUC station, charged with personation and brought before the courts the next morning. And if that person was found to be John Smith, had been arrested wrongly and had been wrongly put in charge of the police by the polling agent, he would then have the right to civil action against that polling agent for wrongful arrest.

I remember this well because it happened to some of my agents on occasion. It was written into the electoral law that, if it were proved that a person had been wrongly arrested and charged before the courts, the political party responsible for that arrest could pay £10 damages. If the £10 was not paid, the person wrongly arrested and charged before the courts could take civil action which would amount to much more than £10.

If in this situation envisaged in the Bill a person comes to the polling station with a document which the presiding officer does not accept as being genuine, the officer may say, "I do not accept that document and will not allow you to vote". This person may say, "That is the only document I have". There is a list of documents such as driving licences, though an 80-year old may not have a driving licence; a medical card may not be immediately at his disposal: he may not have his pension book to hand. If the presiding officer says, "I shall not let you vote because you do not have one of the specified documents", what then? We are still living in a democratic society.

I support the Bill. I believe that people should have the right to vote when they are entitled to vote, but what happens if a person cannot prove that he is entitled to vote and is denied his vote purely at the whim of a presiding officer who has certain suspicions?

Let us he honest about this. The House will recognise, as also will the Minister who will be answering, that presiding officers in Northern Ireland are from one or other section of the community. Presiding officers are ordinary human beings who have their political allegiances or otherwise. Take away the presiding officer's uniform and underneath he is a member of either the majority or the minority community. There will be all sorts of protests about the bias of one side of the community or the other.

After having read the debates which took place in another place, there will be people in this House who will say that this Bill should be pushed through because it has been debated in another place. I believe that this is a fundamental change. It is necessary because of the personation which has taken place, but I urge the Minister not to assume that this Bill will prevent personation. I also urge him to introduce all the necessary safeguards to ensure that people who are legitimately entitled to vote are not prevented from doing so because of the restrictions contained in this Bill.

7.38 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I am sure your Lordships are grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate on the complicated and important Bill that is before your Lordships this evening. For my part, I welcome the attention that has been paid and the care with which all your Lordships who have spoken have read and understood this Bill.

I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, for his comments and for the attention which he devoted to the Bill. The first note I made about the noble Lord's comments was covered by several other of your Lordships and has to do with statistics. We all know of the comments about statistics; about lies, other sorts of lies and statistics. But I stress to your Lordships that many of the figures that have been mentioned in the House this evening can only be indicative. They cannot be taken as accurate in any way. To a large degree, they are based on hearsay, but we have clear evidence that in the 1982 Northern Ireland Assembly election 762 ballot papers were tendered, which is a particularly high number. Indeed there were 949 tendered ballot papers in the parliamentary general election of last year. I stress that to your Lordships, in particular to the noble Lords, Lord Fitt and Lord Donaldson. The latter was kind enough to warn me that he had another pressing engagement, but I am sure he would accept the point that I have made.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, also covered one other point about presiding officers, among other things, and their powers apart from what we set out in the Bill. I shall try to reply briefly to that point. Presiding officers are temporary voluntary officials drawn from the general public, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, has said, are particularly courageous in the present atmosphere in Northern Ireland. The present law prevents these officials from becoming directly involved in the inter-party electoral contest.

The Government do not believe that it would be right for presiding officers to be given general discretionary powers of disenfranchisement, nor, indeed, do I think that the presiding officers themselves would welcome these powers. It is for the political parties to protect the interests of their candidates in identifying and, above all, in calling for the arrest of those who are "bent" and seek to personate.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, made a very strong plea and a strong point about publicity. I agree with the noble Lord's view that adequate prior publicity should be given to the requirement to produce one—and I stress one—of the specified documents at the polling station in order to obtain the ballot paper. We appreciate his point that publicity should be given to the list of specified documents. I give the noble Lord and this House the particular assurance that the Government intend to mount just such a publicity campaign well before the district council elections in Northern Ireland which are due to take place in May 1985. I hope that that assurance will go some way to reassuring the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, in his particular worry on this score.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, was kind enough to warn me that he would have to leave before the end of the debate. I seem to recall that he mentioned statistics, which I hope I have covered in my earlier comments. I noted his three points that he had picked up from the debates in another place. I think the third point that he stressed was these documents that we set out in Clause 1. Are they the right ones? We hope they are. But he worried as to whether the provisions would stop anyone voting. This worry was also expressed by my noble friend Lord Coleraine. There might be a very remote possibility of non-voting through inadequate notice as to which documents were valid, but I hope that the undertaking that I have given about publicity will go to assist the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson and, I hope, my noble friend on that particular score.

I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, for his support. I am very interested in his thoughts on identity cards. I assure him and assure your Lordships—and I assure the noble Lord, particularly in view of the very prominent part that he plays in the political life of Northern Ireland—that the Government did give very careful consideration to introducing a special electorial identity card which would bear a photograph of the voter. Possibly the noble Lord and I might care to cast our minds back to our military days and consider whether the photograph—particularly that on my military pass—was a fair and true likeness. But this certainly was or might have been an attempt to meet the noble Lord's point.

We have given very careful consideration to this. The noble Lord will be aware that, as I pointed out in my speech, we decided that we should really not pursue this particlular avenue, but I do take the noble Lord's point and thank him for the attention that he gave to the Bill.

I think I am right in saying that my noble friend Lord Coleraine mentioned that this was his first foray into the debates in your Lordship's House on Northern Ireland. On a personal note, I have much sympathy with him, since 12 years ago, I think from the Benches where my noble friend is speaking, I seem to remember taking part in debates and I seem to remember forthright support from the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath. Possibly both of us were in our middle age then. It was my own personal precedent, and certainly I gained a great insight into the problems and above all into the fascinations of life in Northern Ireland. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Coleraine will agree that the time he has spent studying this Bill is really well worth it. We thank him for his attention.

I agree with my noble friend that personation is entirely evil. Your Lordships will have appreciated from the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, that personation is not even benign, and especially in Northern Ireland. My noble friend Lord Coleraine and I think also the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, mentioned a point that had been raised in another place about the application of the Bill before your Lordships tonight to the whole of the United Kingdom. Briefly, I hope that I can satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and my noble friend this evening by saying that the Government really have no evidence, in spite of much that was said in another place, that electorial abuse is practised to any significant extent in Great Britain. Certainly I was interested to listen to the views of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, about one or two constituencies in England, but there is in Great Britain no widespread organised electorial abuse, backed up by paramilitary forces, such as the noble Lord and your Lordships will be aware does exist in Northern Ireland.

My noble friend Lord Coleraine expressed some dissatisfaction with the choice of specified documents. We take his point. Indeed, it would be too much to hope that this list we have this evening in the Bill or any other list would be completely foolproof against determined malpractice. I think those two words are important. I am sure my noble friend will hear them in mind. But, from our own investigations, and, above all, with the benefit of detailed scrutiny in another place, we are satisfied that we have the balance about right. I hope that does not qualify my argument too much, but it is a fairly delicate matter and I think we are keeping our balance just right.

I do stress that, if in the light of experience it seems sensible to add or perhaps to remove some particular documents, or perhaps to vary their description, the Bill provides that this can be done, as the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson was seeking to note, by regulation.

My noble friend also had one other point that he raised, and I am very grateful for it. I should suggest that it was the optional electorial identity card. We noted my noble friend's proposal and we take note of this scheme with interest. I am happy to let my noble friend know that we will bring this to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. However, I am sure my noble friend and your Lordships will agree that this scheme that he raises would need detailed examination and a little more time for organisation and implementation. I am afraid that, as your Lordships will agree, we do not have that sort of time before the May 1985 elections, which the Government believe—subject, I stress, to the will of your Lordships' House and another place—must be conducted under the provisions of this Bill if the results are not to be grossly distorted by the practice of personation.

There is just one more point raised by my noble friend on publicity. I am sure he will be aware that the chief electorial officer already has a publicity campaign before each election and has funds for that particular purpose. But this will now be greatly extended to ensure that, so far as is possible, voters know that they must produce—and I stress "must produce"—a specified document. I am given to understand that the publicity will be in the Northern Ireland newspapers as well as on television and on radio in Northern Ireland. I would further add that the specified document will he printed on the electorial poll card. So I hope that will go a long way to allaying some of the fears of my noble friend.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, covered many interesting points. I was very grateful for his contribution. He too mentioned the point that had been raised in another place about this being a change in the electorial procedure and the fact that it might merit a little more than one hour. But I hope I have covered that in my earlier comments about why we believe this Bill to be necessary.

The noble Lord also covered the history of the by-election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. He and your Lordships who are aware of Northern Ireland political life will certainly recognise that there was very well organised personation in that by-election but again it is virtually impossible to put precise figures—even where this has been very widespread—on the exact extent of the malpractice.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, made one point about the mandatory prison sentence for personation. He will see, and your Lordships will note, that the penalties for offences in Clause 3 of the Bill are a formidable deterrent to personation. That is the view of the Government. I think the noble Lord will agree that it would be wrong to go even further and to impose draconian penalties.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I have been involved in elections since 1951—for nearly 35 years. The penalties for personation in Northern Ireland were severe under the old legislation, but magistrates—the cases were usually heard before magistrates—normally inflicted penalties of £5, £10 and £15, which were laughable penalties. Even under the present legislation where the penalty can be £200 or £300, NORAID, the agencies which support the IRA, will pay the fine. Can the noble Lord say from the Dispatch Box this evening that anyone found personating will be dealt with serverely in conformity with the maximum penalties—in other words, that it may be quite likely that he will go to prison if he is found personating? I believe that that would have a deterrent effect on those proposing to personate.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's intervention, with his considerable experience of political activities in Northern Ireland, as he said, since 1951. Far be it for me to sit or to quote as a judge; I think the noble Lord would totally agree that it should be for the law to decide how existing law and how the Bill should be interpreted. The noble Lord will see the penalties. They are nothing like pussy footing around. They are certainly not £5 and £10; they are considerably more.

The noble Lord asked about the statutory questions and about arrests for personation. I hope the noble Lord will agree that the person who is denied a vote can complete a tendered ballot paper. If he wishes to go to an election court and that court subsequently finds that he is the person whom he claimed to be his vote will be counted. I hope that the noble Lord will be reassured on that query.

I hope I have dealt with the points that have been raised. I am very grateful for the interest that has been shown and I would reiterate what I said at the outset. This proposal in the Bill is not foolproof, but we are firmly of the view that it is the best that can be devised given the varying problems that I mentioned to the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, and indeed to my noble friend about indentity cards with pictures.

I believe that your Lordships will agree with me that the Bill should be seen as a whole, looking at Clauses 1 and 3 together. I stress that the Bill seeks to aid the process of democracy. I am grateful for the comments and suggestions that have been made tonight, and with that, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.