HL Deb 29 April 1985 vol 463 cc52-6

5.58 p.m.

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

My Lords, with your Lordships' leave, I shall repeat an Answer to a Private Notice Question on the validity of medical cards as evidence of a voter's identity at the forthcoming local elections in Northern Ireland that has just been given in another place:

"Because of widespread concern in Northern Ireland about the growth of personation in elections Parliament has passed the Elections (Northern Ireland Act) 1985, and the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 which applies the main provisions of the Act to local elections. The new legislative provisions include a requirement that a voter must produce a specified document to obtain a ballot paper. These documents are a current full driving licence issued in Great Britain or Northern Ireland; a current British or Irish passport; a current benefits, allowance or pension book issued by the Department of Health and Social Services for Northern Ireland; a medical card issued by the Northern Ireland Central Services Agency for the Health and Social Services; and a certified copy, or extract, of an entry of marriage issued by a Registrar General, where the voter concerned is a woman married within the preceding two years.

"It has come to our attention that there may be some electors holding a medical card issued before 30th September 1973 by the Northern Ireland General Health Services Board, the predecessor of the present Central Services Agency. Some of these electors may believe that these are specified documents entitling them to vote. This is not the case. It is not possible to estimate with any accuracy how many electors hold these older cards and who do not have any of the other specified documents. However, the Chief Electoral Officer issued a statement on Friday 26th April pointing out that anyone who has no other specified document and did not have the appropriate kind of medical card should take steps now, if they had not already done so, to obtain a new medical card. Special arrange-merits have been made to ensure that anyone needing a new medical card can obtain one quickly and these arrangements will be kept under review.

"The Northern Ireland Information Services have published advertisements in the Belfast and local Northern Ireland press, on the radios and television, and distributed leaflets to households throughout Northern Ireland setting out clearly which documents will be needed. If people remain in doubt on this point, I suggest that they look at these leaflets or at the back of the polling cards which are now being issued and which have a list of the specified documents on the back.

"My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is aware of the understandable concern of Northern Ireland and other Members of another place about this matter, and this afternoon in Northern Ireland is reviewing the issues involved".

My Lords, that concludes the Answer.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I am sure that the House is grateful to the noble Lord for repeating a Statement made in another place, but I believe that your Lordships will find that it is a very regrettable Statement. The fact of the matter must be that the Government made a mistake in the drawing up of this order. It is a very important order because a ballot paper will not be issued to a voter who has taken the trouble to go to a polling booth if the wrong kind of medical card, which is surely by the Government's error, is produced. I well understand that if an error has been made, not only is it right and proper to concentrate upon the error and to allot blame, because all of us are capable of making mistakes, even the distinguished Northern Ireland Office; it is also the duty of somebody, and especially an important Government department, in regard to the exercise of a democratic right which is so vital in Northern Ireland, where a mistake has been made, to take all appropriate measures to put it right.

The mere issuing of a notice, that may or may not be seen, stating that people are advised to try to change an old medical card for a new one, is really riot sufficient. It is not sufficient to say, as the noble Lard the Minister faithfully repeated as having been said in another place, that one cannot estimate the number of people involved. It may be a very great number, but even if it is two people who are wrongly affected by the Government error, to me and to my noble friends, if I may say so, that is a grave miscarriage of what ought to take place.

I do not understand at this moment why the Government cannot do a very sensible thing with two very sensible Houses of Parliament; that is, immediately to put an amending order before both Houses saying that the hospital card referred to does, indeed, cover those issued before September 1973. I am sure that this noble House will co-operate with the Government to put that right, and I hope that I am right in assuming that another place, for which this House has the greatest respect—I nearly said "the gravest respect"—will take exactly the same measures as this House would do.

It is therefore with regret that I have heard this Statement. I hope that the noble Lord the Minister will be able to deal satisfactorily with what I have just said on behalf of my noble friends.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I normally defend the Government against missiles from the Labour Party over the Northern Ireland situation, but I cannot on this occasion. It seems to me absolutely ridiculous that over 100,000 people, which I believe is the estimate, should be left with no medical card which is suitable. Clearly they may have other things—the medical card is only an alternative to five others—but these are very simple people and particularly in the backwoods, as it were, of Northern Ireland they will trot up to the polling booth and say, "I'm all right. I've got my medical card", but if it was issued before 1972, they will be turned away. There would very properly be a major scandal, and I do not think the Government would have a leg to stand on.

It cannot be impossible to put this right. I defy any Government to say that between now and 15th May they cannot make, in some ingenious way or another, the cards issued before 1972 as valid as those issued after 1972. I really do not think we can support them on this, and I hope very much that the noble Lord will be able to persuade his friends that something more serious has to be done about it.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I am grateful for the attention that has been paid to this Statement and especially for the comments which have been made by the two noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, pointed out that an error had been made. Indeed, we have to admit that there is a lack of clarity in this particular leaflet that I have here. It refers to "a medical card" and in smaller print that seems perfectly legible to many of us it states, a medical card issued by the Northern Ireland Central Services Agency". The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, and the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, both raised the question of various ingenious measures being available to attempt to rectify this error. Both noble Lords who have spoken considered the possibility of a change in the legislation. I am able to tell them both that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is urgently considering a number of possibilities, but legislative changes would be more difficult than might be imagined, even by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson. I say that because the present definitions were certainly in accordance with the wishes of your Lordships, and in another place during the passage of the Bill they were incorporated in the body of what is now the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985. We would need to carry out various other amendments to other pieces of legislation. I would remind your Lordships that there are precisely 16 days, two weekends and a bank holiday to attempt to carry this legislation through both your Lordships' House and, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has pointed out, another place. But I stress that my right honourable friend is considering a number of possibilities and I could not rule out anything at this stage. I should not want to say anything more on the legislation tonight.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord the Minister for what he has said. He has gone as far as he possibly can with his limited remit, and I quite understand that, but I hope that this promise to do everything that is possible will be translated into practice. At the moment I do not have a reasonable explanation as to why amending legislation cannot be rushed through so that an error can be corrected. At the same time I am perfectly sure that the department can try to see to it that the new medical cards are substituted for the old in as many cases as possible so as to limit the amount of harm that is done. It really is incumbent upon the Secretary of State—I say this with all the emphasis that I can command—to do everything, however inconvenient it may be, to put right this wrong; otherwise we shall be seriously interfering with a very important democratic right in an area where we all want to see it properly exercised.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, briefly, may I say that I shall certainly convey the concern felt by your Lordships to my right honourable friend. However, I would stress to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, and to your Lordships that this particular problem has been in the headlines of both Northern Ireland daily newspapers and Sunday newspapers. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, saw them over the weekend, but I certainly did not, although I believe that they are generally available. I understand that the problem has been on the headlines of both channels of Northern Ireland television as well as on both radio stations in Northern Ireland. Therefore, I hope that as I speak we are doing our best; but I shall certainly convey your Lordships' concern to my right honourable friend.