HL Deb 14 January 1985 vol 458 cc828-32

6.57 p.m.

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

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Lyell.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The EARL CATHCART in the Chair.]

Clauses 1 to 6 agreed to.

Clause 7 [Citation, commencement and extent]:

Lord Monson moved the following amendment:

Clause 7, page 7, line 6, at end insert— ("( ) This Act shall continue in force for the period of five years beginning with the date of the commencement of this Act and shall then expire unless Parliament from time to time determines, by affirmative resolution of each House, that it shall continue in force for a period of five years beyond the date on which it would otherwise expire.").

The noble Lord said: I should perhaps explain to the Committee why I am moving this amendment, despite the fact that I did not speak on the Second Reading debate on the Bill and was present only fleetingly on that occasion. This was because the debate took place very late in the afternoon and at inconveniently short notice, as so often happens when Northern Ireland affairs are concerned. I am not for one moment blaming the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, for this. It is a convention which has, unfortunately, evolved over many years. Imagine the fuss there would be if Scottish affairs were consistently treated in a similar fashion, especially when, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said in the debate on 18th December (at col. 599 of Hansard): such a fundamental issue as a change in the franchise is being considered. Reading between the lines of the Second Reading debate in the Official Report, I think it is fair to say that the Bill was not generally regarded even by the Government as an ideal or wholly desirable piece of legislation. Rather, it was seen as a regrettable necessity and as the lesser of two evils. It is on that basis alone that many of us somewhat reluctantly support it. The point is that we cannot be sure at this stage what the overall effect of the Act will turn out to be in practice. It will certainly have the very welcome effect of reducing the incidence of personation although I do not think that anybody seriously claims that it will eliminate it altogether, particularly as there will be no requirement—and rightly so in my view—for the voter to produce a document which contains his or her photograph.

However, welcome as the partial elimination of personation will he, there is another side to the coin. Except in those countries where voting is compulsory (and even in those countries the turnout rarely rises much above 90 per cent.) well under 75 per cent. of the population of the average Western democracy normally bothers to vote in national elections. The percentage in local elections is generally well under 50 per cent. and in American presidential elections, as I think is well known, the percentage rarely rises above 55 per cent. This is largely because getting oneself to a polling station, particularly in thinly populated areas, requires a certain effort of mind and body, and the more the obstacles are put in the way, the less often is that effort on the part of the voter going to be made.

This Bill, albeit with the best of intentions, erects more obstacles in his way—obstacles, moreover, that are likely on balance to deter the less well off to a greater extent than they deter the better off. People who set off to work wearing suits are likely to be carrying wallets containing not only banknotes and credit cards but also driving licences or some similar means of identification. In contrast, people, whether in rural or urban areas, who go to work wearing jeans are far more likely to carry nothing more than a modest amount of money in their hip pockets. If such people, as they stop at a polling station on their way home after a hard day's work, find that they have left their driving licence (always assuming that they have a driving licence) or their medical card at home, they are hardly likely to feel inclined to go back and get them and then to return to the polling station, particularly if the weather is inclement as is so often the case in Northern Ireland. The zealots may be prepared to do so but not the less fanatical voters, and despite what patronising cynics on this side of the water may say there are large numbers of non-fanatical people in the Province.

What we do not know at this stage is whether the number of potential personators deterred by this Act will be outweighed by the number of law-abiding citizens who will be discouraged from making the effort to get to the polling booth. If it turns out that the second group substantially exceeds the first group in size, and bearing in mind also that it must be almost without precedent for such a voting restriction to apply in one Province only of a democratic nation, then I believe that Parliament has a right and a duty to reexamine this legislation at periodic intervals to see whether amendment or repeal is needed. I beg to move.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

I hope that the noble Lord will not take any notice of this amendment. It seems to me to be absolutely unnecessary and wrong-headed. There is provision in the Bill for changing, after experience—and I think it is in Clause 1(2) and then under heads (1E) and (1F)—the documents which will be necessary. Clearly, if there is a difficulty of the kind to which the noble Lord has referred this can be alleviated by adding to the list of documents or in other ways. But the idea where you observe with total unanimity that there is a very great deal of cheating going on, of a general principle not to do something to stop it, is ridiculous in my opinion. I hope that the noble Lord will give short shrift to the amendment.

Lord Underhill

May I say that I have considerable sympathy with the views just expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson? Many of the points advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, were in our minds and were expressed during the Second Reading debate. Nevertheless, on behalf of the Opposition I supported the Second Reading. It may be argued that there are other items in Northern Ireland legislation which are subject to review; but these of course are totally different. We shall be discussing (I think tomorrow) the emergency provisions. That gives an opportunity —and that is the intention apart from the renewal of the provisions—for a review of the whole security operation.

There is also the annual review of the interim provisions. This deals with the whole constitutional position of direct rule. There must be an opportunity to discuss the operation of the constitutional position in Northern Ireland from time to time. Then there are other matters. One aspect of the Bill—and I recognise the necessity of the Bill—is that I never like discussing individual matters of electoral law in complete isolation from everything else. Why this particular addition, this amendment, to the parliamentary rules (and also, thereby, to the rules of other elections) should be dealt with as a review on its own, I cannot see.

If the system is not functioning at all and not needed, then it is a simple matter for the Government to bring in repeal and there would be pressure for them to do so. As the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, has said, there is provision for the amendment of the list of documents which may be the most important aspect that may require attention after the experience of the first few elections under this provision.

Lord Lyell

I am sure that the Committee is very grateful for the interest and the remarks that have been expressed about this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, suggested that his amendment was necessary, and he expressed various misgivings as to the Bill. I invite the noble Lord to re-examine the points that I made at the opening of my speech on Second Reading. The noble Lord will find them at cols. 588 and 589 in the Official Report of 18th December last year. Certainly the noble Lord will see that the opening comments that I made were that we believe that the Bill before us is designed to strengthen the existing safeguards against personation at elections in Northern Ireland. I stressed that electoral abuse—which is the main problem that we seek to alleviate with this Bill—is certainly not a new problem. This has been expressed forcefully and a review was supported by the noble Lords, Lord Donaldson and Lord Underhill, at that stage.

If I might briefly address myself to the amendment, I am sure that the noble Lord and the Committee will agree that its outcome will be to limit the effect of the duration of the legislation that we have before us this evening to five years unless Parliament decided before then to extend its statutory life. After the noble Lord's fairly wide-ranging remarks at the start, I am not entirely sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Monson, is suggesting that the organised personation at elections in Northern Ireland is likely to be a temporary phenomenon which will require only temporary remedy; or whether he has doubts about the lasting effectiveness of legislation as a means of countering electoral abuse.

But, whichever view we would follow, I think the noble Lord might have in mind that two of the most important pieces of legislation which apply to Northern Ireland and which were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill—the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act and the Act providing for direct rule—are also temporary in nature. So, for that matter, is the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which applies throughout the United Kingdom.

I am afraid I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Monson, in supposing that in any way the provisions and purposes of this Bill are unsound. Nor could I support any views that the proven willingness of some people, whoever they are, and of some organisations, whichever they may be, in Northern Ireland to abuse the electoral process will have melted away or will have diminished in any way in a few years' time. I think all noble Lords who spoke on this Bill at an earlier stage would agree that the circumstances which led the Government to introduce this legislation are regrettable, but the principle which the Bill enshrines and protects is that of fair and honest elections. That is a permanent touchstone of our democracy in the United Kingdom, and I believe this should be reflected in the Bill in the form in which we have it this evening.

However, I shall certainly take on hoard what was said by your Lordships on Second Reading and I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that we shall pay very close attention to the way in which the procedures work in practice. Indeed, the aspect we consider most likely to need detailed examination is the list of specified documents. If, through careful and experienced study, it appears that the list would benefit from some adjustment, that could be achieved fairly simply by means of statutory instrument. That point was forcefully and effectively made by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson.

However, we believe it is wrong to go further than that, and we also think it is wrong to be seen to anticipate the Bill's failure, its weaknesses, or indeed its early obsolescence as we seek now to commit it to the statute book. The Bill as it stands tonight represents our best endeavour to overcome our affliction—that is the word I have to use—which, far from vanishing or diminishing of its own accord, we believe would otherwise be likely to continue to increase in severity. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, will accept that we believe the Bill is a fair measure and that really we cannot go along the road he has proposed tonight.

Lord Monson

I never for one moment suggested that personation was not an evil thing. What we are talking about is unintended adverse side-effects and what in the medium or long term turns out to be the lesser of two evils. This is the choice one constantly has to make in politics, and that is my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, apparently disagrees with his noble friend Lord Fitt in believing that this change in the franchise represents a fundamental issue, because I believe it is a fundamental issue which would not have been dealt with in such a short time had it involved any other part of the United Kingdom.

I do not think it can be denied that a number of people will be deterred in practice from going to the polling station. The question is whether it will be a small number or a very much larger number. However, in the absence of any support from any quarter of the Committee, all I can do is to beg leave to withdraw this amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment. Report received.

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