HL Deb 04 February 2002 vol 631 cc479-94

4.23 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

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 Williams of Mostyn.)

On Question, Motion agreed to. House in Committee accordingly.

[THE DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Brougham and Vaux) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Registration: provision of signature and date of birth]:

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 10, after "completed:" insert "() the national insurance number of each such person, if he has one:"

The noble Lord said: I have received a letter from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, seeking to assure me that the Government will table amendments that are in line with my Amendments Nos. I, 3 and 5 which seek to empower the chief electoral officer to collect a national insurance number, if there is one, on each application to join the electoral register. The noble and learned Lord has also assured me that the Bill will be amended to require absentee voters to state their national insurance number on applications for a postal or proxy vote. His letter concluded by saying that such action will prove effective in our efforts to combat electoral fraud.

I believe that requiring voters' national insurance number, if they have one, in addition to their date of birth and signature would go some way to addressing the issue. I was therefore rather puzzled by the statement in another place of Mr Des Browne that it would be impossible for the chief electoral officer to check all one million or so individuals on the Northern Ireland electoral register. He asked in another place that an amendment that was similar to mine be withdrawn on the grounds that such a provision would be impractical.

I therefore hope that the Minister will tell us what he has in mind and whether Mr Des Browne might have overstated or misunderstood what we are trying to achieve. When we speak about electoral fraud in Northern Ireland, we are not talking simply about foolishness, individual perversity or mistakes; we are talking about behaviour that ts so carefully orchestrated that anyone with any practical experience of Northern Ireland would doubt whether any Sinn Fein Member could have arrived as an elected Member of this Parliament without electoral fraud. My noble friend Lord Fitt was one of the first to suffer from electoral fraud. Joe Hendron also suffered from it in the West Belfast seat that is now held by Gerry Adams. More recently, the constituency which I represented for 18 years and from which I retired with a 14,000 majority suddenly experienced a swing because of orchestrated and organised abuse of normal electoral practice.

Not only do we have to take action to prevent people from illegally registering or illegally acquiring a proxy or postal vote; we also have to ensure that this legislation goes further by specifying the consequences for a party as well as for an individual of the orchestrated abuse of the electoral process. I believe that the legislation is currently weak in that respect.

Even after spending 18 years in another place, I am not a legislative expert. However, I do not believe that it is beyond the competence of Her Majesty's Government to include provisions in the Bill to deal with every aspect of electoral malpractice. I shall not go further into the matter now. I believe that the assurances which I have received in writing from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will be welcomed by all who want not only the survival of the democratic process in Northern Ireland but its retrenchment. For a number of years, it has been exploited in a manner that has not benefited society. I beg to move.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

Without wishing to preempt any noble Lord who might want to speak on the amendment, perhaps I may assist Members of the Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, very generously referred to the letter that I wrote to him. I hope that I managed to write on 31st January to everyone in this House who I thought had a similar interest. If I confirm my position I believe that it will help debate on further amendments that are differently grouped but which, none the less, have a connection with the requirement for national insurance numbers to be given.

The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, was quite right to say that these matters were raised in the other place. Indeed, they were also mentioned on Second Reading in this place when I promised faithfully that I would look at them with an open mind if they were improvements to the Bill that could be accepted or perhaps even improved upon consistent with the scheme of the Bill. I have had discussions with Mr Browne. We both pressed the case, which I believed was strongly held in Northern Ireland and also in this Chamber by various noble Lords. It all goes to show that the immediate response is not necessarily the perfect one.

A good deal of further consideration has been given to these proposals. I am most grateful for the energy with which Mr Des Browne has pursued the issue regarding the use of national insurance numbers in the electoral process. We wanted to consider something that was workable and would not impose unduly heavy burdens. Therefore, I can confirm that I intend to bring forward amendments on Report to empower the Chief Electoral Officer to collect a person's national insurance number, if he has one, on his application to the electoral register. We do not propose that someone who does not have a number should simply obtain one for the purposes of registering. However, I should imagine that the vast majority of people do possess a national insurance number.

I turn to a matter that I know worries some noble Lords. We also intend to require absent voters to state their national insurance number on any application for a postal or proxy vote. As regards the noble Lord's other point about false information being given, I can confirm that it is our intention to bring forward further amendments in that respect. Anyone who supplies a false national insurance number, or states that he does not have a number when in fact he has, will be guilty of a criminal offence. We shall also enable the Chief Electoral Officer to make checks with the individual concerned, and with the Department for Works and Pensions, to satisfy himself of the authenticity of the claim made.

I hope that noble Lords will accept that as a positive response to the troubles and concerns expressed in this place. I intervened at this stage because the national insurance issue seems to recur in a number of different amendment groupings.

Lord Smith of Clifton

I thank the Minister for that further explanation. As the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, said, it was heartening to receive the noble and learned Lord's letter. This response recognises the scale of fraud that is taking place in Northern Ireland. The amendments to which I have attached my name, both as an originator and as a supporter, have been tabled because noble Lords on these Benches have a passionate belief in the need to maintain as good a democracy in Northern Ireland as we can manage. If members of Sinn Fein sincerely wish to embrace the principle of democracy and of representative government—and, indeed, to enjoy the facilities and the emoluments that go with elected office—it is absolutely vital that they abjure all electoral malpractices; and, equally importantly, that they do everything in their power to stamp them out among their supporters.

Intimidation and personation are the electoral equivalent of beatings and knee-cappings. Democracy requires free and open elections if it is to flourish in Northern Ireland, as anywhere else. Therefore, those of us who hinted on Second Reading that a requirement for national insurance numbers on registration was desirable have tabled such amendments so as to provide the kind of belt-andbraces approach that is necessary.

There is the further question of whether or not identity cards will be available. There is a real problem with many of these technological developments in that they are not always available on time. As was said in the previous debate, we must look forward to normality being restored in Northern Ireland. But until that is so, as the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, said, it is absolutely vital that we do everything that we can to shore up best democratic practice. That is why I can say with absolute vehemence from these Benches that we shall have no truck with any kind of electoral malpractice that goes on. If democracy in Northern Ireland is to take root, electoral malpractice has to be abolished. That is why we have tabled various amendments. We are most grateful that the Government feel able to accommodate us, especially as regards the national insurance provisions.

For the sake of brevity, I should point out that we shall not be pressing our amendments that seek to improve the identity card in certain respects, and so on. We look forward to hearing the Government's response on Report to those proposals.

Lord Glentoran

I, too, should like to thank the Minister for his letter. I am also grateful to him for his kindness and courtesy in keeping me informed of the progress that he was making on these matters. If we are able to include a requirement for the provision of national insurance numbers on registration as further proof of identity, it will be a great step forward for the Bill. I do not wish to become bogged down in bureaucracy, but I was a little concerned when the Minister referred to whether or not someone had such a number. I wonder how we can stop people bluffing through the process and claiming that they do not have one—or, indeed, pretending that they do not have one when they have—

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I was probably speaking rather too quickly in my earlier remarks. Perhaps I may clarify the situation. If someone claims that he does not have a national insurance number when he has, that will be a criminal offence.

Lord Glentoran

I thank the Minister for that explanation. We should also like to feel comfortable that the national insurance numbers used in the prevention of fraud will be checked out with the department responsible for such information. I thank the noble and learned Lord for his full response.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

Having received the letter from the Minister and having heard his confirmatory response in the Chamber, I am content to beg leave to withdraw my amendment at this stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 2 to 6 not moved.]

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Lord Glentoran moved Amendment No. 7:

After Clause 2, insert the following new clause— "REGISTRATION: NOTIFICATION OF MULTIPLE REGISTRATIONS (1) In section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (c. 2) (maintenance of registers: annual canvass) there is inserted— "(5A) The information to be obtained by the use of such a form for the purposes of a canvass in Northern Ireland shall include an indication of any other address at which the person is registered." (2) In section 10A (maintenance of registers: registration of electors) and section 13A (alteration of registers) of the 1983 Act at the end there is inserted— "( ) An application for registration in respect of an address in Northern Ireland shall include an indication of any other address at which the person is registered." (3) Any person knowingly giving false information in response to any requirement of this section is guilty of an offence with liability on summary conviction to—

  1. (a) imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months; or
  2. (b) a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or both."

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 7 relates to notifications of multiple registrations, and would make it an offence to "knowingly" falsify information when applying for registration in Northern Ireland. I believe that this is a key element in the fight against electoral fraud. It has long been the case that electors have been able to register at several addresses, provided that they were qualified to do so. Nevertheless, that was with the proviso of voting once only in a single election. To a certain degree this was left to the goodwill of the elector, though the "A form"—-that is to say, the registration form—sets out quite clearly that it is an offence to vote more than once in a particular election. In most incidences it would be almost impossible to detect whether in fact a voter had voted twice; and would, therefore, be open to widespread fraud.

The registers can be checked after the ballot as to who has voted, but without an indication that, for example, Mr Smith of 9 The Glen is the same Mr Smith of 21 Acacia Avenue. If both vote at present, we would he none the wiser as to whether it was the same person. Therefore, under the threat of financial or custodial sanction, my amendment would require would-be electors to indicate that they have registered at another address. I should like to go so far as to say that they should be obliged to give the full details of that address wherever it may be within the United Kingdom.

It has often been said of Irish elections that voters "vote early and often". That quote was first used by Martin Van Buren in his Advice to Electors in 1836, and more often attributed to William Miles of South Carolina in a speech he made to the House of Representatives in 1858 where he stated:

"'Vote early and vote often', the advice openly displayed on the election banners in one of our northern cities".

So that is not something new.

We may not have been displaying that sentiment quite so boldly, but without knowing whether someone is registered on more than one register we have no way of knowing whether they have voted early or often. I hope that my amendment will help prevent

the likelihood of that happening. I also hope that the Minister will be able to give support to my amendment. Indeed, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in an answer to Stephen Hesford in another place said:

"My hon. Friend is right to acknowledge the importance of combating electoral fraud in Northern Ireland to the stability of the political institutions there. On multiple registration, he will recollect that, on Third Reading, I undertook to consider whether there should be a requirement in Northern Ireland for those seeking to register to advise the chief electoral officer whether they were already registered or had tried to register at another address. I can now confirm that I intend to give the chief electoral officer powers to ask those questions during the canvass, starting in autumn 2002. Any person who knowingly gives a false answer to that question will be liable for a fine of up to £1,000—[Official Report, Commons, 5/12/01; col. 319.]

We welcome that answer. It will, I understand, apply not only to registering at two separate addresses without indicating at registration; it will also apply to trying to register. The penalty proposed by the answer given in the other place on 5th December 2001 is less than that proposed in my amendment, but we on these Benches would be happy to give way to that lesser penalty, albeit that this is a serious crime which eats into the foundation of our democracy. Nevertheless I must say that we are disappointed it has not appeared as an amendment to the Bill. Can the noble and learned Lord give me the assurance either that he will accept my amendment or that a similar amendment will be forthcoming on Report? I beg to move.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I recognise that there is a well-founded concern here. My colleague, Mr Browne, has been in touch with a number of different parties and organisations to deal with it. I hope that my response is helpful. We intend to give the Chief Electoral Officer the power by regulation to require electors in Northern Ireland to indicate at registration if they are registered at more than one address. A question such as: "Have you registered at another address or do you intend to register at another address?" can be put to electors on application to the electoral register by regulation rather than by an amendment to the Bill. That is what we propose to do.

Under paragraph 1 of Schedule 2 to the Representation of the People Act 1983, regulations may authorise the CEO to require persons to give information required for the purpose of his duties as a registration officer. Paragraph 13 of Schedule 2 enables regulations to make it an offence to fail to comply with, or give false information in pursuance of, any such requisition of the registration officer as I have mentioned relative to paragraph 1. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, is right to say that we proposed a penalty not exceeding level three, which in Northern Ireland would be 1,000. Therefore, by giving the CEO the power by regulation to ask that question, any person knowingly giving false information will be subject to that penalty.

The noble Lord is also right to say that because of the measures in this Bill the entire electoral registration process in Northern Ireland will change towards the latter part of this year. From this year's annual canvass in October people will be required to complete individual registration forms as opposed to the household forms used in the past which offered greater opportunity for fraud and, of course, for pretending that one did not know what was on the form. People will also be required to give additional personal data on the forms, signatures and dates of birth, and the chief electoral officer will be able to store all that additional information on the new IT system currently being installed.

The question on multiple registration will be included on the new individual registration form at this year's annual canvass and any person knowingly giving false information will be subject to a fine not exceeding level three. I hope that I have met the concerns of which the noble Lord has spoken in the past and that he regards it as a constructive response.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

Before the noble and learned Lord sits down, is he aware of the practice—steps have already been taken to curtail, if not to prevent, it— of people who live close to the frontier with the Irish Republic but south of the Border coming into Northern Ireland, assuming a Northern Ireland address and registering for a vote on the register? That practice is to some extent curtailed by the three-month residency requirement which is not something that is applied here in Great Britain. I believe that the rolling registration in Great Britain is intended to try to encourage more people to come to the polls. However, because of the likelihood of abuse, there is a three-month residency requirement for Northern Ireland. Yet that in itself is open to abuse if not properly policed. Can the noble and learned Lord assure me that within the canvass, and the basis on which it will be carried out, there will at least be some awareness that there can be an abuse of that kind and that perhaps the canvass form will be drafted in such a way as to make that abuse more difficult?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, for that point. I hope that I may take it on board and transmit it to officials to see whether I can give a satisfactory answer. I hope that I can. I am not aware of the extent of the fraud and I hope that I am not being complacent. Virtually every electoral registration system of which I am aware is capable of being interfered with, but I accept that we have to take every possible step that we can to make them foolproof. I shall do the best I can to research a fuller answer for the noble Lord.

Lord Glentoran

I again thank the noble and learned Lord for that most helpful answer. Without wishing to cast any aspersions that I am not taking his comments at face value, or that there is anything else at issue, I should like to take the amendment away at this stage and discuss it with others as regards using regulation rather than legislation. Is it possible for the regulation to be published before Report or Third Reading of the Bill?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I promise to use my best endeavours. I cannot guarantee, of course, that the process of drafting will be complete, but I shall certainly do my very best to bring that about.

Lord Glentoran

I thank the noble and learned Lord for that reply. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 [Absent votes and declarations of identity]:

Lord Glentoran moved Amendment No. 8:

Page 3, line 32, after "application" insert "is made on a form supplied by the Chief Electoral Office for Northern Ireland containing such marking or coding as he may determine and"

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 8, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 10. Both amendments concern absentee voting. That has also been a well used method of creating an artificially high vote by those skilled in these matters. Indeed, I believe that it was said at Second Reading that one party arrived at the electoral officer's desk 24 hours before the election with 10,000 papers for absentee voting. I do not need to say which party was involved but, of course, it was quite impossible for them to be administered.

These amendments suggest that absentee voting should take place only on a form supplied by the electoral officer and that it should be coded and so become traceable. It does not necessarily have to be traced to determine what the vote was, but it should at least be traceable to the party that collected and used it. I believe that this issue represents one of the biggest holes in the Bill still left to be filled. I beg to move.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

Very briefly, with those qualifications and what I regard as a strengthening of the position, I support the amendment. I do so because I may have a guilty conscience. I was mainly responsible for arguing that citizens in Northern Ireland should have postal votes for absentee voting. When that system was extended to Great Britain, the Home Office, under previous management, decided that the citizens of Northern Ireland should be deprived of it. Fortunately, I persisted and, in the end, won the battle. But I realise that in that little victory I may have left a few doors open.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

Again, I do not believe that there is much difference here between my own approach and that of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. I do not consider it necessary to insist on the form proposed in Amendment No. 8 because that would mean that only an original form provided by the CEO could be used.

I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, about the coding aspect. The Chief Electoral Officer already has plans to take administrative measures to ensure that applications for an absent vote are given a unique identifier. I agree with his caution: one must be careful to ensure that it is not possible to identify the way in which a citizen has voted in a secret ballot. The Chief Electoral Officer plans to introduce either a serial number or a bar code. As he is already going to do that, we do not need to legislate for it.

The reason that I am cautious about the original form is that there may be some circumstances in which a photocopy may be necessary. The coding would still be on it. Therefore, I believe that the coding or the identifier is more important than the fact that the form is the original. On that basis, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment because I hope that we have met his purpose.

Lord Glentoran

I thank the noble and learned Lord. We are certainly both going down the same road. Of course, as the noble and learned Lord knows, as I understand it at present the forms can be produced by any or all parties and they are totally uncontrolled. If, in the Bill, the Government are able to get the application forms for absentee voting under control, I shall be most grateful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 not moved.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 [Electoral identity card]:

Lord Smith of Clifton moved Amendment No. 11:

Page 5, line 12, at end insert "(4A) The information contained in subsection (4)(a) to (d) above shall also be stored electronically on a computer chip incorporated into the electoral identity card provided for by this section.".

The noble Lord said: Perhaps the noble and learned Lord can assure me that this matter will be looked at. The amendment simply proposes a technical improvement—one that may well already be envisaged by those who are drawing up the specification for the identity card. But the reason for tabling the amendment is to ensure that such a technical improvement can be made. If the Minister can assure me that the matter will be considered between now and Report, I shall be happy to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I can certainly assure the noble Lord that we are looking at this issue. One problem is that at this stage an electronic chip such as that proposed in the amendment has a relatively short life expectancy only about five years. At present we have no plans to introduce electronic voting. I believe that the true concern of the noble Lord, Lord Smith, relates to a situation in which a card might be used not only for identification purposes, as is its present purpose.

If we were to move to electronic voting—not in your Lordships' House but in Northern Ireland—then of course the electronic chip might well be needed. At present I do not believe that it is needed. In any event, the technology is time-limited to approximately five years and is also rather expensive. Since it is to be used as an identifying document rather than for electronic voting, that is the present state of the Government's thinking. I hope that that is helpful.

Lord Smith of Clifton

It is helpful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 agreed to.

Lord Glentoran moved Amendment No. 12:

After Clause 4, insert the following new clause— "VOTERS: SPECIFIED DOCUMENTS (1) From 1st May 2003, paragraph (1E) of rule 37 of the parliamentary election rules applicable to election in Northern Ireland, imported into Schedule 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (c. 2) by section 1(2) of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985 (c. 2), is amended in accordance with subsection (2). (2) For sub-paragraphs (a) to (e) there is substituted

  1. (a) the plastic photographic card which is, or forms the counterpart of, a current licence to drive a motor vehicle;
  2. (b) a current passport issued by the Government of the United Kingdom or by the Republic of Ireland:
  3. (c) a senior citizen's concessionary fare pass issued by the Northern Ireland Department of Regional Government;
  4. (d) a current electoral identity card issued under section I 3C of this Act.

The noble Lord said: This amendment has two purposes, one of which I have discussed with the noble and learned Lord and I know that he is not anxious to include it in the legislation. But at this stage we would still like to see it included. It is possible that I am dealing with the second point first, but the amendment seeks to ensure that the application date is in place before the May 2003 elections take place in Northern Ireland.

Secondly—this is perhaps the more substamive part—the amendment seeks to ensure that all would-be electors are in possession of photographic evidence as to their identity. That matter is referred to in paragraph 7 of the Explanatory Notes to the Bill as follows:

"The electoral-ID card proposed by this Bill will be added to the list of specified documents. In due course it is proposed to replace all the non-photographic ID on the list of specified documents (though the Bill makes no provision to this effect). Thereafter the electoral-ID card, the passport and the driving licence would be the only ID acceptable at the polling station. No one will be disenfranchised until they have had every reasonable opportunity to acquire photographic ID".

For those who live in England or outside Northern Ireland, that may sound rather a tall order. But for many years in Northern Ireland we have had photographic identification of every shape and size. If one moved around the Province during the days of terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s and wanted to pass reasonably peacefully through police arid Army blocks or one sort and another, one had to have readily available identification which included a photograph of some kind. That was the case, for example, in respect of our driving licences.

The purpose of the amendment, about which we feel strongly, is to require a full photographic "kit", for want of a better word, to be in place before the May 2003 elections. Without it, we would still be on fairly weak ground in relation to identification at polling

booths, particularly if there were a threat of unpleasantness from a terrorist group hanging round the corner. I beg to move.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

I believe that this amendment is very important and should be given due consideration. As I said earlier, the reality is that this matter does not concern individuals who seek to be perverse when it comes to abusing the electoral system; it concerns organised abuse overall. Unless a date is specified for photographic evidence to be produced, then perhaps I may assure Members of the Committee that a diktat will go out from the IRA army council stating that no one will acquire or seek to provide photographic evidence when he or she comes to vote.

The backbone of the deception practised by Sinn Fein over the years has been the use of the medical card. It is not only a matter of existing medical cards being used improperly; it is a question of the mass reproduction of such cards. There are virtually factories producing medical cards. If one looks old enough and if one has any semblance of life at all, whether one is entitled to vote or not, one will be able to do so. In terms of getting rid of that most widespread of abuses, photographic evidence will be essential. I stress to the Minister that this amendment is well thought out and essential. It is one to which the Government should give due consideration.

5 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

We on these Benches strongly support the amendment for the reasons that the noble Lords, Lord Maginnis and Lord Glentoran, have advanced.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

I have a valid reason for supporting this amendment. One of the factories producing counterfeit medical cards was situated in my former constituency. Despite that, I managed to scrape through.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

I support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Glentoran for slightly different reasons from those adopted by other noble Lords who have spoken. At Second Reading I said that I did not propose to revisit the delays that had been occasioned by the Government's hesitation in coming to conclusions on the matters of combating electoral fraud in Northern Ireland during the previous Parliament. However, I shall run through them briefly now in order to reinforce the need for pressure on deadlines and dates.

In the summer of 1997, under the then Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland Office set up a review of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland, shortly before the Select Committee in the other place embarked on its analysis. That committee had taken all its evidence and had published its report by March 1998. The Secretary of State gave us grounds to believe that the Government would be able to consider the issues before the European elections of 1999, although I acknowledge that she did not guarantee that conclusions would have been reached or implemented.

In the event, the Government did not publish their report on their review until October 1998 and did not reply to the Select Committee report until May 1999, which was a full year after a reply to such reports can normally be expected. When the final report from the Government on combating electoral fraud in Northern Ireland was not published until March 2001—just before the last general election—one could not help but feel that it had not been the Government's first priority. Although I have great respect for the noble and learned Lord who is responding to these debates—he has handled them impeccably—he must not be surprised if there is a certain concern about timetabling on this side of the Committee because of past experience.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I entirely accept that. Our aim is to hold the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland in May 2003. Our target is for the removal of all forms, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said, of non-photographic identification from the list of specified documents. I am concerned about disenfranchising a significant part of the population. Not everyone has a form of photographic identification as mentioned in the amendment—a driver's licence, a passport or a senior citizen's concessionary fare pass. Some people do not have such forms of identification and some people are rather conservative in their approach to identity cards of whatever kind. No doubt the time will come when such a situation will prevail. I am concerned about disenfranchising and disabling people from voting simply because they will not have photographic identification by May 2003.

I pay attention to the validity of the points made. I want to reflect on them, although I do not believe that I shall be able to say that by May 2003 everything will be in such order that everyone in Northern Ireland will be equipped with photographic identification. However, I accept that we should aim for that target.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way. Can he give the Committee some idea of the percentage of the electorate that he believes do not have a driving licence, a passport or an old-age bus pass? I consider that the percentage would be remarkably small. Have the Government considered the matter or carried out any research? Can they tell me whether my assumption is correct?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

The noble Lord is quite right. I do not believe that it is possible to put a percentage on that. I was supported in that view by one of the contributions in the Commons. One of the Northern Ireland Members, Mr Robinson, said: I would not vote for the Bill—this is how important the matter is to me—if I thought that the end result would be a significant number of genuine people being unable to vote. He continued that, an unspecified number of people, whose total is probably hard to determine, were able to abuse the system".—[Official Report, Commons, 31/10/01, col. 917.] It is a real concern. I do not believe that one can put a mathematical percentage on it.

On abuse, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, that it would be difficult for him to say mathematically how many people have benefited from the medical card factory in the former constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. I am not in a position to be more precise than that. Perhaps I should not have put that question to the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, because, with a sinking heart, I feel that he may be about to answer me.

I shall look at the matter again to see whether I can return with something more definite by way of reply, but by May 2003 I doubt that we shall be morally certain that everyone eligible to vote will have photographic identification. I shall research further the answer to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, but I do not believe that I shall be able to be more precise.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

Before the noble and learned Lord sits down—there is no edge to this remark at all—I should say that the considerations to which he has drawn attention were part of the report of the Select Committee in March 1998. The sadness is that during the previous Parliament time was lost so that we are unable to meet sensible deadlines for what will be an important election.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

That is a perfectly reasonable observation, to which I can offer no satisfactory gloss.

Lord Glentoran

I thank the noble and learned Lord for that reply. I do not need to make the point that the election about which all noble Lords are talking will arguably be one of the most important elections ever held in Northern Ireland. It is the job of all noble Lords on all sides of the House to do their best to ensure that the electoral system is as clear of fraud and as fair as possible. In doing that we would not want to disenfranchise anyone. However, turning upside down what the noble and learned Lord has said, if one bracket of people can claim not to have any photographic evidence, we shall return to the realms of people saying on polling day, "I do not have any photographic evidence of myself". Without the problems of disenfranchisement, how do we challenge that and manage it? I feel that the onus is on the Government and their officials to ensure that every single soul on the electoral register in Northern Ireland has a form of photographic identification before May 2003.

I shall not divide the Committee this afternoon. In his comments the noble and learned Lord has been extremely helpful. I know that if at all possible he wants to deliver. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 agreed to.

Clause 6 [Offences]:

[Amendment No. 13 not moved.]

Clause 6 agreed to.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass moved Amendment No. 14:

After Clause 6, insert the following new clause— "INVESTIGATION BY RETURNING OFFICER In section 23 of the 1983 Act, after subsection (2) insert— "(2A) Subject to subsection (2B), a returning officer shall investigate the conduct of a particular election for which he is the returning officer upon—

  1. (a) receipt of a complaint that the election should be invalid;
  2. (b) being notified of the presentation of a parliamentary election petition; or
  3. (c) being notified of the presentation of a local election petition;

and make any information obtained in the course of such an investigation available to the parties to legal proceedings under Part III of this Act. (2B) Subsection (2A) shall apply only to complaints or petitions which allege an irregularity in the registration of electors or the misuse of electoral identity cards in that election.—

The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 14 and 15 are probing amendments. Amendment No. 14 seeks to discover whether the investigative powers of the returning officer can be made more incisive if there has been a complaint about electoral abuse or if there is to be an electoral petition.

I admit that I am not the number one fan of the present Chief Electoral Officer. After the electoral abuse that occurred in my constituency, I found that there was no desire and indeed no willingness on his part to assist in discovering what the extent of that abuse was. Perhaps more attention should be given to this area. My experience was that not only was the Chief Electoral Officer reluctant to bring forward, within a reasonable timescale, information that should have been forthcoming to those who were forced to petition, but those who could have given evidence were absent from the electoral court when the case was heard.

If we are to have sanctions to ensure that there is no electoral abuse then it is incumbent on us all to ensure that there are methods and measures which can be employed to bring to book those who orchestrate—I use that term again—those who systematically orchestrate a fraud on the electorate of Northern Ireland. I have tabled Amendments Nos. 14 and 15 so that I can—and I hope that I shall—learn in some detail what Government intend to do to ensure that those provisions contained in the Bill are effective in preventing fraud and have bite if fraud still occurs. I beg to move.

Lord Glentoran

The amendment proposes a useful tidying up and strengthening of the Bill in this area. I support that.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

The noble Lord. Lord Maginnis, said very courteously that these are probing amendments. So I have to plunge off into the thickets of what I understand electoral law to be.

Amendments Nos. 14 and 15 seek to amend the Representation of the People Act 1983 in relation to parliamentary and local election petitions. One of the problems is that the 1983 Act does not cover local elections in Northern Ireland. I am sorry that that is a legalistic answer, but the noble Lord asked for some detail.

Amendment No. 14 would require a returning officer to investigate the conduct of an election on receipt of a complaint that the election should be invalid or being notified of the presentation of a parliamentary or local election petition. He would be required to investigate only where there was an alleged irregularity in the registration of electors or the misuse of electoral identity cards.

I think that the problem that arises is that an election petition cannot be brought on grounds relating to the register of electors. Appeals about registration decisions can be made to the courts under Sections 56 and 58 of the 1983 Act but not about an election petition. Subject to the appeals on Sections 56 and 58, the register is in effect conclusive.

By the time we have completed and I hope perfected the Bill, taken as a whole—I stress that no individual remedy will prove the complete answer—Members of the Committee are I think agreed that the accuracy of the register will be improved. The individuals seeking the opportunity to vote will have to complete an individual application form. As I said earlier, he or she will have to provide additional personal data which the CEO will be able to check from his own records and make inquiries elsewhere where he has reason to doubt the authenticity of an application.

Amendment No. 15 is different. That extends the period of time in which a parliamentary election petition can be presented from 21 days to 28 days where that petition questioned the election or return on the allegation of irregularity in the registration of electors. It would also extend to 28 days the amount of time within which a petition questioning an election or return, on an allegation of an illegal practice, can be amended with leave of the court.

We have the same problems that I mentioned earlier—an election petition cannot be brought on grounds relating to the register of electors. Election petitions of course can be brought on a whole range of grounds but not on the one on which the noble Lord's amendment is focused. So I do not dissent from his proposition that there are difficulties in electoral law, as I have recently encountered in trying to understand these problems. However, I do not think that his amendments will produce the desired outcome.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 15 not moved.]

Clause 7 [Short title, interpretation, commencement and extent]:

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass moved Amendment No. 16:

Page 6, line 32, leave out from "appoint" to end of line 34.

The noble Lord said: This matter has probably been fully debated. The amendment seeks to delete from Clause 7(3) the words,

"and different days may be appointed for different provisions and for different purposes".

The issue relates directly to a previous amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. It is a paving amendment for phasing out non-photographic forms of ID. In the light of the helpful assurances that we have had so far, and the assurance that the noble and learned Lord will look at other matters that have been raised today, it is not my intention to press this matter either. I beg to move.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I am grateful for the approach taken by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis. On Amendment No. 16 we need separate commencements. For instance, we want to bring the provisions in relation to the collection of signatures and dates of birth into force early. But we cannot bring in the statutory questions relating to confirmation of date of birth because that information is provided only during the canvass. As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said, that canvass will not occur until October of this year. We will not be able, for instance, to allow the Chief Electoral Officer to require a signature and date of birth on the absent vote application to be consistent with what is already registered if the registration has not at that stage been completed. We have a deliberate rolling plan to introduce regulations and powers when they are appropriate to meet current circumstances. I hope that that explanation is a little further help.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 agreed to.

In the Title:

[Amendment No. 17 not moved.]

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment. House adjourned at twenty-two minutes past five o'clock.