HL Deb 10 October 2002 vol 639 cc483-7

8 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th July be approved [36th Report from the Joint Committee]

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 was subject to significant debate in this House. I believe that all would agree that we introduced improvements to the original Bill as it arrived in this Chamber from the Commons.

This order brings the relevant rules for local elections into line with those made for parliamentary elections by the Act to which I referred. The amendments to the rules for local elections will allow staff at polling stations to request the date of birth from the elector and to check that the details are correct. They add the electoral identity card, which was of great significance in this House, to the list of specified documents that may be presented at a polling station in order to receive a ballot paper.

Amendments have also been made so that the returning officer can check the details relating to absent voting. Applications for the absent vote will require a signature, date of birth and national insurance number—another matter that achieved great importance in our earlier debates on electoral rules in general elections—or a signed statement saying that the applicant does not have one. We are entitled to congratulate ourselves on the fact that we improved the Bill and this order provides almost a mirror reflection for local elections which require the same protections. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th July be approved [36th Report from the Joint Committee]—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Lord Rogan

My Lords, I enthusiastically support the order. In doing so I venture to say that over the years, in successive elections, both nationally and locally, no part of the Kingdom has suffered more from electoral malpractice and fraud than Northern Ireland. Recently, that was graphically evidenced during the previous general election when in the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone election stations and boxes were physically forced to be reopened by a baying mob who intimidated the election staff. The judge's comments during the ensuing court case that resulted from that malpractice made interesting and telling reading.

If the measures contained in the order in any way strengthen the powers, as they undoubtedly do, of the staff of local polling stations to verify the identity and right to vote of individuals, and if the rule for obtaining absent votes are strengthened, that can only be beneficial for local democracy in Northern Ireland. As such, they should demand, and I hope will receive, the universal support of your Lordships.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I too welcome the order, which introduces some necessary tidying up. As it refers to elections, I hope that the noble and learned Lord will forgive me if I take my only opportunity to make the following suggestion: should there be included, among the choices of action now facing the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in Northern Ireland, any proposal to bring the assembly elections forward, I hope that they may not be tempted to do so to avoid a vacuum. To do so would benefit only Sinn Fein and the DUP.

There is in any case a practical and vital reason, discussed in this House when we considered the Bill, for waiting at least until May. As the Government acknowledged when we legislated earlier, it will be touch and go whether the new electronic system, so carefully designed to prevent extensive fraud on the scale practised hitherto by Sinn Fein, will be ready and operating by then. Unless a miracle takes place, it certainly will not be ready before then. I hope that that point will be taken into consideration.

If the Government wish to be seen to hold Sinn Fein/IRA to account, I hope that they will consider requiring them to end the violence on the streets. That would send a better signal than any other to the people that the situation is being taken seriously. Were that violence to end—they have shown before that they are able to turn off the tap—the loyalist violence, inevitably, would be exposed, which hopefully would also end.

In the many possible answers that are being considered—perhaps they have been decided—I hope that one of the main messages that both Houses will send to the people is that they are holding the IRA to account for the violence that at the time of the Belfast agreement we were promised would not take place. I also hope that it will lead them to abandon the proposal for bringing back the "On the Runs".

Lord Kilclooney

My Lords, I shall not refer to the imminent collapse of devolution in Northern Ireland, but to the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act that we supported. Electoral registration forms are now being delivered to homes in Northern Ireland and my fear is that because of the questions involved—namely, about the date of birth and the national insurance number—thousands upon thousands of potential electors in Northern Ireland will fail to return the forms. Next year we shall have an almighty row when so many people turn up to vote and find that they are not on the electoral register. That needs to be addressed. It may be necessary to extend the period during which people should return the registration forms.

I want to refer to one particular aspect of the order. At a polling station an elector will have to state his date of birth, but what will happen if he fails to give the date of birth that the presiding officer in the polling station has down for that elector? In those circumstances this order provides that the voter will be able to fill in a tendered ballot paper because he has failed to give the correct date of birth. Can the Minister tell the House how that vote will eventually be taken into consideration at the count? Will the voter have to turn up with his birth certificate to prove that he was correct and that what was on the electoral register was wrong? What other means will be used at the count to accept or to reject a particular tendered ballot paper?

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, we have heard interesting contributions. I join the noble and learned Lord in believing that the passage of the Bill through your Lordships' House was an excellent example of the value of considered thought and judgment. Although it is not my place to answer directly the concerns of the noble Lord in relation to the filling in of the form, he is right to some extent. The form is somewhat formidable. During my time at home in the Summer Recess two or three people mentioned to me that it would cause some problems.

I believe that some public assistance is necessary. I would certainly ask the Government to give that consideration fairly soon. Information could be put on the television or there could be headlines because there is an apathy among electors in Northern Ireland. That apathy is largely among those whom most noble Lords would want to see going to the polls; that is to say the moderates of a number of shades of opinion. We must make it easy for them. I am also aware—I have voiced this point elsewhere—that the people who will have no problem in filling in this slightly complex form are those living in Sinn Fein territory. Sinn Fein has such a highly-paid machine and so many people working for it that the party members will knock on doors asking people whether they need help to fill in the new electoral form. Sinn Fein may even have found some way around the form to suit themselves anyway. But it will certainly do the democratic job, as it sees it—and indeed it is—of helping its potential voters fill in the form.

Unfortunately, the other parties in Northern Ireland are not as sophisticated and certainly not as well funded to do that. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord can give some consideration as to how the population can be helped. The form is straightforward, but people are not used to it and may need some help.

I also sincerely hope that the Government will not bring forward any potential elections. To follow on from, and to support, what my noble friend Lady Park said, we know that there is a tight timetable for putting the technology in place. The noble and learned Lord was honest in the debate in saying that. I should hate to see an election as important and critical as the next one undoubtedly will be happening before the various measures that have been legislated for in this Act are fully up and running. However, I support the order wholeheartedly.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I find the matter somewhat surprising. I thought that there was a broad degree of consensus in the House that we should tighten provisions to prevent fraud. We now learn from certain quarters that they are too tight because people cannot fill in the various forms. It would have been useful to have had that information during the passage of the Bill. I find the matter somewhat ironic.

We welcome the order because it reflects what we were trying to do in the Bill. I thank the Lord Privy Seal for proposing the order.

I have several questions. First, how are the provisions being received in Northern Ireland? That relates to the technical difficulties that have already been alluded to; people cannot actually fill in the forms. Secondly, how is the public awareness campaign on the change in the election laws going? Thirdly, can the Government give any indication as to the take up rate for the electoral identity card? Finally, can the Government assure the House that it is still their intention to remove the non-photographic forms of identification from the list of specified documents?

We support the order.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am very grateful for the general support given to the order, because it is, as I said earlier, the mirror of the general election arrangements that were improved and approved by the House.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, pointed out—and his remarks were echoed by the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith—that there had been a certain amount of confusion about the fact that these were new arrangements. I recognise those as legitimate points. The noble Lord, Lord Smith, put the matter slightly differently; he asked how the provisions have been received. I believe that there has been some confusion. I am happy to be able to tell your Lordships that the Chief Electoral Officer is aware of those problems which have been identified. He proposes to contact those people who have completed the forms wrongly to see how he can assist them and identify the problems so that the forms can be properly filled out.

Lord Kilclooney

My Lords, I thank the Lord Privy Seal for that very welcome news. But there is a second problem; that is the people who have not even returned the forms. It is good to know that those who have returned incorrectly completed forms will be contacted. But I fear that there are many thousands who will not have returned them. As the House will be aware, originally there was only one form for each household. Now there is one for each elector. Many are not returning the forms. That will be the interesting question: how many have been returned on this particular occasion.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not have up-to-date figures on that. I recognise the problem. The electoral officer has been imaginative and flexible in dealing with the problem identified by the noble Lord. Voter education—this matter arises from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, and the specific question of the noble Lord, Lord Smith—is now the responsibility of the electoral commission. It has committed £0.5 million of funding to the registration campaign. That included television advertising, an information leaflet delivered with each electoral registration form and posters around Northern Ireland.

I agree with the subpoint of the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, that it is important that people who may be a little uncertain and perhaps a little bewildered should be encouraged to fill up their forms. However—manifold as my responsibilities are—I do not think that they include making sure that everyone who should fill in a form has done so.

I am grateful for the general support. I cannot deal with the take up rate. If I receive further details I shall write to all noble Lords who have contributed today. In particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, for his comments.

I remind the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, that this is a local election order. I know that the normal parameters of relevance do not pertain to debates in Northern Ireland—never should that change. I take her points on electronic voting and on violence, from whichever side. If we have the best electoral arrangements that we can achieve—and we have made significant steps in this House—there is no conceivable excuse for violence, whoever perpetrates it.

On Question, Motion agreed to.