HC Deb 23 May 2000 vol 350 cc199-204WH 12.30 pm
Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

I am privileged to have the opportunity to debate electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland.

When voting recently in the London mayoral election, I visited a mainland polling station for the first time. Only one man was standing outside; no Labour, Liberal Democrat or other party representative was present. The man was wearing a blue rosette, which I assume showed his membership of the Conservative party, and he spoke nicely to everyone who arrived. On my entering the polling station, there was no sign of the polling agents, as we call them, who mark off voters as they arrive. I was asked simply for my name and number—no one tried to check my identity beyond that. The atmosphere was calm and quiet, and I said to myself, "How different elections on the mainland are from those in Northern Ireland."

In Northern Ireland, every vote counts, so parties must work extremely hard to ensure maximum turnout, and there is always the temptation to indulge in electoral malpractice. Indeed, after the 1997 local government elections and general election, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee issued a report that accepted the existence of electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland and the need to do something about it. The Government also established a committee to consider the matter, which published a report on administering elections in Northern Ireland. It, too, acknowledged the existence of, and need to address, such malpractice.

Both committees recommended an enhanced household form, a postal vote and proxy vote application forms. Significantly, they established that electoral smart cards using signature verification are the most effective way to prevent fraud and malpractice in Northern Ireland.

The latter report was published in October 1998. In replying to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee's report, the Secretary of State said: Although it has not been possible for me to give any firm commitment to the introduction of select proposals at this time, this should not in any way indicate that I do not take the issue of electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland seriously. He went on to say: The Elections Review will be submitting its final report in the summer of 1998, and I am intending to publish its findings at the earliest possible opportunity. However, as you acknowledged in your report, it is unlikely that any substantial changes will take place before the elections to the European Parliament in 1999. Those elections have long since passed, and we in Northern Ireland want to know what has happened to the report and what progress is being made. There is a general feeling that the Government are dragging their feet. In a letter dated 15 May to my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the Prime Minister stated: We will bring forward early legislation on electoral fraud. I would hope to find parliamentary time for this before the general election. I welcome that.

In Northern Ireland, local government elections are held every four years. The next elections are due to take place in May 2001, and it is possible that there will be a Westminster election at the same time. Under Northern Ireland's system of proportional representation, which nowadays is not much liked on the mainland, it is possible for results to be very close—in fact, close in decimal figures. Any malpractice or fraud is therefore liable to have extremely serious consequences, in that it may lead to a result that is not true to the views of the electorate.

The problem must be dealt with before the local government elections—and, potentially, the Westminster election—in May 2001. The history of Westminster elections in Northern Ireland reveals that some constituencies are very closely contested, especially those in the west of the Province. That often results in an extremely high number of postal votes. In the 1997 Westminster election, the total number of absent vote applications was 38,885, which would be unheard of over here on the mainland. In my constituency, the figure was 4,372. Postal vote applications rose by 38 per cent. in Mid-Ulster, 37 per cent. in Belfast, North, 43 per cent. in Belfast, East and 45.84 per cent. in Belfast. West. It is believed that up to 10 per cent. of postal vote and proxy vote applications are fraudulent. It is vital to try to ensure that such malpractice does not happen, because malpractice may seriously affect election results, especially in closely fought constituencies.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

The hon. Gentleman may recollect from the report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the chief returning officer told the Committee that he had received four applications for postal votes from people who had died. Information about deaths from the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages in Northern Ireland is passed to the chief returning officer, but he could not legally refrain from issuing the papers for postal votes.

Mr. Thompson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

The presiding officer, electoral officer or deputy electoral officer may not be notified of a death that occurred, and he could not refuse a ballot paper even if it was known on election day that the person had died before the election. That shows the necessity for a legal change.

The recommendation for an electoral smart card utilising signature verification is an expensive solution and could not be introduced for some time. It is unlikely to be available for the elections next year, so I shall suggest some changes that could be made immediately to reduce malpractice next year.

At the beginning of October, every household in Northern Ireland receives a form on which to state the number of electors in that household. Those forms are not satisfactory because some people include all their family, although some members of that may not be resident in the household. Objections can be made to a court, but it is almost impossible to prove that someone is not resident if the household form states that he is. Names remain on the register when they should not be there, with the result that the register is not as accurate as it should be. I suggest that changes should be made to the form this year and there should be time to do that. The form should ask for the date of birth and national insurance number of each elector, the elector's mother's maiden name and the number of rooms in the dwelling. There should also be a little box in which each elector states whether he possesses a driver's licence. The majority of electors in Northern Ireland hold a driver's licence with a photograph and they could be required to use that as identification at the polling station.

The application forms for postal votes and proxy votes at next year's elections should reflect the changes on the household form. They should ask similar questions so that, when the form is returned to the electoral office, a check can be made on whether it accurately reflects the records held in the electoral office. That would help to prevent people from submitting proxy vote or postal vote application forms for those who are unlikely to vote.

I also recommend that the marked register be done away with. Surprisingly, it is possible to buy in Northern Ireland a set of registers naming all the people who voted at the last election. One can normally do that, but such registers are not cheap. Although normal political parties do not have the money to pay for marked registers, Sinn Fein seems not to be short of money and can readily avail itself of them.

When one accumulates a number of registers over time, it becomes clear that those people who never bother to vote and have never visited a polling station can be identified. As a result, false proxy votes can be cast or false postal vote applications made on their behalf. A large number of applications arrive on the chief electoral officer's desk a few days before an election, and it is virtually impossible for him to sift through 38,000 votes to establish which applications are legitimate and which should not be upheld. If the marked register were done away with, it would be harder for someone to discover the identity of a person who had never voted. It would then be difficult to vote in that person's stead through proxy voting or postal voting or through voting at a polling station by pretending to be someone else.

Changes should be made at the polling station itself. The presiding officer should be empowered to refuse a ballot paper if he, his staff or a polling agent have reason to suspect malpractice of any kind. As I understand it, a ballot paper cannot be refused unless a polling agent objects. A polling agent sits in a booth and must be sure of his facts before making such an objection. He does not see the identification documents, and it is difficult for him to object, so it is the presiding officer who should be so empowered. If, according to his judgment and good offices, he suspects malpractice, and if his staff or a polling agent objects to a vote, he should be empowered to intervene and suggest that the police make an arrest.

The polling station electoral register should state whether a voter holds a driving licence, so that it could be used for identification purposes. The register should also show a voter's date of birth and mother's maiden name, so that relevant questions could be asked where an application for a ballot paper was suspect. A ballot paper would then be provided only when satisfactory answers were given.

Throughout the United Kingdom, the police seem to have forgotten that their duty is to prevent, as well as solve, crime. Voting twice, or voting in an election in which one should not vote, is a criminal offence, so it is the duty of the police to make an arrest if they suspect that a criminal offence has taken place or is likely to take place. In Northern Ireland at the moment, the police say that it is nothing to do with them and that they cannot intervene. That is contrary to the rules that govern the conduct of police constables. The police should act if they think that a crime is about to take place.

We should consider the possibility of giving each elector a personal identification number. Such numbers are in common use with Visa cards and smart cards. Electors would receive a PIN, which they would bring to the polling station. There, they would have to state their number, which could be checked against the electoral register. There are difficulties with such a system: PINs might not be delivered or people might say that they had not received a number. None the less, such possibilities should be considered.

Local government elections will take place in Northern Ireland in 2001 and are likely to be followed by a general election. Malpractice must be reduced to the lowest possible level, and the Government have a duty to act expeditiously to see that that happens before the next election.

12.51 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth)

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) on his choice of subject. It is an important subject, as was illustrated by what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said during his recent appearance before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. We are in regular contact with the chief electoral officer, Mr. Pat Bradley, who is widely respected throughout Northern Ireland. I have every confidence in him. He is about to retire, but the process of appointing his successor is under way.

We share some of the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but I do not think that it is fair to say—normally, he is a fair man—that we are dragging our feet on the issue. The hon. Gentleman put forward ideas that he would like us to consider. I do not intend to go through each in sequence—for one thing, there is not enough time—but I will carefully consider his points. We are committed to having a Bill on the subject, but the question is whether there is sufficient time; I shall return to that. The Bill may cover some of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. However, I give a warning: although we agree that it is important that electoral procedures should be robust enough to prevent them from being abused too easily, we do not want to make access to the vote so difficult that it puts legitimate voters off. That is a difficult balance to strike, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree, but we must strike it, none the less.

Both the report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which has been mentioned, and the Northern Ireland Office report "Administering Elections in Northern Ireland" noted that there have long been concerns about electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland. However, the Northern Ireland Office review concluded that elections in Northern Ireland are efficiently and fairly administered, often in very difficult circumstances. What I am unable to do—the hon. Gentleman had a stab at it—is quantify the problem. There are very few arrests for electoral malpractice, but not, frankly, because the police do not take the matter seriously. I entirely accept that that is not a sign that all is well or that there is no need for change—far from it. Electoral abuse is difficult to prove, not least because many people who appear to have had their votes stolen may be afraid to speak out or to give evidence, or they may not know that their vote has been stolen.

Whatever the difficulties of attaining evidence, it is important to ensure that we act in a way that is proportionate to the problem. Electoral abuse is an affront to democracy, but we do not want to introduce measures that would deny innocent people their vote or make them feel that the system was so oppressive or off-putting that they would not go to a polling station, bother to apply for an absent vote or register in the first place.

The fact that the Government have recognised the difficult circumstances in Northern Ireland means that the measures that had been introduced in pilot schemes elsewhere in the United Kingdom—they are designed to facilitate and encourage absent voting, and may use more flexible voting times—will not be extended to Northern Ireland. We recognise that moves that are intended to encourage and assist voters in Great Britain may serve only to aid those who are intent on electoral abuse in Northern Ireland.

It is important that we have extended the legislative provisions on rolling registration to Northern Ireland—it means that people can put their name on the register throughout the year rather than during a narrow time frame. That should ensure that the register is more accurate.

We hope to introduce early legislation on electoral fraud. Many of the measures that we want to introduce, including those that were recommended by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and in our review, will require legislation through a Bill. The hon. Member for West Tyrone referred to the letter that passed between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), who is the leader of the hon. Gentleman's party. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that we hope to find parliamentary time for such a Bill before the next general election. However, no Minister would give a firm commitment about the contents of Her Majesty's Loyal Address before it was delivered.

Mr. Thompson

Could not the Government introduce such measures through an Order in Council?

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman spends much time urging me not to use Orders in Council, and I am sure that he will forgive me if I do not readily accede to his request on this occasion.

I want to discuss some of the recommendations of the Select Committee and of our report. Electoral cards remain, as the hon. Gentleman conceded, our long-term objective but, frankly, current technology is unlikely to provide a satisfactory system at a reasonable cost. In the meantime—before the eventual introduction of electoral smart cards—we hope to develop measures that will help to combat electoral abuse.

Signature verification, as the hon. Gentleman conceded, would be an important means of providing authentication of absent vote applications and it could possibly be used to provide additional identification at polling stations. The necessary process is under consideration and the approach is technically possible. I shall not discuss that in detail because time is short. We are also considering the investigatory powers of the chief electoral officer. We should have detailed consultations in that regard.

There are various steps to be taken, and there is the prospect of introducing legislation before the next general election. We take the matter seriously and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it in this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to One o'clock.