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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): That is a reasonable position to take, but does the Minister nevertheless agree that Northern Ireland would be a good place to pilot such a scheme, even if over time we need to make at least one update to the specific technology in use in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Governments of both parties have been prepared to do in Northern Ireland what has not been done in Great Britain, so there is no reluctance to introduce a separate system for Northern Ireland. However, there is reluctance to experiment with such an important part of the electoral system and to introduce impractical measures. I do not believe that the Government should test technology on the electoral system. We certainly do not intend to do that. When we are satisfied that the technology is robust, secure and works properly, that will be the time to consider the introduction of the more advanced biometrically based smart card. That is the aspiration, but we will do it in the way in which we have been urged to do all things in this area—carefully and at the appropriate pace, taking not only the political parties of Northern Ireland, but, I hope, the electorate in Northern Ireland with us.

Many of the Select Committee's other recommendations have already been implemented in the measures that I outlined earlier—for example, rolling registration, which came into effect in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the UK, by means of the Representation of the People Act 2000. The electoral office has been provided with funding for additional staff. The information technology system will be replaced over the next few years, and will be capable of responding to the new measures that we are introducing.

Members are aware that voting procedures in Northern Ireland are different from those in the rest of the UK. They reflect the very different circumstances surrounding elections in Northern Ireland. Most significantly, in Northern Ireland there is a legal requirement for a voter to produce one of a number of valid, specified documents at a polling station before being issued with a ballot paper. A person must also be resident in Northern Ireland for three months before qualifying for entry on the electoral register there. Absent voting rules in Northern Ireland are stricter than those in Great Britain, because there is no automatic right to an absent vote.

All those measures are in place because they are necessary. I am sure that all Members regret the circumstances that make them so, but the issues surrounding elections in Northern Ireland demand them. We want election day to be as normal as possible for the voters in Northern Ireland. We do need different measures, but they must be proportionate if we are to avoid putting barriers in the way of the electorate.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I understand the point that the Minister has been trying to make, but may

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I ask two questions? First, are we not perhaps living in cloud cuckoo land in assuming that there are no problems in Great Britain? It is increasingly obvious that there is electoral fraud there. Secondly, has the Minister considered amending the regulations concerning, for example, driving licences? If a person presents a plastic card that identifies him, giving his date of birth and so on, it is not accepted unless there is also a paper document. There is a growing tendency for people to carry only the plastic documents in their wallets. Voters have been turned away unnecessarily in Northern Ireland because of a rather strict interpretation of the law by our officials. Should that not be changed?

Mr. Browne: I know how much attention the hon. Gentleman pays to this important issue, and I always listen to what he says with respect and care. However, he will not draw me into commenting on matters that are outside my area of responsibility. It has taken me enough time to get to grips with my present responsibility; I do not want to take on responsibility for the rest of the UK's electoral system as well. I therefore shall not comment on whether there is evidence that a degree of personation or fraud is taking place in the rest of the UK; I leave that responsibility to others.

As for the hon. Gentleman's second point, by law the driving licence is the whole document. Because I mislaid my old green licence, I now have a new licence with my photograph on it. When I have to hire a motor vehicle, for instance, I know that I must produce both the part bearing my personal identity and photograph, and the part containing the other information. There is, I understand, evidence to suggest that not all prospective voters in Northern Ireland know about this, and that people have been turned away after failing to produce the appropriate identifiers—but there is a series of other identifiers that they could produce. It is hoped that, in the climate that the Bill will create, the emphasis will be on the photographic aspect of the identification. It may then be appropriate for us to turn our attention to the part of the document that bears the photograph, as opposed to the other information. I suspect, however, that if the Bill is passed there will be a transitional period leading up to photographic identification, which will have to be managed carefully in any event.

I respect the hon. Gentleman's knowledge and his seniority in the House, but I do not think it would be appropriate for the Government to consider any more changes than are absolutely necessary at this stage. No doubt we shall have an opportunity to discuss these matters in detail in Committee.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) has raised an issue that causes great annoyance at every polling station across Northern Ireland. Surely it is an absolute nonsense that someone who presents paper documentation without a visual identifier is granted permission to vote, whereas someone who presents a part of his driving licence with a photograph clearly identifying him is denied such permission.

Now is the time to take action on the issue. With all due respect, and although I welcome the Minister to his post, I said in last week's business questions that perhaps

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the Secretary of State should have attended this debate or the debate should have been deferred for a week. If the Secretary of State were here, perhaps he would have been conciliatory on the issue. I repeat the appeal to the Minister to take on board the point and endeavour to make the relevant changes.

Mr. Browne: Given that the hon. Gentleman and I were members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—I believe that he continued to be a member of that Committee throughout the previous Parliament—and that we established a good working relationship and friendship there, I shall not take personally his comments on the absence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I am sure that the House will understand that my right hon. Friend is regrettably unable to attend the debate because of the fluid situation in Northern Ireland. I shall simply say that the political process in Northern Ireland is an important matter.

As it is important to ensure that the electoral system in Northern Ireland is beyond reproach, we judged that it was right to keep the parliamentary slot allotted to the Bill and to consider it today. I am sorry for the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) if he has to put up with me rather than the Secretary of State. However, I shall endeavour to be a little more conciliatory.

The hon. Gentleman's experience seems to reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). There is a focus on the photograph as an identifier because of the significant move from identifiers, albeit not exclusively photographic ones, that the current Government have inherited—although that move was supported on both sides of the House. That may give us an opportunity to consider the importance of photographs in the context of this legislation.

As I said, it would not be right to impose unreasonable burdens on the majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland who merely want to exercise their franchise as entitled. The action that we take must be carefully thought through, and we believe that the Bill strikes the correct balance. It provides for a photographic electoral identity card to be issued free of charge to those who are entitled to vote but might not otherwise have satisfactory proof of identity.

It is proposed in due course to replace all the non-photographic identification on the list of specified documents. Thereafter, the electoral identity card, the passport and the driving licence will be the only identification that are acceptable at polling stations. The Bill requires that a canvass form and an application for voter registration be signed by and include the date of birth of each of those to whom the form or application relates. In certain circumstances, it also gives the presiding officer at a polling station the power to ask the date of birth of an elector applying for a ballot paper.

It has always been intended that the measures will be applied to all elections in Northern Ireland. The Bill extends all the measures to parliamentary elections, although subordinate legislation will be needed to amend the local elections rules and the franchise for European elections.

Before I come to the details of the clauses, I should touch on some important issues that were covered in the reports to which I referred and which we discussed in

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our subsequent consultations. These are the questions of multiple registration, absent voting and exclusion zones around polling stations.

The Select Committee expressed concern about the level of multiple registration in some parts of Northern Ireland. Some people have a legitimate right to register in more than one place and should, indeed must, be allowed to continue to do so. I am thinking particularly of students and people who have to work away from home. I am registered to vote not only in the city of Westminster, but in my constituency. The Select Committee shared that analysis, recommending that those who were registered more than once should be required to indicate that that was the case and to list all their addresses.

We share the objective of identifying those who are registered more than once, but propose to achieve that in a slightly different way. The collection of additional identifiers—the signature and date of birth—plus enhanced IT capability in the electoral office will mean that the chief electoral officer will be able to identify more effectively where people are registered to vote at more than one address. He will thus be able to ensure that, for parliamentary elections, only one poll card is issued to such an individual and ensure that the privilege of multiple registration is not abused.

On absent voting, the White Paper originally proposed that the date of birth and signature should be required on the application. On reflection, we have decided that a requirement for the signature alone should be sufficient. Throughout the process of developing the proposals, we have been mindful that we must introduce the minimum changes necessary to guarantee effectiveness. That is because any checks—no matter how mundane or minor they may appear—present a potential barrier to the voter. Our guiding principle has been not to set up additional barriers unless we are completely confident that they represent added value.

Of the two identifiers, we believe that the signature is more reliable and easy to use. We appreciate that some people will be unwilling to give their date of birth, but we will already be requiring them to do so—if the House approves these measures—to get on to the electoral register. There is little benefit in requiring them to do so again to receive an absent vote. The signature on the absent vote application will provide a quick and easy visual check for electoral staff. If they have concerns about the authenticity of the application, they may still draw on the date of birth that they have from the register in pursuing their inquiries.

The issue of so-called exclusion zones around polling stations is an important and complex one. We fully acknowledge the seriousness of the issue of intimidation. The Select Committee did so too, and rightly. Like the Government, the Select Committee decided that nevertheless the solution to intimidation, or perceived intimidation, was not an exclusion zone around the polling station. Campaigning around the polling station is a recognised political activity throughout the UK. It is perfectly legitimate, where it is carried out in a fair and proper manner.

We see no reason to end that legitimate practice in Northern Ireland by imposing exclusion zones. We need to be satisfied that we have taken all the necessary steps to ensure that activity around the polling station is not carried out in such a way as to intimidate people into

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staying away, or coerce them into voting for a particular party. We have examined the existing law carefully and believe that it is sufficient to ensure that, as it stands.

We need to ensure that presiding officers know the law and know their duties and responsibilities and, most importantly, have the confidence to take action where it is necessary, including involving the police. We are committed to ensuring that the chief electoral officer has the necessary resources to achieve that, and we know that he has frequent discussions with the police about the conduct of election day.

As I said earlier, we considered seriously the proposal for an exclusion zone on the lines of the procedures which operate, for example, in the Republic of Ireland. We took advice, including from the police. Their view was that that had the potential to create greater difficulties; it would cause disruption for households inside the zone; it would merely displace the potential confrontation point to outside the polling station; and it would, in fact, create several different points of possible conflict which would all have to be policed. The fact is that no one has said to us that there is a universal problem at polling stations throughout Northern Ireland, but if we went down that route, we would need an exclusion zone around every polling station. Even if we thought an exclusion zone was an effective measure, there clearly would be no reason to impose one in every instance. As I have said, we want election days to be as normal as possible for the voters in Northern Ireland.

Clause 1 enables the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland to collect additional identifying information from registered voters. Electors and those applying for registration will be required to state their date of birth and sign the form for the annual canvass, as well as to state their names and addresses. That information will not appear on the public version of the electoral register, but will be used at the electoral office and at polling stations to make checks against the names of electors when they apply for a postal vote or to vote by proxy, or attend at a polling station to obtain a ballot paper. The chief electoral officer may use his discretion to dispense with the requirement for a voter to supply a signature in certain circumstances, such as physical incapacity or illiteracy.

Clause 2 amends the parliamentary elections rules in relation to Northern Ireland. The changes empower a presiding officer or clerk at a polling station to ask a third statutory question: "What is your date of birth?". If the voter does not answer to the satisfaction of the presiding officer, he can refuse to issue a ballot paper. If the voter does answer to the satisfaction of the presiding officer, the ballot paper must be presented unless a candidate or his election or polling agent accuses the voter of personation.

Clause 3 amends provisions that have effect only in Northern Ireland and relate to absent voting. Applications to vote by post or proxy must be signed and the signature on the application must correspond with the signature provided to the chief electoral officer on registration. The chief electoral officer may refuse to grant an absent vote application if he is not satisfied that the signature on the application corresponds with the signature held on his records. Refusal of an absent vote is not taken lightly. The chief electoral officer may use his discretion, but refusal without good cause would leave his decision subject to judicial review.

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Clause 4 enables a person to apply to be issued with an electoral identity card, in accordance with any requirements prescribed by regulations. The chief electoral officer has the function of determining such an application, and if he is satisfied that the information given by an applicant is correct, he is required to issue an electoral identity card free of charge.

The electoral identity card must show the elector's full name and date of birth, his photograph and the card's expiry date. The chief electoral officer can decide, in accordance with any regulations, that the card should include other information in a particular form. The card will be valid for 10 years and will be added to the list of specified documents that voters may use for the purposes of identification at polling stations in Northern Ireland.

Clause 5 introduces a requirement for voters with disabilities to produce a specified document, in the same way as other voters. That requirement had been inadvertently omitted. Since 1985, it has been a requirement that voters in Northern Ireland should produce evidence of identity in the form of a prescribed document.

Before the Representation of the People Act 2000 came into force, the law required that the presiding officer should not grant a blind voter's application to vote with the assistance of another person unless the voter had produced a prescribed document to identify himself. That was inadvertently repealed by a new rule in the 2000 Act, which extended the right to vote with the assistance of a companion to voters with disabilities such as physical incapacity and illiteracy.

The unforeseen consequence of the new rule was that it removed the requirement for blind and disabled voters in Northern Ireland who were voting with the assistance of a companion to produce a prescribed document. Clause 5 repairs the provision for blind voters and extends the requirement to produce a prescribed document to all those entitled by the 2000 Act to vote with the assistance of a companion. A voter with disabilities who attends at a polling station with a companion to assist him may satisfy the requirement to produce a specified document, even if in fact the documents are produced by, and the ballot paper delivered to, the companion rather than the voter himself.

Clause 6 makes it an offence for a person to sign either a canvass form or an application for registration if the person signing is not the person to whom the form or application relates. A person found guilty of either offence is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or a fine, or both.

Clause 7 provides that clauses 1 to 4 and 6 come into force on days to be specified by the Secretary of State, who may specify different commencement dates for different provisions. Clauses 5 and 7 will come into force on Royal Assent.

The Bill counters electoral abuse directly and at every stage of the electoral process: registration, absent voting and polling. We want to ensure that any loopholes that have been exploited in the past are removed. At the same time, we will not prevent genuine voters from making their voices heard. All our proposals have been examined with that in mind. We intend to implement the measures as soon as is practicable, but we will take all necessary

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steps to ensure that no one is disenfranchised because of them. Calls for the measures have come from within Northern Ireland itself and from parties across the political spectrum.

People who commit electoral fraud are attacking the fundamental principles of democracy. Governments have a duty to protect the right to free and fair elections. The Bill sends a clear signal that electoral fraud is a crime and that we are determined to combat it. I commend the Bill to the House.


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