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David Burnside: Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the fact that the opinion poll had no impact on the result in any of the constituencies to which he refers? Although it might have been alarming, it had no impact on the results.

Mr. Robinson: I assume that the hon. Gentleman is saying that he thinks that it had no impact because my party did so well and his so badly, but no one could say that it did not have any impact. I assume that since the election, he has not spoken to everyone who voted to find out whether it had any impact on them. As everyone knows, the reality is that he would not put statements into newspapers in Northern Ireland in the run-up to elections if he did not believe that they had some influence on the people who read them. [Interruption.] I can see that I will be called to order soon, so I shall wrap the subject up quickly. There must be some prohibition on people who knowingly carry out an opinion poll in such a way as to produce a result that is in no way a reflection of the support in the country for the political parties involved.

In general, I welcome the legislation. It can certainly be improved in Committee. I hope that we have the opportunity to do that.

7.26 pm

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). It is obvious from his remarks and the thought that he has given to the subject that he has an enormous contribution to make when the Bill goes into Committee.

In general terms, I welcome the thrust of the Bill, although areas of it could be improved and strengthened. Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I believe that it is long overdue. The Select Committee report of March 1998 said that this was an urgent and important issue. Indeed, that report followed the report by the Northern Ireland Forum, which has been referred to by several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). As a member of the Northern Ireland Forum committee, I remember hearing him give evidence. I am delighted that he continues to take a close interest in electoral law and reform in Northern Ireland. Some of his suggestions are constructive and I hope that the Minister will take them on board.

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We have had four elections in Northern Ireland since the Select Committee report was published: the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in 1998; the European elections; and the Westminster and the local government elections, which were held on the same day recently. Three elections were held under the proportional representation system, one under the first-past-the-post system. As has been said, with elections held under the proportional representation system, at times only a relatively small number of votes may be needed to determine who stays in and who goes out of a particular contest, and therefore who ultimately gets elected. Therefore, a significant number of fraudulent votes can have a major impact on the outcome of elections, particularly in local government.

We debated that issue in the Northern Ireland Forum in 1997. I do not think that any members of the forum believed that we would have another local government election before legislation was introduced in the House to combat electoral fraud—especially when, as has been pointed out, half the postal votes in the 1997 local government elections were fraudulent. That speaks for itself.

In passing, I make the point that one of the purposes of the legislation is to ensure that those entitled to vote are not disfranchised.

Recently, there were two elections on the same day in Northern Ireland, one for Members of the House of Commons and one for members of local government. I hope that the experiment was a one-off. Many people in Northern Ireland, noting the number of spoiled papers in both elections, concluded that the holding of two elections on one day under two different voting systems—proportional representation in the local government election, and first past the post in the Westminster election—disfranchised more voters than were disfranchised by fraud. I hope the Minister will take that on board.

I support what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East and others about the various bits of documentation that must be produced by those wishing to obtain a ballot paper, especially a driving licence. The issue has already been highlighted so I shall not say much more about it. However, I have often seen voters emerge from polling stations disgusted by the fact that they have not been allowed to vote despite having photographic identification—bus passes or works passes, for example. Meanwhile, they have seen others being given ballot papers following the production of medical cards or benefit books—rightly, under the current legislation—with no photographic identification being required. I am thinking especially of those who produce the part of a driving licence that contains a photograph, but do not produce the part that is necessary for them to obtain a ballot paper. That point should be considered in Committee.

I am glad that in future there will be an identification card with a photograph that will entitle people to vote. That, I think, is widely welcomed. I suggest to the Minister, however, that the phasing out of other identification documents, such as benefit books and medical cards, should not happen too quickly. As has been said, it will take time to persuade people to apply. We do not want people to be disfranchised because they have no passport or no driving licence, but have not been able to apply—or have not got around to applying—for a

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photo-identification electoral card. The hon. Member for North–East Derbyshire—or it may have been the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik)—said that the phasing-out should take place speedily, but I think that we should proceed with caution.

Rolling registration has been widely welcomed in Northern Ireland, and it is working reasonably well. It was a major step forward in terms of electoral law in Northern Ireland, greatly reducing the need for multiple registration. There were exchanges between, for instance, my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East and the Minister about whether it should be possible for voters to register in two places, thus being able to choose where to vote in local government elections. It would be relatively easy to make the same choice under the rolling registration system. For example, those who wanted to vote in a particular council area because they owned property there could simply register to do so.

I agree with those who oppose the idea of an exclusion zone. I do not think that it would be practical to place such a cordon sanitaire around polling stations. Effectively, however, there is already an exclusion zone at certain polling stations for some voters on both sides of the Northern Ireland community. I know from my practical experience as a candidate that in some areas, where an overwhelming majority of nationalists and only a tiny proportion of Unionists would vote, Unionists are being forced to cast their votes. They feel intimidated by that: they are so put off by having to walk past all the Sinn Fein workers and polling agents that they do not want to vote at all.

Nationalist voters feel the same. They have to come to an overwhelmingly Unionist polling station in my constituency, in the Ardoyne area, and they may likewise feel intimidated. Some thought should be given to the best way to designate polling stations to allay such fears.

I agree with what has been said about the entitlement of those with disabilities to vote. After the recent elections, constituents told me that they could not vote at, for instance, Currie primary school in Limestone road because it was necessary to negotiate two sets of steps. That puts off elderly people and makes it out of the question for those with disabilities to vote. On a number of occasions the ballot box was taken out to people so that they could vote—under supervision. That should not be tolerated in a civilised society. People should have the right to proper access to polling stations.

It is essential for the chief electoral officer, his staff and local electoral officers to have the funds that will enable them to run their operations efficiently and to combat fraud and abuse. I was amazed to discover that while it was deemed permissible for parties and candidates to have copies of the electoral roll—they could buy it in order to address labels and so on for election purposes—they were told, when they asked whether they could have the information on a computer disk, that that was possible but that no computer in Northern Ireland would be able to read it because the software was so antiquated.

That is the sort of system that the chief electoral officer must tackle and funds are urgently needed to deal with the problems.

Mr. Peter Robinson: I know that the Minister will receive a message telling him that plans are already afoot

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to spend money on that, but that funding will not be available until 2003. That is no use: the money and the equipment must be made available more readily. Even the computer department at Queen's university could not transfer the data on the chief electoral officer's machine to machines that would be used by any of the rest of us.

Mr. Dodds: I am sure that the Minister heard that and will accept that speedy action is necessary.

The former chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland used to say repeatedly that if we wanted to ensure that people had the right to vote and were not deprived of it by fraudulent means, it would cost money. The House and the Government will have to ensure that that money is made available. There is nothing more precious than the right to vote, and nothing makes people angrier than turning up on election day and finding that their votes have been stolen from them. It is incumbent on us to ensure that whatever resources are necessary to enable the electoral office to operate efficiently are provided.

I welcome the broad thrust of the Bill. We will give it a fair wind, but we hope that a number of points that have been raised will be addressed in Committee. The legislation may not be completed by the end of August or by September, when the next Northern Ireland elections will be held, if the Secretary of State is to be believed—and, indeed, if the law is followed through and there is no fancy footwork in the electoral process—but we hope that it will be enacted at the earliest opportunity.

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