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Mr. Wilshire: While listening to the hon. Gentleman's comments about the penalties that will be imposed, I find myself wondering why he does not pursue the example of driving licences. One cannot only be fined or sent to prison for driving offences, but one can have one's licence taken away. Would it not be appropriate to add to the list of penalties a disqualification from voting for a decent length of time, as the person will clearly have fraudulently tried to get himself on the register?

5.45 pm

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman gives an example of a disproportionate penalty. The whole purpose of the Bill is to ensure that people vote, but vote appropriately—that they do not steal the votes of others, or pretend to be other people, whether real or invented, to exercise a vote. Principally, the Bill is designed to prevent personation or vote stealing. Nothing in it is designed to prevent people from exercising their legitimate right to vote. Since the franchise in the UK was extended, Governments have consistently been careful to restrict the type of penalty that the hon. Gentleman presses on me—that is, disqualification from voting—to comparatively few people. I welcome the fact that those restrictions are reconsidered periodically: we seek a universal franchise.

I should have thought that a potential term of imprisonment for up to six months, or fine not exceeding level 5, which I think is some thousands of pounds—

Mr. Swire: £5,000.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful information. I regard £5,000 as a proportionate

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penalty for such offences. If he checks the Committee Hansard, the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) will see that that is the level of penalty for offences against electoral law that was urged on me on more than one occasion by the Opposition in Committee, and during remaining stages in the House of Commons.

Amendment No. 15 amends the long title to include a reference to national insurance numbers as one of the pieces of information that must be supplied to the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland by a person seeking registration. Amendment No. 16 amends the long title to include a reference to the fact that a person will be required to supply, on application to the register, information relating to their period of residence in Northern Ireland and addresses in respect of which they are or have applied to be registered. Those amendments are necessary to ensure that the provisions are within the scope of the Bill. The three-month period of residence is not a new provision.

I hope that the House will accept the amendments as a positive response to the arguments and concerns articulated by hon. Members of both Houses. I thank all the hon. Members who have taken part in the debates at various stages of the Bill's passage. I know that they are all as keen as I am to ensure that we tackle successfully the problem of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. They are all entitled to claim some credit for the provisions that the Government have now presented to the House, as well as for other parts of the Bill that have been produced in response to their contributions. I hope that hon. Members will not challenge each other about entitlement to claim the credit for the provisions: they urged them on me as a collective, so I suggest that they take collective credit.

The Bill will tackle electoral fraud in Northern Ireland successfully by countering electoral abuse directly and at every stage of the electoral process. I do not believe that the measures to prevent electoral fraud put unnecessary obstacles in the path of genuine voters, but the Government will require the assistance of all Opposition parties to help the electorate of Northern Ireland to understand the provisions and to make them work properly, so that obstacles are not inadvertently placed in the way of genuine voters. Because they will make the exercise of democracy more true in Northern Ireland, I trust that the provisions will be acceptable to the people there.

The Bill is the result of extensive consultation and it responds to calls from within Northern Ireland itself and from parties across the political spectrum. That consultation has continued during the Bill's passage through both Houses. We have examined all the issues raised with an open mind and given careful consideration to whether suggested amendments would assist our efforts to combat fraud and improve the electoral system in Northern Ireland. Particularly on the issues of the use of national insurance numbers in the electoral process and a requirement to declare multiple registration, we have been able to deliver appropriate changes to the Bill during its passage through the Lords. I hope that where issues and concerns have been raised we have been able to offer reassurance that they are being addressed, albeit not necessarily by legislation.

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Mr. Blunt: For the convenience of the House, I will not take as long as the Minister which, of course, would be impossible because he took up more than half the time for debate; we congratulate him on his marathon effort.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): Get on with it.

Mr. Blunt: As a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we have just witnessed the Minister lengthily turning full circle. The Minister has not performed a U-turn; he has spent four years describing a circle, finally arriving this evening at the position he initially took when signing off and supporting the Select Committee report of 11 March 1998. It is pertinent to examine the Minister's role in that Committee. He was sceptical when questioning Mr. Pat Bradley, the chief electoral officer. I shall give the House a flavour of the Minister's contributions to provide a perspective on where he stood in the first place.

On page nine of Mr. Bradley's evidence on 5 November 1997, the Minister said:

Passing over Mr. Bradley's response for the sake of time, suffice it to say that it did not satisfy the Minister, who said:

Mr. Bradley said:

The Minister interrupted:

Mr. Bradley replied:

The Minister said:

Mr. Bradley was unable to satisfy the Minister.

Mr. Browne: Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House the point?

Mr. Blunt: I am making a point about the Minister's attitude to the legislation and his proper scepticism about

15 Apr 2002 : Column 399

allegations of electoral abuse in Northern Ireland when a member of the Select Committee. Having sat through the taking of evidence, he agreed a report, a central requirement of which was to tidy up the register to ensure that it was clean and that the issue of absent vote fraud was addressed. We have had to go through agonising proceedings, both in Committee and on Third Reading, and it is only now that Government amendments have been introduced in the House of Lords to put into effect what the Minister as a Back-Bench Member signed up to more than four years ago; finally, we are going to get satisfactory legislation on to the statute book. The Minister took a considerable time to put the case for the amendments; perhaps he thought it would be less painful to take up half our debate with his circumlocution than have us point out that case to him.

Lady Hermon: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving way. It did not go unnoticed that I delayed the Minister considerably this afternoon, but I was genuinely concerned that the Lords amendments did not tie in with the Bill or appear to be compatible with the measure which we debated both in the House and in the Committee on which the hon. Gentleman served. Does he accept that during those four years data protection legislation has been a severe impediment to the disclosure of information on, for example, national insurance numbers?

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