Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Turner: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his two points—the first of which was that I had an argument. I would like to rest on that. On his earlier point about multiple registration, I do not wish to stray into the question of whether multiple registration that is legitimate under current rules should be prevented. That is for a later stage in our consideration. I was making a point about fraudulent multiple registration of people who perhaps do not even exist. Placing the national insurance number on the registration form would enable electoral registration officers, assisted by those who may challenge registrations, to deal with that.

Mr. Blunt: While the hon. Gentleman is dealing with the issue of outcomes and the creation of an accurate register, perhaps he would care to reflect on the difficulty experienced by the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland in creating a register by canvassing—unlike in the United Kingdom where it is normally done by a simple return of post. It is difficult to canvass in constituencies such as Belfast, West, and Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where the election was extremely close and subject to a court action. Outcomes are affected if the register is not accurate in areas such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on that.

Mr. Turner: The effect of multiple or fraudulent registration in very marginal constituencies under the first-past-the-post system, and, indeed, on all elections under a proportional system, is considerable. I do not usually worry about the effects of the European Court of Human Rights on how we conduct our business in this country, but my hon. Friend the Member for North Down has made it clear that I should worry about that. The Government should also worry about it. I have not yet heard any reason why the proposal should not be carried forward.

Mr. Barnes: A further problem has now been raised, which I had not thought of before: canvassing. Canvassing takes place widely in Northern Ireland. It is an activity that is engaged in almost universally. I would recommend that it should take place throughout Great Britain. However, if people are canvassing in order to get register details that are then checked by the returning officer, they will presumably, under the provisions, have to ask for national insurance numbers. Will it be possible or easy for people to search out their national insurance number when someone has knocked on the door? It is not an item that many people keep handy, but is something for which they will have to search through their records.

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Mr. Andrew Turner: Of course, I accept that it will not be possible for everyone immediately to put their hand on their national insurance number. However, I understand that canvassing is not the only way by which people get their names on the register in Northern Ireland. It is one way but not the only way.

Lembit Ipik: I hesitate to extend the hon. Gentleman's speech ad infinitum. Nevertheless, we are discussing the changing of habit. It may be difficult for people to find their national insurance number the first couple of times but, over time, they will have it closer to hand if they expect that they will be asked for it. Perhaps this is a false concern.

Mr. Turner: Indeed. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Ipik) made a point that I intended to make. That is sufficient, unless the Minister wishes me to continue.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): Very quickly—I do not propose to extend this any longer than is absolutely necessary and offer my apologies if I do so.

I had some experience of Northern Ireland in a previous incarnation some 15 years ago. One of the great problems at that time for many of the young people involved in the security services was identifying people when they came through the checkpoints. Indeed, we were involved in an election campaign, and I vividly remember the problems that those in the electoral station had in identifying people who came to vote. Even 15 years ago, people talked about the use of identity cards and national insurance numbers as a solution to the problem.

It is worth sparing a thought for the people who have to carry out our instructions. Often, it is a great deal more complicated on the ground than it seems in a Committee Room in Westminster. Those who carry out the provisions will appreciate anything that we can do to make their task easier and clearer.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) in his short but helpful contribution a few moments ago put his finger on part of what we seek to achieve, which is practical solutions for dealing with the mischief that has been identified without creating burdens either for legitimate voters or for those whom we charge with the task of carrying out a difficult job on the day. To some degree, the extent of the problem that we face was graphically illustrated by the contribution of the hon. Member for South Down.

The amendments are not designed to address the problems of identifying voters at the polling station. They address the mischief of illegal multiple registration. I understand that that was the objective of the principal mover of the amendments. Other amendments address the activities of people in the polling station, and I will deal later with why they are inappropriate.

The hon. Member for South Down accurately identified the general mischief, and the hon. Member for Belfast, East accurately summarised the balance that needs to be struck in addressing it. The package of proposed measures will tackle electoral abuse effectively without inconveniencing or discouraging the honest voter. It will result in a workable balance. The Government's position is that the Bill achieves the objective of tackling the mischief; consequently, there is no need to go further. It is possible to imagine demanding that people who seek to register produce any number of identifiers that are unique, or nearly unique, to them.

In response to recommendations, including those of the forum to which the hon. Member for Belfast, East referred and of the Select Committee, of which I was a member, the Bill seeks to get the balance right. We took consultation across the board, with the chief electoral officers and with other representatives, and took into account the additional investment, especially in computers and software; we believe that the balance is right and that we need not go further. We certainly need not go to the point where we may be in breach of the article of the protocol of the convention to which the hon. Member for North Down referred. She said that she wanted us to move together and tackle electoral fraud, which is exactly what the Government have done. The length of the process is because serious consideration has been given by me, by my predecessors and by others to the helpful recommendations of the forum for political dialogue and to the Select Committee's recommendations. There have been consultations with those whom we charge with the responsibility of carrying out the practical effect of our decisions and with the parties in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom.

It is no accident that the Bill has general support—the arguments are only at its margins. Its general thrust is agreed; it was supported on Second Reading and I have heard no criticism of it. It is inappropriate to inflate into an issue of principle a debate at the margins in respect of what is proportionate and what is the appropriate balance. I do not say that people are doing that, but there is a danger that such matters will be represented to those outside the House as being great issues of principle. This is not a great issue of principle; a decision has been taken about the balance to be struck, against circumstances which I shall go into in more detail. It may not be the same decision as that to which I was party when I was a member of the Select Committee. We considered a substantial part of the evidence but not all of it and the fact that I have now changed my mind is a reflection not of my position but of the practical view that I now hold that the proposal is as far as we need to go in relation to other measures that we are taking. It is as far as I, as the Minister, think I can require any honest voter to go.

That is the context in which I have taken the decision and I hope that hon. Members will understand that. It is not a dishonest decision that is taken for reasons that are kept confidential; it is taken in an exercise of balance that I have been keen to articulate at every opportunity in various conversations about the matter and on numerous occasions in the Select Committee.

My job as Minister is not to put before the House provisions that prevent people exercising the ballot in a fraudulent fashion which, at the same time, prevent honest, decent voters being able to exercise their ballot without unnecessary and irritating encumbrances. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire is important. It is not for me to weigh in the balance what the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) invited him to do: to decide whether it is more worthwhile to prevent an unknown number of people behaving fraudulently than it is to prevent an unknown number of people exercising their legitimate rights, even if that number is smaller. It is my duty as a Minister, if it is practical, to create a system for people to exercise their legitimate right to the ballot with the minimum of hindrance and with the protection of the law of the land, which now includes the convention, against those who attempt to steal votes or to use the system fraudulently.

When one does not have the responsibility of taking such a decision it is easy to say that this, that or the other check can be added—the number is endless—but at some stage, someone has to say, ``We have achieved the necessary balance and we do not need to go further.'' The Bill shows that we have achieved that aim, with one minor exception, which shows that I have an open mind: I have been persuaded in respect of dates of birth for absent votes, which I shall come to later.

The conclusion that the Bill strikes a workable balance is supported by the present chief electoral officer. The hon. Member for Reigate may therefore be reassured that the principal officer, whom we ask to put into practice the effects of our deliberations, believes that the Bill as drafted is sufficient to tackle the mischief under discussion and that it will be of no additional help to extend the requirements of registration to include the national insurance number.

 
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