Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Browne: During my earlier contributions, the hon. Gentleman and others said that my reasons did not go far enough and that they wanted more practical examples. I have taken advantage of the break to find more practical information with which to inform the Committee. The reasons are not different but additional to this morning's argument, which I accept that the hon. Gentleman rejected. That does not mean that it was not a good, solid argument. It was a good, solid argument, and the fact that it is now a better argument is to the disadvantage of the hon. Gentleman and not me.

Lembit Öpik: I am grateful for the Minister's aspiration to seek the truth, which I and all Opposition Members share. However, this is more than a matter of simply illustrating the points that were being discussed before. To suggest, for example, that a significant proportion of individuals may masquerade as childless French women in order to vote, or, more to the point, that any Opposition Member has even implied that one must have a national insurance number to vote is to miss the point. The phrase that most Opposition Members used was that it could provide a reasonable additional security in order to identify the veracity of an individual's claim to be the person they say they are, not that it was absolutely mandatory to have a national insurance number. I hope that the hon. Member for Belfast, East will share his views on that.

My second point is that to argue that there is a data access issue, which, on its own, would be sufficiently controlling to prevent us from using this additional security is to massively underestimate the wit of man. It would not be that difficult, if we thought that it was the right thing to do, for the Inland Revenue to provide security by having a separate register for those living in Northern Ireland, or something similar. Therefore, that is a tactical justification for opposing a strategic proposal.

Lastly, I respect the Minister for having investigated and provided these examples. I do not question his sincerely held concerns about them, but I simply have a different view. The subset of individuals who would be excluded from having a national insurance number is so small that there are ways to work around that. In addition, I sincerely believe that the Data Protection Act is not a sufficient justification to move away from a proposal that Opposition Members believe would massively tighten up the likelihood of avoiding electoral fraud.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): Obviously, I will deal with the Minister's late intervention in the debate, which seems to be an act of desperation. First, however, I want to deal with some of the other comments that have been made during the debate.

The hon. Member for South Down assisted us greatly by providing a context for our debate and painting some of the backcloth to what electoral fraud means in Northern Ireland—its impact in terms of electoral outcome, and the politics of that region of the United Kingdom as a result of electoral changes. Most of us can see that in at least three recent elections to this House, the result could have turned on a small number of votes that had been fraudulently cast. It is therefore important for us to recognise that at least one organisation has a military discipline and capacity to organise a level of electoral fraud that can make a difference to an election result.

The hon. Gentleman also properly pointed out—I noticed that the Minister made no effort to deal with the issue—cross-party, cross-community support for this measure, which, in other areas of their activity, the Government desperately seek. It seems strange that when they find such support, they turn their back on it, and decide that they know better, even though, in the past, they would have nodded in assent to the sentiments expressed by the amendment.

The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) has clarified my position in relation to the amendment. My name is appended to amendments Nos. 2 and 10—No. 10 is simply a consequential amendment. I have not added my name in support of the other amendments, but like the hon. Member for Reigate, I have left myself with an open mind and intend to listen to the arguments that are advanced. If, as stated by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), such a question can be posed at a polling station and it will not in itself deny someone a vote, I should be more likely to support the further amendment. I have taken a minimalist approach—I could even say ``moderate''—and have tabled an amendment that would deal with the matter by registration.

4.45 pm

The hon. Member for South Down made his most telling point during an intervention, which as you pointed out, Mr Hood, allowed him to go into detail. I wish that he had had more time to expand on it in his earlier speech. What he said about the national insurance number was right. It is the only verifiable, cross-checkable—if there is such a term—identifier. The Minister is all for what can be done within the realms of his timetable and, as yet, a cross check on a signature or date of birth cannot be made under the data bank. Such data is available for national insurance numbers, which is what makes them attractive.

The hon. Member for Reigate rightly identified Sinn Fein, in particular, when he referred to the electoral abuse that has taken place. It may be necessary for us to expect that if the Bill is enacted, with or without amendments, it will not have a massive impact on election results in Northern Ireland. Much of the damage has already been done. I refer to our present four-party system in Northern Ireland. The reality with sectarian elections is that in a race in Mid-Ulster, for example, where the Social Democratic Labour party and Sinn Fein are attempting to gather the nationalist vote on one side and the Democratic Unionist party and the Ulster Unionists are trying to gather the unionist vote on the other, whichever of the nationalist parties or the Unionist parties finds itself sufficiently ahead in such a hot-bed constituency is the party that the rest of the nationalist community is likely to plump for next time around. If, through electoral fraud, the Sinn Fein organisation had managed to get itself ahead of the SDLP, it would have gained the incumbency value that comes with that. I am not sure whether the abuse that is being sorted out now will have the effect that some of us would consider desirable.

The hon. Member for Reigate also raised the important issue of funding for the electoral office. Much of the Bill could be undone if the office does not have the necessary resources or staff. I am not assuming that the Minister will not arrange for the necessary funding, but it is essential that such funds are available. Much of what we are dealing with requires human checks to be made during the process. The electoral office has found it difficult to ensure that checks have been made. Indeed, reference has been made to that during today's debate. We must increase the amount of funding that is available to the electoral office.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire told us about finding himself on his friend's motor bike. We noted that it took him all of 15 minutes to convince the police officer that he was a law-abiding citizen. I do not know what arguments he advanced, but it seems a long time for a Liberal Democrat to take to convince the forces of law and order.

Lembit Öpik: I was not a member of the party at the time.

Mr. Robinson: Perhaps it would have made a difference and shaved a minute or two off the time.

The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the pattern of consistency and cohesion that previously existed between the work of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the Government, which he felt had been interrupted by the Government's approach to the amendment. However, it is not simply a matter of the Government's approach being inconsistent with that of the Select Committee. The Government's approach is inconsistent with the Minister's past approach and the approach of the hon. Members for North-East Derbyshire and for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), who enjoyed membership of the Select Committee and joined us in supporting the sort of issue with which the amendment deals. The Northern Ireland Office review of electoral fraud went further than I did, saying:

    ``These proposals would quite probably significantly reduce the amount of opportunist personation at polling places.''

It even supports the suggestion in the amendment that such a question should be asked at polling stations. Therefore, there has been a change of attitude.

The Minister said that the matter was one of balance. Holding ministerial office seems to have affected his equilibrium on the issue. I suspect that most of us would recognise that the issues have not changed since 1998, when the Select Committee considered the issue.

I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire say that he had been persuaded to change his mind because of the debate, because at that stage no one had spoken in support of the view that he now holds. When he further explained that some issues had arisen that had caused him to do so, he argued that he had just discovered that the national insurance number system ``was not perfect''. He could safely have assumed that in 1998 as much as today. None of the systems is perfect, but such information would be a great help as an identifier in registration.

The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire also had a stab at suggesting that some matters had caused him anxiety. Delay in registration was one factor on which he relied at one stage, hoping that his view of what canvassing meant would support that. It may be worth while my dealing with delay in registration. I do not believe that it could lead to the denial of anyone's right to exercise the franchise. The hon. Gentleman seems to assume that the system of checking is inefficient and ineffective and that the process does not and cannot work.

The canvassing system works as follows. During August, the electoral office delivers a form to the homes of residents in Northern Ireland. Its officials do not stand and fill it in but say that they will return in a matter of weeks to collect it and leave the form with the householder to fill in. There is therefore plenty of time for people to find out their national insurance number, if they have one, and fill in the form properly. When the form has been filled in and collected by the canvasser or returned by post by the householder, it is gathered by the chief electoral officer's staff, who go through the necessary processes. We should not forget that the electoral register is not published until February, so there are weeks and months during which this matter could be dealt with. Even if it were not dealt with, the reality is that there is rolling registration—I mention that quickly before the officials tie themselves in knots trying to answer my previous point. It clearly would not take too efficient a checking system to be able to work through the process in a matter of weeks.

Another important factor relates to what the Minister said about the mischief that the amendment intends to address. He was right in saying that each of us must decide when it is appropriate to draw the line. However, in attempting to do that, we must base our decision on the arguments that have been advanced and on the difficulties that may be met by those seeking to register if the question in the amendment were asked. The Minister seemed to be having some difficulty at that point, which was just before lunch. After saying that it was a matter of balance, he did not seem to have any further arguments to advance—I hope that he will forgive me for characterising his argument in such a way. During the lunch break, however, he recognised that some argument had to be advanced, marshalled his forces and gave us two arguments.

The Minister's first argument was based on the fact that some people do not have a national insurance number—a fact he seems to have only just discovered. However, there are other questions on the form sent out by the electoral office that it is not essential to answer. There would be no difficulty in putting on the form ``National insurance number, if applicable'' or ``if any''. People who have no national insurance number could leave a gap. The electoral office would then be able to check whether the gap was left because the person who filled in the form wanted to avoid providing damaging cross-checking information or because the person genuinely did not have a national insurance number.

The issue of data protection has been waved at us in the past; it did not cut much ice before and does not do so now. In this highly technical age, to find a program that could sift Northern Ireland national insurance numbers from the rest would hardly be at the cutting edge of information technology, and would fall well within the timetable that the Minister has set. I appreciate the correspondence that I have received from the Minister and the consultations that we have had. However, I do not believe that he has marshalled sufficient argument to suggest that the amendment would provide an obstacle that would in any way make it more difficult for people to register or—as might be argued on the other amendments—to vote. My view is still that the national insurance number is sufficiently accessible. It is not simply another identifier but it is probably the best available. Acceptance of the amendment would in no way damage the Bill and would tighten the safeguards that are available to us. I have heard no convincing reason not to press the amendment to a vote.

5 pm

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 9.

Division No. 2]

AYES
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Hayes, Mr. John
Hermon, Lady
McGrady, Mr Eddie
Öpik, Lembit
Robertson, Hugh
Robinson, Mr. Peter
Turner, Mr. Andrew

NOES
Barnes, Mr. Harry
Browne, Mr. Desmond
Farrelly, Paul
McIsaac, Shona
Merron, Gillian
Munn, Ms Meg
Purnell, James
Salter, Mr. Martin
Stringer, Mr. Graham

Question accordingly negatived.

 
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Prepared 16 October 2001