Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Lady Hermon (North Down): I beg to move amendment No. 38, in page 1, line 16, after `satisfied', insert `by evidence'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 26, in page 1, line 18, at end insert—

    `(4C) The Chief Electoral Officer shall as a priority develop a scheme to ensure that, as far as reasonably practicable, those unable to comply with the requirement mentioned in subsection (4A)(a) above shall be issued with an electoral identity card.'.

No. 39, in page 2, line 12, after `satisfied', insert `by evidence'.

No. 27, in page 2, line 15, at end insert—

    `(1C) The Chief Electoral Officer shall as a priority develop a scheme to ensure that, as far as reasonably practicable, those unable to comply with the requirement mentioned in subsection (1A)(a) above shall be issued with an electoral identity card.'.

No. 40, in page 2, line 35, after `satisfied', insert `by evidence'.

No. 28, in page 2, line 37, at end insert—

    `(2C) The Chief Electoral Officer shall as a priority develop a scheme to ensure that, as far as reasonably practicable, those unable to comply with the requirement mentioned in subsection (2A)(a) above shall be issued with an electoral identity card.'.

Lady Hermon: The amendments, which stand in my name and that of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, can usefully be divided into two groups. The first comprises amendments Nos. 38 to 40 and relates to the provision in clause 1 for the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland to be able to dispense with the requirement for a signature in the event of a voter's incapacity or inability to read.

The second set comprises, youthfully, amendments Nos. 26 to 28, which would require the chief electoral officer to give priority—it would not be an obligation or duty—to those who are genuinely incapacitated or illiterate in the issue of electoral identity cards.

Reading clause 1, I was struck by the breadth of the discretion given to the chief electoral officer, although I in no way question his integrity. It states that the chief electoral officer may dispense with the requirement for a signature ``if he is satisfied''. The clause does not say how he will be satisfied or refer to any evidence. The amendments would insert the words ``by evidence''. We have not been prescriptive about the type of evidence, but the amendments would shift the test of satisfaction from being subjective to one that can be objectively measured.

Background literature, including even the White Paper, refer to not only the electoral office but political parties checking through the registration. It is difficult for political parties to challenge the exercise of the electoral officer's discretion if he is not required to provide evidential support for its exercise. The amendment would shift the burden from being subjective to objective—a simple and logical move.

Amendments Nos. 26 to 28 relate to the insertion of the words:

    ``The Chief Electoral Officer shall as a priority develop a scheme to ensure that . . . those unable to comply with the requirement . . . shall be issued with an electoral identity card''.

It applies to those unable to sign because they are incapacitated or illiterate.

Under the Bill, the new electoral identity cards do not require a signature, but they will bear photographs and contain full names and dates of birth. For those genuinely incapacitated and unable to sign, the electoral identity cards seem ideally suited. We have no wish to place obstacles in the way of voters who genuinely want to cast their vote, but if new electoral identity cards are being introduced under the Bill, priority should be given to those who are at present unable to register on the canvass. At a polling station, that could eradicate the embarrassment caused to people whose names are not on the register because they have been unable through genuine incapacity or illiteracy to sign it or give their date of birth. Priority should be given to such individuals.

Mr. Blunt: I shall not detain the Committee. The amendments proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire seem unobjectionable. Who could object to placing a duty on the chief electoral officer to be satisfied by evidence? The lesson of electoral practices in Northern Ireland is that it is better to close down a potential loophole if one can see it coming. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for North Down predicted an increase in the recorded illiteracy rate in Northern Ireland as people try to take advantage of the clause. It is right and sensible to place a duty on the chief electoral officer to attempt as a priority to help people who might or might not be illiterate and to reduce the scope for abuse by the use of electoral identity cards. The Opposition support the amendments.

Mr. Browne: I shall deal with amendments in the order in which they were debated rather than the order in which they are presented on the amendment paper.

I say at the outset that I appreciate the intention, explained by the hon. Member for North Down, to ensure that people intent on committing electoral fraud do not escape detection by claiming to be incapacitated or unable to read when that is not the case. However, the Bill permits the chief electoral officer to dispense with the requirement for signatures only if he is satisfied that it is not reasonably practical for that person to sign in a consistent and distinctive way.

In deciding whether he is satisfied, the chief electoral officer must look at the evidence. Amendments Nos. 38 to 40 are therefore unnecessary because in making a decision about whether he is satisfied, the chief electoral officer will by definition review all the information available to him. The words in the amendments are already implied and do not need to be added to the legislation. He cannot be satisfied in any way other than by the evidence, so they are not necessary.

I understand that amendments Nos. 26 to 28 are intended to prevent people from claiming to be unable to provide a signature in order to commit fraud. Although the amendments require the chief electoral officer to develop a scheme for the issue of photo identity cards as a priority, they would make it mandatory for him to issue a photo identity card to people who qualify for that priority process. While I support the objective, these amendments are not necessary either.

The Bill provides for the issue of an electoral identity card by the chief electoral officer and by 2003 it is my intention, as I said on Second Reading, that the new cards will be issued to those who do not have a passport or a driving licence. That will enable us in the same time scale to remove all the non-photographic forms of identification so that everyone, whether or not they can provide a signature, will have to have photographic identification in order to cast their vote at the polling station. It does not seem to me to be necessary to specify that, for a priority group, that identification must be the electoral ID card rather than a passport or driving licence. Such a requirement would place an additional burden on the electoral office when it will be busy doing many other things. It would have to cross check those who had not provided a signature with those who had already applied for an electoral ID card and would have to ensure that cards were provided for all in the first group.

There would be a burden on the voter, as those who already had a driving licence or a passport would still have to obtain a card. That may not have been the intention of the amendment but that would be its effect. There is a potential for confusion there. Most importantly, as I have outlined, there would be no real benefit, as everyone will have to have a form of prescribed photographic identification to vote at the polling station. The new requirement, combined with the universal requirement to provide a date of birth, seems to provide the necessary safeguards. I hope that, with those assurances, the hon. Member will withdraw the amendments.

Lady Hermon: I thank the Minister. I found that clarification helpful. I am sorry that amendments Nos. 26, 27 and 28 give the impression that there would be a requirement. That was not our intention. I am happy with the Minister's clarification and his assurances. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lembit Öpik: I beg to move amendment No. 29, page 1, line 18, at end insert—

    `(4C) The Chief Electoral Officer shall electronically scan and electronically store copies of signatures obtained in the annual canvass under (4A)(a) above for the purpose of his register.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 30, in page 2, line 15, at end insert—

    `(1C) The Chief Electoral Officer shall electronically scan and electronically store copies of signatures obtained in an application under (1A)(a) for the purpose of his register.'.

Lembit Öpik: The two amendments stipulate the way in which signatures are to be stored once they have been collected on the forms for the annual canvass, electoral register and applications for postal and proxy voting. The report of the elections review lays out the advantages and disadvantages of several methods of collection, storage and verification. On balance it seems that the most voter friendly method of collecting signatures is in a paper format. Those forms could be converted to computer records by being electronically scanned and then transferred to a computer database. The advantage is that validation could still be carried out by visual comparison. The computerised record system would be much quicker, more efficient and certainly a more secure method of verification than the storage and retrieval of paper files. As ever, we aim to be as helpful to the Minister as possible. No thanks are required on the assumption that he accepts our amendment.

 
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