Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Browne: In that event, I shall not hold my breath for the thanks. I hope however that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North Down when I say that the new IT system to be rolled out by the electoral office next spring will allow the chief electoral officer electronically to store signatures as well as dates of birth of electors and those applying for registration. I assure those who fear that that information will be gleaned from the register and used for other purposes that, apart from the dates of birth of those who will become 18 in the coming year, the information will not appear on the electoral register. The information will be used in the electoral office and at the polling stations.

5.15 pm

It is the chief electoral officer's intention that such information should begin to be stored electronically as soon as it is available—from the autumn canvass 2002—provided that the Bill is acceptable to the House. It is unnecessary to write the requirement into the legislation. The Government provided a clear explanation in the White Paper. The point of collecting the signature and date of birth is that they can be stored electronically and used efficiently and effectively as additional identifiers to combat fraud. We are at one on the practical consequence, but it is unnecessary, as I explained, to amend the Bill to achieve that purpose. It was the point of the exercise all along the line. With those assurances, I hope that the hon. Member will withdraw the amendment.

Lembit Öpik: I thank the Minister for that clarification. The system that he outlines is sensible and his assurances satisfy us that the amendment is unnecessary. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Blunt: The Opposition and all parties represented in Committee want the Bill to make progress. It is a pity that the Government were unable to accept our earlier amendments on national insurance numbers. An opportunity has been missed, but it is not sufficient to induce the Opposition to vote against the clause. However the Bill ends up, following our deliberations, it will improve the position in Northern Ireland.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Dates of birth and ballot papers

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): I beg to move amendment No. 19, in page 3, line 1, at end insert—

    `(za) in paragraph (1A), after ``document'' there is inserted ``and supplied his signature''.'.

The Chairman: With this we may take new clause 5—Requirement for signature before issue of ballot paper—

    `(1) Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 (parliamentary election rules) is amended as follows.

    (2) After rule 35 there is inserted—

    ``35A.—(1) A person applying as an elector shall sign his name before he is issued with a ballot paper.

    (2) The presiding officer may dispense with the requirement in paragraph (1) above in relation to any applicant if he is satisfied that it is not reasonably practicable for that person to sign in a consistent and distinctive way because of any incapacity of his.''.'.

Mr. McGrady: Amendment No. 19 would require that when a would-be voter is proffered a ballot paper, in addition to producing the documents that provide the read-across under the Bill, the apparent age will be reflected against the register's age data. I put that badly and if I may I shall start again. The additional requirement in place of the two proposed in the Bill is important. The would-be voter has to produce a document and the apparent age of the voter is compared with the data supplied by the chief electoral officer. Correspondence is sought.

When amendments Nos. 29 and 30 were debated, the Minister said that he hoped that good progress would be made with digitisation and computerisation of signatures. Much was made in earlier debates about the fact that two additional pieces of information were required—the date of birth and the signature made in applying for a vote.

Under the amendments, the signature on the application form would have to coincide with that of the person asking for the vote at the polling station, who would sign for their vote. I am immediately conscious of the logistical problems that might arise if that process was not well managed—perhaps the bottleneck would grow even greater than it was at the last election—but with the right manpower and management, our objective could be achieved.

I should like to know if at any time it is intended that the signature on the application form to be registered as a voter will be stored electronically other than when a person applies for an absent vote, be it proxy or postal. With all the trouble that we are taking, quite correctly, to have signatures on applications for votes, to store them electronically and to have them available to the electoral officer, both centrally and presumably at polling stations, would it not be logical to ask someone to sign for their vote and immediately scan the signature for accuracy using the electronic database? With the Committee's permission, the Minister's reply will determine whether I press the amendment.

Mr. Blunt: I shall speak to new clause 5 and I am working on the assumption that it would have precisely the same effect as amendment No. 19. I hope that I have understood that amendment correctly and that it is not simply asking for an additional check to be available to the presiding officer at a polling station if there is doubt about whether the person presenting themselves is the person on the registration. I assume that the amendment would make it automatic for everyone to have to sign when they received the ballot paper, which is also the purpose of new clause 5. If the Committee were minded to accept the amendments, the most appropriate vehicle for placing the requirement in the legislation could be chosen.

The fact that the hon. Member for South Down and I have taken two different approaches to the same problem is another eloquent testimony to the need for a consolidation Bill. Trying to find one's way from one part of the legislation to another is immensely complicated. Four or five Acts are now involved, so a consolidation exercise is badly needed.

I shall now deal with the detail of the amendment, and this is a simple issue. If the Bill is passed, the signatures of everyone who applies to go on the register in Northern Ireland will be collected. As the Minister said, they will be recorded not only on the registration form but, in time, electronically. Currently, the only cross-check between signatures will be for people applying for absent votes. If we required people to sign for their ballot paper at polling stations, they would know that at some stage a check could be made. It would not necessarily be made there and then if they passed the other tests and had created a false identity sufficient to personate successfully in the polling station, but they would know that there could be a test of signature against signature at another stage. That would give the people hunting down electoral fraud a much greater ability to bring people to justice for defrauding the electoral system in that way.

Putting that provision on the statute book and making known the fact would be the biggest deterrent to personation in the polling station. We have debated medical cards, the ability of organisations to produce false ones and the use of photographic identity cards to combat that. To make people sign for the ballot paper would make it conclusive, closing off completely the potential for fraud when people go to cast their vote illegally for someone else.

I will be interested to hear the Minister's comments on the logistics and, as the hon. Member for South Down mentioned, to see what difficulties such a move would entail for polling stations. Logistical problems could be properly overcome and, if it is not too difficult an exercise to mount, the Committee should consider the amendment.

Mr. Peter Robinson: As I understood it, the distinction between amendment No. 19 and new clause 5 was that amendment No. 19 would require a signature only if it were requested by the presiding officer and some doubt was expressed about an individual's identity. I am not sure whether that is true. I have only one concern about the impact of requiring every elector to sign, which relates to difficulties in the polling station.

Most hon. Members found valuable the survey results that the Minister forwarded to provide us with some background information from the 7 June election. One noticeable factor was that there were some areas in Northern Ireland where, although people had presented themselves at polling stations before 10 o'clock at night, they were not able to vote. If the issue had been one of electoral fraud, I would have tabled an amendment to the effect that a person who presents themselves at a polling station before the close of poll should be allowed to vote, even if they were physically to vote after 10 o'clock. The inefficiency of the electoral office in providing the necessary number of booths or staff should not be a determining factor in whether one can exercise one's franchise.

It is also clear from the survey that the overwhelming majority of people who were questioned shared that view. In one area of Castlereagh, in Newtownbreda, which is a middle class area of Northern Ireland, we saw something approaching riots because people had to queue for hours during the day and many were unable to vote because the queues had not diminished by 10 o'clock. The amendment might cause a further delaying factor that could be a disincentive for people coming out or ensure that some people were not be able to vote. I recognise that not every election will be as awkward as that of 7 June, when we had a proportional representation local government election running parallel with a first-past-the-post Westminster election, but the factor causes concern. That would be diminished considerably if this were simply a question of the presiding officer asking for a signature when there is some doubt about the identity of the individual. A signature would be required significantly fewer times, and the measure would be not as problematical.

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