Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Lembit Öpik: I apologise for my brief absence, Mr. Amess. I was drawn away from the bosom of the Committee by pressing and unexpected matters.

The Minister began his comments on amendment No. 37 by saying that he would try to explain in the simplest possible way his reasons for objecting to it. He is too brainy for me, because it still was not simple enough. Why is the Minister unwilling to accept the necessity of having a backstop by which time the changes will have had to have been implemented? To his credit, he agrees that non-photographic forms of evidence are suspect and can be forged, the medical card being the most infamous. As such, we all agree in principle with the changes, but the Minister seems unable to accept that, until those changes have taken place, electoral fraud in Northern Ireland will be simpler than it will be when photographic identification has been introduced.

Mr. Browne: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could address the issue that I and the hon. Member for Belfast, East addressed at some length. If there is a strict timetable and the moves do not get the confidence of the vulnerable people whom we are all keen to ensure are not disfranchised, the amendment would disfranchise them. What does the hon. Gentleman suggest a Minister should do if 10 per cent. or 15 per cent. of the voting population are not to be allowed to vote?

Lembit Öpik: I was going to address that point later, but I shall do so immediately, and the Minister is free to intervene if he is not satisfied.

The backstop date is an insurance policy that guarantees that the change will be made. It converts the actions incumbent on the Minister and the Northern Ireland Office from passive to active. It will be their responsibility to fulfil the objectives of the Bill by a certain date, which makes all the difference in the world. The Minister is right to say that there will be resistance. The hon. Member for Reigate made the same point, but rightly went on to point out that any loophole, weakness or vulnerability in implementation will be seized on by those who wish to continue the process of electoral fraud. There could be coercion, pressure and a host of other justifications that cause individuals to resist change or organisations to feel that, by providing obstructions, the Government's commitment to the implementation date will be open ended.

Mr. Peter Robinson: If an organisation perceived an interest in intimidating or discouraging some supporters from providing themselves with the form of identification, but other sections of the community provided themselves with it, would it not be self-defeating? They would find that their voters were without identification while other voters had the card.

Lembit Öpik: That is an incisive point. As he has highlighted, even without a deadline, law-abiding citizens are likely to comply. However, if there is not a legal deadline, those organisations that are intent on pursuing electoral fraud will have the power to prevent the changes.

Mr. Peter Robinson: The reality is that the Minister is still capable of proceeding to the disadvantage of any organisation that held its supporters back from providing themselves with the necessary identification.

Lembit Öpik: I understand the hon. Gentleman's comment. If one makes the deadline compulsory, thereafter the voters of those organisations that have deliberately resisted the implementation of the change will be disfranchised. I believe that that was the point that the hon. Member for North Down was making, and it is exactly the point that I and the hon. Members for Belfast, East and for Reigate made.

11.15 am

Mr. Andrew Turner: I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I say that I am becoming increasingly confused by the stand that the Minister is taking, as represented by his last intervention on the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. The Minister asked the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire what he is supposed to do if X per cent. of people are prevented from voting.

Mr. Browne: I asked what he would do.

The Chairman: Order.

Mr. Andrew Turner: If I can ask my question, perhaps the Minister can then ask his.

The Minister asked the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire what he expected him to do, other than delay the deadline, if X per cent. of people in Northern Ireland were prevented from voting because of a failure to take up the card. That is a contrary position from the one that he took in answer to one of my earlier interventions, when he stated that intimidation will not be seen as a good reason for delaying the removal of the non-photographic means of identity.

Lembit Öpik: I believe that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight has saved me from my own slight mist of confusion with regard to the comments of the hon. Member for Belfast, East, by introducing a fog of confusion of his own. I understand the point that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight is making, but I wish to give way to the Minister to clarify it.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me the opportunity to speak for myself instead of being misquoted.

May I put this another way for the hon. Gentleman? With the exception of the support that the hon. Member for North Down gives to the amendment, which ties me to a specific timetable, in all my conversations with Northern Ireland politicians, I have been urged to maintain a balance between the need to tackle fraud and the need not to disfranchise voters. I keep that to the forefront of my mind. Until today, those politicians have consistently agreed with me that I must retain flexibility for the very reason that I and the hon. Member for Belfast, East have articulated.

Perhaps I could ask a question of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and, through him, the hon. Member for Reigate: would he be happy to apply such a level of inflexibility to a monumental change for the voters of Montgomeryshire? I suspect not.

Lembit Öpik: I doubt whether it would make much difference to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight if such a change were to be introduced for Montgomeryshire. To answer the Minister's question, which he directed to me, I remind him once again that we are talking about this in relation to Northern Ireland because there is a specific and particular problem there. I think that all members of the Committee would agree that it is tangibly more serious and extreme than the problem elsewhere.

If it turned out that there were comparable levels of electoral fraud in Montgomeryshire, of course, I would be extremely sympathetic to introducing appropriate legislation to overcome the problem. If that required us to set a timetable for introducing key elements of the legislation, so be it.

Mr. Barnes: The point about intimidation was answered by the hon. Member for Belfast, East when he said that it would be counterproductive for organisations to be involved in intimidation. That does not mean that the problem goes away because there is also the problem of electorate apathy when it comes to taking up their rights and getting hold of a card. There may be some who eventually turn up and vote because they have other ways of doing it. Flexibility must be allowed for a reason other than that of intimidation.

Lembit Öpik: I have answered the Minister's question about Montgomeryshire. Where the problem exists, one must create an appropriate response. That is why the intervention of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire was important. What is an appropriate response? That is at the core of the question whether there are deadlines. While new clause 6 proposed by the hon. Member for Reigate and the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North Down and myself approach deadlines in different ways, they both seek to establish the principle of a deadline by which time the change should be introduced.

The Minister said that when the Government are satisfied that everyone has obtained, or had reasonable opportunity to obtain, a voluntary identity card it will no longer be acceptable to use non-photographic identity cards. Even the Minister agrees that there comes a point when one does that. We are not tied to 18 months although I think that that would be a reasonable period. The hon. Member for Reigate can say whether he is tied to 1 April. However, I am keen on the idea of setting a deadline by which point we will know that this crucial change in the legislation has to have been implemented.

Mr. Blunt: Has the hon. Gentleman read the evidence that Sinn Fein submitted to the Select Committee when it investigated this? It said:

    ``We would therefore argue for an end to the current identification regulations because we believe they restrict the electorate's freedom and impose an unnecessary burden on them.''

Every party represented in this Committee is in favour of these identification regulations and toughening them to prevent malpractice. Surely any ability for one party to argue that all its people are disfranchised and that it cannot go ahead because it has not signed up for it should be avoided. One way out would be if the Minister took it on and said that he did not care and that the regulations were coming in. The other way would be to say that he quite understood and that the implementation of the regulations would be delayed. Given the Government's record, I can guess which he would choose.

Lembit Öpik: That helps me to correct my misunderstanding of what the hon. Member for Belfast, East said earlier. If there is a deadline by which time one must have some form of photographic identification or be disfranchised, I am sure that organisations that have sought to abuse the system would themselves become proactive in ensuring that all their voters had photographic identification. I hope that I have correctly grasped the important point that the hon. Member for Belfast, East made earlier.

It is quite clear to us all that the question of photographic identification is at the heart of the Bill. If the Minister is not willing to accept the deadlines that we have proposed, I implore him at least to give us an assurance before we conclude this debate that he will consider coming back with a backstop deadline. If it is two, four or eight years we would know that there was an point by which the Government would be obliged to make the change. That is how any business works. Businesses do not ask their managers to fix things some time: they ask for a completion date for a project and it is then incumbent on the manager or project team to achieve that. I am not sure why the Minister feels that this unquestionably challenging but manageable project should not be subject to the same kind of focus that will achieve the result.

Mr. Barnes: What if there has been no intimidation, apart from the intimidation of political parties to get their own members to register and yet still after the most extensive effort by the Northern Ireland Office there is a shortfall merely because people have not come forward in sufficient numbers when they have been given the opportunity? They will then be disfranchised.

Lembit Öpik rose—

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

        Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Amess, Mr. David (Chairman)
Barnes, Mr.
Blunt, Mr.
Browne, Mr.
Farrelly, Paul
Hayes, Mr.
Hermon, Lady
McGrady, Mr.
McIsaac, Shona
Merron, Gillian
Munn, Ms
Öpik, Lembit
Purnell, James
Robertson, Hugh
Robinson, Mr. Peter
Salter, Mr.
Stringer, Mr.
Turner, Mr. Andrew

 
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