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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

Standing Committee D

Thursday 18 October 2001

(Afternoon)

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

Clause 4

Electoral identity card

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 37, in page 4, line 38, at end insert—

    `(4) In Schedule 1 (parliamentary election rules), in rule 37(1E) (specified documents), leave out sub-paragraphs (c) to (g).

    (5) Subsection 4 shall come into force 18 months after the coming into force of the rest of this section.'.—[Mr. Öpik.]

4.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following: New clause 1—Voters to produce specified documents—

    `(1) The Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985 (c. 2) is amended as follows.

    (2) In section 1 (voters to produce specified documents) subsection (2), at the end of inserted sub-paragraph (1E)(a), there is inserted ``and the requirement under this rule shall be satisfied by the production of the plastic photographic card which either is, or forms the counterpart of, a licence to drive a motor vehicle.''

    (3) In section 1 (voters to produce specified documents) subsection (2), at the end of inserted sub-paragrpah (1E)(d), there is inserted—

    ``(da) a senior citizen's concessionary fare pass issued by the Northern Ireland Department for Regional Development.''.'.

New clause 6—Voters: specified documents—

    `(1) From 1st April 2003, paragraph (1E) of rule 37 of the parliamentary election rules applicable to elections in Northern Ireland, imported into schedule 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 by section 1(2) of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985 (c.2), is amended in accordance with sub-section (2).

    (2) Sub-paragraphs (a) to (g) are omitted and the following are inserted:

    ``(a) the plastic photographic card which is, or forms the counterpart of, a current licence to drive a motor vehicle;

    (b) a current passport issued by the Government of the United Kingdom or by the Government of the Republic of Ireland;

    (c) a senior citizen's concessionary fare pass isued by the Northern Ireland Department for Regional Development;

    (d) a current electoral identity card issued under section 13C of this Act.''.'.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): You will understand, Mr. Amess, if my speech this morning and my speech now seem rather disjointed, but there have been several hours in between.

I have only one point. For the reasons that we discussed earlier, a timetable is a form of insurance policy. Will the Minister accept in principle that the Government should revisit the issue? Even if they do not accept the timetable that I and the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) proposed, something specific, a backstop, should assure us that there will come a point, defined in legislation, after which it will not be acceptable to vote without photographic identification. Without that, the Minister risks undermining the effectiveness of the entire Bill.

The Minister may not have grasped that we are trying to help him. As things stand, there is no clear deadline, and he risks marching naked into the conference chamber with people who will do everything they can to prevent the measure from going through. I hope that the Minister will at least consider introducing a backstop. If not, we shall have to vote on it.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 10.

Division No. 4]

AYES
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Öpik, Lembit
Robertson, Hugh
Turner, Mr. Andrew

NOES
Barnes, Mr. Harry
Browne, Mr. Desmond
Farrelly, Paul
McGrady, Mr. Eddie
McIsaac, Shona
Merron, Gillian
Munn, Ms Meg
Purnell, James
Robinson, Mr. Peter
Stringer, Mr. Graham

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Disabled voters

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): Amendment No. 25 is in my name, but with your permission, Mr. Amess, and that of the Committee, I shall not move it, for the reasons that I gave when we discussed amendment No. 18.

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

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I want to make the case for consolidation of the legislation. I am extremely grateful that the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) did not move his amendment, because I did not understand its effect. Having struggled through the amendment and the legislation, I found it simply impossible as a lay reader to work it out. I now have considerable sympathy with the officials of the Northern Ireland Office. I now have considerable sympathy with the officials of the Northern Ireland Office, who have to make their way through the legislation, drawing on many different sources on electoral law in Northern Ireland. It is impossible to understand for whom subsection (3) is meant and to what it applies; the amendments make it even more delphic. I ask the Minister a simple question on consolidation. When can we expect the Government to produce a consolidated Bill that will make the life of the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland and all the officials that work with him, and indeed his own officials, that much simpler?

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): I support the hon. Member for Reigate on the issue of consolidation. I referred to it earlier in the debate but the hon. Gentleman's point underlines it once more for the Minister. I am sure that members of the Committee sought to provide themselves with all the legislation relating to the amendments and to the subject generally. If they were successful in doing so, they will have piles beside them of the same depth as I do beside me.

The amount of legislation relating to the subject was brought home to me most tellingly when I went to the Public Bill Office, which provides hon. Members with a great service by putting our political thoughts into legal words. When I met the Minister, during the consultation period on the Bill, he told me that one of my first amendments, which had been tabled with the assistance of the legal experts in the Public Bill Office, sought to amend a clause that had been repealed. That indicates the murky depths of the many different pieces of legislation related to the issue—some went through statutory instrument Committees, some went through by Order in Council, some by primary legislation in the House and others by primary legislation in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It was said earlier that the chief electoral officer would find it helpful if there could be some consolidation. I strongly support the view expressed by the hon. Member for Reigate. Although the Minister cannot give us the precise date, I hope that he will give us an indication of the time span he has in mind for providing some consolidation, though I suspect that it will be at United Kingdom level rather than Northern Ireland level.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): For completeness, I should point out that the proposed amendment that the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and I discussed at our meeting amended a piece of legislation that had not only been repealed but which never applied to Northern Ireland in the first place.

I am sure that members of the Committee will understand that I have sympathy for the concerns expressed by the hon. Members for Reigate and for Belfast, East and others. I have endeavoured, with the assistance of my officials—to whom I cannot pay high enough tribute; their expertise and help have made my life considerably easier—to assist members of the Committee. With their help, I have been able to help members of the Committee who asked for help in understanding the Bill, but even then it is a difficult and complex task.

I know from my professional days as an advocate in Scotland that election law throughout the United Kingdom is difficult and complex. On one occasion I was instructed by a London solicitor about an election petition in Scotland. He was the only person I had ever met who had a dog-eared version of the best textbook on the subject. Among the officials who instruct me there may be another person who has a dog-eared version of that textbook, but it is a fairly specialised subject.

I am sorry that I cannot tell the Committee today when I shall be able to turn my mind to the matter. As I am sure hon. Members will understand, in the approximately four months that I have been a Minister with responsibility for electoral law in Northern Ireland I have concentrated on tackling fraud, and we have made significant progress. I cannot say when electoral law will be consolidated, but hon. Members can be assured that I am aware of the issue. That is the best assurance that I can give at this stage.

Mr. Blunt: I fear that ultimately we shall have to rely on the Minister's good intentions. We should have hope, because it is three and a half years since the Select Committee on which he sat presented its recommendations on the subject, and a mere four months into his tenure as a Minister in the Department he has introduced the Bill. We should expect by the end of the parliamentary year to be considering—

Mr. Browne: I am reminded that it was three weeks before the Bill was introduced, but I cannot take credit for that entirely. My predecessor put considerable effort into the Bill, and we should pay tribute to the work that he did in driving the issue forward.

Mr. Blunt: The Minister is characteristically generous. I realise that the matter was referred to on Second Reading, but on behalf of the Opposition I acknowledge in Committee the enormous contribution of the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), which enabled the new Minister to introduce the Bill in the blisteringly quick time of three weeks. The matter is important, and the fact has been recorded in Committee. The chief electoral officer made a formal request to the Minister. If the Minister can introduce Bills in three weeks, with a bit of luck the consolidation should be out of the way by Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Offences

 
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