Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Desmond Browne: I beg to move Government amendment No. 49, in page 5, line 25, after 'made', insert 'to him'.

My contribution on the amendment will be short. The amendment is not essential, but is desirable. It is a tidying-up amendment that makes proposed new subsection (2) of proposed new section 13D of the Representation of the People Act 1983 as inserted by the clause consistent with proposed new subsection (1).

Mr. Blunt: The Minister says that the amendment is not essential but is desirable. I tried to follow him. My notes say, ``What is the effect of this?''. I am still none the wiser. That may be my fault, but I should be grateful if the Minister would explain the consequences of adding ``to him''.

Mr. Browne: The consequence of adding ``to him'' is that instead of the phrase ``application made'', we have the phrase ``application made to him''. I hope that that is clear enough.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 5, line 32, at end add—

    `13 Multiple registration`(1)

    Any person who—

    (a) registers as an elector in more than one parliamentary constituency; or

    (b) registers as an elector in more than one local government area,

    is guilty of an offence.

    (2) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to—

    (a) imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months; or

    (b) a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale,

    or to both.'.

The Chairman: With this we may take the following amendments:

No. 9, in page 5, line 32, at end add—

    `13 Multiple registration`(1)

    Any person who—

    (a) registers as an elector in more than one parliamentary constituency; or

    (b) registers as an elector in more than one local government area,

    is guilty of an offence.

No. 11, in title, line 9, leave out

    `in relation to voters with disabilities'.

New clause 4—Multiple voting at local government elections—

    (2) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to—

    (a) imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months; or

    (b) a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale,

    or to both

New clause 8—Registration: notification of multiple voting—

    `(1) In section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (maintenance of registers: annual canvass) there is inserted—

    ``(5A). The information to be obtained by the use of such a form for the purposes of a canvass in Northern Ireland shall include an indication of any other address at which the person is registered.''

    (2) In section 10A (maintenance of the registers: registration of electors) and in section 13A (alteration of registers) of the 1983 Act there is inserted—

    ``( ). An application for registration in respect of an address in Northern Ireland shall include an indication of any other address at which the person is registered.''

    (3) Any person knowlingly giving false information in response to any requirement of this section is guilty of an offence with liability on summary conviction to—

    (a) imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months; or

    (b) a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale,

    or to both.'.

Mr. Robinson: I shall speak to all the amendments and new clauses standing in my name.

We are dealing with two issues—multiple registration and multiple voting. There was both discussion and confusion about them on Second Reading. I was among the confused, but I deserve no punishment as it will soon be understood how such confusion arose. From correspondence and discussions with the Minister and his officials I have learnt that as a result of paragraph (9D) of schedule 9 of the Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Act 1962—Stormont legislation—Northern Irish electors were denied a vote in more than one electoral area in any local government election. People in the United Kingdom who lived in more than one residence in different district council areas could enjoy more than one vote. ``One man, one vote'' and other civil rights issues led to changes in Northern Ireland legislation. It was understood by the general public in Northern Ireland that—whether for parliamentary, European or council elections—they had only one vote. Those who wanted to happily went to the polls in every subsequent election and exercised their franchise on that basis.

That applied until the Minister got to his feet on Second Reading and we discovered that something different had happened. Although no one was aware of it at the time, it happened in 1987 when, in the Corridors of this House, in a statutory instruments Committee, the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 was passed. The fact that the franchise was being changed was not clearly stated on the legislation or in the explanatory notes.

If one researched further and examined the First Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, one would find that the matter was of such deep interest to the Committee that the Minister managed to sum it up in 24 sentences—about four minutes—and no sentences made any reference to the change in the franchise. The change clearly took place by inadvertence. If it had been done deliberately, more use of the sleight of hand would be expected.

When the issue arose on Second Reading, every Northern Ireland politician present—together with Members who do not represent a Northern Irish constituency but are interested in Northern Ireland matters—assumed that there was no multiple voting in Northern Ireland. Not only did the politicians think that, but when I canvassed opinion among the press corps, an erudite body of people, it was not aware of the change either. I have not consulted all the public, but the many that I have—who would have been happy to exercise a second vote had the opportunity been legally available—were unaware as well. When I spoke to the chief electoral officer and senior members of his staff, I found that the electoral office was also unaware. All its publicity and documentation from past elections made the same assumption—that one is entitled to vote only once in a local government election, however many residences one has. The backcloth against which this debate takes place has been painted.

This will be the first occasion on which the House has taken a decision on the issue based on consideration rather than inadvertence. I was told by the Minister's officials that, although it was considered by a statutory instruments Committee in 1987, there was a fuller debate in 1989 when it was subsumed into more substantial legislation. My research shows that there is no reference to the issue being dealt with anywhere in the Bill, the explanatory notes or, to the best of my knowledge—although I only managed to labour through the Second Reading and Committee stages—the 1989 proceedings. I hope that the Minister will accept that the change appeared without the Northern Ireland political or public strata being aware of it.

We should consider whether it is appropriate, in the circumstances not of 1987 or 1989 but of today or tomorrow, that a right exercised elsewhere in the United Kingdom should be exercised in Northern Ireland. In his correspondence to me, the Minister said that he did not see any reason for departing from the general principle that there should be no taxation without representation, and on that basis, I would be happy to stop taxation in Northern Ireland. However, on the assumption that the Minister believes that the argument is relevant, I will deal with it. The breach has already occurred between taxation and representation, and I will take my circumstances as an example.

I spend thousands of pounds every year paying rates to Belfast city council—I am sure that it uses them wisely—but I do not get a vote. If I had known what the Minister has taught us over the past few weeks, I would still not have a vote because, although I pay tax, it is on business premises. What is the distinction between my spending £3,000 a year on taxation and not getting a vote, and someone spending a couple of hundred pounds on taxation and then getting a vote? Equally, many thousands of people have the right to vote without contributing any taxation. There is no direct correlation between taxation and representation and if that is the best argument that the Minister can produce, he will not be able to convince me on the issue.

The Bill aims to deal with fraud, so I come back to a principle that I touched on earlier. The Minister has strengthened many of the weaknesses in the legislation dealing with electoral law. However, I have no doubt that those who are intent on defrauding the system will look for weaknesses in the new system. Certainly, if I were so disposed to equip my party or myself with fraudulent votes, that is the area that I would look at, as a result of the changes that will take place.

It will be significantly more difficult for people to vote as a result of personating others. I hope that the postal vote system will be tightened up considerably by the measure. However, some people will now be allowed to vote legally in more than one place, and there will be moves to put people on the election register in many different constituencies in Northern Ireland. That will affect district councils more than it will affect anything else, but multiple registration will occur and result in multiple voting, even in parliamentary elections, although not legally.

On that basis, many seats in Northern Ireland will change legitimately. Let us at least recognise that. They will change because, under our proportional representation system, one or two votes—even a fraction of a vote, at a later stage of a count—can determine which of two candidates will be successful. The fact is that students in Belfast who live in Fermanagh, Mid Ulster or Londonderry can now vote in city council elections because they have student quarters in the south Belfast area. They will have an impact on elections in that constituency.

 
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