Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Browne: And so they should.

Mr. Robinson: That depends on one's view of the issue.

I wish that the Minister had been around in those hot and heady days of the early 1960s when the principle of one man, one vote was being enunciated by all. Unionists were being beaten around the head because they were on the wrong side of the issue when the Conservative and Labour parties were both supporting the principle of one man, one vote and changes were taking place to deny those who could vote more than once because of the principle of no taxation without representation. I wish the Minister had been there to take our cause on board.

In the present circumstances, the Minister must recognise that that area will be exploited. In his communication of 12 July, which was sent to several hon. Members, he said that

    ``Even if a postal vote is not used, there is clearly an advantage in being able to track and monitor those who register more than once, not least to act as a deterrent against wrongdoing.''

The measure proposed by the hon. Member for Reigate should be attractive to the Minister. I believe that I am interpreting its intention correctly when I say that all that is being sought is a requirement that, when filling out a registration form, the householder indicates whether he or any member of the household for which he is registering has registered at another address. That would provide the chief electoral officer and his staff with information that can be cross checked during any review of the election and clearly show whether someone has voted on more than one occasion.

I noted also that the White Paper ``Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland (CM 5080)'' recommended, in paragraphs 17 to 19, that there should be monitoring of multiple registration. If the need to monitor has been recognised in both the Minister's correspondence and the White Paper, I am sure that the Minister will not want to resist new clause 8. While some of the other amendments in my name are consequential, the two on multiple registration and voting will at least allow the Committee an opportunity that was denied to others in the past of considering this matter and taking a decision on the issue, having considered the merits of the case.

5 pm

Mr. Blunt: The Committee should first register its thanks to the hon. Member for Belfast, East for bringing clarity to this area. Ominously, I see the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) shaking his head. Perhaps it is not as clear as it now appears to me having had the benefit of the exposition from the hon. Member for Belfast, East. It is clarity that the Government must bring to this issue in Northern Ireland. It is right to accept that, following all the controversy in the 1960s about people being able to vote more than once—a controversy that was central to the civil rights movement and one of the issues that had to be rectified—people in Northern Ireland have been under the impression for the last 30 years, correctly for about 17 years of that period, that they were entitled to vote only once in an election.

Now we have discovered, unless the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire corrects us again, that the position in 1987 was changed apparently by accident in this place—[Interruption.] Certainly if it was not changed by accident, it was changed with the electorate in Northern Ireland being wholly unaware of the consequences of the decision here. We are no doubt now going to learn that the hon. Gentleman was on that Committee that considered it.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): The person who was not confused about the situation was the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland, Mr. Bradley. He gave the information to the Select Committee on which the hon. Member for Belfast, East served. The position should be generally known, at least to some hon. Members.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing that out and for drawing attention to the evidence of Mr. Pat Bradley to the Select Committee, and the Select Committee report itself. There is a case for what the hon. Member for Belfast, East wants to do to bring clarity, which is to outlaw multiple registration, and/or to outlaw multiple voting. That would make it perfectly clear that one could register only once and therefore vote only once or at least vote only once even if one were multiply registered.

Mr. Browne: There is, of course, another way to bring clarity to this and that is to tell the people of Northern Ireland that they have exactly the same rights as all other citizens of the United Kingdom who are of the age to vote.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention. That is an option. We could leave electoral law in precisely the same condition, or we could choose to make electoral law precisely the same in Northern Ireland as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. The trouble is that we are considering the Bill in the first place because of the exceptional circumstances under which politics and democracy must be operated in Northern Ireland. We could choose to make the position precisely analogous to that in Great Britain, but what is absent in Great Britain is a political movement that is determined to exploit every potential loophole in the law. On that basis—the reason why we are considering different legislation—the Minister's suggestion should be resisted, as was his conclusion in 1998.

Mr. Browne: There is a distinction between putting in checks and measures in relation to the exercise of the franchise—which are necessary in Northern Ireland given its particular circumstances—and denying people the right to vote that other people in the United Kingdom have. Albeit reluctantly, we are checking the identity of the voters, but no one has any less right to vote in Northern Ireland than he or she has in the rest of the United Kingdom. That they had in the past is no argument for such a position to be restored.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to the Minister because that is why I tabled new clause 8 and did not add my name to the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. A perfectly good case can be made to allow the principle of where one can register to be the same in Northern Ireland as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Minister has advanced a good argument against following the route of the hon. Member for Belfast, East and outlawing such action, but we cannot then do nothing.

The Minister will be only too well aware of the conclusion that he reached with other members of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs in 1998. At paragraph 24 on page xi of the Committee's conclusions, the hon. Gentleman stated:

    ``We acknowledge that registration in more than one place is a useful right for students and others. Those who have a legitimate reason to register in two or more places should be allowed to do so, but should be under a duty to indicate that they are doing so and where the other registered addresses are.''

I could not agree more. New clause 8 is designed to achieve such an outcome. I look forward to the Minister's explanation as to why new clause 8 should be resisted, as I do to his explanation as to why, now that he is imprisoned within the Executive, his view has changed from what it was when he was a member of the Select Committee after he had given such detailed consideration to such matters.

Mr. Barnes: Will the hon. Gentleman explain how new clause 8 would provide the outcome referred to in the Select Committee's report? That would allow multiple registration, but there would be a duty on people to say where the multiple registration took place. My understanding of new clause 8 is that it would disallow multiple registration all together.

Mr. Blunt: That is not the intention behind new clause 8. It states under subsection (2):

    ``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.''

If a person is already registered at one address and then decides to register at a second address, he must notify on the registration form that he is already registered elsewhere and where that is. If they did not, they would be guilty of an offence. I hope that that is clear. The provision would not make multiple registration an offence; it would make the second, third and fourth registrations an offence if someone failed to identify the addresses at which they had previously been registered.

That is how I understand the effect of new clause 8. I am grateful to see the Minister nodding, which means that, like the hon. Member for Belfast, East, I was right to rely on the expert advice of the Public Bill Office in putting my political intentions into legal language. I register my gratitude to the Clerk.

The Select Committee report made the case eloquently, and new clause 8 would give effect to its recommendation. I hope that the Government will not resist the new clause, because it constitutes an important way of identifying loopholes in the new system, as the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Barnes: I apologise for becoming confused between new clause 8 and amendment No. 8.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East has explained his confusion as to how the matter arose in a statutory instruments Committee and was not then known in Northern Ireland. However, the situation should be known to several people in the Room, because the chief electoral officer, Mr. Bradley, submitted evidence to the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs for its report on electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland.

The minutes give the membership of the Committee, which included my hon. Friends the Minister and the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), the hon. Members for South Down and for Belfast, East, and me. Paragraph 2.2, entitled ``Multiple voting'', states:

    ``A person may have more than one residence and thus may be registered at more than one address. Even so it is an offence (Section 61, the 1983 Act) to vote more than once in the same constituency, in more than one constituency at a general election or more than once in the same electoral area at a local government election or in more than one electoral area at such a local election.''

The Minister propounded that position on Second Reading. It was known by the hon. Member for Belfast, East, who is an assiduous attender at Select Committee meetings and examines the matters contained in the evidence.

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