Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Lembit Öpik: I apologise to the Committee, but I have to leave to do something else, so I shall not be here for any vote. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we are discussing matters of significant principle, as the Minister effectively pointed out? Can he explain why he judges the extent of the punishment proposed in new clause 8 to be proportionate to the offence?

Mr. Andrew Turner: I was not proposing to discuss that aspect of new clause 8, but it is an offence against electoral law, and such an offence has the potential to disturb the legitimate result of an election. In that regard, the punishment is proportionate.

I fail to understand why the Minister resists new clause 8 so strongly.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman does not know whether the Minister is resisting or not. The Minister will make his own speech.

5.30 pm

Mr. Turner: In that case, perhaps we may assume that the Minister, having refused to say whether he intends to resist new clause 8—although that would have saved the Committee some time—is going to resist it either strongly or weakly. A weak resistance from him may be approaching, but I will put in my resistance first.

New clause 8 is a reasonable compromise. A ban on multiple registration would be unfair to electors in Northern Ireland as compared to their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom. In the rest of the United Kingdom, it is easy to register twice and to cast one's vote twice, if one wishes to do so.

In the recent general election, which was held on the same day as county council elections on the Isle of Wight and in counties such as Surrey, a number of people were registered to vote in both those locations. One of those people was my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley), although I am not claiming that what I am about to describe happened to her personally. Ballot papers could clearly be issued to people in both those locations on the same day. Believe it or not, it is possible to travel from the Isle of Wight to Surrey within the period during which the polling stations are open and so to claim one's vote in the county council elections in both places and to exercise both those votes legitimately. If one were physically present at a polling station on the Isle of Wight, one could say, ``I want a ballot paper because I want to vote for—or against—Andrew Turner.'' If one were physically present at a polling station in Surrey, one could say, ``I want a ballot paper for the county council elections, but I do not want you to issue me with one for the general election because I am not entitled to use it.''

As for the postal vote, I know that the returning officer on the Isle of Wight required only one application for postal votes for all the elections that were held on that day—I am not sure whether that was the case in Surrey. One might receive one's ballot papers in Surrey, one might vote in the county council election and the general election and, additionally, one might receive through the post two ballot papers, one for the county council election and one for the general election on the Isle of Wight. Therefore, it was not possible to tell simply by checking the ballot papers that were issued whether people were likely to have voted twice. If postal ballot papers were issued, one would have to check whether those papers were returned before one could find out whether an individual had voted twice.

The result was that more general election ballot papers were not returned in the elections in certain wards on the Isle of Wight than county election ballot papers. I can assume only that that was because many electors were registered twice.

That is unfortunate on the Isle of Wight and unfortunate in Surrey, but it is not likely to change the result of the elections because there is not the level of organised deceit and malpractice that we know exists in Northern Ireland. [Interruption] The Minister mentions another political party, but I will not take him up on that as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire is no longer present. There is organised deceit and corruption in elections in Northern Ireland, which I am pleased to say is not the case in Surrey or on the Isle of Wight. That is why the new clause proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate would achieve a reasonable compromise between the position in Northern Ireland and the position in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Browne: As I made clear in my intervention on the hon. Member for Reigate, the purpose of the Bill is to protect the legitimate rights of voters in Northern Ireland from abuse. The purpose of preventing abuse in elections is to ensure that the result is a true reflection of the will of the voters who exercised their legitimate right. It was never my intention to remove any rights from voters in Northern Ireland. It is with great reluctance that we require legitimate voters there to produce identification or to satisfy other conditions in order to exercise those legitimate rights. I have no intention of allowing the Bill to become a vehicle to remove rights from the voters of Northern Ireland that are enjoyed by voters in the rest of the United Kingdom.

That is my position on multiple registration and the law as it presently stands. If the Committee wishes, I am prepared to say what the law is and how it came to be like that, but I am not sure that that would help. The hon. Member for Belfast, East has broadly summarised, if not entirely accurately, the history of the law. The point of principle is whether, in protecting people's rights, we should take other rights from them. My view is that we should not.

Mr. Peter Robinson: The Minister is attempting a fine balance between the definition of a person's right to vote and the conditions that will be applied to them being allowed to vote. I am not sure which side of that argument the Minister might take on the right of people to vote by post, which is much more flexible and expensive in Great Britain than in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Browne: For reasons that the Committee has debated at length, and because of the problems in Northern Ireland, which have been explained by several hon. Members, including the hon. Gentleman, those restrictions have been put in place. Nevertheless, whatever people may have to do in order to exercise their vote, they still own the vote. I see a clear distinction between taking the right to vote away from people who presently enjoy it and putting in proportionate measures and checks and balances to ensure that the right to vote is not defeated by abuse or fraud. If the hon. Member for Belfast, East does not see that distinction, I cannot help him any further. I have the clear impression that almost all the other members of the Committee grasp the distinction. If not, we can debate it further.

Mr. Robinson: I do not think that the Minister has grasped the point that I am making. People in Great Britain have the right to vote by post under certain circumstances, but people in Northern Ireland do not have the right to vote in the same circumstances. A distinction already exists on the right to vote—and that example is off the top of my head. Will the Minister reconsider his remarks about taking away the vote from those who already enjoy it? The reality is that they are not enjoying it in Northern Ireland. People cannot be lose something that they are presently not aware of and have not exercised.

Mr. Browne: I have listened for long enough to the hon. Gentleman, in private conversation and in debate in the House, speaking for everybody in Northern Ireland. I respect and accept that he genuinely believes that nobody knew that that was the position. However, I do not think that he can, with confidence, speak for everybody in saying so. I do not have the information about whether there is multiple registration in Northern Ireland and what people might have done. I do not have it because we do not have the technology to reveal it, although we are reaching a stage when we might have it shortly. However, I do not accept the bland assertion that nobody in Northern Ireland knew.

It does not really help us to debate whether the evidence of the previous electoral officer in his memorandum to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee meant one thing or another. There are two interpretations: it could mean that which the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire thinks it means, or it could mean what other people were urging upon him. That just adds to the confusion.

I cannot comment on what the present chief electoral officer or his staff might have said to the hon. Members for Belfast, East and for South Down, but I can tell the Committee unequivocally that the chief electoral officer understands the law on multiple registration of voting in local government elections in Northern Ireland. My position is that these amendments and new clauses would disadvantage the voters in Northern Ireland compared with those in the rest of the UK by removing their right to be registered at more than one address and by making it an offence to vote in more than one local government area. I acknowledge the potential for legitimate multiple registrations to translate into illegitimate votes. However, I do not regard that potential as a reason for singling out Northern Ireland and removing people's right to register more than once there, or for removing their right to vote more than once in local government elections.

Furthermore, part of the purpose of the Bill is to tackle the problem directly. It introduces requirements for additional information to be provided by those seeking registration. With the help of computer software, which the chief electoral officer is introducing into his office, it will be possible to use that information to identify people seeking to be registered in more than one place. It therefore seems unnecessary to require people to state that information on registration. The chief electoral officer will be able to check whether those who seek to be registered at more than one address are genuinely registered there anyway. Perhaps it would be appropriate now to deal with new clause 8.

That was the position that I held. I have listened to the debate. I am not entirely persuaded that we need to require people to answer the question posed in new clause 8 at the point of canvass. However, I am persuaded that the issue is worth considering further. I am advised that it does not require primary legislation and that it can be done through regulations. The debate between the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) covered the matter of an appropriate penalty. My concern is that if we amended the form to include a question about having previously registered or being registered at more than one address, there would have to be a sanction to ensure that people answered it and did not just ignore it. Some consideration should be given to the proportionality of the penalty for failure to answer that question properly.

I am coming to the view that there might be some value in including in a canvass return a question such as: ``Have you registered at another address or do you intend to register at another address?'' Since we shall be using individual canvass forms rather than household forms, that might have additional value. If the hon. Member for Reigate is prepared to withdraw his amendment, I shall undertake to consider that possibility between now and Report stage. I shall consult with the parties in Northern Ireland, and with the chief electoral officer, and I shall come back with a clear position on Report. I am more persuaded now than I was before I listened to the debate.

I shall read an explanation of amendment No. 9. Perhaps hon. Members need to have it in front of them to understand the position. Paragraph 12A of schedule 9 of the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962—an Act of the Northern Ireland Parliament—was inserted by the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 1987 order. It states that it is an offence to vote as an elector more than once in the same district electoral area or in more than one district electoral area in the same district in an ordinary election. That helps me to understand the evidence of the previous chief electoral officer, but it might not help those who are listening to me.

Accordingly, I am advised that, apart from 13F(1)(a), the changes proposed in amendment No. 9 are already the law. [Interruption.] May I try to summarise my position without going through a rehearsal of the law? I resist all the amendments, but, in particular, those that seek to outlaw multiple voting in local government elections where it is at present lawful as a matter of principle. I do not accede to the argument that the voters of Northern Ireland should have fewer rights than those in the rest of the United Kingdom because there is a difficulty with fraud.

I turn now to the proposal that further information be obtained so that the chief electoral officer can check whether people are registered at more than one address and whether they have obeyed the law in parliamentary and local government elections. I now have an open, more positive mind than I did before the debate as regards extending the questions on the canvas form to include those such as appear in new clause 8. I give the Committee an undertaking to discuss the issue with my officials and the chief electoral officer and to consult the parties in Northern Ireland, the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats, if that is appropriate, so that we have a clear position on Report.

 
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