Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Blunt: It would be extremely churlish of me to do anything other than welcome the Minister's remarks about new clause 8, and I will not press it to a vote, in the light of the undertakings that he has given.

I have only one further argument in favour of his considering new clause 8 before we return to it on Report; it relates to the searches of the register to which he alluded. The Committee has decided not to include national insurance numbers on the registration form. The Minister said that it would be fairly straightforward to check the register to see whether there had been multiple registrations. However, people are likely—particularly if they want illegally to take advantage of multiple voting by effecting multiple registration—to register under their Irish and English names at different addresses. Even if the addresses are correct and they have a claim to them, the only factor in common will be the date of birth. Obviously, the signature will not be the same, because the name will be different. The chief electoral officer might well have insufficient data to carry out a computer search to check one registration against another.

If national insurance numbers were included, that problem would be dealt with, unless the numbers were fraudulent. As national insurance numbers are not included, that is another reason to consider new clause 8 positively. I am grateful for the Minister's undertakings.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Does my hon. Friend agree that, although the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland has no power to investigate registers in the rest of the United Kingdom, his new clause would enable that information to be provided as well?

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I am certain that the Minister and his officials will have noted that, and will bear it in mind when they come to consider the new clause in detail and introduce any Government new clause on Report, which I hope the Opposition will be able to support.

I return to multiple voting and amendment No. 9. The Minister's point about withdrawing rights is fairly marginal, but I accept that he is making a principled objection. On the basis of that, and being convinced of the merits of his arguments, I shall not support the amendments tabled by the hon. Members for Belfast, East and for South Down. However, I point out that the voting rights that the Minister said those would take away were voting rights that the chief electoral officer in 1997, after 17 years in post, did not believe that the people of Northern Ireland enjoyed. On my reading of the evidence given to the Select Committee, indeed they did not. The Minister's point was marginal, but if we get the register right, and have multiple registration reflected and known, as on the basis suggested in new clause 8, his points about amendments Nos. 8 and 9 would seem more reasonable.

Mr. Peter Robinson: I leave the historical context to one side, by indicating that I can, to some extent, accept the Minister's judgment that it is possible to interpret the memorandum from the former chief electoral officer in more than one way. However, that is only if one makes the assumption, as did the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire, that he really intended to add the words ``in the same district'' to the end of the paragraph.

Mr. Barnes: I think that the Select Committee interpreted that in the way that I said, because that influenced its recommendations, which the hon. Member for Belfast, East was involved in.

Mr. Robinson: I do not agree. To some extent, the hon. Gentleman seems to be confusing my argument about multiple voting with the issue of multiple registration. No restraint was applied to people on multiple registration. I am not making a case about that, but about multiple voting. I was a little surprised that the Minister indicated that he was unsure about what the present chief electoral officer might think about the law on that. I understood that the chief electoral officer had written to the Minister or to his officials to seek clarification about the Bill.

Mr. Browne: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robinson: I shall give way to the Minister in a moment, but I want to put my point in context. When I raised the issue with the chief electoral officer to see if he could give me the benefit of his wisdom, I was told that he was seeking advice from the Minister's Department.

Mr. Browne: I want to clarify what I said. I said that at present the chief electoral officer knows what the law is. I chose not to comment on any conversations that might have taken place between the hon. Member for Belfast, East and the chief electoral officer or anyone else. That is my position and I do not want it to be misinterpreted.

Mr. Robinson: It may be best to leave the historical position behind. It is clear from what is now on the record that it was not a matter of common knowledge in the public houses and the women's institutes in Northern Ireland that people had a right to vote more than once. I speak for those in both the women's institutes and the public houses on that issue. I have the benefit of representing people who use both those facilities.

On multiple registration, I do not believe that with rolling registration it is essential to have multiple registration if people can vote on only one occasion at an election. I listened to the Labour party's new principle that people with plenty of money and, therefore, plenty of houses should have the advantage of voting on more than one occasion. We have noted that new socialist principle, but I do not agree with it. I contend that it is proper for people to have only one vote in each election irrespective of their bank balances or assets. However, the hon. Member for South Down is an accountant and my best subject at college was mathematics. We can both work out what the impact would be if we pressed the amendment to a Division. We may rally our troops on a further occasion, but I have been given some dignity in withdrawing the amendment with the Minister's semi-assurance on new clause 8. That helps me to the extent that I honestly believe that the matter will come under pressure in the months and years ahead. Those who want to cast more votes than they are legally entitled to will use the legislation as a method for doing so. If new clause 8 were accepted, there would be a mechanism for tracking and monitoring what is happening. Perhaps the Minister would then think less unfavourably of those who urged him to take action on this occasion and he, or his successor if he has moved on to greater and better things, might consider an amendment at that stage.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: Mr. Öpik was, unfortunately, unable to stay for the remainder of our proceedings, so I shall not call amendment No. 44.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause 2

Activities of polling agents

    `(1) Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 (parliamentary elections rules) is amended as follows.(2)

    (2) In rule 35 (questions to be put to voters), in paragraph (4), at the end, there is added ``; and no candidate's polling agent present in the polling station shall be provided with, gather or disseminate any information as to which elector or electors have or have not voted during the hours of polling''.'.

    Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Peter Robinson: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following: New clause 3—Procedure on close of poll—

    `(1) Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 (parliamentary elections rules) is amended as follows.

    (2) In rule 43 (procedure on close of poll), after paragraph (2), there is inserted—

    ``(2A) The marked copies of the register of electors and of the list of proxies shall be returned to the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland and shall not be made available to any member of the public.''.'.

New clause 7—General availability of list of persons who have voted—

    `(1) Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 (parliamentary election rules) is amended as follows.

    (2) After rule 37 there is inserted—

    ``37A. During the hours of polling the presiding officer shall maintain a list of those persons on the register who have voted and shall make the list available from time to time on request to a relevant candidate, election agent, or polling agent.''.'.

Mr. Robinson: New clause 2 refers to the gathering of information and the interaction between political representatives in a polling station and the electoral officer's staff in that polling station. I should first point out that I have no emotional capital tied up in the precise wording of the new clause, and I am certain that the Minister could provide us with something much more appropriate. I am simply arguing for the general principle involved. It is well known that those with the best-organised machines in any election have a distinct advantage. Nowhere is that more clearly seen than in a large, military-style machine that is capable of taking information from a polling station and using it to bring in voters who have not voted.

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It is already an offence for anyone inside a polling station to provide those outside with information about who has, or has not, voted. However, in real life that happens, and in some constituencies it happens on a massive scale—to such an extent, in fact, that it is evident to those who work there that polling station information is being used systematically to get those who had not previously voted to fill in the gaps. I know that the Minister is earnest about this issue, and there is a general desire, and entitlement, for people to be able to enter a polling station on behalf of candidates and observe what is taking place.

It is not the intention of the new clause to take away such a right. I want political parties to retain the ability to observe what happens in a polling station. I want to draw the line, however, by stopping people marking down who has voted and who has not, and disseminating that information. If it were an offence to mark a register with such information, the task of the cheats would become very difficult indeed. In the light of mobile telephones and text messaging—and, indeed, the handing out of a straightforward piece of paper containing the numbers of those who have and have not voted—it is fairly easy for a major campaign team to get to work. That gives them an advantage over other political parties, and it takes away people's right not to vote at all or to have some privacy and confidentiality, at least, about whether they have voted.

I urge the Minister to look at this issue, which can have a major effect on the outcome of an election. It would not be difficult for him to incorporate such a measure into legislation, or for presiding officers to implement it. It is much harder to police the present system than it would be to implement a regulation requiring presiding officers to stop anyone taking down such information from the polling station electoral register. At the moment, such information can be recorded, and it is up to the presiding officer to check whether it is taken out of the polling station.

The Minister has again provided some help, in the form of the Northern Ireland Office survey, which points out that the dissemination of polling station information to those outside was causing considerable problems for presiding officers. Given that the report and the survey reveal a problem, I hope that the Minister—even if he does not accept the precise wording of the new clause—will accept that it should be dealt with so that information cannot be taken down and disseminated.

 
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