Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. McGrady: I support the new clause, to which I originally contributed slightly different wording. My version has been amalgamated as though it were exactly the same as the new clause, which confuses me because my version read:

    ``The marked copies of the register of electors and of the list of proxies who have voted''.

The three words ``who have voted'' are not included in the new clause, but that does not detract from its intentions.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East has described how election results can be changed or the fortunes of candidates altered by information leaving the polling station prior to the close of the poll, which has been almost ``traditional'' in Northern Ireland. That method has recently been stigmatised as a way in which certain results can be achieved, but that was always the case. However, it has become endemic and more organised for reasons that we have rehearsed on many occasions in Committee. The release of information from the polling station, which the new clause tries to prevent, is currently illegal. I was attempting to address an entirely different situation whereby the presiding officers' marked registers, which show who has or has not voted. They are returned to the electoral officer and are available to the public subsequent to the election, which is an entirely different set of circumstances.

Mr. Peter Robinson: It is new clause 3.

Mr. McGrady: If you say so.

Certain groups of people are getting hold of the marked register after the election. They prepare for the next election by heavy canvassing of those who have not voted. That enables such people to use a psychological threat whereby no fewer than three or four people attend a voter's door saying, ``We note from the official records that you did not vote last time. We will know whether you vote this time. We will also know how you vote, and we will be back to visit you.''. That was common practice in my constituency during the previous Westminster and local government elections. That is enormous psychological pressure because if such people know whether an elector voted, then the supposition that they know how they voted can easily be inferred and believed. For that reason, in addition to the leakage of information from the polling station on the day of the poll, the f act that the official marked register of the vote at each polling station is available through the electoral office after the election is not in the interests of democracy.

As the hon. Member for Belfast, East said, however much political parties want all people to vote—especially for us, but that is another story—whether to do so is a democratic decision. I had a different intention that has happened to coincide with the wording of new clause 3. Again, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East said, if the Minister took on board the problem and came back with more accurate wording, I would be happy to consider it. Otherwise, the leakage of sensitive information, which can be done both officially and unofficially, worries me. Otherwise, the leakage of sensitive information, which can be done both officially and unofficially, worries me.

Mr. Blunt: On a point of order, Mr. Amess. At some point I have to move new clause 6. When will that be appropriate?

The Chairman: After we have concluded this debate.

Mr. Blunt: Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Amess. Several of us are new to our positions, and I apologise for not being clear about the precise procedure.

I have considerable sympathy with the arguments of the hon. Members for Belfast, East and for South Down. However, as will be evident from new clause 7, I have come to a different conclusion about how the issue should be addressed, which I shall try to explain. The hon. Member for South Down discussed the use of the marked register and whether it should be released to the political parties for use in peacetime to identify who had not voted. He gave a graphic account of the intimidation or pressure to which people who traditionally have not been terribly interested in voting or the electoral process can be subjected.

To support the hon. Gentleman's point, one has only to look at what happened in West Tyrone, which Sinn Fein gained from the Ulster Unionist party at the last general election and where 2,012 proxy votes were granted. I wonder why there was that extraordinarily high number of proxy votes in one constituency—getting on for 10 times as many as most other constituencies and twice as many as any of the rest. Was it a product of Sinn Fein in this instance being able to use the marked register to identify people who did not vote and to say to them, ``If you can't be bothered to go to the polling station, we'll arrange for someone to do it for you''? That would of course be improper. The number of proxy votes in that constituency is a rather startling statistic.

I do not demur from the general position taken by the hon. Members who tabled new clauses 2 and 3—namely, that there is a problem. However, the difficulty is that one runs into the principle that, unless it cannot be avoided, things should not be done differently in Northern Ireland from how they are done in Great Britain. What will be done with the marked registers? What will be the activity at the polling station? I came to the conclusion that we should try to put all the political parties in Northern Ireland on as even a footing as possible. The number of thank you letters that we have to write after a general election makes me only too aware of the number of people—it can be hundreds—who are involved in telling at all the polling stations in a constituency. If one has a full polling day organisation, hundreds of one's supporters will be involved in getting out the vote. Quite a lot of that involves the exercise of telling at the polling stations to get the information on who has voted to pass back so as to identify supporters who have not voted and go and knock them up.

What concerns me about politics in Northern Ireland is that one party is better financed and better organised than all the rest. We can speculate on the reasons for that, but the political process should be as even as possible. Ironically, I have come to the same conclusion as that expressed by Sinn Fein in its evidence to the Select Committee:

    ``In keeping with our view that the maximum freedom to vote should exist we also believe that relevant information from within the polling station should be made readily available to all political parties. In the course of the day party officials should be authorised to collate the names of those who have not cast their vote. This would facilitate party canvassers and tally clerks and ensure a greater participation by the electorate in the electoral process.''

6.15 pm

If a political party is well organised and has many people to put together a professional organisation, it can get its tellers outside the polling stations and ensure that the information is received from the polling station simply by having sufficient people on the ground to identify who has voted. However, another political party may not enjoy the same funding and professionalism. If the information continues to be available from the polling station—which I suspect is the Minister's position and is the principle to discuss, although the amendment is probing in order to open up debate—let us try to put the people competing in the election in as even a position as possible. There is the subterfuge of people listening to poll clerks or the presiding officer reading out voters' numbers as they enter the polling station and ticking lists inside the polling station. They are entitled to do that, but it can only be done if there is the organisation to have polling agents inside or tellers outside to take the volunteered information. If it were automatic that a representative of the candidate could collect the information from the polling station during the day, as new clause 7 would allow, the information would be freely available to all parties on the same basis because it would be collected and collated by the presiding officer and the poll clerks.

The other advantage is that there would be no need for tellers or polling agents to be based permanently inside or outside the polling station. It is clear from the research commissioned by the Northern Ireland Office from Research and Evaluation Services that a number of electors felt a degree of intimidation because of the party agents and tellers who were outside the polling stations. If we are to continue to allow marked registers to be given to parties and agents after the election—that is the key question—so that an organised party may take advantage of them, we should put the political parties on as even a footing as possible during the polling day and make information readily available in a form that can be used for each of the parties to get their votes out. It would be interesting to carry that out as a trial in Northern Ireland.

There are particular circumstances in Northern Ireland because there is a plethora of political parties. I do not know how many parties are represented in the Assembly because I have not counted them.

Mr. McGrady: Ten.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

If the 10 parties contest an election with 20 tellers—two each—outside a polling station and a further 10 agents inside the polling station, the situation is one of total chaos. Therefore, the proposal has an administrative benefit because it would take people away from the polling station.

The spirit of the amendment is probing, and to allow discussion. If we cannot go down the principled route of removing the people's right to see the marked registers after the election, and limiting that in the manner proposed by the hon. Members for South Down and for Belfast, East—I accept that there is an issue to be addressed—perhaps the other way of doing it is, ironically, to do what I do: make the information more readily available on polling day so that the parties can compete in the election more evenly.

 
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