Draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2002

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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): May I say what a breath of fresh air it is on a stifling hot day to be subject to the full force of a gale? Sorry—no doubt you have never heard that before, Mr. Gale—I shall move swiftly on to my substantive point.

I have three key points to make. I welcome the inclusion of the senior SmartPass in regulation 9 as a legitimate form of identification. I recall that it was suggested in earlier debates on the arrangements, and to the Government's credit they have taken it on board. However, I have two concerns. I share the worries of the hon. Member for North Down regarding security and the release of even the limited register. We need to think carefully about that because it could compromise security, not only on grounds of terrorism, but because the release of that amount of information about any individual could be open to abuse. I seek the assurance and the perspective of the Minister on that, especially with regard to what the hon. Member for North Down said about security and the police.

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My second concern relates to the breadth of access to the full register. I understand that there is a restricted list, but the regulations give a rather wide circulation, and they assume that is completely secure, with no danger of it being copied or falling into the wrong hands. I do not oppose the regulations on that basis, but we should keep an eye on how the register is used. If there is evidence that information has seeped out from what is meant to be a restricted list, the Government should be willing to amend the regulations.

Mr. Cash: It seems a little surprising that one of those who regard themselves as the foremost promoters of freedom of information should apparently argue for a more restricted use than I personally feel inclined to. I should be interested to know what the hon. Gentleman has to say about that.

Lembit Öpik: The irony is not lost on me either. Were we discussing Montgomeryshire, or any more normal, less charged environment, I would not be making the point. Northern Ireland is not yet normal and there are security issues, so we have to strike a balance.

Lady Hermon: It may be helpful for the hon. Gentleman to focus on his party's strength on human rights legislation and an individual's right to privacy and security of person, which his party stands up for at every opportunity.

Lembit Öpik: On human rights, I should like to highlight the importance of privacy, as the hon. Lady says. I shall not repeat her remarks, but that is, of course, the other side of the coin.

If we lived in a completely uncorrupted society and had no problems at all, we would not need this legislation in the first place because people would simply vote once and there would be no need to double-check or triple-check who they were. If this legislation is an attempt to close loopholes that individuals abuse, I seek the Minister's assurance that the Government will monitor the extent to which the distribution list and the full register are abused. I should also like her assurance that should there be malpractice or abuse, the Government will be willing to review the situation to create a more secure environment for people who would be at risk from the distribution of more detailed information.

4.56 pm

Lady Hermon: I shall focus my comments on five questions, which I would like the Minister to address. I am glad to see her in her place and am delighted that she, having spoken on electoral reform matters last week, has obviously been bitten by the bug and has enthusiastically returned this afternoon.

My first point is a legal and technical one, which relates to the title of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Regulation 102 applies to

    ''a police force in Great Britain . . . the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (Reserve)''.

It is a fact that the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 changed the title of the Royal Ulster Constabulary only for operational purposes. Its proper legal title still remains the Police Service of Northern Ireland

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(incorporating the Royal Ulster Constabulary), so we have the Chief Constable of the RUC/PSNI. The force's legal title was used in a recent case in Northern Ireland concerning a judicial review challenge to the 50–50 recruitment procedure. I wish that subsequent legislation would bear that full legal title each time it refers to the force.

The next issues concern the electoral registration form. I am grateful to the Minister and her officials for supplying a draft of that form for members of the Committee this afternoon. As someone who is strongly in favour of retaining townlands as well as postcodes, I am delighted to see that both are required from registered voters.

On the driving licence or provisional driving licence that will be acceptable as photographic identification at voting polls, can the Minister confirm that only the photographic part of the licence will be required? It is a constant source of aggravation, frustration and bad temper, to put it mildly, that voters in Northern Ireland are regularly turned away from polling stations because they bring only one of the two parts of a Northern Ireland driving licence, which has a written document on one side and a photographic section on the other.

Surely the photographic section alone should be acceptable. I think that that is the technically correct position, but I should like it to be clarified in the notes on the back of the electoral registration form, which go out to all registered voters. That would be most useful in avoiding the frustration and aggravation caused to voters who turn up to polling stations, despite awful weather. As the Minister and other Members will know, we have no difficulty with voters actually turning up to polls in Northern Ireland; we have difficulty closing the doors at 10 o'clock when people still wish to vote, as they did during the previous election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where the result was challenged because the polls were kept open after 10 o'clock at night.

My next point is about an apparent discrepancy with the draft electoral registration form. According to the regulations, the relevant authority, meaning the Department for Work and Pensions, can be asked by the chief electoral officer for information that includes the name and former name, date of birth, sex and address of the voter as recorded by the Department.

How can it be ascertained whether the sex of the voter is accurate if at no point on the electoral registration form the voter is asked to tick a box for masculine or feminine? Neutral, I hope, will not arise, but being entirely politically correct I had better leave that as an option, too. It would be difficult for the chief electoral officer to check the sex of the voter with the information given. If that is the purpose of requiring the Department for Work and Pensions to give the sex of the voter, surely that information should also be required on the electoral registration form.

I made that objection when the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill was going through its final stages on the Floor of the House. I specifically drew attention to the requirement. I did not think that it was

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necessary; I thought that the national insurance number—and I am most grateful that that requirement has been introduced—signature, full name and date of birth of the voter would be sufficient. However, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland explained the requirement:

    ''What are the distinguishing features of an individual other than being able to tie a number to their personal appearance? They are the person's address, sex and date of birth. Those are the distinguishing features that the chief electoral officer is able to check.''

He continued:

    ''It is helpful to establish those three or four items of identification—not in a discriminatory way—to check that the particular national insurance number is being used by the right person.''—[Official Report, 15 April 2002; Vol. 383, c. 388.]

It therefore seems logical that there should be an appropriate box to tick on the electoral registration form.

All the political parties represented in the House have welcomed the fact that there is to be an electoral identity card. Such cards will be welcomed in Northern Ireland, too. About 30 per cent. of the population in Northern Ireland do not have a passport or driving licence. Those people tend to be elderly or to be widows, who in Northern Ireland have not traditionally learned to drive. It is therefore exceedingly helpful that the Government are introducing an electoral identity card that will benefit those people when they go to the polls.

It was, however, with bitter disappointment that I noticed that the only reference to the availability of the electoral identity cards is made right at the bottom of the first page of the electoral registration form in very small print. It says:

    ''Voters will be required to produce specified photographic ID (see Note ) from May 2003. If you do not possess the specified photographic ID and will require an elector identity card which will be issued free of charge please tick this box.''

I would like that statement to be moved right up to the top of the form, and would like emphasis given to it, so that when significant changes take place in the autumn—and there is a very tight timetable for those changes—the availability of the electoral identity cards free of charge will be known, particularly to elderly voters who are good enough to turn out to vote, despite the weather in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister will address that issue.

Finally, I return to the point that I made earlier about the security of details given by police officers. By sheer coincidence, several constituents who are police officers came to see me last week. They are, to put it mildly, extremely concerned about the fact that, following the break-in at Castlereagh PSNI station, one main line of inquiry has been followed up—that the break-in was carried out by republicans.

In the follow-up investigations, information was retrieved from the house of an individual in west Belfast. My constituents believe that details—their names and addresses—were obtained from the information available to whoever had it in west Belfast. Following on from that, they asked the

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Government to consider whether the new legislation should require police officers to disclose their national insurance number, signature and name and address. In Northern Ireland, where security is of the utmost importance, those who try their best to serve all the community deserve security themselves.

 
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Prepared 17 July 2002